Spring 2020, Volume 28

Fiction by Hayden Moore

Patch Bastard

Already have I once been a boy and a girl,
            and a bush and a bird, and a silent fish in the sea

Along the dirt roads of that place where a dried up creek marked the state line, Arethusa steadied herself with tired hands on the rough bars of the carriage window. There were no shadows on the plank floor to mark the time of day. Sweat dripped from her bare body with its own rhythm and was half-evaporated before it fell from her face like lost tears surprised to find another way out, only to die on their way down. Honey locusts lined the cracked road as they drifted by, their assertive thorns yet another portent of the night to come. The unseen horses snorted from ahead, a dissonance to accompany the perpetual rattling of the vessel they pulled. Arethusa named the horses in her head: Patch and Bastard. Horse regrets filled her mind. She closed her eyes. Her own regrets regretted in horse thoughts. Just like the horses, she yearned for a place not where creeks underlined the state of Tennessee and bid farewell to Georgia. Arethusa wanted to gallop across the sea she had never seen, to find that place where sky-piercing mountains did not mark the boundary of some state or country, but where the frozen peaks punctuated the limit, the end. For a moment, she could smell the snow and feel the cold wind as she danced with the horses in a place where none of them had names and there was nowhere else to go. This was enough. Nothing was beyond. It was the placeless place, the end.

As her sweat-clothed body sought a little patch of shade forming in the corner of her wooden confinement, her mind penetrated the barred window and flew upwards. There was no up or down, past or present. The future was meaningless. She was herself a little girl again, her father’s kind hand enveloping her own as they trotted towards the woods. Arethusa could feel the fire consuming her home. Faint laughter intertwined with shouts fed the flames. Her mother’s bones rested somewhere near her. The woods smelled of shadows and looked like sulfur. The ground tried to eat her stumbling feet while the moon pulled back her eternal nightshade. Stars blotted out themselves. More feet joined her father’s and hers. They sounded foreign, the tongues of the pursuing shoes full of hard consonants with a few vowels for prisoners. Shouts obliterated a father and child’s wordless understanding. Steel proved her father was mortal. Thoughts revealed themselves as savage nothings as manic hands pulled her away. A single scream summoned the darkness from within.

“God damn piece a’ shit horse! I’ll have ya’ fur’ dinner fur’ long! Get on! Get on, ya’ heap a’ bones! Get!”

Arethusa woke with the sting of the whip on her back. She reached over her shoulders to touch her back. Nothing but flesh, bones and sweat. Her eyes darted along the bare carriage. The oblique shadows cast by the bars on the window told her how long she had slept. Nothing. Alone. In a few hours, the sun would be down. In a couple of hours, the carriage door would be unlocked. In an hour, her costume would appear like a tumor through the bars. In half an hour, she would have a bite of something, a drink of something worse. Throughout, eyes would probe her. Eyes would judge her body and her mind, her words and her face. As she shivered in her own dread, her long arms crossed over her knees as she cursed herself. One of the only things she remembered about her mother, the woman who passed on the curse to her, was a single warning: Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.

The bitterness of the hard bread pervaded Arethusa’s mouth as she pulled the sparkling green dress over her aching breasts and let it fall. There was just enough light left for her to cringe at the sequins. A year ago, the costume had reached her knees. Now, the dress seemed a cruel joke as it only hinted at implied temptation for the gawkers to come. Arethusa wondered how she was able to keep growing with so little food, so little will. She pulled her bountiful black hair over her left shoulder and tied it into a knot as always. Splinters and dust spilled from her damp hair as it settled upon her chest. When she pulled the hood over her head, the black hair peeked out like a simulacrum of life in the midst of the performance to come. All the rest was artifice. Well, most of it. A soft bed, a few good meals and a conversation was all she needed. That would change everything. She knew she contained multitudes, just like her mother. But the rabble was already waiting for her. There was never enough time or sustenance. Stale beer, stale food, stale people in a stale world were waiting. No matter how many creeks were crossed or curses cast upon herself and on the horses, it would always be the same. Arethusa knew the horses knew it, too.

