"Still Life" by Sulyn Godsey
The Beast and the Hummingbirds
by Madison McSweeney
Humans seldom involve themselves with the dealings of the forest-folk; however, on occasion, worlds do collide.
It was a temperate night in June, and Pyle sat on the steps of her uncle’s porch, watching the sky grow dim. She lost track of her family’s conversation as her eyes wandered to the woods. The grass there – what little grass could grow amid the roots and brambles – was dry and brittle, starved under the shadowy canopy of the leaves. Through the porous wall of trees, she could see the sun, a pale pink, sinking steadily towards the horizon. Cicadas, invisible but omnipresent, had begun to chirp their ragged songs.
A few yards away, there was a subtle clamor from within the forest. Pyle perked up, scanning the undergrowth for the cause of the disturbance. Scrambling through the woods, she saw, was a little man, roughly the size and shape of a pumpkin. He wore wooden shoes and a rough wool coat, and his curly hair was slick with sweat. He took no heed of the humans as he bounded deeper into the woods, running as quickly as his legs would carry him.
Pyle looked up at the adults, wrapped up in country gossip. The coyotes were at it again, her uncle was saying. Second goat this year. Her mother was half-listening with the appearance of rapt attention. Quietly, Pyle stood up and walked towards the edge of the woods.
The dwarf was travelling so frantically, and breathing so heavily as he ran, that he didn’t hear the girl as she followed him through the brush, walking in his footsteps until her uncle’s voice had faded and the farmhouse was well out of sight. Eventually, they came to a clearing. In the centre, its wrists and ankles bound by glittering ropes secured to the trunks of the surrounding trees, was a beast.
The monster was nearly seven feet tall, covered from head to toe in thick, bristly fur. Its eyes were the size of apples and bulged out of its head like those of a mad bull. Its mouth was open wide as it snarled and yowled, revealing rows of sharp yellow teeth. Its claws too were razor sharp, three jutting out from each hand and foot, more like the talons of a hawk than the paws of a bear or wolf or whatever creature this monster shared kinship with.
Upon closer inspection, the monster was not alone in the clearing. Three hummingbirds hovered around him, their bodies glinting green and blue and pink as they flitted from rope to rope. These ropes, she saw - the ones that held the beast - were fraying at an unnatural pace; whenever one was about to snap, a hummingbird would land on the final thread, and the rope would glow softly and be restored. The tiny birds moved like the intricate mechanisms on the inside of an old clock, hopping from one thread to another, never resting, always materializing at the exact moment they were needed.
As she gazed in wonder at the vision before her, Pyle lost track of the dwarf. It was only when she heard a snap of a branch to her left that she whirled around to see the man creeping toward one of the ropes, clutching a dagger in his right hand.
“Hey!” Pyle shouted, causing the man to stop dead. He looked up at her, startled and unsure of what to do. He was very ugly, she saw, and held the knife loosely in a scarred hand. Pyle was unarmed, but twice his height. She took a step forward. The man yelped and ran off in the other direction, dropping his knife as he did so.
Pyle bent down and picked up the dagger, lest the dwarf return for it. The blade was old and rusted, incongruous next to the glittering ropes of the hummingbirds, and stained with what could only be long-dried blood.
As she examined the weapon, a hummingbird appeared before her eyes, its green wings shimmering as they flapped. “Thank you,” it said, its voice bright and clear. As it spoke, its body shook with a thousand miniscule vibrations.
“What is that creature?” Pyle asked, her eyes never leaving the chained beast.
“A tyrant,” the hummingbird replied. It zipped away to repair a rift, then returned in a fraction of a moment. “If we had not trapped it here, it would have devoured every living creature in the woods.”
That was believable enough, but Pyle was still unsure of what was before her eyes. “Why did that man try to free him, then?” she asked.
The hummingbird paused for a beat, then responded, “Perhaps he thinks it will eat him last.”
“Eat?” Pyle asked, her eyes wide.
The hummingbird’s voice seemed to quaver, but that could have been its body quivering. “If it breaks free, it will hunt down all the dwarves in the forest and cook them on a spit. Then, it will gobble up the farmers and their wives and their children.”
Pyle shuddered. “But it won’t, will it?” she asked. “Escape, I mean?” The beast roared.
The hummingbird flickered away again, repaired the rope, and was back. “The beast is strong, and the ropes decay,” the hummingbird said. “We must guard it every minute. And we are tired. Maybe one day, we will slip.” It paused. “But maybe you can help us.”
Pyle stepped back. “How do you mean?”
“You have the dwarf’s dagger in your hand. If it could sever the enchanted ropes, surely it could slay the beast.” Pyle stared back in horror. “We are forbidden to take its life,” the hummingbird said. “But you are not bound by the old rules.”
“I wrote those rules!” the beast roared suddenly, the first intelligible words it had spoken since Pyle’s arrival.
“The beast lies,” was all the hummingbird said. Pyle looked down again at the knife in her hand, and back up at the beast. Its chest heaved with exertion; she thought she could make out exactly where its great heart resided.
The hummingbirds seemed to know Pyle’s decision before she had even made it, for they abandoned their posts and retreated to the border of the clearing. The only one to remain was Pyle’s confidant, who lingered behind her. Pyle held the knife up and stepped forward; glancing down, she noticed her foot had barely avoided contact with a clump of bloodstained feathers. She looked towards the hummingbird for an explanation. “The beast’s cruelty knows no bounds,” it said.
Pyle stood before the monster, studying its muscles as they writhed uselessly, nearly bursting from its skin as it tried to rip itself free. The ropes held it for now; if they gave, the beast would be able to tear her limb-from-limb like a paper doll. If the creature could even get an arm free, it could easily lop her head off with a quick swipe. But for now, the ropes held firm, suspending its great arms in the air above its head. She lifted the dagger above her head and aimed it towards the monster’s heart.
The beast whimpered, and her hand faltered. “They lie,” the beast moaned, not sounding very beastly at all. It didn’t try to convince her further. Tears welled within its glistening eyes, turned towards the swirling pink sky that hovered above the tops of the trees.
It was only as its body convulsed in a sob that Pyle saw the two gaping lacerations where the creature’s shoulder blades should have been. The wounds oozed with black blood, congealing but un-cauterized. An image entered Pyle’s mind: a pair of great wings ripped from the beast’s back.
Pyle looked down at the feathers at her feat, and once again eyed the hummingbirds, still hovering expectantly at the edge of the clearing. She thought again of the dwarf, rushing to free the beast.
The task ahead required no further thought. Had she thought about it, she would have thought herself out of it. As the hummingbirds watched, Pyle stood up to her full height and extended her knife arm, the blade veering rightward, not toward the beast’s heart but towards its bound wrist. In one fluid motion, she sliced apart the rope that tethered it to the tree.
She didn’t linger to see what would transpire; by the time the severed ends of the dimmed rope hit the ground, she had already turned and started to run back to the farmhouse.
That night, as she settled in between scratchy woolen sheets, she wondered if her trust had been well-placed – or if the beast, once it had exhausted its supply of dwarves and goats, would come for her.
Top photo cred: Bill Williams, Unsplash.com
Madison McSweeney is a writer and poet from Ottawa, Canada. She has published short stories and poetry in Deadman’s Tome, Women in Horror Annual Vol. 2, Unnerving Magazine,The Fulcrum, and Dark Horizons: An Anthology of Dark Science Fiction. She has a pair of horror and fantasy stories set to appear in Weirdpunk Books’ forthcoming Zombie Punks F*** Off, as well the upcoming issue of Polar Borealis. She blogs about music and genre fiction at madisonmcsweeney.com and tweets from @MMcSw13.