Silence reigns. Villages sleep. Somewhere on the hillside a figure crosses the moonlight and casts its shadow over the land. And everywhere that shadow falls, pestilence and destruction follow.
Thus goes the legend of the Beast Man.
A tale that stood the test of time despite the horrible fate of all who ever bore witness; a myth that survived the many deaths of its protagonists—by grotesque and terrible means—and was presupposed to have caused them; a fable that spread superstition and fear for miles around its ring of death; and the last story I will ever tell on this earth.
In the morning they will fetch me from my cell. They will force me to the courtyard, past the incensed and the enraged and the tearful families of the victims. They will look me in the eyes and call me names– loathsome creatures– on the basis of a crime that I did not commit.
And I’ll articulate my innocence calmly, but never at a volume great enough to be heard over the mob.
Then they’ll hang me, never to hear my defense, nor the story I’m about to tell you.
This is the Legend of the Beast Man.
I remember the night I first saw him, though the memory did not recur on its own. It took some concentration to recall the scene from my mind, as many nights had passed between that night and the night Maggie O’Shea was murdered.
On that night I woke to the shouting and watched the village scramble into action in the darkest hours of the early morning. The town watch rang the bells and the sheriff began a call to arms. Almost instantly a group of men emerged from homes with rifles and torches and lit cigarettes, still fastening their pants as if it was the last thing on that list. They met in the center of the street, then they broke in all different directions, some on horses, some with dogs, and all with a thirst that came only for revenge.
A child’s blood had been spilled that night, and they would bring the brute to justice.
It was only then that I felt the heavy pangs of de ja vu, and the memory resurfaced.
I had seen this before: not the men of the town marching savagely into the foothills, but the creature standing on the top, enormous and hairy and surrounded by the howling of wolves.
This was the Beast Man, though that night I knew not the significance, only the feeling of insufferable dread as the moon from its perch cast his shadow over the hillside.
The Legend itself had many iterations, each one with a different version of the origin of the Beast Man.
Some said he was a man, a murderer in his human life, before being driven from his cursed town and exiled into the wilderness. There he learned to live with wolves, fighting for scraps with ravaged wild dogs and emerging sated, winning the respect of the animals and eventually being welcomed into their pack.
Others say his bloodlust spared no creature, human nor animal, and his murderous spree included those same critters that shared the forest. They too lived in fear of the Beast Man.
There are some that say he was only part human, part beast— the product of unspeakable incest not fit for discussion, even in a world of such violence and repulsion.
Then there were others that claimed he was not human at all, but a true beast, an evolutionary anomaly and apex predator whose origin baffled academics and students of the subject.
Of course, there were others that considered his origin as plain as day: this was the devil incarnate, sent up from Hell to punish those who disobeyed God’s will. The pious and obedient would be spared; only the sinners would perish. Each time there was a crime committed, they would be the first to call into question the victim’s sanctitude.
His appearance too varied by myth: in some cases he was a wolfish creature walking fully erect; others, an apelike brute that walked on four long arms. Some said he had giant horns and rake-like claws; some fit him with a long tail and the bounds of a kangaroo. Most had him snarling, with fresh blood dripping from gnarled fangs, but others saw his face as passive and unassuming until those moments of savage frenzy.
For the most part, only one thing was agreed upon:
When his shadow fell upon you, your horrid end was near.
The next time I saw him I ran from my room to my father.
“There is something on the hillside,” I cried. “Some kind of giant, hairy, savage—“
“Nonsense, child,” he interrupted. “That is nothing but a folk tale. It is only the thick-skulled townsfolk that believe it.”
“But father,” I pleaded. “What about the little girl?”
His face hardened in the lamplight.
“You need not believe in the legends of those plebeians. Their fear is a product of their own stupidity. The truth is much simpler.”
He brought his face closer to mine and his voice dropped.
“There are people in the world that aren’t like you or I. They are cretinous and brutal. They do not pray to our gods, but whisper incantations to the darkness and the wind, and they will be destroyed.
These are the people that the townsfolk become, slaves to superstition, numb to the effect of reason, oblivious to the fact that the problem lies within their own communities; it is just the manifestation of that problem that they must continually hunt down.”
He looked out the window and saw the full moon glowing bright, and I returned to my room, crawling back under the covers after I had seen the mountain and the moon, but not the shadow of the creature, the cause of my distress.
In the morning I heard news of the tragedy.
Ross Jacobs had gone berserk in the night. His two children cut and dragged through the shambles. His wife butchered in unspeakable varieties. His own body found torn to bits and missing a portion of his skull that had been removed by the gun in his hand.
