12 Feb Feast
“Feast”Written by Ryan Harville Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 17 minutes
Joe strode forward, taking wide steps through the knee-deep snow. Somewhere behind him rose the howl of the hounds, following him, drawing closer with each of his belabored breaths.
“Goddamn dogs,” he cursed, a plume of vapor escaping his lips. He drew his coat tighter across his chest and shivered.
There was no escaping his fate. His tracks in the snow may as well have been a giant, fiery arrow pointing directly at him. The dogs weren’t even necessary. A child could hunt him down through these woods with the trail he was leaving.
And it wasn’t fair, none of it. Joe had never meant to kill the man, just to rough him up, scare him a bit. But the man had struck back, and before Joe had time to think he’d already drawn his knife and ran it into the man’s belly. Stupid man, all he’d had to do was give up the cash and he’d still be breathing, and Joe would be back at the bar, his feet up on a table and some new, gullible woman on his lap.
Engrossed in the sweet thought of the bar, Joe continued to trudge. Great, white trees towered all around, their canopies blocking what little sunlight remained in the day. His path had begun to steer uphill, and he used the trees as handholds, pulling himself as much as pushing himself.
Panting from the exertion, he reached the top of the rise and surveyed the way he’d come. He could make out the figures of the cops, three of them, and the two hounds leading them closer and closer to Joe’s position. He lowered his stance, trying to make himself a smaller target. There was still some light left after all, and he’d surely be silhouetted there upon the ridge.
He looked to the opposite side of the ridge. It sloped down to a stream below, its waters still running despite the cold. Joe didn’t like the angle, too steep and–
A bullet punched into the very tree he’d had his hand on followed by the sharp crack of the pistol. Joe managed to stifle his cry, but was unable to keep his body from reacting accordingly. He drew himself quickly away from the tree and fell into empty air.
There was a long moment of nothing, and then he was tumbling down the slope, his hands wildly scrabbling for purchase but finding nothing but loose snow.
Joe landed in the stream, the cold sinking into his very bones just as the water sunk into his clothes. He twisted in the current for what seemed like hours before finding his footing in a shallow pool and throwing himself onto the stream’s bank.
He crawled forward, pulling himself along with his elbows until he reached a nearby tree. He propped himself up, his breath coming hard and fast like a blacksmith working his bellows. Joe looked to the ridge and squinted, trying to find where he’d fallen. But there was nothing, or he’d been pulled along the water for long enough to lose his own trail. And if he lost his trail maybe the cops did too.
A small spark of hope grew within his breast, but it was not enough to drive away the chill.
“Gave the bastards the slip,” he said, coughing. “Only to die in the damned cold.”
He wanted to move, but by God he was tired. Joe closed his eyes.
When he next woke the sky was empty of light but filled with flurries. The snow had risen over his legs and into his lap. He licked his cracked lips, a prayer forming there. Would God care about a thief and a murderer freezing in the woods? He couldn’t think past the numbness in his limbs. He looked to the sky, and saw a face.
The woman stood before him, her body obscured by writhing flurries on the wind. Her expression was neutral, and her eyes empty, reflecting the white landscape. She tilted her head to the left, an unmistakable gesture.
He didn’t question her, considering his current options were to either follow or freeze. Joe struggled to stand, falling twice before finally extricating himself from the snowbank that had threatened to bury him. His legs burned as his blood flowed freely once more but his feet stayed numb. He limped along behind the woman as she moved through the cold like a specter of wind and ice.
The journey could’ve been a mile, or could’ve been a trek across a continent. Joe didn’t know. He put one foot in front of the other, his eyes always on the woman’s back. She wore a sort of loose, gray robe. Maybe not a robe but whatever it was had to be covering some warmer clothes beneath. Joe had on a thick coat and winter boots and he was still pretty sure he was going to die before they got to wherever they were going.
And goddamn was it quiet. He didn’t know if he’d been surrounded by so much nothing in his life. He thought back to when he was a boy, hunting with his Pa during deer season, the cold just a brisk wind, and any snow hid in the shadows of the trees. But there had been noises then, the flapping of birds’ wings, the crackle of fallen leaves underfoot, soft crash of accumulated snow falling from the orange and brown canopy of leaves and branches overhead.
But there was nothing but white here, and even the wind moved with an eerie silence. The only way Joe knew for sure that he wasn’t suddenly struck deaf was the sound of his own breathing, and the crunch of the snow beneath his boots.
