The Old Beast
by MH Rowe
Something died under the porch most winters. This time it was on the crooked side near the stairs, where the leak from the roof had softened the floorboards. The wood groaned like a ship at sea. It gave off a rotten smell. The scent made Lina think of the old beast, and she wondered if he still lived out there in the lonely places.
She called Jonah that morning.
“It’s once upon a time again,” she said. “We’ve never gone this long without seeing him. What do you say?”
“We’re not kids, Lina.”
“Wouldn’t matter if we were. He can’t be far.”
Jonah sighed and started to say something, but thought better of it.
“Okay, in the pines then.”
Lina changed into thick clothes, drove out past the reservoir, and pulled off the service road into the dead grass. Jonah’s car sat there, its engine ticking as it cooled. He waited for her against a tree a hundred yards uphill.
“Think he’s out there?”
“No place else I can think of,” Lina said.
Marching through the trees was not so difficult. What gave them pause were the many exemplary pieces of wreckage he’d left behind: the tatters of a tent stretched across a bush like a spider web, the burnt remains of a car door, with no other bits of the vehicle in evidence, and a pile of mostly yellow teeth on a bed of pine needles.
“What do you think?” Jonah said. “Deer teeth? Wolves?”
The trees grew so thick that in the gloom it looked like evening. It couldn’t have been past noon. As they walked on, Lina shared a memory.
“I remember him early in the morning,” she said. “Slurping from a waterfall.”
“His mouth full as a koi pond,” he said.
Lina stopped and gave Jonah one of those looks that’s supposed to stick.
“I remember his scent,” she said. “Been thinking of it for days.”
“I don’t remember that at all.”
“But it’s faint now.”
“That makes sense.”
It did make sense.
Towards night, as they saw the ruby sky through breaks in the trees, a howl came out of the west. They stopped to listen. It came again, and they ran toward it until they reached a clearing strewn with sticks and dead yellow flowers. Not one, but two animals were there, a dead fawn and her howling mother. The mother bounded off as Lina and Jonah high-stepped through the dry brush. The fawn’s body bore the unmistakable mark of a well-known grip, gashes up and down its ribcage like hash marks that counted the days since they’d last seen him.
“You scared?” Jonah said as they moved again into the trees.
“Honestly,” said Lina, “I would not see the point otherwise.”
At night, they argued about flashlights. Lina relented. Jonah insisted they stop when they stumbled across a cave, though it was only a jagged hole in a lumpy ridge. When they entered it, Lina gagged at the smell and began to push Jonah out.
Something bucked in the trees.
Reversing course, Lina tugged Jonah back inside.
“No argument here,” he said, covering his nose.
They hid in a recess in the cave wall and watched as an enormous man, ten feet tall, stepped out from the trees and into the moonlight. Scars notched his face. He had a long nose, wide mouth, and his hair fell like the mane of a horse across his shoulders.
“I think he felt as bad as we did—for him leaving,” Lina said. “That’s why he’s never gone far away.”
“We really talking about that while we watch that greasy ogre toddle around?”
Lina shook her head.
“Ogre? Come on.”
Jonah’s apology was inaudible and insincere.
“Look out,” Lina said.
The enormous man snorted like a pig as he ducked into the cave. Jonah told himself they’d been scented, but then the enormous man turned, grunted, and galloped into the trees. Lina rushed out from their hiding place. She beckoned Jonah to follow and hoofed it into the forest, her flashlight slashing the trees with light.
“Follow that ogre!” she said.
They chased the enormous man for hours as he knocked over pines and stumbled across meadows streaked with snow. Owls and crickets shut up as he passed, and in the relative silence Lina thought she heard, once or twice, distant bellows. Jonah didn’t notice. All he did was complain that the stench of the enormous man lingered like a taste in the mouth. Which it did.
Toward morning, the enormous man stopped in a clearing and whined in his throat like a dog. Lina felt exhausted but also certain they had arrived where they needed to be. The enormous man kicked through a stand of trees ahead. Lina grabbed Jonah and brought a finger to her lips. Shortly there came a harsh bellow like the one she had been hearing all night, then a squeal and a sound like a snapping tree trunk.
“Wait a minute.”
But Lina ran away between the trees.
Too scared to shout, Jonah followed her. They turned where the enormous man had turned and came upon the towering sight of the old beast in a meadow of wilted tag alder. Fresh cuts decorated his face, but he was eating the severed arm of the enormous man, who lay on the ground and didn’t seem so enormous without it.
“I want to remember this,” Lina said, her eyes blown up and her face drained of color. “I want to remember him.”
It was like a curtain had been ripped away. Behind it stood a leering giant. Noticing them, he dropped his meal and crouched down, arms out. His sniffing nose moved towards them, but his eyes were full of scary love. That face was like a half-burned portrait, with some of the paint scratched off and all of it smelling of blood and burnt leaves. Still, they knew him.
Lina looked at Jonah. She was beaming now, out to lunch.
“He hasn’t offered in so long,” she said.
To his surprise, Jonah giggled. It just bubbled up from his chest. He couldn’t believe they’d found him after so long. The tighter you shut it, the harder it springs open.
Lina ran into the old beast’s arms, giggling now, too, and Jonah followed. The beast cradled them against his greasy chest and stood up moaning. Lina and Jonah hugged him back, nestling their faces in the sour scent of his skin. Memories flooded them, adrenal and insistent.
All seemed right until Lina brushed up against some notch or scar on his chest and came away with a bloody hand. The beast roared and chucked them to the stony ground. He huffed; they screamed. The beast picked up the severed arm and jammed it between his teeth, then snorted and plodded off without a single glance back in their direction.
Lina and Jonah lay gasping on the ground, broken ribs divided unequally between them.
“You smell like him,” Lina said.
“Naw.” Jonah giggled. “You do.”
Lying next to each other, they laughed and gasped. Lina put out a hand to feel the earth and found there a little bit of snow in the grass. Time hadn’t passed so quickly, not really. It was barely spring.
“He looked good,” she coughed. “Not dead.”
“Lost weight maybe,” wheezed Jonah. “Totally alive.”
“We should do this every March.”
Jonah didn’t say anything. After a moment, Lina coughed and whispered, “Okay, let’s live forever.”
MH Rowe‘s fiction and essays have appeared at The Rumpus, Black Warrior Review, and Lit Hub, among other places. He lives and writes in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but you can find him on Twitter @mhrowe.