The following is the first part of Chapter One of my untitled novel. The story is raw and young yet, despite having danced through my head for the past fourteen years of my life. I will not be posting the entirety of the work, unless, of course, having finished it, and gone through multiple rewrites and edits, it fails to find any favor with the publishing and editing “gods”. Before anyone reads further, I owe those who stumble across the blog a DISCLAIMER: this is not a pretty novel. It is a dark fantasy, and as the word dark suggests, its nature often tends towards the shadowy ends of life that some brighter spirits may find unpalatable, depressing, or even morbid. There will, at times, be descriptions of a bloody or violent nature, or representations of psychological turmoil, and if things of this sort tend to upset you, please skip this post. Those of you, however, who enjoy fantasy or fairy tales may also be aware that fairy tales were not originally meant for children as they so often are today, but were actually often gory, visceral, very adult affairs. The fey themselves, originally, were far removed from the tiny, sweet, pixie-dust spraying creatures represented in popular children’s cartoons today. My novel was not originally intended as a salute to these old tales; I had diagramed the plot and was several chapters into the effort when I finally realized that I was rewriting a classic plot. I had created such convolutions that at first the pattern was unrecognizable even to myself. I knew I had borrowed from mythology in the overarching theme that an attempt to thwart destiny very often creates the destiny that was so feared in the first place, but I was not aware that I was recreating one of the first fairy tales I ever read. It’s ironic, perhaps, that my efforts to avoid blatantly stealing a plot led me to a more couched, hidden one, but there you have it. I spent a tremendous amount of time second guessing myself but ultimately decided to run with this unforeseen development. If I am going to exploit one fairy tale, I might as well pay homage to some others in the meantime.
There was a monster, her grandmother would begin, and that monster lived all alone, walled in by stone, circled by sand, and magic, deep magic, for only the very best and brightest of magicians could hold such a savage beast at bay, away from the fragile world, and if their magic ever failed, and that monster got out, why, that would be the death of them all.
The monster had skin like rotting onions, and its fangs and claws perpetually dripped with the blood of hundreds of maidens, for that was what a monster like that liked to eat best of all. The monster did not just eat its victims, no, it tortured them, and when it had tortured them, it drew out their entrails while they, too exhausted, too badly used to scream, simply watched, and when it had done that, it drained their blood and slaked itself on it. The floors of that place where it lived, cried her grandmother, the very courtyard, lay thick with the dried out husks of its victims, so that with every shift of the monster’s feet one could hear the crunch of brittle flesh and bone.
“It pains me to talk about it,” her grandmother would insist, but she would tell the tale to anyone who would listen, and she would tell it often, as often as she cried for more tea to sooth her listeners’ souls and warm their fragile hearts, and her granddaughter would bring it, and pour it into the little porcelain cups that her grandmother’s daughter, her mother, had given her when times had been better.
Today the granddaughter gently set her cakes, delicately iced and resplendent in roses and vines on the lace tablecloth, and let tea cascade, a steaming, fragrant waterfall, to a rippling pool in the company’s cup.
“I’m such a gentle person, you know,” murmured her grandmother apologetically, while lifting a stray handkerchief to blot elegantly at her eyes, “and this story does pain me so. But you ought to know, dear, you really ought to know. Having daughters of your own and all. I’ve heard there’s a man who pays extravagant prices for young girls, pretending to offer them honest work, so that he can slake the monster’s bloodlust. And you must know the truth, the whole truth, so that you and your daughters never fall prey to such a dreadful fate.”
“Why, how horrible!” gasped the guest. “Can such a thing really exist? And to think of…of, well…to think of someone actually feeding it. People, I mean. It’s so crude.”
“Oh, yes, my dear, I quite agree. But apparently it’s the only way to appease the thing, to keep it from testing the limits of it’s cage. And there are so many greedy low people willing to accept the money and look the other way, you know. People not quite so refined as yourself.”
“Or yourself, of course, Ebba.”
Ebba, the grandmother, smiled and nodded sagely in acknowledgement. “It’s very kind of you to say so.”
“And yet I still don’t understand. If such a thing exists, why not simply kill it and save us all?” The mother of young girls, aroused at this news of a new threat to her children, insisted, it seemed, on being skeptical in hope of defending her small progeny by the simple act of denial.
