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  • Writer's pictureThomas De Moor

Inheritance


Ingram slogged through the downpour to watch the execution of the hex. His calloused fingers were wrapped around the tight straps of his wife's wicker basket, filled to the brim with tomatoes and onions and mullets for tonight's dinner. The mud sucked at the leather of his boots as he pushed through the crowd that had gathered in front of the town square's ramshackle scaffold. Ingram stood in a pool of water that reflected the leaden clouds from which poured unending strings of rain. Somewhere behind the cloudscape existed a sun he had not seen for days. "Bring forth the hex," the headsman bellowed. 

Two guardsmen carried onto the platform a naked man whose every bone pushed against the skin in rebellion against the little food he had been given since his capture. He was tied at the ankles and the wrists and gagged with a dirty cloth, and he wriggled like a worm in a child's hand when the guardsmen pushed his head against the chopping block. It was the fifth execution of the month; Ingram had seen every one, as had every other villager, because to miss an execution was suspicious at the least. 

The headsman's voice rippled over the crowd. "Bear witness, for here kneels a man guilty of hexcraft. One who can twist and warp shadows to his will. He is an abomination unto nature and a corrupted soul. Let his death warn all those who are tempted to walk the path of the cursed craft." The headsman turned to the man and gripped with both hands the haft of his ax. "By the laws of the realm, your life is hereby forfeit." 

As the headsman raised the ax above his head and readied himself to bring it down, the platform plunged into darkness. The little light that served as a reminder of the gray morn was pushed away in a wide circle around the hex, covering the guardsmen and headsman in oily darkness. The crowd gasped at the vile display of the hex's powers. Those closest to the platform pushed back against the others so the shadows wouldn't touch them. 

But the headsman was undeterred. His ax cleaved the air and bit through the flesh of the hex's neck. 

Light returned to the platform as suddenly as it had disappeared. The hex's head lolled from the chopping block and came to a standstill on the final plank of the platform facing the crowd. The head's gagged mouth was contorted in an unheard scream, its eyes set in a final stare that Ingram struggled to look away from. For an eternal moment, there was nothing but those two wet globs, loose from the cooling flesh that surrounded them and growing in size until they towered over Ingram. 

Then the world returned. Ingram found himself on his knees deep in the mud, with two men trying to get him up by the armpits. He grunted and stood. "What happened?" one of the men asked as he handed Ingram a few potatoes that had fallen out of his wicker basket. 

"My wife," Ingram said, unsettled and confused by what had just happened but unwilling to tell either man the truth. 

"I'm sorry," one said. "Take good care of her," said the other. Ingram nodded and, with a reluctance that worried him, looked at the platform. Empty but for a youngling who was scrubbing the blood and the impure off the wood. 


Together with the crowd, Ingram plodded home through the stink. Rain clattered on the tuff and trap, sluiced down drains and overhangs, and created rivers and lakes from streets and doorways. When he was certain there was no one else around to watch him, he stood near a window that glowed with the warmth of a fire and looked down. Against the light stretched his shadow, acting in perfect accordance with the movements of his body. Thank the lords, he thought, and he proceeded with a relief that stretched from finger to toe.

Once home, Ingram put down the basket and stripped off everything but his undergarments. The floor was cold to his bare feet as he hurried upstairs and laid some blocks of wood and kindling inside the fireplace of their bedroom. Soon, a fire burned and flicked tendrils of light on the pale face of his wife in their bed. She stirred. Ingram moved to her side. "How are you?" he asked and she moved her hand from underneath the many blankets for him to hold it, but he dare not touch her. 

Something had changed. More than he could see it, Ingram sensed that she was riddled with rot. It rode through her body on the waves of her blood and clung to her organs like barnacles on a ship. Why he had this sensation, he did not understand, but he knew it was true. She had one or two more days of life left. He swallowed. "They killed another hex today," he said quietly. 

"Good," she said with her eyes still closed. 

Back downstairs, Ingram lit a fire in the kitchen and plumped the wicker basket onto the table. He took a peeling knife and grabbed a potato from the basket to make dinner. Nothing was wrong with him, he told himself. It had been too much lately, with his wife on her deathbed and today's happenings in the town square. He was shaken, that was all. 

