Litany of the Hollow Man by W. Ross Teal


 
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“You are empty,” the hollow man muttered as he walked down the busy city sidewalk. “I will fill you.”

His voice was almost imperceptible. Indeed, those who heard him did not do so consciously. If they noticed at all, it was in the merest tremor of anxiety—the slightest pang of hunger in their bellies.

For most who heard him, his words were a passing sensation. Even that made the saliva flow in his mouth. But in others, his words took root—sometimes for an hour, sometimes for months or years, sometimes for life. On these, he feasted.

“You are hungry,” he hissed near the ears of passersby. “I will feed you.”

An empty promise—like all promises he made—but for some, it proved too tantalizing to ignore. They willingly devoured what he offered, still ravenous for more.

“You are scared,” he taunted. “I will comfort you.”

A faint shiver ran through the bodies of those who heard him. Eyes darted toward the faces of strangers, then quickly away. That which had been secret was laid bare. Every new terror they could imagine came true before their eyes. They trembled at the truths only they knew.

“You are angry,” he mumbled. “I will justify you.”

Bouquets of rage bloomed around him. Some would wilt within minutes, others after a day. For some, these bouquets became gardens, cultivated by their hate. They trained to be soldiers in the army of their new lord. They identified their enemies. They prepared for the violence to come.

“You are empty. I will fill you.”

“You are hungry. I will feed you.”

“You are scared. I will comfort you.”

“You are angry. I will justify you.”

Thus was his litany, repeated for those who would listen, calling to the faithful and those yet unconverted. He repeated these words as he repeated his path through the city, which could be any city because it was every city, every town, every place where a person could be found.

The hollow man was ancient, perhaps as old as humanity itself. He did not know nor did he particularly care. For as long as he had been, he had walked the paths humanity lay. He did not tire, not even as their paths spread across continents, even as dirt tracks became paved roads and rail lines. Each path offered a new banquet. When humanity invented paths he could not follow, sending their words over airwaves and wires, the hollow man continued his march unchanged. He had no need to walk where human feet couldn't tread.

His worshipers took up his mantle, whipping their audiences into frenzies of hate, fear, and mistrust. They preached his gospel with an evangelical zeal even he could not match, lining their pockets and filling his belly, remaking themselves and their flocks in his image.

“You are empty.”

 

W. ROSS TEAL is writer of weird fiction. He lives on the lands of the Baxoje, Meskwaki, and Sauk with his wife and a small army of cats.