By Jeannie Marschall
It was cold. He was sitting on a low wall and it, too, was cold, and hard. Uncomfortable, like so many things. A shudder ran through his body, and he wished it were less cold less loud less awfully, cheerfully colourful, old clothes hanging from windows between houses all across town what are these people even thinking; completely insane, and everyone is laughing as if the whole thing was somehow hilarious and a small family went past him towards the entrance to the pedestrian zone. He gazed after them, blinking, then buried his hands in the pockets of his jacket, his left foot bouncing up and down, up and down. They had not even seen him too absorbed in their stupid little celebration what’s the point of it all anyway nothing but noise and chatter if I made such a fuss but barely anyone passing him by in their winter coats and motley costumes paid him any attention. He himself wasn’t truly seeing them either, it seemed. He just kept looking from side to side, or through the archway on the other side of the road used by only a handful of cars, or at the paved ground under his feet. One of his hands appeared from his left jacket pocket, pushing back dark strands of hair that had escaped his wool cap time for a cut it’s grown too long again but really in this kind of weather and who cares anyway but I wish I’d put on a different jacket I’m really freezing off my …
“Cold?” came a soft voice. The man started and twisted his head around to stare at the middle-aged stranger to his right, blinked, looked back at the ground. He hadn’t noticed the man sitting down next to him.
“Kinda. The sun’s almost gone.” It was late afternoon, and the spot he had chosen between the tall, slim old buildings was dark and draughty now.
“Yes, dusk always comes quickly, this time of the year.”
The younger man noted the strange, wistful smile in the other one’s voice and turned his head to look at him again. They eyed one another critically – one in a too-thin jacket and jeans, the newcomer sitting relaxed and snug in a proper winter coat. He was balancing a still-steaming bratwurst in a cut-open bread roll and had a pleasant smile on face, framed by a full, salt-and-pepper beard that had been trimmed with care.
“Sorry – Blidi Eckert. My hands are not clean, so …” He half-apologetically extended his fist in greeting.
“Ben Rademann,” the younger man returned and bumped knuckles briefly.
“Hoping for some peace and quiet?” Blidi asked, jerking his chin towards the distant sounds of laughter and music coming from the town square on the other end of the high street.
Ben nodded after a pensive pause. “Yeah, it’s … a bit much.”
“True. But it’s only for a few days. Even though I have to confess …” Blidi leaned closer in a conspiratorial gesture. “I’ll be glad too when the fun’s over at last. It has gotten louder over the years.”
A quick glance from Ben. “You’re a local?”
“Yes – have been all my life, so to speak,” he added with a grin and bit into his bun with gusto, lifted one shoulder, chewing. “You have to celebrate or despair, so I choose fun.”
“Can I ask – sorry if I’m rude, but – what kind of name is Blidi? Is that local, too?”
A smile. “No, that’s not a Buchemer name,” he said, nodding at the town around them. “It’s short for Blidger, a completely mellifluous old High German name, isn’t it?” He spoke it like blid-gah. “There’s a bunch of them like it, I guess you know Ludger, maybe? Anyway, it means something like cheerful spear, which I rather like, but it’s a mouthful, so I usually shorten it down.”
“Uhuh …” Ben didn’t sound very cheery himself, and Blidi’s smile dimmed slowly. He finished his meal in silence, then spoke up again.
“Say – why the long face, on a day like this? Sun’s still out, if only just, there’s a holiday coming …”
Ben’s face darkened, and he seemed to retreat even further into his almost threadbare jacket. His hands, the right one in particular, fidgeted restlessly in his pockets, trying to keep warm. “It’s not really my thing.” A sniff; Ben’s nose was almost as cold as his lower half, by now. “I’m not from here, so …”
“Not your thing?” Blidi’s brows crept closer to his hairline. “That’s a pity. It’s a nice tradition to see in the end of winter, I’ve always thought – costumes, traditional street food, parades, sweets for the children …” He paused, pointed up to the archway and the stone figurine crouched there with an amused little smile. “Charming old rituals …”
A harsh laugh. “Charming? You have to be joking. This is completely nuts. They are kissing a stone’s naked arse, for pity’s sake.”
