Chapter 1: As Told by Monsters

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Ara Ara was named by monsters on the sixth day of her life.

When her father first saw them, he felt the instinct to scream. He wanted to focus all his attention on the act of screaming. To raise his hand to his face and pitch the microphone, just like actresses in bad 1950s horror films. But James never screamed. Ara Ara would never see him raise his voice, or shed a tear. He would be the sort of father who would muss her hair and smile slightly when she laughed. She would grow up comparing dreams with him. Even in Nod, his feet had never left the ground, and he had certainly never been "transported" by a book.

James stood with a group of five humans. His wife, Molly, was two steps behind him, holding a basket to her chest. Two men with heavy weapons strapped to their arms trailed the party. The last human was Ara Ara, wrapped in cloth, the coarse basket itching her infant back.

The monsters huddled close enough to always touch each other, within smelling distance of the humans. They defied description, and yet begged to be described. James wanted to compare them to the photographs of animals from Earth that he had studied in his schoolboy days. They had the same unsettling appearance as a flea or tick magnified under a powerful microscope. As with insects, it was hard to tell whether the stalks coming out of their faces were eyes, and which appendages constituted legs. The creatures looked smooth, like squid or deep-sea fish, but not the kind of smooth that invites a man to touch them. They were roughly star-shaped, like humans, so it might be possible to map some of the names for human anatomy onto them, however insulting that would be to mankind's limbs. "Arms" don't bend that often, and "teeth" should line up in a row, and "eyes" should be centered on the face, not staring out, buried with other orifices in folds of skin.

But what frightened James most was that, as the monsters clicked and moaned and shuffled about, there was no clear cause of their movement. Did some intelligent thought guide their swaying and twitching? Or did these things move without intention, the way seaweed dances in a current?

The monsters' moaning took on the quality of a dirge. James held his hand out to Molly in silence. She relinquished Ara Ara, still crying with her hoarse infant voice, wrapped in layers as protection from the sun. Gift in hand, James moved slowly toward the monsters. Each step seemed to increase their wails and the frantic pace of their movements.

In an effort to communicate, James fell back on his heritage: loudly screamed English.

"We don't want any trouble. See?" He held his left palm up, with the offering in his right. This is a primitive way that descendants of monkeys prove they aren't hiding a rock or club. The non-primates in front of him just saw someone waving a terrifying five-pronged body part in the air. They reacted accordingly.

"I'm sorry! Calm down. We can't understand you. That's what this is for. It's a gift." He extended the bundle of cloth as far away from his body as he could, hoping the gesture was a universal sign for "take this from me and please don't hurt me." One of the monsters sprang forward and grabbed the gift without touching James. Back with its fellows, it carefully unwrapped the cloth to reveal the infant. Her eyes were squeezed into slits and her limbs were flailing, but she wept no harder held by monsters than she had with her mother. James waited until he felt sure that he would not be attacked for speaking again.

"You raise her half of the time, and we raise her half of the time. That way she can learn your language!"

The monsters stared back blankly, so he pointed to the baby and said, "This is my daughter." The monster looked at his hand instead of the baby, so he sidled toward it and patted the infant's head.

"Sarah. Sarah Dulcet."

"Ara Ara Ooeh," the monster imitated in its shrill, grunting voice. Soon the whole cohort was screaming "Ara Ara Ooeh" while patting invisible babies in front of them.

"I guess that's close enough," said James, and for the first time he permitted himself a smile. When he turned to look back, his wife did not share the expression.

"I'm sorry, James, but I can't do it. I refuse to live with those things," Molly said. The two bodyguards dropped a large backpack full of food supplies and walked away in silence with his wife.

Three humans left where five entered. One of those that fled was a coward and a traitor. At least that is how the monsters in the mountain tell it. 

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