“Those Who Came Before” by Nicholas J. Carter

“Those Who Came Before” by Nicholas J. Carter

There is a fire blazing in the ogre’s cave, and I can sense the heat by the way the smoke rises and the air shimmers like a snake, but I can’t feel it. I have no body to warm.

The ogre sitting by the fire is holding a maiden’s head in one hand, the rest of her body hanging limply by the neck. With a noisy crack, he slams her skull upon the thick, blue-black rock by the fire — the one with a sharp point, the only rock he uses for this purpose — cleaving the skull in two, after which he noisily sucks and slurps the bloody brains.

He did that to me weeks ago. Or months. He thundered into the chamber where he stows maidens in a bamboo cage, opened the gate, picked me up by the arm, and dragged me to the fire. My bare heels scraped against the stone floor but there was no resisting him.

The little flint knife between his fingers seemed curiously small for such a huge creature. I remember disbelieving that he would use something so deft, and in that moment of curiosity I never even saw it move. One moment I was on my knees, pleading for my life, little stones digging into my knees, and tears cooling on my cheeks. The next, a cool breeze wafted across my face. A warm feeling coated the front of my neck, my chest. Wooziness. Blackness.

Death and return.

Seeing my own body was too much of a shock. I still disbelieved, even as he held my skull high over the rock and smashed my face apart on it. It cracked, slick upon the stone, my stain layered upon the others like a memory.

* * *

The women in my village always tell the same stories to their children: a horrible monster terrorizes the land, killing and devouring many. After months, or years, or decades, some princes are informed of this. The eldest fights the monster and dies. The middle fights and dies. The youngest fights and is victorious. He frees a captured maiden and marries her. She is a princess. He inherits half her father’s kingdom.

The story is always about the youngest prince. It never concerns itself with the princes who came before, or the people who died at the hands of the monster, as if these people — we, I should say — were trivial details.

There are seven maidens now in the cage, which is crude but strong. It is made of thick branches lashed together with twine or maiden’s hair, in a chamber at the far end of a twisty hallway of blue-black rock the same color as the ogre’s skin. You could almost imagine the cave was his mother and father, he so resembles its body. Crawling on the ceiling and walls over the cage are many bluish-white ghosts of maidens, at least as many dead as there are live. All shriek for release.

I wish they would keep me company instead. None of them join me to watch the ogre in his work, though I have invited them. I am transfixed by the way he strips and cures our meat, makes pale leather of our snowy-white skin, makes jewelry of our bones and ornaments of our skulls. A craftsman, that’s what he is. My own black hair he spun into a dream catcher dark as jet, and he hung my pretty fingerbones from several loose strands that dangled from it. They clack together when a strong wind strikes deep into the cave — though this is not often — and then I feel a tingle where my spirit thinks fingers should still be.

My silk dress was cut into the sides of a square lantern, braced with my arm and leg bones. The cream-and-red pattern on it is beautiful when lit. The ogre’s thick fingers should be clumsy, but when spinning thread they are as mysterious as the delicate dark spiders that cling nimbly to the webs along the ceiling. He paints with our blood. With my blood he created a leaping gazelle in stylized curves and fierce flashes and slashes. Within hours tiny flies covered it and ate it away, which made me sad. All his beautiful paintings go to the flies eventually, but, on reflection, I think they’re all the more breathtaking for their brevity.

He wastes nothing.

I am secretly thrilled for the girls he pulls to his big black rock, even as their eyes grow wide and their voices pleading. As the wind of his razor passes through their throats, I appraise them and wonder what they will become. These bodies of canvas and paint and raw material: who could begrudge him their use? Who could hate a creature who turns our deaths to art, which is a thing only the spirit can appreciate?

* * *

A man in fine armor came today, and now stands before the ogre with a sword drawn. The firelight swirls on his breastplate, making it seems as if there were a fire inside of him: a lantern in his heart. The man moves and fights and swings his sharp sword, and he is fast. But the ogre is faster. He pries the weapon from the fine man’s fingers — which are baby-thin compared to the ogre’s thick ones — and strangles him to death, holding him aloft in one hand.