Frowning, Blidi hesitated after the outburst had passed. He examined the arch thoughtfully while Ben kept staring at the pavement, obstinate. “Well … I guess it isn’t for everybody, but having a random local legend is a nice thing in my opinion. Do you know the tale of the Barer of Buchen?” he asked, trying for levity once more. Ben only shook his head, and Blidi continued, “Got a minute?”
With a snort that sounded almost amused, Ben relented. “I’m not planning on going anywhere else anymore, so you can as well tell your tall tale until I … until I leave,” he finished on a murmur.
“Alright!” Blidi carefully folded napkin that had held his food, sliding it into the inner pocket of his coat. “I’m determined to cheer you up and delighted you have given up resisting. Who knows what may happen if we just meet the right people and listen to them for a bit, right? Kindness does it. So I’ll be your kindly tour guide for now.” He shot Ben a broad grin, making the younger man roll his eyes wryly.
“The Barer of Buchen – or, as the Germans say, the Buchener Blecker, generally meaning someone who bares their teeth, but here … well, his arse, as you put it so bluntly.” He lifted his arm in an overly dramatic gesture. “While replicas of this illustrious effigy can be found all across town these days, the original stone figurine in the city museum was found when the old mediaeval city wall was torn down around eighteen-ten. The poor guy kind of lost his head over this tragic demolition – literally. I don’t know if you can see it from down here,” he continued, wagging a finger in the direction of the stone arch. “But even this replica’s body is much less detailed than the head – they never found the original one, so they made one up, gave it cute ringlets and making its stuck-out tongue really small and discreet. It almost seems as if someone’s just sleeping, the way it’s slumped forward like that. Like someone who fell asleep while sitting astride the wall, all peaceful, like. The original was probably a right horror mask by comparison.”
A pause, and: “You want to know why?”
Ben shrugged. “A lot of things were really ugly and weird back then.”
That made Blidi bark a short laugh. “True, all true. This Blecker up there – well, I guess I should do violence to Middle High German and call it blēka or somesuch – is that even right? I’m losing track, I confess. At any rate – the effigy was probably a Neidfigur, an envy stone. The Middle Ages were a simpler time – one could just pop ugly carved faces up on the walls and keep all bad luck, droughts, or plagues away from one’s lands.” Blidi sighed theatrically, eyes glittering. “Ah, the Good Old Days.”
“Hold on – that has nothing to do with envy at all.”
Blidi tapped his nose with his index finger. “Ah, an attentive listener! Well done. Envy,” he continued, “is part of the interpretation – because no-one really knows where the Blecker came from or why it is baring its behind like that. The legends disagree on that.”
Most of Ben’s nervous little twitches had subsided by now. He was listening to the story with the air of a man almost unwillingly fascinated. “Disagree how?”
Blidi lifted one finger. “Option one, wherein Buchen is a small but affluent city with thick walls, lots of coin and land and other profitable attributes. Unflatteringly, this made people think highly of themselves and less so of their neighbours, and scholars speculate that people might have put up a figurine to show their disdain – have you seen Braveheart, where the Scots lift their kilts at the English army? Showing your buttocks was quite a common way of mocking others, apparently. The people here might have done the same: Kiss our arses, you poor peasants.” The older man made a face. “But I don’t care for this version at all – what kind of people make fun of others if they are already downtrodden anyway? Despicable. So I’ll just brazenly claim that it’s false.” He hesitated, eyes drawn to Ben’s feet which had resumed their restless movements suddenly. Ben avoided his gaze.
