Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Short Story: The Manticore

Gentle Reader,

This is a story that I submitted to a contest last summer, for which I won first place.  The idea was that the story had to be less than 715 words (!!!) and had to be about a summer adventure.  So... here we go.
* * *

Toby knew that the summer holidays of 1910 would be no better than in other years. He was at sea with Father and Her Ladyship, but neither took much notice of him. Her Ladyship fell ill, and once her paints and easel were unattended, Toby stole them. Father forbade Toby to draw or paint, but Her Ladyship did not tell on him.

Toby liked the starkness, the tidiness, of white, black, and red. Red sky, white ship, black smoke. Black servants, white uniforms, white smiles. A red slash for Father's mouth. Little red cakes from the captain's table that were unfamiliar, intriguing. Like the red leopard seen on the island. Father was excited. Panthera manticora, he called it. Toby knew the legendary manticore from his books. The Persians said it was a red-skinned cat with a man's face. Absurd, yes, but maybe with a kernel of truth. The Greeks knew the manticore, too. Father said the world would know it soon. He would prove the cat's existence by killing it and dragging it to London.

Toby was angry at Father for making him come along on the hunt when he would rather paint. Her Ladyship watched them disembark. White dress, white face, giant white hat.

"Your mother?" a servant asked.

"No," said Toby. "Just the new wife."

Father was ashore, loading his gun. "You have the camera?" he asked through his giant mustache, not looking up.

"Yes, sir," Toby said quietly.

The servant brought Father's satchel. He looked at Toby, then said, "This boy, he works for you?"

Father laughed. "That's our Toby," he said, still nursing the gun. "My son."

The servant walked away, giving Toby a pitying look. Toby hated him. Uppity servants and their opinions. They should know their place.

The island was covered by jungle. Toby and Father wore pith helmets. Father led and they marched. Her Ladyship waved goodbye. Toby waved back, but she still was not his mother.

Father said the island was small, but they wandered for hours. Then the birds went silent. There was a rustling in the brush, a flash of red. Toby sucked in his breath. Father raised his gun, but too late.

"You saw it?" he asked.

Toby gasped. "Yes!" He had not believed they would really find it.

Father moved quickly and Toby ran to keep up. They saw the leopard's red and black coat through gaps in the green. Five yards out, then closer. They were moving upward, but the rise was too small to call a mountain.

It was sunset when they reached a cave. Toby looked down at the reddening jungle, thinking someone might come for them. Could they return in the dark?

Father kept checking his gun. "It's trapped in there," he told himself. "We have the advantage." At last he looked up. "The camera?"

"Ready, sir."

Father frowned. "Then, keep up!"

The cave meandered and the interior darkened rapidly. Father had a lamp but its light was meager. They heard nothing but their footsteps and breathing. It was hot, still.

Suddenly Father stopped and pushed them against the cave wall. "There!" he hissed.

"What?" Toby asked, hating how small he sounded.

"It's coming!" Father shouted, his own voice shaking. He screamed.

Toby cried out. He had no name for his father, and was too alarmed to form words like Sir or Your Lordship.

Father screamed again, but farther away. Was it dragging him? Toby heard sounds of a struggle. He had to escape. The people on the boat would question him. Her Ladyship, would she cry? No. She would feel sorry, but that was all.

Toby was about to run when he heard Father scream his name. He should have fled, but he just couldn't. Not without Father. He followed the lamplight.

The cave opened into a chamber. He saw his father laid out on a stone. The leopard was over him, its head lowered. Red coat, black spots, white teeth. Red blood, white bone. Darkness.

Toby thought he would faint. He said to himself, This can't possibly be real.

The leopard looked up. It had a face like a man. In the strangest of accents, it said, "You poor child. How sad. No one will ever believe you when you tell them what you saw."

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