Emptiness and Hope
by Terry Hamel
The trees were laid low by the heavy snow, and some of the branches groaned loudly, which only served to make Reever shiver even more. His village was empty, and all the shutters banged incessantly against houses. Windows were broken and doorways were darkened; there was no light save for the one emanating from his home and his kitchen.
They had all left because he had failed to protect them, and they had left because they believed the village to be cursed. Sometimes Reever walked amongst the gravestones as a reminder of all his failures.
Then, one day, he decided to dig his own grave, because he no longer cried or cared and, after all these long years, he just felt empty. He wondered how he had managed to live through the horrible sickness that ravaged the village, but mostly he wondered why death had not yet taken him.
“It was my own damned arrogance! My pride!” shouted Reever as he flipped his rickety kitchen table, shattering it against the wall. “Damn it all to Hell! Why not me? Why did you take them and not me?”
In his moment of fury, Reever remembered that the Seer had warned them about the sickness and warned them again as the first child died. The Seer advised that a child of great lineage had to die to appease the spirits of the land. Reever knew what that meant, and he would not allow it, not for any spirit or god.
Therefore, he killed the Seer and, upon his death, a great clap of thunder sounded, which to the villagers was a sign and to Reever simply coincidence. But as soon as the Seer had died, it was if the sickness became more powerful, and fear started to grip the entire village when more of their children died.
There were rumblings about angered spirits looking for vengeance, and there were hushed voices of dissent, but he knew they would never act upon them. Reever scoffed at the fools but he became a believer once his son Gief died and then his wife Lolis took her own life by drinking poison-root tea. The villagers that remained left that very night, leaving everything behind wanting nothing from the accursed village.
Reever didn’t stop them from leaving, and he didn’t care, because the fire in heart had been extinguished the moment he lost his family. He stayed, hoping the sickness would take him or that one day he would just die forgotten. But he didn’t die, and it was then that it dawned on him that, because of his unwillingness to sacrifice his son to appease the spirits, he must be cursed as well.
Each day that he knelt by the gravestone of his wife he admitted his failings and caressed its edges gently as if it were her face. “I am not as brave as you... I didn’t want to give up Gief; he was my son! Our son! Not for any man or any god or any spirit. That was my arrogance, and it cost me — cost us — everything.” Reever stepped into his grave, curled into a ball and wailed, “Why didn’t you take me too! Take me! Please take me! Please...”
His booming voice echoed throughout the forest, and the crows cawed loudly in reply, and to Reever’s ears it sounded like laughter.
* * *
Spring’s return was marked with melting snow and by the musty smell of rotting leaves that were in various states of decay all about the forest. The forest floor was like a sponge, and the mud sucked at Reever’s boots, but he pushed on despite feeling desperately weak and tired. He pressed onward towards his home, carrying two rabbits that his snares had caught. Inside, he prepared the emaciated rabbits and spitted them over the fire. The rabbits offered sustenance enough to fill his belly, but nothing could fill the emptiness he felt deep within his soul.
Reever leaned back in his chair and dozed by the fire and, for the first time since the sickness had taken everything away, he dreamed.
Reever was twisting his way through the bustling market close to the river eating a Lady’s apple and talking to Gief. “We’ve been blessed this year, my boy! Look at the food and” — he slipped behind the stall of the pot merchant and swung a young woman around by her waist and winked — “the pretty young ladies that grace our village today... Hmm!”
The young girl blushed, and Reever smiled at his son. “Gief, you should never forget times like these because they will get you through—”
Griefs’ face paled, and his eyes widened with fear as he pointed. “Father!”
Reever pulled out his sword when he saw the monster standing between him and his son. It was a large wolf-like creature with glowing red eyes and yellow fangs that snapped near his son’s face. “Gief, don’t move! I’m coming!”
The market burst into chaos; people screamed and ran from the creature, creating a wall between Reever and his son. Reever’s eyes remained locked onto his son, “Calm down! Don’t move! I’m almost there. Stay still. Get out of my way!”
