TRANSCRIPT: This story is written by Russ Kaminski. He has a degree in film production and has written primarily for short film and theater. He also has written and performed standup comedy. Russ tells us he is most interested in stories of relationships and answering “what if” questions. This is “Zo and the River Monsters”.
Zo found himself constricted by a slimy tentacle as wide as a man’s neck. It was pale and covered with a green film, which smelled most similar to an onion dipped in the intestines of a dead rabbit.
“This is how I die,” Zo thought. “Serves me right.”
Big River marked the easternmost edge of the Peoples’ hunting and foraging grounds. Zo’s uncles and cousins were out hunting, while he, being small, weak, and overall useless, had been put in charge of foraging. Zo went near the Big River, though. Those who did usually wound up missing or dead, according to the stories.
Zo had been at the top of the cliff overlooking the river when he noticed the raspberry bushes that were red and heavy with fruit, a rarity this late in the season. Zo saw an opportunity to: one, carry a basket of fruit home and prove that he was not overall useless; and two, fill his belly with fresh berries. He realized that he had become one of those stupid people parents tell their children about as soon as he felt the green slime touch his skin.
There were two monsters, and it was the smaller one who had Zo prisoner. Aside from their four tentacles – which they used to swim or shuffle along the river bank – they resembled big slugs. Zo’s People called them bigslugs.
The bigslugs communicated in a low, almost musical, rumble, as if thunder was trying to sing. Zo knew that anyone who heard a bigslug’s song rarely lived to hear it twice.
If Zo had understood them, he would have heard the smaller one say, “Human children are adorable! Let’s keep him!”
“Now, now,” said the larger one in his thunder song, “If you touch it, its mother won’t let it return to the nest.”
“That’s a myth,” said the small one, bringing Zo closer to its body. The monster’s song vibrated through the monster’s body, and therefore Zo’s body.
“Myth or not, it’s feral. We don’t even have a tank at home,” said the larger one.
“Oh, fine,” said the smaller one. It gently released Zo so that he plopped back-first on the river’s edge. “But I want to pick one from the shelter for my birthday.”
Zo was certain that he had faced death and lived.
“No. Not in my home,” Mother said. The large bigslug was right. Mother blocked the door to their wood-and-caribou-skin hut, brandishing a wooden ladle.
“I know it smells, but won’t it be fine once I wash it off?”
Whoosh. The ladle flew past Zo’s nose. Not close enough to hurt him, but close enough to remind him who was in charge. Mother said, “No questions. It’s a curse, and curses don’t wash off. We’re going to the Priest.”
The People lived in a clearing in the woods. To call it a village would be generous. It was a cluster of huts, built roughly in the same spot every winter and then relocated in the summer, when the caribou herds went up into the mountains.
His cousins watched him as he was escorted, whispering. Of course, every child in the village was his cousin. Every member of the People was his family, and everyone who wasn’t his family was an enemy who would likely try to kill him. He knew that his cousins were saying he was small, weak, and overall useless. Most of his People were bigger, stronger, and overall more useful than him, even some of his younger cousins, which Zo didn’t think was fair.
With Zo waiting outside, Mother went into the Priest’s hut, and told her what had happened.
“Zo, you will carry the tribute to the Murder People this year,” said the Priest, leaning on her walking stick. Mother’s face sank, but the Priest was the oldest and therefore wisest member of the People. She was not to be questioned.
Zo would have liked to ask questions. Like “What’s the point of surviving death once just to be sentenced to death again?” Everyone knew that the Murder People were murderers. They demanded tribute from other villages, and always tried to kill the messenger who brought it.
Zo’s eldest brother had brought the tribute two years prior, and had returned with a slash across his chest. “I killed three of them before I could escape,” he had said. And so, he had been declared a brave warrior. Big, strong, and overall useful. Zo knew he could not control whether his body was big or strong, but he could do his best to be useful.
“If it will help our People, I agree to take the tribute,” he said, thinking he too was brave.
The Priest sighed. “Yes, that is what I just told you. No one asked you too agree.” And Zo felt useless again.
That night Zo slept out in the open, where the bigslug’s cursed slime would ruin only the dirt and grass. The next morning, he set out with the tribute – a wooden cart packed with clay pots full of dried beans, woven baskets, dried meat, caribou skins, and a club. The club was for Zo. Pieces of metal were embedded into the side,giving it a slicing edge. Although he was small, weak, and overall useless, the Priest wanted him to stand a chance. He could also add the valuable club to the tribute, if necessary. Chunks of metal found in streams and under dirt was rare, and often rusted. He hauled the cart down a dirt path through the woods.
After two days of travel, Zo stood at the edge of the South River. It was different than the Big River in that it was not as big, and therefore bigslugs did not swim in it. It was still dangerous, as the Murder People lived on the other side. He camped at the edge for a night and a day, taking some of the dried meat of the tribute for himself. “Who will know?” he asked himself.
It was midday when he saw a girl. She looked like any of the girl in his village. She might have been his same age, or slightly older. She was bigger and stronger looking than him. He stood straight and acted brave, and kept one hand on his club.
“Who are you and what do you want?” She said, in Zo’s own language.
“My name is Zo. I am here to offer tribute from the People. We want our gifts to bring peace to the valley,” Zo said as he had been told.
“I am Kina, of the Stone Village. Bring it here, and go away,” the girl said.
The water was shallow enough to cross with the cart, but Zo sensed a trap. “Why don’t you come over here?”
The girl paused. “Why, so you can launch an ambush?”
“It’s just me. They only sent one person, same as every year,” Zo said.
