God Screamed and Screamed,
Then I Ate Him

by

Lawrence Santoro

 

Bunch woke up. He was at his place: under the bridge, down where Papoose Crick fed the Rolling River. Snow was falling. He sat up and yesterday started oozing into his head. Cripes! He was pretty sure the Eelmans, the fat lady, that stuff from last night, whatever -- whenever it had been -- hadn't been a dream.

Bunch sniffed. The air didn't stink anymore. He sniffed himself. He didn't stink anymore. The mud under the bridge where he lived had frozen. Yesterday, it was soft under the crust. Today it took his weight. The river dribbled, licking slow and chilly, like always, early winters. Morning air was gray and pearly, color of the streak in Cristobel Chiaravino's hair when she combed it just about right. The ashy bole, the one had come blasting off the tree across the Rolling last night, lay dusted with snow at the foot of his sack.

Nope. No dream. The cold white ash of the pinewood bole, showed that, alright. The damned thing had come right for him, shot from the tree across the river. Damn tree had always been there, now it was gone; tree had stood forever across the Rolling from where Bunch lived, and there it was: gone, and the bole, laying at his feet! Putting a couple things together to make another one, he was pretty sure the dry thunderstorm part of yesterday hadn't been a dream. Nope.

The darkness had started rumbling early last night, before he'd put his head down. By and by, a full-out dry thunderstorm was coming through. A son-of-a-bitch.

Born to the driftless zone, Bunch was used to the odd, might sat he was son and heir to the odd. This time of year, lightning was a little odd. Dry thunder was odd, anytime. A full-blown all-out bang down rip roar flash-crash and explode-a-tree kind of storm, dry as a bone, no rain, no snow AND this time of year...that was god damned odd! Anytime.

Time to time, it happened. It must happen, or it wouldn't have happened last night. And last night it did. There was the bole.

In bluff country, thunders mostly stayed "up the flatlands," like people say. Night before, though, the storm must have slipped, gotten stuck down in the valley of the Rolling. Bunch remembered: God damned thing had come bouncing like a dam-busted creek along the rocky walls of the valley, a flood-front of thunder rushing, gathering, rising like a wave until it flat-out rammed him stupid with noise and light.

Without thinking, Bunch had sat bolt upright. Bunch didn't sit up, middle of the night, for just anything. But this storm! It tore the fog to tatters and played across the bluffs, made the whole river smell of old metal.

Bunch hugged his legs. For a long time, the blind lightning and the spine-cracking thunder came one on top the other. Then the tree across the river exploded. Pine cones popped like balloons, smoke trailed and the tree vanished into its pieces. Pieces rained everywhere and the bole -- that bole -- came tumbling across the still running water of the near frozen river and rolled like a chicken head up the bank. Stopped just shy of Bunch's sleepy sack. For a second, eyes glared at Bunch in the crackling glow of the knotty trunk. Then not.

Then on, the thunder's sharp edge gave way to deep down boomers as the lightning crawled upriver, deeper into the driftless. Bunch relaxed. When the damn thing was a distant flicker beyond the bends of the river above the town and the thunder was just deep vibrations against his chest, when the fog thickened around him, and that bole didn't look at him anymore, he slept.

That was last night, early, and he was pretty sure it had been real.

The rest of the night and this morning, he didn't know, didn't want to think about. He wasn't at his best, thinking, anyway. Wasn't his suit.
One thing Bunch did know: it was morning and he was hungry. Two things!

After yesterday, he had a right being hungry, walking half way to the bottom of the world and his stomach sucked dry... Okay! THREE things: his stomach sucked dry by them ghost critters!

Nope, didn't want to think about it. Thinking was bound to get him in trouble, slow him down when he needed to quicken up -- like that! Bunch snapped his fingers in the morning air. Sounded good.

He pulled on the decent clothes -- pants, shirt, wooly jacket, everything -- even remembered shoes -- and went walking to town.

Morning snow was pretty and quiet. He liked that. Passing the pens, the other side of the river, slaughterhouse cows stood chewing, mooing, breaths and butts steaming in the cold. He was hungry!

Down the way, smoke was curling from Cristobel's chimney. Good, he figured, she's up safe, moving around.

Passing her place, he slowed to consider: He ought, maybe, to go ask. Even if it was a dream -- which it was not -- Cristobel Chiaravino knew dreams; knew the places that lived in people's heads, knew the ways magics worked when you said the words and drank down the rotten tasting stuff she made. He'd smelled the stuff coming out her windows, summers. Must've been rotten-tasting.

That was on one hand.

With the other, he figured he ought NOT bother Miss Chiaravino.

Couple days ago, she'd gone griping to the fat bastard town cop Vinnie Erickson, who was snoozing -- like always -- in the town prowler. She'd gone waving her arms, banging on the windshield, yelling Bunch was peeping her, peeping in when she was nude and Vinnie ought to do something about it, town cop, fat bastard public servant like he was!

Bunch couldn't figure her. It wasn't like she'd hidden anything; Cristobel being the most regularly nude person he'd ever known.

"Some Eye-talian complains, -- a woman -- and he comes down here, climbs all over me!"

