The Bar and the Beasts
I had been stranded in my chamber for years, perhaps even decades. No sickness or physical impediment barred me from the outdoors, only a simple, infinite dread of the outside world. Elevated above the city, I was severed from a life which was not invisible, for I could see them all, some distance below me, milling to and fro, streaming this way and that, through the streets. Such terror was the population, that I gained a faint pleasure at being able to view it, as one views the cold while seated before a fire, remaining completely sheltered from it. The nature of my dread was complex and apparently diffuse. It was not attached to one particular aspect of that outside world, it was not horror at the weight of the crowd, fear of attack, the pressure of social interaction, the revulsion of humiliation, of failure to be accepted into the mass as a functioning being, which prohibited me from venturing outside, but rather all of those problems combined, and something more, something unidentifiable. Indeed, I often felt that I was imprisoned in my tower by a multi-headed monster, something too terrible to eye directly, but with an aura of horror so potent that it need not be viewed, or even adequately understood, to dictate my life.
There was war coming though. I would creep to my door and listen to the men and women as they passed, those strange folks of high rank, and hear them speak of the army, the threat approaching from across the horizon. It would not be long. Everything would change, regardless of my fears, regardless of the monster at the door. I determined, then, that I must be prepared. If we were to be overwhelmed (which seemed likely, for there was little hope in the hushed voices slipping past my door,) then I would be forced to confront the dread of the world. No longer would I be able to hide myself in my chamber, secure at the top of the tower. I could no longer stay, but I could not submit myself to the idea of leaving, or at least allowing others to see me leave, and understand that I was attempting to reintegrate myself with the exterior world. Adamant that, if I must make such an alteration to my life, I must make it privately, I waited for nightfall, drew my cloak tight about myself, raised the collar and slipped past my guards, sliding through the door of the tower, hurrying down the stairs, and finally arrived at the front door. A brief pause, and I was in the street. At midnight, the moon suspended hopelessly above my head, the city appeared empty, and I found myself calm, indeed I wondered why I had been afraid at all. Making my way down what I judged to be the main street, I was eventually confronted by a pool of light, which, upon closer inspection, revealed itself to be several pools of light, spilling from the windows of a tavern. It was not simply light which came clamouring through the windows, though, but noise, and my heartbeat quickened with the sound of conversation, of life. Of people.
I had ventured this far, though, and with little strife to hinder me, so I determined that I ought to enter the public house. There is trauma in the memory..the voices, the weaving traces of tobacco smoke, the scent, the bustle of a contained crowd and yet…I was not overtly afraid. There was a tremour in my hands, but I did not encounter the sudden dread I had anticipated – the dread which had kept me locked to my chamber. Swollen with a reckless confidence, I half raised my head, cast a number of outrageous glances about the room, and made my way to the bar. Truly, I was surrounded by mere humans, there was no terror here. I felt my phobia of the world dissipate into the buzzing air. I took a stool and seated myself amongst the men and women of the bar. All, it seemed, was well. And yet…my eye was drawn to the mirror above the bar. In a moment, my entire frame shook, my eyes gaped, I wheeled – for the entire scene, when reflected in the glass, was altered beyond recognition. The people, no longer people, were animals, beasts in fact, and utterly wild. Suddenly, I was seated next to a great boar of a man, who grunted, snorted, his mouth opening and closing to reveal rows of mangled, blackened fangs. On my left was another man, this time with a bear’s head, around which flies swarmed, while all around the semi-humans, for their bodies at least were those of humans, even if the swollen heads were those of beasts, rolled in the sty of filth which the bar had become. Turning from the mirror, I saw how the room was as it had been, ordered, but another glance into the glass, at the filth, the raucous playing of the beasts, somehow warped beyond anything I had ever witnessed, even in their animal counter-parts, was enough to drive me to the brink of insanity, and I fled – returning to my tower and mounting all my furniture against the door.
