“I confess that I have lived in sin.”
His hands trembled as he clenched them tighter together, blood making the scabs stick from how long he had been praying. The beginnings of the autumn chilled his bare back, his shoulders nearly numb from the cold licking the wounds, freezing the blood that oozed from them.
“I have been disrespectful of my mother. I have been idle of my duties... To my mother, to my brothers and sisters, and to thee My Lord. I have, in secret, indulged in my wickedness... I pray to thee, oh Lord... Forgive me my sins.” Tears slid down his cheeks and his breath hitched, his entire body trembling with the force it took to contain his sobs. “Forgive me my natural wickedness, for I know that I cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, but that I might be justly cleansed in hell.” His head bowed and Credence shuddered and pressed his lips to the knuckles of his thumbs, crusted with browned blood.
“Please, oh Lord, forgive me my wickedness, for it is by my corrupt evil that Little Sam was stolen away by the evils of the wood. For the price of his unbaptized soul entering Heaven, accept my own already damned soul.”
The boy looked up from his hands, standing slowly and pulling his shirt on carefully, followed by his coat, stepping into the grey daylight.
Mary Lou stood beside Chastity and Modesty, the two girls gathering the heavy coats for the other children. “You will wash the woolens today, before the cold sets in.”
“Yes, Mother.” The boy took the heavy basket, the wicker digging into the thick gashes in his palms. Blood stained the edges and he knew that he would have to scrub even more vigorously with the bar of lye soap to remove the stains from any clothes that might be tainted with his own blood.
He sat by the creek, a frail, black figure, his long hair falling in unwashed waves about his face as he wetted the bar of lye soap in the cold water.
The sting of the soap was quickly chased away by the numbness of the cold water upon his fingers.
A rustling from the dried and hollowed reeds that lined the creek made the boy’s head snap up, Credence frozen in fear. His imagination conjured up so many images of wolves, of beasts - of witches that were rumoured to live deep in the woods - only for his shoulders to slump as he heard Modesty laughing and squealing.
“Modesty, come hither.” The boy looked over at the rustling reeds.
“I be not Modesty!” The girl shuffled forward, one of the reeds held as if a broom. “I be the witch of the wood! Come to steal thee, Credence! Clickety-Clackety! Clickety-Clackety!”
Credence sighed, shaking his head as he rested the coat in his lap. “I be here working like a slave and you play idle.”
“Because mother hates you.” The girl called, sticking out her tongue at Credence as the boy stood.
“Hold thy tongue!”
“It’s true! Mother believes you to be a witch, bred in evil sin.” Modesty looked up at her brother, and Credence felt something dark in his chest unfurl at her defiance. “Black Percy says that you traded Sam to the witch of the woods!”
“Damn your Black Percy, Modesty.” He snapped, throwing the soap into the basket amongst the other coats.
“Black Percy says that you et upon Sam and used his fat to make butter!”
Credence paused, staring down at his youngest sister, feeling the hurt at the confirmation of what he had always known. He stepped forward, over the woolens still in the basket. “Aye. It is true. I let the witch steal Sam. I am the witch of the woods.” Credence stood over the girl, pushing his hair from his face. “When I sleep my spirit slips away from me body and dances naked among the woods to please the Devil.”
“Credence...” Modesty’s eyes widened as she shuffled back, looking up at her brother.
“He bid me sign his book and bring him an unbaptised babe.” Credence stood now over Modesty, leaning forward and grasping her, lifting him into his skinny arms and holding her squealing, struggling for to his chest, shouting over her cries. “I boiled and baked his wee body and I will boil and bake thee too if thoust displeases me!”
“Mother!” The girl squealed and raced off, struggling out of Credence’s grip and shoving him so that he stumbled and fell back upon the bank of the creek, the boy gasping as his shoulders slammed upon the hardened ground. He groaned and rolled onto his elbows, forcing himself up before he heard footsteps nearby.
“Modesty, do not cause me mischief.” The boy called, turning, only to stop at the sight of the large billy goat his mother had traded for some months ago.
