Once, in the vast desert surrounding Pueblo Pequeño, there was a man who’d been walking for days without water or rest. He was nowhere near town when he finally collapsed. As he rolled onto his back, he noticed the sky was changing color as the sun set. All day he had cursed the sun for beating down upon him; now he cursed its forthcoming absence.
As he fell, the man imagined just what thing would deliver him from this world. He first thought of being eaten alive by coyotes, yet, though the pain in the moment would be excruciating, he knew his luck would not permit a quick death. Hunger or dehydration or fatigue would do it. His end would be slow; of this, he was sure.
When he could no longer move, he closed his eyes and began to pray to the Lord. He asked for nothing more than water, the sustenance to continue, and he received it. But it was not the Lord that granted him this. He opened his eyes, eager to know its source, and staring down at him was a beast with the skull of a goat and a burning light behind its eyes. The Beast reached down towards him.
“Looks like you could use a hand.”
The man, shaken and still struggling to come back from the brink, said nothing.
“It’s impolite not to say ‘thank you’ when someone offers you help.”
Coughing up some of the water caught in his throat, the man spat out a ‘thank you.’ The fire in its eyes grew brighter, and the man felt a fog cover him as his eyelids grew heavier.
“That’s much better.”
The Beast passed its mangled obsidian claws over the man’s eyes, and he was out.
The man woke the next evening inside a lush cart just outside Pueblo Pequeño. He was surrounded by magical instruments and unfamiliar plants and liquids. He looked outside to the townsfolk gawking in confusion, walking back to their homes as the sun set once again. When all were safe indoors and the town looked pale and ghostly, a sphere as black as pitch shot down from the sky and a plume of smoke enveloped the small crater it left. A skull rose with the billowing smoke as the Beast emerged and walked toward the cart. It leaned down and looked inside.
“How’re your new accommodations suiting you?”
“They are... mighty interesting.” the man said.
“Indeed they are.”
“I thought my sufferin’ might finally come to an end last night. I should thank you for savin’ my life.”
“Oh, there’s no need to thank me.”
“Why not?” the man asked.
“I don’t give handouts without an expectation of return, in case you’re pondering the thought.”
The man recoiled and looked at the Beast with curiosity. He squeaked out a question; “Return?”
“You heard right. I expect you to work for me.”
The man felt his heart catch in his chest. Then he heard it beat, louder and louder, until all else faded away. The man looked down to see his beating heart lay bare. He had not felt the hole open where there was once flesh, muscle, bone. He looked back up. The Beast stuck its hand out and pointed at the man’s heart.
“Now, I believe you have something that belongs to me.”
The man was transfixed on the Beast’s skull; the asymmetry of its horns, the flaming light behind its eyes. He could not comprehend the way the Beast spoke, where the words came from. The way those words compelled him, forced him to rip out his own heart and give it away, was also beyond his mental faculties. He put his heart delicately in the Beast’s claws, blood pumping out and sliding smoothly over obsidian. The Beast snapped its fingers and the heart disappeared.
With that, the Beast sunk down to the ground and evaporated. The man stood in the cart, alone, as the sun finally rose.
For months, the Beast came to the man at night and the man did his bidding in the day. He sold the common folk poisons and placebos, promised them cures and gave them lies. The money he made each day went straight back into the Beast’s coffers. Its thrall over him was complete, total.
When they’d finished sucking a town dry, they’d move on to the next. After a few weeks, the man could tell two things: that they were headed back northeast, and that the Beast had a destination.
That first thing he knew because the towns they were passing through had been familiar to him. He’d been a sharecropper all round Illinois, he’d been a beggar in Baton Rouge, and he was born and raised in Durham. Now they were beginning to follow the coast north.
The second thing, though, was no more than an intuition, a hunch. But the certainty with which the Beast revealed each successive destination led the man to believe that he’d done this before, that this route had been planned and refined.
The state they found each town in when they came supported this theory. People all across the country were weak and destitute. They begged for salvation. Each of them paid the man all they could possibly give, hoping for respite from their sorrow. He tried to scream at them, tell them to run, but the words caught in his throat. He watched them as they imbibed elixirs and applied powders that would only hasten their deaths.
