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Monster

"What makes a monster?"
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Published 3 months ago
Competition Entry: A Survivor’s Story

My grandmother tried to kill me in my crib when I was two months old.

She’s dead now.

Did I kill her? I don’t know. It’s not a simple question, and there are no simple answers.

All I remember is being covered in blood, her blood, as I lay in my crib.

#

I never met my father. He was a passing fancy, my mother told me. Someone to keep her loneliness at bay. I never met him, but I’ve seen him, swimming in my underwater dreams, vanishing into the unconscious watery depths as I awake. I asked my mother about him once, but she told me nothing.

I loved my mother. She loved me. She was scared of me, yes. But I saw the adoration in her eyes as she focused upon my misshapen head, the fur at my wrists and ankles, the unnatural outline of the two spines that ran up my back. She nursed me at her breast. She held me. She rocked me to sleep at night, awoke and soothed me when I cried.

She sang to me.

She bathed me.

She read me stories.

She and I lived alone in a tiny two-room house together. No one else, just her and I. I remember our home was warm in the winter, cool in the summer. It kept us dry when rain fell, safe when thunder shook the floors.

And while the rain fell, and while the thunder sounded, she and I would sit in the rocking chair, listening to the creak of the runners, back and forth, back and forth. She wrapped her arms around me; I snuggled against the beating of her heart. She’d play with the tufts of hair on my wrists and ankles, stroking my fur like a cat, rolling my tendrils into curls. She’d follow the route of my twin backbones down my body with her palm, tracing the depressions and bulges of my vertebrae until I felt normal. Until I felt human. Until I felt deserving of her love.

Other creatures lived out there, beyond the walls of our house. I’d see their eyes sometimes, watching us from the woods, glowing twin points of light that followed us as we moved from window to window.

I assumed they were friendly. The whole world seemed friendly, back then.

#

“Sweetheart, wake up, it’s time to go.”

I awoke from my crib in the dark of night. My mother hovered over me, arms outstretched.

Outside our tiny clapboard house, I heard agitated voices, and footfalls from all directions.

“What’s going on?” I asked my mother. From her startled reaction I knew that she was surprised I’d spoken. Pain flared in my throat and larynx, and as I examined these unfamiliar sensations it occurred to me I’d never spoken before.

Babies weren’t supposed to talk.

I don’t know how I knew this. It seemed to be knowledge I was born with.

My mother whisked me out of my crib. She wrapped me in a thick, soft flannel blanket that smelled exactly like her. Her breath. Her milk. Her sweat. Her love.

She whispered, “I’m just going to put a little cap on your head to keep you warm. Please don’t cry. Please stay quiet.

The world went black as she placed the cap over my head, covering my entire face. My first instinct was to cry, but I remembered her entreaties to make no noise, and I remembered the peculiar pain in her voice as she said the word “please.”

In the same way I knew babies weren’t supposed to talk, I knew she was hiding my face from the intruders outside.

I did not cry or make a sound. I heard the side door open, I felt the wintry brush of cold air as it invaded the folds of the blanket. I heard the door shut. People shouted and cursed all around me. I listened to the scrunch of my mother’s boots stepping through the snow, and knew instinctively she carried me to safety. The crunch of her boots on snow worked like a lullaby, and soon enough I was asleep, safe and warm and pressed snugly to her breast.

#

“Good morning, honey.”

I awoke. My flannel blanket and cap had been removed. I lay on a warm, comfortable bed. I felt light and heat pulsing from a crackling fire set into the wall. As I looked around the room I saw the roughly hewn logs that formed the walls, the thick overhead beams that supported the ceiling, and the wooden planking above the beams, the door bolted tightly against any dangers lurking outside in the dark.

The blurry shape of my mother “It’s time, son.”

“Time for what?”

“Time for you to know the truth.” She sighed heavily. “How old do you think you are?”

I didn’t know how to answer. Concepts I know of now--hours, minutes, years—had no meaning back then. Confusion showed in my features.

“You are thirteen months old. That’s just over a year old. You’re a one-year-old baby. My baby. And I will always love you. You will always be my baby.”

“I’m your baby,” I told her.

She kissed me. She said, “You can’t possibly know this, but one-year-old babies aren’t supposed to talk. Maybe a word or two. But you aren’t supposed to be able to hold conversations.”

“I’m not supposed to talk?” I asked.

“It scares people. Babies are supposed to be helpless. People expect babies to be helpless. But you can talk, and listen. You can eat regular food. You can walk.”

“Are they scared I’ll hurt them? I’d never hurt anyone.”    