Black Percy was a large, proud beast, with enormous horns that curved into sharp points. He had provided their mother’s nanny goat with numerous small kids that she traded for soap and candles and other such small things. He easily escaped his pen at all hours of the day and often times could be found dancing and wandering about the farm, bleating as he was chased about by the delighted orphans.
The goat’s slitted eyes stared at him, thin nostrils flaring as it breathed, steam clouding the chilled air from it’s snout.
“Dost thou think me a witch as well?” Credence sighed, reaching out to touch a long, curved horn, tugging the goat close to plant a brief kiss on it’s snout. The goat let out a bleat and fleshy lips nuzzled and nipped at Credence’s ear, the boy laughing as he scratched behind the goat’s own silky black ear. “What lies do you whisper to Modesty, speak, Black Percy, or I will have no more of thee!” A bleat and the goat gently nudged it’s great horned head against his own, the boy gently tugging on the creature’s beard. “Unruly creature.” He murmured, standing to return to his task of scrubbing the coats as Black Percy went trotting off.
Sitting beside the river he paused when a realisation struck him some moments later. Lifting his hands from their task he stared. The blood had long washed away, but now the cuts were healed and gone, leaving only thin, pale scars in their wake.
He resolved not to tell his mother of this.
For certainly she would lock him in the goat’s barn and burn him.
Credence sighed as he collected another rabbit’s corpse from the traps he laid, laying them again before he moved on towards home. Six rabbits in his pack, the pelts would fetch a handsome trade and the meat would make a hearty stew. He walked the paths through the woods daily, always to check his traps and to bring back food. And if perhaps he was more idle than he should be and spent more time away from the sharp, cruel eye of his mother then that was no business but his own and God would surely forgive this small wickedness atop all of the others.
Modesty stood beside Black Percy, whispering in the beast’s ear and chattering, laughing and dancing about the beast as it reared up on it’s hind legs, wobbling and prancing back and forth, jumping and bucking about as if he was truly dancing with Modesty.
“Black Percy, Black Percy,
Crown upon his head!
Black Percy, Black Percy,
To nanny queen is wed!”
“Modesty!” Credence called with a sigh, brushing the girl away from the goat and grunting as the beast nudged firmly against his side. “Stop it, both of you!” The boy looked to Modesty. “Mother will surely strike you if she knew you were speaking to a goat.”
“Mother will not know, Black Percy told me that he wrought a spell upon me, that Mother will not hear when I speak to him.” Modesty proudly reassured, looking about before whispering. “Black Percy says that he wishes to speak with you too, Credence.”
“I will not be part of your childish idleness, Modesty, now go thither and collect the corn else I will force you to help me with these rabbits.” He lifted the pack, dangling it near the girl and sending her squealing round back of the house.
Credence sighed and moved to the stump where he cut wood for the fire, pulling his knife from his pocket and carefully cut along the neck. He worked his fingers beneath the skin, grasping at the neck of the rabbit and pulling until the skull popped off, dangling limply where Credence’s strong, thin fingers had ripped the windpipe in half. Blood coated his fingers as he worked the fur off the rest of the small carcass, stopping at the paws before he picked up his knife once more to cut the limbs off. He turned the knife, careful to not puncture the organs and spoil the meat as he gutted the small creature. Placing the carcass aside he picked up the next rabbit, repeating the ritual over and over again.
Looking down at the soft brown fur he couldn’t help but lift it to his cheek, sighing at the warmth and softness. He wondered at the idea of fur gloves. Of being able to tuck his cold, aching fingers into that softness. But Mother would no doubt know of his wicked transgression, depriving them of more to trade for for his own selfishness. So he simply placed the fur aside and began to cut the small bodies into even smaller bits, standing to enter their hovel and collect a pot to begin the stew.
He froze when he saw Mary Lou seated at the table, staring at him with her hands folded over their worn, well kept Bible.
“Credence.” She stated simply. “Modesty says you have been speaking to Black Percy.”
