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.”
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.
1. When the woman in the red coat offers you bread, accept.
2. When trying to outrun a monster, consider turning to ask it what it wants. Often this is a simple item such as a clean handkerchief, a pomander, or even an answer to a question, like, for example, “Why am I chasing you?” The author, once chased by a giant crab, discovered upon inquiry that it was feeling quite sorry for itself, as no one had given it a present for its birthday.
3. Always listen to animals bearing messages, especially those in loud waistcoats.
4. Just about any person, creature, vegetable, item of furniture, or machine can represent your father or mother, particularly if you got landed with an obnoxious or useless specimen of parenthood; the important thing is take a firm line with your subconscious and not allow any “therapy dreams” to become boring.
5. If you haven’t flown in your dreams, you are missing quite a treat; ask someone for lessons. Trustworthy teachers: dragons of proven character; women who live in caves full of candles; and, provided their hearts are visible and whole, people who are already flying.
So this beanpole walks in the bar, says I’m the buyer, I just bought the Earth and I’m checking it out. And I say so how do you like it so far. Remember, and I’m saying this to you and not to the guy, remember I’ve had a few, well more than a few I’ve had a lot but that’s the way it is when you’ve been subjected to the kind of day I had. But enough about me, we were talking about the guy.
It’s kind of fixer-upper, he says, from under the crust on down it’s solid, well not solid but you know what I mean. The atmosphere, though, and here he waves his hand in front of his face in a whew what a smell way. That’s just going to have to go, but I think I can save the water and a representative sampling of the life, you know, enough breeding pairs to keep most species going, at least most of the megafauna. But the rest, he makes a bulldozer blade hand shape and runs it along the bar, swoosh, just flatten it all and turn it into a big park.
A park, I say, is there a lot of money in that? Naw, he says, it’s a government thing, there’s got to be a park every so many cubic parsecs, and somebody’s got to buy up the land and clear it.
Who’d you buy it from, I say, and he says, from this guy, and gestures vaguely outside, and what does it take to get a drink around here? This last is to the bartender, who brings him a Bud and a Bushmills. So, he says, I’m looking for a few guys to help me out, could be a box in the org chart with your name on it.
Now see, up to here it’s just a story. Could be legit, could be phony. But see, I read too many philosophy books. Maybe that’s got a lot to do with me having the kinda day I was having, but let’s forget that for now.
Do you believe in God? Say you do and he exists, yay, big win for you. He doesn’t exist, no big, you just die. Say you don’t believe and he exists, uh-oh, you’re doomed. He doesn’t exist, oh well, at least you weren’t fooled.
So the guy’s looking at me. Do I want a job? Do I want to be saved if his story is true? I hold up my glass and tink it against his. I’m your man, I say.
Luna glowered at Sol and all the other stars in the universe, and she wished to be like them. They were big and they were bright. They were immense fires burning in space.
And what was she? She was a mirror. She was rock and dust, and she reflected the light of the sun. All she did was circle the Earth, going round and round. The suns, they warmed their planets, and anchored their systems. Space bent around them.
What could she do? Besides sulk, which she admitted was one of her strongest skills. She had no fusion furnace at her core to burn hydrogen and helium. She was not nearly so massive as even the puniest of suns. Luna made barely a dent in spacetime.
Then she must do the best with what she had.
Things flashed by. After study she discovered these were rocks covered in ice, ellipsing their way from the outer clouds. After many trials she learned to focus her gravity on them, drawing them nearer pass by pass. Many slipped her influence to plunge sunward or away into interstellar space or to the planet below; one monstrous planetesimal even sending the Earth into a hazy ice age that destroyed most of the small animals living there.
And slowly, one by one, the rocks smashed into Luna.
She coordinated a thousand thousand of them, arranging it so they would all strike her over a short amount of time. It took millions of circuits of Sol, but she was proud of her accomplishment. Soon enough she would be massive, and her fires would ignite and grow.
More tiny animals flourished on the face of the Earth. They sent her emissaries, riding flimsy metal across the tiny space that separated host from moon. To each of them she whispered her secret.
“Soon. Soon I shall be a sun.”