The Devil’s Pulpit by Alexandra Grunberg

 

Lotte’s foot slipped on the wet red clay-coated step, and she supposed this was something resembling fun. That was what her mother demanded that she do: something resembling fun. She also demanded that Lotte make a few friends, but all she could manage was this outdoor adventure group. These people were not quite her friends, no matter how many hill-walks they triumphantly concluded or hidden waterfalls they discovered, but maybe they were something resembling friends. And when your leggings were streaked with thick red mud, that was all you needed.

“Here,” said Dalia, reaching out her arm as a natural handrail for Lotte to right herself. “It happens to everyone. Don’t trust the stone steps. It’s easier if you walk a little to the side.”

 “Thanks for the tip,” said Lotte.

She followed in Dalia’s footsteps, placing her boots in the muddy imprints that found natural support beside the staircase that brought them further from the light, but closer to the thrilling sound of rushing water. She was pleased to see that Dalia was also wearing unfashionable wellies that went up to her knees. They seemed incongruous on a young woman with a half-shaved head of black hair, and twin piercings imbedded on either cheek and along the curve of her ears. They belonged more on an uncertain postgraduate who thought she had the ability to explore Scotland on her own, and found out quickly that she did not. She needed someone else to drive on the left side of the road.

“Do you need help down?” asked Byron, already reaching up to her, black-nailed hands offering a strong support so Lotte did not land so hard on the jagged rocks.

Dalia was already taking pictures on her phone. Wendla and Marcus had their arms around each other, long blue hair entangling with a spiky short red crop, as they tipped their heads back to take in the immense gorge they just crawled down to explore. Lotte snapped her jaw shut when she noticed it was hanging open, but she could do nothing about her wide awestruck eyes. The rocks rose high on either side of them, split by rushing dark water that shone red in the shallows where light hit the pebbles of the river floor, and black where it pooled deeper before racing off between the deep-green vegetation-covered rock walls around them. Purple flowers sprouted from the green, but quietly, in a way that meant Lotte could only know that they were there without being able to point them out to memorialize in a photo. But she could not even bring herself to pull out her cell phone from her pack.

“I know,” said Byron, smiling.

“Know what?”

“It’s hard to take a picture,” he said. “Feels like it would cheapen it. Take away some of the magic.”

He was right. Lotte blushed, swiping a hand through her brown hair. Her mother did not demand that she leave it natural, but Lotte assumed she would be mad if she shaved any part of her head or messed with colorful hair dyes.

“Taking a picture doesn’t ruin the magic,” whispered Byron, like he was sharing an important secret, though from the way Wendla and Marcus smirked at her, it was obvious he was not being quiet enough for it to be much of a secret. “The magic is here whether we come or not.”

“Everyone get together!” demanded Dalia.

Lotte found herself squeezed between Byron and Wendla, a black opal-ringed finger resting on her shoulder, a tarot-card themed necklace digging through the layers of shirts and jumpers. Lotte was chilly, but Wendla had already stripped off her jacket, showing off a watercolor-style tattoo on her upper arm of a woman in a flowing robe, a cross and a moon floating above her head, a pentagram suspended beneath her pointed feet.

Her mother also demanded she find a nice church to attend. Instead, Lotte had found this group of hillwalkers, who would never set foot in house of organized religion. They preferred to adorn themselves with their favorite religious aesthetics while they debated the corrupting influence of power as they walked, apparently un-winded, up the sloping paths of Scottish hills that Lotte suspected were actually small mountains.

Dalia took the picture and gave an approving smile, lower lip split by a silver ring.

Lotte let her head fall back and stared up at the jagged rock edges dripping water that trickled leisurely to the river at their feet. The gurgling of the stream, catching and skipping over large stones and around the fallen tree branches that formed a makeshift bridge to the shore on the other side of the gorge, sounded like whispering. An incantation. Lotte wished Dalia would put her phone away. If she closed her eyes, it was almost like she stepped back in time, or through a veil to another world, far away from cell phones and smirks and demands to act in ways that meant nothing to her. But this place meant something to her. This was the kind of place she wanted to find.

“So, this is the Devil’s Pulpit?” she asked, opening her eyes.

Only Wendla was still beside her, eyeing the water like it was a poisonous serpent as the other three adventurers splashed through with careless abandon. Byron and Marcus did not wear appropriate footwear, but they did not seem to mind their soaked boots and socks.

“No, we have to wade to the Pulpit,” said Wendla, glancing enviously at Lotte’s boots. “But it’s not that far. We’ve all been here before.”

