Tag Archives: horror

The Sturgeon Tree

Larry Wentzel

The young man walked the path through the woods, jumping at every frog’s call or owl’s hoot. The warm, dank air reeked of the swamp that came to the very edge of the narrow track. The only the intermittent glow of the full moon as it passed in and out of the clouds lit his way. The phosphorescent glow of decay shone without illuminating its surrounding. Occasionally the frogs and the owls would fall silent, and the boy would strain his ears to hear something in the deafening silence. With extreme care he placed each foot on the path, making no noise himself

John would have preferred a clearer night, but this was the first full moon after midsummer, called the Sturgeon Moon. His only chance to become a member of the Sturgeons; the group which ruled the little community that surrounded John. This night’s ritual was his final test.

Once a year, a single person had the chance to visit the tree in the light of the Sturgeon’s moon. The Sturgeon’s tree was unique, and ancient beyond imagination. Its tortured trunk twisted and bent almost to the ground. Deep cracks in the wood reached in farther than the length of John’s arm. He had seen the tree during the brighter light of the day. It was scary enough then. Now, John’s knees were already shaking, and he had only made half the trek to the tree.

A frog jumped into the slime of the swamp, releasing stinking bubbles. John started and almost missed his footing. The bog had no bottom here that anyone had discovered. A fall could mean he would join those who never returned from this quest. He took a brief moment to breathe deeply of the rank air before moving on.

As he penetrated deeper into the woods, the light became worse. While the sky had cleared the trees had thickened, hogging more of the light for themselves. Now vines hung like gargantuan spider webs, and moss dripped fetid liquid on his head. Just as the moon reached its zenith, John arrived at the clearing where the Sturgeon Tree stood. It shivered and contorted in a wind that blew in some other universe. Branches scraped at the mucky soil, and roots lifted and quested like snakes. Cold phosphors gleamed from deep with the tree. It creaked and groaned with an animal agony.

Now was the true test. He untied a ribbon from his wrist. It looked black in the moonlight, but John knew that it was scarlet, with darker red from his own blood smeared upon it. This ribbon was his offering to the tree. He watched the writhing limbs until one errant branch came close to his feet. He darted in and looped the ribbon around the wood. It slashed at him and scraped his arm from elbow to wrist, but John scrambled back out of reach. The tree paused for a second, then leaned and grasped with its whole twisted length at the boy. He squeaked and rolled back out of reach, not caring what black water was darkening his clothes. He caught a vine and used it to pull himself to his feet.

He had been told to offer the ribbon, then leave, but John was mesmerized by the awful movement. Creaks and snaps sounded loud as thunder while the tree seemed to tear itself apart. Then it did tear, decaying light poured from its centre as a hand thrust itself through the bark. Sap, black as blood in the moonlight dripped from fingers that grasped at the blooded ribbon. A face followed the hands and John looked at his own face, fanged and evil. He whimpered and the tree-John looked at him and smiled.

John screamed and ran crashing, uncaring back along the path. Yet even in the tumult, he heard the sound of footsteps gaining on him.

The Drive Past Devil’s Butte

Little Joe squinted against the dust laden wind and counted cows, again. Dang, he hated counting past twenty. He could never keep track of whether it was the first or second time he was working through his fingers and toes.

“C’mon, get y’er butt in gear,” Hank yelled and galloped off on his horse; raising a new cloud of dust and making Little Joe lose count, again. He gave up and kicked his horse into a rough gallop. It felt like three legs were galloping and one was trotting. He clenched his teeth and held on. He could only imagine the reaction of the others if he fell off his horse.

Hank pulled up by a big man on a big horse – the Boss. Mex and Hezekiah were already there with their bandanas pulled up over their faces. Little Joe yanked his horse to a stop and tried to fix the rag that was supposed to keep the dust out of his lungs. He coughed and spat before he recalled that his bandana was over his mouth. Hank rolled his eyes.

“You must treat your horse better,” the Boss said. He frowned at Little Joe. “That horse may save your life someday, but only if it likes you.”

“Yes’r” Little Joe said. He figured if it came to him or the horse, the horse would let him die in an instant. He didn’t say anything. Hank said the Boss didn’t like back-chat and this was Little Joe’s first cattle drive.

