Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode three hundred and nineteen.
Tonight we present The Cost of Living: Part 1 of 3 – Mistaken Natures: a Blackhall Chronicle
This week’s episodes are brought to you by Nutty Bites
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight, Thomas Blackhall, master frontiersman and student of the occult, comes to the aid of a young boy caught up in a nightmare.
The Cost of Living: Part 1 of 3 – Mistaken Natures: a Blackhall Chronicle
Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May
He was at the cusp of civilization when the priest rode him down.
“Thomas Blackhall?” asked the red-faced youth from his shabby saddle.
To Thomas’ eyes the cleric seemed nearly as winded as his nag.
Despite being but two day’s travel from his destination – an appointment in the wildwood with a creature that, should he encounter it, would have likely made the lad doubt this collar – the frontiersman felt such a laboured trip deserved an honest answer.
“Yes?” he replied.
The rider opened his jacket wide to make his already-noted position all the more obvious. “I am Father Stanton. The Willards were kind enough to set me on your path. I have come far and must confess, I would have been truly heartbroken to have lost you amongst the pines.
“I – we – need your help.”
Blackhall’s boot drifted from the hunting trail he’d nearly escaped before the interruption, but he inquired, “who is we?”
“Father Sterling and myself. Well, no, I should really say a lad of twelve. He lies now in a small cabin – or, more truly, a small hell – to the east. If the wind is friendly and my mare holds out we can be there by dawn.”
“Damnation,” Thomas muttered as he turned back towards the muddy rut.
* * *
There was plentiful time for conversation as the horse huffed along its course.
“Sterling is a man operating under God’s grace, but still a man,” Stanton had finally confessed. “He made certain late night claims over surplus donations of altar wine. I was, er, taken with his tales of vigorous defenses of faith, and I must admit that perhaps my gusto involved us more deeply in this affair than either of us now would have liked.
“When we arrived, there was but the boy and his mother – the Soons are well known as the only Chinese family in the territory, and no doubt the other five have fled to a neighbouring home for the duration. It was such a helpful acquaintance that brought the news to our small parish, and it was as the frightened-face woman implored me that my interest in the world beyond men’s senses, and my enthusiasm for Father Sterling’s stories of spiritual warfare, overwhelmed my humility. When I agreed to help I did not realize how sorely prepared I was for the undertaking.
“It was also my interest in the world beyond men’s senses that likely carried your name from a penitent’s lips to my ears.
“The child shakes, I was told – shakes and weeps and begs to be released from Lucifer’s thrashing. How could I have denied such a summons?
“We departed that afternoon and unmounted well after the moon had risen. My companion believes the stripling’s Oriental nature may be at fault for our failures. I do not hold that any sinner should have the barbarism of their upbringing held against them, however.
“Sterling was not receptive when, three days and no sleep into our undertaking, I suggested we consult you before you were past our reach.
“He will not be pleased to see my success.”
From there the conversation shifted into a recital of Sterling’s apparent history of exorcisms which did nothing to impress Thomas.
It was a relief to Blackhall when they tied off outside a thick timbered cottage – at least, until they entered.
The priest’s minced words had given him no inkling of what truly lay inside.
A stout table had been upended at the center of the room, and young Soon’s limbs wound with rawhide. The leather bucked with his convulsions, and the too-warm air stank of sweat and human excrement – obviously originating with the naked child, the floor was covered in the same, as were the shoes and pant legs of Father Sterling.
In the corner sat a woman in flowing red robes of a cut Thomas did not recognize. Over one shoulder and across her chest she wore a white sling, in which he surmised a newborn currently slept. She appeared to pay no heed to the proceedings as she pursed her neat lips and played a lilting counterpoint to the scene’s brutality on a slender flute.
Her hems rested just clear of the slick of waste, and the bairn made no noise at the sound of its brother’s tumult.
The heat of the stove did little to ease the oppressive closeness of the stink and the looming character of the poorly lit walls. Blackhall’s thoughts seemed to catch on the notes of the low-toned tune, and his mind grew heavy with the troubling tableau before him.
Gray-haired Sterling, after a brief outburst at their arrival, knelt to press a cross firmly against Soon’s birdcage chest and continue his ecclesiastical chanting.
With but ten minutes of observation, Thomas needed to see no more. He turned on the pair of clergy.
“This is no supernatural incursion,” he told them, “this is St. Vitus’ Dance, a disorder known to modern science for its spasms and uncontrolled moods. I have read on the condition, for you are not the first to make such occult presumptions, and have even encountered it while touring the London infirmary with another preacher – a selfless fellow who actually understood how to do some good in the world – though, in truth, there was naught for it but to soothe the suffering girl’s jerking and allow her rest.
“You, however, have starved and frightened a confused child for days, leaving him in the reek of his own feces and shouting Latin at him like Babylonians speaking in tongues. You assume a barbaric imperfection, yet it is you who has left a youth requiring medical treatment in circumstances more appropriate to an ancient torture chamber than a sick room.
“I will leave your horse with the Willards and send word from the adjoining neighbours’ that you will require transport. Retrieve your beast when you have cleaned up your mess and put about a collection for this convalescence. Otherwise, keep your victim fed and clothed – if you can manage it – and he will be fine.”
With a hard, if confused, glance to the still-performing woman, he departed.
Despite his correct diagnosis, Thomas did not know to look for the signs that gave away the swaying musician’s ruse, and he could not save the boy from the pain that lay in store once the remorse-filled men of the cloth retreated.
It was not long after a carriage came to collect the churchmen that the song ceased, and the horror revealed its true nature to the last of the Soons.
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