TO WARD OFF EVIL
by JAMES DANGER CONRIGHT
ith salt in my pockets, a garland of wild roses, nettles, marjoram and a bell to ward off evil, I slowly made my way through the ancient Louisiana blackwater swamps in an old wooden skiff with a crooked push pole. Gators glided neatly under the surface of the algae crusted murk, just out of the light from the rusted oil lamp dangling precariously off of the bent wooden dowel protruding from the bow of my mighty vessel. All the while, they eyed me for a quick supper.
Under my labor, the leaky boat slowly progressed at an uneven pace through the sultry night air. Armies of fireflies flashed their incandescent, electric blues in irregular intervals as they darted between the giant roots of cypress trees dotting the landscape for as far as the eye could see. The only sound, other than that of my craft breaking the water, was the croaking of thousands of bullfrogs between their meals of mosquitoes. It was the cacophony of a dark Southern song.
Saying my hundredth prayer for the day, I lovingly held a medal of St. Christopher to my lips and gently kissed it for protection. I continued to push myself along, reminiscent of the river man Charon crossing the River Styx. The deadly swamp held no sway over me and it wasn’t against its many creatures that I had sought protection from. I ran, in fact, from Death himself.
Knocking a curious Water Moccasin from the fo’c’sle of the boat, I took just a moment to glance at my pocket watch. It read 11:37. I had just over twenty minutes to reach my last vestige of salvation.
After what had been hours of torturous exertion spent on navigation through swamp, trees, and hanging Spanish moss, I had finally spotted my destination. Drawn like a moth to a candle, I found a new energy and quickened my pace toward the twinkling yellow-orange lights of the old swamp house.
I momentarily forgot my reason and thought to myself how the old mansion on the water must have been beautiful long ago. The foundation of the two story house was set upon poles so that it stood out of the water by several feet and it was surrounded by a large wrap-around porch with front steps that led straight to the water. Even in the dark of the night, I could see that the roof was riddled with holes and that the walls were being eagerly reclaimed by the very environment that had provided their wooden planking. The house was slowly rotting away in the bowels of the ancient swamp. I suspected that the manor’s sole resident was suffering the same fate.
I pushed the skiff straight up to the steps of the porch and tested their sturdiness with my pole. Having decided that they were just barely trustworthy enough for one more visitor, I tossed the rope. which was tied to the stern of the boat, up the stairs and onto the porch. I carefully climbed over the side while the bell on my necklace tinkled softly, just overpowering the sound of the lapping swamp water against the stairs and the bullfrogs in the distance. They creaked in a strained warning under my weight as I tied the craft to the porch railing before cautiously proceeding to the front entrance. The dull French handles of the manor sat crooked on the rotted double doors, which were slightly ajar.
“It’s open,” a feeble voice called from inside.
I gently pushed one door open, as not to break the thing off of its hinges. A long creak resonated throughout the house. Upon entering, I found the mistress of the home sitting comfortably in an overstuffed chair in front of a fireplace. She had her back to me. There was no other furniture in the room, and I could only assume that the rest of the house was just as barren -- that its furnishings had been burned in the fireplace long ago.
Because of the high back of the single chair, I could only make out the top of Madam d’Levay’s head. It was sparsely covered in white, thinning hair planted into a grayish scalp. I hadn’t a chance to say a word when her head tilted slightly up and to the side as she sniffed the air.
I saw her place a bony, liver spotted hand on the armrest of her only chair to steady herself as she stood. As she struggled to turn around, I couldn’t help but notice that her dress, yellowed and tattered, seemed as ancient and withered as she. Madam d’Levay turned her clouded, bluish filmed eyes on me and sneered.
“You got ‘da stench ‘a Death on ya, boy,” the old woman muttered, cocking her head. “You got ‘da stench!” she reiterated loudly, pointing at me. “Go ‘an get from ‘ere! I can’na help ya!”
I despondently left the witch muttering to herself. I had heard this before from seers, occultists, priests, rabbis, and whomever else I thought might help. This Madam d’Levay, who could supposedly conjure demons and cure diseases, was my last hope. I was angry that she didn’t even let me speak.