Just as his thoughts turned bleak and hopelessness sunk its teeth into him, they arrived. The trees opened into a clearing, huts and lean-to shelters were set-up along the perimeter, all of which were covered in at least a foot of snow but all standing strong. Opposite the clearing’s entrance, set into the hillside, was a cave. It’s entrance was decorated in what looked like woven branches from where he was standing. The telltale glow of a fire lit it from within, it’s opening the most beautiful shade of orange Joe had ever seen.
He felt his strength return at the thought of warmth and his pace quickened. People began to poke their heads out of their shelters, eyeing him but saying nothing. He’d half-expected them to be native, like in those old Western movies his Pa had loved to watch. But there were men, women, and children of all races. Dark skinned, light skinned, and everything in between. He found himself waving and nodding like an idiot, but he was so happy at the prospect of sitting in front of the fire that he couldn’t bring himself to give a shit about how stupid he must look.
As they approached, the woman stopped and gestured at the cave with one outstretched arm. Joe smiled and nodded, feeling giddy with relief.
The decorations around the mouth of the cave were much more intricate than he’d thought. Thin pieces of bark had been stripped from branches and used to tie together a selection of antlers, rocks, and even more branches. Black feathers dotted the archway, fluttering in the wind. Joe lowered his head so as to not get caught in the eye by an antler and went inside.
Blessed warmth washed over him as he stood in front of the fire. It was a small cave, a pile of hay off to one side, and the firepit in the middle, the smoke flowing up into a nearly imperceptible hole in the ceiling. Joe knelt closer and lifted his hands closer to the flames.
Time passed, he wasn’t sure how long, but the blood had thawed in his hands and they became sore from the temperature shift.
“Hello,” a soft voice came from behind him.
Joe turned to see a man standing in the mouth of the cave. He wore the same no-color gray that the woman had, and although he looked as young as Joe himself, his dark beard reached down nearly to the blanket he held in his hands.
“Hello,” Joe croaked, his throat dry with disuse.
“I brought you something to use while your clothes dry,” the man said. “You can hang them on the rack over to your left.” He passed Joe the blanket.
“Much obliged,” Joe said. “I’m Joe. What’s your name?”
The man shook his head. “I no longer have one. We do not use them here.”
“Uh, okay,” Joe said. “Is there anything you call yourself?”
“You can call me the Speaker, if you like. I am the Speaker for our group here.”
“Oh, so you’re like, the representative or something?”
“No, no,” the Speaker said with a kind smile. “I literally speak for everyone, if needs be. We do not get many visitors here, so I do not have to speak very often.”
“Like monks? A vow of silence and all that?”
“Close enough,” the Speaker said. “Are you hungry at all?”
“Yes, and my throat’s as dry as a desert, too.”
“I understand, it is a very long walk here. I will bring you some food and water, all that I ask in return is that you stay in the cave. We take our silence seriously.”
Joe barked a short laugh. “Buddy, I ain’t moving any further from this fire than I have to.”
The Speaker smiled again. “Good. I’ll return shortly,” he said and left.
Joe busied himself with undressing. Peeling off the wet layers took some effort with his fingers having been recently brought back to life. When he was done he hung his clothes over the rack as the Speaker had suggested, and started to wrap the blanket around himself when he realized it wasn’t a blanket at all, but one of the robe things everyone was wearing.
He pushed his head through the hole in the middle then looked down at himself. It was like a very long poncho, really. A belt of the same fabric hung on the side, one end stitched to the robe. He tied it around his waist and sat down again in front of the fire, watching the flames dance and feeling lucky to be alive.
The Speaker returned, holding a clay cup and a thin, wooden plank piled high with steaming meat. Joe began to salivate and his hands shook in anticipation.
“Here,” the Speaker said and held the cup out to Joe. “I would caution you to drink and eat slowly. Too quickly and you may get sick.”
Joe nodded and lifted the cup to his lips. He drank deeply but managed to stop himself before taking too much. The Speaker lowered the makeshift plate of meat to the floor.
It was sliced thin, and cooked enough to leave a little pinkish hue to the meat. Joe took a slice and bit into it. He was a man who knew the difference between a good steak and a great one, and whatever the meat was it was divine.
He finished chewing and swallowed. “What kind of meat is this?”
“Goat,” the Speaker said. “I’m sorry if it’s not to your liking but it’s all we keep here.”
“No, no, it’s great,” Joe said, helping himself to another slice. “Ain’t never had goat meat before but I’m sure I will again.”
“Good. I’m pleased you like it. I will leave you to your meal then.”
“Wait just a second,” Joe said. “You don’t have to leave so soon. Tell me about this place, and what you folks are doing out here. Is this like some kind of tribal land or something?”
