CONJUNCTIONS:66, Affinity (Spring 2016)
Hansel, Gretel, Grendel
The Boy walks with mud on his sneakers, kicking at skunk cabbage, slapping mosquitoes. On his T-shirt are gallows birds, fanged demons in wizard-whorl, skullheaded soldiers. He has come to the forest to scavenge parts for his monster.
The girl’s territories are the narrow places between bog and strip mall, parking lot and train tracks. With her hood up, she is invisible. With her arms out and her palms upturned, she can feel the wind talking.
The boy marches two clicks from the abyss, deaf to his own footsteps for the thrashing in his headphones: evil spirit, in moorland living, endured the dole in his dark abode. He collects trash-can lids, rubber tires, milk crates, tinsel from dead trees, burlap. These the bones and organs, nerves and flesh of his project, the only thing hungrier than he is.
The boy sees teenagers in the burnt orchard by the river, cigarettes cindering orange in the gloam. Eddie and Rick, their names are, brothers with yellow hair, and haughty Marco, and quiet Larry, who likes to hurt things smaller than he. Their chief is Dan, and Dan gets signals from the fire department on the radio strapped to his belt.
The boy will be thirteen soon, but he swears he will never be a teenager.
The girl keeps a bone in her pocket. She touches it when she wants reassurance. It’s the bone she gave to her brother once. She found it sitting on his windowsill, collecting dust. He probably doesn’t know that she took it back.
Brother and sister have this in common: they drop things wherever they go, often without realizing it. Trails of small white stones, torn bits of paper, candy wrappers, scraps of bread. A means to find the way back home—or whatever.
The girl worries that one day she’ll accidentally drop the bone. That it will lead her someplace she doesn’t want to see again.
From her perch on the water tower, she hears the hum of the electric lines, the cries of river gulls, the grinding splutter of engine brakes from semis descending the hill into town. She sees teenagers moving in packs between convenience stores and hatchbacks, parking lots and thickets. The teenagers chomp shoplifted chips and chocolate bars. They make out in backseats and under bushes. When the girl blinks three times, she can see that the teenagers don’t have shadows.
Down by the creek, the boy scores true treasure, a big green wheelbarrow. It squelches as he draws its bulk from the mud. The bottom’s rusted out but the wheel’s still good. He trucks it rumbling over root and stone to his secret clove near the landfill.
The monster makes from the boy’s offerings more of itself. The wheelbarrow is the top of its head, some nylon rope the tendons of its arms.
The boy lights a candle, sticks it to a rock beside a dozen charred wicks. He sits staring into the flame and nods his head to the music, death-shadow dark, hater of men.
The monster remains still. When the boy goes home, he follows the trail of wood chips he doesn’t remember leaving.
“They’re doing housework,” the girl warns him at the door, and the boy groans. Housework means their father testing every electric cord in the house with his ammeter. It means the third wife cutting words from the dictionary and pasting them with their definitions to things around the house: aloe to the aloe plant and faucet to the kitchen faucet, but also stoic to her favorite mug, doubt to the curtains, trade gap to their father’s chair.
Their father turns the lights off and on, off and on. He says, “Does it seem dimmer in here than it used to be?”
The girl watches her brother help himself to more mashed potatoes, more gravy. He’s been out in the woods all day, and she can smell the sour-milk smell of him. She thinks about the food going into her brother and being absorbed by his body. The more he eats, the more she can disappear. She wants her skeleton closer to the air. She wants to touch the wind with her bones.
After dinner, the girl fetches the boy a bowl of ice cream. “Describe it to me,” she says.
He takes a bite and says, “It’s ice cream.”
“Describe it to me like I don’t know what ice cream is,” she says.
He shrugs and says, “The cold hurts my teeth.”
She adds another scoop to his bowl.
The boy is not friendless, but his friends have all been taken: by summer camp, by a stepfather to a mountain lodge, by a job on a tugboat. The boy makes charts in preparation for their return, rolls polyhedra to test the results. Six on Divine Intervention: Key to the Haunted Realm. Fourteen on Cave Encounter: An Unnatural Spring. Eleven on Family Curse: Forgetfulness.