She leaned down, wrapping me in her arms as she spoke. “Oh, honey, I know you’d never hurt anyone. None of this is your fault. People are scared of things they don’t understand. They look at the lovely ringlets of hair at your wrists and ankles, and they don’t understand it, because humans aren’t supposed to have hair there. They look at your back and see your two backbones, they get scared. They hear a baby talking…”

“And they’ve never seen babies talk before, so they get scared,” I finished for her.

“Yes, my love.”

“Are you a human?” I asked my mother.

“Yes I am.”

“Am I a human?”

A single tear rolled down her cheek. “You are better than any of them. You are smarter. Stronger. Kinder.”

I reached out to touch her cheek, and the tear travelling down her face. My fingertip brushed the wet salty trail on her skin. I tasted my damp finger and understood this was the taste of sadness.

“They don’t mean to be cruel. They aren’t smart enough to see you for who you are. They can’t look past what you look like to see who you are. They don’t understand. Their hearts are too small. They don’t know how to love you. I know how to love you.”

“I know how to love you.”

“That’s what your Grandmother could never understand. It’s not her fault. She knew how to love me. She didn’t know how to love you.”

“Is that why she tried to kill me?”

“Oh, honey,” said my mother. “Oh, honey. How could you possibly know that?”

I didn’t know how I knew. I just knew.

“She didn’t want to kill you. She didn’t know any better. You were crying. You wouldn’t stop crying. She tried to calm you and you bit her. You didn’t know any better either. But you weren’t supposed to have teeth, and you weren’t supposed to be strong enough to draw blood. So she got scared. She wanted to love you. She just didn’t know how.”

“Did she die?”

My mother did not answer.

“Did I kill her?”

With that sentence, my mother collapsed on the bed, the single tear turning to a torrent, her voice too racked with sobs to continue speaking.

“Who killed her?” I received only the freely flowing tears of my mother as my answer.

The next morning she was gone.

#

I waited for her all morning. Then all day. Then all week.

She was out getting us food, I consoled myself. She was out getting us water. She was out getting us help.

She never returned.

I searched the cabin for clues. On the center of the table she’d left a scrap of paper for me. It had an address on it. Lacking maps, the address was useless to me.  

I stayed in that little cabin all winter. Firewood had been split and stacked next to the outside wall of the cabin. Canned food had been laid in, and large canvas sacks of rice and grains and pasta were stored in the cupboard. A well and an outhouse provided water and basic hygiene.

I taught myself to start a fire. I learned that if I let the fire die in the night, I’d wake up to freezing cold, so I learned to keep the fire banked and always alight.

I learned how to operate the well. The well cap gave me problems, I was simply not large enough to lift and move it. I solved the problem with leverage; I foraged for a small tree limb I could slide through the handle and lift from a few feet away, with my force multiplied. I learned how to clear the ice, how to pump the lever, how to carry the water to the cabin, how to replace the cap when I was done.   

I learned how to work a can opener. I learned how to warm food over the fire, and after that how to cook it on the stove. When the cans were all gone, I learned how to boil water and cook rice and grains and pasta.

I grew. I began to chart my progress on the front doorframe with a chewed stub of a pencil I found on the floor. Some days I grew several inches. I knew this was not how normal humans grew.

A short stack of books sat on the table, gathering dust. Textbooks mostly, on history and math and grammar. A novel by a man named Mark Twain. A financial ledger with entries for income and expenditures, with several inches of blank pages at the end. I read every book in the room. I didn’t know how I knew the words, but I knew. When I finished the books I taught myself to write, in the empty pages of the ledger.

My first written words? “My grandmother tried to kill me in my crib when I was two months old.”

I wrote the very words you are reading now in that ledger.

I also copied the address my mother left me in the very back of the ledger. Maybe one day I’d search for it.

 My food and firewood ran out as Winter began to ebb and Spring began to show its face. Snow still lined the ground, but every afternoon the sun rose a little higher. I could have survived the cold, as Spring and warmer temperatures were on their way. But I needed food.

At first I tried to forage in the forest surrounding the cabin. Fruits and berries, mushrooms, the leaves of plants and trees. I had no guide as to what vegetation was edible, and which was poisonous. After a long weary night in which I threw up every few hours, I gave up my attempts at foraging.

I was nauseous and hungry.

No food. No firewood. No mother. No father.

I didn’t know where I was. I had no map. I had no future.

And if I were to somehow make it out of the wilderness, I’d return to a community that wanted me dead.

If they wanted me dead, then fine.

I wandered out into the snow alone to die.

#

Warm breath on my cheek awoke me. I opened my eyes to a pair of striking yellow eyes peering into my own. Startled, I jerked back.

