Today’s excerpt comes from The Minotaur at the Door, a novella about what could be a minotaur knocking on the door of the house where Pablo, Miles, and Harry are renting.
Pablo’s journey alternates chapters with the events of Daedalus and his son Icarus, centuries before Pablo. These chapters breathe life and detail into the myth of Asterion, the first minotaur, and Daedalus and Icarus’s imprisonment in the labyrinth. How father and son deal with being stuck in the maze and how they craft a plan to escape.
The house’s three occupants were busy watching television shows in separate bedrooms, and none of the men was excited to answer the knocking at the front door.
Harry pressed the pause button on the remote control, since his show was in the slow scene of a tea ceremony. Sometimes the friends of one occupant came over to hang out, but Harry wasn’t expecting anyone tonight. He opened his bedroom door, called out down the hallway, “You guys expecting friends?”
“No,” Miles said from behind his closed door, amid the dramatic music from his TV.
“No,” Pablo said from behind his closed door, amid the sounds of dialogue from his TV. “Can you see who it is?”
“Fine,” Harry groaned. “But it’s someone else’s turn next time.”
Going downstairs, Harry thought about how the yakuza thumped on the doors of people who owed them money or favors. Harry was quite taken with the action-packed television show, now in its third season. Most of the people visited by the yakuza paid the owed money, or they stutteringly promised to return a favor required by the Japanese crime syndicate guys.
When a debtor tried to escape, the plan didn’t end well for them. A chase ensued through night-time Tokyo (it was always night-time in the chase scenes), then the yakuza used harsh methods to persuade the debtors to pay up. Only one character had been able to elude the yakuza: Kaito Takagi, who could disappear, ghost-like, into the crowded city. Harry would’ve liked to have that ability.
Perhaps because of the show’s suspense, Harry peeped through the peephole instead of opening the door. What he saw standing on the front step shocked him and made him glad for checking. The thing standing on the front step couldn’t be there. A second look into the peephole confirmed the truth.
Harry bounded back up the stairs and shouted, “There’s a minotaur at the door!”
Dramatic music and dialogue stopped as pause buttons were pushed. Two bedroom doors swung open, and the roommates stepped into the hall that lacked decoration on the walls—merely a corridor to more important places.
“Is this some kind of joke?” Pablo said.
“If it’s a joke, it’s a weird one,” Miles said.
“It’s not a joke. It’s serious.” Harry’s eyes and voice communicated sincerity.
“But the minotaur wasn’t real,” Pablo said. “It’s just a myth.”
“Myth or not, there’s a minotaur out there,” Harry said.
As a fresh round of knocking came from the front door, the three men remained in the hallway.
“Is it Halloween?” Miles asked.
“That’s not till next month,” Pablo said.
“Oh, right,” Miles said. “The days tend to run together for me. Maybe this is somebody’s idea of a prank. I need to see for myself.”
He led the trio down the steps, to the foyer, and he leaned forward to peer through the peephole. The other two stood a few steps to the side, in the living room, and watched.
Astonishment was on Miles’s face as he went to join his comrades. “Holy crap, you weren’t kidding about that thing!”
“But is it really real?” Pablo said. “Or is it just a costume, and you were right about somebody pranking us?”
“Looked kinda real to me,” Miles replied.
“I’ll see about this.”
Pablo became the third to check through the door’s tiny, circular window—and he was the third to be baffled by the sight. Even while the creature wore a hoodie, it had a bull’s face. The image defied the reality of this suburb of Columbus. A creature couldn’t have the head of a bull and the body of a person. Pablo retreated to the group.
“What’re we gonna do?” asked Harry.
“How should I know?” Miles asked back. “I’ve never met a minotaur before.”
“Let’s pretend we’re not here,” said Harry. “It’ll think nobody’s home and it’ll go away.”
“But the lights are on.” Pablo pointed to the lamp next to the couch.
“And the TVs are on.” Miles looked at the ceiling, as if his eyes had X-ray power to see into the bedrooms and the television sets, each with a stilled image. He said, “The beast could’ve seen the flickering lights of our TVs through the upstairs windows when it was walking toward our house.”
“Yeah, it could’ve,” Harry said. “You guys think it can hear us talking?” He didn’t bother to lower his voice.
Presumably in answer, a grunt came from the other side of the door. Followed by louder, insistent knocking. The house seemed to shake, although that might’ve been in the three occupants’ imagination. They gaped at each other, a triangle of worry.
“Let’s go to the kitchen!” Miles stage-whispered.
Their rushed voices turned into rushed legs; they skittered through the living room and dining room, into the kitchen. It was the farthest the occupants could’ve stood from the front door without opening the back door and transforming into non-occupants.
“What if the beast is hungry?” Harry said. “What if it’s banging on our door because its belly is rumbling, and once we open the door—if we open the door, that is—it will eat us up? That’ll be all she wrote. No more us. Gone in a frantic crunch of flesh and bone, because we won’t be able to get away.”
Pablo had listened thoughtfully to his roommate and tried to keep as level a head as possible. “I don’t know what minotaurs eat. It would be easier if a centaur was outside. That way, there’d be a man on the top half, so it’d be obvious what they eat. They like to eat what all other men eat.”
“But don’t you think centaurs might have horse-eating tendencies?” Miles asked. “At least some of the time?”
