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“Where is the witness?” he asked.
We paused in the yard to clear our lungs of death’s foul miasma and for the constable to refill his pipe. His face was flushed, and the fingers holding the match quivered as he lowered the flame to the alabaster bowl.
“I must confess to you, Warthrop, this is wholly outside the range of my experience.”
Morgan’s gaze strayed to the words etched over the rectory door. The Lord is my shepherd. He did not appear comforted. Indeed, he seemed shaken to his spiritual marrow. As the town constable he had witnessed more than his fair share of man’s inhumanity to man, from petty thievery to malicious battery. None of it had prepared him, however, for this naked confrontation with gross injustice, this horrific reminder that despite all the honors with which we shower ourselves, we are, ultimately, fodder, mere meat for the inferior, soulless things of which I dreamt the night before, no less than us the Creator’s children. It could not have been pleasant, for a man of the constable’s limited experience and sensitive temperament, to be confronted with the Anthropophagi’s savage mockery of our human aspirations, our absurd grandiosities and ambitions, our ever-preening pride.
“He’s in the sanctuary,” he said. “This way.”
We followed him down the gravel path toward the little church that faced the lane leading to Old Hill Cemetery Road. Another guard was stationed there. Without a word he stepped aside to let us pass. The interior was cool and dark. The morning light streamed in broken beams through the stained glass of the windows, shafts of blue and green and red cutting through the dusty air. Our footfalls echoed upon the ancient boards. Two shadowy figures slouched in the front pew. Upon our approach, one rose, a rifle in his arms. The other did not move, did not so much as raise his head.
Lowering his voice, the constable informed the man with the rifle that the hearses would be arriving soon and he should wait outside to help with the removal of the victims. The man did not seem particularly pleased with the assignment, but acknowledged his orders with the briefest of nods before taking his leave.
The guard’s footfalls died away. We were alone with our witness. Slumped in the pew, arms folded over his chest, hands gripping tight the edges of the blanket wrapped around his bare torso, he was but a boy of fifteen or sixteen, I guessed, with dark hair and large, bright blue eyes that appeared all the larger owing to the narrowness of his face. Though he was seated, I discerned he was tall for his age; his legs seemed to stretch a mile before him.
“Malachi,” said the constable gently. “Malachi, this is Dr. Warthrop. He’s here to…” The constable paused, as if he were unsure what service the doctor could perform. “Well, help you.”
A moment passed. Malachi did not speak. His full lips moved soundlessly, as he stared, like some Eastern mystic, at a space beyond our mortal sphere, looking without but seeing within.
“I am not hurt,” he said finally, in barely a whisper.
“He isn’t that kind of doctor,” the constable said.
“I am a scientist,” said Warthrop.
Malachi’s strikingly blue eyes strayed to my face and remained fixed, unblinking, for a few agonizingly uncomfortable seconds.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“This is Will Henry,” answered the doctor. “He is my assistant.”
Though Malachi’s eyes remained on my face, he had ceased to see it. It was unmistakable, the transition from seeing to not-seeing, the fading of his focus, or, better put, the refocusing to something altogether different, something that only he could see. We warred for his attention with this thing unseen. I knew not what the others were thinking; for myself, I wondered at his condition. His psyche had clearly suffered horrific wounds, yet physically he had emerged unscathed from the ferocious attack. How could that be?
The doctor went to one knee before him. The movement did not distract the stricken lad; his sight remained fixed upon my features, and not so much as an eyelash twitched when Warthrop laid a hand upon his outstretched thigh. In a soft voice the doctor spoke his name, squeezing gently the flaccid muscle beneath his hand, as if calling him back from that faraway, inapproachable place.
“Malachi, can you tell me what happened?”
Again his lips moved and no sound emerged. His otherworldly stare unnerved me, but as one who stumbles upon a terrible accident, I could not tear my eyes away from the awful gravity of his gaze.
“Malachi!” the doctor called quietly, now shaking the limp leg. “I cannot help you unless you tell me-”
“Have you not been there?” cried Malachi. “Did you not see?”
“Yes, Malachi,” answered the doctor. “I saw everything.”
“Then, why do you ask me?”
“Because I would like to know what you saw.”
“What I saw.”
His eyes, large and blue and as depthless as the spinning maw of Charybdis, refused to release me from the riptide of their grip. He addressed the doctor, but he spoke to me:
“I saw the mouth of hell fly open and the spawn of Satan spew forth! That is what I saw!”
“Malachi, the creatures that killed your family are not of supernatural origin. They are predators belonging to this world, as mundane as the wolf or the lion, and we are, unfortunately, their prey.”
If he heard the doctor, he showed no sign. If he understood, he gave no admission. Beneath the blanket he shivered uncontrollably, though the air was still and the sanctuary warm. His mouth came open and he addressed me now: “Did you see?”
