When you look directly at an insane man all you see is a reflection of your own knowledge that he’s insane, which is not to see him at all. To see him you must see what he saw and when you are trying to see the vision of an insane man, an oblique route is the only way to come at it – R.M. Pirsig
The blaze of the summer evening sun wrung beads of sweat from the Maude’s brow. She pulled back the stray strands of hair stuck to her forehead and placed her hands upon her hips, stretching her back; her swollen stomach pushed out to bid the sun farewell on its descent, casting a golden touch upon the distant hills. Mere weeks had passed since the fateful night Archie had found her room and they had joined together in lustful oblivion, yet her stomach appeared in the final stages of pregnancy. As Maude stood looking out on the open road before her, winding off into the distance to fade into those eldritch wooded hills, a laboured sigh escaped her lips; it was her monody for Archie before the rumbling of thunder joined as an accompaniment. Somewhere vast lightnings stomped the earth, and a storm like a great beast was fast approaching. A melancholy menace with terrible teeth that could not be denied was rolling closer. She had been driving for days, hardly eating or drinking, the only thing that let her know she was still alive were the movements in her womb, which increased daily, at an alarming and abnormal rate.
The book, thrown hastily into the passenger seat, had become somewhat of a guidebook. Instead of sleeping, Maude had spent night after night curled on the back seat reading the elegant cursive handwriting of Archie’s Mother, and caressing her growing belly. Those words would lead her into waking dreams, visions and hallucinations. It is said that no living thing can keep a grasp upon their sanity under conditions of absolute reality for long. It is supposed that even the birds dream, and dream she did, but still her sanity unravelled like a loosed skein of yarn. The fascination and awe had passed, the void that had had been eating away at her insides had been filled with an obsession, dark and dangerous, which consumed her every waking hour as her swollen stomach grew. To her there was now no difference between the things of flesh and blood and those born of deepest, darkest, dreaming. She knew that whatever was created in dream would haunt her upon waking.
Maude brought a cigarette to her lips and lit it as she watched the petrol pump attendant fill her tank. The smell of him disgusted her. The young man, dressed in grubby work clothes looked up from his task and smiled, taking a pause from his idle whistling as he noticed Maude moving closer. There was a sway to her hips that even pregnancy couldn’t hide, and their eyes locked. Hers held a parlous glint, glimmering golden in the setting sun. With a sneer in response to his smile, she had a sudden urge to place a light touch upon the top of his skull. She knew not why. Silently he crumpled to the floor, unconscious eyes rolling back inside his head. Unfazed and locked in a cold daze, Maude placed the pump carefully into the attendant’s mouth, which now hung open, and pushed it deep down his throat with a violent shove. The petrol flowed still, filling him; gallon after gallon.
The sound of the wind rushing through the telegraph wires caught her attention, a sort of whistle that could only be heard in these desolate places far away from civilisation. The earthy aroma of freshly dug furrows rose up to waft around her as the sky erupted with the cacophony of a hundred, distant, disrupted crows. Some say that these were the Soul Guides responsible for escorting the newly deceased to the Otherworlds, or else taking messages back and forth from world to world and into the depths. They do not judge, their duty is to provide only the passage of captured souls, their eerie echoing calls released in unison with the rattle of death, as the poor, wretched soul breathed its last.
The petrol was spilling out of the petrol pump attendant’s mouth and nose now, running from his eyes like tears. As Maude took the last hit from her cigarette she flicked it onto his bloated form, igniting his lifeless body with a rush of billowing flame that arose like the lashing tongues of a hundred devils taunting the heavens. They offered up the acrid smell of burning flesh that would quickly be transformed to bright orange cinder, and finally curl as smoke into the warm breeze which gave it life. Maude inhaled deeply, it was an improvement on the stench of his sweat crusted franchise shirt. She stepped into her car and drove off without as much as a second glance.
It wasn’t long before the road became narrower and narrower until it was nothing more than a dirt track enclosed by high hedges, serpentine in nature. The wheels of Maude’s car kicked up clouds of dust. Through the hedges the woods closed in on one side, on the other she glimpsed open fields. In the middle of such a field, an empty circus tent stood abandoned. What had once been colourful canvas now uninhabited and in tatters flapped faded and limp in the breeze, exposing broken wooden benches and breached iron cages. At one time Maude would have felt a chill run down her spine as she gazed upon this forgotten relic of days gone past. All joy had drained from the very fabric of the place. Now she felt only the unending draw, onwards toward the hills, like a moth to a flame. The sun was just sitting upon the horizon behind her, setting the forested hills to shimmer weirdly off in the east. Soon the sky would be black as pitch and the cold stars would leer down from their black vault, watching and waiting as she wound closer and closer to her destination; before long she would have to carry on by foot, in the dark.
