A Ghoul’s Got to Eat
Apples are not my favourite food. I’m a carnivore through and through. My teeth are made for ripping and tearing through flesh, not grinding plant fibre. My claws, long and sharp, do not lend themselves well to picking and plucking. They are for catching, pinning, slashing. I could spear berries on the ends of them if I had to. It would not be dignified.
Dignity is something I can scarce afford these days.
I lick the juice of the berries from my claws, careful not to hurt my tongue. They taste cloyingly sweet and I know they will provide no lasting satisfaction. A ghoul’s got to eat, though. It’s been a difficult few weeks. The forest is no place for me; I’m a creature of caves, of subterranean tunnels and caverns. The harsh light of the sun burns my skin and stabs my eyes with the pinprickpinprickpinprick of a hundred little needles. During the day I retreat into hollow trees or dig feebly into the undergrowth. I try to sleep.
The night time is my time.
When I first entered this forest, driven from my home by fire and steel, I did not want for food. My nocturnal instincts served me well enough and I hunted, caught and devoured many small furry creatures. I survived, and I survived well.
But now that the animals of the forest have caught my scent, they flee from me whenever I draw near. I have tried to disguise it but the rotting odour of the grave is a persistent aroma. They can sense that something unnatural and unclean is among them, and so they give me a wide berth.
I have not tasted flesh in weeks.
There is a village.
I must be cautious, of course. It was man who drove me from my home, who slaughtered my fellows and torched our underground larder. They hate my kind and will attack me on sight. Unless I can attack them first.
It is night, and the only sounds are the whispering wind and the humming insects. And the rumbling stomach. And the crunch of claws on dirt.
The forest thins, fades, recedes. I walk a dirt path, sniffing the air for the scent of man. It is faint, but the road will take me there. It is old and deserted so I am reasonably safe. I remain alert, though, tense, ready to flee. Hunger has weakened me. I would not survive an assault.
The village is surrounded by shrubs and undergrowth. This is good. Cover is good. I slip into the bushes and watch the houses on the outskirts. I snuffle and snort, hoping to find some smell that sorts strong from weak, threat from prey.
I creep closer to the houses, pressing up against the thin walls. I perch underneath open windows, listening. I listen for the sounds of soft breathing, muffled mumbles, snoring. These are the sounds of easy prey. I am too hungry and too weak for any other kind of prey.
I do not hear these sounds. In each house I slink up to I hear talking, movement, activity. These are not the sounds of prey, not until I get my strength back. I stop at the last house; no sounds from within, a faint breathing perhaps but no movement.
I cannot help but whine in despair as I crawl back to my spot in the bushes. Perhaps if I am brace or desperate enough an excursion deeper into the villa-
A soft whistle cuts through the air and I freeze, hidden in the foliage. What was that? A bird? I can eat a bird, if I can catch it unawares. I’d need to get it on the ground, break its wings, snap its neck. Feathers tickle my throat and make me cough, but a ghoul’s got to eat.
I slowly look around, careful not to make sudden movements that would frighten away the bird.
There is no bird.
In the window of the house I thought empty stands an old woman. She is staring right at me. And she is smiling.
She whistles again, whistles to me. I am wary, but curious. This is not an experience I have had before. Most humans who see me are afraid, disgusted. I am not a pretty beast.
The woman turns and retreats into her house. I should leave, but I do not. I want to see if she comes back. She does come back, bearing food. Apples.
She whistles softly to me again, leans out, apple in her outstretched hand. She wiggles it temptingly.
Apples are not my favourite food. But my stomach is pushing me, pushing me hard. I step out of the bushes. One step. Two steps. I sniff the air, bare my teeth. The old woman smiles amiably and waves the fruit. An invitation.
She doesn’t seem blind, though she’s certainly old enough that her eyesight isn’t perfect. Has she mistaken me for a stray dog? I have no fur, though I do have clumps of coarse wiry hair in places. My face has a snout of sorts, though my features are more human than canine. Perhaps the old woman is mad.
Another few steps. I am below the window.
She leans further, holds the apple just beyond my nose. I can smell nothing untoward, no poison.
I risk it. I snatch the apple from her fingers and retreat to the bush. A minute’s worth of crunches and it’s gone. Like the berries it is sweet and sickly, but at least there is substance to it. I look back to the window.
The woman has another apple.
My instinct tells me not to, but my hunger is barely sated. I am bolder this time, and the apple seems more filling. I do not take it to the bush, and the woman is ready with a third apple. Perhaps she can see by my ribs and my slavering jaws how hungry I have been.
As I finish off the third apple she touches my head. She caresses my leathery skin, scratches behind one of my lumpenly misshapen ears. I do not know why she does this, but I do not shy away. As long as she poses no threat, let her stroke as she pleases. She does not seem repulsed by my stench.
Once I have eaten a fourth apple she withdraws. I prepare to make my way back to the forest, but the door to her house opens. She stands in the doorway, backed by candlelight, becking me in with a soft smile and a crooked finger.
I enter her home.
It is warm inside and it is cozy. I have not had mch experience with these concepts but it is not unpleasant. The woman chuckles to herself and speaks to me in the language of men, something my ancestors would have spoken but which is long lost to my kind now. It does not matter. I follow.
She sits by the fire and I curl up beside her chair. She feeds me more apples from a wicker basket. They are not my favourite food, but I eat them because it is warm and because I feel safe and because each bite brings me closer to my full strength. And when I am at my full strength?
Apples are not my favourite food.
But a ghoul’s got to eat.