Perhaps I had overindulged over Thanksgiving, or perhaps I hadn’t honored Old Tom’s advice as diligently as I thought, for, by mid-December, I had little to eat.
Hands in pockets, ignoring the angry protests of my empty belly, I chewed my pipe and watched for lights on the black sea. I wished to see a ship. Wished to see it dashed on the rocks, its cargo and crew spilling across the land. A great feast for my roaring stomach.
But there was nothing. Nothing but the wind, the lighthouse, and the blackness of the night.
Then, over the endless shrieking of the wind, I heard it. A scream. Out beyond the rocks, in a thicket of trees not two hundred yards away, then a silence filled with the thundering of my heart. Nothing more than the wind in the rocks, I told myself, though I believed not a word. Then I heard it again. A wailing scream. The sound of a man dying in great pain.
Still, I did not move, but only listened to wails of pain as if to a dirge. Then there was the scream. A scream of bloodlust, of invitation, the scream the forest summoning me into its shadows. The pipe fell from my trembling lips, clattering on the steel railing. I swallowed, recalling my duties to the lighthouse and that of a man. I could not listen to sounds of pain without giving succor, even if just words.
I hobbled down the steps and burst through the door, grabbing a lantern along the way. Ignoring the terror welling in my breast, I plunged into the forest, knowing that if a beast truly stalked these woods, the screams would surely have called it. I stopped to listen, hearing nothing but the wind in the canopy and seeing nothing but unearthly shadows dancing in the lantern light.
There was nothing, I concluded, my breath steaming in the chill air. Nothing but strained nerves and an empty stomach playing childish jokes with my mind. Or perhaps the beast was luring me to its lair.
I should have turned back, back to the lighthouse to bar the door between myself and the terrible night, but duty mandated I render help to all in need. Voice trembling with fear and cold, I called out, though my words were swallowed by the hungry forest. Silence. I called again. Silence. I pulled in breath for one final shout when I heard a voice.
Far off, muffled as if spoken through a pillow, the plea sent a shiver up my spine colder than any winter breath. I pulled my jacket to my chin, calling back. Through murmurs, coughs, and cries of agony, I followed the voice through the darkness, visions of Dante descending into the blackness of hell filling my every thought.
My lantern light fell on the rocky cliff, the roar of the sea keen in my ears, the salt spray licking my face, warning me to stay away, to leave this hallowed place and to never return. I shouted into the wind, and the wind shouted back words from the rocks below. Focusing my lantern, I made out the wreckage of a cart, the twisted carcass of a horse, and a man’s leg protruding from the boulders as if mere detritus from the sea.
It was Jack, fool that he was, to be sure, for no one else would dare take the forest path in winter darkness with frost on the rocks and the icy wind blowing hard in the face. I shouted to him, then began my descent with easy steps down the slippery rock face, at times gripping the crags with all my strength, at times sliding down my backside but always gritting my teeth against the pain in my leg. It seemed the leg would return me to the sea, in one manner or another.
Sweating despite the cold, I reached the ruin and surveyed the damage. The cart was destroyed beyond repair, the horse’s neck broken, its head twisted in an obscene, unnatural angle, and poor Jack, arms and legs mangled, splintered bone bursting through skin, struggled to breathe through cracked ribs. I knelt, my light shining on his bloody face, and stared, torn between disgust and fascination, then asked how he was.
“How do you think I feel?” he spat.
I asked what I could do to make it better.
“Get a doctor. Get some medicine. Get me off this cliff!”
Of course, I could do none of those things. The closest doctor was more than thirty miles away and the morphine was gone. Realizing I could offer nothing more than give the man consolation, I placed a gentle palm on his shoulder, watching him cry as he slowly accepted the cruel fate God had assigned him. As I stared into those wet eyes wide with terror, I recalled a day long ago when my father placed a similar palm on my shoulder. The smell of blood, thick as a cloud of flies, filled my nostrils when we found the dog, belly ripped open, entrails spilled out in a grotesque pile, still very much alive. It was then I learned there were times when ending a life was accepted when extended from a heart of compassion. I squeezed Jake’s arm and passed through his blood soaked hair, vowing ease the pain.
“Don’t leave me,” he said.
I assured him I wouldn’t.
From high above, atop the black cliffs, a howl that could only come from the jaws of hell, roared down the winds and into my ears. I glanced up, looking for red eyes and glistening fangs, but saw nothing. Looking back at Jack, I knew I could not keep him there, as carrion for beasts, but as I looked at his pained face, neither could I commit his body to the sea. A compulsion washed over me as clear as the salt spray of the sea.
I stood, passing my hand over my face to shut out the world, listening to my quickening heart. The smell of hot blood, thick in the air, a metallic taste no rain or wind could cleanse, then heard a gurgling, like bubbles escaping viscous liquid.
I opened my eyes and looked at Jack’s prostrate form. Long, sharp fingers gripped round Jack’s open throat, hot blood pouring down his shirt front, steam billowing from the wound. I froze, unable to move as the beast sunk its teeth into the boy’s neck again and again, tearing flesh and muscle, crunching bone and cartilage. The beast moaned with almost erotic pleasure with each unholy swallow. It stopped, craning its head toward me as if noticing my presence for the first time.
Its lips drew back, revealing rows of fangs stained with blood. Crimson droplets fell like rain to the ground, staining the earth black, its eyes glowing with a familiar light, the red fire summoning me.
Scrambling up the slope, feet slipping on wet rocks, numb hands desperate for stable purchase, I ran.
A low howl of bloodlust and fury erupted in my ears, making my head ring, but I pressed on, ignoring the order to stop, and crested the cliff onto the forest path. I did not need to look to know it was behind me, bounding up the cliff with little effort.
I burst out of the woods, my knee screaming in pain, my eyes wide with fear. Ahead was the lighthouse, a tall dark shadow amid the night. Where was the light? My feet hit stone. I was out of the forest, but the beast was only a half second behind. Hot breath behind my ear. A clawed hand reaching out to grab me.
There it was! The beacon still alight! Hope remained. I took the stairs three at a time, ignoring the fire in my leg, and flung the door wide, wincing at the pain I knew must come.
But there was nothing. No beast leaping to tear out my throat. No sound but the wind over the sea and the hammering of my heart, no movement but nightly shadows dancing amid the trees. I stepped through the door and barred it, before slumping to the ground and passing my hands through my wet hair. With face and hands covered in hot blood, I cried until morning.