CANTICLE OF TONGUES
by GABRIELLE FRIESEN
I am entombed in a place of stone and walls. When the soldiers arrived, I ran and hid in shadows, hoping they would pass me by. They followed me into the caves. For days I stayed hidden, until exhaustion and thirst caused me to faint. I awoke in an enclosed room, damp as the rest of the caves. The soldiers had arrived in the morning as I began work, and there was flour still buried underneath my fingernails. I remember bringing my fingertips to my mouth, sucking the substance out from beneath them. Now, my nails are shattered and ripped away.
I do not know what happened to the rest of our town, to my mill, to my children. If I try to remember, my mind simply balks.
Here there are only walls and damp and cold and always eyes straining in the darkness. It is always only dark. My eyes should have adjusted, but I have yet to see. My teeth ache. The skin is missing from my fingertips. Scrambling on my belly, I stretch myself out, wide as possible, and can just touch either end of whatever cell I am in with my toes and fingers.
There is nothing to find here and I am tired.
My belly and breasts are scratched raw as my fingers. I fumble about, trying to find a loose stone, a way out, anything to tell me where I am. I cracked my head on the ceiling the first time I tried to stand. I can just sit up, the crown of my skull all but touching the stone above me.
Am I even alive?
The thought of what I left outside makes me weep. Trees in lines. A grinding stone turning in a circle. Men in shining coats and helmets, glimmering like stars, in line like the fruit trees. And teeth. Teeth chewing in and at the darkness.
While I hid, my home may have been devoured.
The walls are wet. What was once stone beneath my feet is now porous and spongy with the damp; I sink into it a bit. Occasionally there is the sensation of mouths, puckering at the back of my knees. The floor grows more and more malleable, as I continue to claw at the walls. Water is seeping up around me.
The ground falls away underneath me, consumed by the sinkhole. I plunge in after it, into frigid and rank waters. The sensation of mouth is solidified: blind, frenzied fish pressing slimy maws against my skin. Their whiskers threaten to wrap around my legs and drag me down. I kick out, claw forward, and swim until my lungs feel like they are carrying coals inside my ribcage, until my head breaks above the plagued water. The starved fish are left behind, sticking to the deep waters of the sinkhole.
The cave is illuminated by sickly, flickering light. I search about for its source, as I struggle against the river and towards the bank. Mushrooms dot the banks, blighted fungal growths the shape of teeth, covered in circular sores oozing blood red liquid. The light emanates from them, glowing softly through their pallid skin.
With the pale light of the corpse-growths, I peer at my disjointed reflection in the waters I have just left, hoping for recognition. I gently press at where my cheeks are beginning to sag, where my jaw is growing tired, rub the pads of my fingers along the deep crow’s feet beside my eyes. My dark hair is peppered with grey.
I am still whole.
I tilt away from the bank, jerkily standing to my full height, and begin to follow the river. I pray there is a way out. But I find only whispering waters and the pulsating devil’s teeth on the bank.
Something moves. Something in front of me moves, its arms jerking to life like the spasms of a seizure. Its limbs are far too long, its body lumpy and bulbous. This body should not work; seven limbs akimbo around a stout trunk, slung near to the ground and hanging like a corpse between two pallbearers.
I try to back away as the crouching foul thing moves across the cave, try to hide behind the dripping stones. As a baby, I could be laid in my mother’s cervelliere, rocked to sleep in steel dented by battle. But I am too, too big now, and the rocks do not hide me. The shambling thing turns.
It sees me.
The beast lumbers forward, limbs looking like they may snap, but it is upon me before I can get away. I am knocked to the ground, the beast swaying above me, holding me down with legs that look like they should buckle at any moment, but are strong enough to pin me. I see its head now, shriveled back against its malformed torso.
Where a face should be are only bandages, dripping with angry purple fluid and pus. It dribbles down in long, sticky strands; I twist my neck to try and stop it from hitting my face.
A sound, angry and slithering, emanates from where a mouth should be. As it groans, crimson and bile spread across its bandaged visage, as if sprung from a mouth encompassing its entire head. I can’t twist away from the downpour of contagion that falls from its face this time, and it coats my head and neck. I cough and heave, trying to clear my mouth of it. The creature sounds as if it is laughing.
