Canker Man

I’ve reached the point where any progress on my novella will be boring bridging sections; or the ending. So, for the time being, I’m going to be silently hunkering down on that, or putting up some short stories that I cook up. Like this one.

Sore man, canker man, knocking at the door.

Sore man, dead man, knock no more.

That’s what they would sing as they danced. They would lock hands in a circle. Always at least five. They would hold hands and jump and sing. They would twirl and spin while they laughed. The girl did not dance or laugh now. Her knuckles were white, clutched to the wooden bench. The door was rattling. The canker man knocked.

One splinter fell off the door, followed by another. Soon soft clouds of wood fell, drifting to the cobblestone floor. The knocks rang through the house and echoed in her mind. A new bead of sweat formed on her forehead, and another, and another. Sundown; her new husband had said. Sundown and he would be home from the forge. Through the stained and cracked window, she could see the sky. A thin blanket of white cloud, the sun peeking through above the horizon. An hour, at least, before he would be done. Her right hand shook. Her left was still latched firmly to the kitchen bench. A half cut onion still lay there, abandoned as soon as the first rattle echoed through the house.

The knocks grew louder. A low groan punctuated the shaking wood. A shallow, rattling wheeze that turned her blood to ice. Her hand came off the bench as she took two quick steps back. It did not speak a word, but its breath could only be human. Or, maybe once.

“Leave me.” She said. Her own mouth was as dry as bone. It sounded as weak and reedy as the canker man’s breath. There was a moment or two of silence. The door was still. Breaking wood followed the long pause. Another knock that was harder than any of the others. The door buckled but held, a large dent caving in. Shards of wood flew out and skittered to her feet. She did not find the strength to scream. The door was only ten strides away, until the last knock. Then there were only fragments, sprawled on the stone floor. She barely registered the wood that fell to the ground. Her bloodshot eyes were locked on the figure in the doorway. It stood shorter than her, at about five foot, its back arched. A robe, grey and tattered, hung loosely around its form. Another wheeze rattled from its chest, its whole body shuddering with effort.

The canker man moved first. One shuffled step followed another, and another. It raised one arm, the cloth falling away to its elbow. The hand was grey and mottled, countless wounds held together with stitches and scabs marring its surface. The ring finger was missing, a worn stub taking its place. The girl watched for only a moment more before moving behind the counter. One hand drifted to the knife, still slick with onion juice. Her mind drifted back. There was more to the rhyme, a way to keep the canker at bay. The first two lines came to her clearly, but the rest was shrouded in the haze of memory. Another groan brought her mind back to the present, the hand stretching out for her. Long, scratched nails raked along her left arm. Droplets of blood beaded from the surface as she drew back. The panic that she had swallowed came rising back into her mind, and she found herself screaming. The canker man wheezed and followed her path. Coming around the counter, closer.

She lashed out with her empty hand. His hand clutched lazily at her wrist, missing her wild arc. Her palm crashed into the side of his head, and bile rose in her throat. Under the wiry robe she felt his skin shift. A bulge that shrunk away as she touched it. She took another two steps back in revulsion. She bumped into the wall, splinters breaking away and knitting themselves into her shawl. The canker man stood still. He did not wheeze anymore. He droned.

It sounded like nothing she had ever heard before. A thousand low voices, humming together into a sound that made her body shake. The robe on its body shook too, shuddering to the beat of the canker’s terrible voice. As he stepped forward, the robe sloughed away to fall on the cobble. His skin was a paler, weaker grey than the cloak he once wore. All across his thin body, sores and wounds gaped. Some were drawn shut with threads, but most were covered in sickly red scabbing. His eyes were facing her but they did not see. One was pointed to the ceiling, the other stared vacantly in her direction. Both shifted and pulsed randomly. Red stitches drew his wrinkled and dry lips shut, others running along his nostrils. On rake thin, shuddering legs, the canker man drew closer to her. Her knuckles tightened on the knife. She took a step, in time with his. She thrust forward, screwing her eyes shut as the blade slid through his papery skin.

The droning grew louder. Her skin twinged with pain, small claws gripping onto its surface. She opened her eyes a crack, then they popped open. Centipedes covered her hand like a blanket. They poured through the shallow wound, skittering over the knife and crawling up her hand. Their legs pinched her skin as they hurried up her flesh. Some stopped to dig in their venom coated teeth. She screamed and leapt back, shaking her arm wildly. Her scream was drowned by the droning hum, rising to a deafening crescendo. She turned back and felt the scream die on her lips. There was no response.

The canker man stood still, flesh sagging. No blood poured from the knife wound. His blood was alive, winged and black. Flies and hornets drifted from his flesh, and countless crawling horrors coated the ground. They floated for a few moments, each beating wing adding a hum to the chorus. The centipedes crawled up her arm, latching onto her shoulder, but they were momentarily forgotten. The cloud shifted before turning to her. Now, she screamed again. They were everywhere. Countless tiny legs landed on her prickled skin, coating her pink flesh in a sea of black. They bit even without teeth, drilling tiny holes just under the surface. They clutched on no matter how she flailed and yelled. When she screamed next, they poured into her open mouth, surging down into her throat and lungs. The flies nested in her eyes, placing their young into the soft jelly. The crawling ones had reached her too, swallowing her legs in a swarm of skittering death. All dug into her skin and left their eggs, nestled in a cradle of warmth and blood. Like their sires had done before.

It was an hour later when he arrived. He did not step inside. He saw the shattered remnants of the door, lying there. He smelt lingering rot on the wind. Bile rose in his throat. He stepped away. He left. None disturbed the new nest of canker. They placed a new sheet of wood in place of the old. No one stepped inside. No one dared to disturb the new nest of canker.

Sore girl, canker girl, knocking at the door.

Sore girl, dead girl, knock no more.

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