Credence froze, stepping back slightly. “I have not. She lies.” His voice took an edge of desperation, his eyes flickering to the window as his hands shook. “I have been about me chores, Mother. Bringing rabbits home to please you. Modesty was playing idle with Black Percy when I just arrived.”
“Kneel, Credence.” The boy knelt, helpless to obey his mother as she stood.
“What does God’s word tell us about witchcraft, boy?”
“When thou art come into the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations... As is written in the book of Deuteronomy.” Credence recited, his heart pounding in his chest.
“Thy wickedness bleeds into your brothers and sisters. One rotten stalk ruins the crop.” She moved to stand before his kneeling form. “Hold out your hands.”
Credence slowly held out his trembling hands, staring at the smooth, healed skin, a damning proof of his wickedness, his deviation from God’s righteous punishments.
“As I suspected.” The woman walked to the fire, pulling the long, iron rod that she used to turn the wood within the hearth. Credence choked on a sob, closing his eyes and holding his hand out.
The iron sizzled across his palm, blistering and burning the delicate flesh. The smell of cooking, burning meat filled the air and Credence was certain that the iron would cleave his flesh and find bone if left for a second longer. He couldn’t help the scream that escaped him, jerking his hand back the moment the iron was lifted, a long strip of flesh burnt to the surface of the metal, smoking as his mother stared at him with cold, unflinching eyes.
“You will kneel outside this night and pray that The Lord might forgive you your sins.”
Credence nodded, standing shakily, his head light and clouded with the pain. Collecting the large stew pot he returned to the stump, collecting the pieces of dismembered and gutted rabbits and placing them in the pot, his wounded hand pressed close to his chest as he worked.
He looked up as the final piece was placed within the pot and his eyes narrowed as he stared at Modesty, the girl watching him with wide, fearful eyes, her arms wrapped about the neck of Black Percy as the goat surveyed Credence’s suffering.
Turning back to his work, Credence entered the house, opening the small cabinet where he kept their vegetables. He collected carrots, cleaned of dirt and their weedy tops, potatoes that he had dug up, and mushrooms found within the wood, their fleshy brown tops cleaned in the creek and the first few fed to their smallest goat to be sure that it was not poisoned. He stared at the knife as he placed the pot on the fire, lifting his hand and choking on an agonised sob as he clutched his fingers about the knife.
Every cut was agony. The pressure of the wood upon his burnt palm sending searing pain jolting up his arm, clawing at the tendons of his neck as his teeth ground together. His prayers left him in that moment as he begged only for an end to the pain, to the agony of where his skin was burnt from flesh and the wooden handle dug unrelenting into the tormented skin.
The orphans piled in for dinner and Credence did not eat, sent outside the moment all were seated, prepared for grace upon their meal. Credence did not pray the grace. Instead he knelt outside, staring up at the sky. There was no moon this night, the endless stars the only light other than the faint candle that flickered from within the house.
“Why must I suffer?” He whispered when his prayers had run thin, his hands shaking with pain as he looked to the sky. “God, have I not attoned enough for my wickedness? Have I not bourne the pain and sins of the others? Why hast thou instructed mother to hurt me more? To beat and burn and enact penance upon my flesh for sins that I never wished for or committed? The sin of witchcraft, the sin my mother bore but not myself.” Tears streamed down his face and Credence sobbed as he bowed his head, his hair curtaining his face as his shoulders shook.
When his sobs receded and the candle inside the house was long snuffed out, he ran his unharmed hand over his face, the boy taking in a shuddering breath as he looked to the sky again. His limbs were numb with the chill of the cold and as he pressed his hands to his lips he found his breath to be nearly as cold as his fingers, unable to warm the digits.
He jumped slightly as he was gently jostled by a horned head, turning to see Black Percy looking at him with his milky eyes, the black slots of his pupils fixed on Credence. The goat stared at him for a long moment before calmly, sedately, walking towards the woods.
