“Beauty and the Beast. Every kid has heard it.”
“You wouldn’t have a match on you would you, buddy?” the nightmare asked hopefully. The midnight visitor was a distillation of the fears that grow best alone and in the dark: a Manticore, a myth. Between its bared fangs was installed the now-defunct butt of a thick, short black cigar.
The Manticore exuded the odor of rainy childhood afternoons, pious old people and the chemical composition of the afterlife. The creature’s eyes flashed lime green highlights, verdigris and gold: a summer housefly buzzing at the window.
“Look, it’s nice of you to call and all, but I am at the moment nursing a bruised ego with a shallow threshold for bullshit. The slough of the despond is my Club Med. All I need is a mythical monster in my face. My future menu is redolent with popping rats at the dump for an entree and dumpster diving for dessert. Spare me your fairy tales. Oops.” I had been pacing as I spoke and accidentally stepped on the Manticore’s tail.
“Hey, easy. Careful of the tail. I am supposed to shoot poisonous darts from it but on the other hand, I am supposed to be a lion with the face of a man and the tail of a scorpion. Somewhere along the line a porcupine got tossed into the mix. God is some big joker. Many people do not appreciate this.”
I breathed in the odor of my grandmother’s kitchen curtains: wood smoke and cinnamon, a smell of fly-speckled holy pictures, peeling kitchen paint and the slops bucket under the sink. With the smells came a recollection of Sundays and hellfire from a pounded pulpit, a reluctant child dragged along to hear the litany. The apparition was a visitor from my grandmother’s blameless grave.
“Do you believe in Hell?” I asked. In 53 years of life my major accomplishment had been learning to shave while drinking a can of beer through the lather. I wished I had a beer right now. “Sorry, that was a dumb question.”
It sighed, a draft of wet paper matches sputtering. “No question is dumb. This is how we learn, buddy.” The Manticore was diffident. He scratched his ear with a foot.
“Hell, though—no, can’t say that I have. Heard of it, that is. Believing is something else. My turn. What is Hell and why do you ask? I mean, I have suggested this to you, right?”
I backtracked. The creature’s feelings were hurt. “Hell is one of our mythical places. You know, sort of Dungeons and Dragons.”
The Manticore dropped to all fours, his tail swinging from side to side as he adjusted his balance, and scuttled over with an awkward porcupine gait to hide behind me. The quilled head looked for a challenging dragon from behind trousered human legs. Dragons he had heard of, though never met.
“Sorry, I tend to forget that I’m sharp. Haven’t been out long, you know.”
“Just now you reminded me of my grandmother...”
“I am deeply, sincerely touched. Oh, I get it. Not her, but a place she has been. This Hell, then, eh? Well, if your grandmother is the confidante of dragons, you clearly come from an adventuresome stock. Why, then, do I put you off?”
“Well...” The creature was so easily hurt that I waffled for an acceptable answer. “Listen, I have just this afternoon been fired and to celebrate my enlistment into the legions of the indigent I am on my way to the liquor store where they have a significant hangover on layaway for me. All I have to do is get the beer, pickup the Old Tennis Shoes and rent some videos.”
“You bit the secretary on the ass. Again. Whaddyou expect?”
“How did you know that? Just who the hell are you? Aside from world-class repugnant.”
“Your honey-tinctured pleasantries will turn my head. Time is wasting and scrupulous honesty is the only way to go. Don’t spare my feelings. It is important that we get along, pal, and because of this I will now piss away some precious time by telling you a story. You like stories?”
“Oh yes, uhn, sure.” I relaxed; I was off the hook.
The moose’s antlers were heavy with mist and festooned with old man’s beard hooked from a passing hemlock thicket. It had been an open winter, roots and lichens dying off for lack of snow cover. The moose had come that day to drop his antlers and wished to be alone. With bad foraging and the energy expended on maintaining the rack the moose was tired and irritable.
