All its life, a small monster with emerald scales has been a source of never-ending food to larger and more powerful creatures who feast on the small monster’s limbs each time one regrows. This is the story of how the small monster meets an industrious artist and re-forms into someone new—someone who can’t be eaten.
Content warning for fictional depictions of physical and emotional abuse.
The small monster, whelped, slipped out of its caul and onto the pebbly floor of the den.
Its emerald scales flexed. Its soft tail swept the earth. The small monster stretched out its new limbs, shuddering. It smelled raw white roots and mud and dried ichor.
The den was an egg-shaped void under a hill. A roof of rocks and matted roots hid the small soft monster and its parent from the moon’s white gaze.
The small monster unstuck each gluey eye and saw the ruby scales of its parent, whose side heaved with long and labored breaths. The birthing of monsters is hungry work, a labor of a week or more. And as the small monster looked upon the world, still damp from birth, its parent lowered its great golden beak and bit off a tender limb.
Humming with relief and satisfaction, the parent shifted its gleaming bulk to the rear of the den and settled down to sleep.
The small monster bled, and bled, and wailed.
Like gecko tails and starfish arms, the small monster’s lost limb scabbed, healed, and regrew. Its parent left the den and returned with bloodied lumps of deer, bear, rabbit, and hawk. Over time, the small monster sprouted two rows of serried teeth; six hard, ridged horns; and stubby claws.
Occasionally the gold-beaked monster did not return to the den for days, finally dragging in a much-mauled haunch of deer.
Sometimes it returned without anything at all.
Those mornings, when the small monster felt its parent’s footfalls through the packed earth, it fled cowering to the steep curved back of the den, though that was of course no hiding place at all. And by noon the small monster would be diminished by a leg or a tail or a bite from its side, too wise and afraid now, as its parent slept, to make a sound.
Though beak, fang, and claw speak more directly, monsters have their own harsh and sibilant language. Now and then the parent spoke, either to itself or in challenge to another monster whose shadow crossed the mouth of the den, and syllable by hiss, the small monster learned.
One morning, after they had devoured the remnants of a mountain lion, the small monster spoke.
Why do you eat me? it said.
Its parent lolled onto one side, spines bristling. Gobbets of meat warmed its belly and weighed it down, and it felt pleasant toward the world and its whelp. Because I am hungry.
But why not eat—the small monster took a breath—your own leg?
Silly. I am your parent. I birthed you. You are mine.
But it hurts.
It grows back.
And neither said a word more.
In time the parent waxed gibbous like the moon, growing too ponderous to hunt. It tore off and ate all four of the small monster’s limbs over the course of a week, writhing and hissing as it did so, without the slightest sign of enjoyment.
At the end of the week, another, smaller monster was expelled in a pool of foul-smelling birth fluid, and the den rang with three cries of pain, snappishness, and distress.
After that, the small monster learned the trick of being farthest from the den’s entrance when their parent returned unfed. It was not as helpless as the smallest monster, and so on most occasions, apart from ill-timed naps, the matter was decided in the small monster’s favor.
The snapping, crunching, and sobbing were terrible to hear. The small monster quickly learned not to listen.
While its parent hunted, the small monster played. In the evenings, starlight washed the opening of the den. The small monster rushed up to the brink of a world that smelled like wilderness and pine forest, from which the small and smallest monsters were both forbidden, then backed away.
When can I go out? the small monster had asked.
Never, came the reply. You will remain here always. With me.
While it was not brave enough to disobey, the small monster was clever enough to consider one claw within the den a perfect observance of the law.
Now a damp wind blew over the small monster, smelling of blackberries and yellow-pored boletes. Night birds hooted and sawed in the trees. Deep in the den, the smallest monster whimpered in its sleep.
Something slunk, lithe and stealthy, through the red-berried brush. It sounded larger than the foxes the small monster had seen, less twitchy than the rabbits the foxes hunted. The unseen thing paced back and forth, whuffing, and the small monster went as still as stone.
It was too late. A step, a spring, and then three slitted yellow eyes looked down upon the small monster.
Where the gold-beaked monster was clad in ruby scales, this monster was all tawny, wiry fur.
Poor thing, it said. Who ate your leg?
For the small monster had been unlucky not long ago, though the stump had scabbed.
Parent, said the small monster. But it grows back.
I remember being small, the tawny thing said. Every month the tearing teeth.
Every week, the small monster said.
If you came with me, the tawny thing said, I would not bite you more than once a month. And only if I had to.
This sounded like heaven to the small monster. It quivered its horns and clattered its scales. Then it paused.
I can’t run as fast as you, it said. With only three legs.
No matter, the tawny thing said, lowering its head. It mouthed the small monster like a cat with a kitten. Then it tensed its muscles and bounded into the forest.
