Content Warning: Language and Mild Horror Elements
Gift for the Chosen
I met death on a sultry summer evening. He was a handsome man. Terrifying, but handsome. He gave me a gift. I was only thirteen. Changed my life. I was never the same, not ever. He was a lovely man.
No one knew what my grandfather was, none of us kids anyhow. We just knew we was scared of him. Old. He was old, eyes all filmed over like a dead fish, ‘cept they was shiny. And when he stared at you with those milky eyes, it was like he could see right into your soul, but he couldn’t look at you right in front of him. Still gives me the shivers.
He had this room out in the back of the barn, more of a garage, really – we wasn’t farmers but we lived in the country away from the white folks. They was different times. We never went hungry though. People brought stuff by all the time. They’d stop with chickens or a goat. Ladies baked pies. Men made sure there was always cold beer. All because of that room or whatever Grandfather did in that room. I was curious.
Stupid, more like.
The others, they went down to the river that day for a swim. Me, I slipped off into the fields and doubled back. Figured I’d have a look then slip in upstream and act like I’d been there all along. There was a bunch of us kids. They wouldn’t have known no different. That ain’t what happened.
There weren’t nobody at the barn when I got there. The men were down the road playing at dice or cards or some such. Momma and the others were up at the house making dinner. I didn’t even have to sneak. I just walked right in.
The hall was dark. Wind leaked through the boards making the tools clatter. “Grandfather,” I called. Just in case, you know? No answer. I tried again. “Grandfather?”
My heart, it was beating so fast I thought I might faint. Ta-bump, ta-bump, ta-bump. I could feel it in my ears. It made my fingers tingle. I can feel it now, the way it feels when your foot falls asleep, all pins and needles.
If only I’d known.
The room wasn’t nothing, just an old room. He had a desk with papers on it. There was a workbench in the middle of the room with a shelf underneath. Wasn’t nothing on it, neither. He did have all these plants hanging from the rafters, all kinds – wildflowers and blackberry brambles, clumping sedge, cattail, milkweed, willow branches, corn flowers, and spider lilies, a little bit of everything. He even had Spanish moss and water plants. I don’t know why; you could get those just stepping out the back. On a shelf to the side, there were dozens of orchids, all kinds of orchids, each one with its own little jar.
There were old clay jars, too. Big ones glazed brown around the bottom with a bit of waxed cloth tied around the tops. And there were cages. Dozens and dozens of cages stacked against the other wall, but they was empty, nothing in ‘em.
I was going to leave but there was this book open on Grandfather’s desk. It was like an old family bible, thick, worn leather binding, but that wasn’t scripture. It was open to a drawing of a monster, glowing red eyes, fangs. There was writing I’d never seen before. Words, I couldn’t have told you what they meant. It looked like everything had been written by hand and not just one hand, but many, the ink was new and old, black and faded. I flipped through it. There were other things in it, too. More monsters and men and a drawing of a naked lady splayed out on an altar with her belly split open.
Why did grandfather have a book like that?
Then I heard Grandfather come rattling up in his old truck and slid to a stop outside the barn, gravel crunching and them getting out. There were others with him, another truck, and another, and men yelling. I slammed the book shut and ran for the door, but they were in the hall. They had me. Momma was going to kill me. I hid in the space behind the cages, down on the floor. Anyone looking could have seen me because I could see them.
Grandfather came through the door, followed by three others, dragging a fourth. He stopped at his desk and stared at that book, touching it. He looked over his shoulder like he could feel me.
“What do we do?” one of the men barked.
That old man turned around, blind eyes staring right through them. “Put him on the workbench,” he said, scanning the room for me. “Here.” He pointed. “Take his clothes.”
I’d never seen a naked white man before, first man I’d ever seen without his clothes, period.
They put him up on the table and he just flopped. Blood ran off the edge of the table, ran down his bare arms and dripped onto the floor. His head rolled to the side, and he stared right at me. That man was dead.
“They said you could fix it,” one of the men growled.
“Mm,” Grandfather grumbled. “How long ago did he pass?”