Eyes wet with wonder, the Algonkian met the moose on a springy forest trail. Both were surprised: here was something new. Until now the moose and the man had been each the unchallenged lord of his own creation, the first man and the first moose, and neither knew the other’s name. The moose had dropped antlers before and anticipated an onset of a partial deafness with mild regret. The big-bladed antlers amplified the fall of snow, the separation of a dry leaf from its stem, the impact of a pine needle on the padded forest floor. They were reflectors of the forest’s murmur and, after all, a part of him. To go antlerless was to imitate the solitude of starvation and withdraw into himself as in a heavy, windless snowfall. Here, however, was an interruption, a fellow indigene wandering tentatively in the woods.
They met at the edge of an upland bog, standing where no other foot before had trod. The Algonkian’s eyes were close-set and wide where the moose’s eyes protruded from the sides of its head. Stock still, they took each other’s measure.
Forward motion stopped, both began to sink in the slough.
The Algonkian shifted his weight from foot to foot, feeling his ankles wet. The moose shifted his weight, left front to right rear, alert to wind-sign of rage or panic from the man.
As they slowly sank together, the simultaneous revelation born of despair brought to each an intuition of the other’s secret name. What to do with it? To speak it would mean survival. Acknowledgement of a figment, on the other hand, would bring sanity to question. A fine punctilio: to avoid suffocation in the bog meant sacrificing uniqueness in a mutual plea for aid.
“The point of the story is where the intuition came from—not the man, not the moose, not their predicament. Forget the dragons, buddy. They would only clutter up our scenario. There are some names we don’t utter lightly, got it?” He drew himself back to a bipedal position. “You circumcised, pal?"
“Just something I thought of while I was down there. If you weren’t, I could have offered a real neat job. While you wait—one of the specialties of the house. Too bad..."
The Manticore speared his smoldering cigar from the rug with the tip of a six-inch long, razor-sharp claw. His eyes lingered on my crotch. I decided to drop any further inquiries after dragons. Game and match, love all.
“For our purposes here today, I am the moose. You’re going to have to accept me. On faith, get it? We could hang out and punch each other’s buttons all night long, but as enjoyable as this may be to both of us, I suggest we put by the social graces until we have all eternity to fritter away on the amenities. You know the story Beauty and the Best?”
“Beauty and the Beast. Every kid has heard it.”
“At your grandmother’s knee, I suppose? The old lady must have been quite the creeper, dragons and all. Forget that crap. Beauty and the Best; these are the days of multicultural respect. This is a small planet, nu? And I find Beast a pejorative characterization. I am the Best and for tonight you’ll have to be the beauty, all sensory input to the contrary. As I told you, I’m the Best. Think about that. You need your beauty rest. Sort things out in the morning. Everything will look rosy and in place in the morning.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“That is a fine way to address one who has come with a tale of spiritual uplift. You don’t get it,” said the nightmare. “Point A to point C and I just figure everybody will follow along and intuit point B. No one ever does, so I will explain. I am God’s Taxi Service.”
“Ouch!” Some quills had drilled my foot.
“Sorry, I tend to forget that I’m sharp. Haven’t been out long, you know. I’m only a messenger.”
“Well...” The creature’s feelings were so easily hurt that I waffled for something to say.
“Level with me. You believe I am a figment when I am only a story that got better with the telling. The telephone syndrome—travelers from the Land of Cathay chat with African merchants who talk to a Turk, the Ottoman natters to a Tatar mujhik who spills the beans to an itinerant Italian who in turn goes home with a marvelous tale of what he expected to see in the first place and tells the homefolk what they already knew. I am an article of faith. This is how legends begin. I might have begun life as a simple giraffe. But I am here with you. Now. Deal with it.”
The original artwork for the Manticore’s Tale is copyright Markus Neidel and is used by permission.
Significant portions of the character of the Manticore were incorporated into the character of Daphne Prydferthbwytawrganawyreni in Daphne Longhandle’s Last Flight, a story of mine.