by Charis Himeda
Simon had never heard the story about the man who went out walking one day and met the Devil, but even if he had, it would have been the furthest thing from his mind today. The mindless eternity of summer vacation had dawned clear and blue, sweet as fireweed honey. Simon had taken one look at the leagues of sky outside his tattered curtains, one breath of the sun-warm, grass-scented air, and felt an unfamiliar stirring of hope somewhere in his chest. Maybe he could drown himself in sights and sounds and smells today—enough to forget what he couldn’t forget sitting in Mrs. Langford’s seventh-grade class waiting for the bell to ring.
He dressed quickly, nervously, as if he were keeping someone waiting, then hurried down the narrow hallway to the kitchen. Had the house always been this dark? He supposed it had—since they’d moved up here (to the healing climate of the Pacific Northwest) it had been a house of sickness, and then a house of bereavement. He stared for a moment at the shrouded windows, golden with sunlight that refused to enter. “Dad!” he called, his eyes still fixed on the beckoning daylight, his mind fixed on the hope, trying to make it grow. “I’m going fishing!” He waited impatiently in the silence, then remembered that summer vacation wasn’t a luxury most adults could afford, at least not ones with kids to feed. Snorting at the injustice of his father’s plight, Simon headed out into the sun.
He got his pole and tackle box from the woodshed, then noticed his stash of chewing gum and Sugar Lips and grabbed those too. Walking to the edge of Suquamish Lake, slurping the nectar from a honeysuckle stem, he suddenly felt good—honest-to-God good—for the first time in months. His heart pounced on the feeling and sent a vision of glory to his head before anything else could intrude: his dad pausing in the act of doctoring Chef Boyardee as Simon came striding through the door with a bucket of lake trout—one for each of them! Grinning at the thought of a fish big enough to feed his dad, he splashed through the marshy reeds to where the boat was moored, and minutes later he was adrift.
The lake was still as painted glass under the early morning sky, and utterly isolated. He rowed out past the muck of weeds and lily pads into open water, breathing in the boundless summer air. Ahead of him, the lake glimmered undisturbed to the far shore, where it met sheer cliffs that climbed into stands of aspen and fir. To the east, the water ended in a slough, and to the west it stretched for miles, lapping around a little island off in the distance. Beyond that… well, he wasn’t really sure. He’d never been out as far as the island. Apart from the gentle splashing of his oars, the woods and lake were full of deep silence—the silence of living, ancient things untouched. Thrilling with anticipation, Simon headed west.
The island turned out to be much further away than he had thought. By the time he could make out individual trees in its dense foliage, he was hot and thirsty, his shirt was stuck to his back, and some of the glamour had gone out of the day. There weren’t any secret coves or inlets beyond, just an uninteresting coastline that curved into a bowl at the far western shore. It was just as well, though—he was tired of rowing, and in the cool depths below, breakfast was well underway. He circled the island until he found a place where the banks were steep and an old hemlock spread its willowy branches over the water. Secreted in this pocket of shadow, Simon set about baiting his pole.
By noon, his bucket held nothing more than a tangle of milfoil and a dragonfly that had nowhere else to be. It was clear that he was by far the hungriest thing in these parts, and he was starting to wish he’d brought something more substantial than Sugar Lips for lunch. He could settle for a quick fix—say, blackberries on the island. Hunting for berries wasn’t much of an adventure, but it was better than starving. He rowed into the shallows and dragged the boat ashore. Then he looked at his pole. There hadn’t been so much as a nibble all morning, but the thought of his dad’s face—its bitter lines creasing into a smile, his tired eyes lighting up at the sight of the fish—was still strong in his mind. Simon tossed his bedraggled worm aside and got to work uncrimping the line. He found a good spot to cast out and anchored the pole between a brace of boulders. Satisfied, he turned to the daunting task of finding food.
