Heracles and the Cattle

Part I: For the ninth of his twelve famous labors, Heracles must cross the Libyan Desert and steal a herd of magic cattle whose crimson hide matches Heracles’ wine-red blood. The beasts are guarded by a monster named Geryon, the spawn of god-killing titans, a living horror formed from three warriors’ bodies joined as one.

Linda returned from the salad bar with three radishes on her plate.

Henry thought it strange that she didn’t notice the splotch of decomposing foliage clinging to the largest radish. But then again, maybe it didn’t bother her. Or maybe she liked it? It was difficult to tell because this was their first date.

“I hated radishes when I was a little girl,” she said. “But now that I’m a woman”—she chewed a radish as she spoke—“eating one is like standing in a secret garden pelted by September rain. As you swallow? A hint of musty basement. It’s a subtle flavor, but if you concentrate on your radish, it opens up to you, and the taste climbs up your throat, slithers over your tongue, and escapes with your breath. It’s sexy and it’s wrong, like a liver-spotted, yellow- eyed uncle who gets drunk at a family party and tickles your lower back in a way that feels a little lovely.” She put another radish in her mouth. “And that’s only one of the reasons I love the goddamned Country Pride Buffet.”

She crushed the radish between her molars and picked up her fork.

Henry gulped his chocolate milk. “I like mashed potatoes,” he said. “But I prefer real ones.” He forked the reconstituted mashed potatoes on his plate. “These ones come from flakes.”

Linda’s face tightened into an expression of bemusement. “You’re a magnificent creature,” she said. “If I had qualms about your qualifications for this position, they are now absolved.”

“About this ‘position’ you’re talking about…”

“I was worried that someone with your expertise would get bored with the job. But now that we’ve met? I’m sure I’ve found my man.”

“I thought this was a date.”

“You thought right! You’re on a date with a girl whose family has been brainwashed by a cult-leader. They’re living in a commune far west of here. I’ll pay you to bring them back.”

“You’re offering me a job?”

Linda ignored his question. “My family is made up of red people,” she mused. “Red- headed, yes, some of them. But they are red complexioned as well. And red in a more profound way than that. Hot-blooded, you can say. Thus, finding them won’t be difficult. But herding them back to this town? That will be an ordeal. You’ll do it, right?”

Henry set down his fork. The restaurant became silent. He drummed his fingers on the table. He fussed with his napkin.

“Did we not discuss this on the phone?” asked Linda. “I mean, I wasn’t direct, of course. I used what people call ‘tact.’ But was I not clear?”

“I don’t remember any of this.”

“Then let’s just have our date.”

“And maybe I don’t need a job.”

“I know you’re confused and probably annoyed,” she said. “But be careful not to say something you’ll regret.”

Two weeks earlier, Henry had received an email from a dating service called “Heartland Singles.” It explained that Linda had viewed his profile and wanted him to contact her. The email contained Linda’s phone number. He called her that same night.

“Are you employed?” she had asked.

Henry explained that he had been out of work for the past eight years. He claimed that, before then, he had served as a security guard at a tree farm where, each night, he’d park his van at the farm’s back entrance. Behind his van, in an endless stretch of dark, thousands of saplings grew in silence. Who would want to steal them when a thousand-acre forest preserve was three miles away? What real value could they have? What use? He told Linda that he was always surprised when, from midnight until sunrise, thieves filled flatbed trucks with beeches and crab-apples and elms while Henry pretended to sleep.

He claimed that, in the eight years since he was fired from the tree farm, he’d been considering going to college for a degree in botany, criminal justice, or some other major that might help him get his old job back.

“Shush,” she had said. “What.”

“Is there anyone else in your home? Who might be eavesdropping on another line?”

“I’m on a cell phone.”

“That’s even worse,” she said.

“What do you do for a living?” he’d heard himself ask.

“That’s funny,” she said. “For a living? That’s very weird.” There was an echo on the line, as if Linda was addressing him from the opposite side of a large and empty room.

“I don’t see how it’s weird.”

“Two weeks from tonight, when we meet at the Country Pride Buffet for our date? It’ll become as plain as day.”

Henry agreed to the date, partly because he liked the Country Pride Buffet. He’d often wake sweating and hungover on his futon in the afternoon with his TV blaring, his apartment’s front door ajar, his keys dangling from the lock. His mouth would be sludgy with alcohol, tobacco, and Hot Pockets, and though he wouldn’t be hungry, he would be overcome by the urge to fill himself with food. If there were no pizzas in his freezer, Henry would drag himself to the Country Pride Buffet’s salad bar and taco bar, to its sundae bar and its obscene variety of beverages, to its Salisbury steaks like dish sponges braised in heavy gravy, and to its stainless steel vats of corn chowder topped by wrinkled layers of cadaverous skin.

