Mr. Granger has never considered himself to be a spiritual man. Religious though? Why not? All you need to be religious is a keen fear of death, and Mr. Granger was no stranger to the indomitable clock which seemed to accelerate through the years. His prayers remained nothing but monologues however; no brooding midnight yet had been so still, nor first snow so pure, as to give his mind a window to his soul.
How peculiar it must have been for him at 47 years old to feel the infinite for the first time. The soundless whisperings of the crisp winter air beckoned him, and no amount of entertainment or distraction could alleviate his restless inominate longing. Seeking to dull the agitation with exhaustion, Mr. Granger let his hungry spirit steer him on an evening walk through the woods whereupon he discovered what he didn’t know he was looking for.
The stump of a tree, carved and polished almost to a luminescence which belied the meager stars first braving the frosty sky. Across the stump, he found an animal skin stretched to form a drum. The tranquility of this night held stalwart against the sudden discovery, at least until he noticed the loose skin of legs and arms which casually draped down the sides of the stump. The entire hide of a human had been stripped so flawlessly from the muscle that it remained a single piece of continuous flesh, although only the taunt skin of the back and flanks were used to form the actual drumhead.
Mr. Granger had always been a sensible man. He paid all his debts before he was charged interest, and he never offended anyone that he could placate with a smile. There must come a night in each man’s life when reason is impotent to the unfathomable will of the universe however, and that night Mr. Granger did not turn away. The stirring in his heart was still unmistakably fear, but with it came an electric thrill which carried the unfamiliar taste of being alive.
Why did Mr. Granger decide to sit on the dirty ground in his suit pants? Why did he break the sacred silence with a blow upon the drum? Doubtless he could tell you better than I, but perhaps in that moment his fear of death was drowned out by the more dominant terror of his own unremarkable life. His prayers matched the rhythm of his hammering fists, hearing the divine with each booming resonance that replied. Every frustration, every disappointment, every dissipating dream he ever had was pummeled into the echoing skin until his breath came ragged and his brow sparkled with the exertion.
It wasn’t until he leaned back to seek his rapture in the scattered stars that this queer, exciting terror took form. The beating of drums hadn’t ceased. The rhythm continued to the left and right — behind and ahead — smothering him in the throbbing heart of the tempo. So too the wind sharpened its edge into precise notes of some unseen orchestra, the strangled shriek of a bird swelling into the mounting symphony: more raw and passionate than any mother kneeling upon her son’s final rest. More voices were joining the unearthly chorus, some no more than haunting echos, others whispered in breathy fervor down the back of Mr. Granger’s neck.
Could you blame him for running now? More of a scramble really — fingers digging through the heavy pine-needles, throwing clouds of debris into the air as he launched himself to his feet — back he runs to the lights, back to the familiar road. His face is anguish when he stops short however, for those incorporeal fires were not born of any man. White and blue lights flitted amongst the trees, burning in the air without heat or kindling, dancing in pulse to the rhythm of the wild drums. Burning mist flowed in their wake, sinuous and graceful in the air, expanding and dispersing to embrace each twig and tree with its hellish grasp.
With speechless terror Mr. Granger flinched from the rolling wave of fire, only to stand in wonderment as it passed over him unfelt. Would that the trees could boast the same — those proud firs and mighty spruces drinking in the liquid fire and changing as they did. Branches twisted like curling claws before his eyes; roots untangled themselves from earth’s embrace to open hundreds of passages once concealed. From that infernal domain came the crawling, slithering, unspeakable throngs: writhing shadows unique in their tormented mutations yet united in the cadence of their mad dance.
The lights were growing all the while as the sentient fire raged from tree to tree, music elevating to feverish pitches, the beating drums keeping pace with Mr. Granger’s accelerating heart. He was the eye of the storm — ignored by the frenzied denizens of this eldritch domain who swirled around him. Numberless hoard threw back their misshapen heads to scream silent jubilation at the baleful, burning sky. Once or twice these shadows passed directly through where Mr. Granger stood rigid and helpless, intimately fusing with him and releasing without the slightest physical sensation.
Disoriented from the wisps of light and deafened by the unholy song, the poor man dared not move lest he be swallowed by an alien dream which forgets to spit him out when it wakes. The drum is a portal, his frail hope decides, one that has passed him through the wall between worlds, and one that will take him home once more. He dares not look upon the shadows as he charges back toward the stump.
It’s impossible for him to deny the tingling resistance he now feels in passing through their teeming masses. First they were no more substance than a thick mist, but soon he can distinctly feel them like oil dribbling across his skin. If they weren’t real yet, then they would be soon.
Reaching the drum at last, Mr. Granger risks lifting his eyes only to see innumerable wet, blinking orbs take their first notice of him. Onward raged the blasphemous crescendo, onward beat the implacable drums and danced the wild dance, all the same yet all now subtly changed. How similar the song which grieves for death and that which demands it, both reverberating with the same eternal truth. How constant the thundering rhythm which inwardly spirals the dancers, growing closer with each raucous burst from the drums.
Down go the fists on the human skin, out bellows the sound of the desperate drum. Mr. Granger is helpless to deviate from the rhythm which each vein and artery has synchronized with, but for his life he adds his instrument to beat. More hideous the display becomes as the bones harden within these closing shadows. Their touch is upon him, and he feels the solid digits swathed in skin like oil. He closes his eyes, blessing each unnoticed moment of his old life that had escaped his attention at the time.
The cold clean air in his lungs — the warmth of the sun on his skin — the soft glow of loving eyes which watched him fall asleep. He was not a spiritual man, but he had felt the divine each day of his life, though a thousand shabby sights had dulled his eyes and taught him to dismiss these miracles as shallow things.
He was still playing the music when the first pointed nails grew solid enough to pierce his flesh. His eyes were still closed, a hymn on his lips as the practiced movements flayed his skin from his muscle. Deft hands were cleaning and preparing one end of the hide even as the other was still attached to Mr. Granger’s body. And when the old drumhead was stripped off to carefully clothe this naked form, I opened my eyes upon a new world. Upon your world.
He may not have appreciated what you have, but I know I will. What’s left of Mr. Granger is on the drum now, simply waiting to be played so that the next in line may wear his skin and dance beneath your wondrous sky. Until then, I alone seem to realize that your world is heaven. You may not believe me now, but you will understand when the drum beats again.