The Devil and the Hiker
The Devil and the Hiker
By Brenton Lengel
It was just before dark that I happened upon The Devil. He was seated just a few paces off the path, upon an old rotted tree-trunk, which waited on the far side of a short footbridge, deep in the Massachuset wood. I halted just before the bridge and surveyed with no small amount of curiosity the infernal personification which lay before me. I don’t know precisely where my knowledge came from, but from the time I laid my eyes upon him I understood that this was not Milton’s Lucifer, nor the cartoonish horned boogeyman I had been told of in the various churches my family had attended in my youth. Some long forgotten and thoroughly primal facet of my mind instantly identified what lay before me as The Devil, Old Scratch, The Black Woodsman.
The Prince of Darkness smiled at me as he spoke. His voice was earthy and musical, like a soft breeze over dead leaves.
“Are you going much further tonight?” I didn’t move from my spot across the creek.
“That’s the plan” I responded. His Infernal Majesty’s eyes turned upwards, towards the forest’s canopy.
“It’s getting dark. Do you think you can make it to camp in time?”
“If I hike at night.” I told him. “Were you waiting for me?
He returned my quizzical gaze. “I can’t quite say. I was waiting for someone, that’s certain; but since you’re here, care to talk a little business?”
“You want my soul.” I said, hoping I had asked a question.
The Old Boy grinned.
“That would be the business I’m in. You are at a crossroad at dusk. I’m sure there’s something you want, so let’s deal. I’ll make it happen.”
The possibilities rushed into my mind like cool water over bare rock. Wealth and women, long life and prosperity, power and fame; but then they were gone, washed away downstream. For whatever reason, at this time, Captain Kidd’s treasure held no allure for me. It was as if these things weren’t real, but more as cardboard cutouts, smoke and crudely drawn sketches. I shook my head apologetically.
“Nothing.” I told Him.
“Nothing?” He rasped. “Have I come across a zen master? No one wants nothing. I can smell the desire on you.” For a moment his eyes narrowed, the hairs on his back seemed to bristle, and I was filled with a nameless terror usually reserved for a young children who find themselves alone in a basement; then he diminished. His mocking leer melted once more into congeniality, and he spoke to me as only the very reasonable can.
“Let us cease these games” He said “There was a time, when I took pleasure from playing cat and mouse with your kind; but I am old, and have long sense grown weary of such things. If you must at first rebuke me to satisfy your conscience; consider me rebuked. Now let us move towards setting you on path once again. Name it and it’s yours.”
“Oh I want things, Sir.” I said plainly “I want a coke, I want a shower, and a warm place to sleep.” I paused momentarily, and then as an afterthought I informed The Antichrist that I would also be partial to a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, but I also told him: “I can get all of those things without dealing with you.”
To my surprise (or was it horror?) Sammael seemed to brighten at my revelation. “Of course not, but a bargain with me can certainly provide these things, and more. If I can be bothered to fill Jonathan Moulton’s stinking boots with gold every month, I can certainly exchange you some pint of eternal frozen goodness. Perhaps some sort of endless container of effervescent sugar-water? What say you to that?”
“I really can’t see myself exchanging my Immortal Soul for candy.” By now, despite my best efforts to remain cordial, a slight air of incredulousness had managed to worm it’s way into my voice. “I’d think it would be a bit more valuable than that. Even magical candy.”
“It was worth a try” He seemed to sulk as he told me “I have dealt before in guitar lessons and golden fiddles. It has never made much sense to me what holds luster for your kind.” His knotted brow furrowed, and He appeared to me to be deep in thought. Then I heard Him. Satan neither took his eyes from the ground, nor opened his toothy mouth, nor yet moved at all from what I could see. Still, His voice came to me just the same. It was deep, and old, and it shook my mind as though it were spoken through a hollow stump.
“You are on a journey, are you not? Perhaps I will ease your passage. I can grant you boots which never wear out, a pack lighter than any made by mortal hands. Each step you feel could truly be ten, or twenty. I can command the northern wind to blow lightly on your back when you climb these mountains, and move the clouds so that you are never rained upon.”