Linda pushed her plate aside and lowered her voice to a whisper. “As a security guard, I imagine you stalking thieves through the dark.

Tackling them and threatening to bring a shovel down upon their skulls. I imagine late-night car chases down a dark highway, the bumper of your patrol car one inch away from the escape vehicle of some desperate kidnapper of trees.”

“Hey,” said Henry. He shoveled a forkful of pasta salad into his mouth. “What’s in this pasta salad?”

Linda looked at Henry’s plate. “Macaroni. Mayonnaise. Peas. Sugar.”

“What’s funny is that I don’t even know if mayonnaise comes from an animal or from a plant. Is it, like, whipped cream without sugar?”

Linda described the differences between homemade and commercial mayonnaise, and Henry silently congratulated himself for shifting the conversation away from the tree farm; the more they talked about his security guard experience, the more uncomfortable he grew.

Henry regretted lying to Linda about his past, but in truth, he could remember very little of his life. The details were there, buried deep inside, but indistinguishable from sitcom scenes, infomercials, comic books, video games, and endless streams of internet porn.

For example, Henry sometimes remembered growing up as the son of the CEO of a successful toy company. (Did he have the Pac-Man arcade game in his childhood home? Did he ride around the mansion on a scale-model train?) At the same time, he also remembered being the foster son of a widowed police chief who hired a sassy African American housekeeper to serve as surrogate mother to Henry and his two step- sisters. On still other occasions, he remembered his earliest years living with his mother in a rusted van that had a stuck-shut door, a missing backseat, and a broken sunroof that his mother had fixed with bubble wrap and tape. (The tape, Henry sometimes remembered, was sensitive to heat and moisture and thus demanded nearly continuous maintenance.)

He could sometimes remember his eighth birthday, when he and his mother were vagabonding through a dull corner of the Midwest, and they stopped on a black road that ran alongside a cemetery. In his memories, it was a clear September night and they reclined on the road’s soft gravel and looked up at the stars.

Henry seemed to remember that his mother had pointed out the Heracles constellation.

“That constellation was very prominent on the night you were born,” he could remember her saying. “Did I want to name you Heracles? Of course I did. But your father wouldn’t hear of it.” Sometimes, Henry could remember receiving a birthday present on that night, when he was barely awake in the dark next to the cemetery’s crumbling headstones and sunken graves.

“This is for you,” she said, cupping a small figurine into his palm. It was a piece of ivory carved into the shape of a cow. It had long horns and a thick, bent neck. “Your father gave it to me long before you were born.”

That night, Henry rested his head on his mother’s large, soft belly while she hummed the happy birthday song. He could feel the notes vibrate through his mother’s heavy bones. Her humming blended with the locusts’ drone. A tender wind slipped through dense clumps of buckthorn and ox-eyed daisies. The air was tinged with the smell of burning leaves. Henry strained to record the moment with all of his senses at once. Bats sliced through the air above their heads. He made a fist around the ivory cow. He felt the beating of his mother’s heart. The cow’s horns dug into his palm. His mother ran her heavy hands up and down his back, trying to soothe him as he wept.

The next morning, Henry’s mother showed the first symptoms of her remarkable shrinking disease; her ears itched. Her teeth felt somewhat loose. By the time they got to a town, she could barely reach the van’s pedals with her feet. They stopped for breakfast, and, while Henry finished his Mickey Mouse pancakes, his mother had to stand on tiptoes to reach the register counter and pay the bill. The locals must have noticed, because, later that afternoon, when Henry and his mother reached the next town, they were greeted at the outskirts by a roadblock staffed by what looked like Sunday school teachers wearing asbestos removal gear: suits and smiles and white hooded coveralls made from swooshing plastic, double-filtered respirator masks, sky blue paper bags over their shoes.

They were escorted to a neighborhood strewn with wet piles of garbage. They were shown into the only house on the street with glass in its windows and a front door attached to its hinges. All of its rooms were covered in carpet that reminded Henry of the hair that grows between the pads of an old dog’s paws.

“Welcome home!” said a lady through the filter on her mask. She backed toward the door as she spoke.

“What is happening to us?” asked Henry’s mom.

“We’re helping you,” said a bullhorn held by someone standing on the lawn.

A tow truck pulled their van onto the house’s driveway. Inspectors descended upon it, searching for some sign of the contagion that caused Henry’s mother’s disease.

“Do not leave the property of your nice new home,” the bullhorn voice warned. “And do not obstruct the admittance of doctors, or general members of the public.”