Maude pulled up beside a grassy verge, the night was drawing near and the thick mists were rolling in as she stepped from the vehicle. The diary was now forgotten and her purpose clear. She strode into the forest with a determined gait, knowing where she had to be, and that the path which veered off into the thickly set umbrage needed to be avoided. Although where she was going no path could take her, crooked or no. Often thoughts of her own drifted into her head, reminding her of who she was; thoughts that took her away from the darkest of imaginings that now claimed her mind. As she walked the bare earth she felt her shoes digging into her feet. She remembered how she felt after a long shift talking to Archie, and how she took herself off to the forest to walk barefoot amongst the trees. Remembering she slipped off her shoes and smiled, but soon a dark and brooding veil descended upon her face – not unlike the glittering spider-lace of her dreams. She was another being entirely now – and once more her purpose returned. Through the heavy silence she trudged, unaware of the shadows creeping around her, oblivious to the omnipotent presence that centred its focus solely on her advancing figure. She approached the swampy marshlands that slowed her journey. Sometimes the flickering sanity returned and the wet mud oozing through her toes caused her to shudder. As quickly as the feeling hit it was claimed by a knowing smile. She was coming home, called onward, with a distinct knowledge of all that was around her.
Maude sank further in. As she pushed through the gloomy wastes she lost her footing numerous times. The mud came to her thighs and unable to pull her legs free she would trip on some old sallow stump in the overgrown quagmire, where fear was encamped in the remotest shades of the rank sedge hassocks. Hollows, rudely desolate, rose out of swamps and rancid streams lapped at their spongy banks between the trees, whose deformed branches were bearded with centuries of pendulous lichen. Upon the marshy flats mean dwellings started to appear, wind chimes crudely fashioned from hollowed-out bones graced their gables. They were made from old scraps, fallen branches. Tanned leather weatherproofed them, but what animal had the leather been acquired from this far away from the nearest farm? They looked as if they could be torn down in no time at all, as if they were ready to move on at any moment.
Footsteps could be heard, but not a body seen, within the murksome undergrowth as dark as Erebus. She could smell them. The stale and repugnant scent of decaying leaves and grass wafted in the air joined by a smell, oppressively putrid, that seemed to warp and twist around her nose; the cacodorous aroma of unwashed bodies, the scent of bloated, rotting and mishandled corpses, ozone and singed flesh. Unnaturally large eyes could be seen, gliding disembodied, starring from the jaws of darkness, and a chattering could be heard. From whence their eyes captured their glow, Maude did not know. No moon shone this night, and something resided in the blackness that even the stars hid from. She remembered Archie’s haunting words, recounting the stories of misshapen creatures from the darkest corners of the imagination. Those things had danced upon the blackness of her own eyelids ever since the nightmares had taken hold.
As the eyes continued to stare from the darkness pale lights appeared, dancing like sallow flames, leading the way further into the hoary primordial grove. A sickening light caught on those things in the thicket, brief glimpses of clammy skin, broken teeth, filthy hair were afforded her. Maude wanted to plunge her face in the spongy moss and inhale the damp, spicy, smell of rotten leaves and ancient granite beneath the tree roots, to drown out that which now assaulted her nose as she travelled further and further towards the hills. The ground flattened out here and became drier, the wetlands having been drained when they built the canal ways long before. One such canal had been built alongside the hills, as if standing as a border between the hills and forest. Maude approached an old wooden bridge, deeply etched with crude and primitive carving and trodden with dirt. She noticed a little girl with a burnt polka dot dress, walking by dragging a rotting, maggot-riddled, hare behind her. Maude did not flinch, but stood and watched the girl through darkened eyes. She looked familiar, yet she could not discern from where.
The narrow boats at the water side were painted with strange creatures and sigils. Eyes of many colours, now subdued and dirt-encrusted, stared at her from their moorings on the sluggish water. These were the ‘ward signs’ of the water folk, a sign of kith and kin, standing as a warning to scavengers to leave the boats in peace. She remembered Archie’s Mother writing about these folk; coal merchants with grimy-faced children. The waterways used to be full of boats carrying coal and other produce; it was a tough existence requiring many skills and it made an odd sort. These were a strange but cunning folk, quiet and suspicious, with a fearful magic woven around them, along with their own laws and superstitions – water-borne witches and thieves, a dangerous people to barter with.
These people had travelled here from a distant shore, with their tales of prophecy, and portents gleaned from rock pools. They had watched for signs upon the salty sea air and had come to set up home on these banks many, many, moons ago. Archie’s Mother’s diary never made mention of the hovels that swarmed like an epidemic around the base of the hills, amidst the aged and twisted boughs of the Old Wood, surrounded by stagnant pools. These people had certainly settled for the time being, which was strange for folk such as this, nomadic in nature and with travelling in their blood. Maude knew well the reason they stayed. When the abysses between the stars sweep their chill currents over the dark and lonely places, the aroma of sprout and pike stew simmering over embers would drift on the breeze and obscene rites were sure to follow; the worship of their Goat Whore. They were the ‘Chosen Faithful’ they had heard the call of their gods, and possessed by their dreams and visions had formed a frenzied mass of indescribable darkness extending across all of manifestation. The waterways would reach places that civilization had rejected and shunned, far away from watchful eyes. Inspired by their madness and malice they would then glut themselves on each other and the concoctions bubbling in rusted pans.
