That time of year again. I felt my stomach drop when I realized how soon it would be. Maybe it didn’t make sense to be so nervous about it. I’d won every duel for the last three years, even though I was too young to fully appreciate the danger. But there was something about this year.
Adolescence was on the horizon, and with it thoughts borne of a new maturity of mind. I would no longer be just a child soon. Well, assuming I didn't die in the upcoming combat.
It was a tradition among my people. Something to steel the young against the dark realities of this world. The looming perpetual night that inevitably consumes us all could come at a moment's notice. Better to always be on your guard. Always ready to fight any enemy.
My father brought home a book last week that described the life cycle of my annual foe. In it were silhouette illustrations of the creatures maturing under forest roots. Any day now he would travel to the deepest wood to dig one up to bring home in preparation of the duel.
The trick, the book said, was to find one that would pose an appropriate challenge. The danger had to be real but vincible. The creatures were keen and quick and could be vicious in a fight, but the candidate should be well matched in size and age.
I was surprised to read that mother medusae, as we called their kind, were nurturing and protective of their larval young. They stayed with them for at least a year, feeding them, stroking them, and fending off predators. How often had my mother done the same? Were we so different?
I'd already killed three juveniles. Barely a thought of them as living, breathing beings. They were enemies. It was our way. If I'd have wavered, they surely would've killed me.
And this year would make four.
I read and reread the book over the next week, letting it distract me from the day my father left on his journey to the canopied shadows of their home. When he came home a day later, I could ignore it no longer. It was here.
My father slung the heavy sack upon the floor. “Here she is, my boy,” he said proudly.
He reached in and dragged out a form about my size. She was the typical bluish black I'd remembered from my last encounters with her kind. From the waist down, about a half dozen scaly limbs hung limply to the ground. On her head, dozens of thick, squirming cords gave the unmistakable impression of a sea of snakes, hence the creatures' name.
Otherwise, her face, torso, and arms appeared very nearly human. Perhaps a bit thinner and with slitted eyes and razor sharp teeth, but still very human. They were a bit uncanny to look at.
“She’s deft, I tell you that,” my father continued, “and stronger than she looks. Gave me a hell of a fight.”
At the moment, she was just hanging there in his grip, largely motionless but for the constantly wavering ‘hair’. It was a defense mechanism. She wasn’t really playing dead. She was just trying to seem unthreatening. She knew she was no match for my father, and she still hadn’t had the chance to size me up.
She knew humans were dangerous.
“What do you think, son?” My father asked.
I nodded. “Looks about right,” I agreed.
“Scared?” He asked, squinting at me as he waited for my answer.
Trying not to think too long, I shook my head.
“Hmm,” he said. “Don’t be cocky, boy. She’ll be a challenge for sure. This is serious.”
“I know,” I chirped reflexively.
To be honest, now that I saw her, I really wasn't afraid. At least, I wasn't afraid of her. But there was something when I looked at her. A feeling that had been abstract until this very moment.
Her eyes flashed to mine. Just a quick glance. Despite the brevity, despite the alien, serpentine shape of those eyes, I clearly saw fear and sadness. She had been ripped from her home, where others of her kind loved her, where she felt safe.
My father chained her to the iron ring that hung from my bedroom door. Now that this feeling, this pity, had emerged from the shadows of my mind, it would not retreat. Seeing her shackled there, forced to watch me come and go, powerless to do anything, I was overwhelmed with the cruelty of it all. I wished I could set her free, but I could not break through iron, I knew not where my father kept the keys, and I wasn't sure that she wouldn't rip my face off with her teeth.
At night, I looked down from the top bunk of the bed I shared with my brother. She was still — slumped in her chains, her head hanging low. The occasional twitch among the shadows atop her head were the only sign of life.
She was some wild creature, but I felt like the monster.
On the eve of our battle, I whispered across the darkness to her, “Tomorrow, I’m going to let you win.”
I didn't really know what that meant. If she heard me, she made no indication. Even if she had, I didn't think her kind could understand any human language. I desperately wanted her to understand that I had no desire to kill her. If neither of us fought each other the next day, what would happen?
As I closed my eyes to drift off to sleep, an image flashed in my mind. She and I stood across the arena from one another, swords in hand. Our faces were grim. Our gazes were locked. Everything was still, frozen in time.
Then there was darkness.
This is a fairly faithful transcription of the last of a series of recurring-themed dreams I had as a pre-adolescent child. I vaguely remember flashes of the dreams that preceded this one, but this one has always stuck with me. The only time I promised to let her win. The last time I had the dream...