Oro snatched up the grab hoe.
Heated stalks and leaves crashed around her as she whacked down cow itch and thorn apple, and the strip of red earth filled with seed crackers. She worked backing from the fence and the empty cockerel run, where a gamecock in a ribbon of shade strutted and dragged a wingtip. Across the cay, the fish factory growled (setting fish like scattered blades in motion between lines of yellow-gloved choirmasters). Back of a tumbledown fence, neighbor Slee and his hound traipsed from cabin to smokehouse emitting greenish puffs that coiled and spread, and beyond the tall man’s holdings, in a pillowed hodgepodge of oak and plantain, an unsprung crept up the track, and egrets were stealing among the camphorwood trees, wings beating slowly as hearts of pachyderms. Oro let up to chafe her leg where Old Nean had given her a stroke to school her about running off with Wye. “Thet corn should be weeded this day,” he’d stated, sitting ahead of Gimcup and Cos in the unsprung, his sweat-blackened hat broke at the point, his face clean to the jaw line. He tickled the moke’s rump, and the unsprung jerked and tilted and rattled away toward the village and Cos’s lessons and the fish factory.
She started the next row, hoeing along the shanty with its encompassing shambles of tire rims, cable, nets, and crab pots and metal salvage and shabby plantains. Under a clothesline poked up in the center with a bamboo stave, a few Jack-jump-ups nodded, and urns tilted, brimming with leaves. When she found a grub, she dropped it into a grappling mass in the war helmet. Island oaks rattled out front, and Badshine’s freckled ox emerged, followed by the metal-heaped wagon. The brisket-flopping ox rocked its head, and Badshine’s beard wagged back of the curving horns, and carved wheels rolled, restating their alaudine call. In half a minute, the wagon turned to the wind-driven and errant cloud bank and bounced along cropped pasturage. Badshine wielded his goad, and metal clashed.
He’d follow the circle to the village where Wye sat under the canopy of her mother’s store with a battered wordbook. Oro leaned on the grab-hoe and rubbed her leg and thought that Wye is going to spend the whole day closing the distance while I’m slipping back. Oro had met Wye early, in the shadowed alley. Wye strode ahead with a rubber bag for transporting the wellfish to the pond (and liberty) in the pleats of her skirt, a locust jigging below the coil of fishing string in her fist. From the chilled alley, they tramped into the light toward the gritstone church and the well flanked by dented pails. (Below the wood lid, the half-dozen black lancers were circulating like comets about an absentee star, fins stroking mossy and unchanging stones, a full demonstration, in the time it takes to cycle a breath, of the inclination to be free). At the center of the space allowed about the church by leaf-carpeted hovels, an old man was sweeping, sack dragging from his belt like a tail, and a cur sprawled under a column of insects. The broom hissed, and the breeze bore a clamor of geese and a repeated splatter of a someone washing her hair. Under the Grandmother Tree, the village harpy was stumping, and migs with dawn flowers in their locks cast lank shadows across pavers. Wye scowled, wearing yesterday’s lipstick.
“I’d hook firecrackers on her harpy skirt, see that rudder on fire.”
“You see what she is doing? Schooling ignorant migs to ignorance.”
Wye’s people abhorred ignorance. Oro had seen a portrait of Wye’s grandmother, Enda Sincross of Hoggormurin City, a bespectacled fusspot with bow-sporting lap cur. Wye liked to mimic her dulcet and sermonic platitudes. Arrogance is the high-hung fruit of ignorance. Ignorance. Ignore. Ants. A pigheaded refusal to note what’s right under your nose, a sleep-awake harbored in brains of cruder animals. Such as the gamecock by which Oro was ensorcelled, a year back, in the defunct latrine—where Old Nean had nailed her in for running off. All at once, blood had streaked down her legs, dribbling over pale shithole leaves. She’d stood on a bean can to beat the boards and shouted through a knothole. She turned to weep. Tethered by the leg, the gamecock was pacing, curling his toes at the top of each step. Old Nean had the previous day cut off his wattles and comb to make him a more slippery fighter, and he was pecking at beads of his own blood among feathers and green shit. Occasionally, he released a long, stupid, cruel groan. Over his bowl of porridge, his head tilted, the eye magnetic. A filmy shutter slid across pyrite rays. In the center, a black bead was probing. Savagery lingered in the gold, but the pupil radiated deviance. A force shivered from his eye to hers, and she felt a raw, dazzling stupefaction spreading over the top of her skull. “Oro, put a point on it!” Wye would say, snapping down her pencil on the open wordbook and teetering columns of a repeated term. “That or get ready to roll up your sleeves like your old Gimcup. Somebody has to slave over a fish belt.” Through the summer, Oro lumbered cowlike, her mind a slick wall upon which nothing would be pinned, a womb, perhaps, gathering in steam the needed accoutrements—a string-wrapped shrew, an anchor, a tooth on a scale, a button from neighbor Slee’s trousers—for some insalubrious event. A birth, a sacrifice. Over her ear, some gray will directed her toward a destiny outside her comprehension. In a mindless chasm, Wye’s bookwords dulled, brief syllables disintegrating like crumbled bread in hot broth.