Bunch was still walking, but walking slower.

" She complains. Vinnie comes to me! Peeking!"

The thinking was becoming talking.

"Me!" he shouted. "Peeking what, I'm asking? You got something to peek at!? And when? She's getting ready for those baths of hers? Oh, yeah! There she is, getting ready for bed? Getting up in the morning, I guess, or walking around, nights, in them candles, walking barefoot in that thin thing, pale blue whatchacallit, slip, of hers with the little rip -- down under her right arm, there?"

He pointed on himself where the rip in Cristobel's nightgown showed bare shadowed flesh. Then he was thinking about that bare flesh, brown like a nut...

...and as he gave consideration to these things, Bunch gave more and more energy to talking and less and less to walking. In a while, there he was: dead in the road, staring at sky, staring at nothing, nothing at all.

The thought concluded with: might be a bad idea, come knocking now. Too bad, he calculated further, Cristobel knew stuff.

Then he was remembering: remembering falling asleep after the storm. Then he remembered early morning. And that was another think entirely.

First, he'd thought the thunder had come back. Rumbling bubbled up from the hard muddy ground his ear was laying on and pounded his sleeping head bone. By the time he'd crawled awake, the whole world was shaking.

A couple seconds and he realized it was trucks. Heavy stuff, bigger, he reckoned, than the trucks as hauled meat animals in and out of the stockyards, the place Doc Mouth called, "Cowschwitz," whatever that meant.

When the first of the Eelman Brothers' semis came bumping across Papoose Crick bridge, the bridge's half ton of sheath ice, chattered to pieces. Ice rained over Bunch, his stuff, and whatever was under what the bridge went over.

In a second, Bunch was not among them.

He jumped, dodging sliver ice, and stood barefoot and sinking in cold mud. The big tires made a wicked hum as the damn thing breezed by. Sounded like an organ pipe from up at the Lutheran's hitting too many notes at once. Damn thing growled off county H, down shifting into Bluffton.

The second one came a hundred yards later; a rush of blackness, two eyes bouncing in the mist, spraying light like broken fire over everything they turned to. Thing howled like an Injun war, crossing the bridge. The whole span wiggled up and down like a too-fat bird on a too-thin branch.

Around then, Bunch decided this entire night was sticking a sun-dry cockleburr up his ass. Without thinking, he hauled tail up the bank to the road.

Bunch was at his best when he didn't think. A thinking man wouldn't have been under the bridge in the middle of winter in the middle of the night in first place. A thinking man probably wouldn't have bothered jumping up, all pissy, like Bunch had in the second place. He felt like he owed the town something, though. Don't ask him what. It was just the way he felt and he didn't think about it.

Barefoot, shirtless, he hit the road in three steps and a couple snatches; in time for the third and fourth trucks to roar by like rolling thunderheads.

Now, in the THIRD place, a man using his head most likely wouldn't have run out into the middle of the highway to shake his fist at the caravan of dusty black and streaming colored thunder that was on the roads middle of this winter night.

Bunch did. He shook his fist and cussed a streak until he felt stupid. Then he started thinking. (Have I said, Bunch was not at his best when thinking?)

That was when the fifth black truck snuck up, behind. It came in a whisper, a sigh; caught him -- thinking. The horn shot a hot diesel current up his spine, a thousand steel-cutting saws tearing a tin roof down around his ears.

Before he thought about it, he'd back-peddled off the roadway onto the gravel where he fell, whomp, flat on his back.

The black thing passed. Passing, it wrapped Bunch in a swift flowing moonshadow, deeper than any black night, darker than any of the bluff caves Bunch'd ever crawled into. The damned whispery thing froze him dead-still, a Bunch-sized slab of pissed offedness, laying like a road turtle, leg-up and spinning in the breeze.

When the truck was past and gone, he sat up. A snowstorm of light -- red, green, amber, all these, others, colors he didn't know the names of, colors he'd never seen -- surrounded the truck's black ass-end. In the center was a symbol.

Bunch could read, 'course he could. Cristobel Chiaravino had showed him how to sound out his letters. He'd read lots of things. He just wasn't much for it. Beside, what was spread in black-green-gray (and something else he didn't know what), across the ass of the dwindling truck wasn't reading, it was a picture...a swirling thing, a spinning fire wheel on the 4th of July, a wide grinning mouth with two curling horns.

The picture dwindled slower than the truck was leaving. Then they were both gone.

He jumped up. Despite what had just happened, and without thinking, Bunch stepped into the roadway. The sign was gone, with the truck that carried it, on its way into Bluffton. All Bunch knew, he wanted to see more of that damned picture thing. And, the damned picture thing was gone.

Third thing he knew: the world stank like high summer at the deep end of the cesspool out at Karl's Bad Kabins. That was one stink!
This stink left a lot of itself hanging, but it soon went to ground. With the stench, the rumbles in the earth faded as the last trailer rounded the curve in the treelined corridor toward town. Night was quiet again, but like an echo of thunder, a word settled in Bunch's head. It rolled around inside along with the fading memory of that picture thing.

The word was: "Eelman!"

