Minotaur Reading by I. S. Belle is the winning short story of 43 entries in the Peter Wells Short Fiction Contest run by Samesame but different, Aotearoa New Zealand’s first LGBTQIA+ Writers Festival.
The boy is beautiful and does not want to kill me.
He used to. One bullet for the monster. He closed one eye and aimed. Then he saw the book. He didn’t know I could read. A beast, they told him. Child-eater. What else is there to eat? Apart from the river water, everything in this forest is poison. I kill the children fast and store them for the winter. Last year my freezer broke and I feared the worst, but repairmen were helicoptered in within the week. I tried to let them leave, but they kept getting lost in the labyrinth. I’d hear their wails at night. They took the water, but turned up their noses at my dried meats. That could be my son. I won’t do it. It didn’t take long after that.
I still remember the house. The maze took time to build, and in those years I stayed with my mother in four small rooms on a hill. If not for our balcony, overlooking what would become this place, I would have thought those rooms were the world. My mother taught me how to read: Maui and the Sun, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Hairy Maclary. I remember looking up at that calm, smooth face. Her hand on my downy nose, stroking.
I’m reading a picture book when the boy finds me. I don’t notice him at first, too busy humming. We’re going on a bear hunt and we’re not scared. Later he would tell me he sung that while he was searching the maze. His mother read it to him, too. The gun lowers. Still I do not notice him. A plane flies overhead, and as always, I look up to watch it pass. This is when I see him, all dark curls, eyes shining like an open fridge at night. We stare at each other until the sky goes silent.
Hello, I say. You’re older than the others.
The boy replies, I’m twenty, dude. Like you.
I look at the gun, limp at his side. None of the children had weapons. I don’t know if I could withstand a bullet.
So you can read, the boy says after a moment.
I can read better than a children’s book, I say, defensive. I was just feeling nostalgic. I recently read a book on mushroom communication.
I stand to face him. He follows the movement with his eyes. His gaze darts down my furry neck to my bare chest, my drawstring pants.
Embarrassed, I continue, They talk through their roots.
The boy doesn’t respond. His face is flushed. His brow furrows, smooths, furrows.
They don’t let me pick the books.
A laugh escapes him. Nah? Rude. His gun-less hand twitches. He’s holding something.
Huh? Nothing. When he opens his hand, it’s empty.
It’s good to have someone to talk to. I had missed the repairman who had finally started replying once the hallucinations set in. This boy is much more interesting. After I show him how to take shelter for the night, he tells me of the world outside. He shows me a dead phone. No wifi down here. Just nice to hold, you know?
We unzip my sleeping bag and roll it out, each of us sharing a side. The gun sits on a rock not far away as he tells me of his home up North. We’re in the South, down near the Fjordlands. I’d always wondered.
His home is warmer. Less rain. He comes from a large family, cruel and strange and better left abandoned. But striking out on your own is hard. In this gig economy, you take whatever quest you can get.
What will you do after this, I ask.
He shrugs. I’ll figure something out.
On the second morning he reaches over while toasting bread over the fire. He’d given me the first slice after he heard how long I’d been without it. He even let me have his fish, a salty delicacy I half-remember eating with my mother.
He touches the furred part of my shoulder with crumb-specked hands. So what do you do for fun around here?
I show him my book collection, wrapped safely in a raincoat. I show him the river, where you can splash water over yourself. I warn him of the fish, glinting neon and dangerous under the water – enough to kill a child. Enough to make me vomit for days. I don’t know what it would do to him. The boy tells me the fish have not a product of natural evolution, they might have made them just for me. I don’t want to think of this, so next I take him to the good things: my favourite patch of daisies; a rope I swing on; a bright colony of poisonous mushrooms.
At each of these things he smiles like I have surprised him. It is tinged with something, though I don’t know what. I don’t understand many of his faces. I glance over while chopping firewood and find him watching with his chin in his hand, eyes half-lidded. He waves with two fingers, and my stomach lurches in a way I do not dislike.
I am often unable to look at him for too long. He does not have this problem. He is looking, always.
On the fifth day he tells me of my mother, still trapped in that house.
That’s what the news says, he adds. I’ve never been there.
I nod, holding back tears. Thank you for telling me.
‘Course. He sniffs, spits into the dirt. Tell me more about that mushroom stuff. Mitochondria.
He is quiet for many minutes. I run out of things to say about fungi, so we sit in silence. When I look over he is looking straight at me.
