Rena pressed himself up against the rough bark of the tree. It was massive, large enough to hide his slender form from sight, though that served also to restrict his vision.
Yes. His vision, his body.
Old Grim had told Rena that thought precedes action, that attitude determines outcome.
If Rena thought male thoughts, then a male she– he would be.
A sound of cracking branches drew Rena’s mind back to the task. Something in the distance… a deer? It had to be that big, for the sound was shockingly loud.
Rena turned to face the tree trunk, pressed his relatively flat chest against the bark. Would that change, when Rena brought back the trophy, become muscular and totally flat? Rena had never spent much time thinking about such matters of physique, for the last time there had been a man in the village was before Rena could remember.
Peering out around the tree, Rena squinted to see the noise maker.
A rabbit bounded out of a bush, little twigs caught on its hind legs. The twigs that had snapped, tiny little things that could not have made the amount of noise Rena thought she– he had heard.
Rena’s hand flew to the slingshot, worn at the hip, on sight of the rabbit. The reflex was unnecessary, Rena knew, for the third beast had already been caught. Rena was unsure what the rabbit represented to the gods, but had made the sacrifice all the same.
The trouble inherent in catching a rabbit without traps had surprised Rena. Much more trouble than the fourth beast, the mother wolf.
It was true that the wolf was more dangerous, but it also did not run and hide the same way a rabbit did. Rena spent far less time tracking, and ultimately killing, the wolf. It gave her– him some confidence that the final sacrifice would be a simple matter.
That had been a week ago.
Almost no one knew what her final quarry was, not really, and those that did know were forbidden to say. Rena would recognize the target when he came across it.
Old Grim paced back and forth in the education hall, leaning hard on a cane as gnarled and twisted as her own skin.
The girls watched the teacher, mostly paying attention. Rena let her hand slide over toward Serai’s, skipping it along the wooden planks of the floor.
Serai smiled without looking at Rena and waggled her pinkie out to the side, letting it brush Rena’s forefinger. Chills slid up from Rena’s hand.
“The time is coming,” said Old Grim. “We must soon select our candidate. Some of the other villages have started their own selection process early.” The bitter disdain in Old Grim’s voice drew Rena’s hand back a bit, and the teacher shot a look at Rena in response to the motion.
Serai spoke up to cover for Rena. “I thought we had to wait until the fourth moon.”
Old Grim nodded and hobbled over to a chalkboard. “Every fifteen years the cycles shift and we get an extra moon at the end of the year.” She lifted the cane to tap at the diagram of moon phases depicted on the chalkboard, its tip clacking as if to emphasize her points. “It is legal for us to make our selection now, though tradition dictates we ought to wait.”
Rena chewed her lip. The selection had come so fast. She worried that Serai would be chosen. Serai was the most beautiful, the most gracious, the most kind. Without question, Serai was the best among them, further evidenced by the fact that Serai did not seem to realize it.
And Serai was Rena’s friend.
In the last year, Serai had become… her very good friend.
Rena could never have expected it, herself somewhat homely and unskilled in the domestic arts. Why would someone as perfect as Serai give Rena the attention, the time?
Because she is the best among us, Rena told herself. And because she is the best, they will choose her.
“You girls,” Old Grim said. “You are our final candidates. For the last two cycles, we have had no successful candidates. That is fifteen years without a man. Our village will collapse in upon itself in time if we do not succeed this time.”
The teacher moved with deliberate pace to the desk at the other side of the room, her pupils watching in stony silence. They had all seen villages that went too long without selecting a man. Most dissolved after fifteen years.
Serai grabbed Rena’s hand and squeezed it, her perfect eyes gazing and her perfect lips pursed in concern.
Old Grim gathered a stack of papers and turned to the class. “Please, do your best to answer each question honestly. If we pick the wrong candidate…”
She let the sentence trail off and passed the pages to the first row of girls.
Rena prepared herself to be the most honest she could.
Rena snapped his head up, blinking eyes.
Dangerous out here, out in no-woman’s-land.
No time to sleep, but Rena caught a few winks here and there where she– he could. Not like this, though. Too dangerous to risk napping here.
Memories of the fight with the wolf started Rena into motion. Gathering up the pack that had slipped to the ground, Rena pushed off of the tree and moved forward.
Rena could not be sure which direction he faced. With the dense canopy in this area, and nearly identical trees all around, keeping track was hard. Rena had tried to mark the trunks of trees to keep track but had started doing that too late. Now the marks were meaningless.
Which way should Rena go?
What had Old Grim said?
Rena closed her– his eyes and summoned the memory of the lesson.
“You will know,” Old Grim had said. She set the handle of the cane against Rena’s torso. “You will feel it here. Trust your instincts.”
“But what if I am not the right one?” Rena had asked. She had worried it could be Serai, but never considered she herself might be chosen.
“Trust that you are.” Old Grim laid a hand on Rena’s shoulder. The first human contact she had had in the month leading up to the trials. “The gods require this of you, and so you shall do it.”
Rena opened his eyes.
Around the gnawing gape in a stomach that demanded sustenance, there was another sensation. Rena had felt it before, leaping about when chasing the rabbit, strong and solid and true when pursuing the mother wolf. Could that be it?
Rena turned in place, feeling the pressure shift about. Like with the wolf, the pressure stayed in one direction.
That way, then.
Setting a stone into the pocket of her– his sling, Rena set off in that direction.
What little sunlight penetrated the canopy of leaves here faded as Rena walked. The dim made it hard to tell, but Rena thought the area looked familiar. Had Rena walked through here already?
