This is a good story.
A ghost takes the shape of your lost loved one.
You follow it, as you were wont to do in life
But it drops you in the water
Then transforms into a terrifying beast,
One that is so horrific
It can make you lose your mind.
It is difficult to imagine a creature so terrible
That it can make you crazy in this day and age.
We have seen so much.
So many monsters have been imagined
Drawn, sketched, molded into rubber, turned into moving images
That horrify those other people in those movies
That we’re watching.
If they were really scary
We might turn our eyes away
But mostly we can stare and stare
And never go crazy
From seeing the creature
That brought us to the edge of the sea.
Before we had movies
Even the idea of a monster
Might be enough to scare you to madness.
And now – a story inspired by this line:
Some Other, Horrible Form
Once there was a monster. He lived in a cold dark corner under the stairs of the castle. He was never seen by any of the people passing by. Not queens or kings, not servants or guards. He did his best to stay hidden. Once, in his youth, he’d popped out before a kitchen maid and she’d screamed, dropped the basket of apples she’d been carrying and run away like a chicken fleeing an axe. He’d seen her in the month after that – wrapped up in a blanket and rocking back and forth while occasionally looking up to the sky as if in supplication. So he’d stayed out of sight.
But he had a lot of time in the dark and he began to experiment. While he’d never seen himself, he had quite a few occasions to watch the people around him and he wondered if he could make himself look like them. He would concentrate very hard by going into this little dark triangle in the back of his mind and he could feel all the little cells in his body tremor as if on the brink of transformation – but then – nothing, he’d be himself again.
He wouldn’t give up though. He practiced with the tall guard with the mustache. He’d bring the image of the man –he called him Maxfield since he didn’t know his name – to the little back triangle in the back of his mind and hold his image there for long stretches at a long time. While he repeatedly felt the anticipatory transformational tickle, he never managed it all the way.
Throughout his life, hiding in his cave, he had heard voices, could peer out at them as they talked to one another in the alley. He had witnessed dozens of acts of kindness. He’d seen lost items retrieved. He’d seen people take each other in their arms. When someone ran into the alley crying, he’d seen another follow and touch his shoulder, bring the sobbing face into his neck or chest and pat his back softly. He’d heard kind words, seen his actions. But none had ever been directed at him. He’d heard and seen the opposite of kindness from his hole as well and he had trouble predicting which it would be sometimes. Sometimes a sobbing woman was not followed by someone with a kind hand on her shoulder. Sometimes she was followed by someone who shouted, who hit or who pushed her up against the wall and made her cry all the harder.
When he made his way out of the cave to gather scraps, or stretch his cramping limbs, he wore a giant cloak someone had left behind in the alley once. He draped it over himself, so he was hidden completely. It was suffocating and uncomfortable but it was practical for an occasional trip out.
He knew Maxfield’s face as well as he did because Maxfield used the alley as a secret retreat from his post. He came to the alley at least once a day to smoke a cigarette and stare at the sky. He’d lean against the stone and kick at the pebbles below his feet. The creature had been surely tempted to poke his head out and chat with him but knew he could not.
One day as he was concentrating, some other part of his brain noted the sounds of carnage in the square, shouting and metal going through flesh, then more shouting but he didn’t let it break his concentration, no – he just kept going – waiting to feel that little jolt of almost there – then he felt the tickle and then the tickle continued and suddenly he felt himself growing taller. He felt his skin tightening around him. He felt hair shooting out below his nose into a mustache. He felt his fingers get longer. He felt his knees bend toward each other in a way he’d never bent before. He was Maxfield. Or rather he looked like Maxfield. So he said what Maxfield always said at the gate “Who calls on the Castle of Thrall?” Though his voice, while changed by the new shape of his body, still bore the sibilant animal hiss that it had always had.
Why had it worked this time? What had he done differently? Oh, it didn’t matter – he had done it! He leapt around his little dark corner – bumping his head in the process – but enjoying it even so. He tried to speak again. “I am Maxfield.” He made a funny little shake of his head that he’d seen Maxfield do.
He wanted to go out. Right away. He knew it was risky. Maxfield himself would be standing just above. What would he do if he saw his own image crawl out of this hole and take up position?
The creature didn’t care – no not at all. He just wanted to go out for once and not fear someone screaming or fainting. He cautiously pulled himself through the small opening of his corner and emerged blinking into the sunlight. He gathered himself up from the ground and stood. It had been quite some time since he’d felt sun on skin. It also felt good to stand up so tall. In the dark corner, he couldn’t stand up straight. He crawled, he bent, but he never reached upwards. Outside his hole now, he felt his head reaching toward the sun and he reveled in the distance between his hat and his shoes. The sky seemed closer suddenly.