“We’re late starting this year,” the Boss said, “So you’ll be taking the herd through the Gulch by Devil’s Butte. That will cut at least two days off the drive. With this drought, there isn’t much water for the herd in any case. Make sure you let them drink at any chance you get.”

“Devil’s Butte?” Mex said, “but what about…”

“I don’t want to hear any superstitious talk,” the Boss said, “I’m paying your wages and you’ll go where I tell you to go.”

Hank didn’t look happy, but then Little Joe couldn’t remember Hank ever looking happy, ‘cept maybe that one time after he come out of that cat house, though Little Joe didn’t recall seeing any cats.

The Boss rode away and Hank glared at Little Joe.

“Let’s get this drive goin’,” Hank said, “Mex, you’re on lead. Hez, you take the right, I’ll take left and Little Joe will chase stragglers. Make sure your guns are loaded and stay sharp. I heard there’s rustlers about.”

“Hank, you didn’t give me no bullets,” Little Joe said.

“I don’t want you shooting me in the foot agin,” Hank said, “or worse shooting one of the cows. Just wave your gun around and try not to fall off your horse.”

“I don’t like going through the Gulch,” Mex said and crossed himself, “Why can’t we just take our usual route by the Cottonwood?”

“Two reasons,” Hank said, “because the Boss said so, and because I said so.”

“But the Devil…”

“Shut it, Mex,” Hank said, “I don’t want you scaring the kid.”

Mex looked like he was going to argue some more, but he just spat and rode off yelling at the cows. He remembered to pull his bandana down before spitting too.

Hez rode away to go round the herd.

“Where did you get that bandana?” Hank said to Little Joe, “It looks like it come off your sister’s dress.”

“Well, she said she didn’t need it no more,” Little Joe said. Hank looked like he wanted to hit him, so Little Joe turned his horse and headed to the back of the herd. He tried spitting like Mex, but still couldn’t get it right.

They pushed the herd out of the corral and up the hill toward the Gulch. Little Joe didn’t much like the sound of Devil’s Butte, but nobody asked him. The cows stayed pretty close to the herd so the only thing that Little Joe really had to deal with was the dust and the smell.

They stopped the night and blocked the herd into a small canyon beside Devil’s Butte. The setting sun made the shadows sharp and threatening. The path up to the Gulch looked even worse than the one they had just ridden. Little Joe walked around the campfire trying to work the cramps out of his butt.

“Don’t worry,” Mex said, “the beans’ll work that out for you.”

“Jus’ don’ sit upwind of da fire,” Hez said.

“Or downwind of Hez,” Mex said and threw a clump of clay at Hez. The clump disintegrated and at least half went into the beans. Neither of the others noticed. All Little Joe could see was their eyes and teeth. The trail dust made all of them the same almost black colour.

“Sit down and rest,” Hank said as he rode up. “You’ll be taking the first watch tonight.” He spat expertly into the fire.

The beans tasted like clay, but at least they filled his belly. It was full on night and the moon made shadows that were even more threatening than the setting sun. Little Joe sat on his horse and stared at the herd. He tried counting them again, but he kept coming up with different numbers. He was surrounded by the soft breath of sleeping cattle and the loud snores of the three men behind him.

Hank had begrudgingly given him one bullet.

“Don’t be shootin’ any cows,” he said, “You put a bullet in one of the Boss’s cows he’ll string you up as quick as any rustler.”

It watched from the middle of the herd. None of the beasts touched him, but neither did they shy away. It was one of them. They ate grass, but its appetite was different. The men joked and farted until one by one they fell asleep. All but the one on horseback. That one sat playing with his gun and looking back at the fire. It began to move through the herd toward its prey.

Little Joe tried to blink away the spots in his eyes. He counted the cows again. Then he saw the one with the horns. It had a kind of negative glow to it, like a candle that sucked in light instead of spreading it. It had a funny smell too, like the calf they’d found in the spring that was mostly eaten by the vultures.

