The Time of Blood and Death
Short story by Iris Carden
What if the prosecutor’s right? Not about me being a cold-blooded killer, but about me being sane?
I understand why my defence, and the psychiatrist, say I’m insane. “Not guilty by reason of insanity,” is what they said. And I hope they’re right.
There’s only two options here. Either it was all hallucination and I’m totally off my rocker, or the killers are still out there.
I’m dismissing the prosecution’s option that I’m a cold-blooded killer, which I’m sure is an option that will seem reasonable to the jury, because I was there. Unlike the jury, I was living inside my head, or in the real world, whichever it was.
Those being the two options, I hope the defence is right. I hope I’m nuttier than my mother’s Christmas cake.
So now, the jury’s out, and the judge has only given them two options to consider, either the prosecution is right and I’m a murderer, or the defence is right and I should be locked in an asylum. Either of those choices mean I’m going to be locked up for the rest of my life, so it doesn’t really matter which one they come back with. The option the judge didn’t give them to consider was that I’m perfectly sane and everything I said was true, not true in the post-modern sense that it’s true in my personal reality, but true in that it objectively happened.
As an academic, I can look at this situation logically, and say that if I were on the jury, I’d say the defence was right. I’m a homicidal lunatic. I should be kept locked away somewhere I can be kept sedated and never acquire a sharp implement again.
An academic! Who knew specialising in religious studies could get anyone into a situation like this?
It all began so simply. Kevin, a student of mine, had been bushwalking. He left the path to relieve himself, and by accident found what looked like a ritual site. He’d had taken some photos to show me. It was a crude altar made of gathered stones. There were some stains on the stones that could have been anything, although the student was convinced it was blood. The ground around the altar had been very well trampled. Carved crudely into trees around the altar and compressed ground were symbols: in inverted cross, an inverted pentacle, a snake, a sword, and what may have been a ram’s or bull’s head. I wasn’t sure of the last one. I’m still not sure, but it had horns.
To me it looked like a do-it-yourselfer. It’s part of the post-modern religious movement. People, either individuals or groups, take bits from different religions, from culture, and even things they’ve read in fiction, and combine it into something of their own creation which they then believe means something. It’s how we come to have “Christians” whose faith is more about conservative politics than anything to do with Christ.
I got directions, and said I’d take a look at the site. A new religious group in the area was at least mildly interesting.
At the time, I didn’t associate that conversation with the student to one I had with a colleague in the staff lunch room. John’s a mathematician, and considers himself a realist. To him, a realist is someone who will only believe what can be measured, and fully explained. He’s a friend, as long as we avoid talking about my field of study.
John was reading the paper that day when I entered the lunch room. He passed it to me and pointed to the headline: “Third child reported missing.”
“Three kids missing in one week,” John said. “It’s a wonder the police don’t come and ask you about the cults and hoodoos you study.”
I poured my coffee and sat down at the table opposite him. “Most religions,” I explained, “involve accountability to some form of deity, or some other means to apply ethical limits on people. Even those which don’t worship a deity have concepts similar to ‘do to others what you would have them do to you’. I don’t think kidnapping children comes under any faith’s ethical standards.”
“What about Satanists and Witches.”
“Witches, in our era of history, tends to mean Wiccans. They’re a benign nature-loving religion, and they don’t steal people’s children, or even build ginger-bread houses to lure children away from home. Satanists tend to be people who are playing with religion, trying to shock, but not really as bad as they think they are. More serious Satanists have an ethical system, because they claim it is God who is the bad guy and Satan was the good guy who just suffered from bad press. They don’t take children, either.”
“How about child sacrifice?”
“Historically, there have been religions that have practised human sacrifice, but to my knowledge there are none currently operating in the world at all, or in Brisbane specifically.”
John had grunted and changed the subject. And I forgot about the conversation, until later.
After my last lecture of the day, I’d taken myself on a “field trip”, and followed Kevin’s direction. I drove to Mount Glorious, and stopped at the walking track Kevin had nominated.
Just past a fallen log that had been cut into steps to clear the path, I turned left, off the marked path and worked my way through the forest. It was the way Kevin had come, and I was able to follow some signs of disturbed and damaged undergrowth where he had walked. There was no sign anyone else had come that way. In fact, when I got to the site, I found no sign of any path used regularly by people. At the site itself, however, the earth was hard-packed and had been walked over by many feet, over a long time.
The site was as it had appeared in the photographs, but in real life, it was possible to see why Kevin had believed it was blood on the altar. There was a smell to it, like something dead. Animal sacrifice? I hadn’t actually encountered any religions using animal sacrifice currently. I had to admit I was interested.
There was an illusion of antiquity about the whole scene. The rocks forming the altar seemed to have weathered in place. That had to be an illusion of course, the history of non-indigenous people in Australia was very short, and it clearly wasn’t an indigenous site. The symbols carved on the trees had a European heritage. Those carvings showed signs of having scarred over and being re-carved endless times. It all seemed so much more ancient than it could possibly be.
Australia’s an ancient place. Religions and ritual have been practised for sixty thousand years at least. But until the 1700s, those rituals didn’t involve inverted crosses, inverted pentagrams, swords or symbols of horned animals. I’d never heard of indigenous people building altars either. But solid rock doesn’t start to turn to dust in under 300 years, especially if it is protected from wind, and isn’t being washed in moving water.
The whole site made no sense. In the forest all around it was life and noise, birds, lizards, insects and small mammals were about their daily business. In the site itself, between the marked trees, was absolute silence, and no movement except my own.
