The Ghastly Thing
by Kevin McNeil
Listen to the audio version
The ghastly thing too dreadful to gaze upon lived under a stone footbridge in the
swampiest part of the Land of Rain.
The ghastly thing preferred under the bridge to on top of the bridge. The darkness
suited it. A creek gurgled along, containing an abundance of swamp-fish and
scaly critters, so the ghastly thing never went hungry. A thick arch provided
shelter from the constant rainfall, so its possessions -- clothing and trinkets taken
from unfortunate travelers, hides and bones taken from unfortunate swamp-beasts
-- remained dry.
Few travelers crossed the bridge anymore. Dangerous creatures lived in the
swamp. None more dangerous than the ghastly thing, of course. To gaze upon it
meant instant death.
The ghastly thing knew the girl stood on the bridge because it could smell her -- a
sweet, fresh scent not of the swamp. It thought she would be quite tasty.
When the girl began to sing, the ghastly thing sat on the boulder it used for a seat,
comfortably worn to the shape of its rump, and it listened.
Her singing was horrendous, more painful than if the ghastly thing passed a
swamp-fish spine directly through one ear and out the other.
Her tone was off-key.
She bungled most of the words.
She sang loudly, as if desperate for every raindrop to hear what she had to say.
After a while, the girl stopped. She heaved great breaths in and out. A little after
that, she returned the way she had come.
The ghastly thing let her go.
The girl returned the following day and repeated her performance.
Her singing had not improved.
The ghastly thing lounged in the darkness under the bridge and bounced one hoof
in an attempt to find the rhythm.
Then the singing stopped.
"Is there something under the bridge?" the girl asked in a soft voice.
The ghastly thing held its breath. It listened to the girl's footsteps as she
approached the edge of the bridge to peer into the darkness below.
"I heard something tapping," she said.
The ghastly thing didn't speak. It just listened to the splash of puddles as the girl
Soon, it smelled nothing but swamp.
The girl came back.
When the ghastly thing caught her scent it pulled a thick, leafy bush out of the
ground and held it in front of its face. It watched her approach from behind the
The girl was plump, a little wider at the bottom than at the top. A reasonably-sized meal. She wore a ratty brown dress, ragged at the hem. With nothing to
keep the rain off, she was completely soaked, and her dark hair lay flat against her
head. She walked slowly. Her eyes stayed focused on her shoeless, mud-caked
"Is there something under the bridge?" the girl asked when she reached the center.
The ghastly thing cleared its throat. Before it could change its mind, it said,
"Are you a dangerous thing?" the girl asked.
"Are you going to hurt me?"
The ghastly thing considered her question.
"No," it said, surprised by its answer.
One day, while the girl stood on top of the bridge, she asked the ghastly thing
what it was called.
"I don't know," it said.
"Then I'll give you a name."
From the sound of the girl's footsteps, it could tell she paced from one end of the
bridge to the other. "What about Hillary?" she asked.
The ghastly thing found a still pool of water, sheltered from the rain by the bridge,
and studied its reflection.
"Know any Hillarys with razor sharp teeth and a snout that looks as if it has been
twisted in a swamp-troll's fist?"
"I don't," the girl said. "Not in my village, anyway."
She paced some more.
"What about Lester then? I know a Lester and he's quite homely. Got even worse
when he came down with rain rot."
It considered the name for a moment, trying to get a feel for it. "In your village do
the Lesters have six arms, all strong enough to crush a stone the size of a swamp-cat's head?"
"No," the girl said. "But six arms seem to be an awfully useful number to have.
Although I don't think I'd crush heads with them, even if I could."
The ghastly thing heard her sit on the edge of the bridge. Her feet hung over the
side. It watched the girl's tiny feet swing back and forth.
"My name's Beatrice," she said. "In case you wanted to know."
Beatrice came back often.
Sometimes she sang, and the ghastly thing would sit under the bridge and listen.
Sometimes she talked, and the ghastly thing would sit under the bridge and speak
She explained she was nine years old. The ghastly thing didn't know how old it
She told it that she used to have two parents, and that one of them had recently
died. The ghastly thing didn't know if it had ever had parents.
"Is your village a long way from here?" the ghastly thing asked.
"Half a day to walk here and home. I don't get back before dark."
"Why do you come then?"
"To the bridge?" She sat on the edge. Her muddy feet hung down, and she
scissored her legs lazily. "I don't know."
The ghastly thing moved from its boulder and stood close to Beatrice's feet. It
remained in the shadows.
"If you don't tell me, I'll eat you."
Beatrice giggled, then stopped. She spoke in a quiet voice. "I don't like living in
the village without my mother."
The ghastly thing scratched the fur on its belly. "Is that why you sing so loudly?"
Beatrice's feet, which had been washed clean in the rain, stopped swinging.
The ghastly thing wished it hadn't asked her any questions.
It reached out one of its clawed paws and gently held her foot.
Another day, after they had spoken for some time about nothing in particular,
Beatrice dropped a bright yellow flower over the side of the bridge. It landed on
the edge of the creek.