The stereo he found in the woods. One of the speakers crackles, and burning smells ooze from the receiver. In the heat he conjures stats for demons and assassin-bears, for the Living Hand of the Iron God. He hopes his monster isn’t jealous. He maps forbidden caverns, another sheet for every level down. He goes deep enough to pause summer.
Alone at night, the monster is sinew and gristle and ache of stone, a memory just out of reach, faint as a flicker of candle flame. Nightflight, sulfurous.
It tries to speak but its growl is gone. Tries to prowl but it has no feet. Rusting scrap for ribs, vines binding, earthwarmth mixing with the coldscent of metal and tang of trash. Lovely, lovely smells.
Down by the river, amidst the crooked black trees of the burnt orchard, the teenagers are having a party. By the fire they smoke their cigarettes and drink beer from cans, faces hot, butts cold. In pairs the teenagers go into thickets to make out, and when they return, teenagers look at teenagers with knowing looks. Dan, chief of the clan, ponders the chatter of firemen over the radio while sharpening his knife, which is very long. Like the teenagers gathered by the fire, the blade of his knife casts no shadow.
The girl wakes to a bright buzzing crackle. From her bedroom window she watches a glow above the sidewalk go from white to blue to smoking orange—then an eye-scorching pop followed by darkness, a break in the skin of the world.
The power is out all morning. “Transformer blew,” her father tells her, and later he’s part of the crew that lifts the new gray drum into place.
But that word sticks with her—transformer—and so does the scar of the light’s bright lashing. From its depths seeps a warm, whispering bath of funky juju. Every word it speaks is its name, and its names are infinite.
In the basement, the girl sorts through a shoebox of paper dolls. As a kid she cut figures from magazines—a woman running in her bathing suit, a smoking cowboy, kids holding bottles of soda. She made clothes for them: raincoat, parka, top hat, bloomers, all with folding tabs. The dolls look strange together, disproportionate each to each, a weird race of giants and dwarves.
Now she craves their flatness. Turned sideways, the idols go unseen. They are masters of disguise, hosts to any power.
The girl feels the ghosts of cats slink close. To them the dolls are an emptiness, inviting as cardboard boxes. The girl tempts one nearer, and the doll of a boy with a picnic basket shudders at its edges as the ghost slips inside.
The monster’s thoughts are shouts in an empty cavern. That it has two arms is a point of confusion. It remembers torches, loud men with yellow beards. It remembers a hand on its cheek, brow pressed to its brow, skin thick with the musk of the fen. Mother.
Now this little man, juicy attendant, hunts monster parts and binds them. A creator and a healer, but he isn’t good at what he does. He doesn’t seem to know that he hums music only he can hear.
The monster still can’t move. It is a haunted statue, a static hunger, a vault of want.
In September, the boy’s friends return. The boy doesn’t tell his friends about the monster, but he shows them the new charts and maps. Strangely, no one wants to play in the campaign.
They have, the boy thinks, spoken to one another in advance. There is, he suspects, a conspiracy afoot. Rob goes to the movies with Linda, Luis with Jennifer, leaving the boy alone with his unuttered incantations.
He remembers the one time his sister played. She’d had in her inventory an enchanted lantern. Liars standing in its light would cast two shadows.
The boy dreams grisly deaths, dice rolling ones again and again. He returns to his monster, feeds the unused charts through its nail-lined jaws.
The girl does her homework in the cemetery. English on the roof of a crypt, algebra by the pond under the willow.
The third wife waves to her from the path. “Hello!” she calls. “I’ve been thinking—”
The girl pulls her hood up, and the third wife blinks. She clutches her jacket to her throat.
“Funny,” the third wife says, “I could have sworn.”
The boy emerges from the woods behind the gas station. Teenagers are here, drinking from a bottle wrapped in brown paper. Before the boy can put his headphones back on, Eddie says, “Hey.”
“Hey,” the boy says.
“Hey,” says Eddie’s brother Rick.
“Hey,” says Marco, gold curls shining.
Quiet Larry says nothing, only nods to Dan, who shows the boy his knife, and gives him a lord-to-vassal look.
“I heard you’re going to be a teenager soon,” Dan says.
