“The only gift you ever ask for is a story, the same story, year after year.”
Nisha grinned at her uncle. “Well, I like the story, especially the way you tell it.”
“You, dearest niece, do not need flattery to win my heart. But I like the sound of it nevertheless. You shall have the story, of course. But I’ve brought you something else this year as well.” He pulled the basket he’d set on the table closer. Nisha had thought the basket was meant for one of her siblings. He lifted the top. “A gift,” he said, “as well as a burden.”
He beckoned her forth and tipped his head toward the basket. Nisha could already hear the burbling and that distinctive chirping. She leaned over the basket and saw nothing at first but layers upon layers of soft cloth in various shades of green.
She narrowed her eyes and cocked her head. She practiced looking at the shadows and the creases of the blankets. Not the thing, but the empty spaces between the thing. She thought she caught a glimpse of something. A tiny arm, reaching out to her, a scaly arm with tiny scaly fingers. Her gaze tried to follow the arm back to the body, searching for a face, but the sight of the creature slipped away from her.
“It will take practice,” her uncle said. “When they are this young, it is instinctive for them to remain unseen.”
Nisha knew what was in the basket though she could no longer see it and could barely hear it. The “allfeistus” they were called once. Strange creatures who were thought to have died out until someone rediscovered them. Uncle Nestor said they might still die out. And that’s why people like him were trying to capture them. Not just to study them. But also to try and preserve them.
Perhaps even try to teach them.
“Be mindful, niece. The gift is not the creature. The gift is his future friendship…a thing, I admit, neither you nor I can predict.”
Nisha backed away from the basket. And the creature—the monster—contained within.
“It’s an experiment, you see,” her Uncle Nestor said. “Will it still be monstrous if you—a loving soul—raises it?”
She frowned, and glanced up at her uncle. “But how do you know I’m sa lovingoul? Perhaps I too am monstrous.”
Her peered into her dark eyes. “Aren’t we all just a little bit monstrous?”
She could see from the twinkle in his eyes that he expected her to giggle.
Nisha did not giggle. She returned her gaze to the basket. “But Uncle, if they are dying out, if it is the natural way, then why are we interfering?”
“Well, for one thing, it may not be a natural process. When our family moved here those many generations ago, we did not know that this land was the sole habitat of these fellows.”
“Is it true that my Great Uncle Balthazar befriended one of them, and even hid him from the townsfolk?”
He laughed heartily. “Who told you that?”
She cocked an eyebrow. “It’s known, Uncle. Well known.”
“What is ‘known’ and what is true are not necessarily the same.”
Nisha frowned again, this time in confusion.
She chewed on her bottom lip. “I must guide him?” she asked glancing at the basket.
“You must try.”
“Don’t they have minds of their own, Uncle?”
“They do and they do not.”
“That is hardly a satisfying answer.” She grinned at him. “One might suspect that you do not know the answer.”
“One might be correct in one’s suspicions.” He winked at her. And she shook her head but her grin did not fade.
“We are alike,” her uncle said, peering at the basket. “Perhaps not in form, but in…spirit.”
“Then, they have spirits, these monsters?”
“These monsters, yes. I believe they do.”
“Uncle, I’m curious, of course, but…” She pursed her lips.
“You know that I would not put you in danger,” Uncle Nestor said. “And your father and mother certainly would not.”
“Not if you knew it was dangerous. But grown folk are not always the best judges of which monsters are dangerous and which are not.”
“How right you are,” her uncle said.
Uncle Nestor reached into the basket. “Once upon a time, we did not know how small they began. Smaller by far than we are when we are born.” With one hand he lifted out the pile of blankets. Nisha could not even see an indent in the blankets as she might expect if there was anything of significant weight lying upon them.
With his other hand, her uncle swept aside his coat suit and reached into his left-hand pants pocket. He pulled out a paper packet and placed it on the table. He unfolded the paper and inside were a dozen or so dead crickets. He plucked one of the crickets from the bunch and held it over the pile of blankets.
Nisha frowned a third time. She liked crickets. She did not fancy seeing them dead, and fancied even less the thought of feeding them to the monster.