He tried not to think of the hex's eyes as he peeled the potato. It had a patch of white mold on its side. His hands trembled as he carved it off. On the other side, too, there was a patch of mold. Ingram realized there was little on the potato that wasn't mold, and with sudden anger he threw it against the wall. There had been no mold on any of the potatoes he had bought this morning, he was certain of it. He looked at the basket and grabbed another. This time, he felt it. From his hand into the tuber crept something invisible that caused it to rot. 

"No," Ingram said and he dug for a plump tomato. "No, no, no," he said as the tomato withered and grew patches of white and green that spread and spread until it covered all the tomato's flesh. Ingram dropped it to the floor, where it splattered open. He must be dreaming. He was still in the hex's mind. Soon, he'd be back in the town square standing between everyone else. Nothing would have happened. He paced the kitchen, waiting, his knuckles white where he gripped the knife, unwilling to accept that he had inherited something of the hex. 


 

The heaping pile of rotten produce on the table had already begun to stink. Ingram paced the kitchen flailing his limbs. He grabbed a chair and threw it down the room. He opened a drawer then slammed it shut. The cutlery inside rattled. He opened it again and left it open. He swept his arm over the table and dozens of potatoes and tomatoes fell onto the floor. Corruption had crept into his body. The hex had cursed him with his final breath and Ingram wished him alive so he could kill him again, by his own hands this time. 

He looked at those trembling hands, the two meatbags that caused everything he held to rot. With sudden resolve, he hurried to the fireplace and plunged a hand to its wrist into the fire. When the pain became unbearable, he pulled his hand out and squashed several tomatoes as he rolled onto the floor in agony, suppressing his yelps and grunts so as not to wake his wife. The air smelled sulfurous and putrid. 

"Maybe now. Maybe this time," Ingram said and he stood and placed his burnt hand flatly on a mullet he hadn't yet touched. He closed his eyes and steadied himself as the throbbing pain made the world spin. When he opened his eyes, the fish had seemingly died another death. Its flesh had withered and become discolored. Ingram flung it away and wailed. He fell to his knees, nauseated by the pain, and considered the kitchen's sharpest knife, how it could end his sorrows and release him from this tainted body. 

"Ingram, what's the matter?" came the sweet voice of his wife. She stood on the staircase, her emaciated figure a fragile shadow against the wall. 

Ingram quickly stood and walked to a bucket filled with water, into which he sank his hand. The sensation nearly had him faint. "Burnt my hand, that's all," he said. 

Her eyes swept over the thrown chair, the open drawer, and the foods scattered around the floor. "I can help with dinner," she said and she shuffled deeper into the light. 

"Stay there," Ingram said and, as she stopped in the middle of the kitchen, swaying slightly with fatigue, he saw not his wife but the disease that inhabited her, a swirling blackness that pooled around her chest but had spread outward to her stomach and limbs too. He felt compelled to wrap his arms around his wife, not out of love or lust, but because the corruption wanted him to. "You're too weak. Sleep," he said as he kept his eyes locked on his blistered and swollen hand in the bucket of water. 

"You're in pain," she said. 

"Leave," Ingram barked. He would resist the 

corruption's orders for as long as he could, so as not to do unto his wife what was happening to him. When he looked back up, she had returned upstairs, having made no noise, her body a drifting feather approaching the ground. Ingram took his hand out of the bucket, righted the chair he had thrown, and sat down on it. 

When she goes, so shall I, he thought, and with the admission of his coming death, he gave himself permission to examine the corruption. It required no concentration or willpower. Instead, all it needed was a mere act of release, as if he'd been holding his breath ever since the execution and could finally let go. 

A thunderclap rippled across the heavens. Ingram held his burnt hand by the wrist and, for a moment, the pain faded. The corruption sheathed his hand in shadows and absorbed the pain. I am not your enemy, it said. I am of nature, inevitable and undeniable. I turn the wounded deer into its carcass, the forgotten tool into rust and crumble, and the fallen leaf into the soil that feeds the trees. 

Ingram was taken aback by the ease of communication with it. Perhaps there was another way out. "You have no place in me," he whispered, his eyes trained on the window for passerby who would surely spread rumors if they saw him talking to himself. Rumors that would swiftly see his head pressed against the chopping block. "I beg you. You'll be the death of me." 

Ingram's hand twitched as the corruption around it wobbled and squeezed in a strange mimicry of laughter. How human to believe death is no part of you, it said. Of all the life that comes and goes, only humans are foolish enough to believe in their own immortality. 