The horse under him shifted nervously, then shied. Little Joe fell to the ground and his gun went off. The bullet blew through his horse’s head and the animal fell dead on top of him. Hank was going to kill him for sure. Little Joe tried to squirm out from under the dead horse, but he was trapped. He thought maybe his leg was busted. Then he stopped worrying about his leg. That strange cow was standing over him, it leaned its head down and breathed on Little Joe. Instead of the grassy smell of most cows, this one reeked of dead flesh. It opened its mouth and Little Joe saw that it had fangs. He only had time for one last thought before it crushed his skull and sucked his brains out.

He chose to regret that he’d never learn to spit.

The shot woke Hank and he jumped to straight to his feet. Then he had to bend down to pick up his gun that was under the saddle he used as a pillow. So Hank didn’t actually see the Devil Cow eat his cousin’s brain. What he saw was the biggest, nastiest looking cow he ever laid eyes on staring at him over the body of a horse with black liquid drooling from its mouth.

Mex and Hez must have woke as quick as he did because he heard Mex swearing in Mexican and English with some Latin prayers tossed in as garnish. Hank looked over to see Mex trying to load his gun with shaking hands. Hez wasn’t shaking. He pointed his gun at the cow and emptied all six shots into the beast. The cow didn’t bawl in pain though. It roared and bounded away up the rocks to the far end of the canyon.

“That’s the Devil Cow,” Mex said when he stopped swearing. “It’s the Devil’s own beast and it eats the brains of its victims before dragging their souls down to Hell.”

“Why it wan’ to go eatin’ Little Joe’s brains?” Hez said, “It ain’t like there was much there. The beast’ll be starvin’.”

Hank wanted to smack the man for speaking against his dead cousin, but he couldn’t get his hand to put his gun back in his holster, ‘sides he’d been thinking pretty much the same thing. Dang, he was going to have to wear a suit to the kid’s funeral. If the kid wasn’t already dead, Hank would’ve killed him himself.

“If the critter eats,” Hank said, “It can die. Load up your guns and we’ll stand watch. I’ll watch the cattle. Mex you and Hez watch behind us. Keep yer back to the fire so you can see proper.

They loaded up their rifles and filled their pockets with extra bullets. Now that he held a rifle, Hank was able to put his gun in the holster. He pulled the kid’s gun belt off him and put it on too. He felt better with two loaded guns and a loaded rifle. No Devil Cow was going to get the best of him.

The smell was the first thing he noticed. It was as if the kid were already rotting. Hank stole a glance to check on the kid and swore when he noticed the kid was gone. He turned right around to try to see him. The Devil Cow came out of the herd just as Hank spotted his cousin sitting on a rock. The kid looked pretty good for someone missing half his head. Hank heard something and spun in time to shoot the Devil Cow with his rifle. The bullet knocked a fair sized steak off the beast, but it didn’t seem to notice. Hank was about halfway through emptying his revolvers into the Devil Cow when he felt the bullet burn through his back, his heart and out his chest.

He didn’t have any time for final thoughts before the Cow ate his brain.

It revelled in the fear of its prey. The bullets were a minor annoyance. Its flesh was only something it put on to feed.

Mex didn’t know if he filled his pants before or after he shot Hank in the back. The odour floated up from his soggy drawers as he emptied his gun into the Devil Cow. He tried to pray to Mary the Mother of God for help as he fumbled his bullets into his gun, but he couldn’t remember the words. The Ave Maria came out half prayer, half curse. He shouted both at the Devil Cow as it walked through the campfire to bare its fangs and eat his soul.

The last one was gone. The Devil cow didn’t care. Contained in the mind of one of its victims was the vision of a town waiting the arrival of the herd. The mind remembered the smell of the slaughter house and the rumbling fear of the cattle. It sounded like a wonderful place.

The Boss looked at the still twitching body of Hezekiah on the scaffold. He didn’t believe a word of the man’s ravings about Devil Cows and the walking dead. It was obvious he was in league with rustlers and everyone knew the penalty for rustling. As he turned to go talk to the bank about the small matter of the money he owed on his missing cattle he saw Hank, Mex and Little Joe riding in. They looked terrible, but they were pushing his cattle ahead of them. He wouldn’t need to beg at the bank after all.

