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Seeking the Manticore

by Alex Dally MacFarlane

He first saw a manticore in the pages of a children's bestiary: bright colours in a cartoon outline, with a smile on her face that made him doubt the text's description of the manticore as ferocious. Amid the chaos of his sister's playing, he sat with the book in his lap and ran a finger across the manticore's bright red lion's body, the scorpion tail, the face of a woman with long hair like his mother's.

For many years he did not see the manticore again. Textbooks passed under his eyes -- geography, history, biology, chemistry -- and every one dealt with the real.

Then, in his twentieth year, he saw her three times. A girl in his politics lecture doodled her in the margins of her notebook. A boy he loved and lost across the marketplaces of Turkey carried her in a tattoo on his dark hip. Finally, in a quiet temple, he looked up at a bell hanging from the roof and saw the flick of her tail, the smile on her face.

Something in the tilt of her eyebrows convinced him that this was the same manticore, staring at him from these varied media across the world.

He looked for her, afterwards -- peering inside stray books, examining murals, watching the movements of a painted woman. He saw her more frequently.

In a London market, after sampling a row of wines as pale as his hair, he thought he glimpsed a scorpion tail disappearing into an alleyway. Abandoning the final glass, he ran into the alleyway and saw it again: a tail flicking around a corner. He followed, not even noticing the burst rubbish bins under his clean shoes.

Five streets later, he cornered her.

Baring her teeth like a lion, raising her tail as if she would strike, she faced him. “Leave me!” she shouted, a wild voice from her woman’s mouth.

"I... you're real!"

"I won't be caged, I won't be held up like a trophy. Stop following me! Leave me alone!"

"That was never my aim," he managed, and took a step back. "I was only curious."

"And then you'll want to look at me always, keep me by your knee like a good little cat." Her tail flicked. "Go away!"

He stammered, more confused than he’d ever been. "I will, I will. I didn't expect to find you. I... I'm sorry people cage you. Can I... stop that happening?"

With narrowed, untrusting eyes she said, "Tell everyone I am a story. Never real, never. Never something to look for while I seek out your nice food."

"I will."

He did better than that: he never mentioned her, except to tell excited children that it was only an old story and that manticores never existed. Whether they believed him, he never knew.

He kept the memory of her to himself.

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