Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

The Black Beast

In the Long Ago there was a beast who couldn’t be caught. She roamed the woods by a small village, where the men would hunt for her and the women would lay traps for her, but the beast could not be caught. She taunted them from the tree line in their own tongue, calling out her eternal threat of “Just wait.”

“Just wait,” she would screech, over and over, trying to scare them. She would fly through their hunting parties and their traps, laughing and mocking them, “Just wait.”

One day, an old man from the village was fetching water down by the stream when the beast came close, as she was fond of doing. The man ignored the beast. He no longer had fear in his heart for her. Despite the many close calls of his youth and her eternal threats, she had never done him any lasting harm.

Standing on the rocks that jutted out over the stream, he lowered his bucket toward the distant gurgling far below, passing the braided rope through his wrinkled hands. While the swaying bucket descended through the air, the beast came closer, her belly to the grass, her breathing audible.

The man let the currents of the stream catch the rim of the bucket and waited for it to be filled no more than halfway; he could stand to hoist no more. Snapping it from the foam, he pulled the bucket hand over hand and set it on the flat, moss covered rock. He wheezed from the effort while the beast crept closer, her shoulders down, her tail slicing the air.

The old man knew the beast was there. He ignored her, but being so close reminded him of younger days, days spent chasing this beast who could not be caught, his hands swishing at air, her screeching laughter, him and his friends in the dirt, hugging nothing. And now the black beast was nearer than ever, taunting him, and he knew in his old bones that he had one lunge yet.

Smiling to himself, remembering what it felt to be young and lithe and full of power, he smeared his feet into the moss, working his toes into their soft grip. Slowly, ever so slowly. He bent his knees and reached for the bucket as if to carry it off. The water inside was still moving. Joints creaked like bent wood, and he saw in the bucket a wrinkled reflection of himself. With one hand, he unknotted the long fetching rope from the bucket. “Just once more,” he whispered to his bones. “Like old times.”

The fetching rope was salty as he placed it between his teeth. Behind him, he could hear the animal creeping closer, attempting to torment him with her shadowy presence.

Whirling, the old man leapt for the beast. He was airborne again, flying, arms wide, eyes taking in the whole world. He saw the black fur on the beast ripple with alarm, saw the tail drop, the paws splay in the dirt, the head jerk as it prepared to run, but then he was on her, catching what couldn’t be caught. They rolled to the ground. The old man scrambled to the beast’s back and wrapped his legs around her midsection, hooking his feet together. His arm went across her neck where it was impossible to bite. The rope went quick around one paw, and then another. Old hands make the best knots. Her back legs were looped with the rest of the rope, all of it done in a moment.

The beast screeched madly and bit at the air, but she could not move. The old man looked from her heaving ribs to the roofline of the village far up the hill. Someone would have to come for him, he thought. He imagined the stories they would tell, his children and grandchildren. They would be telling this story forever.

“What of you, beast?” he asked. He rested on his knees. One of the beast’s dark eyes swiveled his way. “Long have you mocked us, and yet here you are.”

The beast stopped biting the air and seemed to smile. The old man had taken note of her reach, the limit of her snarling mouth. He did not fear her and moved closer, double checking his knots.

“They said you couldn’t be caught,” the old man wheezed. The knots were secure. He had done it. He searched himself for injury, for some claw-mark, but found none.

“Who says?” the beast asked, with that voice that had all the years taunted and promised so much.

“Everyone,” the old man replied. He looked down at her black fur, gleaming in the sunlight. The day was brighter, his head lighter from the exertion.

“And what do they know of me?” the beast asked, her voice subdued.

The old man said nothing. He looked back to the village, wondering how long it would take for someone to notice he had not returned.

“I will tell you what of me,” the beast hissed.

The old man turned.

“Come,” she said. Her tongue slid out and smoothed her whiskers. “Bend low and I will tell you of this chase we make.”

The man laughed, but he was indeed curious to hear. He glanced back toward the village, saw the bucket and felt suddenly thirsty, but he bent closer to the animal’s smiling teeth, remembering well their range and keeping out of it.

“Tell me your story,” the old man said. He was dizzy with the opportunity to know the unknown. “Start at the beginning.”

“It is not my story I tell,” the beast said. “And I know nothing of beginnings.”

And with that, the beast stretched her neck much further than it had reached before, and she bit the old man. It was a deep and mortal wound, sudden and sure. The man staggered back, clutching at it, knowing from the great gush that it couldn’t be held.

With a single claw, the beast parted the fetching rope bound around her wrists, then sliced the knots holding her hind legs.

“I run from you, and you chase me,” the beast said. She stood on her great paws. “You call me uncatchable, but the truth is contrary. The day comes when all men catch me. All men.”

The old man from the village fell back in a pool of his own blood. His life was draining away, soaking the moss.

“Just wait,” the beast said, her voice no longer shrill. “Just wait, I tell them, but it makes you hurry all the more.”

1 reply to “The Black Beast”

Love this! Was just wandering your website (which I do periodically) and stumbled here when I ran a search on In the Woods. Have really enjoyed your work these last couple years. Love that you are so encouraging of other authors! Looking forward to many more late nights together. :)

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