“You’re late,” he said to his cowboys when they pulled up. “The slaughter is just about finished.”

“No,” Little Joe said, “It’s just beginning.” He leaned over and broke open the Boss’s head with his gun and scooped out the brains. His horse trampled the corpse into the dust as it bared its fangs and trotted eagerly into town.

It led its herd to the slaughter and it was glorious. Such fear, such pain! The Devil Cow drank it all in, but it was all too short. The last human fell beneath the hooves of the cattle. The Devil Cow pulled away from its minions and left them rotting along with its prey.

Clouds covered the sun and rain began to splatter onto red mud as one sleek cow meandered up into the hills. It seemed to absorb what little light there was until it faded and blended with the night.

Two Creepy Tales

A friend Jason, who runs the Howlarium, asks interesting questions and curates responses from writers out on the net.

This month’s question is:

“The Tibetans don’t encourage meditating right away, actually. They insist that you know something. They say Listen, if you go meditate right away as an ignorant person, you will deepen your ignorance [] a kind of quietism that a lot of […] people get into where—they find the world jangly and bothersome, and then they withdraw into a place where they don’t have to think about it. It’s like a wonderful kind of Prozac. […] there’s no compassion in it. It’s a kind of narcissistic thing, actually. Great danger in meditation. […]
“Your writing is a kind of meditation.”  
Dr. Robert Thurman, first American ordained a Tibetan Buddhist monk

In the West, meditation tends to be thought of as an act of personal wellness, and some of us might view writing the same way.

Q: If you meditate and/or write (either one) to keep yourself well and sane, how can compassion for someone else play a role in that? Does it need to?

If so, how? If not, why not?”

These stories are part of my answer.

Old Hero

Petrov walked into the room and looked around. Well set out if unpretentious. A close inspection showed the beginning of wear on the upholstery. Old photos of peasants in the fields or uninspired watercolours  hung on the walls . The fragrance of baking in another part of the house made him hope his host would see fit to offer something to eat.

The thought of his host made him shiver. The man was a hero of the war. Of several wars if the truth were to be told. Yet he lived alone on this estate far from the city. The mother country had come through some hard times, but now as things began to turn around, they could use someone of Dimishky’s stature to show the Revolution moved forward under the new generation of leaders.

It was a great privilege for Petrov to be here, even if his mission was to beg for the old man to come to Moscow to allow his name to be used in the service of the Soviet.

Petrov examined for perhaps the third time the photos of the peasants. The old men and women posed stiffly and stared at the camera with a fatalism  belying  the idea they formed the foundation of the revolution. How could such a lethargic people have risen to overthrow the Imperialist regime?

The door behind him creaked, and Petrov turned slowly and nodded politely at the old man. One didn’t get as far as he had in the service of the Soviet without learning to school oneself.

The old man led in an equally old woman who carried a tray with the hoped for baking as well as an rough tea service. She placed the tray on the table and left.

“Please sit,”  Dimishkysaid, “I regret keeping you waiting, but I had some business to complete.”

What urgent business urgent could  he find here? It didn’t matter. Petrov sat at the table and waited for Dimishky to join him.

“I suppose you are here to impress on me the need the Soviet has for my face and my name.” Dimishky poured tea into Petrov’s chipped cup.

The astringent odour made Petrov almost wrinkle his nose. He didn’t usually add anything to his tea, but he sweetened this brew and added cream too. He tried to ignore the sneer on the older man’s face. Still, the old man pushed a plate of biscuits over and he helped himself. It melted in his mouth; as sweet as the tea was bitter.

“I’ve no interest in shoring up the political regime,” Dimishky said, “I am content here.” He waved his hand out the window. For all the hand was thin and spotted, Petrov suspected strength still lurked in it.

“The government has need of you.”

“You mean they need of a face and a name.” The old man drank his tea straight. Petrov shuddered. “They wish to hold up a monster from the past and suggest there is still some truth in their threats.”

“They are not to be trifled with,” Petrov said, “The secret police…”

“Oddly, for the secret police to be effective, everyone must know they exist.” Dimishky stood and put his cup down. “Come with me. We will walk. If you still wish me to come to Moscow after, I will give you my word I will go with you. Perhaps it is time.”