Instincts screamed as a shriek pierced the twilight. Rena’s mind buzzed as adrenaline coursed its way through his body.
Running toward the commotion, Rena’s eyes widened as he saw something entirely unexpected.
Serai struggled on the leaf-covered forest floor with a snake, a giant of a serpent, that had wrapped its way around the girl’s dainty ankle.
Without thinking, Rena rushed forward, daring not to fire the slingshot. Missing the snake could mean hitting Serai.
Instead, Rena clubbed the snake with the slingshot’s handle. It took several hits to get it to let go of the girl’s leg.
The spot in Rena’s gut screamed as the snake fought back.
Could the snake be the fifth beast?
A snake had been the first beast. What could that mean?
The snake fell still, its head smashed now. Rena’s breath came heavy, Serai’s was thready.
“What are you doing out here?”
Serai gulped. “I was worried about you. I know we are not permitted to leave the village during the trial, but…”
The pressure still screeched at Rena, though the snake was dead. The same pressure that had alleviated when she– he had killed the first four beasts.
Rena met Serai’s eyes then.
The girl, the perfectly lovely, perfectly feminine thing that had loved Rena.
Suddenly, she knew.
“The fifth beast,” Rena breathed.
“I don’t understand,” said Serai.
With tears sliding down his face, Rena stepped away and pulled the slingshot taut.
– – – – –
And now the post-game analysis, brought to you by anxiety. Anxiety. The true writer’s best friend.
I have taken up the charge of writing a response to another flash fiction challenge. Over at terribleminds, Chuck Wendig presented a semi-random title challenge. I rolled two 16’s, giving me the words Fifth and Beast. The only other constraints were that the title could only be modified by an article beforehand (which is how I snagged that THE), the word count needed to be below 1500, and it had to be a story.
These flash fiction challenges have been great for me because I am starting to get a better sense of what constitutes a story. I mean, on some basic level, I know what is a story and what is not, but when looking at your own work it is easy to get a bit mixed up on it. A lot of the story remains in the writer’s head, never reaching the page, and that backlog of material that is not directly relevant to the story at hand can sometimes seep into your thinking about what the reader sees.
The reader, obviously (and thankfully) does not get that behind-the-scenes look at what went into your writing. They just get the end product, refined, trimmed of all the unnecessary bits. At Gen Con, Jim Butcher mentioned how he sometimes has trouble with remembering the Official History of The Dresden Files because so many possibilities are considered and discarded before the final draft is submitted.
Fortunately, this is much more manageable with flash fiction. There is not much room for large worlds and complicated development. Sometimes you might like to think about that even for flash fiction, but I find that the tiny pieces like this help me get down to the nitty gritty. (In novel length works, the scope for stuff to think about is wide. When you start thinking on a series scope, it gets pretty wild.)
“The Fifth Beast” was another step outside my comfort zone. First of all, the title. There are a lot of different things you can do with “Fifth Beast.”
Obviously, the term ‘beast’ has some cultural ramifications. To me, it takes my mind to something more primal than the modern world. Or at least something different, something wild, something untamed.
Whenever you start numbering things, they take on a certain importance. Before, these items were existing in a sort of independent way, but numbering them calls them out, and associates them with the other numbered items. Does that sound too metaphysical? Maybe, but it seems relevant.
Think about, say, the fifth banana. There are some implications just from that phrase. Obviously, we had four preceding bananas. That is plain, but what sits just beneath the surface is that these bananas were important enough for us to count them. Maybe Jorge is on a banana eating frenzy, and he’s already to his fifth banana. Maybe Mary is haggling with an alien race who use potassium-based currency and she decides to increase her offering by twenty percent.
Speaking of bananas, having a bunch of those around is a quick way for me to reach the fifth jar of peanut butter. Mm. Bananas and peanut butter.
Now I have to clean up the fifth drop of drool from my keyboard. Thanks a lot.
Anyway. Back to the story that I actually wrote here: I was not sure where to take the story. My wife suggested that I try something with “Fifth the Beast,” which did resonate with me to some degree. I checked the rules on the challenge and it seemed to indicate this would be outside the bounds. While I would not let that stop me from writing the story I want to write, I decided to try and find a solution that let me conform. (Yes, art and conformity are not mutually exclusive. Talk about your unpopular opinions…)
W.E. Mitchell, to whom I turn for unconventional viewpoints, turned me on to the idea that you see executed above, a story of a woman who must become a man for the good of her people. Obviously, that still left some room for interpretation, but as we briefly discussed it, I pegged on an idea and decided to go for it.
Gender issues are something that will be important in the years to come. It seems to me that, until recently, Western culture did not have the capacity to really understand the ways that people are different. Now we can at least make a pass at understanding, with modern psychology and physiology clarifying to some degree what makes a person who they are. Before those sciences came to the forefront, it was anyone’s guess.
Our culture has not entirely kept up with the new information available to us. I think that is because the information is coming faster than we can absorb it, and changes are slower than the flow of data. Maybe this means some sort of tipping point will be reached. I wonder if the two potential sides of that tip will be either full-on logical rationalism where only the facts matter, or full-on dismissal of science and a turning-inward to what we know innately.
(I realize that is probably a bit dramatic, but I am a writer here. In some twisted way, I like to — nay, NEED to — think about how things will go wrong. Maybe that makes me a bad person. Maybe I’m okay with that as long as it makes me a little money along the way, yeah?)
Anyway. I could not get too involved with the world of “The Fifth Beast.” There just was not room for it. But I hope that I implied enough of the world that readers can fill in a lot of the blanks on their own. If I can master that, then, hey, maybe I will sell something after all.