"It's a gift," she said.
The ghastly thing reached out from under the bridge and picked the flower up by
its long green stem. It was the sort of flower that didn't belong in the swamp.
"You're supposed to say thank you," the girl said.
She laughed and ran off in the direction of her village before the ghastly thing
could say anything at all.
The flower smelled like Beatrice.
"I want to see what you look like," Beatrice said.
It was a particularly unpleasant day. Thunder boomed. Lightning crackled. The
rain pelted down violently from the black clouds above.
"You can't," the ghastly thing said. "You'll die."
She raised her voice. "You can't kill me, because we're friends."
Over the next few days, the ghastly thing became uncomfortable with Beatrice's
"It's okay if you're ugly," she said. "I don't mind."
"I don't mind, either."
"And it's okay if you're really scary looking because I've been practicing being
frightened. I ran in front of a horse-cart yesterday. It almost crushed me."
The ghastly thing tugged on one of its horns. It couldn't understand why she
would want to do a thing, or look at a thing, knowing it could kill her.
"Why risk it?"
Beatrice was silent for a time. All the ghastly thing could hear was the patter of
the falling rain.
"I don't know," she said finally. "Living is risky, isn't it?"
The following day, Beatrice acted oddly. She paced the top of the bridge from one
side to the other. Her breath came in short bursts. Under her normal flowery
scent, the ghastly thing detected an anxious odor similar to what swamp-rats gave
off when they knew they were being hunted.
Then Beatrice rushed down the grassy embankment. She slid in the mud and
stumbled over a rock, halfway down, rolling to the bottom. The ghastly thing
ducked behind the large boulder it used as a seat and held the thick bush it had
uprooted in front of its face.
Beatrice stood in the rain, several feet away. Her ratty brown dress had torn up the
side and dark blood trickled down her shin.
"Stop hiding from me!"
"Please," the ghastly thing said, crouching as low as it could. "Don't look at me.
The ghastly thing sensed that Beatrice was not happy. She stood in the rain on top
of the bridge and never dangled her feet any more. She hadn't sung for several
"Why don't you do anything?" she asked.
"I do things."
"What kind of life do you have living under a bridge?" she asked. "You ever think
there's something better out there? You ever wonder if there are more of you?"
The ghastly thing felt the answer should have been clear.
"The darkness suits me," it said.
"It's cloudy and dark everywhere."
"There's plenty to eat. I never go hungry."
"You're strong. You could get food anywhere."
The ghastly thing thought Beatrice should have understood. What kind of life
could it have when everything that gazed upon it died?
"It's dry," it said. "The bridge shelters me from the rain."
Beatrice raised her voice. "What's so bad about getting wet?"
Beatrice should have died.
There were dangerous things in the swamp, and one had Beatrice's scent. The
ghastly thing smelled the beast as it stalked her.
"Close your eyes," the ghastly thing said.
"Are you giving me a present?"
"Just close your eyes."
The ghastly thing climbed the embankment. Beatrice's eyes were squeezed shut.
She had a grin on her face and held out her hands as if expecting it to place an
object in them. The rain collected in her empty palms.
A swamp-cat the size of a horse-cart crouched at the far end of the bridge, ready to
pounce on Beatrice. The ghastly thing stepped into the swamp-cat's line of sight,
and the beast toppled over, dead.
"Go back to the village," the ghastly thing said. "It's not safe for you here."
"I'm not stupid," Beatrice said the next morning. "I know you saved my life."
"There are dangerous things in the swamp."
She kicked a stone over the side of the bridge. Its splash was faint beneath the
heavy patter of the rainfall. "You'll keep me safe."
The ghastly thing moved deeper into the shadows. Beatrice confused it. She
never said things that were easy to understand.
"And I know another thing," she said. "You're too brave to live under a bridge."
Although there were no breaks in the clouds, and the rain remained constant, the
sky appeared a tiny bit brighter.
"I think it will stop raining soon," Beatrice said.
"Do you think it will stop for long this time?"
"Why not? Last time, the rain stopped long enough for me to skip all the way
around my house. Maybe this time the rain will stop forever."
"The rain always starts up again."
Beatrice considered this. "If it doesn't, will you come out from under the bridge?"
"Because everything would be different without the rain. You could be different
The ghastly thing snorted. It scratched itself. It knew what it was: a ghastly thing
too dreadful to gaze upon. It didn't want to be different.
The sky continued to lighten. The rain never fully let up, but occasionally, a beam
of sunlight penetrated the clouds and lit a patch of swampland.
The ghastly thing wondered if Beatrice might be right. The rain had always
restarted in the past, but who could say if it would do so again?
The ghastly thing spent a little time each morning clearing the area around the
bridge of all hunting beasts.
When Beatrice arrived, it didn't like how energetic her movements were on top of
the bridge. It expected her to bound down the embankment again to try to catch a
glimpse of it.
"I had an idea," she said. "You could wear a mask. That way, you could leave the
bridge and you wouldn't hurt anyone."
