The Rogues Gallery: Vultures, vultures, VULTURES!
The Rogues Gallery
This year’s edition of The Rogues Gallery will feature images from one of the tabloids of the late 1800s: The Illustrated Police News
A newspaper vendor in the nineteenth century could always ensure sales with the gruesome cry “Murder! ‘Orrible Murder!” Published around 1870, the Victorian tabloid The Illustrated Police News took this business angle to heart. It had the largest circulation of any periodical of that time and fed the public on a weekly diet of real-life horrors calculated to chill the strongest stomach and boost the next issue’s sales. Each month we will feature a drawing or woodcutting from this tabloid of horrors!
The first round of stories for The Rogues Gallery are in! Congratulations to Joshua Skye and Carina Barry for their outstanding flash fiction. They will be appearing in the January anthology release. We have two gruesome stories for our web site feature to give you a taste of what is to come!
No Hard Feelings
The footsteps were close behind her now. Her strength was failing and she could no longer keep far enough ahead. And even if she were to escape them now, they would come for her some other day. She had already been branded and condemned—a spell-caster and reader of signs and, worse yet, a harlot and a whore.
“Catch, her! Catch the cursed witch!”
The girl knew these canyons well. She often gathered the healing herbs that grew among the rocks and spent time with the great birds of prey that soared and swept along the currents of air. She could easily survive out here for days, if only she could keep far enough ahead…
The voices surrounded her first, followed by the rough, thick rope. They secured it around her waist with such numerous, tightly bound knots that five sets of human hands couldn’t hope to undo them let alone one set of slender, worn-out ones.
“No, please spare me! I’ve done no harm!” She fell to her knees to halt their murderous progress, but they dragged her forward just the same. Her mouth filled with dust and she felt the skin of her cheek tear away against the sharp edge of a rock.
The edge of the cliff was right in front of her now.
“Drop her over! Let her hang!”
A heavy-booted foot kicked her closer to the edge. Just as the solid ground gave way to the vertigo of open air, the girl spotted a vulture’s nest hidden among the brambles and weeds. A tiny, wide-eyed head peeked over the edge just in time for the girl to reach out, grab it around the neck, and take it with her on her descent.
She kept tight hold of the baby bird even as she let the rest of her body go loose. Time held still in the timelessness it took for the rope to reach its end and snap her into agonizing stillness.
“Let’s see if she can work her black magic now!” the triumphant voices shouted.
“Leave her to the vultures, then.”
The girl dangled in the still, hot air. The ground was less than twenty feet away—tantalizingly close, yet impossibly far! She looked down at the tiny bird in her arms; it looked back at her, less afraid now than curious.
A more physical concern, however, soon overrode even its curiosity. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the parched, hungry bird began crying out for its mother.
A shadow soon fell across the girl’s face as the great wings of the bird of prey darkened the sky. The vulture circled her kidnapped baby, screaming in vengeful fury. The girl clutched the baby bird tighter. She could see the rage in the creature’s eyes, and something else, as well—the ever-present hunger of the wild. If the girl should perish upon the rope, the vulture would eat for days to come. And yet the girl could also see that in her animal intelligence, the vulture understood that if that were to happen, her baby would die, also.
The vulture circled. The baby cried. The girl waited. Finally the bird of prey flew very close to the girl and gave one great, decisive “Caw!” The girl weakly lifted her hand in acknowledgment. Girl and bird eyes met in agreement.
The vulture made one swift dive forward and severed the rope. Just as the girl plunged to the ground, she released the baby bird. She hit the hard dirt with a painful jolt and lay in the dust, thinking. The townspeople would believe her dead. Perhaps she could journey across the valley and make a new life in a town where no one knew her. Or perhaps she could stay here in the canyons and live among creatures much more sensible and companionable than humans. The girl sat up and looked at the cliff edge. The vulture was settled back in her nest feeding her baby.
“No hard feelings!” the girl shouted upward to the sky.
The vulture’s response has been lost to history and thus must be imagined by the reader.
Mary’s heart clenched as she was violently wrenched from the nightmare. Coming back was almost as horrible as the dreams themselves. Great talons tearing at her mind like the dark, fierce dreamscape vultures. Her flesh was no match for their daggers night after night. It hung in ribbons as she ran through the forest. Thorns snagged her gown and pierced her feet. Ice crystals froze her throat and lungs as she ran for her life.
It hadn’t always been like this. There was a college once. Another life. Friends, parties, music, dancing, classes. There had been the tinkling of laughter, or was it glass? Shattering glass? But that made no sense. She was sure of the tunnel. She seemed to fall forever through time and space. Into nothing. Why her? What had happened?
The terrors were back. The vultures soaring from the sky. Devouring her flesh. But she wasn’t dead. Was she? Vultures only eat the dead. The dying too? She had to get away. Run. Somehow she knew that if she ran fast enough, hard enough, they would vanish. She could outrun them. Hiding wasn’t enough. She had to run. But the thorns! Wait! The cliff! Why hadn’t she seen it before? Where had the rope come from? Don’t ask questions. Just go. Outrun it. Outfox it. Grab the bird? But why? Nothing made sense anymore. The ripping sensation and she was suddenly free again.
But where was free? What was free? Fragmented thoughts hammered at the edge of her brain. College again. A guy. A smile. Glass. A cup? Shattering glass. The tunnel. Darkness. Her screams echoed into the black void. Hear me! Someone hear me! The talons! Make them go away! The agony!
“Dr. Martin you’re sure she’s not suffering?”
“Mary’s not suffering Mrs. Elwood. She’s in a deep coma with massive brain damage.”
“But why do her vital signs spike like that? There. They just did it.”
“It’s just an involuntary reaction. She’s gone. Do you want to sign the papers now?”
Mrs. Elwood’s hand shook as she took the pen. Mary’s eyelids fluttered. Dr. Martin said that was normal. Involuntary had come up so many times in conversation that she never wanted to hear it again. Brain dead. Coma. Never. Essentially dead. As she scrawled her name across the bottom of the form, her heart constricted. It felt as if talons were digging into the large muscle desperate to try to stop it pounding in her chest. As she handed him the clipboard, Mary’s vital signs spiked again.
“We discussed this Mrs. Elwood.” The doctor’s tone was both consolatory and condescending. She hardly noticed as she broke down weeping. With a single movement, the machines stopped. The repetitious, ceaseless beeping stopped. The silence in the room was frightening as Mrs. Elwood watched her daughter die.
The cliff! Mary grabbed the thick rope. It barely fit in her small, delicate hand. Jump! The smaller of the vultures flapped in her face. “You are mine at last,” she screamed. Grabbing the bird, she jumped from the precipice. Her lungs felt as if they would burst. The massive vulture screeched in anger. Or was it fear? Mary finally felt a ray of hope. Escape! The chasm seemed bottomless as the bird beat against her. The baby squawked and Mary’s skin began to burn. Time no longer mattered as the flesh peeled from her fingers. Wait! The mother was no longer attacking her! The baby! She won’t risk the baby! With renewed energy, Mary descended. The ground came upon her hard and fast. Peace at last. The baby soared into the air to join its frantic mother. Peace at last.
Mary Elwood was declared dead three minutes after life support was shut off.