Editor's note: Florence resident N.V. Haskell has been honored with a 2022 Writers of the Future award. Now in its 39th year, the award recognizes young writers, and was initiated by L. Ron Hubbard, the prolific science fiction writer. Winners will be honored at a black tie gala in Los Angeles in April. This is an excerpt from Haskell's winning work, "The Mystical Farrago."
I stood outside the fading blue and gold striped tent, studying the thinning canvas and fraying edges, a result of time and too much wear. The creatures I passed after entering the exhibition appeared well tended and healthy, even the charbulls, which were notoriously spiteful during feeding times. The staff was agreeable, as always, charming the locals with false smiles and flattery. They leaned in to share secrets with some of the more respectable men, while others flirted with doe-eyed ladies.
The sharp-edged pink lizards watched me pass, catching my scent with open mouths and flicking tongues, while the triple headed mandrils lazed in the hot sun, ignoring the prodding of overly curious children.
I did not want to believe the rumors, had wanted to hold on to the echoes of childhood feelings and believe the best of old man Goddard. But, as I entered the tent, there was no disputing the evidence and horrible truth laid before me.
The crysallix was over six feet tall -- small for the species -- and anchored to a large perch by a golden chain shining around one slender ankle. Her wings shimmered in the dull light of the tent’s interior, like an oil slick that morphed from green to purple to blue depending on the angle of light. The pinnacle of those wings arched toward the ceiling canopy, while the tips brushed the beige, silty floor. The right wing was missing several large pinions, making it impossible for her to escape easily.
The scent of mountain ginseng and hard nut bread filled my nose -- not easily procured with local ovens, the kind only found in the tribal ovens of the western mountains. It reminded me of my grandmother’s fondness for the tasteless fare.
The large creature, equal parts bird and human, watched me with glittering, golden eyes. Fine feathers coated her face, hiding any expression. Someone had hastily draped a long swath of linen around her, hiding her breasts and genitals in folds of cloth. I circled her, maintaining professionalism while my stomach knotted. I noted the bloodstains on the linen as Goddard coughed behind me.
“You can’t have this here.” I took an authoritative tone, levelling a hard gaze at the ringmaster, who clutched his black hat.
The crysallix eyes flicked between Goddard and me, her feathers ruffling down her spine. There was something wrong, more than the wounds, and though my personal knowledge of the creatures was superior to the average citizen, anyone who paid admission could see there was something amiss here. How many had paid admission at Goddard’s Mystical Farrago to bear witness to her imprisonment and done nothing? How many had she suffered under? If they had seen the creature as equal to human, those who had abused her would have felt the slice of the guillotine. But because her kind did not speak a language easily understood, they were treated as less than. And the only voice she had in this world was when decent people saw wrong and strived to right it, but that did not happen often enough.