Ramsey Shehadeh splits his time between writing stories and writing software. His fiction has appeared in Weird Tales (where “Creature” originally appeared), Strange Horizons, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He blogs at Glass Maze. “Creature” is one of our favorite stories, in part because of the brilliant juxtaposition of an energetic and seemingly whimsical style with a story that’s actually very serious. - The Editors
(Image by Jeremy Zerfoss.)
And so came Creature out of the wasteland and into the city, bouncing from hilltop to hilltop like a bulbous ballerina skipping across the knuckles of a great hand. He was big as the moon and black as the night, and he came crashing into the city like a silent meteor. The cityfolk watched his approach with wide eyes and open mouths, and then scattered like leaves.
The sun sat smudged and pale behind a grey smear of cloud, and the air stank of scat, of putrefaction. But Creature said: “What a fine day it is!” Though he did not say it, of course, he thought it, and so the cityfolk thought it too. And when he released a great bolus of happiness into the air, they paused in their desperate flight, and smiled, and thought: “What a fine day it is!”
Creature surveyed the sea of smiles around him, and was well pleased. He rolled along, growing and shrinking and flattening and widening as he went, dispensing false joy to the destitute and the hopeless, the desperate and the sad. They lined his path like parade-watchers, caught helplessly in his spell.
All except for the Little Girl. He found her standing in the middle of the road, gazing up at him with an expression of puzzled reserve.
She touched his yielding black skin, and said: “Who are you?”
“I am Creature,” said Creature. “You are quite happy to see me.” Although he did not say it, of course, he thought it, and so the Little Girl thought it too.
She smiled. “Will you tell me a story?”
“Certainly!” said Creature. The sky rained ash and soot, and in the grimy dusk of midday the doomed people of the city rediscovered their despair and slunk back into their slow nowhere peregrinations. “Would you like to hear a happy story, or a sad story?”
“A happy one,” said the Little Girl. She was slumped and emaciated, and her features sagged against her bones like melting wax. But her eyes were bright, and the mouth in her face was smiling. Creature looked inside her, and saw the scars where her childhood had been, and felt a cold thrill of sadness. He shied away from it, and began.
“Once upon a time, there was a race of beings called the Lumplorians. Unlike most peoples, the Lumplorians came in all different shapes and sizes. Some of them were tall and bent at right angles, like an L; some were round like cookies, with arms sticking out of the tops of their bodies and eyes in the middle of their bellies. Some undulated like meandering rivers, and some were perfectly square.”
The Little Girl giggled. “That’s silly.”
“Nevertheless,” said Creature. “This was the nature of the Lumplorian. And because they were all so different from one another, because no Lumplorian looked like any other Lumplorian, there was no bond between them. This made them sad, because they were all alone. And then it made them angry, because they hated their sadness, and blamed each other for it. There were wars between the Lumplorians, a million million tiny wars, because it soon came to pass that every Lumplorian was at war with every other Lumplorian.”
“This is boring,” said the Little Girl, “Can we play now?”
“But it is still a sad story,” said Creature, who knew that there are no happy stories or sad stories, only a single tale that stretches across the breadth of time, and happy or sad depends on which part of it you choose to tell.
“That’s ok,” said the Little Girl. “I don’t care about stories anyway.”
“Very well,” said Creature, and extruded two arms from the front of his body and picked her up. “What would you like to play?”
“Let’s play Find Mommy,” said the Little Girl.
“A capital idea!” said Creature. “How does one play Find Mommy?”
“You look for Mommy,” said the Little Girl, frowning.
“Of course,” said Creature. “Where should we begin?”
The Little Girl pointed toward the Pitted Bridge, which spanned the River Sludge. “There,” she said.
“Climb on, then,” said Creature, and handed her up to a second set of arms, which were emerging a little further up his body, and they handed her in turn to a third set, higher still, and so on, so that the Little Girl rose toward his summit on a rippling wave of arms.
“And we’re off!” said Creature, and surged toward the bridge, undulating around rubble and bridging over chasms and puddling through potholes. Ruined buildings crowded in on either side, staring blindly down at them through shattered windows.
They were nearly there when a black bubblecar, squat as a spider, silent as a whisper, turned the corner in front of them, and stopped. A gun rose from its roof and trained itself on them. Its doors opened, lifting like angular wings, and two blackclads stepped out wearing visors that reflected Creature’s shimmering undulate in their mirrored and opaque surfaces.
The first blackclad leveled his weapon at Creature and said: “Halt!” Creature halted. He looked at their weapons, and felt something barbed and murderous rising in the banished parts of his mind.
