A brutally honest reflection forecasts my nearing end, but at four years and a hundred, I can't complain. My head is bald and mottled; my beard rivals the snow; wrinkled folds for eyelids obstruct my vision. All memories have long since abandoned my decaying mind, yet thoughts of it (for I never knew its name) still linger. Curious as to how one thing can take root in one’s mind, mushrooming until it consumes all other thoughts.
And so before I take my walk with winter (knowing spring won't come for me this year), I tell this tale one last time, determined that the passage of time will not cast it as a mere myth.
The village at which the tale took place lay at the hip of the mountain. From that mountain, the peasants were, for reasons unknown, adept at finding gold within its recesses. They kept it to themselves, stockpiled within their village, knowing its use would become evident at some point in time. Until said time, they’d sworn to guard it from any who sought their good luck.
In the latter part of a day, thus far a day not unlike any other day, a father and son were dirtying their fingers in the soil to harvest potatoes when Myrna came into view, flailing her arms and screaming. "Monster!" Upon reaching her husband, Eamon, she clasped his shoulders, her eyes wild with fear. "Monster in the well!"
Their always curious young son, Finn, moved in that direction, and his father blocked him and ordered, "No. Stay with Mum." He grabbed his blade lying on the ground and raced toward the town's well.
Myrna and Finn held their ground until the noise dissipated. With careful steps, they made their way to the well in time to see a creature captured in a potato sack shoved inside an iron-barred cage, usually reserved for smaller wild pigs. Never before had the villagers beheld one such as the creature.
Myrna shuddered, “It’s hideous.”
Others cried out words like “vile,” “wretched,” “beastly,” and “heinous.”
Eamon circled it with careful steps, “Yes, no doubt deserving of loathing and contempt. One so small, however, must be a baby." His voice lowered in volume. "So that means there's one bigger lurking about."
The men touched hands to daggers strapped around their middles and rotated their heads like the Barn Owl.
"Maybe she's dead. This wee one orphaned?" his neighbour Cavan offered.
All eyes turned back to the hideous creature locked in the cage.
"No way of knowing, so we must assume its mum will come looking for it," Eamon replied.
"Father, what if it's not a monster?" His son had been carefully studying its movements and facial expressions. Its third eye, which split the other two, looked almost pleading.
"Use your noggin', boy. Look at it! Eyes the colour of blood. Claws where fingers and toes should be. Ratty hair where skin should be. No doubt the signs of a monster."
The boy looked again and didn't see evil in the creature. "But, it's smiling."
"Did ya fall out of a tree, laddy?" said Seamus, the oldest in the village and thus deemed the wisest. "Why those teeth will strip the flesh from your bones." He turned his head to Eamon. “Your son has a lot to learn about the ways of our lands.”
Finn recognized that look on his father’s face, the one that threatened a whipping later, so he said no more. After all, he was just a boy.
The creature was kept locked in its cage for the next four moons. Watched. Studied. Attempts to ascertain its purpose proved fruitless. Each time a man drew near, it stretched a clawed arm between the iron bars, seemingly attempting contact. One such time, Aengus, known for his bravery, poked it with his spear. The creature bared its shuddersome teeth, green saliva dripping down its chin, then withdrew its outreached arm. The men grew weary from watching, and no others like it came. Mischievous boys spent their idle time throwing rocks at it. Finn, however, couldn’t escape its tug on his heart and visited the creature often, sometimes tossing in bread crumbs when no one was looking. Despite his pity, he wouldn’t allow its touch.
After supper on the fifth day, since the creature had arrived, Eamon rose from the supper table, strapped his dagger around his waist, and headed toward the door.
"Father, where are you off to?"
Eamon turned to face his son. "We’re taking the creature to the mountain."
"To kill it?" Finn raced to the door, grabbing his father's arm, pleading. "You mustn't!"
Eamon shook loose of Finn's grasp and growled in his face. "Boy, it's a monster! Use your eyes!"
"But why not my heart," Finn mumbled as his father stalked through the door.
Myrna gently touched her son's shoulder. "You have my heart, Finn. Sometimes it serves you well. Sometimes not."
Finn turned, accepted her open arms, and lay his head against her bosom. "But, Mum, why would a creature such as it have need of our gold?"
She ran her fingers through his carrot-coloured locks, thinking he seemed wise at that moment for three years and ten. "What need did the goblins have? Yet they came night after night, forcing us to build our walls and lock the gate with the last rays of the fading sun." She lifted his face to seek his eyes that mirrored his father’s, save for crow’s feet. "Some want things simply because others value those things… whether they have use for it or not."
Her words failed to soothe him. Bearing a heavy heart, Finn's thoughts returned to the creature, and he broke their embrace and ran away.
"Finn!" she called, but he kept running.
Hearing his father’s voice ahead, Finn slowed. He kept his distance whilst traversing the tangled underwood and thorny bushes. All laboured the crooked path until Eamon and Aengus flung the sack filled with the creature on the cliff at the tip-top of the mountain.
“Let the buzzards have it,” Aengus chuckled.
Happy in their deliverance of the creature, Eamon and Aengus started back down the hillside.
Finn fled his hiding place, busied his hands unknotting the rope, and released the creature. Barely a moment had passed when an indescribable screeching broke the silence of the night. With his eyes shooting skyward, Finn gasped as a red figure penetrated the clouds before rapidly descending toward the village below.
Finn’s eyes squinted and then burst wide. The creature’s wing span mocked the largest of fowl. He leapt to his feet as the monster spit its first flames at the village. Smoke billowed as fire lept from cottage to cottage, the dragon never once discriminating. Fathers. Mums. Children. All were set ablaze. Finn's heart seized when he thought he heard Mum's cries above the others.
Finn thought nothing could be worse than listening to their piercing screams and clapped his ears, certain they must be trickling blood.
How wrong he was, for the silence afterward proved more deafening. His abrupt aloneness — unbearable.
The dragon flew away with bags of gold grasped within its razored talons whilst Finn clutched his knees and tucked into a tight roll, sobbing like an infant. The creature moved in front of him and reached its clawed hands to his temples. That time, Finn, lost to despair, didn't retreat.
I came to your village as your lucky charm, for the dragons fear my kind. Its thoughts somehow entered the boy's mind.
If only someone had allowed my touch, I could have revealed my intentions, the creature continued.
The boy looked into its watering eyes that matted the fur on its cheeks, then back toward the charred landscape he used to call home.
What fools, he thought, and continued to weep.
The adage "with age comes wisdom" proved untrue because I had recognized something the elders had not. If only they had not cast aside this young lad's words…
And so, this tale begs to question; what does a monster look like to you?