“Where…” It rasps, more viscous bile falling from its bandages across its face. I close my eyes against it, choking at the smell of rot it expels.
The creature rattles and gasps, before continuing, “Where are you going, small thing?”
In answer, I kick my legs against its belly, trying to free myself. The beast responds with another gurgling laugh, spraying yellow spittle.
“Out!” I shriek, hoping to keep it from making more sounds and dribbling more sickness upon me.
This only prompts further questions from it.
“Out? There is no out. You would do better to stay here.” Here curls up and around, deadening my ears with its rasp. I scream again, and it echoes back at me off the walls of the cave, mocking.
“Liar!” There must be a way out. I need to know if my grinding stone is still whole, if my children fled before the soldiers found them. If their lips can still smile, or if they’ve been frozen in a permanent grimace. The beast sways above me, thinking.
“Perhaps. Perhaps there is a way out. But, why should I let you find it?” I hold my hands against its face, trying to press it away, or at least hold back the flood of fluid dripping from it.
“What will you give me, what will you give me?” The slime trickles through my fingers regardless.
“I have nothing to give,” I mumble, trying to avoid opening my mouth, as the sticky strands drip longer.
It raises one hairy, creaking limb, and presses it against my face. I feel the point of a single spider-like claw begin to dig into my skin.
“This,” it croons, dragging the claw down my cheek. I shudder. It wants my face.
I mutter a false consent, hoping to break away as it readies itself to somehow remove my visage. But the monster does not recoil to strike, the claw only presses in, my blood bubbling up around it. The creature slices vertically, and I howl.
As I sob beneath it, the creature withdraws its leg, and it comes away with my nose. Flaps of skin dangle down either side. Gurgling in delight it presses its prize against its face, the grime and excretions covering the bandages acting as cement. Still weeping, tears collecting in the new crater on my face, I kick back once more, my heel connecting with the bottom of that loathsome bandaged face. The beast shrieks, the sound of shattering glass amplified by a thousand, and recoils. I am up, up and sprinting. I can hear it, furious behind me, its legs staccato on the cave floor. The cave narrows ahead of me and I dive towards the small opening. I barely manage to jam my wide shoulders into the gap. The beast’s claws lash out against the soles of my feet in desperation as I squeeze and wriggle my way through. I leave it behind, but the passage is tight. My breathing becomes erratic, I hyperventilate, and surely the rock is pressing down more on my back now than it was before. My bloody fingers scrape against the stone for purchase. Finally, they push forward into open space and I claw free of the tunnel, into another yawning cavern.
I clutch at my face as I stagger to my feet. The gaping wound on my face bleeds, but not as much as it should. It feels as though it is covered in cobwebs. I try to calm myself with thoughts of what existed above the caverns. A windmill, its arms creaking gently in the wind on a hilltop. And fruit trees, in orderly rows, heavy with fruit, in a field of droning bees. I want to return to it. The memory of bee wings keeps me dulled, causing me to trip and fall into the river, acidic waters rushing into my nasal cavity. There are no bees.
But up ahead there is another one, another foul beast, trundling about in the fetid waters. He hunches, sans arms, on two gargantuan legs, veiny and bulging. He looks like a sturgeon on misplaced legs, skin pulled too tight and taut against his body. Rubbery lips strain to contain the rows of barbed baleen lining his jaws. From above his mouth sprouts a long prehensile trunk that grasps at the bleeding mushrooms as it drags along the ground.
I try to back away, but my feet have sunk into the rotting mud of the riverbed, and the sickly sucking sounds they make as I try to pull free attract the beast’s attention. The grin he turns upon me freezes and locks my muscles. As he begins to lurch forward, I start, wrench my legs free, and try to run. He jumps, the muscles coiling in his legs, and barrels straight into my stomach. Vomit spews from my mouth as I am knocked backwards, again on my back, staring up at depravity.
The long, snuffling nose drags across my face, across the empty gape of where my own nose once was. His trunk is coated with the excretions of the first beast when he pulls it away, and his face is bloodied from the wound of my face.
