The Beast of Lander Knoll

All us kids knew about the beast, but we never talked about it, not for long and then only in whispers. It was as though we thought it might hear us and get angry, kinda like my second-grade teacher Miss Jaspers, only worse. The beast might come to get us.

Then came the Scout Jamboree in October, where everyone was suppos’ to tell a scary story ‘round the campfire.

Fridge got booed when he said his scariest story was about finding an empty ice cream carton in the freezer. Like some ghost had snuck in late at night and eaten it all. Fibber, who was older than the rest of us and almost eleven, said the ghost was prob’ly Fridge’s fat sister, and all the scouts laughed.

Cowboy told the story about finding some animal’s missing foot in the forest, and the animal had really long teeth that dripped drool, and it couldn’t rest ‘til it came and got its foot back. I heard it before, but Cowboy told it real good.

I told one my grandpa told me about a crazy old man that lived on an island who told such great stories, boys ‘ed come to hear ‘em. The boys kept disappearing, but they never figured out it ‘as the old man what did it. When the old man’s voice got real soft, boys ‘ed lean in cause they wanted to hear. Then the old man, he stabbed ‘em with his cane that was really a spit for roasting wild bears and boars and such, then the kids got roasted, too, and the old man ate ‘em.

At the end, I whispered so they had to lean in, then shouted and held my hiking stick up like it was a spit. All the boys’ eyes were big as owls’. Kip fell off a log. “True story,” I insisted. “Really, it’s true.” I felt all warm after telling that story, like maybe I’d win a prize or somethin’.

Fibber frowned at me hard. He pressed his lips tight, nodded, and ran a finger under his nose. Then he broke our unspoken rule: he told about the Beast of Lander Knoll. We all got sudden quiet. As he spoke, I felt a chill on my neck, like monster breath. I checked behind me at the forest of shadows shifting in the campfire light. Cowboy and Fridge looked scared, too.

fire-1149738_1920

Fibber said it was Indian legend from long before white men walked this land that the beast lived in a tree on Lander Knoll. The Indians told the pioneers not to cut the tree down, but they didn’t listen. They made a shed out of the wood and put it right where the tree was before. Nobody knew what the beast looked like, ‘cause no one ever lived that had seen it. People just heard that someone was gone, and no one ever spoke their name again. No one ever asked neither—cause they were all scared the beast might hear ‘em.

Far as Fibber knew—which was a lot more than the rest of us scouts knew, cause we kept lookin’ at each other and back to the woods—the monster never left the shed. Just kept pullin’ people inside, mostly kids. Maybe it didn’t live there at all and only came at night for its dinner, like steppin’ out of some gate to hell or somethin’.

 

After the Jamboree, kids all started talkin’ about the beast and the shed on Lander Knoll. Zeke the groundskeeper kept tractors, tools, nails, an’ stuff in it, so maybe the beast only came at night like Fibber’d said. Zeke used to go to Growler High School in town and played football. Last year when he hurt his knee, he decided he’d had enough school and took the groundskeeper job. Though big as my dad, Zeke acted more like a kid, and he joked with us, too.

When we asked him about the beast, Zeke gave us a funny smile and said it was true, all of it. “Don’t never go up there late, not after sundown, no matter what you hear. Bad things happen when boys come to the shed at night. ‘Cause if you do an’ the beast catches you, you know what it means?” He shook his head and grimaced. “It means I got a mess to clean up.” He laughed then said that’s why he keeps a big lock on the shed—to keep the beast in and small boys out.

 

That evening, Sally came over while my mom went to the wives’ club meeting. Sally was starting high school and trying out for cheerleader, so she still had all her cheerleader clothes on: a white sweater with a big green ‘G’ on the front, a green-and-gray pleated skirt, and saddle shoes, white on the toe and heel with black running up across the laces.

We ate supper on the bare, wooden, kitchen table: my sister in her highchair, me on a tube-metal chair with a red plastic seat. I watched Sally open a can of SpaghettiOs and boil two hot dogs. Her short blond hair bounced when she walked, and her skirt pleats shifted and pulled along her bottom. When she turned and caught me ogling, I got embarrassed. So I kept my eyes on her black and white shoes while she brought us our SpaghettiOs.

Later Sally practiced cheerleading in our living room. My sister and me sat on the sofa. Every step, hop, kick, and turn came with a shout. When she shouted for us to give her a ‘G’ or ‘O’ we’d shout the letter back. Every cheer ended with a hop and a kick and a big smile, and we cheered and clapped for her.