Henry’s mother closed the door. She rested her back against it. She let herself slide to the ground. Henry sat down beside her and took her into his arms.

The bullhorn continued. “All revenue from tours will be used for good causes right here in town, such as our schools, roads, and those types of things.”

During their first few days in their new home, Henry and his mother found garbage bags stuffed with homemade dresses and a pair of sturdy overalls with flowers embroidered onto the back pockets. They found small, bright- colored jumpers, and baby onesies, and tiny rain boots with cartoon goldfish on them.

They found romance novels and a Bible. They found off-brand Barbie dolls, a train whistle and a conductor’s hat, and a dollhouse with hinged walls that allowed it to stand in three dimensions or be folded flat.

Henry and his mother established a comfortable rhythm for their new lives. During the day, Henry watched reruns while his mother read romance novels. In the evening, they made a nest of pillows on the patio and watched the darkening sky. Henry’s mother identified the major constellations and astrologically significant stars. Deneb, nestled in Cygnus’ tail. Tarazed, the plundering falcon. Dabih, the slaughterer, the butcher, eye of the goat, peering down from 328 light years away.

After stargazing, Henry’s mom would tuck him into bed, where he’d listen to cricket songs mingle with the unintelligible murmur of a distant television until he fell asleep.

The pleasures of those precious, gently passing days far outweighed the inconveniences

of their confinement. The lack of access to the outside world. The nearly constant medical attention. The tedious collection of urine and stool. The crowds of tourists that shuffled through the house, photographing Henry and his mother from behind a curtain of thick, transparent plastic.

At first, Henry and his mother didn’t mind the shrinking. They were convinced that the condition would be reversed, even when Henry’s mother started wearing little pastel-colored jumpers. Even when she had to switch to the milk-stained baby clothes, their optimism endured.

“Someone should make a movie of this,” Henry’s mother said as her hair fell out. She smiled at the pile of pale curls in her lap. “Somebody should write a book,” she smiled. “They’d get rich.”

Despite their efforts to stay upbeat, however, the stress of the disease took its toll. Sometimes, when Henry was awake in bed, he could hear his mother plop softly onto the carpet (by this time, she was no larger than an oversized caterpillar). She’d squirm into the living room. Through his bedroom walls, he’d hear her pray in a soft voice—a low, deep, unintelligible murmur that would bleed through the walls of his bedroom until he fell asleep. And this continued each night until one day, Henry’s mother said, “Do you know what I sometimes think? I think about how you never do anything that doesn’t directly involve me. It’s like you’re obsessed with your own mother? It’s abnormal and to be honest a little creepy and gross.”

She then blushed and apologized and said that she’d only been joking. But it was not long before his mother began sighing whenever he entered the room.

Later, she stopped addressing Henry directly. She stopped looking him in the eye. She whispered insults at his back in a loud, hissing volume that she fully intended him to hear.

Henry was sixteen years old when he last saw his mother. It was in the middle of a bright September day and Henry walked into the house after raking leaves. By this point, his mother’s body had flattened to the thickness of a postage stamp. Her limbs had blackened and detached, and the end of her torso frayed. She’d become aquatic, as well, and when Henry entered the house that day, she was bobbing in three inches of lukewarm water in the kitchen sink. She was a perforated manta ray. She was a ball of bone-white kelp floating in an airtight jar of bleach. “I’m done with the lawn,” he said. He poured a glass of water, careful not to splash her in the process.

“My hero,” she said, her sarcasm undisguised.

“Yard looks good,” he said.

“Trying to love you is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

“Sorry,” he repeated.

“This is all your fault.”

Henry put down his glass of water. He sank into a kitchen chair and looked at his grass-stained tennis shoes.

“You don’t deserve me,” said his mother.

Henry approached the sink. He eyed the garbage disposal’s switch.

“Say that again,” he said.

“You don’t deserve me.”

“Say it again.”

“You don’t deserve me.”

“Again.”

“You don’t deserve me!” his mother squealed, real joy burning in her voice.

Later that night, as Henry drove their van down an empty road lit only by stars, the ivory cow, strung on a shoelace and hanging around his neck, thumped against his chest in a rhythm that reminded him of a beating human heart.

“You’re not too cute,” said Linda. She chewed her third and final radish. “But when I first saw you? I imagined us in a cabin, looking out at a dark and frozen lake. In my imagination, I complain about being cold, so you go outside to chop firewood. You accidentally chop through your boot, cutting off a tiny scrap of your own toe, and you storm back inside, wailing like a child, and I wrap your bleeding foot in a towel. We drink bourbon and chat. The sun comes up, and we drive to town. I help you limp from the car and into some greasy spoon for breakfast, and then we go back to the cabin and make love on a bearskin rug and fall asleep, waking the next evening to watch the sun sink into the lake, setting the ice aflame.”

