This tale contains depictions of souls and religious references, among other nasty, illogical themes that the old world enjoyed so much. Therefore, its propagation is considered illegal under Aphist law. However, we have received special dispensation to share it with the people of Silitra in the name of education.
We ask you to read this with a closed mind and see it for the dangerous, illogical and irrational tripe it is.
For a complete study of the following story, you can join the Museo Magnifica for only 20kgs per month. That may seem a steep price, but nothing is more valuable than a good education.
Long ago, in a village nestled amongst the trees and fields, banked by a river in the Western Valleys of the Outlands, a perfectly healthy boy was born to adoring parents. They named him Hermann after his father and his grandfather before him. The villagers celebrated Hermann's birth, for it was the first in a long while. The villagers had grown old. Many of their youth had either left in search of adventure or died of famine, war and disease.
Old as they were, the villagers knew they would require a younger generation to care for them in their waning years. As such, this child brought great hope of such fortune.
In the years that followed, Hermann grew mostly as most boys do and, therefore, should. His mother was the first to notice something not quite normal with the boy: his big toes appeared slightly out of proportion with the feet to which they were stuck. They were no fatter than an ordinary boy's toes, but their length extended almost half again the length of his feet.
Hermann learned the crafts of blacksmithing and agriculture, as his father had before him and his grandfather before that. He took to these pursuits with vigour, becoming the most productive farmer in the village. His prowess in cultivation was legendary, often forgoing the powders and liquids that other farmers needed to create a bountiful harvest. And yet, deep down, he knew that something was wrong.
On those rare occasions that he saw someone else's feet — specifically, their toes — he noticed that they did not curl upon themselves in their shoes, for their toes grew in proportion with the sizes of their feet. By his teenage years, however, Hermann's toes had extended to match the length of his feet, and he had no choice but to painfully bend them backwards and lay them against the tops of his feet before slipping them into his tight, leather workboots.
Of course, the secret of Hermann's toes could not remain so forever, and the day came when one of Hermann's friends, a girl about his age, noticed his toes popping up over the lips of his boots. They had been out in the fields all day, harvesting the toxic outer skins of corn cobs and transporting them to a barn.
"What's that?" she asked. Hermann did not immediately respond, for he was embarrassed. "Wait," she said. "Are those your toes?" At that, she called over the other harvesters, who each took turns to stare at the peeping tips of Hermann's toes. One of the harvesters, a gruff boy whom Hermann considered a friend, grabbed Hermann's feet and pulled off his shoes. At once, he cried out:
"Hermann's got spaghetti toes! Quick! Hermann's got spaghetti toes!" The rest of the workers ran to the cry, peeling their eyelids back as if to mimic the poisonous corn. Hermann pushed himself away from the throng, but they followed, alternately stamping on his lank and useless toes or wrapping them around the corn husks strewn around the field.
Hermann had tried to stand, to run away, yet, each time he stood, one of the crowd would push him to get a better look at his deformity. At last, Hermann pulled himself into a row of unharvested corn and used the stalks to pull himself up. The cornfield rustled against the crowd that followed him.
Hermann clutched his wobbly lanky pigs and ran, hunching over slightly, for they were not quite long enough for him to flee upright. Alas, Hermann could not run fast enough to win the chase, and he was, once again, driven to the ground by his fellow citizens. They draped him in mocking slurs and painful insults all the while crushing his toes beneath their boots.
Hermann tried to fight back, but with each attempt, the crowd's violence intensified until, at last, they had beaten him to the edge of death.
"We've killed it!" one of the townsfolk cried, fearing the torrent of repercussions to come from their assault. "Disperse, or be it on all our heads."
At that, the crowd exited its hateful trance, and slipped away into the cob fields, all but disappearing from Hermann's mind. What remained of the village's once great hope lay on its back, yet more deformed than its toes had ever made it. Its tears seeped into the muck beneath its cheeks, only for the earth to swallow each sadness whole.
Hermann waited for its mother, but no mother came. It hoped for its father, yet only his absence remained. After hours of hoping and wishing for the kindness of others, the greatest of deformities seeped its way into Hermann's mind. He cursed all those who had beaten him and vowed never to set foot in the town again.
Hermann pulled himself through the field, allowing the muck and stray corns to slip up his nostrils, pushed there by freezing rain. The mud soaked through his trousers and hardened into crispy sludge that slipped up and down his leg with every movement, reminding him of his misfortune.
For days, Hermann dragged his body and toes until he reached the edge of the village boundaries. His mother and father had always told him never to leave the village, for all manner of beasts and ailments would gobble him whole. Now, though, Hermann could imagine no greater beasts than those who had hurt him and no greater ailment than the thoughts which had initiated their hatred.
But, as the hatred crossed his mind, he was proven wrong by the sight of a beast worse than death. Its eyes were mere black holes where eyes should be — its mouth, a gash-like slit that issued no sound. Upon five legs, the beast hobbled towards him with terrible speed, its blood-red patches of fur seeming to flow in the opposite direction of the wind.
