You can’t see the cave looming ahead, but you can feel its darkness reaching out to strike.
“Are you sure about this?” you ask. Your hand is tentative on the elder’s arm, and you stumble as he guides you over a rocky patch of ground. The sword and heavy bag swing unbalanced on your hips. “I really don’t think I’m suited for this kind of thing.”
The elder pats your hand gently, patronizingly. “I am certain,” he replies. You wait for elaboration, maybe a few worn-out but generous words of inspiration, but he does not bother.
He slips away at the mouth of the cave, his bone-thin arm unsheathing from under yours. He leaves you with nothing but a murmured “good luck” that sounds more like “goodbye” and a lingering boiled-cabbage smell. You immediately decide that if you die, you won’t miss him. You refuse to miss anyone from your village. You almost hope the monster kills you, so the village will be indebted to your memory and forced to recant every mockery they’ve ever made of you—the price they should pay for trying to make a hero out of you. If you die, they’ll remember your sacrifice, but if you succeed they’ll laud you as a hero. There’s no downside, you tell yourself. Even if you don’t get the chance to do it yourself, somehow your story will be told.
Wearing this hope like armor, you step into the cave before you have time to reconsider. The darkness is different here—you are, after all, an expert on darkness. This new darkness constricts the breath in your lungs. Perhaps the monster will try to do the same.
The faint whisper of her hair beckons from ahead. It sounds rhythmic; she must be sleeping. A relief. You tiptoe deeper into the cave, your nerves taut as lyre strings. Every step is an obstacle. She is notoriously messy, the stories say: bones and skin and jewels litter the cracked floor of her lair. No respect for the remains of forgotten heroes. Watch out for the statues, they say, but you have trouble taking this advice literally. You bump into more than one, their outstretched arms catching at your tunic and scabbard. Despite the bruises the statues grant you like gruesome benedictions, their presence is reassuring because at least you can tell they aren’t monsters. Statues are extant, but monsters ooze and glide, sinful and sinuous—at least, this is what you have been told. She will be your first monster. You think you left your excitement at home.
A bone crunches beneath your foot.
Her hair stops whispering.
Your heart screams in the startling silence. You draw your sword and hold it steady as you can, hoping she can’t hear your knees knocking together loud as satyrs’ hooves. To calm your nerves, you invoke a few clichéd heroic phrases like a prayer: “Your time is up, fiend. Where are you hiding, you ugly sack of scales? Why don’t you come out and face me like a—”
“Like a man?” The voice is muffled, as if slithering out from beneath a heavy weight. You curse. The sneaky witch has been awake the whole time. Her hair hisses ferociously, countless voices all at once, and the sound ricochets off the statues until your ears ring like struck gongs.
You strafe left, then right, seeking the source amid the confusion. You try on a few more storied tropes for size. “That’s a nice trick, but you’ll have to do better than that, monster. You don’t scare me. Do your worst!”
“Well,” she replies, “how could we resist such an invitation?”
The racket of her hair is making you dizzy. It masks her movements, so you are caught off guard when a statue crashes to the floor in front of you, scattering pebbles of petrified flesh over your sandaled feet. Your sword dips involuntarily to the floor. You kick the larger chunks out of the way and reassert your grip before the blade cleaves your toes. A sudden hiss over your right shoulder—you twist and swing your sword up fast, like you were taught; but the blade catches harmlessly under a stony chin. It jars your hands until they shake as if with laughter. You weren’t taught very well.
Slowly, the sound drains away to a low, needling buzz. “What’s the matter, little warrior? Can’t find your way?” she sneers, and you feel the impact of another statue behind you. She is toppling her own city just to crush you. She will not stop until you are dead. But neither will you—or so you tell yourself to calm the quaking of your limbs, to ease the racing of your heart. You whirl around towards the second statue. Caught by the motion, your bag smacks urgently against your hip.
“Monster!” you yell. “If you have any last requests, I suggest you make them now!”
The monster sidles up behind a nearby statue, letting her whispering hair give away her position. It has more voices than you can count, and speaks with no words you can understand, but the monster translates: “We want to know who writes your outdated little speeches. We think it’s time you hired a new bard.”
You let your sword fall to the floor, where it rings out a chorus of echoes. Under the cover of its noise, you hurriedly fumble to open your bag. “I have no bard. I craft my own speeches and tell my own tales.”
“Then you must truly be grateful for the oral tradition,” she teases. You ignore the jibe. You’ve already heard every variation on the same joke.
“So will you be—because it’s about to become your tomb!” With a dramatic flourish, you hoist the mirror up out of your bag and thrust it towards the monster’s voice. At last! Triumphant music bursts into your head to accompany the dying screams of—
But you hear no dying screams. In fact, you hear nothing at all. Even her hair is silent.