When I asked Sally if she knew about the monster, she looked a little scared. I showed her out my bedroom window how close we were to the shed, the closest house in the development, about as far as throwing a baseball from second base to home plate. Sometimes at night I heard strange sounds, something knocking inside the shed, and saw things moving, ‘specially after sundown.

Fibber said that’s when the beast came. It was hungry and needed to satisfy a terrible hunger, and it was good Zeke kept the shed locked. I didn’t tell Sally that I’d seen the door open: like last night and once last week.

“The beast won’t come for you,” Sally said. “It won’t leave the shed, so you mustn’t worry. Have you told anyone else about this?” No, I said, she was the only one, ‘cause I knew she wouldn’t laugh. Mom and dad were too busy to listen.

 

Next morning I decided to talk to Fibber and the boys. “Why ‘nt you go up an’ see for yourself?” Fibber sneered. “Just maybe you’ll learn somethin’.”

“And maybe you’ll die a terrible, bloody death,” Cowboy chimed in, nodding.

I looked Fibber in the eye. I wondered if I backed down, if Cowboy and the rest would still talk with me or laugh.

Then Fibber raised the stakes. “Good thing Zeke keeps the shed door locked to keep little kids like you out,” he said. “In a full moon that might not matter much—‘cause the beast is strongest then and it could break the lock.”

I was tired of being the little kid in the scout pack and tired of being the scaredy-cat, even if no one said that out loud. No one ever went up to Lander Knoll at night, not in a full moon. But I had to.

 

My shadow in the silvery moonlight reached out in front of me. Beyond it, the weather-worn shed glowed a soft gray. As I climbed the bare slope, a hundred reasons rushed through my head for not going up there. No one would blame me. Later would be a better time. I could wait for Cowboy and the others but knew they were more scared than me.

The chilly fall air smelled dry and dusty. A shiver ran through me. I swallowed and tried to keep my knees from shaking. My sweaty, yellow, scout t-shirt stuck to my thin body, and my wet belt scraped at my waist.Ignoring all the good reasons to not go, I swallowed again and took another step, then another.

Something stirred in the long dry grass then scurried quickly away. A single faraway bird gave a lonely twitter. I stopped to listen and breath then continued. Setting each foot down as quietly as possible, I worked around to the locked shed door.

Something clattered inside then scraped as it dragged or got pushed. I heard a long moan and a groan then a slam as the shed door kicked open, letting out the stink of fertilizer and gasoline. Inside the shed, on the floor beside a riding mower, a dark lump rose and fell as it breathed, rocking slowly like a rowboat alongside a pier and gaining momentum. The rocking became violent as I watched. I shook all over and wanted to run, but my feet were frozen to the ground.

A high-pitched cry suddenly split the air, and a human foot kicked out from the lump. It wore a saddle shoe, white heel and toe with black across the laces. I jumped back and my eyes caught a flash of white in the moonlight, a white sweater with a ‘G’ hung on a leaf rake handle. I gave a shout and the lump stopped rocking. A face emerged, a smiling face, then an arm grabbed and pulled the shed door shut.

“Who was it, Zeke,” said a familiar voice.

“Just some kid,” Zeke said.

I stumbled down the hill fast as my wobbling legs could go, certain the beast was right behind me. Soon as I got to my house, I ran inside, slammed the door, and leaned hard against it.

My mom yelled at me for slamming the door, and I said I was sorry. While catching my breath, I tried to remember everything what happened, as many details as possible, so I could tell it at the next campfire.

When I got to the part about the saddle shoe and the white sweater with a ‘G’ and the lump with the face and arm, I was stumped. “Why were Zeke and Sally in there?” As I heard my own words, the reason became suddenly clear.

 

Sally never came to the house again, and I never let on when I saw Zeke. I never told the story at the campfire, and not to Fibber, Cowboy, or the other scouts. And they never asked.

Advertisements

Lord of the Towels

TWEET! “Okay, guys. Hit the showers.” Coach Felbrook circled a raised fist high then pointed to the locker room. Forty boys on East Junior High’s football team let out a yell, unsnapped helmet chinstraps, and headed off the grassy field.

Felbrook jogged behind them, shouting. “Dak, good work on those cuts. Yogi, keep working on power pulls … the defense is still playin’ off your blocks. And hey, Toby … grab the ball cart.” Felbrook caught the eye of the last boy still sitting on the bench and pointed far up the field.