He reached toward it, extending his arms skyward, too – feeling how long he could be – tips of fingers to toes. His new long limbs didn’t quite come naturally to him but he found that if he sent a message to his legs to walk without him, they seemed to take him places – carrying his will just slightly behind the action of walking.
Before he knew what was happening, he was striding confidentially into the town square, which he found to be curiously empty. He looked toward Maxfield’s station at the top of the stairs and found that an enormous crowd had gathered there. He climbed the stone staircase, one stair at a time, learning the length of his legs as he did so. When he reached the crowd, ten to fourteen people deep, he found he could see over them to the scene in the middle. It was lucky Maxfield was so tall. This gave him an unexpected benefit.
He could see the doctors bent over a couple of bodies; attempting to staunch the blood that was pooling around them. The crowd was hushed and whispering behind their hands, hoping to understand all the facts. The creature could hear the occasional word – “sword” and “suddenly” and “storm” and “rush” and “no warning” than one of the doctors turned around to collect another bandage from his bag and the creature could see the bleeding body of the man the doctor was attempting to save. He wore a watchman’s uniform. His staff lay a foot away from his bleeding body and his face, the creature could see it now, was the face of the mustachioed of the man he’d come to call Maxfield. The man whose face he was wearing right now was lying, dead on the stones of the castle entryway.
The creature gasped, then clapped his hand over his mouth. It would not do to draw attention to himself now. He would be found out. And what would they do to him if they saw? They could scream and go mad, just as they had when he’d appeared in his natural form. Or worse, they could rush at him and put their sharp blades in his soft flesh. He told his long legs to turn and walk quickly away. He wanted to run but thought better of it when he remembered something he’d learned once in his youth. Something about the surest way to get someone to chase you was to start running. So he walked, swiftly, with purpose, out of the square, around the corner into the dark alley that led to his hole where he stopped and leaned against the wall. He could feel his heart beating and the heart was his, he could tell, not Maxfield’s, he knew that Maxfield’s heart was gone.
As he stood, catching his breath, letting his heart slow down, a soldier rounded the corner, running and stopped short in front of him. For a moment, they stared at each other. The soldier’s jaw dropped, suddenly, as if the muscle holding it up just suddenly quit.
He pointed at the creature, then gestured back up where he’d come from, “You. . .” he said. The creature went to speak. He wanted to calm the soldier, somehow prevent the madness he could see lurking behind him, ready to seize him. But what could he say? He got as far as “I. . .” and then the soldier was reaching for him, saying “Are you. . .?” and before he could stop him, the soldier had touched his shoulder.
The creature had never been touched before. He had no point of reference for this gesture and the surprise of it, the warmth of the man’s hand, the feel of the fingers shook loose the thing in his mind that had organized him into Maxfield and all the cells began to fall into themselves, pulling up his mustache, pulling in his hair, his limbs, shrinking him back into his former shape.
He tried to fight it, but found he could not and within a minute, he was blinking at the soldier from his own narrow eyes. The soldier’s eyes rolled back in his head and the head lolled back and to the side. The soldier’s body swayed first to one side, then the other and before the creature could understand what was happening. The soldier was unconscious on the cobblestones at his feet.
He hesitated. Then he dropped to his hands and feet and ran back to his safe dark hole.
He crouched in his hole shivering for a long while. Partly it was the fear shaking him and partly the cold. The heat out there made his home seem suddenly inhospitable. He rolled himself into as tight a ball as he could muster, trying to bring himself some warmth and comfort.
He kept seeing the soldiers eyes roll back into this head and the glassy stare of Maxfield’s eyes laid out over bloody carpet. He vowed to never go out again. It was a terrible mistake taking on Maxfield’s form like that, terrible. He rocked back and forth and thought, “Never again.”
But even as the loud part of his mind was slamming its fist and vowing another part was whispering, “But you did it! You did it. Don’t you see, you did it?” And this little whisper gave him pause. He had done it. He had spent many seasons trying to change his form and he had finally succeeded. The louder bit of his brain chimed in to say “At what cost?! Those eyes! Those eyes! You killed them!”
At this, he began rocking and shaking again. And presently yet another part of his reptilian brain spoke up as he moaned on the floor. “So?” It said. “Perhaps you killed them. What does it matter? You walked in the sun. You walked in Maxfield’s form. Why should you care for a couple of them? Would they care for you?”