You suppose that perhaps the stories were wrong on a few details and there is no sound to accompany the transformation of flesh into stone: no grind of bones crusting over, no creak of skin stretching stiffer than leather, no final cries of defeat. A disappointment; you were looking forward to that part. But sound or no sound, you think, the monster’s dead. You decide to get a closer inspection, though, because when you do tell your story you will want to describe every last detail of the monster. First will be her smell: a sickening menagerie of spoiled flesh that slithers up your nose to squat heavily in your lungs. Then her sound: the awful, piercing hiss of her hair and its insidious language. Your audience will dream of each serpent’s scream echoing through the labyrinth of victims.
They will want to know her face, so you step forward, mirror raised like a shield. The mirror will become your symbol, once your tale becomes legend. No one will look at themselves again without first seeing you—irony at its finest. You let a proud smile carve itself out of your face.
The statue under your hand is cold and dry, but ceramic-smooth. Your fingers skip over a small mountainous nose and a tight-lipped mouth. This must be the monster’s face, you think; but there is something undoubtedly feminine in its delicate shape, unlike the countless grotesqueries you had imagined for her. All your favorite stories—and worst fears—are populated by monsters: hideous harpies, sadistic sirens, malicious mermaids. This monster, this freak, should have belonged in their abominable ranks, with serpents writhing from her scalp and eyes cursed with danger. And yet her face feels remarkably similar to your own. You know by the feel of it that yours is nothing like the rugged countenances expected in heroes. You pull your hand back to let it briefly explore the topography of your features. With your own image fresh in your mind, you reach out again to feel the monster’s stone face.
Your fingertips catch on sharp-edged teeth. This time, her mouth is wide open.
You leap back in shock. A shred of something—you barely have time to hope it’s not discarded skin—slides underfoot, and you tumble into the pleading arms of a statue.
The mirror falls, not like Troy but Olympus itself, wreaking destruction. Its battle cry is in its shattering, its eruption of daggers. You fall to your knees and grasp shards in your hands. They prick your skin like fangs.
Her hair is moving again, scales rasping on scales, and suddenly strong arms heave you up from the floor. You throw the shards of glass from your hands but they fall uselessly to the floor, tinkling the way you imagine Olympus’ falling stars would.
She is not laughing. It takes you a moment to realize it, but she is not laughing. You had expected laughter, at least if you failed—and you had enough humility to imagine, before embarking, scenarios in which you failed—but the monster helping you to your feet, not laughing, was not one of those scenarios.
As her hair settles into a low whine, she says, “That’s better. Now we’re even, little warrior. You can’t kill us, and we can’t turn you to stone.” What you really can’t do is remember how to move. You stand frozen as one of her snakes stretches out and, tentatively, drags its forked tongue across your meaningless eyes. “Of course,” she adds, “we could still kill you, but that wouldn’t exactly be fair.”
Blood wells where the mirror pierced your hands. You wipe it off on your tunic slowly, fearing sudden movement will encourage her hair to strike.
“We can smell your fear,” the monster says, and for a moment you think you hear something like sadness beneath her arrogance.
“I can smell your lies,” you reply in a shakier voice than you hoped for.
“You’ve told yourself more lies than we have.”
In a last-ditch attempt to live up to the stories, you blurt out, “You’re wrong, monster! You think I can’t kill you, but I’m as deadly as you are. I’m a legendary warrior. I’m—”
“A sacrifice, fattened on futile hopes of championship to keep you from running away.” The monster’s bare feet sound like dry scales brushing across the dusty floor. “Trust us, child, we’ve seen them all. We’ve met heroes and offerings, virgins and warriors, ancient and newborn, storied and silent. Don’t waste your breath on falsehoods.” Metal sings against stone as the monster picks up your sword. “This is a decent weapon.” One or two of her snakes hiss appreciatively. “We’ve seen finer, of course, but only because some warriors actually had a chance at killing us.”
You scowl. “I could have killed you,” you repeat, but even you can hear the childish whine in your tone. You’re starting to wonder if perhaps you weren’t chosen for this quest because of your swordsmanship.
The monster does laugh, then, and it’s an oddly multiple sound, echoed in sibilance by her hair. “The mirror was clever, we concede, but it’s much more effective if you hold it so the reflective side faces out.” Your hands clench into painful fists. “We assume it wasn’t your idea, anyway. You’re only following orders. You have been trying to walk in the footsteps of stories, but you can’t fool us—we are the stories, child, and we know how they end. Your only hope is to tell your own tales. There are few to remember the hero who loses or the sacrifice who refuses to die.”
“There aren’t many where the monster lives, either,” you remind her.
“True,” she says airily. “But we suppose that will have to change, won’t it?” She is fainter now, farther away. The sword clinks against wood, perhaps laid on a table. You feel the air for a breeze from the entrance; perhaps you can run while she’s distracted. “Come here,” she calls. “We promise not to bite. You have our word.”
