I lie in bed, naked, waiting for my aunt Helga to come. The room had her smell, the window an impression of her face, and the sheets some grey-brown flecks, which I could only assume were the remnants of dead skin of hers that had dried. This lying in her bed had been Aunt Helga’s idea. She did not like to be alone. She liked the feeling of something warm against her arms, her shins; she liked the occasional perception of a heartbeat or the tickle of a hair from my armpit. I had grown used to it, being alone, as we were all now alone, but Aunt Helga had not grown used. It was as if her brain remembered a previous time where we humans had not been culled. As it was, we had been hunted to that vulnerable place right before the end. A rare old man I met on the road told me that the good times were over, which I imagine is something that all old people say eventually, but the words had remained with me, like the fit of a pair of old boots, as the world around me, even the way I felt when I awoke in my aunt’s arms, became more and more unbearable. I supposed the good times had been over for a long while.
The world was black outside the window. It was always like that, black. The cause was some calamity that had befallen us, which no one really understood as the Hundings kept all the important information hidden. I had long felt that Aunt Helga knew something, something about the past, but that she withheld it, like those precious secrets that women withhold from men because men are fools and deserve not to know everything. Actually, I do not mention this fact, about the black sky, to remark on Aunt Helga’s secrets, or lies, as many of them were lies, but because this perpetual darkness made it impossible to tell the time. It is a natural human ability to have a general understanding of the time, but it becomes difficult to figure when the sky is always the same color and the heavens are too murky to be able to discern the stars or the moon. We all had clocks in our homes, all of us Pampasdeitsch families, but none of us kept the same time, as we all set our clocks to standard times derived from alternate sources: the four-page newspaper, occasional radio broadcasts, the words of census officials from the government, etc. Most of us understood that our Hunding masters deliberately confused us about the time, not because they wanted to keep us enslaved, but because it amused them. We never spoke of it.
So I arrived at Mrs. Zwinger’s farmstead not knowing if I was early for my English lesson or late. Mrs. Zwinger had worked for many years as a scribe and assistant butter-churner to the Hundings, translating old books from English into Hundings. And churning their butter. She had grown rich, living in a big ugly farmhouse on her property and sort of lording it over the Pampasdeitsch. Her house, like everything in the town, lie in the shadow of Aethelbald’s castle, a shudder of turrets and battlements a thousand feet high. Aethelbald was the ruler of the region in which we lived; a Hunding, he resided in a castle that touched the night-clouds and which was said to be even older than he was. It cast everything for a hundred miles into darkness, but especially Mrs. Zwinger’s house. There was nothing more ghastly than a shadow at night, and Mrs. Zwinger’s wide, pretentious dwelling seemed to emphasize this effect, sort of gathering up these shadows and holding on to them. The woman was overly proud of this house, always keeping the windows open and the doors unlocked, as if to proclaim that she was under the protection of monsters. But when I reached her house, which was somewhat removed from the other farmsteads and overlooked the bleak Pampas-border, I found the door barred. I saw several broken windows and a torn shutter on the front of the house and when I went round to the side door, I found that barred, too. My heart began to race, which it very seldom did. "They say there is a war," a girl in a horse-drawn buggy said as she passed me. "A war?" I asked, but she was already gone.
I ran in the direction of the Meeting-House, meeting Beriah about half way there. He was making long strides, as he was taller than I was, bounding past the tied rounds of hay, but I managed to catch up.
"What is this about a war?" I asked.
"Don’t know nothing about it," replied Beriah. He turned quickly away just as I had gotten my last word out.
"Headed to the Meeting-House?"
"Course I am."
"Do you shun me?" I wondered aloud.
"No," said Beriah, stopping in his paces. He turned to glance at me. "How is your Aunt Helga? Still keeping you warm at night?"
"I would not be able to tell you. I have not seen her in three days."
"Must be lonely." Beriah stopped, taking a long hard look at the Meeting-House, now very near to us. "The township is close to shunning her. You would be wise to make away from the woman if you do not want to be shunned, too."
