In a tradition as old as the monsters, a young girl is handed over to the terrible beast that lives secluded in his cave just outside of her town. The odds that she would be picked were so slim, but she won as one of the second born daughters in the town. The beast does not treat her particularly cruel. Yet, she is still a prisoner. Every day she paces through the great stone caves searching for an exit, and she fights him when he wants to touch her unable to tell him no. Part of the arrangement involves the townspeople removing the girl's tongue so she can better serve her new master. He is not a rational being, and her days are running out each time she tries his patience. Her options are to escape soon or die.
About the AuthorDamien Angelica Walters is the author of Paper Tigers (Dark House Press, 2016) and Sing Me Your Scars (Apex Publications, 2015), winner of the This is Horror Award for Short Story Collection of the Year. Her work has been nominated twice for a Bram Stoker Award, reprinted in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror and The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and published in various anthologies and magazines, including the 2016 World Fantasy Award Finalist Cassilda's Song, Nightscript, Cemetery Dance Online, Nightmare Magazine, and Black Static. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two rescued pit bulls.
Tooth, Tongue, and Claw
Once upon a time there was a monster. This is how they tell you the story starts. This is a lie.
He isn’t cruel, and he didn’t eat her.
She isn’t sure if that’s a kindness or not. She isn’t sure of anything but the locks and the keys and the secret scream hiding in her throat. And the last is suspect; sometimes it tastes like laughter.
But she’s still alive. She tells herself this means something.
He tugs on the tether attached to the chain around her neck. A gentle tug, but it’s enough. His claws click on the stones of the rocky path leading away from the cave, toward the town, a sound like chattering teeth, and although the bottoms of his feet are thick and leathery, she feels every jagged edge, every sharp point, beneath the soles of her satin slippers. He moves lightly for his size; beneath his steps, the ground merely quivers. She takes a few steps until he stops again.
People stand on either side of the path. A few wear smiles, but most carry only relief on their faces. They all know what she did, of course.
The gazes touch, linger, penetrate. She wants to scream that they have no idea what it’s like—how can they?—but she won’t. Even if she could, they wouldn’t care. All the faces belong to strangers, but even if they were her people, they would extend neither hand nor choice.
She’s on display so they know she’s still among them. So they know they’re safe. Does he want them to know he didn’t tear her head from her shoulders, rip her limbs from her torso and toss the pieces aside? He has that right. He’s had that right since the day she was given to him.
They don’t do that anymore, her mother said time and time again. Her eyes said otherwise.
Or does he want to merely assure them that she did not succeed, that his power is still nothing to be trifled with, to be challenged? Yes, she thinks. It’s apparent in the set of his jaw, the carriage of his spine.
She keeps her chin raised, too, so they don’t forget she was strong enough to try.
Lies are like bits of straw. At first, there’s only one; it would be easy to pick it up, break it in two, bring the pieces out into the light. But then you add a second, and you can’t find a way to dislodge one without the other. A third, a fourth, a fifth, and soon the weight of the pile is impossible. It becomes a maze with no solution.
Best to pretend it’s truth, not a tangle of fiction.
When they return inside, he closes the iron gate set deep into the stone. Locks it. Closes the outer door. Locks it, too. Then the inner door. When that lock clicks, he slips the key ring onto a chain around his neck, the same sort of chain that circles hers, yet she doesn’t fool herself into believing he’s a prisoner, too.
Lie #1: This is a great honor.
He doesn’t touch her once they are in bed. He has before and he was as gentle as possible; she knows he wants to again and in time, he will. No one told her about that part. That was a kindness.
On her side, she stares at the bedcurtains. They’re heavy and embroidered with gilt like everything else in his home. (She refuses to call it hers. She never will.) Strange that monsters would adore such finery, or perhaps it is only her monster that cares for such things.
Her bed at home had no such curtains; the walls were not covered in tapestries, yet she would trade all the gilt in the world for the chance to return. She presses her face into the pillow, willing away the impossible dream.
One hand sneaks up to the chain around her neck. The links are small and delicate, but a chain is still a chain; it marks her as a possession, a thing, not a person.
There is neither spell nor curse to break. This is not a love story. He will always be a monster; she will always be chained.
