Welcome to Flash Pulp, Episode Seventy-Eight.
Tonight, we present The Stranger: A Blackhall Tale, Part 1 of 1
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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 oversees a strange bit of roadwork commemorating a man known only as Rasputin Phantasm.
Flash Pulp 078 – The Stranger: A Blackhall Tale, Part 1 of 1
Blackhall stood on the porch of the The Ox And Plow, using his hat as a slow fan. He’d taken up the position as it was the nearest shade to the digging men, and, as he observed the dirty work, his fingers idly pulled flecks of the peeling white paint from the pillars of the overhang.
Fredrick and Martin Tweed toted their picks and shovels with determination – the pair of well muscled youths had been volunteered for the duty by their father, as a lesson for their part in the bloody happenstance.
With each pile of dirt they pulled from the road, they cast a glance at the corpse – the body had little response but to increasingly gather flies; still, their fears seemed little eased by its lack of movement.
While Blackhall had not been on hand for the stranger’s entrance into town, during a March blizzard, five months previous, he’d heard the tale of the man’s sudden appearance in enough variation to have some idea of the original circumstances of his approach.
As he’d been told it, the stranger had stumbled into the lodgings of the widow Hutnick in the tense hours of the storm. The widow happened to be on hand to greet him, as she’d been maintaining a watch on the the boy she kept on as a farmhand, Franz Tweed – younger brother to both Fredrick and Martin. As the lad attempted to cajole her small, but ornery, herd of cattle from the ravine they’d opted to shelter in, the doctor came stumbling from the darkness, revealed during, and seemingly guided by, the sudden flash of lightning.
Mrs. Hutnick was fond of recounting the wild eyes of the wanderer, even then. The man presented himself as Dr. Rasputin Phantasm, clairvoyant physician, and, while she put as little stock in the truth of his name as she did in the veracity of his occupation, he was forthcoming with a month’s rental for both a private room and the small commercial sample room maintained off of the lodging-house’s parlour.
The sudden appearance did much to draw the curiosity of the townsfolk. As they passed the glass counter in which he claimed to be selling the silver platter upon which once rested the head of St. John The Baptist, a dried hunk of leather he claimed to be David’s sling, and a selection of no less pedigreed slivers and trinkets, his reputation as a fellow of interest grew throughout the village.
At first the portly man seemed to show reticence in joining the townsfolk at their places of gathering, but it was not long before he became well known within Tweed’s public house, The Ox and Plow. The tales of his adventures astounded those who would gather to listen, and he made no few sales by outlining the labours required to retrieve his relics – the battles he’d waged with murderous desert nomads; the graveyards he’d braved where the dead walked under the clear moon; the black caves he’d plumbed, where crawling insects as large as hall-tables would affix themselves about a man until not a drop of his blood remained within his body.
After an especially well appreciated day – in which he’d informed Mrs. Ballinger, leading lady of the community, that her future held only brightness – he’d found himself deep at the bottom of a bottle of ardent spirits. Phantasm had been taking on an increasingly haggard and blanched appearance during his time with the community, and opinion was split about the nature of his condition. Some believed, the younger Tweeds amongst them, that the man was playing up his often ragged mornings in an attempt to build further at the reputation of mystery that surrounded his stay, while others maintained that the man’s wild tales of spirits and combat were proved out by the clairvoyant’s increasingly frayed disposition.
It had been the traveling man’s habit to ignore the disparaging chatter which occasionally reached his ears, or to play it off as a simple joke taken in good humour, but this eve the flowing drink had worked its way with the stranger’s tongue.
Blackhall had heard hushed retellings of the tale through out the day, and, while details varied, the essential structure was always the same.
Two weeks previous to his arrival, Phantasm had been called into an especially vicious situation along the northern fringes of the Eastern District. Hearing of his reputation, a mother of seven, at the end of her wits with fear and concern, had summoned the physician from the town in which he’d set up shop in a manner similar to that which he’d set up in Whitchurch Township.