I glanced down at my black trousers, my black boots which made me seem taller than I was. I could feel the wool socks like another appendage; Helga had sewn them upon her loom. She and I had long dwelled on that hinterland between subtle shunning and outcasts outright. The people of Burg bei Kansas City turned away from us when they thought we did not see; thralldom was better than freedom it seemed: thralldom to the Hundings, thralldom to one another. After my mother disappeared, I had to lodge with Aunt Helga, as I had no male kin to claim guardianship over me. She seemed glad to take me in. Aunt Helga was regarded by everyone in the town with suspicion, even then. She dressed plainly, like everyone else, but her blouse was a little too tight at the bosom; her waist a little too cinched in. She looked at men a little too long; got a little too angry with the other women.
We reached the Meeting-House, where I found Aharon, Ephraim, and Moses all upon ladders, repairing a black spot on the long roof where lightning had struck three days previously. It had taken these three days for the residents of the town to meet and decide what to do about the roof, as that was the manner of things here, as if time did not matter. They had all sat under this hole in the roof, these men and women, while the rain poured in; here they decided that two days hence three young men who had not yet been baptized would repair it.
"Hand me the hammer, Zebulun," said Aharon. "It is there, behind that hedge."
I found the hammer and climbed up the ladder to Aharon, about two rungs higher than me. I handed the tool to the boy, who was not yet twenty, but already had a full beard. He did not have a moustache. "Getting baptized this year?"
"Thought about it," answered Aharon, "but my father says to wait. Says this shall be a year of misfortune."
"What has him thinking that way?" Beriah asked, standing on the grass below the ladder. He hitched up his trousers as if to say "I am among men now." "The sparseness of the leaves upon the alders?"
"The rain, or the lack of it. He says it comes in spurts as if God has abandoned us. He withholds the rain as we are unworthy of it."
"I suppose that jibes with this idea of a war," said Ephraim.
Ephraim stood on the other side of the lightning hole from Aharon.
"Do you know anything about it?" I asked Aharon, who turned from his perch on the ladder to glance at me.
Though our testament of simplicity demanded that we speak and behave humbly and, perhaps most importantly of all, dress plainly, Aharon always managed to push the limits of this code; this time, attired with a bright blue flower in his simple black waistcoat.
As I was also in black waistcoat, fretted gray by the Pampas wind, I came to envy Aharon his flower.
"Aethelbald has declared war on Wulf," said Aharon. "At least that’s what they are saying."
"Quiet, Aharon," Beriah said, sitting on the grass and shielding his eyes, though there was no sun.
"Why? I do not say anything different from anyone else."
"They might hear you," Beriah said in an emphatic whisper, emphatic because of his funny expression of raised eyebrows and pursed lips. Even his ears had a way of raising themselves when he was excited.
"Oh," said Aharon. "The Hundings might hear. Ephraim, hand me that plank. And the nails."
Aharon’s grin was a contagion.
"You only say that because you have not seen one before."
That was a common state. None of us had seen a Hunding. The Hundings were reputed to appear suddenly, often in human disguise, to devour their victims. This frightened the women, but we men spoke of it gleefully, when we were brave enough to speak. Perhaps what we wanted was to be eaten. It was said that some men waited in old, deserted barns or other places that Hundings were said to stalk, dreaming of that final moment. That moment when it would all be over. Alternatively, some men specialized as bounty hunters, procuring humans for the Hundings, or as "matchmakers", arranging humans to serve in concubinage to a highly-placed Hunding.
"And you have? You have seen one?”
"I did not hear that part about Wulf," said Manasseh, walking up to the group. He rattled Ephraim’s ladder playfully.
"Who is Wulf?" I asked.
Everyone laughed and Manasseh placed an arm round my shoulder. "He is eight-foot tall," he said. "He is built like an old-fashioned horse and buggy. His cruelty is a wonder.”
We were not supposed to gossip either, per our code.
“It is said that his fingers are long and muscular, and tipped with claws like daggers. He is a book filled with obscene thoughts sinful desires. You know, those sorts of things the old men removed from the Anabaptist Bible because they were too naughty. He is the oldest of the Hundings, I have heard. And the wisest.”
