Crawl The Zoogs

Story by
Cole Webber
Artwork by
Carl Newton

The sun hanged low and wide like the opening to a great well. Its edges singed the trees and the ground below. No clouds dare approach it. It shot bullets of sweat that hit harsh like mosquito bites at Max Jones’ forehead. It was as tan as leather as he tread out of the tree line, out of the shadows and into the heat. It made him sweat more, but made the sweat that was there evaporate off of him. He was impervious to his own dreadful smell after so long wandering.

Ahead of him, vast fields trembled under the weight of the sky, each flake of wheat doing its job to hold the whole weight up. He passed through them, and heard their death rattle. Like a rainstick rattlesnake. They rumbled into each other, like hollow hairs on a vast beast. The stone well lingered on the next rise, beyond him. He needed to run, but couldn’t. His thirst drew his muscles taught and his skin loose like raisins, and he had to drag each foot and boot ahead of the other one. Drag them through the mud, disturbing the things and the zoogs.

Small dust bails blew through his footprints like airships. Small pieces of himself, dripping, disintegrating, were left behind. They lapped up at it in the canyons to them. Eight legged forms, the same colour as the dirt, but writhing in their speckled corners of it. Marching over each other in hive mind unison, eating each other to eat the prize if necessary. 

The dead leaves of the wood beyond the well scraped each other like bones. A few did not make it, and blew, long and lonely and tired, to rest at his feet. But not finally. Here they were left to rot still. To be eaten by the zoogs. Unable to muster the energy to change his direction, he strode over them, dissecting them to a million mites in the ground. And the mass then chewed it up. The mass that tracked in his mud, in the treads of his boots. The mass that was always calling at him his whole life: six legged, no legged, too many legs to count, amorphous droplets no thicker than breath, shuttering slowly and spawning through flagella, or chattering along on their pinball of nail spines, creeping by chance closer to his lungs with the dust and the wind by chance, and living their lives only to turn him into dirt like all the rest. He smeared them on and on and on, but they could not be stepped on: they were too small. They could only be spread. They crawled further up his leg with each step.

He made it to the edge. He collapsed his shattered body against the stone and mortar hull of the spout, and lapped his hands eagerly at the bucket that already had water in it, boiling from the sun and dirty with grass fragments from the rustling field and perpetual winds. But he drank it. Feeling a bit more strength, he let the rope down and heard the bucket splash far down below. The fibres of wood moistened and separated with water, lapping it automatically through their dead husks and to their dead cells just as greedily as Jones was salivating for it at the top. The sound echoed through the long tunnel up to him, and he could see brief interceptions of his distant light in the black pool, shuffling, below. He rose it by dragging the rope. The weight of the water weighed it down, and the weight of the sound as it left, dripping back down into the pool endlessly, never reaching him fully at the top, burrowed into his brow more. Drips of never ending sweat, always sweating, never to cease, and never to be returned, except to The Mass. It was long dark echoes, like steam screams beaming away from him on a train roaring into gone clouds. Away, away. Was that how he had got here, a train? The rope burned his hand with the weight of sixteen tonnes of coal, on fire. 

And now farm hounds barked over the crest of the hill. He heard their hardened paws thundering through the shrouded bushes hidden by the shadows of tree trunks. A farmhouse must lay within the woods. He had to run but couldn’t yet. Why did he? Shouldn’t water be free? …but… 

The zoogs were working through his jeans now. At some locations, they already held holes where his skin had blistered out itself, and even more, out his clothes. Here they began work on the skin, and elsewhere they gnawed at the fabric hurriedly. The were not smart, only persistent, and had no direction but onward and inward. He began to feel the itch amongst his leg hairs, which hurriedly ate up to his groin. He turned from the well, dropping the rope to swat at it and letting the content spill down in a rain. There was a horrifying shattering, one that struck him deeper than the itch, deeper than the acidic sweat of his forehead could eat to the skull, deeper even than his days long thirst. He peered into the dark tunnel, and blinked his eyes hard in the oppressing sun to finally get used to the darkness. Splinters of wood littered and floated in the musty puddle water at the bottom. Even this was gone, long gone now. He strung himself over the stone half wall. He tried clawing away at it, fighting with aimless hands and heart. But he did not have the energy, and still, not even the cracking mortar shedded or crumbled away. The itch tore up his neck, through his arteries and the two strings which turned his head. It got under his hair, and moved the thinning and filthy locks like a swarming nest around each other in odd, massaging circles. He blinked hard, but began to feel the terrible tingle there too: at the base of his eyelashes, burning them away like a hot iron as he swore he could make out the tips crack off and falling. They were lumberjacks destroying him. Slowly  to their time — methodically sawing away. He tore his eyes open, raw and dry, blades of rusty scissors shearing open against each other. He strained to see. He strained them down. He strained his whole body down, looking into the deep black abyss. The crags in the rock cut at his bared rib cage, tore away at his yellowing shirt. He ground his bones down and down and onwards, mortar on pistil. He reached for the water, as the zoogs crawled into his finger-nail-beds. And whether it was him or his feet that became too weak, his skull which lastly was too heavy, they all went and down the well. And lay rotting inside, when the farm dogs angrily lapped at the adjacent trickling spout, and brought home the zoogs.

They marched like little men from the living-for-now husks of the dogs, into the holes in the bread and butter, embedding themselves, waiting to be eaten, and to eat out from the inside again.

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