A few weeks ago I mentioned a story I wrote that had been nominated for a Pushcart Award a few years ago. The story is entitled “The Shape of a Cage, and it’s included in “Hunting Monsters Is My Business, The Mordecai Slate Stories”
I thought those who haven’t got the book yet might like to read a portion of it, just to get an idea of the kind of story it is. As usual when writing about Slate it’s a mixture of fantasy and realism, horror and adventure, and as always a contemplation of something beyond the surface level of the story.
This is the opening of the story, and you’ll notice the complete lack of exposition. There’s no info dump. You meet a character called the Beast Man and it isn’t even until the end of the section that you discover who the Beast Man really is. You’re not told anything about how he came to be the Beast Man or what he’s doing in that cage. That all comes later in the story.
Hope you enjoy it.
The Shape of a Cage
The Beast Man awakened. It was cold, and even though half his body was covered in fur, he shivered. His misshapen teeth—teeth more wolf-like than human—chattered and clicked from the frigid temperature. Daylight was coming. He curled up in a ball at the bottom of his cage, trying to warm himself. They’d rolled the cage out of the small tent where he was put on exhibition during the afternoon and evening, and set it out on the midway. The cage smelt of straw and urine, and his own waste. They hadn’t taken the honey bucket out yet. They would do that before the crowds arrived. They’d take the bucket and throw him some food. Usually bread and some sort of greenish gruel that tasted like spoiled peas. They would throw buckets of water in through the bars to clear off the stench. They’d throw water on him too. It wouldn’t do to have the customers think they weren’t treating one of the carnival’s main attractions humanely. He might be a horrid beast, a vicious monster, but even a creature like that deserved to be cleaned and fed.
“Hey!” a voice yelled. “Wake up!” He felt the stick in the small of his back. The Beast Man rolled over. His savage eyes fell on the short squat figure of a man standing outside the cage. He wore a blue Naval Office’s jacket, a visored cap, white trousers, and he had a stick in one hand and a whip in the other. A pistol was holstered on his hip. It was Captain Carlson.
“Did you hear me?” he yelled. “I said wake up.” He jabbed the beast man several more times with the stick. The hairy creature got to his feet slowly. He stood over six feet tall, with powerful looking shoulders and arms, a deep chest and broad back. He wore a ragged set of overalls over red long johns. Massive amounts of chest hair bulged out of the overalls, and the back of his hands and the top of his bare feet were covered in thick black hair. Thick black fur covered his neck and parts of his face. He snarled at the man, and swiped at the stick with a clawed hand. A growl rumbled up from his chest and he threw himself against the bars and reached through them for Carlson.
“That’s the way,” Carlson said. He jabbed at him some more with the stick. “That’s more like it. The Beast Man. That’s what they pay to see. A savage freak. Something out of a nightmare. When the gates open, Beast Man, I want them to see you at your best.”
The creature growled more savagely than before and lunged, reaching as far as he could through the bars for the throat of the man who tormented him, making the cage rock on its wheels. Carlson jumped back and uncoiled the whip. He cracked it loud and hard and the Beast Man shrank back, holding his arm, crying out like an animal in pain.
“Good!” Carlson said. “That’s what I want. A real performance.” A thin man with a beard walked up to him carrying a fresh honey bucket and a bowl full of gruel. Carlson coiled up the whip and slung it over his shoulder. “Go ahead, Haney,” he told the bearded man. “Open it up and give him his breakfast.” He pulled the pistol from the holster and pointed it at the Beast Man. “Get in the corner, away from the door,” he shouted. The monster stood where he was. Carlson fired a shot and a bullet tore through the roof of the cage. The Beast Man backed away. “Into the corner,” Carson yelled and cocked the hammer. The creature moved further back. A door in the opposite wall of the cage opened. Haney climbed in.
“You keep that gun on him,” he told Carlson. He put the pot and bowl down nervously and picked up the old pot and jumped back out. The door slammed shut and Carlson holstered the revolver.
“Enjoy your breakfast,” he said, “Eat up. You’ve got people to entertain!” He grinned smugly, and walked away.
The beast man watched him walk down past the wagons, tents, and concession stands and climb up the steps of a large yellow wagon that had the words “Captain Carlson’s Carnival of the Fantastic,” written on the side in big red letters.
