Meirion pulls the furry, polyester lined helmet off, and chugs a deep lungful of fresh air. The wind blows cool against his damp, sweating face, and he places the giant bear head on a bench, before sitting next to it, resting his elbows on his knees.
Cheese. Every year. Ye olde medieval cheese fayre.
Most years he stays well away, but this year he figures he could make a little money, legal money, just a little, just enough to last even a few days. He knows he’ll be fine soon, he will meet them again, they’ll look after him as they promised.
The fair itself draws tourists and locals alike, but beyond the corporate stalls hawking organic, and not so organic rubbish, and the carnies who marked the fair on their winding route through the country, it’s also a grand opportunity for all the pickpockets, dumb thieves, and drunk bastards to slither within their own parallel netherworld. Meirion recognizes a few old faces, they don’t seem to recognize him.
He sniffs the summer warmth, thick with ripe cheese, and the rich scent of blooming flowers, sticky pop, and toffee apples. He looks beyond the fair to the castle walls, 800 years old, some parts rebuilt, refurbished, but still imposing. He once spent a night inside the walls, got drunk, smoked a ton of weed, and stood in one of the towers looking out on the Welsh valleys town beyond, proclaiming his rule over the stinking town.
A young couple sits on the bench next to him, hand in hand, bags of cheese and souvenir tat dumped on the grass. He moves the bear head, smiling at the girl, ignoring her boyfriend.
Meirion is about to put the bear head back on when he notices a commotion near the entrance to the castle. People are pointing, gathered in little groups, and beyond the great stone keep a police car flashes blue, red, and white.
He heads down, bear head under his arm, eavesdropping on every conversation. Avoiding the little children who either want him to put the head back on, or want to tease him, or look away, burying their tiny faces in the clothing of their mother, father, or grandmother, or whichever unfortunate brought them, tangling in their legs, eliciting swear words.
He picks up fragments. A body…in the moat…old man…definitely…police think so…police are not sure…saw something in the water…monster…
Meirion places the bear head in a little nook in the castle wall, giving a dark look to a child that won’t give up following him, and heads out of the castle.
The crowds still stream in and out of the castle, though no one walks fast. These are families, ambling along, little kids on the shoulders of fathers, uncles, grandfathers, older sisters, older brothers. The air is redolent with the scent of popcorn, candy floss, hot dogs, and beer. The only thing bad about this kind of weather, the kind that pushes away the clouds for a perfect non bronchitis giving clear fresh summer day, is that it also brings out the wasps.
Meirion bats them away as they bob toward him, attracted perhaps to the animal musk of the bear costume. People have left empty McDonald’s cola cups on the drawbridge which straddles the moat, half eaten burgers, fat and ketchup oozing onto the old wood, staining the history of the town, attracting the wasps.
He moves past it all, picking up speed, his gaze focused on the police car, its lights no longer flashing. He doesn’t see any ambulances either, and as he reaches the end of the drawbridge it becomes clear that there is only one police officer standing near the moat. He’s actually standing near the giant drain that filters the water in the moat. It’s the size of a police cell and Meirion wonders if someone has fallen down the grating.
The policeman checks his watch as Meirion approaches, looks up, and frowns ever so slightly as he either recognizes that Meirion is dressed as half a bear or recognizes Meirion himself.
“I heard something happened out here,” says Meirion, casting a glance at the moat behind the copper.
“Things always happen.” The policeman looked him up and down. “Shouldn’t you be inside entertaining the children or something?”
“Gets a bit hot. About time for a break.”
“Fair enough.” The copper lays a hand on his radio, and steps closer to Meirion. “Do I know you?”
“Don’t think so.” Meirion looks down briefly, kicks his padded, and now scuffed bear paws in the damp grass. When he looks up again he notices that the copper is looking over his shoulder at the water. It’s calm, a few geese saunter back and forth closer to the castle walls on the other side. “So, nothing happened here?”
The copper shakes his head. “No, just the fair.”
Meirion nods, and starts to back away. “It’s just I heard some people talking, said an old man fell in the moat, or was attacked, or something.”
The copper shakes his head again, and turns back to the moat.
Meirion trudges up the slope, back to the drawbridge, and considers going back to retrieve the bear’s head. He doesn’t want to. The pay is lousy. He’s only been doing it for two hours and it’s already stifling.
He watches the copper, and he watches the water, calm and dark, perfectly reflecting the blue sky and the charcoal stones of the castle. Nothing is strange, nothing is out of place, nothing is peculiar.
Except that when he looks beyond the castle walls, and the bright green sculpted lawn and the path thronged with tourists, just past all that, there is an ambulance after all, parked on a side street. Two medics, dressed in white robes hoist up a body shaped bundle, wrapped in a white shroud, and place it in the back of the ambulance.
Meirion backs away from the castle, trying not to run, unable to stop himself walking with growing speed.
He watches the copper and the copper is watching him. He goes to retrieve the head.
Meirion enters the cafe in a modern shopping mall rudely erected close to the castle, and a little bell rings on the door. Inside, the space is decked out as a fake old style cafe, the chatter clatter of voices dissonant, words indistinguishable in the general hum of snatched conversation, coffee machines spitting boiling milk in hisses, and the rich stink of fatty sweet cakes seeps onto his tongue.