A giant footprint left in the mud beside a puddle by the fence, a small fence that felt pointless and insignificant, and was now stained a deep red by a substance with a familiar viscosity.
The doctor came to examine the carnage and remained impassive as he stepped over the bits of flesh and pools of blood to declare Ross Jacobs dead of his own gunshot wound. The police ambled behind him, jotting notes disinterestedly and merely waiting for the doctor’s confirmation before they too could conclude that he had murdered his own family in a maniacal frenzy, then taken his own life, simply because that would happen from time to time.
Of the footprint little was said. The setting of the village made it prone to nighttime visitations from wolves and bears, but that was just the natural order of things, and wild animals could bear no burden in court, if indeed they were to blame.
Instead it seemed the town would rather clean up the wreckage and move past, collectively content to carry on with no discussion of the dread that each citizen had felt when the news was heard, and none brave enough to voice the fear of what all felt but none would consider aloud.
But I knew what they were thinking, even if their aversion of the topic confounded me. I knew what their first reaction was, for it was the same impression aroused in myself when I heard the news. I knew what it was they were hiding from.
And I knew the legend was true.
When Jonah approached me in the town square I was sitting by the well, gazing down and wondering how deep the hole was. He tapped me on the shoulder with a mischievous grin on his face.
“How would you like to see him?’
“Who?” I asked.
“The Beast Man.”
“I wouldn’t want to see him, Jonah,” I snapped. “Everyone who sees him dies.”
“Not so,” he said.
“And just how do you know?”
“Because I’ve seen him.”
I knew Jonah, like many other children, was prone to make up stories. I would not call him an honest fellow, but I wouldn’t hold it against him, either. Typically I would not waste my time with his games, but this time was different, not for anything he had said or done differently, but for something inside of me that was immediately called to attention. I leaned in closely and whispered.
“You’ve seen him?”
“Out back the Johnson’s place,” he said. “In the woods by the creek.”
“Take me there.”
We walked in haste like thieves smuggling stolen jewels, hurrying but desperately trying not to run, lest our mission become clear to the townsfolk around us. In retrospect, I don’t think it likely that anyone watching two children run off in broad daylight would have any suspicion or concern for their safety or intent.
Mischievous kids would be mischievous kids.
When we were finally in the brush Jonah turned and pulled a giant blade from his vest.
“Where on earth did you get that?” I shouted.
“Shhhh!” I jumped back as he cut through the empty air emphatically. “Don’t want the whole town to hear us! I got it from the butcher’s shop.”
“You stole it?”
“What’s it for, then? Protection?” I had my doubts. “Have you ever used something like that before?”
“Not protection,” he said. “Bait.”
I was confused. He placed his other hand on my shoulder and led me toward the edge of the brush, and motioned with the cleaver toward the Johnson’s chicken coup.
“What do you propose we do?” I asked, not wanting to believe the implication of what he was suggesting.
“Well, do you want to see him or not?”
I nodded. He grinned.
“Good. Now hold this and I’ll be right back.”
He pushed the knife into my hand and crept off toward the henhouse. The blade was heavy but well balanced. I slashed it through a few leaves around me, then ran my finger along the sharp edge.
Suddenly an eruption came from the backyard. I looked up to see Jonah running toward me with a chicken tucked under his arm.
“C’mon!” he yelled as he sprinted past me, and I followed him deeper into the woods. We came to a halt in a clearing with a tree stump in the center. He pulled the chicken from under his arm and laid it across the stump.
“Quickly now,” he said.
The chicken squirmed and cried and rustled desperately to free itself, but Jonah held it steady enough. With one hand he cordoned off the chicken’s wings from flapping and causing a stir, and the other he held tightly around the head, pulling the neck outward and creating a small target for the cleaver.
I stared absently at the scene before me: the chicken, squirming for its life, and Jonah, happy as a rooster in a hen house. The metaphor was almost fitting, for no rooster was as happy as Jonah, ready to snap this bird’s neck and squirt its blood across the bushes. Certainly no rooster in a hen house would be happy if Jonah was in the hen house too.
“I can’t hold it forever.”
The words brought me back from my introspection to the present scene, where a chicken was being strangled before me and I was to decapitate it with a blade longer than the bird itself.
The cleaver hit the wood with a sickening thud, barely slowed by the flesh and feather it had torn through on its way. Jonah now became as energetic as the chicken has been, as if the life of the bird had passed through him as soon as the head was severed. Now it was Jonah’s turn to flap around the woods, gleefully squeezing the body and spraying blood across plants and trees around us.