The island was like so many that lie in mountain lakes—a narrow stretch of rocky beach snaking around an impenetrable fortress of trees and bushes. Every time Simon tried to beat his way through the undergrowth, he was forced to retreat again. Rubbing at his scratches, he looked dolefully at a bush chock-full of berries so red and glowing they almost had to be poisonous. And speaking of poison, he ought to have more sense than to go blundering through the woods like this… Stepping back in disgust from a tangle of three-leaved branches, Simon decided he’d had enough. Fish or no fish, it was time to call it a day. There was bologna in the fridge, and if he hurried, really high-tailed it, he might be in time to watch Bonanza. Thus inspired, the boy made his way around the curve of the beach to where his boat was banked—and stopped short at the sight of his pole tip jerking up and down.
What he felt first, before the surprise and the excitement, was a kind of doubt. It seemed too good to be true—a fish for dinner, after all? Then he was stumbling over the rocks on the beach and yanking at his pole, sure that he’d lose it, he should have stayed here the whole time, what an idiot he was. He tried to bring it in smoothly, but surely this was the biggest damn trout he’d ever snagged! Simon braced his feet and put all his might into holding the pole steady with his left hand while he cranked the reel around with his right. The pole jumped and jerked like something possessed; he felt electric jolts of pain in his wrist and a sick shakiness in his stomach. This wouldn’t be the first fish that had played him for a fool—stringing him along until the last moment when he drew up an empty hook—but still he fought to avoid being dragged into the lake. There were the weights, finally! Where was the net? Had he forgotten the blasted net? Oh, the hell with it! With a last wrench on the reel and a tremendous upward surge, he threw his catch out from the deep. Something flashed in the midday sun, then landed with a thud on the shore. Breathless, Simon leaned over it. And then he stumbled backwards, uttering a little cry of loathing.
The thing which lay thrashing near his feet could hardly be called a fish. It was black and muddy-slick, like a catfish, but where its fins should have been were clusters of white squirmy things like maggots. These writhed and gyrated in a way that made Simon’s gorge rise. Its mouth was a gaping hole full of long, misshapen teeth. The thing seemed to be drooling blood, then Simon realized that the tissue lining this orifice had grown out over the sides in red bulges and tatters of flesh. But worst of all were its eyes—they were albino pink, and as the pupils fixed on him, the thing seemed to grin. It was as big as a cat.
All thought vanished as he stared at the horror he had caught. Somewhere, his brain still registered the feel of sunlight warm on his skin and the dull clank of the oars against their moorings… but these things were faraway, unimportant, dreamlike. What was real was the monster in front of him. He watched, fascinated, as it struggled to right itself, flopping wetly on the ground like a cancerous liver, never taking its gaze from him. With a final twist, the creature landed on its belly and scuttled towards him, maggot-fins scrabbling in the mud.
Simon yelled and lunged backwards, cursing as he tripped over his own feet. He had to kill it—how could he kill it? Dear Jesus, it was almost touching him! He struggled upright and scurried away, looking around desperately for a weapon. He tried to get some distance on his adversary, then reached down and grabbed up a chunk of rock. The thing hesitated for a moment, then it charged him, pale eyes gleaming. Simon waited until the devil-fish was almost at his feet, then he threw the rock as hard as he could.
It wasn’t his best shot, but it was good enough. Simon’s rock caught the back end of the creature, pinning it to the ground. The thing screamed—a wet, choking sound. Simon fancied he could hear hundreds of smaller screams—the sound of all those wormy things being crushed to death. After what seemed an eternity, the noises stopped. Blood and some kind of greenish pus seeped out in thick tendrils. Cautiously, Simon stepped around to have a look. The wretched thing was still alive… and there was no mistaking the hateful intelligence in its regard. As much as he wanted to see it destroyed, pulverized into library paste, he found he had no more stomach for this business. Trembling, sick to his bones, he edged his way back to the boat, noticing with a kind of awe the shining track of line dragged out over the sand. Even as he was rowing home, muscles grumbling in protest, the sweat cold on his face, he could still feel it watching him.
He expected to have nightmares that night, but instead he dreamed about his mother. They were sitting on the porch of their old house in New Orleans, and Simon was young, very young. His mother was young, too—her face was tanned and glowing, and no shadows darkened her eyes. In his dream the trees beyond their straggly bit of lawn were impossibly tall, ascending to the stained-glass sky like twisted pillars. Their roots ran deep into the earth, and Simon could hear them rumbling, a sound like brittle leaves and bones being crushed beneath his feet. The warm, buttery scent of fried eggs and the darker aroma of coffee still lingered in the air.
