Author's note: I like the idea of this story a lot but I feel that it's lacking for dialogue and not sure how the pacing works, if there's superfluous/insufficient material, etc. Let me know your thoughts below, I'll post this as its own story on the site later on, and I'd love any feedback as I get back into writing.
“Bloody hell, am I starvin’!”
Those dreary words often echoed around the camp of desperate, bloodied souls. Some spoken aloud, others only passed in pained whispers, or simply purveying the entire atmosphere in the Valley Forge encampment. Morale was incredibly low, lower than the temperature. The flashing steel and the blood-red uniforms of the British army were as far from everyone’s mind as the ragged band of patriots languished in the cold, the biggest danger to the Continental Army did not come from without, but from within. There was not a man either enlisted, officer, nor volunteer that did not know hunger. Without proper supplies, men had taken to eating anything from roots and tree bark to cotton or sawdust, just to fill the howling void that was their shrunken guts.
What Solomon, or “Sully” as his comrades called him, did not like was that the words came from his friend and comrade Arthur as they dragged a wrapped, stiff corpse of a perished fellow patriot through the surrounding forest. The look in his eyes as he eyed up the body draped in a sheet they were dragging across the frost-bitten earth gave Sully a strange feeling in his gut.
He could not fault Arthur that much, however. They wore ragged uniforms or at least whatever passed for a uniform in this outfit, none of which did much to prevent the cold from seeping into their very bones. They carried muskets over their shoulders which they had fired in anger at the English, both of them having killed men before. Yet, just like many of the boys in this so-called army, they could not call themselves true hardened soldiers and even those true soldiers that remained were in the same boat as the rest. Officer or low-ranking, the hunger and the cold were truly equalizers.
“What’s wrong, Sully?”
The boy tried to bite his tongue. Arthur was younger than him, not by much but he acted even younger. He was a rash and flighty youth; Sully made sure to stick to his friend like honey to keep him out of trouble. But like Arthur’s hunger made him impulsive and morbid, Sully’s made him incredibly irritable and quick to anger, and this time he gave into the rage.
“Must you always say that whenever you look at a corpse?” he barked harshly. “God damn it, Arthur, these are people!” Sully dropped the feet of the body, causing his friend to stumble under the weight as he stood to his full, greater height. “Christ, if you so much as think of that sort of thing again-”
“I’m not!” Arthur protested, the look of hunger replaced with one of shame as he nervously rubbed his hands on his threadbare sleeves, trying to warm his stiff, achingly cold fingers as best he could. “It’s just… I’ve been hearin’ things in the camp. They’s keepin’ Washington’s horse under armed guard. Wonder what they’re gettin’ paid to keep their chops off that thing. I bet it’d feed a dozen men for a week, I’m long tired of boiled bark and moss...”
Sully folded his arms tightly to his chest, hugging what was left of his already thin blue and red-trimmed jacket to his pronounced ribs. Like Arthur he had forgotten the feeling of a full belly, forced to subsist on little more than a few scarce roots they had dug from the winter-hardened soil. “Can’t enjoy meat when you’ve got a noose around your neck with a bullet in your liver. Don’t make me teach you what becomes of those who give in and eat human flesh.”
Arthur suddenly froze in place, turning only his eyes to lock onto those of his older friend. A pale look had entered the boy’s rosy, frost-nipped cheeks. “Please spare me, Sully. Ya know I hate those kinds of stories.”
And so he did. Arthur was in many ways a fearless lad, never scared of his fellow man. He was a fierce fighter in battle for his smaller size, reminding one of a scrappy wildcat. However, Sully knew he was terrified of the old wives' tales of what stalked in the dark. More than once growing up, Arthur had slept with a lit lantern or curled up by the fire after his father or his brothers teased him with stories of the Kelpies from their ancestral home in Scotland, water spirits that looked like horses to lure people into lakes or streams to their doom. The story of the Scottish banshee gave the boy a particular fright in his youth; so much as hearing a female yell in the distance could set him off. Sully was not so cruel as Arthur’s family and friends, so he kept those tales to himself.
However, just because he did not speak them aloud did not mean he was lacking a few yarns of his own to spin on some nights around a fire with the men. Many of the scouts who had made contact with locals, such as the Iroquois and the Lenape, would deliver their own ghost stories of spirits and monsters tied to the very land itself. These were just tales, however, stories to scare children or fools like Arthur, but Sully was no fool and was certainly no longer a child. He knew damned well that man only had itself to fear.
