The hooved beast was the color of rock and its head bore no antlers as Dante had feared. Instead, two curved horns sprang from its shoulders, arching over its back where they could be no use to it, for it was a thing not designed by God or by the hot processes of evolution but by only the madness in the heart of a man, where violence and the instruments of violence themselves are seen as beautiful.
It ran like a deer along a ridge above the forest of shattered trees, sprang from rock to rock. Then it followed a goat trail along the high hills until the winds were loud and cold. Three mountain men encountered it in the lee of a tor, and it slew two with its hooves, bashing in a skull, cutting open the other’s belly and spilling out his life like red milk. The third fell back with a cry and lay on the ground, an arm lifted to shield his face. The creature snorted and shook its head, and then appeared to lose interest; it walked off slow as a stag in a meadow. The man watched it go, shaking, as the blood of his companions pooled and spread until it reddened his fur-lined boots and trousers.
Whatever impulses had driven the beast washed away like charcoal in the rain, and what remained was a smear of gray on its mind that the beast had no power to read. It walked on with neither destination nor origin, left hills and colorless sky behind, found green places and water that cooled its throat. For a time it slept in a bed of violets. Then woke to find men and women in bright clothing standing about it. When one of the men grasped its curving horns with his hands, the beast made no attempt to shake him off or harm him.
* * *
Their village was full of children, for the years had brought them both bread and laughter. Each summer they poured fireworks into the sky until the whole world seemed to shake with color and sound, and each winter they hung balls of bright glass on every tree.
With their hands warm and small, the children ornamented the beast’s mighty horns with bells that rang when it shook its shoulders, tiny bells, and with ribbons. To the ends of the shorter ribbons they tied cones of pine and fir, or small and wildly painted toys that they had outgrown. The longer ribbons were left light and free, and they streamed behind the hooved beast in a wave of colors as it ran, and when the beast ran fast it was as though it were a painting bleeding into the sky.
The beast lived long. The children grew up and had more children and then died, and their children did the same. But always there were young girls and boys, of one generation or the next, who would chase the creature across the grass, laughing as they grabbed at its ribbons. The beast was ungainly now though colorful, a thing not of beauty but of joy and play. It had forgotten how to kill, for the soul that had made it was long gone, and the years that slammed by beat even its memory to ruins. The edges of the beast’s hooves, once sharp and brutal, grew dull, and their edges were never warm with human blood. In cold silos not far, children placed ribbons about old bombs even as they had about the beast, and the bombs were silent and bedecked, things made in a beautiful shape, the shape of a man’s cock when it enters a woman to help her make life. These devices, lovingly shaped, had never been meant to give life. Yet now their purpose was forgotten, as the beast’s had been.
And perhaps that was fitting, for no man, whatever his intent, or whatever burns unknown to him in the dark of his heart, can know what his legacy will be or what will become of the things he brings into the world.
Old light brought into the night sky news of stars that had died before this world was born, and the trees in the meadow changed their color and their shape. There were fewer children, and then none, and the town grew cold. Time walked in and broke all the windows with the back of her hand, callously and without peering into the emptied houses. Walls cracked and then grew dark with lichens. Some years, the belled beast stood in the abandoned houses for days at a time, the last tatters of the ribbons still drooping from its shoulder-horns like seaweed. Sometimes it would walk through the town in the dusk, its hooves a dull sound against cracked pavement. Sometimes it would run, chased not by children but by the sound of its own bells, but no painting died in a glory of color behind it.