Beneath the Grandmother Tree, the harpy pulled the sleeve of the tallest mig, who raised her streamer among those hanging and drifting. Wye rolled her eyes. “Cagey as peg-legged bunco. Always nailing down her place among the rubes with her trees and her gloombox burnings.” From the harpy’s claw, smoke whirled to the rim of a sun in the leaves of a tree so immense that during the hottest part of the day, idlers would start up bone games in root-screened laps. Another mig stepped up. “Learn everything you are able, Oro,” said Wye, adopting her grandmother’s musical adjuration. “We need to keep our heads. Not fall for any yeg on this cay.” A second mig, radiant in the pall, reached to the leaves. “I don’t follow, Wye. What’s wrong with having a tree grandma? You know, I done it already. The harpy said it’d make me stout as an oak root.” Oro showed Wye her bicep. Wye poked her arm, and the corner of her lip started into a sneer. Wye canted her hip and threw out branchlike elbows.
Oro counted remaining cornrows. Daisy chains of grease-clouds were crossing the sun. Charybdis figs hissed, lolling and lapping great tongues, and rags flapped and wandered down the clothesline, and the stunted gamecock, tail fluttering, challenged wild roosters in the weald. Then again, the trees were still, and sweat trickled over her scalp. As she leaned on the grab hoe, she could hear the ravenous growl from the belly of the fish factory, where a hundred tireless yellow gloves snatched along a line of gore-caked aprons. Steamers bayed, mournful and sagacious, bound for cays of the Far West. (In her illustrated tome, An Age in the Far West, Wye would read aloud of rose-scented cities of the ambit, New Angeles and Plover and Fort Bensalem: humming with steam buggies and buzzbikes, sparkling with palaces of glass and tea-cup ponds in stone-tabled parks).
On the fence along the corn patch, high-crowned and grinning, hung a barrow’s head, a bit of flesh curling on the nose, flies crawling in and out. The squeal was like nothing she’d heard. Like demons in a pit. Old Nean had tied the legs. Slee, the tall neighbor, stood on the head, a line of sweat streaking his cheek, arms folded, like he had all day. Old Nean tied the snout, damping the squeal, and she closed her eyes. At the end of another long conspiracy with the tall neighbor Old Nean tromped in the doorway breathing heavy while the lantern filled the space with gold light and changing shadows. When she opened her eyes, four hands were probing the blubbery throat, and Slee looked at her, smoke-eyed, standing upon the barrow’s head. She had got to thinking on it—how it would be. He pushed in the long knife, and she closed her eyes. Stood in the doorway with the lantern lifted toward the loft where she and Cos slept. Old Nean stood swaying in the doorway squinting with the lantern below his knuckles and casting rings on the dirt floor and said if this old yeg cannot take you to school no yeg can. Old Nean bellowed at her to get that bowl under. The squeal gurgled. Slee pulled the barrow around by the ear: a carcass pale and mute.
She dropped the grab-hoe, kicked together a heap of weeds, and bore it to the fence, and she tromped up the dirt path past buggy hoods, crushed fish traps, and heaps of buoys while the ding, ding, ding of a bullock in harness floated from the red oaks. She twisted the valve under the slat fence that divided Slee’s holdings from Old Nean’s, and a stream twined into the drip-worn hollow. She splashed her neck, and she sank down on the green heap of bricks under a spangled teak, and seedcrackers and graybills gathered to hop and peck. They scattered as Slee’s cur wangled through the fence, and his nose zigzagged over mounds of leaves, and he lifted a leg to pee. Oro seized him by the jowls—the centers of his eyes beanblack and jocular within sanguine, whiskey-colored penumbrae—and she shined up his ears before he ambled to the pool to lap, while from the cockerel run, the stunted chanticleer pumped his wings and rasped. Strung bottles darkened where Old Nean had beheaded his prize gamecock, champion of untold battles, and tied the feet and pulled it up to the cross member over the stoop. Back of the sagging, rusted roof, oaks tossed like one living anatomy, and cow itch shuddered, and the bottles clinked. On that day, a breeze was washing through the open doorway into the cabin. The roof creaked in the heat. With a schoolboy’s sneeze-rag round his throat, Cos was dinging his spoon. Gimcup bore the pot from the stove. By the window, in factory britches, Old Nean lifted his jacket and patted it all over. Before Gimcup finished ladling, Cos began to shovel his porridge.
“Harpy is coming.”
