Published on 2011/07/10

Etched in Lament

Wesley Dylan Gray

The eyes of the gargoyle looked upon the frozen ground beneath which the bodies of the dead perpetually withered. His talons were set deep into his perch high along the eastern wall of Eagle’s Hollow cathedral. From behind him, the moon forced his shadow down to the frosted yard and it fell wide across it, encompassing the bulk of the cemetery like a hefty shroud. The marble tablets protruded from his shade like misplaced teeth within some miserable skull. Flurries of snow passed beyond his limbs and danced through the air like wandering wisps and faeries. Though his wings savored the gusts of icy wind channeling between his back and the points of the cathedral’s spires, he yet longed to feel that wind beneath his wings, lifting his form into a fast and wild soar. How long it had been since he knew the freedom of gliding and flapping, with the flex of muscle to force both leather and bone, he knew not. For now, the pleasures from breath and movement were unknown to him, and in these long nights and the bitter days of December, his stone felt the most hardened.

Within the shade of his left wingspan, a smaller form was making its way across the yard. He noticed the disruption in tranquility immediately as it raced along the top edge of his shadow. Just for a moment, it dipped out of the dark to catch a few scraps of moonlight, revealing itself as a frail human cloaked in black robes. Strands of silken blonde hair flowed over the shoulders, down along the breast, and glinted in the moon beams. A mere sliver of a whitish face protruded from the hollow in the hood, revealing just the tip of a nose, a delicate chin, and full lips of pale pink. The gargoyle glimpsed another flare of color before the maiden slunk back into the dark; within the girl’s hands she held a single red rose. Her fingers twirled the stem and tapped upon the edge of thorns.

She made her way through the gargoyle’s shadow and stopped just midway between the shoulders. Here a gravestone protruded from out the very heart of the gargoyle’s shade. He recalled that this was the most recent grave to have been planted; he wondered though, had it been days ago, or was it weeks? The figure remained there, shrinking down to kneel, and was still for several moments. Then she stood, and with the flow of the wind, she departed westward, exiting the gargoyle’s frame of vision. When the morning sun at last crept upon the cemetery, snatching shadows as if claiming them for harvest, the light revealed the solitary rose left at the base of the grave.

It was nearing dusk and the shadows were once again staking their dominance when the girl returned. Again, she held a rose and was cloaked in black. She returned to the same gravesite and this time before she knelt, she let down her hood, revealing a somber face of young and mesmerizing beauty. The gargoyle recalled the procession held in remembrance of the man who lay in the dirt beneath her feet, and could accurately envision every face in attendance. This girl had not been among them. Perhaps she had not been properly informed of the death; or perhaps she’d been a secret lover, the gargoyle mused, too ashamed to stand with the others. Whatever the situation, he knew that she had not been there, as certainly he would have remembered her face, for it painfully bore similarity to a girl he once knew; indeed, it beheld striking resemblance to the girl he once loved.

The sight of this face, with its delicate, slightly upturned nose and full lips that seemed to nearly pout, sparked within him a violent concoction of emotions. Like the surging swells of a gray and gloomy storm that rages over the deep and dreary seas, the memories of his ancient past thrashed upon his mind. By the time the girl had again departed, and the fury within him at last felt to settle, he was left to revisit a letter he’d written to that very maiden he once loved. Such as it was, the letter had been composed long ago, recounting incidents of a time before the crusades—a dark time of ancient and forgotten wars. It was not written with ink upon parchment, as most letters tend to find themselves brought about, but was stained upon the gargoyle’s heart, to be forever etched within his undying stone.

#

My Dearest Love,

I am Rouen. You, of course, knew me by a different name. Sadly, such a name is lost to me now and my own recollections do fail to give me hint as to what it might have been. Many things I remember all too clearly, as is the case with the tale I must now impart upon you, and this I remember down to the last gruesome detail. But a thing as simple as a name, indeed a name which passed between your own sweet lips and was found lingering upon your very whispers, remains entombed within my dark despair, down within the reaches of grim shadow and tattered fragments of who I was.