"What the hell," he said aloud to the distance. "Am I going nuts?" he said louder. "What the hell's an Eelman?" he yelled.

A layer of mist had regathered above the roadway after the trucks' passing. Suddenly it moved. One second it hung knee high. The next, it sucked up to Bunch's gut, then dropped to his ankles and dissolved in a swirl. A cold downwash of air made his ears pop.
He looked up.

Overhead, the stars shone prettier than he'd ever seen. His ears popped again and in that moment something passed between him and heaven, something darker than space. The passing thing ate the familiar stars as it swam, and seemed to fill up with them. In the air, it followed the curve of County H as it turned toward Bluffton. Bunch had no idea how high the dark thing was, but it took a while to pass.
Then it was gone.

Bunch leaned on the guardrail at Papoose Crick bridge -- making sure it was still there. Doggone steel was hot!



A diesel horn nearly kicked his spine through the back of his head and out his ass. For a half-second he flashed on last night, but this was morning and there he was: a doofus standing in the middle of Slaughterhouse Street, thinking! Him!

At the wheel of his stock truck, a pissed-off Andre Trois-Coeur LeMais, shook his hamhock-fist at him and strung out a line of Frog-Injun cusses his way.

Bunch backpedaled and LeMais' cow truck growled by, gears grinding, brakes hissing, engine farting with effort. Even the cows, nothing better for them to do today than go die, hollered at him for holding things up.

Then, in the swirling snowdust of morning, Andre Trois-Coeur LeMais, a life-long citizen of the driftless, gave Bunch the finger, and was gone! Him! Bunch! Also a life-long citizen.

Fingered, like a terrorist!

When the little whirlywinds of snow had settled at Bunch's feet, there was Cristobel Chiaravino. She stood on her stoop staring from across the street. She had a broom in hand and was wearing all her clothes plus a down parka. Her hair was tucked under the hood so Bunch couldn't see the pretty gray streak.

Even with her eyes like a couple of shotguns, Bunch figured he'd better should go ask. A man could take just so much of this thinking.

"Morning." he said, crossing.

She nodded.

"Pretty morning," he said, looking.

She nodded.

"Funny old storm last night," he said.

She squinted.

"Dry thunder, like that..."

She cocked her head.

"No rain. No snow."

She didn't move.

He said, "You see anything last night?"

She cocked her head another inch.

"Big black trucks?"

She stared.

"Big black flying thing..." He showed with his hands.

She stared.

"...lots of sparkles, like stars living down inside?"

She stared; then she blinked. "Come in." She said.

Over hot coffee Bunch told the tale.


His bare feet made floppy noises, slapping cold damp asphalt. Without thinking, Bunch had gone at a trot, following the caravan and the flying critter. Coatless, shirtless, he trailed its spoor down the silver corridor of frost-rimmed trees, into town.

The five trailers had left a big stinkhole in the night; easy tracking for hound or man. Like a hound, barefoot and mostly naked, Bunch had no idea what he was chasing, but things were coming to town he didn't like.

Somewhere in the night, a dog barked three time, then was still.

The empty stockyards looked cold, each shed whispering sad bellows of all the cattle who had waited there to die. The sounds were in his head, but Bunch shivered anyway. He'd never thought of ghost cow. Well...too bad for them...he loved good burger.

"Just remembered that part," he said, sucking boiling coffee in a slurp. "Not important, I guess."

In her warm kitchen, Cristobel sipped her tea. Pretty smile, Bunch thought. Even if she wasn't nude. He didn't say that, though.

After the stockyards, it was another hundred running steps till he passed Cristobel's house. A single light flickered in the top floor window, like wiggling in a breeze. He remembered hoping she was safe in her bed. He didn't tell her that, either.

"Yes, yes," she said, shaking her hair. The pretty streak sliped over her cheek. She pushed it over her ear. "Tell me more!"

Another long suck of coffee, and he jumped back in.

He'd followed the stink down Slaughterhouse, turned onto Commonwealth and trotted along the center of the main street. He passed the Wurst Haus Market, the Wagon Wheel, Einar's (Formerly) Amoco Good Service Station, Doc Mouth's house. Bluffton went quick.
At the Consolidated School, the yellow cautions hanging 'cross the roadway blinked on - off, on - off, same as always. No wind, but the lights swung back and forth, back and forth.

Past the school, the town thinned. Near the edge, the Sons of Norway Lodge and Hall bounced back the falling water roar from the spillway at the old electric dam. The stony gray block stood solid against the dark trees of the deep woods, far side of Paradise Park.
"Ought to go back someday soon and finish that roofing job, Sons of Norway," he said to himself, running past...

...and to Cristobel in her kitchen. "Spring, maybe, huh?"

She nodded quickly, then wiggled her head, urging him on... She licked her lip.

"Yep. I'll do her. This Spring." he said.

The dam's roar filled the dark. The cool push of air from the spilling water stirred up the dead-fish and something-more stink left by the trucks. That smell now mixed with the cold thin winter breath of the Rolling River.

An owl swooped low over the roadway at that moment. It arrowed toward the meadow, far end of the trees across the river. In a couple of seconds Bunch heard the dying-baby scream of a rabbit being torn aloft beneath the bird's talons.

