The Moon-God Takes

by Robert Leslie Bellem

 

 

This dancing girl was beautiful — and perhaps he loved her because
she looked like the girl he had killed. But she wanted too much...the
thing he must carve out of the gray stone she worshipped!

JOHN SALVER watched her dancing in the moonlight; watched her dancing naked before the great grey stone.

And when he saw her face there came a cancer-gnawing fear; a suppurating terror seethed in John Salver's heart. For the dancing woman's face was a face long dead, and it struck like a poisoned dagger through his dark, lost soul.

Then, as he watched, he knew he had been wrong. It was not Helen Pemberton who danced in the moonlight, nude and lithe and eerie in the grey stone's shadow. The lovely, lost Helen was long, long dead; and ghosts cannot dance by the shores of the sea. The moonlight had tricked him, Salver told himself. Moonlight, and conscience, and soulconsuming fear.

His fists were clenched as he watched; and his sweat was frigid though the night was warm.

Grimly, he forced himself to calmness. His eyes were wide as the blonde girl danced....

High overhead rode the moon's swollen whiteness, dappling the surf with a thousand silver coins. John Salver shivered in the pallid, silent night; but his eyes held a feral glow of new-born desire. Hungry he was for the lovely dancing-girl; and he watched her dancing before the great grey stone.

Strange, weird, unearthly was the girl's dance.

And unearthly was the perfection of her slender body, young and supple and firm. She flung out her arms to the great grey stone, bowed before its misshapen bulk, caressed it with the tips of her stroking fingers. And once she embraced it, pressed herself upon it, so that its rough surface bit into the mounds of her breasts. And her eyes were closed as she fused her flesh upon the grey stone's hardness, and a wanton's scarlet smile was on her red, red lips...

Again John Salver caught a glimpse of her face; and again he knew the bitter taste of terror in his heart. Helen Pemberton's face...! The face of a woman dead these many, many years...!

SILENTLY he crept closer, drawn by magnets more powerful than his will. And once more he realized that the moon's white light had tricked him. Now that he was nearer, he knew he had been wrong. The lithe, dancing-girl resembled Helen Pemberton; but she was younger, more beautiful with a weird, transcendent sweetness. And besides, Helen Pemberton was long, long dead....

No; this dancing-girl was not Helen Pemberton. Nor was she wraith or spirit, for her body cast a shadow. And her lips were crimson poppies, smiling in the moon-glow. God, she was lovely, John Salver thought.

He eyed her hungrily, drinking in her contours, feasting on her sweet, soft curves. Her breasts were tiny hemispheres, taut and firm and milk-white; her hips were slender lyres as she danced ... and danced ... and danced....

The scene was like a dimly-remembered nightmare. There by the sea's edge the sand was molten silver, velvet underfoot like finely-sifted dawn. It was strange, Salver told himself, that he had never seen the great grey stone before.

Where had it come from? Salver had lived in his cottage on the cliff for more than a year now; yet the great grey stone was new to him, as if it had been recently deposited by some giant hand. And who was the strange girl who danced before the stone, nude, young and lovely like a moonpriestess?p

And why was her face like the face of the long-dead Helen? Like the face of Helen Pemberton, yet more beautiful, more ethereal, more unearthly....

There was something fascinating, hypnotic, in the way she danced; in the way she bowed before the great grey stone. It was almost as if she were offering her body to the gross, inanimate, shapeless thing of grey; as if it were a dark god to whom she made oblation!

FOR a long while, Salver had been watching her. At midnight he had first come upon her, dancing under the moon; and now his wrist-watch told him that the hour was past one. And still the girl danced....

He could stand it no longer. He must know why she danced. He must know her name. He must know why she resembled a girl, dead these five long years. And he must know whence came the great grey stone which had not stood at the sea's edge the previous night!

Grimly, yet shaken with a fathomless dread, Salver stepped from his concealment.

She saw him. She saw him, and she turned away, as if she had not seen him. As if he had been a wraith, a non-existent shadow upon the sifted sand.

And by her very action, she struck terror into Salver's heart.

He stared about him. In the moonlight, the sea and the shore and the cliffs beyond all seemed unreal, strange, new, different, somehow changed.

