Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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In Any Language

by Jeani Rector


Henry was surprised to learn that the trakteer's tavern keeper spoke English.

But he was even more surprised at what was said.

"The peasants believe in all sorts of heretical things, and live in terror of them. The vampir, the oborotyn...you have heard of the oborotyn?" the tavern keeper asked.

"No, I have to admit I haven't," Henry said.

"I think in your native tongue it is called werewolf."

He stared at the tavern keeper for a moment. When he could find his voice, Henry said, "Vampires and werewolves; you can't be serious. With all the real perils in the world to be feared, why do your people feel a need to invent imaginary ones?"

With contempt in his voice, the tavern keeper said, "What we Prussians fear is just as real as what you Americans fear. You have your civil war and your President Lincoln creating fear and hardships for your people, bah! All of that will pass. But the oborotyn came centuries before your President Lincoln, and the oborotyn will be here centuries after your President Lincoln is gone. The oborotyn will never pass."

"I don't want to talk about Lincoln or anything else that has to do with the United States," Henry said, "and I sure don't want to talk about werewolves. I just want to drink here in peace."

"You can drink in this village," the tavern keeper said, "but you won't find peace." And then he moved away to help another customer.

"To hell with you; you're nothing but vermin and a fool to boot," Henry said under his breath. He slapped his money on the bar, and then got up to leave.

As he exited the trakteer, Henry could tell that it was late, very late. By the position of the moon, he judged the time to be about one in the morning. He took a deep breath when he walked out his front door, sniffing the air. The air smelled fresh and there was no scent of rain.

Henry stepped quickly through a deserted, narrow lane of the village. The sky was incredibly clear, and the moon was full and bright. Millions of stars sparkled and shimmered, and the night sounds were beautiful as crickets sang in their search for mates. Henry took another deep breath of the fragrant night air, and felt how wonderful it was to be alive in such a world. God had created beauty, but mankind created hate and prejudice. He had escaped the war of hatred and prejudice when he had escaped from America.

Silently Henry continued his travel through the dark streets of the village. His eyes darted back and forth as he traveled, searching for anything amiss; a leftover reflex from his military training. But now he was free! Free from the commitments of the army, and free from the horrors of battle.

He entered the community stable. Moonlight shimmered through the open door, lighting his path into the barn-like building. But something was wrong...it seemed too quiet.

The coppery smell of raw meat permeated, and Henry instantly recognized the scent of blood. Killing another man's horse was a capital offense in America, but he didn't know anything about Prussian law. He figured he would have to go to the trakteer to find out how to summon a local constable. He would have to go back and ask that fool tavern keeper for assistance.

Ah well, Henry thought, might as well inspect the damage first.

He stepped farther into the building, and then made his way to the stall where his horse was stabled. Sure enough, despite the gloom of the interior, Henry could see the large body of his bay mare lay collapsed upon the ground, the straw bedding around it darkened and matted by blood.

His horse was dead.

Anger warmed him, flushing his face. What a useless slaughter of a fine animal.

And then he heard a noise, a rustling in the hay; a stealthy, crawling sound in the dark stable.

Oborotyn, Henry thought.

Nonsense, he corrected himself, there is no oborotyn, but there certainly is a horse killer.

Turning into the direction of the sound, Henry shouted, "I'm armed! Show yourself!"

Nothing. The noise stopped; everything was still and quiet.

Henry began to tremble. Despite his seemingly brave outburst and show of force, inside he felt his stomach turn to ice and his knees wobble. It was hard to hold his ground in the stable, because his first instinct was to turn around and run.

How many times do I run?

He had been given the rank of Sergeant during his military training in the Union Army because he had demonstrated seemingly superior qualities. But when it was time to march south, he had found himself faced with the violence of real war. Suddenly he had realized the difference between pretend and reality. He had been overwhelmed on the battlefield when he discovered that there, the intentions of his opponents were not to play training games, but to actually kill him.

Henry had known fear for the first time in his life, and was surprised that his reaction to fear was to avoid it. He had maneuvered to never lead the regiments of soldiers and always surrounded himself by stronger, braver men.

And finally, when it became obvious to himself that he could no longer continue, and when the burnings and the slaughters (and god the blood, always the blood) took their emotional toll, Henry had found an opportunity to escape. Henry had realized that during all the confusion of Pickett's battle in Gettysburg, he could simply slip away into the woods. No one had noticed when he had become a deserter.

And so now Henry stood in the stable, trembling because he had heard a noise, and he despised himself for his fear and his superstitions. Why had his first thought been of a werewolf? He was grateful that no one was present to witness his shortcomings. But inside, Henry knew he had always been a coward, and still was.

And so Henry gave into to his need to get out of the stable. There was nothing he could do for his horse now anyway. He quickly walked towards the entrance, guided by the shimmering moonlight that streamed into the stable from the open doorway.

And then the thing that had been hiding in the darkness leaped for him.

It was a dark projectile that launched itself from out of the gloom. It struck Henry and knocked him off his feet and he fell backwards onto the hard, unforgiving dirt of the stable aisle way.