Bunch had just remembered that, too.

Then the town was behind him. Ahead, where the road curved up and cut through a rocky spur, the night glowed. Around the bend was Karl's Bad Kabins; a joke everyone said. He didn't get it.

"It is a play on the words: Carlsbad Caverns."

He stared.

"A tourist place somewhere else. Go on...." at her sink, Cristobel poured another mug.

He was getting to the heart of it. As he told, he remembered. As he remembered, he shuddered. Cristobel cocked her head at his shudder and listened.

Karl's Bad Kabins had been gone for years. The Kampground, just a wide muddy spot, side of the road. Summers, the place filled with terrorists, Bunch called them, folks from the cities in their vans, r.v.s with names painted on, people with red and yellow tents, electric lights and little teevees looking for a bathroom in the woods...

This time of year, the place should have been empty.

As Bunch topped the rise, there were the trucks, in a circle, lamps blazing, nose to nose in the freezing mud of the Kampground. Where their lights crossed, the dark flying thing hunkered down, folded on itself, breathing like a couple dozen of winter bear. The headlamps seemed not quite to touch it, slipping off the black flesh. Inside, tiny stars flickered, like a million sick goldfish in a sack of ink.

Bunch was breathing heavy like the black thing. The run still throbbed his ears and the macadam pounded like a ghost through his body.
"Figured I was getting old," Bunch figured aloud to Cristobel.

She leaned toward him across the wooden table. The kitchen windows sweated. Her eyes blazed. Her lower teeth nibbled her upper lip.

"Now, them trucks weren't trucks!" He blurted out. "I was getting a look, now they were lighting each other up..." Bunch shook his head. He struggled for a word. "I know trucks, for cripes' sake, now, and these weren't trucks!"

His and Cristobel's eyes met. They spoke at the same time: "Vaults," they said.

"...is what they were," He said. "Yeah! That's it." he said...

"Is that what they were," she asked, "'Vaults?'"

"Damn," he said. "Just like the word like, 'Eelman,' that"s the word. 'Vaults.' Word popped right into my head meaning what those trucks were."

"And this was on the sides, the back..." He dipped his finger in the coffee at his elbow and traced a few lines on the dry wood of the table. He drew the sign that had drawn him toward the....the vaults...and the Eelmans in the night.

Cristobel looked. For a second she said nothing. Then she shrieked like a little girl fire siren! Bunch jumped at the noise. Her throat wiggled with it for a half moment.

"The Sign of Koth," she breathed. Her breath smelled like tea and pine trees. "The sign drew you there. It is a very, very old thing, a potent. It sends dreamers on a quest. Dreamers..." She looked at Bunch with something new. Something Bunch had never seen before. The moment passed.

"Yes, yes, yes..." she said, leaning closer, so close, Bunch could smell sleep on her, feel the heat of her. "Tell the rest! In the Vaults. There were ghasts? Yes? Tell me, quick! There ghasts in the vaults?"

"Yeah, yeah, they said that. Them Eelmans. Ghasts, in the vaults. One in each."

She sat back, her mouth open. "You have seen ghasts? The Devourers? The Eaters of Dreams? You..."

Bunch was getting itchy. "I wasn't to look on them, Eelmans said. I was to lead, not look." He smiled at Cristobel. "I peeked. Later. Big rat-things. Legs going the wrong ways. About like..." He tried to show the size of the critters he'd seen bunny-hopping, flopping after him. "Maybe, about like a garage...! Yeah..." He didn't want to say the damn things looked more like a shack-size cow stomach with bad teeth. Women didn't like hearing that stuff.

"You have seen a ghast?" Cristobel was still shaking her head. "And have lived!"

"Pretty sure," he shouted. "Yeah. Yeah...I saw! But lemme tell her in her own time, woman! Damn it." Bunch was cranky when he was hungry. "And I seen FOUR of them!"

She was impressed.

"Same time I came over the hill and seen them...vault things... I started hearing. Just like that!" He snapped his fingers.

The light oozing from the vaults felt greasy, soaked Bunch like a half-warm shower.

The same time, the flying darkness squatting at the center of old Karl's land flapped up, hovered a second, then settled by the edge of the forest. As it flew, voices filled the air like Lutherans and Catholics singing at once, the stars inside the thing twirled like snow in a ball, and the stink of dead critter nearly blew Bunch over.

"Why the hell," Bunch shouted to Cristobel, "Why the hell, these guys have to stink so much?" It wasn't meant to be answered.
She answered.

"They are from Beyond," she answered, eyes half shut. "They are not of this world, of this time, perhaps..." She leaned forward, "Perhaps the Great Old Ones are not of this creation! The Old Great Ones." Her lip curled. "We feel a natural revulsion."

"They still stink," Bunch said, not looking where Cristobel's flannel shirt had opened on soft-looking skin.

"Continue," she said, but didn't lean back.

Where the thing had squatted, a blackness remained.

"Like it had let a huge turd." Bunch said.

Two men waited on the far side of the hole. Taller than most, they stood shoulder against shoulder. Their suits were the whitest things Bunch had ever seen, kicked so much light he had to squint between his fingers to see their faces.