The beast locked its jaws on Grief’s neck and shook him so savagely that all his bones cracked and his son’s blood was spraying out. Reever screamed and barreled his way through the screaming crowd; he stepped onto a large crate and leapt the final distance, sword held high in the air.
He swung mightily at the beast with his sword with a blow that should have mortally wound the beast. He was shocked to see that the beast, with blood dripping from his jowls, just stared at him as if he were nothing more than a flea. Every sword strike was like cutting through smoke and, with his energy expended, he had to lower his sword in defeat. The beast never moved, but its cold eyes always followed him.
Reever knelt near his son and cradled his son’s limp, bloody body to his chest. He locked eyes with the beast, “You are no natural beast! What in Hell are you?!”
The wolf-like creature tilted its head side to side as if it was still gauging him, sat on its haunches and panted, showing its bloodied yellow fangs. Then Reever felt a pain so sharp that he nearly dropped his son and in his mind he heard an eerie voice that made his blood go cold.
“I am the sickness of the soul, the complacency of the heart and the beast that is never sated but forever desiring of more and more. I am the sickness that lies, steals souls and the one that spreads the seeds of hopelessness, and I feed on the pride of humanity.”
Reever placed his son gently onto the ground and gripped his sword so tightly that his knuckles whitened. He charged at the creature and slashed at it with his sword, “Die! Return to your master or cursed existence!’
But the blade, as before. did not draw blood, and the creature did not even flinch. It just licked its lips and stared.
“You have nothing I desire, because you are filled with nothingness: no hope, no desires, just an empty shell. You are useless; you should find a quiet resting place and die like an old wolf.”
Reever collapsed to his knees, his shoulders shook as he sobbed, “Take me! Please just take me! Please!”
“You have nothing to give me.”
Reever screamed and his fists angrily pounded the ground. “Damn you! Take me! Not my son... not my son!”
A series of screams and the sound of flapping wings drew his attention from the creature. Reever froze, because a large white hawk stood where the battered body of his son should have been. His son was gone and a hawk was walking and hopping about in his blood.
Staring into the hawk’s black eyes made Reever shiver. He wasn’t sure if it was fear or sadness, but staring into their depths seemed to bring relief. Suddenly, Reever felt a rush of joy and hope. “Gief?”
Reever crawled towards the bird, but it hopped away, shrieking. And then it flapped its wings and took flight. The joy never left Reever as he watched the hawk soar higher and higher into the blue cloudless sky.
The creature howled and turned away heading into the woods that surrounded the village.
* * *
Reever nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard a hawk’s cry, but the fear subsided quickly. On shaky legs he pushed past the door flap. A large white hawk was perched on the fencepost a distance away and stared at him. The hawk looked exactly like the one in his dream, and he knew that would be impossible, but he kept walking towards it as if drawn to it. As he got closer to the bird, it became clear to him that it was the hawk from his dream. His eyes teared up as he reached to touch it. “Gief!”
The hawk took flight and it kept calling as it climbed higher and higher. To Reever’s ears the hawk’s cries were saying, “Live! Live!”
Reever knew what he had to do.
In the distance deep in the wood, a large black wolf watched Reever walk down the path away from the graves of his family and towards a path into the forest. The wolf loped towards the graves and howled.
Reever stopped dead in his tracks and shivered. The hair on the back of his neck tingled, and he didn’t want to look back. But he slowly turned around and, when he saw the black wolf, his face paled. His hand tightened on the hilt of his sword, and he started to head for the wolf.
A hawk’s piercing cry made him look up. As he watched the white bird ride the air currents, his anger dissipated.
The wolf barked loudly at the hawk. Its hackles were up, making it look like the massive creature in Reever’s dream. Then it stared at Reever with its red eyes and howled and yipped. The wolf loped away and stole glances back at Reever as it ran to the forest behind the village.
Reever watched it until it disappeared and whispered, “I am not an empty shell.”
He shouldered his pack, adjusted his belt and headed deeper into the dark wood.
Copyright © 2016 by Terry Hamel