Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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Feast of Feasts

by Mike Kerins


A Winters Fairy Tale


The fire crackled in the hearth, as a feeling of expectation filled the room. The murmur of conversation subsided, as a voice both rich and dark, began the ancient incantation:

"Gather round the fire and listen, listen well, for winter's the time for tales and I have a tale to tell. It's a tale of the Northlands, of ice and snow, where nights are long, and in the darkness, strange creatures dwell..."

So it began.

In the cold aching silence, a star sparkled, brighter than any other in the firmament, while a village snuggled beneath its blanket of snow, and prepared for the forthcoming festivities. The sense of excitement was almost palpable, lights shone from windows, bright with anticipation, as soft plumes of wood smoke drifted from chimneys and up into the night sky. A vast, primal forest sprawled across the land. The sound of the ice cracking or the occasional whimper of some hibernating beast, dreaming of a warm and distant spring, was all that disturbed the stillness of the forests dark interior.

Maria, her face pale and drawn, smiled quietly down at her new born child. The labour had been long but the others had helped her through it, offering their comfort and support, yet hardly able to conceal their own disappointment. So close to full term, their bodies ripe and round, yet not ripe enough. She'd suffered that same disappointment and sympathised, but that was all in the past now. The honour had fallen upon her and her family. It was quite rare for a birth to occur on the Eve of Feast itself, a miracle some might say, or at the very least a special blessing for the village; a promise of a bountiful year ahead. She reflected on what were called The Yule Days, the anticipation, the excitement, and was looking forward to celebrating the Feast of Feasts with her family.

She could hardly believe that she'd been preparing for the festivities that very morning, it seemed a lifetime ago. Her husband Thomas, fetching jars of pickles, salted pork and beer up from the cellar, as she cooked and cleaned in preparation for the festival. The children gathered sprigs of holly to decorate the cabin, asking in wide-eyed wonder if the Red-man would be coming. "Soon, Mama, will it be soon?" they'd cried, and danced merrily about her skirts.

"We'll see," she'd said and then asked, "have you been good children?"

"Yes, Mama, we've been good, and we'll be extra good if the Red-man comes."

"You don't want to upset the Red-man now, do you my little loves?"

"No, Mama. Will he come down the chimney, Mama?"

"Oh, children, of course he will."

She'd smiled at their shining happy faces, and absently stroked her full round middle; her thoughts turned to her beloved husband, gone to cut the Yule tree at the edge of the forest. He'd be home soon. He too was anxious about the birth, hoping today would be the day, and she would be 'chosen' and honour the village with 'The Gift'.

The children's voices interrupted her reverie, "Can we leave the Red-man something to eat and drink, can we Mama--please?"

"Of course you can," she said, "now be good children and stop asking me questions. Dada will soon be home."

"And can we…" but their words were lost, as a gust of wind whirled a flurry of snowflakes through the open door. Thomas hauled the freshly cut pine tree into the room. "Give me a hand and be quick," he'd said, "We don't want to lose the warmth from the fire do we?" The children quickly closed the door, while he brushed snow from his shoulders and stamped it from his boots.

His eyes shone in the firelight, cheeks ruddy from the cold air, as the children capered excitedly about the room. "Dada got the Yule tree, Dada got the Yule tree," they chanted, before pulling decorations from the cupboard, spilling baubles and carved toys onto the floor, as they rummaged for their favourite ornaments.

He'd chuckled at their excitement and taking her by the hand pulled her close, and then looking up at the mistletoe for a moment, smiled, before kissing her gently on the lips. Then stroking the soft curve of her belly, whispered, "This year will be our year, just you wait and see."

She'd blushed and let go of his hand to put the kettle on. "You'd best stand the tree in the tub; you'll have no peace till it's done." The youngest was pulling urgently at his sleeve, "Come Dada, come, we want to dress the tree. You want to help, don't you Dada?"

He'd just finished planting the tree in the tub, when Maria's waters broke.

The news spread swiftly; villagers crunched through the snow and crowded at the door offering assistance. "Is it true then?" they'd asked.

"Yes, she is chosen." said Thomas, and held open the door as he bid them enter. Soon the villagers were bustling about under the watchful eye of Shayla, the village Elder and midwife. She asked would someone to help the children finish decorating the tree, keeping them busy, while she dealt with the serious business of birth.

It wasn't the easiest of births, but before long Shayla held the baby in her arms. She removed the cowl from the tiny wrinkled face and it howled, as if in protest at being dragged into a cold, bleak world. It was large and plump--Perfect, thought Shayla, just perfect.