This startled him and he sat, unsure of whether to resume standing or stand up and roar. Then a little voice in him said quietly, “Try again.”
The creature cocked its head. Hadn’t he just vowed to stay there safely forever?
But he had to know.
Could he do it again?
Had he pushed past the impossible, truly?
So he concentrated very hard – thought into that little black triangle at the back of his mind and slowly inch by inch, he began to feel the tingling he’d grown accustomed to, followed by a little pop-in his ears, then once again his hair stood on end as it few from his scalp, his upper lip tingled, his nose pushed out, his limbs grew gangly, he was Maxfield again.
Well, then. No one else had to die. Perhaps he hadn’t killed him at all. Perhaps this shape was his now, to use as he pleased. He would be careful. He would listen for the voices and go out only when it seemed safe. Perhaps at night. Not everyone knew Maxfield’s face. He knew that much. And he knew that Maxfield would be forgotten.
He decided to wait until dark. He would be less visible and his cave might not seem so dark and cold if he went from one dark place to another. He would sleep now. The excitement of the day’s events had left him weary and it took a bit of effort to maintain this form.
He thought, “No more effort” and all the cells began to spring back to their original shape, the hair retracted, his skin went from smooth to scaly, his vision narrowed, his mouth got drier and he was himself again. He walked around his cave in a circle a few times, then settled down on the ground to sleep.
His dreams were full of color. Vivid. Bright. He saw deep blues from soldiers’ coats, the glaring white of the bandages, the thick dark red of blood on the pavement next to the bright crimson on the bandages. He dreamed of green: leaves and stems he hadn’t noted consciously during the day but now leapt to the head of his attention in his dreams. Leaves folded over him, stems and stalks waved to him and he followed. He woke up full of wonder, stunned by the beauty he’d seen in his dream. He lay on his back, staring into the darkness of his cave and replayed what he’d seen. If he had any question before, he was certain now. He would go out again. No matter the cost.
He got up, relieved himself in the dirt at the back then kicked the loose dirt over the damp spot. He munched on one of the dried beetles he’d placed in his reserve jar by the entrance and as soon as he’d swallowed the last bit, began the work of concentration.
It was becoming easier. He could do it faster now. He just thought harder and without too much of his previous effort, he could feel the transformation at work. He was Maxfield again and it filled him with hope.
As he stepped out of his cave and found that it was only slightly brighter outside than it was in his cave The moon was hanging in the middle of the sky and he could see a bright spot next to it. A star, he thought – and then noticed dozens of them spiraled throughout the sky. He ventured further out, hoping to see a bigger swath of the sky. The air was bright and crisp in his lungs. He found he couldn’t help but pay attention to his breath going in, then out. Its texture felt different out here.
There was very little sound, a few clinks and clanks from the blacksmith down the way. The blacksmith was reported to hammer at his work at all hours so it was, the creature knew, expected. He heard air rushing through the leaves on the trees planted crowd the periphery of the plaza. He heard the clanging of the plaza bell ringing over and over again – striking its metal arm on its metal drum. He stood at the center of the plaza, inhaling, exhaling, smelling the green of the leaves, the remains of a day in the marketplace – bits of vegetable matter left by the stalls, now dismantled, whiffs of incense, the after effects of people moving through the hot summer market day. And blood. He could smell the blood still. He looked up to where Maxfield had recently departed and there were just two guards, the night watchmen standing by. He took a step closer, trying to make out their faces.
He half hoped he’d see Maxfield there, recovered and taking over the night shift but instead he saw a new face. He saw his eyes, glazed over and drooping, seemingly near sleep at his post, then saw those eyes spring open as they registered him standing poised at the bottom of the steps. He saw the guard’s jaw drop open. He saw him look over to his companion/fellow guard and call to him out of the side of his mouth. He saw the pair of them almost paralyzed with fear.
He decided not to move. If he came closer, they might take occasion to run their spears through him. If he ran, they might give chase, so he stood there and looked right back.
The one he’d noticed first had seemed to have gathered up his strength. He had straightened up – had readjusted his uniform and was now calling out.
The creature decided silence was the best plan here and so said nothing.
“Why have you risen from the vault, Sir? We have no protocol for handling ghosts here, sir. So – uh. . . .”
The creature noticed that the guard’s legs were shaking – that his fear, while perfectly managed above the waist, was not so below.
“Please don’t come any closer,” the guard said in a voice that cracked in such a way that the creature could suddenly imagine him as a boy rather than a large man in military regalia and a spear.
