The first month’s contest has yielded so many wonderful stories, we are a little saddened, because not all the deserving stories can win. It amazed us to see the creativity of the writers who submitted to us, and the surprisingly different ways they interpreted the photo. After several deadlocked votes, we’ve finally arrived at our final choices.
Our first runner up is a truly splendid story, and only came in second because it doesn’t highlight a monster. Tonight, we offer you a beautiful story from Charles Payseur, whose story, Biology of Circuits, graced our pages in February.
by Charles Payseur
The woman comes crying
to the feet of the statues for the third time in as many days. Her eyes are drenched, small pools flushed with the melt of early Spring. Her feet, poorly covered for the lingering cold of the mornings, crunch the frosted grass and bring my attention to the shrine. I can smell the food in her arms, small packets of rice and bean and vegetables, and I wait motionless, invisible, my shadow flickering softly like the flame of a candle. She places the small bits of food down in front of the statues, offerings to the gods, to Maweii the Devourer, who eats the sins of the righteous, to Vel, the Balancer of Souls. I wait until she has said her prayers and left before I descend, my clawed hands grasping the bark of the tree as I fall from my perch.
The food is simple but filling, and I take it knowing full well that Maweii and Vel never travel so far from the Endless City, exist here only as small statues, distant threats and promises of aid. My tail swishes slowly as I eat, relaxed, content that there are no other creatures lurking, that after three weeks they have learned to give me wide berth. I am no fox or feline, though my features resemble both. But no fox has such proud ears as mine, long as a rabbit’s and fuller, able to hear the fall of each flake of dropping snow. And no cat has fangs as sharp as mine, which can bite through armor as easily as skin.
Still, even I prefer to sleep away the days and take these free meals. After I am done I return to the tree, curl my tail around myself for warmth, and drift to sleep, am awakened later by a merchant come to give her weekly allotment to Vel, a full pound of rice and a small, stillborn goat. She leaves, I feast, and soon enough am back to my branch. Three weeks since I have found this place, and I can feel my weight returning. Much different than the nights fleeing the Endless City, my hands raw from running, my breath short and my ears never still.
There is no room for small gods there, where every theft is investigated, every death treated as the result of a foul spirit. And in the cities, where the soldiers use cold iron, metals that can hurt even me, there are few places to hide, to find a quiet moment. Here, in small villages the gods have never even heard of, here I can stretch and relax, can wait for these people to bring me my meals. I sleep again.
It is night when the sound of soft feet upon the earth wakes me, and I open my eyes to see the woman again, her face more distant now, her eyes drained of their waters. I sniff the air, but catch no smell of food. I begin to close my eyes again, but something about the woman holds my gaze. She stops before the statue of Maweii and crumples to her knees like a dancing doll whose strings have been cut. I stand carefully and drop without noise to the ground, curious, and pad to the shrine, the red fur along my back bristling slightly. I snake between the stone statues, pause behind that of Maweii, and then enter the stone, feel myself inhabit the image of the god.
“…should hear us, should help us,” she is saying, and I force myself to listen to her words, which fall from her mouth like bits of rice. “And what will you do for Sahmwi, who has no sins to eat? Will her balance fall into the Fire because she has not lived long enough to pay Vel? She will die if nothing is done.”
For the first time I look up into her face from the stone eyes of the statue. Her features are soft, rounded, beautiful save for the grime that clings to her. I know her from the food she brings, a simple woman, believing that the gods can hear her. And yet I have eaten her offerings, have watched her drag herself here time and again. I cannot tell her that her gods are not here, that her offerings feed only a sly spirit, a small god that does not even merit the smallest of statues. She speaks more, but I do not listen to the words, but rather to the feelings beneath. There is a warmth there, a fire barely flickering with life. Even so, it seems a warm hearth to me, who has been so long in the cold.
The woman rises, leaves, and I find myself following, stalking her faint shadow as she leads me to a small cottage in the village, to the sounds of a snoring husband, to the smell of slow death that seeps from the crib near her bed. She sits next to her husband, but her eyes do not leave the small figure in the crib until the night and the weariness of grief force her down to sleep. I move closer, leap with ease to the edge of the crib, and look down at the small form within. A weak face, too young to understand what it might be seeing, stares back at me.
I sooth it as I step closer, my hands careful as I remove the child, which is now too frail to cry. I bury it in the woods, far enough away that it will not be found, and return silently, slip into the small crib, my body already changing, morphing, my ears shrinking down to human size, my fangs retreating, my tail hiding itself in my shadow. It will work for all of us, I know, for now her daughter lives, and a small god will eat, and has answered its first prayer.
Charles Payseur currently resides in Eau Claire, WI, with his wife and cat. When not cooking or ravenously consuming books, he can normally be found in front of the computer, writing. In addition to his February 20th appearance here on Monster Corral, his work has appeared in _NOTA_ and as a semifinalist in the 2012 Wisconsin Public Radio Ghost Story Flash Fiction Contest.