She cleaned and swaddled the infant before placing its angry red face at Maria's breast and watched as it suckled hungrily, then blessing herself discreetly whispered: "Rejoice villagers, rejoice, our saviour has come…" The villagers bent their heads and joined with a prayer of thanksgiving.

Later that evening, Maria sat up in bed, surrounded by friends and family; her face was radiant and she watched the villagers celebrate, drinking mulled wine, heated by Thomas with a red hot poker. All eyes were drawn to the soft plump child sleeping in its crib. They nibbled on the food provided and whispered happily to each other, but as the evening wore on Maria's eyes grew heavy and tired. Shayla, noticing, clapped her hands sharply, gaining the villagers attention. "It is time, we to leave and make our own preparations for the morrow, it's late; Maria needs her rest. Let us all be thankful for the arrival of our children's saviour, and may our future be a happy and prosperous one." She smiled at mother and child, brushing a few stray hairs from Maria's brow, the baby stirred momentarily, before settling back down to sleep.

Shayla said her goodbyes, reminding Thomas to dampen the fire before retiring. The villagers moved towards the door, shoulders hunched against a wind that already carried wraiths of their conversation far and wide, spreading news of the birth as indiscriminately as the whirling snowflakes.

In the depths of the primeval forest, something stirred. It looked at first like roots or the white skeletal branches of a dead tree, half buried amongst the desiccated remains of leaves and undergrowth. It was a cosy spot to hibernate for a creature, the bole of a tree. A tree that had an ancient trunk, twisted and gnarled, was at the dark heart of the forest.

The wind snaked its winding path through branches and dead leaves, whispering the news to the sleeping inhabitants of the forest, until, with its final breath, it caressed the ear of the slumbering creature--and the Red-man awoke!

Thomas put the children to bed. The day's events had tired them and they were soon asleep. Now it was time for that most important part of the festival--the wrapping of gifts.

He took the children's presents from the wardrobe and began to fold them in brightly coloured tissue paper. He looked up from his work; Maria's breathing was even and steady. She was exhausted and he doubted she would wake before morning. He placed the presents beneath the tree, where they'd be found easily, before making his way to the far end of the cabin. The flickering remains of the fire casting his shadow long. The fire would soon be little more than a soft glow in the hearth but hot enough to give him warning, he thought, as he opened the cellar door and descended. He'd placed a table down there especially for the occasion – he'd felt it in his bones that they'd be chosen and had made plans accordingly. He began further preparations, wiping down the surface with a cloth, while outside the snow fell heavily and the drifts grew ever deeper.

The Red-man blinked his blood red eyes, confused for a moment in the darkness, before scampering up the tree with the speed of a squirrel. It surveyed the wilderness from the top-most branches. The wind had abated temporarily, but snow fell heavily on the tangle of the forest's canopy, occasionally branches could be heard to creak and snap beneath the weight.

Sniffing the air, it stuck out its tongue, tentatively; a flake resting delicately on the tip. Immediately it grimaced and shook its head, then spat repeatedly into the night, before scampering back down, sharp claws scoring the bark.

The forest, at this point, was too dense for the snow to penetrate, but the undergrowth was stiff and white with hoar frost. The creature skipped through the tangle of branches with ease, its blood red eyes dilated in the darkness. It padded swiftly traversing the forest floor, evading obstacles with an elastic agility, and in no time reached the forest's periphery, then shuddered as it stepped into the cold whiteness, before slipping on ice and sliding into a drift. It shook the snow from its pale naked body, angry and disgruntled by the fall. Its instincts took control and it was soon loping towards the village with ease, its need to feed growing stronger and ever more urgent, as the hollow emptiness ached within.

Soon it reached the outskirts of the village. It watched the smoke as it drifted from the cabins chimneys - all except one. Instinctively the creature knew its search was over and headed in the direction of that particular dwelling. It circled the cabin, and sniffed the air carefully, before leaping and embedding its claws deep into the roof. Once secure, it padded gently towards the edge of the chimney and peered into the darkness below. It sniffed and caught a whiff of the acrid smoke that drifted from the embers of the fire, and made it cough and sneeze, like a cat.

The creature frowned and licked its lips; it could smell plumpness, fat, ripe and delicious, waiting below. Slithering down the inside of the chimney, it landed on the warm ash, but squealed as it trod on a red hot ember.

