On nights like this, the man could imagine that the fog was alive.
Like a primordial serpent, it writhed and coiled around him in the twilight. A great fan of light shot into the sky, flickering around the flames of the bonfire built at his feet. Below, the twinkling yellows of the village windows and the orange glare of floodlights on the church spire were nearly blocked out by its oppressive darkness.
The church was, he supposed, a pretty building in the day time. Roman Catholic meeting Eastern Orthodox, it had a light green roof, bulging out into the spire topped by a golden cross. The high stone walls were surrounded by an old graveyard, body upon body buried down for centuries. The ancestors of the Felds, the Janaceks, the Kappels, all on top of each other or in their family tombs, rotting away, returning to the world. The man spat on the ground to think of them. Such a lack of ambition! Such a lazy, earthly view of the world! His forefathers were not down there, hidden behind the yew trees and the knapped flint walls. They had gone to their fate up here, beyond the reach of the church, of God. They were not in the ground. They had gone somewhere higher.
The people down in the village would have known what this night was just a few hundred years ago, and they would have known to fear it. The man up on the hill, stamping his feet against the cold of the melting late April snows, was celebrating Walpurgisnacht, that festival older than man knew. He often liked to reminisce about the stories his father had told him, what Walpurgisnacht used to be. He loved to imagine the parents of the town fiercely guarding their children against evil, espousing prayers they must have known to be to a false god. He had a view in his mind perhaps unrealistically kitsch- the family huddled around a wood fire against the unseasonable cold, the thick charred odour of wood smoke and cinnamon filling the air. Now, chances are that what people would be up would be playing games or watching America’s greatest export, the mind numbing horror of reality TV.
He also liked to wonder what the scene would be like up here on the hills in the Mainhardt forests. There had been more followers he assumed, more acolytes. Sometimes, on lonely nights, he subscribed to that faintly church driven propagandist cliché, written about almost exclusively by repressed men, of the satanic orgies, but when up in the hills he imagined it more clearly. There rarely would have been more than a dozen men and women, rarely more than twenty, and they would not be nude. Instead, they would have been in thick furs and skins, ritual paint daubed on what skin was shown. Some, his father used to say, would wear masks- skulls, animal pelts stretched and distorted, or even the entire head of animals like the stags that roamed the forests freely still. Always, though, the leader would wear the crown, a dull, unpolished strip of copper graven with the letters and words of old, which even the man couldn’t read. He imagined that the people of old would have brought their gifts swaddled up in cloth and carried in their arms.
This was, of course, all just speculation, for the modern rituals barely resembled it, those greater times of past where the fire would roar with devilish fury. The crown was now safely kept in a safe at home, and he was wearing a red North Face coat and carried his gift in a papoose on his front. He just felt like the images he came up with were way more poetic than the reality of him huffing up the hill, feeling the cold through his jeans.
The fire did little to warm him, stunted as it was. He could only hope it was enough to accept the gift he had brought before them, in full view of the eyes that watched from the darkness. The bundle cooed as he examined it, mewling pathetically, trying to wriggle away. He checked it for any malformations- they wouldn’t accept spoiled goods- and found it satisfactory. Not as good as he’d found before for the annual festival, but they liked their presents young, and this was the youngest yet.
He tumbled it into the fire, watching as its skin crackled and peeled away under the heat. He would have felt sorry for the baby, but couldn’t find any in his heart. This was simply something that had to be seen through. A couple of times the child hissed and squealed, like a pig put to slaughter, but soon the noises stopped and the fog descended.
Great snakes of fog uncoiled and struck forth at the fire. It was a tense few seconds to see that they’d accepted the gift, but soon he saw more mist come in, bathing everything in its soft grey absence. Against the fading lights of the fire he saw figures approach the child, too fluid and too fast to be human. They danced around the fire, leaping across the dying embers, sucking in the energy and killing the light as they did. In the last glow of the fire-pit the man saw one of the figures be cast to the ground, lying there placidly as the brethren tore it to shreds and ate of its flesh.
All of a sudden then fog was gone. Crystal clear starlight shone down, and a fast rising crescent moon was approaching from the East, where the first purple shades of dawn were beginning to invade. The fire-pit was out and, turning on the torch on his phone, the man saw that it was now a pool of thick, mucous-streaked liquid, an oil slick of skin and fat at its surface. Floating atop it like Moses in a basket was a child, just like the one tossed into the fire. The only difference was the slate grey that replaced its brown eyes. The man smiled and picked up the child, kissing it on its brow and wiping away the amniotic sheen it still had from the pool. He wrapped it in a blanket and started back off to the village, the blazing church floodlights his guide.
Faintly, he wondered whether the parents would notice the change in their baby. For centuries, no one had.