Cross Bones.

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The storm, in its last, bitter death throes, had brought along with it a maelström of torn leaves and jagged branches screaming along the yle, an avalanche of shattered glass and tattered hymn books scattered among the empty pews.

A black rock, jagged and alien and cruel, had come to a halt at the foot of the altar.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

*

The Reverend had only served the parish of Wyken for three short years before that terrible Autumn night in 1964, but even during that time the church had already been the target of five separate acts of vandalism.

Members of the congregation had warned him to expect as much when he first joined them back in ‘61, quick to inform him of local legends, quietly cautioning him that the churchyard of St. Mary Magdalene was in possession of a grave which attracted certain problems.

“Which grave would this be, may I ask?”

“Well, the grave is mostly hidden now, Reverend, it’s out toward the field, y’know, around the back, under the trees? But people ‘round here, we all know it’s there. It’s engraved with a Skull and Crossbones, y’see, quite captured the imagination of the youth at some point or other. They’d came to believe that it marked the burial place of a pirate, or some such nonsense.”

“A pirate? Here in Coventry?” The Reverend had laughed. “The tall tales of the clinically bored, I’m sure.”

Still, his interest had been peaked. He would often press parishioners for more information on the pirate grave and the strange legends which surrounded it, and as is the case with many a folk tale or urban legend, the telling would be quite different as it was passed from person to person. Mrs. Elliott (of Blackberry Lane) had mentioned that, as a wee child, her neighbour Dorothy (who had a face like a horse and swore like the devil) claimed circling the church three times on any given midnight would be enough to conjure the villainous spectre of an undead pirate.  Mr. Rumble (of Wyken Croft) added that his cousin Phillip (dead twenty-odd years now, Jerry blew ‘im to kingdom bloody come) told him that one would need to shatter a church window in order to complete the ritual, and then you bloody run for it.

Of course, while these tales of the legendary pirate grave may have provided hours of entertainment, the Reverend also knew them to be utterly ridiculous. Comic books and paperbacks had led to a child’s imagination running rampant across the decades, concocting the undead pirate out of thin air. There had been a time when the skull and crossbones had been a perfectly acceptable memento mori to be placed on a tombstone, and that undoubtedly been the case here.

Still, to explain this to some of his younger parishioners had been of little to no use over the past few years, as the legend of a vengeful spirit haunting their local churchyard held far too much of an allure and excitement to allow such things as reason and logic to interfere. And so, his church had continued to be the object of petty mischief from many a brave child out on a cold and stormy night.

And also, quite despite himself, the Reverend had continued to press on with the matter, always on the search for more information on this fable which had, by now, a strange allure over him. He had heard whispers from amongst the clergy itself, of a fantastic tale involving an ancient casket brought back from the Holy Land sometime during the 14th Century. After its long and tortuous journey, upon arrival it had been ordered immediately buried here in the churchyard of St. Magdalene.

It was quite the tale and when he ventured for further information, he had been told by the Bishop that, “It is but a legend of old, Reverend. Nothing more.”

*

And now, once again, the Reverend was stood at the bottom of the altar. What had, when he had first joined this congregation, been a whimsy worthy of exploring had now become the cause of a very real problem.

It was a little after 7am and those wild winds still blew around the church with an untamable ferocity. He leant down, taking the black rock in his hand and brushing his fingers along its sharp, jagged edges. It had seemed to bear some inscription of a kind; he could pick out the letters G and I, but try as he might he could not make out much more.

He sighed, tossing the rock into the air before quickly grasping it before it before having time to hit the ground. The handyman Mr. Cleaver would be soon to arrive, and he would have that window boarded and made ready for repair. How many times, he wondered, must they go through these motions? How long could he continue, in good conscience, to allow his beloved congregation to raise funds to have these broken windows replaced every six months or so? How long would it be until the ancient church itself succumbed to some irreversible damage at the hand of these vandals? The baptism font alone, one of Norman design, was some eight hundred years old at the very least. Something needed to be done. He could not allow events to simply continue as they were.

The grave had to go.

*

And so, the Reverend made some calls later that morning, speaking with the Bishop at length. The two men had mutually agreed that the removal of the gravestone was their best, and only, course of action.

The Reverend then arranged to have Mr. Cleaver, whom had been in the employ of St. Mary’s for some thirty years, to meet him at the vicarage later on that evening so that they might conspire to remove the aforementioned gravestone under the cover of darkness, as so not to attract any more attention to what was already becoming a highly delicate matter. The news of yet another attack on the church had begun to spread like wildfire amongst the people of the parish and the parishioners were beginning to feel quite unnerved, Mrs. Dempsey even bold enough to speak of evil forces at work, here in the district of Wyken.

The Reverend decided to take to his desk in an attempt to forget this whole dreadful business, if even for a short while. He decided he could perhaps attempt to bring some semblance of order to the church accounts which, and he would be first to admit, he had let slide these last few months. It was around 2pm now, having not long eaten lunch, and he watched from his study as more storm clouds began to slowly creep over the horizon. The sky was an angry, spiteful grey, one filled with a fury quite unlike any he had been witness to before. He put down his pen. The rock from the altar sat at his desk beside him and he began to run his finger along what remained of the stones inscription. A curious thing. It was then when he could be almost sure he had heard waves, or more to the point, the crashing of waves against the hull of a ship, somewhere out there in the distance.

“How absurd,” he said to an empty house.

He stood up, peering out over the waterlogged vicarage garden and the endless fields beyond.