“Identify yourself!” barked the second blackclad.
Creature extruded a mouth, and said: “I am Creature.”
“Release the girl,” said the second blackclad, “and put your hands on your head.” He said this with some hesitation, because the girl was clearly the one holding onto Creature, and because, in his current form, Creature had neither hands, nor head to put them on.
But Creature devolved into an oil slick, gently lowering the Little Girl to the street. And then he seeped into the cracks in the ground, and was gone.
The Little Girl got to her feet, looking warily at the two men. Fear showed plain on her face. All children knew the dangers of encountering the blackclads, who despise unattached urchinry, and round them up at every opportunity, and ferry them to the Orphan Reprocessing Facility in the center of the city, from which no child had ever emerged.
“You,” said the first man, “will come with us.”
The Little Girl shook her head, and took a step back.
The first man, who was fond of saying Halt!, pointed his weapon at her and said: “Halt!”
And the girl halted, but not because the blackclad told her to. No. She halted because the bubblecar behind the two men was rising into the air on a surge of black foam. It was rising, and it was rising, and then it was falling. There was a great crash, and the car was lying on its side, where the two men had been.
The black foam fell down to the ground, slapping against the torn tarmac like hard rain, then rose again as ten flat featureless figures with perfectly circular heads and rounded, linked arms, like cut-out paper men. They stood in a circle around the smashed car, their heads bowed, murmuring wordless elegies.
After a few moments, the figures flowed into each other, and became one figure, a giant cauldron that stood on two spindly legs. “I have done a bad thing,” said Creature.
“Those were bad men,” said Little Girl, who had seen many terrible things in her short life.
“Nevertheless,” said Creature, and sighed. He trundled over to the Little Girl, and unwound an arm and took her hand. “Let us proceed more discreetly.”
Creature was born soon after the apocalypse, when the changes beset the world. He’d seeped out of his mother and spilled to the ground, a slick black rill in the muck of the afterbirth, and lay helpless at her feet, listening to the screams. He’d hurt her, clinging and raking and tearing at her body as it tried to expel him. Even then, he knew the horrors that awaited him in the world outside his mother.
The sun was well below the horizon when she died. Creature watched his father, an emaciated halfman in tattered rags, kneeling over her, sobbing quietly. He lowered himself to the ground and pressed his half-body against hers, so that they became one body, three arms and three legs and three eyes. Two of the eyes stared away blankly into nothing, and the third wept.
When the darkness became absolute, Creature slunk away into the night, an amorphous puddle of shadow.
At first, he foraged among the weeds and the thorn-brambles, but he soon learned to lie in wait for more substantial fare. He discovered the secrets of his body: how to flatten it into a dark patch of night, how to rise and thicken and envelop, to crush and consume. Everything in this world seemed bent on his destruction, and so he grew feral, and learned to cultivate savagery. All that had been human about him receded, save one image: the face of the mother he had never seen, smiling at him as she never had.
As he grew, legends sprung up around him, becoming more fantastical with each telling: he was an animate piece of the night, an amorphous devil, a thing of pure evil that consigned the souls of his victims to the infernal realms of hell. The men who lived on the edge of the waste gathered into great hunting parties and came after him, but always to no avail, because he had discovered another talent: he could see their thoughts as if they were his own. He could divine their numbers and their tactics, their plans and stratagems, their feints and their traps before they came within a mile of him. He thwarted all of their efforts, and then he killed them, and then he ate them.
But his ability to read their thoughts was ultimately more curse than blessing. He became entranced by the strange things that he encountered in their minds: wondrous, inscrutable feelings like joy and hope and love and compassion and humility and peace. To be sure, they were rare artifacts in these hard men, but all he had ever known was grief and pain and fear and hatred, and these new sensations, though strange and troubling, were beautiful. He saw the face of his mother in them, and understood that she was their talisman, their fortress and their apotheosis.
He found that he could not destroy creatures who were capable of such wonders. He lurked instead at the edge of their encampments, drinking them in, savoring them. And, one day, quite by accident, he discovered that he could manipulate them, too; he learned how to manufacture happiness in their minds, to sow accord, to soothe despair.
But he could do none of these things in his own mind, try as he might.
And so he conceived of his plan. He would enter the city, and heal its people. He would revive their hopes, scatter their sadness, stoke their love. And then he would wend himself into the fabric of their lives, and bask in the reflected glow of their joy. He would make himself whole again, through the coerced love of the men who despised and feared him.