Its great paws struck the earth with such force that the small monster’s teeth clicked against each other. Trees rushed past them, dark and blurred.
By the time they stopped, the stars had dimmed and sunk into dawn. The forest was gone, and the world smelled new. They were a long way from the den beneath the hill where the smallest monster waited alone.
The tawny thing had scented something; its three yellow eyes grew black and wide. It dropped the small monster and hove into the wheatfields shivering around them, the long stalks pale under the rosy sky.
From the far side of the field came a stifled shout.
A few minutes later, the wheat parted, and the tawny thing dragged out the body of a man. His throat was open, wet, and red. His old, patched clothes ripped easily.
They ate, the steam from the man’s entrails wreathing them. The small monster gnawed on knuckles and spat out the little finger bones. The tawny thing crunched the femurs for their marrow. They licked themselves clean of the sweet blood, then went on.
Around them, plains billowed and shook loose their folds of gold. The tawny thing and the small monster did not converse. Their pace was leisurely at first, while the small monster hopped and hobbled on the three legs. The tawny thing often carried it. After its fourth leg budded and regrew, though the limb was soft and tender for a time, the small monster kept up as well as it could.
The tawny thing was swift and lethal, and for a long time, as the moon filled and emptied and filled, the small monster kept all its limbs, and ate well. It learned to catch crickets while the tawny thing hunted.
Then one too many deer slipped the tawny thing’s jaws. It did not particularly matter why. An old injury in one whip-muscled leg might have flared, or perhaps the canniness of all living beings in autumn had pricked the velvet ears of the deer. Whatever the reason, balked of its prey, the tawny thing bridled and gnashed its teeth. It returned to where the small monster was pouncing at insects.
When the small monster felt the earth shudder, it leapt up to flee, but too slowly.
A moment later, it was lying in its own green ichor, keening.
The tawny thing said, astonished, You are delicious.
The small monster moaned.
Bones cracked. Emerald scales dropped like leaves. The tawny thing swallowed what had been the small monster’s foreleg, snuffled, and curled up to sleep.
You can still walk on three legs, the tawny thing said, yawning. Two of its yellow eyes shut. The third watched the small monster.
From then on, the tawny thing ate of the small monster regularly, finding itself partial to the taste. For fairness—even the small monster admitted this—it took care to leave the small monster with three legs to walk on, though not always a fine and lashing tail.
Bit by bite, though, even that changed.
The tawny thing hunted less frequently. More and more, its three eyes settled upon the small monster, who shrank from the hunger glowing there. Before long the eating was more than monthly.
There was nothing the small monster could do about it besides weeping and raging as the tawny thing slept. With two legs, it could go no distance at all.
No good, said a razor bird in the tree above them. It lashed its three barbed tails and craned its neck. Better to eat you all at once. Less moaning. Less waste.
Is that what you’ll do? the small monster said, baring its teeth through its tears.
Only if you want, the razor bird said.
No, thank you, the small monster said.
Or, if you like, I could carry you away. For one of your legs and your talkative tongue. For you are heavy, the way is long, and my wings will tire.
You’ll take me to your nest, to feed your own small monsters.
The razor bird laughed a red, raspy laugh. A good idea! If I had them, I would. But I mean a fair bargain.
Where would you take me?
There is a hollow tree in a distant wood where no monsters go, wormy with beetle grubs and wet with rain. I will leave you there. For a leg and a tongue.
They’re yours, the small monster said, resigned.
Faster than thought, the razor bird stooped from the tree, and its claws closed on the small monster. The tawny thing slept mumbling on, even as the small monster’s stumps spotted its pelt with ichor.
Have to do something about that, the razor bird said. It spread its wings wider than any eagle’s, wide enough to blot out the moon.
They flew north until they reached a glacier-fed lake. There, the razor bird dropped the small monster in. Several times it snatched up and dropped the small monster, until the small monster was half drowned but no longer bleeding.
There, said the razor bird. Let’s see them track you now.
Mountains passed beneath them, then rivers and woods. Stars glistened icily above them. A two-tailed comet shone in the sky.
But the small monster was too cold to notice, hanging mute and miserable from the razor bird’s claws.
The wild flight ended with an angled descent through the canopy of an old beech wood. They landed upon a bare white snag.
There, the razor bird said, its crimson eyes bright. Now open your mouth.
Payment was settled with merciful swiftness. When that was finished, the razor bird lowered the small monster into the snag’s hollow heart, which was barely big enough for its remaining limbs. The wood had gone spongy with insects and rot.
Mind you, the razor bird said, I am what I am. I know where you are. If I hatch chicks, I’ll look where I stashed you. Don’t hide here too long.
