Mythical Beast

 Mythical Beast


The rain had stopped. It had washed the mud and tears from Amari’s face and given way to heartbreakingly brilliant sunshine. She warmed herself in the bright forest clearing, watched red-orange birds flashing in and out of the trees. One tree bore small, sweet fruit. A spring had created a little pool.

She drank from the spring, washed her face in its pool, ate some fruit, and tried to smooth the tangles from her hair with her fingers. For ten days, she’d been looking for her mythical beast. She called him that because he had changed so much, and so often, since appearing on her doorstep a year ago, tiny, wet, and hungry.

The young beast was round like a groundhog, but lacked the groundhog’s pointy nose. He had tiny ears, a black snout, and a stubby tail. He churred at her sadly. She’d brought him inside her small cabin, fed him, warmed him in her own bed. 

Over the next few months, the beast had doubled in size and grew a neck, while his brownish fur developed silvery stripes. And his little paws grew into long legs with short claws that scratched Amari’s floors. He still wanted to share Amari’s bed, but after he’d shredded her best quilt, she built him a shed.

A year to the day the beast had turned up on her doorstep, he was taller than Amari. Such a wonderful year, coming home every day from selling vegetables and embroidery to annoying customers, to discover how her beast had grown and changed that day.

His fur grew long, with silvery-gold feathers on his sides. He began to give deep-voiced calls toward the forest behind Amari’s little house. Terrified to lose him, she brought him inside every night, even though he had to curl tightly to fit in her small house.

Early one summer morning, Amari woke to screams, growls, sounds of fighting. Her door stood open. She ran outside. Her beast was struggling with something as tall as he, with a snake-like head topping a huge feathered body like a vulture’s. Sharp talons clawed at the beast. Grabbing a heavy stick from her woodpile, Amari ran to help, bashing at the snake-vulture’s claws, swinging at its long neck, distracting it so that her beast could get his fangs into the thing’s side. Howling, it fled.

Her beast ran after it.

She could not lose him. She pursued him through the forest, past flowering bushes, through rustling dry leaves, under strange dreamlike trees, following the track of crushed foliage for a day and a night. A second day, a third.

Now, washing herself in the pool, she found a cut on her leg, from running through the brushy undergrowth after the beast. All her muscles ached. So did something that felt like a spiritual strain. But her reflection in the pool showed a fierce vividness she thought she’d lost many years ago. She looked better than she had in a long time.

Then the beast appeared.

The rain hadn’t washed away the mud and briars that caked its matted fur. It paused at the edge of the clearing. Amari stepped away from the water. As she hoped, he made his way to the spring, lapping for a long time before crumpling into the grass.

Slowly, Amari approached him. He didn’t move. She curled up against his muddy flank and fell asleep.

When she woke, she feared the beast was gone, then discovered it had moved away from her, but remained folded into the grass, regarding her dully. Mid-afternoon sun gleamed on the water.

“We’ve had our rest,” she told the beast, “and there’s plenty of daylight left. Will you come home with me?”

It didn’t move.

Taking one of the small yellow fruits from her pocket, she rolled it gently toward the beast. It stretched out its neck toward the fruit, swallowed it, then turned away with a deep sigh that flaked the mud from its flanks. Its back and sides were raw and inflamed. An uneven swelling pushed through the hair and dirt on its left side. On its right, fur and skin had been scraped away from a similar lump, leaving an angry red patch.

“Oh poor beast,” she breathed, reaching out an involuntary hand. The beast whipped its head around and snarled at her, then relapsed into lethargy. She edged nearer, moving with infinite slowness, mindful of the damage those claws could do. The sun lit up the beast in a long, slanting shaft of light.

“Well,” she told it after careful inspection, “you seem to be all right. But I don’t want to go home and imagine all the terrible things that could happen to you. I’d rather know. Besides, I’m not sure where home is.”

The beast turned its head to nose at the raw places and rested there. In that position, with its feathery fur, it looked like a swan instead of a wolf or a bear or any of the many animals her beast resembled.

The sore place began to take shape.

“Wings,” she whispered.

Her beast made a sound between a snort and a growl, then lay down on its side, stretching out flat among the grass and the flowers. Again, she lay down beside her beast. They dozed.

A snarling roar brought her to her feet, chest pounding. That snake-vulture thing was back, and again she watched her beast run to meet it, watching the dark and light intertwining, her beast leggy and dancing, the other thing sinuous and enveloping. Racing toward them, she screamed, beating her fists on the snaky thing until it knocked her out.

She woke, sweating and shivering, feeling flayed. She’d be an animal herself soon, careening through the forest, knowing only hunger and thirst and desire. Rolling over, she buried her face in the grassy earth, breathing it in. It had its gifts, the wild existence.

A waxing moon filled the clearing with faint, glowing light. The monster snake-vulture lay dead. Her beast was lying much too still, and her heart turned over. But its feathered flanks rose and fell with its breath. Crouching down beside it reminded her of early vigils when it was young, when she’d brooded over it, wondering if she would ever sleep again.

Had the snake-vulture thing wounded it?  Maybe it wanted to die. Her mind turned in circles.

The beast lay on its right side. The swelling lump on its left had changed. Was it really wings, or had the moonlight played tricks with her vision?

A call sang through the night. As in her girlhood, she heard that call in her mind, or her heart, instead of with her ears. It brought back her youthful journey from the mountains, following the call, before she gave up, found her tedious job, settled down.

She gasped, weeping through the gasps. The beast struggled to its feet, ears pricked, shook itself, drank from the spring, ate the fruit she’d left for it.

The call diminished, fading down the reaches of the forest, then rose again, cruel and sweet.

The beast came to her, put its muzzle to her face, licked at her tears.

“It’s real,” she said. “I heard it too. You have to go.”

The beast whimpered, turned to nose at its inflamed sides.

“They’re wings,” she said.

It shook its head, shook itself all over.

“Believe it,” she said desperately.

The beast lay down again. She went to it, deliberately put her arm around its neck. It exploded away from her, galloping in a mad circle around the clearing.

“All right!” she shouted, running after it. “If you won’t go forward and won’t come back with me, stay here and get eaten by all the predators in the forest! Lie down and turn into compost!”

They were dashing around the meadow in dizzying loops when the call came again. The beast stopped in its tracks, spread out its new wings, and flew. Up above the forest, into the sunrise and the summoning.

She stood still, gasping for breath, feeling tears sliding down her face. Somewhere, a bird chirped experimentally. The tops of the trees stood out against a dawn sky.

Amari began to gather wood to build a new home.

Judith Pratt


My experiences-- actor, director, professor, fundraiser, and freelance writer--inspire my novels, stories, and plays. My stories were most recently published in “The Gateway Review” and “Fifth Di Magazine,” as well as in many online magazines.. My novel “Siljeea Magic” was published in 2019. In 2018, I self-published my first novel, “The Dry Country.” My current novel, “The Skill,’ is under contract with Pegasus Publishing. My plays have been produced in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Cape Town, South Africa  My play “Maize” was selected for the Louisiana State University SciArts Prize, and “Losing It,” appeared in Best Ten-Minute Plays of 2020. 

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