No one looks at him for long, perhaps it’s the costume, perhaps it’s something else. He sees a group of people he knows, though he’s not exactly sure where he knows them from. Maybe school, or from the technical college he went to for a few months, or maybe he just knows them from seeing them around town, or maybe he lived in the same…he stops thinking about it, and grabs a seat near them, resting the bear head on the seat opposite, so that the eyes are table level, with the ears poking over the top like furry antennae, picking up signals.
In prison he’d heard tales of how they tracked you, mostly crap he was sure, but they’d given him signs to watch for. Meirion tries to make eye contact, but the group ignores him, so he settles into a quiet meditation, focusing his energy on listening to the group. No one speaks about the man, instead they talk about the medieval fair, in detail, about details, about things they ate, things they drank, people they’d seen, stuff they did, stupid stuff others did, and their conversation drifts, home, work, family.
All categories denied much meaning for Meirion. He listens without particularly connecting with anyone. And all the while, no one notices him. The cafe staff don’t even ask him if he wants coffee.
Meirion stares out the window, allowing their conversation to twirl away into a stream of sound, of data, of mass that he has no use for. The view from the cafe looks down toward the castle, and files of people still meanders in and out of the grounds, the festival itself still in full swing, the background noise always present. People shout, dogs bark, and sirens cut through all other sounds like a cold serrated edge.
They’d send a signal soon, so he would know the next course of action, the thing he could do to ensure the balance. That’s what they’d talked about inside. The group existed to ensure balance, and sometimes it became crucial to send a sentinel. He wasn’t a sentinel, he knew that much. No, he was the receiver, he was the tool designed to strike the blow, to forge the new path.
He turns the bear head so that it faces the other patrons, and looks beyond the sign in the window that proclaims they sell coffee, teas, cakes, pastries.
Meirion grabs one of the people in the group he thought he sort of knew. “Do you see that? Do you see what he’s doing?”
The man turns to him, glancing at Meirion’s hand. “See what now, mate?”
“That.” Meirion stabs his finger in the direction of the castle. “The man, the one who’s walking toward the moat.”
The man knocks Meirion’s arm away. “Don’t know, mate. Probably, yeah, sure.” He nods at Meirion. “Anyway, you look after yourself, yeah?” And then turns back to his friends.
Meirion nods. “That’s right. Look after myself. Thank you.”
And with that, Meirion grabs the bear head, leaves the cafe, and heads back toward the castle. He stands on the roadside, bear head in the crook of his arm, and watches the old man. Was this the man under the sheet? The one in the ambulance? The one they’d said had drowned in the moat? Was it just now happening?
The old man takes his clothes off, trousers, cardigan, brown shirt, slippers, an old flat cap, and dumps them on the grass. He then drags a finger up his torso, and the skin splits apart, slipping away and revealing a milky white, veined body, flecked and streaked with bright slashes of blood. The creature that stands by the water glances up briefly, as if sniffing the air, and then slips into the water, becoming longer, sleeker, skimming the surface for a few seconds before diving beneath, and disappearing.
Meirion walks toward the moat, still holding the bear head, but it’s like he’s walking on a thin cushion of air, his feet not quite touching the ground, and when people talk, or when cars zip by, or kids on bicycles, it’s like it’s all just a little further away, a little distant. The sounds in his own head magnifies, amplifies, and it’s his own voice over and over, telling him he’s really got to go see what it is in the moat.
He stops a policeman, holds him by the arm until the policeman pulls away, more focused on Meirion than he was when he could just see a bear coming up the path to the castle.
Meirion holds out the bear head, like some kind of peace offering, or an explanation. “You know, we really need to do something. Because they’re here.” He points at the moat. “They’re really here, you know.”
“What’s that now, sir?”
Meirion motions to the moat. “In there. You need to tell someone.”
The policeman smiles, and starts making notes in his little notebook. “That’s right. Thank you, sir.”
Meirion frowns. “What did you write?”
“Just what you said.” The policeman looks down at the moat also, and for a few seconds, both men, dressed in their respective uniforms, stare at the green, scum surfaced water, as if fully expecting a great kraken to awake and come slithering out onto the banking.
Nothing happens, and Meirion leaves the policeman.
On the walk back toward the castle gates he tells everyone he sees that they’re coming, and by the time he’s inside he stops bothering, choosing to sit on a bench, his bear fur now covered in some kid’s spilled cola.
Evening draws a cover over the town, gradual, like a mist of obfuscation, objects losing permanence and edges as they slip into the dark cloak. The tourists are long gone, and even the locals have taken their families home, or back to each other’s homes for a summer barbecue. Pubs are filling up with newly woken youth and older stragglers, and the whole town puts on this ballet just for Meirion’s sake, or at least this is how it looks from where he sits.
He leaves the castle, the fair dismantling behind him, all the festive luminosity deconstructed, packed away in boxes and trucks. The path back into town is littered with the debris of lazy summer people, plastic and uncultured, and Meirion searches among all the garbage for his bear head. He waves at a young couple who stand hand in hand staring at the fabulous majesty of the Norman monstrosity, or at least the reconstructed parts.
