Thank God for the heat of rage, growing greater as the Head neared home. How it rolled, begged and beat its way into town is, from the Head’s perspective, humiliating. The red splotches from its lacerated right cheek leaving stamp marks down sidewalks, breaking its teeth on curbs, grass slicing its eyes, the cold nights hiding between trash barrels, the abuse of children with a penchant for soccer, rising and falling down freezing country lanes at night, its hair riddled with frost.
Upon entering its village, the Head willed children toward it, making them to its body, wrapping little Ian and Mark tight, twisted so their bones crunched and fit into a leg. Two brothers—Carlos and Pedro—becoming its weaker other. The Head laughed at the brown thing, their hands sticky with chocolate, reaching out. Charlie and Elizabeth thinned out into sinewy arms, their little heads curling into bulbous shoulders, blond and black hair curling about, hooking into the necks of little Pam and Bob, who were bent to fit the Head’s sides. For lungs, the Head shoved in Erin and Tatiana, pushing their mouths into its new center and as a heart, it slammed little Savannah inside—then shoved a finger so hard, her heart raced, ricocheting circulation through the Heads new wailing shape.
The Head breathed deep and threw Kyle over its back, slamming into a brick wall so he was crushed in with the rest. And then it thumped down the street like a Golem. Men approached, ropes and metal pipes in hand.
“No use for me now, eh! You think you can kill a man that has come this far. Why shouldn’t your children serve as I have? Eh? Eh?” The Head roared, bearing its broken shards of teeth. The Head swung its arms, knocking the men over, the children now arms weeping.
The Head grasped a potato sack from a nearby trash can. As it clumped through the town, the children screamed as their bones crunched and broke; Ian’s right shoe popped off and rolled into the gutter. Little Elizabeth screamed, “My hair, my hair.” As it trudged, the Head snatched more children, stuffing them into the potato sack. They cried and kicked until it opened the mouth of the sack and howled them silent.
The village came out, and the Head spit at old people, taunted police, and roared and raged in such a way that fear prevented the children’s poor parents from trying to get their little ones back, but not from following behind the Head, wailing to God.
On the corner of East 5th Place and Albatross, little Savannah’s heart gave out, and the Head stopped.
“What I wouldn’t give for one cold beer,” it mumbled.
The Head stood there, swaying—surrounded, ignoring the screams around it—swallowing heavy, all the children’s tears and blood puddling at its feet.
“I’ve been through worse than this,” it said. “My legs sunk in blood. My hands crawling over the blown bits of friends. I lost the need of a heart to live long ago, but you need a heart to walk, and to walk to be the kind of man I will meet her as.”
The Head pulled a robust little girl named Abby from the bag. Quick as lightening, the head yanked Savannah out and thrust little Abby in. After flinging Savannah’s broken corpse over a fence, the Head reached in and squeezed Abby’s little neck until her heart rose and beat into trembles throughout all the children.
“That’s something like it,” the Head called out.
As it stepped forward again, Charlie’s mother dropped to her knees in front of it, weeping, “Your right arm is my only child. Spare him, monster. Please let me have him and use another child!”
“This is me you cry over woman!” the Head bellowed, holding its arm in front of her, little Charlie’s twisted legs leading to a hand of feet, each covered in sneaker, a bit of bone sticking out—“Mama, mama,” he cried.
“And I do not require your weeping! Save yours tears for God! Believe me, he’ll want them all!”
As the Head approached the house, it hissed at the children, “Get it together. Buck up! Any luck and we’ll survive the fate God has for us!”
The Head stood before the house, grimacing at the peeling paint, how her roses were overgrown with weeds, the porch swing that looked so much sadder than the Head remembered, nights where its hand now lost on a bloody battlefield held hers, twisting her ring around and around—astounded by luck. The Head threw the wad of children that made its legs up the steps, their cries echoing throughout the town—“Quiet, little ones. Quiet now, we’re finally here”—until its bulk reached the top. The Head stepped up to the door’s threshold. It dragged Charlie’s sneakers through its hair; Elizabeth had gone silent and wouldn’t move.
“Dead?” it whispered to her.
Before knocking on the door, the Head spread its chest open and the Head whispered.
“You’re a good heart, you. You’ve got to make it. She’ll be here and I will need you.”
“Yes, sir,” Abby said.
Another small child, his head as a hip smashed under the rest said, “It’s my birthday, sir. Please.”
The Head grabbed a handful of leaves and stuffed them in the child’s mouth.
“And there’s your cake! Now quiet.”
The Head knocked at the door and an old woman answered. Her hair was pulled back, and she looked like she had not slept in ages. The Head leaned down and squinted into her red eyes.
“Who are you, woman?”
“I am here for Mrs. Head.”
“Oh dear, Mrs. Head is dead. She was suckling some feral cats and one bit her. And the infection killed her heart.”
“Dead?” the Head said, dropping the bag. Children rolled down the stairs, scrambled out.
“I am sorry.”
The Head bowed and cursed through a gurgling moan.
“I see you’re back from war,” the old woman said. “You’ve come a long way and have not found what you needed. Please, come in for tea.”
The Head followed her through the living room, its left leg limping heavily, a trail of blood smearing across the wooden floor, seeping into the cracks. The Head sat in the chair she pointed at and took her tea, ate her cookies. Then the Head began to weep.
“There, there,” she said.
“Always a sucker for kittens.”
As the Heads tears rolled down its cheeks onto its body, and its rage turned to grief, its grief to a profound anguish, the children peeled off. The Head watched them roll into clumps around the base of the chair. Little dead bodies, including its heart, Abby. Only a few crawled away.
“Poor things,” Mrs. Recompense said, “They will pay for the sins of their fathers and mothers regardless.”
When the Head disintegrated down to the seat of the chair, and the woman poured tea and fed cookies into its mouth, the Head stared down at Abby, its broken heart.
“You were my daughter, my heart. I, your father. Your destroyer. We are all what we are meant to be at the beginning, no matter the repenting. Make sense of any of it, I dare you.”
A.W. Marshall’s work is published or forthcoming in Red Wheelbarrow, Fiction Attic,Austin Review, theNewerYork, Appalachian Heritage and Vestal Review. In 2005, he wrote and directed the professional theater production of his play, Pan, with Long Beach Shakespeare Company. In 2003, his play, Emptier, was produced at the Hudson Theater in Hollywood and directed by Kristin Hanggi. He lives in Tulsa, OK, but grew to adolescent adulthood in the Los Angeles area. Currently, he is writing a novel about a half man, half rabbit in 1850’s California called Hendo.