Daylight was growing brighter. The carnival folk were about, getting ready for the day’s work. He saw the fat lady, the midgets, the lizard boy coming out of their tents on their way to the main chow tent, where most of the carnival attractions ate. He was not allowed to eat there. He was too wild to be set free among the others. Captain Carson told him he needed to be broken first. He needed to see the necessity of “fitting in” before he’d be allowed any kind of personal freedom.
He looked at the green slop in the bowl. Went over to it and knelt down and picked it up. He raised it to his nose and wanted to throw it out through the bars. It wasn’t fit for human consumption. But he knew he needed to down it. He needed the nourishment, meager and disgusting as it was. He needed to keep his strength. Someday he would break out and he would kill Captain Carlson. He would need to stay strong as possible until then.
He reached inside his shirt and pulled out a small rectangle of silver that hung from his neck by a leather thong. The figure of an eagle in flight was engraved on it. He squeezed his fist around it and held it tight, as if it had some special power that could help him. That might keep him alive just long enough to get his revenge. He seemed to gather some strength from it. After a while, he let go of it and lifted the bowl to his mouth, held his nose, and poured the mush down his throat.
The morning dragged on as it always did. He watched the other carnival attractions walk by his cage on their way from the chow tent to their own tents, where they would prepare for the day’s show. Lorenzo the Malaysian Snake boy, 16 years old with the skin of a reptile walked by and as he got close to the cage, his two foot-long tongue shot out and snatched a fly from the air. Niko the Geek, the man who bit the heads off live chickens, walked past his cage with a hot cup of coffee in his hands. His hands shook and the coffee spilled over the brim as he walked. His hangover was worse than usual today. Felicity, the 500 pound dark-skinned fat woman from Borneo, dressed in a grass skirt, waddled on by. She gave him a lascivious wink and said, “Hya, handsome!” as she waddled by.
And despite the calm demeanor each of them displayed the all had one thing in common. They reeked of fear. He could smell it on them. They were afraid of the man with the whip and the gun. The man who had plucked them out of whatever miserable world he had found them in during the course of his sea-faring travels. He’d found them and lured them with promises of food and shelter for the rest of their lives in some cases. In others, the freaks who could not speak, or had much mobility, like the legless man from Siam, and the girl with no arms and no tongue, it had been a matter of outright kidnapping. They were his prisoners, his chattel. He could do what he wanted with them because there was no one else who cared about these castoffs of society. They were the unwanted, the discarded, the wreckage that could only be viewed by civilized society, when it was locked in a cage.
But then, later, at what he judged from the position of the sun to be ten o’clock, she came and stopped by his cage. The way she did every morning over the four weeks he’d been there. She came from Captain Carlson’s wagon on her way to her own sideshow tent. She stopped and stood there looking in at him, Elois, the Mermaid Girl, with her large green eyes, eyes the color of the sea. She was beautiful. Her small oval face was framed by long yellow hair that seemed made of spun gold. She wore a simple calico dress that, despite its plainness, revealed a delicate, but shapely figure. The gold slippers on her feet gave her the look of a princess. She stood there for a long minute staring up at him.
“I know how you feel,” she said. Her words startled him. It was the first time she had spoken to him. Her voice was as soft and melodious as he imagined it would be. “I know what you must be suffering.” He stepped closer to the bars and grabbed hold of them. “I’m a prisoner too,” she said. “I don’t know if you can understand me,” she said. “But I want you to know that I suffer too.”
He knew she must have suffered a great deal. He had seen the bruises on her arms and shoulders that Captain Carlson had given her. Today there were fresh marks on her wrist, where his fingers had left their impression.
“Every night in my tent I swim in a big tank of water,” she said. “I dive underwater and stay down five minutes, and everyone marvels, and applauds. They think it’s a trick. They come back the next day or evening, and buy another ticket to see if they can figure out how I do it. But it’s not a trick. The water is my home. Not the water in the tank. My home is in the sea.” A tear spilled out of the corner of her eye and glistened on her cheek. “There are many kinds of cages, Beast Man. They come in many shapes. I hate my tank as much as you hate these bars.” She smiled at him sadly. “I want to go back to my home, where my kind live. But I can’t. I have been away too long. I have been on dry land so long, that if I tried to go home, the sea would not accept me. I would drown like any other woman. I am trapped here. Yes, I know how much you are suffering.”