“Ghost,” thought the creature, turning the word over in his mind. “They think I AM Maxfield.”
The creature found this reaction different than the times people had seen him in his natural form. They were still scared but not so horrified, not on the brink of madness. Even now, the one he’d been paying less attention to was taking a step toward him. He heard him say softly, “Sergeant? What is it? What do you have to tell us? Is there something you left undone, Sergeant? Something on your conscience?”
The creature felt warm. He felt soft. He liked the way this man was talking to him. He’d never had anyone speak to him with kindness before. Or concern. It was nice. It felt even better than the sun.
“Sergeant?” the man was getting closer. “Say something if you can.” The creature shook its head. He was sure his voice would not serve him. It would send the approaching guard running again. It would bring back the fear. So he just shook his head again. He would be a silent ghost. He would be a ghost that walked and shook his head. The other one was approaching now, too. He’d come up behind his friend, shielding himself with him, whispering in his ear.
The creature watched them confer. He thought he might stand there all night. It might be okay to have these men ask him questions again and again. He wanted to feel that kindness again. He took a step toward them. They started, as if to take a step back, then stood their ground.
The one in front tried his voice again. “Sergeant. Tell us why you’ve returned.”
The creature just looked at them.
“What have we done that you return to haunt us here?”
The creature shook his head again.
The one behind was shaking even more now. He blurted out, “I’m innocent!”
His friend turned to look at him.
“I didn’t mean to, “ he said, shaking his head.
The creature took a step forward.
The hiding guard started to cry, “I’m sorry, Sergeant. I couldn’t help it. She was so beautiful. I just couldn’t help myself. She seduced me, Sergeant!”
His friend looked shocked. “Riley! What did you do?”
The guard trembled. Then his legs slipped out from under him and he ended up on his knees.
“Sergeant. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I’m only flesh and blood.”
The creature cocked his head to one side. He certainly understood that the guard was confessing something, that guilt was hanging on him like a cloak but what it was exactly was baffling. The guard in front backed away from his compatriot and stared at him open-mouthed, saying again, “Riley! What did you do?”
The creature was curious now. His main power had always been simply to inspire madness – a power he had not enjoyed in the least – but this felt different. He felt that they wanted something from him, though he could not begin to imagine what it would be. The wanting rose off the skin somehow. The creature took a step forward. He noticed that this increased the tension on one hand and diminished it on another. It was like both the thing they wanted and its opposite. He took another step. The man on his knees looked at him, trembling and pleading. The creature took another step. He could see the sweat running down the man’s face, the red in his eyes, the way the eyes were collecting liquid at their corners. The creature was fascinated by the details in the man’s face, the emotions that seemed to run through it.
The one still standing called to him. “Sergeant. Sergeant. Can you forgive him? He knows he did you wrong. Forgive him, if you can Sergeant.”
As he said, “Forgive him” the man made a gesture; one with palms facing down as if patting something in the air.
The creature didn’t know what “Forgive him,” meant but he mimicked the movement in front of him, slowly. The man sitting on the steps fell forward and crawled toward the creature, who kept repeating his gesture, because it seemed to have an effect.
The man on his knees placed his shoulders under the creature’s hands and the creature hesitates. What if he touches him and falls apart again? What if he can’t sustain his form and experience human contact? But he wants to feel it. The risk feels worth it. And he thinks that if he just concentrates very hard on maintaining himself as he does it, that it should be okay.
He reached down and slowly made contact with the shoulders below him, lightly and tentatively. Then, seeing that he had not lost his form, he pressed a little bit, feeling more of the shoulders. He found that he liked the solid warmth of the man’s shoulders beneath him and he was moved by the way the man relaxed a bit with each touch.
The man below reached out toward the creature’s legs, as if to hug him but the creature stepped back. He was afraid of losing form again with an unanticipated touch and the man falls to the ground.
His friend took his companion by the arm and said, “I think he’s forgiven you Riley. That’s enough.”
So the one named Riley wiped his face and stood, shakily, on his feet again with the help of his comrade. The creature found it all too confusing. His brain attempted to sort out all the emotions in front of him and the logic and the events but he found the effort made his little black triangle shaky. He planned to just walk away.
But he nodded his head at them, as he had seen men do before and then walked slowly away. The slow up and down of his feet helped him hold all the cells in place until he rounded the corner and it all fell away. He dropped to all fours again and he scampered the last few feet into his hole. He curled up on the dirt, breathing heavily. He touched his arms, his legs, his torso. He was himself again. No traces of Maxfield. He stared at the darkness.