The Speaker stood. “We can talk more in the morning. For now, just rest and be warm. We don’t have actual beds here, but you’re welcome to use the pile of hay there. It’s not much but it’s better than the ground. And don’t worry, I’ll see to the fire while you sleep.”
Joe nodded. “Okay, sure, that’d be great.”
The Speaker nodded. “Sleep well,” he said and walked from the cave.
In no time at all Joe polished off the meat and sucked the juices from his fingers. He washed the last bit down with the rest of his water, which tasted like the earth, like the clay that held it.
His belly full, he laid down on the hay. It wasn’t really that comfortable but it did keep him off of the cold ground. His robe kept him from being poked, and was actually long enough to cover his feet.
Not thinking of anything in particular, Joe fell asleep.
* * * * * *
As sparse, gray sunlight entered the mouth of the cave, Joe stirred. Waking came slowly and by degrees. First was confusion, where was he, what had happened. And the second was the cold.
He raised his head and blinked his sticky eyes at the firepit. It was dead and black and gray, not even an ember glowed within. It looked to have been out for hours.
Joe got up slowly and walked to the mouth of the cave.
It had been sealed shut against him. Branches as thick as his arm ran horizontally from one side to the other with only a few inches of clearance between them.
It took him a moment to process what he was seeing, and actually chuckled.
“Hey!” he said. “Hey, uh, Speaker! I don’t know what’s happening but I don’t appreciate being locked in here! I’m not dangerous or anything!”
Memories of the day before, of robbing the stranger in the parking lot, of driving his blade into the man’s belly and wrenching it upward, of feeling the hot blood flow over his hand.
The Speaker walked up to the opposite side of the barricade.
“Good morning,” he said, his breath a small puff of white.
“What the fuck is going on here?” Joe spat. “I don’t know what your game is here but I ain’t playing it. Let me out of this cave.”
“What?” Joe said, laughing at the sheer audacity of the prick. “You can’t just keep me here! I’ve got a life out there, I’ve got–”
“Do you?” the Speaker said coolly. “Do you have a life out there? One worth living?”
Joe opened his mouth to answer but didn’t.
“As I thought,” the Speaker said. “What do you have to go back to, Joe Everly? More things to steal and people to hurt? Are you going to go back and apologize to Wanda, your first wife, for beating her so badly she still walks with a limp to this day?”
“How do you know about her?” Joe said softly.
“I know more than that. Tell me, if you were to return, would you go back to Texas and raise the child you abandoned there?”
“Or are you going to go back and turn yourself in for murdering poor Cole Howell yesterday, his only crime being that he made a quick run to the store for more diapers for his new baby?”
“I said stop!”
“I know these things, Joe, because I am more than the Speaker. I am also the Listener. And I can hear things without you even telling me.”
“That’s not possible,” Joe whimpered.
‘Well, you’ll have plenty of time to think about it in there. And I’ll give you some friendly advice: do not scream. Because once you start, it’s very difficult to stop, and that leads to madness. Besides, you’ll be very hungry soon. If you feel a cry wanting to escape your lips, bite into it, clamp it between your teeth, then swallow. Eat your screams. Let them sustain you, and you may just survive this ordeal.”
Joe backed away from the barrier, his mind spinning and chasing coherence like a dog trying to catch its tail.
He couldn’t think but he did know the Speaker’s advice was a veiled threat. If he could just keep quiet, there was a chance. A chance at escape, and a chance at revenge.
* * * * * *
The cave grew colder and colder as the hours passed. Joe stewed in his anger as he put his clothes back on and let his hate warm him. Then he walked from one end of the cave to the other, seething with every step.
He muttered as he walked. “These assholes don’t know who they’re fuckin’ with. Gonna strangle them with their own goddamn robes, burn their shacks, steal the goddamn goats…”
It wasn’t until the sun began to retreat that Joe felt frightened. He trembled at the thought of spending a long, cold night locked in the cave, shivering and chattering.
But what choice did he have? He wasn’t getting through the barrier without an axe, and he wasn’t slipping out the chimney hole without losing a hundred pounds and becoming a contortionist. He was fucked.
He collapsed onto the hay and pulled the robe over him like a blanket. Sleep came slowly, but it came all the same.
* * * * * *
His shaking woke him sometime before dawn. A coughing fit left him out of breath and spitting phlegm. His sinuses were thick with it, and his throat ached from mouth-breathing through the night.
Joe stood on shaking legs and shambled over to the barrier, the purple light of daybreak shining between the branches.
“Hey!” he yelled, then coughed. “Hey!”
He heard footsteps, then the Speaker walked into view. “Yes, Mr. Everly?”
“Oh, we’re using ‘mister’ now, huh? You sure are polite for a kidnapping son of a bitch.”