Three sets of yellow eyes watched me.

Wolves. Three wolves, sitting on their haunches. I saw nothing threatening in their manner.

The wolf closest to me licked my cheek with a wet, sandpaper-y tongue. I giggled in surprised reaction. Apparently sensing I was awake and not dangerous, the other two wolves wandered over to me. As I looked to them I saw several more sets of eyes, off further in the dark of the forest. Owls and hawks nested in the limbs of the trees. Small mammals and rodents hid at the base of the trees. Deer. Bats. Even insects. The watching eyes of other creatures surrounded me. I felt no immediate sense of peril.

I felt safe.

I felt loved.

I no longer felt alone.

These eyes had watched my mother and me from the woods, back at our little house, before the trouble came.

The wolves led me back to their den, little more than a hole in the riverbank, slightly higher than the level of the water. They fed me, gave me water, offered me shelter.

The hole kept us warm. It kept us dry. It kept us safe from predators while we slept.

During the day, I’d hunt with them. I couldn’t eat everything they ate, but between all of us, we made sure everyone had enough food. I slept with them, awoke with them. The days turned warmer, the days grew cold, the days grew warm again. The movement of time shifted from an arrow to a circle.

The other animals of the forest kept my safety and happiness in mind, evidenced by the small trinkets they’d leave outside the den. Unopened candy bars. Books. Shoes. It was as if they were bringing me offerings.

One morning I found a small broken piece of mirror outside the den. I looked inside the glass.

Hideous.

I’d never seen my own reflection before.

How did I know I looked hideous, if I’d never seen my reflection before? How did I know this was not how other humans looked?

Because I remembered my mother. I remembered the beauty of her heart and her mind, and how it etched itself into her delicate features.

I could not describe my features as delicate. My thick brow jutted out of my forehead like the rock outcropping of a cliff. A milky grey film covered my eyes. Two gashes cut through my fin-like nose to form my nostrils. And my mouth, oh God, even now I shudder at seeing it for the first time. My thin lips resembled the gash of nostrils on my nose; a ragged tear in my gray skin, bristling with needled teeth.

My muscles crawled under my skin as I moved. My limbs bent and curled along unnatural lines. Drool collected at the edges of my lips. An oily ichor dripped from the corners of my eyes.   

Still. I possessed two arms, two legs. My heart beat, my lungs drew air. I was, recognizably, a human being. Not a monster.  

I looked around me. Three wolves, my family, stood by my side. Behind them, a crowd of rabbits, owls, snakes, squirrels.

“It’s time to go back to the human world,” I told them.

None of them understood speech, but they understood sorrow.

“I am not a wolf. I am a man,” I said. “I need to return to the world of men. That is my place.”

My lupine family did not understand speech, but sorrow is eloquent, and the next morning the four of us ventured far from our burrow, along a river valley, following the flow of the river. Rising chimney smoke and factory smokestacks on the horizon marked our destination.

Toward evening we reached a small clapboard building, modest and unassuming, but tidy and well-kept. Outside the front door stood a wooden cross.

My family has led me to a church.

A side door opened from the building, and an old man peered from around the doorway, understandably frightened at the sight of three large wolves and a shambling human dressed in rags, standing on the front lawn.

Nonetheless, he exited the doorway and took several cautious steps toward me.

I turned to my companions and saw them retreating from the human world, returning to their home.

#

“Am I a monster?” I asked the priest.

“I don’t believe in monsters,” he told me.

We sat at a rickety table in his cramped room at the back of the church. I’d been living there for weeks. He’d bathed me and clothed me. He’d brushed my pointed teeth, combed the matted hair of my head, and trimmed the fine tufts of fur circling my wrists and ankles. He wiped the ichor from my eyes, the drool from my chin.

He fed me. He gave me a bed. He taught me to speak like a proper human. We held conversations at the kitchen table, after supper, where he insisted upon proper grammar and structured reasoning.

“People tried to kill my mother and me. They tried to kill me because I was different. They tried to kill my mother because she protected me.”

“Doesn’t that make them the monsters?” he asked me.

“I thought you didn’t believe in monsters.”

He paused for a moment. “I don’t think anyone is born a monster. Monsters are made, not born. Cruelty turns people into monsters. Poverty and need turn people into monsters. Blind belief turns people into monsters.”

“You’re a priest. Aren’t you in the business of belief?”

“I’m an old man. I don’t believe the things I used to believe.”

“What don’t you believe anymore?”

“It’s not my job to challenge your faith. I’m here to comfort. That is my role. To hold my services on a Sunday morning. To break bread and share wine with my parishioners. To lead them in song and prayer. To share my church with them, and comfort them, and teach them to comfort themselves.”