Toby Eagleton jumped up. The hot sun and muscle sweat felt good as he dashed 80 yards to fetch the cart. He imagined running for a touchdown, threw himself across the goal, and rolled to his back, pumping his fists in the air. The new mown grass smelled delicious.

“Toby,” the coach shouted, motioning him to hurry.

Toby scooped up three loose footballs, tossed them into the wheeled cart and spun it back to the field house. Felbrook stood at the entrance. “Water bottles. Don’t forget the water bottles and the cooler.”

Toby swung wide up the sideline, snagged eight plastic bottles off the turf, tumbled them into the cooler, and slid the cooler under the ball cart. Reaching the field house, he pushed the cart into the storage closet. He clanged the metal door shut, dropped the latch, and snapped the padlock.

The blue and black tiled locker room reeked of boy sweat and grass stains, and the even stronger scents of chlorine and mildew from the pool next door. As Toby walked in, the last players were spinning off shower spigots and stepping past him to grab towels. Steam billowing from the showers filled the locker room.

“Good effort out there guys. Toby, lookin’ real good.” Felbrook patted his shoulder. “Damn! Hey, you guys, pick up those towels. You raised in a barn?” No one paid him any attention. “Toby, can you make sure all these towels get into the bin. Thanks.”

“But Coach, I didn’t play. I sat on the bench all practice.”

“You need to learn the system, Toby. Watch the other boys. Your chance will come.”

Toby looked straight up at the neon ceiling lights. “Coach, maybe I could walk through some drills, huh? Maybe run a few practice plays?”

“Great spirit, Toby. Love that attitude.” Felbrook checked his wristwatch. “Sorry, gotta split, teaching a hygiene class in two minutes.” He pulled a gray letter jacket with the bulldog team logo over his dress shirt, and ducked out into the hallway.

Toby untied his cleated shoes then stripped off his jersey and pants. Sun-sitting sweat had a fouler stink than clean workout sweat. His clothing bore no green streaks or clumps of brown. Toby dropped his uniform in his locker and padded barefoot across the wet floor to the showers. Only a few boys remained, combing their hair and tying shoes.

Toby passed a full-length mirror and paused to scowl at his skinny nakedness: five-foot-five, 116 pounds, and red hair hanging like a fruit bowl. His coat-hanger shoulders rounded onto his concave chest. His stick arms and knobby knees reminded him of chicken bones. Some football player. He remembered his Mom saying, “You’ll get your growth spurt, Toby … you’re just late blooming. Just wait. It’ll come.”

“Yah Mom, I’m waiting, still waiting.” He started to punch a locker door but thought better and stepped into the gang shower. He turned the spigot handle, felt the rush of hot water, and gathered liquid soap from the dispenser.

SLAM! Came the sound of a metal door. Someone had crashed into the locker area. Toby recognized the muffled laughter and whispers. No one else sounded like Dak Jackson and Yogi Grancourt. Then came a squeal and the clickety-click of casters as the towel bin accelerated across the tiled floor. The locker room door slammed again. Toby turned off the water and walked out to the towel shelf. Nothing.

“Hey, you guys take the last towel? Hey, I’m still here.” Toby glanced at his locker hanging open and empty. Spinning, he checked the room … no clothes … no towels … no towel bin. “Damn you guys … Yogi? Dak? That you?” He slumped, dropped his chin to his chest then went to gather paper from the toilet stalls to dry off.

Pausing, he looked up and thrust his arms toward the neon ceiling lights. “God of towels, where are you? Why have you forsaken me?”

SHHHHLIIIK! It was the sound of a towel snapping. Warmth wrapped Toby’s hips and tucked a fold at his waist. What? He dropped his hands to find a towel wrapped about him. Not a threadbare gym towel, but luxurious, the brightest white towel, the kind bikini babes rub on themselves in fancy resort movies.

“Toby, me lad. I oonderstand you haff need for a towel?” The Irish brogue was high and lilting. Before him on the dank tiles, stood a figure a head shorter then he. It was pale with pointed nose and ears, a scruff of unruly black hair, and laughing eyes over angular, high cheekbones.

“Who are you?” Toby asked, stepping back.

“For certain, I am the very god you beckoned, the god of towels, here to ease your pain.” The fellow danced two quick steps then bowed, thrusting one leg forward and dropping one arm low.