“Thanks,” said Henry. “I think you’re attractive.”

Linda wore a homemade pinafore over a billowing red blouse. She’d stuffed the cuffs of her pajama pants into a pair of fur-lined snow-boots. Her hair was white as a bleached cow skull and was pulled back by a knotted cloth headband and an ornate arrangement of clips. Her vast forehead was heavily pimpled, and her tiny eyes were at the corners of her head, reminding Henry of a catfish and suggesting poor vision, a suggestion reinforced by her struggles with cutlery. Her lips and fingernails were the red of those radishes, and the flesh around her mouth was paler than the rest of her face, as if she’d been in a tanning bed wearing nothing but a surgical mask.

“Have you heard of a person waking up to be overwhelmed by the feeling that an intruder has just left their bedroom?”

“Like a ghost?”

Like a ghost he says!” she laughed. “Do you believe in ghosts?”

Henry said he did.

“There’s nothing wrong with a fear of ghosts.”

“I said I believe in ghosts,” said Henry. “I didn’t say I’m afraid of them.”

Linda looked down at her plate as if betrayed. In the silence that followed, Henry discreetly observed a mother who sat at a neighboring table with her two small children. “Eat your chicken,” she said to a red-haired boy who wore a red baseball cap with a patch depicting a tortoise holding a helium balloon shaped like a heart. His little sister wore sweatpants and a red T-shirt with a picture of a disembodied smile. “Eat your noodles,” said the mom. “Eat your seafood salad.” A pack of non-menthol Newports. A purse as big as a seeing eye dog. Keys attached to a rabbit’s foot. “Eat your Chicken à la King.” The little girl wore swim goggles around her neck, like a necklace. “Eat your food or I’ll take you home and spank you and if you cry, Santa Claus will hear it and he’ll come to the house to rescue you and I’ll put a fucking bullet between his eyes and there will never be Christmas again.”’

The Country Pride Buffet’s meat-carving station had a sign made to look like crumpled butcher paper. It said “Grandpaw Jackson’s Old Southern Smokehouse.” At first, Henry thought that the woman behind the counter wore many tiny earrings. Upon further inspection, he realized they were small barnacle-like growths climbing up her neck and collecting around her ears.

“That lady you’re with?” she asked. “What’s she calling herself? Barb? Paul? Clementine? Mary? Tiny? Linda?”

Henry said she was calling herself Linda.

“She always comes here with a different man who always looks just like you. Spittin’ image. They sit at that table while he picks at his food, just like you’ve been doing, and then they always leave together lovey-dovey.”

“Sounds like she’s going on dates,” said Henry.

“But what happens to these men she dates?” Henry said he couldn’t guess.

“These men who look just like you,” she continued, “always come back a few days later, but they look twenty years older. They got beards draping down their chests and lines radiating from their eye-sockets. They look like little meteors struck them in the face. They got wide-open bathrobes with their crusty little dicks flopping out, and the breeze from the air conditioning blows the hair off their heads in clumps. And they go from table to table, mumbling, ‘You seen Wilhelmina? Seen Celm? Seen Barb? Seen Linda?’ The manager always finds their corpses in a bathroom stall. God knows how they sneak into the bathroom and die, but they always do.”

She piled ham, beef, and turkey onto Henry’s plate.

Part II: In his pursuit of the blood-red cattle, Heracles travels to Erythia, a place hidden at the Western edge of reality, where sunsets unfurl across the sky like the sails of burning ships. Upon his arrival, the hero slays Geryon’s two-headed guard-hound with one swing of his club.

Sometimes Henry remembered his sixteenth birthday as the night the van broke down, stranding him on an endless, ink-black road that ran alongside what he at first thought to be a cemetery but after some exploration learned was a poorly tended orchard.

Several hundred muddy acres of wind- mutilated trees, their limbs split and sagging, their trunks sizzling with termites and weevils, their roots choked by a thrumming frenzy of emerald ash borers and bollworms. The boozy smell of millions of pounds of fruit left to rot where it fell.

Sometimes, in Henry’s memory, he abandoned his van and explored that orchard. After spending eight years in quarantine, it was exhilarating to take twenty steps in the same direction. Suddenly, clouds covered the moon. Henry was drenched by a curtain of rain.

He sought shelter beneath a tree. His stomach grumbled. He gazed into the branches. His eyes strained to identify the shape of an apple in the dark. He reached up. Two Doberman Pinschers descended upon him.

