Darkbeast Story Excerpt
The novel Darkbeast grew out of a short story. There are many differences between the novel and the story — some characters’ names have changed, and the original main character was four years older than Keara in the novel. The ideas, though, and the basic plot remain the same. Enjoy this sample from the original story!
I knew that I would kill my darkbeast on the morning of my sixteenth birthday.
Mother came to me that day, with all of my aunts, and my cousins, and my two older sisters. They woke me early in the morning, before the sun had risen above the hills that surround our village. They awakened me with their singing, their laughing voices that cared not for pitch or for tone, but rather, rose in joy at their shared experience, their common life.
My mother filled the bath with steaming water. My grandmother should have been the one to draw the bath. That was her honor as the oldest woman in our family, but she was too old to lift the buckets. Her stroke the year before had left her unable to move the muscles on the left side of her body, and she looked as if she was always frowning.
I knelt in the tin tub and let the women sluice water down my back. They wet my hair as well, and they washed it with soap made from lavender and lye. They scrubbed my hands and my feet, peeling away the dirt of child’s play.
After I was bathed, my family took me into my mother’s closet, the secret room where she kept her herbs and her draughts, the potions that made our family the strongest in the village. My sisters laughed as they brought out the gown that they had embroidered for me. The cloth was blue, which was Marguerite’s favorite color, and the stitches had been done in green and white, shades preferred by Avonette. I would have wanted red, but no one asked my opinion.
They wrapped me in an underdress of clean linen, and then they settled the incredible garment over my head. My mother had me kneel at her feet, and she combed out my hair, working the snarls from my blue-black curls. Each of my cousins knelt beside us, whispering a birthday greeting and offering up a fresh flower from the fields. I remembered to thank each of them with the appropriate verse of the Family Rule, and my mother smiled as she wove the blossoms into my hair.
When my body and my hair were dressed, I was presented to my aunts. One painted my cheeks with red. One outlined my eyes with black. One shaded precious blue, the most costly of all the colors, on my eyelids. The last, the youngest, spread crimson on my lips. I thanked each of them with the Family Rule, fighting against the nervousness that clenched my belly.
It was my birthday. I should be allowed to eat some sweet. I’d settle for a heel of dry bread.
Mother squinted as she reviewed me, and I remembered to stand very tall. I looked down at her feet, blinking my painted eyelids like a demure young woman. I turned about when she commanded, stopping after one full revolution.
“Ariane,” she said at last. “You make me proud.” I had never heard such words from her.
They swelled inside my chest and made me want to laugh out loud, to reach out and squeeze her in my excitement. She continued: “Now it is time to kill your darkbeast.”
Every girl did it. Every girl was dressed and pampered on her sixteenth birthday. Every girl was taken to Perdine’s godhouse, to the round wooden building dedicated to the goddess of hearth and harmony.
I loved my darkbeast, though. I loved Caw like the brothers I never had, like the sisters I dreamed of, when my own relatives laughed at me and pulled my hair and made me feel ashamed.
Before I could protest, my family paraded me through the streets. Our neighbors looked out from their windows, laughing and calling out birthday wishes. I saw my childhood friends who had turned before me. They smiled with honest welcome, anticipating my joining them in the Women’s Circle.
Kill Caw, I thought. That’s the only thing that I must do. Kill Caw.
Perdine’s godhouse was located in the center of town, nearly lost among the columned rectangles of the other gods. The priestess greeted me on the steps, and I bowed to her, offering up the shawl that I had woven during the winter before. She accepted my present with the expected words, smiling and welcoming me into her refuge. I paused on the threshold, looking back at my mother. Expectation shone in her eyes.
She hoped that I would become the daughter she had always dreamed of. She hoped that I would stop being Ariane the disobedient, Ariane the tardy, Ariane the sarcastic. She wanted me to be Ariane the meek, Ariane the humble, Ariane the good daughter.
As Perdine’s priestess led me deep into the sanctuary, I heard small children crying in the streets, “Kill the darkbeast! Kill the darkbeast! Kill the darkbeast!” I had been one of those children dozens of times in the past. I had encouraged others to destroy their past, to embrace their future. Did I have the strength to take the step myself?
“In the name of Perdine, be welcome,” the priestess said. Her dress was a simple linen shift, and her hair hung straight to her waist. Beside her, I looked like a gaudy flower. “Your darkbeast awaits you in the inner chamber. Slay your past and look to your future and your life as a woman in our village.”
I knew there was some proper response, something that Mother had taught me, but I could not think of it now. I bowed my head instead, whispering thanks in ordinary parlance. If the priestess were offended, she gave no sign. Instead, she opened the door to the sanctuary, stepping back so that I could pass. “Be brave,” she said.
