The man-eater crouches in the corner of his room and stares at me. All he can see are my eyes as I peer through the thin slat cut high into the iron door.
His hair hangs short and ragged about his face, his skin is as pale as blind earthworms. Father once explained that this sort of creature abhors the clothes of men, and to tie his own trousers and lace on boots was what he taught the man-eater first.
He still strips naked before meals, though.
Of all the things Father collected this is my favorite. It exasperated Father that rather than play the golden harp or admire rainbow diamonds and butterfly lace, rather than groom the razor swans and cuddle the exotic blue cats, I’d lean this stool against the iron door to climb up and watch the man-eater.
When I was younger I didn’t believe he was dangerous. He was only a skinny boy my age, putting together intricate puzzled on the stone floor of the tower room. He didn’t read, but surely it was only because no one ever taught him. One morning I watched him flip through an illuminated book so carefully and eagerly that I stole the key from Father’s study and arrived with an alphabet primer under my arm and candy in my nightgown pocket.
As I slipped in, he stood and backed up to the wall, those large dark eyes of his locked to my face. I smiled, offering him the primer. He reached out with one lanky arm and curled his fingers around it. Dried blood stained his cuticles, and I nearly dropped the book. But I straightened my shoulders and strode to his small desk as confidently as I was able with bare feet. I set three pieces of candy onto the table, red and gleaming like rubies, and said, “I thought I should teach you to read letters.”
The man-eater slunk beside me, his mouth firmly closed. This near to him – nearer than I’d ever been – I could see the gray sleepless hollows beneath his eyes and the gentle blue veins at his temples. He stared at me, just taller, but skinnier, and then slowly, slowly, put the primer onto the desk. He reached for one of the candies and brought it to his mouth. When he slipped it between those pink lips, I glanced away.
I opened the primer and smoothed the old parchment. “Here is A.”
“Ay,” he whispered.
“Yes! Good!” I smiled proudly, and the man-eater smiled back.
His teeth hooked like fangs, every last one of them sharp. I felt my face drop and my fingers splayed flat against the primer. The man-eater closed his mouth and focused onto A. He traced it with his finger, giving me time to calm.
We managed our slow way through the entire alphabet that night, and I left the book there.
The next, I showed him how to spell my name, using water spilled onto the table to trace near-invisible letters.
Then I brought ink and blotchy paper from Father’s study, to show the man-eater how to write.
I arrived on the fourth night with another handful of candy and my oldest, most loved storybook, full of drawings of winged princes and mermaids and dragons. The man-eater waited for me, displaying a strip of parchment upon which he’d written J A C K.
“Jack?” I said. “Is that your name?”
And he smiled as widely as he could without displaying his teeth, then pulled the storybook I’d left nearer. He flipped it open to a story of a prince cursed to wander the world in silence. The prince’s name was Jack.
A tiny chip of guilt pierced my heart. He’d wanted a name, but was never given one. To Father, the man-eater was only a monster, yet here he was naming himself. I held out my hand. “‘Tis a pleasure to meet you, Jack.”
He took my fingers and raised them to his mouth. First he kissed the tips, barely touching, softer than butterfly lace. Then he bit me. Pain blossomed and I gasped. Jack sucked gently at the wound and my knees weakened. My heart raged but I only pulled away gently and he released me. The cut slashed diagonally down the tip of my forefinger, leaking slow blood. It throbbed and I grasped his hand. I brought it to my mouth and bit. But my teeth were only a girl’s teeth, not made to so easily break skin. Jack stepped nearer, though, and trailed his finger down my chin.
Father found us then. He shoved through the iron door and went wild, terrifying Jack back into his corner with sparks of fire and dragging me out.
“Sophia,” he spat my name in a way he never had before, his eyes spinning and head shaking. “Do not ever again!”
His anger was so violent he could not tell me what to never to: I guessed he meant everything.
Two days later, after leaving me locked alone in my chambers, with only the company of bluebirds perched on my windowsill and the golden harp with her thin crystal voice, Father led me silently back to Jack’s tower.
He said, “Watch,” and lifted me onto the stool. His hand remained warm against my shoulder as I looked through the slat.
Jack stood naked with his back to me, dripping blood from a red mass in his hand.
Splayed across the stone floor in a muddle of skin and bones were the bleeding remains of a man. Jack hunched over him, and bit into the heart. It squelched and dripped. From this angle I could just see the flutter of Jack’s lashes as he shut his eyes in delight.
My knees went weak and I tapped my fingers ineffectually against the iron door, but Father held me pressed there and when I shut my eyes he whispered, “Watch, Sophia. See.”
I did. As the man-eater feasted, stripping away flesh and snapping off delicate bones to gnaw and suck, I stared.
I raised my hand to my mouth, pressing it in to keep from screaming, to keep from saying his name. The healing wound on my finger throbbed from the pressure, and I kissed it.
That was nearly three years ago, and since I’ve only seen him through the door-slat. Father magicked the key into his own fingerbone, and it could not be stolen. But that didn’t keep me from visiting. We whispered to each other through the door, me on the stool, Jack crouched on one of the high-backed chairs or eventually just standing on his own two feet. I handed him hard-candies and let him kiss my fingers, I dressed in the most intricate gowns, with corsets and bustles and a hundred pearl buttons, and he was my audience as I practiced dancing in that dark hallway, as I used magic to transform the cuffs from silver to red embroidery and back again, as I wove tiny swans out of my breath and sent them flying about my head. I brought to life miniature stars to flicker in time with a simply hummed melody, and once or perhaps twice I brought him perfect little dove-hearts, rescued from the kitchens and bundled into linen napkins.