It flicked its three tails and soared away.
The snag was far from comfortable. When it rained, the monster licked at the trickles that ran down the wood and drank from the puddle that formed at its feet. For food, it had watery white wriggling grubs. On a day it remembered ever after with pleasure, it caught and ate an incautious squirrel. On that diet more fit for woodpeckers, the small monster’s lost limbs returned with painful slowness. Its plump sides slumped, and its glossy scales dulled. But there were no severing teeth or beaks in the snag, apart from its own.
Bud by bone, claws and tail and all, the small monster grew into itself again.
When all its pieces were present, the small monster clambered out of the snag and fell snout-first into the grass.
When it had warmed itself in the sun awhile, motionless as moss, it caught a vole by surprise and devoured it, as well as the beetle the vole had been nibbling on. Then the razor bird’s parting words came to mind. The small monster shuddered and headed in the direction of the snag’s shadow. It snapped at grasshoppers as it went.
Now and then the small monster crouched behind a tree as something larger snorted and shuffled in the brush. Once, it froze under a whorl of ferns as the three-tailed shadow of a bird passed over. The small monster liked its legs and tail, and it wanted no more of monstrous bargains.
As it scrambled and slid down a slope of scree, the small monster chanced upon a gashed and broken thing. Deep gouges in its side showed the white of bone. Its pointed snout lolled in a pool of gore.
One scratched silver eye opened.
Please, the rat-nosed thing said. Come closer.
The small monster sat back on its haunches and sized up the battered bulk of the thing. Among the feathery grasses at the bottom of the slope, it caught a speckled frog, which it brought back and dropped near—but not too near—the creature’s snout.
The rat-nosed thing licked up the frog and swallowed it, then shut its eyes. Its breathing was shallow.
In the meadows around them, the small monster searched for slithering, skittering creatures, garter snakes and earthworms, thrush eggs and wrens, to feed both itself and the broken monster.
Time trickled past, and the wounds on the rat-nosed thing scabbed. Its scarred eyes followed the small monster.
One day, as the small monster left a lizard by its snout, the rat-nosed thing lunged.
Why? the small monster cried, scrabbling backward, bleeding.
The rat-nosed thing made wet, happy noises. Better than worms and slugs and grubs.
Flinching with pain, the small monster fled. Behind it, claws scraped stone as the rat-nosed thing stood. It snuffed the ground and chuckled like boulders breaking. At this, the small monster turned and saw that its own dribbling ichor had painted a path.
Down that path, snout to earth, the rat-nosed thing hunted.
The small monster lashed its tail. Though the wound in its side was a white-hot knife, it scaled the nearest fir and crept out upon a bough. And as the rat-nosed thing came sniffling beneath, the small monster let go and fell.
Its claws clamped onto its pursuer’s skull. And as the rat-nosed thing swung its head and shrilled, the small monster bit out one silver eye and slit the jelly of the other. Then it leapt down and tore at the taut, thin skin where the rat-nosed thing’s wounds had barely healed. The small monster scratched until the tender flesh parted and showed again the stark white bones. It bit and squirmed into the rat-nosed thing, crawling inside the warm, plush cage of its ribs.
The small monster ate what it found there: bitter, bilious, savory, sweet.
When it had swallowed most of the rat-nosed thing, enough to push apart the ribs and emerge, there was a new sharpness to its face and a silver tinge to its scales.
It kicked a scatter of gravel over the raw red bones and prowled on, wary but unafraid.
A strange scent blew across the small monster’s way, one it had never smelled before, and it turned and went into the wind. Days and nights it chased the scent, through forest and scrub, over salt marsh and fen, until the small monster stood at the edge of the sea.
Brown waves roared like dragons along the shore. The small monster lowered its head to drink and found that the water was bitter, and burned.
I see, the small monster said. This is the end of the world.
It crouched in the surf and stared at the sharp straight limit of the sea.
After a while, it noticed a little clawed creature beside it, no bigger than one of the small monster’s teeth. Its tiny claws worked upon a shard of sea glass.
What are you doing? the small monster said.
Adding to you, the clawed creature said. Not that you aren’t already excellent. But anyone can be improved.
Several flowery tufts sprouted from the creature’s shell. Every now and then the creature tickled one of them and applied an invisibly slight secretion to the sea glass it was pressing against the small monster’s scale.
At length it rested, sighing in satisfaction.
Ah, it said. Art!
Do forgive me. What I should ask is: Do you like what I’ve done?
The small monster studied the addition to its side.
You disapprove. I can remove it! the clawed creature said. It reached for the shard.
Then will you let me add more?
If that’s what you want, the small monster said.
The tide whisked in, rolling a fat seal onto the shore. The small monster took a few neat bites, then offered some to the laboring creature.
