Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

They Called Him Monster

The sprite feels wood against her fingertips. Old wood. It’s the wild, gnarled trunk of an oak tree hewn, shaped and molded back together as a table. It’s a free thing bound into shape by a carpenter until it becomes simply, elegantly, something tamed. Just like her.

The sprite sits at the table in a small Barcelonan flat listening to the old woman chatter away. It is the old woman’s table. It is her apartment. The woman is lonely and so she savors this rare visit, spilling out her stories in a torrent of sound. The sprite does not speak the old woman’s language; she cannot understand the words as they drip and fall around her. But the meaning escapes the words and makes its own way.

See this handsome man here? This was my husband. He was a good man. He is gone now, dead in the war.

The sprite nods, pulling her long hair over her shoulders and stroking the boards of the table for comfort. She wonders which war.

And see this one, this fine, strong boy? This was my son. He too was a good man. He too is dead in the war.

Heroes lost, something so human, and the feeling comes through to the sprite all too vividly. The words say this is my son but they mean look here, this is my loneliness.

Loneliness too is a bound and shaped thing, a shape the sprite knows well.

***

At sixteen the summoner was old enough to know that if he would ever have the power to summon and bind her, he always would. He was arrogant and it did not occur to him that his power would ever fail. On the night of the new moon he stood in the thickest shadows thrown by the cathedral and summoned her out of the free places.

The bastard son of a priest, the summoner grew up among the stones and rigging of the construction site, always pitied with small jobs, never trusted with an actual trade. The cathedral was his anchor, ensconcing the dignity his birth denied him, slowly rising as he shot up toward manhood. He burned with a need to become great, so he turned to the dark powers the cathedral shunned.

When she first appeared to him it was as a monstrous thing. Long hair hung ragged down her back, twining over her bilious flesh like a nest of serpents. Her tits hung limp and wasted. Yellow eyes sat deep in her skull. She was illuminated by the reddish glow of hellfire even as he coiled a length of rope fashioned from hemlock and rowan about her.

This was not her appearance when free. She was not even female in the free spaces. But he was young and naïve. He believed in the dangerous and unknowable mysteries of women, in the nurturing face of nature, so he felt the sprite should be female, that it should be hideous, and so she was. He believed that to take her power he must take her, and so he did.

He, a boy of sixteen, had never known a woman, so he did not shape her quite as other women. His lust ripped and tore, heedless of her silent wails, her frantic clutching at the earth below as she prayed that some small part of her might return to it.

After the night of his summoning he was so disgusted he could barely look at her. Nevertheless, he reported to the master builder with ideas for the cathedral’s construction. Within hours he, a mere bastard, moved from his position of pity to architect’s apprentice.

He immediately took to his new tasks, gulping down all there was to learn of engineering and construction, returning only long after dark. She would stare up at him, yellow eyes glowing in the dark, but he did not speak to her. Waves of self-loathing took him, so he beat her. When he felt lonely or ignored he took her in his arms, closed his eyes against the sight of her, and slaked his lust.

By twenty he had grown into a handsome man. With broad shoulders and a prized position working on the cathedral, he had his choice of wives. He chose a young girl, comely, slight of build and quiet-tempered. Before bringing the girl to his home he dug a room underground and left the sprite there. She wept, for in the time since he summoned her he had learned that women wept. In a thick, grating voice she begged him to free her from the hemlock bonds, but he ignored her pleas.

The night before the girl arrived he went down into the underground room and beat the sprite, threatening her with iron and mistletoe if ever his bride discovered her. The sprite cowered as her flesh oozed thick, black blood. Her fingers dug into the earth and she promised herself that she would not provoke him into fresh horrors.

A decade passed before he returned to the underground room.

***

The sprite hears her summoner’s knuckles rap against the old woman’s door before they actually touch it. When he steps through the door the sprite is turned to him, wide brown eyes dancing with love, lips trembling with what looks like anticipation and feels like fear. It has been a century since he last raised his voice to her, but still the hemlock woven into her clothing burns against her skin.

