The Devil's Beard
The best of the evening was over. I was leaning back in my favorite armchair savoring the last few sips of Cabernet. I reached forward to pick a spot of lint from my trousers when I saw it lying on the carpet. The Devil had left one of his shoelaces behind.
This was not at all like him. He was always most fastidious, dressed to the nines for business or whatever the occasion. What could he have been thinking to run off with one of his shoes not only untied but laceless, its bare tongue perhaps protruding over his cuff?
I reached down and picked up the shoelace and held it in my open palm. It was quite ordinary, dark brown with shiny brown plastic aglets. It was slightly frayed near the center where several strands had separated from the weave. There was no reason to expect the Devil's shoelace to be different from any other, but I must confess, I was disappointed.
All at once the shoelace was snatched from my hand. I realized how very mistaken I had been. The Devil had never left for a moment. He had been there right along standing over me, towering actually, for his stature is quite without end. And the evening had only just begun.
Having grasped the shoelace in one meaty fist, the Devil was shaking it in my direction. Both the shoelace and the fist. He had launched into another of his stock tirades, reminding me how tedious he could be. And though I'd heard every inch of it a hundred times before, a hundred to the hundredth power, his hard words beveled their way into my consciousness with their harsh Teutonic sting. His eyes -- a deep brown that I now realized matched his shoelaces -- were bulging hideously. The veins in his temples stood out as if something had been tunneling just below the surface of his brow. None of this was helping his blood pressure, which was already notoriously beyond human range.
Yet as always it was the Devil's beard that drew my attention and fascinated me the most. Immense in its perimeters, irregular in its proportions, widely mottled in coloring and shade, it loomed like a forest enchanted by evil. Curlicue trees rose up, intertwined and baroque in their exaggerations. The light from above was diminished to a spectral radiance as it filtered through the hairy branches. Shadow glens were filled with beings so horribly divine, living and apparitional, there was no language for their afflictions.
As I padded through the dense growth I knew that none of the creatures consigned to this wild hell could harm me. For I now possessed claws and teeth to rival the fiercest of their lot. And if I were confronted I could prove more ferocious in my anger, more furious in my slaughter, than any tortured beast.
The rare shafts of sun that penetrated this gloom offered little illumination and less warmth. Yet a trenchant heat radiated from the earth below. The air was sickeningly sweet with the stench of decay and thick with moisture. As the sense of closeness became overwhelming, I ripped away the clumps of fur that draped my limbs and torso.
I passed through a clearing where several large fumaroles had surfaced, emitting a sulfurous stench and an occasional flicker of blue flame. I heard unbounded screams and curses rising from below. I leaped across a stream that not only bubbled but boiled. A flock of bird-like creatures, more reptilian than avian, took flight in my passage, shrilling as they tried to fight their way clear to the sky. Several struck against branches in their blind fright and fell to the ground stunned. I split them open and savored the choicer tidbits they had to offer.
Soon the trees began to thin. I found myself facing a broad plain spotted with vegetation. As I considered crossing, I felt my body and legs lengthen. Hooves replaced my claws. I began to lope across the open ground and became one with the act of running. My hooves beat an unfaltering rhythm on the packed dirt that seemed as if it should go on forever. The wind of motion on my flanks and pummeling in my lungs was refreshing after the dank breath of the forest.
A hillside covered with jumbled rock blocked my passage.
It stretched far as I could see in either direction. As I took the climb, my hooves quickly adapted themselves to the rugged terrain. Rocks crumbled and fell away beneath me, setting off minor landslides and the dull chimes of clicking stone. Fragments of an ancient wall were revealed, lined with strange hieroglyphs, texts that no printer had ever set to type, no voice beyond the demonic had uttered for centuries. I assimilated what I could in passing, but the tang of salt air filling my nostrils drew me onward in an animal rush.
As I topped the rise I came upon an ocean or inland sea. Beyond this there was no land in sight. The beach was naked and pristine until I tracked across it this way and that, prancing up to the shoreline and pawing at the surf.
I snorted and sat on my haunches in the sand. I smelled the brine and watched the low waves rolling gently onto the shore one by one, one after another, each one of them a Devil's shoelace.
The sun was red by the time it kissed the wet horizon. And the moon came up just as bloody.
I could travel no further. I was not turning into a fish.
Despite his sartorial splendor, regardless of his ravenous repertoire and protean whiskers, the Devil remained as landlocked as his own thorny tail. I sent the poor chap packing and retired to my chamber to sleep, to entertain watery dreams.
The Cabernet was gone. The fire was dead in the grate. The best of the evening was over. The night had begun.
Bruce Boston's fiction has received a Pushcart Prize and twice been a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award (novel, short story). His stories have appeared in many publications, including Asimov's SF Magazine, Amazing Stories, Daily Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, Science Fiction Age, Cavalier, and The Twilight Zone Magazine.