This, I could not deny was certainly tempting, particularly at this moment, as the night before had brought a rainstorm so strong its’ droplets had blown inside my tent while I slept and had made the following morning wet, cold, and miserable. Even now, my equipment which waited inside my pack was almost certainly still damp, and the sudden chill which had crept in the air told me this night was promising to be a cold one as well. Still, in the end I had to reject that offer as well. I enjoyed walking these paths under my own power, after all, I could just as easily have been at home with a roof over my head and a good meal. This was a time when I was determined to do without, and that included Old Nick’s hellacious equipment.
“Besides” I told him “There seems to be something wrong with never being rained on. I prefer to avoid it when I can, but having your wind to always keep me dry doesn’t sit well with me. No. No thank you. I appreciate your time, but twilight has almost passed and I think I’ll be going now.” With those words I set my foot on the bridge and began to continue on my way, all the while trying desperately to look less frightened than I was. My path brought me within an arm’s length of The Stranger’s stoop. Though he had shown himself, for the most part, to be good-natured; I felt as though any moment he might rise from his seat strike out at me. My primal mind told me he would, and so, as I passed, my body regarded him as it would a viper, until at last Belial was behind me.
Immediately I found myself wondering why I had heard so many times, from various Christians (often of the southern, and evangelical variety) instructions for The Devil to ‘Get behind’ them. Upon experiencing it, I can truly say the only thing worse than having The Devil in front of you, or even beside you, is having him creeping about behind you, out of your line of sight. With every step my body screamed at me to turn around and make sure he wasn’t about to throttle me, until, when I was about ten steps down the path, I could bear it no longer and turned to face the stump.
There He sat, as he always had, calmly watching me with the sort of expression one might wear while engaged in a game of peek-a-boo with a small child. I half-exhaled, and half-turned; and halfway between His world and mine I heard the Old, Earthy, Dark, Deep, Hollow, Tenor of Abbadon.
“It won’t last forever.” He told me. “No matter how long your journey is, it will end, and you will return to the world of toasters and mortgages. You will leave the wood and the field, you will leave the slope and the stream, you will leave the smell of earth and the sound of the night sky behind. Your world will be one of metal and concrete, of clocks and appointments; and no matter how much you prosper your heart will always yearn for the still north, and that will destroy you.”
This shuddered me. People sometimes refer to The Devil as “The Prince of Lies” but I assure you, the most insidious weapon at his disposal is the truth. His words drilled into the very core of my being, and my heart echoed them, and I knew this would come to an end. My desires would return as I returned to the world. I would find a job, and a home, and a woman. She and I would make tender love on Tuesdays and sleep in on Sundays. Each day would be the same as the last and it would not, all things considered, be a bad life, but for it, I knew my soul would not be alive. I turned from my path in agony.
“I have a wish” I whispered “I am ready to deal.”
My voice was almost inaudible, but He had heard me, Mephistopheles smiled kindly, and spoke to me through his serpentine teeth.
“And what is it, you wish for?”
“Make this last forever_” I cried “Make the woods and the fields, the hollow and the summit my world. Make this place my home so that I never have to return to my old life.”
“And for this boon, what do you offer me?”
“My Soul.” I spat through tear-filled eyes.
Baphomet paused and seemed to be thinking it over. Then He reached for an old, dusty, leather bag about a foot-and-a-half in diameter, which waited a mere six inches from his cloven hooves; A bag which, I was certain, had not been there when I arrived. From it’s depths he withdrew his book. It was approximately one foot by six inches, and bound with knotted, black, leather. It was thick and as he opened it I saw that the pages were as parchment. They looked to have been stained with candle wax and red wine, or blood, and everywhere there was the smell of sulfur, and cinders. For a moment He simply stared lovingly at it; then The Devil leafed through the book, until he came to a page sometime after the middle. There I saw my contract. It was short, less than a full page, and written by a hand skilled in calligraphy. At the bottom of the page was space for two signatures.
“Is everything to your liking?” He asked as he pulled a set of blackened spectacles from his breast pocket and set himself to wiping the soot from them with the edge of his tattered shirt.
“Yes.” I told him, with a certain amount of despair.