“I didn’t call you,” Toby objected, gesturing his hands out. “What kind of god is a god of towels anyway? What can you do?”

“Well, for starters, you might haff noticed, I can coover oop your privates.”

“Okay, that’s good … I appreciate that. Thank you. I gotta go, I have class in, ahhh, six minutes.” Toby ran to the door and peered into the hallway. No clothes no towel bin. Opposite the boy’s gym he saw Sheila Palo leaving the girl’s gym, her books clasped tightly against her white, junior varsity cheerleader sweater.

“Pssst, Sheila?” Toby slid out the door to the recess from the hallway. Sheila covered her chin-dropped mouth.

“Toby? How come—?”

Toby waved her quiet. “The boy’s towel cart, is it in the girl’s gym? Maybe some clothes and shoes are on it? Please.” He gestured to his condition.

Sheila set her books down in the hall and returned a second later with the cart piled high with the last of the fresh towels, a pair of blue jeans and undershorts, a sweatshirt, tennis shoes and socks, and his sweaty football uniform.

“Thank you, me love,” Toby let that slip. Damn. She can’t know how I feel about her. He’d never talked to Sheila, but right now he was beyond blushing. Avoiding her gaze, he grabbed the cart and pulled it back to the locker room.

Toby hustled into his pants and shirt.

The elfin figure reappeared. “Sooo, perhaps I’m thinkin’, we haff more business.”

“No thank you, little guy. The towel was great. That’s all I need.” Toby looked hard at his new acquaintance. “What’s your name? I mean in case I ever need another towel.”

“That’d be Sean at your service, Master Toby.” Sean bowed low again.

“Just Toby is fine. No need to be formal.” Sitting on a bench, Toby slid socks onto his feet still damp from the wet tiles and began twisting on his tennis shoes.

“Not formal a’tall, Master Toby. I’m here to serve you, in all your travails, all life long.”

“To serve ME? How did I get so lucky?” Toby tied his shoes.

“You invoked the gods for the first taim and specifically mentioned me. The god of towels, you said … that would be meself.” Another quick bow.

“Great … other people get guardian angels … I get the god of towels?”

“Don’t be so disparaging, Master Toby. I can be a great blessing to you.”

“I think I’d prefer a genie, a great and powerful genie, one like Aladdin had. You know … like the genie of the lamp.” Toby laced his fingers around one knee, pulled it toward his chest, and rocked back.

“Genie of what lamp?” Sean stared blankly.

The Arabian Nights … you know. Aladdin finds a lamp, there’s a genie inside, it gives him a whole bunch of wishes.”

“That woos a good story … made oop you know. But it didn’t happen.

“Who made it oop … up?”

“The girl who needed a good story every night so she wouldn’t be killed the next morning. Worked that trick a thousand taimes she did. Hard to blame her, but it woos all a lie. I guess she didn’t think a “god of carpets” story was exciting enoof.

“God of carpets? … Give me a break.”

“Oh, so your so smart … well, Master Toby, let me tell you the real story.” Sean jumped onto the bench and dropped to sit cross-legged. “Aladdin had a carpet … do you knoow that mooch?”

“A flying carpet, of course. I liked that. Do you have a flying towel?”

“Don’t be gettin’ cheeky, and don’t be gettin’ ahead of me story. Well … wouldn’t you know, this Aladdin fellow, he had a good head for business. When the god of carpets came to him, Aladdin used his powers to become the richest carpet merchant from Samarkand to Bukhara. That’s hoo he got the princess, the palace, caravans and fine horses, all that fancy stoof. There never woos any genie of any silly lamp.”

“And a flying carpet? Did he get a flying carpet?” Toby persisted.

“Carpets haff certain powers … towels haff powers, too.”

“Thanks, I’ll call when I need you.”

Toby jumped up and ran for the door. By the hall clock he was fifteen minutes late. He broke into a run. Two corridors later, he slowed at the door to Miss Brown’s English class and, breathing hard, slinked in and around the side to the back.

The room went silent as all heads followed him. Miss Brown made a note in her grade book, took a sip from a red and white plastic Coca-Cola cup then continued. “What makes Leaves of Grass so compelling for me is that it was self published. Whitman spent all his money to get this collection out.” She gestured with the English book, and it struck and overturned the cup. Coke and ice spilled across her desk, papers, and grade book. “My! Oh, my!” She jumped aside startled by the spreading damage.