Blidi counted on a second finger one slow moment later. “Due to this personal preference we’re moving on to option two – the city was under siege, but they were well-equipped and had enough food and wells within the city walls. The invading army – just a few dozen people back then – were getting restless, standing around all day with nothing to do. On top of that, the townspeople were jeering from the walls. One can imagine what that sounded like – you’re useless, you ugly idiots, go home before I call your mothers so they can teach you a lesson or two …”
Ben flinched, hands moving in his pockets, turning something around and around. He looked at Blidi, motioning for him to continue, but glanced after a few pedestrians walking towards the festivities on the town square. Glared at his shoes afterwards.
Again, Blidi waited for something more to be forthcoming, but when the younger man remained silent, he went on. “Rumour has it that the people of Buchen then made the town’s fattest resident climb up onto the wall to show the attackers his ample buttocks – as in, just give up, we have enough food to grow fat on it, we can do this much longer than you can.” Blidi smiled with a faraway look on his face, then turned to Ben and found him once more staring blankly after two people in garish rag costumes. “That was quite the sight … must have been …” Blidi’s speech was slow now, expectant, his eyes sharp on Ben. “Wouldn’t you say … ?”
“Wouldn’t you say. Ben.”
“Huh? Yeah, cool. Really interesting.”
The older man said nothing, expression calculating and shrewd. His head cocked in a quick little motion that would have startled Ben had he been looking. Blidi’s eyes tracked the younger man’s closed-up face, his stiff posture, his still-hidden hands in quick succession, sniffing the air. “Should we go sit somewhere warmer?”
Ben never really turned his head. “No, it’s fine. I’m just waiting …”
“For what,” murmured Blidi very, very quietly. Very still.
Silence from Ben. Laughter in the distance. Voices close by. A lot of life around them, across the city, celebrating.
“… but my favourite version,” Blidi said softly, eyes hard on Ben. “Is the one with the monster.”
Ben’s head jerked around. “The – what?”
The wicked grin on the greying man’s visage caught and held Ben’s attention. “Most envy stones don’t just show exposed behinds. Just think of the big cathedrals – they have mythical creatures, ghosts, demons … teeth and claws and a thousand masks of horror, shock and mayhem.” His sharply glinting eyes went up to the Blecker on the gate, and Ben was suddenly, shudderingly glad to have their focus off of him. “But in most places, these statues don’t appear alone. They roost in groups, many on each building. What kind of creature was this,” he mused, almost dreamily. “To be sovereign ruler on the wall of a single, small mediaeval town in the middle of deep, dark woods. What was its relevance to the people here? What kind of legend was frightening enough so that putting just one statue of it up there was enough to keep everyone away? They never found another, you know,” he said, turning to Ben again. “Just the one. Without a head.”
Ben just watched him, speechless, swallowing and not moving an inch, much like a rabbit too far away from safe cover, ducking down low.
“That’s option three, and my favourite by far: That there was a creature, its face lost to time. A local myth. A spectre, a nightmare, a shadow in the dense forests around town. It must have been notorious enough so everyone for miles around knew what could happen to you when you were all alone, out in the dark.” Blidi looked back up at the archway, and Ben finally took a breath, slow and shallow. “What could happen after the gates were closed and you were too late, were locked out. When there was rustling in the blackness behind you and you turned around to see nothing but you knew in your bones … you weren’t alone at all. Oh, how you wished to be alone, how much you would rejoice in it then. But you’re only one small, weak human, sans claws or fangs, and if push came to shove you know full well you’d be … too … slow …” Blidi’s voice faded into silence on that last, half-dreamed fragment of terror. He remained silent for a few more seconds, gaze lost, then shook himself and turned his head swiftly back to Ben, who started at the movement.
“If that legend was commonly known and scary enough, it could have served as some sort of protection: Behold, this is our monster, this is stalking our woods. And if it occasionally punishes us for our trespasses even though we put out milk and lambs under the holly bushes to appease it, just imagine what it’ll do to you, and then think again carefully if you really want to spend the night in your flimsy tents on the wrong side of the walls after threatening us and his town, who belong to him …”
“B-but …” Ben’s voice was a croak as he interrupted Blidi. “What use is the wall if it can obviously just sit on the wall anyway …?”