Hermann felt its voice in his head, calling him to stay like a master might his dog. Hermann remained still, apathetic to the harbinger of his likely demise.
But the creature did not kill him. Instead, using its four hind legs, it wrapped Hermann's useless spaghetti toes around the fifth leg below its chin and dragged him. Hermann supposed it would drag him to its lair, where he would become supper. It did drag him, yet, it did not eat him.
The creature laid Hermann against a warm rock, heated by what he could not tell. Then, it bowed its head to its left leg and slipped its slit around its thigh. In this way, it did not so much gnaw as it cut its own leg from its body, writhing from its self-inflicted pain.
When at last the beast had ripped leg from body, spewing forth all manner of blood and bile, it placed the leg atop the rock against which Hermann sat. Sizzling and gamey scents greeted Hermann's senses until the creature dropped the roasted leg into his lap, maroon and black with amber streaks of molten fat. Hermann understood the beast's designs and gorged on the strange meat.
Upon finishing the meal, Hermann glanced above himself to the top of the rock where he rested. He wanted to thank the beast, yet the beast was gone. He tried to move so he could find it, but his broken bones, twisted feet and useless toes prevented him.
As night fell, Hermann slept, comfortable in the embrace of that warm, inviting rock, sparing not a thought for those who had tried to kill him.
Hermann woke with a start. The beast stood before him, staring inconsolably at the dribbles of fat still resting on Hermann's lips.
"Creature! I had tried to find you– to thank you. But, you were not to be found." The beast cocked its head, staring into the space behind Hermann's eyes. Hermann could feel it there, massaging the backbone of his nose with its own thoughts. Hermann gasped at the creature's missing leg, or rather its lack of a missing leg, for last night's meal had been restored.
He jumped to his feet and approached the creature, but it hopped away in that mangled hobbling way it was wont to do. Hermann chased it around the cave, trying to catch it, but each time he approached, it simply evaded him with its random steps. His spaghetti toes slipped along the sandy gravel and muck as one might slide in slippers. The game continued until Hermann tripped over his toes and fell to the ground. Yet, he felt no animus. In fact, Hermann found himself watching himself laughing louder than he ever had. Is this what it is, he thought, to look upon joy?
He laughed until his breath caught so deep his intestines may well have slipped from his backside. Yet, despite the pain, his joy continued. He felt it. He saw it. Yet, when his laughter ceased, he saw yet another strangeness about his person. The scars and scabs, the broken bones and warped mind from the previous day had disappeared – his toes the only remaining hint of deficiency.
Hermann thought back to the people of the village. He wondered, perhaps if he returned, they would welcome him. They would see the undone damage and respect him again. Perhaps, they will even come to love me as once they did. He thanked the creature for its assistance and returned to the village in search of his mother and father. As he left, the creature bowed its sullen head and returned to its hiding place.
Hermann ambled, shoeless, down the valley's shoulder, back through the mud and muck and finally through the corn field into the village. He imagined all the wonderful praise the villagers might shower upon him — the apologies and guilty pleas for forgiveness. Of course, I will forgive them, he thought.
But another sight greeted him instead. The villagers had been forewarned of his unhappy return and now gathered in the town square, armed with cruel weapons and sharpened tongues.
"Leave here, beast!" one called to him. "Or we shall defeat you once more."
"Defeat me?" Hermann cried. "You beat me half to death."
The townsfolk babbled to each other, hurling half-baked slurs at the boy.
"You threatened to destroy the village, you beast!" one called out – one who had, in fact, not been present in the corn field. "So we cast you out, where you can do no harm."
Hermann protested his innocence, but none would listen. Those who did, effaced him as an evil liar, intent on destruction. When the rabble's rousing had stricken its peak, the girl who had first spotted Hermann's toes walked forth. She pointed to his deformity.
"You cannot deny your evil intentions, devil, for they are clearly written across your body for all to see."
Hermann retreated, calling for his mother and father, hoping that, should they hear him, their voices would drown out the nonsense of the crowd. They did appear from the thicket of writhing voices, but they did not behave as Hermann had expected.
"Hermann," his mother said. "We have hidden your evils long enough. When you were born, we hailed you as our saviour, but now we see we were mistaken to hide your deformity, for it has brought deformity to our crop and famine to our people."
Hermann moved towards his mother, waiting for a quip or jest to follow that would undercut her apparent sarcasm. But none did. In its place, his father's voice cut through the noise.
"Go, Hermann. And never return." Hermann edged closer to them, but one of the villagers lashed him with their pitchfork. "We don't want you."
At that, the crowd descended upon Hermann, raising their weapons to kill him. Hermann held his toes in his hands, cursing them for bringing such hardship, wishing for them to fall from his body. A blunt kitchen knife, stained with the crust of butchered rodents, glinted towards his crown — but it never made contact. A scream billowed from the mob, and, looking up, Hermann saw them flee to the other side of the village square.