The inner room was dark, lit only by a brazier that sat in the center of the floor. Curls of incense rose into the air, and I sneezed twice. I wiped my nose on the back of my hand, only just remembering not to rub at my painted eyes.
“Aye,” Caw said, laughing. “That would leave you quite the sight.”
“Caw!” I blinked in the dim light, and I finally made out his eyes. He was trapped in a cage, suspended from the chamber’s domed ceiling. I knew that Mother had brought him to the godhouse early in the morning, even before she had awakened me.
“Were you expecting someone else?”
“Of course not.”
“Then don’t waste my time with your foolish words.”
I heard Caw’s speech inside my head. We had been bound this way since I was an infant, since he had landed on my cradle on the first day that my mother took me to the hills to harvest lavender. I had reached for his jet black wings, and I had laughed at his voice, and my mother had spoken her strongest spell to bind the raven to me.
I heard him inside me, but I spoke to him aloud. That was an old habit, one that I had never tried to break. Caw and I spent a lot of time away from the village. We ranged up into the hills, and it never seemed important to think to him silently, the way so many of my friends did.
Of course, when I was a child, I had argued that Caw was different from other darkbeasts.
He wasn’t disgusting, like the rats and snakes that took the evil thoughts of other girls. He wasn’t so short-lived that I needed to repeat my history to him every six months, like the girls who were bound to lizards or toads. He wasn’t angry or sly or cruel or dirty. He was my darkbeast, and he was perfect for me.
I stepped toward his cage, and my jeweled sandal caught on an uneven paving stone. I fell hard, skinning my knee through the fine fabric of my dress. My bare palms scraped on the floor. I swore sharply, using words I’d heard the shepherds use, when they thought they were alone with their flocks. Tears sprang to my eyes, and I could hear Mother’s sternest voice: “Take it to your darkbeast.”
* * *
My first memory, or a scene retold by Caw over the years: I was a child, barely one year old. My sisters danced around me, teasing me with their mobility, while I was trapped by my short, chubby legs, by my wheeling arms. They watched me try to take a step, another, another, and they laughed when I fell hard on my bottom.
I wailed, enraged by their teasing, surprised by the sharp hurt of falling. Mother scooped me up and shook her head, saying, “We don’t cry. Take it to your darkbeast.”
She wrestled me into the corner of the room, swatting at my bare legs as I kicked to be free from her. She dropped me in front of Caw’s cage, slipping a rag leash around my chubby wrist. I tugged and wailed some more, but my mother only repeated, “Take it to your darkbeast.”
I pulled and cried and flailed until I was so tired that I could move no longer. Only when I had collapsed on the floor, one wrist secured to Caw’s cage, did the raven come over and look at me. He cocked his head to one side, studying me with one shiny eye. He hopped away and spread his wings, letting the firelight catch them and turn them iridescent green.
I reached for his feathers, gulping in surprise when he let me catch him. “You look like a fool,” he said. “They only tease you because they want you to try to keep up with them. They want you to fall.”
I stared at Caw, too young to form the words that were in my thoughts, to express my surprise at his voice, my indignation at my sisters’ treatment.
“Practice where they cannot see you. Stand. Find your balance. Take one step. Take another. Then, when they tease you, you will be able to chase them. You will catch them. They won’t tease you about walking again.”
I was silent, thinking about the bird’s words. After a pause, he said, “I take your tears. Forget them. They are mine.”
That night, in my cradle, I stood. I lifted my hands from the carved wood until I could feel the balance that Caw had described. I concentrated, and I took a step. Another. I slid over the side of the cradle, stretching until I reached the floor. I practiced walking until I could cross the room without falling.
The next day, my sisters teased me, but I stood up and walked away. I looked back and found Mother nodding. I heard her say, “You took your tears to your darkbeast. No more tears.”
* * *
I looked at Caw, and I forced myself to stand, to ignore the stinging of my knees and my palms. I would inspect the damage to the dress after I was outside. “It’s too dark in here.”
“It’s as dark as it is,” he said, in the practical tone that drove me mad. “Did you bring me anything to eat? I’ve been here for hours.”
“I’m sorry! I didn’t think!”
“You never do,” Caw said, but he didn’t seem too concerned. All the same, I felt like a glutton, as if I had eaten all of my breakfast, and his, and my family’s as well.
* * *
I was five years old, and my mother had sent me to the communal oven to get our loaves of bread. They were the fat ones, the balls, made with chestnut flour instead of wheat. They were my favorite.
