Never, ever turn your back on the dark, they had charged him.
These words sounded again in his ears, even now, after so many months of solitude. His parents had drummed this message into the boy, day and night. Days that were spent in the cold, feeble light that seeped from a bloated, dying sun. Nights that were spent huddled together for warmth in the seemingly endless, icy blackness.
Never listen to the voices in the wind, they also warned him.
Over and over again he had heard this warning, from the time when he could barely stagger about in his ad-hoc clunky insulated boots, handcrafted from scraps of old flight suits. His earliest memories were of tripping in these boots, desperately stumbling through the door of the ramshackle pod, to squeal ‘good bye’ to Dad. Then feeling Mom’s grasp on the back of his collar, firmly drawing him back to safety before he could escape to the narrow trail that wound upwards into the foothills. His father always dwindled to a distant shadow, advancing into the wind-lashed mountains, laboriously pushing the small, battered ore hopper. There was always the unspoken question of when he’d return—would he beat the darkfall, or would he leave the mine too late and be forced to spend the night there—alone and vulnerable?
So the three of them had lived their meagre, terror-stunted lives with their backs always to the light, always staring into the hostile dark. When Dad failed to return, Mom retrieved his body, then slowly crumbled away over the months. At first, she made a faint effort to fight her disappointment, by re-discovering and sharing a few of the oldest, happiest stories and songs that had been passed down through the ages from the First Home. These brought a little distraction, some comfort to the boy’s dreary days, but soon Mom, too, followed Dad into the silence and dark.
Afterwards, the child tried to remember those songs and tales, re-telling them to himself to brighten the lonely, empty hours. The words and images became garbled in his mind, but still he clung to their fragments of sweet beauty. But they barely kept the shadows at bay. He spent more of and more of his time watching the dark, waiting for the shades to grow larger and finally engulf him.
But they hadn't yet.
Now, as he did most evenings, he squatted alone outside the door of the only home he had ever known, the last standing hovel of the failed mining outpost. He tuned out the whisperings in the wind, instead focusing on the click, click, click of the large, dull-gray beetles that scuttled near his heavily-booted feet. Having long since outgrown the old toddler-size boots, these were salvaged off his father's corpse, and were much too large. At the time, he hadn’t thought much about having to do it—what choice was there? And anyway, these made him feel a little safer. As did the low humps of his parents' graves, nothing more than piled stones, looming in the baleful evening a few yards distant.
Drawn by the warmth of boy's body, the beetles careened nearer. The deep orange vastness of the closest setting star was a mockery of any meaningful sun, offering little heat and only a livid, flickering light. One of the insects clacked over the toe of his boot. Swiftly, the child’s skeletal hand darted out and engulfed the creature.
Soon he was crunching through the foul-tasting but nutritious guts, the protein of the shell slivering on his dry tongue. The insides of his cheeks stung as his saliva jolted to attention, but his mouth was still parched and he choked on the dry bits. He forced himself to slow down and swallow more carefully. He dimly supposed the energy required to chew and digest the fragments was more than what his body would gain, but still, his survival instinct was too strong to ignore the passing morsel. As his jaws worked, he watched the nearby shadows stretch and lengthen, finally merging with the washed-out indigo gray of the far eastern horizon.
Slowly, another shadow joined the motionless dark streaks leaking across the landscape. Without comprehension, the child watched it waver and thrum. It thickened, as whatever cast it drew steadily nearer. The boy slowly blinked his scratchy, red-rimmed eyes as he continued to stare. Slowly, he turned his head and squinted at the grotesquely attenuated blot quivering against the dying rind of red at the horizon. A rusty squeak of terror escaped him as he scrambled to his hands and knees, catching up his father's battered longbeamer from the ground beside him. He dashed wildly for the entrance of the dust-blasted hut; inside, his chilled, almost numb hands grabbed crates and empty oxygen cylinders, shoving them in front of the flapping door. It was slightly off its hinges and wouldn’t latch securely; he knew he should have fixed that, ages ago. But now it was too late.
