The Promised Land
I awoke and I knew that I was no longer on Earth.
I could feel the sun upon my back and the warm sand between my fingers and, though my head ached and my heart pounded in my chest, I forced my head up to look around me. What a sight greeted my eyes!
This was no beach, but a desert; from horizon to horizon there was naught but sand. And this was not the dull, dun coloured sand of Earth; it shone like a scintillating carpet of colour, a dazzling miasma of reds and golds, greens and deep blues, as if a million precious gems had been crushed to dust and acattered about like litter. I grabbed a handful and let what felt like immeasurable wealth trickle through my fingers. Then, a sudden nausea overcame me and I was violently sick. My head began to spin and my vision blurred. Eventually, the convulsions subsided and I was again able to force my head up to examine my new surroundings.
Pinkish clouds drifted lazily across a lemon yellow sky. Where was I? Was it Mars perhaps? Or Venus? I had no answer. What I did know was how I had arrived here.
My name is Adam Fox and there are those who will say that I am an evil man. Perhaps I am? Perhaps not. But I firmly believe that many people would do as I did, had they found themselves in the same predicament.
At first, there were few outward signs; an occasional dizzy spell, the odd nosebleed. But when I collapsed at the grocer’s store, I knew that something was terribly wrong. At the time, I assumed it to be over work. Ah, but what wishful thinking! Confirmation of my worst fears arrived vide Dr Laxby. I had contracted a form of cancer and I was given less than a year to live.
Desperation will do strange things to even the best of men. I sought solace in religion but the Church could offer me nothing but a promise of eternal life in the hereafter. So I began to look elsewhere. Call me foolish; call me a madman, but accept that I was an impetuous thirty year old male, lusty for life. Real life. My researches led me to a book, supposedly bound in human skin, that purported to contain a spell that could transport my soul into another body. I used my life’s savings to acquire the book. I was a drowning man, despairingly clutching at straws.
On the night of January 12 1866, I sat naked on the floor and waited for midnight. I had torn up the carpet of my home in order to draw an arcane pentagram upon the parquet. The furniture had been taken away by the Rag and Bone that evening; one way or another, I'd not need them after that night. The snow was falling heavily and the wind howled in the chimneys as a perfect backdrop to this, my act of heresy.
Being so close to death, they say, clears the mind. Certainly, I was lucid. I had even made provisions for the possibility of failure. A bottle of barbiturate and a syringe lay beside me. The pain had become much worse of late; if this did not work, I would be in pain no longer. The clock chimed twelve and I painfully shuffled into the centre of the pentagram. A sudden chill wind caught me unawares and I shivered. Then, a great gust seemed to rise up from nowhere and reddened the ashes in the hearth. I began to chant.
A feeling of utmost calm overcame me. I surrendered to its warm and comforting embrace and let it embrace me. Was this death? And then, a fierce pressure pushed at my temples and unseen hands seemed to pull me in all directions at once. I screamed for them to stop. Then all was dark.
And now I was awake once more and I knew that the spell had succeeded. My soul had been drawn from my body and deposited ... where? Into what vessel? I could see that this new torso was clothed in a mat of dark hair and had a sharply defined, well developed musculature. This was a strong, powerful body.
I was wishing for the throbbing of my head to pass, when I became aware that I was no longer alone. I looked up and was astonished to see that it was a woman. Her skin was white, almost blue, and her face was framed with jet black hair that cascaded over her shoulders. She was tall and willowy, almost glass like in her frail elegance. She was very beautiful. At her side stood a fantastic beast that I can scarce describe. The girl approached, perhaps sensing that I posed her no threat, and looked at me with curiosity writ large upon her face.
"Garathrey set serhaija?"
It sounded like a question, but I had no answer. The hammering in my temples was so loud as to drown all other sound. I clutched at my chest and tried to rise to my feet but I hadn't the strength and I collapsed to the sand. I forced my head up one last time.
I had travelled perhaps many millions of miles (or years mayhap?) to a world that no Man had ever seen; a world of strange beauty and wonder. A world where the precious stones of Earth were as pebbles; a world where at least one woman was more beautiful that any terrestrial maiden; a world that offered me a chance to be a Man again, able to do great deeds and reap vast rewards. A world, in short, that offered me everything that the Earth could not.
