All Manner of Men and Monsters
by Rebecca M. Latimer
Illustrated by Galen Dara | Edited by Brian J. White
I remember my father spitting lightning into sand, forming misshapen glass with which to decorate my mother’s tower. He’d built it himself, with stacks of black bricks, and I remember wondering as I watched with innocent eyes why he’d chosen to forgo stairs. The structure was tall, impossibly so, with my mother’s room perched at the very top. My father could take flight and climb through her lonely window, but what about me?
That window, high overhead, transfixed me from an early age. I wished I could have seen my mother’s face as my father presented those glass ornaments to her, and that she could have held me and shown me the view from way up there. But I learned to keep my longing secret the day my father found me in the tower’s shadow with my head tipped back, staring. He swept down from the sky and slammed into me full-force, pinned me winded against the ground and snarled through bars of pointed teeth, “She isn’t yours, she’s mine.”
I remember these things, but I do not remember my mother — only wanting her.
My father raised me alone in a cottage nestled deep in the woods, and as a rule we did not speak of my mother. In silence I tried to envision her face, which must have been human like mine. I tried to imagine her spirit, kind and calm and charming. When I went walking I’d tell my father I was off chasing fairy-flies, so that he would not suspect I was spending time in the shaded glade where my mother’s tower stood. Sometimes, if I stared at the window long enough, I’d see a shadow move inside.
I did not know that it was strange, the way we lived.
I was twelve, give or take, when my father first took me to town. That scorching summer the bazaar was overcrowded — with people, with animals, with things. Even the most ordinary of all three shocked me, for I had never seen such variety and abundance: baubles and books, weapons and tools, salt-preserved meats and spices and wines and people of so many sorts. My father guided me down the rows of vendors and I saw men with human faces like mine, who’d decorated themselves with turbans or long braids or rings piled on their fingers, who’d cropped their hair and dressed all in white or who wore beards and furs. I saw women, those creatures unfamiliar to me, and they came as varied as the men.
I realized then that the world must be vast, a notion cemented when we came to a merchant selling images of lands beyond ours. I bid my father stop, for the maps and globes enticed me, and since he’d told me I could have one thing I chose a small globe to take home.
My father stayed quiet as we rode back through the woods. I examined my treasure, entranced by the lands and vast waters depicted. I felt my first yearning to see these places, to understand what made them different, what made their people different, and what made them the same. I asked my father if he’d come from somewhere else and if there were others like him, and he pointed to a continent far, far to the south, a mass of mountains tinted red. Rock and fire, I thought, and it was fitting.
The world inside my mother’s tower must have been small indeed, nothing to look at but those black bricks and whatever narrow view her lonely window could provide. My heart ached.
When my father tucked me into bed that night I dared tell him, “I want to give the globe to my mother.” It was the first time in years I had referenced her aloud. My heart pounded.
My father strained to keep his breathing even as he rumbled, “Why?”
His reaction, not being one of immediate rage, made me braver. “I think she’d like to see how big the world is. Would you bring it up to her, when you go?”
Wordlessly he finished pulling the blankets over my shoulders, and then he stood and moved across the room. I watched, hopeful, as he paused by the table where the globe sat, gently reflecting the firelight in its curve. I smiled, envisioning my mother’s face as he climbed through her window and presented it to her: A gift from your son…
Then, in an instant, the globe was crushed to shards beneath my father’s massive fist.
He left without looking back, and I lay sleepless, stifling sobs. I’d never longed so deeply to have wings of my own, so that I could go to my mother and crawl into her lap and be cradled in the comfort of her arms.
I spent a great deal of my youth exploring the docile woods, stalking the quick-footed creatures there and questing for rare blood-red flowers. I wondered, often, how far I would have to walk to reach one of those great things called ocean, but I never got far enough. I was to return before dark, always — it was my father’s rule.