It was the priest, Frederick, who came to call me Rouen. Though for all the turmoil which has transpired, I may just as well be known as ‘Ruin,’ for that is without a doubt the true state of me. It was Frederick who would sit outside the cathedral, just there, upon that little stone bench beneath my perch. The man had a love for the classics, and he would read aloud from antique tomes brought forth from the library, filling the air with poetry and prose, legends and lore. Frederick was the last of this earthly realm to know the horror which is my secret. And when he passed it was buried with his flesh and now rots in the dark and dreary deep alongside his weary bones. So it is a burden I alone must carry, and its weight anchors me to the deepest of suffering. But you, my love, you are no longer of the corporeal, and so I may force a slight resurrection of this long dead secret in order to divulge it unto you, to tell you of how I came to be this monstrosity. I do this so that you may know it, and perhaps, so that I may know some frail scrap of contentment through its telling.

I remember the summer we spent together, two beings enthralled in private paradise. Through the course of long hot days and sweat drenched nights, we came to know each other in all the ways the tender flesh has to offer.

But with the coming of the autumn, sweeping in with the violence of its decay, so came the call to arms. Know this, that my thirst for bloodlust did not outweigh my desire to linger within your bedchambers, or to know the heat of your passion but a season longer. Perhaps then we might have died as lovers should, tangled within each other’s arms, knowing not our own separate fears, but clinging to the other’s dying flesh and passing into the great eternal as one. But alas, I was a young fool who sought to possess both your body and your soul as well as to know the thrill and glory of the battlefield.

And so that winter took me to distant lands and my sword did stain the frozen white earth with countless splashes of red. I quickly found that the love I held for you drove me to murder more intensely than I had ever known. I was consumed with a desire to kill in your honor, and a need to survive the bloodshed so that I might return to you. They say love is a powerful force, and this is a truth I know firsthand, that indeed it stirs within such brutal passions which can drive a man to commit the most hideous and unspeakable of things.

In spring the following year our quest was ended, and this season brought me home. It is not without a cruel and wicked irony that a time so dedicated to life and its rebirth, overflowing with the flourish of blossoms and an air filled with birdsong, for us, the tragic pair, brought only death. I returned to a city under siege—the brutish, monster horde from the north had trickled its way down from the icy mountains in our absence.

I cannot express in mortal words the utter despair and loss I felt at the sight I witnessed as I entered your chambers; the roof caved in from the assault of a catapult; a broken, splintery mound of rubble; a decrepit mangling of stone and twig alike; the bitter rains seeping down in an endless stream, pouring out over the ragged flesh lain across a pile of boulder, board, and brush. And these rains did mimic my own tears, but I admit that mine were soon to dry, for in place of sorrow came the raging fires of hatred.

We fought the vile creatures to reclaim our home, but I fought only for vengeance. We filled the streets with blood and corpses, creating a standstill river of death. But the horde proved overwhelming, and we were beaten back to the yards of this very cathedral. It was here where my blood was shed; there in fact, just beneath that great weeping willow in the far north-eastern corner.

With my death, came darkness, and the next of the story was relayed to me through tales retold for generations. It was Frederick in fact, my final friend upon this earth, who spoke to me of this account. He was, after all, a direct descendent of the very clerics who lived on that fateful day. So it came to be, that soon after I fell, a further retreat was made, into the walls of the cathedral itself. My body was dragged, along with the bodies of a few of my brethren, by a small band of soldiers and clerics, down into the secret places of the cathedral. The domain below is a vast network of long and winding catacombs, its stone walls filled with the most ancient of rotting dead. But within their depths lay another untold chamber, a primordial hall of ritual, a place once belonging to a very elder sect of the highest druidic order. It was said that the clerics of the church were in fact a direct line of these dwellers of old, and of this I have no cause to doubt.

Fires were cast to light the chamber, and five bodies were laid in a position so that they resembled the points of a star. The clerics gathered in circle around our corpses while the soldiers stood their guard. Chanting in a language long since forgot, the voices of the clerics rained through the catacombs, tickling the fragile bones of the dead. The fires roared up and through the monotony of an ancient tongue, five spirits were given rise, plucked from the cold flesh. We rose from the deep and into the cathedral’s main floor, prodded on by the immoral chant, up and up the twisting spires; at last into the stonework sculptures we were sent, to fuse within the hideous beasts carved upon the outer walls. Stone crumbled away, melting into the softening tissue; we opened our glowing eyes and took our first breath as monsters.