Credence’s breath caught for a moment as he stared after the beast, wondering if he should simply leave it be. But then he thought of mother and how she would beat him more severely if he lost Black Percy than if he left to retrieve the goat. Pulling himself to his feet the boy wrapped his hand in a handkerchief he had stolen while his mother had been serving stew to the other orphans. He clutched his knife handle in his unharmed hand and made his way into the darkness.
“Black Percy!” He called, sighing when he lost sight of the goat, listening for movement and following blindly. He squinted when he caught sight of something in the inky depths of the night, flickering and moving.
He stumbled over roots and the brown autumn foliage that littered the ground, approaching the light. Credence startled and gasped as he realised it was a bonfire, towering golden red flames filling the air, licking towards the stars. There was no one in sight and as he turned, looking around, he caught sight of Black Percy.
“Impossible beast.” The boy sighed, approaching the goat, only for Black Percy to dance away from him. Turning playfully and leaping into the air. Credence glanced back at the darkness of the wood, trying once more to grasp at least one of Black Percy’s horns. “Mind me, Black Percy! Tis’ far too dark and mother will scold me more for leaving thee.” The goat paid him no mind, as he had expected, and instead shuffled forward then back, twisting and leaping and bleating loudly in the darkness.
Credence couldn’t help the smile that twitched his lips, taking a hesitant little hop towards the beast, laughing when the goat bleated at him. Another hop, then another, twisting and turning and imitating the goat as Black Percy took up his acrobatics again. Credence laughed, unashamed and echoing and thrilling as he turned and danced and leapt, following the goat in dizzying circles around the fire. His coat became too warm and he cast it aside, his shirt became soaked with sweat from his dancing and that soon followed. He threw off his pants and smallclothes, brittle dry leave crunching beneath his bare feet and pricking the tender soles of his feet.
Credence turned and turned, his own laughter and Black Percy’s bleating ringing in his ears until he tumbled to the ground, laying atop his discarded coat, chest heaving as he stared at the fire, naked and soaked in sweat and warmed impossibly by the fire. His dark eyes drooped as he watched the black silhouette of the goat still boundlessly leaping and playing around the flames. He gasped when he saw the black shape of the creature change, transforming, shifting grotesquely until a man stood where Black Percy had been.
He felt that he should run, should cry out in horror, scream of witchcraft and run back to his mother.
But all he could do was lay on the ground, gasping as the man approached him, kneeling and looming slowly. He couldn’t make out any distinct features, the firelight casting menacing shapes and shadows across the man’s visage, but he could see the man’s eyes, so incredibly dark and brown. Credence shivered at the sight of those eyes and their intensity, almost as if they were flaying him bare and showing his guts to the cold night air, letting him shiver in all of his exposure.
“What dost thou want?” The man whispered and Credence gasped at the hot breath brushing over his mouth.
Before he could even begin to form a response, before he could deny that he wanted anything, his mouth was moving, his tongue and lips forming a single word that echoed louder than his laughter had through the hollow cavity of his chest.
Credence gasped as he woke, sitting bolt upright and turning about to see where he was. Black Percy raised his great horned head languidly, looking at him as he huffed a breath out of his slitted nostrils. The boy flushed, looking down and petting the goat’s flank where he had been curled against the heat of the beast. He was in the stable, Nanny laying nearby, her pregnant stomach heaving with her breaths as she slept. Credence straightened, bending so that his head didn’t hit the ceiling of the small stable, Black Percy stood as well, following him out as Credence adjusted his ruffled clothing, brushing away straw and dew and rubbing his eyes to rid himself of the last vestiges of his horrible dream.
Mary Lou stood in the doorway of the house, staring at him, her long dark hair twisted into a braid and her nightgown covered in blood.
“What did you do to them?” She demanded, storming over and grasping Credence by his hair. “Devil child! What have you done!?”
Credence shouted and struggled as he was dragged into the house, led up the stairs to the sleeping cots of the orphans. They were all deathly pale, their mouths crusted with blood. Chastity laid, still breathing, if not raggedly, coughing red splotches onto her pillow, Mary Lou instantly disregarding the other children in order to shoo a shaking and pale Modesty away from the favoured child.
