Twisted Skullcaps

Elise Cramer - October 25, 2022



“I’m going to die,” Thomas said, so quietly that he could barely hear himself. “I’m going to die and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

He hadn’t eaten anything for so long now that he even forgot the taste of soup. When the famine first began, all the men and women of the village had gone out into the forest every day to hunt for something—anything—mushrooms, greens, and most of all, meat. But the woods were empty. So empty that the woods themselves were starving. So empty that the silence and lack of life billowed and swelled, filling the woods with a haze of death. So empty—this was God’s curse for their sins, the Reverend had told them.

It wasn’t long before the starving people began to collapse while searching. Thomas would watch until they would eventually rise, however shakily, and stagger on. But sometimes they could not. Sometimes they lay there on the ground trying in vain to help themselves up, before finally giving up and accepting their fates. That was God's judgment, the Reverend said. God had forsaken them.

As all hope of finding food was lost, the hunting party shrank. Thomas and Damien were among the few left, all of whom had to watch the weaker ones succumb to the voids in their bellies. And the famine was only going to get worse. Fall, with its few mushrooms and berries, was waning, and winter was looming ahead, hooded, bearing a scythe, and as hungry as any of the villagers. Anything green was eaten, unless it was poisonous. Sometimes even if it was. Wild onions were so precious that when someone's breath stank of them, they might be beaten for not sharing. Those who don't live by the ways of the Lord must be punished, the Reverend said.

Bodies filled the graveyard behind the church to the point where the villagers gave up on burying them. Instead, the dead were piled in the woods, stiff limbs left contorted at odd angles, wide, glassy eyes staring listlessly into the trees.

The villagers had resorted to filling their pans with well-water and boiling it, hoping to make a stock from whatever vague memories of meat and corn and potatoes might lie on the grimy surface of the pan.

Once, just once, a man had caught a rabbit. Many hours were spent skinning it and trimming out the gallbladder with the precision of an obsidian scalpel. The bones were removed and cracked into small pieces, so the marrow could leak out into the stock, and everything but the fur was scraped off the hide and added into the biggest pot in the village. The Reverend said it was a sign of the Lord's favor.

The rabbit simmered all day, and as the smell filtered through the village, there was singing and dancing and festivities by the fire. They reused every last piece until it rotted and boiled the bones over and over and over again, until they broke into a dingy white powder that could no longer be skimmed out.

The thought of eating the rabbit made Tom's legs feel shaky and weak. He stumbled as his vision faded. He stumbled, arms flailing, blindly searching for something to steady himself. His hand caught a tree trunk, and he leaned against it. A sad skeleton of the hunter he had once been, even walking made him short of breath now.

“Are you ok?” Damien asked. Tom nodded, his breath ragged. He'd met Damien when he was a child, playing by his favorite tree in the woods. Damien had followed him there, and they soon became close friends, pretending they were kings or beasts or dragons. At the tree, they could be anything they wanted to be. But now, Damien was the only other member of the hunting party. Everyone else was dead or too weak to walk.

As Tom’s vision slowly returned, he could see Damien walking towards him. “Any luck?” he asked grimly.

Damien shook his head. “Let’s head back for today,” he said.

“You need a rest.”

That’s what everyone else had been told when they stumbled, fell, became too weak to carry on. “You need a rest” was just a polite way of telling one to go back home, lie down, and die. The Reverend said that it was scorning the Lord to simply go home and die. You need to keep searching to atone for your sins.

Tom narrowed his eyes. “I’m not going back empty handed.”

Damien sighed wearily. “I’m not going back carrying your corpse.”

They sat in silence for a moment.

“Let’s just go home for today, ok?” Tom said. There was no shame in that, surely.

Damien’s thin, emaciated face wrinkled into a dry smile. “I knew you’d come around.”

As they walked back,Tom heard a sound. He stopped dead in his tracks, motioning for Damien to be quiet. Adrenaline flowed through his body as he stalked towards the source of the sound. After a lifetime of hunting, he knew that beautiful, blessed, sound anywhere.

A deer.