“Good. That is wise.” He rasped, setting his glasses upon his elfin nose. “Sometimes clients think to elude me, or ensure their side of the bargain by rewording the contract, but I assure you, the devil is in the details, and there is where I do my best work. This will go better for you that we have kept it plain, and to the point. Now if you’ll just–”
The Devil furrowed his brow as His hands patted the pockets on his old, tattered clothes. From the side pockets of the tanned fabric pants He wore, up to the breasts-pockets of His dull red vest, and on to the various pockets which lined the interior of His deerskin coat, Beelzebub’s sharp fingers moved. Kicking up clouds of dirt, dust, and soot, the infernal claws scratched, searched, darted and danced, until, on the third pass of His second pocket from the left, they stopped. From here was withdrawn a fine quill-tipped pen; Long, and old and set with a feather as black as the heartwood of a scorched oak tree. This he brought to his mouth, and casually licked the tip. Wisps of flame ran along his tongue where the pen made contact. Then He signed His name, flipped the book around, and handed the pen to me.
I took it, but did not move. Time seemed to stop, and my ears were filled with a roar of crickets. I contemplated walking away, or standing there mute until the twilight came to an end and this devilish apparition before me would surely vanish, but I did not. Instead I signed my name. The Devil hopped off his stoop and briskly took up the book and the pen from my hands. The latter He placed into his breast-pocket and the former, He laid upon the rotten stump. Then Iblis licked his blackened thumb and pressed it to my forehead. Nothing happened. When the thumb withdrew he stared at the spot where it had been incredulously, then re-licked it and again placed it upon my brow.
“Where is the mark? You have entered into a contract with me, you should have a mark!”He muttered angrily to himself as again his thumb withdrew. The Devil repeated this process three more times. His frustration became more apparent with each application, until at last, He let out a fiery grunt, retrieved His book from the log, and opened it to my contract. The Devil looked at me, and then down at the contract, suspiciously. His eyes widened and I swear I saw smoke beginning to rise from his ears.
“You have not signed this!” he spat “Are you trying to defraud me? You will give me your name or it is no contract!”
But I had given him my name, and I knew it. True, it was not the Christian name I was born with, but it was none the less mine. It was a name given to me here, in the wilds, by another passing traveler, and it spoke more of who I was out here than my birth certificate ever could. I opened my mouth to tell him as much but Something stopped me. It had not form, nor shape but It reached down my throat with It’s not-arm and grasped a hold of Me. I remember a terrible cracking noise like the tumbling of a mighty oak and a pain of such agonizing purity that to begin to describe the sensation might take ten-thousand lifetimes; and then I remember freedom. I watched myself get up from the forest floor, dust myself off, and walk away from Me. I wound my way on down the path and back to civilization, leaving Myself and The Devil behind. Some have since speculated that it was Ha-Satan, who had proceeded to pull Me out of me, but I don’t think so. The Devil felt hollow, and deep, and overgrown, but most of all he felt old. The thing that had enforced our contract felt like a hole, like a lack of time. It was the sort of sensation you have upon the sudden realization that it’s a day later than you thought, and you have to be somewhere an hour ago. None the less, It did It’s job and now I have mine.
I can’t complain, and I certainly don’t get bored with my work. Sometimes I’m a bush, or a bear, or a voice on the wind. Those eyes you see staring out from the underbrush at night? Yeah that’s me (or a deer, or a rabbit, or a couple of fireflies I suppose). You may even have met me. Did I help you? I certainly hope so. I might have given you a shove in the right direction, or slipped a block of cheese you thought you’d already eaten into your pack. Or I might have taken something, or lead you astray. If I did I’m sure I returned it, or not; you found your way back though, eventually. Look, I can’t help that I’m very busy. I certainly I can’t keep track of every little thing that I do.
I still see Old Scratch from time to time. He may be waiting at a crossroad, or lurking under a bridge, or simply walking along some forgotten path when we come upon each other. Sometimes we meet as friends. On those days we wander the mountains, the hollows, and the back-roads together causing all sorts of uproar; and some days he simply glowers at me and goes about his business as if I’m not there. I don’t mind. I think he’s lonely. My name? Well, I have many now. You can call me puck, or hob, The Green Man or Wuduwasa, (I think some jack-off tried to dub me “skunk-ape” recently) but to tell you the truth, my true name, is written back in the red-stained pages of Woland’s musty tome. If He ever shows it to you, flip down just a little past the middle and maybe you’ll see in the bottom corner, just below His name, in the nervous scrawl of a fine, old, pen set with an ebony feather;
-‘Will ‘o the Wisp.’