"They were Eelmans," Bunch said.

They were looking at him.

"We wait," one said. Maybe the one on the right, Bunch couldn't tell. It was three- four-hundred feet to the clearing, and the voice had come from, crimminies, from inside his damn head.

"A nice old voice, though," Bunch told Cristobel. "Smooth. Like Doc Mouth."

She nodded.

"Come on. Quick, quickly!" Whoever talked first, this was the other. The one to the left was waving him to hurry. Bunch reckoned it was him, talking. His voice was noise, shrill, blasting over the rumbling trucks -- the vaults. "Time is wasting, time is!" he howled like a sawblade.

"Like Einar at the Amoco when he gets to yelling at customers? You know." Bunch wanted Cristobel to understand.

She nodded.

"Do come quickly," Doc's voice said inside his own damn head. "Do quickly. The God waits..."

The black thing flickered like it'd just been introduced.

"Cripes," I'm coming Bunch said to himself. He took a step forward, and the ground wrinkled, flickered through a whole mess of colors and...

....there he was: in the middle of the light, in the middle of the night. The Eelman brothers in front of him, pit behind.

Without thinking, Bunch blurted out, "That crap never happens. Not ever before. Not to me. What the hell you doing here? And why am I here. And what're you doing..." Eelmans pissed him off, coming to his town, middle of the night, hauling him around like that!
The Eelman on the left -- Einar -- reached out and gripped Bunch's face with cold damp fingertips. Pinched him shut.

"Do not fear us!" the one sounded like Doc said.

"'kay." Bunch grunted.

"My brother has high sensibilities. Such as they are, they are easily assaulted.

"'Mrf" Bunch said.

"He believes you are attacking. Tormenting with your hounds...

"Hmds?" Bunch said.

"Hounds. The creatures at play on the surface of your thoughts. Your angry thoughts!"

Bunch tried looked at the Einar guy hanging on to his face. Einar was curling like a salted snail.

"'Kay," Bunch said.

The Doc said. "Would you mind?"

"Uh-Hmm," Bunch said. He was truly pissed. Squeezed face or not, second this Eelman lets go, he figured to go for him. Go for good!
Bunch considered the wide and varied kinds of hurt he would unleash on the pinching Eelman, hell! Both... Then the guy let up...
The two were howling in Bunch's head. They twitched, they turned, and hopped. Still squinting down on Bunch the buzzy-voice Eelman half tried running the opposite direction his brother's legs were stretching.

"Then I realized," Bunch said to Cristobel, "there weren't but one of them." He was feeling smug. "Just most of two guys and one suit. They must've been hooked arm to hips." Bunch was proud. From there down, they were two guys again...maybe part of a third." He was thinking slower, trying to remember. "Yeah. The suit seemed to have more legs than two guys and one suit would need."

Well, who knew about suits? Besides, there was wiggling going on inside that white cloth, that nobody, not Bunch, anyway, wanted to or should know about. And especially not a lady.

"Stop thinking so loud...?" Doc had yelped.

"Like this...?" Bunch gave his murderous urges one more shot and the Eelmans danced somemore.

"Then, I stopped," he told Cristobel. He sat back and smiled.

She leaned closer, her breath licked his cheek. "They were assaulted. They feared you as a master of the Hounds of Tindalos."
"Uh-huh," Bunch said.

"The Tind'losi Beasts, Hounds of foulness," she said. "They lust after...."

"Uh-huh..." Bunch said.

"They are creatures of the distant past..." She thought for a moment. "Or from a different dimension," she added. "To this Eah'lachmani -- the proper way this 'Eelman' name is spoken -- the hounds would have been visible... Your anger, given tooth and fur. The Eah'lachmani would have seen your wrath as green dogs with blue tongues, fangs of cold fire...."

"Uh-hunh!" he said. He wanted to get going.

"But continue," she said. She licked both lips.

"Well, that was about what Doc Eelman...how do you say that?

"Eee-AHCH." she said.

"Eee- Ah.." he said.

"Lach," she continued.

"Lock," he said.

"Mani" she finished up.

"Dogs...that's what Doc Eelman said I had. Dogs. So I stopped worrying them with my thinking.

"What the hay's going on!?" He was rubbing his face, looking looked past the Eelmans, to the circled vaults, at the dark star filled critter flapping by the edge of the woods. He looked behind him at the black pit...

"And who's going to fill that damn thing up!" he'd yelled.

"The Wailing Writher..." Doc said, still a little nervous.

The black thing wrinkled and for a second, a sound like a billion moths stirred.

"Better," Bunch said.

Einar, leaned forward. "We are fishing," he said.

Doc was dragged forward at the shoulder. "You followed the sign of Koth. You are a dreamer. One who makes dreams real. You are our guide."

Doc uncurled his arm. It unrolled like a rug-runner into a flat palm with one, two, three fingers.

"He didn't have any of them lines on it, like you read," Bunch said.

"Yes, yes, yes... What did he offer?"

"A bitty little bug," he said. "Funny critter, but mostly bug. I never seen one like it; little guy kept winking like a sick firefly."

