Words By Annie Neugebauer, Art By Enrica Angiolini
The first time I ripped out a beast’s throat, I cried. In spite of all my training, nothing could have prepared me for the stain of blood scalding my naked hands.
She was supposed to be an easy kill, an execution almost, which is part of the reason why they sent me instead of my mother, Ruby. With the beasts dying out, I was the last to complete my training. It wasn’t my choice. My name itself, Garnet, shows I was chosen to continue this honor from birth. I am one of The Reds.
So, at nineteen, I was sent on my first hunt. I think now that my mother wanted to test me. Perhaps she saw in me what I hadn’t yet acknowledged in myself—the doubt beneath my bravado. I was both excited and scared to set out, in the way of young people, though the pride in her eyes made me feel it would all be worthwhile. A gatherer had spotted the beast in the woods and hit her with an arrow. I was told she lay wounded at the base of a great tree, wheezing, near death.
When I arrived at the tree, the sun was melting into the branches, soaking everything in shades of crimson so rich I thought the pool of blood I was looking at was simply water tinged by the light.
She pounced from above—dropping like a blanket of muscle, fur, and claws—screeching the eerie cry of the beast.
If I’d been holding my spear straight up, she would’ve impaled herself. But with it at an angle, her attack knocked it from my grip and sent it rolling. She was twice my size, and I was trapped on my back beneath her.
It’s too often said that time slows down. The truth is that time doesn’t waver, doesn’t care. In that moment it was I who changed, not time. My thoughts doubled their pace, stretching my perception of the moment.
I’d like to say that when I reached my hand beneath her mighty, snapping jaw, I was simply doing my duty. It’d be honorable to report that my training kicked in.
In truth, I looked into her eyes as she lowered her head to devour me, and she looked into mine. I hadn’t expected that, to see someone looking back at me. Her gaze pierced me. She seemed to see me, to know me in a way I had not yet known myself. And I knew her.
Everything inside me prickled to life, as if I stood on ground struck by lightning.
In the dying light, I saw the spot over her ribs where the gatherer’s arrow had wounded her. I tasted the sharp tang of metal in the air, and beneath that, I smelled raw meat and the desperate beginnings of infection. I felt her panic.
Lest I appear to be claiming some sort of misplaced nobility, I freely admit that mixed with that deep, electrifying understanding was a strong dose of survival instinct. I was more frightened for my life than sorry for hers.
I think about that moment often, when I lie awake at night listening for some distant howl that never comes. Which feeling drove the reach of my hand?
In the end, I suspect it doesn’t matter. I tore out her throat before she could clamp her teeth around mine. Her corded neck was thick, so thick, and coated with soft, dense fur. Her cry broke in two. Then silence.
The blood was red as it poured over me.
The beast went limp.
It took me minutes to struggle out from beneath her, to look down upon her massive back, her silken ears, her lean, powerful legs.
I cried as I severed the claw on her smallest digit to string around my neck—the first of many—and headed home for my celebration.
Ruby didn’t understand my grief. I wonder now if that made her more or less suited for this job than I. It makes no difference. With my mother now dead, I’m the last of The Reds. There are scarcely any beasts left. Soon I will not be needed.
In the past eleven years, since completing my training, I’ve slain twenty-two beasts. My necklace is nearly full.
I don’t cry anymore.
I haven’t been sent to the woods in over a year.
In the middle of the night, when the villagers are snug in their squat, thatch-roofed homes, I venture to the fence line. The moon is large and white, but the light it sheds on the melting blankets of snow is blue. The woods are bare, silent, empty.
My mother died in the depths of this wicked winter. Her passing was expected, but it left me strange. The weeks have dragged long and cold, confusing. I venture out almost every night, alone, as if searching for something I don’t know I’ve lost. Only now do I see the first hints of spring: melt that turns that falsely pristine surface into a wet, sloppy mess, revealing the deadness waiting underneath.
One of the last times my mother spoke was to ask me who I would take as my mate. She told me that I should choose someone strong—not Irving, is what she meant—so my daughter could carry on as one of The Reds. She didn’t mention the possibility of a male child, as men aren’t suited to our line of work. I didn’t tell her that I want twins, one boy and one girl, that I don’t care if my lover is strong so long as he makes me feel something, that I pray my daughter will never be as bloodthirsty as she taught me to be. I didn’t remind her there will soon be no need for The Reds. I told her that I didn’t know which man I might choose, and I suppose I still don’t. After all, what right have I to want these things?
