… On some level, yes, of course. It must be me.
[ ... ]
Well, I found some references to things called ghouls online. Apparently they like to live near cemeteries and eat dead bodies.
[ ... ]
Oh yes, nothing if not thorough, me. I did have another go. I jumped him forward a bit, though, hoping to get him away from the witchy-woman’s hut and more into the life of the place.
… my eyes have cleared up more than I’ve revealed to her, the striga woman, Eva.
I don’t want her to get suspicious of me. That might well be fatal, and life, even in this strange antechamber to hell, still has its moments of sweetness – few and far between though they’ve become. At any rate I’m unwilling to cross that threshold just yet.
Some nights I hear her treating her clients (patients? customers? what shall I call them?) behind the skin partition which marks the other room. She doesn’t make much noise, as a general rule, but it keeps me awake even so, that low mutter of voices, the smoke of incense.
Yesterday it got particularly loud. A strange voice started to shriek out in some unknown language behind the curtain. Curiosity was, I suppose, always my predominant vice. A lot of the time, back in Rome, I’d pursue some girl for the idlest of motives – because I was curious to see more of the mole on her upper arm, because I’d heard she dyed her hair below as well as above … That part of my nature, at least, appears to be intact up here.
And so I did it. I crept over to the curtain and peeped behind it, crouching on all fours so that I could feign an attack of illness if I was discovered. She’s never said anything, but I’ve known instinctively from the first that this woman’s secrets are to be guarded on pain of death.
Well, at first (of course) I could make out nothing. The atmosphere was so smoky and dark that I could hardly tell how many people were crammed into that small space. There seemed to be a lot of movement, a lot of screaming and thrashing going on over by the low-lying couch she uses for her consultations.
And then the fire flared up and I saw.
I saw, and yet it was hard for me to interpret what I saw. The components of the scene seemed impossible to reconcile with one another, even for me, the poet of transformation, the laureate of man-beast-god-plant combinations.
There was a man in the room with the witch, and she was cutting at him with a blade. At first her back shielded what she was doing a little, so it was possible to think she was excising a tumour or some kind of growth. Certainly there was enough blood and screaming for that.
But then she shifted slightly, and I thought she was cutting off his head. There was a head there, gesticulating and mouthing, screaming even, and she was sawing at its windpipe. Yet it seemed to be growing from the middle of his chest!
I saw then that there were other marks, scars, all over the man’s body – as if this operation had been performed many times. Some were old and hardened over with scar-tissue, others puffy and raw, still others strange swellings, as if there were more things growing under his skin, ready to erupt.
The witch was carving grimly away, extracting the writhing homunculus from his flesh. The man’s head was thrown back, as if in stupor. Funnily enough, he didn’t seem to be in any pain. Perhaps she’d drugged him. In any case, the little devil she was cutting out was making noise enough for two.
I may have cried out. In any case, I remember nothing after that. Next morning I woke up in my accustomed place, my little bed by the fire.
Does she know I’ve been spying on her? Will she put a curse on me, like those Milesian witches, the ones who can animate wineskins and turn people into animals? Will she wrack my flesh with cancer and my bones with liquid fire?
Nothing seems changed in her demeanour. I’m still not allowed solid food, though I truly crave respite from these endless cups of red. Her treatments are undoubtedly efficacious, though. I’m feeling as if I’ll soon be able to walk – walk as far as the nearest fort, perhaps, to claim protection from its garrison …