I thought that I would take one bite, to sustain me on the long walk home. Then just one more, and another to conceal the ragged edge of what I’d already eaten. The new line wasn’t even, and I took another bite, and then I needed to turn the ball around, and I could see that it was already half gone. I took one more swallow, and then I decided that I might as well finish all of the loaf; that was the best way to hide the evidence of my sin.
When I entered our home, my mother saw the crumbs on the front of my dress. She brushed them away from my lips and forced my mouth open, as if she could summon up the bread that was already turning in my belly. I thought that I might be sick on the floor in front of her, but she only shook her head. “Glutton!” she exclaimed. “Take it to your darkbeast.”
She slipped the rag leash around my wrist, and I turned my back on the room. I did not want to see my sisters; I did not want to confront their smug smiles as they watched me transferring my sins to Caw.
“The wheat bread is better,” Caw said.
“It is not!” I kept my protest to a whisper.
“It’s better for the peace of the house,” the raven said with implacable logic. “If you had brought back a long loaf of wheat bread, you would not have been tempted to eat it all.”
“I’ll go without for the week. I’ll give my portion of seedcake to mother.”
He turned his head, looking at me with first one eye, then the other. “Your mother does not care for seedcake.”
“Fine! I’ll give it to my sisters, then.”
He ducked his head up and down, in the quick motion that meant that he was happy. “I take your gluttony. Forget it. It is mine.”
* * *
I said, “I didn’t get breakfast, either. It’s my birthday. That’s not fair.”
“The world’s an unfair place,” Caw said. “You’d likely appreciate that more, if you watched from behind the bars of a cage.”
“I can’t let you out,” I said. “Not yet. You know what they expect me to do.”
“And you’re afraid.”
“I am not!”
He hopped down to the floor of his cage, spreading his wings wide before turning to look at me with one shiny eye. “You look afraid to me. Your cheeks are pale beneath those ridiculous paints.”
“I don’t fear the things I cannot change.”
* * *
I was twelve years old, and my father had died the day before. He had been harvesting grapes in the field, carrying the big vine basket on his back. My uncle said that my father had his sharp knife in one hand, that he had just cut a huge clump of fruit. He collapsed with a single wordless cry, clutching at his chest. He fell forward, and all the grapes in his basket spilled onto the ground.
“They spilled around him,” my uncle said repeatedly. “All around him, the grapes spilled.”
Mother wailed her grief, a sorrow far sharper than any she had given to her rat, her darkbeast when she was a girl. She reached for her apron, tore it into ragged strips. She snatched at the gold pin that kept her hair piled on top of her head, and she released the heavy braid that was more grey than black. She retreated into her closet and rummaged among her herbs and paints, coming out only after she had smudged dangerous black circles around her eyes.
And that night, she told me to go the vineyard and collect the grapes that my father had spilled.
“I can’t, Mother!” I wailed, terrified of the strange woman in front of me. “There are evil spirits out there. There are ghosts!”
“You will get the grapes! We need every fruit we can harvest! Your father is gone, and things are different now!”
“Tell Marguerite to go! Tell Avonette! They can gather the grapes. They aren’t afraid of the spirits! They aren’t afraid of the ghosts!”
My mother’s fury cut through the horrid paint on her face. She dragged me over to Caw’s cage and tightened the rag leash until my fingers turned cold. “Take your fear to your darkbeast!”
I trembled with terror, imagining the creatures that waited for me under the moonlit sky.
Caw took his head out from under his wing, and he shifted from foot to foot, blinking sleepily at me. “Perhaps we should consult with the priests about the cause of this earth tremor shaking my cage.”
I tried to still my trembling hands by taking deep breaths. “I can’t go out there, Caw. She wants me to stand where my own father died. She wants me to touch the grapes that he touched just before…. His ghost will catch me, Caw. I know it will.”
“She wants to know that her husband did not die in vain. She wants to know that she has food to feed her family in the difficult days to come.”
My teeth chattered, and my fear made me peevish. “If she wants the grapes so much, then she should go get them.”
“What do you truly fear?”
“Ghosts.” I whispered the word, as if I were afraid of attracting the undead’s attention merely my speaking their name.
“And you believe your father’s ghost would be evil? You believe that he would attack you, the last daughter of his heart?”
Hearing Caw ask the question, I felt foolish. “It’s dark out there. There could be other things. Brigands. Wild animals.”
“And there could be grapes, spoiling on the ground.”
“Will you come with me?”
“Aye. A night journey for a nightbird.” He cocked his head at me as I stood straighter, as I brushed hair off my face with my free hand. “I take your fear,” he said. “Forget it. It is mine.”