I am pinned by his muscular legs, pressing into my stomach. I cough up blood.
He grins, revealing the hoary walls of baleen.
“You got past it, you got past it, what gift did you give, what will you give me now?”
I turn my ruined face away. Nothing. I will give up nothing.
At my silence, he sinks his roughshod heels deeper into my belly. I groan, blood pooling in the back of my throat. Turning my head back to look at him, I await his claim. The sniveling trunk has wrapped itself around my left forearm. He squeezes, and my bone threatens to snap. I shriek and claw at the prehensile appendage, trying to loosen myself from his grip.
“Both,” he demands.
He snuffles in response, blowing mucus from his trunk, before re-entangling my left arm. He pulls, and with a crack my limb comes away from my body. It somehow detaches without pain, although I gag at the sound. The beast rocks off my belly to examine the arm, forgetting the other one for the moment. I plunge into the river, pulling myself along its bed, out of reach of the monster’s elephantine grasp. I hear his gibbers and yowls as the river carries me away.
I come up on a faraway bank, gasping for breath, yanking myself up out of the water with my remaining right hand. I am diminishing as the monsters repair and grow themselves larger with my body.
My children are grown now. If they have survived the knights, they will survive their mother dying here. When they were little, I rocked them to sleep in wicker cradles. They were not laid down in dented helmets, as I was. After what has happened, perhaps their own children will once again be rocked in discarded armor. I never knew what it was my mother had fought. And if I die here, the same will be true for my children. I continue.
The river is wider here, leaving only one bank. I stumble along it, the forest of oozing teeth squelching up broken underneath my feet. My shoulder is jagged, covered in cobwebs, clutched in my remaining hand. I pause to dry heave, and when I look forward again I see them, outlined faintly against the bioluminescence of the fungal growths.
Their body is massive, the first two monsters miniscule by comparison. They sit on the bank, faced away from me but blocking my path; they would surely hear me if I entered the water. What will be taken from me this time?
I stumble forward, the only option left if I still wish to leave. They hear me, and begin to raise themselves up off the floor, four limbs uncurling, fists smashing into the rocky floor. Many armed, but without legs, they heave themselves toward me. Propelling themselves on their four arms, their elbows are scraped from moving, showing the straining blood and tendons. I stand still, trembling only a bit.
As they near I can make out their face, or faces – two sets of everything mashed together, centered in their torso. Their four eyes circle around each other, and their double mouths intersect in the middle: a fearsome, hungry cross. The mutated acephalous continues to drag themselves forwards, their olecranons shooting up sparks as they rub against the ground.
They set themselves down in front of me.
“Liar,” they groan, “we will not be cheated so easily.”
I shake my head, not understanding, flecks of blood swinging from my face.
They rattle off a laugh.
“Go on and run, you will try to cheat us of our trade regardless.” They sit and wait for me to move. Their arms are stiff and ungainly, hauling their great girth. My capture by the others was assured; this beast cannot keep up with me. I watch the water flow by. They continue to laugh.
Breaking into a run, I dash around them, into the water, hoping the rapid current will drag me along, away from their horrible form, as it did with the second beast. The crush of rocks seems less threatening than the crush of their teeth. They begin to wail; I hear the sounds of snapping bones. Glancing over my shoulder, I push out into the water. They are wrenching themselves in half, tendons ripping jagged, bones dislocating. The split gives them each half the mass, and they are suddenly more agile on their wretched arms.
The river is no help: they chase me along the bank until I have to come up for air, and once again the beasts are upon me. They do not even wait to ask for their tithe. Each one grabs one of my legs in their megalithic hands and yanks. I can feel my femurs grind against my pelvis as they are rotated too far. I pass out, vomiting.
I nearly drown in the inky black water, among beds of bleeding mushrooms before I wake up. The bifold monster is gone, as are my legs. Again there is too little blood; instead there are more of the thin ropes like cobwebs, but looking very much like veins depleted of blood, creating a tourniquet about the ruined stumps. I pick slightly at the clear ropes, releasing a thin trail of my own blood.