But her host had other ideas. “Exists? I assure you, Charlotte, this creature is as real as you or I. Nine years ago, in the most hostile and barren of the king’s land, he had a fortress built, so hastily and out of whatever stone he could find that it looks, from a distance, like a mottled vase botched at the pottery wheel. He surrounded it with three walls, and covered the outer one, too, with so many spines and needles and blades that it bristles like a porcupine. There are no doors, but I’m told instead that the laborers who built it were commanded to seal it while still working within, and when they brought the monster to it’s prison, the laborers were still there. Well, you can guess what happened to them. My son was…” Ebba stared, mournfully, at a pink rosette that beckoned cheerfully from a confection on her plate, and Charlotte, struck momentarily speechless, waited helplessly for her to continue. “…But I’m sure you are wondering why anyone would do such a thing. Some say that they were sealed in to distract the monster long enough to bind it still further with spells. As to why they don’t kill the thing, well, it simply cannot be killed.”
Ebba’s granddaughter, returning, unnoticed in her absence, and disregarded at her reappearance, offered up a tray of miniscule cucumber sandwiches and fluffy pastries to Charlotte’s elbow.
“It cannot…” whispered the guest, oblivious to the child at her side, “…die?”
Ebba sniffed, fidgeted uncharacteristically with a silk napkin, elaborate with azure embroidery. Finally she conceded, “Perhaps it can die. But no one has ever been able to destroy it.”
They were all silent for a moment: Charlotte, suddenly seeing shadows at the base of her tea cup, and Ebba’s clouded eyes fixed intently on her guest’s face. The child’s arm trembled, her fingers quivering with exhaustion, but her eyes saw only night growing in the cracks between the floorboards, sliding out from underneath the tablecloth, growing in the folds of her grandmother’s skirts.
Belatedly Charlotte recognized the dimness gathering in the hollows of her saucer and realized what it meant. “Why, me!” her voice did not sound like her own, it was so forcedly gay, “But I’ve completely forgotten the time! It’s quite late, and your tale so engrossing I didn’t notice the dark creeping up on us.”
“Oh, but you’ll stay for supper, I hope? An old lady like me, by herself in this house, gets lonely with nothing but spiders for company. I’d be delighted if you would stay, my dear.” The tiny plates on the shaking tray rattled ominously, and Charlotte glanced over at last, surprised, to be transfixed by the oddity of a small shivering being entirely swaddled in cloth, and clinging desperately to it’s tray. It bends it’s head, she thought, as if readying itself for the blow of the executioner’s axe.
“I…” Charlotte appraised the mysterious creature again, forgetting for the moment the question at hand. “Who, may I ask, is this, then?” And hearing the distressing chatter of plate and glass, she swept the platter and its contents from it’s bearers grasp to a safe resting place on the table.
“A servant,” Ebba replied briskly, and did not mention blood, as she had so often that evening, or the way it drew, in this case, bonds between her and the child she spoke of, “who is now dismissed. No doubt she has other duties that need looking after.”
Ebba watched her daughter’s child only long enough to insure that she turned around and headed for the door, but Charlotte saw the child peek over her shoulder as she passed the door jam, and guessed that the child could see less of her than she could see of it, despite the billowing linen, like a shroud, that held it together.
“Her face…” gasped Charlotte, a few moments later, when she thought the apparition was out of earshot.
“Yes. So unfortunate. Deformed from birth, I’m afraid. And clumsy with it. She falls often. She keeps hidden most of the time. Out of shame.” Ebba was empathy personified. “You won’t gossip about her, will you? It must be so hard, to have such a countenance.”
Charlotte nodded dutifully, disoriented by the horrors she had glimpsed that last hour. “Of course. I wouldn’t wish to hurt anyone.”
“Thank you, my dear. But won’t you stay for dinner? I don’t believe you’ve given me an answer. You hold me in exquisite suspense.”
Ebba smiled, but the darkness caught in the folds of her chin and the cracks of her teeth so that to the eyes of her guest she frowned and grimaced at the same time. I’ve gone morbid, Charlotte guessed, from that sordid tale. First the child and now this. She found she was gripping the leg of the table in an effort to keep herself from bolting out the door.
“I…I appreciate your offer, but…my family is waiting for me.”
“Perhaps another time?”
“Of course.” The reply, a moment too late for courtesy, and Ebba’s cloudy eyes became thunderheads.
“Allow me to show you out then,” coaxed the gracious host.