They walked out of the house. Though Dimishky hadn’t said anything , the old woman waited with a coat and hat for the old man. She gave Petrov a look of  equal part pity and disdain.

Petrov hadn’t dressed for the weather, but he was used to the cold. They walked out of yard and down the road toward the village.

“The people who live here are the same kind people as the ones in those photos you admired so.” Dimishky’s rasp startled Petrov.

“You mean their descendants?”

“There are no descendants from those in the photographs.”

They reached the village and the people looked up at them, then let their eyes slide past as if Dimishky and Petrov were only visible for the slightest second.

“You see,” Dimishky said, “they are cattle. They know what I am and what I do. They could come to my house and kill me in my sleep. Yet they send their own to cook for me and serve my needs.” He spat on the road. Without breaking step the old man opened a gate and led Petrov to a small house. The yard was sprinkled with with colour, rocks had been painted bright colours and placed in the grey dirt. They walked in through the front door without knocking.

The smell of baking was here too. A young man sat with an older woman, probably his mother. He looked up and seemed to be about to speak, but the woman put her hand on his. She got up and looked at Dimishky with the same eyes as the people in the photographs. Dimishky turned and walked away, the woman following him. The young man’s hands shook, and to Petrov’s horror, tears streaked his face. Petrov left him and hurried after Dimishky.

He stayed back until they came to a black building on the edge of the village. The old woman followed Dimishky inside. Petrov hurried to catch up. The inside of the building was no warmer than the weather outside, yet Dimishky carefully took off his coat and shirt and placed them in a wardrobe. He took out a long black coat, stiff with dirt. The woman simply stood and looked at Petrov with fatalistic eyes.

Dimishky, once satisfied with his coat, pulled wire out of the coat’s pocket and tied it around the woman’s wrists. He looped it over a hook attached to a chain.

“Over there,” Dimishky said, “Ratchet the chain up tighter.” Petrov hesitated. “You can tell your superiors how you failed your assignment, if you wish.” Petrov turned the handle until the old woman’s arms stretched over her head. The woman never looked at him.

“Tell the important visitor what is going to happen.” Dimishky said to the woman.

“You are going to kill me, like you killed the others.”

“Why don’t you stop me?”

“You have guns. You could kill all of us. Maybe you will leave someday.”

“This man thinks I should go to Moscow and be an important person in their government.”

“Then people will die in Moscow like they die here.”

“You see,” Dimishky said, “Cattle. No imagination, no spark.” He pulled a knife from a hook on the wall. “You are fortunate that this important man from Moscow is in a hurry.” He casually reached out and cut the woman’s throat.

The rich smell of blood wasn’t something  he hadn’t encountered before. People died. In his work, rather a lot of them died. Few died to as little purpose as this peasant woman. He bit down on any comment he might have made.

“Many people have died in our history,” Dimishky said, “and there is always a need for those who are willing to kill.” He wiped the knife on the coat and hung it back on its hook. “I confess I used to get more pleasure from it, but I am old and cannot work like I used to.” He went to a corner and broke the ice on a bucket of water to wash his hands.

“Will your superiors will appreciate my work?”

“I don’t think they care,” Petrov said.

“And you?”

Petrov looked at the corpse hanging from the ceiling and shrugged.

“If you don’t hurry, we will be late for the train.”

“The people here will bless you for taking me away.”

“And others will curse me for bringing you to them,” Petrov shrugged again. “Some kill, some die, it is of no matter.”

They walked out of the building and left the door swinging in the cold wind.


My children ran wild with anticipation. There were hordes of them. I stopped trying to count them. The desire to go on this outing would be enough to get even the most obstreperous on the bus. Whoever said children were angels hadn’t met my brood.

The last layer of necessities laid in my case and I closed it up. I didn’t need the bag, other than to set me apart from the others. I climbed the steps of the yellow bus and sat behind the driver. He sweated in the heat, or perhaps from nerves. He rolled his eyes like a steer being lead to slaughter. Whichever, he honked the horn quick enough when I tapped his shoulder.

