Beasts, Ashley Van Elswyk
CW: blood & gore
My husband and I stand on opposite ends of the kitchen, listening again for the beast outside our home. He’s fidgety, lifting his arm towards the cutlery drawer and letting it fall back to his side, over and over. My body’s stiff from keeping still.
It’s past midnight, and the summer heat leaches in through every crack to paint a sheen of sweat over my arms and neck. The cuckoo clock in the hallway chimes. It echoes out as loud as a church bell against our tense silence.
I break first. “Been an hour since we last heard anything. Maybe it’s left.”
“That’s just what it’d want us to think,” he says, voice a low croak. “Could still be out there waiting for us to sleep, let our guards down. Didn’t it try that before?” His eyes dart towards the door, as if expecting the beast to burst in screaming at our hushed exchange.
“I don’t remember.” These days and nights all blend together so terribly.
In the low yellow lamplight my husband’s face is misshapen, like a hollowed-out gourd left to rot, the shadows sinking his eyes and cheeks. He looks starving, maddened. My face is the same. It shows in the mirror blade of the knife clenched in my hand.
We need sleep or we’ll break, but how do we sleep when we’re hunted by the wild unseen, that cruelly patient creature clawing nightly at our doors and windows?
We boarded the last of those windows weeks ago.
The waiting makes my skin crawl, and I can’t stand it anymore. “If anything’s still out there, it’s not coming in tonight. You stay here if you like, but I’m going to bed.”
He reels back. “And leave me alone? Do you want me dead?” His fingers finally curl around the handle of the drawer. Mine tighten around the knife. “One’s a helluva lot easier to pick off in the dark than two.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I warn. The floorboards groan under me, trembling at the tension. “There’s plenty of light left. If anything happens, yell, and I’ll be right down.”
A low moan slithers through the air from beyond the door.
Anyone else might brush it off as the wind. At one time we might’ve as well, but we’ve learned better. Our sequestration has forced us to. The moans, clicks, and growls come nightly, barely audible most times, but they worm into the base of my skull, wriggle behind my teeth. As if they’re coming from my own throat.
We should also know better than to bend to those noises. But my husband’s suspicions, those caustic fears that come from being cornered and not seeing or knowing the reason why, are too persistent for him to ignore.
He stiffens at the sound, shoulders hunched. “You hear it whispering, don’t you? Telling you to leave me here.”
I’m not sure what trick he’s trying. Noises, sure, but whispers? As if a beast has words, as if it’s something to converse with.
“I don’t hear anything,” I say. “I’m tired, and so are you.”
But he’s acting so oddly I fear my leaving might bring another sort of beast upon me. There’d be no safety in sleep tonight.
“You do,” he insists, “It’s feeding you lies, isn’t it? Turning you against me!”
There’s no gain in fighting with him, not when he’s worked himself up to a near frenzy. I opt instead to soothe his panic, pull him out from that corner and bring back a semblance of the more restrained man I knew during the day. “There’s nothing to hear. But if you suppose it’s best, then I’ll stay,” I offer. “I’ll stay.”
He studies me carefully, searching for a scheme. Then, he relaxes. Enough for me to loosen the chokehold on my knife.
“Alright,” he says. He stays by the drawer but makes no further move to open it.
I can’t help asking, “Can you hear whispers?”
He’s made this accusation before. I’ve heard moans, scratches, and growls, but nothing suggesting speech. The mutterings of the wind through the cracks in the boards make clearer conversation.
So where’s he gotten the idea that this beast can talk?
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he echoes back, scowling. “I was only thinking, is all. You worried me. Why? What’re you trying to accuse me of?” He throws the words out so quickly, I barely catch them.
“Nothing,” I say.
But I wonder, suspicion nesting in my mind. I’ll stay awake for now, if only to keep an eye on him, and an ear out for this new danger.
We often recall these incidents differently. Sometimes in the little details: who stood where, whether the clock chimed twice or thrice. Lately, the deviations are greater. I was in the bathroom, he was in the bedroom—or was it the other way round? The lamps were off, no, on. The beast was shrieking, howling—why, it’s only chittering. Nothing at all.
It’s become so contentious, I can’t say he believes me anymore when I tell him I’ve forgotten. But it’s easier to forget. Frustrates me to no end, the sniping, the bitter air filling our days—damn near suffocating, a boulder on my chest—yet I can’t blame him entirely. I don’t trust him either. We keep one eye on our respective tasks, and one on each other, ready for the moment that tightly-pulled tension finally snaps.
We’ve stopped talking about the beast during the day.
Regardless of what we remember, or how it’s happened, there’s no question we’re trapped by something.
From where I stand in the sitting room corner, beside where the window used to be, I can’t hear any noise. No steps, not even the rustling of trees. For a moment, I don’t think I’ll look. It’s not often I’m brave enough to think of trying.
But there may not be another chance; my husband rarely leaves me alone. Before I can hesitate again, I crouch forward and press my eye to the diamond crack in the boards.
At first, nothing. The night is thick, cloud-covered and hard-pressed to reveal its contents. Blinking against the warm wood, my eyes adjust and vague shapes emerge. Moon-brushed silhouettes, distorted in the wavering light. Inky woodworm trails eating into the sky. Peering out into this eldritch darkness, I wonder if our beast is watching me in turn. If it’s stalking towards the exposed fault in our walls, lured by the fresh scent of fear and a wide-eyed target in the window.
The thought alone sends me stumbling back.
I wrench the curtains over the distorted boards, not only to hide myself from the beast, but the crack from my husband. I’m starving for peace, normalcy. This wild thing threatening our home scares me, but my hunger is stronger than my fear, and I can’t give up this last morsel of the outside world. Not yet.
The curtains shift. I hope they’re enough to keep the beast out for at least one more night.
A low creak snags my attention as I retreat, shaking, to my chair by the fireplace. I’m not sure whether it’s from the hallway inside the house, or from the woods outside. It scares me either way.
My husband’s watching me again. I don’t need to look up from my embroidery to know he’s lurking behind my chair, half-leaned against the wall. His fingers drum against that wall, a hard percussion.
“Something you need?” I ask, stabbing the pale cloth. In and out the needle slips.
The drumming stops. “What’s that supposed to be? A bear?”
I lay the image in my lap. A creature of hulking black and brown laced with red spreads jaggedly out from the centre. The off-white background broken with knots of black, swirling like smoke. Not a wolf. Not a bear either; a thing born from the paranoid imaginings of an imprisoned mind. The result of too many nights staring out through the cracks at shadows.
“Nothing.” The cloth slips away into my sewing basket, and I glance towards the clock. Nearly sunset. “What did you need?”
“It was here again,” he says, his hands clenching the back of my chair. “I heard it out at the back door, tearing the wood. Got a glance from the hallway before it backed off. Swear I could practically see its claws.”
“I didn’t hear anything.” I twist around to face him. “And you didn’t call for me. You’re not lying, are you? Trying to scare me?”
“Lying?” His face sours, furrowing up like sun-rotted fruit. “If anyone’s lying it’s you! How could you not hear it? Or were you waiting back here hoping it’d crawl in and finish me off?”
“You are,” I huff, disgusted. “As if we don’t have enough to gnaw our nails about without you making things worse.” If I didn’t trust him before, I certainly wouldn’t now. Not until we figure a way out of this nightmare, return to quiet normalcy.
He slams his hands down on the chair hard enough to shake it, and I scramble to my feet, backing away with a deep scowl.
My husband claims to have witnessed claws through the door. What claws? Does our beast have claws?
It occurs to me quite suddenly that he’s always been the sole witness of our stalker. Outside of a few shifting shadows, I’ve never actually seen anything of a beast myself. Nothing but what my mind has conjured in dreams, terror-soaked fancies poured into my needlework.
But just because I’ve never seen the beast, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
But does the wind not moan? Do the trees not shift and sigh? Doesn’t he? Suspicion trickles through my mind, water through a cracked glass.
“What,” I begin, carefully making my way to the mantle, within reach of the paring knife I’d stashed behind the frame of our wedding photo, “did the beast look like?”