Salver's hair rose in inexplicable fear. What place was this? Had he been transported to some other world—a world queerly like his own, yet oddly different? Had he stepped across some forbidden threshold into another dimension—a dimension in which he himself had no substance, no solidity? Was he on a new plane, whose inhabitants could not see him?

He stared at the sand at his feet And then a flooding relief came to him. He cast a shadow! Therefore he was real! He was a man — a man of flesh and blood and sinew and bone. A man whose soul cried out in hunger for the girl who danced before the great grey stone!

But why had she not seen him? Why had she seemed to look, not at him, but through him? Why, when he had shown himself, had she deliberately turned away, ignoring his presence? Why? Why? Why?

Insistently the questions hammered within his brain. Where had the girl come from? Why was she nude? Why did she dance? How had the great grey stone been brought here? And why did the girl worship it, make obeisance to it, bruise her lovely breasts upon its grey, rough surface. . .?

John Salver stepped forward impatiently.

“Girl!” he called out. “Girl!”

She paused in her dance. This time she looked at him. This time she seemed to see him.

“Girl!” he called again.

“Yes, Man?” she answered. And her voice was like the tinkling of mellow bells as silver as the moonlight and as golden as her lovely hair.

“Yes, Man?” she said again.

“Who are you, Girl?” he said in a strange, subdued voice. He took another step toward her.

“Who am I?”

“Yes. Who are you?”

“Why—I don't know. I'm just Me.”

“What is your name?” John Salver whispered.

He was close to her now; so close that he could feel the warmth-aura of her slender body and smell the fragrance of her golden hair. So close that his chest ached with longing to seize her and hold her and kiss her crimson lips.

“My name?” she repeated. “I have no name. I dance in the moonlight. I belong to the Moon-God. Is that so strange?”

“It is very strange, Girl.”

“What is so strange about it, Man?”

“Everything!” he answered. Deep within him a fear was growing. This girl was mad! She was a mindless, empty shell of unutterable beauty! The thought was like a bitter lash across his soul, a stinging whip upon his heart. Because— he knew it abruptly and for no reason —he loved this wild, pagan creature of the moon-light and the night. He loved her; he wanted her. He must have her!

Yet...she was mad...!

BUT when he stared into her fathomless blue eyes he knew again that he was wrong, even as he had erred when at first he had thought her to be the long-dead Helen Pemberton. No; she was not mindless; was not mad. There was deep, ageless sanity in her gaze. Her eyes bespoke vast, unplumbed depths of knowledge. Salver got the uneasy impression that she knew all things of all men; that she even knew...his own dark secret.

But that could not be, he told himself. Nobody knew his secret, except himself. No one would ever know. There were times, lately, when even he himself almost forgot it....

Again he spoke to the golden-haired, slender girl. “Everything is strange!” he whispered.

“You mean because I have no name?”

“Yes.”

“Have you a name, Man?”

“Yes, I have a name. I am John Salver.”

“John Salver. Do you dance in the moonlight, John Salver?”

“No.”

“Then what do you do?”

“I am a sculptor.”

“What is a sculptor, John Salver?”

“A sculptor is a man who makes statues. A man who creates figures from marble, from stone.”

“Then I envy you, John Salver,” the girl said.

“You envy me?”

“Yes. Because if I could make statues, I would carve this great grey stone. I would fashion it in the shape of the Moon-God.”

Salver's heart was beginning to race. “Perhaps I could teach you to become a sculptor.”

“No. I could not learn. I can only dance.”

“Do you always dance in the moonlight, Girl?”

“Yes, John Salver.”

“And you always dance nude?”

She frowned. “Nude. What does that mean, John Salver?”

“It means without clothing. As you are now.”

She ran her slender fingers over firm flesh, warm alluring curves. “Clothing? You mean things like those you have upon your own body? No, I never wear clothing. The Moon-God would not like it.”

“And you are not embarrassed to stand there before me and allow me to see you...nude?”

“No. Why should I be embarrassed? Am I ugly? Am I deformed? Does the sight of me make you feel any revulsion?”

“God, no!”

“Then why should I wear clothing?”

