Excerpt from "Monster Portraits"

The Perfect Traveler

There is a perfect traveler. He has been running for millennia, light and tireless. In every joint of his body he wears the sign of the wind.

He is the forward march. Small sleds and stars disappear in his wake. Of those he brushes in passing it is said: "At least she didn't suffer."

Children dream of riding upon his horns, or of stealing his spittle from the museum: those great gouts of metal flung down from the sky.

I am lucky to have a job and friends. Yet I long for the perfect traveler's molten heart, the flawless intricacies of his amethyst-blue bowels. I long for a body that does not fail.

The perfect traveler has no friend.

Like ecstasy, he's always on the run.

The Green Lady

She emerged from the sea at Rostai, crowned with foam. I had been camping on the beach. The water fragmented about her tendrilled head. I scrambled for my notebook, knocking over my little cooking pot, spilling my dinner, burning my hand on the coals.

Trembling, I scribbled her words, which blurred at once on the humid paper. "In our country, phosphorescence is eaten from little shells. Our castles are of coral; our herds are whales. It is the perfect place for you, except that you could not breathe."

How she surged into view from underneath. Like a symptom. Monstrum: a portent. A divine omen.

"In the gloom your vision would become impaired. The pressure would mount slowly yet inexorably. You would have to open your mouth."

The darkness of her voice. Her color pulsing slightly, velvet. For they sit in a green field and warble him to death.

All my life this dreadful fear of drowning, yet for a moment I did want. I had not risen from my knees.

"Our cold boulevards. Our immense ballrooms of ice. In the frozen depths, a streak of fire. Your major vessels would narrow; your heart would be flooded with blood. All four chambers would be forced to expand. Your heartbeat would slow. I would crown you with a diadem of spines."

In the sixteenth century, the Anabaptist theologian Balthasar Hubmaier used a play on words to attack the reverence for the sacramental wafer. In his pun, the monstrance holding the wafer became the monster that rises from the sea in Revelation 13. O monstra, monstra, monstratis nobis monstruosa monstra! "O monster, monster, you have revealed to us the unnatural monster!" The sin was the worship of the creature in place of the Creator. The error was a passion for the image.

The Green Lady left me retching. I'd forgotten to hold my breath.

The monster itself is a revelation.

Balthasar Hubmaier was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake. His wife, a stone around her neck, was drowned in the Danube.

The Shadow Beast

In Klun I met a rider on a Shadow Beast, who told me:

"It carries us far. We pierce holes in its hollow tusks to fashion flutes. We make tents from its skin and fires from its dried dung. The expelled contents of its stomach, when fresh, can be read for news of storms and conflagrations."

The nomads are excluded; they are outcasts.

"When we are ill, we open a small vein in its leg and suckle there. At other times we drink its milk. If the milk will not descend, we massage the shadow beast gently about the vulva."

The rider dismounted, fluid as a tail. In their breasts beat the hearts of beasts . . . they have never been regarded as part of humanity. "Look well into your past," said the rider, "and you will know whom God loved." I thought of Cain, his body a web of scabs. How he mourned because his mark kept him from settling among his own. Everywhere children chased him, shrieking "Gaal!" The ruthless elegance of his punishment. He would learn to dwell among the beasts. To be always itinerant.

The rider offered me a cup of black milk seasoned with aloes. Firelight whitened his incipient tusks.

I felt sweaty, gritty. Longing for a hotel.

The rider is right. Cain was the murderer but Abel was the monster.

The Book of the Kryl

The Kryl haunts the feudal twilight. He knows mountains.

Oh, you dreamers, look what I have become.

Two of the sisters who own the hotel sat sewing. The third read the Book of the Kryl. Her fingers darkened whenever she licked them in order to turn the page. Her little white tongue was made of compressed snow. Outside, saints fell from the trees. One crawled to the window and whispered: I have seen the Kryl.

One of the sewing sisters stopped working and stuck a broom out the window to brush off the saint. "Let one get in and they'll all start," she explained.

Upstairs on my rusty balcony, I can hear the Kryl breathing. The sky hangs low among the trees, the color of silt.

The saints are a seasonal nuisance. They always arrive at the time of the Kryl, filling the streets with unsavory odors and bat-like squeaks. The sisters tell me the saints are entirely chaotic. From my balcony, I watch them devouring their breakfasts of locusts and honey and shitting in the canal. At times, however, they congregate as if in response to a summons, and something like order appears in the ragged crowd. Last week they held an event called the Ceremony of the Bear, at which one of their number was crowned with a terracotta pot.

"Listen," said the sister holding the book. She read a few syllables which I can only describe as condensed thunder.

No one has seen the sun for days. The Kryl stalks through the gloom.

Soon, they assure me, he will be done taking off his masks.


For they sit in a green field and warble him to death. This is a description of the Sirens inThe Odyssey of Homer. Translated by Samuel Butler, 1900. Wildside, 2007, p. 148.

O monstra, monstra, monstratis nobis monstruosa monstra! Balthasar Hubmaier, A Simple Instruction. 1526. Quoted in Walter Klassen, "Visions of the End in Reformation Europe." Visions and Realities: Essays, Poems, and Fiction Dealing with Mennonite Issues, edited by Harry Loewen and Al Reimer, Hyperion, 1985, pp. 13–57, p. 49.

The nomads are excluded; they are outcasts. Bruce Chatwin, Anatomy of Restlessness. Penguin, 1997, p. 75-6.

In their breasts beat the hearts of beasts . . . part of humanity. An Imperial Secretary during the Han dynasty used these words to describe the Xiongnu, a confederation of nomadic peoples of the eastern Asian Steppe. Quoted in Chatwin, p. 94.

Gaal: Somali for "infidel."

always itinerant: Bhanu Kapil, "The monster is always itinerant." Incubation: A Space for Monsters. Leon Works, 2006, p. 87.

About the Author

Del and Sofia Samatar

Del Samatar is the artist for Monster Portraits, a collaboration in text and images with his sister, Sofia Samatar. He holds a BA in Fine Arts from Rutgers University and lives in New Jersey, where he works as a tattoo artist.

Sofia Samatar is the author of the novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories, the short story collection, Tender, and Monster Portraits, a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar. Her work has received several honors, including the John W. Campbell Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award. She teaches at James Madison University in Virginia.