“Don’t you know?” he scoffs. “You’ve seen the thing more than I have. S’what you’ve been making, isn’t it?” He taps his foot against the sewing basket. “Nice little picture.”
How did it all start? Did he hear it first, or did I? For the first time in weeks, it scares me that I can’t remember.
My fingers slide up the mantel. “You’re the one who’s seeing claws and teeth. Tell me, are they big? Do they shine in the dark?”
“They’re dry and waiting for blood,” he counters, stepping around the chair towards me. “Don’t think I haven’t seen you at the windows either! What tales are you feeding it? D’you tell it I’m alone? When I’m off in the kitchen? He’s right by the door now, come get him quick!” His voice pitches to a near squeal. One hand’s balled to a fist; the other’s disappeared behind his back. I watch the one he’s hidden.
From somewhere in the house there’s a rumbling, like a growl, and I’m not sure where it’s coming from. By the window? From the hall, the kitchen? From the man before me with shoulders hunched and teeth bared, stalking closer? The rough wood of the mantle catches against my palm, sliding splinters between my fingers. The growl deepens and it’s as if it’s coming up my throat. It sounds exactly like my husband’s voice.
“You’re working with that beast to kill me,” my husband says.
“There is no beast,” I retort. My hand finally finds the knife, and I clench it tight behind the frame. “There never was, was there? You’ve made it up to drive me mad.”
“Murderess!” he hisses.
“Monster!” says I.
The world grows unbearably loud, and I can’t tell if it’s the heartbeat thrumming in my ears, or the house come to life, or my husband lunging toward me, his hands outstretched and glinting something sharp. Our wedding photo clatters across the mantle as I draw the paring knife. A thrill rushes through my whole body, and I bare my teeth as I hurtle forward to meet the beast that has tormented me for far too long, until he’s so close I can smell the sweat on his throat, the wind’s heat, the windows ripped back, it it is in the house—
—and something hits the boards with a bang, and a wicked animal scream rattles the whole damned world—
What happened next? Ah, yes. My husband, dead on our sitting room floor.
There’s a monster lives under everyone’s skin. You won’t even know it until you do, and the itching starts, the scratching at skin, the peel-away reveal. You let it out to breathe and before you can catch hold to cover it up again, it’s run everywhere, ripping apart the things you hate and the things you don’t, wild and hungry and—
The walls are spotted red. The boards across the window are cracked.
My legs shake and my body twitches with something between adrenaline and pure shock. I’m looking around for what killed him—the beast, where’s it gone?—but the only living creature in the room is me, and the closest thing to tooth or claw is the nails on my fingers—broken, jagged, sharp—and the knife they’re wrapped around, blushing red.
It’s a queer feeling, death, dripping warm down your wrist, pattering the floorboards with little circle stains. The handle slips in my hand, and I can’t remember how it happened but my cheeks and lips are wet with blood. My husband tastes of sweet iron.
Knife drop. Nails click against wood. No, that’s not right. Where are mine—on the broken boards? Pulling, tearing at the boards. Am I imagining something’s panting, creeping up behind?
I hear a creak. But my husband is dead, there isn’t a creature alive in this house besides me. There was only ever one beast and he’s nothing now, a shadow stretched across the floor. Right?
My mouth aches.
The night is blessedly cool through the newly opened gap in the wall. I crawl out, wiping traces of my husband on the windowsill.
Out of that cramped shell, away from him, and the unravelling noise of our house, and into a world so open—I can fill my lungs entirely for the first time in weeks, stretch my legs and spread my arms wide. The silence is relief enough to make me cry. How could I have been so afraid?
These shadows are mine. These claws and teeth are mine. This beastliness has always been mine.
I lick the last of my husband’s blood from my lips and run towards the dark, a howling laughter rising in my wake.
Ashley Van Elswyk (she/they) is a queer Canadian writer of speculative fiction and poetry. Her work appears in From the Farther Trees, Green Ink Poetry, Idle Ink, and anthologies from Ghost Orchid Press and Quill & Crow. You can find her on twitter @ashvanewrites.