The Stoning of Tityos
by Simon Jones
Only when my palms were stained with his blood did I realise what had happened.
The knife, made for whittling and skinning small game, was plunged deep into his chest. The body swelled once: a deep, horrible inhale of oxygen before the slow release. Then it was over.
I didn’t look into his eyes. I didn’t have to see them to know what I’d done. One short motion — my right arm wrenching the weapon deep into his heart — and it was finished.
It had been years since I’d killed a man, but even then never like this. It had always been for the Community. For peace. Good crushing evil. This was something else. I didn’t even know his name.
I had been attacked, certainly. But I immediately questioned whether such a deadly reaction had been warranted. “Coward,” he had spat, the word conjuring a vile rage in the pit of my stomach before he darted towards me, a sharpened rock gripped tightly in his right hand.
The sticky crimson was warm on my hands now and I began to feel the ache in my bones again. The winter chill. How long had I been here? I looked around, concerned that the sun was just four fingers from the horizon. I didn’t have much time. The Tree Folk would likely come searching for their kinsperson. And Tom would be on his way.
The body was heavier than I expected. The fact that he was such a fat bastard didn’t help matters, but once I reached the water his weight seemed to evaporate. I was worried that the corpse wouldn’t float, but the stream did most of the work for me. I kept one hand on his chest, just below the wound, my eyes scanning the banks for any sign of my deputy.
The crashing roar of Pillaging Falls greeted my ears first and I let the stream take my attacker’s body over its edge and into the abyss. It wouldn’t be long before I joined him there.
Despite the inevitable, I still felt a pang of guilt for his death. Had I not snuffed out his life, he would have doubtless ended mine. But that did not ease my burden. I had sworn to protect him, it was my duty. I sighed and reminded myself that soon it wouldn’t matter.
The Falls were growing stronger by the time I reached its edge. The current was powerful, but my heavy boots sank deep into the loose earth below and kept me firmly planted. The sun would kiss the horizon in less than an hour. I took it to be a sign, of sorts, counting down my last moments in this place. I began to think about Emma and Flynn. Then Tom called out for me.
“Sheriff!” The young man, hardly out of his teens, came bounding out of the forest and alongside the western bank. His voice held no fear. Why should it? He had met me here every sunset for the last fortnight.
I sighed, as if I had not expected him to reach me in time.
“Tom,” I replied, repeating the same words I had spoken to my deputy every night for the past two weeks. “You can’t stop this. Not tonight.”
When he didn’t reply, I turned my head to see a lopsided grin on his face. “I think I can, Sheriff.”
I didn’t know why he was smirking like a fool, but whatever the reason I wouldn’t be here to find out.
“This time it’s different, Tom,” I said. “Something happened. Something I can’t—”
“I know. Something did happen. Something you never believed we could do.”
The sheer excitement in his voice made me freeze. It couldn’t be. Not now. Not when the end was but a footstep away.
“Don’t lie to me.” There was viciousness in my words. “I swear, if you’re lying to me—”
“If I’m lying,” he said calmly. “I won’t stop you from jumping next time.”
Something in the way he said it made me believe him. “Tityos?”
Tom nodded. “We got him, Sheriff. He put up a fight, worked some of your boys over. But we got him.”
The chill night air made my body quiver. I hadn’t brought a change of clothes.
* * *
“You were really going to do it, weren’t you?” Tom asked once I was out of the stream. “You were going to jump?”
I didn’t reply. My hands were shivering as I rubbed them up and down both sides of my chest, trying desperately to ignite some warmth back into my bones.
Despite the pain, there was a burning desire deep inside me, something I had been waiting months to feel. With each passing step I was getting closer to the man who had murdered my sister and nephew. Flynn, the youngling, had been forced to watch his own mother torn limb from limb before being put out of his own misery. Tityos wouldn’t be so fortunate tonight.
He came in the darkness. At first we thought it was just a group of hoodlums, kidnapping villagers in the hope of gleaning some ransom from their wealthy families. We didn’t have any reason to believe it could be something more sinister.
The first body was discovered near the back of Frank’s Tavern. Half of it, at least. The other half was never found. Tom thought it might have been an animal, but I’d never heard of a beast that could saw a man so perfectly in two.
When children started to go missing, and then entire families, the villagers lost faith in the law. I was their Sheriff, but I couldn’t even give them a name, let alone a prisoner. The mumblings from the Tree Folk began to grow louder in the village. People were starting to believe those mad tales.