Henry reached for his gun, but it was knocked out of his hand. He tried to fight the huge creature off with his hands, pummeling it with his fists. He felt searing pain as the creature slashed at his throat with its razor-sharp teeth.

Henry tried to shove his forearm backwards, because he knew that a sharp elbow could be an effective weapon. But the creature seemed to be everywhere. Henry was disoriented and didn't know where to aim.

Desperate for survival, Henry tried another tactic. He tried to kick the creature; but again, the animal was quick, too quick, and it was a whirlwind of weight, razor teeth and slashing claws. Henry was aware of intense, searing pain coming from seemingly everywhere on his body, even on his face. It felt like the creature was attacking him for an eternity, although what was left of Henry's rational thoughts was sure it had only been for a few seconds.

And then everything looked brighter and he felt cold as the blood drained from his body. He knew he was losing consciousness and he was no longer aware of any pain.

Henry's last thoughts before he blacked out were that he wished he had never deserted the army; he wished he could have died with dignity as a Union soldier when he had the chance.

####

He opened his eyes.

The whiteness of the room told him he was in a hospital. He lay upon a hard cot, and the stench reaching his nostrils told him that there were many unwashed bodies in the room. The sounds of moaning told him that the others in the room were in pain and some were probably dying.

I don't understand, Henry thought. This looks like an army hospital.

A volunteer nurse passed by, and Henry hailed her. "What is this place?" he asked. "Where am I?"

The nurse stopped. She looked to be closing in on middle age, but it was hard to tell anyone's ages anymore because the stress of the times seemed to prematurely age everyone. "Why, we're in York Pike, east of Gettysburg. We're near the railroad and this place is named Camp Letterman, you know, after Doctor Letterman. You were delirious when you were brought here. Glad to see you've come to your senses."

"Maybe I haven't," Henry told her. "I thought I was in Prussia."

"Well, according to your paperwork, that's where you come from: Prussia."

He stared at her. "I'm an American, a sergeant in the Union Army."

She smiled indulgently. "Mr. Sokolov, I can barely understand you because of your strong accent. But let me assure you, your citizenry is not American although surprisingly you do speak English, even if you speak it badly. You have, on your person, the paperwork of a citizen of Prussia. Why you are in Gettysburg is unknown to me. But, here you are."

Henry felt his face flush with anger. He reached to grab her arm. "Are you daft, woman? I am Henry Shaw of the Union Army."

She shook his hand off her arm. "Don't touch me, you filthy Prussian. Barbarian! I have real patients to attend to. Be off with you."

And she walked away in a huff.

He raised himself to a sitting position. Pushing the blanket aside, Henry began to examine himself. There were slashes and cuts all over him.

They looked like bites and claw marks.

Oborotyn, he thought.

He noticed he was out of uniform. He was wearing civilian clothes, the same ones he had worn when he had entered the village stable and discovered his dead horse (a dream?).

What was real and what was not?

He would never find out just sitting there. Henry dangled his legs over the cot, then stood up. He swayed on his bare feet for a second, feeling momentarily dizzy. Then his head cleared so he sat back down to put on his boots, which had been sitting by the bed.

He didn't know where he belonged, but he knew it wasn't here. He walked out of the hospital, passing by wounded men on cots, many with bloody rags wrapped around sawed off stumps that were once whole limbs. He ignored the moanings of despair and the cries of pain as he stepped out the door, blinking in the sunlight, leaving the hospital behind.

Now what? he wondered.

Nothing looked familiar to him; it was as though he were in a foreign country. But, wasn't he?

Nonsense, Henry thought. I am a Sergeant in the Union Army of the United States. I just need to go back home to Trenton. All of this will be over when I go back home. In the meantime, I need to find a saloon. I need a drink.

But there was no saloon around here.

Wait, wasn't a saloon called a trakteer? No, that was what they were called in Prussia.

He wondered what had become of his bay mare. Then he remembered, She'd been killed by the oborotyn.

But this wasn't Prussia, this was the United States; and in any case, there were no werewolves in either country to kill his horse or any other. What had most likely happened was that when he had been wounded in the battle of Gettysburg, someone had stolen his horse.

Either way, he was in danger, because he was a Union Army soldier, and this was Confederate territory. Although he wasn't wearing blue, he still knew he had to escape. So he needed to find the woods.

He had done this once before, hadn't he? Somehow he couldn't remember any details.

He thought he had deserted the Union Army once before through the woods, and he intended to do it again. No one could track him through the woods, so no one would follow him. It was the perfect scenario for a complete disappearance, leaving no trail. His only regret was that he had no horse and therefore had to make the trek on foot.

He knew that once he emerged from the other side of the woods, he would have to leave the United States to evade prosecution for desertion. In which country should he choose this time to make a new home? It seemed he had done this before and had somehow made it all the way to Prussia. But now he couldn't seem to remember how he had done that. There seemed to be a hole in his memory.

Perhaps he should consider Mexico....it was reachable without having to cross an ocean.

Henry found himself walking for many miles. He had purposely chosen a direction opposite from the battle field. He didn't want to pass by the blood and the gore that he knew was there.