The centuries have aged him, though perhaps not so thoroughly as they should have. His hair is iron gray, still wavy, his features still sharp and clever, his posture still straight. Standing next to him she looks more granddaughter than wife. Her own hair is a long cascade of platinum curls, her skin soft and elastic. He feels old, so his body complies. He believes she should be impervious to time and so she is.

He takes her hands in his and speaks to the old woman. Still the sprite gathers meaning, but not the words themselves. It is small talk, an exchange of empty air, a slight nothing protecting them from actual interaction. The sprite leans into him until it is over, then quietly follows him out of the apartment and down to the street below.

She marvels at how light her step is on the ground. The sidewalks are paved in tiles with flowers stamped into them, but she barely feels the stone under her feet. The lightness frightens the sprite. She is visible to the other pedestrians, but if somebody bumps her, will she float away? Separation from her summoner is a thing to be feared, for if she loses him there is nobody to remove the hemlock.

He puts an arm around her and pushes her hair away from her face. His smile is warming as the sun cannot be, his eyes shine with the stolen sparkle of starlight. This man, her universe, shelters her against the cacophony of tall buildings rising around them. He comforts her through the loss of earth and sky and sea by capturing them and reshaping them into things she can have. She loves him with every ounce of her soul and fears him with every thread of her being.

***

The summoner let his ambition drive him too far. His success could no longer be attributed to mere luck; all knew he’d used dark powers. The villagers did as they must and set flame to his home while he slept there with his wife and children. He woke to the sound of their screams, unable to help them. They were dead before he managed to escape the house.

Once the villagers were gone the summoner went to the earthen room and pulled the sprite out of it. She took the fresh air in deep gasps, breathing the smoke with relish, for she knew that once fire was set against him, it would follow him always. The summoner did not notice her pleasure because he fell to the ground and wept.

Dawn kissed the sky, starting its blush into morning, and he finally rose. He grabbed the sprite by the hemlock binding her wrists and started toward the woods. They walked for hours, pressing through underbrush, crossing streams until, finally, he collapsed, dragging the sprite down with him. Moments later he pulled at her, pinning her to the earth and climbing between her legs.

Her shape changed during the time in the underground room and he did not tear as he had before, but still she wept. Bare moments after beginning he collapsed next to her, pulling away from her with renewed disgust.

“They called me a monster,” he said.

The sprite had no answer for him.

“My family is dead but I have no mark. Because of you?”

“Because of me,” the sprite agreed.

“Then I am a monster.”

She still agreed.

***

The streets slant upward and become more crowded. Locals and tourists jostle together, bumping the sprite as she clings to her summoner. Frightened, she focuses on his bulk, imagining his weight and girth as an anchor. He notices when the band of his trousers becomes snug and puts an arm over her shoulder, acknowledging her sudden unnatural lightness for the first time.

“My apologies.”

Weight returns to the sprite. She feels her hips and thighs grow rounder, her breasts fuller. She looks down at her hair and sees it transformed into straight chestnut locks matching those of the local women pressing around her. They do not notice the change. As she relaxes he returns to his previous shape.

“What did you think of the old woman?” he asks.

“Lonely,” the sprite answers.

“Very lonely. But still beautiful, yes?”

Finally, the sprite recognizes the old woman, the city. She is his daughter, this city the place where his heart finally broke. “And her mother?” the sprite asks.

That was before he decided to grow old, before the sprite became quite so beautiful, before they went to the jungle.

“Long dead. I had to come back, to know. Even at the end, she did not forgive me.”

***

He shaped wild things into order, made structure where only free space thrived before, and his talent for the work was mighty. They burned him from his first home because of his gift, his crime, but there were other cities and other cathedrals. He went to them and wherever he went he found work. Wherever there was work, there was also an underground room, the bound sprite shedding tears and clutching the earth even as it turned to ash between her fingers. Never in all that time did the summoner seek another wife, contenting himself instead with the creature he kept in a monster’s shape, though slowly, as decades passed, she began to take on the features of this or that woman who might have been his wife if the heat of flames and sounds of screaming didn’t torment him still.