To this day I suspect a great tragedy was written in that moment, as I feel as though some echo of another ancient spirit from that hollow underground was given rise with my own, intertwining with it during the forbidden rite, given equal sanctuary within this very stone, for instantly I was changed. My hand was not new to dealing death, but now there truly was a grim satisfaction to be had with each bloody kill. Our troop of five winged horrors laid utter waste to the fiends which plagued us. The kills came easy; having an aerial advantage, we could merely snatch-lift-drop, tear at their bellies with talons as sharp and long as blades, or gnash upon their throats with razor teeth. And in this latter act I found the most pleasure, for the blood was warm, and the metal lurking within the fluid tasted to me as sweet nectar, and I came to know with its drinking an energetic surge of euphoric bliss.

With the battle finished, we gargoyles of Eagle’s Hollow cathedral were returned to our stony state upon the fortifications. Decades lingered on and during times of war, we were brought back to the flesh in order to bring carnage as only we could. Three of my brethren eventually fell to the devices of more modern warfare; even our stone-skin can be pieced by blades given the proper hardened alloy and projected with ample thrust. The fourth never returned from a particular battle, and I often imagine him flying free about the globe, or perhaps he simply returned to stone and became crushed to dust.

So it is I who remain, alone. And with all who knew my secret long since dead and buried within this earth, I remain frozen in my stone. But before his final breath escaped into the night, Frederick sought to leave me with a gift, for he did see the humanity within me, though I often fail to recognize it myself. He proclaimed that I shall no longer be a slave used for war, and he spoke a prayer upon me that I might serve as protector, guardian of the church and its holy ground, to return to life when its sanctity was threatened. And though his intentions were clearly sincere, and I know he meant to wish only good upon me, I fear now that his gift has become a curse upon a curse. For with no violators, no onslaught to be had in these days of peace, I remain paralyzed, a tortured soul entombed within a chunk of rock.

Whether the words of this letter reach you in that far and ethereal place you now dwell, I know not. But as I look upon this cemetery, I do often witness the spirits of the fallen as they happen by, and as each one passes I long to recognize your face within those misty blue wisps. So for now, My Dearest Love, until perhaps we meet again, I will keep searching, and waiting, for that is all that I can do.

#

The evening of the girl’s second visit brought two more visitors to the cemetery. At that time of night, the waning gibbous moon loomed high above the gargoyle’s expansive wings, illuminating most of the frosted yard. The two men entered from the south gate. The thinner of the two lead with a small lantern in hand, and the second, a burly fellow, followed behind with a burlap sack flung over his shoulder. The whispers of the men rose up through the chill air, and echoed from cold stone.

“Come along, Horace! Stop draggin’ yer feet,” said the thin man.

“I don’t like it here, Gregg,” replied the burly man. “It’s too cold for this.”

“Yer blood’ll warm once you start diggin’. Now come along, the grave’s over here.”

The men stopped at a gravesite with two roses at its base. Horace upturned the sack. A shovel and pickaxe dumped out and clanged together as they rolled.

“The ground’s too hard. It’s gonna be a chore to crack it,” said Horace.

Gregg walked over to a nearby tombstone and sat down. “Quit complainin’ and start diggin’. The boss is payin’ extra for our burden.”

Horace looked back and forth between the pickaxe and the shovel and eventually grabbed the axe. “How come I’m always the one to do the digging?”

“We’ve been over this. Besides the fact that you got the brawn and I got the brains, one of us has got to be the lookout and I’ve also got the lantern, so them’s just the cards that’s been dealt. Now quit flappin’ yer trap and dig already. My fingers are gettin’ numb.” Gregg pulled a silver flask from his coat and took a sip.

“I wonder what the boss does with these damn things anyway,” said Horace. “An’ this guy, well he’s been dead now nearly two weeks, what the hell’s he gonna do with a piece of rot like that? We usually get ‘em fresher than this.”

“Yeah I asked the boss about that very thing an’ he told me the cold’d keep him good ‘nuff and that it weren’t none of my business anyhow. I figured he’s just desperate to do whatever it is he does since there ain’t been no others dyin' lately. Ya know, he jus’ ain’t got no other choice. Jus’ like you ain’t got no choice, so Horace, stop stallin’ and start diggin’!”

Horace breathed a sigh and raised the pickaxe high into the air. With a grunt, he forced it down, splitting a jagged crack into the ice-covered surface.