The third wife goes with her survey team down to the river. They’re siting the location for new power-line towers. She watches a sailboat nearly get crushed by a barge and thinks, Why do we bother building anything?
Her theodolite is labeled with the word theodolite and its definition. She turns the telescope so she can peer into the burnt orchard to the north. She used to go to parties down there, back when she was a teenager. The third wife is glad she’s not a teenager anymore. It was, she thinks, like being in a horror movie for seven years. The third wife has never seen a horror movie.
She wonders if the orchard burned in her lifetime. She wonders what started the fire. Maybe the trees just grew that way, she thinks. Maybe the fruit they bore was fire.
The girl overhears her father and the third wife discussing ghosts.
“Electrical disturbances, basically,” her father says.
“I saw one in the cemetery last week,” the third wife says.
“Our thoughts are bundles of electrical charges,” her father says. “When we die, the thoughts can get out and wander on their own.”
“The ghost looked so much like your daughter,” the third wife says.
“Must have been my grandmother. She was a weirdo too.”
The girl screams, and two lightbulbs explode in the kitchen.
Her father shrugs. “See?” he says. “Electricity.”
In the abandoned zoo at the edge of town, the boy goes walking with the teenagers. Dan’s radio squelches and he switches it off.
“There’s so much to explain,” Dan says to the boy. “So much about being a teenager that you still have to learn.”
The boy wishes he were here with his sister, just the two of them. She would tell him about the ghosts of animals in their cages.
“You know that place down by the river?” Dan says. “The burnt orchard?”
“Scorchard,” says Eddie, and his brother Rick says, “Torchard.”
A squirrel runs down out of a tree. It sees the teenagers and panics. Quiet Larry corners it against a wall and aims his BB gun at its head. A sharp huff and the squirrel’s head explodes.
“Anyway,” Dan says, “you should come with us to this party on Saturday.”
Their father is out on a job, driving his pickup but barely watching the road, eyeing the power lines through his open window.
His job is to tend to the giant that sleeps in the lines. To keep it from waking and throwing off its encumbrances. Siphoned through substations and transformers, the giant’s breath feeds a million small machines. The machines expect so much that the father feels an ache in his chest when he thinks about it.
He thinks of his third wife, in league with the earth itself, her magnetism the pull that wakes him. He thinks of his second wife, the sparks that flew between her and his children, their words burning him in the crossfire. His first wife, when he remembers to think of her, is a fluttering light at the back of his children’s eyes.
Squatting by a substation, chewing on a stalk of grass, he hears the alternating current of the giant’s breath, in and out. He rides the waves of its sleep, the better to keep it sleeping. He hears, from the deep places of its dream, a rumble like thunder underground.
In the garage, the boy finds his father’s spare truck battery. He lugs it down to the clove, hooks it up to the monster’s head with jumper cables. He lights a candle and puts on his headphones: Of Cain awoke all that woful breed, etins and elves and evil-spirits. The boy sleeps. He dreams of a path of white stones. When he puts one of the stones in his mouth, it dissolves like bread.
The tape clicks off at the end of side B, and the boy startles awake. The monster is gone.
Heatlight leaves an afterimage in the monster’s eyes, blue and white and gold. Standing takes time, the weight of detritus falling, shifting into place like stones grinding together. Bonemeal, hunger, one step, two.
The monster feels a flash of satisfaction with its new feet, slats of sturdy iron. Minded of mankind, it pursues their sharp scent through the twilight. But there’s something else, a hollowness. Once there was a cavern, alive with home and sorrowrage. Once there was laughter in its heart, and something between its teeth. Moss, edge of iron, taste of silt. The monster does not know what it needs.
Then the forest falls away, and it sees the giants. They march into the distance, skeletal, bound by drooping tethers. They are even more hollow than the monster.
The boy sees his sister on the bridge over the creek. “I hardly see you anymore,” he says.
“I see you all the time,” she says.
“You’re barely a flicker,” he says.
“I’m only burning away the weak parts,” she says.
They hear a splash and look down to see ripples in the water where a fish must have hit the top of the world and gone back down again.