Then the age of cathedral building came to an end.

It wasn’t so very sudden. New cathedrals still grew here or there, but the bustle was not as before. The need for skilled cathedral builders diminished. For the first time in centuries the summoner stopped, pondering what to do. His pause gave the fire chasing him time to take a new shape, to lay out a new trap for him.

She was dark and lithe, her voice rich and passionate. Her skill for shaping words matched his for stone and though she cared little for buildings, arguing with his old, dusty and wrong-headed ideas lit her up. The sprite recognized this woman shaped of fire, this trap, and for the first time in centuries, rejoiced.

The summoner spent two days sitting alone with the sprite, silent and pondering the terrible temptation before him. The sprite ignored him, finally cut off from the earth entirely as she lay on the wooden floor of a one-room flat, watching sunlight cross the boards and dreaming of the free spaces. After two days, loneliness drove her nearly mad and she acted.

“There is a cathedral here already,” she said.

“There are other kinds of buildings. We could do something new, something different.”

“If you marry her, she will burn.”

“I will not let her be hurt,” he said. The words cast a spell, allowing him to believe them. “I won’t let it happen,” he said again, reinforcing the magic of his denial. Then with something akin to joy he left the flat, ready to immolate himself on this new love.

There was no underground room for the sprite in this city, but a chest in an attic. She did not mind, for her summoner had given up his true shape as monster and wife-killer, giving her the power to shape him. Inside her metal casket, as hemlock burned her naked flesh, the sprite dreamed him into a gentle man. The man of her dreams aged like other men, was a good husband and father, laughed with the warmth of afternoon sunlight, had a conscience. She watched his dreams while he slept and shaped them, making him love his wife and daughter yet more.

Then, after ten years of molding him so gently even he did not see the changes, she sent him a nightmare of shrieks, of fire unleashed and hungry. Three nights in a row she sent him the dream. Three nights in a row he woke sobbing, his wife holding him and offering comfort.

The morning after the third night the sprite’s prison was opened, revealing her summoner with a new length of hemlock and rowan, his wife standing next to him. The sprite was transformed by his hope, no longer a grotesque creature lit by hellfire but a radiant child, glowing with the light of salvation.

“We will be together forever, safe against anything,” he said as he offered the cord to his wife. “We two will bind her, instead of me alone.”

The wife did not speak.

“Please. My dreams, they are a prophecy. This will protect you.” He took her hand and pressed the rope into it.

The wife recoiled. “Set her free.”

“I can’t. I would die,” he said.

“Then die. I will not have you at this price.” The wife threw the hemlock at him and stormed away, leaving a broken man behind her.

The sprite did not speak the wife’s language, but her meaning dripped through. The words said I will not have you but they meant you are alone. Each of her footsteps crackled as they touched the floor and she left the scent of smoke her in wake.

Hours passed in silence as the fire burned the summoner. The sun began to set and the sprite turned piercingly blue eyes on him. “You hurt her.”

“If I free you . . . you could let me live. I could come back to her. Would you allow me that?”

The sprite did not speak to him again.

They went deep into the heart of the jungle, as far from shaped and bound things as they could. They left everything but a knife and a boat at the mouth of the river. They climbed into the boat, mosquitoes and other insects preying on his naked flesh, and motored their way upstream. Once he decided they had gone far enough they left the boat behind and hiked into the jungle.

When they reached a place so dense he felt sure only snakes and insects, birds and monkeys had ever seen it before, he took the cord of hemlock and rowan in one hand and pressed the blade of his knife into it. He chopped at the cord, sawed it, but the knife made no mark.

“One captive cannot free another,” the sprite said.

He found a sharp stone and again tried to cut the rope, again with no effect.

“What do I do?” he asked.

You must free me,” she said.

He pondered it only a moment, then took the cord between his teeth and tore at the fibers. They split and broke away, falling loose. Long swollen scars of blistered red and purple from the hemlock immediately began to heal.