"Yes. I already made you one." She dropped a dark bundle over the side of the
The ghastly thing retrieved it to find a cutting of ratty brown fabric stitched into a
hood. Ten eye-holes had been removed from the front and a dozen more cuts had
been made in the top for spikes and horns.
"I guessed where all the holes should be," Beatrice said. "Will you wear it?"
"I don't know," the ghastly thing said.
"I have a question," Beatrice said one afternoon. Her voice took on a serious tone,
so the ghastly thing put down the swamp-fish it had been gnawing on and waited.
"Are you a boy-thing or a girl-thing?"
It thought about her question, then shook its head. "I don't know. Why?"
"Never mind. Doesn't matter."
"I just thought maybe we could be married one day."
"You should marry someone from your village. If you married me, you would
"I don't like anyone in my village." Her voice hitched. "Besides, if we were
married, you couldn't kill me. We'd be in love."
The following morning, the ghastly thing looked up at the sky. The blackest
clouds had moved off and the cloud layer above appeared monotonous and gray.
When Beatrice arrived, the ghastly thing could tell she had something to say, so it
waited under the bridge for her to get around to it.
"I don't mind dying, you know." She threw a stone off the bridge. It plopped into
the swamp and disappeared with a burp.
"Nope. If I died, the village elders would sink me in the water, like they did with
my mother. But I'd be dead, so it wouldn't matter."
The ghastly thing picked some gristle out of its teeth with a fishbone. "Okay."
"I just wanted you to know I'm not afraid."
Beatrice threw another rock that didn't reach the swamp. It rattled into the brush
and out of sight. "You shouldn't be afraid either."
The ghastly thing rummaged through its possessions. Kicking over its collection
of bones, it found an intact spine of a large swamp-fish. It ran the spine through
its fur, snagging again and again on thick, matted tufts.
It knelt at the creek and scrubbed its face. Several swamp-fish floated to the
It knew that every single thing that gazed upon it had died. It knew Beatrice
wouldn't be any different.
It tried on Beatrice's mask, but the hood didn't fit. The holes she'd made didn't
match up with its spikes and horns. The eyeholes were off-center, so it couldn't
The ghastly thing spent a difficult night under the bridge. It thought of Beatrice.
Eventually, it slept.
When it woke, it placed the bush it usually hid behind on top of the bridge, in the
When it smelled Beatrice walking up the road, it moved to the darkest corner
under the bridge, where it crouched and waited.
Beatrice paused for a long time on top of the bridge. The ghastly thing heard a
soft splash in the puddles as she moved in a slow circle. When she finally spoke,
the ghastly thing could barely hear her words.
"This is a present, isn't it?" she asked.
"Thank you," she said.
"Can I see you now?"
"Not yet. When the rain stops."
Two days later, Beatrice sat in her usual spot on the edge of the bridge. The
ghastly thing crouched in the dark, under the arch, looking up at the sky. They
The rainfall had been slowing.
And then the rain stopped.
The ghastly thing didn't know how long it looked up at the sky. Bright blue gaps
opened up in the white puffy clouds, letting golden sunlight through.
It held out a paw, flat. Not a single raindrop struck it.
A pool of water, unprotected by the bridge, had been constantly agitated during
the rainfall. Now its surface was mirror-still.
The ghastly thing moved out from under the bridge just enough to stand over the
pool. It knew its reflection would be quite clear from on top of the bridge.
It held its breath.
"Beautiful," Beatrice said.
The ghastly thing smiled.
Beatrice thumped to the ground in front of it. She lay crooked and twisted. It
waited, but she did not get up.
The ghastly thing stared at its reflection in the pool of water. It stared for a long
The sky darkened, and the rain began to fall once more.
The ghastly thing carried Beatrice out of the rain and under the bridge. It propped
her up in the worn section of its boulder. She stayed where it put her.
Her eyes remained open as it washed the mud from her face and out of her hair.
"The rain started again," it told her. "Nothing has changed. We can still be
Beatrice didn't answer.
After a while, the ghastly thing sang her a song.
It sang off-key.
It bungled most of the words.
The ghastly thing wrapped Beatrice in the swamp-cat's hide. It left everything
else behind, including the mask.
It held Beatrice against its furry chest and gave the stone footbridge a long look,
knowing it would never return.
Despite the rain, things had changed.
It carried Beatrice far into the swamp, away from the village. It let Beatrice go in
deep water, just as the village elders had done with her mother, and she sank.
The ghastly thing waited until the green swamp-scum returned to cover the water's
surface. It listened to the steady popping of the rain.
"Thank you for the gift," the ghastly thing said.
The ghastly thing walked slowly. Its eyes stayed focused on its mud-caked
It had always thought that under the bridge had been a good home -- dark and dry,
with plenty of food.
Now it wanted more.
It wanted to live a brave life, like Beatrice.
It hoped to find others of its kind, if such things existed.
And if it existed, the ghastly thing too dreadful to gaze upon hoped to find a land