No children danced in the shadow of the cave on the edge of the forest, and the thirteenth black moon passed over the stone bowl, and no honey-wine or ram’s blood filled it to the brim. No sighs of pain and pleasure filled the great orgy-pit, nor were any of the old songs sung in the old tongue and the old way. Young trees ringed the hallowed ground, and their branches were heavy with dew, ripe for switches that would never be cut, ready for spankings and lashings that would never be given. The sky did not darken and the moon did not fall, the sun and stars continued in their paces, and no-one but the bats dared the cave on the edge of the forest.
Perkele stared out at the sight and sighed. Fewer and fewer had the revelers been, less and lesser the holy ones that would chant his ancient names and offer the honey-wine, and now there were none. Once tiny lives had flickered into being during the great celebrations, and Perkele had blessed them. Small power had the small god of the cave on the edge of the forest, but it was bestowed on those tiny lives, conceived at the place and the hour of dedication, and part of Perkele went out in the world with them, growing and burning through the lives of man and woman, to return once more to Perkele at the first minute beyond the final hour.
In the dark Perkele would wait, and sift through the precious lives returned to him, and grow wise in the years of men. Far and away from the cave at the edge of the forest, they were as a part of Perkele. Even now, the last flames flickered, a final harvest for Perkele, but those feeble lives did not flit to him in the minute after the final hour. Perkele whispered to the bats, who flew about beyond the limits of the grove, to look in on the last of Perkele’s blessed; and Perkele perked up long ears to listen for hours to the winds, and what sounds and secrets the gusts that passed through might bring from the villages and cabins of men beyond; and at night he dared the light of the Moon to ask boldly of the lords and ladies of that sphere, who are as yet not friendly with Perkele, but who do not loathe the god of the cave at the edge of the forest, as their brothers and sisters of the Sun.
On screeching wing and howling gust and cold, quiet moonbeam came replies: all of Perkele’s broodlings had been drowned in the river Nemunėlis, whose secret name is Mēmele, and had been drawn up again still alive—but the fire of Perkeles in them had been doused. Now the old god thought much on this, and bleak and miserable were the ruminations. Surely this could be not but some other power, given to claim those whom Perkele had blessed even before their birth, the tiny claim the god had on them washed away by some other beneficence. Bitterly did Perkele wish to curse this power, but the god of the cave at the edge of the forest dared not raise voice, nor claw the terrible sign of Perkele in the earth before the cave, but bided in contemplation at the passing of the age, and looked once more to the switch-trees which grew at the edge of the great orgy pit, and the moss-covered stone bowl where once were poured libations of sweet honey and sweeter blood. So for a long while Perkele was lost in thoughts of old sighs and sobs and moans, and fell almost to sleep.
Now on a Moon Day there came to the edge of the old grove a tonsured monk, vast and magnificently ignorant in his learning, for all he knew was carried in a single book, and all he spoke was the tongue of dead Rome, and a few words besides of Greek and the local dialect. The monk had with him a goodly hatchet of iron, and cut down the sacred trees and split them into rough planks, and dug down into the earth until he came in a little while to a floor of bare stone, and panting and sweating he dragged from around the forest such lichen-crusted stones as he could find sticking up from the bare earth. In six days did the monk have himself a goodly little hut, with a floor of solid stone and stones set as walls to hold back the hearth, and on this foundation rested four walls of wattle-and-daub, and its roof was the branches of the sacred trees. And all during that week, Perkele watched from the mouth of the cave at the edge of the forest.
Now on the Sabbath Day the monk rested from all labors save one. He took the bole of a young tree, as thick around as his arm and twice as tall as he, and cut from it the branches, then scraped the bark and the wood until it was roughly smooth, and then he cut it into two parts, one as long as his outstretched arms, and the other a little taller than himself. Then he notched the two pieces of wood together, and bound them with the creeping vine of the forest. This great cross he raised and sank into the earth, the foundation lined with stones to keep it from listing, and he sank to his knees and entered an attitude of meditation. His incense was the resin of the sacred trees and the fresh-tilled earth, his sacrament the pure water of a stream not far distant, where once Perkele had wrestled with a troll for seven days and seven nights. All that afternoon Perkele was greatly troubled by the strange prayers he heard from the shaven-headed monk, and the shadow his strange icon cast, almost to the lip of the cave at the edge of the forest.
As the shadows of the day faded into night, the hermit-monk stripped to the waist, and Perkele crept forward to the edge of the grove to watch what now he was about. Still facing the wooden cross, the holy man took in hand a sacred switch and began to whip himself, dragging the bristly limb across his scarred expanse of skin. Further and farther Perkele moved, silent as a wolf, to the very roots of the sacred trees the monk had cut down to make his hermitage. And in the dying of the light, with the rising light of the moon and the stars, the hermit looked up and gazed full upon dark Perkele, and named him demon.
