It is 1973.
Jenna lives in a cedar house. It’s very tall. Most of it is one room. She has a bed in the corner. It’s a mattress on the floor, with sheets and blankets, and it’s next to the mantelshelf. There are hangings on the walls. The floor is hardwood.
Her brother is named Sebastien. He could be a hero, if he dared. She thinks of him as one, anyway. Sometimes, when she’s troubled, he’ll sit behind her as she hugs her knees and lightly scratch her back through her blouse.
“We’re not really people,” he tells her, now and again. “I don’t even know if we have souls.”
“That’s silly,” she says.
He shrugs. “Mama says that everyone has a mortal body and an immortal spirit. But if we turn into our spirits, we just disappear. So we must not have any. That’s what happened to Grandpapa, you know. This life is all we get.”
“You’re mean,” she tells him. But she doesn’t ask her mother for the truth.
In January, 1974, she hears about the monster for the first time.
“He’s looking for us,” Tara says. That’s her mother. “I can hear him, hunting. I can feel him. Like a wolf in the woods.”
“We have to leave,” says her father, Ben.
Their voices are hushed, but Jenna can hear them. So can Sebastien, but he’s pretending not to notice. Tara’s looking at him, though; and eventually he turns, and stares at her with his sharp dark eyes.
“We’re going to have to make him ready,” Tara says, to Ben.
“I don’t want him to fight for her,” she says. “But he probably will, and if he does, we have to give him a chance.”
Jenna goes outside, and down to her beach, and sits on the shore, and there’s a voice in the waves, and it is speaking her name. So she calls to it, and an oceanid rises from the water, and sits beside her on the sand.
“What’s going on?” she asks it.
“They’re trying to decide how to keep you out of the monster’s hands.”
“Monsters aren’t real.”
“This one is,” the oceanid says.
“He’ll take you away, and he’ll empty you out, and use you to make gods for him.” The oceanid sighs. “He’s very excited about it. The wind told me. The monsters have been hurting your line for generations, and it’s only recently that it’s started working at all. But he’s plum used up the source he has.”
“I don’t want to make gods for him,” Jenna says. “It’s personal.”
Jenna runs a finger in wavy lines through the sand.
“Sebastien will save me,” she says. “He’s a hero.”
“Maybe,” the oceanid says.
“Or you,” Jenna says.
“He’ll come,” the oceanid says, “and Tara will grow claws and try to rip out his heart; but he’ll put his gun to your head, and she’ll back away. And Sebastien, he’ll fight for you, and he’ll die. Heroes usually do. And the monster will take you away, and unless he drives very close to the shore, there’s nothing I can do.”
“I could live with you,” Jenna says. “Somewhere quiet, somewhere deep, under the waves. I could be a fish. I could be a mermaid. I could live all my life with the sound of the ocean and the dark of the deeps.”
“You’d grow very cold,” the oceanid says, “if you lived in the sea.”
“Oh.” Jenna frowns.
“Why does Sebastien have to be the one to fight?” she says. “He’s coming for me. Why can’t I fight him?”
The oceanid lifts a hand, and her fingers twitch, and the rhythm changes of the waves crashing against the shore.
“It’s hard,” the oceanid says. “You’re too young to fight him physically. You’re small and clumsy and you don’t have your power yet. And you’re not a hero. If you did kill him . . . I mean, if you picked up a gun and shot him, or a razor and razored him, and he died, then it wouldn’t be heroic. It’d just be blood and death and pain and you’d feel guilty about it for the rest of your life. It’d stain you.”
Jenna looks at her.
“And making gods to fight him . . .” The oceanid shrugs. “. . . I don’t know why that doesn’t work. But there must be a reason, because if it were that simple, there wouldn’t be any monsters. Just hanged corpses and bitter ashes on the tree of the world.”
“So if you found an answer,” the oceanid says, “it’d have to be different.”
“What kind of things answer monsters?”
“I don’t know.”
“What would an answer look like?”
The oceanid raises her hand. The sea crashes down, hard. The water runs up and chills Jenna’s feet. The seagulls shriek. The air is full of noise.
“Don’t face him,” the oceanid says. “Find someplace dark and distant, on the other side of death. Never let him see your face. Run, and hide, and seal the walls of your home against him. Hide until the wind so changes that you can change the world.”
“Is that a good answer?”
“. . . it won’t last,” the oceanid says. “But maybe it’ll help.”
The family moves. The cedar house is left behind.
Ben trains Sebastien to fight.
“The more you become yourself,” Ben says, “the more you die. The more you disappear. The more you become something unreal.”
Sebastien fences. He has a sword. Ben only has his hands. Ben is winning, and more than once the calloused edges of his hands knock the sword aside without a cut.
“If you fight a monster,” Ben says, “your goal is to win as a normal person, with normal limits. You’ll feel the wind blowing in your soul, trying to change you into something better, more powerful, more absolute. You’ll look at your enemy and think, ‘This could be so easy.’ Don’t. Live in the world of fumbling and stumbling and failure and folly. Live in the world of screaming in hopeless panic and wounding yourself with your own sword. People can live. People can win. Heroes can’t.”
Ben strikes a blow, and the sword twists in Sebastien’s hands, and he falls, and as fast as that Ben’s knee is on his back and Sebastien cannot move.
“Good,” Ben says.
“And if he comes, and I fail,” Sebastien says, “I let him take her?”
Ben rises, and walks over to the bench, and sits. “It’s your choice,” he says.
“If he takes her,” Ben says, “we can get her back. And that’s hard, and painful, and we might fail, but we can still win. If you transcend, we’ve lost you, and it might not even help her. I can’t make that choice for you. For one thing, you’ll be the one in the fight.”
“You could fight him.”
“When I married Tara,” Ben says, “she made me promise I wouldn’t fight for her. But then the years passed, and he never came. Now . . .” He hesitates. “I guess I’ll have a choice to make, too.”
Jenna is watching. She is listening. Her eyes are dark and still. After a while, Sebastien comes and sits with her, and Ben goes away.
“You’re going to die,” she says.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “We’re not people. Life and death are strange for us, and we have no souls.”
“My life,” he says, and turns his palms upright. “It’s hardly real anyway. So there’s nothing to lose. I might as well fight, and maybe you won’t have to suffer. Don’t you get it?” he says. “It’s the only way I can save you.”
Jenna dies. There’s an awkward silence.
“I shouldn’t make my points so forcefully,” Sebastien admits.
(See also The Tunnels (I/IV))