"Is an old-fashioned horse and buggy any different from an ordinary horse and buggy?"
"Not particularly. No."
"So, he is a Hunding."
"Jumpin’ Jehosaphat, shut up," said Beriah.
"Oh, we are not allowed even to mention them," Aharon laughed. He looked at me with extreme, exaggerated pity and said: "Wulf is the ruler of Region 2." Aharon, in addition to being the most garishly dressed among us, was also the least humble. "I have been to every town in Region 3, and even to parts of Region 2."
"You should not tell lies."
"It was not Wulf," said Ephraim, tucking his shirt into his loose black pants. "It was Eacwader."
"No, it wasn’t. It was Thingfrith."
"Could not be Thingfrith," said Manasseh. "Thingfrith’s land is far to the south, about one thousand—Heavens to Betsy, I do not know how far. Anyway, we do not share a border with Thingfrith’s region."
"Sure we do," said Aharon.
"No, we do not," said Beriah. "You catastrophic scoundrel."
"Why catastrophic?" Moses asked.
"Because he does not support the cause."
"And what cause would that be?" Beriah wondered.
"The cause of-- Oh, shoot. What’s going on with Zebulun?"
"What? What do you mean?" I asked, though I had already begun to lose my voice.
"You look ready to bite the dust."
"I am not biting any--" I squeaked breathlessly. I had climbed the ladder again, inexplicably, but had then begun to lose my balance, not even hearing the others as I collapsed onto the dewy grass before the Meeting-House.
When I awoke in the hospital, Doctor Springer was peering down at me. The dark room was lit by three candles; in this light, I could see a strongly-built man with steel-grey hair and a youthful face. He wore a wide-brimmed hat, like all the men in the town; his waistcoat was an official, blinding white, lending our dusty town of farmsteads and disused barns a small tinge of fanciness that we did not deserve. We only got this impression of the doctor when one of us had something the matter with the blood and had to come to the hospital. "I never understood why the Hundings would allow their prey a doctor," I whispered as I sat up on the narrow hospital cot.
"What did you say?" asked the doctor.
Doctor Springer sat on the edge of the bed. He was holding in his hands a portable smear kit. It consisted of a miniature microscope, pipette, slides, glass covers, lancets. Something bulged out of a front pocket, lending the doctor a boxy, pushy quality. He was unusually handsome, in sort of an insipid way. The doctor did not have any other devices: for listening to the heart, testing the reflexes, etc. He was the Hundings’ doctor, and all that really mattered was the blood. "Let me have one of your fingers," he said.
"All right. Index. Middle. Pinkie?"
"Matters not to me."
I noticed that the doctor, who I had met merely once before, spoke Pampasdietsch with a peculiar accent, which I chose to ignore. It was not humble to delve too deeply into the affairs of others, especially if they were not readily understood. It might lead one to imagine oneself better than they. I gave the doctor an index finger and he used the lancet to draw blood, which he sucked up into a capillary tube and injected onto a slide with the pipette. A little spot of blood landed on the bedsheet, which Doctor Springer eyed intently for a few moments. "Hold this," he said, handing me the smear kit. I took the kit, returning it to the doctor when two of the candles had been blown out, dimming the light in the room.
It did not take the doctor long to discern the most important facet of the blood. I felt his heartbeat as a rattle of the coiled bed frame and the thin mattress atop it. I saw beads of sweat appear, one after the other, upon the doctor’s brow. "You did not tell me your name."
"Where is your file?”
"I do not have one."
"What is your name?"
"Zebulun de Moravia."
"de Moravia," repeated the doctor. "That is an odd surname for this town."
"Yes. You are not the first to say so, my lord."
"Zebulun, you have Icelingas."
"I have what?"
"You have Icelingas."
"Icelingas? Is there a cure, sir?"
"No. You have Icelingas; it is sort of a state rather than a disease. Look here! Your cells lack the Hertig factor."
