The Sermon of the Damned
Each year on the summer solstice, there's a gruesome death in the town of Summerville
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night a candle burned in the window. Clutching at her right side, she rushed headlong toward the light through the branches and bramble that littered the forest floor. Each ragged breath was accentuated by a sharp burst of pain, but she couldn’t afford to stop. He had told her that they wanted to kill her and she believed him.
Her foot caught on an exposed root five minutes later and she went sprawling headfirst into the dense undergrowth. A broken branch jutting out from between two trees managed to find the soft hollow beneath her cheekbone as she fell to the ground and screamed in agony as the branch tore a hole in her flesh. Blood gushed into her mouth at an alarming rate and she gagged on it, the gorge rising in her throat. Lurching to her feet, she spit out mouthfuls of blood to cleanse her palate of the sickening, metallic taste until at last the nausea passed. Her right cheek was on fire and as she tore at her shirt for something she could use to stem the flow of blood, she heard them coming. The scream had given her away.
She whimpered softly. Blood was pouring down her face in a steady stream that had already saturated her shirt and while the little voice inside her head was urging her to start running again, it was now speaking in whispers that she could easily ignore. She didn’t feel like running, she felt like giving up.
As she lay in a writhing mass of pain, the light began to dim and her first thought was that she was losing consciousness. A second later, she realised her mistake as a swirling piece of black cloth came into view. The light wasn’t dimming: It was being obscured. She slowly raised her head and watched in horror as a circle of figures closed around her.
Josh Taylor glanced briefly at the woman seated next to him in the car. Now, as always, he marveled at his incredible good fortune. Undeniably his wife was a beauty. She had thick blond hair that she wore straight to her shoulders, startling green eyes and a spectacular smile. What attracted him most, however, was her mind. Quick witted and intelligent, she was about as far from the stereotypical blond as you could get. She was currently staring intently at the map that was spread out on her lap.
“Where are we again?” she asked without looking up.
He didn’t answer her immediately.
“Josh? What did you say the name of that town was? The one you saw on the sign back there?”
Josh was still trying to reconcile the crops they were passing with something that he would actually put on a dinner table. “Ashford,” he replied distractedly.
He glanced over at her. “Pretty sure. Why?”
“I can’t find it,” she said, frowning. “According to the map, the next town should be Summerfield.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“We’re on County Road 33 right?”
“Okay. Redicksville is here,” she said poking the map with her forefinger and slowly tracing it along a jagged downward slope, “and the next town along this road is Summerfield.” She looked up. “But it’s a lot more than twenty kilometres away.”
“I didn’t say we were twenty kilometres away from Summerfield,” he corrected. “I said we were twenty kilometres away from Ashford.”
“According to the map, there is no Ashford.”
He frowned. “I’m positive that the sign said ‘Ashford – 20k.”
She had been looking out of her window and now she turned to him with an odd expression. “You’re right.”
“You’re right about Ashford.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We just passed a sign welcoming us to town.”
At first, he thought she was joking, but as he turned to look out the windshield, he saw a town begin to emerge on the horizon. It had that shimmering, nebulous quality that asphalt gets on extremely hot summer days, but as they drove toward it, houses, barns and other buildings gradually began to materialise.
Mature oak and maple trees framed a streetscape that looked very much like it belonged to another era. Flower baskets hung from the old-fashioned wrought iron black lamp posts that lined the street and ornate wooden benches were set along expansive walkways that ran parallel to a series of beautiful Italianate storefronts.
Josh found a parking spot in front of an old-fashioned shoe store that had two display windows on either side of a door that was recessed back about three feet. A black and white striped awning hung out over the windows and above the awning was a sign that read ‘Ashford Footwear'.
He got out of the car and went to stand on the walkway in front of the store. A moment later Annie joined him and together they watched through the window as an elderly woman seated in a chair held out a stockinged foot to the young man in black dress slacks and white shirt kneeling in front of her.
“When was the last time you saw a shoe salesman get near an old woman’s feet?” Josh asked.
“Probably about the same time I saw someone wearing that style of shoe,” Annie said referring to the low-heeled, lace-up, black walking shoe the salesman was in the process of fitting on his customer’s foot.
Almost as though they had heard the conversation on the other side of the window, the old woman looked up from her perch on the edge of the chair and smiled just as the salesman angled around and waved jauntily.
Josh took an involuntary step backwards and collided with his wife. “Did you see that?” he whispered.
“Of course I saw that,” Annie managed to say through the brilliant smile that had suddenly materialised on her face. She waved and nodded briefly at the two people in the window before taking hold of Josh’s forearm and propelling him forward. “Let’s keep going, shall we?”