I hesitated. The doctor whispered sharply in my ear, “Answer, Will Henry!”
“Yes,” I blurted. “I saw.”
“I am not hurt,” repeated Malachi to me, as if he feared I had not heard him before. “I am unscathed.”
“A remarkable and extremely fortunate outcome of your ordeal,” observed the doctor. Again he was ignored. Snorting with frustration, Warthrop motioned for me to come closer. It appeared Malachi would speak, but only to me.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“That is my sister’s age. Elizabeth. Sarah, Michael, Matthew, and Elizabeth. I am the oldest. Have you any brothers and sisters, Will Henry?”
“Will Henry is an orphan,” Dr. Warthrop said.
Malachi asked me, “What happened?”
“There was a fire,” I said.
“You were there?”
“I ran too.”
His expression did not change; the impassive visage remained; but a tear trailed down his hollow cheek. “Do you think God will forgive us, Will Henry?”
“I… I don’t know,” I replied honestly. Being only twelve, I was still a neophyte in the nuances of theology.
“That’s what Father always said,” Malachi whispered. “If we repent. If we but ask.”
His gaze wandered to the cross hanging on the wall behind me.
“I have been praying. I have been asking him to forgive me. But I hear nothing. I feel nothing!”
“Self-preservation is your first duty and inalienable right, Malachi,” said the doctor a bit impatiently. “You cannot be held accountable for exercising that right.”
“No, no,” murmured Morgan. “You miss the point, Warthrop.”
He lowered himself into the pew beside Malachi and wrapped his arm around his narrow shoulders.
“Perhaps you were spared for a reason, Malachi,” the constable said. “Have you thought of that? All things do happen for a reason… Is this not the foundation of our faith? You are here-all of us-because we are but part of a plan prepared before the foundations of the earth. It is our humble duty to discern our role in that plan. I do not pretend to know what mine or anyone’s might be, but it could be you were spared so no more innocent lives might be lost. For if you had remained in that house, you surely would have perished with your family, and then who would have brought us warning? Your saving of your own life will save the lives of countless others.”
“But why me? Why am I spared? Why not Father? Or Mother? Or my sisters and brothers? Why me?”
“That is something no one can answer,” replied Morgan.
With a snort the doctor abandoned any pretense of compassion and spoke harshly to the tormented boy. “Your self-pity mocks your faith, Malachi Stinnet. And every minute you wallow in it is a minute lost. The greatest minds of medieval Europe argued how many angels could dance upon the head of a pin, while the plague took the lives of twenty million. Now is not the time to indulge in esoteric debate upon the whimsy of the gods! Tell me, did you love your family?”
“Of course I loved them!”
“Then exile your guilt and bury your grief. They are dead, and no amount of sorrow or regret will bring them back to you. I present you with a choice, Malachi Stinnet, the choice eventually faced by all: You may lie upon the shores of Babylon and weep, or you may take up arms against the foe! Your family was not beset by demons or felled by the wrath of a vengeful god. Your family was attacked and consumed by a species of predators that will attack again, as surely as the sun will set this day, and more will suffer the same fate as your family, unless you tell me, and tell me now, what you have seen.”
As he spoke these words, the doctor leaned closer, then closer still to the cowering Malachi, until, with both hands pushing against the pew on either side of him, Warthrop’s face came within inches of the boy’s, his eyes afire with the passion of his argument. They shared a common burden, though only Warthrop knew it, and so only Warthrop had the power to exorcize it. I knew it too, of course, and now, as an old man looking, as it were, through my twelve-year-old eyes, I can see the bitter irony of it, the strange and terrible symbolism: Upon his own spotless hands, Malachi perceived the blood of his kin, as the man whose hands were literally stained with it berated him to abandon all feelings of responsibility and remorse!
“I did not see everything,” came the choked reply. “I ran.”
“But you were inside the house when it began?”
“Yes. Of course. Where else would I be? I was asleep. We all were. There was a terrible crash. The sound of glass breaking as they came through the windows. The very walls shook with the violence of their invasion. I heard my mother cry out. A shadow appeared in my doorway, and the room was filled with a horrible stench that closed my throat. I could not breathe. The shadow filled the doorway… huge and headless… huffing and sniffing like a hog. I was paralyzed. Then the shadow in the doorway passed. It left; I know not why.
“The house was filled with screaming. Ours. Theirs. Elizabeth leaped into the bed. I could not move! I should have barricaded the door. I could have broken the window not two feet away and escaped. But I did nothing! I lay in the bed holding Elizabeth, my hand over her mouth lest her cries draw them to us, and through the doorway I could see them pass, headless shadows, with arms so long their knuckles nearly dragged on the ground. Before the door two of them fell into a scuffle, with angry grunts and mad hisses, snarling and snapping as they vied for the body of my brother. I knew it had to be Matthew; it was too large to be Michael.