“There is a town some miles north of Prague,” the guide said as the bonfire flames licked higher into the night sky. “It remains a very primitive town — governed by myth and lore, comforted by superstition.
“It is said that many ages ago, on an unseasonably windy summer morning, a child was born to this village. A child of pain that only wrenched free of Mother following three days of terror and numbing agony, after which she would not lay eyes on it for nearly a week, abandoning it to the careless watch of the town nursery.
“The Child was an unfortunate one, of bulbous temples, protracted lobes, and skin dotted with marks like tiny island nations. Boasting one eye of onyx and one of azure, it would often seem to focus in two directions at a time. And even after four years of life, the hair of its head would not grow nor would its gums sprout teeth, leaving it to suckle at Mother long past its due as only some unholy beast would.
“A more hideous and foul creature the town had never seen.
“Mother would often leave the thing down by the murky river, where it would splash obliviously in the shallows, or out in the valley hidden among the ewes, but morning would always find it on the doorstep, or in the chicken coop nestled among the hens or in her very bed tucked against her chest.
“Because of this Man was shamed.
“One day, a foul wind brought down the sole bridge in the village. Carpenter spent hours at the riverbed, scratching his head as he thought on how to restore it in a timely manner. And so he hummed and he hawed; he consulted The Elders and he ordered Mother to her tea leaves, but no answer could reach him.
“As night devoured dusk and he sat dangling his feet in the shallows of the river, Demon came upon him, spreading wings of mercury as he glided across the frothy whiteness. Alighting by his side, Demon cocked his head in appraisal of Man.
“‘What troubles you, dear one?’ he asked affably.
“‘An important convoy is to arrive three days hence, and the bridge is broken.’
“Demon gave a cursory glance to the dark wood and iron bobbing in the water as he replied, ‘So it is.’ Turning back to Man with a barren smile, he said, ‘Shall I mend it?’
“Cobalt eyes narrowed in suspicion as Man answered, ‘On what terms?’
“Demon gave a loud chortle into the night, wings rippling with glee. ‘You, Man,’ he began, wiping a silver tear from his onyx eye. ‘You have grown far too clever for your own good. Well done, consider your hand shaken.’ He gestured to the splintered remnants of the bridge, causing the beams to float above the water — tantalizing Man with the effortlessness of the act. ‘I will mend your bridge and well before the sun rises on the third day; all it will cost you is the first life to cross onto the stone.’
“Man thought for little more than the space of a heartbeat before acquiescing with a firm nod of his head.
“‘It is done.’
“And it was. When Man rose the following morning and returned to the river, the bridge was fully restored and had even surpassed its former glory. In the center of the bridge stood a young man with eyes of coal, staring up at the morning sky as though it offended him. Man glanced at the Thing toddling on unsteady legs behind him, and felt a momentary guilt over his forthcoming treachery. The Elders always said that to trick a demon was a great boon, a mark of honor; so what reason could be given for this heaviness that had descended upon him?
“Demon was fixated and did not lower his head at Man’s approach, only turning once the young was near enough to smell, its pungent odor clouding his head. Recognition and shame dawned; and with a snarl of rage, Demon pounced towards the traitor, but the Thing had already been tossed onto the cold, brown stone near his feet.
“The Child’s eyes focused on his, the azure fogging seamlessly to black.
“Demon lifted the Thing by a leg and with one last sneer at Man leapt over the ledge and disappeared into the still water below.
“And to this day, any malformed or otherwise imperfect child born of the village is tossed from the bridge as an offering.
“And to this day,” the guide intoned, his ebony eyes flickering in the flames as he made an end to his tale, “both Man and Devil are shamed.”
Copyright © 2012 Layla AlAmmar