“How do I know your word is worth trusting?”
“Then what’s stopping me from running back to my village and sending more warriors here to kill you?”
“How do you know your village is worth trusting?”
She’s right, you realize. After all, your village is the reason you’re here, and clearly there was some misinformation involved in the process.
“Come sit with us. We won’t hurt you, and that’s a far better claim than your village can make.”
You weave through the statues towards her voice, and the motion feels almost serpentine except when you stumble over occasional grim artifacts. “That’s better,” she coos as you approach. Her voice is newly cast in gold, brighter and softer than you had imagined it could be. “This way.” She is at your back, pushing you forward gently. Your knees jar against a stone bench and continue to throb even after you sit. She turns away again to rummage on the ground. Within moments a small fire blooms, its heat tickling your clammy skin.
“What are you doing?” you ask as she works beside the fire. You’re not sure you want to hear the answer. She doesn’t provide one.
A few minutes pass, but the molasses of dread chokes each moment into slow hours. Eventually, she turns back to you. “Give us your hands.”
You tuck your arms across your chest.
“Give us your hands,” she repeats. “We have something for you.”
Carefully, you reach out, and a rough wooden plate laden with something unidentifiable slides onto your palms. It smells like a long-dead animal cloaked in dead leaves, but not quite as nauseating. “What is this?”
“Meat.” She laughs—just her, not the snakes—and adds, “Don’t worry, it wasn’t anybody you knew.”
You take the tiniest, most tentative of bites; to your relief, it’s chicken, albeit the worst chicken you’ve ever tasted. But to your starving stomach it might as well be the food of the gods. “Thanks,” you mumble through a full mouth. A single snake hisses back and you assume it means to say “You’re welcome.”
The two of you spend a few quiet minutes eating. She does not chew, but instead swallows large chunks of food very loudly. You can hear her snakes tear tiny strips off the bones, and you wonder, half curious and half horrified, whether she bothered cooking her portion.
“You can never go home,” she says abruptly. “You understand that, don’t you?”
You set down the remainder of your food slowly, the meat sinking in time with your heart. “Why not?”
She slides onto the bench beside you, careful to sit far enough away that your arms do not touch. The polite intimacy of the gesture startles you. Her snakes follow a different etiquette—three of them weave themselves into your hair, sampling your curls with quick tongue flicks. She makes no apology, so you try your best to ignore the shivering crawl of scales across your scalp.
“If you go home,” she explains, “your villagers will believe we are dead. If they believe we are dead, they will come to retrieve our body. If they find us here, the lie will fall through and we will be slain once and for all.”
Despite your earlier refusal to miss even the tiniest flea from your village, the prospect of never returning strikes you with homesickness, heavy as a planet on your shoulders.
She apparently fails to notice the new slump in your posture. There is an oddly rehearsed quality to her words, as though she has waited years to say this. “We have been kind to you, and this is the unfortunate price. We cannot afford your villagers, or anyone, believing we’re weaker than we claim. We are the stories, and we write ourselves as monstrous to stay alive. You said yourself there is no precedence in your stories for the merciful monster. Mercy means weakness, child. Remember that.”
“I’m not a child.”
“Everyone is a child compared to us. We are old as the stars, but age does not give us power. Strength gives us power, strength and blood and wickedness. We cannot afford to be weak. We cannot afford mercy.” Gently, she places a hand on your arm. Her skin is cool, even through your tunic. “This is your place now.”
“What if I don’t want to live here?” The snakes coiled in your hair feel like chains. Only the thought of their fangs stops you from ripping them out.
“Your other choice is not living anywhere.”
A few unbidden tears begin their creeping descent and you wipe them away hurriedly, but not before one of her snakes catches a salty drop on its tongue.
“Don’t be afraid, child,” she murmurs. To your surprise she pulls your head to her chest and begins to rock back and forth, just slightly—a sturdy ship over cautious waves. “We will not harm you.”
“What am I supposed to do?” you whisper.
“Keep us company,” she whispers back. “It’s lonely to be a legend. We need new stories.”
“Stories about what?”
“Everything. Everyone. Especially us, but you may start with others if you need to warm up first. In fact, we insist upon it. We want our story to be absolutely perfect, because it never has been before.”
Against your better judgment, you find the gentle rocking motion and her gilded tone soothing. You catch yourself thinking of your mother, a brutal and outspoken woman, and it occurs to you that this sham was probably her idea in the first place. Perhaps, you think, you will have better luck with a different sort of mother. “What story should I start with?”
“Pick your favorite. We know them all, but we’re hungry for new interpretations.”
You breathe deeply, letting air coil into your lungs, and begin.
*Annalise Thomas hails from Bainbridge Island, also known as “Seattle.” She now lives in Tacoma. Her dream is to one day find the perfect way to combine her three loves: dogs, puns, and space.