“The story I have been telling you all these years is as true as I can manage,” her uncle said as he dropped the dead cricket. It seemed to vanish in mid-air, but the burbling sound loudened for a moment. He turned to her. “But it is incomplete.”
Nisha’s frown melted. She glanced from the pile of blankets to her uncle’s eyes, searching his gaze for any sign of teasing. But his eyes, as dark as her own, were no longer twinkling. They looked dark and mysterious, like tunnels that would lead her to another place, or perhaps, another time.
It was said that when Master Lavendar was a boy, he loved lavender flowers so much that he changed his name when he came of age and struck out into the world on his own. People did that in those days. He was the fourth child of his parents and not likely to inherit anything. He married a woman of similar fortunes and when they had children, they wanted to ensure that all of their children would have the chance to inherit something of value from them. So they traveled east and north and they reached a place that was gifted with rich soil and bountiful sun, a place that would grow plenty of lavender.
They were warned that strange animals haunted the swampy cold moors where they planned to settle. But the Lavendars did not seek to build their home in the moors. And they were ready to contend with the wilds around their home.
The Lavendars built the house themselves, and the family settled there. Unbeknownst to them, they were not the first to settle there. They had neighbors.
Soon after beginning their true residence in the sturdy house, they began to encounter these neighbors. They felt curious eyes watching from shadows. They heard deep chirpings at night that sounded like no insect they had ever encountered.
The eldest Lavendar children began to collect stories and legends from the people—typically the elders—in the closest village. In their accounts, these elders referred to the residents of the moors as “the monstrous men.” The elders described them as “fearsome and cloaked in shadow” and “speaking their secret language.” So at first, the children believed that these others were people, human beings like them, perhaps a people who were native to the land but kept to themselves, and so were rarely seen.
But when they spoke to those who claimed to have actually seen one of these “monstrous men,” their descriptions made it clear that these were not men, not humans, at all. The “monstrous men” had large pale eyes and scabrous skin. Their movements were jerking and slithering. They did not like to appear out in the open, especially during the day. All sightings of them happened at night. And so it was with the Lavendars. The Lavendar matriarch would glimpse a stirring in the shadow beyond the candlelight at night. The eldest daughter would realize that the caterpillar that had been sitting by the windowsill while she read was not a caterpillar, but the scaly finger of a stranger.
The family would speak of such things to each other, and ask each other if any harm was done. And there was none.
In fact, the opposite seemed true. Their lavender grew well, as did their small garden of vegetables. And their new house, perhaps because of its newness, was free of vermin.
The Lavendar matriarch often joked that their “friends,” the monstrous men of the moors, might be frightening off all the little creatures who would otherwise pester them.
When other families and fellow pioneers settled the land in later years, the settlement, and later the village, and later still the town, took on the name of that first family, Lavendar.
But at first that was the only respect that later settlers afforded the Lavendars.
Early settlers considered the Lavendars eccentrics for believing in imaginary monsters. For there were enough real ones to contend with. And interestingly, no other settlers encountered the strange inhabitants of the moors.
Master Lavendar began to worry when more and more people settled in the place. He and his family were happy for the company, especially after they learned not to speak of those who had settled the land long before even the Lavendars came. But he worried that these moors men might feel threatened and might strike out. So one day, he set out into the moors with his eldest child, in the hopes of finding the leader of the moors men and making some kind of treaty.
They knew it was futile before they set out, and though they sought for a day and a night, they did not encounter any of their strange neighbors.
Certain that their message, even if heard, may not be understood, and even if understood, may not be accepted, the two brave Lavendars nonetheless spoke into the air. On the morning of their departure, they introduced themselves and asked the moors men to let them know if their arrival and the arrival of more and more human settlers troubled the moors men. They asked if the moors men had any laws that the human settlers might abide by, and if any treaty or friendship might be made between the two peoples.
They waited till late in the morning, and receiving no answer, they traipsed back home, not knowing if they should feel hope or dread.
“They are not troubled by us,” the eldest Lavendar child said one morning. “Instead, I am certain that they welcome us.” She had gathered her family in the kitchen. She placed a bowl before them all.