“Is it just me or was that really weird?” Josh asked when they had walked past the store.
“We were standing there staring at them like a couple of voyeurs. What did you expect them to do?”
“I don’t know. Pop us the finger or give us the hairy eyeball or something. Not smile and wave at us like they were the ambassadors to Pleasantville.”
Annie shrugged. “It’s a small town.”
They passed an old-fashioned barbershop with a red and white striped awning shading an old-fashioned striped barber’s pole, a flower shop with the kitschy name Forget-Me-Not Flower Shop, and an old-fashioned butcher shop. It was the latter that piqued Josh’s interest.
“C’mere for a second.” He caught her hand and pulled her along to a store with a huge plate glass window upon which the words ‘Butcher Shop’ were written in white scripted letters. Putting his hands up against the glass, he peered inside. “This place looks exactly like the one my dad used to take me to when I was a kid.”
“Your dad used to take you to a butcher shop?”
He nodded. “Every Saturday morning. We’d get two pounds of Polish sausage. Have you ever eaten kielbasa?”
Annie shook her head.
“It’s very garlicky. We used to get it when it was still warm and we’d take it home and eat it with homemade bread.”
“Not the whole two pounds?” she asked, laughing.
He grinned. “Absolutely. By mid-afternoon my dad would be popping Tums like there was no tomorrow.”
“Why’d he eat it if it gave him heartburn?”
Josh shrugged. “I asked him that once. He said that the cost of a package of Tums was a small price to pay for the enjoyment he got from eating the sausage.”
Annie’s face softened. Josh had been extremely close to his father and in many respects had not yet come to terms with his death. “Why don’t you go in and have a look around?” she urged.
“You wouldn’t mind?”
“Not at all. I’ll just wait on this bench here.”
The door to the butcher shop was ajar and a makeshift sign hanging crookedly on a length of twine proclaimed it to be open. There was a thick layer of sawdust carpeting the floor and when Josh walked in, he could feel it crunch beneath his shoes. The walls were painted a pale green and save for a black, wall-mounted rotary phone and a calendar, they were completely bare.
A rounded glass enclosure running almost the entire length of the store separated the area where the butcher worked from the rest of the store. On the butcher’s side, a long wooden chopping block running parallel to the meat enclosure stood against the wall. To the right of the butcher’s block on the adjacent wall stood a door that probably opened on to a cold storage area or a workroom.
Josh walked over to the enclosure and took a look inside. Sure enough, there was a chunk of kielbasa curled up in a tight tube in the far right corner. He took a deep breath and tried to fight back the tears that were suddenly forming in his eyes. It was only sausage after all. Nobody in his right mind cried over sausage.
He heard the door open to his right and quickly averted his face. The last thing he needed was for the butcher to catch him crying over a display of meat. He looked for something to focus his attention on and his eyes fixed on the meat calendar beside the phone. This month’s picture featured a rump roast, garnished with tiny slices of cooked carrots and parsley sprigs. He glanced at the date. May - 1976. He blinked and looked at the date again. May - 1976.
“May I help you?” asked a low, melodic voice with an eastern European accent.
Josh froze. There was something terrifyingly familiar about that voice. It sounded like the same voice he had heard every Saturday morning for years when he and his dad would walk to Mr. Simchuk’s butcher shop on Queen Street to get two pounds of sausage. The butcher shop his dad had started taking him to when Josh had turned six, back in May of 1976. His heart started to pound inside his chest.
“May I help you?” The voice was closer.
Josh refused to turn his head. The voice could not be Mr. Simchuk’s because Mr. Simchuk had died of a heart attack in December of 1980.
Josh felt gooseflesh break out on his forearms. Oddly, it wasn’t the idea that Mr. Simchuk was somehow standing behind a meat counter after being dead for so long that scared him. What scared him was what Mr. Simchuk looked like after all those years of being tucked away in a tidy little box six feet below ground where all the creepy crawlies gathered for dinner.
“Something wrong my boy?”
The voice was now immediately to his right and it was no longer pleasantly melodic. It had a dry, raspy, hungry quality that sent shivers up Josh’s spine and without thinking, he turned and ran out of the store as fast as he could.
Quentin Marshall walked into the barbershop in Summerfield. He didn’t really need a haircut, but the barbershop was a good place to spend an hour or two catching up with friends on a Saturday morning.
“Help yourself to a coffee, Quentin,” said Homer, snipping a little more off the back of Bill’s hair.