SHHHHLIIIK! It was the sound of a towel snapping.

A white, luxurious towel shot from the back of the room and up along the ceiling, to drop and neatly cover the spill, staunching the flow. Class chatter died. Miss Brown stared at her desk

Toby strode sheepishly to the front. Lifting the towel revealed a bone-dry desk and paperwork unblemished by caramel-colored stain.

“I’m sorry I was late Miss Brown,” he said. “I take care of the gym towels. I guess I forgot to leave this one behind.”

“That’s fine, Toby.” She whispered, eyes still wide. “Thank you. I-I’ll mark you present.” Miss Brown lifted a corner of the towel, noting its size and feeling its plush texture.

Walking home after school, towel in hand, Toby found Sean matching his stride. “Thank you for your help today,” he said and turned to Sean. “I’d like to reconsider your offer. I think we can do business.”

“That’d be excellent, Master Toby. And you are perfectly welcome. For sure we will haff many adventures.

Next morning before school, Toby rummaged through his brother’s fantasy game tokens and pulled out the Broach of Enchantment. The cardboard stapled to the cellophane wrapper showed it fastening the cape of a fantasy hero.

Toby’s cape that morning was a plush white towel of unusual quality and brightness. On the way to school he thought of Dak and Yogi … and of course, Sheila.

My Visit with Kuday Kolun

All the cross training I’d done at Jacqueline’s Gym in uptown Manhattan hadn’t prepared me to climb fourteen thousand feet into the Tian Shan mountains. Every frost-billowing breath sucked heat from my body and drained energy from my limbs. I concentrated on hand and footholds. Cold stone and my heartbeat pressing into my throat numbed me to whatever wonder I might have felt seeing the bright yellow sun, crystal blue sky, and snow-capped peaks.

tianshan-mountains

I topped the latest precipice and, seeing no sign of Kuday Kolun or his temple, decided to rest. I wedged my quivering buttocks into a crevice out of the wind, pulled the flaps down on my argali-skin cap, and dug into my satchel for a boorsok fried pastry I’d saved from breakfast. I took a bite and sipped mare’s milk from the sheepskin flask I’d tucked inside my tunic to keep it from freezing. My entire body relaxed, wanting sleep, but a passing vision of being found frozen the next day kept me awake.

It struck me as funny that I’d been here before. Not the Tian Shan mountains but the point of no return, where going on seemed easier than turning back. That was funny, too, because I had no idea why I’d come, which pretty much summed up all my life decisions.

When friends asked why I’d dropped out of school, offhandedly I’d said, “I must seek the mountain of wisdom, fountain of truth.” It sounded good and went over well. Truth was I was bored with school, getting drunk, and the girls who hung with our crowd. I also wanted to avoid anything like actual work.

My beer-sodden brilliance told me that wherever the mountain of wisdom was, if it even existed, it most likely would be found among other mountains. And since Eastern wisdom always fascinated me, I headed eastward and upward. Several zigzag hops on various odd aircraft later, I found myself in Nookat, Kyrgyzstan.

The pilot from Osh-Avia airlines didn’t bat an eye. “Ah, mountain of wisdom, Kuday Kolun. I know way. Take you for small fee. Nephew Temir be your guide.” Osh-Avia had one plane, a tri-motor biplane.

Being a New Yorker, I suspected a hustle, but everyone assured me that the mountain of wisdom’s fountain of truth could be found in the great Tian Shan mountains. His name was Kuday Kolun, Kyrgyz for “Touched by God.”

After one night in a Nookat hotel room that could have passed for a prison cell, the pilot flew me to Shankol and introduced me to Temir. Mercifully noncommittal about my unpreparedness, Temir provided a sheep’s leather tunic, pants and boots, a fur-lined parka, gloves, and a head-wrapping cap. He carried our knapsacks, bedrolls, and sheepskin flasks.

We reached Sary-gol late the second evening and bedded down in a small brown woman’s family yurt. The village comprised seven conical-roofed yurts made of skins and felt, a run-down, brick-walled building, and a corral with three shaggy horses whose smells, along with smoke from the cooking fires, permeated the crisp air. Temir told me the brick building had been a rest station for Genghis Khan’s pony express. Sary-gol had once been on a major trade route.

Next morning our hostess greeted us in a red and gold flowered dress. When I mentioned my quest, her eyes lit up. “Oh, yes, Kuday Kolun,” she said and pointed up a very steep ridge.

