August 10, 1903
The fire gave silent and ceaseless birth to blood-soaked sheets of waving fabric, their color changing as the flames evolved and grew, mesmerizing in their display of persistent transformation that, while apparently random, seemed born for some as yet unknown purpose.
"Do you think he's a witch?" Otto said, the words sounding too loud to Hermann in the darkness, despite the roaring bonfire.
"Warlock. A male witch is called a warlock, not a witch," Hermann whispered.
"But mother said--"
"Mother was wrong. Now quiet your mouth before I do it for you."
There was something stranger than witchcraft about their neighbor, Dr. Robert Benjamin Woulfe, whom they were observing in the clearing. Hermann's cousin, Gustav, thought Dr. Woulfe was a sorcerer. Was there a difference?
"Why is he talking to that fire?" Otto asked.
Hermann carefully observed his younger brother Otto as he fidgeted, moving his knees, trying to find a softer place to kneel behind the clumps of poison sumac, watching the fire and the man. It had only been fifteen minutes, but seemed longer.
"I don't know."
Hermann's awkward position had infused his knees and legs with a throbbing numbness, yet he refused to move. He felt a sudden tickle at his neck and brushed something off.
The fire dominating the clearing crackled and spat, feeding on a conical-stacked pile of logs like a ravenous beast. Flames erupted like clawing hands straining to find purchase in the black fabric of the night. At random intervals, smoke drifted toward them. In the dark, Hermann couldn't see it, becoming aware of it only after it had stung his eyes or slithered its way into his mouth.
Dr. Woulfe, now gazing almost exclusively into the fire's heart, began reciting, in an almost musical litany, the words of Calling.
The smooth chorus of the doctor's voice rose and fell in rhythm with the reaching flames. The fire expanded, seeming to draw power from the doctor's words. Firelight painted tree trunks with flickering shapes that jumped and scampered like children made of light and shadow.
An air current immersed Hermann's body within a growing heat subsequently creating a warmth that calmed him until Otto, stretching his leg, rustled a nearby sumac. Hermann, disturbed by the sudden interruption, glared but said nothing before he noticed the fire's light, dancing on the side of Otto's face, had visually transformed his cheek into a rippling sheet of blood-colored tissue.
When the air current ceased, Hermann felt another tickle at the back of his neck. He brushed at it again but this time the irritation remained. He clawed at himself, bending and twisting his arm, digging into his neck with his fingers until the pain from his nails erased the maddening tickle.
The flames suddenly rose higher, seemingly commanded by the doctor's booming oratory as he more vigorously employed increasing emphasis on each repeated stanza of his strange speech. The fire seemed to comply and danced in an orgy of intertwining bodies which wrapped themselves together and then flew apart. The accompanying heat created a rustling in the leaves and a sudden crack of wood echoed loudly back into the forest, startling a large animal somewhere in the darkness. Hermann was relieved when the sounds of breaking branches and snapping twigs faded in a direction leading away from the clearing.
The back of Hermann's neck felt raw and hot.
"Can we go now? I'm tired," Otto said.
Hermann suddenly sensed a change in the shape of the fire as the fire seemed to be forming itself, as if some force were containing the flames, holding them down and together, somehow compacting them.
"A while longer," he whispered, his throat dry and raw.
Otto shifted again, pulling his leg back under himself. Hermann snapped his hand onto Otto's thin forearm. His brother's skin felt dry and cold.
"Sit down fool! You want him to see us?" He winced at the loudness of his voice.
"There's nothing going to happen," Otto whined.
The resolve so manifest in the doctor's words of a moment ago now seemed to melt away as if from the heat. His voice dropped to a murmur and then went silent, replaced by the sounds of whispering leaves and the roaring fire. Perhaps in an attempt to plead for guidance from the stars, the doctor stretched his head aloft. With the doctor's gaze temporarily diverted, Hermann was the first to see the thing that had been Called beginning to take shape within the twisting yellow flames of the bonfire.
"I think something's happening now . . ."
A subset of the fire's flames, those within the heart of the inferno itself, were presently combining themselves into a form noticeably untouched by the wavering, thrusting reach of the rest of the fire.
Even from the relatively lengthy distance of his vantage point at the clearing's edge, the materialization was nevertheless immediately apparent. As he looked more discriminately into the fire, his fascination with the shape being born of light and flame was enough to keep his fear restrained-for the moment.
The doctor lowered his head and then staggered back in apparent surprise from the fire and the transformation occurring within it. Almost immediately, he reversed his position and moved once again toward the flames and, with even greater vigor, resumed his commanding litany. Now, as the wood fed the hungry flames, so too did the doctor's renewed commands seem to give fuel to the fire's transformation-hastening it, giving it the strength to wrap and form and create itself into a shape which began, finally, to suggest something familiar.
It was then, when he could no longer hear the rustling leaves, the fire, or the doctor's voice, that Hermann felt the strangeness. At first, he tried turning his head, attempting to look at his brother, but his body refused to cooperate. His eyes, no longer seemingly under his control, remained locked onto the sheets of slow-moving light, the flames no longer frantic or groping.
