by M. L. Nichols
Come, sit round the fire. I will tell you a tale of not so long ago when great creatures roamed the land. Signs of their passing could be seen by the sharp-eyed. Wisps of fur caught in brambles, trees scarred by claws higher than a man could reach, giant tracks sunk into the loam of the forest floor. And after you hear my tale you may judge if the religion of the reasoning animal, which is man, has brought him to a higher state than the other creatures of whatever gods might be.
* * *
The creature woke and rubbed his eyes. He rolled out of his bed of leaves into the dim dawn light. He tilted his shaggy head, and he sniffed the still air. The damp morning smell reminded him of spring when his mother had chased him off for good.
The creature stood and stretched his seven-foot frame and yawned, his gray tongue curled and his blunt teeth glinted. He scratched the bald patches at his elbows and knees and picked clean the auburn fur of his long arms and deep chest. He smoothed the scant fur of his broad face and cocked his head to listen. Then he stepped out from the trees.
The creature moved in long land eating strides across hills of late blooming flowers and dry grass. The autumn sun broke over the ridge behind him and he stooped and snatched up handfuls of blue borage petals and munched them while he walked. The creature headed for a lowland stream eating shoots of bushes, late ripened blackberries, and sprouts of nettle, horsetail, and clover as he traveled.
He approached the stream, and his wide flat nose snuffled the air. His black eyes flashed to the treetops where various birds twittered and chirped. He opened his mouth and imitated their songs. The creature pushed through the willow bushes that lined the stream and he knelt to cup his hands in the water and drank.
The dazzling azure wings of a dragonfly caught his eye and the creature whispered to it, coaxing. Another dragonfly joined the first and they danced away in flight. He chirruped at them and watched them go.
The creature moved silently along the stream bank, his face turned to the sun. He squatted to peer with wrinkled brow into a deep pool. He submerged his forearms in the water and remained frozen in that penitent posture for a long time.
Then his arms slipped dripping from the water, and he gripped a glimmering trout. The creature stripped the fish’s skin in one practiced jerk and chewed it with great gusto. He licked his lips and devoured the rest of the fish.
The creature began to stand but froze, and stared at a deer standing on the hillside. The deer lifted its head and turned its ears independent of each other, then lowered its head and ate.
The creature crouched, still as stone, his black eyes fixed on the deer. A fish leapt and slapped the water and the deer’s head shot up. The deer and the creature locked eyes, and then the deer bounced off over the hill. The creature stood to watch it leave.
* * *
The creature roamed, digging roots and tubers and feeding on flowers and tender shoots of blackberry. He ate a large leopard snake where it sunned itself on a rock. He returned to the stream in the heat of early afternoon to drink.
The creature stood from the stream, listening. He sniffed the air and crept along the willows to peer through the brush and there in the grass at the stream’s edge a young girl slept. He cocked his head and frowned at her.
The shade of a cloud touched the girl and she shivered as if in bizarre premonition and she sat up with a start. Her head tilted back until her wide blue eyes met the eyes of the creature. She scrambled to her feet and tried to scream but all that came out was a high squeak.
The creature flinched and stepped away. The girl turned to stomp off across the stream but slipped on the wet shale and slammed her head against a jagged rock, fracturing her skull.
The creature sniffed and frowned. He stepped to the girl and crouched and smelled her. He pushed at her limp body and rolled it over. The girl lay silent and still.
The creature wrinkled his forehead and spoke to her in a deep warbling melody. He touched the oozing gape in the girl’s head and moaned. He squatted by the girl and stared at her until voices echoed over the lee of the hill, and then he stood and walked away.
* * *
The girl’s gangly brother in his cross-gartered leggings and ratty wool tunic found her. He had searched for her since she’d wandered off while they gathered firewood that morning. He stood slack jawed and stared at her. After a few moments he called to the others.
The girl’s mother stumbled to her and hugged her slight body. She shook the girl and chanted her name. The others in the search party bowed their heads and looked away. The girl’s father walked up and knelt beside them. He smoothed the hair back from the girl’s pale face.
