Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#24


Sssstep right up, ladieesss and gentssss... For your edification, may we present a sssslithering little sssssideshow sssset under the big top? Ssssnakes! This ssssinster ssssnippet is guaranteed to have you wriggling in your sssseats...

 

The Skin of the Old God
 

By A.L. Godfrey


The mustiness lurked in the darkness of the carnival tent like a living thing. It coiled in the almost impenetrable shadows, ready to leap out and attack the unwary, and filling nostrils with its thick and dusty essence.

As the late-night patrons filed in quietly, soft, dry coughs bounced around off the thick canvas walls. An old Indian, long silvering hair framing gaunt, leathery features, crinkled his nose slightly, then squinted into the shadows. The translucent moonlight streaming past his shoulders exposed the outline of bleachers on either side leading further into the darkness. Beyond the two support poles in the centre of the tent he discerned the suggestion of a stage. He took a seat amid the thickest shadows on the rearmost bench.

With the usual preliminary clearing of throats and the shuffling of feet on dry dirt, the remainder of the crowd found places to sit. The entrance flap fell closed, blanketing them all in absolute darkness.

Outside, the raucous sounds of the carnival throbbed through the sultry evening, but all such noise was smothered within the confines of the canvas walls.

"Satan--!"

Some of the audience started at the voice fracturing the anticipatory quiet, momentarily as shocking as laughter at a funeral.

"--appeared to Eve in the body of a snake."

A spotlight flared from above, betraying a glass cage on the left of the small, hardwood stage, a stuffed rattlesnake coiled inside. "And Saint George took arms against the dragon." Another glass box was suddenly illuminated, revealing the severed head of a Komodo dragon. "And even Moses used the fearsome snake to intimidate the Egyptian Pharaoh." Those seated nearest the stage jumped as another light exposed a nest of writhing asps before their very faces. One woman fell back off the bench before realizing the snakes, though twisted about each other to suggest movement, were long since dead and preserved. "And so we have the snake. The embodiment of evil."

Gradually, a sanguineous glow washed across the centre of the stage, revealing by increments a portly figure adorned theatrically in safari clothes and hip boots. "For centuries has this unnatural lizard plagued mankind's most secret nightmares," he said, "its eyes dead, like black marbles; its very kiss deadly."

Suddenly a white light slashed through the crimson glow and the audience turned on squeaking benches, squinting, to see a figure silhouetted in the entrance. The latecomer hastily dropped the flap and quickly took the nearest empty seat. He stroked his snow-white goatee, deliberately ignoring the impatient stares directed his way by his fellow patrons.

The man on the stage peered into the audience that was, once more, awash in darkness. Peered for a moment. Then he turned and paced.

"I have travelled the globe," he said, "studying these evil creatures, seeking them out in their very nests." As he spoke, he activated other lights with the remote control in his hand, revealing, click, cobras and, click, click, mambas and boa constrictors. "I have staggered through African plains, limbs swollen with poison for my trouble. But I lived to tell the tale."

He stopped before a case still drenched in living shadows; a case larger than all the rest. "But never had I seen the like of this." He made to activate the light, then stopped dramatically, as though thinking better of it. He faced his audience. "In the remote jungles of South America I heard folktales dating from before the Inca empire, stories of the greatest of all snakes, a monster among monsters. For months I sought out the Quinaka, a lost tribe rumoured to dwell along an obscure tributary of the mighty Amazon river -- a tribe the other Indians assured me knew the most about the origins of this myth.

"At last, I came upon a tiny settlement of stone age dwellers. They maintained little contact with the other tribes, nor had they ever before observed a white man in the flesh -- though they seemed to know such a thing existed. They were a strange people, and in these enlightened times I hesitate to categorize them pejoratively -- but they seemed, to me, not entirely human. Physically and mentally. Almost more a carryover from a more...rudimentary stage of man. The true primitive. But I make no pretense at anthropology. The Quinaka actually worshipped the snake as a deity, naming it the Great Old God, and believing it to have the power of metamorphosis. Shedding its skin periodically so as to assume another shape -- that of a bird, a fish, a cougar -- it could roam the world undetected." He grinned, the crimson light giving his features a bloody look. "At intervals the God would grow weary of its adopted forms and re-enter its reptilian skin."

