In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wrote and submitted the following piece to the Tales to Terrify Flash Fiction Contest (whose prompt was to compose a story inspired by the picture above–“The Plague” by Arnold Böcklin ). Alas, my entry ultimately wasn’t chosen for the podcast, but I thought I would post it here.
Scourge to Multiply
By Joe Nazare
The town might as well have been designed for the Downfall. Close-constructed quarters form opposing facades that turn the main street into a canyon of entrapment for unsuspecting travelers. Sudden as wind gust, the nightmare creature swoops in, and the leveling begins.
Pair by pair, eyes widen and instantly roll up into whiteness, unable to bear a sight as sublime as this sailserpent. Too incomprehensible is its molten, smoldering visage, not to mention the corona of smokecloud roiling about its reptilian anvil of a head. A single glimpse, unmerciful if brief, sends the townspeople crumpling bonelessly to the cobblestoned road. Men and women lie sprawled, sometimes even piled on top of each other in listless orgy.
The wizened rider knows the danger of marking the beast, although that is not the only reason the figure straddles the sailserpent backwards. It’s a sexless revenant, its shift a soil-dark shroud hanging loosely on the emaciated frame. Taken together, the gray, cadaverous legs don’t measure half the girth of the mount’s body stretching obscenely between them with suppurating sores running its length.
This harvester perched atop the airborne terror like Death personified gives its attention not to the decimation in the street below. Instead, its gaunt face glares back blackly through the gauntlet. Its rictus bares teeth clenched in grim determination. Flensed of muscle tone, those sticklike arms look too weak to loft, let alone wield, the great blade grasped between skeletal fingers. Nevertheless, the scythe swipes, sharply intoning that the Downcast must not be disfigured. The carrion birds that follow in the sailserpent’s wake, devoted as ducklings, squawk and scatter. Yet inevitably, the eager feeders regroup and circle back in pursuit of meaty morsel.
The sailserpent, meanwhile, continues its swift course, and engages on two fronts—fore and aft. In a macabre mockery of anatomy, its long tail terminates in a second, bulbous-eyed head. Pointed beak hinged wide, the industrious tail-head engulfs the faces of the prostrate townsfolk with its pestilential breath. The emission fogs forth like the spume of some unholy censer.
Every last insensate human in the thoroughfare is sufficiently sprayed. Then, just as abrupt as its advent, the monstrosity with its hind-facing rider makes its exit. The tips of its titanic, bat-like wings whispering against the fronts of the looming buildings, the sailserpent soars out of the street scene and renders itself invisible in the vista.
A moment thereafter, the townsfolk resuscitate.
En masse, the Downcast rise to their feet and casually brush the dust from their clothes. Unremembering what just transpired, and unaware of what they inhaled, the people carry on with their lives. They still believe themselves justified in ignoring the burgomaster’s warnings, in disregarding the reports of a strange plague spreading this way from afar. Yet whatever ill-advised errand led them to venture out in the first place has now been forgotten. Hurried return is the unconscious imperative directing their steps. The elected couriers move silently, with nary a cough or sneeze sounding amongst them as they head straight back to welcoming kin.
Unbeknownst at this point to all those who would soon enough bemoan, cataclysm begins at home