"This isn't natural," Ingram said. "Hands don't ruin what they touch." 

Your latent powers have come uncovered. That is all that has changed, it said. 

Ingram shook his hand in anger. "How do I eat? How do I live?" 

Death requires death. The chicken outside. Kill it.

Ingram frowned at the suggestion. He was a carpenter and bred no chickens. Still, he stood and looked through the window. In the pale light of the clouded morn a chicken clucked and shook its feathers under the rain. "How did you know?" Ingram asked, but the corruption had retreated and offered only silence. 

The pain in his hand had returned, albeit less intensely. Ingram opened the front door and walked slowly to the chicken, which did not flee but only looked at him, head cocked, as if already aware of its fate. There was no one around. Where had it come from? With his good hand, Ingram grabbed the animal by the neck and rushed back inside. 

He had feared the animal would die the moment he'd touch it, but it didn't. He held the animal on the kitchen table and realized he had a degree of control over the corruption. It hadn't spilled out of his hand and it wouldn't unless he told it to. Still, his control was limited and, as he waited, the corruption grew impatient and pressed against him, eager for its release. Letting go was as easy as an exhale. The corruption flowed into the chicken, which shuddered before it turned quiet. Ingram felt an intense pleasure, and he struggled not to smile.


 

Ingram walked upstairs with a steaming plate of roasted chicken and boiled potatoes. After he had killed the chicken, the corruption's hunger had been briefly satiated and he had been able to touch other foods without them rotting in his hands. His wife lay in their bed covered by blankets, asleep, as he knew she would be, for he could sense the brittle life she still possessed wherever he was in their house. He placed her meal on the bedside table, picked up the overflowing bucket from underneath a hole in their roof, and opened a window to throw out all the water. The rain clattered on the shingles of the village and in the distance, over fields of sodden grass, lightning struck across the clouds. 

"I don't want to do this," Ingram said even though he knew he wouldn't be able to resist. He held out his burnt hand to let the rain taste it. A dog barked at the thunder. "It's not the right way to go," he said. The corruption's only response was its relentless desire for the dying woman a few feet away. Ingram closed the window and turned. "I'll bring you chickens and rabbits and sheep and cows," he said as he shuffled to the bed. "I'll hunt deer, I'll kill wolves. Don't make me do this." He was next to the bed and pulled away the blankets. 

She was awake and looked at him. "Who are you talking to?" she asked. 

"I'm sorry," Ingram whispered and he gently cupped her cheeks with his hands. He closed his eyes as the corruption flowed into her and waited for her flesh to turn cold. It would take only a moment to extinguish the little life she had left. Perhaps it is a mercy, Ingram thought as he stroked his thumbs across her face. Immeasurable pain was building in his chest and stomach. He had loved how she sang during the sunlit days laundering his linens, how she cooked meals that smelled so much better than the one he had made for her today, how she made no demands of him but that he kiss her in the morn. A life without her still seemed forever away. 

"Why are you crying?" she asked. 

Ingram didn't open his eyes because it could not have been his wife who had spoken. It was his imaginings, produced by his intense desire to live in a world she still lived in too. And yet her cheeks were warm. He had even felt them moving when she'd spoken. Despite his fears of what he was about to see, he opened his eyes. There she lay unglazed with her hands on his. A glow had returned to her face, and Ingram realized that the corruption had not taken her but had instead aimed its tendrils at the rot inside his wife. 

"Ingram, why are you crying?" she asked again.

"Because I think you're getting better," he said. He reached for the plate of food and slowly fed her. The following days were a fragile but blissful return to normality, with the doctor proclaiming her sudden recovery a miracle as he bandaged Ingram's hand, and the many visiting villagers saying how much they had prayed for her. Ingram thanked them and did not speak to anyone about what had really caused his wife to heal. 

The corruption was his constant companion, and every time it twitched he left his house under the cover of the night to steal an animal he hoped no one would miss. He took great care not to draw any suspicions and did not visit others who were ill who he now knew he could heal. Instead, he attended every execution and turned away when the ax came down to look upon the crowd and see who stood there transfixed.


 


Thomas De Moor is a Belgian writer who specializes in dark and twisted short stories. He writes about good people with dangerous powers, strange characters in broken worlds, and whatever else is required to give the reader something unique to read. He publishes his fiction for free in a newsletter called “Like Antennas to Heaven,” which can be found here:

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