“Monsters, Monsters Everywhere” by Carrie Cuinn
Podcast recording of this story read by the author: Free!
“Un poquito mas cabra?” he asked, pushing the heaping plate of spiced and shredded meat toward me.
“No, no mas,” I replied, holding up my hands in a gesture of, “Oh, that’s enough for me.” My Spanish was broken but serviceable, a Mexicali mix of common words I’d have to use and those English words I knew most of the villagers would understand. Paco, who spoke mostly in Spanish but could read and write in English and French, worried too much about his pronunciation to speak to me as much as I’d like. We picked at our conversation all through dinner. I’d assured him that his English was just fine, but like the ESL students I taught that summer in Romania, his nervousness made him drop back into his native tongue too often. Flying half-way across the world for three months taught me I had better skip grad school and find a profession other than teacher, which my father had always said.
I’m not sure if he ever forgave me for doing this instead.
“Certain?” Paco asked. “Very good meat.” Maybe if I hadn’t already heard the story of how they’d found the goat, freshly spilled blood still steaming in the night air, after scaring off something larger just outside the village. “You are certain you can kill this monster?” he asked, and I nodded.
“Paco, I have been here before,” I reminded him. He knew that, of course, since the last time there had been too much tequila and he’d had to remind a drunk idiot that the little woman still carried big guns. Two years ago, but the village had not changed so much in that time, though it blurred a little in my memory with the village before it and the one before that. “This is my job, at least until your people move out of this jungle.”
He shook his head, lined face mournful. “How can we? No dinero, no goods, to make a move into the city. Here there is food and our well water is still clean.”
“Here there is danger, too.” I looked around at the thick, stone, walls and the open windows shaded by heavy but pitted metal shutters, drawn down at night to keep out the local fauna.
“Not everyone can be so lucky as your grandparents, chica.” He paused, clearly regretted his tone, and smiled again. “So the government sends you to help us,” he went on. I knew what he wanted to say was that the Mexican government would rather pay me, and a few other hunters, to make the rounds of these little Southern settlements, than to bring a population of children and elderly into a nearby city, where they would be a drain on the resources. I tried to tell myself that I wasn’t here just so the politicians could pretend they weren’t anxiously waiting for the jungle and the beasts to eat this place up.
Sometimes it worked.
A waiter brought out another pitcher of fruit-filled water with the synth cubes that glowed faintly blue while staying permanently cold. They always tasted of plastic to me. I didn’t argue; the extravagance of spending the electricity it would take to keep water cold enough to freeze would have taken away from proper refrigeration of their food, and getting fed properly was one of the few perks of this job.
“Between towns I live on protein bars and what I find on the road,” I said, smiling. “Thank you for this meal.” Paco grinned, suddenly looking younger than I’d assumed.
“I was not sure you would eat these meats,” he said. “The animals, they have changed so much since I was a child. Now everywhere we have more jaguars than goats, and no cows, no horses, nothing too big to bring inside at night.” He glanced down at the mostly-cleared platter of scorpion gigantesco cooked in goat’s butter and cilantro. It tasted a bit like shellfish if you could forget the sound of their feet chittering across rocks or the wet ripping noise of their massive claws tearing through a cow. “The only good thing about the scorpions is that they come so close to town we don’t have to go into the jungle for meat.” I’d eaten mine with warm tortilla, freshly fried by Paco’s cook.
“Delicious, all of it. I am too full.” Laughter from the street, and we all turned to look at a group of small children running past. A bright pink dress caught my eye.
“They can only play together now,” Paco said with a sigh as we turned back to face each other. “Never alone, and even together still some are missing. When will you hunt the beast?”
I glanced out again, checking the light. The children were gone. “Another hour. I don’t know what is hunting you, if it likes the day or if it likes the night, so I will go at dusk and catch it in between.” I didn’t say that most likely the animal was crepuscular, only coming out at dusk or dawn, because that’s when the prey animals move about. I didn’t say that these new versions of old dangers weren’t just massively bigger; they were massively smarter too.
After almost four years on the road, there was a lot I didn’t say anymore.