The Pitted Bridge rose up from the banks of the Sludge like a leaden rainbow, but plunged abruptly near the midpoint of its arc into the dark waters. Two hundreds yards farther along, it rose from the river again and continued its journey to the opposite bank. Sagging ropes spanned the interval between the halves; from his position on the shore, Creature could just make out tiny figures shimmying back and forth across the gulf, like beads on an abacus.
“All the way to the end,” said the Little Girl from her perch at Creature’s summit.
Creature stepped onto the bridge, and began his ascent. He moved along a narrow avenue bisected by a fading, dashed yellow line, between dense thickets of shanties, reeking and ramshackle and piled up against the rails of the bridge.
The bridge’s residents stopped their milling to stare. Eyes appeared at slit windows, heads poked out of curtained doorways.
The Little Girl waved at a small boy with long thin arms that spindled out from his naked torso like spiderlegs. The boy waved back, beaming. “Hi Ugly!”
“Hi Rat!” said the Little Girl, and laughed. “That’s my friend Rat,” she said. “We call him Rat because he’s always going in dark holes to get food.”
“And why does he call you Ugly?”
“Because that’s my name.”
“Surely not,” said Creature. “Who would give such a pretty little girl a name like that?”
The Little Girl did not answer. Creature quickened his pace, because the crowds were thickening on either side of him, and he felt the knife edge of hostility touching the skin of his mind. He sent out balms of goodwill; but he was nearly spent now, and his thin, paltry reassurances served only to dull the rising malice.
“Mommy,” said the Little Girl.
“Do you see her, Child?” said Creature, slowing.
“No. Mommy called me Ugly.”
“Ah.” Creature resumed his pace, and struggled to find the thing to say. “Well, I’m sure she did so in jest.”
“She said it’s not safe to be a pretty little girl. She said she used to be a pretty little girl too and bad things happened to her and made her wish she wasn’t.”
A feral dog shot out of the narrow space between two shanties and leapt at them, snarling. Creature extended a protoplasmic tentacle and caught it and held it in midair, speaking tenderness and peace into its mind until it grew calm. Then he lowered it to the ground and released it and molded the edge of a tentacle into a hand the color of obsidian and stroked it behind its ears. It sat on its haunches and watched them pass, sniffing at the air in their wake.
“She wouldn’t let me go far away from the house,” said the Little Girl. “And after Daddy left she didn’t let me out at all. She paid a nice man named Bickle to watch the house when she had to leave but then Bickle didn’t wake up one day because of the knife in him and she had to stay with me all the time, because she said she couldn’t trust anyone else.”
A burly and bearded and shirtless man stepped into their path. Creature slowed, then stopped. The man was fat and large and pink and hairless. He held a book before him, like a talisman, and said: “Leave this place, Demon. You are not welcome here.”
“That’s Klam,” whispered the Little Girl. “He’s a crazy person.”
Creature touched the man’s mind, and recoiled. It was all brambles and barbed wire, and it hurt him just to look at it. He said: “I mean you no harm, sir. I am merely escorting this young lady to her mother.”
“The harlot has no place in this House of God,” said Klam.
This made Creature angry, and the anger frightened him. It was an ugly and bitter and terrible thing. And so he pressed it into the bowels of his mind, and said: “Please do not speak ill of the child. She has harmed no one.”
“Her existence,” said Klam, “harms us all.”
“Remove yourself from our path, sir,” said Creature, his patience suddenly spent. “Do so immediately.”
“I do not fear you, Demon. You cannot hurt me.”
“I can hurt you in ways that you cannot possibly imagine,” said the anger, before Creature could stop it. “I can make you long for mere agony.”
And then Klam reached behind him, and drew a shotgun from its holster, and fired.
Creature reacted quickly, bristling into a sudden forest of pseudopods. The onrushing cloud of metal would not harm him, of course, but the Little Girl was only flesh and sinew, delicate and frangible. He lashed out with his extrusions, moving faster than thought, catching the bullets, redirecting them into the central mass of his body.
All but one.
He felt it slip between his fingers and pass over his summit, saw it pierce the flesh of the girl’s arm. Heard her scream. Felt her pain as his own.
And then, while he was not looking, the anger rose.
He softened his midsection and moved forward and subsumed Klam into his body and then walled him off into a small compartment, and then shrunk the compartment into a box the size of a coffin, and then shrunk it again, and again, breaking Klam in steady stages. There was a time when he would have prolonged Klam’s death, savoring his screams, but that time was past. He crushed him quickly, and heard his thoughts wink out.