And when her family saw the contents of the bowl, there was squealing from some of the younger children, disgusted stares from the older ones, narrowed eyes from their mother, and a blank gaze from their father. The eldest knew her mother and father well enough to know that they had guessed what she was soon to tell them.
For the bowl was full of dead vermin and pests. Crickets and spiders, a poor half-eaten field mouse dropped by the stray cat she had frightened away, and even a lizard she had accidentally killed when it got caught in the hinge of a door she was trying to close.
She told her family that she had prepared a similar bowl a few nights before, gathering pests from outside, for there were few to be found inside the house. She had placed the bowl outside and sat by the window, in full view, reading her lessons. She waited, and she heard someone or something take the bowl. She heard a deep chirping. When she turned, she saw nothing but a shadow flickering within a shadow. Twilight had come and it was difficult to see.
When she later went to check on the bowl, all of its contents were gone, eaten.
The “monstrous men of the moors” were eaters of the creatures that humans called pests. It was no wonder that the arrival of more settlers had not troubled the moors men. More settlers meant more vermin, more food. The eldest, proud of her discovery, smiled at her family.
One of her brothers frowned darkly at the bowl. “But if they are eating the vermin inside our house then…” He turned to their mother and father. “…they are inside our house.”
“I do not like the sound of it,” one of her sisters said. “How could we stop them from coming inside?”
“How does one stop the air from coming inside?” their mother said. “These creatures live in shadows. They are not blocked or bothered by doors.”
“They seem harmless enough,” still another sister added.
“They won’t eat us, will they?”
Every eye turned to the one who had spoken. The youngest among them held his hands in a bunch before himself, his shoulders raised almost to his ears, as he gazed wide-eyed at the bowl full of vermin. He had just uttered the most important question.
And one to which none of them had an answer.
Soon came the day when there were so many people in Lavendar Village that a few were bound to spot something—or someone—strange lurking about. And so, they did. In shadows, and by night, at first. And those who spoke of it were not believed and were accused of “having a head full of Lavendar.”
But there came to be so many sightings, that the existence of their strange “neighbors” could not be denied. And yet, it could be. For the creatures—the moors men—remained mostly invisible, and thus as mysterious as ever.
Every now and then, someone caught view of something in the corner of their eye, or a sharp-eyed child spotted one of the creatures—the moors men—from afar coming out into the sun. If someone ever tried to approach, the creature would seem to vanish, like a shadow disappearing upon the approach of light.
In time the homes of every villager came be unusually clean and free of vermin thanks to the moors men.
Never was there harm to any villager. Never was anything more than shadow seen inside any home. Yet the villagers not only believed that the moors men were real, they began to think of the moors men as good fairies or household gods, granting favor and wellbeing.
As thanks for keeping their homes and fields free of vermin that might eat their crops and livelihood, the villagers began a tradition, inspired by the eldest Lavendar child’s investigations. Once a year, the townsfolk would leave out bowls filled with dead pests: flies, moths, rodents, and the like, as a thanks. For at least that one night of the year, the moors men would not have to go hunting down their food.
The villagers choose the coldest night of the year for the tradition, for it was on that night that they feared the moors men would be most likely to be in need of food. And as it so happened, that same night became the night of the village’s winter feast.
The village kept growing and became the town of Lavendar. And new settlers soon learned from their mayor and their neighbors the ways of their town. They soon learned that in addition to their visible neighbors, whom they greeted each morn, there were invisible neighbors, who would keep their houses clean and hale. There were those who were troubled by such unusual circumstances and such morbid ceremonies as the night of giving thanks to the moors men. Such folk did not stay long in Lavendar Town.
The winter feast became known by a name that was drunkenly devised from words in the native tongues of the newest townsfolk.
Angfilnott, the Night of Monsters.
The “monstrous men” themselves were not to be named until they were named by their first true enemy.
When the monster-hunters came to town one day, they told the townsfolk that they had heard the legends of the creatures that lived on their land. The hunters had come to help the townsfolk be rid of these creatures. The townsfolk, of course, informed the monster-hunters that they did not need their services. The townsfolk were wise enough to simply say that they were not troubled by any monsters.