Quentin made his way over to a small side table upon which a pot of coffee sat on an electric burner. He took one of the Styrofoam cups that Homer had thoughtfully stacked alongside the coffee and poured himself a cup.
“Take a load off,” Fred said, patting the seat of an old red leather chair that was so well used the leather on the seat had split, revealing the foam padding underneath. If the length of Fred’s carrot-red hair was any indication, he had already had his haircut that morning.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Quentin said, settling himself down in the chair.
“Sit still, Billy, or you’ll have a pain in the neck to add to the pain in your back you're always complainin’ about,” Homer told him, trying very hard to trim the little hair Bill had left just above his neck. Completely bald on top and thinning everywhere else, Bill’s haircuts were more symbolic than anything else. “Somebody’s birthdays comin’ up I think,” Homer suddenly said with a grin, “and if I remember correctly, it’s a big one. Any special plans Quentin?”
Quentin shook his head. “Not really,” he said. “I think I’ll just treat myself to a really good bottle of wine.” Quentin’s wife had died nearly seventeen years ago of cancer and he had never remarried.
“How old you gonna be?” Jim asked.
“Seventy,” Quentin replied, not quite believing it himself. He wondered where the time had gone. He had spent the majority of his life in Summerfield. Like the rest of the men in the barbershop, his ancestors had helped build the town nearly two hundred years ago. He had left the town only long enough to get his degree in medicine and having gotten it, he had come right back and taken over the family practice from old Dr. Crawford.
“You’re lookin’ pretty good for seventy,” Fred said sincerely.
Quentin glanced over at the mirror behind the barber station where he could just make out his reflection in the bottom left corner. His wavy, brown hair had only a little bit of grey and aside from a few wrinkles around his eyes, his face was relatively smooth. He supposed Fred was right – he probably didn’t look his age.
Quentin looked back at Fred. “I feel pretty good,” he said honestly.
Homer put down his scissors, undid the cape around Bill’s neck and shook off the smattering of hairs that were on it. “I’m going to get myself a coffee,” he announced, folding the cape and putting it on the counter of his workstation. “Can I get anybody a refill?”
The four of them looked at him from their respective chairs and shook their heads.
After he had gotten his coffee, Homer unceremoniously plunked himself down in the barber’s chair, his customary seat during these get-togethers, and turned to Quentin. “Goin’ out to visit Jane this summer?” he asked.
Jane was Quentin’s only child and she lived on the west coast. Quentin shook his head. “I think I might wait until the fall.”
“Fall’s probably a better time,” agreed Homer, “it tends to rain a lot during the summer I hear.”
“I don’t know,” Jim said, “if I were you I’d go now. The twenty-first is only a month away and I for one am not sticking around for that. The others stared at him and Jim stared back defiantly. “You can’t tell me there’s not one of you who hasn’t bin thinkin’ the same?” he asked.
Homer looked at Quentin. “What’s your take on this?” he asked. They all turned to look at Quentin expectantly.
Quentin didn’t respond immediately. He was conscious of the need to choose his words carefully. Three years ago, there were eight men who had coffee at Homer’s barbershop every Saturday morning. Now there were five. Three of the men had died – one each year – for the past three years.
He took a deep breath. “I understand how unsettling this has been for all of us,” Quentin began slowly, “but the deaths have all been accidental and to start suggesting anything else would be to run the risk of needlessly worrying a lot of people in this town. It’s important that we keep this in perspective and see it for what it is: an extremely sad and unfortunate coincidence. Nothing more.”
Even as he heard the words come out of his mouth Quentin wondered if he really believed them. After all, coincidence could only be stretched so thin. He could accept the fact that all three of the dead men had been Saturday morning regulars at Homer’s and that they had all met with accidental deaths. What he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe, however, was that it was coincidence that all three men had died a year apart on the same day – June 21 – summer solstice.
Annie woke up Tuesday morning thinking about the book. She had driven back to Ashford two weeks ago and arranged to rent a room from a woman in town while she, Annie, did some painting and papering inside her new house. She had first seen the book when she picked up the house keys from the real estate agent and he had been decidedly odd about it when she asked about the book.
She had seen the very same book again in her landlord’s home yesterday when she had been looking for something to read. When she asked Astrid about it, her landlord warned her not to touch the book as it was very old. Apparently, it was called The Sermon of the Damned and it was written in Latin.
She took out her cell phone and called Josh. “Hi honey!”
Hey sweetheart,” his voice sounded flat.
“Yeah, just burnin' the midnight oil trying to get this job out the door, but hey honey, I actually can’t talk right now. Can I call you back in a couple of hours?”