The Speaker sighed. “What do you need?”
“Water,” Joe said.
“Are you asking or commanding?”
“I’m demanding, asshole!”
A smile spread across the Speaker’s bearded face. “Good!”
He waved his hand and a young boy ran over to him with a shallow clay bowl.
“Here’s your water,” the Speaker said. “But first, I’m going to need you to undress and hand over your clothes.”
“The water, for your clothes.”
“If you’re trying to kill me then just get it over with!”
“Your clothes, please. You may keep the robe for now.”
Joe angrily undressed, then shoved the wad of clothes through the branches.
“There! Now give me the water.”
The Speaker slid the bowl through the barricade. Joe snatched it, nearly spilling the water, but managed to get it to his lips.
It was gone in three swallows.
“More,” he said.
“No,” the Speaker said, picking up Joe’s clothes from the ground.
“Fuck you,” Joe spat. “At least give me somethin’ to eat!”
The Speaker shook his head and began to walk away.
“Hey!” Joe cried. “You–”
The Speaker turned and put one finger up to his lips. “Eat the screams, Joe.”
* * * * * *
Joe sat staring at the barricade, watching as the dull rays of sunlight spilling through the myriad holes got longer.
His stomach growled incessantly. It turned in knots and cramps like a fist ceaselessly clenching and unclenching.
Dreams came to him, unbidden and alive. He was in the woods with his Pa, hunting for days on end, days that were always in twilight, a perpetual gloam that stained the world in gray and black.
Pa put a hand on Joe’s shoulder, stilling him.
“Shhh,” Pa whispered. “There she is.”
Ahead of them in the clearing was a deer, its antlers branching out like hundreds of sharp, searching fingers. It was the biggest animal Joe had ever seen. His stomach rumbled and drool ran from his mouth.
Pa patted his back. “Go get ‘em. I know you’re hungry. It’s okay to be hungry, being hungry is what makes you alive. It’s all there is.”
Joe walked into the clearing, his hands out before him, one of them holding a knife. He drew closer until he was standing directly in front of the beast.
“Why don’t you run?” Joe asked. “Why are you just standing there?”
The deer lifted its massive head to the sky, exposing its neck.
“Eat,” it said, its voice ageless and seductive. “Eat and be satisfied.”
Joe tossed his knife away, grabbed and pulled the deer by the fur of its neck, and bit down.
* * * * * *
He woke with a scream between his teeth fighting to get free. He shook and cursed and realized he was sweating and, oh God, did he have a fever? He wiped the sweat from his brow with the robe and sat up.
It was fully dark. He’d slept through the day and now had no idea what time it could be. A coughing fit shook him and he collapsed back to the hay, weak and afraid. Lying on his back made it difficult to breathe, so he turned to his side, pulling the robe tight against him.
He looked to the mouth of the cave and his eyes widened. The barricade was gone, and he could see light in the distance. Freedom was right there, if he could rise, could just sneak away into the night.
Joe rose at a glacial pace, none of his limbs wanting to comply. He took one step, then another, and soon was performing something close to walking.
He stopped to rest at the opening, leaning one shoulder against the cold rock and coughing until his chest burned. He surveyed the clearing through watery eyes.
A fire burned in the heart of the clearing, surrounded by all the folk that lived there. They all stood silent, watching him suffer. The Speaker emerged from the crowd and met him at the mouth of the cave.
“Hello, Joe,” he said. “You’ve survived. Why?”
Joe and felt his lips crack with a tiny matchlight of pain. “‘Cause I wasn’t about to let you win, bastard. You or your fucked up kin.”
“Straight hate flows through these veins. And that ain’t something you can kill easily.”
The Speaker nodded. “Very true,” he said. “It has freed you. Come, we will feed you, and then you are free to leave.”
Joe eyed him. “What? That’s it?”
“You were tested and you passed. That’s it.”
“I don’t want anything more from you.”
“One last gift,” the Speaker said. “And then you’ll be on your way.”
Joe’s stomach rumbled audibly. He nodded.
“Leave the robe here.”
Joe didn’t argue. He pulled the robe over his head and let it fall to the dirt.
The Speaker took him by the arm and supported him as they walked closer to the fire. The crowd parted for him to pass through.
A naked man stood before the fire, passing his hands over the flames which shied away from his touch, hands that were at the end of arms that were much, much too long. The firelight played over his alabaster skin, showing scabbed wounds like black stars in a white sky. It smelled of the grave, of bloat and rot.
The man turned at Joe’s approach, and it took the last of Joe’s resolve not to scream.
