~2200 words, approx 14 min reading time
Good morning boys–although, yes, it’s a fair point, well made–good afternoon then. I was unavoidably detained. Do forgive me. Lunch ran on, and before that breakfast, and in between those Sicily was helping me with…have you met Sicily, by the way? Lovely girl.
I should say for the future that you really should stand when a superior officer enters the room, and there’s not many more superior than me, I’m at the top of the tree, as it were, throwing down fruits and morsels to you boys. But you’ll know for next time. What a day we are having! First you forgave me, then I forgave you, and now here we are, in this classroom, with nothing but a…you know, the things from roofs. Thank you. A clean slate.
Oh boys, my beaming boys. It is good to be here. You are young and strong, and I am old and wise, and also strong. What a team we will be. Look at your fine wooden desks. In time, you too will carve your names there. In time, you too will carve charmingly disproportionate genitalia, as I drone on about tactics, or bear-traps, oh yes you will! Because I did too, boys, I did too. I too looked up at these faded maps, I too looked upon…well there was a chalkboard there, in that corner, but we got rid of it when they brought in PowerPoint. Progress, boys! Can you feel the progress in the air? And it is progress that wins wars, just as much as guns and ships and boys like you.
I congratulate you, I really must. You’ve reached Unit Six, all of you. You’ve learnt how to shine your shoes and iron your uniforms–although I note that while your shoes do shine like smart black suns, your uniforms! They are creased, my boys, they are creased and they are baggy, and something must be done next time. Aha. I have very sadly lost my train of thought. But I believe the nit and the grit of it is that you have now mastered the fundamentals of war, and so they have sent you to me, to learn how to kill the manticores.
We can’t go straight to the killing, of course, we need some understanding first. I know that’s no fun, I really do, but understanding is all that stands between you and a chest full of manticore quills. I should think it would be weeks before you kill your first manticore, and an old one at that, a feeble one, something sleepy and unaware of your formidable weaponry. We can’t waste any more boys. All of that is ahead of you, all of that is a far and twinkling future. Today is day one; it’s tea and biscuits, not yet the time to put on our gloves and rummage around their gizzards for treats. We’ll get there, we will, I can promise you that. But we mustn’t run before we can walk, or else we will trip on some errant log and be devoured by our enemies. I’ve seen it happen, boys, you mustn’t laugh, and very unfortunate it was too.
Let me see, now. About this PowerPoint. My assistant sets them up for me. Sicily, did you see her on your way in? Nice girl, streaky hair, wears those glasses with the tortoiseshell rim. Not real tortoise, of course, although I did offer; if anyone’s earned real tortoise on their glasses it’s her. I hope you’ll be friends with her, boys, I do hope you will. You could ask her to go dancing, she’d like that, she loves to dance! Oho! That made you laugh, you wicked boys, that made you snort! Maybe one of you already has. No need to tell.
Sicily! Sicily! Could you crane your necks, perhaps, and tell me if she is coming down the corridor? No? I have the PowerPoint, you see, I have it quite exactly, as so. Slide one. What I lack is the red dot, the red dot on my little pen that shines out and illuminates, that points you to the most salient of salient facts. Between us, boys, strictly in the confidence we have built between ourselves, I don’t think I am going to find it without her. I shall simply tell you where I would be pointing, had I the capacity, I’ll tell you where that red dot would be and you can imagine it.
We should start, I think, with the basics. You’ve never seen a manticore, have you, my boys? I should think not, not within our jasper walls. You are civilised boys, and the purpose of civilisation is to keep the manticores on the outside. Things change! I can assure you of that. Perhaps I wrestled too long in the thickets and the thorns: my eyes are full of manticores now. Their human heads, their feline bodies, their thick-quilled tails. I look through crowded streets and all I see is a wreckage of cats. People, even boys like you, are all the same. I mean that as no insult–only that in a year you will be gone and I will be here, dreaming of lions long dead.
The first thing you ought to know of the manticore, dear boys, is that they are clever. Not clever like a man, but a devilish intelligence, one that drives them ever onwards, and regulates their many stomachs. They have a mastery over knots. They always know which way they are pointing. And they bury their dead, although of course we do what we can to prevent that. It is fair to say – and so I shall duly say it – that they are a worthy opponent. There is a good reason that we fight manticores and not goats, and it is not down to the goats’ chivalry of spirit.
We owe them, my boys. That is the second thing worth knowing. Without the manticore we would not have classrooms, or tortoiseshell glasses, or little pens with red dots. I know, boys, there is no need to say it out loud–even with the manticores, I am without my little pen. I assure you I am working on it. In the meantime, I am quite bereft. What I mean to say is that my grandfather fought them with his hands and fists, and died not quite three days into the attempt. I had a bayonet, a smart long stick to poke and gut them with. Now you have your manticore-pulping tanks, and your anti-manticore aircraft, and your manticore-seeking death rays. It’s almost not fair on them, the poor cats! But they keep coming; it’s a horde, even when it’s a trickle, like it is now, never forget it’s still really a horde, but in disguise. That’s why it’s so vital, dear boys, that you are here, now, in this classroom, and that soon you will be on the front lines, protecting the crystal colonnades of our civilisation. It’s a public service, what you do, and on the other side, in three little years – homes, and positions! And young boys fighting for you and your wives in turn.