As night fell, I arranged to have two of the villagers drop me out of town in a battered Jeep. We drove mostly in silence, them watching the encroaching brush while I braided my hair and tied it up into a knot. If they were concerned about the weapons I was carrying either they didn’t mention it, or my Spanish was worse than I thought. One of them did ask if I was bringing enough artillery, and glancing at the AKs he and his friend both carried, I understood why he asked. I shrugged, not wanting to get into it right then. I’ve had the same argument before, lots of times, but the truth was that the Heckler and Koch PSG-1 slung across my back, the Glock 40 cal. on my hip, and the big-ass knife strapped to my leg were all the weapons I needed.
Any more and I’d rely on them instead of myself.
The scent of the jungle rose up to meet us as soon as the engine died, overwhelming the bright scent of oil and metal with its heavy foliage smells. Wet grass, decaying leaves, smells that seemed familiar at first, blending with things I couldn’t quite make out. Something sharp, like a broken cactus leaf, and something sweet I wanted to identify as fruit. Climbing down from the Jeep, I heard singing birds, and the faint rustle of smaller animals.
“I’m OK alone,” I said to the men. They stared at me but did nothing. I waved, smiled big, and said, “Adios!” That, they understood, and moments later the rumbling engine sounds died away as they drove back to the village.
The Lacandon Jungle used to be endangered, I’ve been told. It stretched from Chiapas into Guatamala and had been eaten away by farmers and land developers until only the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve was left. That was before, of course. Now there weren’t enough machetes in Mexico to keep the jungle contained, and it had grown back over the farms, over the developments, and over villages like Naja. Paco and his people – a mix of immigrants and the indigenous Lacandon Maya – built a new Naja, but now that was being eaten up too. It wasn’t just the jungle that was eating them, biting into livestock and villagers with sharp teeth. It had to be a big predator, a relative of the jaguar that killed the goat I nearly had for lunch, or else something that had never been native to this giant green maw of a jungle.
The chirping of insects was a constant background noise in this place but with the men and the Jeep gone, and no village surrounding me, other sounds began to drift toward me. Something in the distance snorted, like a pig hunting for truffles, and a bird trilled high above me. The trees reached up into the sky, towering over me, their tops blending together too far away for me to make out clearly what else might be up there. My neck ached from staring too long so I turned my attention back to the task at hand and stepped lightly into the wild jungle.
It wasn’t just the trees that had grown larger. Whatever fueled their change into this living, expanding, complex of branches and vines and trunks had encouraged the other plants too, and the animals were adapting to their new landscape. Mushrooms larger than my forearm grew, step-like, staggered up the sides of trees, and the ants that crawled around then were as long as my fingers. I glanced down at my boots to double check that my pants were tucked tightly into them. I’d made that mistake before, and still had faint scars on my left leg from bites that had gotten infected before they healed.
Leaves crunched under my feet as I moved slowly forward.
“Whee whee whee whee whee,” trilled the birds. “Who who who who.”
Birdsong and insect noises usually dropped off when a predator was nearby, so I moved faster, less worried about drawing attention to myself than I was about losing the already-fading light. The rifle strap rubbed against my chest, pushed the fabric of my tank top into my sweating skin as I climbed over exposed roots and ducked under low branches. I slipped once, grabbing for a vine to steady myself and ending up with a handful of hissing iguana instead. I’d pulled it from its perch, hadn’t even seen the bastard, a huge specimen almost as long as I was. It wriggled violently, its back spines cutting into my hand, and I crushed its skull against a rock. It spasmed, and I slammed it down again and again until it stopped moving.
“Enough of this,” I said to myself. “Time to try bait.”
I pulled my knife free with my left hand and cut the lizard open in a small clearing, spilling its guts onto the ground. I cut its legs off with quick whacks, tossing them a few feet in each direction. “Doesn’t that smell good, Mr. Monster?” I asked the wind as I wiped my blade on a flowering plant with huge blossoms redder than the iguana’s blood. I stared at it for a moment, watching it stretch its leaves to catch the last of the sunlight, watching new tendrils unfurl.
Watching it grow right in front of me.
A rustle from across the clearing made me jump, drop my hand onto my pistol. I shook my head, clearing my thoughts, and pressed back against the jungle, hiding under a leafy tree I’d picked out moments before.
The rustling became rumbling.
I shook off a few too-curious ants and pulled my pistol free, holding it in both hands. I judged the distance too short to use the rifle effectively, and wanted the steadiest shot I could manage. I waited for the birds to stop chirping, for the air to still and the beast to come out into the open so I could kill it.