His mother smiled at him and leaned back on her hands.
“What do you want to do today, Simon? Want to go exploring? Want to learn to fly?”
He said nothing, content to sit and watch her face as it had been, serene and sorrowless. She laughed for no apparent reason, then picked him up and swung him down the steps, whirling around and around to land him in a basket of laundry. From the stale smell of dirt and old sweat, it wasn’t clean laundry, but Simon didn’t mind. His mother tickled him, still smiling, and then something else caught her attention. She looked past him and the sun shone flat and merciless on the planes of her face, momentarily stripping the flesh from her bones. Her eyes caught the light and flamed green. He shrunk back from the sudden look of naked greed on her face. She drew up her hands and hurried away from him.
When she returned, her fingertips were red with dirt, and patches of dirt clung to the strands of hair around her neck. Puzzled, he stared at her. She smiled back as before, but as she reached down to pick up the laundry basket, something fell from the neck of her blouse and hung dangling in the air, something bright as the sun and dark as the shadows in the woods. He—
—woke up in the darkness of his room, alert to the sense of danger near at hand. His breathing sounded harsh in the silence that clung to the shadows on the walls and the deeper shadows of his closet and curtained windows. He tried to relax, but all he could see when he closed his eyes was the image of the thing around his mother’s neck—a tiny circle of gold rimmed with darkness. It blazed on the backdrop of his eyelids like an ancient sun. He didn’t fall asleep again until the dawn had passed.
* * * * *
It was Saturday morning before he worked up the courage to ask if his mother had ever owned any jewelry.
Joseph Kimball looked up from his bowl of cereal and frowned at his son. He didn’t like talking about Elizabeth, and what difference did it make if she’d owned jewelry or not? But something in Simon’s face, white and peaked, suggested that it did matter, at least to him.
“She had a few things I gave her when we were courting,” he replied, looking around as if he’d misplaced something.
Simon was silent for a while, and Joseph had gotten up to put the milk away before the boy spoke again.
“Did she have… anything you didn’t give her?”
He closed the door of the fridge and turned to Simon with a dangerously neutral expression on his face.
“What exactly are you suggesting?” he asked quietly.
“Nothing!” Simon said. “But I dreamed about her last night—” and as his voice caught, he rushed on, “—and she was wearing something I’d never seen before, like a little gold medallion. I was just wondering if she really had it.”
An odd look came over his father’s face.
“She did have something like that,” he replied. “I think she found it in the woods outside our old house. But you must have seen it before—she wore it all the time.”
“What happened to it?”
“I don’t know. I guess she stopped wearing it at some point. After she got sick… I doubt she felt much like wearing trinkets.” He looked so sad that Simon was almost sorry he’d brought it up. “I’ll be out in the garage,” he said finally, resting a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Got those cabinets to finish up.”
* * * * *
Simon sat on the smooth, sturdy planks with his arms around his knees, hearing, but not hearing the wind rustle the leaves of his sanctuary, seeing, but not seeing the gleam of the lake beyond. Since his bizarre fishing trip, the world had changed, grown wobbly somehow. It was as if a hole in the universe had opened up and everything he took for certain was poised at the edge, ready to slide into it like jelly. Still, this tree house was the best and safest place he knew. He could stay here as long as it took to work things out.
So his mother had found a strange medallion in the woods and some time after that she had gotten sick, with a slow, wasting sickness that had left her skeletal and bedridden. A boy older than Simon might not have connected those two events (what kind of sense did that make, really?), but then, no one else had seen that medallion the way he had. And the sight of it in his dream—bright as the light before a storm, rimmed and shot through with darkness—had filled him with the powerful certainty that it was the root of his mother’s illness. But what had she done with it? And why was it so important that he find out?
Maybe it had scared her and she had tried to get rid of it. If that was true, the medallion could be anywhere, lost in the swamps of Louisiana. Is that right, Mom? he asked silently. Did you bury it somewhere, or throw it away?