The monster comes and goes from its lair. Sometimes the boy finds it and walks with it. The monster doesn’t talk, but the boy can hear the buzzing of its thoughts like a thousand wasps in its wheelbarrow head.
It lumbers through the woods under the train trestle. Two teenagers are making out in an abandoned car. The monster tears the roof off and eats the teenagers one at a time, jaws moving thoughtfully. The teenagers are too cool to scream.
The boy thinks it might have been Luis and Jennifer. When did they become teenagers?
Cutting through the woods on her way home from school, the girl finds footprints on the muddy bank of the creek. A giant bear? No, the paws of the beast left corrugated markings. She cracks her knuckles, follows the tracks as far as the landfill. She notices a set of smaller prints beside the larger ones. She cracks her knuckles again.
The boy digs through the third wife’s tools until he finds a compass and some good pencils. Then he digs under a stack of comic books for his pad of map paper, rows and columns of interlocking hexes, cool blue ink on heavy paper.
He sketches real topographies for once, the wilds between the landfill and the river. Dotted lines for the paths he knows, a wavy one for the creek, an X for the burnt orchard. Certain big trees he draws in miniature, the rest are masses of wavy lines with vertical bars for trunks.
He cranks the volume on his stereo. Men may say not where the haunts of these Hell-Runes be.
He has to guess at the width of the swamps, but he knows exactly where to put his greatest secret. SECRET CLOVE, NO TRESPASSING. Below the words, he draws the monster’s face, its fanged grin a malediction. Finally he adds the key, 1 hex = 1/4 mile, a serpent’s snout pointing north.
The girl follows stones that her brother left, a trail into the ravine, along the edge of the swamp and around the landfill. She finds the monster. A distant shout prickles the back of her neck, tells her to hide. Instead she runs her hand over the monster’s body. Rebar, wheelbarrow, milk crates, tires. Bittersweet and ivy.
She whispers to the monster the way she whispers to the ghosts of cats. The monster moves, minutely. It looks at its left arm, then sags again.
There’s a big hole in its chest, some loose paint cans in there. She plugs the hole with a tire, puts her hands on her hips. “You’re still missing something,” she says.
She leaves the monster at dusk. She sees movement at the edge of her vision, a trick of the light. The narrow places that comprise her fiefdom feel narrower than usual. It’s getting dark, but she’d know her brother in any light. His headphones give him the silhouette of a bear, and she can hear his music even from a distance.
When he sees her, he jumps, then takes his headphones off and says, “You should be home.”
“You should be home,” she says.
“It’s getting late,” he says.
“Let’s race shopping carts,” she says.
Up the ravine they go, sister first, grubby sneakers slipping on rocks. They know the path better than they know the halls of their house. The lone light behind the grocery store is like a lantern, its beams harsh in the crisp night air. They haven’t done this for a long time. They test the wheels of shopping carts and pick the best. The best aren’t very good.
“Ready?” she asks.
“Ready as rain.” That’s just something he says.
The girl gives her brother the bone. It looks tiny in his thick fingers.
“I thought I’d lost it,” he says.
She’s lightening her load, preparing to fly. And it does feel like flying, the two of them together, between the trees and down to the bottom of the earth. She hears someone whooping and laughing, and it’s her.
The boy calls Dan and says, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it to the party.”
Silence from the other end of the line.
The boy says, “I’ve got this project.”
“You there, Dan?”
“I’m here,” Dan says. “Are you there?”
“I’m here,” the boy says.
“I’m here, you’re here,” Dan says. “It’s almost like the party has already started.”
The boy thinks Dan isn’t alone. There’s another presence, like low static but not from their connection, breathing with their breaths.
Dan says, “I heard your sister is going to be a teenager soon. Maybe we should invite her instead.”
The boy isn’t sure which is supposed to be the greater threat: him left out or his sister left alone with those wolves.
“So we’ll see you there?” Dan says.
The boy nods, then remembers that he needs to say something. But before he can speak, Dan says, “Good,” and hangs up.
The boy takes four cans of beer from the fridge and stuffs them into his backpack. His father’s working the late shift. He imagines him scaling one of the power-line towers out by the cement plant, gazing with a giant’s view of town. He wonders if what his father sees squares with the map he made. He wonders if their house is visible from up there.
