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.