The boy walked across dust and dirt to reach the livestock pen. Feeding the animals was always a welcome treat after the sleepy, slow predawn hours spent watering crops and fetching eggs from peck-happy chickens. It was the favorite of his morning and felt the least like work, so he saved it for last the way other boys save candy bars.
The boy had been taught to read the stars and knew what they foretold for the day as soon as the sun set. The glow of the clear morning felt cruel. This was no day for sunshine, he thought. He wanted to will the black cloud of night back over the horizon and hold it there to stop the hours crawling towards him. He heard the happy bleats of the goats on the cold breeze as the sun began its low climb. One sounded halting and distressed, and the boy knew right away who it was.
“Not again, you silly!”
He chuckled, shaken from his gloom. One goat, shaggy and black as tar, had his horns caught in the wire fence. The goat gave another bleat, more embarrassed than scared as he tried to wrest his long horns from the tangle of thin metal. Neck bound in an awkward position, he looked up at the boy with soulful, square pupils.
“I gotcha, Billy. Don’t worry,” the boy reassured him.
He gently guided the goat’s horn through the mess of wire. The goat jumped and bleated happily.
He held out the bucket of feed and the goat munched eagerly. The boy pet his shaggy fur, which was almost unnaturally clean and soft in spite of the dust that had been blowing about since the boy woke up.
“I brought you something,” the boy whispered.
He knew the goat had already smelled the treat he’d pilfered. Sweets were rare on the settlement, but this was made in anticipation of a special occasion. It was a small, round cake with honeyed glaze, made stale by a night under the boy’s cot. He broke it as evenly as he could, giving the larger half to the goat and laughing as the rough tongue tickled his hand.
The boy ran to the shed near the pen. The goat liked to climb, so the boy had stored some old planks to prop up against the rain barrels and feeding troughs in the pen. He crossed the dirt floor to the corner of the musty-smelling shed where the planks rested against the wall. He hoisted two of them up onto his shoulder with callused hands. On the opposite wall, the long, menacing blade hung in its sheath. It seemed to stare at him. The boy didn’t return its gaze and took the planks back to the pen.
He propped the planks up in their usual places.
“This way, boy!” he said, coaxing the goat upwards.
The goat stood proudly at the top of the makeshift ramp, snorted, and leapt clear over the boy’s head, showing off his powerful horns and hooves.
“Stop playing, boy,” commanded the man.
The boy had learned to listen for his footsteps, but the tread was drowned out by his own laughter. The man frowned.
“You haven’t named it, have you?”
“No, sir,” the boy lied. The goat’s name was Billy. A bit uninspired as names go, but the boy thought it suited him perfectly.
“Good,” said the man. He glanced at the sun, then marked the horizon with his sharp gaze. “Soon, you’ll be glad this day came. Not now, but soon. It’s what we’ve waited for.”
“Yes sir,” the boy said, swallowing hard. He knew what the man meant, what was coming for Billy. It had seemed real, but distant, the way a star is. Now here it was, so close it could burn his skin with its light.
“I just wanted to make his last day…” The boy choked back tears as quietly as he could. “…special, I guess.”
“It is a special day,” replied the man, clasping the boy’s shoulder. The boy flinched at his grip.
“But I just–” the boy knew he was speaking out of turn and listened with horror as the words spilled out of his mouth. “I don’t get it. He hasn’t done anything wrong! Do we even know if this is going to work?”
The man released the boy’s shoulder in shock. “There are those who have been cast out of here for such faithlessness,” he said sternly. “Is that what you want? To be made an exile?”
“But nothing,” said the man, holding up a hand to halt the boy’s protest. “It’s time you contribute more.”
“I do contribute!” said the boy, anger bursting in his throat. “I water the crops and I fetch the eggs and I–”
“Paltry tasks compared to what comes after tonight,” interrupted the man. “It’s long past time you earn your keep as a man. At sundown.”
The boy’s knees nearly buckled as his heart and stomach seemed to trade positions in his body.
“You earn your place tonight, or you burn with the rest of the nonbelievers.” The man walked away.
The rest of the day passed through the boy’s eyes in a gray blur. He felt himself walking through it. What little food he ate at meals was tasteless and thin. Then the sunset snapped him back into his body with horrifying speed. He watched the blood red sun paint the sky as it sank down like a wounded animal and knew the long night followed.
The boy put on his robe and joined the rest of the settlement around the altar. Runes scarred the dusty earth beneath it. The boy could read most of them, but others seemed to be written in an archaic dialect he’d only heard about.
The settlers were all robed, holding torches against the dark. The boy could instantly tell which one was the man. Two settlers brought Billy to the edge of the altar, and he eagerly hopped onto its base. The man handed the boy the blade.
“You should be honored,” he told the boy.
The boy didn’t feel honored, he felt a sickening sense of betrayal. Why hadn’t he tried to run away? Surely exile would be better than this.
With heavy steps, the boy approached the altar.
In a voice too soft for the man to hear, he said, “I’m sorry, Billy,”
He plunged the knife into Billy’s neck. Billy gave a final bleat that became a gurgle as he looked with confusion at his friend. The blood was hot on his hand and trickled down his wrist. Torchlight flickered and reflected in Billy’s black fur before drowning in the wound.
The man put an approving hand on the boy’s shoulder as he lowered the torch to Billy’s carcass. It gave a few final kicks and was still. The air became rank with burning fur and flesh, and the boy pretended it was the smoke making his eyes tear up instead of the wound he felt inside.
The pile of charred bones and hair that had been Billy began to move. The boy thought it was a trick of the light, but then, miraculously, Billy’s head rose. He looked around curiously. Wings sprouted from the pile of charred flesh and white bone as Billy creaked skyward, standing upright and confident. The ground cracked where Billy’s blood had spilled and spread outward like water finding its path down a hill. The cracks glowed brightly and the boy felt heat rising from them, drying his tears from his cheeks.
“HAIL, BELIAL,” the man commanded. The settlers repeated his words and fell to their knees, averting their eyes. All except the boy. Billy, now Belial, looked at him the way old friends do, and gave a nod to His equal. He spread his wings, took flight, and His world rose from the depths with him.
— Mark Hassenfratz is a New York City-based writer who writes satirical articles for the Hard Times and some non-satirical coverage for outlets like the Progressive, Hard Noise, and AltPress. More recently, he’s been doing interviews with folks like Brendan Kelly and indie rock trio Meat Wave.