As I stepped onto the old porch again, I pulled out my watch. 11:58.
“Damn,” I thought to myself.
A lifetime of memories began to surface, and with these came the tears. But I refused to be weak. I wiped the drops from my eyes and the thoughts of times past from my mind. I knew that I had to give in if I was to spend the last two minutes of my life as a sane man. Pulling off the various charms from the garland, I tossed them into the swamp one by one, relinquishing any hope of staving off my fate. Lastly, I held onto the St. Christopher’s medal for only a moment and gave it a squeeze before throwing it as far as I could into the black night.
Absentmindedly, I thumbed the sides of my watch and stared at the ticking second hand while reaching for the cigarettes in my shirt pocket. 48 seconds left. I slid a smoke out and put it between my lips, then tossed the rest of the pack into the drink before reaching for my zippo. I never took my eyes off of the watch. 42 seconds.
The familiar metallic chink and strike of the lighter seemed far too loud in this moment of silent recompense, and I tried not to let my mind wander to the moment that led me to an old porch in Louisiana, moments before midnight, inhaling deeply on a cigarette. 38 seconds.
I closed my eyes briefly and clearly saw myself behind the wheel of my ’97 Ford Explorer. I had drank too much that night. It was one year ago. The roads were slick from ever present rain. I saw everything in flashes. Taking a peek at my pocket watch again, I could see that I had only 33 seconds left. I forcibly blew out the putrid smoke before taking another drag and closing my eyes again.
Those poor women. That poor boy. It seemed as if it had happened in slow motion; my truck hit all three. The looks of horror and pain on the women’s face mirrored one another as they bounced off of the hood, but the boy had disappeared altogether. Another drag, and 21 seconds left.
There was no sound that night, save for my lamenting screams of drunken despair. I stumbled out of my truck to find all three perfectly still. It was as though I was sober in an instant. However, that instant had been an instant too late for all of us.
I stumbled from body to body, trying to grasp what I had just done. I dropped to my knees, my pants soaking up water and blood, and cried into my hands. I exhaled again and took another drag. 16 seconds left.
“It’s a shame. Really it is.” I heard a smooth, low voice from behind me as I knelt in disbelief in front of the three. The lights of my truck were blinding, so I couldn’t make out who was speaking.
“Wha... what?” I choked out. I felt a hand on my shoulder; so cold that I could feel the icy touch through my jacket. I took another drag. Eight seconds.
“It’s a shame that all three of them have to go,” the voice said as I struggled to stand up. I could make out only the man’s silhouette. Pointing to the older woman, he said, “She was a grandmother of eight, you know. And her...” he said, redirecting his gaze toward the younger woman, “she just started back to school. Of course, her son there won’t be finishing school either,” he said with a final gesture toward the boy. “It’s too bad, really.”
“I’m so sorry,” I sobbed. “If I could change it, I would.”
“Well, there is a way that you could make things at least a little better,” he said to me in a tone that seemed comforting at the time.
“But how? What can I do?” I pleaded with him, grabbing hold of the cloth of his pant leg and feeling the coldness of his calf.
“What?!” I asked, completely confused.
“Pick one of them to live, and I’ll let them live. Then I’ll tell the others that it’s time to say goodbye,” he replied nonchalantly.
“What are you talking about? They’re dead!” I shouted, waving my arms the three corpses. I squinted and strained to see this stranger that would dare make such arrogant jokes at the scene of a tragedy like this.
The sound of my truck’s engine was overwhelmed by the low growl that came from the man. As he moved into the headlights of my truck, I saw that his eyes glew red. He still remained a shadow, but his features had become more discernible. “Pick one, and I’ll let them live. But you have to trade places with the one that you choose. If you agree, I’ll give you one year to live your life, but then I will come to collect on your debt.”
It was only then that I realized that I could no longer hear the sound of the truck. Looking about, I found that rain drops had stopped in place, and there was only silence, save for my ragged breath. I looked back to the stranger, dumbfounded, and only nodded my head before pointing to the boy. Then, there was a loud gasp as he began to breathe again.
“Leave.” the stranger said. So I did.
The next day I saw the story of a hit and run in the news. Two women were killed, but a twelve year old boy survived with only minor injuries. There were no leads.