In a minute—in a minute—
By the time the tide whispered out, the small monster had been adorned with six chips of sea glass, blue and brown.
Now I have earned my supper, the clawed creature declared, extending its pincers to receive a morsel of seal. It ate with sounds of satisfaction. Every so often, it passed a crumb to the tufts on its back, which grasped hungrily at the flecks of food.
What are they? the small monster asked.
Anemones, the clawed creature said. Some of the sea’s more stinging critics. They keep me honest. And they produce a good glue.
A seagull stooped at the seal carcass. The small monster broke its neck with a blow.
Wish I could do that, the clawed creature said.
Eat, the small monster said. You’ll be big enough, one day.
When the small monster was thirsty, it went inland for water. When it was hungry, it dove for fish and seals. But most of the time it sat still and watched, puzzled, as the clawed creature embellished its scales.
Gradually, the small monster’s gleaming green mail was encased in glass, agate, and mother-of-pearl.
Beautiful, the clawed creature said. Sunlight glowed in the small monster’s new shell. Exquisite. Exceptional. If I do say so myself.
The anemones waved their fronds in lazy assent.
Are you done? the small monster said.
For a moment. Beauty must be appreciated. And then!
It’s not over?
Never. Life is growth; art must follow. Why, I myself have shed two shells since I started this work! But for the present, I shall scuttle along the beach and search for my next stroke of inspiration.
The small monster did not understand much of what its companion said. Nevertheless, it escorted the clawed creature on its muttering constitutionals, waiting as a striped pebble or shapely stick held it rapt. Any seagull that swooped, thinking it had found an inattentive meal, died in a spray of bloody feathers. The clawed creature hardly noticed.
Sometimes it crept up the small monster’s flank, perched upon a horn, and confessed its doubts.
What if it never comes, the next idea? What then? What if my great works lie behind me?
The small monster made reassuring noises, but did not know what else to do, for its life had been biting and bleeding, not art.
One night, the wind rose. The air prickled and itched. Lightning cracked the violet sky. In one sheeting flash, the small monster thought it saw a forest upon the sea.
I have it! the clawed creature shouted into the small monster’s ear. Quick, swim!
The small monster plunged into the ocean. Though towering waves spun and flung them about, once they dove deep, the water gentled. Soon they reached the broad black hull of the ship, whose masts had looked like trees from the shore.
Wait, the clawed creature said, clinging to the small monster.
They did not wait long. A wave tossed the ship and smashed it down. Clean as a walnut, the hull split into halves. Small bodies tumbled out of it, as well as timbers and chests and drowning sheep. Here and there a broken chest poured a glittering of gold.
That, the clawed creature said. I want that.
The small monster surfaced, gasped, and dove again. It caught four coins in its claws and one in its teeth, marked where the rest sank into darkness, and swam back to shore.
Rain lanced down as the small monster hauled itself out of the water.
I hope they’re worth it, the small monster said.
They will be, the clawed creature said. You’ll see.
They huddled together under a dripping pine until the storm blew itself to shreds. A sickly dawn shone in the sky.
Pieces of the ship started drifting ashore, as did a fine banquet of brined sailor and sheep.
I suppose you want more of those round objects, the small monster said.
The clawed creature said, If you don’t mind.
Day after day, by dint of much swimming, the small monster amassed a heap of gold.
What now? the small monster said.
Now, I work.
Though each golden coin was as large as its body, and so heavy it asked the small monster to hold them in place, the clawed creature labored without rest or food. Every so often, the small monster tried to coax it into eating.
The art is all! the clawed creature said, wrestling with its piece of gold.
Over the small monster’s shell of glass and nacre, which had split and been mended as the small monster grew, the clawed creature affixed escudo and pistole. Sunlight danced on their faces and shook bright sequins across the sand.
There, the clawed creature said. Magnificent. You’re a treasure. Worth your weight in gold.
Stretching, the small monster heard its golden scales clink.
Let them bite me now, it said.
Eh? Pass the fish.
After day or two of dazzlement, in which the small monster flung sunlight every which way, briefly blinding a number of birds, at the clawed creature’s insistence, it covered itself in seaweed, until not a glint of its golden armor could be seen.
More prudent that way, the clawed creature said.
The small monster ate, grew, fetched whatever shell or skull the clawed creature desired, and watched the ebb and flow of the tide. Despite gusts, gales, storms, and heaving waves, that stretch of seashore was the most peaceful place the small monster had known.
It mentioned as much to the clawed creature.
Nothing lasts, the clawed creature said, as it placed stones in a pleasing pattern on the sand. Neither good nor bad. But one must always enjoy the good.