He stretched out on the floor of the tree house and stared at the wide patch of sky through the branches. Sleepless nights and sleepless days, he thought with a cynicism beyond his years. Maybe he was going crazy, imagining things. It had been over a month since his mother had died, six since they had moved up here. He wondered how much sleep he had missed. If only he had a friend to talk to… but no one lived out here on the lake. Listening to the sound of his dad’s chainsaw in the thin air, Simon began to doze.
He was lying in bed, and the pain in his gut was maddening, overwhelming. His hands groped for the sheets, balling and twisting them into sweaty knots; his mouth sought the pillow, trying to muffle the screams even as they erupted. On his chest, It burned like a brand, as it always did when the pain was worst. Damn that he’d ever picked it up!
When the feelings of disembowelment began to subside, he forced himself to think about the Question. The Question of what to do with the accursed thing. It couldn’t be smashed, melted, blown up, or incinerated. It couldn’t be buried deep enough or tossed into any ocean wide enough that it wouldn’t be found again. Because the bloody thing wanted to be found. And evil had a way of coming back home. If Simon or Joseph were to find It…
Suddenly the answer was clear, and he nearly laughed out loud. There was one sure way to strike It from the face of the earth. Suddenly exultant, flushed with triumph, he unclasped the chain from around his neck and drew off the medallion. It burned in his hands like a torch. And then—
Simon sat up with a start. He grabbed the branches nearest him and squeezed them until his knuckles were white.
“She swallowed it,” he muttered, hearing the crowd of leaves above him shiver in agreement. “She swallowed it so no one would ever find it!”
But still the feeling of unease persisted.
“But what?” he asked himself. “She wasn’t eating anymore, not that near the end… so it must’ve stayed lodged in her gut until she died. And afterwards…” But they hadn’t buried her, had they? No… his dad had wanted her cremated. And they had scattered her ashes over Suquamish Lake. Had the little medallion gone into the lake with the ashes? Simon thought that it might have.
And where’s it at now? he wondered, feeling suddenly cold. Oh, don’t be stupid… I think you have a pretty good idea where it’s at. But there was only one way to be sure.
* * * * *
By the time he got to the island, it was mid-afternoon. The sun was still hot on the water, but there was an ominous cast to the day, a sense of approaching thunder that he chalked up to his own inner turmoil. He glided into the same stretch of shore, then pulled his dad’s belt knife from its sheath.
It didn’t take long to find what he was looking for. The rock—his rock—with an unquestionably dead and rotting fish beneath it. Seeing it again, he felt a sudden, unexpected surge of relief. The fish didn’t look nearly as bad as it had before. Oh, sure, it was a big, ugly bottom feeder enveloped in a cloud of stink, but no more. He pushed the rock aside with his foot. Yep, just a big, black fish, half-pulverized. Simon hesitated, suddenly doubting the point of this expedition. God knew he hadn’t been sleeping well lately… could he have imagined the whole incident? He stared hard at the decimated corpse, trying to see it in all its sinister glory. Why was it so hard to remember? Probably because his overwrought mind had embellished on the details. His dreams were a little harder to rationalize, but, well… dreams were strange things. Sometimes you remembered things you had forgotten, and sometimes you saw things from another person’s point of view. Dreams could be creepy, but they weren’t real.
Stop beating around the bush, he told himself. You’re afraid to look for it.
No! There’s nothing to look for! This whole thing is ridiculous. Your mom is dead and you’d better get used to it.
There’s more to it than that, and you know it!
Even if there was, what could you possibly do? She tried everything under the sun, she even took it with her to the grave! And still, you managed to catch the one fish—
Simon stood stock-still, wrestling with his doubt on one hand and his fear on the other. Finally, the knife in his hand decided him. It was big and sharp, and most important… it was here.