#

With a cut laid into sacred ground, heat began to swell within the stone of the gargoyle’s body. Hardness thinned away into the flexibility of softer tissue. Eyes began to pulse with a green glow and a long drag of frozen air was pulled into cold lungs.

#

Horace stopped what he was doing. “Did ya hear something, Gregg?”

“Jus’ the sound of you not diggin’.” Gregg was taking another hit from his flask.

Horace returned to his work but with each new whack at the dirt, he scanned the yard nervously. He could swear he heard a crumbling sound echo off the cathedral, like tiny pebbles falling from the structure. Then he heard a swooshing as if something large was passing through the air above him. And just when he was about to relay this new information, he felt a sudden burst of wind and saw a black streak sweep across the ground. He looked up to Gregg but where his partner had just been sitting, there was now nothing but an empty tombstone. Then he heard the screaming. It was a shrill, agonizing sound. It resonated from all around him. It seemed as if the source was swirling, moving about him in endless circles.

Horace spun on his heels, chasing the sound, trying to catch the source in a glimpse, but there was nothing to be seen except the blur of both cemetery and cathedral and the tail end of shadow racing along the ground; his efforts only succeeded in making him dizzy. As the screaming declined, he felt droplets of moisture upon his head and his arms and he could hear them, like rain drops spattering across the ground. But what he first thought to be merely rain, he quickly realized to be blood, as he looked upon dark splotches of red seeping into the surface of all that crystallized white.

Just then, Gregg returned. His body came from above, thwacking into the top of a nearby tombstone and then log-rolling until it was stopped by another. The mangled corpse lay still, loose and ragged. There were long streaking wounds in the body’s shoulders, thighs, and stomach, and there was a gaping hole in its neck. Flesh from one half of the man’s face was missing.

Horace was now running through the turf of graves. There was a flapping sound just behind him and he felt rhythmic pulses of gusting wind. He ran as fast as he could, his instinct guiding him through the field of stone tablets. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain in both of his shoulders. His legs were still pumping but his feet no longer treaded on solid ground and he felt his body become weightless. He was being clenched tight within a set of muscular limbs that curled around from behind him. The gravesites raced below in a blur and soon he held a birds-eye view of the entire churchyard. Something tore into his neck and he could hear the slurping sounds as his blood was being drained. Up and around the cathedral’s highest spires he soared, then down to glide just above the cemetery’s iron fence. He watched the winged shadow scraping along the ground beneath him. His head was spinning and he struggled to maintain consciousness. Then, the limbs which held him uncoiled and he was sent flying straight into the gate’s pointing spears. His body came to rest atop the fence, twisted and impaled. Before his vision went black, he witnessed the great ebon form circling the skies above.

#

After the bodies of the men had been dropped into the lake to the north, the gargoyle returned to his perch. He sat through the night, instinctively awaiting his return to stone. Morning came and still he waited. The day lingered on and still he found his shell to be that of flesh.

With the coming of the next night, the girl returned for a third visit. This time, there was no rose in her hand. In place of the flower, she held something which glinted silver in the light of the moon. She stood before the same gravesite and her cloak fell to the ground; her nude flesh was exposed to the frigid air. She knelt down and placed the silver blade first to one wrist and then to the other. Branching trails of red began to trickle through the frost.

As her body toppled over, propping against the tombstone, a terrible image flashed within the gargoyle’s mind—his lover’s corpse as it lay mangled upon the rocks and brambles; the rainwater pouring over; the floods capturing the spilled blood, washing it clean from flesh to puddle upon the stone floor.

Locked within this cruel vision, the gargoyle almost failed to notice that the shadows behind the marble tablets had begun to spread. They seeped out to overcome the lighter areas of the yard like the waters of an overflowing river. Some of them began to pool together like droplets merging to form a larger swell. Others further worked to separate, branching into twisted shapes resembling fingers from long reaching hands. And all the while, as the shadows moved, they remained fixed upon their course—closing in on the girl’s dying flesh.

The gargoyle then noticed that a crowd of spectators had gathered behind the creeping shadows. The blue haze of translucent spirits now littered the outer perimeter of the churchyard like an eager horde awaiting some grand spectacle. The skeletal limbs of the trees were suddenly overflowing with miserable black birds. The conspiracy of ravens squawked a harrowing dirge. The gargoyle knew at once what was happening, as he too became entranced by the manifestations which were taking place.

