Sawbones

Sawbones

Donna Lynch

The travelers came from the edge of the black woods, dragging their unnatural feet and hooves and claws through the brush as though the briers and thistles were rendered impotent against their leathery flesh. They descended upon the golden field en masse, and in no apparent order of command. If there was indeed a leader, then it was guiding them from a realm beyond our own. That I ever saw the horrific army pains my soul beyond measure.

I am a battlefield doctor, first and foremost, and I am a son and a fiancé. I am an educated man and I reckon I am a religious man now, which is what war will do, though if there was ever any doubt, it has been erased by the sight of such a hellish company. I hate that I have seen them with my waking eyes, for I will never see anything else when my eyes are closed. But most of all I hate that they saw me and would spare my life only to impart their purpose and intent to me by some indescribable means.

War had been impending for a very long time, they said. They had travelled across many centuries and many, vast planes before finally reaching this place in this very moment. And now they would come, in the midst of our own battle, and when they were done, there would be a great loss of life on both sides. They said that there would be few remaining that could claim to have witnessed the mêlée, and those still standing at the end would certainly be thought mad, myself included, except I would not truly be mad, not in the sense that one could only hope for in these circumstances. I could not hope to be blissfully unaware or like a child dreaming of mythical lands, nor could I hope to be void of any thought or emotion. I would be left lucid yet unable to rationalise the encounter away, and forever scarred and haunted by what I’d seen.

But I am to be their liaison to this ravaged world. They said they chose me not for any metaphysical reason, but because of what I do. I am a doctor, and this intrigues them greatly. And I am educated enough to perceive what they say to me, and to see them when others cannot. They are imperceptible to us at most angles, only being seen when light and shadow cast just right. The unmerciful heat has aided me greatly, creating mirages in the distance, allowing me to see them when they come.

The men were blazing in the July heat, and I would have been too if my blood was not so chilled by their presence. The travellers lurked just beyond the rocks at the edge of the field, waiting for the first shot since daybreak to sound. Some of the boys thought they had the advantage, climbing up the boulders to get an eagle’s eye view of the enemy, but they were blind and exposed to the creatures that surrounded them at all sides. There must have been fifty of them at least; some bore animalistic traits: patches of coarse hair, claws, fangs and tusks, hooves and hoary eyes set to the sides of the head; while others were nightmarishly humanoid, the size and shape of two men bound together in some unnatural, asymmetrical manner. I have witnessed some horrendous things since becoming a physician, but nothing so abominable as this demon horde. Between the casualties of war and this devilish vision, I do not know which was worse.

It was my hope that amidst the chaos of war, I might be able to disappear. I even caught myself wishing for an injury, and I tried my best to perish the thought, as I, of all people, have seen what battlefield injuries can become, especially in the humid summer air, but I could not escape.

My unit had commandeered a small farm house near a creek as an infirmary for as long as we could keep the enemy at bay, although who the enemy was, I could no longer say. The conditions were far from pristine, but I was grateful to be out of the dreadful tent, with it’s humid swarms of mosquitoes and flies. I was compelled to express my gratitude for small favours, but then held my tongue as I remembered the wretched boy on my table, his calf riddled with buckshot, the wounds already beginning to writhe with stinking, viscous insect larvae.

He asked to be blindfolded before the procedure, “just in case he came to”, and I obliged. His eyes covered, and his gullet warm with whiskey, I held the chloroform sponge beneath his trembling mouth, and when he was still, I set to the most unpleasant task of taking his leg.

It was an unusually quiet night, the sort that does not come often in times of war, so I would not waste it pondering the serenity, rather simply experience it. Exhausted from the gruesome procedure, I found myself weak in the knees and decided to venture to the creek under the cover of darkness, wishing it could wash the horror away. I should have thought better of it, but my mind was as fatigued as my body and in the slivers of moonlight that poured between the trees, the creatures wasted precious little time making themselves known to me.

If human suffering, cruelty, and pain were to have a voice, it would still not be as horrendous as that which came from the monsters. They spoke as one entity, the frequency of that collective voice like an echoing sickness, paralysing my aching limbs and rendering me helpless.

I listened, their words forever scarring my very soul, and though I would not have thought it possible, the commands they gave terrified and sickened me even more deeply than their existence ever did.

The horde had already found the young soldier’s severed leg in the burn pit -I had not the strength to light the fire that night- and I watched with unimaginable disgust as they devoured every sheath of tissue, every sinew, and the very last fragments of bone. But it was much too small a bounty for the ravenous clan, and it was understood that they would need more.

I pleaded with the soulless beasts to find another means. Why, I implored, could they not acquire their own food? The battlefield, after all, was filled with the sick and dying. Why was my assistance necessary? I was merely one fragile, impotent being in the shadow of demons.

But it would seem that even those from the bowels of hell are bound to the laws of their realm, and for the creatures to take their meat by force or by their own hands was expressly forbidden. It would be, they said, the inception of a war that would not end until our world was in ruins. Until then, they would wait in the spaces between light and dark, they would travel in the void between our world and theirs, and they would feed, but only on that which was given to them. I was to be the one who gave them such gifts.

And if I refused? Then they would have no choice but to wage that war, and turn every man, woman, and child into a slave or into meat.

So, you see, it was for the good of mankind that I began altering the soldiers. Occasionally, I could manage to abscond with an entire body, but there were oft times far too many eyes aware of the fallen brethren, and I could not reasonably account for a missing corpse. The acquisition of arms and legs, however, grew easier with each passing day.

When my supply of chloroform ran out, I turned to ether, but when the ether ran out, the unfortunate souls upon my table nearly went mad with pain and fear. I can only imagine how awful it must have been for those young men. The sound of the saw and the burnt, metallic smell of blood and heated bone could ruin the bravest of soldiers. I, myself, never became accustomed.

The unit had thinned substantially by August. One by one, crippled soldiers were discharged into the care of their bewildered families, who would now bear the burden of an incomplete son or brother or father who could no longer care for themselves. It was said that those men lost more than their limbs. Much, much more.

But the creatures were kept sated and, most importantly, our civilization continued, and man remained unaware of the constant threat of annihilation that surrounded him. It seemed man was far too busy destroying himself to see what horrors awaited just beyond our realm, so you can only imagine my dismay when I was taken from my post in the farmhouse -my demonic abattoir- and imprisoned like a rabid animal for my efforts. I was fighting a different war, I maintained. I was saving far more lives than I destroyed. I had selflessly taken on a weighty task that no man should ever have to shoulder alone all for the good of humanity. Yet, in the eyes of my peers, I was a butcher, a madman, and a criminal. I was a demon, like my invisible charges. I call to them from my cage, begging that they should show themselves, but they do not oblige. Not yet.

I am told that it is my madness that has saved me from the gallows, but I believe I have secretly been spared because of my bravery and sacrifice. And though I am presently held captive, I know in my very soul that the horde will come again and I will be rewarded for my services. All I must do now is wait.

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Copyright Donna Lynch 2011

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