I wrote notes, drew a map, took measurements and photographs. I did everything I could to document the site. All my notes and photos are now in evidence. They’re proof of my insanity, because the site doesn’t exist, or at least no-one has been able to find it. All anyone found was the path I’d turned off to get there, the tree across the path with the steps cut through it for access, and the bodies. Kevin can’t be called to give evidence, because Kevin is dead.
I took all my notes, and photos, and my research. When books and the internet failed me, I asked my friends and contacts in any number of faiths, to ascertain if anyone had ever encountered anything like this. No-one had ever seen or heard of a religion that had ritual sites that looked like.
Many of them had things to talk about though. Five churches, the local mosque and a Buddhist temple had all been vandalised, “tagged” with graffiti, which had strange messages. The graffito proclaimed: “He rises from the serpent’s pit”, and “Your end has come” and “The time of blood and death is here”. It was someone’s sick idea of a joke, of course. It was as if they were trying to quote something that sounded like something apocryphal, like the movie version of Revelation, not the actual book of the Bible. It either had to be a joke, or some some deluded person who thought they were a prophet. Those were the theories.
I shared my notes with my students, and we talked around theories and possibilities. It was Kevin who came up with the suggestion, and it hadn’t seemed such a terrible idea at the time. A long weekend was coming, what about camping in the area and keeping an eye on the site? A couple of nights in the bush, waiting to see a religious group which may or may not show up doesn’t appeal to everyone. Some students baulked at the at camping outside a designated campsite, in a place where the rangers didn’t even allow leaving the constructed path. But I had three student volunteers, which is how Kevin, Mary, Adam and I came to be in the forest that Friday night.
We were not far from the site, but were fairly sure we couldn’t be seen. The forest is thick, and no-one would be expecting us to be watching. Our “camp” was the most basic possible. We each had a sleeping bag, with the intent we’d take turns sleeping, and we each had non-perishable food in a backpack. There was nothing more. There was no means to cook, no tent, nothing to make our long wait particularly comfortable.
About 7pm, it was dark, but not completely black. Kevin tapped my arm and pointed toward the ritual site. There was some light there. We each moved closer, as quietly as we could move through the underbrush, hoping that any sound we made might be attributed to possums or other wildlife.
From my closer position, I was able to see the ritual space was lit by numerous candles. I hadn’t noticed any traces of candlewax on my earlier visit, so these worshippers must have been very careful to clean up after themselves thoroughly. There were thirteen adults, all wearing dark clothes. I guessed they were adults by size. In the night, with only candlelight, it was impossible to see much more detail than that. Noticing a slight noise and movement to the left, I saw what looked like a child of about five or six sleeping on a blanket. It made me think of a family who attended the church I went to, who always brought a rug for their youngest child to have a nap on the floor during the service.
One of the worshippers stood beside the altar, while the others made a circle around him. (I say “him” because of the person’s voice.) This leader called out: “The time of blood and death is here.”
The others all responded: “Bring on the time of blood and death.”
The leader said: “He rises from the serpent’s pit.”
The others responded: “We welcome him as he comes to bring the end.”
I was still watching basically with academic detachment, although I did notice Mary move slightly, and Kevin put a hand on her shoulder to remind her to stay where she was.
Detachment, academic or otherwise, was about to end.
One of the group picked up the child and placed it on the altar. The child moaned slightly but barely moved. I now suspect she was drugged. “Blood and death!” the leader yelled, raising a sword.
That’s when my detachment, and the students’ fell apart.
Mary moved first, yelling something I couldn’t make out, as she went. The two boys were right behind her. I’m a bit older and slower, but I really wasn’t far behind. I can’t tell you now how any of us could have thought this would work out well for us. We were outnumbered, and at least one of them had a sword.
Mary made it to the altar as the sword slashed through the child. The leader in one move pulled the sword from the child’s abdomen, and spun towards Mary, slicing through her throat.
Adam and Kevin were barely into the light when they were caught and held by others of the group. Following them, I was caught like them.
Adam was dragged to the leader who slashed his throat, as he had done Mary’s, and then Kevin was dragged over as well.
As Kevin fell, there was a sudden cracking sound, as if a large branch had broken from a gum tree. Instead of something falling from above, what happened was at ground level. The altar split in half, and a large thing seemed to climb up out of the ground.
“He rises from the serpent’s pit!” one of the group called out. They all stopped what they were doing. The leader dropped his sword. The people holding me, threw me on top of my students’ bodies, but left me alive.
There were cries of “Blood and death!” and “The end!”
The thing emerging from the ground seemed to be a giant shadow, a dark beast larger than anything I’d seen, with horns. The worshippers were transfixed, watching this and calling out their devotions.
I very quietly crawled away. Once out of the light, I made my way as quickly as I could back to the path and then ran towards the road. Part-way I met a ranger walking down the path. In something between sobbing and hysterical screaming, I told him my story.
He took me back to his four wheel drive and called for help. The rest of the night is a blur of sirens and flashing lights and people in uniforms.
Police and rangers found my students and the little girl – the fourth child to have gone missing in Brisbane in just over a week. The bodies, with the sword, were strewn over the path next to the cut log we’d used as our landmark.
They didn’t find any religious ritual place, any altar, any sign of other people, any strange marks on trees, any worshippers or any strange beast.
All they found was blood and death. And they found me, covered in my students’ blood.
So now I wait for a jury to decide where I will be locked up for the rest of my life. And I hope, desperately hope, that I am insane.
This story appears in Patchwork by Iris Carden.
It’s available from your favourite online bookshop, from lulu.com/spotlight/IrisCarden, or click the links below