The canal became as the hill’s moat and these moss-coated hovels – set among millions of podetia bearing goblet-like apothecium, sprawling out from the canal over the damp sloping earth and the strangely decorated narrow boats – were their ramparts. The heat set forth noxious vapours as each hastily assembled dwelling crowded in upon its neighbour, clambering for the chill intimacy of the crowning hill, but never drifting too far from the safety of the heart of their encampment and their lifeline, the canal. Here lay places untrodden by most, where the foul tempests howl and brambles flung far the shadows of scuttling things.
As Maude set her foot upon the bridge, the girl with the rotted hare turned towards her, barring the way and calling to the others. Maude had seen no one, but now, from within shadow and shack, bodies emerged. They crowded in on Maude, speaking in their strange dialect, pointing and cursing, spitting at this woman who had travelled so close to their camp undetected, but as their eyes fell upon the writhing beneath the skin of her abnormally swollen belly, they understood. They had been waiting for one such as her. An old woman pushed her way to the front of the crowd and glanced at the girl before her, her stomach was all she needed to see to grant her entrance, “She has come!”. Maude passed then into unconsciousness, her wearied legs collapsing beneath her weakened form; she couldn’t recall hitting the floor or being caught in hands blackened with coal dust.
In the fleeting moments of lucidity she felt herself being hauled from the bridge, towards the peak, and a half-remembered story surfaced. Was it from the diary, from her childhood, or maybe someone had told it to her once? She could recite it word for word, and the messages hung in the air. How could she forget a story such as this? Her clothes were ripped from her and thrown aside, a pan of greasy water was offered and brought to her parched lips; she accepted and drank deeply, but it did nothing to quench the raging thirst and burning nerves as the procession began. Chanting rose up from all sides and she was led, naked and filthy, through the growing crowd to jeers and laughter, to mumbled prayers and cries of joy. She was close enough to smell the putrid odours emanating from them, and their raucous noise made her head split. Through the short and narrow streets between their ramshackle huts she was dragged, led by the old woman, as hands reached out to touch her. Maude’s bare mud-soaked legs trailed across the ground. Her arms were draped around the shoulders of two broad men, her head dangling forward as they approached Maude’s final calling point.
As she looked around, she saw the large and foreboding door. At first glance the heavy oak and its bolts were intact, but upon closer inspection she noticed the warping and its wood crawling with infestation. Upon it vulgar drawings were carved, echoing the bridge she had crossed. The scratch marks were deep, too deep for human nails. She saw then the splayed hinges and the cracked bolts, and her eyes took in the ancient abomination; a crumbling chapel, lost and forgotten. The old woman pulled on Maude’s hair, yanking her head up to face her, the shadows cloaking her face better than any mask. Maude knew this was where she was meant to nod her assent of what would occur, although could not quite remember exactly she was nodding for. She had become the character in one of the stories she had been told, and she watched with baited breath, as if looking through a mirror darkly. The story continued with the opening of the strange door, and the sweetly repulsive smells surrounding the nostrils of all who stood near.
It reminded her of Archie, from the sweet and sickly smell to the cacophony of sound growing near to her. Archie? She had almost forgotten about him, her reality was broken, her mind shattered and here she took the last step in the journey, knowing that her fate was accepted and honoured. And as they dressed her in silken robes, a glint of light caught on a blade as the old woman approached, the flesh-carved sigils needed to be drawn.
Maude lay draped in diaphanous robes, within the dark chapel of the ruined church. She could see the revelers beginning their obscene rites, as if they ushered her unbirthed child into the world. Her distended belly glistened with sweat and as the freshly carved sigils upon her skin wept crimson trails she noted that all the windows were broken. All except for one. The fires from outside the chapel set the stained glass aglow, and a depiction a Saint Maude had never laid eyes on set its terrifying gaze upon her. Not even her rosary, long destroyed, would afford her a measure of comfort here. The pews were smashed and defiled, the altar cracked and the floor tiles broken and lifted, revealing the damp earth beneath. The place hummed with a deep resonance, as if the very walls were alive. The altar, the damp disturbed earth upon which Maude now lay, seemed to throb beneath her naked rump.