The Beast worked the man with an unnatural rigor. Customers would come from dawn til dusk, and the Beast followed shortly after them. The man found that he was losing pieces of himself; his hair, his muscle, his mind. When the Beast was near, time seemed to pass strangely; the night came and left with him. Horrified and unable to sleep in the Beast’s mere presence, the man convinced himself that sleep was merely a habit, and that habits could be broken. What kept him awake during those long days was a mystery to him.
The man had questions, of course. “Why?” was chief among them. Most other questions stemmed from that one, though any time he thought to ask it, he gazed upon the Beast and felt that no answer would be satisfactory. The Beast would never let him ask that question anyway. There was only one question he was allowed to ask.
“Where are we going?”
He asked this on the road between towns, as the sun fell from the sky and the Beast joined him once again. Often, the Beast’s answer was terse. The man came to expect this. But finally, as they were riding through a foggy wood somewhere up north, its answer changed.
“I’m going home.”
Soon, the fog began to part, and suddenly the cart was surrounded by fountains of blood and spires so massive the man had to stick his head out of the cart to get a sense of their scale. Alongside the cart, old women dressed in feathered robes walked with canes and candles lit by pale flames, humming in unison. A fog permeated this place, shrouding it in a sickly purple.
Finally, the cart stopped and the man saw something familiar. Before him stood a statue of the Beast, its every feature recreated exactly, its arms outstretched and its fiery eyes gazing upward, unconcerned with those beneath it. The man looked on, frozen in horror, as the statue was eclipsed by the Beast itself, rising with the witches’ unholy chants.
Here, in this town veiled in fog, the man worked for weeks without end. The Beast promised him each night that something good was coming: a celebration at which he would be the guest of honor. The man knew he could not be trusted, but for some reason, he believed the Beast’s words every time. Maybe it was something in the air.
The witches were kind, and they payed plenty, but the man got barely a pittance. The Beast took most of the money, swearing it was all going toward the celebration. Some of the women, garbed in violet, snuck the man a little extra. It was only with this charity that he was able to afford enough to eat anything each night.
The man went without sleep, as usual, but now it was finally catching up with him. After so long, with nothing but fear and malignant spirits both literal and metaphorical hanging over his head, it was a miracle he made it this far.
One day, he told the Beast that he felt himself starting to fade away. The Beast simply assured him that his work was nearly done. The man tried to argue, but the Beast sunk away once again. The man fell to the ground, arms on the counter. He watched the sun rise again and dreaded the thought of standing. Outside, witches walked yet none came to the cart. The man was curious, but asked no questions. Relief came over him, and he rested for the first time in months.
The chants rose at such a steady pace that the man did not wake until the witches’ hymns hit discordant notes. He rose slowly, begrudgingly, to a flaming pyre just outside his cart. Before him, the man saw more witches at once than ever before, many dressed in robes he was unfamiliar with. They were standing in a circle round the flame, arms raised to the sky, mouths open wide.
Silhouetted against the raging fire was the Beast. It stood taller than the flames, higher than the sparks and embers climbing into the sky. It moved toward the cart, coming back down to a sensible height. The Beast reached out toward the man. The man tried to extend his own hand, but he was weak.
A drop of blood landed on his outstretched palm. He looked up to see the source and saw his heart. He watched it gently float into the Beast’s claws. He reached for it, but the Beast pulled back, gripping his heart tighter and tighter, raising it above its head, until it burst. In an instant the man felt an inner emptiness, so sharp it landed like a punch. The blood trickled down the Beast’s arm and sullied its skull.
All the man wanted at this moment was to drop dead, but as he gave in and let himself go, the Beast held him up. Against his will the man pulled himself over the countertop and fell to the ground outside the cart. The Beast led him onward, one foot after another, and then stepped to the side.
The man marched into the pyre, conscious and aflame, and as he walked he realized he had been right about his rotten luck all along.