The night was dark and moonless, the bowl of the sky incredibly clear and half-filled with faint white holes, pinpricks of light, though they seemed almost farther away than usual—smaller. There was also an unusual coldness in the air—a prickling, almost electric sensation that made the atmosphere thin and sharp.
“My, it’s cold out tonight,” a rough voice remarked, stirring the quietness. A very old man sat on a flat rock amid a perfectly still ocean of long, reedy grass a few hundred yards from a small house. His hair was a wispy white mist across his pock-marked scalp, his skin was thin, with a faint translucence to it, and his small, sharp eyes hid like little dark beads buried within many layers of soft wrinkles. In the grass at his feet sat a little girl, playing with a small daisy chain she’d fashioned. She looked up at her grandfather.
“Granda?” she said, putting the daisy chain on his lap, “Why is it so quiet? I can’t hear anything!”
The old man lifted his head, and nodded slowly. The normal nighttime silence formed by small animal noises in the brush, the gentle hum of the wind in the grass and the little insects singing quietly was consumed by an unnatural, all-filled silence, like an airless bubble swelling around them.
“I don’t know,” the old man said lightly, picking up the daisy chain from his lap. “How beautiful, Katherine. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” the small girl beamed, her bright face peering up at her grandfather from between her soft, chocolate-brown ringlets. “Granda,” she continued, her pearly teeth winking at him, “tell me a story. Tell me a real old, old story from forever ago, before time,” she grinned at him. The old man shifted and smiled down at her, his cavernous face crinkling into a thousand smaller lines around his mouth.
“What do you want me to tell you?” he asked her with an affectionate sigh.
“Tell me something awful. Something scary. Tell me…” the girl hesitated, her eyes sparkling up at the old man. “Tell me about the beasts.” There was a moment of silence, and the grandfather’s smile faded rapidly.
He didn’t speak for a moment, and then he asked, softly, “Where did you hear that?”
“My friend told me,” the girl said, looking just a little nervous now. “She said her great-grandpa told her about them once. She said it was horrible scary.” The little girl looked pleadingly up at her grandfather, her bright eyes wide and imploring.
Her grandfather sighed deeply, running his hand across his head through the hair that no longer ran through his fingers. “That is a very old story that my great-grandfather told me, and it is nothing for little girls like you to be knowing,” he said brusquely, but then softened and smiled slightly. “My great-grandfather’s father used to frighten him with those stories when he was small. He says they were very effective,” the old man said, a gleam in his eye.
“Tell meee!” the girl whined, staring up at her grandfather. “Pleeeease?” Her soft brown eyes, the deep color of soot-darkened hazelnuts, the old man had always thought, were wide as saucers and deeply imploring. He reached down with a long-fingered hand and brushed aside her dark ringlets, the paper-thin skin of his fingertips drawing smoothly across her warm, nut-browned skin. The little girl smiled triumphantly—she knew that she had won. She snuggled closer to him, wrapping herself around his leg and placing a tiny hand across his large one to keep it against her cheek.
“Tell me,” she whispered again, and this time the old man sighed very deeply, his eyes becoming far away, as they always did when he was trying to recall a story.
“My great-grandfather had a certain way of telling the stories, just a right way to make me shiver under my covers for weeks afterwards. I was no bigger than you. But I won’t tell it to you that way. I know nightmares don’t bother you, but just in case.” The tiny, pearl-white teeth flashed in the darkness as the little girl grinned up at him, squeezing his leg.
“Once upon a very long time ago, long before my great-grandfather’s time, or even his great-grandfather’s time, there lived a man whose name has long ago been lost. He was a very curious-natured man, and he spent all his days wondering about things, little things, everything, and trying to understand. He would stare at the holes in the sky all night and wonder what was beyond them, what was the strange light that shone through, and he would look at the moon and imagine a little man living on it, or he would dig deep in the ground looking for hidden fire. He built things, strange things, made of silver and steel, he built them with fire—large, very complicated instruments, machines.” The old man said the mythical word with grave dread, knowing it would excite the girl. She stared up at him, her eyes glued to his, transfixed by his words.
“He worked every moment, all day, devoted himself to finding, creating. Men abandoned him for crazy, his wife and children left him, for he spared no time for them, giving himself entirely to his work. And one night, one cold old winter night, he did something—called fire up from the earth, perhaps, or light down from the sky, but he made something living…” here the old man paused to look down at the girl. She was still entranced, her expression focused and eager and her eyes as far-off in the past as her grandfather’s had been.
“Tell me more!” she demanded as he hesitated. “What happened to him? The man?”
“He was seen no more,” the grandfather said gently.
“Dead?” the little girl asked, unflinchingly. The old man was only slightly surprised at her candor. It was very like her.
“Yes,” he said softly, “yes, he was. But that night it was said that he… unleashed… things—strange things, dangerous things. They were known as… beasts.”
The air around them seemed to ring with silence. The little girl swelled with excitement.
“People around the countryside began to disappear, sometimes from their very beds in the dead of night, like magic. Sometimes they would remain… no longer living, not dead, but… changed, different. Crippled,” he paused to see how his words were affecting his granddaughter, and when she seemed only further thrilled, he continued. “It was a horrible, dark time. People were scared all the time, uncertain, constantly hunted like mice in a forest full of wolves. There were strange… churnings in the sky that would come with the beasts, bright lights, loud noises, that no one had ever seen or heard before. A dark time, it would have been, indeed,” he paused for a deep breath, but was immediately cut off by a sudden stream of questions from the girl.
“What happened to all the people who got hurt? What happened to the man’s kids? What kind of lights were in the sky? What did the beasts look like? Were they horribly awful ’n ugly ’n stuff?”
