Salt Pan Gospel
Here’s an interesting fact about crows, ravens and Australians: we didn’t know the difference. The Australian crow is actually a raven. And what we call ravens are crows. The Australian crow, so, ravens, are extremely common in the middle of New South Wales, where I make my rounds. Actual crows are not so much. I love to watch ravens (actual ravens, not Australian ravens, which are crows) walking. They have a fantastic rolling gait which reminds me of 19th century gentleman strolling down the London streets, probably with a cane under one arm and a top hat to match their black waistcoats.
In regards to the picture, I didn’t draw it. But it’s great, I love it. It’s a picture of a raven. An actual raven. And the character Samael in this story has ravens, not crows. But since he’s Australian, he has crows. Okay? Let’s not confuse the matter any more. This is it, and it’s this week’s feature story, it’s:
Salt Pan Gospel
Old Scratch sat out front of the post office and every day the sore on his nose grew bigger, but the doctor said not to worry.
Old Scratch sat out front of the post office and every day the sore on his nose grew bigger, but the doctor said not to worry; there was nothing he could do.
Old Scratch sat out front of the post office and every day he died a little more.
A crow in the old dead sycamore tree cawed. Old Scratch looked sharply up from his paper. He hadn’t been reading. He hadn’t even been thinking. It took the caw of the crow to remind him he was even alive.
The crow, however, brought him no comfort. It meant only one thing.
Death was coming.
The desert was dry. The desert was hot. At night it was as cold as the grave.
Somewhere between here and there, each one and the other, Tom Stone ceased to be a good man and became merely… strange.
He had stared into the endless abyss of the salt and the dirt, and the abyss stared back into Tom Stone. He had his property here, his cattle treading spinifex, he needed many things in town but he had put off going for a long while. He didn’t like the town. He found the people intrusive and the landscape very weird. Houses and shops built on salt. Being eaten by the salt.
But there was another reason Tom Stone avoided town. The crow master. Directing the crows in their thousands to descend on any man and suck his soul right out of his body.
It happened in every town.
Stone had seen it too much in the city; that’s why he moved to town. That was why, eventually, he moved from town onto the farm. The farm on its flat hot plain, uphill from the salt pans, inescapable from the spinifex, breaking like glass under the hoofs of his cattle, and the skinny beasts lived with infections running riot in their neglected and diseased forms. But there was no escaping the crows. They were less, but they were here.
Some days Tom Stone sat on his verandah and watched the crows descend. A black cloud of cawing birds falling on a single dying cow. And Stone would feel the fever in his blood. He would see their white eyes on him, marking him for the day they would fall on him in their dust devil of clapping wings and cawing throats, and he would feed their hungry bellies through the night.
When it made him angry, he would grab his shotgun from inside the door, and fire into the dusk air, scattering the crows.
But time wore on and the crows grew less and less afraid of Tom Stone’s gun. They understood he didn’t have enough bullets for all of them. One night he grabbed his shotgun in a mad fit and pumped it and pulled the trigger and not a damn thing came out. He was out of ammo.
Tom Stone had to go to town.
Father Hollow had nothing but reservations about hearing the confession of a man he knew was no Catholic.
“Sinner,” he muttered, getting comfortable on the wooden seat the men of the town had hammered ten years earlier, when Father Hollow arrived. They’d build the church for free, had done it with pleasure. There were no gold mines out here and the farming was poor. They were glad to have a priest on their side, out here in the middle of Hell. But the man through the mesh was no glad Catholic, was no soul lost and in need of redemption. If this was Hell, than that man was-
“Sorry, Father?” a smile heard in words, unseen behind the screen. Knowing exactly what had been said. “Did you say something?”
Father Hollow did his best to lay aside his annoyance, and the small twinge of fear stirring in his breast. He cleared his throat. “You have a confession, child?”
