The Midnight Hour
by Ron Van Sweringen
It was the midnight hour, when the beasts of the Netherworld were said to appear, shrouded in black to surprise the unwary. Willis Monk and every villager knew the story well, that the creatures were spit up from the bubbling black pools of quicksand at the edge of the moor, in the shadow of Hangman’s Oak.
It was believed by some in the year of our Lord 1842 that Willis Monk, because of his deformities, might be a beast from the Netherworld. His hunched back with its twisted spine and the fissure separating his upper lip with a jagged red gash caused many to look upon him with superstition and fear, as though he were the Devil’s spawn.
Willis Monk was thus an outcast from his village and left to lead a solitary life of misfortune at the edge of the moor, a place of desolation where few ventured.
The lantern in his hand gave Willis Monk a slight advantage in navigating the rugged path before him on his search for dry branches to heat his small cabin. He instantly recognized the large rounded stone that lay ahead. It was the “Devil’s Marker” for those who chose to give it a name. Others, less fortunate, who were foolish enough to walk beyond it, were quickly swallowed up in pools of black quicksand.
It was near the Marker that Willis found it: a hooded cloak of soft homespun, its scarlet color resembling a pool of blood. The sand near the cloak revealed several paw prints from a large animal. It was not unknown for a wolf to attack a human on the moors; especially an unwary child who might wear such a cloak.
Willis lifted the lantern peering into the blackness around him. His hand found and gripped the hatchet held fast in his belt. The realization that he might need it for other than chopping firewood was chilling as it crept over him. He had never raised his hand in anger toward a living thing.
* * *
The child was frightened and could only whimper as the large wolf circled her, snarling in the moonlight. She was bruised and scratched from her attempt to escape him, but it was useless; she was trapped. Saliva dripped from his mouth as he showed his fangs in anticipation of the feast awaiting him.
Willis heard the child’s pitiful cries and forced his deformed body to move faster. He was out of breath when he came upon the scene of life and death before him in the moonlight. The beast was standing over the child on his hind legs, his front paws thrashing the air, accompanied by a terrifying howl.
“Stop!” Willis shouted, his hand grasping the hatchet. “You must not harm her.”
The wolf’s howl became a roar of laughter when he saw the small twisted figure standing in the moonlight shouting at him. “What is this ugly thing?” he bellowed, his red eyes glaring at Willis.
“Let the child go and eat me, I will gladly surrender to you,” Willis begged. “We are nearly the same size. You will be well fed with me.”
“Why should I do that?” the beast growled, his patience nearing an end.
“Because, if you do not accept me instead,” Willis replied, raising the hatchet in defense of the child, “I will be forced to kill you.”
The wolf’s laughter stopped and his nostrils flared in anger. “I have the power of the Netherworld on my side,” the infuriated beast growled, “I will eat you both.”
* * *
The next morning the child was found wandering at the edge of the village. When her wounds were tended, something strange was found in the folds of her red hooded cloak: the front paws of a large wolf, cleanly chopped off as if by a sharp hatchet.
“Who could have done such a brave thing?” the villagers asked.
“The woodsman who lives at the edge of the moor,” the child replied. “He is big and strong, have you not seen him?”
Copyright © 2014 by Ron Van Sweringen