Fleeing to the farthest corner of the shelter, he squeezed behind the cot, his back against the cold metal wall. This was it, this was what they had always told him would happen. The tense moments creaked by, as remorseless and unforgiving as the seasons. The boy strained his ears listening to the night—despite the warnings, he could not stop his ears. The long-foretold moment was upon him, and he could no longer outrun the mutterings and shrieks in the air.
As it grew louder, it became more like a steady hum. Almost musical. Almost singing. But not quite.
Holding his breath, he crouched ever lower behind the cot, eyes riveted on the door, even as he warned himself: don’t look at it don’t look at it don’t look at it.
There was no need to look at it directly; it had lived so clearly in his every waking thought since infancy. He screwed his eyes shut tight and bit his lip at the sound of what was approaching. His unwashed, scabby skin pricked with icy sweat beads, his hands trembled on the longbeamer's grip. One eye involuntarily cracked open when he heard scratching just outside the battered metal door.
He tasted salt blood on his lip as he diverted his rising scream of terror silently into his own flesh. A weak orange glow widened as the door slowly began to push inwards. Gently, the piled crates and canisters were nudged aside. The boy felt his trousers grow warm as he wet himself in distress.
Don’t look, he commanded himself. Then, he looked.
Silhouetted in the open space, the tall creature lowered its head to enter. It moved forward with a slow, intelligent, graceful deliberation.In the dark interior of the shelter, the boy could not make out the visage easily, his eyes sliding continually past the face to focus on a point beyond the apparition’s shoulder. Even so, he gathered a fragmented impression of deep golden hair and light eyes, of sharp, hypnotic features exquisite enough to cut the beholder, like a blade severing muscle from bone. The man's lips were a glorious, sympathetic curve of a scythe. Just seeing a semblance of another human face reminded the boy of his father; the visitor's long, delicate hands recalled his mother.
The being advanced to the center of the shelter and straightened, becoming tall, muscular and perfectly balanced. The weak light touched his garments in places, revealing hints of deep red-gold flickering in the thick shadows. There was a listening tilt to his head as he looked about the space: attentive, almost imploring.
His head turned with a slow oscillating motion, his gaze scraping the interior and finally latching onto the boy. The target of this glance shut his eyes and buried his face in the cot’s dirty blankets.
“Ah, there you are, little lad. At last…there you are.”
The words assailed the child's ears like tossed stones. Perhaps the visitor's voice was gentle and winning, but it was so long since the boy had heard any human sounds, other than his own grunts or mumblings, that he flinched at the noise. Lifting his head a fraction, he slid the barrel of the longbeamer further up over the edge of the cot, finger tightening on the trigger.
The man laughed at this feeble show of defiance. “Not very welcoming! And you all on your own for so long—you should be happy I’ve finally caught up with you.” He glided across the chamber to where a dusty, long-disused cooker stood near the table and one lone chair. He said, “I suppose you know you're the last. I've roamed the entire surface, searching for survivors, and found no one.” His tone dripped with mournful sympathy.
He began opening lids and peering in long-emptied food canisters. “It’s a terrible misfortune, that your parents didn’t leave you better prepared to be on your own. Did they spend all their time teaching you to fear me, filling you with lies?”
As the boy watched the man poke about in the supplies, his fear became tinged with anger. How dare it touch their things, how dare it speak of Mom and Dad so off-handedly?
With an unexpected cry of triumph, the man held aloft a small storage container. “Flour!” he announced. “We’ll share bread tonight. I’ll make it for you.”
A strong thread of puzzlement now swirled among the child’s terrified emotions. Having anticipated nothing like this personable monolog, his mind struggled to process what was happening before him. He watched, mesmerized, as the figure located a miner’s helmet and upturned it on the table. The visitor showered the meagre portion of flour into the headgear, then added a trickle of water from the rusty cistern in the corner.
