The dream was always the same down to the minutest detail; he would find himself wading through a sea of mutilated corpses, while giant rats gnawed at his trouser legs. Behind him, the world was being devoured by the big guns, but what lay behind him on the battlefield did not terrify him as much as what he was walking towards. He would have gladly turned to face the carnage, but he was drawn inexorable towards the forest in the distance. “Keep up or die, poacher”. The words drifted to him above the roaring of the big guns, he wanted to call out to the boy in the top hat. “Come back and finish me off, I would rather die here in the mud”. But his mouth was crammed with something, he would spit out lumps of human flesh, but before he could speak his mouth would fill again. In his mind images of her terrible beauty and the memory of her corpse-like flesh as he lay with her, played a constant loop. He would wake with the feel of her cold lips on his, and the sound of her voice whispering in his ear.
The poacher had lost count of the times he had reached for a gun to end it all, but in his heart of hearts, he knew that not even death could prevent the fulfillment of their agreement. Because, if he had learned anything over the long years since he had first met the blonde woman. It was the fact that she had not saved him; she had condemned him to a fate worse than death. The proof was there every time he looked in the mirror, in over seven decades since he sat with her and ate the devil’s stew, his appearance had not changed. The reflection in the mirror showed a man in his late twenties, even though he was just two years shy of his hundredth birthday. The pale woman had given him long life and riches, and in turn, he had handed her his soul. He had become the vessel through which she perpetuated her evil, a price that had become increasingly hard to bear with the passing of the years.
The silence of the room was broken by a familiar sound; it was the sound of him whimpering like a frightened dog. It was how he always was when waking from the dream, the glowing hands of his watch on the bedside table showed three a.m. In the beginning, he would have tried to return to sleep, but the fear of entering the same dream would prevent him. So, he threw back the covers and rose, there would be no more sleep for him this day. He wrapped the expensive dressing gown around him and crossed the darkroom to the window. Pulling back the velvet curtains he looked out at the exclusive square surrounded by expensive houses, sometimes he forgot which city he was in, or which of his many properties he had lain down in. The quiet residential square was the refuge of the wealthy, and as much removed from the bustling city as the muddy killing fields of the western front. But no matter where he laid his head, there would be no hiding from her.
The big house was silent save for the ticking of the tall pendulum clock in the reception hall, as he made his way to his study. The servants would not be stirring for another three hours at least, but he had become accustomed to being alone in these fine dwellings. Nowadays people referred to him as Sir Anthony or Mr. Greeves. But at times like this, he was reminded that he would always be the poacher, a common thief, and a murderer. At least that was what he had started as until the blonde woman gave him all of this and made him much worse. In the study, he flicked the main switch, and the lamps came on banishing the shadows to the corners of the big room. The poacher filled a large glass of vintage cognac and sat in his favorite fireside chair, he flicked another switch and the gas fire ignited into life. He gazed into the flames and was reminded of his life, for the fire was just a coal effect, faux just like his life.
The poacher continued to be mesmerized by the flames as his mind drifted to his benefactor, she had given him everything he possessed. His wealth, his prestige, and place in society, she had even given him the name Greeves. To many, it would appear that he had been blessed, but only he knew he had been cursed. He had been seduced by the pale beauty; he had given himself body and soul to something that was not of this world. His eyes were drawn from the flames, and he found himself instead staring at the portrait that hung from the chimney breast. The eyes of the only woman he had truly loved returned his gaze, and she was everything thing the blonde woman could never be. Her raven hair and tanned complexion were in stark contrast to the gold hair and deathly pallor of the woman he owed his soul to.
He had returned from the war to a life he could only have dreamed of; a country estate and a fortune in the bank awaited Anthony Greeves on his return. But even more startling was the fact that no one questioned his identity or his rights to all this wealth. The poacher spent the first couple of years looking over his shoulder, constantly waiting to be found out. Sometimes he would even imagine that someone had called out the word he feared most. “Imposter”. The word would ring out in his mind at some gala reception, or society dinner. He would turn to face his accuser only to find those standing near him watching him with admiration. But as time passed and everything he touched turned to gold, he began to think less of who he had been. For a while, he even succeeded in convincing himself that the blonde seductress was a figment of his imagination, the product of a fever brought on by an infected wound.