But the hunters remained in town, watching. They resisted the townsfolk’s attempts to lead them into carousing and merriment. Their leader in particular was insistent. He convinced the mayor to gather the townsfolk in the main hall.
“These creatures might seem to be harmless at present,” he said one cold night in a hall packed with heavy-coated townsfolk. “But I have witnessed such creatures before. Harmless at first and then…they will soon advance from eating bugs and mice to capturing chickens, dogs, cats, and then small babes, then children, then maidens, and no one will be safe. Men and mothers, women and warriors. None will be safe.”
The mayor rose from his seat and spoke, “We did not ask you to come here and we do not need your aid.”
And the townsfolk harrumphed at the hunter and nodded and hurrahed in support of their mayor.
But the hunters persisted.
And they had done their due diligence in learning as much as they could about the town and the surrounding moors, and the mysterious inhabitants of those moors.
They had timed their visit to coincide with the night of giving thanks, with Angfilnott, so that the moors men would be easier to trap when they came to collect their bowls of treats.
The town’s leaders convened on what they might do, and decided to go to the Lavendars. The first family to settle had continued to march into the moors to try and establish a discourse with the moors men. There were some who said that the family had succeeded, but were keeping their communications secret, perhaps by request of the moors men. The Lavendars never admitted to such.
But when the mayor asked them to warn the moors men of the monster-hunters’ plan, the Lavendars said they would do their best.
And the town’s leaders would not just rely on the Lavendars. Angfilnott was approaching, and they needed some other strategy to foil the hunters and protect their neighbors.
And so they devised a strategy, one that would require the help of all the townsfolk. The mayor asked his people to trust him, and he gave them instructions for preparing for the winter’s feast. All who could hammer, and stitch, and sew, were put to work preparing grand costumes. The work was not done in secret. For secrets could not be kept by so many. The mayor told his people to tell the hunters the truth should they ask. But curiously, even the leader of the monster-hunters did not ask.
The mayor warned the hunters not to harm any of the feasters if the hunters insisted on hunting during the night of the festival, as he well knew that they did.
First were set out the bowls of vermin, the thanksgiving. Then, the townsfolk came out into the streets. And as they did, they startled the hunters. For the townsfolk were dressed up as monsters, as they imagined the moors men to be—some tall and scaly, some with large pale eyes, eyes made of glass and inset with burning candles, and some producing strange moanings (sounds never heard from the moors men, but made in hopes of fooling the hunters). Dressed such, the townsfolk roamed all over town, hoping that when the real moors men appeared to claim their bowls of thanksgiving, if even for a moment, the sharp-eyed hunters would not be able to tell, and would not harm anyone.
No children were allowed to wear the costumes, just in case any of the hunters got overzealous and mistakenly attacked a costumed townsperson.
At first, all was well and the ruse appeared to be working. The main ceremonies ended without incident. The townsfolk were well-versed in knowing which flickering shadows were just shadows and which were the moors men. The moors men had come. Perhaps the Lavendars had failed to warn them. Perhaps they had succeeded and the moors men had come anyway.
In addition to the costumes, the townsfolk had made sweets in the shapes of vermin. These too they did not hide from the hunters, who believed they were part of the feast. But the vermin-shaped treats were meant to be dropped in the thanksgiving bowls once a bowl became empty, to fool the hunters into believing the moors men had not yet come.
But then, when the feasting had reached a quiet moment, a cry cracked the air.
A few of the townsfolk knew that word.
The leader of the hunters had uttered the cry. And the other hunters began to swarm toward him.
The hunters believed they had caught one of the moors men. The townsfolk followed the hunters, trying to distract them, hinder them. But the hunters, driven by their leader’s call, began to push aside the townsfolk. All pretense of courtesy gone, the hunters roughly shoved and punched any of the townsfolk who got in their way. They almost trampled a man, who by luck was pulled up and saved by his fellows.
And that at last, was when the monsters appeared.