I smell the ghostly smoke of dying fires escaping the chimneys within the village. It makes me think of a type of warmth I haven’t felt in years. I slip beyond the fence, bathe myself in blue. I strain my ears for the cry of a beast, but there’s none.
I remember when Ruby told me about her first kill. It was when I returned home from my own. She’d readied me for the banquet thrown in my honor, and I’d begged her not to make me go.
“Why Garnet,” she replied, pulling my hair out of its tight braid, “this is the proudest day of your life, my child. Why should you not want to claim your glory among our people?”
“I feel no pride for what I did.” In fact, I was imagining the sad stare of a sweet boy with big eyes, his reaction to my new status. Though I had no real relationship with Irving, my mother’s disdain for him had grown from seeing our shared looks, our stolen, stilted conversations amidst crowds, my flushes when she casually commented on his weakness.
“You did exactly what you were trained to do,” she told me.
But I hadn’t understood before what I had been training for, not really, not in practice.
When I didn’t answer, she moved in front of me. “Were you afraid?”
I looked down, but she tilted my chin up, forcing me to look her in the eyes. “Yes,” I whispered. “Terrified.” But I didn’t know how to tell her that it wasn’t the fear that bothered me, but locking eyes with the beast—seeing, being seen.
She nodded. “Then you should take pride. We face that fear so the villagers don’t have to. It’s our duty. It’s an honor.”
“It’s your honor.”
Then she told me of her own fear.
Her first kill wasn’t as easy as mine; her beast wasn’t wounded and waiting. She was sent out by Cherry, her mother, who took great joy in the slayings. I knew Grandma Cherry only when I was young, and she horrified me. She wore a triple-stranded necklace of claws.
Ruby was sent deep into the woods, all the way to the borderlines where only a small wooden bridge signified that one had gone too far.
It was a new moon, pitching my mother into near-black beneath the summer canopy of the trees. She was cyclical with the moon, as we all are, which is why we are superior to men in this skill. Ruby, truly, was one of the best. I had always pictured her as fearless, but she told me she was afraid then, standing at the end of the bridge, staring into the darkness that heaved and sighed around her like living heat.
“I looked for the glowing eyes of the beast,” she told me, “but he was too clever for that. Nonetheless, I could feel him watching me on the far side of the bridge. So I drew my spear and eased onto the old wooden planks. But the attack didn’t come. I crossed the bridge and searched the woods but couldn’t find the beast.”
My mother curled my hair around her finger, but her gaze was distant.
“I didn’t have to. After an hour of hunting, I headed back to the bridge, and there he was, waiting.”
Only then did she look at me, let me see the fear still haunting her eyes.
“I, too, was afraid, my daughter. But I am one of The Reds, and I don’t take that lightly. I did my duty. I protected my people, as you have done, and that is something to be proud of.”
I was afraid to ask if she felt anything for the beast. I was afraid to learn that something was wrong with me. So I shoved that feeling down, buried it deep. With each slaying, I’ve shoveled another layer of dirt over it, weighing it down in the dark, far from me. Sometimes I feel as though that dirt has made me quiet inside, like a filled well. I drop something into it, expecting to hear it ping and bounce and splash, but it lands, muted, in the dirty shadows.
I think now, staring into a wood emptied by my family’s killings, that there is little pride to be had in sending someone to slay a dying beast. Little danger to be had from a population of creatures hunted to the brink of extinction. My fingers find the row of severed claws around my neck.
I tilt my chin to the sky, stare at my mother moon, and let forth a howl. The sound is all too human. I have no reason to expect a reply, yet still I’m disappointed when no harmony answers.
A commotion sounds from within the walls. I duck back inside.
A large cluster of people are talking amongst themselves. I tap a boy on the shoulder. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“There’s a beast near the fence!”
I heave a sigh. “Everyone,” I shout. About half of the crowd calms. “Everyone!”
They all turn to look at me. “There is no beast. It was me. I was—I was simply checking that none are lurking nearby.”
“No, Garnet,” the priest says. He’s an old man with honest eyes. Honest, urgent eyes. “We didn’t hear him. We saw him, in the pen, devouring the livestock.” He points across the village.
“Who saw him?” My eyes narrow as I look at the crowd. I can’t trust the gossips, the fearful, or the glory-seekers. It’s been so long since anyone has spotted a beast that I’m not even sure there are any left.
“I did,” the priest says.
I break into a run.
Years ago, not long after my first slaying, I was in the woods by myself and came upon a beast. He was young, dangerously thin—so unhealthy that his coat was bald in places. He didn’t see me as I watched him suffer bee stings to get to the honey inside a hive.
