The old woman bustled about in the small galley kitchen. “Just sit on either chair, I don’t mind either.” I looked at the two armchairs; one was clearly sagged and more used than the other, so I left it empty as I sat in the other. A subtle look of pleasure flashed on her face as she walked into the room with a tray. An ancient looking tea set with floral designs and a delicate pair of cups and saucers was laid out precisely on the tray as she placed it down on the table between us. No scones or finger-snacks were provided, but small jars with cream and sugar sat on either side of the steaming teapot.
She poured from the spout in her cup directly, not adding any sugar or cream. In my cup she placed a small strainer as she poured the tea, leaving room when I indicated I would add my own.
“I just love tea,” she said, holding her saucer and cup formally. “This mixture is herbal, a mixture of florals from an Earth-like planet that captures what I’m told is the soul of ‘black tea’ from Earth-past. Isn’t it delightful?” I nodded and stirred in my sugar as she carefully took a sip of her black tea before putting her cup and saucer down. “Now, why have you come to visit me?”
I took a moment to sip at my tea, still too hot. “Well. I was sent here.”
“Ah, that old bounty, dear?”
She grinned “It’s very kind of you to be frank about it.”
“Well, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting all of this. I wasn’t expecting… you? You don’t look like a beast.” She laughed, the sound like little bells. While I watched her, however, I saw a flash of her true nature. Skin sallow, teeth jagged, multi-rowed, eyes bloodshot and bigger than the saucers. It was only a moment, hardly noticeable, more felt than seen.
“My, aren’t you a charmer? No, I suppose I don’t look like a ‘beast’ as you say. In truth I never have. Men fail to recognize that which they cannot understand and to label it as beastly, don’t they? If you saw what you know now to be a butterfly, but didn’t know its name, what would you do what would you call it?”
“Maybe not a butterfly, but I wouldn’t call it a beast…”
“Wouldn’t you, though? You would have no context for its existence. You would not know that it pollinates and feeds other animals. You would see it simply as a waste and a piece of evolutionary trash and fuel. It is something that is fodder for things which are, in fact, beastly.” I could feel her words like silk wrapping my own thoughts and found myself nodding. “This makes it in and of itself beastly.”
“But does that mean that everything is beastly? It all shares in that cycle.”
“Indeed. But not everything lives outside the direct cycle of men. When it does, that is when it becomes beastly.” She sipped some more tea. “And I suppose I am quite beastly in that light.” She turned her cup upside-down on the saucer and replaced it in the tray.
“You exist… outside of the cycle?”
“Oh yes, dear. I am quite a nihilistic creature. I exist and persist because I exist. Not to create or contribute or even intentionally take away. I consume without producing for others’ benefit.” I blinked, my head feeling foggy. “You see, another quality of beastly things is that they tend to be predators or prey. And they are almost always identified by the prey they hunt.” I looked at the tea and put my cup down quickly. “Oh, don’t worry, it’s hardly poisoned.”
When I looked at her it was like I saw her twice. The kindly old woman sitting there and from within her extended the creature from before, jaws stretched wide to devour me. It lunged forward, “you wouldn’t taste quite so good, then, and I do hate tummy aches.”