They flickered in and out of view in the waning torchlights of the feast. They were indeed monstrous. Tall and scaly and sinewy. Fearsome and cloaked in shadow. Speaking their secret language. The night air was field with their furious hissing. They flickered into view and struck at the hunters, swiping with clawed hands, and lashing with their long tails.
The townsfolk scattered. Most fled and hid. A few held steady and tried to fight the hunters. But they were outmatched.
The battle raged but for less than an hour.
But all the through the night, there were cries of pain, sputtering hisses, and the roaring crackle of fires burning.
When morning came, the townsfolk found that most of the hunters were gone. The town’s mayor threw any remaining hunters out of town, for the constable and his deputies had managed to capture a few. The mayor locked the gates against the hunters and any other travelers until he could see to his people.
For the first time, the townsfolk saw what the moors men looked like, because there were dead ones in the streets of the town, most in the town center, where the feast had been held.
When first the moors men had shown themselves, many of the townsfolk had feared them. Perhaps the moors men had known it would be so. Perhaps that was why they kept themselves hidden from human sight.
But by the light of morning, the eyes of the townsfolks saw only the dead bodies of their neighbors.
None of the townsfolk seemed to have been killed, though many had been harmed during the battle.
One man broke the silence with sad and solemn gratitude as he told his fellow townsfolk that one of the moors men appeared in a blink just before him, and took the blow from a dagger that would otherwise have pierced him. He found the body of that moors man and knelt beside it as tears coursed down his cheeks.
As he wept, others too began to weep, for the moors men.
The mayor climbed to a dais and spoke words of comfort to his townsfolk. Then he spotted people approaching the town’s center. As they drew closer, his eyes widened, and he climbed down and went to meet them.
For the eldest of the Lavendar children was approaching, and beside her walked a moors man dressed in flowing green cloth light as cobwebs.
The townsfolk gasped and gazed and made way.
The eldest Lavendar child spoke on behalf of the one who stood beside her, whom she said was an envoy.
“After all these years of trying to speak with them,” the eldest child said, “I thought I would be happy on the day I succeeded. Alas, it is the saddest day of my life.”
The mayor bowed to the envoy, formally welcoming him to the town, and asking forgiveness for not protecting his people.
“The people of Lavendar showed themselves to be true friends,” the eldest said. “Our neighbors know who their true enemies are.”
The mayor smiled a kind smile at the envoy then. He offered his hand and his name, and he asked, “May I have your name, friend?”
“Allfeistus,” the eldest child said, as the envoy clasped hands with the mayor.
The mayor’s smile faded and his brow winced.
“They have taken the name their enemy gave them,” the eldest explained. “They will take on another once they have justice.” She turned to the envoy then and her eyes filled with tears. “If they do not die out in the meantime.”
The eldest explained as best she could that the hunters had indeed taken one of the moors men prisoner. Not just any moors man, but what to them was like a king. Distraught by his capture, his mate, his queen, had left, chasing after them.
“They are not like us,” the eldest said. “They cannot survive without their queen and king. There are successors, but they are not ready. They foresee that their society will diminish.”
The mayor squared his shoulders and jutted his jaw. “Then we must be better friends still. And better neighbors, if you will tell us what we may do.”
“The envoy did not come here to ask for help or even pity,” the eldest said. “He came to give us warning. Without the influence of their monarchs—their queen in particular—the allfeistus will lose their higher senses. Their purpose and their focus. It is their nature, their way. They are not of independent mind, as we humans are. They will revert to their instincts.”
So the envoy entrusted the townsfolk with secret knowledge that they might use to stop his people, if they forgot themselves so much that they forgot their friendship with the townsfolk and became what the hunters feared they would become…monsters.
It is indeed what happened.
The creatures began to steal farm animals, then pets. People clutched their babes and their children closely. They began wearing talismans. They began throwing potions into corners where strange shadows were seen.
But they also continued the tradition of the thanksgiving bowls, and even the wearing of the costumes, in the hopes that the primitive reason of the changed moors men would be appeased, or perhaps fooled. Instead of a feast of thanksgiving, Angfilnott became a feast of something else.
Hopes and fears.
