The Black Veil

Issue #130

Constant Sterry rode almost doubled over the neck of his horse, his fists clutching leather reins and his cheek continually brushed by the feather-touch of the mane. Slowly and steadily the horse bore him through the woods, for the pain in Constant’s gut grew insupportable with the jostling of anything more than a walk.

With eyes fixed on the thin trail below, Constant watched the scarlet key-shaped leaves of the oaks of Salem Town grow less frequent as he threaded west into the deepening wilderness. In their place, the yellow and orange cast-offs of beeches and maples now drifted silently down from the canopy above. They covered the trail and the ground alike and clung even to the horse’s haunches. So thick did the trees knit together here that even the afternoon sun grew dark, and the feverish sweat on Constant’s brow chilled.

But there, where the leaf litter parted to show clear spaces of mud on the trail, were stamped the cloven-hoofed footprints of the dancing Devil. There and there, sharply cut in the mud they went—an endless track of merry split-shoed steps preceding Constant Sterry on his way, leading the one-time judge of the Court of Oyer and Terminer in the Province of Massachusetts Bay to what he knew must be his deathbed.

As night fell, Constant Sterry reached the isolated cabin that marked the end of his journey. Little more than a shack of a one room, it crouched in the shadows of the forest, a thin spire of smoke the only evidence that it was not already derelict.

Once in earshot, Constant gripped his belly and tried to call out. But no sound would come—only agony instead. Then rising now as high he could in his saddle, Constant filled his lungs again—

But there, already, on the threshold of the cabin, stood a figure in a black frockcoat and cape, silently arranging the folds of a black veil underneath its wide hat.

As Constant slipped exhausted from his saddle, the last he saw was that same figure approaching, outstretched hands sheathed in thin black gloves with lacework as fine as any to be found.

Constant woke in bed, bathed in sweat, a bandage laid carelessly across his bare chest. He’d been taken inside, and he watched with strange fascination as the black-veiled figure knelt over him.

The bandage was snatched from his chest—the linen already soaked to vermillion—and another put in its place, held tight by black-gloved fingers. But Constant had seen the four parallel lines of red that ran from his shoulder to his breast, like the claw marks of a lion.

He rolled his head towards the Black Veil. “The Devil knows I am near death, and soon to be out of his power. He will have no permission to harry me in Heaven.”

Then Constant coughed violently, his mouth filling with bloody slime as something sawed at his gut. The bedclothes knotted in his hands, his own sharp nails leaving crescents of red where his fists closed.

As the fit subsided, Constant looked again at the figure whom he had sought. He saw the shrouded face, the covered hands, the heavy frockcoat. None knew whence the Black Veil had come, nor why it never suffered anyone to see even an inch of its bare skin. But for a moment, Constant imagined he saw through the garments that cloaked its body and face and thought there must be thorn pricks on its brow and nail holes on its palms.

The pain returned, and Constant doubled. “Do not abandon me now, Christ,” he wheezed—and the veil of insensibility descended upon him.

“I wish,” murmured Constant Sterry as he swam half in fever, “it had been my lot to play the part you play. Salve to the dying, angel of mercy to those in pain.”

The Black Veil said nothing and instead put a cool cloth to Constant’s brow. Many in Massachusetts believed the Black Veil had been a minister once and had fled to this wilderness hermitage to serve out some self-imposed penance in silence and solitude, hidden completely from the eyes of men.

“But it was not to me to play such a role,” continued Constant. “A warrior for Christ I have been instead, and five witches I sent to be hanged on the testimony of the afflicted. So it is that five devils assail me now.” He closed his eyes and tried to will the pain away. “Always is it thus with exorcists. Always do they suffer at death.”

The Black Veil lifted the cloth and plunged it in a bowl of water, refreshing its coolness and laying it again on Constant’s burning brow.

“For six months, the devil of disease has probed my belly and filled it with hot coals,” said Constant. “But for six years, the devil of deceit has turned public sympathy toward those witches—until even the ministers and governors, who had been the first to urge the proceedings on, have all but condemned we who they asked to sit in judgment.”

The Black Veil made no sign that it heard or understood, and instead raised a bowl of warm broth to Constant’s lips and held it while he drank.