The toothless old man locked the shackles on Arethusa’s right leg as always. She felt the pain of the rock which had struck the old man in the head long before he was either old or a man. She had already wept for him, though. As she felt the iron circle of possession possess her, Arethusa closed her eyes as she stood. She stepped off the carriage blindly and felt the mud beneath her feet. The chain of the shackle squirmed along behind her. The mud felt like an animate death on the calloused soles of her feet. She even smiled a bit as the mud tickled the sides of her feet as she sank. A fiddler played somewhere behind her. Drunken sounds were lost in the drunken song. Firelight crackled behind her. She took a deep breath. Pine and Cedar hinted at the limestone beneath the mud. Arethusa imagined a cave somewhere nearby where the lime caverns could be her tomb. She was fifteen and too old. She had suffered too much by experiencing so little. A thousand and one pinpricks penetrated from within her lower stomach. A porcupine was taking refuge within her. Arethusa opened her eyes. The man’s breath forced her to.

“Now you listen here,” the yellow-eyed man said, who was as old as her father had been, “Not a sound outta’ ya’ this time. Ya’ hear? Not a goddamn peep or I’ll—“

Arethusa continued to hold her breath as she nodded to the rotten teeth in front of her. When she looked down, it looked as though her feet had been reclaimed by the sodden earth. If she stood here long enough, the rest would follow.

“Now, this is what we’re gonna do,” the man continued, taking a step back. “I’m gonna bring two folks up to ya’…just two. Don’t ya’ even think about tryin’ to scare nobody purposely. Just show em’. That’s it. Ya hear?”

Arethusa nodded again without looking up. The mud had claimed her ankles and was yearning to consume her calves. The porcupine did a somersault inside of her. She cringed. When she looked up, the man was gone. Only the spirit of his breath remained.

Smoke, cicadas, a soft hot breeze, crickets, piss, rust, porcupine, shit, whinny, stomp, footsteps. As the list grew in her head, Arethusa banished every one of them but two. Time was eating its own tail as she joined the porcupine and the horses. Her feet continued to sink in the mud as she flew amidst the clouds at the pinnacle of the sky. Words were just as meaningless here as her species. The horses were free of the whip and the hard road. The porcupine was along for the ride as a benevolent stowaway. She was what she was supposed to be. Here—

“Now follow me over here but don’t ya’ dare get too close to her.”

Arethusa clinched her toes in the depths of the mud. She knew. This was what everyone was made from. Just add water and ‘poof’. People. Shouts and footsteps. She knelt down and sunk her hands into the receiving earth. Life paste. By the time the footsteps settled in a half-circle around her, Arethusa had covered herself in mud. Only her eyes and teeth betrayed she was not a golem. Clumps of mud hung from the sullied sequins of her costume. She relished in the way the mud dried on her skin. It was a chthonic embrace, a dead hug that hinted at life.

“Don’t be scared, now. Whatcha’ see here is just what she does before she does what she does. It’s a kinda’ ritual. But this ain’t no church ritual. Preacher man cut out her tongue fore’ she could talk. Preacher man knew she was evil. He cut out her tongue cause’ it was the will of God. Might seem a bit cruel to cut out a baby’s tongue at her baptism. But the water turned to blood when that baby went into the water. Pure evil. But don’t fear. She can’t summon the demons no more. Just a little bit of magic,” the man slurred through his cracked lips.

“She some kinda’ savage!” A boy yelled.

“Some kinda’ Lilith!” His mother added.

“Looks here like she bathes in shit like a demon,” an old man guffawed.

“Now! here, here,” the man intruded, “I am livin’ proof she ain’t deadly. Those chains you see on her are for her own protection. She ain’t no captive. She can’t even feed herself proper. I am her deliverer. Now, don’t thank me. I’m grateful to have gotten the burden. She’s the daughter I never had, I tell you what. Her favorite thing is doin’ her thing for people just like you. It’s this or the asylum for her.”

“She can’t be old enough to marry,” a woman gasped.

“It may look it,” the man continued, “but I swear on the Bible she’s older than this here man standing before ya’. Older than America, probly’. Who knows. She came from some place in the Cock-us-says. Place where witches lived. Fore’ Christian times o’ course. Now—“

“Show us somethin'!” A boy’s voice cried.