At the stream’s edge the girl’s brother found the massive track of the creature and shouted to the others to come and see. And so, an uneasy procession flanked the girl’s father as he carried her body home. When they arrived at the village word of the creature’s track and of the girl’s death spread while her body was washed and dressed.
* * *
The villagers gathered at the courtyard of the nobleman where a cleric in Celtic tonsure wandered among them distributing the blessings of their god while his brethren worked their priestcraft on the nobleman in his private chambers, exhorting him to remove from the land this murderous beast, this abomination before God.
The nobleman appeared on his balcony in fine linen breeches and silk fringed tunic. He offered the services of his hunting dogs and of his champion to avenge the child’s murder and end further threat to his vassals. Then the crowd dispersed.
The deerhounds picked up the scent at the stream near the creature’s gigantic track and they tore off after it. The nobleman’s champion and his men in their boiled leather armor spurred their fine horses to follow the dogs.
The creature smelled the dogs as they ran swift and silent across the hills. He turned from the berry thicket where he ate and headed off for higher ground and thick forest. The dogs stopped at the berry thicket and filled their noses with the creature’s scent and snarling and snapping they set off again.
With his long smooth gait the creature soon reached the cover of forest. He stopped at a ridgeline and looked down through the trees to where the dogs raced toward him. He grimaced and moaned at them and strode up the ridge. The creature unwittingly headed into a natural funnel of thick bramble and bushes where two ridges met at a steep cliff wall.
He was turning to go around this obstacle when the first dog caught him. The dog charged and snapped. It retreated then charged again and its teeth ripped into the creature’s leg. The creature howled and snatched the dog up by its head. He swung the dog against a tree and broke its back. The creature dropped the dog’s lifeless body on the forest floor.
Then the rest of the dogs were on him. They snarled and feinted and they backed him against the cliff wall. The creature moaned. He bared his blunt teeth and gestured at the dogs. The dogs attacked all at once and the creature stepped back and waved his arms and warbled at them. He tried to climb the cliff wall and his claws tore back and bled as the dogs pulled him down.
The battle cries of the men echoed from below and soon the horses broke through the trees, foaming and champing and throwing back their heads. The men brandished their weapons.
The creature shrieked and gestured at the horses with the back of one hairy hand as if by some invisible force he meant to push them away. He slapped and swung at the dogs.
The nobleman’s champion, his eyes maniacal, roared and pointed to the creature with his sword. His men cheered and grimaced and spurred their horses to follow their leader.
The creature looked at the men and warbled. The men jeered and cursed and spat at him, their faces contorted in fear and bloodlust. They feinted and swung with spear and sword and the dogs snapped and slavered at the creature.
One dog slipped inside the creature’s reach and locked its jaws on his leg. The creature cried out with a high pitched sound like a woman’s wail. He bent and gripped the dog at the base of its skull and snapped its neck. A sword struck the creature’s shoulder from behind, severing muscle and breaking bone. The creature roared and cradled the dangling useless arm.
A rush of air escaped the creature as a spear slammed through his chest. His face drooped in disbelief as he gripped the spear, and then he stumbled back and fell against the cliff wall with a whistling moan. He looked at the men in confusion. Fear and desperation played across his broad face. The remaining dogs tore into the creature and he let go of the spear to fend them off. The men dismounted and snarled at the dogs and beat them back with the flats of their swords.
The champion stepped forward, his sword held high. The creature met the man’s eyes and with one smooth stroke of the sword the creature’s head rolled across the torn earth. The creature’s head stopped and his eyes blinked and then stared up through the trees at the purpling sky. A butterfly flitted around the creature’s head and fluttered away into the forest.
* * *
The men rode proudly into the village led by the nobleman’s champion who held high before him the creature’s heavy head. At the high priest’s counsel the nobleman ordered that this dreadful fiend be displayed as a warning to all such abominations, and as a proof of man’s dominion over the earth, as granted by God.
The creature’s head was placed on a pike at the edge of the village. His dead eyes stared off toward the hills where he had lived, and the villagers spat on his severed head and rejoiced in their victory over evil.
Copyright © 2010 by M. L. Nichols