Eventually, after almost a month of terror, he came in the daylight. Tom and I had enforced a strict curfew on the Community, and since then no one else had gone missing. But he wasn’t satisfied with what he had already done. He came during the day and took Emma and Flynn. He knew who I was and he took them to lure me out. He knew who I was, I was certain of it.
Two weeks ago I found their bodies, what was left of them. Limbs, organs, entrails. They’d been strewn about the house deliberately. Little Flynn and my sister. That night I went to the Falls, and every night since.
“Sheriff! Don’t you turn away from me!” I looked up and winced at the setting sun. Soon my eyes settled on a dusty old man with a mop of white hair and thick beard flowing past his shoulders. Old Reg. One of the Tree Folk. Trouble.
Tom saw him coming but could do nothing to stop the tirade of abuse he began to spout.
“You have a black soul, Sheriff,” Old Reg shouted. “The others may turn away from it but I can see through you.” I continued walking but he followed beside, close enough that I could smell his rancid breath. “You’re as much to blame for the murders he commits.”
“Easy there, old timer,” Tom started to say, but I motioned for him that it was okay. Reg had lost his daughter and three grandchildren to Tityos. My job meant that I was sworn to protect them, and I had failed. The least I could do was listen to him.
“We warned you about him,” he continued. “You heard the stories from your own mother’s mouth. You knew he was still out there. Squatting in the desert, sucking all the life out of that godforsaken place. You knew he’d be thirsty for more before long. But you wouldn’t listen, you stubborn bastard!”
As the forest began to thin out, I could see the faint outline of torchlight in the distance. We were coming up on the village and I knew most of the Community would be heading for the Old Killing Fields, that arid field of dust and death, where executions played out as in the times of long ago.
“My daughter...” Old Reg stopped following and began to sob. “My little girl and her babies too.” I thought about turning around but didn’t even have the courage to do that. My conscience berated me but my feet continued to whisk me away from the scene.
As we came upon the last line of oak trees leading into the village, I heard the old hermit speak one final time. “You knew he was out there. You knew and you didn’t listen. Now it’s on you, Sheriff. The blood of my family is on your hands!”
Tom put a firm hand on my shoulder, squeezed twice. “Don’t let that crazy old fool get to you. He’s as mad as the rest of the folk living in the forest.”
“He lost his child,” I said quietly. “He has a right to grieve.”
Tom just shook his head as the blue lights of Reston Village fell upon our faces. “If he wants to grieve, he can do it tonight with the Community. Put that withered old arm of his to good use.”
I simply nodded. The excited hoots and howls of my townsfolk were now ringing loudly in my ears.
* * *
By the time we reached the Old Killing Fields, the sun was only half a finger from the horizon. Muted streaks of burnt orange and blood red stained the sky as if resigning itself to what was about to occur. By the size of the crowd, I imagined all of the Community and most of the Tree Folk had come to see Tityos’s end, and partake in it.
One of the villagers on the outskirts of the congregation saw me and Tom and quickly called out for the crowd to disperse so that we could reach its centre. Some smiled as I walked past, perhaps holding onto the hope that I was the one responsible for the murderer’s capture, that their Sheriff did indeed still have a fleck of courage left. Most, however, either lowered their eyes or mumbled curses of “coward” and “shameful” under their breath. I didn’t give them any response, but I could sense Tom bristling.
As we came upon the beast the Tree Folk had named Tityos, darkness had consumed the Old Killing Fields. Only the orange of torchlight now lit the dusty plain, and I began to feel the familiar ache of fear. I took one breath, another, before looking upon his face.
I almost didn’t recognise him.
He looked far different from the night I had found Emma and Flynn. In the darkness he had sped through the streets like a leopard, but I would have staked my life that he was at least nine foot tall that evening, and a shade of blue, not grey. His six limbs were slumped on the ground, several clearly broken, and some with bones that had pierced his pallid skin. His face, contorted by the beatings Tom and his crew had no doubt inflicted upon him, showed one eye fused entirely shut. The other, though, stared straight back, and I knew at once that he remembered me.
I stood, staring into his face, an alien thing I had only heard in unbelievable tales before this summer. Tales my father had scared me with as a child. I now looked upon the truth and was determined to see inside, to see what sort of callous, vile soul — if any — could linger within.
He denied me. After only a second, he lowered his head and released a cry so horrible I felt as if my legs would give out. That deep keening filled with fear and sorrow echoed into the night for far longer than any human cry could.