“Not long,” a hopeful voice said. He was younger than the rest, not much older than me. He had nice shoes, and a nice shirt, but there was blood on it. He was white, too. They were all white men.
“How long?” Grandfather repeated, flipping open the book and turning to a different page, one closer to the front.
“Long enough,” the biggest man said. He was older and had his back to me. His clothes were nicer, too. A revolver hung loose in his hand, and he used it for emphasis while he was speaking. “That’s my boy, old man, his mother’s only boy. I’ll have him back.”
Grandfather stared at the man with a look that would have melted me, but the big man’s shoulders were stiff. “I am not a master of death, Mr. Chalmers,” he said. “I am only his servant.”
“I don’t give a fuck what you are,” the dead man’s father said. “They say you can walk the underworld. I need you to get him back before it is too late.”
“I will send your family to join him, old man,” he said. “Bring me my son and I will see your family prosper. Fail and they will burn this night in the yard.”
“I need a goat,” Grandfather said. “Willis!”
My father stuck his head inside the door. “Yes.”
“I need a goat.”
There another white man with a gun standing behind him. It made my stomach turn over in knots. “Yessir,” my father said as if he were speaking to a priest. He left.
Grandfather pulled a pestle and mortar from the shelf underneath the workbench. Then he plucked the leaves of a black orchid and a sprig of oleander from the rafters. He crushed them into a paste. He smeared it on the dead man’s lips.
He lit a fire in the little cast iron stove beside his desk and set a pot to boil. He brought down a clay jar from the shelf and fished something wriggling from inside. When he tossed it in the water, it screamed a high-pitched squeal. More herbs came off the ceiling. Two more jars were opened.
When father brought the goat, grandfather slit its throat without preamble, collecting the blood in a bowl he’d been preparing on the stove that he carried sloshing around the workbench mopping symbols on the floor with a fat brush, chanting in a language I’d only ever heard the old women speak. Those white men were quaking, fear in their eyes. They stared at Grandfather disbelieving. Mr. Chalmers was as immobile as an oak, the only movement a rhythmic tapping of the barrel of his gun against his thigh.
A wind came up inside the room.
“Who are you?” a deep voice spoke directly into my mind.
I jerked or tried to. I screamed but nothing came out. Cold darkness wrapped itself around me like a caress, the kind I’d only ever dreamt of when no one was looking. It filled me with nervous excitement and made me uncomfortable, too. The darkness smiled; I felt its pleasure against my skin.
“You smell nice, dear one.”
Grandfather was shouting over the wind that bent all the potted plants and tugged at the hangings. The boy with the nice shoes wet himself.
“I’ll be a moment,” the darkness whispered inside me, and his cold embrace melted away leaving me damp in the summer heat then resolved into a tall, dark man formed of shadows in front of my grandfather. “What do you want, Abraham?” he said.
“I need this man’s soul,” he said.
Death looked down on the body laid on the workbench. “This boy is dead. He belongs to me.”
“I would trade for him.”
“What are you saying?” Mr. Chalmers yelled as though he couldn’t see the shadow.
“No,” Death answered Grandfather’s request.
“Please, father.” My grandfather dropped to his knees; hands clasped above his head. “Please.”
“These people hate you, Abraham.” Death turned and stared into the eyes of the angry man. He placed a black hand of swirling mist on Mr. Chalmers’s heart and shook his head. “This one is an evil man. He will live a long time and cause misery until his dying breath. I do not like him.”
“He will kill my family, father.”
“Why do you still call me father, Abraham? I’ve told you many times my name is Jekanga, and you may even call me Jeka. We’ve been friends far too long for father.”
“You are a god.”
“Hm,” he grunted. “I have many names. You could choose another if you prefer.”
“I will do this thing for you,” Jeka said. “But not for him. He will owe me a favor and a soul. From you, I ask one thing.”
“What is it, father?”
“Her.” He pointed at me with a long finger tipped with a shiny black claw. I could not move or look away. “That girl will be my bride. I must have her, and you will train her.”
“No.” Grandfather objected, throwing himself at Jeka’s feet. “She is my granddaughter. She cannot die. Something else, please.”
