There had not always been a babelech, though none now lived that remembered the nights before it. It was the local bogey, complete with its own cave where the children were admonished never to play, though a few every generation dared each other on as the days started to shorten, and of winter nights mothers would threaten their kinder that they would be left out in the cold, where the babelech would come on its long thin legs and gobble them up. Every child knew the babelech, and told the stories over and over, just as on dark Christmases by the fire the old men would smile and tell of "The Feast of the Babelech" - the great blizzard when the legend had full reign through the streets of the town, scratching at windows and doors, frightening cattle and horses, and parents would awaken at night to find only broken windows and empty, frost-coated cribs with a few gnawed bones, or stiff little fingers still clutching a rattle... a story told with much relish and in such gorey detail, in infinite variations as each teller tried to top the previous one, while the fire burned on into the night and the wind howled and shook the trees.
Children grow. Lovers unite; spouses are unfaithful; children are born in joy and sorrow, and taken by illness or accident or murder, leaving only the bereft and bloody-handed behind. The factory closes; the bills go unpaid; houses are reclaimed, lie vacant, their lots unkempt, windows boarded up, roofs sagging, rusting monsters on the lawn, some slowly being reclaimed by thorny vines and weeds. Feral things roam the night, root through trash, disappear down storm drains and into shadows. Hunger and want begin to creep in; illness and injury and arrest more common, the very punctuation of life. The very features of the people become marked by thinness, scars, unhealthy colors made all the more stark by poor decisions, garish attempts at escape, to reclaim some of the vital energy and joy of life once again.
Yet there was always the babelech - and there were stories that they did not tell the children.
Dierk's boots crunched through the snow toward the babelech's cave. It was, really, simply a kind of hollow created by glacial remnants - massive stones left behind by the retreating ice, so that one like a great shelf rested on top of two rounded, lichen-covered boulders; the whole thing half-buried in the hill, to form a kind of hollow. He rested as it came into sight, a darker shadow against the night. Pain lanced up from his midsection; it had been hurting all day - for days - and the junk had run out a long time ago.
Using the trees for support, he made his way up the steep path to the gap between the boulders - a path beaten hard by the feet of many adventurous little climbers, like Dierk himself, years ago. He paused at that entrance, breathing harder than he should have, sweating a little despite the chill, which set him chattering. Beyond the entrance, he knew, the floor dropped down a few feet. There was nothing in the hollow itself but earth and stone - no creature ever made its burrow there, as far as Dierk knew. When they were kids, they had talked about how it would be full of bones...or maybe the scratchings of cave people, explorers, something. He remembered how he'd wanderd around almost blindly in the dark, a space not ten feet from one side to the other, and never saw so much as a candy wrapper or used condom, no names or declarations of love scratched or sprayed on the walls. A quite, unsullied place.
Dierk felt bad for a moment - not panic, exactly, but regret for...littering. He imagined the next child coming this way in the summer, finding the nasty clothes on the floor, and knowing someone had been there. He shook his head, then easing himself away from the entrance, he made his way to a broken stump, a natural witch's cauldron, and began to disrobe. Frost bit into the pale flesh, the veins running through it like cheese, bringing up fancies of hidden colonies of blue fungus eating away at him from the inside, dissolving him with acid. With numb hands he covered the clothing with snow, then looked up at the clear sky. They would find them come March, probably, but not in the cave.
He lowered himself down into the hollow carefully. It was almost pleasant, out of the wind, though the cold earth seemed to suck the heat from his bones. Dierk's hands and feet were already numb, though he didn't think the frostbite had set in properly yet. It had been too long since he had been out in the snow...too long in hospitals with their wan artificial suns and cheerless antiseptic smiles; in alleys where dead-eyed drop-outs set the price on his "medicine"; in the empty house with its blaring television muted to a low roar...
In the cave, Dierk waited for the babelech to gobble him up.
There had not always been a babelech, though everyone in town knew it was there. Waiting for them. It was always hungry, the mothers whispered as they drew the covers tight, but it was patient. It waited for them, for all of them, and it would get them someday. That was the end of every story, of course. No one escaped the babelech.