The sun was going down by the time he reached a wooded area.

When he stepped into the forest, he was instantly swallowed by foliage. The denseness of the trees and shrubs emphasized the nightfall, creating a surreal, twilight effect. With the darkness came a noticeable decrease in temperature.

The woods seemed to close in around Henry and he could no longer see civilization behind him, leaving him disoriented. Could someone get lost here? Henry wondered. Then he felt angry at himself. Nonsense! The woods are only a few acres across before the river begins, and civilization is only a few miles behind me.

And yet the woods seemed so wild and almost threatening. It was unnerving.

He continued onward, farther into the untamed woods. There were rotted branches lying on the ground, old, moldy leaves left over from the previous autumn, and what appeared to be squirrel or gopher holes in the earth every once in awhile. The ground was lush with short, wild plants that had such big leaves they almost appeared tropical. Trees of all ages were growing, some tall and wide, and some that were young and whip-like.

A rumbling sounded in the distance, reverberating softly across the land. Henry knew that sound meant thunder, and cursed the thought that rain could be coming. Small creatures scurried among the weeds; and occasionally Henry could hear the rustling of the animals that were frightened as he walked by.

The wind picked up, and Henry felt a couple of raindrops hit him. A creaking noise sounded, as two twisted limbs of an old, gnarled tree rubbed together. The weeds fluttered with a sighing sound in the soft breeze. In the fading light, bushes and briars appeared threatening as if they were hiding evil spectators to the scene within their midst. The ground was cool and moist, and the overgrown grass was slippery.

Suddenly birds, nesting for the night in the trees, awoke and took flight together, as though they were a single entity. It seemed so dark in the woods, and his skin began to tingle. He had trouble breathing because his heart was beating so fast. He had a sense that something bad was about to happen.

Henry's eyes searched the dark woods around them. And then he saw movement from behind the thick leaves of a shrub. Something was crouched in-between two trees, bending the limbs back with its presence. In the folds of shadow, Henry couldn't make out its shape or appearance.

And then there was a roar, and suddenly whatever had been hiding burst out of the trees.

Henry twisted around and ran, his legs pumping beneath him. He was too afraid to look back to see what was chasing him. He only knew that something was.

Henry could hear pounding feet and panting breath. The thing that jumped from the trees was close behind; so close!

He continued to run, but the trail was so narrow and wild that he was not sure of his footing. He didn't want to fall, but he was hampered by the uneven ground beneath his feet.

Henry leaned forward, forcing his knees to continue pumping. His breath was wheezing, and his lungs were beginning to hurt. He was afraid that he could lose ground if he hesitated and looked behind him. If only he could reach the tree line! If only he could reach the beginning of the trail, get out of the woods and back into civilization, and get away!

But the trail was so uneven that he had to be careful not to fall, and that slowed him down. He couldn't run at top speed.

He fumbled in his pants for his gun, but it wasn't there. What had happened to his gun?

And then he felt a weight thudding onto his back, and he knew the werewolf had caught him, and it pulled him down with its weight; and he could smell the hot stinking breath that had the stench of raw meat, and he understood that since there were no dead horses in the forest; it must be his own blood he smelled.

And he tried to fight back, to ward off the slashing teeth and claws, but he seemed to remember he had done this once before and it had been a losing battle...and his last thoughts before he lost consciousness were that he needed a drink, and he wondered what the saloons were like in Mexico.

####

Henry was surprised to learn that the cantina's tavern keeper spoke English.

But he was even more surprised at what was said.

"The peasants believe in all sorts of heretical things, and live in terror of them. The vampire, the chupacabra...you have heard of the chupacabra?" the tavern keeper asked.

"No, I have to admit I haven't," Henry said.

"I think in your native tongue it is called werewolf."

He stared at the tavern keeper for a moment. When he could find his voice, Henry said, "Vampires and werewolves; you can't be serious. With all the real perils in the world to be feared, why do your people feel a need to invent imaginary ones?"

With contempt in his voice, the tavern keeper said, "What we Mexicans fear is just as real as what you Americans fear. You have your civil war and your President Lincoln creating fear and hardships for your people, bah! All of that will pass. But the chupacabra came centuries before your President Lincoln, and the chupacabra will be here centuries after your President Lincoln is gone. The chupacabra will never pass."

THE END


© 2008 Jeani Rector

Bio: Jeani Rector grew up reading Stephen King novels. Halloween is her favorite holiday. Her two children sing "The Rector Family" to the tune of The Addams Family. It is all in good fun and actually, most people who know Jeani personally are of the opinion that she is a very normal person. She just writes abnormal stories. Doesn't everybody? For more about Jeani Rector, check out Around a Dark Corner. (This just-published book includes a number of stories that originally appeared in Aphelion (and this one, too), and even mentions ye editor and the 'zine on the dedications page!) This is Ms. Rector's sixth(?) Aphelion short story entry; her people-are-monstrous-enough-thanks tale of domestic horror, Under the House, appeared in the November 2008 issue.

E-mail: Jeani Rector

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