Jeka laughed. “I do not want her dead, old friend, not for a long, long time. Your time is nearly done and it’s time to train another.”
“But I am training her cousin,” he said.
“No. He is a fool; I do not want to spend a lifetime with him. She is the one. Train her instead. And when she is ready, I will make her my wife as well, both here and in the beyond.”
My grandfather’s eyes filled with tears. Staring at me, he mouthed the words, I’m sorry. “She’s not even a woman,” he pleaded.
“But she will be,” was the answer.
“My granddaughter deserves a life.”
“She will have it.” He looked at me. “You may grow up. Find your way. Love and be loved. Have children, but know this, you are mine,” he said aloud for my grandfather to hear and in my head for me alone – it was a kiss, a promise too personal for my virgin ears. But in that moment, I loved him, my Jeka, Lord of the Underworld, Death himself.
He spoke to my grandfather without taking his eyes from mine, “Tell him, a favor and a life.”
Grandfather rose from where he kneeled. “The Lord Father, Jekanga will restore your son,” he said, “for a price.”
“Name it,” the man said.
“A favor of his choosing that you cannot refuse, asked and given without question, and a life – one soul to replace the one he returns.”
“Him,” Mr. Chalmers thrust his finger at the boy who’d pissed his pants. “Take him.”
Jeka made himself visible to the room in human form, cloaked in shadows, dark skin and blood red eyes. He pressed a long claw to the man’s temple and raked it down his face, cutting a furrow across his eye. Jekanga flicked Mr. Chalmers’s blood on the dead man’s chest where it bubbled like grease in a hot skillet. “A deal is struck,” he said. “That is the marker for your debt.”
I witnessed the Lord of the Underworld tear that boy’s soul from his chest. His screams died in his throat as it came free. There were two boys, a body and a soul. I could see his soul. Then suddenly all the empty cages were filled with fleshless creatures great and small, an explosion of life trapped in the shining souls of the dead. The sound was deafening, like a kennel. My grandfather opened a cage directly in front of me, and Jeka threw the boy’s soul inside. “That is your payment for a service rendered,” he said.
With a sickening crunch the dead man’s chest on the workbench cracked and a raven’s beak poked through from the inside. It wriggled and squawked and tore itself free of the corpse, shaking sticky gore free of its feathers. “Bring me his soul,” Jeka commanded, and the raven flew away, squeezing through the vent in the rafters and was gone.
When Mr. Chalmers started to ask, Jeka held up a finger and shook his head.
We waited, a minute or an hour, we waited. It was full dark when the raven returned, hauling a soul in its claws that it dropped on the corpse. It twitched, the soul sinking into the ruined body that gasped, gurgling, spitting blood and fell unconscious. Jeka grunted, pushing off the desk where he leaned. He thrust his hands into the dead man, threading the soul into place. It coughed, again. Jekanga chuckled under his breath then passed his hands over Mr. Chalmers’s son, mending flesh.
When the boy gasped again, Jeka pressed the claws of his right hand, tip to tip, over the boy’s heart and burned his mark into the new skin. “You are still mine, Evan Chalmers.” Turning to the father, he said, “The service is rendered, the goods delivered, payment and debt accepted. Our dealings are done for now. Leave me.”
Mr. Chalmers took his son still naked from the room.
Jeka hopped onto the workbench and sat. “Come here,” he beckoned.
I crawled from my hiding place.
“I gifted you the sight so that you will know me,” he said. “And serve me,” he added.
“Yes.” He smiled a toothy smile. “You will serve me as your grandfather has served, and in other ways, too.” He touched my cheek, and it sent a wave of longing through my flesh.
“What if I don’t want to?” I asked.
“Child!” my grandfather quailed.
Jeka raised his hand. “You are not a slave,” he said. “Tell me to go and I will leave, now and forever – maybe not forever - but know this, I have chosen you, Rebekah Moore, daughter of Willis Moore, granddaughter of my friend, Abraham Moore.”
“Becca.” I breathed.
