Sunday Prey


The first drop fell from the sky onto my forearm the moment I finally shot a bird. Until then, the morning was filled with an absence of game or rain. I wasn't one to complain, though. Always unlucky and unskilled in hunting ducks, one was more of a trophy than I usually came home with.

The poor creature fell from the air into a deep neck of the wetlands quite a distance away. My beast of a dog didn't feel the distance, and I envied him for that. It was a long trek for me, one that led into the thickest swampy brush a hunter's ever seen. As tempted as I was to leave the duck be and head home before the rain swallowed me, I'd be damned if I were to return home empty-handed.

It was then, while my dog was tracking down the bird, that I found a weary figure in the shadowed rain.

Lying waist-high in a fowl black mud was a man in his middle years, bloody and barely alive. He was dressed to the nines in camouflage and weaponry, and was clutching a wooden board protruding from the earth. I could hear his gasps for air through the loud pattering of the rain onto the liquid ground.

“Get out of here!” he yelled the second he saw me. “You don't belong here! Go away, now!”

“Hold on mister, you look like hell. Just tell me what happened.”

“There's no time for stories, just go!”

I ignored his insane commands and attempted to pull him from the mud. He screamed in agony as soon as I pulled on his coat. Clearing away some of the mud, I saw the severity of his wounds. This man was no less than mutilated.

“Let me help you up out of this bog,” I told him. “This mud can't be helping that gut shot.”

“No, I'm staying here,” he affirmed, looking behind me as if expecting someone.

“How'd you get this? When did this happen?”

“I was shot. I didn't see who did it, but I didn't have to. I know exactly who it was that pulled a trigger on me.”

I waited for him to continue, to tell me who was responsible for his wound. Instead, he interrupted himself and looked at me in a manner of “You wouldn't understand”.

“You can tell me what's going on later,” I said. “Right now, you need to get out of this swamp. The rain is only going to U@pour on us harder the longer we sit here.”

“Then you go. I'm staying in this God-forgotten pit, at the base of this belittling tower of a tree.”

“Why?” I asked. “Why don't you want to leave?”

“Because I'll die if I try to leave, my boy.”

“You're not making sense. You'll die if you stay here. Have you seen these wounds? 'Wounds' is such a mild word, it looks like a shark started to eat you alive.”

“One did, I can tell you that. A shark in the eyes of Sunny Jesus up on high.”

Upon that, I noticed the man's collar. He was of the cloth. A clergyman hunter of all things. “What are you talking about? Are you a priest?”

“A minister, on a mission. I've failed it as I knew I would. Now all that's left is to die well. Alone.”

“I know you're hurt bad, but a doctor might be able to do something for you. I've got a jeep parked nearby, I can...”

“For the last time, I cannot leave! I appreciate your kindness, but if you do not go now, I emphasize now, you will be lying here next to me. We'll become the twins to welcome death, two of a kind in the middle of a lost swamp. The difference will be that I'll know why all this is occurring. You will perish in ignorance, and suffer that much more for it.”

Again, I ignored his nonsense and attempted to pull him from the thick muddy ground. Immediately, he screamed and shoved me aside, hugging the long board before him. I grew more frustrated with this craziness and found myself wanting to leave him to die as he expressed. But I knew I could not oblige his request.

“Listen to reason, minister,” I pleaded. “You have a choice between certain death in a freezing, desolate swamp, or the possibility of life in a warm, comfortable hospital.”

“That is where you are confused, friend. My choice is between two deaths, one with peace and one... elsewhere.” He coughed blood as he spoke, shaking in spasms and moans. But no matter what he did, he never let go of that wooden board.

“Give me this board, let me help you up.”

“No! You will leave it. If you insist I get up, I will do it alone. I prefer to do things alone.”

The clergyman eased up a tree behind him with the help of the board, pulling it out of the mud as he did so. The board turned out to be a large engraved cross, it's grand size filling me with an eerie feeling upon seeing it.

“Minister,” I began in a serious tone, “I need you to tell me what happened today. I need you to tell me what all this is for. You won't be left to yourself until you do.”

“I was on the hunt today,” he said. “Today was supposed to be the day for rejoicing. The day that would dictate another testament in the good book. But I wasn't up to the task.” He could see my confusion, and paused to think about the way he seemed to speak in riddles. “I'm sorry, my son. I must sound quite the fool to you. You're right to think I'm in shock. Perhaps I should calm down for a moment, take a breath, and explain things.” He did just that, looking up to the drenching clouds for a moment. “I've spent my life on a single mission. Some ministers spend their lives preaching, others dedicated to aiding the less fortunate. The Lord chose me to be a hunter.”

