“You broke my nose,” wheezed Snake as he stumbled back. He was clutching his nostrils as blood gushed down into his mouth. He spit out viscera as he pointed at Marin Le Tiec. “Why the fuck-” He reeled back again as the smaller Frenchman lunged past his accusation like a dog unleashed. A straight punch from Marin’s left drilled into Snake’s ribcage. It broke a few lower rib bones and elicited second, shallower gasp from Snake as his bulk crumbled onto the gravel parking lot of the Silver Bar. “What- what do?” The beleaguered ranch hand uttered between desperate gasps. Marin tossed something the size of an unfolded wallet to Snake. Under the pall of the Bar parking lot’s dim lamppost, Snake squint and tried to make out what it was. The pain kept the answer just out of reach despite its alarming familiarity.
“Don’t recognize your handiwork?” Marin asked in his best Midwest impression. He grabbed the birch-core, Lousiana Slugger from his back. He choked up on the grip as he saw the American batters do just before stepping up to the plate. He tested it with a swing above Snake’s head. The sound it as it cleaved through the air reminded Marin of a whooshing plane taking off next to him.
“No, no- I-” The teen was blubbering nonsense.
“Enough.” Marin looked to the bar’s darkened entrance. Hilda’s upper silhouette was rubbing down a bar table. The soft vibrations of her stereo echoed a sad opera song she liked and one he hated. He’d apologize to the unicorn later for the mess he was going to make here. “I’m not here to humor some country Tête de noeud. You did wrong Snake, and I’m going to make sure you never do it again.”
Eloise leaned in and kissed her husband’s cheek as he strapped his worn, brown belt around his jeans. “Don’t forget your lunch today,” she whispered as Marin met her lips. He tasted of cinnamon and almonds.
“I won’t,” he replied as he made his way to the door of the one room home they shared. He waved a small goodbye as he went outside with a bulging brown bag loaded with crustless ham and cheese sandwiches and a pair of warm Pepsi cans.
“You better,” she said to herself as she settled her aching back against the bed’s headrest and her many therapeutic pillows. She was eight months pregnant. The novelty of bearing the shared love between the couple lost its shine when throwing up became a daily ritual. She missed fitting into the comfy silk bed dress Marin bought for her earlier this year. Instead, she wore this itchy, burlap hand-me-down maternity gown from a friend back on the ranch. Worst of all, she missed flying with her husband.
She harrumphed as she clumsily reached for a pair of knitting needles and a half finished yarn project. It resembled a red wool hat for a holstaur baby, with two small holes for horns to grow in, but Eloise wanted to finish a sweater and not another admittedly cute hat. She put the new hat on her stomach and began clicking together her bronze needles in a calming rhythm.
The morning passed to a dreary, overcast afternoon. Eloise wondered if the rain would hold off like the radio man said it would. She wanted to get up and check, but her hock throbbed something terrible. Unlike a human ankle, a holstaur’s hoof-leg joint was a hinge joint and while not as likely to be sprained, changes in weight or blood flow caused inflammation at a higher rate than it would for a more flexible ball joint. Hilda explained the complicated bits a few times in her lessons, but the details passed over Eloise’s hornless head. The wetter the air the worse her connect-y bits would hurt, her unicorn tutor put simply.
Eloise heard the Grizzly’s engine fire off in the distance. The old plane was due for repairs any day now. Marin promised to show her how to help, but the pregnancy put both her lessons on hold. Hilda was busy with the bar and summer was Marin’s busiest season. Everyday he flew across Indiana farm country. Deliver this. Spray that. Take me here. Spook these harpies there. She chuckled as she recalled her last ride along.
A group of belligerent harpy Myth people staked their claim on Stephen Gets, an Iowan transplant working as a combine mechanic. The flock took turns harrying the boy. They abducted him as he worked or trashed his workshop as they clamored for his attention . Stephen was exhausted before he even touched his tools.
Well, he learned about Marin from a mutual friend who drank at the Silver Bar and begged him to help. There, we met Stephen to hear his request. “It’s not like I hate the attention,” he prefaced his request with a beet red face, “but I have an important job! I can’t keep this up.”
Marin brought Eloise along as an ‘expert’ although an expert in what Marin playfully withheld. Marin wanted to know what Stephen had planned. “Well, I was commiserating with my friends Mr. Hennessy and Hilda when I learned an interesting thing.” Mr. Gets was a little too gleeful as he explained. “Harpies are very territorial. They’ll chase off anything in their airspace.”