I lifted my spear, poised, aimed to take him with a single heft, but I didn’t throw it. He was too desperate, too pitiful. I let him be.
That night, he killed a young boy playing just outside the fence. I listened to his mother wail, watched her sob over his bones.
I was sent to slay the beast the next day. I cannot tell you even now exactly what it was I felt when my spear pierced his side between protruding ribs, but it nearly broke me. That was the last time slaying a beast made me feel much of anything. It was the last time I let it.
Tonight, as I run through the village, my boots slapping the mud, I’m tempted to stop at my hut to grab my spear. It’s safer—keeps me out of reach. It’s what my mother would have done, would’ve had me do. But the blade that always lies down my back along my spine, my reserve, lets me get closer. And that’s all I want right now. To feel again.
I hear a cow’s desperate scream and run faster.
The cattle have backed into one corner, pushing against each other, eyes white with dread. Distressed lows sound across the night air, cries for help, for a savior, for a Red. Cries for me.
I draw my blade as I stand outside the pen, panting, sizing up the beast.
It’s a male, larger by half. His fur is a reddish brown that defies the blue of the moonlight. The hump of his shoulder blades bristle to make him look even larger as he bends to his prey.
A small calf, still alive, lies broken and heaving at his front paws, his muzzle buried in her intestines. I’m close enough to hear the wet snapping of some organ rent by his jaws.
Keeping both hands on the handle of my blade, I press my foot to the lower rung of the fence and jump, landing with a soft thump.
The beast lifts his head. His eyes lock with mine. I step forward.
He tosses back his head, black nose to the moon, and screams his challenge. Goose bumps explode on my skin.
The beast steps forward, protecting his kill. His tail flicks back and forth behind him. His ears drop toward his skull. He’s skin and bones like that young male long ago, ribs prominent as a carving in relief.
My blade’s as long as my arm, which means I’ll be within his reach. I open my eyes wide, eager. He stalks forward, expecting a fight, but that’s where he’s wrong. There will be no fight. I am not a beast; I am a Red.
As I pace toward him, I howl my response to his challenge. His own eyes grow wider, showing a slim ring of white around his dark irises. This is why we study the cry of the beast.
He tilts back his chin to shriek at the sky again, exposing the soft triangle of flesh. I lunge for it.
I’ve never so perfectly slowed my perception of time as I did during my first kill, when everything was crystalline and new, but I’ve become better at responding without thinking. The tip of my blade approaches his neck. It will be an easy kill, even without the spear.
But he’s faster than any beast I’ve slain. He senses my advance even before he lowers his head, striking out with one massive paw. Claws like scythes stretch for me, and my blade is lifted too high to protect my body. I have only one option.
I step into him, so close that his chest fur brushes my cheek, and plunge the blade home as his paw strikes empty air behind my back.
A thrill of heat pierces me, as bright and sharp as my blade in his jaw, vibrating up and down my body. Dangerous, swift, free.
My teeth are cold, and I realize I’ve bared them in a snarl that’s morphed into a savage grin that doesn’t even feel like mine.
I know now what my Grandma Cherry must have felt at every slaying.
The heat rushes up my throat to my face, teeth clamping together. I jerk the blade from his throat, pushing with my free hand, and as his body falls to the earth, blood pours from the wound. It is red, red, red.
As am I.
My great grandmother, Scarlett, was the first. She wasn’t raised with the knowledge I have, nor trained from youth. I imagine she never thought she’d face a beast at all, until her grandmother Rose went missing when Scarlett was twenty.
Rose, my great, great, great grandmother. Arguably, Rose started it all. Scarlett’s mother, Pearl, died during childbirth, so Rose raised Scarlett on her own. The bond between them was a strong one.
One century ago, Rose failed to come home from gathering in the woods. She went out in the morning with a basket for her finds, expected back for dinner. Dinner passed, then bedtime. The woods back then were not empty as they are now. When day broke the next morning, it was assumed Rose had been taken by a beast.
Scarlett was heartbroken. The priest advised her to grieve and move on, as many had before her, but there was only one thing that would bring Scarlett peace: revenge.
Scarlett set into the woods. No one has ever said as much, but I suspect she never intended to return.
I’m told she slayed a dozen beasts in the first three days. Each time, she split them open from sternum to pelvis, searching for the confirmation that her heart surely knew.
Finally, on the third day, she cut open a beast and found her grandmother’s ring among the contents of its belly. She severed one of its claws to hang around her neck: a life for a life.
