The Dark Creature’s Passing
A short story in five parts
by Karen S. Elliott
Cruckshank’s Greeting – Part One
My old bones ache and feel as if they are frozen into the depths of their marrow. Adjusting my rump on the bale of hay, I try to settle.
I pull the moth-bitten horse blanket tighter around me, my shoulder blades
sticking out like two tiny wings. The breeze picks up again and disturbs the gray hair around my ears, and I shiver. Adjusting my cap, I wait.
I observe the night skies, as I have done every evening for decades. The darkness is quite complete – there are no stars in this part of the world. No twinkly gases or planets. No vaporous clouds or twittering birds. There is no moon.
I hear a clattering of hooves and that scraping, dragging sound – the souls he pulls behind him. I stand up and stretch, joints snapping. I do not know the how of it – how much longer I can endure the physical strain of this employment. But it is certainly preferred over the alternative.
I see the horse’s snorting breath – glowing red and stinking. Then the rider and his mount appear in my field of vision. The horse is sleek ebony, and the leather he wears is all black, gleaming with a high gloss and squeaking with saddle soap. A most beautiful animal in an occupation most distasteful.
The rider’s smiling countenance comes into view – a productive night, I imagine. He throws his leg jauntily over the neck of the horse, his black boot glistening with spit and polish. He floats to the ground with his cape spread like bat wings. A blanketing wave of the velvet fabric, and he is gone. The chains attached to the catch of the day fall clattering to the dirt.
I drag the chained souls into an immense barn, large enough to produce an echo if there were such a thing as an echo in this vacuous blackness. The granite floor shows an occasional scorch mark from previous burnings. Coffin-shaped boxes are lined up, waiting for their cargo.
I consign each of the souls to a private wood-slat container. And then the burning. Their pleading voices, the crying, the whining. Oh, if I were able to get that out of my head! Their cries and begging and wheeling-dealing make no difference. They will be extinguished with efficient dispatch.
The Dark Creature Retires – Part Two
I think of my 200 years, coming to an end. I’ve left Cruckshank at the barn to deal with my collection of souls. He has no idea this was my last trip. I’m retiring, perhaps to the South of France or Tuscany. Or Portland, Maine! I’ve heard that a writer of horror resides in that place. I wonder if an audience with him would be possible. Any place without the putrid smell of brimstone would serve me well. How I have come to detest that ghastly stink.
Once the souls are dealt with, Cruckshank will join me in the darkened library. We will repose in front of a roiling hearty fire for a warm brandy and the discourse describing the evening’s events. How he loves to listen to the tales of my night’s wanderings and soul-gathering.
I was distressed to see how my old sot looked this evening. From outside the muted glow of the barn light, I could see him huddled with a rotted blanket pulled around his shoulders. He’s gotten old; I think he must be nearly 80 now. Coming to me as a young man of 17, he was full of vigor and intensity. His hands have become knotted like twisted branches, and his posture bowed.
The approval on my retirement has been delivered, and tonight I need to tell ole Cruck he’s done as a Depositor of Souls. I am sad I must tell him this, sad that we will no longer share these affable nights together. I will retire, and he will replace me among the Collectors. His mind and his body will be reborn. He will be young again, and young for as long as he wishes. He will have endless days of rest, and endless nights, collections set up in a line like cars attached to a locomotive.
But my time as a Collector is done, as is my time as an immortal. I’m giving it up. I wonder if Cruck will be pleased with his promotion. I often ruminate on the humans – they get to the end of their days and ask for more time, more time! I,
who have had an overabundance of time, have grown fatigued by it.
The Discourse and an Announcement – Part Three
The multi-storied stone monstrosity sits on a knoll, surrounded by dark leafless trees and knotted twisting vines. On both ends of the structure is a large cupola, each a room in itself. Even during gray daylight, the manor house is dim and somewhat vague in its shape. At night, it appears as an overgrown and ominous shadow.