I would have thought that I had imagined the entire thing, as there wasn’t even a scratch on my truck. However, I saw things that I couldn’t explain throughout the following year. It was enough to make me question my sanity. Shadows, specters, mysterious but tangible forces, riding in cars with people, following them down streets and into buildings. Everywhere I turned, there was another one attached to a random person. I knew, somehow, that these things were real, just as real as that fateful night had been.
I didn’t even look at my watch, but rather took another drag of the smoke with my eyes closed. Slowly I came back to reality.
I opened my eyes to find that I had smoked my cigarette down to the filter. Flicking it into the water, I looked at my pocket watch one last time. 12:01. The front cover of my pocket watch clicked shut loudly as I slid it back into my pocket. Immediately, the hairs on the back of my neck began to rise.
I heard the groaning of the dilapidated wooden porch as someone—or something—took lingering, purposeful steps in my direction. Slowly turning around, I saw the shadow of a large beast, bent over and on all fours and creeping forward toward me. As it crossed into the fire light flickering from a mansion window, it took the form of a man.
“Well, I must hand it to you. You certainly did try your best to run, but in the end, no one escapes me. Believe me, people have been trying for millennia.” He said this calmly and with a familiar voice, but ended his words with a sharp hiss.
No longer a mere shadow, Death had taken the form of a thin man. That in itself was not surprising. What was unexpected was that he wore a black suit with a matching Fedora, spats, and a red silk shirt which was finished off with diamond cufflinks. Smiling gently, he walked past me and knocked on the door of the house. “Mary? I’ll be seeing you real soon, sweetheart,” he said ever so nicely to the old witch, sending her into another mumbling fit.
I stood nearly at attention, awaiting my fate.
“Now don’t look so tense. This won’t hurt a bit,” Death said with a smile as he placed a hand on my shoulder.
“How?” I asked with a tremble in my voice.
“How what?” Death asked me with a raised eyebrow and a little shake of his head.
“How are you going to... I mean, how will I...”
“Die?” he asked with a dismissive wave of his hand and a little chuckle. “I’m afraid that I must apologize. You see, when I told you that you were to replace someone, I didn’t actually specify whom.”
“What?” I asked, unnerved by this game Death was playing with me.
“Okay,” he said “it’s already done. There. No fuss, see?”
“It’s... it’s done?” I asked incredulously as I unconsciously began to pat at my sides to make sure that I was still standing.
With a little, knowing smirk, Death just held out his hand toward me in presentation. I was terrified to look down upon my own corpse, but still I had to. There was no escaping my fate.
To my confusion, there was no corpse. Rather, I realized that I was now wearing the same attire that had adorned death moments ago, and that he was wearing my clothes. Looking up, I found myself staring back at me. “What in the hell is this?!” I barked, feeling a new level of fear that I hadn’t thought myself capable of bearing.
“You’ve taken my place, per our agreement, and I’ve taken yours. I’ve been Death for so long, I want to live and breathe, and feel, and eat, and...”
“What? I don’t know a single thing about killing people!” I shouted at him, but he only looked at me and tilted his head.
“I think we both know that to not be entirely accurate,” he said. Before I could reply, he raised his hand and informed me that I would come for him too, someday. But until then, he promised to give me a good name, should that matter to me, and to stay as far away from death as was humanly possible. He explained that shortly he would, in fact, be me. He would possess all of my memories and wouldn’t be able to remember anything about having been Death.
I was speechless as I watched him meander to the skiff and untie it before for giving me one last word. “Remember this; it’s an important job, but still try to have a little fun with it -- and be creative. It helps with the monotony of it all.”
I watched him push off and head into the darkness of the early morning, whistling an eerily familiar tune. It wasn’t long before I would need to depart as well. An unexplainable pull, not unlike hunger or lust, called to me from around the globe. But before I could leave this wretched place, I needed to do one last thing. I felt uncontrollably compelled to say goodbye to Mary.
James D. Conright is a freelance author, poet, and composer. With a taste for the Macabre and an interest in conservation, his unique perspective on life and death has been personified in several online publications. His latest project is a collection of short horror stories to be accompanied by an original score.
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