“What is a demon, O priest?” uttered Perkele, whose words are as the sputtering of a dying fire.
“Oh demon, thou art a dark spirit, creature of perdition, risen from hell to vex and corrupt me! Return once more to the dankmost pit, to fulfill once more your duties!” hissed the monk.
“I know no hell, and have no duties. I am Perkele, who was worshipped here before you came.” said Perkele.
“Perkele!” roared the hermit “No more than another name for devil! You forget yourself, foul and proud spirit, and take on graces and airs that belong not to you! Return once more to hell, and the torture of those sinners there, and vex me no more.”
Long into the night went the back-and-forth, and Perkele learned much. Now the moon-beam messages made more sense, the gusty whispers of the errant breezes were clarified and understood, and the high-pitched songs of the little dark bats in his cave had new significance. No more was Perkele known abroad, save as a minor and local devil; all tales had faded to legend, and that now to superstition and heresy. All those blessed by Perkele were baptized to the new god, the three-in-one of, terrestrial and celestial, initiated into the cult of the triumvirate in the waters of the river Nemunėlis, whose secret name is Mēmele, and their souls passed Perkele’s dark cave and ascended straight to bright heaven or dank hell, beyond the reach of Perkele. Armed with this knowledge, Perkele withdrew, leaving the tired monk for the night.
A plan grew then in Perkele’s mind, a great design. It mattered little to Perkele to be god or demon, for there seemed little enough difference to the mind of the monk between those who once danced and loved and sang and supped here, and the sinners that now abounded. If Perkele was now a demon, so be it, but Perkele would be a proper demon, and give to those around the awe and terror they so desired. So Perkele returned to the cave at the edge of the forest, and began to dig. Here the newly-named demon carved out a great underground space, in the caverns where once the sacred priests of the people would come and hear Perkele’s great secrets and be bound into service.
Now this underworld would be a true hell, if a little one, and in imitation of the monk Perkele went to hard effort. Spiders were sang into draping terrible webs, and by name did Perkele call all the serpents of the forest to the cave, to make their nests there and fill shallow sconces with stinging poison. The bats circled above in the eternal blackness of that cavern, and Perkele taught them new songs of the darkness and old night that came before the three-in-one, and which would remain after. And one stormy night, Perkele called down the thunder of old. Not one of the new thunders, fresh-minted and hot on the trail of the blazing lightning, but an old thunder, little more than an echo, but wily and evil, the churning terrible roll that crept up spines in slow and inexorable waves before crashing with a hideous strength that would rattle bones and clutch at the heart of the old and sick. This old thunder Perkele trapped between two heavy flint stones, and when the demon ground the stones so they would spark, the sound of the thunder would shake the tiny hell almost to pieces.
When all this was accomplished, on the seventh night, Perkele slipped past the monk as he began his nightly scourging, to the very edge of the sacred grove. Rare now were the memories of when Perkele had slipped past the sacred trees that rings the cave at the edge of the forest, and with great difficulty had Perkele recalled and examined them once more. In the many lives of Perkele’s children were recalled the treks through the forest, along secret paths and sacred streams, sometimes leading and sometimes led, and always at night. Now Perkele traced back those routes, sniffing at each curious-carven stone that marked a turning, searching now and then for the quiet flitter of owl and croak of toad that marked the recollections from long ago, and coming by one shadowy stride at a time to the houses of men.
These were no primitive hermitages of the woods, but low huts of mean industry, the bastions of families for years and generations, and the work of many hands was in them. Perkele crept through the cabins of woodsmen and charcoal burners at the edge of the forest, and judged that most had sins too small to warrant the tiny hell in the cave at the edge of the forest, and many were already marked by the three-in-one power, for as they slept Perkele placed hands on their heads, and they seemed cold and wet still with the waters of the river Nemunėlis, whose secret name is Mēmele. But there was one soul still awake that night, though barely, crouched down by the fire, and his hands were stained with blood and his soul inflamed with murder. The charcoal burner had been sitting for long hours staring at the smoky flames, and Perkele watched the life bleed from him. In time the charcoal-burner, whose name was Yves, looked away from the embers and into the darkness, and there was Perkele staring back at him.
“O devil!” said the charcoal-burner “Have you come to take Yves to hell?” Perkele nodded, and the seated figure rose. “Then let us go, for I am cold here.” said Yves. Behind them, the body of Yves sank into the fire, which smoked some more, but no one came to see what had happened to poor Yves.