The beast stood between Hermann and the villagers. They cowered and threw insult after insult at Hermann, but not one of the hurtful words reached him, so strong was the beast's shield. Once again, it dragged Hermann to its lair. This time, Hermann felt no fear nor dread, for he knew his body was pulled by a friend.
Back in the cave, Hermann's mind traversed the many ways in which the villagers might react. Perhaps they would search for him and find him in that cave. What if they slit my throat whilst I sleep? Herman thought. Each thought manifested three more, each one sprouting from the last like invasive vine weed, trying to choke his mind into an overwhelmed stillness that could not be wrought. Hermann saw himself sitting against the warm rock, tilting forwards and backwards and wished for the thoughts to end. He bowed his neck to his right leg, just behind the fifth front leg attached to his chin. Next, he slipped the slit of his mouth around that thigh and cut it from his body.
With the freshly sawed leg in his mouth, Hermann kept one eye on his rocking body as he leapt to the top of the hot rock, inside of which he found spit atop a smouldering hearth. He cooked the leg until the red patches of fur melted away, revealing the maroon and black with amber fat beneath. Hermann dropped it into his lap and watched the rocking cease.
As Hermann gorged upon the second leg, he felt his hunger move from Hermann to himself.
Upon waking, Hermann could no longer find the thoughts which had troubled him the night before. No images of attacking villagers and not an ounce of painful rejection remained to harm him. The creature, as before, hopped around the cave on all five legs, bidding Hermann play with it. Together, they frolicked, alternately chasing one another until one was caught and the other took a turn.
Hermann decided to stay with the beast — clearly no beast at all. He pushed the villagers from his mind, and whenever they returned to plague him, his friend provided yet another slab of marbled meat. Yet, it seemed, the more that Hermann ate of the creature, the weaker and more sullen it became. It would always return to its joyous self, but with each meal, that joy took longer to present.
Of course, the story of Hermann the Wicked returned with a quickness round every hearth, meal and harvest festival in the village. They spoke of his violence and cruelty, how, on feast days, he would come down from the shoulders of the valley to wreak havoc on any who looked upon his sharp, spindly toes, which would slither down the throats of the kind, and cut up their guts from inside their bellies.
Occasionally, a boisterous villager would proclaim they were not frightened of Hermann the Wicked or his spaghetti toes. They would venture up the valley towards Hermann's cave. He would call out to them and bid them come closer, but their fear would hold them still. Always the foolish villager would return with yet another fantastic tale of their battle with Hermann the Wicked. They would tell stories of chopping off his toes with their pitchforks or wrestling Hermann's creature into submission before chopping off the heads of both beasts once and for all.
Of course, if the villagers were to be believed, then Hermann was immortal. According to the stories, each truer than the last, Hermann had been executed over thirty times. Of course, the villagers were to be believed, for they had no reason to lie about their exploits.
The stories and silence continued until, one day, Hermann heard the familiar tremble of a frightened: "Hello?" He pulled himself up from his rock and painfully waded through spaghetti flesh to the mouth of the cave. Painful though it was, he knew his friend would cure him once the need for pain had passed. Hermann had long since given up daily walking and now only walked by necessity. His toes had grown so long they filled the cave to waist height. Even had he wanted to walk, he would need to find the tips of his toes, but they had long since been lost among the overlapping strands of flesh and bone.
Hermann poked his head from the mouth of the cave and called out: "Hello!"
It was a woman who had called out to him. Upon her face, Hermann saw a deep, open wound where once a nose had been. He called down to her, "Please, do come up! I so rarely have visitors."
"I shall stay here, if that's alright with you," she replied. "For stories abound of your great cruelty."
"What stories?" Hermann replied. "I know not of my own cruelty, nor of such stories."
"It is said that Hermann Spaghetti Toes enjoys nothing more than wrapping his toes round a thick neck and squeezing 'til he sees its owner's life disintegrate." Despite the horrific story, Hermann was nonetheless flattered that anyone spoke of him at all.
"Tell me, what else do they say?"
"They say that you stalk through the fields on a festival's night and capture those who stray from the crowd. They say that you slip your spindly toes down a victims throat and scramble their insides – that they die of fright before they have a chance to die otherwise." Hermann laughed abruptly, silencing the woman into the stillness of fright.
"And, tell me, seeing me now, do you believe these stories?"
"I– I do not know," she said, taking a sliver of a step towards the cave. "Are they to be believed?"
"They cannot be true," Hermann replied. "I cannot walk, never mind stalk." He gestured to the many crevices created by his pile of toes. "Come! See for yourself!" The woman could not see from where she stood and had no intention of coming closer to the cave.
"Sir, stories also abound of your transformational powers. They say you can transform from the picture of a kindly man into that of a wild beast that can enter one's thoughts and manipulate them to its desire." Hermann delighted at the thoughts of the thoughts of such powers he could never have possessed. "They say that you seem affable enough at first – and certainly, you do – yet, if one is ignorant enough to accept your invitation, they fall victim to your evil whims." Hermann fell back onto his heap of toes, laughing in delight and picturing his use of such fictional powers.