“I’ve heard that. I was told to steer clear of the woods when I first started flying near Lou Anne Reed’s property.” Eloise sipped at her own sour beverage as they spoke.
“I think if you fly close enough to my workshop just after they start… bothering me they’ll go after you and I’ll be able to get some work done.”
“What about us then?” she asked. Marin tapped his finger on the table as he mulled over Mr. Gets request. She could tell it was still a tossup in his mind.
“What do you think Mrs. Expert?” He asked Eloise.
She wanted to do it. The next morning they flew to the workshop at the appointed time. The black-feathered harpies crowded around the property, kicking over anything standing up and lounging in every shaded spot. Mr. Gets locked himself in his shop early that morning and barred the doors and windows like they planned. Eloise spotted a persistent harpy doing her best to knock down the shop door. A talon sized dent indicated she would break through before long.
They both wore aviator hats and goggles. Eloise’s was modified for her, with a hole cut for the single right horn stump she had and a lemon-yellow ribbon attached to the top left of the hat. Marin said they lucked out. They would have cover on a not so cloudy day. They would approach from maximum height, and swoop past the shed and spook the unsuspecting flock. Hopefully the harpies gave chase, and more importantly, Marin and Eloise could keep them busy without getting caught.
Eloise remembered screaming as they descended. She reached for a glass of water Marin left for her on the nightstand. The plan only sort of worked. The harpies eventually caught up to the 20 year old plane and forced them to land near the end of the harpies’ territory. Marin was worried at first, but Eloise recognized a few girls from her farm days.
“Oh, I didn’t recognize you last-on-the-left,” the biggest of the harpies said. She ruffled her plumage with a head scratch as she spoke.
“I go by Eloise now,” she smiled back. The younger girls behind her chirp and coo at each other. Names for Myth people were a lot like titles for human royalty of old. A name had significance depending on who gave it and when. Eloise held her name close to her bosom.
“That must be her man.”
“I’m so jealous.”
“I want a name from Stephen too.”
“Mr. Gets hired us,” Marin interjected. “He says he can’t work with you all around.” The biggest harpy cocked her head forward. She looked hurt.
“Stephen tried to get rid of us?” There was a small stir among the flock of six. The girls looked worried as they hopped in near-panic.
“No, no,” Eloise said with a wink and a nudge. “He doesn’t mind company. His words, I swear it on my mother’s grave.” The harpies look back and forth with confusion written plain as day. “As in, the man needs his space ladies!” She blurted out. “He had this big, dopey smile when he talked about you all. I think he does care. The man’s got a job though.” Eloise motions to her hat and ribbon. “And a job means he can buy you all sorts of nice presents.”
Marin spotted the stray cowgirl by chance. She huddled close to the endless stalks of corn waving in the light summer breeze behind her. Marin was trying to eek out a bit of excitement as he dove low to the ground. Delivering mail was a dull affair. The doldrums of the day’s flight disappeared as he rushed over the cowgirl’s head. She looked up at Marin as he passed overhead and met his eyes for just a second as she vanished in the sea of repeating green.
Her hair was a caramel brown worn down past her right shoulder. The asymmetry of her darker brown horns, one curved and sharp at its point, and the other broken at the middle and jagged, impressed themselves in his thoughts even as he hurried past. As he met her shining, emerald eyes that cut through the endless tide of fibrous, sun bleached green sea of Indiana, he pictured the henges of his home country rising up to meet Marin once more. He was tilting his controls as he relived the moment in his head. He needed to meet her. He wanted to know her name.
She didn’t have a name to give the pilot. The holstaurs knew each other by instinct. The ranch hands called them by numbers, which for her orbited the idea of a name, but wasn’t exact enough to give to the stranger now offering her a hand up. She moved from her dominant hand an item and hid it behind her. The stranger noticed, but did not inquire what it was she concealed on her person. He was waiting for her to respond to a question she did not have an answer for. Would he strike her if she delayed, or would the destined blow come when she gave the truth? She shifted her weight uncomfortably on her wounded posterior. She was conscious of her tail’s reduced length. It was a bloody stump that oozed freely.The cold bloodstain that marred her loose fitting overalls distracted her from the stranger’s awkward apology.
Wait, why was he apologizing? “It’s alright,” she squeaked out as the man from the plane rubbed the nape of his neck. “You shouldn’t be sorry.” The holstaur inched away from the man. She was uncomfortable with the man’s own uncomfortable rambling.