He collapsed beneath their weight and tried to scream and realized that his mouth was stuffed with half-chewed apple and rain water. He closed his eyes and felt jaws on his limbs. He waited for the flesh to tear, for his blood to gush, for his organs to ignite with pain.

Instead, the dogs licked him with such affectionate gusto that their rough tongues scrubbed the roof of his mouth.

Henry stood. The Dobermans wagged their stumps.

“My hero,” said the tall, red-headed, perfectly dry woman standing five feet away. “I thought those dogs would be the death of me.”

“Really?”

“But if my husband caught you eating his apples, he’d blow your head off your shoulders.”

“For real?”

She folded her arms across her chest in a way that to Henry seemed rehearsed. “What’s your name?”

“Henry Streator.”

“Henry, between these dogs and my husband, barely a day goes by when I’m not scared for my own life.”

“I’m sorry,” said Henry.

“Will you stay here? For a long time? I’ll take care of you, and you’ll protect me, and someday we’ll inherit this place and bring these dying trees back to life.” She took his hand in hers.

Henry tried to answer, but it was too late. The warmth of her thin, heart-shaped hand had already spread from her palm into his, into his wrist, up his arm, through his brain, and into his soul.

Henry’s plate of ham, turkey, and beef landed on their table.

Linda said, “In this castrated point in history when every man in the civilized world is eating organic kale braised in almond milk, when every man is eating gluten-free whole-grain muffins, there’s something sexy about a man who knows his way around a plate of processed meat.”

“What is happening to me?”

Linda reached across the table and cupped her hand over Henry’s. Her palm was swampy, and Henry’s hand tingled; the tingling spread through his wrist, up his arm, into his body, and settled in his heart.

“What is happening to me?” Henry demanded again.

Linda’s face tightened. Her brow furrowed. She inhaled, leaned forward, and exhaled. Henry was awash in the smell of radishes. It was air escaping from a box of old photographs. It was a secret garden pelted by September rain.

“Will you get my family back?”

“Fine.”

“Fine what?”

“I’ll rescue your family.”

Linda stood and walked to where Henry sat. She kissed him, and he kissed her back. He was amazed by how much another person’s tongue could taste like his own.

“Excuse me,” said Henry. He patted the corners of his mouth with a napkin and stood.

Henry’s memory illogically compressed eight years at the orchard into a single September evening spent beneath one of the few thriving trees on the property, his head resting on the lap of the orchard keeper’s wife. In his memory, it was the evening of his twenty-fourth birthday.

“Our love caused life within me,” she said. “This happened eight years ago, but I withheld it because I was concerned you would be displeased.”

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I am certain that’s impossible.”

“Two red-headed miracles, a boy and girl. On the night they were born they writhed in my hands, smooth and silent as snakes. My husband took them from me. They have now grown and I need your help to get them back. I will nurture them and you will protect them just as you have protected me.”

“When do we do this?”

“As soon as I return from my journey.”

“You’re going somewhere?”

“For the love of our children, you must not leave this spot until I return.”

Henry smothered her hands with kisses. He took the ivory cow from around his neck and offered it as a token of his love, and as a talisman of protection for her journey. She accepted the item without comment, depositing it in a pocket hidden in the lining of her dress.

Part III: Heracles vanquishes the triple-bodied Geryon with a single arrow. He steals the red cattle. However, the herd is unruly, the route back to Greece is obscure, and his mind is muddled by the lies of the gods.

The man behind the counter calling “Far East Favorites!” was seven feet tall. His hands were like stop signs. His knuckles were larger than Henry’s fists. His neck was load-bearing.

“This rangoon is on the house,” said the man. He plopped a rangoon on Henry’s plate.

“It’s all you can eat,” said Henry. “That’s the purpose of the Country Pride Buffet.”

“I know,” said the man. “That was just a joke, but it went over your head, which says nothing about your sense of humor, and everything about the excitement you must feel about the situation. You accepted the job, right?”

“I did. But I need to tell her I changed my mind.”

“Why would you do such a thing?”

“I’m busy enough as it is. Also, your co- worker over at Grandpaw’s Smokehouse said I’ll end up dead.”

The man behind the counter rolled his eyes. “Was she lying?” Henry asked.

“Susan is the most honest person you’ll meet. But here at Far East Favorites we recognize that life isn’t as simple as some would like it to be.”

Henry said sure.

“Your partner Linda? She usually comes here with a date. And her boyfriends always show up a few days later, and they pay for their meal with platinum credit cards, and they sit with their smiling kids and their wives who smell like coconuts and who have big tits, and they raise a toast to Linda, or whatever she’s calling herself. Their eyes are pebbles baking in the sun, and, after they leave, our manager always goes to the bathroom and opens a toilet tank and finds a big ziplock bag containing a cash-stuffed envelope and a little note with instructions to split the money amongst the staff.”