“Yeah, show us!” Voices yelled, as the crowd pressed closer.

Porcupine, horses, herself. Arethusa stood up and clumps of mud fell from her. Her arms fell to her sides and traces of flesh betrayed her mortality to the crowd. She felt protected from the gawking eyes, protected as long as the night remained and the mud had not fallen to pieces. When she opened her eyes, the crowd gasped. She tried to remember what color they were. It had been too long to recall. But she could remember her mother’s and father’s, those eyes long ago consumed by the same kind of earth she was covered in. Her hands began to shake. They always did before she performed. Her phantom-tongue licked the back of her teeth. Horse eyes watched her nearby. She was as bound to the carriage as they. But not all bonds were visible. The porcupine agreed.

“What I need from ya’ll is a volunteer. Now, I warn ya’…She might look harmless, but she’s downright powerful. The Lord moves in mysterious ways. Specially the Dark One. I gotta’ tell ya’ first off: No kids. And I warn you fellas….better be wary of lettin’ your wives volunteer. They ain’t never gonna’ be the same after this. Now…who’s brave enough—“

“I’ll do it,” a woman said, as she stepped forward amidst the cacophony of voices.

“Now looky right here! This lady outdid all you fellas. How old are you, ma’am?” The man asked, as he put his wiry arm around her shoulder.

“Now that’s not a polite thing to ask a lady,” the woman smiled.

“Pardon me, miss. Didn’t mean to offend. You can’t be no much older than….well, not her,” the man laughed, pointing at Arethusa. “Now, you just follow me and step right up to this—”

“What’s her name?” The woman asked, digging her bare feet into the mud.

“Her name?” The man paused. “Her name’s Lilith, o’ course. Swear on a Bible.”

“Lilith?” The woman smiled. “Sounds bout’ right.”

“Again, just step right up but only get close enough for Lilith, here, to touch ya’. Don’t you dare look into her eyes. Person just like you tried that once. Thought she was brave. Swear on my life she dropped dead right there. Swear on a stack of Bibles.”

“Well…. where do I look? She looks pretty enough even covered in mud,” the woman muttered, swallowing.

“Anywhere but in those crazy eyes of hers. Probly’ best you closed your own. Temptation is a wicked thing. You’ll see plenty enough,” the man said in a baritone voice.

‘Yes, mama,’ Arethusa said in that place where she still had a tongue. She let language drift away like seaweed in a receding tide. While the porcupine adjusted itself within her, she rearranged the habits of her nights past, like broken bits of colored glass, until a mosaic of an altogether different picture refracted the light of her mind. Deep within her being, in that secular room of the palace, the prismatic mosaic of infinite colors and meaning shone through her. Faint steps in the mud echoed through the scene but failed to diminish even a photon from finding its own glory amidst the countless others. Hers was a multi-verse folded in and upon itself until all possibilities and actualities were and were becoming. She opened her eyes and saw with six.

“I can tell you’re scared,” the man said, standing behind the woman. “You just close those pretty eyes of yours and I’ll guide your hand. Don’t be gettin’ no ideas back there, husband!” The man laughed, as laughter from the crowd joined his.

Arethusa was settled in her creation and opened her eyes. The trembling hand of the woman held by the same old one from so many nights before was close to her bare shoulder. Arethusa watched as the clenched mouth of the woman looked to be somewhere between a laugh and a cry. Time slowed down as it tended to do in the grips of expectation. Just before the woman’s hand reached her skin, Arethusa looked around the scene through her three pairs of eyes. The woman, woods and Patch, creek and Bastard. Tunnel vision, peripheral, peripheral. Nothing to the sides, nothing ahead, nothing ahead. Good. One, two, three, Time is a winding fickle thing—


Easy, there now…easy, baby girl. Cryin’ won’t help not one of us. Won’t change a thing. Ya’ just had to come into this here world with a head of fire. Easy, easy, easy baby girl.’ I watch as you cry for the last time. Your head. That little head I was bout’ to lay at my breast. That little head is hangin’ behind your little body. That little body not like his. Not like his at all. Specially the hair. Not sure if he’s gonna bury you. Might burn you. Probly headed out to kill the daddy. I hurt. Sposed to be a joyous kinda’ day. But it’s night. Sposed to be a joyous pain. It just hurts. It hurts like I think dyin’ will. If I can just get up. Just get up and catch em’ fore—