That heathen monster had a thousand confessions if he had one, all of them of the utmost despair and destitution of spirit. When he walked with his back to the sun, his shadow fell not as man, but surrounded by a flock of scraggly black birds. Crows on his shoulders and crows on his head. Salt rose from the earth, crusting under his heel. His gifts were misery and death. No one knew where he’d come from, no one even knew if he were human. His appearance, sinful. His name, well. He only ever gave the one.
Samael. As if Father Hollow could take any comfort in that.
There was laughter in the wretch’s voice as he said, “I have many confessions, Father, as you may have guessed. One is that I uh, scare you, don’t I? Or is that just a scratch in your throat?”
Father Hollow’s teeth grated. He could hear Samael leaning against the confessional booth wall, comfortably, as if he owned the place, when in fact he had never set foot in the small church before today. There had been rumours in town that Samael would be struck by lightning were he to approach the church. Today the skies were clear and the lightning entirely absent. Father Hollow realised he had not replied, letting the seconds drizzle past. He opened his mouth and heard a caw.
Any fear left him in the heat of indignation. “You dare to bring an animal into the church? Don’t you know this is the sacred house of God? You-”
“Oh, Father,” Samael crooned, “I couldn’t leave her outside. She’s alone, she’s lonely.”
“Like all your other bloody crows?” the priest snapped.
There was no apology in Samael’s voice. Amusement, but no apology. “No. In fact, they’re all gone. It’s just me and her today. I promised I’d take her someplace new,” the sound of rustling cloth and creaking leather as Samael leant forward, eager for the conversation to continue. “Do you believe we’ve never been to church, Father? I confess, this is my first time. I’ve always wondered what it would be like. I was raised by parents who believed, but they never could get me through that door, not even when I was a baby. I gotta say, it’s pokey in here, it’s not at all what I had expected.”
Father Hollow’s teeth ground together. He wanted Samael out. The house of God was no place for men like that. “Do you have an actual confession or not? If you don’t, you can get out!”
A groan of relieved planks as Samael helped himself up from the rough wooden seat. The humour in his voice was gone. “You all think I’m evil. Everyone in this dust spot of a town does. But I’m patient. I can wait. I always wait. I don’t need to tell you anything. You watch and see and you can draw your own conclusions.”
The door creaked, the floorboards followed under their thin veneer of carpet scraps. Samael’s crow rasped from his shoulder; Father Hollow watched their shadow pass his door. And he blessed himself. Again and again.
Because what he’d seen in Samael’s shadow, wasn’t human in the least.
The town was small, this is true. People scratched a living from the hot dry dust. There had been more people here, but now they were gone. The salt got into everything, the salt was the problem. The salt got into the boards of your house and split them, the salt got into the skin of your hands and cracked it, the salt got into your brain and pickled it.
Once there had been a proper town here. Now the people struggled to keep it clear of the salt. One day soon it would be a salt bowl like those downhill, and no one would come here, not ever again.
Samael stalked down the street, salt crunching under his heels, the warm air flat, the sun white and glary, draining the colour out of everything, burning nuclear shadows on the broken road. Once upon a time weeds had grown between the cracks in the asphalt, but now the salt was too much even for the weeds. Only spinifex grew here. Salt crystals lumped together in the dribble of water in the gutters.
Samael walked in silence for a while, until some of his anger burned off him and he started to whistle. He didn’t know many songs, compared to the people of the town with their dozens of church hymns. He didn’t care so much for music, anyway, preferring the caw of his crows and the wind whistling in the chimney, but at times he grew bored with these things, and for those times he had memorised songs he heard in the town tavern, and those of mothers singing to their young babies.
He walked to the store which sold everything, and was the only store in town. The tavern was across the street, and the post office next to that, the old dead sycamore tree marking the end of the central business district. Samael grinned to himself. Business, as if. The only business here was his own.
Bells jangled as he entered the store, the storekeeper glanced up from her plate of biscuits. Her cheeks were very pink. As Samael drew closer, he noticed that the pink colouration was due to a number of raised capillaries, hundreds of them pressed to the surface of the storekeeper’s skin.