That peace ended abruptly on a clear afternoon.
The wind was crisp and blowing off the sea. The sigh of the waves curling in and out hid for a time the sounds of approach. The clawed creature was carving a sand dollar into layers of lace, and the small monster, admiring, did not hear. Only when sand trickled in rivulets down the dune above them did the small monster lift its eyes and see.
Another monster crouched at the top of the dune. It also boasted a crown of horns, though its sides were stippled with ruby spots.
Uh-oh, the clawed creature said. Excuse me.
It tucked itself into its shell. The next wave that foamed in carried it off.
What do you want? the small monster asked.
Do I know you? the small monster said. Then it shook itself from horns to tail in surprise, for it recognized the other monster.
As well as your own blood, the smallest monster said. I’ve tracked you through mountains and forests and fields. And now I shall eat you.
You owe me. The smallest monster dug its red, red claws into the soft white side of the dune.
Then it sprang.
The small monster turned sideways, and its sibling crashed into its seaweed-draped mail. Claws clacked on gold; a fang shattered. The smallest monster rolled and rose, snarling.
If you’re hungry, the small monster said, these waters have squid and dogfish in them.
I’m not here for fish, its sibling said.
The small monster met the next charge with one glass-and-gold shoulder.
Again its sibling found footing and lunged. Again the small monster knocked it aside.
The smallest monster howled. Lie down and let me tear your throat out!
Let me bite you and drink your ichor!
While they fought, shreds of kelp fell from the small monster, until it shone with uncovered gold. The smallest monster champed its needle teeth and struck, but it did no harm. As it reared to strike again, the small monster bowled its sibling onto its back.
The smallest monster writhed upon the sand. I’ve given up so much for you!
I’m sorry, the small monster said. Go away.
You think you’re so special, its sibling said. But I know you!
The smallest monster splayed its horns, spat, and padded off. Its tail scribbled arabesques in the sand.
The small monster watched the smallest monster go, until it was too far to see.
After some time, it felt a slight itching on the side of its neck. This was the clawed creature, climbing to the small monster’s horns. From that perch, it surveyed the aftermath.
You’ve lost some coins, the clawed creature said. I’ll fix them. Hold still.
The small monster waited for it to cement the loosened coins back into place. Then, setting the clawed creature on its back, the small monster waded into deeper water and swam in the opposite direction from its sibling.
For hours it swam, long after the sky reddened and darkened, until a rising tide carried them ashore. The small monster rested its chin on the cold wet sand.
This should be far enough, the clawed creature said. Sleep. I’ll pinch if I hear anything.
The small monster slept, dreaming of pursuit, and kicked the sand and the clawed creature in its sleep. Its tail flicked and twitched at the cry of a seal.
When it awoke, to screeching seabirds, it was hardly rested.
What is peace, after all, the clawed creature said, if not a moment of repose. A breath between storms. Most importantly, an opportunity for art.
The small monster sharpened its claws on a spar.
The clawed creature added, as an afterthought, I’ve heard that bad news comes in threes.
It was a strange, uncertain time. The small monster swam farther south every night, staying nowhere for long. Here and there it startled a family of seals, a cormorant drying its wings against the wind, or a solitary sea lion sunning itself. The small monster ate them carefully, digging up the bloody sand and giving the bones to the sea.
Unlike the small monster, the clawed creature evinced no anxiousness, though it acquired another two anemones. Five times now, the clawed creature had exchanged its home for sequentially larger shells. Each time, it cajoled its critics into relocating as well.
What do they say? the small monster asked. About your art?
Sometimes they say: Good enough.
You’re a hack who couldn’t draw a straight line with a sea pen and swordfish.
Which one? the small monster said, eyeing the tufts on its shell. I’ll eat it for you.
The anemones waved their stinging petals in threat.
Sometimes they’re helpful. They’ll say: It’s crooked. Left corner’s low.
Where did you find them?
Tidepools are full of them. These days, everyone’s a critic. The clawed creature sighed. Hard to find ones with discernment, though. No one values an arts curriculum.
Have you gone far into the sea?
The clawed creature waved vaguely. A bit. Maybe. They’re discussing the merits of formal education. . . .
Are there sea monsters?
The clawed creature did not respond, lost in reverie, or else an absorbing conversation. The small monster waited for a polite interval, then huffed its seal-smelling breath over the flowery shell. Indignant, the anemones snapped shut.
Ah, sea monsters. Deep down, yes. Deeper than you’ll ever go, where the water presses with the weight of a mountain. I met vast and insatiable appetites there. Hungry lights in the dark. A bristling of teeth. I should have been a pair of ragged claws. . . .
The small monster said, You were not afraid of me.
The clawed creature patted the small monster.