“What have you done, you witch? Cast a spell upon them?” The woman’s eyes fixed upon Credence and the boy shook his head, trembling as he stepped back.
“I have not-”
“He lies!” Modesty screeched from where she was huddled now behind Mary Lou. Her lips were pale and her eyes wide and wild, and when she moved with was as if her actions were not her own. Mary Lou whipped her head around to stare at the girl, Modesty cringing at the attention but continuing to speak. “He consorts with Black Percy! He stole away Sam and et of him and he said he’d steal me away too and boil and bake thee!”
“That’s not true!” Credence shouted back, stepping forward, only for Mary Lou to brandish the knife she had been using to bleed the ill blood from the orphans.
“Where were you last night, boy?” Mary Lou demanded. “Out with the Devil in the woods?”
“I was not, I swear it, I was in the stables.”
“He dances naked to the pleasure of the Devil!” Modest howled, clutching her stomach as she choked and gasped in pain, and Credence covered his ears.
“Liar, speak not such lies of me!”
“Witch!” Mary Lou grabbed Credence’s hair, shoving him down the ladder leading up to the orphans room. The boy let out a shout as he tumbled down, his shoulder slamming into the floor, knocking the wind from him as his head cracked upon the hard dirt ground. “I’ll not have a witch in my house!”
She dragged Credence’s thin, dazed form to the goat stables, shoving him in before she struggled and lifted several slabs of wood that had been leftover from building the stable. Credence let out a desperate shout as he tried to get his feet under him, standing and throwing himself at the doorway, trying to push past Mary Lou, only for the woman slap him so hard he spun and fell once more into the straw of the stable.
“Wretched creature.” She hissed, throwing the wood atop Credence, who curled to try and protect himself, feeling the heavy planks bruising his shoulders. She was running, into the house, and he struggled to regain himself, feeling sick and dizzy and fragile, as if he might shake apart if the wind so much as ghosted through him. He had just managed to shove two planks of wood off of his frame when Mary Lou returned with the candle.
“No!” He shouted, scrambling out of the way, further into the stable where the goats were bleating and shuffling and screaming along with him.
There was a sound of wet impact and Mary Lou jerked, blood spurting from her side, soaking her white nightshirt in blood as she crumpled and clawed at the horn of Black Percy, the goat throwing her aside as she choked and gurgled. The candle flickered out on impact with the ground and Credence gasped and shuddered as he stared at the dripping white wax, his eyes sliding over to stare at Black Percy, the goat standing still, blood gleaming rich and black on the goat’s horn, dripping down the silky fur of his snout.
Credence stood, chest heaving as he stared down at the goat, stepping forward, trembling as he watched the great beast. The goat turned, walking towards the woods. Credence stared at the beast, turning his gaze to look at Mary Lou, the woman dead on the ground, blood spattering her mouth and face from where she had drowned in it. He watched her unmoving face for a moment more before he looked to the woods.
Black Percy stood, watching him, silent and unmoving, the goat waiting for him to decide.
Credence took the first step towards the woods. Why should he stay behind? There was nothing left for him here but dying children, orphans he had cared for but who had never cared for him in return.
When he was side by side with Black Percy, overlooking the small farm with the brood of dying children in the house, he couldn’t help but feel a thrill curling, clawing at the bottom of his chest. Most certainly the sin he had felt.
They walked the same way they had the night before, in his dream that Credence was not certain was simply a dream. They walked for what felt like hours, arriving at the clearing just as the early dusk settled upon the forest, the stars bearing witness as Credence stood before the bonfire lit in the empty clearing.
He knelt before the black goat, staring into it’s watchful eyes.
“Black Percy... I conjure thee to speak to me... Speak as you spoke to Modesty.” He waited, his heart fluttering fearfully in his chest. When the goat did not respond, simply stared at him, the boy sighed, looking away before glancing back at the goat. “Do you understand my English tongue?” The boy asked, searching those eyes before he sighed and turned to stand, to go back to the house.