The Image came to him slowly, stealing away bits of thought and sight, sliding into his consciousness, obscuring the clearing and the fire and . . .
he sees his mother's smiling face-uneven teeth, almond eyes framed by shimmering black hair-then her face contorting, the skin around her eyes pulsing and straining as if about to give birth to some monstrosity, then her orbs bulging, her mouth grimacing in pain and terror, her eyeballs extending from their sockets, the surrounding skin pulling taut with the effort of restraint
. . . he struggled to shut the Image out but could not, there being no eyelids on his mind he could close, so he was forced to watch the grisly performance . . .
and then they do, her eyes bursting in a silent explosion, the sockets producing snake heads, dark green with blazing white and yellow eyes, red tongues extending from black mouths, flicking and searching, the heads waving before her face, snapping and hissing
. . . and then at last he succeeds; he is suddenly free, as if he had previously been held aloft by some giant's grip and now been suddenly dropped to the earth. His head ached as if the Image had been a physical attack against the matter within his skull. As he returned his focus to the clearing, he saw an impossible sight--of the doctor becoming a part of the fire, of light and flame and flesh merging into some new, albeit foreign substance--until unannounced, the next Image erupted into his head, the intense pain folding him to the ground, the soil's aroma rich with the smells of rotting wood and fetid leaves . . .
His German shepherd, Mesha, runs toward him, tail wagging, eyes bright and alive-until the fur peels from her snout and, hanging in twisted folds from her head, sloughs from her skull to reveal the pink white of flesh and bone
. . . and as he wrestled against the torment, the unstoppable Image-flow into his mind, it suddenly faded and he could once again visualize Otto through the Image's after-haze. However, there was something else now with Otto. No, not with him, on him. He saw Otto fall to the ground, trapped beneath a massive black shape and . . .
the last of his dog's fur peels, falling to the ground, revealing a pinkish white body, not of flesh and muscle but of bony scales, and then she is upon him, no longer friendly but snarling with foam-drenched mouth, the scales a rippling horde of hard-shelled creatures with small gaping mouths clicking and snapping
. . . he struggled to again see his brother, catching instead only an obscured glimpse of a dark shape and multiple protruding limbs entwined about Otto's body. As the forms writhed together on the ground, he attempted to tell himself that it was simply another vision. He put his hands to his face, rubbed his eyes and . . .
sees a pumpkin patch turn into a field of severed heads, mouths gibbering and sputtering unintelligibly at him, taunting him, spittle and white foam dripping and
. . . then opened them to see his brother, his pale and now imperfect skin streaked and spattered with . . . then before him the shape once again, impossibly large, obscuring . . .
and as the heads talk, black worms pour from slobbering mouths, falling to the ground with sticky plops, then squirm their way toward him
. . . then running from the clearing, screaming his brother's name to mask the breaking sounds, knowing Otto would never, could never, respond again--running harder now, unable to see; the Image stabbing, clawing its way into his skull, twisting and turning within his mind; his body tripping and going down, his knee connecting with rock, wrenching himself up, ignoring the throbbing pain, lurching forward into the black forest, each reflection of the Image delivered in multiple layers of hot pain--he sees nothing that is not the Image, feels nothing but the nearly unendurable agony . . .
and he looks down, sees his feet planted in the ground having become some form of plant, the grass blending, mixing with the color of his skin at his ankles
. . . and runs into a tree, cracking nose and forehead on knotted bark, feeling peripherally the blood soaking into his shirt, warming his cool skin . . .
and then the worm-snakes are there, slithering around his ankles, sliding up his naked legs, their bodies like rough sandpaper coated with sticky hot saliva
. . . and then sinking to his knees, holding his head, trying to physically squeeze and push the Image out of his mind but cannot . . .
and his dog Mesha is with the pumpkin heads, jumping, snarling, the double punch of paws on his chest, the smell of hot, dead-animal breath, saliva drops spraying across his face and into his mouth and eyes--feeling his throat tear--then the dog's momentum knocking him down and
. . . he feels his throat tear, the subsequent loss of breath and voice as the creature, now a heavy mass covered with thick fur, slams into him, knocking him into the sumac, broken trunks and limbs puncturing his skin . . . all of it slowly fading into the welcoming blackness and . . .
finds himself floating into darkness where there are no Images or visions and he welcomes the soothing embrace of sleep, of the darkness free from pain
. . . hears, as if from a great distance, an inhuman scream echo through the forest like a beast in the last agony of giving birth . . .
then he is drifting . . . out and away, then down . . . sinking into the cold . . . the pain dimming, then gone, replaced by the dark . . . and the cold . . .
. . . everything fading into black . . . blackness promising freedom from the pain . . . the Image fading . . . the pain sliding out and away . . . the blackness filling the void . . . coldness . . . sleep . . . the black.