“It’s just,” he spoke in that lilting accent, “I couldn’t help but notice you eh,” his eyes seemed to chase after the words he needed, “growing like the corn.”
“Growing?” She repeated the man’s strange word choice. She allowed the word to linger in her mouth. The idea of a cow growing like a weed struck a chord with her. She laughed, weak at first, but as she played out the growth of a cow budding from the earth, her jawing laughter reached a raucous knee slapping. The man smiled back like a ranch hand dingus. One of her sisters must’ve kicked this stranger in the back of the head. Of all the ideas, a holstaur growing out of a cornstalk.
“Thank you mister, uh?”
“Ma-reen,” she echoed back. She met his hand with a shaky trepidation.
“I nearly killed him,” Marin said as he clasped his right hand around his wife’s. “Hilda talked me out of it but…” He trailed off. A haze of half-remembered thoughts and feelings hung over his mind like a heavy sheet. He looked for that hole in the haze for that light of clarity he desperately sought to pierce the darkness.
Eloise tightened her grip. Her husband’s mind was fading. She suspected as much earlier in the spring, but it accelerated as May ended. The doctor said it was a miracle he was as lucid as he was. He showed her a picture of her husband’s brain compared to a man of a similar age. The differences were stark. The front of Marin’s brain was pitted in many black spots like nails driven into soft tissue. A significant trauma from his past was worsening, and he would be dead within a year the doctor explained.
“I broke his leg,” Marin said as his attention narrowed on the ceiling. The presence of his wife in bed next to him eased long buried guilt. “I broke every fucking bone in his leg.” His hands jittered as the memory became real. The crack of the imagined bat meeting bone after imagined bone snapped and broke with each heft of the Louisiana Slugger. He sobbed under his breath, but his beloved Eloise eased each labored breath with a gentle brushing of his hair.
“Who?” She whispered. She suspected the answer before Marin could conjure it forth.
“Even though I said you didn’t have to?” Marin’s confirmation is like that of a scolded child mewling to their mother. “It’s okay love. I always knew.” She rolled over to face him. She suspected as much, anyway. Her tormentor’s sudden disappearance just as she was ready to have her first child left her to wonder, her sisters’ reluctance to talk about the ranch after she moved in with Marin, and probably the most suspicious of all, Hilda’s awful lying when she broached close to the subject. Unicorns are terrible co-conspirators. “Women talk after all.” She brought a scarred arm over her husband and pulled him into her chest. “I’m not mad,” she softly repeated again and again. Marin’s breathing slowed and his distressed hands eased their trembling. “Tell me what happened.”
The light pierced through the sea of memories. He saw the window of clarity and reached out to throw it wide. He recounted his visit to the ranch and the old miserable sod that owned it.
“Dutch knew what his son had done. He said to do it. Humble him. Hobble him.”
“Dutch said to do it?” Hilda asked as she polished another mug. “That’s a surprise.”
“After I showed him the horn he nearly did the deed himself.” Marin nursed a small glass of whiskey. He hated the stuff, but he was in a foul mood. The grain of the liquor burned a hole in his gut as he sipped at it. “We came to an agreement.”
Marin nods. “Oui.” Marin motioned under his stool. Hilda’s hands stop for just a moment as she spied the baseball bat leaning against the bar. Marin was grim. “Not his hands, Dutch says. He’ll need them when he’s picking cotton in Virginia. Not his head either.” He took another quiet sip. “If I can help it.”
“Sounds like he’s trying to cover his ass,” She remarked. Dutch was a hard drinker, but his eye was always on business. Hilda knew him well enough to guess what he was planning. Bastard was going to use Marin to teach his son a lesson, then send him off where he couldn’t embarrass the old man. “I bet he called it a win-win.”
“He did.” Marin set the glass down gently. He showed his knuckles to the bartender. She eyed the blue and bruised lumps of distended flesh. “Of course, I beat him senseless too.” Marin’s admission left Hilda ill at ease. Her instincts as a unicorn abhorred violence, but her time as a medic during the War inured her to the gut wrenching nausea that accompanied violence. Marin was on the edge of his seat and his hand bulging as he gripped his glass even tighter.
“You will follow through with the deal… ja?” Hilda stopped her cleaning. The Frenchman’s aura was a bloody hue. It clung to his person in a tangible web of knotted bloodlust. Hilda was a Myth, a person born between a man and magic, either intentional or not. Both of her parents were human, but she grew into her Mythic body over the course of her teenage years. Now almost 600, reading the auras of men came second nature to her. It’s probably what’s kept her establishment afloat, or so she figured.