With nothing left to do, I begin to pull my ruined body forward along the cave floor with my remaining arm. I could stay and die here - it would be easier. But I need to return to the sound of bees. My children, grown up and away from me may still be in desperate need of my help. I cannot die without knowing if they escaped the soldiers’ grasp. Ahead, the rancid river is at its strongest, covering the entire floor of the cave. I crawl along, the water in the shallows flowing into my mouth and the gaping cavern where my nose once was. I do not want to drown here.
I am not alone in the shallows. The mushrooms grow like maggots on corpses, feeding on the decaying waters, growing defiantly on the shores, against the current. I am coated in their weeping blood.
I am losing consciousness for want of air. My remaining arm strains, the ball threatening to wrench itself free of the socket at any moment. My peripheral vision is going blurry and the darkness of the cave is growing even darker. I am going to drown. I survived the monsters, only to drown.
The water is at my eyes. My head sinks.
I would die, but for the boney hand that plucks me up by the spine.
She is worse than the others.
Adlittoral, she crouches, huge and hulking, her frame blocking the entire cave. She is covered in saliva, damp and fungal, from her hundreds of drooling mouths. Her body is human in shape, but massive and covered with thousands of bestial maws. Grinning teeth fill each one, her body armored by gleaming incisors and molars. She holds me tight about the waist in one gigantic hand, held before her central mouth, mercifully placed where a normal mouth should be. Her eyes are like those of a blindfish, sunken impressions lidded and fogged over. I am held aloft like a prize, before that focal mouth, from which hangs a tongue, so long it drags on the floor. That tongue is where the blighted river springs from; her thick spit is diluting into the waters I have been dragging myself through. The devil’s teeth mushrooms encircle her, growing up from the foul earth where she stands and drags her massive body.
The very tip of her long, long tongue traces around my right eye. I shudder.
“Those.” I know what she means, and retch.
“Then you will not leave here.”
“I cannot,” I repeat, as if it will change her mind. I begin to sob, and she hums quietly, stroking the curves of my shoulder blades. I am tired. I lean forward, resting my head against a spot of her damp, unspoken skin. She continues to hum.
“Stay here, then,” she pauses in her melody to suggest.
I fear the fungal teeth will grow through my body if I do.
“Help me.” The words escape from my throat with a sigh. I do not regret them.
She raises the hand that was not holding me towards my face, rocking back on her haunches to keep her balance. With long, gnarled fingers better equipped to flay flesh from bone, she grips my head, cradling it. After a still moment, she moves her fingers, prying open my eyelids and holding them apart. Her tongue moves slowly closer, until she runs it over the membrane of my eye. I scream and scream.
She drinks the pigment from my irises, leaving them just as white and colorless as my sclera. She swallows, and above her apex mouth, the dark brown of my own eyes blossom and stare back at me, but milky and half-blind. Her thousands of mouths all turn up in delighted smiles.
She jerks me inwards towards her body, and her countless of up-curved teeth. She is humming again, as I continue to scream. Her tongues wrap around me, pressing into the wounds on my face and torso. They are heavy and tough as mollusk’s feet. I am coated with her slaver, but too tired even to retch. She pauses to let me breathe, holding me once more away from her and her tongues.
I groan, my bones suddenly aching. She coos in sympathy, like the drone of languid bees’ wings, before pulling me forward into another embrace. Her tongues are again at my face, at my belly, at my ruined limbs and tender marrow. I worry that the weight of her tongues against my back will shatter my spine, but then she pulls away, gentle and delicate. Her saliva coats me; I have stopped screaming, and am clinging with my remaining arm to one particularly long tusk. The webbing where my limbs once were dissolves away, and the gashes begin to itch. Like thousands of cicadas, singing underneath my skin, shedding their brittle coats, which build up and build up and build up. The itching saliva piles outwards until my legs are dangling beneath me once more. I blow air from my own nose, not a whistling crater.
My new legs, wrinkled and veined just as my old ones were, are numb. I can see them, but they are asleep, still buzzing. If she sets me down I will fall, like a newborn unable to walk. But she does not; she continues to hold me close and continues to drone. I breathe calmly; deep, steady breaths. Her humming sounds like the pulse of bee wings.
