No one in the village was going to help him. A few people peered out at him through gaps in the blinds of their homes, from behind rickety doors, or through peepholes smeared with mud and safehouses with windows like periscopes. Many hid in the corners of their residences instead, curled up like children, unwilling to catch another glimpse of the menace that awaited in the marshy waters of the swamp, preparing the fate of he who was unlucky enough to be outside.
It was Tuesday. Had it been Tuesday afternoon, he would have been safe. But it was Tuesday evening, and the demon waited. Each day, every day, and every night it would roam the wooden planks that formed the only road in the swamp. It would lurk in the darkened awnings beneath the expansive trees, waiting. Watching and waiting. Watching with eyes the size of an owl’s head, empty, burning, starving. Sometimes it would approach one of the huts or houses and stand outside the front porch or at the miniscule patch of worn wood that served as an entrance to the raised home and stare inside.
It never blinked. Its eyes were fixed open and possessed a concave quality, resulting in two empty caverns in the middle of a green tinged face. Sometimes it would watch a particular person for hours upon hours, before growing bored or hungry and leaving, hoping to catch someone else unawares.
It could not climb the stairs. Everyone in the village knew that was its weakness, and adjusted accordingly. Dwellings were constructed with steep stone steps or on top of raised platforms two stories above the ground. They were simple squares with reinforced railings to prevent the occupants from falling into the marshy waters and becoming prey. Higher houses were preferred, since the demon could still reach over the railings of the lower ones and pull its victims to it. That had happened last week. The bones still had not been buried.
The only time it was gone was for a few hours every Tuesday, where it would turn, face the sun, and disappear into the western part of the swamp, its rattling, groaning breath dissipating as it tread farther and farther away. On those afternoons, people scrambled out of their homes and ran to markets and gardens, bartering, haggling, and grabbing food like any regular village. Everything was done in relative quiet, with the week’s lookouts situated high up in the bell tower in the center of the village, ready to ring the heavy alarm when the demon’s breath could be heard coming nearer and nearer. Then, everybody sprinted back to their homes, prepared to spend another week off the ground.
He hadn’t made it back in time. He was still in the middle of the walkway, sweat soaking his hair and collar. The demon waited in front of his steps, its spiny back bobbing like a bird’s head. Its long fingers were clasped at the tips, its even longer nails clicking gently as it watched the man breathe in ragged mouthfuls of air. His eyes darted between the houses and then flicked back to the demon many times in an attempt to simultaneously find a sanctuary and watch the predator that awaited him.
“Please,” he croaked. “Please, someone help me.”
No one moved.
The demon shifted forward and approached slowly, darkness encompassing the bottom of its slimy robe as it slipped off the path into the waters of the swamp.
He backed away just as slowly, trying to aim his heels at the nearest flight of stairs. The demon moved faster, and extended a pale arm that seemed to extend in the hazy atmosphere, reaching farther than it should have.
“Please,” the man shouted, “please, someone help me!”
He panicked, turned, and ran towards the steps of a raised hut, but was hooked by the nails of the demon despite its strange sluggishness.
With sudden violence, he was forced under the waters of the swamp. Droplets splashed up onto the boards of the walkway and painted the stairs. The people in the homes continued to watch, frozen like unhandled puppets. The demon seemed to sink into the water, emitting a low groan as it pushed the man deeper.
Briefly, for the last time he would inhale, the man appeared above water and screamed, “Please! Please, someone help me!”
No one in the village was going to help him.
—by Heather Dewey