Marin opened his mouth to speak, but caught his voice in his throat. He was reluctant to tell his old friend he did not know.
“Did you name her?” Hilda pressed. Marin lifted his brow. The change in topic unnerved him. “Poor frauline. When you brought her here I thought ‘This one will never know peace.’ Yet, she comes to thank me only a month after losing her horns?” Hilda trotted to the backroom to fetch a basket. She hid her gut reaction to recalling the awful, bar table surgery. Her horns were both cracked to the base. Repairing them was out of the question and leaving them would risk dangerous infection. Hilda did amputations before, but sawing down the poor girl’s horns hit a little too close to home. She touched her own single spiraled horn out of empathy. She shook the thought as she grabbed at her prize.
“And so talkative at that. She can make your head spin. She was asking about learning to dance too.” She directed his attention with a hind leg. “It’d be a shame if her partner ended up in the clink.”
The Silver Bar was built to accommodate the largest of the Mythic People. A herd of centaurs could move comfortably in the dining area, stand four at a time at the bar counter’s extra, open space for drinks, or dance on the barn sized, dirt floor. Marin arrived before Hilda’s feline and human employees for tonight’s dance hall. The Silver Bar’s size made the wicker basket she carried look all the smaller.
Inside was a single tin bottle that sloshed as she set it in front of him, a wrapped package of butter, and a piece of paper with heavy charcoal writing visible from the back. “She brought this two days ago. I damn well cried Marin when she said how happy she was. How the pilot massaged her back when she ached and oh, so gently he cared for her tender stumps for horns as he bandaged her.” She clasped her hands together as she playfully swooned. Marin chuckled, then regretted it. She stopped suddenly and glared down at the Frenchman. A heavy hoof stomped on the wood floor. The empty whiskey glass rattles as Marin held his stool underneath him. She watched the man’s bloodlust fall to tatters around his feet. She grinned. She touched her silver hair with a practiced motion and set it behind her sharp, furry, equine ear. Her patient was well in hand.
“Do what you need to,” she flatly stated. “After I close. I’ll keep Snake here until the crowd leaves. I’ll put on the record you like so much when it’s time.” Marin hated the German opera Hilda worked to. However, the thoughts of the holstaur sleeping soundly in bed after dispatching Snake to the other side of the country brought a modest joy to his heart. He nodded and got up, placed a handful of silver coins where he sat, and smiled back to Hilda.
“Eloise. That’s her name.”
Carmine toyed with her new necklace as the funeral progressed. The man in the box was her father, her mother leaned on her shoulder as she struggled to dam her tears and her younger sister Sistine stared at the ground at her feet. Around her were unfamiliar faces in French military uniforms like the one her old man kept in his closet. She paused on that thought. No, he was being buried in that uniform her father hid like an old shame. She knew it was French because her mother told her so.
Others gathered to pay their respects to the man everyone from Wells to Montgomery county seemed to know. Carmine thanked the strangers for coming in turn. She realized she was the only Le Tiec in any sort of state able to thank the guests as they passed from box to hole to host. They all had a story.
“Your father saved my crops.” Said a fiery haired man in an ill-fitted suit a size too small. He gripped her hands in a furious bind and nearly shook her out of her hooves. He left her with a dozen ears of unhusked corn in an orange and blue plastic shopping bag.
“Mr. Le Tiec delivered my son’s insulin. He is a life saver.” The arachne presented her with a Polaroid. Smiling back was a healthy boy around the age of 10 holding up a white placard with ‘thank you’ drawn in neon red marker. He took after the arachne’s silent husband, a bipedal humanoid, but pointed black hairs and chitin covering his forearms and bright ruby red eyes marked his heritage apparent. A date was on the back, May 10th, 1993, only two years ago. The arachne skittered off with her husband as they paid their respects.
It helped that the affair felt as surreal as her brief stint in the Peace Corps. Carmine volunteered for a tour in the Realm of the Old Gods. The impossible geometry of the temples she was assigned to watch blinkered her expectations of reality. Six months of perception-breaking reality and an acquired taste for squiggly, purple food really did a number on her ability to empathize. Sure, she grieved. Carmine adored her father her whole life. She just lacked the investment to perform the theatrics of a funeral.
The service itself was mercifully short. Her godmother Hilda read a eulogy from a napkin, the Catholic priest said a few words, and neither were entirely sober. The unicorn stumbled on her way back to her place in the crowd. The priest was a few syllables shy of coherence. They bickered about the Reformation for a bit. My godmother claimed Martin Luther should’ve shacked up with her, but the priest said a few words under his breath Carmine recognized as Latin on his way past Hilda. They were not nice words, if her high school education served her right, and earned the priest a bump from the unicorn.
