The phantom beast

by Amandeep Jutla

The phantom beast lives in that long twilight where history fades into myth. Only a few can say with any authority what it may have looked like or how it may have sounded. Today I can count myself among those few, yet just two summers ago, despite years of cryptozoological research, I could not. In fact, the ability to even form a hypothesis about the beast’s provenance had eluded me so consistently that I half-believed a conspiracy was at work. Inevitably it seemed that those encyclopedias of the arcane that I obtained at great expense were missing certain sensitive pages. Those experts in the field who deigned to speak with me would hold forth voluminously about such obscure creatures as the pleistocene lion, the horned squid, or the ghost toad, yet when asked about the phantom beast they tacked abruptly, rebuking me for occupying their valuable time with trivialities and insisting that I leave them to their professorial duties. The beast, it seemed, was not up for discussion.

One sweltering day in the city, however, I learned more about the beast than I ever wanted to know. I was passing through the harbor district as a part of my daily perambulation, and though I was generally in good spirits I was aware that it was nearly midday, and that breakfast was increasingly becoming a hazy memory. Between that nascent hunger and the sun, which was hammering down on my head with an idiot persistence, the idea of going indoors for a quiet lunch seemed very attractive indeed. My mind drifted into a gentle reverie of sandwiches and soups. Distracted by my gastronomic fantasies, I nearly tripped a small boy.

“Excuse me,” I said. The child was small in stature, his legs slightly bowed. His clothing had a bedraggled look. He could not have been older than eight or so.

“Hello, ma’am.” The child was, I realized, clutching a stack of mimeographed flyers to his chest.

“What do you have there?”

“Oh,” he said, as though I had reminded him of something important. He pressed a flier into my hand and sprinted away.

I had a look. A lunchtime special. I felt a tugging at my stomach, the tightening of some invisible wire.

Ten minutes later I stepped across the threshold of a small eatery, having followed the flier’s somewhat convoluted directions. The dining area struck me as small but endearingly so. I saw only one other patron: a bald man, his back to me, attacking a meal with vigor.

Another man in a pressed white shirt stepped out of the kitchen. His smile was broad and professional, and it exposed too many teeth.

“Please,” the white shirted man said. “Sit wherever you like.”

I chose a seat near the window. The white shirt strode tableside and put a glass of water and an empty plate in front of me. We looked at each other expectantly. I was waiting for him to produce a menu. He did not. Seconds passed, and eventually the white shirt frowned. “Is this your first time dining with us?”

I admitted that it was. He smiled again.

“Very good. I imagine you’ll want the usual then, yes?”

“The usual? I just told you I’ve never been here before.”

He seemed to ignore my remark. “Coming up. Shouldn’t be long.” He disappeared back into the kitchen.

I sat back uneasily, drumming my fingers against the table. Feeling restless, I looked around the dining room again. When my eyes settled on the other customer, I jumped out of my seat with a start.

Now that I was seeing him in profile, I recognized the gentleman. Of course. He was chair of the department of cryptozoology at the university.

“Professor!” I said. He looked up from his plate. His expression was blank and without interest. I pressed on regardless.

“Do you come here often?” I said.

The distinguished professor furrowed his brow. “I don’t know who you are,” he said. “I would very much appreciate it if you would cease speaking with me. I am attending to a delicate matter.” He resumed eating without waiting for an answer.

Shaking my head, I returned to my table.

The kitchen door burst open. I saw the white shirted man, walking with a peculiar stagger. He was, I noted, tugging at a long, taut piece of rope. Partway across the dining area, he gasped and pulled at the rope hard. A whistling sound came from the kitchen. He pulled again. A creature skittered into the room.

I am not sure if language could possibly do this creature justice. I am not sure what words could even begin to describe it. All I can tell you is that the creature was tangled, matted, pulsating, spiny. Feathered, scaled, toothed, hooved and clawed, with numerous gangly limbs. The creature whistled again and danced about the room.

“Come here,” the waiter said, tugging at the rope again, pulling the creature into his reach. He grasped one of its limbs and tugged it to my table. With a sudden snapping movement he severed the limb he was holding and dropped it onto the plate in front of me. The creature whistled and bounded back into the kitchen.

“Would you like some parmesan, ma’am? It goes rather well with parmesan.”

Nonplussed, I said, “I suppose.”

He shaved a quantity onto the meat, bowed, and returned to the kitchen. I prodded doubtfully at my meal until I gathered the nerve to take a bite. I’d tasted worse.