“You shouldn't, ever!” he whispered. His hand went hesitantly toward her, and he touched her...almost fearful that he would feel nothingness instead of warm, satiny flesh.

HER skin was soft, smooth, to his fingers. And she did not draw back from his bold gesture.

Instead, she smiled. “Nobody has ever touched me before, Man,” she told him.

“Nobody?”

“No. Nobody except the Moon-God. I let him touch me whenever he desires to.” And she ran toward the great grey stone, pressed her soft body against its rough unyielding bulk.

John Salver stared. “You mean—that grey rock is your Moon-God?”

“Yes. Of course it is, John Salver. Didn't you know?”

“I didn't know. I thought it was nothing but a stone.”

“Well, it is just a stone. But it is the Moon- God, too. Or it would be, if someone would carve it into the Moon-God's likeness.”

“Where did the stone come from?”

“The Moon-God put it here, John Salver.”

“When?”

“Tonight.”

“And you would like to have it carved in the likeness of the Moon-God?”

“I would like that very much, Man.”

“Suppose I were to carve it for you. Would you do something for me in return?”

“Yes.” Her lips were smiling.

“Would you...allow me to kiss you? Would you come to my cottage on the cliff and live with me...?”

“Yes.”

“I wonder if you understand what I mean?” John Salver whispered. His fingers were tingling to touch her again, his arms were aching to encompass her perfect body.

She nodded, and again he saw vast, unplumbed knowledge in her eyes; knowledge that vaguely brightened him. “Yes, Man,” she answered. “I understand what you mean. You want me for your mate. Perhaps to be the mother of your children.”

“You know about such...things?”

“I know about all things, Man.” Her voice held a brittle, steely challenge, Salver thought. But he told himself it was his imagination. How could she know of his dark, buried secret?

Again he looked at her; again he was filled with hunger for her.... He spoke. “Then you will come to me and live with me if I carve the great grey stone into the shape of the Moon-God?”

“Yes, John Salver.”

A PUZZLING thought struck him. “But how will I know what to carve out of stone? How will I know the shape of the Moon-God?”

“I will show you,” she said calmly.

His desire burst all barriers, all restraint. “It's a bargain, then!” he shouted. And he leaped toward her, swept her into his arms, crushed her in an embrace of almost cruel ardor. He kissed her open mouth, felt the sultry nectar of her lips, the unforgettable warmth of her flesh.

She clung to him; and there, in the moonlight, their pact was sealed.

THE next morning, he left her sleeping in his cottage. He went to the seaside town, bought clothes for her. And he arranged with a draying concern to move the great grey stone into the studio behind his house.

And for the first time in five years, he forgot Helen Pemberton, the woman he once had loved.

And he forgot the dark secret that festered in his heart. He forgot everything except the strange, vivid Girl of the Moon-God, who now was his mate....

She met him at his door; put her warm arms about his neck; kissed him. But he forced her inside and slammed the door quickly. “You mustn't run around in daylight, undressed,” he told her.

“Why mustn't I, Man? Am I less beautiful by daylight?”

“No, You're more beautiful.”

“Then why should I cover my body with clothing that would conceal its beauty?”

He tried to think of some response that would satisfy her naive mind. At last he hit upon one.

“You must cover it, Girl, because I am jealous; I don't want other men to see you as I see you. I might lose you to someone else.”

She smiled and pressed herself to him. “You will not lose me to anyone, John. But you will share me.”

He went cold. “Share you?”

“Yes. With the Moon-God.”

“Oh!” Salver laughed shortly. He thought of her pressing her breasts against the rough surface of the great grey stone. If she wanted to persist in that absurd notion, he would not object. He could not be jealous of an inanimate rock. But the thought of her giving herself to some other man....

Red rage seethed in his dark soul at the very picture! Rather would he kill her, first! Kill her with his naked hands!

His mind went back to Helen Pemberton.

Helen, who had looked so much like this Girl of the Moon-God. He had loved Helen; but she had given herself to another man. And Salver was a creature of savage jealousy. And now Helen was dead....

He twisted his dark thoughts back to the present. He smiled at the unlclad golden-haired girl who stood before him in the front room of his cottage. He smiled again. “I won't mind sharing you with your Moon-God, as long as he is made of stone.”

