I used to live in the trees by the cemetery. Then I came to live beneath the carousel they built in the park down the road. The carousel was beautiful! Pretty horses turned round and round a calliope bordered on six sides with gilded mirrors reflecting the moving animals. So many horses! They moved in a stampede circling the music, which was loud and sweet and lovely. I lived beneath the platform where the horses were stabbed into place by gleaming silver poles, listening to the music, listening to the laughter of the children who rode the glossy horses. I was so happy! I heard the children laughing and I knew the world was wonderful and pleasant.
At night, I would crawl from beneath the carousel and wriggle down the road to the cemetery. It’s there that I ate the dead. I had to, that is what I had to eat. Digging up the corpses was unpleasant, yes, but necessary. Staring into the hollow pits of the eyes of the dead made me sad, because I knew these were people who once laughed and danced and had the jobs of common people. Sometimes not much of their flesh remained, but I ate what I could, and their bones were delicious.
I know you will judge me for what I am, and what I’ve done, but you must understand that I was made this way, and I only eat the dead.
My body is a moist, muddy thing; my fingers are long, like claws; my face is shrunken, like a corn husk shriveled and blackened by the sun. My teeth are jagged blades that easily tear petrified skin. I am not beautiful, but I perceive beautiful things—the carousel is beautiful! And the laughter of the children—
At night I would drag myself from beneath the carousel and crawl slowly down the road, moving from tree to tree so I wouldn’t be seen, the moonlight glistening in my eyes. If I were seen, the people living near the park would be afraid and would hunt me down. The cemetery was always empty, except for the stone markers standing as impediments to my movements. I slid between them, sniffing the ground until I found a good grave, my long fingers digging into the soil as I slipped under the grass like a mole. Tearing a hole in the coffins took hours some nights, but eventually I was able to pull the corpses into my arms.
I usually ate in the cemetery, but sometimes I dragged pieces with me, an arm or leg, and crawled back under the carousel to enjoy my meal. I left nothing for the people to find. When I made waste, I always did so in the trees, so if my waste was found the people would not know where it came from, and would leave me alone.
This was the way I lived my life, and I was happy, listening to the children’s laughter, watching the beautiful horses, and eating the dead at night: but then she came, and everything changed.
She found me in the cemetery while I was feeding. So stealthy was she, that I never heard her slithering through the tombstones, nor caught her scent on the wind. I was halfway protruding from the hole I’d burrowed into a grave, and so busy biting into the face of a man long dead that I dropped the body and gasped in surprise when she appeared.
Don’t be afraid, she told me, rising up in the darkness like an animate shadow. I am just like you.
Frozen, and mortified that I hadn’t felt her presence, I didn’t know how to react.
She was just like me, or very nearly like me: her long arms terminated in taloned fingers; a twisted, muddy sack served as her body, which she raised on her arms before me; her face was like a blackened knot in a rotting tree. Her eyes, though, shone in the partial moonlight starkly, while filthy white hair hung from the top of her head to her shoulders.
I was eating. I thought you might be people come to burn me up. Why are you here?
She smiled then, exposing decaying teeth. I smelled you as I was passing by. And then I heard you. You eat noisily, don’t you?
I eat the dead, I said, holding up the physical remains of the corpse. Do you eat the dead, too?
Now she laughed, and her laugh rolled through the cemetery like the shriek of a loon. I eat what I eat.
I’ll share with you—
I’m not hungry. I’ve just eaten, and I won’t be hungry again for a while. Do you live here, among the dead?
Staring into her eyes, those two soulless black pits, I experienced a premonition of my own destruction—but I had been alone so long, with only the carousel and the children to keep me company, that I didn’t send her away, or flee from her.
Instead, I demonstrated how I fed in the cemetery, then let her follow me down the road to the park. I showed her to where I lived beneath the carousel, still and silent now in the night, and let her stay with me huddled in the cool, black earth. I lost my fear of her, for a while, at least, because she talked to me and told me about her travels, the places she’d seen, and where she had hidden herself when the sun was high in the sky.
I like it here, beneath the horses, she told me. I’m going to stay with you.
She did, and we both enjoyed hiding beneath the carousel while the calliope played and the children rode the horses. But when I left to feed at the graveyard, she wouldn’t go with me. I didn’t know why, and wondered why I hadn’t seen her eat since we met. But when I returned that night I understood why she wouldn’t feed with me.
When I crawled back beneath the carousel I found her feeding. The body on which she fed, her teeth raking repeatedly over the soft flesh, was newly dead. She stared up at me with shining black eyes, blood dripping from her chin, grinning. Then she buried her shriveled face into the hole she’d torn into the dead man’s chest with her talons and began feeding again.
