The Monstress


by Jibril Stevenson


José María Valdez—“Chema” to his friends, “Joe” to the pinches gabachos—was not your average bounty-hunter. Sure, he’d bring in the occasional bank-robber or highwayman to make ends meet, but that was not what he was known for, not the reason customers sought him out.

No, since the day he had killed the blood-sucking bat that had been terrorizing his South Texas town when he was little more than a boy, Chema Valdez had been known as a monster-hunter.

Monster-hunting wasn’t always profitable—hence the bank-robbers and highwaymen—but Chema had spent the last few months in Louisiana, where the superstitious folk kept him busy chasing down all manner of rougarous, skunk apes and zombies, along with one particularly aggressive ‘gator. By the time he got the letter from his next customers up north, he had enough tin to pay for passage upriver on the Lucy Belle. That would get him within a stone’s throw of the Canadian border as fast as any train or stagecoach, and the Lucy Belle had a full bar and a faro table. Once he got to Canada, it would be back to work hunting some kind of cursed cannibal, but at least he might enjoy himself in the meantime.

It was at the faro table that he met the tall man.

“You are the famous Chema Valdez, are you not?” the tall man asked, looking at Chema rather than at the board where he was placing his bet.

Chema, for his part, had been looking at a redhead on the other side of the room, but something about the tall man caught his attention right away.

“Usually you people call me ‘Joe’,” he said, but as soon as he said it he realized the tall man was no gabacho. His eyes were an intense black, and tilted like a Chinaman’s, but the tall man was, well, taller than any Chinaman Chema had ever met, and pale as a ghost.

He was no ghost though. He was flesh and blood. Flesh anyway.

The faro dealer cleared his throat. “You betting?”

Filled with a sense of unease, Chema tore his eyes away from the tall man, forcing himself to look at the faro board instead. He placed his bet, and lost.

“Join me for a drink,” the tall man said, and headed to the bar.

Chema followed, observing the tall man’s movements as he walked. Maybe it was just being so tall in such a small space, but there was something unnatural about his gait, too. Something inhuman.

The tall man had ordered Chema a whiskey, but nothing for himself.

“I’m a teetotaller,” the tall man said.

More likely a vampire, Chema thought. That would explain the bloodless pallor. He’d been tasked with hunting vampires often enough, but they’d always turned out to be common murderers. He’d never met an honest-to-God vampire, unless you counted the bat. But this fellow looked to be the real thing.

Chema was intrigued, but also unnerved. If this creature knew who he was, what he did, then why would it be seeking him out if not to do him harm?

“So you know my name,” he said, his hand moving slowly toward the Smith & Wesson on his right hip. “What can I do for you?”

“I understand you track fugitives with… peculiar characteristics.” If the tall man had seen Chema reaching for his gun, he didn’t seem to notice.

“Monsters,” Chema said, his hand hovering an inch from the grip.

The tall man flinched. “I suppose you’d see it that way. I am looking for a… monstress.”

Chema drew his hand back, more intrigued than frightened now. He had once tried tracking La Llorona south of the Rio Grande, but never found her. The witch in Arkansas wasn’t so lucky, but she had just been an old hag with a penchant for poisons, not a proper monster. “What’s she like?”

“Tall. Thin. Pale. Dark eyes.”

“A vampiress?”

The tall man produced an odd noise Chema assumed was meant as a laugh. “Nothing so commonplace. Where I come from, she is a lady of some distinction.”

“Of course.”

“It’s a story I’m sure you’ve heard before. A young girl is forbidden from marrying the man she loves, so they arrange to run away to some far off place.”

“And you’re supposed to take her back to Daddy?”

“Oh, no. I’m the man she was to run away with. We arranged to meet up here on— in America, but I was shipwrecked, you might say, and have no way to contact her. I supposed a man of your talents might have heard news of her.”

“I never forget a female,” Chema said, casting a wistful glance at the redhead, who was making her way out of the saloon room, “so I’m sure I’d remember a lady as striking as you are describing.”

“My description doesn’t do her justice. You would remember, indeed.”

“Sorry I couldn’t help you.”

“If you do hear of such a lady,” the man said, extending his hand, a calling card grasped between two long, thin fingers, “please don’t hesitate to contact me.”

Chema reached out to take the card, shuddering at the inexplicable coldness he felt when his fingertips brushed the tall man’s. He almost dropped the card in surprise when he noticed that apart from the thumb, the two fingers holding the card were the only fingers on the tall man’s hand. He hadn’t lost any digits—that’s just how his hand was built.

“She got hands like yours?” Chema asked, holding the card up between his index and middle fingers, with his thumb extended and his other fingers down, in his best imitation of the tall man’s strange anatomy.

The tall man gave an uncanny smile. “I knew you were more observant than most. Do write if you hear anything.”

Chema glanced down at the card, which read bore the name John Smith—an obvious pseudonym—and an address in New York. When Chema looked up again, the tall man was gone.