“The devil of faithlessness has left me bereft of friends. And now this devil made manifest—this physical spirit of the invisible world—” Here, Constant broke off, and his fingers clutched as he nervously picked and worried at his own shoulder and cheek. “It is terrible to know that the Lord has given the Devil permission to rake me thus—to lay his talons upon me bodily—”

Again, Constant stopped with a ragged gasp, and the gentle hand of the Black Veil reached out to straighten his clawing fingers.

“And the fifth,” said Constant Sterry, suddenly exhausted. “The worst of all. The fifth—it is the devil of doubt.”

Later, in the midst of a dark night, Constant Sterry woke with a start. The Black Veil nodded at the bedside, a forgotten taper sputtering dimly and a psalter spread open across its knees.

Constant’s eyes regarded the slumbering figure in a half-panic, dark doubts now clouding his mind. Was it Christ in fact who sat there next to him? Those clasped black gloves—could they hide a woman’s hands? That falling black veil—could it hide a woman’s throat? A throat bruised and abraded by the rough hemp of the hangman’s noose?

Constant recalled now the bitter ravings of Agnes Easton, just seventeen, who had never confessed, never recanted, and who had spat viciously at him even from the platform of the gallows. Were the Black Veil’s lips her lips—blue and blood-specked? Was its tongue her tongue—black, swollen, and silent? Were its eyes her eyes—wormy and hollow from the loam of the unmarked, unholy grave?

Having lost his friends and been made the butt of accusations of zealotry, Constant had come here to die alone in the company of one whom he thought a holy man. But had it all been but another trick of the Devil? Had he been tricked into delivering himself into the very hands of the foe, where doubt and temptation might plague him even in the last moments of his life?

Slowly and with shivering hand, Constant reached up to throw back the veil that covered the sleeping figure’s face. He knew he had not many hours left to live, so weak and exhausted had he become—but at least he would look upon its face. At least he would know the truth, and at last he would learn whether this doubt and suffering had been laid on him by the Devil, or whether he really had erred in the eyes of Christ—

But the figure woke—and shook its head, and gently put off the grasping fingers, and moved itself away.

In the morning, Constant Sterry felt death gather in his stomach. He felt the coldness spreading down his legs and arms as his breathing slowed and weakened. Had the black veil been placed between his fingers now, he no longer had even the strength to tear it away.

Instead, he whispered, as the Black Veil looked down over him.

“Judge me,” he said. So much more he could not say, but he tried to plead through his dimming eyes. For he felt no succoring hand of God, and he saw no pearly light. He only felt the creeping coldness—of death, of doubt, of fear.

On the cusp of oblivion, Constant Sterry was alone.

Then a gloved hand pressed against his brow, the pattern of the dainty fabric heavy on burning nerves. Bending low, the Black Veil took mercy and comforted him.

Die easy, said the hand upon his brow—not in words, but in its contact. I’m with you now, until the end.

Constant struggled to raise his fluttering eyelids. Who? Who was with him? He felt he had but a moment left to him to repent—if repentance were right! If this crushing doubt were not another trick of the Devil’s to frighten him into renouncing the work of God.

If only he could know! If only certainty were his again—the certainty he had felt as he had doomed those five witches to the gallows!

Constant Sterry worked his lips, but he could ask and plead no more. One answer more he had needed, one answer more to unravel the riddle of his life and deeds, of whether he had been right or wrong.

But somehow, the Black Veil seemed to understand. It seemed to know what question was wanted, and what answer was needed. Who is it now that comforts me? was the question. Who tells me not to repent my work? Art thou Christ, or lying Devil?

And there, before the clouding eyes of Constant Sterry, the Black Veil gave the answer true, lifting the folds that hid its face, and showing who it was.

The breath caught in Constant’s throat, and his dry mouth popped open. His heart raced weakly under his ribs as he struggled to understand. The blanket slipped down to the floor, but Constant felt neither the rough sliding of the wool nor the cold air of the shack.

Just a man! cried the ice that crept around his heart. Just a man like any other!

“But what does it mean?” asked Constant Sterry, finding his voice at last by sheer strength of will. “Was I right, or was I wrong?” But the Black Veil could only cover its face again and sadly shake its head.

Then consciousness slipped. Constant Sterry’s lips parted, but only a bleat of despair escaped—and then his lips were still.

 


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M. Bennardo's short stories appear in Asimov's, Lightspeed, and others,  as well as multiple times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. One of his stories was selected for Jonathan Strahan's Best Science-Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 8. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio, but people anywhere can find him online at www.mbennardo.com.

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