“Shells of Monsters” by Rhonda Eikamp

When he come out of me all glory and bloody and battered I knowed he was god.

He was mine, my god, and that make me a goddess, with them all standing there round me waiting, in the dark and the turnip-smelling rot. Waiting to see if the god could live or if they is needing to kill this mother and try again with another. Didn’t ask what I want, they, but then he pull in a breath and cried big (oh he was big) and them cheering and trying to take him still bloody off me, so I cut one with my teeth and a stone, and the rest they backing off after that, they knowing I goddess.

My milk come then and he hurt me with teeth already sprout in his big mouth, but I so happy. I raise you up now, big little god, say I. With milk for you and fists for them. Laying him and me down on the bones of the bad ones who is always come pounding up the mountain to try and stab us, laying me down to rest in our rest place, to think of what was to come now we having a god again and how I will always be strong for him the god my son. The grand little one. Grand little.

I am one of your Heroes. Girt about with strength to defend the oppressed, my name a salve upon your tongues. If I spoke my name you would know it, but I will not. Call me only Hero. When the ash-rain falls and the monsters descend from the mountains, I step out from our town’s walls and I fight. Or I did. Let’s be truthful. It has been many years since I swung a knife, wrestled. Younger men have begun to replace me, and so they should, yet I shudder at the dusk of old age, this monstrosity come on me. Everything changes. Now, in our village, great stone walls have replaced the wooden palisades, and the ditches with their impaling spikes have been left to erode. The monsters are smaller, heroes no longer called up so often. Some say the old monsters of yore will never come down the mountain again to harry us, that we defeated them all.

We.

There will always be monsters, washed to life by the ash-rain, or left since the bad-better time, hiding in their giant ruined dens of magic marble and gnawing on our bones. They will come again, believe me.

For now the dawn cold is my only monster, my last one. It gnaws my bones from the inside, to tell me I’m old, and I fight it.

It reminds me of Grand Little. I see you know that name, the monster I’m famous for.

What most don’t know is what came after, when I went up the mountain and into the dark lair to kill Grand Little’s monstrous mother and what it did to me.

He growed so big, my grand little god, with the hair the others never having, and arms long-long. So big they is quiet, when he stumble close, when he take the meat and blood from bowls more than his share they is letting him. My love growed. He was god but gods is needing learning too, and when he be not good and god enough, when he be afraid of thunder or sit down and not fight when ones littler is taking away a food, well then I picked up my chains and beating him, with all my love. Ma, he called out then and they backing away again, they kneeling in ah, in a circle around him, cause he can do the words. Not all us can do the words, but I am one and I teached him with all my love, in secret.

I letted down my chains then and I licked his sores.

Oh grand little one, say I. See the nuts we eat, see the shells.

He looking down at rock floor, weasel bones and mud and turnips, shells of the sweet nuts and the bitter all between.

I touch his skin. This is shell only, say I. Inside is you, grand little one. He looking up then, out past our broke walls to the grey trees tops. You is god, inside shell. I have to teach. For making you strong. You be strong inside when the bad ones coming up the mountain to stab us. You fight.

He touching me back then, cause he see. You is god. Ma-god.

Goddess, say I.

And then the one who I naming inside me One-Eye stand up from the others kneeling round us and touch my grand little one with me. One-Eye can do the words too, was telling us what-do before my grand little god come out of me, and I not liking this, this touch to be friends. Cause some us are bad too, bad as the bad ones that come up the mountain, but my little one still to learn that. He looking at One-Eye and then he touch back and smile.

My grand little one went all the sun times and moon learning after that, out the broke walls and into the grey woods, growing bigger and stronger, the weasels killing with his arms long-long so we eat more, going deeper down-mountain even if I say stop and yet not, always with his friend One-Eye, until he is come up on the place of the bad ones and only the bad can happen after that.