Maude’s hair was soaked with perspiration brought forth by the pain of the seemingly never-ending contractions which came closer together now. The humid sticky heat pressed down upon her. Through the crumbling walls and broken windows Maude watched from her vile nest. The Chosen Faithful danced and writhed, spewing forth brackish water and sea foam which cascaded from open mouths as their bodies contorted and twisted into ecstatic shape. Gagging and choking upon bladder wrack as the scent of iodine filled the air; elevated, transcended and transformed by their archaic faith. The drums beat out the rhythm of lunacy, accompanied by their sonorous chanting. A hunting horn resounded through the last vestiges of a once great and holy place, now been returned to darkness, reclaimed, defiled and ravaged. Stark winds of change, bearing razor-blade caresses, winds that sang of the darkness between the stars and threatened to become apocalyptic storm, whistled through the devastated walls as Maude watched their crazed rituals take a more rigorous turn; circling around the desecrated chapel, fornicating on the gravestones. She joined them in their malefic tune, adding her own gut wrenching screams of agony.
The old woman became as her midwife; bent, crooked, and cauled in darkened linen that covered her dirty grey hair. She scuttled from reveler to reveler collecting the briny vomit issued forth from recesses deep, bringing with it the scent of the churned ocean, miles and miles away. She mopped Maude’s brow and scraped the rough cloth over her tender parts with harsh uncaring hands; washing away the waters which had broken in a brutal flood and ran down her thighs onto the earth. The chanting lulled Maude into a half-trance; all she was aware of now was the rhythm of the sonorous voices and the pain. “The sword-thrust not salve, I bring!” Uttered the old woman, mumbling to herself in the similar guttural tones that Archie emitted endlessly in those final months. She manipulated Maude into the correct birthing position with the poking of bony fingers and the slapping of exposed flesh, upon which rested pools of unevaporated sweat. Maude felt as if she were breathing water as flies swarmed around her birthing chamber, the rancid heat bringing with it an odoriferous and cloying funk.
She became an animal then, lost to her pain, lost to the madness, lost to the night as she stared upon the Saint in the window; a shepherdess dressed in an ebon habit with goat’s tails and cloven hooves and tortuous tentacles. Maude remembered those with a shiver and a howl. Maude’s thoughts drifted back to the Nun she had seen beside the road before she had entered the wood proper, her laughter hissing through her broken teeth as she breastfed a baby, still and horrendously deformed, forever graven upon her memory.
Upon her knees now, Maude growled, gritting her teeth against the pain as the midwife scuttled back and forth, washing her down with the briny water of the ecstatic worshippers. “It’s time”, the midwife hissed, her face close to Maude’s, giving her a good look at her features. Those eyes. That grimace. She has seen them before, but she couldn’t remember where, Archie was now a distant memory.
Maude bore down, howling into the night, the vocalisation of her inner turmoil. Her deep anguish filled the woods and would be heard for miles around, but there was no one to hear her. Again the contractions seized her and she bore down. Pushing, panting, sobbing uncontrollably as the ground shifted beneath her, maggots and worms writhing beneath the palms of her hands, crawling up onto her skin. Flies descended upon her, and as her nest became as a cesspool, a realisation hit her. She was the living vessel in which The Goat Whore used to birth her thousand young. She was the egg from which vile corruption would spill forth into the land. It had come too far now, she could not stop what was about to unfold. Push. Breathe. Scream. Push. Breathe.
And then they came spilling from her, unholy abominations by the thousand, pinkish and fungoid, to fall upon the filthy unconsecrated ground; mewling horrors raising their convoluted fleshy mass as their antennae twitched. The Mi-Go had been born. And as a wave of fatigue rushed over Maude, the adrenaline wore out and she passed once again into unconsciousness.
It started with a licking and nibbling as the young crawled up onto her, seemingly to suckle, but soon the nourishing of the young began in a feast of the flesh. She was a human sacrifice, the last honour she could give to the ravenous hordes of an ancient goddess. Forgotten and filled with wrathful vengeance. Complete annihilation was demanded. The price had to be paid.
And as Maude’s screams echoed through the night, the noise of the worshipers grew silent. Soon the smoke from the superheated coal aboard the blazing narrow boats filled the skies. She was alone at the end, with just the company of the eyes of that Saint, staring down coldly from above the senescent altar. Maude’s suffering ended, her blood seeping into the exposed earth of that unholy chapel and the reflections of the flames, now tearing through the encampment, were caught dancing across the murky, reed-filled waters…
Something terrible came to the hills and valleys on that meteor, and something terrible — though I know not in what proportion — still remains – HP Lovecraft
Text: Sarah-Jayne Farrer
Editorial Adjustments: Sairah Brighton and Cobweb Mehers
The Hill Beside The Canal – Matt Baldwin-Ives – Miles Cross
The Elder Sign – Matt Baldwin-Ives
Blessed Abomination – Matt Baldwin-Ives
The Mi-Go – Matt Baldwin-Ives
Trees Come Down – Cobweb – Eolith Designs