She laughed and plucked at the package in his hand. “What have you brought me?”

“Clothing.”

“Like those things you wear?”

“Not exactly, Girl, I'll show you.” He unfastened the package, drew out wispy, lacy, intimate things, He made her don the summery frock he had bought for her; made her slip her tiny feet into little high-heeled shoes.

She went to a mirror and looked at “I don't like Me to be covered!” she pouted.

“Neither do I, Girl. But that's the way it has to be.”

“But I can be—what is your word? Nude—I can be nude at night, in the moonlight, can't I?”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

She caught his hand. “Then come. The men brought my Moon-God stone into your studio while you were gone. I want you to start carving it.”

JOHN SALVER scowled blackly. “You allowed the drayman to see you without clothes on?”

She giggled. “No, Man. I stayed in the bedroom and shouted instructions from behind the closed door.”

He felt relieved again.

They went into the studio behind his cottage.

It was a great, glassed-in place; and at one end the grey stone rested. Salver went to it, picked up chisel and mallet. Tentatively he chipped a fragment from the thing.

An icy maggot of sudden, nameless dread inched through his veins. “God!” he whispered.

The great grey stone cut almost like flesh!

Like human flesh! Like.... Helen Pemberton's flesh, long years ago....!

The Girl of the Moon-God pressed close to him. “It's all right. You can chip away some more, John. It won't hurt the Moon-God. Not if you carve him exactly right. Not if you carve him exactly as I tell you.”

But Salver drew away. He was afraid.

Memories were crowding in upon him. He was trembling. Sweat was forming icily in his armpits.

He felt nauseated, sick.

“I—I can't carve that thing!” he rasped.

“Why can't you, Man? You said you were a sculptor.”

“I am. But that grey rock—there's something funny about it! It's like—it's as if it were alive!

I've never seen any stone like it before!”

The girl smiled. “Of course it's alive, John, I told you it's the Moon-God. But he won't mind you cutting him into his proper shape.”

“No! I—I can't do it!”

“Then I will not be your mate!” she said firmly. She unfastened her dress, shrugged out of it.

He stared at her. “What are you doing?”

“I am taking off these things you gave me. I don't want them. I won't be your mate. I'll go away.”

The sight of her perfect body, inflamed him.

“God!” he muttered. “I—I'll carve your stone for you. I'll do it, if you'll stay here with me.”

She smiled, and he took her in his arms, bound once more to their pact....

THEN, later, he forced himself to start work on the great grey stone.

The golden-haired girl stood beside him, directing every stroke of his chisel and mallet. And with every chip he sliced from the stone, John Salver's soul recoiled in inexplicable horror. It was like cutting into human flesh....

Helen Pemberton's smooth white flesh....

Only one thing saved Salver's sanity. The great grey stone did not bleed. Had it bled, he knew he would have gone mad.

But it did not bleed. And so he worked at his task, with the Girl of the Moon-God directing every step of the way.

Gradually, under her instructions, the Thing began to assume some crude semblance of shape.

But it was still a blob of scaly grey rock when dusk fell and Salver ceased his labors for the day.

He felt oddly tired, bitterly fatigued, inordinately wearied. Not only physically, but mentally and psychically. It was not only his labor of cutting at the great grey stone that bled him of strength; it was the black, crowding memories that filtered through his brain like sinister shadowgraphs with every stroke, of his chisel.

Slicing into the great grey stone was like slicing into the long-dead Helen Pemberton's heart....

He tried to erase the necrotic shadowgraphs; tried to banish them by seeking the haven of the Moon-Girl's willing arms and moist red lips. But later, when at last he fell into slumber, his dreams were filled with strange, barbaric fantasies....

IT MUST have been midnight when he opened his eyes, came to full wakefulness. He stirred.

The Moon-Girl was not there!

His heart was abruptly filled with terror. Had the whole interlude been a dream? Had she never existed except in his imagination?

Then he heard her singing. He heard the patter of her bare feet. He heard her dancing.

He arose, went into the glassed-in studio behind his cottage. the girl was dancing before the great grey stone, as she had danced the night before, when Silver first had seen her at the sea's calm edge. And she was making obeisance to the grey stone. And she was pressing her bared breasts upon its rough surface, bruisingly.