I hear sobbing. The man’s ghost has appeared against the wall, divested of his arms and armor and staring in shock. The ogre picks up the head of the man’s body, removes the shining helmet and dashes the fine man’s face against the rock, splitting it in neat halves. He slurps the brains from the fine man’s skull, and now the ghost of the man rushes at him and claws uselessly with his empty hands. Screaming. Gnashing. Nothing. He turns back to the wall and wails.

* * *

The fine man — a prince, I must assume — goes to the back of the cave to wail and gnash his teeth with the women. I tell him, “You should see the skill with which the ogre weaves; you would be amazed! Your hair is now a tapestry; your blood a hunter following a leaping gazelle.” But he does not listen. I am not unsympathetic. I understand what it is like to see one’s body in pieces on the ground. But I don’t want to believe that our destruction is for nothing; there must be something wonderful to come of it.

What good is there in claiming this suffering when life is through? I wish I could explain it to them. Sometimes I weep as well, but it’s for them. They feed on the lives they could have had. Like leeches feeding upon a bloodless body.

A day after the fine man arrives the ogre isn’t doing anything interesting, just placidly watching the stewpot bubble with the fine man’s meat, trying to make sure it doesn’t boil over. He tastes it every so often with a spoon carved from bone, rapping it on the edge of the pot like a bored cook. I go down the twisty hall to the back of the cave and try to explain myself to the man. “Is only creation a miracle? Why not destruction?” But the ghost maidens and he merely hiss. They are intertwined now, a puddle of moaning spiritual flesh clinging to the back of the blue-black wall. The living maidens in the cage cry. I cannot tell if they can see the ghosts, but perhaps they feel the terror embracing in the air above them.

I return to the ogre’s room. He has put down the spoon, seemingly content that the stew has reached the proper temperature and, ah, he has a piece of the fine man’s armor in his hands and is turning it over, admiring the glint of the firelight on it. He takes the different pieces and hangs them from sinews in the corners of the room. Yellow light suffuses the chamber as it bounces from the armor. Our home is a little brighter now.

When this is done, the ogre picks up the leg bone spoon from the floor and uses it to stir the pot once more. He almost always appears dispassionate and thoughtful, especially as he cooks. Sometimes he roars or growls when the mood strikes him, or beats his furry chest when he goes to pluck another girl from the cage, but these seem like calculated moves. To cow the girls, I think, so that none flees when he opens the bars.

He finishes eating his stew. After supper, he takes his flint knife and carves the fine man’s arm and leg bones into a series of pipes, wrapping the lot together in twine made from the man’s yellow hair.

The fine man’s bones are good and strong: he must have been a magnificent warrior. The pan flute the ogre made of those bones is full of wondrous music. The images on the man’s clothes are beautiful. They are royal maroon, and in golden-colored thread they bear swirly curlicues that end in budding roses. The ogre has not yet found a use for the fabric, but he has hung the clothing up respectfully off the floor on a line, and he watches the flowered shirt swing back and forth when the strong winds enter the cave, rubbing his chin and making a rumbling noise in his throat.

* * *

The firepit by the skull-splitting rock is my favorite place. I am always standing by it, fingering the ghost cloth of my dress and watching what the ogre does. Lately the ogre plays pretty music on the pan flute he made from the fine man’s bones, and I dance, twirling my skirts around in a pretty way. I hope he sees, but if he’s aware of me at all, or of any of the ghosts he’s left behind, he shows no sign.

We had dances in the village I grew up in. There was an ungainly, small, and knock-kneed boy who danced well despite himself. I liked him. My mother would always say, “You’re too much of a beauty for that monkey. Stop thinking below yourself.” They praised my beauty, and I think that was why the ogre took me. They said of me, “Such fine black hair and snowy skin. Red of cheek, green of eye. A girl who could marry a prince.” Though they always said these as if they weren’t intended as compliments. As if my hair and eyes were factual and sterile as pictures on a page. As if the beauty wasn’t mine but was merely borrowed from a girl much more deserving.