“It’s you, Samael!” A nervous twitch of a smile, brushing crumbs from her considerable bosom. “What can I get for you today?”
“Nothing,” came the response. Samael was tall and thin. He inspected the tins on the top shelf with amusement but without desire. “I’m here to wait.”
“Wait for who?”
Her question was answered by the jangle of bells. Tom Stone stalked into the store, his dull eyes fixed on the counter. He noticed neither Samael nor the rows of goods, and only by the slightest inclination of his head gave any sign of seeing the storekeeper.
“Ammo,” grunted Tom Stone. “Flour.”
The storekeeper’s eyes slid from Tom Stone to Samael, who was grinning. The crow on his shoulder shuffled and cawed. Tom Stone swung his head sideways, finally noticing the other man, and a dry cry fell from his throat.
“You!” he lurched at Samael. “That wretched bird!”
Samael ran a tongue across the back of his teeth as Tom Stone grabbed his shirt. Startled, the crow hopped from his shoulder to the top shelf of cans. As companionably as he could, Samael said, “Stone, it’s been too long. I thought you’d left us.”
There was spittle on Stone’s lips and on his chin. His face was puffy and dark, he couldn’t have slept much in weeks. His voice hissed between yellow teeth. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you, you bastard? If I left. You and your miserable crows.”
“Like it, love it,” Samael said in a low, sing-song tone, making no great show of hiding his anger, “I avidly await the day, Stone. You want ammunition? Why? You gonna shoot yourself?”
Stone released him roughly, spat, “I’ll prevail so long as you’re in this world. You won’t see me to damnation.”
“And the ammunition?”
“It’s for your damn birds.”
Samael stood, breath hissing softly through his teeth as Stone completed his purchase. But Samael’s quick temper worked both ways; he was as fast to cool down as to work up. He tagged Stone from the store. The sun was dipping westwards. His crows were nowhere to be seen.
“You ever hit one of ’em?” he asked Stone, curiously.
Stone’s face clouded. He was easy under the weight of the heavy flour sack. “Never.”
Samael tipped back his head and roared a laugh. “Then you ain’t done nothin’! And here I thought I’d take offence!”
He laughed and laughed, a death rattle of a sound which sobered the drunks on the tavern verandah and sent Old Scratch hobbling for his house behind the post office. As Tom Stone hunkered down the street, scowling, Samael perched on the horse fence outside the store, his one remaining crow on his shoulder, his laugh just as cold as the desert night. He was almost done with this town. Almost.
The townsfolk got together. They were none of them happy, and all of them restless. Everyone had some story to tell about Samael and his crows. They wanted him out, out! He and his damn birds could cast their sickly shadow elsewhere.
They met in the church, where they were guaranteed to be safe from Samael, who had not ventured again to God’s house in the week since his confession. It was a Sunday evening, the word to meet had spread in mutters over the past few days, most of them from the mouth of Old Scratch. Even Tom Stone was there, though his face remained puffy and dark, his eyes dull and mad. He carried his shotgun in his lap, sitting on the hard wooden pew, bouncing the barrel on his knee, listening to people argue about what was to be done.
“Run him out of town!” cried one.
“We don’t know what he’ll do!” protested Father Hollow.
“And nor do we care.” Tom Stone stood. The townsfolk fell silent. Tom Stone addressed them, the only movement in his face his small, hard mouth. “I’ll speak to him. And if he doesn’t listen,” he slung the shotgun over his shoulder, “I’ll kill him.”
A mutter of discontent went up. It was one thing to throw a bad apple from the barrel; it was another to have it executed. But Father Hollow said, “Then perhaps you will. There’d be no murder charge for you; that’s no human you’d be shooting. And if you should feel guilt for killing the Devil, then the Lord will forgive you.”
“I don’t need forgiveness,” Stone grunted, “only peace of mind.”