The brush exploded outward as a small herd of beasts rushed into view. I nearly shot the first one but held my breath and froze, taking in the scene. They were massive things, like cows but with snouts that moved wildly about, stubby tails and splayed feet. I struggled to remember what they were called but the images in my head of faded picture books didn’t come with text. The big one at the front, grizzled and scarred, lifted its head to the sky and open its mouth wide, showing its blunt teeth as it snorted and sniffed the wind.
Tapirs, I thought. They’re tapirs.
That’d make them herbivores, probably, and not the monster I was after. The big one put his face down, looking in my direction with cloudy blue eyes that probably saw very little. The others milled about, somehow satisfied that they weren’t in danger – smaller animals I guess were females and even a spotted calf. It looked a little like a deer. Like Bambi, if his mother’d been a sow instead of a doe. A few ate gingerly from the leaves lowest to the ground, and a few others poked at the dead lizard parts but didn’t eat. They were impressively large, like everything else in this place, mutated beyond their natural size. I relaxed and lowered my gun.
The birds stopped singing.
The biggest tapir’s nose shot up into the air again, mouth hanging open. The others stopped milling around and moved nearer to him, their heads darting back and forth as if trying to catch the same scent. I looked too, seeing nothing. A delicate scent drifted in on the light breeze, and I struggled to identify it. The beasts smelled it too, their snouts rising. As one, they breathed slower, quieted. The daylight was almost gone. I wasn’t sure if there was anything to be worried about anymore, and stopped thinking about the reason I’d come out here in the first place, but I was interested in what the tapirs were doing. It seemed strange to me, though I wasn’t sure why. Holstering my pistol, I gently pulled my night-vision glasses from their reinforced case in my pocket. As thin as sunglasses, round like goggles, this little piece of technological advancement cost more than I made in a year and I was often hesitant to even pull them out.
Once on, the glasses snapped the animals into crisp green focus. They were still huddled together, though the sound of something coming closer to us was getting louder.
“Why don’t you run?” I whispered.
The big one heard me. It shook its head, looking left and right. Its muscles shuddered under its smooth gray coat. Unsteadily, it walked into one of the females, as if drunk. She didn’t move. He must be the bull, I thought, the alpha male, watching him shove her again. He leaned against her with his shoulder, knocking the smaller tapir over onto her side. She jumped up, shaking her head, and grunted at him. He repeated the action again with another female, grunting as he shouldered her to the ground. She too jumped up unsteadily, and together they broke the spell over the rest of their herd.
The scent of tart green apples filled the air.
I love apples.
My grandmother had an apple tree in the backyard. In the spring it would bloom such delicate flowers, and those flowers became tiny fruits, swelling as the days grew longer and warmer until they were ripe enough to pluck. My cousins and I would clamber into the tree like monkeys while Granny laughed from her back porch. She wore those flower-print aprons over her clothes, all day long, and we’d drop apples down to her that she’d catch in that faded fabric, held tight between wrinkled hands. She baked pies and fresh bread and every day that I went to visit her the sky was bright blue.
I stepped forward into the clearing.
I remember that I was smiling, thinking of apples.
That big tapir saved me. The others had scurried out of the clearing while I pictured lemonade in cold glasses, chilled with real ice cubes. Granny had these tiny ice cube trays that made little ice, about half the size of standard cubes, perfect for crunching in the mouth of a child. She was so thoughtful that way. The tapir must have come back for me after his herd left because the next thing I knew the wind got knocked out of my lungs and I flew a couple of feet into the air before landing flat on my back. I coughed, struggling to suck in a breath. Not breathing cleared my head so I could see the monster for the first time.
The monster got my savior.
I don’t know. It was big, so big, I’d never seen a cat like that. It must have been a jaguar at some point in its evolutionary history because it still had that yellow-black fur with black spots but it rippled when I looked at it. I tried to focus but all I could think about was being back in Arizona. It didn’t even run, I don’t know if it could, it was large. Bigger than a lion, or a tiger, it must have been 8 feet long. My Granny used to make us cookies too, from scratch, with chunks of chocolate that she broke off from a bar and the cat launched itself at the old herbivore and sank its teeth into the animal’s neck and there was this one time that a bunch of us packed up cookies and bottled water and those green apples and the tapir screamed, its long nose wriggling as it struggled and we went down to the river which still had water in it then and the tapir sank to his knees and the monster that wouldn’t hold its shape crunched through the tapir’s neck and we found all these baby tadpoles in the river and the sun was so bright and the cat looked up at me with blood on its maw and my cousin took a couple of them home and they turned out to be salamanders instead of frogs and I wanted one but my mom said no a water tank wouldn’t be allowed in our building and the cat walked toward me and my Granny telling my father that I had to learn Spanish, I had to see Mexico, I had to know where I come from and Daddy yelling and I think it’s going to eat me next and
I shot it. I shot it and shot it and shot it until it was dead.