I assume my family has moved on. I had younger sisters, and they will live and love and grow without me.

Another maiden is being brought from the cage. She is a vision. Her hair is golden blonde and her eyes deep blue like star sapphires. Her beauty is foreign: we don’t have anyone like her around here so the ogre must have traveled far to reach her. He was right to do so for such a beauty. When she begs for her life the sapphire tears have drops of red firelight suspended inside. Jewels within jewels. A miracle. She can’t hear me, but I tell her anyway, “Please be brave. Don’t cry. Things will be all right. A spirit continues on. And I will remember you, and so will the ogre.” I feel guilty for saying so, but the feeling passes quickly. As with the others, he cuts her throat with the barest wave of his hand, cracks the skull, and sucks the brains.

And then she is by the splitting rock with me, on her knees and weeping. Only, it’s the silent kind of weeping where you can scarcely tell by the noise and only know it by the person’s shuddering.

I hold out one hand to her. Her own hands are covering her face. She moves them aside and is startled to see my hand. I smile at her. Her eyes and mouth are wide open. Surprise has overtaken sadness.

There is a grisly tearing sound as the ogre breaks open her body’s chest and runs his fingers over her viscera, sorting which organs will be good raw and which to save for stew. She turns around. She screams like only the dead can. It is raw pain, and I put my own hands over my ears, though it doesn’t help. I cannot believe that the ogre doesn’t hear it, for he is bent over and the blonde maiden is screaming directly in his ear as he plucks her body’s liver out and squeezes it to determine its worth. He is satisfied, nods and drops the glistening organ in the stewpot.

* * *

Today the ogre cuts the throat of a pretty brown-skinned girl in a green dress. Her hair is done up in braids, and she is resigned. There is none of the usual begging or crying, even when he breaks her head open on the rock. Such a strange girl. A wrinkle of irritation flashes on the ogre’s face. I think he wants to hear crying. He is a monster, after all.

Beside the splitting rock the girl’s ghost appears, staring sadly at her own corpse for a moment before floating listlessly out of the cave. I’m confused, as none have ever done this before. I try to follow but find I can’t bring myself any farther than a few feet from the fireplace. Doing so makes me shiver with fear.

A stew is made from the brown-skinned girl, and the ogre appears satisfied with it. He throws many things into the stew, such as wild mushrooms and fragrant grasses from outside. It smells good, and I briefly wonder what it would taste like, but I find myself unnerved by the thought. I wonder what I might have tasted like to him. The steaming stew drips into his beard as he eats.

He has poor manners for such an admirable body. He is large and well muscled, though he has a potbelly from eating too much. He has two sharp horns like those of a ram, and row after row of pointed teeth. In spite of his cruelty I find much to admire in him — though I shall still forgive him for nothing, or so I tell myself. Who doesn’t admire an imposing figure, such as a king or emperor or another with power?

The meal finished, he saunters towards his pot of blood, where he picks up the maidenhair brush and licks the end with his great pink tongue. What will he make today?

The first stroke upon the wall is interrupted by a fierce crash from the cavern entrance. A young man in armor has arrived. I say young, but really he must be a little older than I. I feel so much older now.

The young man is brandishing a sword that puts the fine man’s to shame. While the firelight merely trembled in that one, this sword is so bright that the reflection leaps away and leaves green and purple trails that stay in the eyes. His armor appears the same. The fire in it is so powerful that it feels like you could open his chest and there would be a roaring furnace inside.

He cries that the ogre is a villain, and charges valiantly at him. I don’t disagree, but it is a shame that he won’t know what else the ogre is: a painter, a musician, and a craftsman. The young man is fast. The ogre’s own strength and speed are tested. He fights with only his fists, of course. The cavern walls shake when his blows miss the young man and instead strike rock.