Cristobel made that siren noise again. "The Jab'achar..." she said. "Most men are terrified of the Jab'achar. It brings waking dreams."

"Uh-huh, Bunch said. "'Bout what Doc told me. They seemed happy I wasn't scared. 'He is the hunter, the Fisher...' That's what one of 'em said. Don't remember which. They were talking about me."

"Fishers are not thinking men," Doc had said. "A man of scholarship and high sensibilities would have fainted at the sight. A touch of the," and Bunch tried to say the name, "Jabby thing bug," Bunch said, "'A touch of the Jabby would have driven you insane.' " Bunch was proud again. "Then he give me the thing..."

"What?" Cristobel said? "What was your task!" she damn near shouted it.

"Like I said: I was supposed to lead this group of Ghosts..."

"Ghasts!"

"Yeah. ...on a fishin' trip down that pit. Find the God they served, and that was that."

"And they said the name of the God?"

"Yes they did!" Bunch was getting used to being proud. "It sounded like that stuff?" he was thinking. "They sell it over at the Wurst Haus...spoiled milk? Yogurt. And that other stuff...peas, corn...?"

Cristobel shrieked a little bit. She said a name.

"Yep," Bunch said. "That's the God I was supposed to take these Ghasts to see...." he tried again... "Yogurt Succotash -- when he come rising from the pit."

Cristobel sat back. She stared at Bunch, wide-eyed. Terror, abhorrence, mind-twisting horror and mad disbelief played on her pretty face. There was, maybe, a little envy to the side. "He is one of the Great Old ones," she said, "the spawn of the Nameless Mist..." She thought a second. "Others say he's ALWAYS been; he shares the rule of the universe with..." Cristobel said another one of those names filled with sounds that didn't go together with each other.

"Uh-huh," he said.

"And you said?"

What Bunch said to the Eelmans was, "Uh-huh. Then you'll leave town, right?"

Both Eelmans heads nodded. Their smiles had shone brightly in the dark of their mouths.



Bunch sat quiet in the kitchen.

"What?" Cristobel leaned to look at him. "You've gone dark," she said.

He didn't like thinking about ghasts; didn't like thinking about the fat woman.

"They had their daughter," he said finally. His damn stomach was churning. He talked louder, drowning out the squirts and gurgles.
"Them Eelmans. They said their daughter would come with me. Us. Me and the ghosts..." He shivered a little.

The woman had stepped from behind the Eelmans. She was too of everything: Too short, too round, too bald, her breasts were too large, her feet too small. Her skin was too white, too pale, and a bit too blue. Her eyes, her mouth, her nose holes...everything on her face was sewed shut. Big stitches, thick string. Too big, too thick. The too thick string pulled the flesh, her too fat flesh, too much together. Bunch didn't want to ask whether the rest of her was sewed up too...

She was also too naked. He didn't say any of that. He blushed.

"What is it?" Cristobel said. She covered his hand with hers. It was warm, hard.
"She was fat. Fatter'n Vinnie Erickson." That's all he wanted to say and he said it.



The fat woman made her face wrinkle, like she smiled under the stitches.

"Turn round," Einar said. Bunch faced the pit. First, he didn't like knowing that fat woman was at his back. Then her too fat fingers slid onto his right shoulder. Her touch tingled.

At that, the trucks...vaults... began hissing in a different way. They clanked, rumbled. Sounded like big doors booming open, like distant thunder, the kind that makes you say, "That thunder out there?"

When the fat woman put another hand on his left shoulder his back muscles wiggled under her touch. She dug in like roots growing inside.

"Go forth," the Eelmans said.

Without thinking, Bunch headed for the hole in the world, the Jabby bug clenched in his hand. Wet sounds, one, two, three, four, splashed behind him.

"Sounds a three-, four-hundred pound trout would make flopping on a flat rock." Bunch said, happy to be off the subject of the fat woman. "Ain't no four-hundred pound trout anywhere I know," he said. "But I know how a good 14-inch rainbow sounds, slapped down for gutting. These plops were like that, only bigger."

Without turning, he shouted back to the Eelmans. "Then you'll leave town, right?"

"Yes," both said. Now go..."

"When I take these folk here," he jerked his thumb over his shoulder, "down there fishing..." he pointed to the hole, "Then you'll get out of town. Right?"

"Yes," the voices said. "Go forth..."

"And you'll leave. Go away. Never come back. Right?"

"Yes," they said. "We have promised it."

Bunch went forth.

"When the God's been served..." Einar added.

Bunch didn't mention his last thought before the hole shut down behind them. It was, "...and you'll leave Cristobel Chiaravino up there on Slaughterhouse Street alone!" He never said that, to Cristobel.

"You led the Ghasts? And the Daughter of the..." and she said that word again.

"The Eelmans? Yep."

"Bearing the Jab'achar?"

He nodded.

"Into the pit of...?"

"Yogurt. Yeah," he growled. "Will you let me tell it?" He said, louder than he needed, but his stomach! He hated sitting with her and making noises. Like stomachs do.



They walked down for hours. He had no idea where they were. Some guide! They could have been damn-near LaCrosse, for all he knew.
He followed his gut. When his gut strayed, the Jabby buzzed and nudged his hand until he got right, then it went to sleep again.