“A hunter.”

“Of the Prey,” he said, suddenly calmer, quiet. “Today is the last Sabbath of the year. This is the morning of the Sunday contest between the Great Demon and the chosen Hunter.”

“The Great Demon. I don't understand.”

“The Devil, my son. I am a chosen hunter of the Devil. And he is still here with us, in these woods, right now.”

I didn't know what to think after hearing this. My only notion was to get him out of that leech-filled mud and ignore his stories. But his eyes had a sincerity in them that spoke to me, and I feared this. He sounded as if he were being truthful, spinning an outrageous scope. The Devil himself was just around the next tree, watching us converse.

“Once a year,” he continued, “on the last Sunday of the year, the Devil is open prey to the Hunter. I've spent every one of these holy days on the hunt, every year, since I was sixteen. That's when God chose me to work for him.

“At first, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't know where to start. But across my life, I've gained the experience to spot him, especially on the day of the hunt. He changes appearances, but I can see through his disguises. This is why I was chosen to be the Hunter. Chosen to face the Prey.”

A rustling suddenly came from the nearby brush, and the minister grabbed his cross in one hand, a high-powered rifle in the other. Without hesitation, he blasted repeatedly at the movement, whatever it was.

“Come out of there, you bastard beast! You won't take me today!” He quickly grabbed my hand and placed it on the cross. I knew only to go along with what he was saying. After all, he just shot at the first moving thing without questions. I was lucky he didn't shoot me when I first approached him. “Cock your gun ready, my son. It may only show it's head for a brief flash of time. When it does, you open up on it without mercy. It won't give you any.”

“Whatever it is, minister, it's dead. You killed it. Nothing could have survived...” How wrong I was, for just then the brush began to move again. The thing that placed pure fear into the clergyman hunter was still very much alive and only a few feet away. I took up arms as I was told, as well as grabbed the giant cross with both hands.

“Don't shoot,” a deep voice said from behind the bushes. “Hold your fire.”

“Who are you?” asked the clergyman, his rifle still ready in hand.

“I'm a hunter, like you. I want to help.”

“It's okay,” I told the minister, “put your gun down.”

“Not till I see him first,” he replied. “The only reason you're alive, my boy, is because you showed yourself to me. The Devil isn't the drooling monster you see at the weekend matinee. It has no definite shape or sound. Whatever happens, don't lower your gun and most importantly don't release this holy symbol from your hand. This cross is what's keeping you alive, and is what will allow me to die in peace.”

“Let me help you,” the deep voice said from the bushes. Even though the rain continued to shatter against the mud, that voice seemed to travel without interruption. It's dominance was unlike that I'd ever heard.

“Show yourself to us!” the minister called out.

“No.”

“Step out of the bushes and show yourself to us!”

“You'll shoot me.”

“No I won't. Step out so we can see you.”

“I'm leaving.”

“Why won't you do as I ask? It's because I know who you are, isn't it? It's because I know what you are.”

“I'm leaving to get help for you.”

“Fine. Leave to get help, then. I'll be right here waiting, with my Lord's cross in hand.”

I sat fixed on the bushes, looking for any movement, any sign of a person or thing stepping forth from them. I believe I would have killed whatever may have been unfortunate enough to do just that. However, nothing stepped out. The voice was gone as quickly as it arrived, as if it had never existed.

“What did I tell you,” the minister said. “He didn't show himself for one very good reason. If he exposed himself, I would have blasted his charred soul with my rifle.”

“That would be a good reason for anyone. I hope he gets help soon, minister. I wager you won't make it much longer.”

“My naive young man. You still haven't...”

“Swallowed your story? No, I don't suppose I have.”

“What do you suppose, then, was hiding in those bushes just now? A talking caribou? A monsoon mirage, perhaps?”

“Another hunter. That's what he said.”

“Let me ask you a question,” the clergyman said. “Were you hunting out here before the rain came down?”

“Yes I was. My dog and I. We just shot a duck and were looking for it...”

“And where is your dog now?”

“Actually, that's a good question. He rocketed ahead of me to look for the duck, but then I was distracted by finding you here. It was as though the wounded duck turned into you.”