The Beast Man grabbed hold of the bars and stared down at her in silence.
“We all live in one kind of a cage or another,” the girl said.
He reached a hand out through the bars and started to speak but all that came out of his throat was the grunt of an animal. At that moment Captain Carlson came strutting down the midway.
“Elois,” he yelled. “What are you doing here? Haven’t I told you I don’t want you getting near him? He’s very dangerous.”
“I shouldn’t wonder,” the girl said. “The way you keep him locked up.”
“It’s necessary, my love,” the captain said. He put his arm around her shoulders and looked up at the Beast Man. “Eventually he will learn how to behave here in our little world. He will learn the lesson of the whip and the gun. And then, perhaps, we can let him out of his cage.” He turned to her and raised his hand and caressed her cheek with his thick fingers. “Until then, my dear, please, stay away from him.” His fingers moved to her chin, and lifted her face up, and he kissed her. “Now, don’t you have something to do? Didn’t you say you wanted to try a new dive today? Shouldn’t you be practicing it?”
“Yes, Eric,” Elois said. “As you say. I have things to do.” She shot a last short glance up at the Beast Man then walked off to her tent.
Captain Carlson stood with his hands on his hips, smiling up at the Beast Man. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “I know what a beast like you has on his mind.” He uncoiled the whip looped over his shoulder and cracked it loud in between the bars. The Beast Man jumped back, growling. “Don’t even think of entertaining a thought like that,” Captain Carlson said, cracking the whip again and again. “Don’t,” he said, “or I will kill you.”
Later Haney pushed his cage back inside his tent. He was new to the carnival, so only a makeshift sign was written on a small sheet of plywood that hung outside on the front of the tent. The words, “Beast Man” were written in black paint.
It was a Saturday and when the noon hour came the gates opened, and the kids and adults from Tucson came straggling in. Captain Carlson stood on a stage not far from the entrance barking the rubes in.
“Come one, come all,” he began. “Welcome to Captain Carlson’s Carnival of the Fantastic. For one thin dime, ladies and gentlemen your eyes will see things they have never seen before. I promise you a host of weird wonders that I have found in my travels all over the world. Freaks of nature from exotic places you never dreamed possible.” He pointed to a tent to his left. “In yonder tent you will find Lorenzo, the Malaysian Snake Boy, half cobra, half-human. A one-of-a-kind marvel. Further down, see the 500 pound bearded fat lady of Borneo. See Niko the Geek, all the way from Patagonia, who will bite the head off a live chicken right before your very eyes.” He cracked his whip in the air.
“Gathered from the far corners of the world, during my sea journeys to far and dangerous places, these attractions are presented for your amusement and amazement.” He pointed to the farthest tent. “Over there, for example, ladies and gentlemen, in that far tent, a special added attraction, brand new to the carnival. Perhaps the wildest, strangest, most fearsome feature here on the midway.” He cracked the whip again and it sounded like a pistol shot. “Half Man-Half Wolf, this creature has only just recently been captured. He’s still wild, so be careful when you enter his tent. Believe me, if he got free he’d tear each and every one of you limb from limb. He’d tear your gizzard out and eat your liver.”
Half a dozen wide-eyed boys and their equally spellbound fathers, stood gaping up at the Captain. He jumped down from the stage and marched with them to the tent with the makeshift wooden sign, where Haney waited, ready to take the customers’ money.
Haney pulled the tent flap away and the crowd poured inside. Captain Carlson led them right up to the cage that stood on big red wheels against the back wall.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Captain Carlson bellowed, “I present for your amusment – the Beast Man!”
They stood in awe of the monster standing at the bars, growling and spitting at them; a savage man-wolf.
Mordecai Slate looked at the crowd standing in front of his cage— the saucer-eyed farm boys, their amazed fathers and their horrified mothers. A little girl cried and a woman screamed. Slate grabbed hold of the bars of his cage and shook them with an angry growl. Mordecai Slate, once the greatest monster hunter of the West, now a newly transformed creature, half-man, half-wolf—something out of a nightmare, now an attraction in a carnival sideshow.
(C) 2014 John M. Whalen