Painting stories is a series where I share my current works. Sometimes it is how they came about. Sometimes it’s more of a story I associate with them.
It was a cruel sort of irony that the monster had chosen this place for their final meeting.
Not that there was an appropriate place for it, Luce thought as she bundled up. But the tree of peace was a little too on-the-nose, even for him.
Her father was waiting in the chair by the door, his old hunting rifle across his knees. He’d been going around the house all day, getting it ready – cleaning, testing the trigger, making sure the ammunition was still good and the weapon would not explode in his hands. “I’d be heartened,” Luce had told him, “If I didn’t know what you plan on doing with this thing.”
“Just be glad I haven’t used it already,” he’d growled. It wasn’t unexpected – not too dissimilar from their usual exchanges – but Luce felt stung nonetheless. She’d turned on her heel and refused to be in the same room as him for the rest of the day.
The anger was gone now. She watched him for a full minute, watched as he tried to get comfortable in his chair – but not too comfortable – without dropping the weapon or waking her sisters up.
I have to go, part of her thought. I have to hurry.
But did she really? However fearsome the monster was, he could not enter a house uninvited, and it wasn’t up to her to grant that permission anyway. She could just hide. Let someone else take on the duty.
Of course, that is what you would do. Would you rather Renee went? Or Hope?
No. No. No.
“Well?” her father said, finally catching sight of her. “You’re off then.”
“Yes.” She searched for the best way to say goodbye, but the words did not come to her. She wished she and her father were more verbose than they were, but… “Look after them, okay?”
He gave her a look – as if I never have – then he opened the door, letting the cold night air rush through. “Go,” he said. “And don’t come back. If you can help it.”
She grit her teeth. She’d been gritting ever since this whole misery business started, but now, what point was there to hold back. “You’re acting like this is my fault,” she said. “Yet the monster chooses its bride, not the other way around.”
Her father cocked the rifle towards the door. “Go already,” he said. Then his voice cracked. “Go, before I put you out of your misery.”
She gathered her skirts and went, choking back tears as he locked the door behind her.
They called it the tree of peace because it was underneath those branches that humans and monsters had finally pledged to end the war between them. It was centuries ago, but the story went that humans would live under the sun, in the open fields and on the bare stretches of land, while the monsters retreated into the shade of the forests, the darkness of the caves, the depths of the lakes and rivers. All the dim places where their ugliness would not show, said her father, although he himself was not as handsome as he’d once been.
Luce focused on the tree now – an ancient oak with weathered bark, its naked branches reaching towards the winter sky – as she crossed the square and hurried out the village. The streets were empty, even though there was a beautiful moon abovehed. Every once in a while, a curtain would twitch as she’d pass, evidence that there were other living beings around… but nobody came to say goodbye. If she came back after… they didn’t want to be blamed for it.
Not that any bride had.
Not in recent memory anyway.
The tree of peace… but no peace is earned easily, and this one came at a blood cost. One of men’s daughters would be chosen, every ten years, to become a monster’s bride. In return, the monsters guaranteed safe passage through dark places, for no human could avoid walking in shadow every once in a while. No-one knew what actually happened to the girls. And only one had ever attempted to come back.
Luce was the first that anyone could remember that had volunteered.
“He has not forgiven you, even at the end.”
The monster’s voice was deep. It seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere, as Luce approached their final meeting place.
“Are you spying on me now?” she asked. “You know you’re not supposed to come into the village.”
A deep rumble. Then she finally saw it – a shadow, slightly deeper than that of the tree, slowly shifting as it rose to its feet.
His feet. His.
“I need no such help in understanding you, wife. Your face is an open book.”
Luce fought back the fear that instinctively rose up and came closer. She’d heard monsters could change their appearance, make themselves appear more human-like than they were. Hers hadn’t bothered with that, letting her see his face as clearly as she liked, with all its deformities.