“Honestly?”

“I wouldn’t have my new teeth if it wasn’t for those envelopes.”

The man smiled, revealing a set of ill-fitting, unnaturally white dentures. The bulky artificial teeth gave Henry an impression of profound dishonesty.

When he got back to the table, Linda was hunched over a small mirror, carefully applying whitening strips to her teeth.

“Every time I stand up in this place,” said Henry, “People tell me funny things.”

“That’s another reason why I love the goddamned Country Pride Buffet,” she said. “Everyone who eats at this place is a lunatic. I used to believe that there was some chemical in the food, or some fungus creeping through the HVAC system. But I’ve realized that we’re dealing with a pathogen that has an external origin. I’m speaking in exobiological terms. Some toxicological factor is at large in this world that infects human beings, and those of us with a genetic disposition vulnerable to the infection are driven here. Do you know that my family and I used to eat here every Sunday, after church?”

“I am not a lunatic,” said Henry.

“When you said you wanted to go to college? That was the sanest thing a person could ever say.”

“I’m not going to college.”

“It was botany, if I remember correctly?”

“Or criminal justice.”

“I’m an amateur botanist myself.”

“No shit.”

“And though I’ve limited my efforts to a few small plants in pots, I’ve consulted many volumes on the subject of botany. And I’ve spent many hours on the web. Reading websites and engaging in discussions and debates on botany-themed message boards. Because of my endless studying, botanical terms sometimes float out of my head and into reality. They hover in front of my eyes like billboards that only I can see. The phrase I see now is ‘dead at functional maturity.’ Do you know what that means?”

Henry bit the tip off an egg roll and shrugged.

“The term ‘dead at functional maturity’ refers to a plant that grows until it produces a single generation of seeds. Once it disperses those seeds, it dies. As if willingly. You see?”

“I see.”

“You actually don’t, but you will see, because in a few minutes, I’ll invite you back to my apartment, but we won’t even get out of the parking lot of the goddamned Country Pride Buffet. I’ll straddle you in the passenger seat of my truck and when we finally do end up back at my apartment, I’ll put on old films while we make love again, and we’ll pass out in front of the television while the movie plays. Tomorrow morning, I’ll show you pictures of my family and professional sketches of what they might look like today. When that’s done, I’ll give you a briefcase containing a GPS device programmed with many dozens of exotic locations and maybe a small but incalculably powerful weapon to use only as a last resort, and, after a few months or years, you’ll bring my family back to me.”

“I guess that sounds fine,” said Henry.

“Fine,” she said. “That’s a funny way to put it.”

Henry felt like an ancient seed suspended in the center of a gradually thawing iceberg, destined, on some distant day, to sink to the frigid ocean floor.

Part IV: A fire-breathing giant steals two cows while Heracles sleeps. The giant- thief retreats to a mountain cave and drags an immovable stone over the cave’s mouth. Upon finding the entrance sealed, Heracles rips the peak off the mountain, leaps down into the pitch-black belly of the cave, strangles the giant to death, and retrieves his stolen property.

Henry remembered watching the orchard keeper’s wife leave the clearing to embark on her mysterious journey. He remembered tracking her to the edge of the property, where she climbed into his van, still parked on the side of the road eight years after he’d left it there.

He waited until the darkness erased the shadows. He waited until his limbs grew numb from standing. He waited until he heard the sound of his children from inside the van.

The vehicle’s doors were locked. He scrambled to the top of the van and tore the plastic covering from the sunroof. He peered down inside. There was the orchard keeper’s wife, gazing up at him with scorn and disgust. There were the children—blood-red, eyeless, sharp-fanged, pig-like creatures that huffed like bears.

“Get out of here!” barked the orchard keeper’s wife.

“The children!” stammered Henry.

“You don’t deserve these children!” she laughed. “You don’t deserve me!”

Henry leapt through the small sunroof opening, deep into the pitch-black belly of the van. The children discharged a high-pitched, tortured scream. Henry scooped them into his arms. Their skin was a translucent membrane stretched over the red meat of their bodies. They reminded Henry of peeled oranges, and he couldn’t determine which ends were their heads.

