The Beast Is an Animal
Nights were long for Alys.
And they were always the same. Her mother washed her and dropped her flannel nightshift over her head. She tucked Alys between linen sheets and under wool blankets that felt heavy on Alys’s restless limbs. Then came Alys’s night-long entrapment by darkness and quiet and the absence of sleep.
Alys looked longingly after Mam as she left the room. Mam turned back once and smiled at Alys, then closed the door behind her, snuffing the glow of light from the warm kitchen. Alys imagined her father sitting out there, pipe in mouth, toes near the fire. Then she lay in bed listening to the sounds of the house fall around her—the low murmur of her parents, the clattering of a dish, the footsteps on wood floors.
She could hear them breathing. Mam’s soft sighs, Dad’s snores, a moan.
Alys was seven now, and she’d been this way for as long as she could remember. She dreaded the night.
If only she were allowed to get out of bed. It was the knowing that she couldn’t get out, that was what made sleeping so impossible for her. Told to lie still and sleep, Alys felt the strongest urge to do exactly otherwise. Her eyes instead flew open and stayed that way. She had no siblings so she couldn’t know this for sure, but she’d been told that she was an odd child this way, that most children knew to give in to sleep when the time came. Alys could not do this.
Alys decided that this night would be different. This night, when the sighs and the snoring rose in the air, she would declare an end to her nights of entrapment. She would make the night her own.
She waited long after silence fell, just to be sure. Then she dropped her feet to the cold wood floor. It was end of summer, near harvest, and although the days were still warm, already she sniffed autumn in the air. She found her woolen stockings and boots, a wool overdress. She was not a child who needed to be told what to wear. Mam always told Alys that she was sensible that way.
Alys wasn’t being sensible now. This wasn’t the wisest night for her to wander. She knew this, and yet she couldn’t stop herself. She’d made a plan, and after so much waiting, after such a long imprisonment, she refused to wait another night. She couldn’t wait. She wouldn’t. Not even after what had happened
last night with the farmer and his wife, nor the night before that, when the wolves came and ate up all the chickens, and goats, and horses in the entire village of Gwenith. Alys was sad about Mam’s chickens. They were so sweet and warm in her lap, and they laid such nice eggs.
Alys had heard her parents talk about the farmer and his wife, the ones who were dead. They lived way out on the edge of the village, nearly to the fforest. Mam had said the only reason they were found at all is that someone thought the farmer might know what had happened to all the animals. Mam said that surely all that bloodshed was the work of a witch, and that was where the other witch and her twin girls had lived. And then Dad said that just because you had married one witch, didn’t mean you had married another. Mam disagreed, and said she supposed it did mean that very thing, because then why else was the farmer dead? And weren’t Mam’s own dead chickens proof they were all being punished for that man’s sins and whatever he and his wife had been getting up to out there where no one could see them? Then Dad had given Mam a look, and Mam realized that Alys was listening, and well . . . that was the end of that.
Alys should have been afraid of the wolves and the idea of a witch being married to a farmer, but she wasn’t. Alys, in fact, had never been afraid. Her favorite nursery rhymes were the scary ones. The ones about The Beast sucking out your soul and leaving behind nothing but gristle and skin. Those were the ones Alys liked best. When her friend Gaenor squealed and shut her eyes and clapped her hands over her ears, Alys just
laughed and kept singing. Sometimes she’d promise Gaenor she’d stop, and just at the moment Gaenor trusted Alys enough to drop her hands from her ears and open her eyes again, Alys would continue:
The Beast, It will peek in on you
When you’re fast asleep
Invite It in
And oh your Mam will weep
Alys stepped out of her room, listened again for Mam and Dad’s breathing. Then she was through the kitchen and out the kitchen door before she could think twice or change her mind.
The air was chill and moist and open around her. And the sky, oh the sky. It was awash in stars.
Alys looked up at the sky, felt lifted up by it. She turned to see how it might look different, to catch parts of it that she couldn’t bend her head back far enough to see. It was lovely to be so free, everyone in the village asleep, and Alys not even trying to sleep. If she could spend every night this way, Alys thought to herself, she’d have no reason to dread it anymore.
Standing in Mam and Dad’s kitchen yard, Alys began to feel hemmed in again. She could sense the house rising up behind her, the coop and the barn on either side of her. And she knew that through the darkness rose their neighbors’ houses. What Alys wanted was a fallow field—a stretch of tall grass that she could feel spreading out all around her as far as her eye could
see through the dark. And Alys knew where just such a field lay. She only had to get herself to the road, follow it out of the village, and there it was, big and wide and bordered only by fforest that was even bigger and wider than the field.
Her legs carried her through the dark. She held her arms out to either side, felt the night air float over and around her. She was alone but not lonely.
Then the field. In she walked, feeling the long grass brush her skirts, scratch and tickle even through her stockings. No longer could she feel any kind of structure around her. When she reached the center of the field, she looked up again at the stars. The sky was an endless bowl tipped over, the stars pouring down on her like grains of light. She opened her eyes wide to take them in.
She felt them before she saw them—the women.
It wasn’t that they made a sound. It was more the way they didn’t make a sound that attracted Alys’s notice, the sense of a presence without bodies attached. But they did have bodies, she saw. These women. These women made of mud and leaves. They floated through the grass and they saw Alys with their wide gray eyes that glowed even in the night, as if they were lit from within.
And still Alys wasn’t afraid. Curious, yes. Alys had never seen women like these before. They weren’t village women—at least not from any village that Alys had ever heard of. They didn’t even look like travelers. Travelers were odd-looking sorts, but these women were odder. They looked, it occurred to Alys, more like trees than women.
And then they were near her, next to her, standing either side of her and each resting a hand of mud and clay on her shoulders. They were slim, and although they were much taller than she, Alys realized that they weren’t women at all. They were still girls. Older than Alys, but maybe not so much older. Not mothers, certainly.
“What is your name?” Only one of the girls said it, and yet it seemed like both of them did. Alys felt a kind of energy pass through her shoulders, a shivery thread connecting their hands.
“Alys, go to sleep,” the other said.
When the other said it, Alys felt an instant tug in her eyes, like a curtain being pulled. But no, Alys thought, that wasn’t what she wanted. She sent the curtain flying up again, opened her eyes wider. “But I don’t want to sleep,” Alys said.
“There is no fear in this one, Benedicta.” The girl sniffed the air around Alys. She had been sniffed by Gaenor’s dog just like that.
“No, there is no fear, Angelica.”
Benedicta. Angelica. Alys had never heard those names before. She thought they were beautiful. And there was something beautiful about these owl-eyed girls, their long dark hair tangled with branches and leaves.
Then they left her. Just as quickly as they came, the girls floated on. Out of the field and into the dark, disappearing at a point off in the distance that told Alys nothing about where they were going.