The doctor leaned so close over me that I could feel his chest pressing against my shoulder. He pointed with a finger, but only in the general direction of the slide, and I saw little purple-red cells with sort of a divot in the middle, on a whitish sea. I saw little things floating along like griffins on their way. I knew of griffins from a book Mrs. Zwinger had given me to read; she had handed the book to me like the keys to a room I was never to go into. I looked up at the doctor. "I do not understand," I wanted to remark, but I noticed that Doctor Springer had begun to tremble, sort of a muscular tremulousness.
"You are a--"
"I should take you home," said the doctor, wetting his lower lip with his tongue. "My horse and buggy is outside.” His speech became truncated and confused. He said: "Meet your mother. Your parents."
"My father is dead. You cannot meet him. I live on my aunt’s farmstead."
"Fine. Meet her then. Whole range of blood tests. Medical history, of entire family. Of course, must not remain in this town. Not long."
"My aunt is not at home."
"Where to find her? The important thing is--"
"Sir," said a nurse, coming into the room suddenly. She was plainly dressed, like all the women in the town, only all of her garments were white. "There has been an accident. Aethelbald’s office is asking that you release all of your units to his deputies."
"All of the units? I have never heard anything so absurd. Hand me your radio."
I remained for about a minute after the doctor had gone, and then I slipped into my shoes and silently left the hospital room. As I toed my way silently down a hall, Doctor Springer appeared suddenly around a corner, rearing up like some manner of beast. "Wait!" he cried. "I am sending you to see someone else. He is a Hunding, so do not be frightened."
"So, he is like you then."
"No, I am only a patroon. Not even fit for eating, it seems."
"But you are so terrifyingly beautiful."
"Perhaps, but I lack something on the inside. Here is his name," and the doctor handed me a torn sheet from his prescription pad. I had a moment to ponder if the doctor was sending me to someone who might aid me, or procuring me for his master.
"I do not understand," I said.
“You must go.”
The doctor told me to leave to the coaching inn at once. He told me that someone would find me there.
The washroom lay outside the coaching inn. All it had was a hole in the ground and a mirror; there was no sink, but a single lit candle in the room revealed a large bucket filled with brown water.
Glancing into the mirror, I saw myself. I was a young man of middling height, wearing a wide-brimmed black hat, dressed plainly. My attire was a sedate orgy of blacks, whites, and blues. There was a word that did not exist in Pampasdeitsch: orgy. For reasons unknown, Mrs. Zwinger had underlined it in several English books in her collection. My hair was brown and curly; it had been made blonde at the temples by the darkness. People always seemed to take special note of my hair, at least when I wasn’t hatted. I wondered if I was ungainly. I had never met a Hunding in the flesh so I could not say.
When I looked down, at a space between the bucket and the wall, I saw a book. It was bound in a red leather cover as if dipped in blood. “The Saga of Eadburh” it was called, as I learned when I opened it and saw the words in English on the first page. Upon one of the early pages of the book was a monochromatic image of a woman wearing a crown; she sat on a bench beside a full-bearded man. It was nothing more than your simple book frontispiece, but the face of the woman was otherworldly beautiful, as if she died from some incurable illness and loved it, or as if a man had told her an amusing joke, but she was waiting for him to die before she laughed. She had high cheekbones and turned her head slightly away from the man; even he wouldn’t know if she had already tired of him or was just playing coy. She was just the sort of woman a man would spend the next three days thinking about, based solely on her picture; and as there were no women like this in the town where I presently resided, I decided that the better course of valor was to toss all of the brown water of the bucket into the hole, place the bucket down with its bottom up, sit upon it, and read whatever story it was this Eadburh had to tell.