He turned and raised his remote control.

"I saw no sign of a living snake in my time among his devotees, but this I found in an ancient clay and thatch temple." He depressed a button.

As one, the audience gasped.

There, in the illumed glass case, was the desiccated, tattered skin of a snake. An enormous creature, it was perhaps thirty meters long and almost a metre around. The remnants of its head glared out at the bleachers evilly.

"Behold, the Great Old God."

***

Karl Gudegast stroked his goatee as the last of the audience filed out into the night, eager for another go at the games of chance or glimpse of the highwire act. From his seat he watched the last of them depart, then turned his gaze to the stage and the showman polishing one of the cases, oblivious to his lingering presence.

"Sebastian," he said.

The man in the safari garb froze in mid-stroke. He cocked his head. Slowly, he turned toward the bleachers. "Professor Gudegast," he said, peering into the diffused darkness, raising a hand to shield his eyes from the overhead lights. "I thought that that was your tardy form I saw. I must say, though, I'm surprised to find you in these environs. Not your usual academic haunts, I think."

"Not as surprised as I was to hear that you were here. A carnival, Sebastian. Really."

"Disappointed?" Sebastian chuckled as he tucked the cloth in his belt. "I didn't realize you had such high expectations of me."

"I didn't." Karl rose and strode down the packed-dirt aisle. He mounted the rickety stage and moved slowly amongst the lighted display cases, careful not to touch any as though fearful of contagion. "A Komodo dragon," he said, gesturing absently at the bodiless head, "is not a snake."

Sebastian shrugged. "The merging of science and showmanship has always required certain liberties be taken...when attempting to educate the layman."

"You're not an ophiologist," Karl snapped suddenly. "You're a butcher."

Sebastian's smile vanished.

"You've slaughtered these snakes? Why? For profit in a tawdry sideshow? And all that nonsense about snakes being evil? -- monsters? You're a disgrace to the Zoological Society."

"I've merely applied the training you gave me in a different fashion than, say, you do yourself. A louder fashion. I dress it up, true, sensationalize it, give the people what they want, and they lay down cold, hard cash to get it. Cash which finances my expeditions. While you and your dry lectures and your slideshows, what do they produce but an acute case of somnabulism? Certainly not enough money to get you out of the classroom."

Karl ignored him testily and halted before the case containing the massive, ragged skin. The black label read, 'Constrictor Giganticus'.

"It's real, if that's what you're thinking," Sebastian assured him.

"A find...if true. The largest snakes conceded to by science, and any sort of reliable empirical evidence, are maybe thirty feet. And those are extreme rarities. An occasional python or anaconda. What about that stuff about it being worshipped?"

"All true. Every word. If I were a sociologist I could have written whole books on the topic. According to what I learned, mixed with what I was able to infer, the Great Old God is well named. The Quinaka claimed that the worship of it dated back millennia. One ceremonial artifact that they still used I had carbon dated upon returning to civilized parts -- it was found to be as much as ten thousand years old! Think about it! Who knows what myths might trace their ancestry back to the Quinaka's monster snake? Certainly Quetzalcoati of the various Nahualtan peoples, but maybe even the werewolves of Europe or the the propensity for transmogrify among the ancient Greek gods. After all, we know now that the great oceans weren't quite the barriers to travel we used to think."

Karl turned sharply. "How did you get it?"

Sebastian stared at him, his eyes glinting like ice in the shadows beneath his brows.

"Well? You tell me they worshipped it for thousands of years. If it was their deity, I'm hard pressed to imagine how you convinced these Quinaka to give it up."

Sebastian shrugged, and slowly a new grin spread across his lips. "I can be very persuasive."

"I don't doubt it. That's the real reason I'm here. Not to watch you debase yourself and our profession, but to get answers. I've heard stories -- rumours passed on to me by colleagues in Brazil."

"Exaggerated, I'm sure."

"Once you'd have been called an imperialist, Sebastian. Nowadays you're simply a common thief. Perhaps even a murderer if the stories are true."