I was getting older, though, and he began assigning me errands. One day he told me to chop all our wood, another he taught me to slaughter a deer. One day he sent me to town on my own to fetch him a cask of wine, and on this day he also said that because I’d been good and obedient I might buy a gift for myself with whatever was left over.
Wandering the rows of vendors, I pretended to myself that I’d travelled great distances and seen many terrible things. But all my visions of myself as an adventurer grew dull and childish next to my chosen gift: a collection of hundreds of dark magic tales, illustrated in black and jewel-toned ink. Such shocking, gut-wrenching stories I found in that gorgeous book… Its words alone painted pictures, and these pictures of daring knights and brave heroes whose lances and swords could slice through any evil and liberate all damsels-in-peril mesmerized me. I could not stop reading from the moment my gaze touched the page. Instead of heading home I sat at the edge of town, the wine cask my chair and the book propped open in my lap. Word-by-word it dawned on me I’d never had much of an imagination.
I only remember one story, now. It told of a prince who beheaded a thing like my father, and they called him dragon-slayer.
When I noticed myself squinting I looked up, neck aching, and saw that it was dusk. I swore and gathered up my book and ran into the woods, sprinted down the path, but the night was black by the time I reached our cottage. I prayed that my father had gone up to my mother’s room, or that he was already asleep, but as I crept to the door and pushed it open I saw him sitting by the hearth. My heart sank into my belly, and my belly twisted when he turned his glaring eyes on me.
He simply said, “Where is my wine?”
My face felt suddenly cold. I had forgotten the cask at the edge of town.
My father ordered me to bed. I set down the book of stories and obeyed. I closed my eyes tight, and after a while started dreaming of monstrous snakes with scales like my father’s skin and men with swords on their shoulders. Shortly, and inexplicably, I woke once more. Through bleary eyes I watched my father standing over the table, flipping grim-faced through my book. He stopped at a certain point and stared, and stared, and I shifted in my bed so that I might see what interested him. The gloomy illustration on the page revealed to me which tale he’d read: that of the prince called dragon-slayer. Guilt gripped me. I swallowed and shut my eyes. The air tasted of my father’s anger, and I wondered if he’d strike me, or burn me. I heard the book fall shut and my father’s heavy footsteps across the cottage, and I tensed.
The heat in the room grew stifling.
Nothing. I cracked an eyelid. My father crouched by the hearth where the fire burned bright and cheerful. My book was buried in the flames.
Tears pricked the corners of my eyes, but I made no sound as I watched the pages curl and blacken. I dwelt in the pounding that shook my chest, in wild anger, and thought I might spit fire and lightning, too.
Sometimes I would go to my mother’s tower, press my hands against the brick, and tell her all the things I wanted: not just to wear armour and bear swords and slay beasts but to be feared so deeply by all manner of men and monsters that I could take her from her tower and no one, no one, would part us again. Once, a wet droplet splashed upon my arm. I wrenched back, thinking I would see her leaning out the window, weeping, but it was just the rain.
I thought time would bring me the peace of acceptance, as it always had. My father was my king. The world and my mother were not mine to grasp. Only I could not forget that book of tales, and all the things it promised, and all the secrets it held. Dragon-slayer. It echoed in my skull until I could not bear it.
I confronted my father and shouted, throat tight, “I want to see my mother. I want to see her, now!”
He turned to face me, dark lips peeling back to show red gums and endless rows of gleaming teeth. I staggered back as he came toward me, fear mixing in with my rage. Down in the depths of his maw a yellow glow inched up, and I yelped when he grabbed me and yanked me to his chest. My eyes locked on his in terror. Smoke billowed from his nostrils and poured over my face, stinging them. His breath scorched and blistered my skin.
“She isn’t yours,” he growled, a sound that grated in my bones. Then came that maddeningly familiar and venomous addendum which did more than burn: “She’s mine.”
He left me hunched on the ground, silent. But though such a show of power had been enough to subdue me once, I was no longer a child. I rose to my feet, hands curling into fists. I had given him a chance, and he had proved himself unchanging.