“In my father’s house there were many things,” Eadburh told. “There was the low, sloping roof that seemed like it might cave in at any moment. There was the rough-hewn dinner table, which my father had made himself and of which he was very, insolently proud. There was the Word of God resting on a shelf upon the wall, transmuted by my father to us: his descendants. Besides me, there were my sisters and my sisters’ children. If my father had his way, there would be many more. We were all Devolved Anabaptists of the conservative order, holding our worship sessions in the house of a neighbor, a certain Unger, a man as insufferable as my father. Now, the rough-hewn dinner table was covered with plainly-cooked food that tasted as poorly as it sounded: tripe, porridge, cider. The tripe, of course, came with a side of offal, at least offal other than tripe: bladders, testicles and the like. The cider was the only thing upon the table that did not cause me to wish death nightly, before dinner. As misfortune would have it, it was my father’s commandment that we not drink anything until we had finished all of the food upon the plate and licked it clean. I always thought this measure approached the depths of cruelty, but this was a sentiment my father would never comprehend.
“ ‘Thou shalt not die,’ my father was fond of saying before dinner, as if it was a punishment he taunted me with.
“One day, I would meet a man who found me as I lie prostrate in a wood. I had fled from my father’s farmstead, hoping that the Hundings would find me, and now that they had, all I could think to do was pray to the Almighty for salvation. How quickly one learns to believe in God! I pictured these monsters clawing at my neck with their hands; I could hear the gnashing of their teeth as they approached, fantasizing, as they must, of taking me back to the inner sanctum their castle, of doing unspeakable things to me. I was young and the world might yet be a beautiful place, at least the world that lies outside the dining room window. Whether I deserved salvation or not was an altogether different question. I had fed my tripe and testicles to the mastiff when my father was not looking. I had not honored my father, but had cursed him in my prayers. I wondered what it might be like to one day have a man who was not my father lay a hand upon my neck, my back, my breast. There was this word ‘fornication’ that had a special fascination for me. When I heard the brother Unger pronounce it slowly, exquisitely in the Devolved Anabaptist meetings my feet did a little dance. I would kneel at my bedside, praying for a different sort of life than what I had; my prayers fell upon the ears of a God who seemed indifferent to them.
“As I lie there, in the wood, a man came upon me. His image is presented on the frontispeace of this book, the tale of how I became a Hunding. It was a choice that I made, as I was certainly too sardonic in temperament to spend my life among these Devolved—Well, let us just call them devolved, for that is what they were. I knew that these creatures hunted; I knew that they stalked, but I knew also that I was not the same as my father, as my sisters. The man, for I thought he was a man at the time, offered me his hand. He said, gentlemanly: ‘I would eat you, but I am not hungry at the moment.’ I fell in love in that instant, never learning to love anyone else. That man was Wulf and it was he who made me what I am.”
I left the washroom, heading away from both the coaching inn and the town of Burg bei Kansas City. I broke into a run; I might have run for two miles, ten miles, or fifty. I ran like that until I came to a simple castle, more like a fortified manor house than a lordly residence; it had a simple wall about the height of a man enclosing a not overlarge space of gravel and aspidistra. The gate was unlocked and I entered its confines, finding that the resident must have been at home, as there was fresh lamplight being emitted from a chilled window. The doorknocker on the tall, studded wooden door was in the shape of a grotesque man with a bronze ring through his nose; I used this to alert the inhabitant that I was outside and wanted entry. No one came to the door, but it opened.
“Hello, is there anyone in?”
No one replied and I entered a room with a soaring roof, which strangely had many doors leading this way or that; they were all at odd angles to one another and they lent the room a sinister air. The room was sparsely furnished, with the occasional dark portrait hanging on a wall, so dark that one could not tell if it depicted a man or a woman until one was immediately before it. There were other things as well: the occasional book and a large silver image of Our Lord hanging on the cross upon the wall. In the corner was a butter churn, of the plunger variety. This alerted me directly that the resident of the place could be a Hunding, one who happened to churn his own butter. All of us Anabaptists knew the Hundings liked to slather their human victims in butter before they ate them. Behind this room, there lay a ghastly courtyard, high and narrow and cordoned off from the rest of the castle by an arcade. I was walking along this arcade when I heard the sound of the front door slamming against an interior wall. I started, certain that I had closed the door when I came in. I hid behind a column in the arcade, a vantage point allowing me to spy into the front room.
