Today, we have the second excerpt from The Essential Peter S. Beagle series, this time from Volume 2: Oakland Dragon Blues and Other Stories. (You can read the excerpt from Volume 1, here.) The excerpt is from the story “The Mantichora”; but first, here’s the synopsis for Volume 2:
The essential second volume of bestselling author Peter S. Beagle’s (The Last Unicorn) short stories, including one previously unpublished and four uncollected stories, shows again that Beagle is one of America’s most influential fantasists. With his celebrated versatility, humor, and grace, Beagle is at home in a dazzling variety of subgenres. Evoking comparison to such iconic authors as Twain, Tolkien, Carroll, L’Engle, and Vonnegut, this career retrospective celebrates Beagle’s mastery of the short-story form.
A dilapidated dragon, a frustrated cop, and an unapologetic author square off over a dangerously abandoned narrative. The seemingly perfect addition to a weekly card game hides a dark secret from everyone but her teammate. A deeply respected judge meets his match in Snow Ermine, a gorgeous pickpocket.
From heartbreaking to humorous, these carefully curated stories by Peter S. Beagle show the depth and power of his incomparable prose and storytelling. Featuring a newly published story, “The Mantichora,” an original introduction from Meg Elison (Find Layla), and gorgeous illustrations from Stephanie Pui-Mun Law (Shadowscapes), this elegant collection is a must-have for any fan of classic fantasy.
Being an Entirely True Account, Appraised and Attested to by a Number of Serious Gentlemen, and Further Translated from the Barbaric Visigothic Tongue, All in Regard to a Certain Exploit of That Near-Magus and Semi-Sorcerer Known Variously throughout the Wilder Regions of the Turning Globe as the Captain-General, the Viceroy of the Lesser Indies, and the Very Big Bwana. For the Purposes of This Account, He Shall Continue to Be Named and Renowned Simply as “A.D.”
He was short and stout, and his feet were flat, and his beard fell to his chest in a barbed-wire tangle. He lived alone, and he drank too much, and children ran in and out of his dark little house.
He knew everything in the world.
He was, among many other things, the last person on Earth who spoke Mountain Mantichora. (At this remove, it is sometimes difficult to recall a time when mantichoras were viewed as mindless eating machines with neither the ability nor the need for communication or self-expression.) The tongue of the lowland subgroup, who still maintain a (barely) sustainable population in the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines, has been widely studied and analyzed, to the point where the language will, sadly and unquestionably, survive its native speakers. Tragic, certainly, but historically inevitable. In the words of its greatest expert, Herr Doktorprofessor Heinrich von Schnibble und Scheisskopf, “The vocabulary, the grammar, the regional syntax and pronunciation… these are indispensable to the scholar. The mantichora, alas, is not.”
Mountain Mantichora—like the creature itself—is decidedly another story. A.D. was not the first person to study this unique, vastly complex, and dizzyingly intricate language, nor was he the only researcher to employ it in actual conversation. He was certainly, however, the only one to retire uneaten from such a chat—hence his “last speaker” status. The conversation in question was undertaken on the highest Andean peak of Mount Aconcagua, at the very entrance to the mantichora’s lair, to which A.D. had attained by such laborious trudging, climbing, slogging, marching, and climbing again as would have had Odysseus calling a cab. As modest as he was learned, he generally explained the mantichora’s lack of interest in his calorific potential by saying, “Well, it was accustomed to facing heroes, soldiers, warriors”—he was in the habit of referring to any given mantichora as it, no one but a mantichora being capable of determining another mantichora’s gender—“and here was this short, fat, asthmatic, unarmed, utterly beat person right on its doorstep, wheezing its own language into that face… that magnificently horrible human face with its blue, blue eyes and its triple rows of shark teeth.” He would shrug and smile, almost sheepishly. “Hung it up, I guess.”
Always a passionately curious and fanciful man, A.D. remained prudent enough nevertheless to decline the mantichora’s invitation to enter its den for a civilized conversation and a glass of tea. Having neither guides nor porters—no indigenes being willing, at any price, to venture within miles of such a haunt of nightmare—A.D. simply made camp in a nearby hollow somewhat less snow-filled than other locations, nourished himself on canned and powdered military rations, and daily interviewed the monster regarding its life, habits, tastes, and personal history. He notated its replies in a characteristically minuscule hand on an elaborately cross-referenced matrix of three-by-five-inch index cards.
In addition to its own language, the mantichora spoke ancient Greek, in the strange, typically fluting voice that contemporary historians describe as sounding somewhere between panpipes and a chilling battle trumpet, and it was also reasonably fluent in Latin, Etruscan, early Visigoth (A.D.’s major at university, and his habitual style for note-taking), the Neapolitan dialect, and, as it said, “enough Spanish and Quechua to get by.” It told A.D. that it sustained itself in this remote and elevated fastness primarily on mountain sheep and the occasional hardy tourist. “There used to be rock climbers, great flocks of them, but I think they must have changed their migration patterns. I can’t say I grieve their absence. Stringy.”
A.D., in his own recounting, took a couple of steps back at this point, but retained his calm scientific detachment. He inquired of the mantichora, “That scorpion’s tail—is it true that the scarlet spine at its tip secretes poison, and that you can hurl it free of your body like a deadly arrow or javelin? I am striving for accuracy, you understand, and not to substantiate old myths and legends.”
“Nonsense!” the mantichora replied spiritedly. “Where do humans get these ideas? The tail serves merely to scratch those places on my back that I can never reach otherwise, and also, at certain seasons”—here, A.D. swore solemnly that the horrid parody of a human face blushed just a trifle—“to proclaim my puissant availability to any females in the vicinity. Which, sadly…” The creature’s sigh was no less profound for being eerily musical. “One adapts. One becomes resigned.”
“But, if I may point it out, you did not originate in this high, cold, isolated clime,” A.D. offered hesitantly. “My studies into Pliny and Ctesias, Bartholomaeus Anglicus, and similar scholars suggest that all mantichoras derive from a far-wandering Persian stock, ranging to India and beyond to the central Caucasus in one direction and even to the British Isles in other. How does it happen that I find you here, alone in the Argentine Andes—”
“There are surely others scattered at somewhat lower levels,” the mantichora objected. “I used to know of several inhabiting the slopes of Mount Chimborazo, in Ecuador, always a popular resort among my kind, and I believe there were a few more on Ojos del Salado, on the Chile-Argentina border. But….” It sighed a second time, somewhat more heavily. “You are correct in this, we have been a hunted folk for a thousand years, more. Between the Romans and the Celts, the Scythians and the Sarmatians, the barbarians and the Britons and the Greeks, whose hand was not against us? We took to the mountains, moving steadily higher and higher—but even the Alps, those utmost peaks of Switzerland and Italy, proved still within range of the armored men, the crossbows, and, in time, the rifles. Some of us found shelter in the Himalayas, on the great frozen Tibetan plateau, while the rest….” It shrugged, as well as a lion’s body can manage the shoulder ripple, and added, after a moment’s silence, “We make do as we can. Thank the gods for skiers.”
The Essential Peter S. Beagle, Volume 2 is due to be published by Tachyon Publication in North America and in the UK, on May 16th.
Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter