“Hoard” by Brianna Ferguson

I cherish no illusions that this account will find me alive when the sun finally does come up, but I must write down what I have seen. This wild place has already taken so much from me, I cannot allow this, too, to die in the muck and filth of this lonely frontier town.

It began only this evening. One of the men at Molly Parker’s boarding house had just come  back from a week’s sojourn around a northern bend in the creek. There were nuggets out that way, he’d said, bigger than any yet discovered so close to the town. Men warned him of the curses and traps laid that far north by the hostiles still refusing to share their land, but he went anyways. Honestly, none thought too deeply on the matter. Men get desperate and wander off every day out here. One fewer men means two fewer hands sifting the silt and bog for what might be your ticket home.

While he was gone, Ma took sick. I found her on the floor beside the fire, clammy to the touch, eyes blank and staring at the ceiling. She was mumbling something about how we should all atone for the sins we have brought to this land, or The Punishment would come. She kept saying that–The Punishment–as if it carried meaning of a particular nature not just to herself but to anyone within earshot. My mother was a righteous woman, but her righteousness came from a love for our Lord and saviour, never from the fear of punishment that awaits those who do not heed the Word. The doctor said it was a fever and to keep her bed away from the rest of us.

Not two days later, Ma passed in her sleep, and the man from Parker’s House came back with empty pockets and a fever of his own. They took him to the boarding house, but one look at his sallow skin and sunken eyes and Miss Parker ordered he be taken away. ‘I’ve enough of a struggle as it is without his cursed soul comin’ down upon me,’ she could be heard hollerin’ from the other end of town.

They took him to the Church of the Charitable Brothers and gave him a space behind the lectern to sleep and recover his strength. His feet were rotten near to the bone, and a doctor was ordered to amputate them. Foot rot is a common plague for the men of these parts, but to hear the doctor describe it, it was as if the flesh had been eaten clean off his toes, leaving naught but splintered, white fragments of bone for him to walk home on.

I was at home with the chaplain, arranging Ma’s service when I heard the first of the screams. It being Saturday, we took it at first to be naught but the usual weekend revelry to which our countrymen were so inclined. A moment later, though, the sound of gunshots drew our discussion out into the yard to see what the commotion could be.

Women were screaming and men loading shot with clumsy, half-frozen hands. The church was half-burnt already, belching smoke and flames into the night sky. I looked about for the bucket chain that always attended such fires, but there was none.

“Why aren’t they putting it out?” I shouted to the priest, as if his knowledge could exceed my own, having been similarly occupied until a moment ago. But he offered no explanation. He just stared with his jaw agape and his eyes as wide and full of terror as if he were looking into the bowels of Hell itself.

“The church,” was all he said.

“Yes, I know, but–” I let it go and ran towards the inferno. Whatever help the man might have offered on Sundays apparently did not extend to emergencies such as this.

As if in apology for the fire, a vicious rain kicked up from above, pounding the buildings and all assembled in the streets with frigid, furious fingers. A cheer went up among those assembled, but a few men nearest the building were shouting and waving their arms as if to push everyone back.

“Get away from here!” I heard one of them shout. “It’s not just the fire, there’s a man in there! A demon!”

“‘Tis true!” Another man shouted. “I saw him with me own eyes! He weren’t right, he–”

A beam fell behind them, taking with it the holy cross stationed above the door. A shower of sparks exploded behind the men and raced to disappear into the air as the cross caught fire and began to burn.

And that’s when I saw him, stumbling from the smouldering ruin of our house of worship. His hair had been burned from his scalp, as had most of the clothes on his body. His skin was melting in impossible, waxy rivulets from his jaw and the tips of his hands, landing with a hiss in the flames. His legs, cut clean away only that day, were half-height, bearing him forward as if he were on his knees. Yet still he came towards us, as if the cuts and the flames hurt not the least, and the only impediment to his egress was the fallen beams barricading his path.

