Unflattering shadows seared the bending grass, dipping over manmade and natural mounds, interrupted by depth, only to rise across the next towering hump. A tangerine sunset aided the pilgrimage, shimmering nervously as it delayed the inevitable plunge into the horizon of algae green waters. The sea roared with zealotry, lapping the base of the crag dozens of yards below the precipice, scattering the flotsam of wooden crates and fermented fruit discarded centuries past.
There was order to the ceremony, a clear delineation between the powers at be and the sheepish congregants. Towering several heads above their own, their traditional garb resembled the elongated and misshapen drawings of nightmarish mammals. From the soles of their feet to the faux crown, bulbous costumes had been draped around their skeletons, pumping their muscles to mythic proportions, every inch of flesh consumed by straight, vibrant fur borrowed from the unlucky forest dwellers. Eyeholes were surrounded by bushy brows, their mouths buttressed by even more intrusive mustaches. Together they swayed, from a distance merely harmless; cute, overfed imaginary creatures with exquisitely tall heads.
At the front of the column was their de facto leader of snow-driven pelt, their facial hair drooping in chocolate and chestnut. Behind them stumbled a black and yellow assistant, their back sewn together with an intertwining array of copper conch shells, a third creature striking the porcupine-like cluster with a wooden switch. The solemn tone echoed in a symphony of keys, their merry song alerting those who were far from worthy that everything was under control. A pack of ten followed in pairs, their lumbering, excessively long arms practically scraping the seaside path, worn from millennia of similar performances.
A gap, perhaps due to the changing elevation, meant that the fire-bearer had lost their rhythm. Straw, rather than fur, became their burden, should they dare let the flame engulf their fragile exterior they would immolate themselves, much to the disappointment of the others. Should they survive without so much as a measly rash, they could wield immense power. Smaller creatures skipped behind the flames, hibiscus-lined baskets of flamboyant fruit in hand, giggling at the wonkiness of their faux heads as they bumped into each other, their fur waving in the wind, giving them the appearance of a bird in flight.
And, behind it all, came the lumbering, unsure twitch of the tardy. “Fuck. Fuck all!” A partially buried rock tipped him face first, his mask cracking somewhere in the upper third. Underneath the chiming of the copper pipes, his expletives and frantic breathing were drowned perfectly. He shoved his palms into the dirt and boosted himself straight, steadying the bulbous disguise. His stubby hooves were cutting off the circulation to his jackboots, but the alter awaited them, he still had time. He had them right where he wanted.
The white-furred leader approached the simple bones of a stone altar, erected from the cliff itself, the stains of ceremonies past leaving a healthy red hue in the delicate rivulets. The assistant huffed to their side; the final chord was dimmed by the ocean waves. The others took their places in a semi-circle as the younglings placed their fruit delicately on the stone.
A raised hand silenced the congregants, though they had not attempted to speak. “May the mother approach?” Her hide tried mightily to conceal her pregnancy, but her girth, and her wobbling gait, left no doubt as to her purpose. Two others helped her up the slight incline and to their leader’s side. “The golden ring, please.” Another presented the halo from underneath their reddish fur and bowed before the mother. She tipped her head several feet out in front of her to accept the honorary decoration, twirling her neck to slip the loop halfway down the shaft of cheap plywood, glue, and papier-mâché. “This marriage shall bind you forever to the flesh of the earth. In this marriage, you, Mother Earth, will ensure the continuing blessings that we have endured since the coming of our people to this island.”
The underside of the altar chimed as the master of ceremonies revealed a crude blade, its curvature notched with previously unsuccessful whacks. “The siren of Kukeri has chimed from the consecrated grounds to the fertile water of the sea.”
There! From the bluff, he had not missed it. He huffed over the uneven ground, galloping as fast as his boiling costume would allow. He watched the sword spear the sky, the billowing clouds above lazily evading the strike.
“It is with the blood of this sacrifice that we-”
A spark ricocheted off the steel, snapping the blade cleanly at the neck. Among the gathered seethed the barrel of an onyx revolver, the hammer wrenched back to cycle the chamber. “You are all under arrest!” the masked shooter declared.
The inquisition began with a strange, heavy, unsure pivot. They shuffled slowly and faced the intruder, tipping their heads with interest.
Off came the animal death mask, tossed towards the raging sea. His cheeks were flush with anger and fear, his orange hair streaked with white from age. “Your hands! Let me see your hands!” They surrendered with tedious difficulty, the ceremonial garb much heavier than expected.
“Who are you to interrupt this sacred ceremony?” the white leader barked.
The revolver singled out the naysayer. “Have you gone foolish, eh? I am Chief Constable Howard Eckland and every single one of you bastards is under arrest.”