Jack said little, but sometimes slipped me notes he’d written, comments about the clouds he could see from his window, or sketches of the men he’s eaten. I recognized few: they’re trespassers, always, here to steal from Father’s collection. And Jack is their punishment.
He’s starved for nearly three weeks, but I’m here today to rectify that.
Three nights ago, Jack passed me a roll of parchment and upon it was a drawing of me, gripping the bars of a cage. You’ve been happy he wrote, and so you do not see.
I frowned and looked up at the slat, but he’d gone. I climbed onto the stool to search for him, but Jack hunched over his desk, faced away from me, and when I said his name he didn’t respond.
Down and down the tower stairs I ran, until I burst into the courtyard with its cobblestones of frozen clouds and trees spun from rainbows. The sky lightened in the east, spilling soft sunlight through the cloud-towers, and I ran down the road. It twisted toward the sun, toward our neighbors, and I picked up my skirts to go faster. My shoes left swirling prints in the foggy path, and the morning dew kissed my cheeks.
I ran until I could see the gate that led into the starry forest, through which all the visitors came. Gathering my breath, I blew apart the lock and the iron spires spread open, widening like arms that reached for the trees.
But I could not pass. My legs dragged, feet heavy as gold, and my heartbeat didn’t quicken as it should, but fell slower and slower, and my lungs tightened.
I could not go on.
Twenty paces from the gate and I could not will my body forward. Even my thoughts seemed sticky.
Until I stumbled back and landed with my face to the sky, laying spread on the cloud-road, and I thought, Father collects things. What am I?
And how did Jack know?
I remembered that night, when I was young, that he bit open my finger and gently tasted my blood. When he didn’t tear me apart or dig into my chest. He might’ve, even when he heard Father arrive, killed me and licked up the last drops from my heart.
All the rest of the day I sat in my chambers before a silver-wrought mirror. I studied the contours of my face, the smooth peachy hollows around my eyes. I skimmed my tongue along my flat teeth. I was not a man-eater.
The bell rang for dinner and I dressed in my favorite gown. It’s creamy and white. The collar rises high with ruffled lace and underneath the jacket is a silk paneled skirt with delicate black flowers embroidered along the edges. The bustle is yards and yards of wide-pleated satin, and velvet bows hold the sleeves halfway up my forearms. I wear it with pearls in my ears and fingerless gloves.
Father rose from his chair at the head of the table, holding out his hand to me. Instead of a curtsy and smile, I grabbed a knife from the place setting and stabbed it immediately into his stomach.
“What am I?” I asked as he clutched at his guts and fell. As his shoulder hit the floor I pushed him over with the heel of my very delicate boot. “What am I? Where did you collect me? Do I have a real father?”
He pinched his eyes and shook his head. When he parted his lips blood dripped out.
“What am I?” I demanded again, kneeling. The white skirt billowed around me, the ruffled hem touching that growing pool of blood. Redness sucked into the material, in line with the tiny weave, stretching up like tiny fingers to cover the pristine silk. It was beautiful.
Father said, “Some other kind of monster,” and flicked his fingers. Magic sparked around us and I jerked free the knife in his stomach. The effort wrenched a gasp from me, and I fluttered my lashes, recalling how Jack did the same when he devoured that heart.
“Was I always one, or did you make me so?” I asked, not expecting an answer. I climbed to my feet to walk a wide circle around the wizard, until I stooped over his head. I took that left hand and press it flat to the rug. That finger, the forefinger, that is where he put the key.
It was too easy to take. I put the blade to his bottom knuckle and leaned in. The entire finger popped off and Father groaned.
With the key I came here. I clutched it in my fist, hissing magical words to burn it there in my palm. By the time I reached Jack’s room, it was stripped and bleached as if months old.
I slid the stool into place and looked through the slat. There he is, the man-eater, crouched in the corner. I smile at him, though he cannot see my mouth, and get down.
The bonekey shines like the moon as I put it to the keyhole. Under my eyes it lengthens to reach in like its own tiny hand, into the lock. I hear the clinking of the tumblers, and the iron door swings open.
There’s Jack the man-eater, and he stands quickly out of his crouch. I smile and he bounds over to me, grabs me up and leaves two red smears down the sides of my corset as he lifts me and kisses me.
His teeth cut my mouth and I pull back, give him my hand instead. I touch his starving cheeks, the soft gray hollows under his eyes. Licking drops of blood from my lip, I put my hand over his heart.
“Sophia,” he says in his sibilant way.
Curling my fingers, I dig my nails into his chest, gouging open his skin because I can. There is his blood, darker and thicker than mine. It smears down nearly as purple as sunset.
“Jack, you must be so hungry.” I draw him out of his tower, and take him back to the dining room.
Our April prompt is Jack and the Beanstalk. I swear to you this started out that way. I merely got sidetracked by the most interesting part: cannibalism. Obviously.