The howls begin at the same time every night. When the guttering candles have flamed their last, when the boys are sleeping and my husband is sharpening his axe, I hear their screams. Tonight, it is our turn to hunt the spindle beasts and for that I am thankful.
I nod at my husband and he gathers his weapon. It is my instinct that will sniff out the beasts and it is his strength and his axe that will behead them. The abominations cannot be allowed to live – all the villagers know this. Their very existence desecrates the name of our God and stains all that we hold holy. Tonight we will kill one of the beasts and tomorrow it will be the job of another family. Together the villagers will destroy every last trace of the evil that dwells in the dark corners of our great forest.
Outside the night air prickles my throat. I walk ahead of my husband. I know what to look for. The spindle beasts try to hide their long bodies in the undergrowth beneath the trees. They fold up their thin and crooked limbs and tuck their hideous faces into their chins. And they wait. When they spot an unsuspecting traveller they unfold themselves and creep behind the walker. They are silent as death and hungry as hell. When their quarry is tired and weak, the spindle beasts stretch out their rickety arms and legs and grab the lonesome walker. They fasten their dribbling mandibles onto their neck and they suck and suck until their victim has no blood or life left in them.
I know the smell of them. I can distinguish their black limbs from the brown branches and thistles of the undergrowth. I have learned the art of hunting and I am good at what I do. I will pass down these skills to my children and they will pass them down to theirs. My daughter was a great hunter but I was too soft with her and she got sloppy. I will not make the same mistake again. I will be hard with my boys. I will not lose them as I lost her.
There’s a sound in the bush just ahead of us. I turn to my husband and nod in the direction of the noise. He raises his axe and walks beside me, waiting for my cue. I stare into his eyes and wonder whether my eyes are as dark and round with fear as his are. He grips his axe tighter. The spindle beast is aware of our presence now, I can hear it clicking and rattling as it gets ready to unfold and pounce. We tread carefully. We cannot afford to make a mistake. A single beast can decimate five people in one swoop. I touch my husband’s arm gently and we walk in unison towards the rustling bush.
A low moan begins to emanate from the dark undergrowth beneath a large tree. A wild panic begins to kick at my heart. If the beast begins to howl, it will attract its brothers and sisters and we will be lost. I pull my knife from its sheath and walk ahead of my husband. He nods and lowers his axe. I am so close to the beast, I can smell its rot. I hold my knife firmly in my hand and straighten my back. This is no time for fear or uncertainty. I hold out my arm and I slice a good six inch gash into my skin with the knife. I am careful to avoid the older scars already there. And then I wait. My husband places his axe upon the floor and then sits on the path. I try not to see his tears.
The spindle beast emerges slowly from the dark vegetation. It is drawn by the smell of blood and perhaps something more. Perhaps recognition. I know it is foolish to think this but I am a mother and a mother’s curse is her hope.
I lower my head so as not to startle the beast as it emerges. Its dark limbs are covered with fine, black hairs that glisten in the moonlight. Since the last time I saw it, its body has increased in size threefold. It is naked so it is still possible to see its tiny breasts and stomach. These last remnants of humanity will soon be gone. I can see the hard crust already covering most of its skin. I do not want to look at its face but I am a mother and I need to see. I can still see her beautiful blue eyes in the mess and tangle of new flesh that is growing there. Her mouth is large and looks like the maw of a spider now. But her eyes. If I just look into her eyes, I can still see my daughter.
She sniffs at the blood. I close my eyes as she opens her over large mouth and fastens herself onto my arm. I know just how much to let her take before I become weak. I know my husband will be behind me and when I fall back with exhaustion, he will take over and offer our daughter his blood too.
For now, she is satiated. With a belly full of her parents’ blood, she folds herself back up into the undergrowth and will sleep for six nights. We can calculate the night when she will awaken. We recognise her howls. We manipulate the village poll to ensure that it will always be our turn to hunt when our daughter awakens. It has worked so far but something about the length of my daughter’s body and the violence in her eyes tells me that no matter how much we bleed for her, soon the blood of her parents will no longer be enough.