“I believe you-”
“Shut your putrid yap! You have been playing me for a fool ever since I sailed to this contemptible place. And you would have succeeded in ridding me, I had three-quarters of a mind to pack my things nearly a week ago and return to London, satisfied with my investigation. But you made one fatal mistake…well, several in fact!” Eckland muscled his way through the chosen people and stood between them and the ritual sacrifice. He poked the still-simmering barrel into the chest of a salt and pepper creature. “Your general store claimed to carry only the island’s freshest produce, but the manifest uncovered from the wreckage of the delivery schooner proved otherwise. A parcel of considerable weight was unaccounted for: one hundred and fifteen pounds of human flesh!”
A gasp escaped with the ferocity of a steaming kettle. “Not ground or carved, but a woman. A woman!” To the mother, he swirled, his free hand pointing emphatically. “Ill, with child, not of her own, but of another! I will get back to that in a moment. The three of you…” He scanned them leisurely and tutted disapprovingly. “I observed all three of you desecrating the fertile soil of Saint Dasius’ Cathedral, shovel and pickaxe in hand! What might you have unearthed? The Ghost of Harvests Past? No! Human remains, perhaps? Yes! But more importantly, the remains of your deceased husband!” He flung himself forward, stomping the ground in front of a shivering sky-blue creature. “A husband whose autopsy claimed he had committed suicide.” He chuckled, hiding his smile, and the answer to the riddle. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I would never think of stabbing myself seventeen times in the back and careening over the edge of a cliff on a motor bicycle to escape the ravages of the modern age!”
The crowd simultaneously took a stride back, the younglings seeking the warmth of their overgrown arms. “Yes, run to your elders, little ones,” Eckland chided. “A murderer, a mistress, a trafficker, a religious glutton! You preach serenity and peace here, but beneath the surface, you have angered God himself. Your attempts to poison me, betray me, stifle me, and entrap me in the depths of the ocean were all struck down by the faith in my heart! Your isolation has driven you mad! With power! With blasphemy! I have read your ancient texts and the law cannot abide by your methods. You will relinquish this poor girl into the custody of the Metropolitan Police Service. She will not bear your child, the son of Satan! You will not spill her blood so that your apples may grow another season!”
“But the economy-!”
Eckland bludgeoned the poor interrupter with a strike to the furry temple, knocking the beast into the brush. “Your bounty cannot be controlled by this pathetic sacrifice. It is madness! It is unbecoming of the purpose of our mission. You will no longer import these slave girls for your dastardly deeds! Now, I have enough cartridges here to lay every single one of you into a shallow grave of your own. If one of you so much as musters an attempt, I will blast a bullet through your brain.” A pair of iron shackles jingled from an interior pocket. “Minister Hardy, you will surrender yourself to me now.”
This request enacted a muffled murmur. Their heads swiveled, the spectrum of colorful hides dragging along the ocean breeze. Their leader carefully removed his mask and blinked through the sudden burst of the setting sun’s sharp cheddar hue.
Eckland’s smug smile, too, set, replaced with the curled, shivering lip of rage. “Who in the fuck are you!?” He marched to the altar and slapped aside the fruit baskets. “Where is Minister Hardy?” He wasted no time, addressing the congregants once more. “Take off these damn falsities. Show yourself to me! You, Mr. Hebridean!” But the general store owner did not appear underneath the black and white mask.
“Mrs. Marshfield!” Nope.
“Councilman MacGregor!” Not even close.
“Doctor Brennaman?” That one was just a dog standing on its hind legs.
The constable swallowed hard, his revolver shaking uncontrollably as he refused to steady over a particular target. “I demand that you tell me what in God’s name is going on here!?”
“We are protecting the island from evil spirits. ‘Tis tradition,” the leader solemnly announced.
“Lies!” Eckland screamed. “You intend to sacrifice this woman for your devilish plans. To raise the Father of Evil to bless your lot. Your bountiful harvest fuels your slave trade, it brings wealth to this island, and it corrupts the world with your greed. The bastard town of Suntershire shall know the wrath of the Metropolitan Police Service, and I, Chief Constable Howard Eckland, shall be the harvester of your righteous end!”
Silence bookended his spitting soliloquy. A few blinked; others snorted loose mucus back into their sinuses.
“Suntershire?” one of them honked. “You mean them bastards?”
A helping index sought to open Eckland’s eyes. He turned, following the stubby digit as several hundred yards down the coast, another ceremony was already in full swing. The neck of a willing sacrifice was presented, a sword swung across her flesh. With the decapitated torso vomiting a maroon foam, the towering wicker effigy that lauded over the worshippers burst into flames. From the ashes exploded the monstrous claws of an ancient deity, its cackling laugh reversing the very tides themselves and cloaking the sun in blood.
Eckland inhaled and cradled the brackish air deep in his lungs. “Goddamnit.”
Joey Rodriguez lives in Connecticut with his wife and two children where he works as a multimedia consultant. Inspired by the possibilities of the universe, his hybrid art and music adventure, The Intergalactic Beets Project, is constantly evolving and now encompasses over 150 songs. He is also the author of four novels, two novellas, and several short stories. You can follow him @jojoandpickles on Instagram.