Everything, that is, except an adequate oxygen atmosphere.
(With huge apologies to Edgar Rice Burroughs)
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Man of Hunger
The O’Halloran’s convenience wasn’t at all convenient.
It stood at the bottom of a long and rambling garden and, here and there, scattered on the rough crab-grass and cobbles, lay the shards of broken flower pots. It was bad enough trying to negotiate this dangerous obstacle course by day, let alone in the middle of the night. And, to make matters worse, the night held terrors for eight year old Padgraig.
He wasn’t sure what he should do. He’d drunk too much water at supper time and now he needed to relieve himself. But how? He had no chamber pot (He’d broken a brand new one a week ago but hadn’t built up the courage to tell his father yet.) There was no other choice. He would have to go outside.
Into the garden.
Into the dark.
Since he was baby, his Nana had told him stories of the night people that inhabited the moonlit world. Just as grey was neither black nor white, so moonlight was neither night nor day and the folk that lived and bathed in it were something less and yet something more than human: Like the Banshee who wailed and screamed across the marshes; the one-armed and one-legged Fachan; the child devouring Ghillie-Dhu. Padgraig respected the faerie folk. And he feared them. However, the pain in his bladder was growing worse and he knew that he would have to go soon or burst.
He slowly pulled back the bolt on the kitchen door and his stomach growled. He was hungry. Everyone was hungry. Padgraig prayed to God that his hungry tummy would stay silent as his bare feet touched the cool stone of the back step. An owl hooted and somewhere, in the distance, a vixen, sounding for all the world like a woman howling with misery and loss, called for a mate. Padgraig's courage nearly deserted him but desperation drove him on.
He made his way carefully down the garden path towards the little shed. All was silent except for his gentle footfalls and a shuffling, rustling noise like dry leaves whispering wind-blown over dry bones. He stopped still, hardly daring to breathe. He listened closely. A cat? The soft scraping noise was coming from the Baxter's garden. And there was another noise; a low moaning like the noises his uncle made when he'd drunk too much poteen. Padgraig slowly and silently tip-toed to the wall and peered into the garden next door. His eyes opened wide with astonishment. At the back door of the Baxter’s house stood a scarecrow of a man; a stick figure dressed in grubby rags that floated around it as if pushed by a warm breeze. It had the face of a dead man; skull-white, old as parchment, slivers of red muscle and pink flesh clinging in tattered sheets. The eyes were deep-set and staring. The teeth were yellowed and chipped. Wisps of wiry hair grew in clumps upon its wrinkled leathery scalp. The creature was peering through the window and moaning softly to itself.
Padgraig was so mesmerised and so scared that he hardly noticed that he had wet himself. The skeletal figure seemed to become even less substantial as, soundlessly, its arm slid into the wall. Its body followed, slipping through the solid bricks and mortar like a man wading into a pond. The wraith was gone and Padgraig stood trembling in his damp socks. He knew what this being was and what it did. This was the Man of Hunger - the man who stole into houses at night in order to clothe his wasting body the the muscle and skin, sinew and bone, of those who were close to death. It was a sad, pointless existence that the Man of Hunger endured, for as fast as he re-built his body, it would immediately begin to crumble and wither away. He was a damned soul, destined never to be whole, spurned by God and the Devil.
Despite his terror, Padgriag felt unable to leave the wall and stayed waiting for a further ten minutes, his eyes glued to the rear of the Baxter’s house. His perseverance was rewarded when the Man of Hunger re-emerged rubbing his saggy belly. Muscle and skin now clothed his skull and barely any bone shone through. The pitiful creature let out a last, lonely, mournful wail and walked slowly towards the gate. Then it stopped and those terrible empty black eyes stared straight at Padgraig.
“Not your time”, hissed the Man of Hunger and then, he was gone.
The next day, Padgraig admitted to his father that he’d broken his chamber pot. Calum O'Halloran cuffed him gently around the ear and said, “Accidents happen.” Then he insisted on Padgraig putting on his Sunday best and going next door to pay his respects to old Mary Baxter who had died in the night. She was 83 and had been ill for some time.
The only person Padgraig ever told about the Man of Hunger was his best friend Terry Colhoun. He didn’t believe a word of it, of course, and Padgraig was so cross that he didn't call for Terry for a week. And he never again drank water at supper time.