Do you know, I’ve quite forgotten to start the PowerPoint? In honesty, boys, I’m not even sure what was on it in the first place. Graphs, I expect. They’re usually graphs. Sicily says they…well, she says something about them. Never mind, eh?
The third thing, I suppose, would be the teeth. Their triple smiles, their mouths like typewriters, row after row of flat little teeth folding back into their heads. I imagine being eaten by a manticore is a little like ascending a long staircase, tapering away into darkness, but only a very little.
After the teeth, it would be logical to consider the face. It would be a smart choice, and we are very smart indeed. And yet, my boys, for all your smartness, you have not asked me the question, the singular question. Don’t be down about it, don’t be glum! Boys like you never do. I have already told you that the manticore has the face of a man. They taught you that in school, in nursery, in the womb itself. In all that time, boys, in all the eighteen years you’ve lived, did you never stop, and ask yourselves who exactly the man was? It’s true. You have to be told. Every one of them, the same face. Square-jawed, and smooth-cheeked, with grins on their lips, and thick black quiffs, hair greased up over their heads, oiled by some private secretion, some alien gland. Such is the fashion. I don’t need to tell you that! There won’t be a thing about pomade you don’t know. And yes, they are good looking, I can admit it–almost as pretty as you boys! Steady on. If this was a war of looks it might go quite differently – and we did look into that, I think, it was passed up the chain of command, and the answer came back no, it will be a war of killing them with hands and muskets and bayonets instead.
There is a twinge in my leg, a full-flowing pain, which neatly brings me on to my next point, although I have lost count. Five, thank you. We must not neglect the manticore tail, that limber club, heavy with quill and venom. It was one of those spurs that consigned me to my present glory, of being here with you now. There was a nest of manticore kittens–this was some time ago, and far away – and I had heard them, across the battlefield. I heard them weeping and I ran to them. I found the nest, woven fast into the scar of a crater, and within! Such tender little cubs.
Barely had I finished stamping on each one when I turned and beheld their progenitor. It raised its tail above its head, and poison dripped down onto the black stiffness of its hair, and a marvellous stillness suffused its muscled jaguar limbs. And then the tail flickered out, and it skewered me, boys, right in my leg, straight through the pork! That was to be its final act, of course, but how close it came, before it was exploded! I fell, and where I lay I was hardly cheered at all by the noisy sounds of its destruction, it hardly brought any joy compared to the immense pain of my leg.
I wonder, my boys, if you have ever cored an apple? The field surgeon came, and he held what looked like an apple corer in his hand, but larger. For a moment, in my infirmity, I contemplated the monstrous fruit that would inspire such a tool, and in the next I knew. They held me down and they cored it out right there, in the mud, a neat flute of flesh with a spine running through it. Ah! Do not be downcast, I beg you. This is a happy story! The toxin would have killed me, you can be sure of that. If I am only fit to be with you now, in this little room, that is fit enough for me.
My boys, how pale you have become. Do not fret. You can see from my epaulettes, the striped manticore fur on my right shoulder, the spotted manticore fur on my left, that I have lived a good life. I killed many manticores in my time, perhaps more than anyone ever has. And back then I was only half the size I am now, perhaps less, if you can imagine that, perhaps two-thirds removed from my present magnificence! I was a boy, and I did my duty. I was there that day at the great grey cliffs, that day of liberation that will live forever in my mind. We piled their bodies high and made a bonfire, a light that lit our way to this very day. And I will tell you something, my boys, a secret between the very best of friends. We stacked them outside the city walls and we burned them, and do you know what happened next? We were starving. We hadn’t eaten in such a time, even our pets had run away lest we made a start on them. But you could smell the meat a mile away, emanating from that inferno of dead tigers with human faces. It wasn’t that it smelled good; it smelled worse than anything ever smelled. But that didn’t stop us, it barely held us back for a moment. And out they came, our lost pets, our hungrier citizens. I’d like to tell you the cats only ate the human part, and the humans only ate the cat part. Oh, but the truth is that everyone ate everything. We even tracked down some of the cats afterwards and ate them too.
You are weeping! This is boldness, this is valour! All this lies ahead of you, and I promise you, you will glory in it. Come now, that’s better. Who will show me a smile?
Oh boys, your beaming smiles! Lined up…in neat triple rows. And your eager faces, looking up at me. The same eager face, the exact same. And your uniforms, that bulge so strangely.
No, never mind me. What a fool I am. Not quite all the same, thank goodness! One of you is wearing glasses, with a tortoiseshell rim. Just like – aha. Poor girl. Poor Sicily.
Get to it, then, boys, with your bright eyes and bushy tails. Let’s get it over with.
Louis Inglis Hall is a civil servant living in Scotland. He was shortlisted for the Through The Mill playwriting prize in 2021 and has a peer-reviewed article forthcoming in Vergilius. His favourite architectural movement is the henge.