The boy could not understand what he saw, but could not look away from the white, sticky mass that was soon shaped into a small loaf and placed in the cooker. Having scraped every last bit of food out of the shelter, he knew there had been no flour, he knew there was no fuel to heat the cooker. Yet his starved stomach shrieked and twisted in an agony of longing, as the hot, unspeakably delectable aroma began to drift through the chamber. He longed to be nearer the warmth and the scent; his legs ached from squatting, but he did not dare move from his position.
From his seat at the table, the visitor said lightly, “You should come out from there now. You can keep the rifle, if that makes you feel better. I’m not offended—-you can’t help what you were taught. Besides, it’s wise to be cautious.”
Should he move or not? What was the point of remaining wedged between the cot and the wall? If he kept his distance, surely there was no way for the apparition to pounce. Inch by inch, the boy emerged from his safe hole. Eventually he stood and walked a step or two across the floor. Distrust cramped his thin form into a wary crescent. The longbeamer was clutched before him, its muzzle still trained on the form seated at the table.
“But too much caution in turn becomes foolish,” the man smiled. A luminous glint appeared in his glistening saliva, a glow in the corners of his mouth beside his perfect teeth. He said, “You’re not thinking clearly, are you? Still crazed with fear and hunger, I suppose. I forgive you, and I’m here to take you away from all that. Once you’ve eaten, you’ll feel so much better. And then we shall be on our way.”
The boy was motionless; both figures remained regarding each other for many tense minutes.
When the loaf was finished, the man set it on the table to rest. The boy could not take his eyes off it, the deep brown crust seemed to fill the dark of the room. He knew better than to touch it: this was how they had told him it always played out. Yet the bread called him, ordered him nearer. He was trapped, each second dragged him along against his will.
The man said, “Yes, there’s plenty. But don’t eat too quickly. And when you’re finished, I’ll take you home.”
The boy wrenched his gaze from the fresh bread to the man’s face, to regard him directly. Home? shouted his heart, while an inarticulate gurgle sounded in his throat. Whose home? No, I won’t go with you! Not ever!
But his eyes, obsessed, returned to the bread.
After several more moments, the man took it in his hand, rolled his eyes to the ceiling in a slow, almost beseeching glance, then tore the loaf in half. He extended one half invitingly in his elegant, muscular fingers. “I know you’ve waited a long time for something this good. You’ve earned it. Take it and eat.”
The boy’s hands clenched the weapon more tightly, but he did not step forward.
Disappointment shadowed the visitor’s bright eyes. “I know you’ve heard some terrible things about me, but I promise they aren’t true. If I was going to harm you, would I feed you first? And in any case, what choice do you have? You’re the only one left. You’re the only one left anywhere. It’s foolish to not take my help.”
The boy shuddered. No, it couldn’t be true that he was the only survivor. It was impossible, it was too horrible to believe. Of course, his parents had told from his earliest moments that the home planet was long since cold and dead, and that one by one, each asteroid base and colony had succumbed to dark despair and winked out. But fueled by his mother’s dying songs, some small defiant ember within him had clung to the hope that this wasn’t so.
“It’s true,” said the man kindly, patiently. “You’ve been so brave, so strong, so alone, for such a long time. But it’s over now, you can rest.”
Was it an illusion in the dim light, or had the man's fingers steadily lengthened into tentacles as he continued to extend the enticing half-loaf? The bread seemed to almost take on a life of its own, floating in the darkness between the two of them. The boy’s wavering defenses dissolved at last; his hunger became the only real thing about him. Stepping forward, he snatched the warm, spongy chunk from the man’s hand, stuffing it into his mouth without a conscious thought.
He choked as he encountered the hardness, the dry rock, the dirty acid taste filling his mouth. The sharp pain. The bloody scrapes, the shattering of his teeth. He spat out the gravel in horror, hunger still wringing his shriveled gut.
The smell of baked bread disappeared. The second half of the loaf fell to the table with a loud thunk, then rolled to the floor.
“I am so, so sorry about that,” the man said with the slow shake of his head. “This keeps happening. I never got the trick of how to do it properly. People kept taking what I offer, they always did. They never learned to not take it. But I couldn’t really keep them fed, so they ran away. And now all of them are gone.”