Cruckshank pulls open a wide wooden door leading into the kitchen. Gleaming copper pots hung on racks above the scarred island. A diminutive table with its one chair was tidy and sat waiting for breakfast. A wrought iron wood stove hulks silently. Striking a match, he lights a tapered candle to guide his way through to the library. Though he’d walked this particular path
thousands of times, it was his habit to have the candle.
The old man shambles through cavernous hallways and through the central entryway on his march toward the library. Each rough stone wall boast enormous woven tapestries. Portraits of lost souls in various stages of death and agony, life-sized and framed in shining gilt, observed the old man’s progress.
He passes the central staircase, the landing of which would support a miner’s cottage. The wide stairs are heavily carpeted in lush burgundy wool so that footfalls are but a whisper. Overlooking the stairs and landing is a monstrous stained glass insert the size of a small barn. Dark hues of the blood-colored glass panes whistle with the ghostly wind.
The candle’s flame is blown out by an onerous breath curling down from the upper floors. Old Cruck stops and waits for his eyes to adjust to the relative darkness. The glow from under the library door beckons him, and he walks toward it.
Old Cruck lifts a misshapen hand and delivers two raps on the door to the library; he waits a couple of heartbeats and then enters. Without a word to the Dark Creature seated next to the fire, Cruckshank approaches the carved and heavy mahogany sideboard. Picking up the glass decanter, he pours two snifters of brandy. These antiquated snifters as large as a child’s head. The sparkling glass reflects the amber glow of the fire. Cruckshank shuffles back and places a snifter on the end table for his companion. He settles into place on his side of the fire. Cruckshank remarked on the hearth.
“You could put a team of horses in there, easy.” Old Cruck took a sip from his snifter.
“You have gotten old my friend. When did this happen?” said the Dark Creature.
“Hmph. It’s been happening for the last 67 years, sir,” Cruckshank said.
“Sixty-seven years it’s been? You are then, what, 84?”
Cruckshank nodded. An uncomfortable tingling presented itself in the old man’s stomach. Why these odd questions? These are quite uncommon inquiries coming from the Dark Creature.
“Are you dismissing me, sir?”
“Ghosts and souls, no! Just making observations…conversation.”
Cruckshank relaxed somewhat, though the feel in the library seemed to have grown more dim. The Creature across the carpet from him had bowed his head. After several moments, Cruckshank wondered if he had fallen asleep.
Cruckshank cleared his throat softly. “I am getting rather worn out, I suppose. Consigning souls to their fates, all the time buried in snow or frigid air. So cold, constantly. It can be somewhat lonely all day while you are gone, sir. I’m a mere mortal after all.”
“Yes, lonely, I suppose.”
There was another pause in the discourse, more comfortable this time.
A knot in a log on the fire cracked like a shot from a pistol. Strengthening winds pushed stiffened branches against the glass of the window, it’s screeching muted somewhat by the heavy brocade draperies. Cruckshank straightened his lapels, pulling and tucking his coat tails beneath his legs. The brandy and the warmth of the raging fire were making his sagging eyelids feel leaden.
“You don’t feel like sharing your stories tonight, sir?”
“Perhaps you could tell me a story or two, Cruck.”
“Me? Tell you stories, sir? Oh.”
This was quite odd; actually had never happened in all their 67 years together.
“Well, let’s see. That disgusting soul who shot the constable – he was quite sorry and tried to blame his upbringing and his besotted father. Quite a temper he had himself! Pah! Then there was that awful man who preyed on weak, lost children – he was sobbing when I put the flame to him – much like a child himself! Then there was that woman…”
“Cruckshank, I will retire.”
Cruckshank mistook his intent – he thought the Dark Creature was ready for his slumber. The Creature’s posture was slumped. He seemed to be melting into the deep pit of the velvet chair, one hand limp by his side. The other hand rested on the end table, near his snifter. His features seemed to have softened and sagged, too.
“Ah, yes, of course, sir. I’ve already locked up.” Cruckshank rose from his chair and stood still, hands at his sides.
“No, you do not understand. I’m done, finished.”