The shadows encircled the bleeding girl and they began to rise up from the surface, melding into dismal humanoid shapes. They grew up tall, developing into hunchbacked forms comprised of nothing but the darkness itself. The shades continued to lurch toward the girl, determined, like a venue of vultures fervent for her meat. They reached out with elongated arms, the ends of which became hands resembling gnarled claws. And into the girl’s core they dug, scooped, and pulled. Their touch stretched far beyond the flesh and penetrated her at her deepest depths. Swirling strings of pale light became extracted, pulled from her body in arcing pulses as the shades performed their wicked endeavors; the darkness had come to reclaim her very soul.

The gargoyle considered the dreadful display he was witnessing. With the girl’s effort to take her own life, she had forfeited her spirit to the gloom. The convoy of shades was merely doing its duty, to harvest the soul and return it to its place of damnation. He thought again of his own affliction, and that of the horrid demise of his beloved. He envisioned the face of his dearest love as he again looked to the girl who lay dying amidst the swarm.

The wicked shapes were now hovering all about the girl’s naked flesh. They began to emit screeching shrieks of pleasure, locked within a deep ecstasy as they devoured her soul bit by bit. It was like an appalling and debauched orgy where all of its participants were simultaneously achieving a tremendous and sick orgasm.

Suddenly, the gargoyle took flight, soaring high above the cemetery, up and up, around the cathedral’s most elevated spires, all the while gaining momentum. He circled back around and swept down low, landing with violent force at the very center of the dark ritual. He stood over the girl and at once the shades bellowed with shrillness, shrieking out their anger over the swift disruption from their delight. He knelt and draped his wings across her body, his own form becoming a cloak to shield her from their invasions.

But the shades proved that their greed was indeed a beast of insatiable hunger, and they continued to dig and scoop—their icy hands now penetrating the stone-flesh of the gargoyle himself. He could feel their touch penetrating him deep within. A pain of unending madness swelled within as they pulled, their talons clawing and scraping away at his insides. Within his mind he heard their squealing whispers taunting him as they gripped and ripped upon his core. They became ravenous as their dark tongues tasted his soul, for it was truly ancient, and with time it had become a large and powerful force, making it all the more succulent. He tried to run but the shades remained latched upon him, and so he stood amidst the graves, writhing as they worked to extract every final scrap.

Seemingly content with this new sacrifice, the shades began their descent, sinking into the snow and then beyond, taking the mighty soul of the gargoyle with them as their relic. But the gargoyle had one final action to perform. Just as the priest known as Frederick had given him a gift in the form of a prayer, he found that he too had a gift to bestow. As the phantoms gripped him and pulled him into the depths, he reached out with the spirit of his own hand. His palm swirled with a flame of blinding emerald light, and he touched the girl upon each of her wrists, and once more upon her heart. Then all he knew was darkness.

#

The morning sun beamed brightly, bringing warmth to chilled flesh; the girl opened her eyes. She stood up from the base of her lover’s tombstone, picked up her cloak, and dressed. The ground at her feet was stained in blood and her dagger lay across two dried and withered roses. She looked to her wrists—the cuts she’d placed had healed into scars.

The curse of deep mourning she’d suffered seemed lifted, and she even felt a little foolish for having gone to such extremes. She took a deep breath, savoring the crispness of the air, and began to walk.

One her way, she came upon a stone gargoyle mounted in the center of the cemetery. She thought it an odd place for such a monument and also a bit strange that she didn’t recall seeing it previously. She looked to the snout face with its snarling grin, and just for a moment she thought she saw the faintest glimmer of emerald light within its deep-set eyes. She blinked and looked once more, and this time there was nothing but lifeless stone. A trick of the light, she supposed, and she continued along the path leading her away from the graves, through the gate, and further from the frosted yard.


Wesley resides in Florida with his wife, Brenda and daughter, Ellie Jadzia. He drinks his coffee strong and his wine from the box. In his spare time, he writes poetry, prose, and things in between; with these words he attempts to exude a disposition of resplendent contrast, writing things of darkness and light, things beautiful and grotesque. Such writings can be found in various small press magazines and anthologies. Find him online: www.wesleydylangray.com.