The Story is Free But the Monster Must Be Paid

It is my turn for the Fondue Writers Club free Halloween Story festival. All of the previous stories have been fantastic — mostly ghost stories (although Courtemanche went more sci-fi, and I am proud of him for it). Who doesn’t love a good ghost story!

I did mine a little different, opting for a narrative poem. It is free verse with no discernible meter and intentionally without rhyme. The first draft was in complete rhyme, but it hindered the flow so I I tossed that and opted for this instead. It is not specifically Halloween, as I wrote one of those several years ago (Jolly Rogers — click here to see the Amazon page) so I challenged myself to do something different.

I hope you like it. If you do, please share. If you don’t, don’t tell me or anyone else. You can keep that to yourself.

The Tragedy of Fortunatus and Felix
Jamie D. Greening

The world as we know it is filled with fright, tis always been so
None more blood chilling than what lives in the space outside the light
Darkness fills droopy eyes; the sun declines so the moon may rise and that is when the
ear hears the sudden sound, the eye pops open

There is nothing there, no ghost, no spirit, no phantasm sublime
Go back to bed it is nothing, only too many campfire fairy fables
Listen, the wind blows not, no one else is here
The blanket is a shield of woven fabric, a talisman to protect from the midnight dread

Tonight the rustling of leaves in the autumn chill is unfamiliar
The squeak, the grunt, the moan, the wail are not in the library
of the mind
Explanations shoot through the head – a neighbor, a friend, a child, a lover
Call out? Announce? Go and see? Paralysis and silence
Cold sweat

An account unchanged a million times or more
Fright is a lifelong nocturnal companion
happy to discover it is only a neighbor seeking help, a lost horse eating apples, a hungry racoon digging in the garbage or long-lost lover coming to see if there is any love left

Except when it is not

More than the children of humanity admit,
tis a wraith in the night that bangs the door
or slides between the parallax
to suck souls from fleshly flasks, draining blood as a drunk chugs wine on a winter’s eve
The echo sounds like crawling; perhaps it is an owl on the roof, or it could be a fanged phantom or a sharp clawed ghoul with cold blood searching for a way through the planks in the wall

Fortunatus and his brother in the juniper thicket
Halfway up the mountain they ate
Roast rabbit and zested roots, tubers dug wild in the woods covered in spices from a leather-bound trinket worn ‘round the neck
With certain sling Fortunatus struck the kit, Felix crushed the head with muddy boots

‘The journey is an adventure’ Felix sang to an ancient ode, ‘Yet favor shines from the lucky star
Tomorrow we climb the mountain and see fair earth as do the birds and the heavenly host swirling in the sky
On the round peak we will drink and recline in the lofts above
Forsaking the river and denying the ferryman his fare
the sons of Tarquinius will conquer mysterious Mount Trepidatio’

Fire warmed four hands and cheeks; brotherly love warmed their two hearts
The younger played his seven-holed flute; they sang of heroes, women, and youth while drinking wine from a flagon Felix filched from father’s storehouse
Just sober enough to make prayers and practice diviners’ arts
‘Protect us, Oh Spirit, from the marauder, the cheat, the jackal, and the dragon’

Sunrise greeted Felix first, he with auburn hair
Herculean Fortunatus shook the campground after dawn
Up they went on their father’s business, up Mt. Trepidatio
Neglected switchbacks and washed out passes slowed their ascent up the long-abandoned path

Supper on the summit was meatless, hard bread and salty sauce
No wood for fire, the trees far behind
They shivered in the cold waiting for slumber
Dreamworld came at last, but it did not abide
something loud approached in the dark

‘Who is there?’ Brave Fortunatus cried, ‘Show yourself. We are friends traveling to fair Harbor Town’
No voice replied, no greeting exchanged only the huff of a ravenous roar
The moon was full but hidden by clouds, just then it poked out her shine
There before him a beast, a banshee, behemoth, growled and pounced like a cat

Fortunatus was gone
his body dragged away
into the eternal slumbering dark.