His eyes locked onto its dun pelt in the sun-dappled brush. Without a sound, he drew his bow and began to pray the only prayer he knew: Our father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. An arrow taken from his quiver, his hand shaking. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven. The arrow, lifted to the taut bowstring. Give us this day our daily bread,

His shaky breath a white mist against the air. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; He drew the bow back with what little strength he had. And lead us not into temptation, The arrow aimed straight for its heart. But deliver us from evil. Flying through the air, true as a heartbeat, it hit.

The deer screamed and ran. Tom took after it, the adrenaline pumping through his veins, powering each and every footstep.

“Come on!” he bellowed to Damien.

They followed it to a clearing, where it took its last stumbling steps, its knees buckling. It lay on the dirt, still panting and gasping for desperate breaths. Blood bubbled in its mouth and its legs scrabbled weakly against the ground. Tom knelt beside it, drew his knife, and slit its throat.

Amen.

Breathing heavily, he sat on the ground beside it when Damien joined him. They sat there for a moment, admiring the deer they’d slain, when Damien noticed something strange. There was a patch of something dark gray that could have been mistaken for fur on its shoulder. As Tom looked more closely, he realized they were mushrooms. A few larger ones with caps the size of an acorn were scattered on its back—ragged white stems that twisted like a corkscrew with black lumpy, misshapen, caps.

“That’s not a good sign,” Damien whispered..

Tom twisted off one of the mushrooms, but the base remained, rooted deep into the deer’s hide. “They’ll come off with the skin,” Tom said. “Help me carry it back.”

Damien and Tom stumbled into town an hour later, the deer’s corpse hung over their backs. So many times on the journey back, he’d thought he would pass out or die. But he didn’t. He made it.

As the villagers saw them, their faces grew joyful. Wrinkled, thin skin stretched into smiles. There was shouting and cheering. Others gathered around to help carry the deer to the bonfire in the center of the village. Every living soul gathered around and sang and danced, hugged and cried. They were saved.

Preparing the deer took all of the night and the next day. First the deer was skinned, the mushrooms removed. Once a normal practice but now seeming terribly wasteful, its eyes, brain, and digestive system were deemed inedible and carved out. The meat was cooked and savored, the choicest bits given to the children. Every bone was cracked and boiled to make stock.

There was festivity and dancing. An elderly man named Richard gained a new zest for life and played his fiddle for the first time in years.

The first night of the feast, the villagers, amazed at their newfound strength, danced to the sweet sound of the fiddle by the light of the fire. But someone was missing from the festivities. The Reverend had stayed at his church, praying for salvation. He was given a large cut of the meat for his prayers, since God would only listen to Reverends and Priests.

The second night they ate, they taught the children how to dance a jig. It was the first time in months that anyone laughed.

Then the music stopped.

Richard was shaking slightly, his eyes wide and desperate. His fiddle was still held under his chin, but he was gripping the bow so tightly you could see his knuckles bulging against thin, age-spotted skin.

“Richard?” Tom said. Richard’s bow arm began to jerk about wildly. Tom walked slowly towards him, as if approaching a mad dog.

“Hand me the bow,” he said, reaching out his hand.

“I can’t,” Richard whispered, his eyes glazed with terror as his arm jerked and twitched. His head snapped towards the sky and his beloved fiddle fell to the ground. He began to violently rub his bow against his forearm, as if conducting a silent orchestra.

Backing away, Tom stared at him in confusion. He exchanged glances with Damien. Parents were ushering their children indoors and distancing themselves from Richard, just close enough to watch out of a morbid curiosity.

Richard took a step towards them, still sawing on his arm as if he wanted to amputate it. His movements were unnatural and slow, like a child learning to walk for the first time. “Let’s go inside,” Tom said, taking Damien’s hand and walking at a brisk pace back to his house. Behind them, Richard staggered around in a sloppy circle.

“What’s wrong with him?” Damien hissed.

“He’s possessed,” Tom said. “I prayed over the deer as I shot it, and now it’s been cursed by the Lord.”

“Or he’s just gone mad,” Damien suggested.