The Little Girl was crying, quietly. He lowered her to the ground and examined her wound. The bullet had nibbled at the edge of her shoulder, but had not entered. He pressed himself against it, to stanch the flow of blood, and said: “All is well, Little Girl.”
They were alone now, all the bridge’s denizens having retreated to their shacks. “Come,” said Creature. “Let us continue.” He took the Little Girl’s hand, and they moved through the silence.
After some time, the girl pointed, and whispered: “That’s where we lived.”
Creature turned his gaze to a collapsed structure of wood and canvas, and then liquified and flowed into it. He found torn shreds of paper, a tattered rug, a toothless comb, scraps of clothing, an empty frame affixed to the canvas; nothing more. He came out again, and said: “There is no one here.”
“Oh,” said the Little Girl.
“Do you remember where you last saw your mother?”
“Yeah,” she said, and turned toward the bridge’s summit. Creature followed in her wake. “She woke up really early yesterday,” said the Little Girl, “and went outside. She was trying to be quiet, but I heard her so I got up too, and then I followed her.”
“Was she alone?”
“Yeah,” said the Little Girl, and stopped at the edge of bridge, where it fell away into the brown roil of the river Sludge. “She came here. I thought she was maybe waiting for someone, so I waited too, hiding behind Mr Bickle’s house.” She pointed at a ramshackle hut behind her. “But she just stood there for a long time, and no one else came, and then she looked back at our house and then she jumped in the river.”
Creature was silent for some time. He said: “I see.”
“I waited here for a while, and then I went down off the bridge to the river and looked for her. But she wasn’t there, and I didn’t want to come back up here on my own.”
“So I just started walking.” She looked up, toward Creature’s summit. “And I found you.”
Creature stared at the river. Flotillas of muck and jetsam flowed along, teams of wreckage, bobbing and sinking. He said: “Well.” In truth, he did not know what to say. The Little Girl affected him in ways he did not understand.
There was a stir behind them, then, small bits of sound running together: curtains drawn aside, shuffling feet, stage whispers. He turned, and saw them: the people of the bridge, massing.
They stood tremulous and resolute and afraid, clasping the detritus of their lives in the hands: long boards with nails hammered into their ends, filed metal rods, rusting butcher knives, ancient firearms. It was a sad and ragtag gathering, and, examining it, Creature could muster nothing more than pity. Not even the anger would rouse itself for this dim spectacle.
A man stepped forward. He was dressed in scraps and tatters, and the left side of his face twitched with a flickering palsy. He said: “We don’t want you here, Monster.”
He could have killed them all, of course. He could have crushed them against one other, plunged through their mouthes into their bodies and eaten them from the inside, broken the ground at their feet and sent them hurtling into the river. Instead, he moved to the edge of the bridge, beside the Little Girl, and said: “It is time for us to go.”
“Someplace that is not here.” He folded himself into a broad sickle-moon concavity. “Come into me.”
She paused, then stepped onto his body.
“It will be very dark for a while, Little Girl. Do not be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid,” she said, and lay down.
And so Creature shaped himself a hollow globe, sealing the Little Girl inside of him, and rolled over the edge of the bridge.
The brown surface of the river rose to meet him, and he fell into its murk with a great crash, sending up a high torrent of muddy water. They sank slowly into its depths, where the darkness was absolute, and let the current draw them downriver.
When he sensed that the air trapped inside of him was growing scarce, he rose to the surface of the river, unfolding like an opening hand, and fashioned himself into a raft. The Little Girl lay asleep in its center, curled into a tiny ball. He raised a portion of himself into a pillow, and arched a blanket of himself over her body. And they floated thus through the city, with the darkness gathering steadily about them.
The Little Girl awoke at dawn, just as the sun was heaving itself over the horizon, a pale shapeless luminescence in the grey soup of cloud. She stretched, and looked around.
“Sir?” she said.
“I am here, Little Girl,” said Creature.
“What happened to the city?”
“We have left it.”
They were floating through the wasteland now, across a dead plain still scarred with the ravages of the last war: trench furrows had been torn out of the earth, as if by great scythes, and many of the trees were burned stumps, or leafless and shattered skeletons. The air was thick with heat and heavy with moisture. The girl mopped sweat off her brow and surveyed the river. Tourette crabs on either bank followed their progress, spewing unbroken streams of profanity. Jellyfowl floated above them in the soft eddies of breeze, trailing curtains of barbed streamers. A troupe of the soulless trudged the banks, following the scent of life.
The girl lay down and said: “I’ve never been outside the city.”
