The Game of Burke and Hare
by Albert J. Manachino
They looked at the calendar and saw that tomorrow would be Christmas. Amanda’s face was grey with fear. “We won’t be able to survive until help comes.” The statement was irrefutable in its stark simplicity.
Her husband Bob looked out of the window. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but snow and white-capped trees... trees that swayed and dropped portions of their loads when struck by intermittent gusts of wind. Or was it wind? They noticed that some of the trees would shake as if a giant brushed against them in passing. Whatever it was, was invisible. Bob could still see the mailbox at the side of the road. It now was almost buried in the snow.
“If only we could have intercepted the postman this morning,” he said regretfully, “we could have killed and eaten him.”
They were dangerously short of food. Bob and Amanda Hare were demons. She appeared to be a small, dark complexioned woman of nervous movement and wavy black hair. In reality, her legs terminated in cloven feet and her fingers were boneless... the bonelessness of an octopus. Her grip was stronger than a python’s. Amanda’s teeth were designed for ripping and tearing flesh.
Bob followed the same physical pattern but his masculinity compelled him to be larger and much stronger. Outwardly, he was a tall, lean, personable young man in his early thirties. They were trapped in a small isolated cabin by the side of a seldom travelled mountain road. Sometime in the past, the original cabin owner had installed strong iron bars in the windows out of a fear of roving bears. Amanda looked at the bars doubtfully.
“Do you think they’re strong enough to keep him out?” she asked.
Bob shook his head. “I doubt it. He is at his strongest on Christmas Day. If only the Urn Child could get through, there would be a chance to hold him off.”
In the litany of Hell, the urn child was also referred to as The Black Token. There was no more powerful protective spell. A hunting accident had injured Bob’s leg. He’d made the mistake of depending on the utter horror of his true appearance to paralyze his prospective victim. Instead, the man had thrown his car into high and attempted to run him down. Bob easily could outrun an automobile on the deeply rutted country roads that passed by the cabin.
Fortunately for him, the impact was only a glancing one. The leg was not broken but he would be unable to use it fully for a week. Amanda assisted him to the lonely cabin.
“The owners must be visiting relatives or friends for the Holidays,” she deduced. “Letters are piling up in the mailbox.”
While the cabin acted as a refuge from what hunted them and a shelter from the elements, it also became a trap. Bob dragged himself to the fireplace.
“How could they possibly get through at this time?” He was speaking of possible rescuers. “Burke is out there somewhere. He’s one of St. Aru’s boys. Just an undersaint himself but I imagine he’ll seriously be considered for full sainthood after this Christmas. He’s waiting for our defenses to weaken. And weaken they will.” Bob added grimly, “We have few resources.”
The magic that held the undersaint at bay was being expended at an alarming rate, frugal though they were. “On All-Hallows,” Bob went on, “the Chief could help us, but now... nothing can get through. Absolutely nothing!”
The “Chief” was Bob’s informal reference to their deity, Satan. He berated his wife for her devotion. “You should have left me. By yourself you might have gotten away. As it stands, we’ll both fall into his hands.”
Amanda had greater confidence. “Our Dark Father will find a way to help us. He doesn’t let his people down. You must have faith.”
She squeezed his hand affectionately. “And besides, we aren’t really sure that it’s Burke out there.”
Bob snorted. “Have you forgotten that owl looking in the window? When was the last time you saw an owl with blue eyes?”
Picking up another log, he added it to those already burning in the fireplace. He watched the smoke disappear up the chimney and gratefully spread his hands to catch the warmth. “We’ve done all we can to keep him out.”
His voice implied that it was none too much. The doors and windows were circled with blue chalk marks. A mysterious fluid bubbled and rolled in an iron cauldron over the fire. The bubbles forming on the surface of the liquid looked remarkably like staring eyes. A long-handled ladle of early American make stood nearby at the ready in the same manner as muskets must have awaited hostile Indians in some earlier time.
Bob and Amanda were hungry. Since his misfortune, it had fallen on her to seek game. Neither now dared to leave the protection of the cabin. It was almost a week since she had been able to augment their larder.
Bob and Amanda stood hand-in-hand before the fireplace listening to the wind. A sheet of snow gusted across the landscape and formed an opaque film over the windows. He pointed, uttered a few words and the panes cleared. “He’s trying to blind us,” he said.
“Satan, please help us,” she begged. A rosary of human finger bones passed through her hands as she prayed.
He placed an arm around his wife and sought to comfort her. “Better get some sleep. I’ll watch.” She shook her head. “No! I’m afraid to sleep.”