He rose from the table and stood, slightly hunched, towards the boy. If the child was about to be engulfed, he could make make no more physical resistance. His faltering heart objected, but he had no strength. His narrow little shoulders shook as he sobbed pointlessly, in silence, eyes too dry for tears.
Instead of drawing nearer, the man crept to the far corner of the kitchen area and folded himself downward, to crouch in the dark beside the dead, ice-cold cooker. An imbecile grin spread across his pale face, becoming the only part of him the boy could see clearly.
With a dull whimper, the child returned to the cot and seated himself slowly, his mind empty, the longbeamer resting loosely across his knees. It didn’t matter if he kept it or not, it didn’t matter if he slept or not. It was an impasse, but he knew he was doomed to lose. What he did, where he was, all collapsed in a dry, dusty awareness of nothingness.
He could not look away from the gleaming crescent of teeth across the cabin. The boy began to struggle for breath. It seemed there was less air in the hovel. A great rancid, sour twist of decay was dragging throughout the room. The crouching figure drew a vortex of air towards itself; the breath was jerked from the boy’s lungs, but he felt no panic, fear was long gone. His capacity for terror was empty, his instinct for survival was broken.
A shimmer bent the atmosphere around him as the vortex quickened and grew stronger, swirling from all corners of the cabin, to stream into the still-grinning mouth. The air vibrated and squealed; when the pitch changed, the boy’s ears began to ache, his heart beat faster. Just beyond edges of this obnoxious thrumming and whining, came the sound of advancing footsteps in the dark outside. The door was flung open and the boy numbly turned to behold another shape.
It was much too large for the entrance, much too large for the cabin and yet there he stood—easily both inside and outside at once, standing astride dimensions. Galaxies themselves were contained in his vast outline, stars burned blindingly at his belt and his shoulder.
Without a word, he drew a sword brighter than the heart of the merriest star and raised it higher than the atmosphere. He reached for the crouching apparition; a wail of fury and despair escaped the man who bolted away from the cooker. But the newcomer grasped the scalp of his prey and brought his blade down on the apparition with an impact that mimicked the clash of galaxies. His face joyfully serene, he whipped a black chain from his robes, twisting it about the captive, pulling it tight around his neck.
The creature collapsed in upon itself, growing smaller and smaller, its remaining glimmers of light now dark as pitch as it convulsed and lurched and flopped at the end of the chain, upsetting the chair and scattering the empty crates about the cabin in throes of desperate resistance. The boy felt his head splitting in agony as the despairing shrieks shredded the air. It shrank rapidly and in moments, was as small as a lizard. Then a beetle. Its captor squeezed his vast hand about it, and it disappeared.
Sheathing his blade, the newcomer glanced down at the boy with eyes and a smile so true and beautiful the child wept again, but could not move. He sat shivering in dazed bewilderment.
“He was only ever a shadow,” the man thundered gently. “The more attention you paid him, the more powerful he became.”
Trembling uncontrollably, the boy stared without understanding.
The man said, “Now you must come with me, because time is no more. All things are about to be made new, so you cannot stay here. The others are waiting for you.”
Tilting his head back, the boy gazed on the figure’s towering strength, his gleaming hair waving in an unseen wind, his infinitely welcoming expression. Here was truth, here was fidelity. Here was love. Here was the meaning behind the scraps of legends his mother had shared.
Dropping the longbeamer, the child jumped to his feet and sprang forward into an embrace that felt as endless as all creation. The swirling clouds of nebula, stars and galaxies within the man were as warm and intimate as the boy remembered from his own parents’ arms.
As he settled his wan face against the being’s vast shoulder, he knew beyond all doubt, beyond all fear, that somehow they were also contained in that hug, and that he would be reunited with them in the blink of an eye.
(c) 2022, S. Kirk Pierzchala; photo of St. Michael statue courtesy of photon blast at Pexels.