Thomas woke startled by the noise; he'd sat dozing, waiting in the children's room, his axe across his lap. The Elders had denied such things ever happened, but he'd heard rumours since childhood of how the Red-man, hungry and unsatisfied with the gift, had once slaughtered every child in their village. Thomas was adamant that wouldn't happen, not tonight, not ever--their sacrifice would be the last.

He could hear it, scrabbling from the hearth, sniffling and snuffling as it searched. He knew it must have caught the child's scent by now. He'd left it sleeping on the table, in the cellar, bound hand and foot with red and green ribbons, anointed with oil as tradition dictated. He'd left the cellar door open, before retiring to the children's room with his axe--and waited.

It scampered down the stairs, the short brown hairs on its body bristling as it sensed plumpness within reach, then with a graceful leap, it landed on the edge of the table and began to stroke the infant gently, for somewhere in the recesses of its mind, it had learnt and remembered that this was called 'Gift'--and was his. It sniffed; then licked with its rough grey tongue, the warm sweet bundle, savouring the aroma that tickled delicate nostrils. Then stretching its lower jaw wide, the creature revealed those long sharp barbs that were its teeth. On seeing this incomprehensible nightmare looking down upon it, the baby opened its own soft pink lips to scream, but before it could, the creature plunged expertly, ripping out the frantically beating heart with its claws, playing with the soft gelatinous contents of the fleshy parcel. Gnashing and tearing, ripping the poor pink bundle apart, it bathed in the scarlet slime of its innards, painting its own pale body red, as it ate, chewing each tender morsel with ecstatic relish. Thomas listened as the creature sucked on the entrails, lapping at the red salty pools, dipping the delicate bones like bread in gravy, before resting, to digest its feast at leisure.

Petrified, Thomas crouched in the darkness. All was silence, an age of silence as he strained to hear, even sense any movement from the creature - but nothing. After what felt an eternity he crept to the doorway and peered out, axe in hand, shaking uncontrollably. What met his eyes was a scene of pure horror. Red in tooth and claw, the monstrosity slithered from the cellar. It pulled itself upright and then belched provocatively as its eyes fell upon him. It was red from head to foot, a slick wet trail of blood smeared across the floor behind it. Its eyes met his, its belly bloated and distended as it waddled belligerently towards him, licking its lips hungrily.

He raised the axe, all the Elders mumbo jumbo about sacrifice and appeasement were forgotten, he was taking no chances. This creature wasn't going to take any more children ever again. He ran towards it, screaming with fear and rage, swinging the axe down at the monstrosity with all his might, but the creature slipped beneath the blow with unexpected agility, and the axe buried itself deep in the floor. Its mobility compromised, the bloated creature pushed him to the floor and headed, terror-stricken, for the fire place. It scrambled with difficulty up the chimney and flopped like a stranded fish on the roof, before falling with a soft muffled plump, into a snow drift--and then it was gone.

Maria stood there bleary-eyed. She'd lit the lantern. "What's going on?" she said wearily. The children stood in the doorway of their bedroom. "Was that the Red-man, Dada?" the youngest asked, rubbing his eyes sleepily. "Oh, he's left presents, Dada!" then all thoughts of sleep forgotten the child scrabbled excitedly beneath the tree."

Soon the village was consumed in a wave of excitement and children's laughter, as they ripped the tissue from their presents. "Come to bed for a while dear and get some rest." said Maria, "it'll be a long day for the both of us; come to bed, rest and be thankful. The village is safe and we can look forward to a prosperous year ahead."

Thomas pulled the axe from the floor and put it away, then sighed and climbed into bed. It had been a long night; from the warmth of the blankets they listened as the children played happily with their toys. They were at least safe for another year, he thought as he closed his eyes.

In a place not so very far from the village, lying in the depths of the darkest forest of the Northlands, a creature, sated, satisfied, full and plumptious curled itself up, all cozy and warm. It felt slightly perturbed at the turn of events, but soon they were forgotten. It closed its eyes and prepared for another year of sleep, snuggling beneath the detritus of dead things, gathered amongst the roots of the black and twisted tree, a tree at the heart of a wild and desolate forest. The creature smiled, dreaming of future feasts, and from the cold still silence, if you listened very carefully, a pleasant and satisfied snore could just be heard.


THE END


2017 Mike Kerins

Bio: Mr. Kerins has written and illustrated for a number of publishers, including The Horror Zine, Black Petals, and Yellow Mama.

E-mail: Mike Kerins

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