“The waste is no safe place for little girls.”
“Is this your home?”
Creature paused. He had never thought of it as home. “It is where I live, yes.”
“Aren’t you afraid all alone out here?”
“Not in the way you mean,” he said. He had never feared the wasteland, really. But he did not wish to become one of its thoughtless, feral denizens. That, he feared.
She lapsed back into silence, and Creature reached into her mind, and found only sadness. He said: “Do you want to go back to the city, Little Girl?”
She shook her head, not lifting it off his surface. He saw that this was both true, and false. She despised the city, but it was the only home she’d ever known. An intractable dilemma.
Creature prepared a bolus of happiness, the largest he could fashion, and filled it with bright sunlight and green fields, fairytale princesses and caring mothers and endless summers.
The Little Girl said: “Sir?”
“Yes, Little Girl.”
“I wish you’d come before. You’re nice, like Mr Bickle. I think Mommy would have let you take care of me. And then maybe she wouldn’t have gone away.”
Again, Creature found himself without words. They floated on in silence.
“I heard her talking to Mr Bickle once, when she thought I was asleep. She said I made her old. She said that worrying about me all the time was killing her.”
“Even mothers say things they do not mean, sometimes,” said Creature, maneuvering himself around a whirling funnel of piranha clownfish.
“Do you have a mother?”
“I did, yes. She left me a long time ago.”
“What was she like?”
Creature did not answer at once. He had two mothers, really: the one he had inhabited for nine months, who’d borne him and then died; and the gentle woman who inhabited him, the light that led him out of his bestiality, that banished his darkness. In many ways, he was glad that he had never known the real mother; it left him free to manufacture the unconditional love of the false one.
“I wish I could tell you, Little Girl. I do not know. But I do know that she watches over me still, and protects me.”
The Little Girl turned onto her back, and looked up at the sky. “Your Mommy sounds nice too.”
Creature held the bolus of happiness at the threshold on her consciousness, but did not insert it. Its effect would be temporary, and false, an ice sculpture in the desert.
“Yes, Little Girl.”
“Who’s going to take care of me now?”
“I do not know. Do you have any uncles or aunts?”
She shook her head.
“Brothers or sisters?”
She shook her head.
She shook her head.
“Then perhaps,” he said, almost shyly, “you should stay with me. Until you are old enough to take care of yourself.”
“Yes. It’s not so bad, really, once you’ve grown accustomed to it. Let me show you.”
The soulless were well behind them, and the crabs had given up the chase. Creature drifted toward the bank, then rose out of the river as an obelisk, lengthening as he went, thrusting the Little Girl high above the skeletal trees. She squealed, first in fright, then in delight. He extruded eight legs from his base and skittered onto the bank, a tall spider column swaying gently in the freshening breeze.
“I can see everything!” cried the Little Girl. “I can see the city and the hills and the river and everything!”
They walked on. A clod of scuttle earth, the size and shape of a mattress, rose from the ground and shambled out of their path, raining worms from its underside; in the distance, two clouds of semaphore ravens spoke in shifting patterns; a herd of wild rats stampeded across a faraway bramble meadow; a flotilla of sailfish navigated the deeps of the distant oxblood lake.
The Little Girl watched with widening eyes. “This place is weird.”
“No stranger than your city, Little Girl. The strangeness differs only in its particulars.”
“Where’s your house?”
“There is no house.” Silence. He lifted the impression of a face onto the flat surface of his summit, and looked at the Little Girl. “Although we could build one. A large house, if you like, with many rooms.”
Her expression was composed, and very serious. She was, suddenly, far older than her years. “Can you let me down, Sir?”
“Certainly.” He shrank into a disk the size of manhole cover, and, when the girl stepped off, rose into his cauldron shape. “Are you hungry?”
She shrugged, and said: “Sir?”
“Yes, Little Girl.”
“Is my Mommy dead?”
Creature paused. He said: “Yes. I fear that she is.”
The girl was silent for a moment. She said: “I wish she wasn’t.”
Creature had nothing to say to this. They stood in silence, listening to the wind rattle the skeletal branches of the trees, the river lap lazily against its banks.
“Yes, Little Girl.”
“My name’s Melanie. You can call me Melanie.”
He hesitated, and felt the dim stirrings of something unfamiliar in his mind: fear, perhaps, or hope, or dread, or joy. Or none of these things. Or all of them. He said: “Melanie,” and extruded an arm, and took her hand. And together they watched the flocks of semaphore ravens converge on the horizon, signaling frantically to one another across the gulf of sky.