He crouched down and picked up the dead fish, stifling his revulsion. Then he pierced its throat and sliced down the length of its belly. He scooped out the warm innards and threw them onto the sand. And suddenly there it was, shining amongst the bloody entrails—perfectly round, no bigger than a coin—dark as sin, and yet bright, so bright…
He had fallen to his knees in front of it, and now he knew how his mother must have felt, how she must have loved this thing from the first moment she had glimpsed it. It was old as the hills, old as the stars, and time had brightened and hardened it the way it made diamonds and sandstone. The blaze of sun on the Pyramids was in its heart, the glow of moonlight on ancient seas. The love of every mortal who had ever seen it lapped around it like a desperate tide. His mother had been crazy to try to destroy such a thing—how could you destroy something that had outlived all the kings and priests who fought to possess it, something that would outlast Time itself? And who would want to? This Thing was the source of all battle, all conflict, all desire. It was the red-handed messenger, the Face that Launched a Thousand Ships, the grail that could never be held. He wanted to worship it forever. He wanted to lay sacrifice to it. And like a jealous god, the Thing cried out for blood.
Whimpering, Simon reached for it, to wipe the streaks of unworthy fish blood from its precious face. Clean me, the Thing whispered to him. Clean me, and then… anoint me again.
“Yes,” he muttered, but still his hands fell short of touching it. He wanted to—oh, how he wanted to—but it was like trying to touch the sun.
Your mother wasn’t strong enough to wield me, the Thing told him. But I think you are.
“Yes,” he whispered. “Yes, I’ll do my best.” But the mention of his mother brought back her face in his dream—greedy and gaunt, her eyes like twin lanterns with serpents in their hearts. Was that how he looked, seeing it for the first time?
Destroy it, his mother said. Simon, you must.
How? he asked idly, reaching for it once more.
You can start by not touching it!
His hands, hovering over the medallion, trembling in its seductive glow.
Claim me, the Thing commanded. Live and die for me.
I did that! his mother screamed. I did that so you could live! For the love of God, Simon, don’t be a fool!
His mother’s face in his mind, all the flesh wasted away, all her love concentrated in her eyes, and now they flashed lightning at him. God, how he loved her! He could never have disappointed her in life, never. The medallion waited, cool and bright, complacent in its supremacy.
You have to put an end to it,his mother said, once and for all.
How? he screamed.
Deny it, she said.
Still the Thing held him entranced. Here on this obscure little island lay the brightness of a thousand suns, the darkness of a man’s own soul. What wisdom it possessed! What wisdom it would share with him, if he was only strong enough to claim it!
Deny it, his mother whispered, and then she said no more.
The medallion was also silent, having no need of persuasion. Everything it was spoke for it in a thousand compelling voices.
Simon tried to look away, but what was the use? This Thing was the Truth. It was a Truth so great it flooded his mind, driving out all the irrelevant half-truths that used to live there. He had never been so illuminated. And yet—and yet—
Your mother is dead, and that’s the truth, he thought. Yes, she was dead, but what did that mean? In the light of this Thing’s infinite regard, his mother’s death seemed like a small event indeed. Blood to christen it with, he thought. It’s always hungry. The medallion blazed with renewed vigor and Simon cried out. His hands were still poised inches over it, and he saw that his fingertips had begun to blister. Still, incredibly, he wanted—needed—to touch it. But it was his father’s voice in his mind that saved him.
Don’t you think this has gone on long enough? he said. Now are you gonna quit groveling in front of that thing or am I going to have to bury my son right after my wife? His dad’s face – tired, bitter, steadfast – suddenly filled his mind, driving out all the cosmic truths that had held him in their sway. His grip on eternity wavered.
Or maybe it’s you who’ll be burying me, his father went on, matter-of-fact. Simon saw him in their dusty garage, sanding down the newly built cabinets. His big, callused hands moved expertly over the wood, gentle as a lover. If that Thing is right, you’ll become a worse monster than the fish you caught. The face of the medallion lay imprinted on his father’s hands like a brand and he felt a surge of incredible anger as this truth hit home—and how could he have forgotten something so simple? This was a Thing of evil, and the fish it had possessed wore its true face.
I deny you, he told the Thing, as he raised himself to his feet. Deep in its heart, Something paused in incredulous disbelief.
I deny you, he said again, and watched as worlds stopped turning and a thousand stars imploded, winking out into darkness. The voices of countless lost souls rose in a howl like a great wind, and then disappeared. The medallion shone with a last unholy light. He felt a strange sense of loss as something immortal slipped away, leaving a cheap golden trinket behind. And then he turned his back on it and walked away. It was nearly dusk and his dad would be missing him.