I was inspired. I saw a canvas for my art!
So they will not hunt me from the sea.
Never, the clawed creature said. They live in the deepest waters.
Then I will watch the woods, the small monster said.
Since the day the smallest monster had found them, one particular battle seemed inevitable. When at last a familiar form emerged from the trees, the small monster felt the tightness in its chest unspool, loop after loop unwinding into something loose and useful.
You should leave, it told the clawed creature. To be safe.
I won’t go far, the clawed creature said.
That’s what you think.
As delicately as it could, the small monster picked up the clawed creature in its teeth, then hurled it seaward.
At the dappled edge of the woods, where the sand began, the small monster’s gold-beaked parent set its talons, frilled, and roared.
The small monster sat at the shifting verge of the sea, with an infinitude of unknown monsters at its back and one it knew well in front of it. The small monster took a breath of salt air. Then it roared as well, and the waves roared with it.
You are mine, the gold-beaked monster said.
I am not.
Who fed you meat while you mewled? Who carved up lions and brought down falcons for you?
Who fed on me when the hunt went ill?
The parent’s scale-sheathed shoulders trembled and chimed. It had grown lean and rangy in the small monster’s absence. Who birthed you? Who gave you life and breath?
You, the small monster said. Then you took.
I’ve come for what belongs to me.
I am nobody’s.
I was kind to you!
The gold-beaked monster loped across the sand.
Once more, the small monster turned to take the blow. Its parent’s talons skidded over gold.
Tricks, it hissed. You forget. I shelled turtles and sucked out the flesh for you.
With its second blow, it sent a king’s ransom flying.
With the third, it broke glass and scale and skin.
The small monster hunched down. It smelled ichor and roots and damp earth again.
I bore you to feed me when I am old.
The hooked beak dug into the small monster’s side, ripping and swallowing. The small monster shrieked, as it had shrieked before, when it was helpless and wriggling in the den under the hill.
But the sound of its shriek was different now, deeper and louder than the sounds a small thing might make.
For the small monster was no longer small.
It felt its strength and cunning then, its size and power and cruelty. It whirled upon the gold-beaked monster.
No. I will not. Never again.
Talons flashing, the gold-beaked monster flew at the no-longer-small monster and was promptly tossed on its crown of horns. Foam and ichor flecked the parent’s red sides as it rose.
They clashed, the wet sand churning beneath them, and the no-longer-small monster threw its parent a second time.
You’re nothing, the gold-beaked monster said. What good is your life? Give me it. It’s mine.
They circled each other on the tidal zone. The no-longer-small monster watched the sand sink under its parent’s feet, and saw how each step began with a slight stumble. And when the gold-beaked monster struck, swift as an eel, it was hooked and flipped. The no-longer-small monster fell upon the gold-beaked monster, gouging and goring. It tasted its parent’s ichor and flesh.
Then the no-longer-small monster stepped back.
As the gold-beaked monster righted itself, ribboned skin trailing in the tide, ichor dropping like green rain, it keened and cringed.
It’ll grow back, the no-longer-small monster said. Now leave.
The gold-beaked monster retreated, limping. When it reached the woods, it glared hunger and hatred over its shoulder. Then it was gone.
Fog rolled in like a dream, snagging in the bristled tops of the trees, smudging distance and detail.
The clawed creature said from the once-small monster’s head: Family can be difficult.
Says someone who started as plankton.
Hey! My worst critics live upstairs.
The air was wet and white, and the monster’s laughter stirred up eddies in it. They made a brave and merry island in the thick nothingness.
Then they heard the sound of some tremendous thing breaching and collapsing back into the sea.
O, wonder, the clawed creature said to itself.
Again came the fathomless, unfathomable sound.
The fog was too dense to see what moved in the dark and swirling waters offshore.
They listened in silence to the great thing leaping: a rush of water, a crash. Then there was a leap without end. They strained to hear the missing sound.
Out of the wisping fog swam a vastness. Its wings undulated in an invisible current. Its mouth, broad enough to swallow the once-small monster, sucked thirstily at the empty air. It steered itself in an arc with a whip of a tail.
As it drifted overhead, two large black eyes looked down, full of ancient indifference.
A very long time later—or so it seemed to the once-small monster, who had held its breath—they heard the distant boom of the vast winged thing returning to the sea.
Sea monster? the once-small monster said.
Sea monster, the clawed creature said, clasping its own claws.
The world is stranger than I thought.
It always is.
By the time the third trouble came sniffing about, the once-small monster was prepared. The clawed creature had layered it with glass and nacre, then with gold, and finally with bones plucked from a great fish that had washed up dead. The bones curved up the small monster’s sides and made a double row of spines.