Lifting an instructive forefinger, Pablo said, “Maybe for Sunday brunch, they add a bit of hay.”
“Brunch is such a great idea,” Miles said. “Wonderful how it combines breakfast and lunch. And you could be right about centaurs. Maybe they have some hay, and an apple for dessert.”
Pablo’s finger remained raised. “Or a tasty carrot.”
“Would you two stop?” Harry demanded. “That kind of talk isn’t helping our predicament. Not one bit! A centaur isn’t out there. What do we know about minotaurs?”
“I only know they live in Spain,” Pablo said.
“Those are regular bulls,” Miles said. “In Spain, they fight bulls, and they do that running-with-the-bulls thing. Which is pretty nutty, if you ask me.”
None of the men had a desire to run with the bulls in Pamplona, although the subject had come up when, at various times, they had discussed life bucket lists with other friends, and a handful of those other friends had expressed interest in bull running. Seeing the Grand Canyon and the Great Wall of China were on the three men’s lists, which had a much lower risk of horns piercing their back sides.
“Isn’t the minotaur the god of war?” Harry asked.
“That’s Mars,” Miles said.
“That’s a planet,” Pablo said. “The red, angry one.”
“It was named after the Greek god of war,” Miles said.
“Mars is the Roman equivalent,” Pablo said. “Ares is the Greek god of war. They’re different, but somehow they’re the same.”
Harry threw up his hands. “It’s all so confusing!”
Nothing was confusing about the new bout of hammering on the door. The glasses in the cupboard jittered and clinked together. The occupants also jittered as they gazed, wide-eyed, toward the front of the house.
“We have to learn more about this creature,” Miles said. “Do we appeal to his bullish side or his mannish side? Quick! Get Bulfinch’s Mythology from the bookshelf!”
“What?” Pablo snapped. “You don’t know the Roman god of war, but you remember that Bulfinch wrote a book about myths?”
“If you think about it, it makes sense,” Miles said. “Gray had anatomy, Jane had fighting ships and assorted weaponry, and Bulfinch had mythology.”
“Keenly said,” replied Harry. “Was Bulfinch a minotaur?”
“Of course not,” snorted Miles. “Bulfinch is spelled with only one ‘l.’”
Harry looked a little wounded and sounded a little defensive. “It sounds like an odd combination of a bull and bird. Specifically, a finch. They’re yellow, right?”
“I think they can be,” Miles said. “But I don’t think all finches are yellow. It’s not a prerequisite.”
“That’s got nothing to do with our situation,” said Pablo. “I agree that we need to learn more about the creature. Go get the book, since you know so much about it.”
Miles scratched his stubbled chin. “I only know it’s under ‘b’ on the shelf. Since fiction and non-fiction are mixed together, and they’re alphabetical by title.”
“But if the categories were separated, the book would be in the fiction section,” Harry said. “Myths are just made-up stories.”
“That beast isn’t a made-up story!” Miles exclaimed.
Pablo groaned in exasperation. “Are we sure it’s a minotaur? It’s awfully dark out there.” True, it was night-time. He turned to Harry and said, “Maybe it’s your Uncle Frank, thinking it’s Thanksgiving. Frank’s a big guy.”
Harry frowned at his roommate. “We already proved that it’s not Halloween, so it can’t be Thanksgiving. Even if it was, our family always goes to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving. Uncle Frank knows that fully well.”
“But he makes mistakes,” Miles said.
“Everyone does,” Harry said.
“We’re getting nowhere!” Pablo cried. “I’ll get the book.”
As he hurried back to the living room, more house-trembling knocks came, like from the epicenter of an earthquake. The two occupants in the kitchen were silent until their friend returned with Bulfinch’s Mythology.
Pablo searched the book’s index, thumbed through the pages until finding the appropriate page. He said, “Says here the minotaur was in a maze in Crete. Everybody knows that. But here’s something I forgot. And it’s bad news. Very bad news. He ate people. Seven men and seven women were sacrificed to him every nine years.”
The other two men made grossed-out faces.
Miles said, “So he has a taste for human flesh. Great, just fucking great.”
“But there’s also good news,” Pablo said. “Theseus killed the minotaur.”
“Did he write the thesaurus?” Harry asked.
This time, Pablo snorted. “Who cares? He killed the monster!”
“But the monster on our front step is very much alive!” Miles said.
“Maybe he’s a relative of the one in the maze,” Harry said. “Like Uncle Frank is my relative.”
Pablo thumped the book shut, like jaws clamping down, but the book’s jaws snatched only air. “Enough with this bullshit. I’m going to see what he wants.”
“Don’t you dare open the door,” Miles said. “It’s our only protection against the beast!”
“I’ll talk to him through the door,” Pablo said. “And don’t forget, the walls are also protection.”
“Thank goodness we have brick walls,” Miles said. “They’re not made of straw, like in the story about the big, bad wolf.”
Pablo hefted a sigh and looked tired from the weight. “But it’s not a wolf, so you don’t have to worry about it blowing the house down.”
Harry perked up, excited to make an insightful remark. “If a centaur was out there, maybe it would eat our house. If our house was made of straw.”
Pablo stomped off, followed on his heels by his two roommates, and Pablo stopped just behind the front door. The stranger’s loud huffing could be heard, reminiscent of a wolf.