What are you doing? I said in disbelief.
She raised her face from the gore in which she’d bathed it. You may eat the dead as you please. But I eat the living. I kill, and I eat, and that is my way.
But you could eat the dead, too!
Vile! Vile! To eat cold, fetid flesh! You are a fool for not killing your own!
They will come for you. They will know you are killing the people among them. They will come!
She laughed. I will kill as I please, and then I will leave and they will never find me. But they will find you, because you are a fool!
Leave now. Go away from here!
But she wouldn’t leave. She stayed with me beneath the horses. She wasn’t like me, no. She was different, and she frightened me. I slept in a hole I made in the dirt, but not always sleeping, because she kept her soulless eyes fixed on me always, watching me. During the days, while the calliope whistled its music in the air, she would tilt her head to listen to the children laughing above and she would grin at me; I knew what she was thinking, I knew what she wanted. Every few days, she would slither out into the town and drag back the bloodied body of the man or woman she’d killed. One of these, an old woman I might have fed on years in the future, was still alive, though barely breathing. In the night, while I watched, she ate the woman while the woman’s heart still beat and her breath still gasped for life.
I cried and cried.
Why are you crying? she said. You are pathetic!
I only eat the dead.
I will teach you to eat the living. She slithered to where I lay in my hole in the earth. Then you will be like me!
Over many nights, she brought her victims back to the park and tore out their throats with her talons. She raised her cupped hands to me, filled with blood, and bade me drink. But I wouldn’t. She threw their bones at me and laughed at my inability to consume warm tissue, but I still wouldn’t eat what she offered. Finally, she grew weary with my habits, and told me she would leave me.
But not before she ate one of my precious children.
No! You will not!
She grinned at me with her hideous teeth. Yes, I will, and then I’ll go, but not before.
You won’t. They only come in the daytime, not at night.
She was prepared for my objection. I’ll wait until one is standing too near to the edge of the platform. Then I’ll pull him underneath. No one will hear him crying out with the music playing so loudly!
I huddled in my hole and cried. She frightened me so much—but I couldn’t let her kill one of the children. I couldn’t—
Then next day came, and so, too, came the children to the carousel. The platform turned, the music blared in great happy notes, and the children rode the horses joyfully. I crouched in my hole, watching her—her—the thing that gave me so much fear; she’d slithered to the edge of the platform to where curving shadows kept her hidden from the sun. She lay watching, waiting, her long arms coiled against her body, prepared to reach out when the proper moment came—
Oh, no! the child stood too near, a little boy in short pants and bare feet. He didn’t know that, only a few inches away from his legs, her arm was slowly uncoiling, her fingers spreading. In the shadows beneath the horses, trembling within myself, I watched her arm fly forward like a whip and snare the little boy’s ankle. She was pulling him into the shadows so quickly that he never had a chance to cry out in surprise. She slapped her long fingers over his mouth and pulled him underneath. Then she turned her head and grinned at me—
No, no! I couldn’t let her kill the little boy. I couldn’t let her steal his happiness.
I moved from the hole in the earth and swept over her like a shadow, pulling her fingers from his face, wrapping my arms around her. What are you doing! she cried, shocked by my ferocity.
As the little boy screamed and rolled from beneath the carousel, I flexed the talons of my hands and spiked them into her bewildered eyes, tearing her, breaking her, chewing on her flesh, which was warm and delicious—
I no longer live beneath the carousel.
The little boy had escaped into the sunlight, delirious, crying to his mother that a monster had taken him beneath the horses. At first, she didn’t believe him. But I left that night, and watched from the trees. Many men came the next day to probe the shadows beneath the platform with poles, and retrieved what was left of her body. They thought it was an animal, I heard the men saying this; they burned the remains. But they returned to examine the shadows beneath the horses frequently, so I couldn’t live there any longer.
Now I live in the cemetery, hiding in the crypts, and I venture out at night, burrow into graves, and I eat the dead. But I’m sad now, and wish I was still living beneath the carousel, listening to the music, and the laughter of children.
But I can’t.
Not because I’m afraid of being caught—I have to live alone, because I met a monster in the world that stole away my happiness, a monster that left within me the terrible memory of the taste of living flesh, and an undying desire to taste more of it—
Lawrence Buentello is an American writer and poet born, raised, and living in San Antonio, Texas. He has published over 130 science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mainstream short stories in numerous magazines and anthologies. His fiction can also be found in several collections of short stories.