A dullahan approached the family of the deceased as the others started to leave. She reminded Carmine of a goth human loitering in between the Hot Topic and the U.S. postal service storefronts from her mall rat days. The dullahan wore heavy, black eyeliner, a dark purple lipstick, and accented her hair with streaks of matching purple too. She kept her head at her waist’s right side as she spoke in a dull affect. Her affect reminded the Carmine of a side character from a vulgar TV show she liked.
“Excuse me,” she initially directed to her mother. Carmine flashed a free hand for the dullahan’s attention. The girl adjusted her black skirt as she moved her head to meet Carmine’s.
“Yes?” Carmine offered as best a smile she could. “I can help with any-“
“There is this guy,” she pointed out to the parking lot. A few small groups of funeral goers lingered as they said their goodbyes or so Carmine imagined.
“There are several men there, yes?” Carmine smugly countered. The dullahan, nonplussed, continued.
“The guy with the ugly cane.” Carmine noted which specific man she intended. He wore a heavy grey and red flannel coat and a pair of mud soaked boots. The cane was a plastic looking black with a silver top poking out from his hand. “He said he wanted to pay his respects, but he’s been all Seven-ish the whole time.”
“Like the movie?” Sistine chimed in. She looked at the man. “I get more of a Freddy Kruger type from him.” She shrugged. “But, like, really old.”
“I’ll talk to him,” Carmine offered. The dullahan and Sistine continued to compare their movie knowledge as Carmine slowly got up. “Be right back ma.”
Her mother released Carmine’s arm as she stared at the coffin. Carmine waved to the man as she approached. He lifted his cane a bit in acknowledgment. He didn’t move from his place at the gate.
“Can I help you sir?” Carmine asked. The man was a leathery sort of tan under his scarf and his eyes were a cloudy blue. His face was flat and varicose veins cut blue and purple channels on his neck. He narrowed his vision as he tried to make out Carmine’s face.
He spoke as though he rinsed daily with wood chips. “Please, call me Mort.” He shifted his weight to his cane as he spoke. He seemed to cast glances at her chest, or rather, the necklace she wore over her bust.
“Did you know my father?” Carmine saw a middle-aged human loitering near a new ’95 Lexus. On the man’s lapel was a six-point star made of intersecting navy blue lines with the letters Y.P.H. embroidered just over it. The man in white regarded her with nod and lit a cigarette. She tempered her curiosity with self-preservation. Whoever this Mort was, his ride was Youngstown Psychiatric Hospital.
“Yes, and your mother,” he quietly stated. Carmine picked out a faint lisp as Mort spoke. He needed to clamp down his teeth as he enunciated his sharp “S.” It was unnatural for him, she thought as she saw his knuckles tighten over his silver cane’s head. “I wanted to pay my respects in private, but I seem to be early.”
“The service is over.” Carmine wanted to get back to her mother. Much like the denizens of the Realm of the Old Gods and their kind cruelty, this man’s demeanor set off alarms in Carmine’s head. “We’ll be leaving in a few minutes if you wanted me to tell your ride.”
“That’s fine. We can wait.” Mort took an unsteady step with his left leg, then used his cane to support his right as he moved away from the gate. “Thank you, young miss?”
Carmine rejoined her mother and sister. Sistine gave a small paper to the dullahan. “I’ll talk to you later Fiona,” she waved to the dullahan as she departed. “Just give me a call when you’re done working.”
“She seems nice,” Carmine remarked.
“She lives pretty close to home. We might go into the city to see a movie sometime. She says she knows a guy who’ll get us in cheap.” Sistine hung close to their mother. “Who was the guy?”
“Weird guy. Said he knew Dad and Mom.”
Their mother looked to the gate and the parking lot. Carmine saw the driver and Mort smoking. Her mother’s vision fared better than her father’s.
“No, I don’t think so.”
Carmine proffered a smile. Perhaps Mort was another War veteran. Dad kept touch with all the men he served with in the old country. “Dad used to write letters,” she reasoned aloud. Carmine felt her eyes getting heavier. The funeral services took more out of her than she expected. She had work tomorrow morning and counseling after that. She could worry about Mort another time. She brushed her fingers along the curve of her mother’s necklace. The piece of her mother’s broken horn eased her worries.