After a moment, the two picked up their ends of the corpse again, having nearly forgotten about it, standing quiet and awkward in the cold as the snowfall became thicker around them. They did not speak now, Arthur ashamed of himself and Sully simply having no more to say. At least, having starved to death, this body was not very heavy. Thanks to lack of sleep due to their shriveled stomachs and the biting cold, it was all they could muster the strength to shuffle about their job at little more than a snail's pace.
There was no real burial place near the camp; sickness was already ravaging the army as it were and the last thing anyone wanted was to bury the dead too close by. A few soldiers who had simply passed away from hunger were elected to be buried in the woods in a small clearing Arthur had found while on a patrol. By now, even in the now surprisingly-thick snowfall, the two knew their way by heart, and by now the corpse seemed to be growing heavier.
It had become easier to let down one’s guard in the banal, dismal conditions. In these close quarters, the only thing more familiar than one’s fellow soldiers and their grumbling stomachs was the daily monotony of wake, starve, and try to sleep. The woods around the camp had long since been harvested to the bone, the animals were virtually gone and any roots, berries, or carrion had been inevitably devoured. Vigilant patriot scouts made sure that no one, not even the stealthiest native could penetrate the defenses, which was a shame because Sully felt that he would have traded his month’s ammunition ration, perhaps even his musket, with a Lenape warrior for a scrawny rabbit or couple of squirrels.
That is why, when Sully looked past Arthur’s shoulder into the clearing, he stopped dead in his tracks.
Just ahead in the pale gloom of the falling snow, was a small pile of frozen corpses that the two boys had been working much of the day preparing for burial. They had been wrapped in white linen which was rapidly blending with the forest floor as the snow began to dust the rotting leaves and dirt. This made it stand out even more: leaning over the pile of bodies was a tall figure completely covered by a long, cream-colored coat with a black tri-corner hat atop their head. The coat had been well-made yet was incredibly worn and tattered, covered in dark stains and the green color and cuffs having all but faded to a washed-out drab. Sully knew that regimental color was part of no army he knew or ever faced, yet he could swear that he had seen that green and cream-colored sort of coat somewhere before.
The figure seemed to be rummaging through one of the cadavers, having discarded its burial sheet off to the side. What immediately alarmed Sully was that this man was set to be buried without any clothing or possessions, for uniforms were preserved to be given to other recruits that needed them, so this meant the newcomer was, in fact, not merely interested in pickpocketing the dead. It was clear that this person was interested in the only earthly possession this lost soul had to offer. This revelation sickened Sully to his stomach, and rage began to boil in his blood.
Dropping his end of the burden, he swung his musket off his shoulder with the practiced grace of a hunter having spotted a deer, raised it to his shoulder, and leveled it in the stranger’s direction.“Just what do you think you’re doing, friend?” His deep, harsh voice rang across the clearing with an unmistakable echo. The stranger stopped whatever it was doing, and frozen in place.
“What’re you playin’ at, Sully?” Arthur, his back still to the scene, glared at Sully in confusion.
With a speed that neither of the boys had ever witnessed in a living creature, the figure whipped around to meet them. The barrel of Sully’s weapon began to shake when he noticed the figure had not turned, but rather its head and only its head had somehow twisted half a full rotation to look Sully in the face. This had not been arching twist or the craning of the neck, reminding Sully of the wooden neck hinges from one of his father’s puppets. However, this action did not sicken him nearly so much as the face of the figure.
Perhaps it had once been human, but that had clearly long been abandoned or stripped away. The shape of its head certainly matched a human skull, and the skull was almost the sum total of what remained. Whatever flesh that remained hung in thin, desiccated, tattered strands, bits of it even hanging loose like drying lichen. The teeth were jagged, brown, broken with bits of flesh stuck between them, and the lower jaw was smeared with cold, thick, dark congealed blood. The eye sockets looked like they had long been empty, the sightless eyes having perhaps been stolen by carrion birds, and, in their place, the sockets poured forth a thin trail of what looked like white smoke.
The two stood and stared at each other, if what the figure was doing could even be called staring, for what felt like hours. It did not so much as waver or shift position from where it silently considered these two intruders upon its gruesome meal. Even Arthur did not so much as budge, fixated on the absence of color in his friend’s face.
“Arthur…” Sully spoke quietly, not sure if he was trying not to be heard by the creature or to mask the quiver in his voice. “When I give the word, throw yourself to the ground.”
“W-what the hell is it, Sully? What the devil’s behind me?”
“Damn it all, just do as you’re told… now!”
Everything seemed to happen slowly in Sully’s eyes. Arthur began to fall to his righthand side. His finger, rigid with frostbite, curled tighter around the trigger of his Brown Bess. A cloud, like gunsmoke, slowly curled from his lips as he let out a breath to steady his aim. Arthur’s foot lifted some of the rotting leaves from the forest floor into the air. He could see the hammer of the flintlock begin to plunge towards the priming pan. Sparks from the flint drifted into the air like leaves in a breeze. The priming powder slowly began to spark, then blaze brightly. Sully could swear he saw everything happen at once at that moment.
And yet, in the midst of all this movement, never once did he see the figure even twitch. It remained motionless as a stone.
The musket thundered and bucked backward, filling the area with smoke and shattering the deathly silence like a hammer to crystal glass. Solomon had positioned himself well to handle the recoil but he did not even notice the weapon’s substantial kick. He stood with bated breath, Arthur having twisted to look behind him from where he lay on the forest floor. They stared into the cloud, neither of them sure what to expect.
It finally settled and cleared, revealing the figure to be sitting exactly where it had been before. Sully was at a loss for words, he was certain he had hit it full square, right beneath the left shoulder blade. That is when Arthur raised a trembling finger towards the stranger, pointing to the back of its coat.
“Mother of Christ… Sully, look.”
The hole from the musket ball was now apparent. Sully’s aim had been true, striking the stranger right where his heart should have been. But no blood was coming from the wound at all, an injury that should have been spraying that vital fluid across the forest floor or spreading in a crimson stain upon the coat. Instead, all the two could see was a black, seemingly bottomless hole, and the creature, for it was already clear this was not human, was entirely unperturbed.
“By God… what are you?” was all Solomon could be brought to say.
With the hushed utterance of these words, the thing lept into action, moving like a mere blur, fast as a hummingbird. Sully’s gut instinct kicked in; dropping his now useless musket he threw himself on top of Arthur in a protective, brotherly action, draping his larger frame over that of the boy and bracing for the clasp of a cold, dead hand around his neck. Yet, it did not come.
When Sully dared to crane his neck and see, the figure had instead moved to the corpse again, taking it by the ankles in both of its bony, emaciated, rotting hands. It was quickly dragging it out of the clearing, having already reached the tree line. The corpse had taken two men to carry easily, yet this monster moved with the strength of three large, well-fed men at once. In its haste to leave, Sully saw that it had caught on the corner of its greatcoat on a protruding root and become snagged. However, seemingly not noticing or just ignoring the inconvenience, it simply continued along and the coat was discarded on the ground. This gave Sully a full view of the horror he had just encountered before it disappeared with its grisly prize forever.
It had a human shape, walking on two legs with two arms, but it looked like little more than a bedraggled scarecrow. Almost all of its skin and muscle were absent, as if this were a corpse picked clean by vultures that had miraculously continued to walk afterward. It was almost pitiful to look upon, as if a stiff wind would blow it away. The few, shriveled tendons that remained seemed barely sufficient to hold the bones together, never mind give it the unearthly strength, speed, and grace with which it moved. There was no doubt that something incredibly dark and unholy drove this wretch past the point of death, if it had ever even been human in the first place.
All the two boys could do was stare at each other in absolute awe of what they had just witnessed. They were not certain what exactly they saw. They were not certain of when the alerted patriot sentries had come running to the scene of the gunshot, demanding to know what had happened. They were not certain what they would say to their commanding officers back in the camp. But Solomon was certain of two things. Memories returned to him of an older Iroquois telling of his service during the Seven Year War, working as a scout for a French regiment known as the Volontaires Etrangers, a detachment of whom the native was hired to guide through the Nova Scotia forests in the dead of winter. Men who wore cream coats trimmed with green, a regiment that had been disbanded decades past, and a unit of whom had mysteriously vanished leaving the native the sole survivor. Or at least that was what the Iroquois had reported to the French. He had been forced to flee when the soldiers, seemingly crazed with hunger and cold, had turned on each other like feral dogs. Sully wondered if that old native man would have somehow recognized the visage of the creature that had just vanished as quickly as it had come.
But even this grim realization was pushed well behind the thought foremost on the two young men’s minds: their appetites and shriveled stomachs had been thoroughly vanquished from the forefront of their minds.
Much of the mechanics is good. You have the musket down pretty well, for example. The problem is that I don't feel parts. I am told they are in cold, but I don't feel cold. I don't feel an exceedingly deep cold or what it is like to walk through deep snow. I don't feel the symptoms of starvation or disintegrating uniforms. I don't feel improvisation besides the discussion of the horse.
The reaction of awe ("a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.") from both Sully and Arthur seems strange. Why reverence or respect that?
That blue coat left behind by the creature would have been valuable and would have been hard evidence. Perhaps it even would have marks, insignia or writing in it indicating ownership.