When the laughter had passed, he moved back to the mouth of the cave, but the woman was gone. He saw the pinprick of her body in the distance, stumbling over rock and gravel to reach the valley floor.
For decades, Hermann had feared the thoughts of meeting another human. His mind would often conjure terrifying images of disgusted expressions and violent attacks. But this — this altercation — had invigorated him. For the first time in years, he went about organising his toes, unravelling the mess and spindle, arranging them in parallel rows. He even found the tips again. Of course, this didn't mean he could walk any further than before, but it would at least make the journey to the cave's mouth easier — just in case that delightful woman returned.
All the while, Hermann's friend glared at him from atop the burning rock. It had grown gaunt in their years together. Its slit of a mouth had sprouted sharp teeth which bared down in a circle around the blade of its gums. The red patches of fur had turned pale, and the black holes where its eyes might have been had somehow turned blacker, so black as to suck one's sight if they were to stare too long.
Hermann, of course, had not noticed his friend's degradation, for each time he might have, the friend would tear off a leg and feed it to him, quelling the worst of his fears, his depressions and his anxieties.
Hermann's lightened mood lasted for a few days, but no more, for the woman had not returned. He had spent each day imagining scenes from a conversation they might have, constructing witty responses to stories she had not told him other people told but that he thought were far superior to the ones she had told him they had told.
But those scenes were not to fruit, and soon, loneliness overcame him. Over a week, he allowed his freshly organised toes to fall, once more, into disarray, entangling. He even allowed the mesh of flesh and bone to consume his feet and legs so that he became immobile from the waist up.
The weakened beast, slower to start than ever, gnashed its teeth against a leg and served it raw. No longer did Hermann smell the sweet amber fat of his friend's thigh but the sickly stench of rotten meat, served in earnest. Hermann ate it all the same, and, always the same, the loneliness departed.
Hermann lay among his toes for several days more, imagining with delight the many things the villagers might say of him, until he heard a female voice: "Hermann?"
"Woman?!" he cried out, trying to pull his body from the restraints. "Wait there!" he called out. "I'm coming!"
"Have I–? I haven't interrupted you, have I?" the woman called back.
"No, no!" Hermann replied. "I'm just–" He tried again to remove himself, but to no avail. "I am, unfortunately indisposed." The gravel rang against her footsteps, departing.
"I'm sorry, I shall return when you're–"
"No!" he called out. "Please don't go!"
The gravel's crunch moved closer with the woman, who, after several apprehensive moments, resigned herself to peer into the cave.
"Dear God!" she cried. "You are indeed indisposed." She ran into the cave, climbing over any obstacle to help Hermann, but, upon seeing his grimace, jumped backwards.
"Why do you leap back in fear?" Hermann asked.
"I saw your grimace, the evil look of which they speak. I will not subject myself to harm." Hermann let the grimace fall from his face, chuckling beneath pained breaths. The woman wiped some blood from the still fresh gash where her nose should have been.
"It is not an evil grimace, I assure you," Hermann said. "You were merely running across my toes." The woman stepped aside, removing her shadow, allowing the outside light to drip into every crevice of Hermann's mile-long pile of appendages, including the bloody cuts she had just administered.
"My goodness," she said. "You– are you tricking me?"
"Tricking you? How would I be tricking you?"
"If this truly is the state of you, then– well, then the stories can't be true. For I can't imagine how you relieve yourself, nevermind relieve others of their lives."
At this, Hermann's flattered delight turned to rage, "I have never relieved anyone of their life. I have tried many times to relieve myself of mine own, but it seems I am incapable even of that." He said it with the sadness of constant failure, with such croak she knew it to be true. As a tear rolled down Hermann's cheek, as the memories of the villagers' cruelty mixed with this stranger's misunderstanding, his friend appeared, gnashing its teeth at the woman.
She yelled, running once more from the cave.
"Wait!" Hermann called out. "Please! Come back!"
She did not come back. Hermann pulled himself to the mouth of the cave, crawling now beneath the crushing mountain of toes. Through a slit between his big and middle toe, Hermann again saw the pinprick stranger disappear into the valley below.
This time, the loneliness consumed his every thought. Hermann could not bear to be without a human, having now tasted the sweetness of conversation. Yet, he had no way to move further than a few metres. Hermann's spaghetti toes, at that point, may well have weighed more than all the villagers together, more than all the cruel, hurtful and thoughtless thoughts his friend had so dutifully removed.
The creature again bounded towards Hermann then scraped away a sickly leg for Hermann to consume. Again, Hermann ate its flesh, but the feelings remained — half-gone, but awareness remained. The creature curled up against Hermann's chest and did something Hermann had never witnessed. It whimpered — a low-pitched squeak that rumbled through his chest and down to the tips of his toes — at once comforting and saddening. Together they slept, with lonely tears mixing down their cheeks — at once comforting and saddening.