Amanda went to an old-fashioned ice chest and took out a small piece of meat. They had filled the ice chamber with snow scooped from the immediate vicinity of the door. Neither dared to venture farther away. “Too many power failures,” Bob had guessed when he first saw it. “A refrigerator would be impractical in these mountains.”
Amanda offered the meat to him. “Go ahead and eat it. You are going to need all your strength before long.”
“That’s the last of it, isn’t it, Hon?”
“Yes, the child was a very small one.”
“You eat it, I’m not hungry.”
She knew he was lying. Bob hadn’t eaten a morsel in almost two days. Amanda knew he had been returning his share of the meat to the ice chest for her. Carefully she divided the meager piece into two equal portions.
“You’re going to eat this and I’m going to watch you while you do it.”
Through the window, they saw a huge, gaunt grey wolf emerge from behind some bushes. Hungrily, he eyed the cabin. Amanda eagerly began to put her jacket on.
“Where are you going?” Bob demanded roughly.
“Outside! I’m going to kill it... we need food.”
“You little fool?” He shook her angrily. “Can’t you see that it isn’t leaving any tracks in the snow?”
She seemed to collapse in his arms. Bob put his face close to the window and thumbed his nose at the wolf. The creature stood on its hind legs and laughed. They could hear the awful merriment emanating from the pointed snout. It slapped its thighs in a terrible parody of human mirth and performed several leaps into the air.
The wolf came within a few feet of the window and in a terrible voice demanded, “Little pigs, little pigs, let me in. Let me in!”
They could not help noticing that its eyes were blue. Bob held his wife tightly and returned the traditional answer. “Not by the hairs of my chinny, chin, chin!”
“Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in.”
Burke was reputed to have a keen, if offbeat, sense of humor. He made a half-hearted attempt to carry out his threat. Cupping a paw to his snout, he playfully sent a puff of air in their direction before vanishing. The puff of air, though only softly wafted, struck the cabin with the force of a cyclone. Windows rattled and threatened to blow in. Shingles flapped on the roof and a shutter went flying away.
Bob spoke seriously. “Close! So close! He wasn’t serious about coming in this time. Burke likes to play cat and mouse games.”
Nightfall added terror that stretched their nerves to the breaking point. Things prowled and snuffled outside the cabin. Crickets chirped in the snow. Once, an enormous eye that completely filled the window looked into the cabin. Amanda boiled a small amount of water in the fireplace. Carefully, she doled out a cupful to herself and Bob. They sipped slowly to obtain an illusion of a warm meal.
“Not even a tea bag or a bottle of hooch,” she complained mournfully. “I searched everywhere.”
“The owner of this cabin is a cheapskate,” he replied. The water they drank was obtained by melting the snow in the ice chest. Now they did not dare open the front door even a crack. Bob used almost the last of the blue chalk in renewing the protective markings around the doors and windows. Only the smallest fragment remained.
“Just enough to draw a circle around you and me,” he told her.
“Why?” she asked. “So that we can live in terror for a few more hours? So that we can watch him grin and gibber just outside the circle? To watch him creep closer and closer as the spell becomes weaker?”
“What do you want to do? There’s a bottle of poison in the medicine cabinet. Do you prefer a nice clean instant death to what is waiting?”
Amanda rallied. “No! I’m sorry! I won’t give up. We’ll fight to the end.”
Bob patted her affectionately. “There! That’s more like my girl. Never give up... while there’s life, there’s hope.”
The telephone rang, Amanda said, “I’ll make my voice hoarse as if I have a cold so that they can’t tell who is speaking. I’ll tell them someone is dreadfully ill... dying. To send a rescue party. The humans can get us out. Burke doesn’t affect them the way he does us.”
Bob shook his head sadly. “Don’t bother. I noticed the telephone line was down when we first entered this cabin; it’s part of his war-of-nerves... the sadistic bastard!”
Bob and Amanda were never needlessly cruel. Most of the time, their prey was dead before it realized its peril. The phone rang about a dozen times and went silent.
“Courage!” he whispered. “Courage!”
“Uh-huh.” She rested her head on his shoulder “Remember how we first met?”
“How could I forget? That stupid wizard mispronounced a word. And there you were, instead of the leper spirit he was trying to summon.”
“That expression on his face!” she giggled. “The circle couldn’t hold me because it was intended for a spirit. I walked out of it and brained him. Then I erased a part of the circle that held you prisoner and released you.”
Bob picked up the reminiscence. “He was our wedding supper. The first time I ever tasted your cooking.”
Amanda laughed delightedly. “I could tell you thought it was awful. You certainly were a polite bridegroom.”
Bob protested. “I didn’t think it was a fair trial. He was so old and desiccated that it was like eating a mummy.”