He raised his glass in a salute to the woman immortalized in the portrait, but the image of Rebecca stared back at him accusingly. She had once loved him with a breath-taking passion, but he had taken from her what she treasured most, and that love had turned to hatred. He had taken her most precious belonging, and he had used it as part payment of a debt that he would never be finished paying. His mind jumped to that time when the existence of the blonde woman could no longer be denied, that which he had banished from his mind intruded in his new life. The poacher took a deep swallow from his glass and the brandy scorched his throat, as he willed his mind to let go of those memories. But Rebecca continued to stare down at him, and he heard her voice deep inside him. “Remember poacher, for such memories are who you are”.
He had married Rebecca after a whirlwind romance, and for the first time in his life, he felt whole. She touched him in a way that no other woman had done before, the baggage he carried with him seemed to fade away in her presence. The young couple was the toast of society, and he vowed that the day he put the ring on her finger was the start of a new life. When she became pregnant, he felt that the past had finally been laid to rest, the Christmas of nineteen twenty was to see their child entering the world. It was a time of rare happiness for him, and the time he was last to experience such happiness. The first breaths of winter crept across the land when he started to have the dreams, and a feeling of deep foreboding settled over him. He became jumpy and anxious, but Rebecca was too engrossed in the pending birth to notice.
The memories brought with them a pain that he could hardly bare, but he knew that wherever she was now, Rebecca wanted him to feel that pain. It was early December when the snows carpeted the countryside, and the poacher began to feel that someone was watching him. He would walk into an empty room and see movement in his peripheral vision, only to turn to find himself alone. He would walk the grounds and hear footsteps among the trees as if someone was following him, or half-glimpsed figures staring through a window. But worst of all were the dreams; dreams that echoed with the words “Keep up poacher or die”. Dreams he would wake from paralyzed with fear, and the feeling of cold lips lingering on his. These were harbingers of what was to come, the first payment of their agreement was about to fall due.
He awoke on that faithful morning from the depths of the dream; it was still not yet light outside. Beside him his wife stirred restlessly in her sleep, she had been experiencing bouts of pain that heralded her imminent labor. The poacher slipped silently from the bed and wrapped himself in a dressing gown, he looked out the window at a world carpeted in white, and something caught his eye. Grabbing his clothes from the bedroom chair he left the room closing the door quietly behind him. He dressed quickly in the bathroom and made his way downstairs. Standing inside the front door his hand trembled uncontrollably as he turned the key, he knew that what lay beyond that door would be terrifying beyond comprehension. But he was also aware that it was something that could not be avoided, after all, he had willingly consented to the agreement.
The startling white carpet of snow was broken by a set of footprints leading towards the woods; the footprints were those of a child that had walked barefooted in the snow. As if in a trance the poacher walked in the direction of those woods, his stout brogues obliterating the small footprints he followed. A dark silhouette of a small figure waited for him just beyond the treeline, a small figure wearing a top hat. “Keep up poacher or die”. The words drifted to him followed by mocking laughter, and to his eternal damnation, the poacher complied with the devil child’s instructions. Once again, he found himself following the creature as if his life depended on it, now and again he would lose sight of the boy but the footprints marked the trail. After what seemed like an eternity he spotted the illumination of a fire ahead of him, and there in the clearing at the center of the woods, he found her.
The cloaked figure sat by a fire beneath a shelter fashioned from dead branches, the cowl obscured the features of the figure but there was no mistaking who it was. “Come Anthony and sit with me at the fire, it is cold but soon we will eat.” The terror inside him was like a nest of squirming snakes, but he could no more stop himself from walking to her than he could hold back the tides of the sea. The figure rose to greet him and removed the hood and he gasped in the presence of her terrible beauty, and her lips felt cold as the grave as she crushed them against his. His skin tingled as if an electric current had passed through his body, and he wrapped his arms around her. Later when she told him what he must do, he wept silently but he knew he would not refuse her. Two nights later he returned to the woods carrying a small bundle wrapped in white, on his return journey the sound of an infant crying reached his ears, but it was quickly silenced.
The memories faded and he was aware of the hot tears that streamed down his face, and for a moment he thought the woman in the portrait offered him a cold smile. In the beginning, he thought he had fooled her, he had told her the child had been stillborn. But the look in her eyes soon told him differently, and she could not conceal her hatred for him. In the end, he was glad to see her go. There had been many more women since, but he felt nothing for those others. The women that had come and gone since served only one purpose, they provided him with means to make installments on the debt he owed. He had carried so many bundles wrapped in white that he had lost track of them, or else his mind just refused to process the utter horror of it all. He would follow the child in the top hat through the dark of night, and he would deliver what the blonde woman asked of him. But the worst of it was he partook of the meal, time and time again, and the world around him aged while he remained young.