His face was more skull than skin, the nose missing, the lips equally absent. His mouth was a bloodied, clotted hole ringed with broken teeth. There was no breath coming out of it.
Joe weakly tried to turn away but the Speaker held him in place.
“Watch,” he said.
The man-thing knelt in the dirt, and Joe looked into its eyes, confused.
There was resignation there, sadness, and what looked like gratitude.
The crowd formed a loose circle around the man, and brought out their weapons. Clubs, crude farming tools, mallets. Everyone was armed, even the children.
As if on some unseen signal, they attacked. No one cried out, or made any noise at all. The only sounds were the flat-smack of clubs hitting flesh, of bones breaking beneath the blows. Finally, the crowd moved away, leaving the broken thing lying in a widening pool of blood.
The Speaker shoved Joe hard in the back, sending him tumbling into the mess in front of him. He had no time or strength to catch himself and fell into the bloody mud with a splash.
Joe recoiled in horror, lifting his face from the mess and spitting on instinct.
“It’s yours,” the Speaker said. “You’ve earned it.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Joe said.
“Eat and be satisfied.”
He wanted to balk, to call the Speaker insane, but he could taste the thing’s blood and it was ambrosia. Sweet and savory and metallic.
Joe’s hand shook as he lifted a ragged strip of flesh and held it before him.
The crowd began to chant, very low. Joe could only make out bits and pieces. He thought he heard them speak of the wind.
“Don’t be shy now,” the Speaker said. “Not when you found it so delicious before.”
He didn’t have to ask. He knew then that the meat he’d had on his first night wasn’t goat. And if there was any doubt, the scabbed wounds along the thing’s belly and thighs told the rest of the story.
Joe placed the flesh into his mouth and bit down once, letting the flavor rest upon his tongue. But his hunger was a living thing and he couldn’t hold it in check any longer.
Time ceased to matter along with everything else save the feast spread out before him. He tore meat from bone with his teeth, feeling each fiber snap, relishing the ripping sensation as it gave way. Strength swelled within him. He snapped the man-thing’s femur between his tightened fists and lifted the cracked edges to his mouth so he could suck the marrow from within. His belly grew full and taut but he kept eating, unable to help himself. He saved the eyes for last, popping them between his molars and letting the fluid spill onto his tongue.
He was sated, and his limbs grew heavy.
“Sleep,” the Speaker said.
* * * * * *
The sky was still black when he woke sometime later. He was cold, even though the fire was still bright and strong.
And he was hungry. So goddamned hungry.
Without thinking he dug his fingers into the ground and scooped out handfuls of blood-stained earth. He packed his mouth full and chewed and sucked until he swallowed it all. It wasn’t enough.
He crawled closer to the fire and it moved away from him like prey avoiding the slash of a predator’s claws. He kept crawling, dragging himself into the heart of flames, only to watch helplessly as the flames grew weak and died.
The Speaker’s voice came from behind him. “That can’t help you now.”
Joe looked at him. The other man’s features were orange, reflecting the light of his torch.
“What have you done to me?”
“Nothing,” the Speaker said. “This was all your doing. You earned it. Every day of your life you earned it.”
Joe leapt at him with his newfound strength and speed. He hooked his fingers into the fabric of the man’s robe and drew back with a cry, his hands burning from the cold. He looked down at his frostbitten fingers with wide eyes.
“You can’t hurt us,” the Speaker said. “Our robes are sanctified by rituals that were old when man still huddled in caves and cringed at the sound of thunder.”
“I don’t get any of this!” Joe cried.
“This is all you need to know,” the Speaker said. “The hunger will consume your every waking moment. You will never be satisfied, never know warmth or comfort. You will roam and eat and lose your mind. And then one day, maybe a hundred years from now, maybe two, you will find your way back here. And our great-great-grandchildren will be waiting to put an end to your wandering.”
Joe’s stomach cramped and he doubled over.
The Speaker waved him away. “Go now. There’s only death for you here, but it will be a long time before you taste it. Go.”
He wanted to attack and scream and argue but he couldn’t. He had to run, had to eat and eat and eat.
He turned and fled into the woods, the wind at his back, and the hunger in his soul.
* * * * * *
It was later. Somewhere, somewhen. His thoughts were clouded and few and far between.
Noises in the woods. Light, hateful fleeting flames.
He crept between trees with his nose high and sniffing.
Two bigs and a small.
He began to sprint, no sneak, no stealth.
His teeth were on the small one before she could scream.
The woman beat at him and he felt nothing.
The man fired his weapon and he felt nothing.
The child’s flesh slid down his throat and he felt alive.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableRyan Harville Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A