None of us except myself knows how it came to be called Grand Little. It was a shadow in the beginning, lumbering swiftly past at a distance, scraping the dark spaces between pines while watchmen on our walls rubbed their eyes, unsure of what they’d seen. A moon-odor after that, scraping the walls themselves by night and soon even by day, having somehow invisibly slunk near. A child still out at deep dusk, playing just inside the wall and humming a little tune, might suddenly run screaming as the wood bulged inward and the reek plummeted across her—an animal smell, of cows in rain, miscegenation with turnips. Turnip-man, the children began to whisper.

I would be called out each time to walk the perimeter, with torch and my long-knife and nothing else. Thick black tufts of hair left behind where it had rubbed against the palisades were my only reward, bristles sharp enough to pierce skin.

“Don’t go,” my woman Tamarind begged me the third time the night watchmen woke us all with their cries.

The fear had grown out of proportion among us by then. Muttering ran like flames fed out of control. Monsters we had had before, in so many ill forms—eyeless, four-armed, fungal—and yet the invisibility of this one, its darkness in the dark spaces beyond our walls, had swept away all courage. Tamarind stood at our door with our child in her arms, nursing. She was strong, my woman (gone now, years ago, in the birth-blood of our third), and yet her eyes upon me were larger than I had ever thought possible. Her fear was a wall between us, her begging a taste of corruption in my mouth. We chose mates freely in those days, as we still do, and I had chosen her, seeing strength and a beauty that nestled if not on the skin then just beneath, but freedom to choose is only as free as the choices placed before us.

“I am a Hero,” I reminded her, my tongue forced to curl around the bad taste of her begging. “I’ve sworn to be strong for all.”

“Would you be a Hero to your son?” Tamarind held him toward me, strong and fresh in his beautiful body. “A Hero corpse will not help him. Let others go, my husband. For once.”

Behind us other villagers had approached, together with our leader Wroth. Wroth’s white hair gleamed in the torchlight.

“He made a vow to protect,” Wroth told her.

Selfish, I could sense that the others thought this of Tamarind, and it was what I thought as well, the poison seed sliding into my brain.

I turned away from Tamarind and marched out the gate. I walked the walls, finding nothing again except the bristles and this time scat, as large as might have been dropped by three cows. In the morning Wroth ordered the reeking pile buried and the ground about it scorched.

Some say (and I only tell this, I do not believe it) that there were no monsters before the bad-better time, that all were equally beautiful, with no boil of evil in the blood to make them hideous devourers of others. They say the land was green everywhere, not only in these poor patches we tend so closely. I cannot believe it. For if all lived in such ease and peace together, where then would be the Hero? The need for courage? Perhaps it was such ease and comfort that put the bad into the bad-better time.

I am old and these wanderings are not good for the mind.

Wroth gave me a bowl made of beaten gold for my service that night, and I could see in his eyes that he was afraid I too had begun to think like Tamarind. That my great size and strength did not oblige me to sacrifice myself for the others.

That I might one day soon refuse.

I returned to Tamarind in the nights thereafter, but my desire for her had gone finicky, the poison seed having erupted into worms in my mind. Any beauty that might have glowed from within my wife was quenched in the knotty thoughts I fought against, her selfishness, questions of cowardice and sacrifice.

Grand Little did not trouble us again until the summer fete.

Running-running, he say, all happy before me, but I knowed he is gone all the way down-mountain again with One-Eye, that bad one crouching low behind him now, and I started at my grand little one, I put up my chains.

No, ma-god. Running-running are good. He beated his ears and frowning to do the words to me. This is some new thing, ma-god. They is coming out of their mouth, they is coming out of horns. Twigs is beat-beat.

He shaking all over body. It must to be some great new thing the bad ones having, I think, this Running that is for ears. Not animal, not to eat, but I wanted not to hear about it. He knowed not how bad the ones down-mountain could be.

You learn first fight, say I. Then go down-mountain. You not strong enough to fight bad ones. Yet not. They have big think. Bigger as us.