They small-talked through the night. Dawn began to filter through the windows. The panes were dirty and cast leprous shadows of the snow-burdened trees against the walls. An occasional gust of wind set them to dancing momentarily and then all was still again.
“Christmas Day.” Her voice was flat.
“This is it, hon. Probably the finish. I want just one more kiss for old time’s sake.”
They kissed deeply and passionately and wondered why they had to die so young... so full of unfulfilled dreams. They drew away from each other regretfully. The protective chalk marks around the windows and the door had faded perceptibly during the night.
“There isn’t enough snow left for even a half cup of hot water,” she said dolefully.
There was a rumble overhead and a mass of the snow Amanda wished for slid off the roof.
He said, “It must be warming up.”
They looked outside the window. It was utterly barren. Not a trace of life. Not so much as a crow or a sparrow or rabbit tracks. A commotion reached them from the road.
The jeep churned its way to a halt in front of the cabin. A postman, fat and cherubic in thigh high boots, struggled to reach the mailbox. He carried a handful of letters, in all probability Christmas cards, and a package. Amanda pointed excitedly. Bob’s heart leapt within him as he spotted the black wrappings of a package.
“Amanda! Amanda!” he cried. “It’s the urn child! Who would have thought of using a method like this to get help to us? Burke’s spells are strong but the Chief has outwitted him.”
Hurriedly she threw her coat on. Bob used the last of the chalk in inscribing a protective spell on her back. Amanda opened the door and started out into the snow. A bell rang in his head. He seized her and hurled her back into the cabin.
“Amanda!” Bob screamed, “the post office doesn’t make deliveries on Christmas Day!”
Bob slammed the door shut just in time. A horrifying blow almost shattered the bolt that held it in place. It held. But by the narrowest of margins.
“Bob! Look!” Her hand shook as she pointed to the floor. A sickly red slime was oozing inside under the door... working its way in against the weakening protective spell. Amanda flew to the fireplace. Seizing the ladle, she plunged it into the cauldron and brought up a scoopful of the mysterious fluid. She trembled as she poured it over the frightful seepage. They heard howls of pain and rage and the appendage was hastily withdrawn.
“He won’t try that again,” Bob said with satisfaction. She dropped the ladle and began to sob hysterically. He dragged himself to her side. Bob kissed her and gently ran his lips over her hair.
“You did it! You saved us! You’re a heroine!”
She continued to sob. “Big deal! We’re alone... abandoned! There isn’t anything left to hold him back with.”
“The poison?” he suggested.
This time she nodded her head. “Yes, I think that would be better.”
Bob turned and as he did so, an amazing spectacle began to form on the floor of the cabin. The rough oak planking vanished, leaving a shimmering pulsating fog where the floor had been. Flashes of lightning appeared within the mist and subdued thunder could be heard, as if in some distant valley. A titanic struggle was taking place within the fog. Sometimes the black was dominant, sometimes the white. For one brief moment, the floor was black... all black. Abruptly the mist dissolved.
“Bob! Look!” Amanda pointed to a gleaming ebony vase that now stood before the fireplace. “It’s the Urn Child, we’re saved.”
“We weren’t abandoned. We weren’t abandoned!” he repeated over and over, “It was a test of faith.”
With a cry of thankfulness, he lurched forward and picked the urn up. Tenderly he cradled it in his arms. Amanda threw herself upon the floor in a gesture of gratitude and adoration.
“Thank you, Satan! Thank you!” Tears rolled down her cheeks.
Bob removed the lid from the urn and dipped his finger inside. He brought the finger out black and greasy. The ashes of a thousand young mixed with corpse fat and an unholy blessing.
He went to the nearest window and began to renew the protective markings. Bob made a complete circuit of the cabin. He finished and proudly surveyed his work.
“Now nothing can get in,” he told his wife. “We’re safe!” He added, “We’ll rub each other down with the black token and walk out. There won’t be a damned thing he can do to stop us.”
They heard a disturbance behind them as a pile of logs collapsed in the fireplace. Bob and Amanda turned. The color drained from their faces, leaving them looking like two freshly embalmed corpses.
The undersaint, dressed in shaggy red clothing, surveyed them with a mocking glitter in his icy blue eyes. His mouth opened to display a carnivorous set of stalactite teeth, and he carried a large empty sack, opened at the neck. Burke advanced menacingly upon them. The fusty white beard hanging from his chin seemed to rustle like dry old bones when the undersaint moved his head.
Somehow the words forced themselves past her suddenly arid throat, “We forgot the chimney.”
Copyright © 2009 by Albert J. Manachino