Nothing. He grins. World’s more exciting when you’re explaining it.
I say, You’re the most exciting thing to ever happen to me.
His smile turns bitter. The gun is still back at my sleeping bag, just ten minutes’ walk through the maze.
You know your way around, he says slowly. Why don’t you leave?
Why do you think? I stretch my hooves out ahead of us. If I go too far from here, I’ll never find my way back. That’s what happened a few years ago. I used to live somewhere over – there, I think.
I point. He looks in the direction of my finger: more forest. More maze. He stares at it for a long time, then back at me.
Come on. I need to show you something.
We go back to my reading spot. Tucked away in the bushes is a rope of flax secured to a tree. He unties it, holds it fast. It stretches off into the forest, disappearing around a tree wall.
My heart thuds. Where does it lead?
He grins, cocky. Where do you think, bro?
I pack my books. I say goodbye to all my places. My river, my reading spot, my poisonous mushrooms. The boy is impatient, squirrelly, but he waits until I bend, kiss the grass. Then he sighs.
Dude, it’s a shitty forest maze that’s kept you trapped your whole life. Should be happy to leave it to rot.
I don’t answer. I turn away from him, towards my home. Thank you, I tell it.
Then I follow him.
The trees grow stranger, the hills more uneven. I become accustomed to the gorgeous back of his head, the eager slope of his neck, just in time for him to fall into step beside me.
Easier to talk like this, he says. With this new position our feet bump, our hands collide. During narrow passageways our sides press together. The walls smudge muck over my shoulders and he brushes it off with his sleeve. I pick leaves from his hair. Once he asks to touch my horns. I bend, thinking there is an insect to pluck away, but he just reaches up and clasps one horn around the base, feeling the circle where my skin starts. His finger moves up, pressing against the point.
Is this okay?
Don’t cut yourself.
Nah. He presses harder, as if to prove me wrong. Then he releases me – strange disappointment – and points. What’s THAT mushroom called?
The death cap.
No shit, he says, and laughs. My mother once described to me the freedom of waves, the salty elation. I’ve never seen the ocean, but his laugh makes me feel I’m right in the middle of it.
On the sixth day his rations run dry. He has left markers on the flax, and left unattended he will starve before we are free.
He cries as he eats my dried meats, though he makes no noise. For once he averts his eyes.
I knew a kid who was sent here, he tells me afterwards. Cory. My best mate.
I’m sorry, I say. What else is there?
On the tenth day he tells me of a girl.
She made me the flaxrope, he says, balancing on a low line of rocks. Says she knew you once.
I thought she was a dream. A young girl, back in the house on the hill. Mother called her my secret playmate. We’d played hopscotch on the polished tiles. Her shoes were fancy. I remember comforting her over a scuffed heel, trying to come up with a story that would make it better. What was her favourite? Once upon a time there was a princess who ran away –
We told each other stories, I say.
He jumps down next to me and smiles. She looked pretty skeeved when she gave me the flaxrope. Maybe she hoped it would turn out like this.
I look forward to seeing her again.
The smile twists. His pink tongue flashes. You’re sticking with me after we get outta here, right?
Good. He scruffs my fur, scraping soft nails up my nape. It’s playful, what you’d do to a dog or a friend, but it’s been so long since anyone has touched my head so gently. My eyes drift closed; a noise escapes my snout.
His hand goes still. I expect it to disappear. I expect shock, dismay. But I open my eyes into his face and find it soft and lovely, his eyes all pupil. He strokes my head like I am something miraculous. His fingers close slowly, tenderly, into a fist.
He is so fragile. I could crush him with my fingers.
He guides me down. The moss is soft on my knees. It is a relief, being gentle.
Tomorrow we will leave the labyrinth.
He tells me there is an ocean not very far from here. We will take my mother swimming before our first quest together. The gun is still loaded, one bullet for the monster. He intends to use it. I can’t say I’m looking forward to seeing my father again, but I am eager for the after.
Mostly I am thankful to be alone with him. The world sounds crowded, complicated. Here things are simple: do not eat the plants. Do not touch the fish, gleaming gold and green and dangerous red. If a child wanders by, shaking and dirty: charge silently. There is no need for suffering.
Tonight the boy climbs into my sleeping bag. He holds me down. He strokes my horns; caresses my downy nose. Face filled with wonder, he touches my mouth.
Velvet, he says.