He tucked the calling card into his pocket, downed another whiskey, then went out on deck to look for the redhead. After a fruitless hour of pacing the riverboat’s deck and another visit to the bar, Chema retired to his stateroom to sleep.

It was not the redhead who filled his dreams, though. He dreamt of a woman he’d never met in waking life, yet he recognized her instantly—a tall woman with skin pale and luminous as moonlight, and those eyes, like nothing Chema had ever seen.

His mother had been a full-blooded Huasteca Indian, with eyes to match her raven-black hair, but they were nothing compared to this dream woman’s. Her eyes were so black they seemed to absorb all the light around them, swallowing the whole world and Chema along with it. He felt himself tumbling through space, accelerating as he fell into that dark abyss.

He startled awake to the ringing of the Lucy Belle’s engine bell, mixed with a pounding at his stateroom door and the cries of a porter announcing they’d reached St. Paul and Señor Valdeez had better get down that gangplank if he didn’t want to pay for the return fare to New Orleans.

Chema pulled himself out of his daze with the help of a tumbler of mescal and half a pot of Arbuckle’s and got to work.

He never saw Mr. John Smith again, not on the steamboat nor on the riverfront in St. Paul, but he had no time to waste because he needed to be on the stage to Winnipeg that same afternoon if he wanted to beat the storm that was blowing in from the north.

The ride north turned out to be uneventful, and the Canadian job nearly so. Chema solved their little wendigo problem like he’d promised, but his heart was hardly in it. He could hardly eat or drink, not even whiskey, and ambled across the snow-dusted prairie in a daze, just passing the time until nightfall when he could curl up in his bedroll to dream of the strange woman and lose himself in the terrible mystery of her eyes.

Every time he took a job, whether it was monster hunting, plain old bounty hunting, or even washing dishes or mucking stalls when times got tough, Chema would ask after a three-fingered woman with big black eyes. He did find a slew of three-fingered broads in saloons and whorehouses from Saskatoon to San Francisco, but they’d all lost their fingers to gangrene, meat-packing machines or vengeful pimps, and none had eyes like the woman of his dreams.

He’d almost given up the chase when he met the Russian gentleman in Seattle.

Chema had come to hunt a golem the local rabbis had cooked up to protect them from the Cossacks pouring in from Vladivostok to work for the big logging companies. But the golem had refused to obey its masters and now they wanted Chema to track it down so they could turn it back into lifeless clay.

When Chema asked about the three-fingered woman, as he always did these days, the Russian grew pensive.

“I have a niece,” he said. “She ran off with a Christian boy who lived in a small village in the far north. It broke her father’s heart, but her mother—my sister—kept correspondence with her. The last letter we had from her spoke of a very strange occurrence indeed.

“She said one night a ball of fire fell from the sky, like a shooting star but much bigger, and it was followed by an earthquake that flattened acres of forest. But when the villagers searched the area, they found no debris, only a shallow crater and a set of strange footprints.

“They are superstitious, those country folk, believing in all manner of ghosts and monsters, so they did not follow the trail, but only crossed themselves and hurried home to the village. But weeks later, a woman came to the village. If she was not the woman you are describing, I will be surprised. She had black eyes and three fingers on each hand, and the villagers all believed she was a witch.”

“So she is in Russia?” asked Chema.

The Russian raised his hands and shrugged. “Who knows? She questioned the people about the falling star, and then she left, following the direction they told her the footprints led, into the forest.”

“She spoke Russian, then?” Chema remembered that Mr. Smith had an unusual accent in English, but it was not like this fellow’s.

“That is the strange thing, the reason they called her a witch. At first, she tried to communicate by signs, and the villagers thought she must be dumb, but then a young boy grasped her hand. He said it was cold as ice!

“And after that she could speak perfectly, not like a Muscovite, but like a native of the region. The boy, though, he began to have strange dreams. After a week, he’d gone completely mad.”

Chema shuddered, remembering the tall man’s icy touch. He’d been having strange dreams, all right. Was madness his destination?

But he remembered those black eyes, and the stars and comets, and the pulse of the universe, and he knew he could not give up.

“The boy,” Chema asked, “he is alive?”

“Yes, of course,” said the Russian. “In fact, he is here in Seattle.”

“Why didn’t you say so? Take me to him!”

The missing golem forgotten, Chema and the Russian hastened toward the edge of town where the loggers’ wives and children lived in neat rows of wooden cottages. Looking over his shoulder, understandably wary of his Christian compatriots, the Russian showed Chema to the house.

A pretty blonde of no more than thirty-five answered the door. A younger Chema would have flattered and flirted his way inside, her undoubtedly strapping lumberjack husband be damned, but now Chema had no eyes for any woman but the black-eyed monstress of his dreams.

His companion exchanged a few words with the woman in Russian, then turned to Chema and said, “You should ask her your questions. The boy no longer speaks.”

“Tell her…” Chema began, trying to think of an adequate explanation. “Tell her I’m a physician, a specialist in this kind of disorder, that I heard of his case and wished to examine him in hopes I might be able to treat him.”