The journey to the woman had been an unpleasant one. She was the wife of a half-pay officer who’d found himself called to service far from the small farmstead they maintained amongst the clearings in the brush, and there was only the oldest boy, a lad of fourteen, to lead the clairvoyant through the forest primeval.
Despite a perpetual feeling of being lost, they finally located the home, and ventured within.
The interior was a scene of bedlam. The gathered family sat, with the youngest weeping, at the room’s sole table. The trouble was the middle child, a boy of nine who writhed upon a bed he must have once shared with several of his brothers. The brutality of his thrashing amongst the sheets was outdone only by the severity of the language which poured from his mouth.
Phantasm stood long hours at the bedside, invoking every manner of incantation and utterance he could recall, in a desperate hope to rid the boy of his possession. There was little effect however, as the boy continued to froth at the mouth, and shouted oaths that would have brought a navy-man up short.
At dawn, following a string of seven recitals of The Lord’s Prayer, the boy finally sat up, his eyes clear, and asked to be released from the rawhide lashes his mother had run from the bedposts to his wrists in an effort to prevent further self harm than the terrible scratches his belly now exhibited.
Pleased that his treatments had brought on a cure, the doctor released the child. There was a moment of calm as the lad rubbed at the sores that had formed at his wrists and ankles, then, as Phantasm himself told it, the demon once again returned to its haven.
A wild fit of biting ensued, which left the physician scarred with a tract of teethmarks along his forearms, then the boy, laughing all the while, sprinted from the house. His disappearance into the woods was the last any would see of him.
The drunken doctor cited fear as his motive for moving immediately onwards to the west – fear that the spirit he’d angered would come to claim the man who’d dared to attempt to exile it.
The dramatic telling had ended with the physician falling into a hushed tone. With somber face he told the gathered that he often felt the hand of the demon upon his spine, and that he feared the thing had found him, even through the deepest forest.
The tale had re-affirmed the physician’s status as a local wonder, and for weeks afterward all manner of inquiries were made regarding the man’s history of exorcism. His relics moved briskly from their shelves. It did little to hurt his reputation for spiritual combat that the man’s appearance continued its ragged downturn – even if his attitude seemed increasingly surly towards those who encountered him on a day to day basis.
Yet, the increase in status was not entirely beneficial – some in town, the brothers Tweed included, were of a mind that the slovenly drunk spoke few truths, and that mayhaps he’d done more harm than good in stumbling onto the hamlet. Their dissatisfaction came to a head one evening as the stranger once again outstripped his growing business with the volume of his drink. While attempting to re-double his credit with the keeper of the bar, a verbal confrontation broke out between Phantasm and the brothers, Fredrick and Martin. The physician stormed from the great room, bill unpaid, only to find himself berated by Fredrick from the edge of his father’s veranda.
Charlatan was the word which seemed to cut deepest, the boy would later recount, and it was upon its usage the doctor had turned back, his face twisted in extreme vexation.
Removing from his belt a dagger he’d claimed once belonged to Scheherazade, Phantasm had let out a bellow and come running at his accuser, his mouth frothing with rage.
Martin, the younger of the brothers, had been held up collecting and loading the flintlock pistol his father kept under the bar – something he thought might be a necessity given the heated nature of the physician’s exit.
As he stepped onto the porch behind his brother, the weapon was quickly put to use to lay the apparently possessed man upon the dried mud of the road.
The shot was good, and the traveller had quit his life even before hitting the rough dirt. Blackhall knew the finale of the story to be true – he’d been the third man to stand upon the porch. He’d entered the town, and its odd drama, but a single evening before.
It was at Thomas’ insistence that they buried the body at the road’s center, not a foot from where the man had fallen. There had been some argument from Mrs. Ballinger, but the frontiersman had pushed hard, having had some previous, unpleasant, experience with the contagious nature of rabies.
By nightfall there was no marker but a story to note the stranger’s grave.
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