A woman had entered dressed all in white; she wore a wimple over her hair, like the laity, the religious women in one of Mrs. Zwinger’s books. But when she came to the crucifix, she hissed at it and it fell to the ground. “I know you are in here,” said the woman, if she was a woman. “Shall I eat you?”
Shivering with the cold, I left the arcade and came to a hall, at the end of which was a single room. I could feel its intense warmth from the hall.
“I am famished and there is nothing good on television. How dreadful.”
I passed into the room. Closing the door behind me, I found the room better furnished than what I had seen of the rest of the castle: it had a high curtained bed, many wooden bureaus and cabinets, a bear skin rug in the center. As I was suddenly exhausted, I undressed and stepped beneath the bedcovers. They were a jumble of animal skins and I was astounded to find them both welcoming and comfortable.
I knew the woman would come, and I lie naked in the bed, waiting for her. All I had in ownership was my body, the supple chest, limbs and legs of a lad of nineteen that had spent his life till then on the farmstead; I thought that if I offered it to the woman she might take what she wanted and allow me to live. I thought that she must be like Aunt Helga, that what she wanted was not to be alone; that a man, and a young man at that, might form the cure for her ague. The woman did not come immediately and, contrary to all reason, I fell asleep. When I woke, the woman was leaning ominously over the bed. “You are going to eat me,” I remarked.
“No,” said the woman. “Would you like me to?”
“I don’t know.” I sighed, sitting up in the bed. “I was expecting Wulf. I-- I am surprised to find you here.”
“You wanted Wulf instead?”
“I did not want anything, Madam.”
“Madam? Do I remind you of your mother?” Her laugh was mirthless. “I do not have to eat you, but I can.”
“But what is it that you want?”
“I would like to play a game,” she said. Her black eyes sparkled. “A game of cat and mouse.”
“It seems we already play it.”
“Perhaps. My, you truly are a beautiful boy. You are all so delicious, you Anabaptist boys with your wide-brimmed hats and your loose trousers. One would never know that such sweet flesh lie beneath.” And the woman let one of her hands fall upon my chest. “We love your religion. You all come to us like lambs and, once in a while, we get a lamb too delicious to eat. Oh, I am so bored! So bored of everything! Would you like to play a round of Candy Land? I promise not to eat you if you win.”
The woman removed her wimple, allowing full, lustrous black tresses to fall upon her shoulders, upon which there was an ample amount of down.
“But what is Candy Land?” I whispered.
“Oh, I’ll show you. I have the board and the pieces in the front room. In one of the cabinets.”
“I am not supposed to gamble,” imagining that we were to play a game of chance. “It’s that easy, isn’t it?” I asked, suddenly becoming frustrated with the woman’s nonchalance. “I could eat you or we could just play Candy Land. I promise not to eat you after we’ve finished playing Candy Land, whatever that is.”
“I’ve already told you, it’s a board game. A very old board game. Invented in the 1940’s, I think. By a little girl with polio.”
The woman laughed, with joy this time.
“But how could it be very old?”
The woman turned to glance at me, as she had been looking out of the window. “Ah, the little matter of the year.” She sighed. “What difference does it make?”
“You are Eadburh,” I said.
The woman left the room and, not particularly interested in playing a board game, I closed my eyes again, comforted by the great warmth of the bedchamber. When I awoke a second time, I found that a man entered. He soon occupied the room like a wolf stalking the place. He was tall, broad-shouldered and indifferent. He was also bearded, like the men of my faith, only the ends of his beard were curled and menacing, like the man in the frontispiece of Eadburh’s story.
“You left her to play her game alone,” the Hunding said. In a few moments, he was beside the bed. He pulled away the bedcovers to reveal my body. “Would you like to--”
“No, I would not like to play Candy Land,” I said, as this game, in my mind, had taken on a baleful quality.
“I shall give you my mark, but first-- You have something in your hair,” and Wulf, for I knew it to be him, plucked from my pate a piece of down which he briefly held in his fingers; it burned to cinders before it touched the ground.