The sprite sank her feet into the rich jungle loam, reached up to the canopy with cat-like grace, prepared herself to melt into the afternoon drizzle. But the loam pulled away from her, the canopy did not acknowledge their kinship, the water would not touch her. Too much of her supported flying buttresses, shaped cathedrals and froze unsupported domes. She was trapped, centuries of slavery ruining her for freedom.

“Bind me again,” she wept. “I can’t go back. Bind me again.”

***

The hill rises up before them, a shaped thing. Tree and scrub remain, sitting aside and among the sculpture and the buildings. Steps before them bear tiled animals cast in concrete, reaching up to a plateau of stone and pillars where locals hawk merchandise to the tourists. More hill rises behind that, a path winding through gardens wild by design. They climb, taking the meandering paths upward, passing benches that curve almost as if their presence is accidental, vines overgrowing them. They duck off the path, sitting down on the dusty ground, among the plants, hidden from view enough to escape the eyes of passersby.

“What is this place?” the sprite asks.

“It is a place like you,” he says.

She can feel that. The dust coats her fingers as she rubs them in it. The connection she could not make in the jungle presses around her. This place was captured just like her, except its purpose was beauty from the start. Where her first shaping came from arrogance and fear this place met reverence and kindness. It is a free place shaped just enough to display its nature.

“There’s a new cathedral here now, one they still haven’t finished,” he says.

“Will you work on it?”

“That’s up to you,” he says.

He kisses her, his mouth to her full, accepting lips. One arm wraps around her body, the other tears at the fabric of her dress, breaking the hemlock fibers. She gasps and leans into him, letting the fabric fall away from her body. Then she pulls at his clothing, exposing his flesh to unrelenting afternoon sunlight, pressing her own against him. Dust coats them. The plants scratch and they bleed. The sunlight burns and the sprite feels herself dissolving into it. The last of the fabric leaves her as her fingers intertwine with his hair. The park grasps her, absorbing her into it, opening the door back to the free places, back to her true shape.

In an instant the centuries fall away from them and they are no longer in a hot park in a city by the sea, but standing in the shadows of his first cathedral, bathed in the darkness of the new moon. He struggles to resist the shape of a sixteen year old boy, she struggles to maintain the shape of a woman even as her true shape and power tug at her.

Memories of the centuries try to flee from her—they are a thing too foreign to retain and here, now, they have not yet happened. It is the beginning again, and this boy holding himself in the body of an old man stands humble before her. In his hand he grips a long rope made of hemlock and rowan.

“Let’s try it again,” he says. Then he tosses the cords aside. “Equals this time.”

For a moment the night lurches, the cathedral disappears, and they are making love under stunted hill-trees. Then it fades and they are once more under the cathedral.

“Equals,” she says as she takes a step toward him. It hurts to keep this woman-shape, to hide herself like this, but she remembers enough to know she must. He still has power; she is not yet safe.

“Nobody will get hurt this time,” he says. The sixteen-year-old breaks through with his smile.

She grins widely, her teeth showing. There is no light to reveal their sudden sharpness. “Equals,” she repeats, offering a slender human hand to him. He grips it.

They flash to the park again, spent and dirty, each seeking out the soft places in the other for a pillow. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” she replies.

Then the park is gone, forever lost to them. Under the cathedral she clasps his hand in agreement. He has no power over her. She pulls him to her, clutching him against her breast. He weeps, relieved to find forgiveness at last. His relief supports him even as she lets go of the woman shape and rips out his throat.

At sixteen he was old enough to know that if he would ever have the power to summon and bind her, then he always would. He was powerful and it did not occur to him that he would ever change.

There in the shadow of the cathedral she feasts on his flesh, sucking the marrow from his bones until dawn. Then she gives up all semblance of a human shape, leaving head and limbs and teeth behind, going back to the free places and becoming a wild thing once more.

© 2013 by Anaea Lay.

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Anaea Lay

Anaea LayAnaea Lay lives in Madison, Wisconsin where she sells Real Estate under a different name, writes, cooks, plays board games, spoils her cat, runs the Strange Horizons podcast, and plots to take over the world. The rumors that she never sleeps are not true. She has no comment on the rumors about the disconcerting noises emanating from her basement.