“I lost my head,” he says.
The man nods at him, but the girl looks away, or perhaps, Meirion thinks, she’s looking to something, some kind of future that may or may not include the man at her side.
“I lost my bear head. You’d think it would be an easy thing to find, but…”
The couple moves away, and Meirion is alone, staring at where the woman stared, wondering if she was a signal.
He crouches on his bear behind, propping himself with one hand, bear paws in the damp grass. It’s in there, in the moat, sleek and long, transformed or transforming. He looks closer, enough to see the long gray white body gliding beneath the water, a monster.
“Soon,” he hears in his head, the voice rich and booming.
It’s off though. The group never told him anything about the monster, they just told him to be ready to do what he needed to do to protect the group. Perhaps this was a test of some kind. He walks back to the town, still looking for the bear head, and as he nears the cafe, in the confusing twilight he finds it on a bench, though he’s certain it’s not the bench he left it on earlier.
The couple walk past again, and the girl glares at him, eyes wide, imploring him to look closely. The man stops to look at some houses in the window of an estate agents, and she stands next to Meirion.
“You found it then,” she says.
He points at the bear head. “That?”
“I suppose so. Gets a bit stuffy in there though.”
“It’s all you’ve got left.” She motions toward the moat with a nod. “They’re here, aren’t they? That’s what I heard you say earlier. What are you going to do about it then?”
Just before Meirion can answer the man turns back and touches her arm. “Come on,” he says, “we’re going to be late.”
He shoots Meirion a look of contempt, and the girl starts laughing as they walk away.
Meirion grabs the bear head and places it over his own, feeling the warm dampness, and smelling the cloying mustiness of multiple faces and dead breath. He brings it down slowly so that it covers his face completely, then leaps up onto the bench, all four limbs grasping at the wood.
There’s a garden center on the other side of the road, next to the estate agents, not a large one, but large enough that it deals with the local farmers. Meirion lumbers across the road, now empty, now quiet, and swoops his giant bear claws against the wooden door, leaving a large dent in the wood by the lock. He does it again, harder and harder, feeling his gathering strength, and he emits a howl of energy as he does so. Until, finally, the lock snaps, and the door swings in.
Meirion shuffles through the door, knocking over rows and displays. Fertilizer, he thinks, I’ll make a bomb.
The police arrive in numbers, in cars, on foot, on motorbikes, with a van at the ready, and even an ambulance. Journalists and onlookers arrive next, and within a relatively short space of time the appropriate boundaries and roles are established among the participants. Meirion watches all this from the side of the moat, but is still unclear about his own role.
Perhaps he’s just the catalyst for the performance. Whichever way, the one thing he does know is that he stands near the water surrounded by bags of fertilizer, some chemicals in big cans, barbecue lighters, fire sticks, and even an old oil drum he’d found out the back of the shop. He hasn’t given much thought to the arrangement of the pile, and also hasn’t stopped to consider his own knowledge or shortcomings. In all, he looks at the mess by the water, and smiles with satisfaction.
The creature has come close a few times, swimming deep but still visible, the grotesque monster nothing of the old man anymore. This was a new thing, a dangerous thing, ready to take over the town, eat its children. When the police had first arrived, Meirion had assumed they understood the severity of the situation and they and the group were working together. A formidable partnership. Maybe that was still the case, but they were playing it safe so as not to alert the creature.
So far, their conversation had gone like this.
“They’re here. They’re here. They’re here,” from Meirion.
To which the police had replied with silence and then a confused plea for him to step away from the water.
Meirion has not done this yet, and knows he can’t. The thing glides closer, in his head again, with visions of the town destroyed, babies and old people eaten by the slithering beast, houses and shops flattened, the whole thing repeated across the world.
More police arrive, and these look a little different, serious, with body armor, with guns.
Meirion pleads with them one more time. “They’re here. Look, look, you can see it now, it’s coming out.”
The old man thing creeps up on the grass banking behind him like a slug, slithering toward the collection of cans and tins and bags.
Meirion places his paw on the rusting oil drum. This is it, the thing they warned him about, the thing that signaled the beginning. The group will be proud.
The old man thing comes closer, stinking like the scummy belly of the moat, of the undredged shit that’s laid dormant so long.
Meirion takes out the lighter, holds it high, barely noticing all the police as they take a little step forward, while the rest of the crowd takes a breathless step back.
It speaks to him again, there is no time left. This is it.
He drops his paw in a slow arc, the lighter swooping through the air, then he hears a sharp crack, an unbelievably violent noise, and he registers two holes, four, no, seven, eight holes punched with a force that lifts his furry body into the air, and he hangs there.
Just hangs there. The creature slithers past.
Meirion knows he’ll fall back to the grass soon, but he’s also sure that by that point, he’ll be long gone. He clutches his bear head, and lets out a roar, a signal, a warning.
Author Bio: David Rees-Thomas is originally from Wales and now lives in Japan. He is also a first reader at F&SF.