I watched him preach on those Sunday mornings, hiding from the shadows in the corner of the building. His congregation was small: older people from the surrounding rural community. People who worked hard, in a brutish land where death was common.

The priest told the congregation parables of how hard work on Earth assures a better life in the afterlife. Heaven, he taught them, waits for those who believe. The cruelty and unfairness of this world were ephemeral, a passing thing, meaningless when compared to the vastness of eternity.

He did not emphasize spreading the good word, or avoiding sin, or the certainty of hell for non-believers. He focused on kindness and humanity.    

After services he’d stand on the front steps, smiling at the babies and grandchildren, grasping the hands of the men with strong handshakes, commenting on the Sunday finery worn by the women. He’d discuss their lives, their loves and their losses with the congregation. The congregation reacted with kind eyes, and heartfelt hugs.

Inside that little church, I learned how generous and compassionate humans could be. They rekindled my faith.

One Sunday a small child, bored and wandering the room during Sunday service, found my hiding spot in the corner. It was then I saw the other side of the human race.

#

They nearly killed the priest.

This was a rural community; they brought their weapons with them, even to church, for the world was harsh, and danger common.

When the little boy found me his eyes grew round, his bottom jaw dropped.

He pointed.

He screamed.

I tried to look to the priest, my protector, but the turmoil in the pews between his pulpit up front and my hiding spot in the back prevented me from seeing anything but chaos and the threat of violence.

The child’s mother rushed into what she must have seen as the teeth of peril, reaching out to grab her son by the collar and pull him away, smothering him in a protective hug. The child’s father leaped over the pew in which his family sat, teeth bared, handgun brandished.

The preacher cried out from the pulpit. “No! No! You know not what you do!” I again looked toward the sound of his voice but the tumult between us was too great. The front doors of the church were a few feet away; if I could get to the doors I could rush to safety.

I leapt from the shadows.

The mother and crying child still stood near, pointing and crying. At my movement they retreated.

His father took his place in front of me. The barrel of his gun glared at me like a blind, deadly eye.

“Get away from my son, you monster.” He cocked his gun.

I didn’t know what else to do. I bit him.

My teeth sunk into the skin of his forearm like nails. Blood tarnished the white walls of the church, and stained the Sunday best of the congregation. I clung to his limb with both arms and both legs. His gun clattered to the ground.

He howled like a wounded bear and raised his arm high up in the air. He attempted to shake me off, but I hung on tenaciously. Only when I saw him reach toward his gun did I react; I rushed out the door and into the forest that surrounded the church. As I ran into the darkness I heard gunshots, the crash of footfalls in the brush, the cries of children and the angry hollers of men hunting for me.

When I tired from running I climbed a tree, sure I’d be seen but too exhausted to run any more.

No one found me. Apparently it occurred to none of them to look up during their search.

The sounds of their hunting eventually faded away. Morning turned to afternoon. Afternoon turned to night.

Hunger gnawed at my belly. The cold numbed my skin.

I decided to return to the church. Surely their hunt had ended, and they’d moved on.

Cautiously I retraced my steps to the church.

The mob had nearly destroyed it.

The front door lay canted drunkenly open, hanging by one hinge, a great diagonal crack running from corner to corner. Around the grounds of the church lay ripped hymnals and trampled Bibles. Religious pamphlets littered the ground like confetti.

I entered the front door.

Pews had been turned over, pushed away, flung aside. Mud and gunshot holes blasphemed the floor and walls.

The priest lay broken in the center of the pulpit.

I rushed to him.

He was alive. I lifted his head in my arms, stroked his cheek. His first concern was not for his own safety, but mine. “You need to leave,” he told me. “They’re going to come back. They’re going to keep looking for you. They’re hungry for blood.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll be fine.”

“You’re dying.”

He chuckled. “I’m not dying. Please, trust me. I’m a priest, I’m not going to lie to you. I’ll be fine.” He smiled weakly. “I might need to look for a new job. But I’ll be fine.”

“Where will you go?”

“There’s always work for a man of the cloth. I’ll move on to the next town. Then the town after that. People are good.”

“How can you say that? After what just happened?”

He took his time coming up with an answer he felt comfortable sharing with me. He said, “Do you remember what I first told you when you came to me? Monsters aren’t born. Monsters are made. I don’t know what turns people into monsters. Life wears them down. Some people come through it with souls intact. Some people become monsters. I can’t even say it’s their fault. It’s not my job to assign blame. But yes, I believe that people are good. And I believe one more thing.”

“Yes?”