Suddenly, they disgusted him, and he let them fall from his embrace. One of them coiled its body around Henry’s ankle and drove red-hot quills into his skin. Henry bellowed. He stumbled onto the body of the other child; injured, it twitched and fizzed, chattering spasmodically on the floor. He peeled the child off his ankle and it oozed between his fingers. It screamed, and then the other child screamed, and, later that night, as Henry drove alone down nameless roads under a sun-purpled sky, after the pounding in his chest subsided and the musty smell of the children had mostly disappeared, when the orchard and everything that happened there seemed a million miles away he finally realized what their inhuman screams had meant; he understood that, with whatever crude, monstrous organs they had instead of throats, they were trying to say his name.

The mom in nurses’ scrubs gripped her daughter’s wrist and dragged her toward the Country Pride Buffet’s bathrooms. The girl dug her heels into the carpet, one arm whipping through the air in her mother’s grasp, the other clawing at the legs of her chair, looking like a stubborn animal forced to work. Her older brother put his hands over his face and wept.

The mother released the girl’s wrist. The girl curled up on the ground like a dead spider.

“Fine,” said the mom. “But I’ll be goddamned if we drive all the way to grandma’s house and you get out of the car wearing pants full of piss. Understand?”

The girl and her brother nodded. Their cheeks burned bright red.

“And when we get there, there’s going to be no bullshit stories about me leaving last night because one of my good friends needed a favor and then me coming home in the morning to an apartment stinking of stove gas and all the fish dead in the tank and you and your brother hiding in the fucking laundry room. Right?”

“Right,” said all the employees and customers in the Country Pride Buffet.

She stomped into the women’s washroom. Henry apologized to Linda and said goodbye.

“I knew it,” she said. She rested her forehead on the table and began to cry.

Henry gently patted the back of her head. “It’s OK,” he said. “You didn’t want me to work for you.”

“No,” she sniffed.

“You knew I’d never find your family.”

“I knew it.”

“You might have been lying about the whole thing.”

“Maybe,” she cried. “I can’t tell anymore.”

“It’s OK,” said Henry. “It’s the same way for all of us.”

He stood from the table and approached the brother and sister, who were huddled together on the carpet near their table. He gently lifted the girl and boy into his arms. He carried them to the Country Pride Buffet’s parking lot and put them in his van and kidnapped them.

There were no stars that night. The van moved through the darkness like a submarine across the deepest ocean floor. The children pressed their hands against the windows; they breathed against the glass to create pools of fog and then they used their fingertips to draw smiling faces and hearts. Henry pressed the gas and thought about enrolling in college. He thought about getting his old job back at the tree farm, finding a spouse, having children of his own. He followed an on-ramp and got on the highway. The ivory cow hung around his neck. It pressed against his body, leaking its coldness and silence into his chest. The frantic lights of a dozen police cars danced in his rearview mirror. Sirens screamed. The children laughed. And Henry barreled hopelessly down the highway’s only open lane, straight into the heart of the churning, pitch-black, god-sized cloud that had fallen upon that land.

Part V: Finally, Heracles returns to Greece with his precious herd intact.

Nearly Weeping Outside

“...And I should love you the more because I mangled you And because you were no longer beautiful To anyone but me.” - The Love Song of St. Sebastian T.S. Eliot Lining each path, each road stop and roadway we traverse here, wake-robins exhibit folds thick with lashes of redemption. Coarse flint beneath supports our beatific...
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Through the Unyielding Lens

Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You, opens with a four-line sentence containing five separate clauses. The sentences that follow, shockingly, become more complex and esoteric, words—coterminous, ubiquitous, autumnal—littering the first paragraph, sentences rarely shorter than three or four lines. After the first page, I had the distinct feeling that this book was either going to...
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The Art of Impalement

His friends called him Jay, because he worked up with the birds. Jay rode skyscraper skeletons, where New York was flickering itself sullenly into being. A taste of steel lived in Jay’s mouth, scars on his arms, and no room anywhere. His world was girders, lines, oil. “Frosty,” they called him. He didn’t understand what love...
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This is Luck

Andreas was certain that when it first began, it wasn’t like this. “Andreas, please, a strategy,” Maggie said. “For a game of the lowest chance?” Everything Andreas and Maggie said carried the weight of all the other things they had said and the weight of all they knew about each other and all they knew about...
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Follow the Leader

Cold Blooded Old Times

The red light had lasted so long snow was starting to stick on the hood of David’s car and the aging defrost struggled to keep the windshield clear. He was mentally cursing a motorcyclist who was trying to skip ahead of the line of cars by zipping down the bike lane on the right shoulder. What...
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On the 100th Anniversary of Mary’s Death

We were neurophobic and perfect the day that we lost our souls Maybe we weren’t so humanBut If we cry we will rustAnd I was a hand grenadeThat never stopped explodingYou were automatic and as hollow as the “o” in god —“Mechanical Animals,” Marilyn Manson No, no notice arrived in the mail. No, we did...
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StickyFeet