“No need. I just needed a favour.”
“Does your friend Yves still work as a translator?”
“As far as I know.”
“Great! Can you give him a call and ask him if he can source out a copy of an old text called The Sermon of the Damned?”
“What of who?”
“The Sermon of the Damned,” she repeated.
Josh noted the title on a scrap sheet of paper. “And why the sudden interest in an old book?”
“I’ll tell you all about it when we have more time to talk.”
Yves was still heavily engrossed in the pages of the book when Josh knocked on his door. “Allo, my friend,” he said when he opened the door. He was wearing a knee-length, purple silk dressing gown with matching silk pyjama bottoms. His glossy black hair hung in wavy layers that fell to his shoulders and despite the fact that he hadn’t touched it since getting out of bed that morning, it looked like it might have been the product of some high-priced salon.”
Josh reached out and touched the lapel of Yves’ dressing gown. “This new?”
Yves shrugged. “Catastrophic, I agree, but what is one to do when one’s mother gives him such a thing?”
“I don’t know, man. I’d burn it if I were you.” Josh looked around the living room. “Are those a gift from your mom too?” he asked, pointing toward the window where two multicoloured glass balls were suspended from the ceiling.
“Mais non,” Yves said, leading his friend over to where the balls were hanging, “these I bought for myself. You like them?”
Josh shrugged. “They’re okay, I guess. What are they?”
“They are the balls of the witch, mon ami.”
Josh smiled. “Wouldn’t it be more appropriate if they were the balls of the warlock?” Yves looked at him uncomprehendingly and Josh sighed. “What are witches’ balls?”
“It is a very interesting thing that you ask,” Yves said, clearly intrigued by the information he was about to impart. “The origin of the balls dates back almost three hundred years! You know of the men who blow the glass for work?”
Josh nodded. “Glass blowers.”
“Oui! Well these men would take the leftover pieces of glass at the end of the day – mark that these pieces of glass were all different colours, my friend – and they would melt them together to make these balls.”
“What was the point?”
“It was thought by the people back then that if these balls were placed in windows or in hallways leading from the front doors, they would protect the house from evil spirits.”
“Hence the term witches’ balls.”
“Exactement! The evil spirit would be mesmerised by the beauty of the ball and when the spirit touched the ball, it would be absorbed and trapped inside the ball forever.”
“Very convenient. How does this all gel with the whole catholic thing?” For as long as Josh had known him, Yves was a devout catholic. He was one of the few people Josh had ever known who went to church every Sunday.
Yves grinned. “Me, I did not buy them to capture the spirits. I was simply captivated by the beauty of the glass.”
“How did it go with the text?” he asked looking at the three piles of paper stacked neatly at the far end of the table.
Yves shrugged noncommittally. “The City of Rome – it was not constructed in a morning.”
Josh tried to suppress a smile. “I believe the expression is ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ but how does that translate – no pun intended – into progress you’ve made on the pages?”
“I ‘ave done well considering that you asked me to translate a five ‘undred-year-old document.”
“Five hundred years old?” Josh asked in astonishment.
Yves looked back and smiled. “But yes, mon ami. It is not what you would call the ‘light reading’.“ He held up a pot of coffee. “ ‘ow do you take it?”
“Black’s fine.” Josh picked up one of the pages. It was covered in Yves’ chicken scratch.
“You are ‘aving trouble reading my ‘andwriting?” Yves asked, plunking a full cup of black coffee down in front of Josh a moment later.
“Any idea what it’s about?” Josh asked, waving a hand at the pages on the table.”
Yves nodded. “Allow me to explain. The book is divided up into sections. I did not spend much time on the third section. It talks about the preparation.”
“For the ritual. That is what the second section is about – the ritual – a ritual for raising the undead.”
“I don’t understand,” Josh said, frowning. “Is it biblical?”
Yves very nearly choked. “Mon dieu non! It is pagan! ‘ow could it be from the church? Only the Son of God can raise the dead.”
Josh apologised quickly.
“The church has no such ‘orrible writings!” Yves continued indignantly.
“Sorry,” Josh muttered again. “Go on.”
“The first section is the sermon.” Yves paused and looked at Josh narrowly. “You are familiar with what is a sermon?”
Josh nodded. “I think so, yes.”
“Bon!” “This section is where I have spent most of my time and me, I did not like it at all! It is very dark, this. My church would not approve of me reading such things!”
“What kind of things?”
“Patience, my friend, patience.” Yves, who was clearly very pleased with himself, wanted to take his time explaining his discoveries to Josh. “I will admit that I was confused at the beginning of this section. It took some time for me to comprehend that there was not one voice speaking, but two.”