That night I went to town with a purpose all the books and baubles and people in the world couldn’t distract me from. I found a knife-seller and purchased his strongest blade.
I kept my weapon well-hidden, knowing I needed to bide my time. Each day I sat down to dinner with my ever-ravenous father and talked with him, beginning with an apology for my indiscretion and morphing from there into discussions of the woods, the coming winter, the politics in town. I bid him sweet dreams each night and went to bed and slept and fantasized. And each day I trekked out into the woods, hiding deep in the shadows of autumn, where I could build myself a ladder.
Finally. Beyond prepared, I waited in my bed, pretending to sleep. When my father left to visit my mother I retrieved my hidden sword and slipped back under the covers. I waited for him to return, and closed my eyes when he did. I kept them closed. I kept on waiting.
How long does it take for a beast to fall asleep? If he heard me toss my blanket back, or touch my toes to the creaking floor… I could only try not to imagine what he would do. So I waited still, perhaps longer than necessary. It was the first light of dawn tinging the sky outside that pushed me to act, telling me time was running short. I did not breathe as I crept from my bed, weapon drawn.
I can’t say what came over me, then. It was not rage. I did not slam the blade down again and again, going blind as I screamed and he thrashed and his blood splashed up around me. I did not keep chopping at his neck after he’d gone limp, as if my anger was stronger than my intent. But I did not hesitate, either. Had I done so, I surely would have failed to strike a proper blow. I would have gotten my weapon caught in his numerous horns.
No, it was like neither of those. I simply killed him.
The woods seemed gloomy and too-quiet, afterwards. I stood over my father’s massive corpse for a long while, numb and waiting to feel something. No feeling came but pins and needles. So I sheathed the sword and moved on to my next objective: climbing my mother’s tower. I ran to the place where I’d stashed my secret ladder, homespun and rickety but tall enough to reach her lonely window — and reaching her was all that mattered. The early-morning sun cast its first rays into the spaces between the trees as I dragged the ladder to the shaded glade and leaned it against the high, curving wall of black brick. When I climbed, the light climbed with me.
I could not have stopped had I wanted to. Pure, dreadful anticipation filled me, pushed against the bottoms of my feet. Up and up I went, opposing gravity, opposing every rule my father ever set. A rung snapped under my weight, but I hardly noticed. I was about to see my mother. My mother! That beautiful woman I could not remember but wanted, wanted, wanted.
The window yawned above me. I threw my arms over its lower ledge and hauled myself up, staring wide-eyed and expectantly into the darkness beyond its frame. The light of dawn wrapped its arms around me and spilled into the tower room, illuminating what lay inside.
A chalky skeleton, sprawled upon a bed of silk and flowers.
I scanned the room in search of my mother. The room was smaller than I’d expected, and free of any furnishings but the bed and a row of glass ornaments — the ones my father had made by spitting lightning into sand. But where was the fireplace, to keep her warm? Where was the table where she took her supper, the basin where she washed?
My gaze fell back on the body, and the long, stringy remnants of hair draped over its shoulders. A sombre horror gripped me. My sweet mother. All alone up here.
I must have climbed back down the ladder. What else could I have done? Two ladder-rungs snapped halfway down, and I went crashing into the grasses below. I lay heaving, then rose to my feet and staggered off into the trees.
I buried the bloody blade of my sword in their trunks, screaming.
I cried and I vomited, and I bruised my knuckles on the stones that protruded from the earth.
I’d gazed endlessly at that window, and I’d seen her shadow, I’d seen her shadow. And yet, I had not. I had not.
I fell so deeply into this dark void that I lost myself, and woke many hours later sitting against a tree. Not quite calm, but solemn. I retrieved my blade and cleaned it. I went back to the cottage, and without looking at my father’s corpse collected a bag of rations and gold.
I walked to town. I kept walking.