“Look out!” he called playfully, directing the stream of blood at me. I jumped back and avoided the spray, then watched him continue his parade.
No leaf was left unsoiled.
When he had finished he threw the body down into the center. He grabbed my hand to lead me out of the clearing and behind a large oak tree, where we turned to observe the scene. When he released me, there was blood on my hand.
“Now we wait,” he said.
Time passed slow, and I was too fascinated by the chicken, still jerking around on the ground and oozing the last drops of blood onto the grass, to remember the imminent danger we had placed ourselves in. I barely felt the weight of the cleaver in my hand, which had grown numb since I delivered that last blow.
Finally the rustling of the dying bird ceased. Even Jonah was quiet.
Eventually I broke the silence.
“Jonah,” I said. “How long must we wait?”
“There’s no telling when he’ll come,” he said.
“I thought he only came at night.”
“He comes when he is hungry.”
“And how do you know he is hungry?”
He raised his nose to the air and sniffed emphatically. “Do you smell that?”
“There’s blood in the air.”
“Come off it!” I was beginning to lose patience with my friend, whose promise at first had seemed like an incredible opportunity but now was beginning to feel like a practical joke.
“You’re right,” he conceded. “He won’t come quite yet.”
“We need more blood.” And with that he turned and sprinted off toward the town.
“Jonah,” I called. “Where are you going?” I felt like I knew the answer, but felt compelled to call after him. I needed to feel like he was still there with me, engaged in a rational conversation. I needed to feel like I was not alone.
No response came.
I considered my surroundings with a growing sense of unease. Here I was, deep in the forest and unbeknownst to all except one, surrounded by blood in an attempt to lure the creature responsible for the terror and carnage that had plagued the countryside.
How had I been convinced to participate in such a foolish errand? What would I do if he appeared?
My thoughts drifted to Jonah. How long had he been gone now? Time seemed to have stopped once he left me alone in the woods.
What if he was caught stealing the chickens? He might never come back. They would arrest him for theft. And if he was a thief, what did that make me?
An accomplice to theft? To murder?
I felt the blade in my hand and gripped it tight.
According to legend, the shadow of the Beast Man was a curse, and all those that fell inside it would be his next victims. I thought back to my room, to the times I had heard the howling on the mountain and seen the moon cast a long shadow over the country.
Would the shadow be cast again in the moments preceding his appearance? Was that the final warning, the last thing his victims ever saw?
There was no one around to ask. All that had been cursed had been killed.
There was a rustling in the bushes around me. I turned from left to right but did not see anything—man or beast.
No word came and the rustling died down.
I thought of Ross Jacobs and the moments before he had perished. His family, slashed and hacked to bits. If a creature had done it, it would have been no more bearable to witness than if he had done it himself. His body was found mangled as well, a detail the inspector seemed to ignore when assessing the cause of death.
What could drive a man to do such a thing?
I thought of little Maggie O’Shea and of the horrid end she had faced.
It could not be a man that would do such a thing– only a beast.
The Beast Man was real, and any denial was nothing more than that.
In that moment the woods became unnaturally silent, and all the critters and birds and insects and bees had gone. Not even the breeze remained to gently whistle through the trees.
I was completely and utterly alone.
Then a shadow, and a sound at my back, and my hand raised in defense against the arrival of the Beast Man.
When they found me I was immediately turned over to the police. I did not protest, as in my mind I had done nothing wrong, and I’m told I have behaved exceptionally well during my time in this cell. By now, a fortnight or two have passed; I cannot recall the dates specifically.
Ordinary time seemed of little importance, and the weeks in between made no lasting impression in my mind. It was only the appearance of the Beast Man, and the hideous events that inescapably followed, that served as reference points in linear time, bookmarks of my existence.
I could not remember much of what had happened in the woods that day, nor could I remember any of my life before I first spotted the Beast Man. Everything that had occurred now seemed trivial, childish lies that only masked the true realities of life. Once I had seen his shadow cast across the land, something had changed for good, and the person I had been no longer mattered.
I had seen the shadow of the Beast Man and had lived, by at least some measure, but for the most part had existed as a passive bystander, unable to participate in the activities of ordinary life.
Emotionless and unimpressionable.
No love. No joy.
Once I had seen the shadow of the Beast Man, there was no turning back.
And now they would end my life, and mercifully so, for although I have professed my innocence, I would rather perish than continue to endure the curse of the Beast Man.
My existence had been redefined, not from birth to death, but from the moment the Beast Man’s shadow fell upon me, to the time when he would come to collect.
My life was no longer mine to live. He had taken that from me.
I had become the Beast Man.