I tenderly push the last tongue resting against my face away with my right arm. My cuticles are re-grown and the swirls of my pads are intact. Her scent is heady as honey.
She purrs again, and puts me down. Shuffling her body, heavy with enamel, she makes room for me to squeeze by. Her dampness no longer offends me as I press past it.
There is hot air blowing in from further down in the cave. The mouths on her back are panting with thirst, cracked and bloody from the suddenly arid atmosphere. As I follow the heat, I can hear her crying.
I do not turn back.
The hydnellum grow less and less like bleeding teeth as the cavern heats up, until finally I pass only their wilted, rotting husks. Without their light, I fumble in the darkness, inching forwards into the furnace.
I emerge in a desert. The burning sands, like little shards of glass, cut into my feet. Soon, I am standing among sand that is stained red of myself. The terrain is wind-blasted and damned, and it is light like day out, although I cannot see a sun. Sickly light. It makes my stomach churn worse than the pallor of the mushrooms inside the cave.
In the distance there is a town. Or what was once a town. And there it is: my windmill. Mine, but not mine. It is some tortured simulacrum, but god, I think it was once mine.
The tower is listing, full of holes where stones and wooden frames have fallen, or been ripped off. The ground around the foundations juts up through the sand, stones like teeth in a maw engulfing what was mine. The rows of fruit trees are zigzagging, rent cuticles. And the sails.
The sails are made of skin.
I turn away.
The rest of the decrepit town, overwhelmed by sand, is similarly tainted. The girders of the buildings, revealed underneath peeling stone, are femur bones. The wires of the power lines are broken tendons and veins, dragging in the wasteland, oozing.
I will not find my children here.
My throat is raw from screaming I do not remember, not because of the beasts within, but from the sight outside, and the desert sucks my mouth dry.
I stare, blinking against the grit, until the five are almost directly upon me.
The five knights are beautiful. Their armor is burnished, even under the patina of dust from the anathematized sand. They look like humans, are humans. No squirming wounds or dripping bile. I am ashamed when we lock eyes and they see mine are achromatic. I want to cast myself down before them.
My hair is slicked back with blood and the river’s waters. Blood and mucus coat my face, my neck, and my breasts. I am filthy. Those with the shining armor stand before me flawless, perfect. Their hair is neat, and they are not streaked with mud and bile. Their faces are all that give me pause. Pale and gaunt, skulls leering out from beneath shining crowns; I forget the ghastliness of them when they begin to speak.
“From what damnable hole did you emerge?”
“The cave that stands behind us.”
“No human, if that is what you are beneath that filth, can exist there.”
“I escaped from it.”
“Impossible. The monsters within would chew up your bones, if not the cave itself.”
“The last one gave me back my bones.”
“We are here to kill all within.”
“She saved me.”
“The beast within has devoured women. That beast must be slain, before all others.”
Why then was I reborn and rejuvenated from her maw? The men believe I escaped. I misspoke. It was not an escape — it was a willing release. A boon.
“Why then must she be slain?”
“Because it is a monster.”
“She saved me.”
“It would have devoured you whole.”
Their lips pull back as they speak, and their armor seems to gleam less. Yellowed teeth are set loosely in their skulls, cracked and missing in places. Teeth that bite and chatter and gnaw. The beasts’ teeth were not quite so filthy. The knights are much less beautiful than I had thought. I am too frightened and exhausted to continue to argue. She within will either have to kill them or be slain. I am small as the hollow of a cervelliere, and the bascinets they wear on their heads dwarf even that. I shift to the side, and they pass me, disappearing one after the other into the dank cave.
I am tired.
I sit, turned away from the creaking windmill and facing the mouth of the cave. No sound emerges from it; I am alone with the howling winds. It strikes me that the knights’ jaws opened slightly too wide when they spoke.
They may be lions or they may be jackals.
I clamber back in after her.
Gabrielle Friesen is celebrating her first accepted piece of fiction with HelloHorror. She is currently attending college to study history. She loves monsters a lot, and her thoughts on monsters can be found here: http://monsterrepository.wordpress.com. You can also follow her on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/GaelleFriesen. At the moment, her Xbox Live score is 14195, which basically tells you how magnificent she is.
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