The sounds of someone stirring echoed through the quiet of the big house, and the poacher managed to drag his mind from the pain of what had gone before. Soon the servants would be hard at work preparing for the day ahead, and he realized he had grown tired of the city. There and then he made his mind up, that a change of scenery might help dispel the melancholy that was threatening to drown him. But even as he made plans to return to his house in the country, a familiar feeling stirred in the dark regions of his mind. He fought back against the thoughts this feeling brought, but in his heart, he felt her presence. Somewhere out there the otherworldly woman was becoming hungry, and he knew that it would soon be time for another installment of his debt. Often years would pass without the blonde woman making an appearance, but as sure as night follows day she would inevitably return.
The winter finally relinquished its hold on the land, and nature sprung to life. The poacher had not returned to the city for quite a while, and he had even managed to draw a veil over the memories that haunted him. The dreams had not plagued him since he had taken up residence in his country estate, and a small part of his mind even began to hope that it had all come to an end. He allowed himself to hope that the seductress had found another vessel to fulfill her unnatural desires, perhaps his account had been marked paid in full. The longer the dreams stayed at bay, the more he allowed himself to hope. A strange thing had happened lately that fortified that fledgling hope; he had looked in the mirror to find the first traces of silver in his hair and the hint of wrinkles at the corner of his eyes. Perhaps the nightmare would finally draw to a conclusion, and he would be allowed to live and die like a normal human being. As spring took a firm hold over the land, the poacher became convinced that the agreement had finally been settled in full, and he began to hope for a normal life.
The priest uttered the words he thought he would never hear again, and his hand trembled so much that he thought he would drop the gold ring. But the poacher’s happiness was tinged with the fear that it would all begin again, even though he had not seen sight, nor light of the blonde for a very long time. However, now that he had decided to find love again, the old fears pushed hard against the fringes of his mind. The absence of the dream and the fact that he found himself aging at a normal rate was the final catalyst he needed to resume a normal existence, but the small voice of doubt in the back of his mind refused to be silent. Things would be different this time he had convinced himself, and he had taken precautions. The moment the ceremony finished and he took his bride to the car, Anthony Greeves would cease to exist.
The poacher had worked hard to put his plan in motion, not least the effort he made to convince his new bride of the need to assume new identities. But if he had learned anything over the long years, it was the skill of sounding convincing. He had arranged for all his assets to be liquidated, and he would take his bride and turn his back on this life forever. He had even chosen a bride that was just past her prime for childbearing, it was the one chance he was unwilling to take. Marcella had long come to terms with the fact that she would never be a mother, and this suited him just fine. He had not for one moment fooled himself into thinking that he could have what he once had with Rebecca, but at least he would have company for what remained of his life.
The gentle waves lapping against the golden sands gave him a feeling of tranquillity he had never previously known, and the setting sun turned the sea to liquid gold making the place look magical. Here in this paradise, it was impossible to even imagine the blood and carnage of the western front, and the poacher had managed to convince himself once again that it was all just a psychotic episode. The French doors of the shoreside mansion opened directly onto a private beach; here it was possible to believe that he was insulated from the evils of the world. The poacher viewed this private island as a sanctuary that could not be breached; he was willing to spend his remaining years here. The blonde seductress had been consigned to the darkest recesses of his memories, and there she would remain. He had paid far too much, for far too long, and as far as he was concerned the agreement had been fulfilled.
Marcella was like a child at Christmas time, it was the happiest he had seen her since they met. She danced around the drawing-room with a radiant smile. “It’s a miracle, my beloved; we have been blessed with a miracle.” Her words cut deeply into him like poison barbs, the stupid, stupid woman, she could not tell the difference between a miracle and a curse. The room swayed in his vision and he had to sit down, the smiling woman took his reaction as overwhelming happiness. He found himself staring at her womb with murderous thoughts; in his mind, he convinced himself that she had betrayed him. After all, she had told him that she was barren, so whatever was to follow would be her responsibility. That night he was awoken by the dream, he went through the French doors to the beach. There in the moonlight, he saw them, a child’s footprints in the sand. The wind carried the faint words to him. “Keep up poacher or Die.”Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in