In the morning, he touches the side of her face with one of his claws. She doesn’t lean into his touch, nor does she pull away. She keeps her face impassive.
His eyes are the color of leaves beneath an early twilight sky. He speaks mainly in his native tongue—all grunts and hisses, rolling growls and throaty sounds that remind her of a cat when its head is scratched, but he does speak the language of humans as well, even though the words sound as if they’re spoken through a mouthful of river stones.
Though many have tried, no human has ever deciphered the language of monsters. Who can say if things would be different if they had.
He leaves the bed chamber without touching her again, though he pauses briefly in the arched doorway; perhaps the pause is only her imagination.
She wishes she could be content, because it would be so much easier. For her, for him, for everyone. This is the way it’s supposed to be. This is the way it’s been ever since the monsters awoke from their deep slumber and claimed their place in the world as leaders of men and beasts alike. This is the possibility for every secondborn daughter, something she was taught from the moment she was capable of learning.
Why she isn’t content, she doesn’t know.
(Maybe the others aren’t content either.)
After the drawing, while the councilmen waited outside, her mother brushed her hair for a long time without speaking, without meeting her eyes. She thought she heard a faint whisper, a muffled I’m sorry.
Maybe it’s only what she wishes was said.
He brushes her hair now, the silvered handle awkward in his grip. She closes her eyes, pretends she is still a child, pretends it’s her mother’s hand holding the brush. But the breath touching the back of her neck and the smell of him tells her the truth.
Lie #2: In time, you will forget your old life and come to embrace the new.
His face, forelegs, and belly are heavily scarred from the fight with his siblings and sire for the right to rule.
Eventually, he, too, will sire young and when the males reach full maturity, they will challenge him for the right to rule. The last left alive will rule until it becomes time again to sire and fight. (She will be long gone before then; the monsters live a lifetime equivalent to that of five humans.)
A barbaric practice, to be sure. Yet is it any more barbaric than humans tossing an etched stone into a pot to select a random girl who must become a monster’s consort, all in the name of peace?
There is a story she and her friends (and how she misses them most of all) told each other—of someone like her and something like him and love, love enough to break the chains, to not care of the consequences, and they would sigh and fall back, staring up at ceiling or sky, daydreaming of a love so powerful and beautiful.
But they were young and knew nothing of monsters.
When he is not there, she walks the cave—from wide open rooms to narrow passageways that serve no purpose. The carpets (even in the useless passageways) are soft underfoot, turning her steps to mere whispers.
There are books, but secondborn daughters are no longer taught to read until they pass the age of the drawing. Still, she likes to open the heavy tomes, breathe in the pages, pretend she understands the words. She thinks of her friends learning letters and words and stories, and her hands fist tight enough to hurt.
Be brave is the last thing she remembers her mother saying.
But she isn’t brave. Stealing keys and trying to creep out in the middle of the night is foolish, not brave. Everyone knows monsters have exceptional hearing; she knew she wouldn’t get away.
And she doesn’t want to be brave. She wants to be free. She will never learn to be content, she will never stop dreaming of life outside the cave, and she shouldn’t have to. She refuses to.
She puts her face in her hands, not to hide her tears, but to hold in her rage.
Lie #3: As a second daughter, your natural born duty is the safety and security of others.
In the morning, he reaches for her face. She pulls away. He stares, considering her, for a long time, his eyes inscrutable, but he doesn’t reach again.
When he leaves, she hides her smile behind a palm. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.
The council kept her drugged, something she only realized when she woke alone on a dais, surrounded by flowers of a type she’d never seen, the entrance of the cave an open mouth, her own mouth still throbbing with pain. She heard his approach and refused to cower, refused to close her eyes. Her wrists and ankles were bound; even if she’d wanted to run away, she wouldn’t have been able to.
He was not as bad as she’d imagined. He was also worse.
The center of the cave holds a pool surrounded by rocks worn smooth by the passage of many monstrous steps. The water is deep and always warm, and she spends many afternoons there, floating on her back, staring at a circular hole in the stone high overhead—the only break in the outer cave walls not locked and barred.
Today, though, she doesn’t disrobe. Instead, she runs her hands over the pitted walls and gazes at the hole.