“I believe you are good. You are no monster.” He reached for something under his cloak. “I have something for you. I saved it so the crowd wouldn’t get to it.” He pulled out the ledger I’d gotten from the cabin, lifetimes ago. The ledger where I’d written the first chapters of this story. The ledger where I’d written the address my mother had given me.

A crude map had been drawn below the address.

“The address at the back of the ledger is your father’s address. I drew you a map. It’s many miles away, but you could get there with a few days of walking. Just keep to yourself. Stay by the side of the road. Duck into the underbrush if anyone is about to pass. With a little luck, and by God’s graces, you will be fine.”

I prepared to ask him the question that had been on my tongue so many times, but never released before. “By God’s graces? Do you really believe in God? After all this?”

“It is not my job to talk of belief or disbelief. My job is to guide you to your own decision. But never to make the decision for you. Now. Your father. Listen closely, the congregation could return at any time. The address is a cheap old motel, on the bad side of a town that has no good side. He lives alone. Everyone who lives there lives alone. It’s that kind of a place. Be careful.”

I promised I would.

I bade my friend farewell.

#

My father sat unnaturally upright on the sagging bed, the yellowed soles of his feet held in his dirty palms.

“Monsters? I don’t know anything about monsters,” he told me. “We used to be Gods.”

“Gods?” He did not look like a God. His body was much like mine, but larger, older, more battered. Rings of mangy fur encircled his wrists and ankles. The bones of his arms and legs bowed at unpredictable angles. His brow was thick, the eyes underneath them rheumy and red.

His teeth, oddly, looked perfect. Big and bright, aligned and unbroken. Movie star teeth.

He saw me looking. “Dentures. I found a sympathetic dentist.” He reached into his mouth and popped his shiny dentures out, revealing sharp, needle-like teeth to me. He popped the dentures back in. He offered a sheepish smile.

“But yes, Gods. Before I was reduced to wearing dentures, I was a God.”

This God who wore dentures and curled on the soiled mattress in front of me looked more suited for pity than for worship.

“There used to be a glamour about us,” he said. “A literal glamour we’d create, to manipulate the minds of humans. Men and women looked upon us and saw what we wanted them to see. We were impossibly attractive to them. Impossibly powerful. We were meant to be feared, and loved, and obeyed. We were meant to be worshiped.

“It was a different time. People believed in us. That lent us power. Great power. They wrote songs about us. They told stories. Stories turned into legends and myths. Entire faiths were created to explain our whims and weaknesses.

“Gradually humankind lost their ability to worship. Maybe it was all the televisions, the radios, the computers. Maybe seeing an image on a screen made their world too small for Gods. Too literal. Too logical. For whatever reason, they worshiped less. They lost the capacity for belief. And with that, our powers began to wane. The age of Gods turned into the age of Man, and by the time we understood, it was all too late.

“And here I am.”

I said, “You knew my mother.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Yes.”

“Why did she leave me?” It was a question I didn’t even know was on my mind until I asked it.

“Don’t blame her. She was a good person.”

“Why did she leave me?” I insisted.

My father leaned forward. “She killed her mother. To save you. Your grandmother tried to kill you, and your mother saved you. But it tore her apart. She was never the same.”

“How do you know this?”

“We talked. She kept in touch. She gave you my address.”

“Did you love her?”

“I felt a kind of love, yes.” His gaze was far away.

“Did she see the true you? Who I see now? Or did she only see the glamour?”

He hung his head. “She saw it all. She loved me first as a God. As the years passed, and the glamour faded, she saw the real me. And she still loved me. She was a good woman. But as my powers faded, I grew despondent. I left. I deserted her. I guess I am no God. I guess I am a monster.”

“You chose to be a monster,” I told him.

I returned to the words of the priest. Monsters were born, they were made, he had said. The priest was wrong. Monsters were not born, not made. Being a monster was a choice.

The same went for Gods.

Being a monster was a choice. Being a God was a choice.     

I made my own choice. I left my father to wade in his very human self-pity, in the soiled bed of his rented room.

I walked to the door and let myself out.

My three lupine companions stood at the entrance, waiting for me, their eyes filled with love and simple, unwavering loyalty. As I stepped off the porch and walked toward the woods, they fell in line behind me. I did not have to look back to understand that behind them a host of other creatures trailed in their wake.

I walked deeper into the forest, until all traces of the human world were erased. I took a seat on a large, curiously round rock at the center of a grove of trees. My subjects entered the grove in single file, and took their places around me. They fell into a hush, waiting patiently for me to grant them an audience.

Everything is a choice.

I choose to be a God.

 

 

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