Night fell, and the two remained in each other's embrace, keeping the other warm despite the coldness of both.
Hermann and his friend did not wait long for the stranger's return. The following day she appeared in the cave's mouth, still with fear but choosing to ignore it.
"May I come in?" she asked.
"You may," Hermann said, doleful as his friend might have been, had it a voice with which to speak. The woman edged around the cave, avoiding Hermann's toes for fear of causing yet more pain to the man. "Just walk on my bloody toes, will you? It hardly matters."
"I'm sorry," she said, wiping more fresh blood from the gap where her nose should be. The woman crawled four-legged across Hermann's toes to inflict as little pain as possible.
"What tales shall we share today?" he asked. "Will it be the one in which I eat bold children? Or perhaps it will be the one in which I impregnate widows with the devil's spawn? Or, better still, perhaps it will be the one in which I have caused any misfortune which may befall the poor, unsuspecting villagers in your perfect little town, for I am, of course, the devil himself." The woman sat against a small hill of Hermann's toes and wiped her face again. "For god's sake, would you put a bandage on that bloody thing? Or else, surely the blood will fester."
"It is not blood that I wipe, Hermann, but tears."
"Tears?!" Hermann cried. "For what? What tears have you to shed in your perfect little village, with your perfect little lives. I would that I were such a villain as you think, for I could smite you down here and now with my spindly knives, and take the rest of them for supper." Hermann's friend hopped to the top of the hot rock and glared down at the woman. Its face had sunken so gaunt that its gums and teeth protruded past the skin.
"I do not cry for myself, Hermann. I cry for you. You have been treated poorly. As have I, though not yet half as badly as you."
"Of what do you speak? Who has treated you poorly?" Even amidst his fury at the stranger, she was the only human friend he'd had in over a decade. The thought that someone might treat his friend poorly stung at Hermann's lonely heart.
"You are not the only one in the village to suffer misfortune, Hermann. You may be Hermann Spaghetti Toes, but my own moniker is that of Joanna Sausage Nose." She wiped yet another drip of blood from the gash in her face. "I was born with a normal face, yet, as I aged, my nose grew further from my face until it drooped down to my toes."
"You mean to say, your appendage grew, but did not horrify the villagers?"
"It would have, I imagine, but you see my mother and father are doctors. They have amputated my nose many times to hide it from the villagers, and I have worn a fake nose for most of my life."
"Why do you tell me this?" Hermann asked, raising his voice above the din of his creature-friend's growling.
"I can do the same for you. I can cut your toes and give you false toes. So long as we regularly trim them, we can tell the villagers that you are cured."
Despite his friend's growling, Joanna's suggestion had conjured images in his mind: frolicking and playing chase with fellow humans, laughter and joy, harvesting the many fruits and vegetables of a hard day's labour. They presented Hermann with the life he'd always wanted — any life at all.
He agreed to Joanna Sausage Nose's offer, and she whipped a bone saw from her waistband. It took some time for Joanna to locate Hermann's feet, but once she had found them, she dug in with the saw, hacking away at his bonds.
Despite his pain, Hermann's friend did not remove its limbs. Instead, it bounded around the cave, yelping and grunting as if begging Joanna to stop. Hermann screamed, and those screams echoed through the valley, down to the village. No doubt, Hermann thought, they will invent yet more horrific stories to explain my wails.
Finally, when the procedure was complete, Hermann hobbled to his feet.
"I have left some nubbins," Joanna said. "Once they heal, you should be able to use them to stand upright."
"Ah," Hermann said. "A much better name."
"Hermann Nubbin Toes." At the sound of their laughter, Hermann's friend hacked up amber phlegm, flecked with grey. Hermann put out a hand to pet the beast. "Are you okay, friend?" But it gnashed at him, biting his hand. Hermann pulled back. Joanna ran for the cave's mouth. "Friend, come. This is not the end, but the beginning of something new. A better life." The creature merely shook its head and growled some more.
Hermann left the cave, bidding his friend follow, but it stopped short of the cave's mouth. "I'll go get us settled," Hermann said. "I'll come back for you."
For the first time since he was a boy, Hermann descended to the valley floor, holding hands with Joanna. At the bottom, she placed a fake nose over the gash in her face before guiding him back to the village.
At first, the villagers gawped at Hermann's return — the ones who could remember him, at least. The younger ones had heard the stories but had no true beliefs in any of them. The older ones — those who had known Hermann as a boy — displayed the most adverse reactions to his return. But slowly, slowly, day by day, they grew accustomed to, if not delighted by, his presence.
Upon returning home — to his parents' home — he found that they had long since passed. He did not want his current joy to pass along with them, so he pushed it down, instead choosing to feel only what he wanted. After all, his friend had not come with him, so he had no other way. Together, he and Joanna spruced up his childhood home and made a life for themselves.
Now and then, they would approach the cave where Hermann's friend dwelt, but each time it would merely snarl at them, saving the worst of its hateful yelps for Joanna.
Hermann returned to farming, his favourite pursuit as a boy, and once again shone. His fruits and vegetables grew larger, healthier and in greater volume than all the other farmers combined. Joanna became a doctor, like her own parents, and gained prestige among the townsfolk.
But then, one day, an elderly woman hobbled down to their home. She brought frightening news.
"Hermann," she said. "Your beast appeared among the corn and stole away with Jeremy's life."
"Jeremy? Who is Jeremy?" The woman gasped and clutched Hermann's shoulders.
"Jeremy. Know you not Jeremy? He was your friend before all of the unfortunate business with your toes." At once, a stream of memories flooded Hermann's mind. Jeremy, he thought. Of course, Jeremy, who pushed me and took my shoes and beat me half to death and called me that fucking name, he– Unfortunate fucking business, you say? I'll fucking–
"Oh, yes!" Hermann replied. "Of course, Jeremy was my greatest friend as a boy. So sad."
"Is that all you have to say?" she responded.
"What else should I say?" Hermann replied.
"Do something, man! It's your beast that has murdered him! Or are you still the creature known as Hermann Spaghetti Toes?" Through the grisly lines of her vacuum-sealed skin, Hermann recognised the woman — the aged girl who had revealed his toes to the village. Inside, Hermann's fury raged.
"Oh! Of course. Poor Jeremy, no!" Hermann showed the woman what he thought she wanted to see: the most genuine emotional display a human can muster. "I shall do all in my power to see that beast put down."
With that, the woman seemed placated. Hermann shut his door. But Joanna appeared from the living room and asked him:
"What was she asking? About us? Does she know? She knows doesn't she?"
"No, no," Hermann replied. "My friend has apparently murdered an elderly harvester, or so she said. Yet, I find it quite hard to believe."
"Surely not?" Joanna replied. "But, perhaps you should check."
They spoke of each others' options at length but, in the end, agreed that Hermann should at least check the man's body.
Hermann hobbled down to the man's rickety old farmhouse, where the elderly woman ushered him inside.
"He's over there," she said, pointing to a naked corpse on the table — well, what remained of it. Circular gashes, a dozen of them, marked the old man's temples, forehead, chest, crotch and feet. Hermann recognised those gashes from the creature's removal of its own limbs. At once, he knew that his friend had indeed been the culprit. The fear, agitation and guilt gnawed at him, so he pushed those feelings down, as he had learned to do.
"Do not worry, madam, for this is not my creature's doing." She snapped her gaze from the body back to Hermann.
"You cannot be serious."
"I am. My friend would never do this. It has always been an affectionate and docile creature."
Amidst a shower of curses, Hermann left the house and made his way home. Once there, Joanna asked him what had happened, and Hermann confirmed that it had not been the beast's doing.
"Once again," he said, "the villagers have passed off the cruelty of nature as a cruelty of mine."
Word spread throughout the town that Hermann Spaghetti Toes' beast had torn a man to shreds and that it would do so again. Despite Hermann and Joanna's protestations a rift split the community in two. Some were inclined to believe Hermann and defended him. They argued that the ignorant villagers had made a mistake before, consigning Hermann to a life of solitude. It was unfair, they said, to once again place the blame on him. The other, much larger side of the village continued to blame Hermann. They would sit around the fire and describe the man's wounds in greater and more exaggerated detail until it was clear that no natural being could have created them.
Over the following week, the unrest settled into a mild undercurrent of fear and distrust. But then, one night, as Hermann and Joanna prepared for slumber, Joanna sat up in bed and sniffed the air.
"Do you smell that?" she said.
"Smell what?" Hermann asked her.
She ran from the room and let out a great scream. Hermann dashed to her, forgetting to replace his prosthetic toes. He padded across the floor, wincing in pain from the bareness of his nubbins.
The living room blazed as if the fires of hell had slithered up to greet them. They threw water and blankets over the flames, but the fire consumed it all.
They ran from their home into the garden, where they found three-hundred villagers armed with pitchforks, torches and knives, baying for the sight of Hermann's blood. Joanna stood between Hermann and the villagers.
"If you wish to kill Hermann, you will have to kill us both!"
One of the villagers stepped forward, cradling a body. It was the elderly woman, the very woman who had spread those awful lies about poor Hermann.
"Your beast!" the villager cried. "It's killed another, and now we'll kill you!" The mob let rip a swathe of yells and chants. Hermann and Joanna moved back towards the house, but there was no more safety among the flames than the mob.
"Joanna?" one of the villagers called out. "Are you hurt?"
"No, I'm fine," she called back. "Please, just leave us be. Hermann has assured me his friend could not have done this." The villager walked closer, peering at Joanna's face. She gasped and covered her nose with her hands – or rather the freshly trimmed gash, where her nose should have been.
"She's got it too!" another villager shouted. "And look at his feet!"
The mob yelled and chanted, "Liars!", "Freaks!" and ran for the couple but then recoiled in fear. A piercing howl rang ricocheted against the village walls, smashing the glass of every home. Hermann and Joanna looked behind to see the beast, Hermann's friend, hobbling atop the burning roof, emitting shriek after shriek. No longer was the beast simply gaunt, but the flames licked its bare bones and the grey, rotting organs inside. It let out another shriek, sending the villagers further back before jumping down from the roof, between the mob and the couple.
"See!" another villager yelled. "It is an evil, devilish beast. It'll kill us all!"
"My friend," Hermann begged. "Do not scare the villagers. Go back to your cave."
The beast turned and whimpered at Hermann. Its black hole eyes remained despite its lack of skin. It no longer had five legs, but innumerable half-formed femurs protruded from its skeleton. The creature hobbled to Hermann and rubbed its skull against his leg, begging for affection. Hermann jumped back, frightened of this thing he had once cherished so dearly.
"You poor creature," Joanna whispered, kneeling to stroke it, but it growled, snapping its bladed jaw.
"No!" Hermann shouted, pulling the creature away, but it struggled against him, furiously gnashing at Joanna. As the struggle continued, the villagers saw their opportunity. They slowly encircled the trio, waiting for an opportune moment to strike. Joanna backed away from the creature that so deeply hated her. She kept her eyes locked on it for fear it should escape Hermann's grasp.
"No!" Hermann cried out. Joanna opened her mouth to console Hermann, to tell him it would all be okay, but the sound never came. She had not the breath to make sound. She could not breathe at all. Joanna turned her gaze down to her unbreathing chest to find three metal prongs had made their way through her back and out her front. They slipped back out, leaving only holes and blood. Joanna fell to her knees, and finally, her front, gasping among the crackling silence until she had no more gasps to give.
The creature had stopped its gnashing. The mob had ended its tirade. All fell quiet at the sight of Joanna's body, laid still among the showering embers. Hermann tried to quiet the sweeping weeps from his stomach, but they shivered up his throat and strangled him behind the eyes, squeezing out a lifetime of hidden tears. Then came the sobs, followed quickly by a barrage of screams, grunts and phlegm that stuck in his throat.
The creature whimpered and rubbed its head against Hermann's quaking chest.
"No, foul creature!" he screamed, batting it away. "Begone, foul beast. Begone all you foul beasts, you creatures of disdain. Look what you have done."
The creature's growl broke the villagers' silence, and they, too, began to weep, sidling away from the scene. The beast tore at one of its malformed femurs until it broke clean off, then presented it to Hermann. He knew precisely the creature's intention: to remove the horror he felt. To once more exist in eternal bondage to each other. Tantalising though the offer felt, Hermann did not want to lose this feeling. He did not want to lose his last remaining connection to Joanna, no matter how sad.
"You have taken away my every feeling, creature. I thought you my saviour, but now I see what you truly are." The creature again proffered its mutant limb, but Hermann slapped the beast, sending its femur flying. It tore yet another limb and offered it, but Hermann snatched it from its mouth and threw it to the ground.
"No!" he cried. "You would consume my sadness now, only so that you may do it again in future. Leave me be." Once more, the creature ripped a bone from its skeleton and passed it to Hermann, but he did not wish for this sadness to leave him. In fact, he missed all the sadnesses the beast had taken from him throughout his life.
"I wish," he said, "I could take back all that you have stolen, but I must live now with the sadness of absence." At that, he ripped the bone from the beast's jaws and snapped it in two. The creature shrieked at him as the marrow dripped from the crack.
Hermann felt a hard smack crack the back of his head and crumpled to the ground. One of the villagers had hit him with a rock. They came again for another strike, but the beast pounced, gnashing against the force of the man's outstretched arms. Finally, Hermann understood the nature of the villagers' fear and his own. There was, he knew, only one way to kill the beast for good.
He picked up the snapped bone and sucked the marrow. He crunched down on the creature's brittle bone, which powdered easily between his teeth. Suddenly, it leapt off the villager and returned to Hermann, once again rubbing its head against his body. Hermann felt his anger, his fury, and his sadness subside, as always a beast meal took. But he did not stop with that leg. He reached down and ripped yet another leg from the creature's body and ground it down to dust in his mouth.
Seeing his intent, the creature darted, but Hermann dived on top and pinned it to the ground.
"Help me!" he cried to the mob. They idled as he struggled to keep the creature down, but eventually, one after another, each villager came forth to pin one of the beast's many appendages. Hermann broke each of the creature's legs off, piece by piece and consumed them. With each bone, his rage and sadness disappeared. Yet, one sight of his beloved brought it all crashing back, only to be satiated again by the creature's marrow and bone.
When Hermann had finished with its legs, he broke apart its ribs and gulped down the mush they made in his mouth. But, when half the creature was gone, he felt something he had not felt in a long time. In fact, he felt something he had never felt at all. All the rage, the sadness, the fury, those things the creature had stolen, flooded back into his body. Every escaped emotion made itself known to his mind. The images he had wanted to forget imposed themselves upon his vision, pushing him towards the end of his most vicious meal.
All the while, the beast shrieked. All the while, it cried out for affection. But, all the while, Hermann reclaimed his self.
Finally, when all that remained was its snapping, gnashing, growling head, Hermann stared deep into those black holes. He held them up to his eyes like a pair of spectacles. In them, he saw not the creature's mind but his own.
He crushed its skull beneath his foot and consumed the shards. At last, Hermann had defeated the beast and was made whole again.
"Hermann!" someone shouted. "Look at your toes!"
Hermann rubbed the tears from his eyes to see his toes growing at a pace he had never seen before. They grew straight at first until they stretched too far and curled under their own weight. When the toes had once more become a mountainous, intertwined mass, they stopped growing.
Hermann had watched them grow, inch by inch and metre by metre, until he simply stared. His sadness sat inside him like an old friend. And, although he hated it, the hatred sat with him too, alongside every other thought and feeling he had ever tried to escape.
If only, he thought, there was a beast for Joanna. I would give my entire self to bring her back.
From among those awful things in his mind and heart, his fear and sadness burst forth. They showed him a life without Joanna. They showed him a life without love — a life without happiness. Yet more images stirred in his mind. Frantic visions flashed between dark rooms in which he sat alone with his toes, and bright scenes of lazy days in Joanna's embrace. The hate came forth to remind him of the foolish choices he'd made. It showed him the cave and the beast. It brought him back to that first day when the beast had seemed a hero. Bloody, beaten and bruised, it had gnawed off its leg to drag him back to life.
Hermann bent his head down to his right foot and wrapped his mouth around his little toe. As he gnawed and gnashed, the villagers screamed at the madman. One grabbed his shoulder and tried to pull him back, but Hermann pushed the villager away.
"Get off me!" he shouted. "For the first time, I know precisely what I'm doing."
He screamed against agony as his tendons snapped and ligaments ripped. Finally, the bone separated, and the toe was free. He chewed a morsel from the mile of spaghetti and dragged himself to Joanna. But he could not, for the weight of his toes held him down.
"Bring her to me!" he said, but the villagers did not move. "Bring her to me!" he screamed. One of the villagers, the one who had killed her, dragged Joanna to Hermann, and he placed the morsel of toe in her mouth. He waited expectantly, but still, she did not move.
They waited and waited – the villagers did not understand what Hermann expected, but they made not a single protest. At last, after an hour of waiting, Joanna remained as stiff as before the toe. One of the villagers pulled Hermann from her and cradled him, as he once had the creature and as his mother once had him.
Another villager lifted Joanna's body and carried her away towards the village. The weary, forlorn folk followed in procession, each weeping to the din of their long-buried feelings. Tiredness claimed Hermann, so empty was his soul — so broken his heart. He fell to sleep but vowed to wake again, despite the pain. Then, a ruckus rang out among the procession. A voice called:
"Hermann!" The villager who had carried Joanna sprinted back to Hermann, but he no longer held her body.
"Where is she? What have you done with my Joanna?" Hermann asked.
"I'm here, Hermann." The procession parted, revealing Joanna, fragile and tired but entirely alive. Her sausage nose had drooped to the ground, and she wrapped it around her waist before making her way back to Hermann.
She kissed him: first on the head and then on the lips. Each and every moment of their lives, the sweetness and the sadness, made its way through each of their lips and into the other's soul. They held each other tight and wept together, this time not for sadness but joy.
When they finally let each other go, they turned to see the villagers once again around them. But they had discarded their weapons in favour of cheers and chants for the lovers.
One of the villagers stepped forward with an erratic look in his eye.
"I have been a coward," he said. "I have lied to you all."
They all stared at him in confusion, but he gave no verbal answer. Instead, he removed his coat, and then his shirt, and then his pants.
"If we are to call them Hermann Spaghetti Toes and Joanna Sausage Nose, then you may call me Peter Pizza Tits!" In revealing his naked body, he had shown them his malformed nipples, which were the size of saucers, with moles and marks across them that made them look like pizzas.
Another villager stepped forward and stripped to the skin.
"And I am Ada Doughnut Feet!" she shouted, proudly displaying her feet which looked like ring doughnuts.
"Diarmad Rice Cock!" called the local priest.
"Esteban Marrow Ass!" called another, revealing his drooping butt cheeks, which dragged along the dirt wherever he walked.
Each one of the villagers revealed themselves whole to the others. They had spent so many years, decades and generations hiding their terrible secrets from each other they had never known that every other citizen had been hiding the very same secrets.
The following day, the citizens went back to their fields together, sowing their seeds, and dousing them with the powders and liquids that would make them grow healthy and strong. They never again hid themselves from each other or themselves.
Hermann and Joanna's children still live in the village to this day, proudly displaying their spaghetti toes and sausage noses for all to see.