He was more happy all of sudden then, eyes moony. Yes, he shout. That it is. It is a big think, the Running-running. Going in my ears. A think.

He come to touch me and I seeing One-Eye behind him smile. One-Eye who telled him about down-mountain, who is gone with him. Who has big-think too sometime but always bad-think.

It go inside shell, my grand little one say to me. It stay inside me, this Running-running. Make my heart run-run. A good thing, ma-god.

He come out of me so lovely and he is lovely still. He is my god but all our gods has died dead always, there is none left, and no new times this one would bringing on us, I see then.

Cause I knowed then that I not made his shell hard enough, that he would die dead too.

You have heard tell of the battle. Some of you alive now were there. I will not speak of it but to correct. Yes, it broke through the gate, as we danced that particular afternoon safe and delirious in our fete, and though we had reinforced the timbers with our best wood it was as though the wood were straw. A child was crushed beneath its giant footpad. Mothers screamed. Our fifers broke off and ran. Yes, the monster scraped up our fiddler Tormas, dangling him close to its horrid face, its claws penetrating his chest and extending out the back. For a moment—hearing music in his death perhaps—Tormas moaned a death ditty, and yes, the monster roared, but by that time I had my knife in its thigh….

Yes yes yes, but what you do not know, what only one heroic enough to come so close could have seen, was its surprise.

The monster that looked down at me and my knife, that dropped dead Tormas from its paw, was a child, with no pattern in its head of good and evil or even the notion of attack. For seconds, as I withdrew my blade from its thigh and sought its bowels, I fancied its continued roar to be a monster’s stab at song, at Tormas’ lovely music, imitating us.

It was easy after that.

I was a bee, stinging here then there. An insect against which it blundered, ever more confused and red.

When it slipped in the mud I took off an arm, high up, with two hacks of the long-knife. A word burst from it.

Ma.

It found new strength then and in the arching shower of blood from its shoulder artery it tossed me against the wall and ran.

No need to chase a mortally wounded child, I thought.

Wroth crept from his doorway. There were more bodies than I had realized, the dead and the dying, trampled or gashed by the clawed feet. Tormas’ wife collapsed sobbing beside her mangled husband. Wroth stared from me to the victims and then the crushed gate, with its line of blood leading into the trees, as though the sight of me still standing there confounded him.

“Finish it,” he said.

Others had gathered close behind him, all around me, like blood flowing into a hollow. “Finish it,” one echoed and it became a chant, tens of voices raised. Finish it, finish it.

“The thing has a mother,” Wroth said. “You heard. Bring both their heads back and I will make you my successor.”

Beyond them, in our own doorway, Tamarind swallowed a moan and turned away. She was the image of all the doubt in my head. Doubt is something you fight.

Only a child.

I nodded to Wroth and I set off after the beast. It is what heroes do.

There are many of the old dens in our mountains. In most the magic marble has crumbled to ruins, taken over by the grey trees and lianes, burnt by the rain, yet some are known to harbor the ill-life. Hunters return with tales and each time our maps are redrawn. The blood I followed led to the largest of the ancient dens, high walls that came together to magically sharp corners and seemed cut straight from a single stone, yet crumbling at the top. I found the entrance. The thick odor of the ill-lifes’ scat choked me, deliberately laid at their door to deter hunters.

I would not be deterred.

Warren upon warren, a crushed honeycomb open here and there to white sky. The blood trail I followed diminished until it was but a drop at intervals, the monster’s veins near empty, and yet through the twisty corridors came a sound to guide me: a howl as inhuman as any the bad-better time could have made, a pressure against my skin. It was not the roar of the beast child I had wounded, but some other one, more mature. I began to tremble—I, who had not trembled since my nightmarish childhood. The mother would be cunning, I realized, unlike her child. Monstrosity multiplied. Her howl of grief said it.

Another turn, down a darker passage, and the reek of close-living animals changed to that of fresh—and copious—blood.