Fair point on parts: I think only time I mentioned that was Arthur's cheeks being rosey in the cold. I can add more bits of that. There's not deep snow as historically winter in the region was relatively fair and the common stories of Valley Forge being covered in snow are misconstrued, and it wouldn't have even been exceedingly cold. Good points on the starvation and worn-out uniforms, I can work on that. Tell me more about improv, not sure what you mean by that.
Fair point on awe, that can be switched out from dumbstruck or shocked. Generally I've heard and seen awe used to reference wonder fear and wonder in equal measure. That wording can be changed.
My thoughts are the coat would've been stolen by the creature as means of sneaking around without notice. I think it should also lose its hat in the scuffle, maybe it moves so quickly the hat falls off, I think I forgot the creature was wearing it. I could detail the coat to maybe be an officer's coat.
I had thought the coat belonged to a soldier who was so hungry he did start eating people, and therefore he was transformed into the monster.
A blue coat like that would indicate a French/Indian wars Veterans or subsequent militia coat. "That be the coat of Jacob Smith. He disappeared."
If you have a choice between starving to death or doing activities like eating things that one would not normally think edible or stealing food from locals or foraging, I am going to start thinking out of the empty Continental Army ration box. If there is no other food, tree bark would be the first thing I would try, along with mosses and lichens. I know some of this can leave you sick or stoned, but that would be something that would happen.
This corpse could have come from a guy who did try eating something unhealthy out of desperation.
That's what I've not yet decided upon, whether or not this thing was a soldier or something that found its way to the camp from the woods. Could definitely add soething to flesh out the creature (no pun intended).
There was a man I read about who go shipwrecked and left floating for weeks on a raft. He was able to catch fish but he was only eating the meat, not the more nutritionally vital stuff like the eyes and organs which are important. After a while though, his brain sorta rewired to want to consume these things. The body takes over at a certain point to keep you alive, indeed, and anything becomes a potential lifesaving meal.
I wonder what he would've eaten, maybe I can spin off of an actual existing substance that existed.
I don't have much of a criticism for this one, it's pretty solid as it is.
However, I'd like to note that I kept thinking "it's a spin on Wendigo" because of the setting and the emphasis of folk tales in the stories. So, if you are going to expand on the lore and plot of this story. In the case of this being a complete figment of your imagination, make sure you establish it as if it is an actual legend or something of the sort.
An interesting point, Bloody, because I actually intended for it to more resemble the original ghoul legends but I never bothered to look into ghouls, which come from pre-Islamic Arabian folklore. ANd I recently learned that the Wendigo as we know it is innaccurate, kind of an escalation of a native parable regarding greed in times of hardship. I might need to rethink this, which do you think? Maybe the classic ghoul would be more suited to a Crusades themed story...
I'll definitely take this one into account. What would you suggest?
MrEvan312 wrote: An interesting point, Bloody, because I actually intended for it to more resemble the original ghoul legends but I never bothered to look into ghouls, which come from pre-Islamic Arabian folklore. ANd I recently learned that the Wendigo as we know it is innaccurate, kind of an escalation of a native parable regarding greed in times of hardship. I might need to rethink this, which do you think? Maybe the classic ghoul would be more suited to a Crusades themed story...
I'll definitely take this one into account. What would you suggest?
I think you being able to find more info on the ghouls is more likely. All things considered, we're probably closer culturally to pre-islamic arabic peoples than to North American ones. These tend to have very different concepts to our own in the old world, or old world centered cultures. For example, you can't really explain the Skin Walker in English (or any old world language) properly.
In my opinion, get as much of a information as you can on either really, if you manage to grasp something on the Wendigo (psychosis) and add a bit of your own spin to it. Cause that's always, I guess more engaging and perhaps more interesting, especially to an audience that might not be aware of the real deal.
You have the logic and rules of your monster defined better.
I still see two issues. The first is errors in English. With that, your English has an extremely high reading level because your sentences are so complicated and adverb laden. I'm actually going to bypass that, assuming you'll do another draft.
The second is that there is still far too much telling and not showing. For example, you relate in detail in the next to last paragraph what the creature was. That exhaustive narration falls flat.
As I said, the English is a problem but isn't the biggest problem. You've got a tell and not show problem.
Could you get it kept up on site with only minor fix-ups? While I am not an Admin, in my opinion the Admins wouldn't delete it. It wouldn't be a strong Pasta though.
Grammarly does a lot of very useful analysis in the free mode, but there are other apps out there that offer additional tools. For your case with your long sentences and large number of adjectives, I suggest trying http://www.hemingwayapp.com on your story. It's 100% free, and will help with the clarity of your writing.