“What dost thou want?” That same low, rumbling voice from his dream, heavy and seductive and rolling cross Credence’s skin like a caress.
The boy shivered, remaining kneeling beside the fire as he stared at the goat. “What... What canst thou give?”
He swore that the beast smiled at him at that.
“Wouldst thou like the taste of butter?” The features of the goat were changing, the horns shrinking, receding. “A pair of fur gloves?” The beast’s limbs straightened and lengthened, thick black fur thinning to patches along the broad chest, a thick thatch nestled between powerful thighs. “Wouldst thou like to see the world?” His skin was warm and tanned from sunlight, his limps corded with heavy muscle, the body of a man who saw great work and who bore great power.
“Yes.” The boy whispered, watching the face turn human, the features so handsome and sharp, inky black eyes staring down at him. He trembled as the man crouched before him, crawling forward, Credence shuffling and nearly tumbling onto his back as he looked up at the man.
“Would you like to live... deliciously?.”
“Yes.” Credence gasped out. “I... I have nothing to offer in return.”
Black Percy smiled, the expression dark and hungry but so very warm. “I will guide thee.”
Credence arched and gasped as the man’s lips covered his own, pulling a low, needful sound from the man’s throat as he pulled Credence closer. The teeth of the man tugged and nipped at Credence’s lip, his broad hands sliding down to Credence’s thighs, pushing them open to reveal his taint to the warm air surrounding the fire.
“Percy...” The boy gasped, moaning when he felt the man’s tongue trace over the sinful crevice of his thighs, pressing into his body and tasting him, the man’s long, strong fingers wrapping about his shameful arousal.
He could feel something burning inside him, something wanting and bone deep, infecting his marrow as he clenched his teeth against the overwhelming pleasure. He was spiralling to high, too fast, rising like the smoke from the fire, watching the lights and shadows of the flames casting themselves over the muscles of Percy’s back, the man - the he goat, the devil he was sure - pulling back slowly to look at him.
Inky black eyes stared at him and Credence’s eyes could not help but look away in shyness, gasping when his gaze landed on the heavy, thick length of the man’s own shame. He let out a startled, stuttering noise when the man pressed the wide, flushed tip against his entrance, jolting at the first inch of hard, unyielding flesh that pressed in. It branded him, burning and dragging as surely as his mother’s iron staff. The heated, dragging pleasure that filled him making his head thrash, his long black hair thrown about his face, catching in the autumn leaves. The broad hand of the man tugged his head up from the ground, pulling him forward, onto his cock, until Credence’s thighs straddled the man’s lap, the hard flesh of him embedded inside Credence as if he might never walk again without feeling it.
“You are mine now,” The man growled, sighing into Credence’s neck and shoulders as he caught the scent of the boy’s own arousal. “As I am yours, my sinful bride.”
Credence gasped as he felt the man thrust into him, groaning and crying out and throwing his head back to scream his pleasure to the stars as they watched their sinful coupling.
And oh, he wished to be cleansed by this sin. To burn away Mary Lou, to twist and burn away every inch of fear from him. As Percy groaned and thrust and moved Credence’s body as he willed, he felt more powerful than Mary Lou could ever have hoped to be back at the Plantation. This was his power, over this man, this beast, this great godly creature, he had dominion.
He threw his head back and howled and laughed to the moonless sky, his cry wild and free and threaded with the newfound pleasure of freedom, of flesh that had only ever known pain. He looked down when he felt his body shudder and clench, convulsing wildly about the man who grinned and looked up at him with gleaming, eager eyes. He watched Credence as if he were holy, as if he were testament to be adored and obeyed, his gleaming white teeth pressing to the boy’s collarbone as the man looked up at him and groaned, filling Credence with sin and delight that burned in his belly.
Credence Barebone was the bride of this devil, devout now not to his mother’s god but to this personal Satan, and he was free.
And oh what might his new freedom, his new power, grant him if he only asked?