Outside, the third wife is raking leaves. The boy hears her pause, maybe to say something. He walks more quickly down the sidewalk.
The girl’s invisibility must be wearing off, because the third wife catches her in the kitchen and says, “I thought maybe we could do something together tonight, just us girls?”
The girl looks desperately around the room. Amidst the clutter on the counter are two horror movies that she rented in the summer, never watched, never returned. She snatches them up and says, “Let’s watch these.”
The third wife’s face wilts as she reads the titles, Trail of the Fiend and Covered with Blood 2: Haunts of Darkness. The girl knows that the third wife has never seen a horror movie, and she thinks she’s won. But the third wife smiles and says, “I’ll make popcorn.”
A fire burns in the burnt orchard. With his headphones around his neck, the boy can hear the scrape of slow metal on stone. Teenagers stand facing the flames, quieter than usual. Rick is the first to spot him. He tugs the brim of his baseball cap, and his brother Eddie looks up. A half dozen others look or don’t look.
“Hey,” says Eddie, and the boy says, “Hey.”
“Hey,” says Rick.
“Hey,” says one of the teenagers the boy doesn’t know. Hey, hey, hey.
Quiet Larry stays quiet. Dan’s radio adds its static to the hiss and pop of the fire. The boy hits stop on his tape deck.
A horror movie flashes on the television. The girl sneaks glances at the third wife. She waits for her to cringe from the gore on the screen, but the third wife just leans forward in the blue light, like someone who is about to be told a secret. Her hand travels back and forth between the popcorn bowl and her mouth. Sometimes the third wife smiles and laughs, like she’s in on something.
A fire burns in the burnt orchard. The teenagers are mostly boy teenagers, but there are also a few girl teenagers. Rick and Eddie lift a wood pallet and set it on the fire. Sparks fly up toward the moon, a bright sickle behind thin clouds. The teenagers pass around a bottle of whiskey.
The boy remembers the beer and takes it out of his backpack. No one looks interested. Pasted to one of the cans is the word beer and its definition, clipped from the dictionary. He sets the cans on the ground.
Larry stares at Dan like he expects him to do something, and Dan looks nervous. Thinking of the squirrel that Larry shot, the boy wonders who’s really in charge.
A horror movie flashes on the television. The telephone rings, and the girl jumps. The third wife doesn’t notice, doesn’t turn away from Trail of the Fiend.
“I’ll get it,” the girl says, and she goes into the kitchen.
It’s Marco. She can’t think of why Marco would be calling. He isn’t friends with her brother, is he?
“Hey,” Marco says.
“Hey,” she says.
He wants to know if she has plans. He wants her to come to a party, down at the orchard. “There should be beer,” he says.
“You think I care about beer?” she asks, genuinely curious.
There’s a pause. “I guess I don’t know what you care about. But you’re invited.”
The girl twists the cord around her fingers until she’s wearing a plastic mitt of spirals.
A fire burns in the burnt orchard. Marco shows up, his curly hair shining in the firelight. He gives Dan an unsecret wink. Then he sees the beer and pulls a can from its plastic loop.
The boy watches a barge move slowly upriver, riding low in the water, fully freighted. The others have quiet conversations in groups of two or three. He wonders what they’re waiting for. He opens a can of the beer and sips. He sips again and nods.
In the horror movie flashing on the television, a woman walks alone through a barn. Something moves behind the walls, but the woman doesn’t see.
The girl reaches into her pocket for the bone, but of course it isn’t there. She fakes a yawn and says, “I think I’m gonna hit the hay.”
The third wife looks up. “Aren’t you curious about how it ends?”
“These movies all have the same ending,” the girl says.
The third wife looks startled. “Well don’t tell me what it is,” she says.
The girl goes upstairs and pulls her hood up. She eases the window open and climbs out onto the porch roof. By the time her feet hit the grass, she’s invisible again.
The fire in the burnt orchard burns lower. The beer is getting warm in its can, but the boy keeps sipping. When he sees his sister arrive, he feels like he might throw up. She gives him a funny look, but the boy can only stare.