As the woman stood transfixed with her arm on Arethusa’s shoulder, the man watched as he always did. The crowd watched as they never had before. The husband watched like he never would again. Guttural words continued to pore forth from the woman’s mouth. As the dark words continued, Arethusa smiled. Flecks of dirt fell from her face. Had anyone been close enough and dared to look her in the face, they would have sworn she was coming to life. With a twitch of her spare shoulder, Arethusa gathered the attention of the woman. The woman opened her eyes and was transported from one world to another. She made eye contact with Arethusa. Brown eyes met the eyes of Arethusa, those eyes that looked like shattered gemstones of countless colors collected in a sphere and told to see.

The horses whinnied. The porcupine stood up and stretched its needles. The moon banished the clouds. The cicadas and crickets played on. The crowd listened. The man hesitated. Arethusa stared. The woman saw and was seen. Drip, drip, drip.

“She arite?” Someone called out.

“Look, mama!” A boy cried. “That demon is pourin’ blood!”

“It’s just part of the ritual,” the man said, placating with his arms.

“Must be some kinda’ blood ritual. I heard about em’. I tell you what!” Another voice mumbled.

In the lantern light, the blood trickling down Arethusa’s legs looked black. Even the copious mud covering her was lost in contrast to the vital stream. As it coursed down her leg in its slow chaos, the woman turned and walked away from Arethusa. By the time her husband could manage to say half her name, the knife in his belt was up to the hilt in his chest. He stood there without looking at the violence, a breathless stare into his wife’s eyes as if seeing her for the first time, as if prolonging the uncertainty while he admitted his own guilt. The breath was out of the crowd. A man fainted. The husband fell dead. The fledgling widow stared on. A child laughed. The man gritted his remaining teeth and spat in the face of Arethusa. Arethusa continued to bleed. Crack!……………CRACK!

Only the horses, the porcupine and Arethusa could see the light of the world, feel its radiance and smell its warmth. As the crescent moon pulled the curtain of the clouds across her, the man lurched towards Arethusa. One, two, three…Time is a winding fickle thing. Thump. Thump, thump. Prance, prance, prance…. prance, prance, prance. An eternal circle styled with hooves was formed in the mud. Only the heels of the man’s boots were still visible. As the boots twitched, Patch and Bastard whinnied at the little life left in the man buried just before his time. Patch reveled in the way Arethusa saw the world. Bastard did, too. Arethusa drifted from one horse to the other while she shared her own sight, her own world with them. The porcupine circled itself within her as it fell into a well-deserved sleep. The crowd scattered. Darkness articulated the peripheral world.

“Bout time you finally keeled em’,” the old man giggled, as he unlocked Arethusa’s shackle. “I figur’ ya’ got bout’ an hour or so fore’ the thorities get here. Now get. Get on with ya’.”

Arethusa placed her hand on the old man’s left cheek. The old man saw. The old man heard. The old man knew. Tears streamed from his good eye. By the time he fell to the ground, he was already dead. A calm smile ameliorated the ruin of his face.

When Arethusa climbed onto the haunches and further up Patch, she was looking at the boundless world through the eyes of Bastard. She admired the way she looked on Patch, a Demi-goddess already aloft on her way towards flight. East was all the three of them knew. East and the sea. On such a night as this, the world was theirs because they had created this world. Theirs was the world where hooves galloped over the water and the moon was a destination, not a muse. Even the barking dogs in the distance knew. Even the voices that followed the lantern light would know.




BIO: Hayden Moore was born and raised in Georgia and has lived in New York City for the past twelve years. In the past six months, he has been published seven times for his short stories: twice in Corner Bar Magazine, Metonym Literary Journal, Drunk Monkey Literary Journal, Fictional Cafe, Modern Literature and Calliope. He lives with his wife and cat on the waters of Jamaica Bay in Queens.