As he reached the road, several men fired their guns. The explosion was deafening, erupting so close to my ears. I saw that several shots hit him square in the chest and head, by the way he twisted backwards, as if slapped. But they did not stop him. He kept coming at us, bellowing this terrible moan. As long as I live, I shall not forget the sound that came from that man. As if all the demons of Hell were arranged in a chorus and told to raise their voices to an unholy A minor.

The crowd backed slowly away, but the streets were only so wide, and there was only so much space to fill. One of the women standing downhill turned suddenly and began to run. The man jerked to the side, watching her go, and then, with an unholy pace of which I would not have thought him capable, he raced after her, throwing sparks from his clothes as he ran. Some of the sparks landed in the grass outside the other buildings, and began to light.

But it was not those early signs of our town’s destruction that drew our attention. Standing quite helpless and frozen where we were, we watched as the man from the church threw himself upon the woman like any hungry predator upon its prey.

The woman shrieked and fell to the earth in a fiery swirl of skirts and pantaloons. The man upon her back had ceased moaning and instead taken up the desperate, insane chomping and biting sounds of a frenzied pack of wolves dismantling a fallen quarry.

The woman’s shrieks subsided within seconds, but it was an eternity to those listening. Flesh was torn from bone and tossed aside in the mindless feeding frenzy the man now brought against her body.

In a breath it was over, and the man rose to a standing position beside the woman. Another shot was fired at the beast, but it was as ineffective as its predecessors.

The man stared at us through unseeing eyes. His face dripped blood and flesh as the unearthly white of his skull, now fully exposed, shone in the moonlight.

He fell, then, flat on the ground as if leveled by some divine hand.

No one spoke. No one moved a muscle.

The woman beside him lay quite still, dribbling warm, steaming blood onto the muddy street around her.

A man broke from the crowd and took a few cautious steps towards her. I could make out in the flickering light that it was our Baker, Mr. Thomson. No one seemed to notice or care that two more buildings had begun to smoke and burn. The rain pounded our bodies, as if angry with us. Our hair and clothes hung about us in damp sheets, pouring off of our bodies as the burnings man’s flesh had done only moments before.

Naught five steps had the baker taken towards the woman and man lying dead in the street, when the woman began to stir. Not as a sleeping, broken body would stir, though, but abruptly and with great purpose. Leaping to her feet, the woman turned towards us with blank and crazy eyes. Her jaw was broken, and it hung slack, a few inches too low. She was rigid, jerking here and there to take in the burning buildings, the rain, and us, as if seeing all for the first time.

She bellowed, then, with a sound at least as unholy as anything that had sprung from the burning man. Then she ran towards the baker. The man hardly had taken a step when she landed upon him and tore out his throat. His screams were silenced as quickly as they came, though his arms and legs thrashed desperately as he tried to throw her off.

Most of us still stood where we’d been, completely transfixed by the scene unfolding before us. Though I could hear some in the back beginning to pull away, running desperately towards whatever shelter might exist that could keep these demons out.

A moment later, the woman leaped from the man and dove towards another woman near the edge of the crowd. I didn’t wait to see what happened to her, but I could guess by the screams, and the sickening snap of bones being broken.

As I reached the edge of town, I turned back in time to see the woman’s first victim rise to his feet as she had done only a moment before.

My mind was all white with panic as I reached our house. Pa wasn’t there, but I didn’t expect him to be. He would have been at the river all day, and in the pub for the remainder, eager to spend the spoils of whatever flakes he’d found.

I grabbed a lantern and a quilt and stuffed them into Pa’s satchel. The screams were so loud outside my door, I held my breath waiting for the door to burst inwards and all the demons to spill into my kitchen. But none came.

I peeked outside at the desperate mob down the street. Men and women fell upon each other in shrieking, writhing piles of flesh and fear as the rain turned the streets to mud, but seemed to ignore the burning buildings. Six buildings, I could see, were now ablaze, and the whole of the town was illuminated with ungodly clarity.