Dark as it was, he could see. Sort of. Like a bad picture on the teevee over at the Wagon Wheel -- dim, but you knew what team had the field. Figured the Jabby was doing that. Don't ask how, he just figured!

First couple hours was boring. And stinky...with the ghasts slurping along, sucking wet like they did. The fat woman probably adding to it. Bunch made a point of saying "ghast" correctly.

First it was the usual critters -- cave crickets, spiders, worms and billion leggers. In a while, though, the bugs started sprouting little lights, like light-up bugs, above. Long-whiskered crickets hopped and glowslugs wriggled in their own green light bulbs. It was kind of pretty. He didn't have anyone to say that to, at the time, so he kept his mouth shut. He told Cristobel in her kitchen. She smiled.

Soon, these little lights faded and it was dark again, with them moving through that mental teevee set. On the walls and floor, just out of reach, Bunch could hear the things; things creeping in the black. Working whatever it was they did.

Then even these noises went away. Either there were either no critters this far down in the world, or the critters shut up when Bunch and all came slopping down the path.

"God be doggoned," he shouted suddenly.

"What?" Cristobel screamed. She twitched right out of the story.

"I could eat a house," he shouted. "I haven't eaten since... Well, I get to that." He was tired of shouting his gut down.

She jumped to her feet. "I'll feed you. Talk, keep talking!" she shouted as she wrapped an apron around herself.

Knowing it was coming, relaxed Bunch. The room was warm and already smelled good from Cristobel and the smell of dry firewood he'd chopped for her and stacked in the pantry porch two weeks ago. Soon the place sizzled and smelled like food.

That begun, he started in on the tail end.



Something. A hair, a cobweb, tickled his face. Without thinking, he stopped. The stinky things behind him also stopped. They slurped against the stone path. The fat woman came up, bump, against his back and for a second Bunch felt crawly things where her gut pressed him. Then she backed off.

His hairs prickled.

"Wait," he said, and inched forward. Now it was truly dark. Even his teevee eyes were off. Every few steps, small things touched him, tiny claws scrabbled over his feet, a spook breathed on his face, hands, arms. He didn't like their feel. When he felt them, he adjusted, inched in another direction. Three, four steps and he couldn't move, not a bit, no matter where he shifted, where he turned, the little touches found his skin.

Without thinking, he opened his hand, the hand holding the Jabby.

Cold fire lit out of the little bug's tail. First, it made Bunch's hand glow. A slender thread, like spider silk, lay across his palm. When the light caught it, green brilliance filled the strand and squirted into the darkness. The tail-glow from the Jabby bug spread, riding the threads, streaming, like bat-piss in a moony night. Where one glowing string crossed another, the light split and spread. In a blink the dark was filled by a glowing network, a rainfallen spiderweb in sunlight.

Then he saw where they were.

They'd emerged from the long cave down and now stood near the wall of a vast cavern. Behind him and his stinking train, the wall rose to a dome of black rock arching up and away forever. The spreading web of light disappeared into a million tiny caves that dotted the inside of this vast honeyhive.

All around, the air was shot through with the threads that sucked light from the tail of the Jabby-bug in Bunch's hand.

They had stopped when they should have. Bunch's bare toes hung over the end of the world. A black hole, miles across and who knew how far down, spread in front. None of the glowing threads plunged into that darkness, no light brightened that hole...

...and from it something was rising. Something, a big breathing something, was coming up to join them. Below, invisible lungs sucked, and all the world's air blew past; the wind at his back shoved Bunch toward the pit, closer to the blacknight rising at his feet.

The slopping, farting mess behind, chirped and purred like wet kitties tearing fish guts. The fat woman rooted deeper into one shoulder, then the other.

The Jabby-Bug giggled. Then, it said something made him tear his eyes from the rising blackness. He looked at the bug, saw it clearly now. Not a bug, the Jabby was covered in fine fur, its body white, soft, not shell-hard like a bug ought to. The damn thing was covered with flesh. It's feelers reached out three, four feet, and like little hands, they felt the wind.

Ugliest thing about the little bastard was its head. It had no bug face: It's eyes were like a man's, its lips looked as though they could smile, scream, talk. Worse, the mouth had a tongue. The tongue licked the light, tasting it. Then it turned and looked at Bunch.

"Your dream awakens." The Jabby said. "Now eat!"



Cristobel's kitchen sizzled. Heat poured off the stove carrying good smells with it.

"Yes," she said. "And..."

"Then," Bunch said, getting hungrier by the minute. "Then them damn Ghost things..."

"The Four Ghasts? Yes?"

"They started hooting."

"Yes."

"Then that fat woman. She up and started flying. Flying straight up..."

Cristobel stared.

"Me attached. Dug onto my arms!"

She stared.

He pulled his shirt collar down. A single ring of bruise blue flesh circled the muscles at his shoulder. "Other side's the same."

She touched the mark.