Between the gate posts, a figure was swaying. Oro caught a flash in a fringe of volunteer rice. Dragging a broken tether, the gamecock burst up, a goldwhite fury, hackles splayed, legs cocked well above the harpy’s head. Oro would recall an extended shriek and then a wing striking the harpy’s leg as she trudged up the rutted track. The harpy thumped over the stoop and looked at Oro on her stool, her eyes like buttons in a rain-grooved bank, forehead wide under a dull scruff. Old Nean came to the doorway, and he squatted for a moment to grope for the cigarette that had fallen. The harpy raised the twitching bird. “Old man, you overlook the gloombox burning? Or you a ghost, maybe?” Without encountering the enchanted fingers, Old Nean laid hold of the gamecock’s feet, and he backed through the doorway. Oro saw him laying it out on the rail, and his broad hand, not given to cosseting, slipping over pale feathers and down the tail plumes.
The cur galloped past her and wiggled at the fence, tail lashing. In the open space, Slee’s boot, with the trouser stuffed inside, mounted a boat motor, and then she saw his arms coming over the top bar, a bottle in thick-nailed digits. His face was long and sharp, and his neck, gangling and corded from hauling bricks out of the ruins. He tilted up the bottle, and his Adam’s apple jogged, and the bottle came down. “Hello, Uncle. Not up the hill today? Nean’s at the factory.” He cleared his throat and spit, and the glob hung and stretched in the bearded grass along the fence. Slee’s occasional utterances were directives. Instructions for grappling, pulling, tearing, hauling. A curt, throaty, breathless, inaccessible dialect. He surveyed the landscape. Bricks to be crushed, sod to be turned, road to be widened, ditches to be deepened. He looked her over, the life in his eyes baleful and distant.
The boot came off the motor and kicked out a slat, widening the space. He kicked another, and the nails squeaked, and the slat dropped. He ducked through and planted himself in the path. Where his shoulders met his arms, strings dangled about darkened musculature. He scanned the road, his mouth twisting in knife-cut whiskers, producing an indecipherable gargling injunction. Take you to school. She had got to thinking on how it would be, bending in darkness over the long, stiff form. Resuscitating the fleeting familiar beneath the ramp of his stomach, hard as pounded earth. Her hand on hard, rucked flesh, disinterring a husband from the body of a stag. “Old. Nean. Is at the factory.” He dropped the bottle and advanced, drawing out his belt. As it spiraled to the earth, she slid along the brick pile. A hand shot out. An arm blocked her way while he fiddled below. His face was too long and chiseled to be human—some vicious offshoot. He gripped her face. His eyes were full of cold smoke. Her knees were giving way. Her hand groped the brick pile—closed over a broken shape. When he squeezed her bream, she lifted up the brick and struck him. Slee’s lips writhed—teeth gapful and black-rimmed—and he jerked her off the brick pile, and the brick fell from her hand. She saw the fist pull back. It smashed her like a hammer. Her hair was tearing at the roots. Dirt and weeds ripped beneath her.
Her shoulder hit wood, and she locked her arms around the fence rail. She growled through her teeth and held tight. Tree root, she thought. Banyan root. Oak root. Magnolia root. Camphor root. Root, root, root, root. Grappling with her ankles, the tall man was towering, hollering, losing and seizing her feet. Her arms were wrapped, knees pumping, and her shoe slipped off, and he grabbed the other foot and that shoe came off. In the grass, he found his belt, and he doubled it and gripped her ankle and whipped her across the ribs. Each slash across her back and buttocks and ribs awakened a blaze of hatred, and she could feel the shrieks, madcap and ferocious, tearing her throat as she trampled in the direction of his chest. The cur lunged goofily and hung between them. Slee went to whacking it. He was toppling—the cur across his lap—and he crashed down backward onto the boat motor. Oro found her feet. Slee lay on his back with his eyes wide and rolling. She dashed past the teak and down the cockerel path to the cabin. She walked, panting. Between silver magnolia trunks, hens were streaking for grubs in the helmet. She wiped her mouth. She turned onto the track littered with the moke’s shit apples, bound for Wye and wordbook, leaving behind the sagging overhang, the row of hanging bottles, where the harpy, spell-breaker, providential gladiator, agent of a mystic and arboreal grandmother, looked her in the eye and lofted her stained and shuddering foe.
Finley MacDonald grew up in Sun River, Montana. For the last decade, he has lived in China, currently in Zhuhai with his partner Yang Meiting and his daughter, Molly, where he teaches English writing and contemporary issues at Sun Yat-sen University. He is founding editor of Imagazine, for university students. He is the author of a collection of poems entitled House of Violence and a novella entitled Angels, Delirium, Liberty. His fiction and nonfiction have been published by Anomaly, Menacing Hedge, Nude Bruce Review, Hungry Chimera, Slippage Lit, Near to the Knuckle, Embodied Effigies, and Shanghai Literary Review. Image: Hoestkveld, Theodor Kittelsen, 1900