This story is by Leanne Beusekom and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
“Once upon a time,” I say, slowly and in a calming voice, my dagger dangling from my hand. “There was a creature in the woods.”
The creature doesn’t move, watching me, still as the trees. I would call it a monster, but that wouldn’t be wise with it only standing a few feet away from me.
“The creature had terrified all the people in surrounding villages for an age,” I take a step to the side, keeping an eye on the beast. It turns its head slightly, keeping its gaze on me as well. “The people of the villages were unhappy and afraid.”
I circle a little further around the beast, keeping up the eye contract. Never trust a monster, as the saying goes. I inhale and exhale, slowly, my breath making a white cloud in the morning air. Be calm.
“The people of the village looked for a hero, for a monster killer.” I say, so quietly that a human standing beside me wouldn’t hear me. But this creature does. It ducks its head, ever so slightly, and its eyes turn from a shade of light brown to deep orange.
I make it the spot I wanted, the clearing. The light shines brighter here, less filtered by the trees. “I am neither,” I tell the creature.
It says nothing, only looks at me, eyes the colour of dying, almost dead embers. I shift my dagger from one hand to the other and gaze back. The knife isn’t necessary, my words are strong enough, but there’s something comforting how it fits in my palm perfectly.
The villagers told me how this beast raided their farms, eating livestock and causing wreckage. How it came into the village and tore apart their homes, eating small children, delighting in the chaos and ruin.
I doubt their tales now, or maybe I have the wrong monster. This creature looks like part tree, skin like rough bark, horns like branches, like a tree brought to life. Dangerous to be sure, but not in the way that they said.
“Perhaps the people of the village were wrong,” I say, softly, softly. The creature tilts his head, and the sun rises higher, burning off the mist and taking away his shadows.
I must finish my job, no matter how I feel. I take a step forward, take a deep breath and sheath my dagger. “The only person found willing to rid the county of the creature was a foolish storyteller.” I wave my hand to indicate myself.
The beast crouches down, so that we’re on eye level. His gaze is calm, still as a forest pool, but with a depth that suggests far more intelligence then one would think from a monster.
“I don’t believe it was you.” I whisper. “I don’t think you do those things. I think it’s the foolish fear of humans that makes the monsters.”
There’s a moment of silence. The sun is high, morning has come, the night is gone. Faraway birds chirp. I can hear my breathing and the inhale and exhale of the creature in front of me.
“Finish your story,” The creature says. His voice is dry and crackly, like crunchy leaves in the fall.
It’s the ending words that count for the most. I know what I have to do, and I don’t want to. I take a deep breath. “The Storyteller scoured the forest all night and when the sun was beginning to rise he found the creature.”
The beast blinks slowly. He surely knows what’s coming, but he’s not afraid.
I shouldn’t be either. “He told the story, a tale as old as time, and when it came to the end—” My voice breaks. I’m crying. This is stupid and ridiculous. How many monsters have I vanquished in my lifetime? This should be no different!
I force my voice to be steady. “The monster faded away into the light, never to be seen again on this earth.”
“Not so foolish after all,” the creature says with a half smile, voice stretching thinner and thinner.
He shudders and slowly turns to mist, fading into the light, my words taking their effect.
“Goodbye.” I say sadly, but I’m all alone.