The passage ended in a large room with a corner of the roof collapsed. Nests crowded the walls beneath the remaining section of roof, poor damp beds of straw and filth and moldering turnips. By the entrance there lay outstretched one of the monsters, much smaller than the beast child I had fought, with only one large eye in the middle of its face.

It was the source of the blood reek. The one-eyed one had been torn limb from limb, butchered in apparent fury, shredded and bitten to death.

The mother had its blood on her mouth. She stood in the center of the room, her howls having ceased at the sight of me, while the others cowered behind her.

I do not know, through the fog of these many years, how to describe Grand Little’s mother. She was beautiful. Her beauty was horrifying, because it should not have been. Tall and slim, with no deformity, the form that is called blessed when born among us for it is without sign of the ill-life. Auburn hair the very color of the blood it dripped, blood on her face shot through with freckles.

No woman of our villages had ever borne the glow of such grace.

Only her eyes were monsters, as ugly with squirming grief as two severed heads.

At her feet, where it had managed to crawl before dying, sprawled the wounded beast child, its own eyes open in the last terror-filled stare of the lifeless.

From the mother’s wrists dangled chains, which from the blackened skin had been there a long time, unremovable by these creatures. Someone somewhere had kept her, before her time in this warren of the ill-life.

“My son was be god,” she said, and at the sound, at the knowledge that she could speak, every knife inside me broke at once. “My grand little one.”

She attacked.

Oh the fights I’ve seen, lived from the inside, secure in knowing that I was stronger. That I was in the right. I had no such certainty there, in the mother’s den, with an opponent that was the beauty of pure grief. She stood no taller than I, yet the chains were a new thing, wielded with intricacy. One caught the side of my face, this eye that has not seen light since that day. Another spun and wrapped my knife wrist. We grappled close then, in the mad crush that was like a wedding night, and thus thinking of Tamarind—of dullness set against this raging spirit before me—I slipped.

She stepped behind and a chain came over and across my throat.

Black spots blocked my vision, as rounded as the screams of victory bubbling from her.

Heroes do not think. You know this, you have been told this. Actions erupt, courage is a wooden machine. Would I have acted, thinking?

Thoughtless, my hand inverted the knife it still held, stabbed backward, once, twice, within the small range of motion left me, and found flesh.

The chain loosened and fell away. More blood on her—her own blood—made her more beautiful. Stepping from me, frowning, she touched her wound, there in the abdomen, the organ of birth, and showed me, extended her red fingers to me as if in explanation of some complicated notion.

“He just like the running-running,” she told me.

She had no strength left. She leapt anyway, eyes saying she was glad to finish it. Again I acted without thinking, I tell myself now. My knife found new softness beneath the shell of her.

She staggered off the blade, stumbled to her dead son and lay down.

For years I ruled after Wroth, you will know this. Thus have I earned the right to record here the unsafe thought I had then and have never shaken since: that monsters have heroes too.

She stroked her son’s face before dying and said, God, my god. Grand…little…god.

Most of the others had fled around us out the entrance as we fought. A few still cowered in the shadows. I killed one of the older females, hideous with sores, cutting its head off together with Grand Little’s to take back. None would have believed me had I returned with the mother’s beautiful head, nor could I have dismembered her so, there in her heroic peace.

This was many years ago. Death, that dragon, awaits me now. All else fades—Tamarind, women before and after. My children, grown now. Men I have fought beside. When I close my eyes, I see only her.

I am a Hero, and yet frightened to know what I know about myself here at the end. What I cannot deny.

That, in my entire life, I only ever truly loved for one moment and I loved a monster.


Rhonda Eikamp is originally from Texas and lives in Germany. Her stories have appeared in Lackington’s, The Dark, Lightspeed Magazine, and Oculus Sinister, with others forthcoming in Vastarien and Phantom Drift. When not writing fiction, she battles the labyrinths of German legalese as a translator. A list of fiction available online can be found at her sadly abandoned blog writinginthestrangeloop.wordpress.com.