She returned to the village with proof that a beast had eaten Rose. Her tale struck terror into my people. They fortified their fences, tightened their grips on their children, and retreated to their homes—leaving Scarlett to destroy the scourge that had been lurking in their woods. And so she became the first.
The only thing more dangerous than a broken heart is a cold one.
It’s been three days since I slayed the male beast in the livestock pen, and I’ve barely slept. I run tallies in my head, trying to figure if he truly could have been the last beast. I wonder how I’ll feel when there really are no more. I sit beside my hearth warming my feet by the fire. The heat only reaches partway up my body, never fully melts the coldness inside. I’ve stopped going beyond the fence to wait and listen—for the first time in the weeks since my mother died.
If I am a well slowly being filled with dirt, that dirt has nearly reached the top. I feel it now, choking me, suffocating me. I hadn’t thought of that, back when I started shoveling over the things I didn’t want to see, to feel. In burying them so thoroughly, I’ve lifted other things right to the brim. New, ugly things.
I am not who I want to be. I am who I’m supposed to be.
The urge to call on Irving nags at me—an urge I didn’t feel for years that has returned only since my mother’s death. I push it away. I used to want him, when I was young. He’s not overly aggressive like some suitors, and he possesses an earnestness and tenderness that appealed to me, with hair that refuses to lay flat and wide, emphatic eyes. We have never been together; he has always been an idea, a thing that could have been, had I been someone entirely different. Yet I know he waits for me. I’m expected to choose a mate soon and propagate the line of The Reds, but now I feel heaviness where longing used to be, and Irving deserves more than that—than me.
There’s a knock at my door. With my mother gone, Irving is one of the only people who visits, so I almost don’t answer. The thought of the way he looks into my eyes and really sees me…I should tell him I must choose someone else, but I don’t have the strength tonight. But I’m sure he’s seen my chimney smoke; he knows I’m home. I open the door.
“Garnet,” he pants. “There’s a beast.”
Blood rises to my cheeks, my breath fluttering in my chest, nestling around a strange sensation I barely recognize. “Another? So close to the last?” I can scarcely believe it.
“Yes, beyond the bridge. It nearly had me.”
What was he doing so far from the fences? Had he been alone?
I clench my jaw, letting the door swing further open. I gather my things, speaking as I go. “Did it follow you? Has it trailed you to the village?” I doubt beasts are capable of craving vengeance, but with another appearing so soon after my recent slaying—the first in so long—I can’t shake the thought that these two animals must be linked somehow. The thought makes me uneasy, restless, and tense.
“No. It didn’t even cross the bridge before turning back.”
That doesn’t seem right. I lace my fur-lined boots then toss a bucket of ashes over my fire. “Tell me where.”
“I’ll show you.” He holds the door for me, face flushed.
Our eyes lock.
I want to tell him no, he’s too soft, he should never have been in the woods in the first place, but I can see the spark in his eyes and I don’t want to be the one to snuff it out.
I launch past him, spear in hand. My voice is gruff. “Only to the bridge.”
He follows me into the frigid woods.
I have to slow for him. I bite my tongue at his ruckus. He tramps like a loping bear. When we reach the bridge, I turn. “You must stop here. Tell me where you saw it, then go home. It isn’t safe for you.”
He scowls but must know I’m right. He describes a cave opening north of the bridge, then sits at the foot of the wooden planks. “I’m not leaving you,” he tells me.
“I will wait.”
I think of the beast that lured my mother across the bridge only to ambush her on her way home. “Fine, but don’t cross. I mean it. Don’t allow yourself to be trapped away from the village.”
Eyes wide, he nods.
I hand him my spear, then draw the blade from my back. He opens his mouth to protest, but I silence him. “I prefer the blade.” I cringe as my intended lie rings true. I cover it with a real lie, so he’ll accept the weapon: “The spear makes me careless.”
I wonder though, why do I want the blade? To feel that savage new joy its closeness brings? Or do I hope that for once, finally, I’ll lose? I’m not sure which is worse.
I walk into the woods without waiting for his reply.
Finally, deep in the dead, dark woods, I come to the cave. It’s like the beast has been waiting for me. She seems unsurprised by my presence as she stalks in front of the opening. Her fur is so black she looks like an extension of the mouth of the hollow—liquid darkness pacing. She’s small for a beast, svelte but muscled, her spine dipped low. Her eyes glisten when they find mine, but she holds her ground.
What’s in the cave?