Felix saw little, mostly heard it go down, his brother was supper tonight.
Oh, my brother, the oldest by ten heartbeats, how I loved you and worshipped you, and now you are no more

No place to hide on Trepidatio’s summit, nowhere to run
Exposed and weak, his heart beat beat beat
his breath evaporated; fear stuck to him as a spider’s web clings to a fly
‘Now I shall die, the sons of Tarquinius will be no more forever’

The attacker did not come
Death stayed his hand
Out of the void Felix heard crunch and slurp, the joyful sound of sucking

The sun arose and Felix could see
the world fresh and new and alive
Rock on the mountain leaves no tracks, but blood stains stone
Felix followed not the trail, for he knew it led to the dead
He gathered the camp and descended toward Harbor Town, only a half day away

These are the times when despair turns to hope
Felix believed he had made it through death’s nightmare snare
The sun was out, and his vista was clear; he could see the town below
Danger was past and not present

The hope is false, and the threat is real
The killer will hunger again
Having tasted the blood of one brother, it now craves what flows inside the other

Clenched muscles stood guard through the night then hurried down the mount
Fatigue plagues even the young, but not as dangerous as the skeptics doubt
Felix wiped his tears as the grief took his thoughts
Had he seen a monster? Was it only a leopard or bear? Surely it was not what he thought he saw in the pitch of dark

The trees had returned on his downward journey, and he found one and sat beside it
Under the tamarisk, tears washed his heart, the shade soothed his muscle and bone
In their youth how they played, sticks were swords and valiant spears
In swift river they swam
In fields they ran
Everywhere they went they laughed
Fortuantus the swifter and stronger, Felix the clever and nimble. The sons of Tarqinius were famous throughout the village
playful boys filled with the daemon of mischief

Was it a game, a prank, some joke Fortunatus had planned
Was he gone now? Was it real?
Was he already at Harbor Town laughing in the tavern?
Under the canopy he cursed, for strong Fortunatus was dead
He knew it true for he felt the absence in the part of him where no words existed, where nothing e’er needed be said

Deep sorrow squeezes from a person a horrible sound; the force of wind and the mind pressing up and down through the body, pushing life itself out and away from the human composition and into the evaporating ether
Shouts, moans, sobs and screams
Begging, pleading, cursing, praying
Betwixt these hideous noises a supernatural silence lingers, like a gazelle lingering too long at the water’s edge when the crocodile is just waiting to bite
A quiet such as in the temple of worship or the nursery of a sleeping baby; a special silence reserved only for holy, hope, and hurt.

In one of these supernal silences Felix heard he was not alone

The road to Harbor Town to his left
To his right, his brother’s killer
Closer to Felix than ten horse lengths
The predator had quarried his prey

The stench, whether from festering blood black on the matted brown, or from the back of the throat of the four-fanged beast, was like unto the tanner’s shop
Fetid meat, maggots, and bile
Curved horns looped round and round and came to lethal points
It stood like man, screamed like woman
Lunging toward Felix

To this side, then to that
Nimble and quick on his feet
Fortunatus’ brother escaped the sharp claw, but
not before it tore through his tunic and skin; hot
blood ran down his leg

No sword or shield he carried
The sling was lost with his twin
The only hope he had to live
Was to outrun the fiend

In direction, he erred, as he fled from the shrub
Uphill he ran where doom awaited, rather than down
to where people could help
The village below was his one salvation
but he went up as if to die

The predator announced with boisterous breath and abominable bellows
Time slipped from the young man, the joy of life and hope of a future were crushed with every step
Alas, man is not brute, woman is not savage
Humanity is gifted with nobility
The knowledge of art and the desire of dignity abides in every person’s beating heart
Whether inspiration or desperation, teller nor hearer shall e’er know
But Felix stopped in his shoes and turned on his heels and looked at the creature that chased hard.

‘I can’t outrun you
I can’t out fight you
Your strength is greater than mine
So, before you devour me, please allow me, a song with which to end my life’

The unlearned creature did not understand, fangs covered in froth and breath out-of-control
Confused, it rested on haunches while Felix
produced from his pouch the seven-holed flute
From memory he played the one his father loved, the favorite
tune of Tarquinius
An epic about love and home and hearth, the ballad of ancestors and lore

Two bars in, the animal became placid, resting in blessed repose
Six bars in and Felix’s notes faltered; from the forest emerged two juveniles of same fur and fangs but without the looped horns
Three more arrived, and then one more
By the third stanza there were twelve
All in rest, calmed and docile
Tamed by Felix’s flute

Over and over he played the same melody, tip toeing
downhill toward town.
He kept playing and playing, the things kept
arriving, now almost twenty in the crowd

He played on and on until out-of-sight
Then he ran with all speed
until at last upon a farmhouse he
fell at the outskirts of Harbor Town

‘That’s not true!’ the child said with a squeal, ‘Grandpa
you made that up’
The old man replied, ‘Thus true I do swear,’ as he showed six deep scars on his side.
‘Off of Mt. Trepidatio stay, take the river always, pay the ferry toll, come what may’ He picked up his flute and played his grandchildren a lullaby
A tear fell from his eye for his long gone twin
Remember strong Fortunatus forever

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