Marco prances over and puts one arm around the girl’s shoulders. She shoves him away and he prances back, hooting. The others laugh.
Dan says, “All right,” and the laughter stops.
Larry is watching Dan carefully. Dan’s radio squelches. He switches it off and takes out his knife. “So which of you wants to go first?” he says.
The boy takes the knife. He sets the tip of the blade near the heel of his left shoe, against the edge of his shadow.
“Don’t,” his sister says, and the teenagers look at her.
The boy tries to make the cut, but his shadow squirms. He feels it like an ache in a muscle he didn’t know he had. He presses harder. The beer rolls warmly in his stomach, and his arm feels weak.
“I can’t do it,” he says.
“Should we do it for you?” asks Larry. It’s the first thing the boy has heard him say tonight. He sounds eager.
“I’ll do it,” the boy’s sister says. She walks over to him and holds out her hand. The boy gives her the knife. She kneels, bringing the blade close.
“Ready?” she says.
“Ready as rain,” he says.
The girl throws the knife toward the river. It flies in a high flashing arc and disappears into the cattails.
“Run,” the girl says, and they run.
They have a head start, but the teenagers are faster, because teenagers have longer strides and no shadows to slow them down. Dan tackles the boy and the boy feels the air go out of him. Eddie grabs the girl’s arm and swings her around; the girl gets free, but then Eddie’s brother Rick tackles her.
The boy’s backpack has spilled open. On the ground is his map of the forest. Larry picks it up and says, “Interesting.”
A teenager goes looking for the shadowless knife. A teenager shines a flashlight at the map of the forest. A teenager lights a cigarette and smokes it, exhaling smoke through his nostrils. A teenager finds the shadowless knife. A teenager goes back for the whiskey. A teenager keeps the boy pinned to the ground. A teenager holds the girl’s arm too tight. A teenager points a flashlight at the sky to see how far the beam will reach. A teenager points to a spot on the map of the forest and says, “There.”
They follow the paths the boy marked, the winding ways along the creek and over the bridge. The forest looks ragged and hungry. The boy says, “This isn’t a good idea.”
Dan says, “Keeping secrets from us is, like, the opposite of how this is supposed to work.”
Eddie looks a little sad about the whole thing. His brother Rick punches him in the shoulder.
In the boy’s secret clove, teenagers shine their flashlights into the trees and over the ground. They shine their flashlights on the rock covered with melted candle wax. On the ground the teenagers find a few cracked bones, the bones of teenagers.
“Like a goddamn summoning ritual,” one of the teenagers says.
They find some scrap metal, some twine, a lot of broken sticks. There is a hole in the forest where the monster should be.
“Where is it?” Larry says.
“I don’t know,” the boy says, and he doesn’t.
Larry holds the knife to the girl’s shadow. “Where is it?” he says.
“I don’t know,” the boy says.
Larry starts cutting, and the girl’s shadow squirms.
“Larry,” Dan says.
Larry gives Dan a look, and Dan looks at the ground.
“Where is it?” Larry says.
“I don’t know,” the boy says, but this time he does.
The monster’s shadow is like a cold breath on the back of Larry’s neck. He turns and screams. The monster picks him up in one hand, and Larry screams again. Quiet Larry’s screams aren’t quiet. He drops the knife. The monster chews Larry carefully, starting at the top.
The other teenagers run, and the monster runs after them. The boy and the girl run after the monster.
“Great party,” the girl says to the boy. The boy can’t tell whether or not his sister is joking.
The forest is hungry, but not as hungry as the monster. It swipes trees aside to get at teenagers. Most of the teenagers go quietly when they go into the monster’s mouth, and other teenagers respect them for this.
The windows of houses up on the ridge flash blue with light from televisions. In a clearing at the bottom of the slope, Dan, Eddie, and Marco stop running. They’re the only teenagers left. They turn to face the monster, ready to make their final stand.
The monster crashes into the clearing and takes a deep breath of electrical moonlight. It blinks with eyelids the boy gave it, fake leather torn from a school-bus seat.
