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A Rumor of Shrines

by Paul Kesler


What prompts their arrival is a matter of conjecture; at any rate, the dogs are wild dogs ---traveling in packs, they swarm through streets in the early hours of morning, long after most are asleep, setting up a sound more like a drone than a volley of barks or howls. If one looks through the windows as the snow slumbers down in this far northern village, their passing is like a drift of flakes before the onslaught of winter --- a drone assails the senses for minutes at a time, now building, now diminishing, a kind of tune impervious to the senses.

All we know is they arrive as a unit; approaching the square, appendages of scouts swirl off in tentacles ---- from the roofs, they look like an amoeba whose pseudopods grope outward in exploratory quests, then break from the body ----- snaking down alleys, slithering through doorways, leaping through windows raised by villagers who cannot anticipate their determined aggression, who lean back suddenly as the jaws come near to grazing them, then collapse to the floor, not knowing where their bristling quests might lead them.

Apparently they are not indiscriminate, though they have victims, for after each wave of their arrival, we find that one of our villagers has gone. Once, a hunter decided to trail them, and came to a spot near a mountain pass where, he conjectured, a campfire had been abandoned and the dogs had taken over ---- he could barely make out through the night air the flicker of smouldering ashes, and smoke that swirled like a passel of crows toward dawn. But the dogs merely waited ---  crouched on their haunches, glancing at him occasionally but not advancing ---- suddenly, they were not hunters at all, nor was he, but mere conveyors of a cargo the villager would not identify till he returned to his home next day.

Weeks passed; the mystery, having reached an intolerable scale, sent one of our people further into the distance than any had attempted, only to find the carcass of a villager missing only a few hours before, buried in the middle of a narrow path, his body protruding above the clawed soil like the parody of a scarecrow, half-leaning toward the ground, as if a monument to his own capsized martyrdom. More bodies, we suspect, have been disposed in like fashion ---  vagrants have claimed as much, though no one cares to believe them, more preoccupied, in any case, with the prospect of the next wave of interlopers than the fate of former lives.

Now we are determining how we might save the village, whose population is reduced to almost half  its former size. The dogs, like moths, are drawn to the lights, approaching, most naturally, where they believe humans are hiding, so we extinguish lamps early ---- indeed, some have gone so far as to remove from their doors and windows any sign or image in bright or livid colors, since, they reason, these too will be targeted. But in the cloak of morning, long before dawn, we hear their scavenging movements as they grovel in cabins and coal bins, the torrent of their passing spurred by agonized growls, as if frustrated that what was once so simple has now become tortuous, though our numbers continue to fall.

Nothing seems to check them, though they seem content with one victim at a time, as if proscribed by some taboo to carry off more than a single dweller ----- or perhaps, if that frightened hunter's discovery is any clue, because they cannot establish more than one human monument at a time. Just what are these shrines they have so laboriously constructed, and what, as they circle the village like stars, can their rituals portend?

We are waiting, doors tightened, the lights long gone, not even whispering as the whisper of their coming brings new rumors to the village, which may, or may not, be enshrined or buried tomorrow.

to Paul   ~  to Moongate