Haruspex

Content note: This year’s Halloween story is extremely graphic. If you’d like to read something less gruesome, how about this?

‘The Greeks believed that the seat of the soul was in the liver,’ you say, pulling out the offending organ and placing it gently on the cutting board.

The man screams, but you pay him no mind, though she flinches. It wasn’t as though you hadn’t warned her. They never listen. Convince themselves it will be easy enough when the time comes, but it never is. The first one never is, and they only come the once. He moans again, and you consider gagging him, but it wouldn’t be worth the effort, and it’s not like anyone can hear it — no one who matters, anyways. You chose wisely when you built your house deep in the woods, left the drive rough and unpaved. No one comes out here, not even the hunters — hunting hasn’t been very good since you moved in, anyway.

‘They weren’t the only ones. Some people still believe it is. Filled with blood, you know. The life force of the body.’

His liver bleeds out across the table, a trickle of dark blood.

‘Of course, it’s not just the liver you have to look at,’ you say, lovingly unspooling his intestines, drawing them out along the table, feeling along their coils, admiring the resilience of the human body, the determination with which he stays alive. She chose well, you think to yourself as you look deep into his body, divining its secrets, his heaving heart and desperate lungs, shrinking away from you, cowering in the depths of his chest. He weeps, because he can’t help himself, and you know that before you pluck his eyes out, there will be a certain amount of hope in them, that it will dim as he sees your fingers approach, knowing that he has reached the point of no return.

The room smells like bitter copper and shit, overlaid with acrid fear and the stench of urine from his pants, tossed into the corner of the kitchen. Poor boy thought she was bringing him here for something else, you think, smiling at the memory of the moment when he realised.

She’s covered her nose with her handkerchief by now, but you drink it in, feel it filling you up — once upon a time, you tried to cover it, threw herbs onto the fire or simmered some spices on the stove, but now you don’t see much point. You were young then, and maybe wanted to spare yourself as much as you did them, but now you enjoy the heady feeling of power it gives you. I created this, you think, looking at the beautiful art in front of you, splayed across the table. Guests always ask how you can keep the cherrywood so red after all these years.

You’re very good at what you do. She taught you well, of course, but after you divined your future in her you surpassed the master, and were wise enough to refuse an apprentice. Even she tried to escape the inevitable, and that somehow made it all the sweeter, just like it does with him.

‘The unwilling are always better,’ you say, forcing her to focus her eyes back on you.

They’re dark and wide, her pupils beginning to dilate, hand slack on the cup of tea you handed her when she sat down, ring glittering on her finger. It’s better for them, you’ve found. So distracting when they begin to cry out, or vomit, or do the other peculiar things humans do, better to send them into stillness, calm. She’ll get what she came for, but there’s no reason for you to suffer their regrets in the process.

‘Of course, they thought that the secret lay in inspecting the liver,’ you say, turning it in your hands, letting blood trickle over your fingers, longing to lick it away. ‘But we know better than that.’

The knife is freshly sharpened, and you use it to cut it into thin slices, trying to still the trembling of your hands, the excitement coursing through your fingers. The witch in the woods, some people call you, and you laugh to think how apt it is, though none of them know it. Some of them feel it, in their bones, the ones who come to you quietly to ask if it’s true, what you can do, and you nod, slowly, knowing that their very complicity makes it impossible for them to speak your secrets to others.

Each piece is perfectly even, and you lift one, reverently, taking it into your mouth like the communion wafers that choked you when you were a child, letting it rest there for a moment, silky and rich. You scarcely need to chew it, pressing it to the roof of your mouth to let it melt away into its constituent components, swallowing, clots and all.

His screaming subsides after you yank out his tongue, finally irritated enough with the noise to do something about it, but it doesn’t seem to still her panic. You smile, feeling blood dripping down the side of your face, wipe it away with your hand, smearing it, but it doesn’t matter, you think, as you eat another slice and then another. She’s alive with fear now, and you feed on it, feeling her eyes follow you as you lean over his face to lovingly pull out one glittering green eye and then the other, feel them pop like caviar, a luxury you allow yourself only when no one has come to you in some time, when you miss the sensation of feeling alive and full of life.

You rest in your chair for a moment, closing your eyes for a moment.

You’re very good at what you do.

He bubbles and wheezes on the table, mostly done, now.

You let images filter across your mind, feel the blood trickle down your throat, the cool slate under your feet.

‘Have another cup of tea,’ you say, and she shakes her head but numbly pours it out from the pot anyway.

‘There are biscuits in the cupboard,’ you offer, but her throat works, and you don’t offer again.

You place your hand over hers, feel her try to pull away, keep a firm grip. So close, now, too close to throw it all away. Her pulse beats fast and strong under your fingers, see her shudder at the smear of blood through your half-closed eyes. Her body feels electric to you and you breathe in her scent for several long moments. The teacup rattles in the saucer, but you barely hear it over the images in your own mind, pull away at last, feel her heave with relief, like all the others do.

You feel a sense of fondness as you look down at him — he and you, you’ve come to know each other well these last few hours. You’ve almost grown to like him, in a way, knowing the deepest, the hidden parts of him. You wonder where she got him, hoping she remembered your instructions to search far from home. You like it here, don’t want to be driven away by disappearances and curious neighbours. You brush his hair back from his face, smearing it with his blood. An anointment, of sorts. He can’t see you, can’t speak, but you like to imagine that he knows the end is coming, that he’s grateful for your soothing touch. It’s not so much that you like to hurt them, precisely, but that the sweet release at the end is almost unbearable.

Reaching into his chest, you grasp his heart, feel it throbbing underneath your hand for a moment, bear down harder as it skips a beat, then two, fluttering in your hand before you yank it out, letting it fall to the floor — the heart means nothing to you, just a means to an end, and the noise stops, the blessed noise stops, just the empty vessel and her stunned silence.

Petty, short, meaningless lives, Mundane, dull, boring questions, no imagination, no concept of the breadth of your power, what you could do for them. It’s not your job to tell them, and you don’t, letting them puzzle through myth and fantasy and narrowminded thought. They only come the once, after all.

‘In answer to your question,’ you say, briskly washing the knives in the sink, drying them, painstakingly putting them away, thinking about how best to clear away the mess on the table, ‘no, he doesn’t know, but he will soon, so you may as well tell him.’

It’s a good thing I have them pay up front, you think dispassionately as she vomits on the table, stumbles to her feet, flees the room. You know that a good hostess should see her guests to the door, especially after they brought her such a charming gift, but you’re so sated, so replete, that you don’t want to ruin the moment, and you need to clear the sour stink of her vomit away before it befouls the kitchen, sifts into the cracks of the house.

You’ve gotten so much more sensitive to these kinds of things after all these years, after all.

Image: Mariana’s Castoffs, Mikey G Ottowa, Flickr