She reaches high, curls her fingers into a gap in the stone, does the same with her other hand. Finds a toehold, pulls herself up. Not quite like climbing the trees as she did when a child, but near enough. Reach, pull. Reach, pull. Until she finds nothing but smooth surface, no nook or cranny for even one finger. With a sigh, she eases down and moves to another spot.
Although she climbs higher this time, she reaches a spot where she can’t quite grasp the next handhold, no matter how hard she strains, willing her spine to lengthen, her arms to stretch. She tries again and again until her palms are scraped and raw. Back on solid ground, she rubs her hands together, relishing the pain as she lets her gaze span the rest of the walls.
Tomorrow, she’ll try again. She isn’t sure how she’ll manage to traverse the top, where it begins to curve toward the hole, even if she reaches that far. Maybe she’ll simply tumble into the water below or perhaps to her death on the rocky path.
He touches her palms gingerly. His eyes ask questions that his mouth does not, questions he knows will go unanswered save for clumsy pantomime, and she’s in no mood for games of any kind. When he pushes her down on the bed, she presses against his massive chest, and shakes her head hard.
Again, he pushes. Again, she shakes her head. He growls but he storms from the room, his every step leaving behind a heavy thump.
She doesn’t bother to hide her smile.
Lie #4: They cut out your tongue so your voice, your words, will not anger him.
He ignores her for several days.
She climbs the walls near the pool, each time ascending higher and higher. She inspects the bars in every window and every doorway, testing for weakness. The discontent inside her grows like an unborn babe.
Do any of the others feel this way? And what of those who came before? The stories, the histories, say no. They say all the girls handed over to the beasts were honored and treasured, but who can say for sure. Who knows who truly wrote the stories.
Was Livia of Northingate gifted with furs and diamonds? Did Rebecca of Southton have the most magnificent library ever built? (This was before they decided secondborn daughters should not know how to read and write.)
In spite of the finery, they were all prisoners still. The stories didn’t say that; they didn’t have to.
Her mother said eventually, she would grow to be happy. (Barring the other option of ending up between teeth and jaws, of course.) But her mother was a firstborn daughter. She never had to worry; she was never to be given to a monster.
Is he content? Why wouldn’t he be? He doesn’t sacrifice, he doesn’t pay with silence and disfigurement, he doesn’t pay at all.
So why should she?
He takes her shoulders, lowers his face to hers, pushes her back toward the bed. Holding out her hands, she makes a sound that isn’t a word but wants to be. He steps back, his face wary, unsure, ghosted by a touch of anger.
She holds her breath, but meets his gaze with her own. Will he kill her? One slash of his claws could split the skin of her neck, sever her head from her shoulders; one snap of his jaw could tear apart her body from nape to tailbone.
He exhales loudly, gives her his back, and, after a long moment, leaves the room, trailing the echo of a growl. She sinks to her knees, heart racing. Although she doesn’t want to live this way, she doesn’t want to die.
How many others shared this cave with him and what happened to them? Did they dash themselves to pieces on rocks while climbing to an illusion of escape? Did their lives end in his gullet? Did they grow old and aged and infirm?
The stories never tell of such things. But no one knows because no one ever comes back. They’re never allowed to. To do so would break the agreements—ancient ones written in old languages no one can speak anymore.
The words may very well be lies themselves.
She touches her mouth; feels the weight of forced silence. Her people did this. Her people allowed this to happen. No, encouraged it. Her silence and captivity ensured their safety so they were more than willing to do whatever was necessary.
This is not for the monsters’ sakes, but for theirs.
When they delivered her into the hands of the council, did they weep or simply erase her name from their lips and her face from their memories as though she were dead, not imprisoned? Did it help them sleep the sleep of the just and dreamless at night?
Would that she could haunt their nightmares, turn their own voices to screams.
Lie #5: He is the monster.
She climbs. Her shoulders don’t ache as much as they did when she made her first attempt. Hand over hand, she rises, moving her body to the side to reach new handholds. So intent is she on her progress, she doesn’t hear him enter the room, only becomes aware of his presence when he grabs her around the waist, and plucks her from the wall as a child plucks a blossom from its stem.