A tall someone appears on the slope. It’s the third wife. She walks down into the clearing and stands between the teenagers and the monster. She sees the girl and says, “There you are! I followed your trail—”
Of popcorn, the girl realizes, feeling the warm slick of butter inside her pocket. She must have stockpiled it there and dropped pieces on her way.
But the third wife has stopped talking. She sees the monster and tilts her head. She seems to think carefully about what she’s seeing.
The monster picks the third wife up in one hand. She doesn’t scream, but the girl does.
“Oh,” says the boy.
“It’s all right,” the third wife calls down to them. “They all have the same ending.”
The girl runs to the monster and presses her palm against its leg. She feels its hunger, undiminished. She feels how narrow it is despite its girth, captive to an inner thinness. The monster is, she thinks, a monster of her own dominion. She climbs up its leg and pulls the tire out of its chest. The space is just right for her to curl up inside.
“Here we are,” she says.
The monster feels pain for the first time since it woke here. The pain is in its chest, along with a new warmth. It would fall to its knees if its knees were better at bending. Instead it wavers, exposed in the clearing while the tiny men watch. So fleshy. So easy to pull apart. But this clearing is nothing like the wilds of its youth. The monster is far from home.
It lifts the small creature to its mouth. With its other hand, it grabs that arm and holds it steady. Then it wrenches the arm free from its body, cracking sinews of rope and wire, iron frame bursting. It sets the arm on the ground and the hand opens.
In its chest, jammed between rusting metal and twisting vines, the girl sighs.
The third wife, whose name is Laurie, gets up and brushes herself off. She seems grateful but also a little disappointed. She curtsies.
The teenagers run, and the monster goes after them. Not for eating, just for something to chase.
They burst from the woods shouting, stumble through a playground and over a backyard, dash across a county route and into a parking lot. Drivers don’t understand what they’re seeing.
The girlmonster sticks Marco in a tree and leaves him there. Quietstalking, it sets Eddie on top of his own house, because it ate his brother Rick and feels a little bad about that. Dan it locks inside a cage at the abandoned zoo.
On his radio, Dan hears the firemen talking as they search for him. He cries when one of them says that he’ll make a good fireman someday.
This body is not the narrowness she’s accustomed to, but it is a fine thing to tower so, here in the heart of her brother’s electrified hunger.
Her brother, her friend. He built this thing and she completed it. A horror, but it’s theirs and it’s them. Buried inside those clanking velocities, she thinks it might even be beautiful.
Back in the clove, the girl tumbles out of the monster’s chest and onto the marshy ground. She’s covered in grease. Her brother comes to her, the third wife behind him like a shadow. He lets out a long breath and presses his forehead to hers.
The monster lies down in the usual place, joints groaning. A moment later, it’s asleep.
The girl’s body feels different, muscles and bones and skin working in concert. A monster’s body, full of fire. She could use it to hunt down anything, even herself.
Sister and brother return the next day, but the monster’s hollow is empty, and the following day is the same. The boy fingers the bone in his pocket. The girl zips up her hoodie, purple and new. The third wife gave it to her. She hasn’t yet identified its powers.
Her brother gives her a small corroded spring. It must have fallen from the monster when it tore off its own arm. She puts the spring in her pocket.
The boy claims territory in the dining room. For his birthday, his sister gave him a new set of dice. He scatters them over the table, a hoard of bright gems. Dan is here, and Eddie, and Linda. They check their inventories and study the maps, readying characters for the new campaign.
When the third wife comes home, she sets her hard hat on the shelf next to the father’s hard hat. The father is in the kitchen, making pizza and polishing his ammeter.
“Looking for ghosts?” she says.
“Only the ones looking for us,” he says.
The sister is on the outskirts of town, perched in a tree with one hand in her pocket. She looks toward the river. The monster saunters down the power-line corridor, as it often does at dusk.
Jedediah Berry’s first novel, The Manual of Detection (Penguin), won the Crawford Award and the Hammett Prize and was adapted for audio by BBC Radio. His story in cards, “The Family Arcana,” was recently published as a poker deck by Ninepin Press.
Emily Houk serves as coeditor of Ninepin Press and has just finished work on her first novel. Her contribution to Conjunctions:66, Affinity marks her first appearance in print.