I turned and ran north along the road, away from the fray. The town had never been home to me, but it had been my residence these last eighteen months, and to see it descend into such fiery confusion and calamity was, I’ll admit, almost too heartbreaking to behold. Not the least of which being that it was the only establishment for fifty miles in any direction, and were I to survive the night, I would need to start walking.

The bush was thick, but I didn’t want to be seen on the road. Surely the residents of the ruined town would take to the roads when the easy prey was exhausted, and I didn’t want to give my body too easily to their ravenous need.

I picked my way as quickly as I could over the rocks and fallen limbs, but after a while I could go no further, and I made my way down to the creek to walk in the water. I recoiled at the hideous cold of the water, but it was by far the most level of places to walk, and I was getting tired.

The current crept steadily upwards as I made my way along. The rocks were slippery and I lost my balance more than once, but I pressed on; with the horrors behind me still so fresh in my mind, what choice did I have?

Naught ten minutes later, though, a particular fall brought my head beneath the surface, and I lost my footing. I tumbled backwards perhaps a hundred yards before smashing against a log jam. As I kicked to gain purchase, my right foot became lodged between two boulders, and I felt a sickening crunch as the current pushed me sideways and snapped my ankle like a twig.

I howled in pain, but thankfully my head was still beneath the surface of the water. I’d no idea as to the auditory acuity of the devils back in town, but surely they wouldn’t have heard the submerged shouts of a drowning girl.

I loosed my ankle and struggled towards the nearest riverbank. My satchel, as if by some miracle, had not come undone, and I had a lantern to see by once it had dried out a bit.

A rocky overhang no longer than my own body jutted from the mountainside, and it was beneath that overhang that I dragged my broken body to wait out the night.

The seconds ticked incessantly onwards, pecking at my damp flesh like hungry mosquitoes. I listened with all my strength, partly to draw my attention away from the pain in my leg, and partly to listen for the ravenous horrors that were once my countrymen.

Every second that passed had me believing I could hear them coming, but none appeared.

I dug in my father’s satchel for food or tools or anything useful, but found only a damp piece of parchment, a pen, and a pot of ink. Whatever the next day was to bring, I could hardly imagine it would be pleasant for me.

I blew softly on the paper, praying for it to dry. The breeze had begun to pick up, as it usually did just before sunrise, but even through the rattling leaves, I could hear limbs cracking and voices moaning. They were distant, but undeniable.

I don’t know what value this written account will hold for anyone who finds it. I can’t imagine anyone making it this far north without first being accosted by the demonic men and women who once waved good morning to me and sold me bread and eggs. I hope the lust for gold dies down and people cease to come this way, but I can’t imagine it will. The need for wealth is a deep one, and I can easily imagine wave after wave of fodder making its way up here to meet its messy end and add bodies to the hoarde.

Perhaps the natives of this area will find this account first, but I doubt it will hold much value for them. We speak different languages, them and us, and I can’t see this paper serving any purpose beyond tinder.

Oh Lord, I can see them now–three men and a woman staring at me from across the water. They seem unsure how to cross the river. They keep falling in the current, but they’re still coming. I can’t think of a way to stop them. I’ve  searched the surrounding area for anything to defend myself and have found only a sharp stone. If it were a rabbit descending upon me, I might have had a chance. But these demons are a far cry from rabbits. Perhaps just as mindless, but capable. My God, are they capable.

I beseech You, oh Lord, to save my soul. I offer my love and apologize for all my sins. I apologize for the sins of my countrymen, and I beg that you might forgive our kind. If this to be the final reckoning, I suppose my words hold little value. What else can I do, though, but plead? I can’t reverse the whole course of our hunger. But you made us, after all. You made us hungry.

This author has not provided a photo.

Brianna Ferguson is a poet, short story writer and music journalist from British Columbia. Her writing has appeared in various publications across North America and the U.K. including Minola Review, Jokes Review, and Outlook Springs