“Oh well.” Blidi shrugged, visibly collecting himself and making a dismissive little gesture. “I guess it was more about the horror than any kind of solid logic.”
Ben stared up at the stone figure, lost in disbelief, not seeing the small commotion that was readying itself a little way down the road. “And they kiss that thing’s ass?”
Blidi chuckled. “Well, that particular ritual was born out of exuberant carnival spirit later, I believe. You know – breaking the rules, being outrageous, resisting the Done Thing and the Higher-Ups … being daring and crass and demonstrably fearless.” He considered for a second. “And anyway, it seems to me that it would be smarter to play it safe and kiss your monstrous protector’s behind rather than risk his ire and end up as a midnight snack, wouldn’t you say?”
Ben regarded him mutely, mouth opening and closing, lost for words. “Th-that is …”
A sudden jarring drumbeat cut off his next words as a marching band started its unapologetically loud, cheerful song. Ben flew half up from his seat, then realized what was happening and sagged back down, huddling into his clothes. “Those bloody …”
The brass band strut-marched towards them and past, through the archway, clanging and honking. All were wearing the colourful, traditional costumes of the region: wide shirts and trousers, adorned all over with colourful strips of cloth that kept dancing as they moved. A clapping, cheering crowd followed them, loudly marching towards the old town centre and the main fair grounds. Everyone not blowing an instrument when they passed through the gates greeted the Blecker with a cheerful “Hinne houch!” – up it goes!
“This is so fucking dumb,” Ben gritted out, watching the revellers while Blidi watched him, coldly. “Stupid. Can’t have been very horrifying if that is what they made it into. What a silly little custom. No wonder they hacked off its head. I’m just sorry they didn’t kill of this entire thing while they were at it.” Ben was visibly clenching his fists in his jacket pockets. Something creaked and gave a metallic little chinking sound.
“That-That wasn’t what they …” Blidi broke off, just sat quietly for several breaths and took Ben in as he sat there shaking with rage and disgust clearly visible on his features. “That was not a very nice thing to say …” He did not get a reaction: Ben’s attention was still on the parade. Blidi sat almost unnaturally still, waiting for an apology that did not come, and then suddenly broke out in a too-bright grin.
“My goodness, Ben. You really do seem cold. You might be catching your death out here.”
Something about his voice struck a warning chord in Ben, but he couldn’t seem to make himself focus on the other man fully.
“We could really go and sit somewhere. Buchen has many lovely cafés and bars.” A too-slow blink. “Or we could swap jackets. We’re about the same size, and my coat is much warmer. It might chase off the worst of the chill …”
“No!” Not moving his hands from his pockets, Ben hugged his jacket closer protectively. He seemed to see Blidi fully for the fist time in several minutes now, tone aghast and full of refusal. A bit panicked, too. “I don’t even do that with friends, let alone strangers.”
“I won’t steal any of your things, I promise,” Blidi said, nodding towards Ben’s right-hand pocket. “Just take whatever it is out before we switch. Should be easy.”
Ben turned slightly away, looking at everything and nothing. “Just one of those pocket warmers …”
“Just one?” asked Blidi in a musing tone. “Oh dear, your left hand must be almost unbearably cold by now …”
Was that a trace of warning in his voice? Ben cast him a surreptitious glance but flicked it away quickly when his gaze was met, direct and cold and hard. Caught in a lie, he had nothing he could safely move from one pocket into the other.
The toll of the bell tower floated over then, and Ben leapt up gratefully, already moving away as he spoke. “Oh no is that the time, so sorry, have to go. Thanks for the story and the company and so on.”
Before Blidi even had time to get up fully, Ben had crossed the road and was passing through the gate, vanishing into the setting dusk between the houses of the high street.
“Well … at least I tried.” Blidi kept his eyes on the spot where Ben had vanished, then looked up at the Blecker that Ben had ignored entirely as he passed. “A pity that the old tales are heard less and less …” Muted applause could be heard from over at the market place. A voice was speaking, echoing in a way that suggested a microphone was being used. Things were about to get busy up there.
Blidi sighed. “Not very nice at all. The poor thing. A pity.”
Ben walked at a brisk pace. The high street was almost deserted now; the shops were closed, their windows dark. Everyone was up there celebrating their mental little party what decadent rot thinking they’re something better and Ben moved alone, shoulders hunched, eyes downcast, hand cramping around cold metal. He moved past the fountain at the end of the pedestrian zone – it was empty still, the weather too cold still – past the old market hall, up the stairs to the tall sandstone building of the church – no, too much; too many people here still, shrill laughter and the smell of beer and –
Turn around. Back down the stairs. Turn left at the fountain, towards narrow houses, narrower alleys. It would be quieter there, next to the last parts of the old city wall …
Blēka. So stupid. No self-respecting monster would protect this circus with its tattered clothes and boozed-out exploits. And they dared to laugh at him …?
No, not this time. Never again. No-one will be laughing today.
Ben snuck along between small adobe houses, moving until he can see the other side of the church – too many people here, too, and too early still – he turned right and ducked through a small arch in the wall, exiting the old part of the city.
Ben lifted his left hand from his pocket and leaned against the old stones for just a moment. Patient, merciful masonry, swallowing the overwhelming sounds for a few heartbeats. Surprising, really, that any spot in the middle of town could be this quiet. Should sound really travel this way …?
A scratching sound above him, and a voice, a big, hissing, layered old voice:
He froze, horribly indecisive for just a fraction of a second before he spun around and looked up to the top of the wall. A shadow crouched there, arms and legs bent, twice as tall as any human, ducking down on the wall on all fours, a wild hunter right before it pounced and that does not look like a naked ass at all oh god oh good god no the Face on the Wall how could they get it so WRONG …
A wide head, not lost, clearly visible – no cute curls at all, but wild hair like a black crown, strands of it writhing around an angular skull and is that the wind that can’t be the wind and its face lay in shadow safe for two pale, green, glimmering points staring all the way down into Ben’s panicking soul. Its features were obscured by the darkness why is it so dark I know there was a bit of daylight left just a minute ago and still the soft, vulnerable flesh knew without a doubt that there were grinning fangs in that face and a too-thin, too-long tongue and …
A sudden move sideways, short and quick, and something scratched across the stones; long arms, effortless strength.
Ben reared back, panting, eyes wide open, staggering backwards, trying to flee, mouth gaping in a silent scream, turning around to run …
It was already there, on the ground in front of him, crouched down and yet towering over him still, dark limbs tense, waiting. The narrow path was cloaked in darkness and the cold stones were drenched in old, remembered fear that they had not forgotten even centuries later the heavy, prowling steps silent and deadly and pressing into soil and pressing you into the soil too because he could smell what you were planning to do and Ben stumbled back, wobbling footfalls on hard, uneven plaster, no soil here now, immovable …
Ben looked at Blēka. Threw a desperate glance over his shoulder – not one other soul close by. All was quiet.
Of all the times Ben had wished to be alone, now was not one; no-one was close; no-one knew. He was all alone.
“BEN … WHATTT IS THAT THING IN YOUR POCKETTT?”
Jeannie Marschall (she/her/any) lives in the green centre of Germany with her partner and their pets, tends a semi-sentient vegetable garden, and loves talking about colourful tales, preferably SFF featuring diverse characters.
Several of Jeannie's stories and poems have been or are set to be published this and next year, for example with Lit. 202, JayHenge Publishing, or Snowflake Magazine. Longer works are in the pipeline. More on Twitter.