After a while the smell of apples went away.
The men came back, summoned by my tracking beacon, and by the time they’d arrived I’d cleared my head and started a rough examination of the creature. It was a jungle cat, of that I was sure, but one so large I think its mass would make it unable to maintain a killing burst of speed for more than a few seconds, if it even ran at all. Starting to smell of death and warm blood it lost its blur. The rumbling Jeep kept me from pondering it too much longer.
“You didn’t die!” Paco yelled from the front seat, jumping down before the engine died completely.
“I’m glad you came,” I said, pointing at the dead cat. “We’re going to need a bigger Jeep.” In the end we lashed it to the hood and leaned back as we drove to balance the weight. 15 miles an hour in the jungle on a beat-up dirt and gravel road meant 90 minutes of me unable to relax. If Paco noticed that I kept my reloaded pistol in my hand the whole ride back he didn’t say anything. A shower and a fresh set of clothes later, I tucked my rifle back into its bag and headed out to meet the celebration.
A poor village celebrating the death of a marauding monster is a hell of a place to be. Tequila flowed freely, candle lamps threw light and shadow across the pastel-painted walls, and the air was thick with the scent of sweat and cooking meat and lust and apples. Little children ran by laughing. They darted past smiling adults and stole sweets from the feast table and no one seemed to mind much. I had my boots up on a chair, a cold beer in my hand, and had just about finished my last round of “You’re welcome, I’m just doing my job, de nada” when I saw that pink dress again.
God she was beautiful. A tiny smile on her face, dark brown eyes peering up at me. She was just a foot away and I nearly stopped breathing. I could have reached out and grabbed her right then.
She looked about six years old.
“Hello darling,” I whispered. She stared at me but her pink lips never parted. “Do you want to come with me?” She didn’t struggle as I led her away from the party. I glanced back but no one was looking for her.
“Where is your mama, little one?” I asked but she just smiled up at me. “Have I met your mama today? Is she in the village?” Nothing. We reached my room and she touched me, her little fingers pulling against my pant leg. I put a hand on her back, just below her neck, and pushed her gently into my room. Locking the door behind me, I turned to look at her.
“You’re perfect, do you know that?” I sat on the bed, my head level with hers, and drew her close. She came to me. I sighed, breathing in the scent of sweetness and fruit and sugar. “Your hair, that dress, how could I resist you?”
She didn’t answer.
I leaned in and licked her cheek. It felt smooth and the scent of her skin was overwhelming. I grabbed the back of her neck and she jerked at that but held still, staring with those huge eyes. I touched her lips with my free hand, softly stroking them, slipping a finger insider of her mouth. She bit me, hard enough to draw blood.
I slapped her hard and she fell to the ground with a hiss.
I looked at the blood welling up from the jagged teeth marks in my finger and sighed again. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I know, you’re just a baby.” I gathered her up, smoothed her hair, and nuzzled her neck until she calmed down. Laying her on the bed with me, I looked into those eyes one more time.
“You really are perfect. I’ve never seen anything quite like you. There was a little girl, looked like you, about two villages back, and I had to kill her too, but she wasn’t so pretty. So pink and sweet.” My hand was big enough to cover her mouth and nose at the same time, and I put my weight behind it, my leg across her body, and held her against me until the movement became silence and the smell of sweet treats faded away.
She never said a word.
Eventually my head cleared. I packed my bags. “This is going to be harder to explain, you know,” I told her. “Paco doesn’t recognize a monster when he sees one.” Weapons, tech, one duffle bag – I ran over my checklist in my head, like I’d done a hundred times before, getting ready to leave this village and head out to the next one.
I took one last look at the bed, and the still figure on it, its black fur matted and its paws pulled in tight – and shook my head.
“I’m really starting to hate this job,” I said, to no one in particular.
About the Author
Carrie Cuinn is a writer, editor, small press publisher, computer geek, and amiable raconteur. In her spare time she reads, makes things, takes other things apart, and sometimes gets a new tattoo. Find her online at http://carriecuinn.com.