The children screamed with excitement and ran toward the bus. They pushed and fought to get on, then continued their battle for the best seats. A grossly fat boy deliberately sat on a waif thin girl. His smug grin turned to a pained grimace, then panic. I allowed myself a smile. She must have found a tender part. The boy lumbered away. She sat up and wiped her mouth, then gave me a cheeky grin. Clever girl; I’d need to watch her.

An especially brave imp chose to claim the seat beside me. There was one on every trip who foolishly thought to claim a part of my space. The others watched to see what I’d do, so I smiled and patted him on the head. He made the mistake of looking at me. They all do. His grin faded, then the rest of him until I sat alone again.

The level of chaos on the bus dropped far enough, I tapped the driver on the shoulder again. He closed the door and shifted the bus into gear. The wailing of those left behind came faintly through the glass.

The children always wanted to know how far, though they never dared ask. The truth? I couldn’t answer. Far didn’t have any meaning here, neither did long. The ride felt like an eternity because crossed a piece of eternity.

Yet not quite eternal. I felt the sudden heady pull of time. We’d arrived. The driver lasted long enough to put the bus into park before entropy took over and he fell to pieces. The children poured off the bus into the light of the created world. Some of them couldn’t hold themselves together in the time stream and vanished. Most managed to adapt and spread out into the world to explore and play.

The mortals surrounding us were unaware of our arrival. A couple of the more sensitive wrinkled their nose at what might have been a smell of death. Even if they could see us, they wouldn’t believe. We’ve been relegated to the status of fairy tales and a certain class of fiction. Fights broke out between mortal children who’d been playing peacefully. My children were quick learners.

I looked around the park and spotted the person I wanted. They were always there; torturing themselves with their temptations. His desire oozed from his pores. I sat beside him and soaked it all in. The furtive looks, the aborted searches on the web, the fear someone like him might find his own children, the envy of the ones who dared to act on their desires. I left him staring avidly at a little blond child who played in the sand while two bigger children threw sand and punches at each other.

While the man clenched and unclenched his fists fighting his desire and fear, I sauntered over to a woman eating an ice cream as she watched the children play. I stood beside her and watched too. My children had thinned out. Causing strife was easy, but once done, it was done. No real sustenance to it. A punch, a few tears and it faded away. The ones who didn’t learn quickly faded away and discovered the trip back much shorter than the journey here.

The real food lay in the struggle to choose between desire and restraint. The woman beside me frowned as one child, larger than the others, struggled to keep up. I glimpsed her view of herself in the mirror. She buried deep her loathing for all her perceived imperfections; a wrinkle here, a bulge there. Even the ice cream she ate tasted of both guilt and vanilla. The woman wanted to throw the cone away, but feared wasting food more than eating. The turmoil was delicious.

A disturbance on the other side of the playground caught my attention. A tall thin woman berated the man who’d been watching the little girl. Waves of self-righteousness washed over me from where I stood. The ice cream woman gathered her children and took them away. Her internal struggle over the sweet forgotten in fear for her children.

The waif from the bus stood to the side of the arguing pair. She saw me watching and shrugged, then went back to her feast. More subtle than the others, but still with a lot to learn. The shouting match drew in others and sound of sirens approached. There’d be plenty of drama, but it would vanish as quickly as it built.

I walked away from the park. The tiny blond girl followed me.

“Why do you do it?”

“You know why,” I wanted to be anywhere but here, talking about this. She was new, probably on her first trip.

“I know what they tell us.”

“It sustains us,” I said.

“You don’t need it,” she said, “The light would sustain you.”

“The light!” I choked on the word. For a moment I felt the cloying light which permeated everything, the pull to let it in, and the fear of what it would reveal.

She shook her head sadly.

“It would set you free,” she said. She reached out a hand as if she were going to actually touch me, but stopped. The last thing I saw were the tears running down her face.

The familiar darkness and fire surrounded me. Others surrounded me sensing weakness. I growled and disemboweled one while I tore out the throat of another. The rest backed away, this time.

The girl was right, the light would set me free, after opening all the shadowed depths of my being and cleansing it of the envy and pride. The mortals think hell is fire and brimstone, but is is worse.

Hell is knowing what I could be, and what I have chosen to become.