Then the screaming began. Illuminated in a red light by the blazing bonfire, Richard screamed as he looped around and around in a jerky circle. Damien and Tom exchanged glances. Tom sat down heavily, burying his face in his hands. Damien sat down beside him, draping an arm over his shoulder.

“We’ll make it through this,” he said, giving Tom’s shoulder a squeeze. Tom looked up and smiled.

“Together?” he held his hand up

“Together.” Damien grabbed his hand and shook it. This was a promise they’d been making to each other since they were young children. Whenever things got too big for one of them, they would shake on it. They’d promise to make it through. They’d promise to make it together.

The next morning, Richard was still pacing in his broken circle. The flesh of his forearm had been rubbed off by the constant motion of the bow, and there was a bloody, open wound that he continued to rub. Foam dripped from his mouth. By noon, he had fallen over and ceased moving. Tom ran over to check for a pulse, but he found that Richard’s body was already cold—

and covered in something that looked like a fine, dark gray, fuzz. Upon a second glance, it revealed itself as tiny mushrooms with white twisted stems and black lumpy caps.

Later that day, many more people had started to act strangely. A man was crawling around on his hands and knees with the same jerky, broken, movements as Richard. Every now and then one of his limbs would get stuck and jitter back and forth for a bit before continuing his lurching crawl. He didn’t seem to be aggressive, but Tom and Damien avoided him, nonetheless. The townspeople began to see things that weren’t there. A man ran screaming in the streets, claiming that the angel of death was following him.

“His eyes!” he cried. “His eyes!”

One woman could not stop ramming herself headfirst into a tree. The skin of her face was shredded by the bark. She looked as though she had been butchered. The only recognizably human part of her face was her wide, pleading eyes. Pleading for peace. Pleading for death.

In the late afternoon, she slumped into the tree one last time and slid to the ground, her raw flesh grating against the bark. From the place where her rosy cheeks had once been, twisted white stems grew, topped with a black hat, like a hood of death.

After hiding in his house all day, waiting to die, Tom and Damien made a plan. They would run to the forest, leaving the village behind them.

They would not look back. They would not look at the bodies. They would only look straight ahead. And they would run to the tree where they had first met as small children, pretending they were kings who ruled the forest; living peacefully in the woods for the rest of their days—ven though there might not be many left.

Tom took a deep breath, then smiled shakily and held his hand out to Domien.

“Together?”

“Together.”

He opened the door and ran, eyes averted from the bodies slumped on the ground. The air was filled with noises of the dying, their shrieks of pain and anger splitting the air. Many were still twitching around the village. The ones that were still alive tried to reach out and grab them, but were jerked away at the last moment, as if controlled by some invisible puppeteer.

Soon the village was behind them; the forest, ahead. Damien gave a shout of joy and Tom laughed. They had escaped death. Running felt so freeing that neither wanted to stop. For so long, they had been starving, but now they had the strength of a warm meal. They wove through the trees together, taking the same path—still burned into their memories— from years ago.

But there was a tree root that had grown warped and twisted in the many years since. Damien didn’t see it in time. Tom saw it in slow motion: Damien was falling, falling to the ground. He twisted back as he fell, arms searching for something, anything, to catch himself on. His head hit a boulder with a dull crack.

“Damien!” Tom yelled, stumbling to his side. “You’re going to make it. We’re going to make it.” He picked him up and carried him to the tree, sitting down heavily against the trunk. Damien took a shaky breath.

“See? We made it! You’re going to be ok,” Tom assured him. But when he moved his hand from Damien’s head, it was stained with dark red blood.

Damien held his hand out to Tom. “Together?” he said, in a voice so quiet it may have been the wind.

“Together,” Tom said, taking Damien’s hand in his.

He sat there, holding his hand for hours, long after it grew cold with the inescapable touch of death. An emptiness deeper, if possible, than the one in his stomach filled him. He was alone. And he noticed what looked like a gray fuzz creeping from Damien’s hand to his.

It didn’t hurt like he thought it would when the mushrooms, twisted and black and cursed, began to grow from his flesh. It did, however, start to hurt as his muscles ached and spasmed, moving without his control.

“I’m going to die.” Tom whispered, and began to pray.


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