Instead of dashing her against the rock, he lowers his arm and lets her drop. She lands on her side with a jolt; her teeth clamp together, the sound like a snapping twig. He bends down until his face is inches away from hers and roars. She recoils from the noise, from the heat and stink of his breath, and then he’s gone.
Hands shaking, she sits beside the pool, willing herself not to cry and failing, miserably so.
That night, she pushes him away with all her might, fights as long and as hard as she can, but he’s stronger. Damn him, damn them all.
A day later, the hole in the cave wall above the pool bears a set of bars.
These are emphatic messages that speak louder than any voice could project—she belongs to him, and the only way out is death.
Every night, she fights. Every day, she ignores him and pretends the bars don’t exist. She climbs, bloodying her palms, tearing her clothes. In the hallways that lead to nowhere, she paces and wills herself to stop thinking of the outside, to stop thinking of choices and hope, to be content. But she can’t live this way, not without going mad. Would that he would do her the kindness of killing her, of ending it all.
Sometimes she dreams of his teeth tearing her flesh, ripping her into tiny pieces. Other nights, she dreams of someone breaking through the bars, rushing in to sweep her away, but in the morning, the lie fades away. No one will save her from the monster. No one will take that risk.
They never have. They never will.
Finally, she reaches the top of the wall, where it begins to curve. With one hand firmly grasping the edge of a small cleft and her toes tucked into two more, she extends her free hand, fingers dancing across the rock in a gentle waltz. Here and there, she finds gaps, spaces she’s sure she could grip to swing herself across to the window.
She flexes her hand and takes a deep breath. A sound darts through the air. Tightening her hold, she peers over one shoulder to see him there, his massive body reclining against the wall. The sound comes again, and it takes her a moment to place it—laughter. The largest insult of them all. Her face blooms with heat; her mouth twists.
No more, she thinks. No more.
In a narrow hallway, she finds a loose chunk of stone the size of her hand, one end wide, the other narrowing to a jagged point, and tests it against her palm. As pearls of red bubble to the surface, she smiles, but there are tears in her eyes.
She waits until the middle of the night, until the cave fills with the sound of his slumber. On her knees with heels resting against the back of her thighs, she lifts her arms, brings them down. The jagged point of the stone parts scales and sinew, and blood runs crimson and warm down his neck. His eyes open. He roars and extends his claws; pain flares in her upper arm, but she doesn’t stop. She can’t. And there’s so much blood. Rivers—oceans—of it. Hands slick, her mouth filled with the taste of wet metal, she stabs again and again and again until her breath is ragged, until his is no more.
Sobbing, she drops the stone and wraps her arms around her knees. Will they flay the flesh from her bones? Pummel her with rocks? Merely give her to another monster?
No. She will not allow the latter. She strips off her nightgown and uses it to scrub the tears from her cheeks and the blood from her skin.
His body is heavy, but she manages to drag it to the floor nonetheless, and she works through the rest of the night, cutting away the pelt, carefully scraping the fat and the meat free. Using strands of her hair braided with strips of the beast’s gut, she sews the rents from the stone. She rips the heart from the carcass and smears the clotted blood on her skin; then she curls her body into the hide, pulls it around her, and slips her hands into the paws.
Her flesh warms, melts into the pelt until there is no way to know where one ends and the other begins. Her muscles flex and expand, growing to fit a new shape, a new purpose. Her bones break and knit back together in a stronger construction. There is no pain, but she isn’t surprised; she’s already paid a thousand times over.
She opens her reshaped mouth and what emerges is neither the mewl of a tongueless girl nor the roar of a monster, but the triumph of a great and terribly beauty. All around her, the colors are brighter, the edges sharper. She gets to her feet and heads toward the entrance of the cave, trailing her claws along the walls, cutting gouges in the stone. Her new form isn’t ponderous, but graceful. Powerful.
And she remembers.
She remembers the council handing her over without a second thought. She remembers everyone standing outside, watching her led with tether and chain. She remembers their gazes upon her and their silence. Peace, they called it. She has a different word for what they’ve done.
Emerging into the sunlight, she throws her head back, cries out to the sky. The ground trembles fury beneath her feet, and she bares her new teeth.
The people want a monster. She’ll give them one.
Once upon a time there was a girl…