After a fitful sleep composed only of nightmares, and a day of rationalization, during which I half convinced myself that I had been the unfortunate victim of some subtle trick in the glass, something designed for the comedy of those occupying the bar, or perhaps even a hallucination borne out of my own anguish, I resolved that I ought to make another attempt. Truly, I had been unfortunate but the war was approaching. I must try again. Duly, that night I set out as before, slipping past the guards, my cloak wrapped tightly about myself. This time I bypassed the bar on the main street, which still spilled forth its light in an ominous, horrifying fashion, proceeding instead to the town square. Careful this time, I eventually set upon an elegant looking building, its lit windows betraying movement within. Pushing the door aside, my senses were at once dulled, my nostrils invaded by the heavy scent of perfumes, of thick, luxurious smells, so that I wondered if my mind was physically suffocated. There was colour everywhere, too – not the garish colours of the bar, but baby blues, pinks, even golds. My thoughts swam, I was lulled into a half-dream as I seated myself at one of the tables. At once, they were around me, beautiful women clad in all the finery of the world, their skin exquisite, their smiles shining, their hair scented with an aroma as heavenly as the air around me. Gradually, as they leaned towards me, I felt my fears for the world vanish…for here I had discovered a paradise. I realized that I would, surely, succumb, and they were closer…closer. But there was a mirror upon the table top. My eyes were, once more, inevitably drawn towards it, and in its treacherous glass the women were altered, their beauty fell away. Their eyes bulged red, bloodshot, snakes hissed from their grey hair, their skin collapsed into the corpse hues of terrible age, and I attempted to flee. Their hands were on me, though, pulling me down, and suddenly they were hideous without the mirror, forked tongues lashed at my face, claws gripped my arms, but I was free – I slipped from their grasp and escaped, plunging through the door and into the street.
No longer was the city deserted, though. As I ran, I was bombarded from all angles. It was the dead of night, but everyone was awake, and they were jostling towards me, pushing, taunting, grabbing, laughing – and they were all beasts, human in body, but with a swollen animal head grafted crudely onto their shoulders. I thought I should die, for they meant me harm, snorting, roaring, charging, as I did my upmost to escape, and there were simply too many to fight. My nightmares were rendered in the stark tones of reality and I screamed aloud, clawed at my face, beat my chest, but never did I stop until I saw my tower, looming in the distance. They abandoned me at the door and I scurried up the spiral staircase, locking myself away, breathing hard, but grateful to be breathing at all. The city was nothing more than monsters. I was alone and abandoned. Later that night, as I crouched in the corner of my chamber, finally driven to the greatest retreat I could muster, I fancied that they came clawing at my door, knocking, growling, and as I envisaged their bestial heads, grafted so crudely to the bodies, I shuddered and wept. All was not lost, though.
As dawn cast its light through the curtains, the scratching, the snorting, ceased, and was replaced with a new sound. The war had arrived. Gunfire, explosions, rattled about my tower and, for I had long since realized that I had nothing to fear from death, since life had proved such a torment, I ventured to my window and peered out. Sure enough, the city was under attack, was in fact succumbing to the invaders, who swept through the streets, dispatching whatever feeble resistance hurried to meet them. It would all be over in a matter of hours, and my eyes were filled with the fighting, the splutter of gunfire. Too great a scene of violence was before me, and I backed away, but they were at my door now, tapping first, and then, when I refused, the tapping became a hammering, until the door gave way entirely. All at once I was staring at the soldiers. We had been raised to dread them, the whispers of their approach had swirled about the city since before I had even been born and yet…they were human. I eyed them with awe, I smiled, I laughed, I threw my arms wide – for they were men and women! They were nothing like the disfigured occupants of the city.
Something was amiss, though, for as I advanced to greet them, they recoiled in horror, drawing their guns.
“No!” I yelled “I am one of you! Look at me! We are alike!”
They only backed away further, though, and raised their weapons. Aghast, struck with the horror of encroaching death, I struggled backwards but found myself against the wall. I was cornered, and in the visor of his helmet, I saw myself. I was an animal, the giant, boar head that was mine snorted and grunted, snuffled, spat, and then the soldiers were raising their guns.
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