“He was looking for this duck?” The clergyman removed from the mud a large mallard, shot in the neck. “Your duck fell right there, right in front of me. It fell here for a reason.”

“I don't understand, minister.”

“Don't you see, he wanted you to come here, for reasons we don't know yet. Maybe he wants to take you, too. Or maybe he wants you to try and separate me from this holy cross so that I'm unprotected. Either way, your dog is gone.”

“You mean dead.”

“Not necessarily,” he said. “It's just gone. Your dog's finished its job for the Great Demon, and it's been discarded like so many of his disposable shapers of fate.”

I thought about what the minister said and refused to follow any of his advice. I wanted only for him to rise from the sickening mud, and for the two of us to leave. The rain seemed to get more fierce with every passing minute, and I couldn't help but picture the man with the deep voice forgetting about us entirely as he enjoyed a warm fire.

“Listen to me, minister. We're going to put down our guns, let go of this two ton cross, and get you some medical attention. I respect your God-appointed job, if that's really what you do. But you just shot blindly at an innocent man. You're in no position to tell me anything from anywhere.”

“Innocent man??? Has nothing I've told you gotten through? Young man, the moment we take our hands off of this cross, we're dead. Not just dead, but dead for his domain. He'll be able to take us in. To balance the fact that he's vulnerable this day, I too am vulnerable, once I let go of the sacred cross.”

“I'll protect you with my sacred shotgun.”

“Quite the ego you have, to proclaim that you have a remote chance of defeating the Devil himself. And after so many others, including this lowly minister, have failed. The truth is that he probably wants you, too, since you're trying to help me. And no 12-gauge courage from you will help me now.”

“You said he's vulnerable today,” I reminded him. “If he goes anywhere near you while you're trying to get out of the mud, I'll give him all of the buckshot I have in this cannon.”

The clergyman thought about what I said. I truly believe he was prepared to die in that bog, alone, clinging to his cross in wait for God to recruit him. But that must have been before I came along. He didn't expect someone to be anywhere near this part of the woods, and therefore didn't consider survival as an option. I endlessly hoped to change his mind before someone or something else came along.

“Okay, my son, you win. But we play by my rules. Here's how we'll do this. I'll have to release the cross for a moment so I can get further along this solid ground...”

“I'll help you...”

“No, you'll be holding the cross, aiming your gun at whatever comes charging out of those bushes. He hasn't left like he said he did, I can feel it.”

“If you say so, minister.”

The clergyman climbed up the cross as far as he could, keeping his eyes fixed on the surrounding brush. He looked at me, letting me know he was about to release the cross to make his way along the ground. I held my gun ready as he told me.

He let go of the cross and strained to make his way closer to the tree behind him, grabbing onto it's oversized roots. The rain seemed to pound against him as he staggered on the verge of passing out.

At that moment, the bushes began to shake again, this time more violently. I didn't know what it was, only that it was a frightening image to think of what it could be. In my mind, I begged that it wasn't what I feared.

“Shoot, my son!” the minister shouted at me. “Shoot him! Shoot him now!”

I took up my shotgun in a wide arc, my vision cloudy from that merciless rain. In what seemed like an eternity, I blasted at the man without pause, as if aiming for every orifice in his body. I trembled in a kind of exciting fear as I stared at the bloody pulp of a man that I just filled with buckshot. He managed to ramble off a few last words before he died. “Why have you shot me?” the minister murmured. “Unless... you're the one. The Prey.”

“Yes,” I told him. “Although I'd disagree about who has taken the role of the Prey. I'll tell you, father, of all the men who have tried to hunt me over the years, you came closer than anyone else. You were chosen with good reason. But then, a mortal at his best is no match for me at my worst. And being at my worst is exactly what I do.”

The poor minister couldn't believe what was unraveling before him. After the many years of dedication to his faith, I had won over him so easily. Truth is he should be grateful I didn't take him long ago, when he was weak and young. But that would ruin the sport of it all.

The bushes continued to shake, and from them emerged my beast of a dog, back from making sure the minister and I were alone. No doubt he took care of that hunter that paid us a visit. For a second, I thought he was going to ruin things.

I bent down to look the clergyman directly in his eyes as he finally drifted into death, making sure that my mocking smile was the last thing he saw. I always do that. It's become a tradition for me.

I gathered my guns, the minister's existence, and my dog, not to return in physical form until the same day next year, when a new fool would be chosen to face me.

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