In those three layers of armor, the once-small monster cut an extraordinary figure. The wolfish, tawny thing that slunk between the trees did not recognize its quarry. It snapped its jaws, perplexed.
Then the sea wind brought the scent of the once-small monster to the woods. The tawny thing, whose hide was now peppered with gray, threw back its head and bayed in greeting.
Old friend, the tawny thing said. It’s been too long.
You have terrible taste in friends, the clawed creature said. It slipped from the once-small monster’s shoulder into the sea.
This shore is mine, the once-small monster said. You may not hunt here.
For as long as this shore is yours, I’ll not hunt here, the tawny thing agreed.
Are you passing through?
Following a trail, the tawny thing said, laughing softly, as if it had told a great joke. Three trails, in fact. All running and jumbled together.
Why do you laugh?
Because if the three had lived peaceably, in this place of plumpest bears and deer—if they offered battle with three sets of claws, beak, and teeth—I’d never have won.
Its purple tongue danced. There were green stains and spatters on the tawny fur.
Contrariwise, the tawny thing said, even a bear could bring down a wounded and brokenhearted beast. For me, the matter was simpler still.
You let me live, the once-small monster said. When I was small.
Small and obedient. I think you are neither now.
So you’ve come here to fight.
I came here to finish, the tawny thing said. To eat a monster and its children whole, beak, bones, tendons, talons—it staggers the mind. Fat as pigeons, I’ll be. I’ll dig a den to overwinter, and in the spring I’ll whelp my own pups.
Am I the last?
You’d find their bones in the woods, if you looked. If I let you. But I won’t.
The tawny thing danced before the once-small monster. Its eyes were fixed on the once-small monster’s throat.
Run, it said. Let me chase you, catch you, and drag you down.
The once-small monster neither answered nor ran.
Stubborn, every one of you, the tawny thing sighed.
It seized one of the once-small monster’s whalebones and shook it until the bone cracked from its carapace. The tawny thing cast it onto the sand.
Hissing, the once-small monster slashed at the tawny thing’s ankles and came away with clumps of hair.
Better, the tawny thing said, breaking off another whalebone. I remember when you had no fight at all. You’d lie in the dirt and cry. Poor little fool.
Something like thunder rumbled in the once-small monster’s chest. It met the tawny thing mid-leap. Then each fell away.
A gash in the tawny thing’s neck beaded red and purulent gold.
The tawny thing purred approval. Then it launched itself again at the once-small monster. The two of them tumbled over and over, grappling. Gold coins scattered across the sand, followed by globs of sea glass and shell. Neat and quick as a gull cracking the valves of a clam, the tawny thing had the once-small monster stripped of its armor, panting and pinned under the heavy paws.
Laughing, its three eyes never looking away, the tawny thing bent its head and gnawed the once-small monster’s leg. Clear to the bone its teeth tore and its tongue licked.
As delicious as I recall.
A wave swept in, salting the wound. The once-small monster bellowed and belled. As the sand beneath them liquified, the once-small monster kicked itself free. It stumbled backward into the water, falling, crawling, until each incoming swell broke over its head.
The tawny thing paddled after.
Don’t go farther, it said. Dragging your body ashore will be—well, a drag.
Though it gasped and gagged with agony, the once-small monster swam on.
When the tawny thing neared, its countenance skull-like under wet fur—when not one of its deadly paws touched bottom—the once-small monster sucked in a breath, clamped its teeth into the tawny thing’s neck, and sank.
The tawny thing sank with it.
A silver howl shook out of the tawny thing’s mouth. It thrashed in the green water, slicing the small monster open. Everywhere it touched, it carved grievous wounds.
At long last, its limbs slackened.
The once-small monster released it. Its three eyes empty, its terrible jaws agape, the tawny thing drifted down to the seabed. Quick, ravenous shapes swam after it.
Afterward, the once-small monster could not recall how it reached the shore, whether the waves left it broken among driftwood and kelp, or whether it swam with three legs through the obliterating pain.
When the once-small monster opened its eyes, some time later, the clawed thing was scuttling back and forth on the sand. It waved a gold escudo like a shield. One after another, seagulls dove at the once-small monster, but their beaks pinged off of the interposed coin.
Graverobbers! the clawed creature shouted. Vandals! Philistines! Desecrators of art! Vulgar, disrespectful fowl!
The once-small monster stirred, groaning, and the seagulls screamed disappointment and fled.
About time, the clawed creature said. I wasn’t sure. . . . You present quite the conservation challenge.
It’ll grow back, the once-small monster said, its voice fainter than the echo in a shell.
If you say so.
For a long time, the once-small monster knew pain in all its colors and conjurings. First it was forked and lancing like lightning. Later it was brown and fogged.
