Johnson County Library is pleased to announce that Avah D. has won second place in the 12-14 age group for the Scary Stories 2021 Youth Writing Contest with her piece "The Storyteller"
“Mama, tell me a story.”
The girl loves stories, gobbles them down like sugar. The words fill her up, twisty and sharp and smooth, and come to life behind her eyes.
She requests a story most every night, as the waves rock her to sleep. Mama lights a candle and sits by her bed in the hard wooden chair and tells her a story, finishing right when the candle winks out with a wisp of smoke. By that time the girl will be nearly asleep, so Mama will kiss her brow and softly pad back to the crew’s quarters.
She has a faint memory from long ago, when the rocking was of her cradle, and the light illuminating Mama’s face was the light of a roaring hearth fire. She remembers more vividly the story Mama told her their last night in that cozy cottage—a story about a journey at sea.
Two of her favorite stories now run rampant in her mind. The first is the tale of a being that had slipped through the folds between worlds and found itself trapped in ours, confined in the body of a shaggy red forest fox with amber eyes. But such an otherworldly force could not be contained in a mere animal. Every blood moon, its power would break free for a few hours, and it would ravage the land. But it wasn’t truly a monster. It was just trapped, far from its world, longing to get home. It is a sad story, but the girl loves it.
The second is the tale of a proud king with a secret: he was blind. He told no one, fearing that he would seem weak. The king had a leopard to guide him so that no one would suspect his blindness. One day, he confided in the leopard that a blind king surely had no place on the throne. The leopard replied, kindly, “Justice needs not sight.” But the king began to fear that his faithful leopard might betray him, and so the king exiled the leopard to protect his secret. To this day, the king never leaves his throne, unable to tend to his kingdom.
Her favorite stories always make her feel warm, like she is beside the cottage hearth again. In her mind, she can step out of the creaky cabin and make those magical worlds real.
She settles herself into her covers as Mama says, “What would you like tonight, little one?”
“Something new,” the girl says. “Tell me a scary story—one that will make my bones rattle and the shadows on the wall grow fangs and claws.”
Mama hesitates for a moment, then sits down on the chair, lights a candle, and begins. “Once there was a queen who had two sons. The younger son, who would never inherit the throne, resented his older brother terribly. Over time, his anger and hatred consumed him. He went to see a witch to rid him of those feelings, but her spell was a curse. When the spell separated the prince from his anger and resentment, those emotions—raw and dark and powerful and now unchecked by the good that was inside the prince—took on a life of their own and became a great Beast. The Beast slew the prince and fled into the sea’s depths.”
The girl’s eyes widen. “What does the Beast look like?” she asks.
“Some say it has long tentacles with suckers,” Mama says. “Others say it has ten thousand teeth longer than swords. Still others say it has glowing red eyes that make men lose their minds. But no one really knows, because no one who has encountered the Beast has lived to tell the tale.
“The Beast, you see, will wait in the depths for an unlucky ship to sail through the blackest of nights. It will stroke the waters to call the winds and currents to drive the ship to where the Beast awaits. And then it strikes.” Mama closes her eyes. “No one can survive the Beast, little one. It is made to rip out your soul, like what had once been done to it. It feasts on terror and helplessness.”
The girl shivers, even as the Beast nestles into her thoughts with the whirlwind of other stories. She feels the undulating water and senses its murky depths like never before. She imagines a fox, a blind king, and an endless darkness pricked by two red eyes, watching her.
“The Beast gave itself a name. And whenever someone summons it by name, it hears…and seeks.” Mama’s voice drops into a trancelike whisper. Her ragged red hair hangs limply, and her eyes, amber-colored in the candlelight, are sad and unfocused. “Its name…” Her lips part in the beginning of a word. The girl leans closer, eager and terrified. Her mind twists the unspoken word into a writhing thing until the Beast’s name has shape and form and voice.
Mama’s lips snap closed. She stands up and gently pushes the chair back into the corner. The candle is almost out, but the girl is wide awake, trembling. “It’s just a story,” Mama says comfortingly.
“Nothing is ever just a story.”
The candle snuffs out, and the room plunges into darkness. The girl looks for Mama, but she’s gone. The corner chair is smashed, with a tuft of red fur caught in the splinters. The girl steps out of her cabin. In the sightless dark, a man in robes feels his way along the deck. She rushes to the rail, shivering in the moonless night, and stands alone, fear gripping her. She peers at the water, through the inky darkness. She tells herself she’s imagining the twin red glows coming from far below, growing clearer and clearer. She wraps her arms around herself, stepping back, but then the water parts, and something rises up from the depths.
The girl’s scream splits the air, but no one is left to hear it.
The ship sinks into the night.