I must make that climb alone, Temir had said, and I needed to bring an offering. Kuday Kolun met only with solitary visitors and survived on the benevolence of wisdom seekers. In recent years, those had grown few.

The few now included me, sitting in a butt-cold crevice. Another thought of freezing to death, more inviting this time, brought me to my feet. I looked down and back. Ahead still seemed best, so I hoisted my satchel strap and stepped up the slope.

Twenty minutes later, I saw a stone plateau not a hundred meters up. I quickened my pace. The plateau extended from the mountain face and a sculpted gate façade that framed a green-painted wooden door. Before the doorway, a wizened old gentleman sat in the lotus position. He had a flowing white mustache and long white hair that began well up on his forehead and joined his mustache to cover his shoulders.

The man neither spoke nor moved. His loose white robe, open at the throat, seemed ill fit for the cold and frosty wind. I struggled to cross my legs and sit on the frigid stone slightly below Kuday Kolun. Ten cold minutes passed.

“From where have you come, my son?” the man said in heavily accented English.

“I live in New York City, but originally I’m from Detroit.”

“Ah. How did the Tigers do this year?”

“The Detroit Tigers, the baseball team?” I asked.

“Yes, I’ve been a Tigers fan ever since I spent a summer with my uncle outside Toledo. We listened to the games on the radio while we rebuilt his barn.”

“They didn’t make the playoffs this year. No pitching.”

“That was always their problem.”

“Here,” I said, “I brought you something. It isn’t much.” I pulled out the bag of leftover boorsoks and a sealed ceramic bowl of beshbarmak noodles. “My hostess warmed them. The bowl still has some heat.”

“That will be fine. Please join me.” The man produced two spoons from inside of his robe and a short knife to pry up the seal on the bowl. I slid closer. We took turns scooping noodles and chunks of turnip and mutton.

“You are young,” the old man said after slurping a long, dripping noodle. “Much life journey lies ahead of you. What brings you to Kuday Kolun?”

“I guess I need to know why.” The words stumbled out of my mouth. Like everything else, I hadn’t planned for the moment. “Why life? Why confusion? Why evil? The great why.”

“Simple questions become great only because we reject their simple answers. Life is to experience. It is a gift. Confusion and wrongdoing are what we do with life.”

“But what direction should my life take?”

“That is for you to decide.” The old man, his mustache in the broth, sucked in another spoonful of noodles then held up his spoon. “If all decisions were made for you, the gift of life would be very small indeed.”

Feeling the cold, I laced my fingers. “It’s just that most of what I see is misdirection, fingers pointing everywhere.”

“Every garden has snakes hocking wondrous fruits with false promises. There are two things that will help you find your way.” The old man tipped the bowl of beshbarmak and finding it empty set it down and continued.

“You are not God nor can you become God, not with special diets or exercises, not with magic mushrooms or leaves, not with gold, telescopes, or mathematical formulas. So you can relax. You are not in control and cannot be of anything beyond yourself. We get neither credit nor blame for the world’s happenings—only for ourselves and our choices.”

I opened the bag of boorsoks and Kuday Kolun took one.

“You mentioned two things,” I said. “What is the other?”

“We are all on the same journey, not separate,” he said over his pastry. “So we are together and must help our fellow travelers.”

“Where does the journey lead?” I asked.

He smiled and looked to the sun dropping in the West. “I must turn in, and you must find your way down while it is still light.”

I took the hint, thanked Kuday Kolun, and repacked my satchel for the downward climb.

I had just left the plateau when the old man called down after me. “Nicholas, next time you come to visit, could you bring me a Tiger’s ball cap?”

Keeping my eye on the downward step, I called back, “Certainly, and I’ll bring you a blazer, too. You could use one up here.”

“Thank you, and when you’re in range of a cell tower don’t forget to call your mother. She has worried ever since you left school.”

I was too busy concentrating on my footing to answer and didn’t think about it until I got back to Sary-gol, but I had never given the old man my name.

Zhī’ Zhū and the Tradesman – 1

The silk-lined entrance to Zhī’ Zhū’s lair began as wide as the gate to Lord Liu’s palace and funneled quickly down the jagged passage into her cave. Ju-lun touched the fine lacey silk. It glistened purest white, like frost in the moonlight, and stuck to his hand, strong and taut as a bowstring. A night breeze rustled the Ginko and Katsura leaves and shifted the soft gray and blue moon shadows in the forest.