“I am not here to die. If you do not want to bring the tribute to our side of the river, then take it back to where you came.”
Zo knew that wasn’t an option. You couldn’t take back a tribute. You also couldn’t go back home without at least a few scars to show you fought.
Zo thought for a moment. “Will you kill me if I come over?”
“Only if you attack first, like the others.”
“Like the others? Every year we bring a tribute to stop you from killing us and you attack our messengers anyway.
“No,” Kina said, “you kill us. Every year you bring gifts and then try to kill whoever receives them.”
“How does that make sense?” Zo said.
“It doesn’t,” said Kina, “But you’re the first person I’ve met from your village who has asked that.”
Zo looked at Kina. Kina looked at Zo. He believed her. He believed that no one from his village had ever stopped to think about the tributes. Maybe the Priest had, and maybe the elders had, but the people who brought the tributes cared so much about appearing big, strong, and useful that they had fought and died for no reason.
Zo put his club aside. “Would you like to meet my village?” he asked. “When was the last time our people asked each other questions?”
The trees behind Kina stirred. A dozen other members of her tribe emerged, wielding wooden shields and metal-tipped spears. Zo was sure he was about to die. Again.
Kina looked to an older man, dressed in a fur vest. He nodded.
As the two returned to Zo’s village, Zo still kept his club at the ready and Kina never let go of her spear, but otherwise the mood got less tense. Kina asked Zo questions about the People. She was confused that Zo just called his people, “The People” and called Kina’s people “Murder People.” Zo hoped Kina would bring this up at a village meeting. He realized it was also likely that they would refuse to respond to her questions and attack her violently. He hoped they wouldn’t.
When they got to the village, it was empty. Through the rustling of the trees, Zo thought he heard a familiar voice. He stopped.
“Hello?” he shouted. “I returned from the tribute! I wasn’t murdered!”
The wind calmed and Zo heard it more clearly. Kina heard it too. A low song.
“It sounds like an animal in pain,” Kina said, “Your People must be on a hunt. Let’s find them.” She took off towards the sound.
Zo followed her, partly to tell her she was wrong, and partly hoping she wasn’t.
The song was strongest at the edge of the river. There Kina and Zo joined with the rest of his village.
“I have returned!” Zo, shouted, but he was ignored. They stood entranced, staring at the river. He found his mother and grabbed her arm. A tentacle grabbed the other.
The bigslug emerged from the water slowly. It was already dragging a victim towards its face. Zo’s young cousin. To eat him? It inspected him with its large black eyes. Not to eat him, only to look at him.
With a rear tentacle, it lifted from the water a large orb. It was clear like a bubble, but Zo had never seen one so large, and seemingly solid. The river water dripped off of its sides.
The bigslug lifted the boy as if to smack him against the bubble. But at the touch of the bigslugs’s tentacle, a hole opened, like a mouth, and the bigslug deposited the boy inside. A cage. A clear cage.
The monster did the same to Mother. She screamed and hit as she too was placed in the bubble cage. The hole closed as soon as she was inside.
By now panic had struck the group. Out of the monster’s trance, they scrambled up the riverbank into the safety of the woods. The monster scrambled too. Realizing its opportunity was closing, it grabbed three more victims within its reach, Kina included. It placed them one at a time into the bubble cage, which was becoming crowded with panicked bodies. The victims banged on the walls. Kiva slammed her spear against the bubble. It did not pop.
Zo gripped his club, with the metal in its edge. He waved it at the bigslug.
“Me too!” Zo shouted, “Bring me-” he was cut off as a tentacle wrapped around his neck and shoulders. His arm, however, was free.
With his strongest swing – which wasn’t very strong, but strong enough – he lifted his club and slammed its sharpened edge into the monster’s tentacle.
The monster rumbled and flailed. If Zo had understood Bigslug, he would have known it had said “Oh no, and that one just grew back, too.”
The tentacle’s grip loosened, and Zo and tentacle splashed in the water. Zo stood waist deep in the river and felt the current pushing him towards the cage. He doubted he could smash the bubble cage, but he did see the monster use its tentacle to open it. The same tentacle Zo now had draped over his shoulders. With a grunt, he heaved the tentacle at the bubble cage.
It worked. Where the tentacle hit the side of the bubble cage, the hole opened up, and immediately began to fill with water.
The bigslug ignored Zo and its missing limb, and attempted to right the situation. It twisted the bubble cage to empty out the water, but its prisoners found their way out as well. The bigslug, missing one tentacle and all of its prizes, hurled the bubble cage away in frustration and crawled back into the deep water in the center of the river.
If Zo had understood the Bigslug, he would have heard the monster mutter to itself, “Why bother. No one adopts the mean ones anyway.”
Zo and Kina helped Mother to the shore, where she sat on a rock and wringed out her clothes.
“Cursed!” Yelled a gravelly voice from the woods. It was the Priest. She waved her walking stick at Zo, accusingly. “You have brought the monsters to our land! Cursed, I say. Useless! Banished!”
“How could we banish Zo?” said Mother. “He saved us and drove the monster away!”
“Are you questioning me?” said Priest.
Mother stood up. “Yes.”
Zo cleared his throat. They both glared at him. Hero or not, he was butting into an adult argument. Kina walked over to his side. He felt strong next to her.
“As long as we’re asking questions,” he said, “I have some I’d like to ask too.”
Thank you, I am Ansel Burch, you can hear my voice and writing every month on Starlight Radio Dreams, a podcast recorded live right here in Chicago. You may also know my voice from the podcast, Our Fair City. I am the curator for the Gateways Short Story series and your master of ceremonies tonight.