He was ugly. He also seemed to enjoy the effect he had on other people.
“It’s our third meeting,” she said, at length. “The final one.”
“Are you going to kill me?”
The monster cocked his head to the side. “If I am, what makes you think I will tell you?”
True, that would not make sense.
“What is on your mind?” the monster continued. “You already made the choice to leave. You have had all the time you needed to say goodbye. You could have run. What is the point of asking these questions now?”
Luce wanted to look away, but could not. Her eyes kept returning to the monster, studying his features. She would get to know him very well, she knew. Even if his only goal was to toy with her before the final kill. “It’s for me,” she said. “I want to know for my sake.”
The monster sat back down in the base of the tree. “Come,” he said. “Sit with me.”
Slowly, she did as he asked. Then he said, “Beautiful moon we have tonight.”
“Yes. I’m just sorry nobody else is out.”
“I’m not,” the monster said. “They don’t deserve it. They don’t deserve you, either.”
Surprised at his sudden change of tone, she turned, but the monster wasn’t looking at her. His eyes were trained on the sky.
“A long time ago,” he said, “Men were deciding on what to offer my kind, wondering what was it that they had that could appease us. The villages were at war then – not just with us, but among each other, too. Boys kept dying in battle, while daughters remained in the house. The men decided they would get rid of the extra mouths by offering them as a tithe.”
“Is that the story you are told?” Luce asked. “I hear you picked the first of us, like you picked out me – over three nights, selecting the most eligible one.”
“We do not take just anybody, that is true,” the monster said, “because not all humans survive in our forest. But it was not us that made the first offer – it was your people.”
Luce sighed. “Why are you telling me this?”
A sigh, a warm puff of breath against her sigh. “Do you want to hear the rest of this story? Or would you rather we got going?”
Luce looked at the full moon above, and the village, at rest, below. She thought about her father, gun in hand, peeking among the curtains for something non-human to come charging. Something that used to be his daughter, but was not. Something that had wanted to break the contract and had been punished for it.
“Please,” she said. “I want to hear the rest.”
“My people did not like the bargain,” the monster said, without further reproach. “But it was a hungry winter and we were tired. The first year, I confess, we lived up to our names. But by the next decade, we were far better off, and stronger now that we had our territories and were not at war. Humans, meanwhile, still fought. They still had too many girls. We took them in but we could not kill them. The decade after that, we amended our terms – we would not take all the girls they gave us, just the one, and we would be the ones to select.”
“You sound so gracious,” Luce marvelled. “You never thought of just invading us? Destroying us once our guard was down?”
“You strongly underestimate how long we live,” the monster said. “Humans come and go. If your greed does not destroy you, age will, before it destroys us. And… having you among us helps. We don’t forget as easily.”
“So that will be my job,” she said, finally. “To serve as your reminder.”
The monster nudged her hand and she turned to find him looking at her, finally. “That,” it said. “And more, if you so wish.”
She swallowed. Something – anticipation? hope? – fluttered in her belly. “Meaning?”
“No one else has volunteered before,” the monster said. “Not here, not in recent memory. Many had to be forced by her parents to submit. Some tried to run back to their kind and were cast out. None were curious, Luce. None wanted to know as much as you do. Within you, there is change.”
She looked down at her hands – her hands that were already twisting into claws, covering with fur. She took a breath and felt her chest rattle. She didn’t look, but she knew that beneath her dress, her legs were changing too, becoming curved and short. “I don’t know,” she said at length, “whether I will bring you change before change destroys me.”
“Change will never destroy you,” the monster said. “Only fighting it will hurt.”
Luce sighed. She knew that. Deep down, she had always known – that was why she’d volunteered, that was why she’d gone on to this final meeting. Not for the sake of her friends, her sisters, or even her village.
In the end, it was her. It was all her.
And the monster didn’t seem to mind.
It only stepped aside to make room for her, as she came into her new body, then side by side, they walked into the forest.