Though the once-small monster was hardly a stranger to pain, this time it had a comforter. And so this pain was not as unbearable as the pain in the den, though it nevertheless was grim and obscene and lasted for an eternity.
Little by little, what had been lost turned soft and silver and regrew.
Eventually, the tawny thing washed ashore. Fish had dined on its eyes and the sea-rotted pulp of its body, and flies clustered and buzzed around the corpse.
The once-small monster retreated to the berried woods to escape the flies and the gaseous reek.
Gulls thronged upon the corpse in a noisy white shroud, tearing and shrieking. They dispersed, shrieking louder, as a three-tailed shadow swept across the sand. From a safe distance, they scolded the interloper, who sat and stripped the carcass clean.
The razor bird paused in the middle of its gorging. Its red gaze found the once-small monster where it rested on moss among the cinnamon ferns.
I think you’ve learned, the razor bird said.
What did I learn? the once-small monster said.
To be difficult to swallow.
Nothing was left on the bones when the razor bird finished. It cocked its eye at the once-small monster.
You were lucky. I was hungry.
You came looking for me.
And now I am fed. The razor bird shook its feathers, which rasped as they settled into place. Be spiny and sharp, if you can’t be quick.
And it flew off.
The seasons changed, and changed again. The once-small monster, with the clawed creature’s assistance, grew spiny, sharp, hard, and beautiful.
The clawed creature grew larger and older than any of its kind had a right to be, or so it informed the once-small monster. Defended from marauding gulls, it had increased in size and shell until its present house, dredged from the bottom of the sea, was approximately the size of the once-small monster’s head. And one morning, as the clawed creature sorted agates, the once-small monster saw it clearly, in all its jointed and studded detail.
You’re monstrous, like me, the once-small monster said, surprised.
Nonsense, the clawed creature said. You’re like me.
The once- small monster snorted. I’ve made nothing.
A life is not nothing.
I’ve been bitten to the bone and hounded to the edge of the world. I’ve been dinner. I’ve been breakfast. An artist, never.
None of us can change what has happened to us, the clawed creature said. But if we are lucky, we live. If we are lucky, we do not lose more than we can afford. Much regrows. Claws, tail, teeth, even the vaporous stuff the poets call soul. And bitter experience provides material for art. Ask a shipwreck. Ask an oyster.
Even so . . .
Tell me, the clawed creature said. What do you want to create?
The once-small monster thought. It thought while the tide washed in and out, while the sun rose and set, while barnacles stuck out their pointed tongues and whispered in the absence of the tide.
At last the once-small monster said: An island. With moss, trees, and small, scuttling things. With crevices and caves for the scuttling things.
Then you shall create an island, the clawed creature said.
Despite having neither instruction nor prior knowledge, the once-small monster conceived of a plan. It wrested boulders from forest soil and sand and pushed them out to sea with the tide. Stone by stone it worked, slow and purposeful. Soon it had piled up enough rocks underwater that the current could no longer shift them singly away.
Between the boulders, the clawed creature sowed a garden of kelp, bladderwrack, barnacles, and mussels, until the hollow places were filled, and the rocks were knitted and cemented together.
The labor was long and strenuous, and also curiously satisfying.
Years passed before the stony stack was high enough that the highest wave did not douse its flattish top. The once-small monster rested on the stack’s summit for a night and a day, watching the stars in their silver parade, then the clouds in their brightening and flaming. It felt the weariness of work well done.
The next morning, the once-small monster began to carry soil by the mouthful to the top of the stack. The clawed thing ferried pinecones, nuts, and dandelion clocks across the water on the monster’s horns.
They did not stop when the first seeds put forth their plumules, but continued to lengthen, enlarge, and fortify the stack. In the course of their work, the once-small monster collected three heaps of bleached, bare, monstrous bones from the woods and shore and laid them in stones and roots and soil.
Fish of a thousand colors hid in the seaweed that waved at the base of the stack. Their glittering schools parted as the monster swam by.
One evening, as the two of them sat on the seashore, the clawed creature said: What work shall we do tomorrow?
The once-small monster gazed on their rich and cakelike sea stack. The soft green tips of a fifth year’s growth were just visible at the tips of the spindly trees.
It is done, the once-small monster said.
Was it worthwhile?
Will you rest?
One day and one night, the once-small monster said.
Then what will you do?
See how the waves break like flocked birds against our stack. Look at the water-light that flickers on the underside of the stones. I shall build another island, the once-small monster said. And another. Until we have made a quietness between the wilds and the deep.
Let me help, the clawed creature said, as the not-small, not-a-monster knew it would.
I could not do it otherwise.
“Small Monsters” copyright © 2021 by E. Lily Yu
Art copyright © 2021 by Armando Veve