The old man smiled amusedly at her, shaking his head and fending off her barrage of questions until the last one, which he grasped hold of and quickly began answering before she could continue pelting him with still more questions.
“The beasts were never seen, at least not entirely. My great-grandfather rather gave the impression that they perhaps could not be seen, that they were like ghosts or wraiths… unseen and yet certainly very real—solid enough, I should suppose, to carry people away…” he laughed at the look of horrified delight on the child’s face at this gruesome reference, and then continued.
“After a long while, the beasts seemed to just… fade away. The violence in the skies ceased and the disappearances stopped, and soon no one saw them anymore. People rebuilt their homes and families, went back to their lives, and the beasts became nothing more than a bad dream, just a story. Something to tell children to keep them from being naughty,” he said, eyeing his granddaughter with a twinkle in his eye. She stared rapturously up at him, completely serious.
“But they were real, weren’t they Granpa? Not just a story?”
The old man was silent for a moment. “Well now, I can’t rightly say. It sounds to me like one of those old things that gets handed down from father to son and grandfather to granddaughter, and so on, and gets just a little bit stretched out along the way, so that what’s left is quite a lot different from what really happened,” he said gently. “But they could have been real. I don’t know that that would give me a lot of comfort, but if it makes you happy, then you’re right. They could have been real.”
The little girl nodded. “Okay.”
For a few minutes, the two sat in silence. The small girl played with her grandfather’s shoelace, and then finally dropped it, her wide, dark eyes circling the field, following the dark line of the forest that ended the sea of pale waving grass. The silence around them was complete—so unbroken that their very breathing and the beating of their hearts and their shifting movements in the grass were loud sounds, like pins being dropped in an empty room. Perhaps the early winter cold had scared all the animals away, thought the old man. Still, as he stared along the inky black tree-line, something made the hairs on the back of his neck prickle with the very slightest amount of unease. He wondered suddenly if a pack of wolves or coyotes was somewhere near in the woods. That would have certainly quieted all the creatures. If that were the case, he should tell his son to check on the cattle, as the wolves liked to go after the little ones.
“It’s getting late, we’d best be getting on inside,” the old man said after another moment, standing slowly, his old knees creaking like rusty hinges as he stood. The little girl rolled away from him in the grass, playful, grinning.
“No, no!” she exclaimed, bouncing to her feet. “I want to stay out some more!”
“Now, now, listen missy,” the grandfather said firmly, “It’s time to be getting along. Come on, now.”
The girl only giggled. Her grandfather reached out for her, to take her by the arm, but she skipped easily away from him, laughing.
“Now—here now,” the man began again, trying to be very strict. He was still thinking about the wolves, and her proximity to the woods was beginning to worry him.
The girl skipped in a circle and then, singing loudly, ran toward the forest. Her grandfather began to walk after her, as quickly as his suddenly stiff legs would allow. He felt a sudden and unexpected wind whip up from nowhere, shifting the blanket of perfect quiet like so many fallen leaves.
“Come BACK here,” the old man wheezed, walking as quickly as he could now. There probably were no wolves this close to the house, he thought, but still… as he walked, he felt the hairs on his arms tingling with unreleased static tension, and strange, almost electric prickles race down his spine.
The child’s voice was loud and high in the empty, still meadow. She had reached the beginning of the forest now, her toes straddling the edge of the pine-needle-covered ground. She finally turned to look back at her grandfather.
“Okay,” she sighed, smiling at him. “I’ll come inside.”
The old man sighed with relief. “Alright then,” he said, stopping and holding out a hand. “Come on.”
The girl took a step toward him, her little foot just raised off the ground, but she came no closer. At that very moment, the perfect, crystalline silence that surrounded them like a cold hand was suddenly broken, shattered violently, and shards of glass-like noise ricocheted across the clearing. A deep snarl rent the air. It was like a ragged-edged knife, viciously hungry, sharp, almost like the unbearably harsh sound of steel grating against steel. The small girl was lifted into the air, thrashed left, right, and her high-pitched shriek of utter terror was like the cry of a single silver bell into the dark night, and then it dissolved into a pitiful gasping noise.
The old man lunged forward, his heart lurching to a sudden halt as surely as though suffocating fingers had closed around it, but he stumbled and was thrown prostrate in the grass. He flailed, his hands desperately grasping clumps of grass, wildly trying to pull himself forward as he scrambled in the dirt as incoherent noises rose from his throat. He struggled in vain. Katherine was merely ten feet from him, not even that much, but it was as though an ocean were between them. There was blood running down her neck. It streamed, fresh and red, against her pale skin as an invisible jaw filled with hundreds of razor teeth clamped down on her slim, fragile neck like a metal vice. Large, brutish sounds had replaced the previous snarling and metallic screaming, the girl’s whimpers mingling with the heavy sounds.
“Ahh…! Graa… Grandah!” she cried hoarsely, her voice silenced by the gaping wound that the razor teeth had opened in her neck. It was the last sound from her that her grandfather heard. She was gone. It was almost as though the wind had swept her away, like a crumpled autumn leaf by the breath of winter. Silence descended back upon the meadow like a heavy, asphyxiating cloud. Perfect, untouched. As though nothing at all had ever disturbed it.
Only the lone old man lay in the grass, like a broken puppet, its strings snapped and useless. His hands still clutched torn-up clods of dirt and grass. He was silent, just like everything around him. The house… he thought incoherently, should warn… things… beasts… but he couldn’t stand, couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. The silence was pressing against him, ringing in his ears, compressing him, sucking the air from his lungs. Then, the beasts returned for the old man.