Lotte was not sure if that was an accusation, and she did not have the time to interrogate the comment, because Wendla was already hopping from fallen log to slightly-protruding stepping stone, arriving at the other side surprisingly dry. Lotte followed in her steps, glad to have a path to follow, and glad to be here. Even if it meant being here with people who only resembled friends. She did not need friends. But she needed this. This water. This red clay and black river. This green growth accented with purple. She needed this more than she needed to breathe, and as she followed the group along the shallow edge where the water met the side of the gorge, she had to remind herself to breathe. Her efforts were rewarded with the smell of earth, and growing life, and something thick and almost sour. Unwelcoming, but pleasant nonetheless. Magic, it must have been magic, and Lotte smiled, and then she could see it.

 It was not a terribly large stone, like the overwhelming sides of the gorge. But it was an odd stone, growing out of the rocky base in a series of layers, red and brown and white and grey. Dalia scrambled on top of it and tossed Byron her phone, a reckless act considering the water the cascaded beside her, but he caught it without difficulty.

 “Take my picture!” she laughed.

 Byron obliged, and then Wendla and Marcus were climbing up the pulpit to the base that was clearly not meant to hold so many people. Lotte walked through the water, nearly falling as the current pulled at her legs, demanding that she follow its needy design. But she managed to resist the pull and step from submerged stone to submerged stone until she reached a small perch on the other side of the water, away from the pulpit and the laughing group. There was a waterfall here, again not large, not imposing, but inspiring all the same, in the way it turned from brown to black to a bubbling white like spit catching at the edges of a gaping mouth.

 “Lotte!” shouted Dalia, and she jerked her attention from the waterfall to the five figures crowding together at the top of the rock, muddy leggings pressing against a metal-studded belt, black fingernails curling around an aesthetically pleasing but meaningless tattoo. “Take our picture!”

Lotte unzipped her pack and pulled out her cell phone, more careful than Dalia, more aware of how the current could sweep anything it wanted away. She crouched down to get a better angle to capture the moment and the lovely scenery around them. She clicked and clicked again as she captured the magic in the small, invasive square of technology, locking in the image of the red stone and green walls, Dalia, Byron, Wendla, Marcus, and the fifth figure that had joined them on the rock.

Dalia was the first on the pulpit to see the new member of their group, though she felt him before she saw him, the sharp black nails digging into the art so meticulously pierced onto her arm, now dripping with a new splash of red. The others did not seem to be able to move as they fell under his fire-hot eyes and piercing claws one by one, their feet planted on the pulpit, their mouths gaping in silent screams. And through it all, Lotte took picture after picture, keen to complete the act that Dalia demanded she perform.

Her mother demanded that she go to church, get a good education, make friends, but most importantly, she demanded that Lotte go as far away from her as possible and take the darkness she attracted with her. Lotte had flown across an ocean, to an island across the Atlantic, and she wished she could tell her mother what Byron knew: that the magic was there whether Lotte was or not, whether anyone was or not. It did not matter that Lotte was so far away from the woods that she used to explore alone at night outside their house, with its own unwelcoming yet pleasant smell. The magic was still there, waiting for no one, existing on its own. It did not matter if Lotte was here or not, there was magic in the Devil’s Pulpit.

Though, she smirked as she admitted it to herself, the magic might not have manifested so directly if she had just stayed locked in her dorm room instead of travelling with a bunch of ignorant adventurers to chase fun. The eyes of the adventurers, now half-fallen from the rock, looked so shocked, Lotte could not help but laugh. The sound did not echo, but was swallowed by the thick green plants and the hiding hints of purple. Why should they be so surprised? What kind of sermon did they expect to receive at the Devil’s Pulpit?

Lotte unzipped her pack to put away her phone, but her cold-numbed fingers lost their grip, and it dropped into the water. She sighed, frustrated but not overly upset. When you went to places like this, you risked a certain amount of loss. She waded back through the water and almost envied her discarded not-friends. At least they did not have to attempt to make their way up the stairs alone.

She hopped up the first few steps, and then had to grab the protruding rocks and roots to hoist herself up. Her foot slipped as she belatedly remembered that she should not trust the obvious steps, that she should have looked for the foot-made path next to the steps, but it did not matter. A cold hand supported her back before she could fall very far, the claws surprisingly gentle as they pressed into the fabric of her jumper. For one moment, she let her weight fall back, let her body be supported by this phantom hand, by this creature she did not dare to name but thought might be something resembling a friend. Then she reached for a branch and pulled herself up, leaving the figure behind her.

 


Alexandra Grunberg is a Glasgow based author, poet, screenwriter, and artist. Her fiction has appeared in The NoSleep Podcast, Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and more. You can find her online at alexandragrunberg.weebly.com or on Twitter at @alexgrunberg. 

Published 8/12/21

 

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