Perkele and the shade returned upon the darksome paths of memory, and ever did Yves shiver and shake, for Perkele led him by a long and torturous route, so that Yves’ soul must scramble over briars and brambles, and ford streams of freezing water to his waist, and brave narrow ledges with not but a black abyss of night beneath him. So came this way Yves, and he gazed with wonder at the flagellant hermit and his wooden cross, and figured him for some mighty saint to dwell on the very mouth of hell. Then Perkele and Yves went into the pit, past the great stone bowl, and down into the cave at the edge of the forest.
In the darkness of the private hell, Yves wondered at the elegant net-castles and curtains of the spiders, and at his feet slithered all the serpents of the forest, and overhead came the strange, high-pitched songs of the bats, and Yves was scared. Now Perkele thought for a moment, then guided Yves to his appointed place, where the poisons of serpents might forever drip into the shade’s eyes, but the charcoal-burner halted for a moment, and voiced a criticism.
“Foul demon, this sure enough is a strange hell. Where are the smokeless fires of perdition, wherein I ought to burn? For my sins are many, but principal and last of my crimes was murder and rage, so ought I dwell not forever under the stinging serpents, but in the lake of fire.” said Yves.
Perkele tasted the sins of Yves, and did find there glorious murder—quarrels over food and drink, silver coins and the beds of ugly women, which ended in a sharp knife or heavy blow from axe or club. The faces of victims painted themselves before Perkele’s eyes—here, a boy, there a woman, and finally at the end Yves’ own brother, in an argument over the color of the fire. The demon stood abashed at this critique, for surely Yves deserved an eternity in a burning lake for his sins, and Perkele told the shade of Yves to bide a while so that the demon could prepare the smokeless fire.
So did Perkele go out once more into the night, and looked up at the mountain that rose above the forest, to where nought but a sliver of moon and a few stars hung low in the sky. Up the mountain clambered Perkele, leaping from boulder to boulder, and at first the bats of the cave followed, chittered and chattered the secrets of the night, but one by one they turned back, and near the peak Perkele climbed along on old rocks, worn by the passage of long years. These were the not the primal stones, born of fire, but elder rocks that had grown over the years, layer by layer, only to later be washed and worn by air and water. Their sides were adorned with all the things that had swam and walked and crawled upon the earth, and these were their memories, to be gently eroded by the passing ages. Perkele felt a kinship with these rocks, and sang a greeting in their own tongue, and patted them like old friends as the demon passed.
There, near the summit of the mount, was a shallow tarn fed by a slow-melting ice which once thought itself eternal, but now knew better. Dark and flat and still was that mountain lake, and all the pale fires of the stars and moon were reflected in it, and something of the bright glory of the day that can be seen on the farthest horizon still echoed in its few inches. Perkele stood before the mirror-lake and gazed long upon it.
Eyes that were used to darkness and eternal midnight opened beyond their customary slits to drink in those pale fires, and for long hours of the night did Perkele sit there at the side of the lake, until the smokeless fire burned from dark sockets, and trickling tears of cold flame seemed ready to burst forth. Then Perkele’s eyes closed tight, and it was like the final candle blowing out after the cave-in, when all the light and the warmth of the world has left those trapped below. Dark now was the mountain tarn as Perkele slowly climbed back down the mountain, eyes tight shut, and the demon found his way by the feel of hand and foot on old familiar stones.
Now back in the cave at the edge of the forest, Perkele clambered back down to the private hell, where the shade of Yves waited. Then and only then did Perkele open those close-shut eyes, and painted all over the walls the pale flames of the reflected moon and stars, which did not lift the darkness but gave it terrible and suggestive shapes, and in one corner that was lower than all the rest, where once a great shaman of Perkele had crawled to die and left his bones, the demon poured out all the stolen fire of the gloaming sun that had once shown on that mountain lake, and with it Perkele brought forth all the memories of pain and fire and light from the lives that had been brought back at the minute after death. Then did Yves wonder at the great lake, for it seemed vast beyond its shores, and the fires were greater than any mortal blaze the shade remembered, for they were the stuff of memories which would never dim again, and he looked back at Perkele and nodded his head. “It is well.”
Then did Yves reach into the burning pool, and draw forth a great femur from the ancient shaman, and stir the memories until they burned brighter still, painful even to look upon. This the shade of the charcoal-burner did with great skill, for once he had been a master of fire, and even still was his soul the soul of a murderer that knew the pain of all men. All the long day did Yves stir, and neither did the shade notice, for cool and dark was the cave where no sun shines and fresh breezes are seldom, and little did he note the passage of time, but Perkele knew and noted the hour of conquering darkness, and prepared once more to set out after souls. So Perkele laid a charge on the shade of Yves. “Stay you here and tend the fire, son of Adam,” said the demon “and I shall return with more shades to torment, and you shall assist me.”
Once more crept Perkele out past the terrible hermit, who prayed and whipped himself before the wooden cross at the border of hell, and struck out once more along the dark trails of memory where once the old people had come.