Josh frowned. “You mean like a conversation?”
“Exactement! It is a conversation between an emperor and an angel,” Yves said with a flourish.
Josh was a little taken aback. “An angel?”
“Non! Not just ‘an angel’, Yves corrected, mimicking Josh carefully. “The dark angel!”
“The ‘dark angel’ as in the devil?”
Yves shrugged noncommittally. “That, it does not say, but me,” he held a hand to his chest, “I believe so.”
“So, what’s the conversation about?”
“The dark angel offers the emperor the secret to an ancient ritual in exchange for ‘is soul.”
“That doesn’t sound like such a great deal.”
Yves smiled. “Ah, but it is, mon ami. In return, the emperor is granted life eternal and ‘is followers, upon their deaths, are gathered into the kingdom of the dark angel.”
“So you’re saying that he and his friends get to live forever.”
“Non, not at all! It is only the emperor who is allowed to live forever.”
“But I thought you said his followers…”
“They go to the kingdom of the dark angel when they die.”
“And what happens to them there?”
Yves shook his head. “That is unclear. The dark angel promises only that they will be allowed to roam the earth for thirty days each year.”
“So the emperor lives forever and his friends get to join him on earth for thirty days each year?”
Yves let out a long breath. “It is much more frightening than I thought. They have three ceremonies prior to the ritual, each ‘eld one week apart. In each ceremony, they place a silver figurine on the altar. One of the figurines – a sundial – symbolises the time the dark angel will appear. One is a dagger that has a snake which is winding its way to the top. The snake is eating its tail – a symbol of the infinity of the dark angel. The dagger itself symbolises death.”
“What’s the third symbol?” Josh asked quietly.
“It is a person. That is perhaps the most gruesome thing of all. The third symbol represents sacrifice – ‘uman sacrifice. You understand what I am telling you? They must sacrifice a person to summon the dark angel. My friend, I very much fear that the town you bought your house in – Ashford – is an evil place.”
Josh didn’t know what to say.
“The ritual may be performed,” Yves continued, “once per year only. It calls upon the dark angel to come and kill the enemies of the emperor’s choosing. It can only be done on the eve of the summer solstice.”
Josh could feel his heart racing in his chest. “When is that?”
Yves looked at him, clearly taken aback by the urgency in his voice. “It is tonight, my friend.”
“Jesus Christ!” Josh whispered.
“Do you not think that now might be a good time to tell me what is going on?” Yves asked quietly.
Josh sighed. “Okay, here goes. Annie saw an original copy of the book in our real estate agent’s office on the day she arrived. She asked him about it, but he gave her the brush-off. The very next day, the woman she’s staying with is reading the very same book and according to the local priest, the woman and the real estate agent aren’t the only ones in town with copies of what you’re now telling me is an ancient text.” He looked for a reaction, but Yves’ face remained impassive and Josh reluctantly continued. “The priest also told Annie about a tragedy that occurred in Ashford a little over a hundred years ago. Apparently nearly all of the townspeople were murdered and the town itself was burned down.”
Yves leaned forward excitedly in his chair. “Then is it the contention of this priest that the people in Ashford might be trying to use this book to take their revenge on the people in the neighbouring town?”
“The thing is,” Josh said, clearing his throat uncomfortably, “three men in the neighbouring town have already died – one each year for the past three years and all on the twenty-first of June.”
Yves leapt up from his chair as though someone had set fire to his robe. He started pacing back and forth across the kitchen floor. “Oh, mon dieu, this is bad, my friend, very, very bad.”
Josh looked at him in stunned disbelief. “You mean, you believe it?”
Yves stopped abruptly and smiled. “Remember, I am Catholic. If I believe Christ walked on water, that he healed people with his hands and that he was resurrected from the dead, why would I not believe this?”
“The question is,” Yves continued studying Josh with an expression that was hard to read, “do you believe it?”
Josh rubbed a weary hand across his face. “As ridiculous as it sounds, I think I do. I need to borrow your phone.”
Annie felt her phone slide out of her numb fingers. What Josh had told her was ridiculous. Unbelievable really. And yet she did believe it. Hell yes she believed it! She ran for her car and plugged her keys into the ignition. It wouldn’t start and Annie found herself shaking with frustration and fear.
She’d have to make a run for it, she decided. There was a large forested area not far from where she was now. If she made it to the forest, she could at least run out the night. Josh had told her the rituals were only performed on the eve of summer solstice. If she could just make it through the night, she’d be fine.
She ran towards the woods.
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