But the fight still ends predictably. In the end, the ogre’s body is too strong and vigorous, and the young man’s swiftness fades as he grows tired. He lands some blows on the ogre, and draws some of the beast’s ruddy red blood, but in the end leaves nothing more than a flesh wound.

Tired, wounded, and heavy from dinner, the ogre still shows a strong sense of duty. He will waste nothing. The young man’s ghost is full of the same rage that the fine man’s was, and he claws and wails in much the same way as his comrade as the ogre pulls the shining armor and pretty garments from his body, raises his head above the rock and splits it apart, then sucks the brains from the shattered skull.

* * *

Though the skulls are damaged, the ones the ogre loves most are glued together with a paste he makes from mushrooms and hung from the ceiling by braids of hair, just over the wall on which he paints. He ties the halves together again as best he can with hair or sinews. I am proud to say that my skull is among those. I don’t think he loves it best of all, for he looks more fondly on a skull that was already hanging when I arrived here. A skull split neatly in three pieces, with an almost triangular center fragment. It hangs by a blonde braid and has green paint upon it, which the ogre crushes from the grass outside. I don’t know to whom it belongs, but I envy her.

I don’t love the ogre. Or rather, my relationship with him is the love of a dutiful attendant. No one could possibly have fallen in love with him. It would be foolish. He is a brutal creature, my killer. I worry for him. Someone must kill him to stop the story. Someone must, but oh, give me one more day.

The cuts in his flesh are healing slowly. They pain him, and it saddens me to see him so weary. He puts less effort into his drawings and his crafts, and is moody more often. He cannot put the same thought into his art or his music that he once could, and that hurts us both. There is no more dancing, for he can’t carry a tune for long. The young man’s armor was hung, but with less care. The light is reflected from it in strange ways; skewed into corners and crevices that were foreign to it, and banishing the soft darkness and the mysterious spiders who dwelled there. All of his poor paintings are dark now. The pieces of bright armor along the ceiling bump his head, harassing him and getting in the way. Now, the young man’s helmet is spinning to and fro, lighting the latest painting of a stag goring a bear, like a sun rapidly rising and falling. Already the tiny flies are stripping it from the wall.

The young man bore some resemblance to the fine man, and I must assume that they were brothers, like in the stories. The ogre could not find a thing to do with the young man’s pretty clothing — a venom-green shirt with lilacs embroidered on the sleeves — and so it hangs by his brother’s clothes.

The ogre plays ominous songs on his pan flute at night. They are off-key and frighten the listener.

* * *

A prince arrived today in mail so bright that it is as if he stole the sun into it. To look on his sword is to be blinded. Indeed, the ogre staggers backwards and puts one wide hand over his eyes. The light splashes over him like acid, washing out the blue-black color of the rocks and the ogre, and highlighting his red wounds so that they look angry. Battle commences, and it is clear that the ogre is overmatched.

The lad carelessly slices flesh from the ogre. He barely seems to be aware that he is fighting as the beast’s blood spatters the walls. I am not surprised that is scented with the same tang as ours.

I know that he must die. I expected nothing less. He may strike a blow or two, but the day will not be his.

I realize now why I love him: he was the last living thing to care for us. The other maidens didn’t realize it, nor did the princes, but the ogre truly loved us. We were the beautiful paintings upon his wall. We were his warm belly in the evening, and his night music. We were his tools and his clothes and his jewelry and his reason for being and his satisfaction and pleasant dreams. When the prince kills him we will be forgotten. The prince will take the prettiest maiden from the cage. He will marry her, and her father will grant him half the kingdom.

Nicholas J. Carter lives in southeastern Massachusetts with his wonderful wife. His small body of work can be found in a handful of places around the web, and a list of these is available at his blog at adequategusto.blogspot.com. His 100-word short story, “Lab Rats,” was voted as the top drabble of 2011 in The Drabblecast‘s annual People’s Choice Awards, which probably says something about democracy. He likes stories where things are so broken that they can’t be put back together again, and thinks it probably shows.