The Russian translated, his version a bit wordier than Chema’s, and the woman looked at them both with skepticism. To be sure, Chema hardly looked like a doctor in his work clothes: cowhand’s sombrero, sheepskin coat, leather-reinforced trousers and silver-spurred boots, not to mention the Smith and Wesson hanging low on his hip. But she eventually nodded and led them inside.

There was a rocking chair in the corner of the humble sitting room, and in it, bundled up in woolen blankets despite the summer heat, sat a tow-headed youth, staring at the opposite wall. He did not shift his gaze when Chema passed in front of him or leaned in to look at his face.

But when Chema placed a hand on his clammy forehead, the boy began to shudder, and Chema shuddered with him, for the images were filling his mind so fast that he could not keep up, a whirlwind of colors and shapes and sounds and feelings he could not parse into anything intelligible. It was too much.

He broke contact with the boy, stumbling back and collapsing onto the unfinished floor. The images were still flowing, but more slowly now, reforming and reordering themselves into something Chema could follow.

First was the lady from his dreams, pale as death. Her eyes, black as night. Just as in every dream, Chema felt himself falling, faster and faster as their all-consuming blackness pulled him in. But this time he didn’t wake.

Just when he felt the acceleration was tearing him apart, it stopped. Not suddenly, as if he’d hit something, nor slowly like a braking train. Simply, motion ceased to matter.

He was somewhere else. The night sky. And the stars. Good God the stars, millions upon millions of them. Nebulas and galaxies whirled around him, constellations he recognized and others he’d never seen. The very fabric of reality pulsed with color and life and sound, the music of the spheres.

Then he was moving again, or perhaps just refocusing, as one star in particular grew larger in his mind’s eye, and then a planet orbiting that star, blue and green but somehow wrong, the continents and oceans out of place. Then he was on the ground among strange buildings and stranger people, all of them pale with those big black eyes, and before him one man he knew was the tall man, the so-called John Smith, and Chema knew this was the moment of the farewell.

Man and woman pressed their three-fingered hands together one last time and separated forever. Then Chema was back in the sky, watching the stars and galaxies flit by like millions of fireflies until a new world loomed before him, blue and green again, now with shapes he recognized as the map of North America, until he was so close that it was no longer a map but a bird’s eye view of farms and forests, and then he had landed. She had landed, rather, in an open expanse of grassy prairie, Nebraska or the Dakota Territory perhaps.

Chema sensed that she had expended all her energy in controlling the descent of her… whatever it was that brought her to earth, so that when she arrived she could barely stumble out and collapse into the green grass to sleep. But she had not slept long when her eyes sprang open to see a fireball split the night sky and then disappear over the western horizon.

In his memory of the boy’s memory of the tall woman’s memory, Chema focused on the image of the fireball arcing through the atmosphere and calculated its trajectory with respect to his—her—location. Then followed weeks of wandering, traversing deserts, mountains and oceans, she reached the place her companion should have landed.

And found nothing.

Just a shallow crater and, a few miles away, a jumble of wooden hovels and a crowd of frightened natives, and a single brave young boy who took her hand in his.

That was it. The memory had run its course.

The boy sat in the corner, gasping. He began to babble in Russian, his mother hugging him and weeping—perhaps tears of joy that her son was speaking again, his psyche finally free of the burden it had been carrying.

Who knows how long Chema sat on the floor before he became aware of the Russian who was trying to help him to his feet. Chema waved the frantic Russian back, telling him by gestures to bring him pen and paper.

His mind was a hurricane of darkness and light, shapes and colors and that sound—pulsing, pulsing, pulsing—but he had to do it now, get it down on paper while he still could.

He fished in his breast pocket for Mr. John Smith’s calling card with the New York address, and when the Russian returned with pen and paper, Chema scribbled “Telegram” in a fractured hand, and below it the address of the boarding house he was staying in there in Seattle. He added, “Have news STOP come quick STOP Chema,” and then he was spent.

As he handed the Russian the letter and the calling card, along with a handful of greenbacks, Chema tried to give a few words of explanation, but all that came out was gibberish. He let the blonde help him sit in the chair where the boy had been rocking and swaddle him in woolen blankets, despite the summer heat.

The tall man would get the message, or he would not. If he did, he would surely come, but even such a man who had traveled the stars was limited here on the ground by the speed of trains and riverboats. There was nothing to do but wait.

Chema knew once he shook the tall man’s three-fingered hand, the circle would be complete, the lovers would reunite, and he would be free of this burden. But now as Chema drifted off into an open-eyed sleep, his vision filled with the pale, inhuman beauty of the tall woman, he was frightened. For as he plunged into the cosmic blackness of those eyes, emerging on the other side into that symphony of stars and planets, his heartbeat adjusting to the inhuman music of the spheres, Chema was not sure he would make it.

This was the sound of infinity, the very tone of the universe.

How long could his feeble human brain contain it?