They talked awhile, they agreed it was the best idea. None of them wanted Samael dead, but if it had to happen, then it had to happen, and Stone was the man for the job. From his position in the pulpit, Father Hollow watched his congregation, again beating down the twinge of fear in his breast. What if what he had seen was wrong, and Samael really was a human being? Or worse, what if he were right, and Samael were so much more? Could they even hope to overcome such a monster?
But he had not the courage to express such concerns, and went with the townsfolk as one of their leaders as they charged from the hilltop church, picking up pitchforks and axes and shovels as they passed their houses, down through the main street to the very end, to Samael’s house by the graveyard. It was now quite late, and the moon was rising, fat and white and round over the tombstones cracked by the incursion of salt.
Samael’s house was no bigger or smaller than any other, a wooden shack he’d adopted from its previous, deceased, owner. It had been empty for a year before he arrived in town. It would be empty for years more. Perhaps, as one townsperson suggested, they should burn the shack as well as its owner, so that no one should ever occupy that cursed space again.
They gathered by the door. All thirty of them, and only thirty. Not even the women with their small children had stayed at home. There were lights on in the shack, but peering through the windows, no sign of Samael. Father Hollow knocked on the door. There was no answer. He exchanged a worried glance with Old Scratch.
“He’s gotta be there,” Old Scratch whispered.
Father Hollow nodded. He cleared his throat. “Samael! Are you home? I’d like to talk to you.”
“You and everyone else, the look of it.” A voice from the direction of the graveyard. Samael’s lanky figure hopped the rotting wooden fence and crossed the dirt towards them. “My friends, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
Tom Stone shouldered his way through the crowd. One bastard crow sat on Samael’s shoulder, and that was it. Tom Stone had not seen a single cow drop dead since his confrontation with Samael in town last week. He had not seen a single crow. He snarled at the other man. “It’s no pleasure. It’s your choice: get out, or you’re dead.”
The moon was bright enough to illuminate the surprise on Samael’s face. “Your town will do without its doctor, then?”
Tom Stone jammed his shotgun against Samael’s stomach. “We’ll find another. We did before. In fact I think the last damn thing we need is another doctor, with your pills and your prescriptions. You’re no better than a demon pedalling disease. What were you doing in the graveyard? You like one of your crows, feasting on the dead?”
What should have been Samael’s temper failed him, and instead he felt afraid. This was wrong. This was all wrong. What had started as a superstition of the townsfolk had become their reality. He swallowed, his throat was dry as sand. “Well that’s quaint. Don’t you know this is the best time of day for a walk? In the evening, when it’s cool?”
“I don’t know jack,” Stone spat. “Now. Answer.”
Samael hesitated. As he had before he’d accepted the position in the city, just the fortnight before. Did he dare tell them now, that these were his last few weeks in the town, that they very likely would never find a replacement? Particularly not since it had been officially noted that a long time out in the heat, and the salt, could send a whole town deranged.
He felt the cool barrel of the shotgun against his stomach. He met Tom Stone’s dull, mad eyes. Tom Stone had just a glimpse of the real Samael, of the tall, thin man cloaked in shadow with his back to the moon, and then the crow cawed and it flew at Stone, and he shrieked and pulled the shotgun trigger.
The bang was enormous. Samael hit the dirt, his torso blown open, sounds bleeding together in his ears, the shudder of life leaving the body, and dead.
Crows, a thousand scraggly black crows, burst from the tree behind the house and soaked the night with their bleak cries, their white eyes flashing, sweeping over town before disappearing over the salt pans, a cloud of black diminishing in the night.
The doctor was patient, the doctor was kind. Now the doctor was dead, and the people of the town expired one by one from their cancers, their heart attacks, their suicides, and their miscellaneous causes of death.
Whatcha think? Read it again! And then, please comment. I eat comments, it’s how I survive. I guess if you want me to die then you can just leave without saying a word.
Posted on September 28, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged australian fiction, crow, fiction, horror fiction, horror stories, horror story, raven, salinity, samael, short horror, short stories, short story, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.