“What…” Cruckshank stood still, his mouth agape. Disturbing thoughts invaded his mind; I’m being let go, I’m done, I’ll get the match put to my box now.
Before the old man could gather another thought, the Dark Creature continued.
“And you have been tasked as my replacement.”
Cruckshank’s knees started to buckle; he took one staggering step backwards, dropping into his chair. His heart was beating like a hammer on an anvil, veins in his head throbbed. His surprise was absolute. And then he had a thought that made him smile.
“Will I be young again, sir? A young man of 17?” His eyes sparkled in the flickering emanating from the hearth.
“Yes, Cruck. You will be renewed, refreshed, you will again be 17 years old. Just as you came to me.”
The Dark Creature and the old man settled into a comfortable silence. Their opposing faces were a visual disagreement. The Creature frowned, the old man grinned.
Cruckshank is Reborn – Part Four
A 21st century Kelvin Cruckshank strolled along the stone path which led from the barn to the back of the house. For his 67 years with the Dark Creature and for the additional 140 years he’d been a collector, he preferred this route. The grounds had been redone – at his insistence – and even on a gloomy night with no moon, he enjoyed the course. He could smell the rose and gardenia fragrance coming from the greenhouse beside the barn. Another addition he’d made since he’d accepted his new position.
A strapping young man of 17, though the look of him was older, wiser, more assured. Not one of his acquaintances would guess his youthful years. His Welsh features – black hair and dark hazel eyes – accompanied a fine ivory complexion. Lambskin gloves hid long delicate fingers.
He pulled open the door to a new stainless steel kitchen and strode through as the man of the manor. He needed no candle or flashlight to guide his way – he could see quite well in complete darkness. He hummed to himself – a jaunty Lady Gaga tune he’d heard recently. After a turn here and there, he was at the door to the library; he strode through that as well.
Young Cruckshank had outlived three assistants; his fourth was in the barn attending to the collected souls. Here in this flickering room, a fire raging, he could not hear the screams. Directly inside the door was a coat rack with the Dark Creature’s cape and hat. These antique items were brushed every day and shook to clear them of dust. He shrugged out of his wool coat and hung it next to his mentor’s cape. He wore no hat. These days it was not fashionable, and he chose not to draw attention to himself.
At the sideboard, he poured fine Kentucky bourbon into two rocks glasses and carried them over to the fire; one glass on the assistant’s table, one on his own little table. He sat heavily, fatigued, and kicked off his leather riding boots. He placed his boots next to the mentor’s gleaming black boots to the side of the hearth. He sat back and relaxed. He brought the glass to his lips, burning liquid flowed over his tongue and down his dust-caked throat.
He waited patiently for the assistant to join him for their evening exchange.
A Tortured Soul – Part Five
I can’t breathe – the putrid smoke from the other souls is wafting over me. My bruised and bloodied neck aches where the chains choked me. I’m waiting for my turn – the old man with the long matches is coming my way. My arms are pinned to my sides; I am contained like a statue in this wooden box. It is too close, cloying, like a coffin.
Moments ago I was freezing from the cold, my extremities tingling with frostbite, my body in fits of violent shivers. I turn my head and can see the old man at the container next to me. He’s crouched in front of the box, putting a match to the timbers and hay along its bottom. The air is getting hotter and more humid, I can hear human fluids popping and boiling.
I cannot abide the screeching and wailing and screaming from the other souls! And the stench of burning flesh feels as if it is melting into my eyeballs, in my nostrils, settling its dust on my tongue. I start to choke on smoke, gagging silently as it fills my lungs. My throat tightens involuntarily. I can hear the crackling of wood and the snapping of bones.
The old man now stands in front of my box. I can see the top of his head and his wool-covered shoulders.
The heat is so intense. The flames lick along and in between my toes; I feel the fire making its way up my legs. And the incessant screaming! Where is it coming from?
It is me – I am screaming. And the old man is grinning, orange flames reflected against his yellowed teeth.