"The skin was just sitting there, hidden away from the civilized world. I liberated it for the greater good. Those simple-minded savages didn't recognize it for what it was. To them it was magic, a god. To me, to us, it's at the very least a mutant, possibly even an unknown species. Maybe even the legendary sucuriju gigante. The skin itself is too fresh to be as old as they say. I'll give it a few decades, no more. Don't you see? One of the creatures must have still been living as late as the latter half of this century! I--"

"You had no right."

"My profession gives me the right! Demands, in fact, that I exercise that right. What would you have done? Taken a few snap shots and then left it there, with those savages? Spent long nights drinking warm river water and listening to their nonsense about spirits and gods?"

"This isn't the 1800s...or even the first half of this century. Science isn't about seeing how many stuffed exhibits you can procure. If this truly is the last remnant of an unknown species, it's people like you who made it extinct in the first place. Science isn't about knowing the answers, or thinking you do, before you even set out. It's about understanding, observing...and, yes, listening. To you, everything belongs neatly labelled and under glass. And you don't even care what you destroy to get it there: a person, a belief, even the skin itself. I find it hard to believe the natives kept it in such a sorry state."

"My confiscating it and subsequent flight did require rather less than ideal storage procedures," he conceded, grasping his cloth again. "And if you've come here simply to harangue me, then you must excuse me. It's been great seeing you, old boy, but I, at least, have work to do." He turned his back deliberately on his former professor.

Karl glared at the other man, one arm trembling at his side. Then he pivoted, stepped down from the stage, and stormed out of the tent.

On hearing the tent flap settle behind the old man, Sebastian turned slowly and grinned. Gudegast, he remembered, had never been very good at confrontations. He started to turn back to his displays, but spied movement in the shadows.

"Eh? Who's there?"

He shielded his eyes and peered at the darkness. The tent flap fluttered with a slight breeze, spattering moonlight like droplets. For a moment, a figure was limned by the pale light.

"The show's over," Sebastian called. "The next one's at ten."

"Mind if I smoke?" asked a hoarse, well-used voice.

Slightly taken aback by the question, Sebastian said, "I don't care what you do, so long as it's not here. Do you hear? We're closed for now."

Something stood up by the back bench, unfolding like an old lawn chair. A lanky figure shuffled forward. The light escaping from the stage slowly revealed a sinewy old Indian, dressed in jeans and a checkered shirt. A momentary flicker of flame etched more firmly the deep creases on his face, then he discarded the match and inhaled. "Ah," he said quietly. "There's nothing like a good smoke, eh? What was it that the Englishman Kipling said about cigars?"

Sebastian narrowed his eyes. "Do I know you?"

The man watched him from the half-shadows, puffing contentedly. "Not really, no. But I know you. We've both been to the same place. Imagine my surprise when I come home from being away for many years to find what's mine is gone."

Suddenly feeling an inexplicable chill down in his very bones, Sebastian said, "I don't understand what you're talking about."

Taking lazy strides, the Indian mounted the stage and approached the case containing the torn husk of the Great Old God. "And then when I finally find it a continent away, and I'm all bone weary and ready to slip into something more comfortable--" He touched the glass with his fingertips. "--I find you haven't kept very good care of it at all. Now what am I to do?"

"If you don't leave," Sebastian said hoarsely, "I'll call someone to remove you."

The man stared at him with dead eyes, like black marbles. "What am I to do?"

***

Karl stopped in mid-stride and shook himself. He had let Sebastian fluster him, he realized bitterly. Well, not for long. He would find the manager of this sordid little carnival and let him know just what sort of a man he had working for him. Then they would see what they would see.

A blood curdling scream interrupted his thoughts. He whirled and knew instantly by the expressions on those around him that he had not imagined it. Running, he started back for the snake tent, from whence the cry had seemed to come. As he neared it, the flap was flung aside and Sebastian's portly figure emerged, glanced around, then headed in the other direction.

"Sebastian!" he called. "What the devil was that scream?"

The fat man continued walking.

Karl hesitated, almost starting after him, then thought better of it. He slipped inside the tent, then stopped in utter horror.

In the Great Old God's glass case, nestled on the dry snake skin beneath the spotlight, was a human skeleton amid a mess of bloody organs. The description on the label had been crossed out with something crimson and still dripping, replaced by the simple words: 'Homo Sapien Unbeliever'.

The End.





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The Skin of the Old God is copyright (1997) the author. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)