But there was a difference. John Salver thought, at first, that it was because be had carved the great grey stone a little. The thing had changed its shape; or rather Salver's chisel had changed its shape. And yet—

He could not remember changing it that much! He had not carved so much of the grey rock away. Why—the hell-damned thing had actual form now! It possessed the rudiment of a head, the suggestion of sloping and apish shoulders. There was even a hint of amorphous, bloated arms and squat legs and pouch-like belly...!

A trick of the moonlight, Salver told himself.

And if the Moon-Girl wished to dance before the thing, it was all right. He would not disturb her.

She might resent being disturbed at her weird dance. She might grow angry and leave him—

Salver knew he could never stand to have her leave him. He could not endure it, now that he had held her and loved her....

He went back to his room; went back to conscience-troubled sleep.

AND the next day he worked again upon the great grey stone, stifling his vague horror and his repugnance for the task. This time, he needed no instructions from the golden-haired Moon-Girl.

He needed no guidance from her, because still in his mind's eye remained the memory of the stone as it had appeared in the moonlight of his studio the previous night. Ineradically engraved upon the tablets of his memory was the picture of the stone as he had seemed to see it while the Girl danced before it. He recalled the bloated, amorphous belly; the rudimentary, shapeless head; the apish shoulders and folded arms.

And so he forced himself to the task, while the Girl of the Moon-God watched. Her eyes shone as she saw what he was doing. “You actually know what my Moon-God looks like!” she whispered.

He did not answer her. There was something about his task that chilled his marrow and froze his tongue, paralyzed his articulation. He could only work.... and work.... and work....

And by dusk, the Thing was completed.

JOHN SALVER stepped back to survey his craftsmanship; and when he perceived the thing he had wrought, a wild cry was torn from his rasping throat “God in heaven!” he croaked; “What is it, Man?”

“That—that Thing!”

“You mean the Moon-God? It is beautiful, Man, isn't it?”

“Beautiful? My God! It's foul! It's monstrous! It's a blasphemy!” He seized up a heavy mallet, sprang toward the idol he had created. He raised the weapon to smash his work into shards of nothingness—

But the Moon-Girl sprang upon him like a tigress; clawed at his face; hung to his upraised arm. “You would not dare strike the Moon-God!” she panted.

He had never seen her thus before. Her eyes were blazing. She was like a raging fury.

He cringed from the poisonous venom in her glance, the savagery of her tone. “I— I didn't—” he mumbled.

“You would not dare harm the all-powerful Moon-God!” she repeated icily.

“But—the damned thing's hideous! It's a nightmare! It's foul I—I must have had the devil in my soul when I carved it!”

Suddenly the Moon-Girl laughed. “The devil.... the Moon-God.... What difference is there, Man?”

He stared at her. Maggots of horror ate into his heart, even as another kind of maggots had feasted these many years on the heart of Helen Pemberton, the woman he once had loved; the woman who had betrayed him....

At last he found his voice. “The devil—the Moon-God—what do you mean, Girl?”

“Nothing.”

“You meant something. Tell me!”

“I meant only that the Moon-God is called, by some people, the devil. Satan.”

“And you...worship the devil...?”

“He is my lover. I am his priestess.”

“Good God!”

“You are displeased, Man?”

“I—I don't know. I-”

“You are displeased. You do not want me to be your mate. I will go.” She commenced to disrobe, to divest herself of the garments which John Salver had bought for her.

But when he saw her a wave of love stifled all his repugnance, his horror. “No!” he shouted. “You can't leave! I won't let you go! I don't care if you're the devil yourself! I love you!” He caught her in his arms, kissed her savagely, until she winced.

She smiled up at him. “You will not again seek to harm my Moon-God?”

“No. Never again. I promise.”

She melted against him. He lifted her, carried her in his arms....

IT WAS again midnight when John Salver heard a queer sound in his bedroom.

His eyes flew open. He stared.

Moonlight was streaming malignantly through his window. But it was not the moonlight that brought icy dread into his soul. It was something else- The Moon-God!