He didn't want to interrupt her warm touch, but he reckoned he'd have to finish the story to get fed. "That damn Jabby flew, too. Left my hand and buzzed up and up. Soon's it did, them glowing threads started dying. Slow. The fat lady took me..."
Bunch shut up for a second. He sniffed. A moment and he couldn't stand it any more. "God, woman, that smells good. What're we having."

Cristobel, continued to feel the bruise. She was half in her kitchen, half in the story. She blinked a half dozen, a dozen, times.
"Eggs," she said, "cheese, gorgonzola from the Amish. And fish. Fresh. Fresh fish. Karl bought yesterday. From a truck."
"If it eats like it smells, it'll be good."

"Finish," she said. She continued touching his shoulder.

"I flew," he said. "Damned fat lady dragged me in the air over that pit. Pissed me off." Bunch felt heat rise into his temples. "Sorry. Fat woman made me mad and I was kicking and yelling and we were dodging and wiggling between them glowing threads...fat lady, bug and me...till finally we were over the center, the center of everything. A big hole...a hole in the light."

Bunch was seeing in his head. Below was a black place among the dying threads.

The thing rising was a thing Bunch had never seen. Bunch had seen a lot, but this, this was bigger than a house, bigger than the township building, bigger than the Lutheran Church or the Catholic and bigger than both, side by side and one atop the other. Thing had arms. Sort of arms, like thick hairs, waving. Too many arms for a good thing to have. The arms had no fingers and kept shifting, dissolving in the fading light. The thick black shadow arms were reaching through the threads up, up into the air where Bunch was...reaching to his feet, to him...

"Then, I died, I reckon."

Cristobel twitched, her fingers closed on his arm. "Died. You?"

"What I thought. I guess I was wrong." Cristobel was stroking his upper arm again, like she would have a hurt puppy. For a little, Bunch thought he'd let it go, but then his stomach started eating his gut again.

"She dropped me," he said. "About a hundred miles. I fell. I could hear the Jabby bug, and her, and them rat-looking..."

"Ghasts!" she said.

"...all yelling. 'Feed!' they were yelling. 'Feed!'

From above, a thousand miles overhead, through the rock of earth, Bunch heard the Eelmans. "Feed," they yelled, Doc and Einar, the black God above...

Bunch fell. Spinning. Through the dark, past the arms waving toward him he fell. He and the rising god rushed to meet. As he fell the vast black God bellowed like a stuck bull. It screamed and screamed...

Summers, when you jump off a little cliff into a still pool of the river, and the water drives up your nose and bangs into your ears and the smack of falling slaps your gut, face and legs and drags your eyes open and you go plunging down forever in the green chilling freshness of the water, that's what happened to Bunch.

Except what he fell into was a putrid mess: black, hot, like old pus, if pus was hot like bubbling roof tar, and if you could fall into it from a million miles. The fall plain ripped open every hole Bunch had, filled every crack he owned with half shit, half piss, half dead guts and garbage dump stinking rotted juices. Yes, and like old, old hot, very hot pus. Falling into the God drove that awful stuff in and up inside him till it filled him. A natural revulsion.

That was first. He kept going, sinking deeper into the inky dead rat and goose shit smelling, snailslime bright and head snot slippery mess, the body of the Old God Yogurt-something. He had no choice. He kept eating, sucking it down like there was no tomorrow. Come to think...and Bunch wasn't doing too much thinking at just this point...there wasn't any tomorrow. This was it, end of the line, game called, show's over, that's all folks, no more, not anything, nothing, not a thing left, not a bit at all. The stuff was coming into him at all points of Bunch. He fed and fed. Every pore sucked in the God. He fed and fed. Bunch. Not the God. The God...

"If that was God, then what's that make me? I ate him till he was coming out my ears. Till he was dead."

God screamed and screamed, Bunch ate and ate. Had to. Then it was over. Everyone died.



Cristobel was behind him, her hard dark fingers played light circles on his shoulder.

"Guess not, though, huh?" He sniffed. Food was ready. "As I figure, what I was was their worm; the pole, string, lure all in one. They dropped me into that Yog...

"Yes, she said. "Yes, yes, yes..."

"Then, they hauled me up and out..."

"Out of your waking dream... Yes. Like a harpoon... A divine harpoon!"

"Then I think they took their God and carved him up..."

She made a soft version of that little warble sound of hers.... " What a millennium," she said. "Old Gods killing Old Gods..."

"And using me!" Bunch shouted. "Sucking me dry. Leaving me empty. All in one night..."

"...for food," she said and let go his arm.

"...a night I'll remember..."

He heard her serving up the grub. Her spatula scraped the pan. Something flopped on the plate.

"Well, not one night," she said. "That storm," Cristobel said, "the dry one? That was not a night ago. That was a week ago. Maybe more." She slid the plate under Bunch's nose. "But at least a week."

A week, he thought. Crimminies.

The scent rose from the table. It was good. Eggs, toast, another steaming cup of Joe and a slab of meat. Bunch looked at it. The meat was pure white and streaked with dark, dark fat. In his head, Bunch heard the Great Old one scream. It screamed again. Yogurt. Whatever.

Then he stopped thinking, took a small bite. God screamed again, but real far away, now.

He ate. Today, God was good.

END

 

Copyright 2000 Lawrence Santoro