The creatures never hurt the townsfolk. The townsfolk noticed this. But they did not give such courtesy to visitors. The town gained a reputation for being a haunted and unwelcoming place. And when even relatives would not visit, the townsfolk began to entreat the mayor, and the mayor entreated the Lavendars.
And the Lavendars tried to contact the allfeistus again.
But they received no answer.
So passed a year.
As more years passed, the bowls of thanksgiving were observed to go unclaimed. The “monstrous men of the moors” were indeed dying out. They never spoke to the townsfolk, even the Lavendars, again. So the townsfolk could only guess that their queen and king never returned. That any successors were unsuccessful in saving their people.
So came a sad end to a strange people known only to the folk of Lavendar Town.
“Or so they thought,” Uncle Nestor said. And now his eyes were twinkling. “There were always those who claimed to have spotted one, in the moors, just where they were thought to live. And the town continued the feast night, replacing bowls of vermin with bowls of sweets in the shapes of vermin. Pastries twisted into the forms of lizards and mice. Candies made to look like grasshoppers and spiders. And to honor the ‘monsters,’ the townsfolk continued to dress as them. They would light candles to guide the spirits of the allfeistus back to their home to celebrate with them, before they returned to the lands of the dead. The townsfolk would revel during the night, and the next day, they would be solemn and respectful. They would share stories that they never shared before, perhaps out of superstition. It was thus that they truly realized how strange and similar the monsters were to humans. Strange because their cultures and habits were so different. Similar because they did possess spirits and hearts.”
Nisha frowned in confusion. “What do you mean, Uncle?”
He grinned. “The stories tell the story. Stories of children who almost drowned but did not drown in wells and swamps because something pulled them out, something that lived in the shadows and darkness of such places. There was a story of a family being woken in the middle of the night by a ghostly ruckus only to find that their house was on fire. And at first they thought the monsters did it, either by accident or mischief, but it was later discovered that the fire was deliberately set by some villain who wanted vengeance. The monster who woke them did so to warn them.”
Uncle Nestor sighed and crossed his arms. “The townsfolk realized for the second time that the monsters were not monsters. But it was only when they feared that the moors men were finally gone that they came to this realization. For when the moors men first lost their higher senses, in the absence of their leaders, and when they needed help, when their numbers were dwindling, rather than helping, the townsfolk drew back in fear, just as many did on the night of that awful battle.”
Uncle Nestor narrowed his eyes. “One year, on solemnity day, as the townsfolk carried on their tradition of lamenting, a voice among them dissented. A voice who’d known the monsters and knew the folk of the town. ‘There is no shame in fear,’ this voice said. It was the eldest Lavendar daughter. ‘Fear has its purpose, and that purpose is to alert us to danger, so we may avoid it. And they were a danger in their state. You say it is a shame that we honor them now, when it is too late. But my dear townsfolk, it would only be too late if we never honored them at all.’”
“Generations later,” her uncle continued, “an explorer discovered something in the depths of the moors that still lay untamed and unbothered beyond the town. Strange creatures—both fearsome and fearful—living in a hollow. In short time, she realized that these creatures were the monsters in the legends of the nearby town. She saw something in these creatures, something beyond even the sense and spirit she could see in the eyes of her faithful pup, whom she’d brought with her. Into the moors she brought a few others, and they began an experiment. At first it was just to observe. Then to attempt teaching. And then, they noted that the creatures responded most favorably to the women in the research team, seeming to advance in their learning at astonishing speed when taught by a woman, especially an older woman…a woman old enough to be a wise queen.”
“And that explorer, she was my great auntie!”
Her uncle laughed again with a deep-throated chuckle. “No, love. No. But your great auntie was one of the explorer’s later students. And she did help with the research. And so shall you if you so choose.”
Nisha approached the basket, into which her uncle had replaced the pile of blankets and the invisible creatures that lay within them.
“I will do my best to help him.” She leaned over the basket. “So long as he doesn’t try to bite me. Or scratch me.”
She plucked another cricket from the paper packet and held it over the basket.
“Happy Angfilnott, little friend,” Nisha said.
And for just two blinks, she glimpsed a scabrous little arm reaching up to clutch the cricket.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel