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Fiction: 'The Devil's Age' by David Bryher

"The Devil's Age" was first published in a collection of Basque folklore, dictated by Franchun Feltzarri to Reverend Wentworth Webster in 1879. It is a bizarre tale, and one that’s all too brief.

David Bryher’s interpretation keeps the original tale's delightful irrationality and its sense of moral ambiguity, but he builds it into a complete story with more well-rounded characters and a tantilizing hint of darker forces at work...

* * *

Many years ago, somewhere far away but quite like this, there lived a penniless man called Peli and his wife, Irune. While Irune cooked and cleaned and got things done, Peli would spend his days taking indulgent, melancholic walks – walks that usually ended with a long mope at a crossroads a few miles from his home. One day, his mope was interrupted by footsteps crunching up the road behind him. He turned and there was a gentleman in a grey suit.

Now, Peli was a bad liar. All the town knew it. His face was as easy to read as your lover’s handwriting, so he wasn’t all that surprised to hear the gentleman ask, without any preamble, “Why are you so sad?”

Peli’s chest heaved with a big sigh, like a rolling ocean wave. “Because my wife and I don’t have enough money to live.”

The gentleman’s eyebrow twitched. “I will give you as much money as you like.” Peli was about to say something but the gentleman raised his hand to stop him.

“As much as you like – if, before you die, you can learn the age of the Devil.”

Peli felt a smile crackle across his face. The gentleman nodded curtly, turned on his heel and walked away from the crossroads. Peli dashed off in the other direction, back towards home, happy as you like.

For the rest of their lives, Peli and Irune wanted for nothing. They lived a merry life, full of fine food and sumptuous silks, and they lived it at a great rate. The days flew by until, one day, Peli woke and knew his time was near. He swung his legs out of bed and the hundred little aches and pains he’d collected over the years suddenly joined their voices to sing an elegy.

And he thought: Oh but the Devil’s age. I had forgotten all about it!

He came down to a breakfast of eggs and tomatoes and peppers and onions (Irune still insisted on cooking, despite their forty servants). He slumped into a high-backed, velvet-padded chair at the dining table. He lowered his hand on to the linen tablecloth, feeling the crisp, white fabric against the soft skin of his palm. The only table we once had, he thought, was wobbly and enjoyed more by woodlice than by us. A sigh rolled across his chest.

“What’s the matter with you, then?” asked Irune. “You’re not happy Look around you! We want for nothing! How can you be sad?”

And so, Peli told Irune how their riches were bought. Her eyes turned to ice as he lowered his own in shame. Bargains at crossroads, he knew, always had a cost. Peli asked the gentleman what the price would be if he didn’t learn the Devil’s age, but he knew it would be more than all the money they had spent since the bargain was made.

Irune took a breath and blinked and it was like storm clouds clearing. “If you have no worries but that,” she said, “then you have nothing at all. Now, Peli, you must do exactly as I say.”

And she took him to the cellar of their house, where Peli saw many things he tried to ignore, for he loved his wife and did not want to be frightened of her. “Get into this barrel of honey,” she said, and he did. “Now, get into this barrel of feathers,” she said, and he did. “Now, go back to the crossroads and wait there for the Devil.

When he arrives, drop to all fours, walk backwards and forwards and all around him and through his legs.”

Peli blinked a sticky feather from his eye and Irune caught his look. “If you ;want to know the Devil’s age, Peli, if you want to settle your bargain at the crossroads, then do as I say.”

It had been many years since Peli had walked to the crossroads, but it hadn’t changed much at all. For a moment, he longed for the simpler days of his indulgent walks and his moping, but then he thought of his riches and remembered that nostalgia is a terrible liar. After a few minutes of swatting away wasps, he heard footsteps crunching up the road behind him. He turned and there was the Devil.

The two men stared at each other for a moment. Peli’s treacherous face was hidden by honeyed feathers, so the Devil could not read the terror written there. The Devil, for his part, looked a little stunned. So stunned was the Devil, in fact, that he took a step backwards.

Peli’s breath caught in his throat, but he knew he had to do what his wife had told him. He fell to his hands and knees. Then, he walked backwards and forwards and all around the Devil and through his legs. For good measure, once all that was done, he scrabbled in the dirt around the Devil’s feet. All the while, the Devil’s stare followed him, his eyes growing ever wider.

“Well, I do declare,” said the Devil, “I have never seen such a frightful animal in all my life. And I am so many years old!”

Except he didn’t say “so many” but you don’t really think I’d tell you the Devil’s age, do you?

Peli had heard enough. Still on his hands and knees, he bolted home at full speed, crashing through the door and past a number of startled servants, and told his wife what he had done.

“We will never want for another thing,” he said, smiling, plucking feathers from his forehead. “I did everything you told me to, to the letter. And the Devil? Pah, I am no longer afraid of him!”

And Peli and Irune lived rich and happily. And if they lived well, they died well too.

David Bryher’s recent work includes a short story he thought was funny (but everyone else thought was gross) for The Book of the Dead, writing credits on The Walk and Zombies, Run!, the high-drama fitness apps from Six to Start and Naomi Alderman, and continued feature writing for Doctor Who Magazine.

"The Devil's Age" was first published in Lost Souls (2012). It was inspired by a story of the same name by Franchun Beltazarri, transcribed by Wentworth in Basque Legends (London: Griffin and Farran, 1879). (Amazon US / Amazon UK / Barnes & Noble)