The thing he had created—the idol he had wrought from the great grey stone— it was in his room! It was moving. It was alive! And it held the Moon-Girl in its amorphous, scaly arms!

Terror petrified Salver's sinews, thralled his muscles so that for a long time he could not move.

He could only stare—and see his beloved Moon- Girl in the embrace of that foul idol-Thing!

“God have mercy!” John Salver gibbered.

And then, somehow, he found a thin shard of his vanished strength. He staggered from the bed, swayed himself into the Moon-God's back, knocked it sidewise.

But that act had cost Salver the last of his resources. Spent, enfeebled by some foul and hypnotic paralysis, he saw the Moon-God arise and spring at him. He felt a bludgeoning blow on his temple. He pitched forward to the floor, stunned, semi-conscious.

Dimly he heard a weird, unearthly, hellspawned voice. “Listen to me, John Salver!” It was the Moon-God's voice.

He pushed himself upright, stared at the Thing which leered at him in the moonlight. He saw that the golden-haired girl was slumped in a far corner, in a faint. And again the Moon-God spoke.

“Listen, John Salver, You love the Girl, don't you?”

“Yes! Yes! God, yes—!”

“Would you like her to become my mate?”

“No! Oh, my God—no!”

“Yet it will happen unless your love for the Girl is greater than your love of yourself.”

“Wh-what do you mean, Moon-God?”

“I know the secret in your black heart, John Salver. And unless you confess, and then wreak upon yourself the penalty which you escaped under man-made laws, the Girl will become mine!”

“You want me to confess, and then...?”

“I think you understand, John Salver.”

“I—I'll do it! But you promise you won't touch the Girl again...?”

“She will be safe from me, if you fulfil your obligation.”

“I-I agree.”

“It is well.” The Moon-God turned and waddled grotesquely, out of the room.

WITH frenzied haste, Salver seized up a scrap of paper, a stub of pencil. In the bright moonlight he scribbled a message, while the Moon-Girl still lay motionless in the far corner. To save her, and because he loved her, Salver wrote his message:

“To the Worlds I murdered Helen Pemberton five years ago because she was my mistress and was unfaithful to me. I cut her body into pieces and buried them; the law could not touch me because they could find no corpus delicti. Now I confess. This is the end.

John Salver”

Finishing the note, he pinned it to his pillow.

Then he went out into the night; came to the high cliff overlooking the sea. Tumbled rocks lay below, bathed in moon-glow and beckoning him to their shattering embrace of death. He leaped far out.

BACK in Salver's cottage, a grim-faced young man was working his way out of a queer disguise. It was a disguise of papier-mache, amorphous and hideously brutal. He cast it aside, and it crumpled into a little heap which no longer resembled the grey stone statue which Salver had carved in the studio behind the cottage.

The young man who had worn the disguise now walked into the bedroom. A slender, golden-haired girl awaited him. “Ted—my husband! My dearest—!” she whispered as she threw her slender body into the young man's arms.

He held her gently. “Well, my sweet,” he said with grim finality, “our plan worked. Salver just threw himself over the cliff. And now you have avenged the death of your sister. After five years, her murderer has gone to his punishment.”

The girl trembled. “I—I'm glad! But Ted— you don't hate me for what I've done to avenge Helen? You don't despise me because our plan necessitated my allowing Salver to make love to me...?”

“I respect you for it, my sweet. It was the only way. If Salver had not fallen in love with you, I couldn't have forced him to commit suicide as I did.”

“And—and you didn't mind impersonating a silly thing like the Moon-God?”

“No. It was—”

The young man's words aborted in his throat.

As the girl spoke her slighting remark about the Moon-God which had never existed, there came a sudden rumbling sound from the studio behind the cottage. A rumbling, roaring sound. The house shook on its foundations, as if rocked by an earthquake. Flame flashed and died.

“Good Lord!” the young man whispered. He took his wife's hand; they raced back to the studio.

“Look!” the girl pointed a trembling finger.

In the bright moonlight, she indicated the spot where that great grey stone had stood: the stone which Salver had carved into an amorphous, hideous shape. There was no stone, no idol, on that spot now. There was nothing—

Nothing but a yawning, maw-like hole in the earth, from which tiny, licking flames still flickered.