* * *
“I wish things could be different,” I said, wondering how long I had before Perdine’s priestess came back to us. She expected me to present her with proof that I had killed my darkbeast. I was supposed to show the priestess, and then I would make Caw’s remains into some totem for the house I would share with my husband.
Marguerite had tanned the skin of her darkbeast, a snake. She had scraped it clean and stretched it to dry, rubbing it with precious oils to make it soft and supple. She had given it to Thomas, the butcher’s son, when he asked for her hand in marriage. The snake was a symbol of all the bitter lessons that she had learned, all the bad traits that she had left behind in her childhood.
Mother’s rat had been stretched around a wooden frame and fitted with glass eyes so that it looked real. It had fallen into the fire, though.
No, I must be honest. I pushed it into the fire, in a fit of jealousy.
* * *
I was thirteen years old; one year had passed since we’d buried my father. My family was supposed to celebrate the end of our year of mourning; we had commissioned a bull to be slaughtered on Zelo’s altar, and the good beef was spitted and cooked for everyone in the village. Musicians had been hired from three villages away, and the communal oven had been filled with bread three days during the week before the festivities.
And then, Mother told me that I must stay at home. Someone must be here, she said, in case Father’s spirit came looking for us. We could not let him be lonely. We could not let him think that we had forgotten him.
“It’s not fair!” I cried. I was thinking of the meat, all the juicy beef that had been denied to us during our entire year of mourning. “Why can’t Avonette stay behind?”
“Avonette hopes to dance with Lastor.” Lastor. The blacksmith’s apprentice. He had shoulders as broad as the bull we had sacrificed, and hands as sinewy as Father’s grapevines. I thought of Lastor, and my belly swooped. I had felt that way before, at the winter rites when our neighbor, Philippe, asked me to dance. I had refused, of course, because I was still mourning Father.
“I want to dance with Lastor, too,” I said to Mother. “I’ve been mourning too. I deserve to dance with him.”
“You’re a jealous, jealous girl,” Mother said, and her mouth straightened into an angry line. “Take that to your darkbeast.”
The rag leash was old and loose, but I would never have dreamed of pulling my hand free. Instead, I stared after my mother and sisters as they left our home, and I listened to the strains of merriment from the green.
“May I have the honor of this dance?”
“Leave me alone, Caw.”
“Avonette fears that she will never find a husband. Let her dance with Lastor.”
“But I love him!”
“You don’t know the meaning of the word love. You are jealous.”
“I am not.” I closed my eyes, and I tried to picture Lastor’s face. I knew that I had dreamed of him before, nearly swooned when Mother sent me down to the forge to collect an iron poker for our hearth. Now, I lifted the poker and shifted its weight in my untethered hand.
I swept it back toward the fire, and I caught Mother’s rat on the mantel. The stuffed darkbeast teetered on the wooden shelf, and I cried out, stretching to retrieve it before it hit the hearth. Leashed, though, I could not reach it, and its whiskers were singed before I could dig it out of the fire.
“You only want Lastor because your sister wants him.”
“That’s not true!” I was brushing at Mother’s rat, trying to clean her darkbeast.
“What color are his eyes?”
They were green, weren’t they? Or were they hazel, the color that Mother called “shadows of the forest?” I muttered something, which Caw accepted as an admission of ignorance.
“You want to be the one fussed over. You want to plan your wedding. You want to be the wife of the blacksmith, but you don’t care about Lastor.”
I had been thinking of the fine gown I would wear on my wedding day, the cloth of gold that would cover my hair, just as my mother had covered hers, and her mother before her. I had imagined people referring to me as Goodwife Smith, bowing their heads a little in recognition of the power and prestige that I had in the village.
“Is there anything wrong with that?”
“You know that Avonette wants him more. She baked the seedcake that he likes, to give to him tonight.”
“Her cakes are too dry. He’ll have to drink a flask of wine to choke it down.” I muttered under my breath, but Caw heard me perfectly.
“He’ll know that it is dry, and he’ll finish every crumb.” He waited for a long moment, and then he said, “I take your jealousy. Forget it. It is mine.”
* * *
Now, on my birthday, my mind was filled with memories. I had spent years mastering the ways of a proper young woman, learning everything I needed to know to be a wife to whatever man would have me. Only one step remained in my education.
“I can’t do it,” I said, my voice dry of the tears I might have shed when I was an infant. “I can’t kill you.”
“I never asked for this. I never asked for you to take my evil from me.”
“I came to you, though.”
“I was only a baby. You landed on my cradle. You did not know what you were taking on.”
“Is that pride that I hear in your voice?”
“No,” I smiled. “You took that one, well enough. It’s rebellion.”
“Ah,” my wise darkbeast said. “We haven’t quite mastered that yet, have we?”