Ju-lun pulled the Lord’s straight sword from his shoulder harness and cut away the silk. The sword felt unfamiliar in his purple- and saffron-stained hand.

Ten paces in, the tunnel sloped down and narrowed. The hot, charnel stench from below swept away sweet memories of magnolia blossoms in Liu Bai’s beautiful hair. Ju-lun hesitated. He knew he had nowhere else to go.

High Counselor Yi Kuo had found him sitting alone in the garden with Princess Liu Bai. Ju-lun was an unworthy commoner, a silk-dyer’s son marked by his trade. The Lord’s swift justice demanded a walk to the public square to kneel before the axman. But instead Yi Kuo had smiled and led Ju-lun before Lord Liu.

The High Lord too was pleasant. “Ju-lun,” he said, “I see you are a warrior come to claim my daughter Liu Bai for wife. Very well, you shall have your chance.” Ju-lun felt naked before the great lord and feared he would soil his homespun trousers.

Beside her father, Bai looked small and innocent, her face streaked with tears. When Ju-lun glanced at her, she lowered her head.

Counselor Yi Kuo grinned broadly and led Ju-lun from the room. He bade servants to bathe the commoner then gave him the red embroidered tunic and finely crafted sword of a great warrior.

“But I am unworthy, Master Yi,” Ju-lun said. The High Counselor bowed low, his hands clasped at his waist. The gold tassel on his conical cap swung off his shoulder to dangle over his chest. Yi Kuo brushed it back when he stood.chinese-ancient-clothing-costume-terra-cotta-warriors-clothes-costume-armor-costume_640x640

“No, Ju-lun.” Yi Kuo said. “You are most worthy. Your visitation with the Princess means you have accepted Lord Liu’s offer.” When Ju-lun looked confused, Yi Kuo continued. “It is posted at the palace gate and in the marketplace.”

“I do not read,” Ju-lun confessed. “Like my father and his father, I am a humble dye maker and painter of silks, most poor-quality. Our trade takes us to the silk houses, not to the marketplace.”

Yi Kuo nodded. “Lord Liu offers his daughter to anyone who engages Zhī’ Zhū and removes our problem. Of course, if that was not your intent, we can keep your appointment with the axman in the public square.”

Ju-lun shuddered. He knew of Zhī’ Zhū from his mother’s bedtime stories. She would be hungry after her long slumber. “Am I the first to make this journey, Master Yi?”

“Impetuous youth seeking wisdom very late,” Yi Kuo said. “Six have gone before you. All were brave, trained in the art of combat, and all were from great houses. By joining them in eternity, you honor your family. Your name will be remembered in the village, and Zhī’ Zhū will spare us until another full moon. So your death will be a most honorable sacrifice.”

As Ju-lun’s eyes adjusted to the darkness in the cave, he detected the blue glow of tiny luminous spiders crawling in the cave’s silk-lined walls. Ju-lun swallowed and continued downward. He tapped his sword high and low ahead of him like a blind man with a cane. Roots and stones met his short steps. He stumbled and touched the wall. A dozen sharp punctures stung his hand. Jerking it back, he peeled away the silk and spiders.

“You are early, young warrior,” a feminine voice beckoned. He felt the hair on his body stand through the sweat that poured down his back and neck. “Lord Liu must be eager to fill our contract.”

Rows of candles flared to reveal a high-vaulted cavern. Silk hangings draped the room like waterfalls of white. A tall, slender woman with long raven hair and great beauty reclined languorously across a contoured bed of stones. Her wide shining eyes and full red lips invited his approach. Ju-lun shook off the attraction and raised his sword.

“I would make your torment short,” the lilting voice said, “but as you can see, I’ve just eaten.” Zhī’ Zhū curled back her lips to reveal rows of triangular white teeth laced with ribbons of torn red flesh. Her mouth sprouted scythe-like fangs at the corners and grew wider. Her eyes expanded beyond their lids and migrated onto her forehead, which sprouted blisters of smaller black eyes. Her powdered white face melted to polished black. Slender legs split to pointed black spindles and split again angling out from her body.

Ju-lun lurched and staggered. The candles hissed and extinguished, plunging the room in darkness. He heard scraping and the rapid taps of needle-sharp feet on stone. Desperately, he swept the dark with his sword. — To be continued next week.