He could hear voices.

Ancient voices frantically bellowing orders, then the sound of heaving ropes; thunderous gales began joining this unearthly choir, before, quite suddenly, the snap of a wooden mast and screaming, oh God the screaming, of dozens of men begging for their lives.

The reverend staggered back toward the study door, attempting a call for help, suddenly convinced that he had lost his senses, that the stress of these endless attacks over the past few years has finally cost him his mind, but then silence returned, be it for the slow mournful moan of the wind, and he slowly slid to the floor and he prayed.

*

Mr. Cleaver arrived at the vicarage not long before 10pm, as the storm clouds began to gather above the parish, an audience taking to the stalls for the play about to begin.

“I trust you have all the tools we might find necessary for the task, Mr. Cleaver?” The Reverend stood in the vicarage hallway, red in the face and vainly struggling with his winter coat. “I might have a shovel somewhere out back, I think, perhaps a club mallet if need be-”

Mr. Cleaver huddled in the doorway as the rains began to beat down on his balding head. “No, Reverend, you needn’t bother yourself. I’ve everything we need. The job should be done within an hour or so.”

The Reverend absent-mindedly began patting himself down, as if looking for something lost, before checking his torch once, twice, three times. “Mr. Cleaver, are we ready?” 

Mr. Cleaver nodded.

The two men began the slow trudge through the darkness toward the churchyard, the Reverend attempting to ignore the smell of sea salt in the cold night air. A glacial gust swept through, leaving the naked trees creaking around them like bitter old men. The church bell tower seemed to leer, its shadow throwing odd shapes across the churchyard in their torchlight. “So, you know of the whereabouts of the grave then I take it, Mr. Cleaver?”

“Aye, Reverend, remember it well from as a child.”

“Really?” The Reverend gave Cleaver an accusatory look.

“Oh,” Cleaver chuckled despite himself, “ it’s nothing like that, Reverend. We would daren’t even approach it back then. We’d hear things, y’see, the sound of crashing waves and the like. Strange, it was, very strange.”

“Indeed,” said the Reverend. He tightened his coat about himself, the torch passing long dead names etched on the moss-strewn grave stones.

The grave stood forsaken at the end of the churchyard, half hidden as it was amongst a throng of dead weeds; an ugly thing, blackened and crumbling from age. It was evident that Mr. Cleaver had been accustomed to avoiding this tombstone even now and when looking down upon it the Reverend could not blame him. The grave seemed to sour the very ground it stood upon. 

“Let’s get this over with.”

Mr. Cleaver took a short step forward, inspecting the cursed obelisk in the fast dimming torchlight, before quickly glancing back. “Tou hear that, Reverend? Sure I could hear-”

A howl. A howl utterly inhuman, grotesque and terrible, a howl that would follow these two men for the remainder of their lives. 

The ground beneath them began to collapse; inhuman hands, rusted iron chains wrapped around rotten wrists, breaking out through the mire. The two men staggered backward, enveloped by the sound of booming waves surging about them through the churchyard, as a head, hideously large and grotesque beyond imagining, appeared from amongst the muck and smiled.

The Reverend, convulsing through shock, watched as Cleaver tumbled backward with a whine, as the creature unleashed another howl at the storm filled sky.

It was between them in an instant, lurching toward the church with an inhuman gait, its eyes thick, putrid globes of blood, home to a ghastly malignancy, to a complete and utter hatred for the race of man. Those eyes locked on to the Reverend for the briefest of moments, and in that moment each of the Reverend’s darkest fears roared about his mind, like the most vicious of currents in the cruelest of seas.

God had abandoned him here. 

God had abandoned him to the whims of this creature.

God had abandoned them all, every man, woman and child on this Earth had been left alone to this corrupt and sinful world.

The creature began to tear at itself with utter abandon; all manner of blood and viscera spraying from its abdomen, caking the ground beneath its feet. The Reverend watched in horror as the grass shrivelled and died under its touch. The creature unleashed another howl, a terrific roar, shaking the Reverend and Mr. Cleaver to what a holy man might once have called the centre of their soul.

But no more.

They stood, side by side, jaws left agape, as the creature pulled and clawed at its own innards. A jagged black rock, almost identical to the one the Reverend had found at the foot at the altar that morning, was now clasped within its hands. Then the creature smiled. Deus mortuus est, it said, its laughter rolling like thunder, time jesum transuentum et non revertentum, before casting the rock through the nearest window, shards of stained glass sent spraying across the churchyard. It turned toward them, its rictus grin oozing pus and bile and gore. It wore mere strands of decaying cloth over its grey, diseased flesh, wrists black and swollen beneath its bonds. Acta est fabula, plaudite! it said and vanished into the darkness.

*

Sic transit gloria mundi had been inscribed upon the rock when the Reverend studied it the following morning. So passes the glory of the world.

Mr. Cleaver had removed the headstone come dawn, taking it out to the open fields behind the church and deposing of it in the Sowe, pray God let its waters bring ruin to the hideous thing.

The Reverend sat in his study for a time and he sobbed like he had as a child, back when the bombs would drop and the world would be aflame. He would have prayed back then; prayed for peace, prayed for salvation, prayed for hope, but he could see no reason to pray now. What God would allow such a beast as the one he had witnessed to roam upon His Earth?

Perhaps the creature had been right.

LISTENING: Shunned House, by Joseph Curwen.

READING: Delphi Complete Works of M. R. James, by M. R. James.

WATCHING: It Follows, by David Robert Mitchell.

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