Unconsciously, I took a step forward. He recoiled at the motion, his broken limbs sweeping back into themselves as far as was possible. He let out small gasps of pain as a dull, deep blue liquid began to flow freely from freshly broken scabs. I stopped, raised my palms instinctively and retreated.
This was not what I had expected.
“It’s time,” Tom whispered in my ear before nodding to one of his men, Robb. The teenager was carrying a wide shovel, weathered by decades of use, its formerly sharp edges now curved and harmless.
Robb kicked the creature’s side, forced him to stand and thrust the shovel into his hands. “Dig,” he ordered, then kicked him again and mimicked a digging motion until he was certain Tityos understood.
I had seen this spectacle a hundred times before, even handed that same shovel to convicted murderers, rapists and heretics. I had seen men weep, women scream, young boys cry out in terror as they dug their own graves. Some weren’t even able to hold the shovel without help. Others drew out the procedure for as long as they could, hoping against all sanity that we would show them mercy. I never expected Tityos would be my last.
It took the better part of an hour for the creature to shift enough earth to hold his body. When he was finished, Robb shoved his boot into Tityos’s back, forcing him into the pit before ordering him to stand upright. Tom and his men loaded the dirt back into the hole as quickly as they could, Tityos’s awkward head now the only thing protruding from the ground.
When they were done, Tom turned to me and smiled. “Now the fun part,” he chuckled.
I didn’t respond. A sickness, the likes of which I had never felt before, was eating away at me with a rapid pace. I almost couldn’t contain the bile threatening to explode from behind my lips. Nothing made sense. This thing — this beast — had mutilated my own flesh and blood, terrorised our community for weeks, years, decades. He had feasted on the marrow of children and yet I could barely hold his gaze. I saw pure fear in that face. Tears rolled freely from his eye as he stared back, yet he did not curse or spit. In that moment, he was nothing but a frightened child.
Tom placed something heavy in my right hand, smiled at me and nodded. It was my duty as Sheriff to throw the first stone — to be the first to crack the skull. The rest would join in soon after. Usually there was a lottery to determine who would be allowed to throw, but Tityos had affected so many lives that it was decided everyone would have their chance. One by one they would propel their missiles at the beast that had murdered their children, their husbands, their wives. He would know true pain then. And he would die slowly.
At that moment, I knew I couldn’t join them. After all that had happened, after all I had been through, there was nothing I wanted more than leave that place. When I looked into his eyes I could only see a petrified child, asking why I was doing this, begging me to stop. There was no comprehension of why he was here. Why these alien people had captured him and forced him to dig his own grave. He knew that death was close but couldn’t understand why.
Every single man and woman that had died here understood they had committed an unforgivable sin. They didn’t want to die, but they understood the reasons why they must. This creature, this thing, was simply an animal. He had to die, I knew that. And he would. But I wouldn’t allow myself to be part of another murder today.
I let the stone fall from my hand and turned to walk away. The chanting stopped and the crowd parted, either too stunned or horrified to block my way. One man shrieked “Coward!” but I was immune to that word now. Soon there would be one less coward in the world. Tom didn’t try to stop me this time.
By the time I reached the village, Tityos was dead. The cheers from the crowd were sickening but I pressed on, determined to finish what I had started before sunset.
I stopped at my home for just a few moments, making sure I would be long gone before any villagers returned from the Old Killing Fields. Despite everything, I couldn’t leave without telling Tom why. He deserved that, at the very least.
I left the brief note under the lamp by my bed. He’d know what it meant.
Emma’s diary and little Flynn’s drawing book were still under the shelf where I had kept them. There wasn’t much that was salvageable from the night they had died, but those two items had somehow remained untainted by their blood. I intended to return them to their owners.
I didn’t see Old Reg on my return through the forest and was thankful for it. Who knew what would have happened had he tried to stop me. I didn’t allow myself to think about anything other than what I was going to do.
The night was deep, but the stars lit my path to Pillaging Falls. I’d seen this sight a thousand times before, but tonight it seemed more magical than ever. I was calm, at last. Not even the chill of the water affected me.
Emma and Flynn sat inside my pocket, close to my heart. The sound of the Falls crashing into itself surrounded me and I shut my eyes tight. Don’t turn back. I took one step forward into nothingness, and fell for eternity.
Copyright © 2013 by Simon Jones