He laughed. “Becca, beloved of Jekanga, you have been claimed.” He brushed the hair from my eyes and kissed my forehead, cold lips, soft against my skin. His touch seeped into me like the crisp morning air of winter. “I mark you as mine.”
“And I have one more gift. Raven, come.” The bird flew down from the rafters. Larger than I had realized from my hiding place, it rested on his arm. “He needs a name.”
“Anubis?” I gave the name of an Egyptian god.
Jeka laughed a hearty booming laugh. “The jackal won’t find that funny, but I do. Anubis it is. He is yours,” he said, placing the bird on my shoulder. “Anubis can pass between worlds just like his namesake. I leave him with you as a protector. And a messenger. He can carry gifts and messages between us.”
“Of course, my love.”
“Is there another way?” my grandfather asked.
“Abraham, you have six years to train her in your ways. She must know the rituals and the herbs and the magic. Teach her the book. She has already seen it. Add her name to it. Include Becca in your doings. Prepare her for me.”
He cupped my cheek and smiled. Then he was gone, a shadow in the light.
Jekanga, Lord of the Underworld, chose me to be his wife when I was still a child. He never forced me. He did not even return until my grandfather’s passing eleven years after that. But he gave me the sight and this undying crow, Anubis. Together we can speak with the dead, raise the devil, or send him away. I am not afraid of death. He is my lover, and one day, I will go to my husband to rule the Underworld by his side. Until then, show some respect.
Now, get an old lady a cup of tea.
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Where do I begin? I enjoyed reading, inhaling actually, every word. This was as flawless a work as I've encountered on this site and I absolutely love all things horror. One of the first books my mother and I read together as I was growing up was Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. (I still have the original in my library.) What I most enjoyed was your warning "Mild horror elements." If you consider this masterpiece "mild," I can't wait to read what comes next. Please.
Thank you for reading and for the compliment. I didn't actually write it as a horror but realized upon finishing it that the label fit. I am glad you enjoyed it.
I love this story. It's feels SO much bigger than the space here. I love the writing and the ease and comfort of an old friend storyteller. That, to me, is truly masterful. I was drawn in right from the first paragraph and on my second reading I could really appreciate the irony of your story's title. The idea of Death as lover is so rich and meaningful to me so, reading the way you have embodied it here was extra powerful. And perfect line at the end. Thanks for the writing lesson.
I don't know about lessons, but I'm glad you liked it. I had fun getting to know Jekanga and Becca. I've always enjoyed gray and/or dark characters.
This is the kind of poetically told, naturally understated/relatable-yet-otherworldly narrative I’ve loved since The Twilight Zone and reading Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson as a teen. The narration paints an almost cinematic imagery, and you are so artfully subtle in avoiding cliches. This belongs alongside modern authors like Staub and T.E.D. Klein — I think this would be the highlight of any quiet horror/gothic fantasy anthology. Thanks for a vivid, masterful read!
Thank you very much. I am pleased with the reception. I just hope I can follow through on it.
There is so much powerful imagery in this. This was one of my favorites: "He thrust his hands into the dead man, threading the soul into place." Why, of course, our souls need to be seen in! This is crafted so expertly. Others have said this, but there really is no way to stop reading once you start this, and that is something only a great writer can accomplish. I love horror and spooky, but I haven't seen a ton of it on here... So this was a wonderful piece to find. And your first submission! Would not be surprised if this piece was on th...
Thank you, so much for the compliment. Fingers crossed.
I can't even count the times I've read and re-read this, hoping that I won't reach the end.. I love everything about it!
Wow. Now that's a compliment. Thank you. I hope to share more in future that live up to the starting point.
This keeps you reading, wondering what is going on. Strong voice in your narrator.
Thank you for the feedback. It was my goal to pull you through. I hope you enjoyed it.
Whoa! I was supposed to be feeding the dogs - (they know how to tell time) - ha. But I had to finish reading this story! It's amazing and so 'real'. I'm just glad I didn't read it before going to bed. They say the devil is very appealing and persuasive - yikes.
I'm flattered. Thank you for reading.
Oh wow, what a great story!
Thank you. I enjoyed writing it.