A low, moist rumble emanates from her throat. She bares her teeth.
Blade up, I bare mine in return, waiting for that wicked joy to turn my snarl into a smile again, bracing for the heat that will burn me up, but it doesn’t come. My teeth are left exposed in a grimace.
I lower my blade a bit.
Could I leave her, just this one?
I remember the young male I let go, the village boy, and having to go back out. I don’t think I can take another consequence like that one.
But, somehow, I feel myself begin to back away.
The farther I get from her, the lighter I feel. I smile, and it’s so unfamiliar it takes me a moment to place it. I hide it, lest she think I’m baring my teeth after all, but the buoyancy of it glows through me. I find myself admiring the way her dark fur sheens in the night, like beautiful things unearthed from black depths.
A crunch behind me.
Irving stands frozen. His big eyes widen further, darting to something behind me. “Garnet!”
I drop, rolling.
The beast is a blur, pouncing where I just stood, screaming her rage.
Irving charges forward, spear out, but he’s holding it wrong. Brave, naïve Irving.
I leap to my feet, jabbing at her side with my blade, hoping to distract her. She twists to snarl at me. Irving uses the distraction to circle behind her.
“Not between her and the cave!” I scream.
She whirls, smacks the spear from his hands, and clamps her jaws around his throat.
I leap on her back, jabbing my blade into the gap between her throat and Irving’s chest, and rip it back, slicing her neck.
Even as she dies, as I ride her falling body to the ground, she doesn’t release him.
We land in a pile of overheated flesh, fur, and failure. I scramble off, thrust my blade in the dirt, and roll her off Irving. She’s limp.
Irving is also limp.
Both of them are dead.
Something begins to bubble up from deep inside me, scalding its way up my spine, my chest.
I let him come here with me, knowing he was too soft. I let her stay, knowing that she was just a beast and couldn’t help what she’d do.
I let this happen.
The burning rises in my throat, stings my eyes, blurs the world. I throw back my head and cry, a howling wail like the scream of the beast. But it’s not. It’s too dark, too broken, too human.
I howl and howl until my throat is raw. When I can’t howl anymore, I lower my face to my hands and weep.
I’d forgotten what it feels like, this breaking. I shake and shudder with it as I run my hands through Irving’s soft hair, wishing I could’ve protected him. I’m sorry that he fell for me. Sorry that I missed my chance to love him back. Now, he will never again look at me with those wide eyes. Will I ever again feel so deeply known? I close his eyelids with my fingertips. My tears speckle him like rain.
I turn to the beast. Her fur is smooth, glossy. I run my other palm along it, looking at her bowed spine, thinking of her ferociousness, thinking of her fear.
The cave yawns for me. I wipe my eyes, retrieve my blade, and enter.
It’s not as large as I expect. All I find is a smooth dent in the dirt where the beast must have burrowed, layered with some soft forest debris. A bed, a nest. A den.
I race back into the blue moonlight, staring down at her swollen belly. I take the smaller blade from my boot and kneel to slice her open. Red spills in a hot wave, and I think of Rose, found finally in such a place by Scarlett, and what that must have been like, to find her only remaining family buried in the belly of a beast—all the anger and revenge that has fueled The Reds for generations.
I half expect to find something equally horrific when I reach in with trembling hands and feel around, but when I hear a sound—a small, gasping whimper—it’s life that I pull out, not death.
It’s a tiny, blind, mewing thing. A baby beast. I’ve never seen one. I clear the gunk from her eyes and sever the cord. Her warmth nearly scalds me. My heart pounds as I cradle her in my lap. The air smells of blood and placenta and dirt. I look up at the beautiful moon, holding this small, soft marvel as if it might shatter.
I hear something and reach back in. Out comes a second. A boy. Just as soft, just as warm. They are red with uneven black splotches, and I know the male I slayed back home was their father.
One of each. Almost certainly the last of their kind.
I could kill them now. It’s what Ruby would have wanted. What Cherry would have reveled in. What Scarlett started all those decades ago, avenging her grandmother Rose.
But slaying these babes is not what I want. What has our vengeance brought us? Persistent fear, bloodlust. A line of killers.
We are their beasts as much as they are ours.
I wipe off their fur, steam rising from the freshness of their lives. My cheeks are damp, my chest full of warmth.
Again, I lift my head to the moon. All things cyclical. All things wax and wane. In the blue light, I raise my howl to it.
“I will teach you the ways of The Reds,” I promise them. “I will teach you to hunt. To survive.”A boy and a girl. The last hope for the beasts.