Pearl Dagnall doesn’t need somebody to love, and she’d tell you—if she ever talked to people offline—but interfacing is a problem for her. She has a limited tolerance for people in general, which is why she telecommutes. She has zero interest in romance with any of Facebook’s fabulous fifty-eight genders, and that’s the tip of the...
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Letters from Afghanistan: A feature from the Afghan Women’s Writing Project

Imagine you have a story to tell. It’s a story about hope, loss, tragedy, and courage. It’s your story. Now imagine trying to write this story having grown up in a country where education was denied to you, where telling your story has been criminalized. And then picture writing it in a second language.

The women of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, some not even teenagers yet, are doing exactly this: fighting to tell their stories. Despite the risks, these developing writers are driven by the need to share their voices.

F(r)iction is proud to present the work of these brave women.

Attachment

by Hajar

Hey there cancer pills—
though you give life and kill my illness
my hair falls out like an angel
descending into a sinful city.
I have nothing left
since locusts attacked the farm
and Uncle became allergic to air pollution
after moving to Kabul.
My indisposed body desires red wine
to pour into a head filled with memories of you.
It wants to burn a cigarette and watch
as such beauty strikes the darkness.
Have you ever wondered about the peaceful 
highways where tired taxi drivers rest?
Maybe I am tired...
and you are a glass of bitter black tea
that makes me moan like a wounded insect.
Maybe you are inelegant...
and I am inspiration
making your emotions affordable.
Do you remember that painter?
What a couple he said, a comely combination 
of gray and happy colors on his canvas.
You shined neatly
but I was busy thinking
about how to pay for Uncle’s medicines.
The other day Uncle and I bought cheap ripe
peaches
I thought of you with every bite
as the national bank defaulted.
The absolute silence of political history 
reminds me of my stupidity—
I want you and nothing more
nothing less.
Since you are my over-the-top edge 
of the feeling called attachment 
from which I’ll soon be detaching.

Heartbreak

by Hajar

Her heart breaks
its core vein torn
an eruption of blood
the helplessness of white cells.
Here are her hands holding such pain.
See her tears sliding across the tracks of her face.
There’s the sound of a heart breaking 
like flies making love, punishing her ears
annoyed nails declare war
the bomb explodes
into the flavor of his lips
Red Bull in mouths, she loses again.
Covered in a blanket
hiding her eyes from the lamp—
its grin, a shameful white.
When her heart rips apart
she walks off into a donkey skin.
She add wings to her shoulders
prepares to fly away
and the lamp vomits its brightness
Flowers on wallpaper
become her only friends
and hit her head with petals
the extreme wounds turning their heads
black and blue like hers.
When a woman’s heart crashes
it reminds her of suppressed people’s rights.
Instead she watches the Gandhi film
though justice cannot calm her down
even the end of Mom’s aching moans
Homework won’t save her.
Terrifying failures don’t provoke her.
When people’s hearts shatter 
they tire of rules
throw stones at others’ shoes.
When the impoverished heart
wears out
no one blames capitalism.
When the feminist’s heart smashes
she doubts the story of a woman who survived
the husband’s knife – the damaged heart
in a southern province.
When the poetry warden’s heart escapes 
it travels too far, frightened.
It marries the moon
then dies in the road.
She finds a faithful dog’s spirit
in thoughts of a gentleman’s shirt
and some white flowers
from where no one ever dared to go.
She realizes her heart is a copy of herself: 
Homeless, hollow, unlucky
dreaming of a shelf
in a safe room to rest.
A true love may come
if time does not preserve her future
risking messages
on Facebook profiles.
Two smart sentences, a smart IQ 
those are her dreams of him
along with a sexy dress to wear
Like seaweed floating on the water’s surface
greedy pieces of her heart reassemble to one another
in a hope shop; she bought something to
feed a love so no one will mind.
She googles: Why are so many hearts broken? 
Each reason resembling the next and the next 
She adds the faithful dog spirit
to her own quiet heart:
Oh look! A suit and a wedding dress— in the closet of her imagination.

Daydreaming

by Hajar

Lying carelessly on my unmade bed 
I lost consciousness for a time
Immersed in daydreams
I forgot my unbearable being
In a society of lost dreams
Where visions easily fade away
Replaced with duties, to take care of others.
I gazed on the title of a book about someone 
I had tried so hard to imitate.
I swallowed all the words
Sending them to remote corners of my brain.
Witnessed a vision of myself
Lying carelessly on the bed.
Drifting away to a strange new country 
Where the mornings are blank
In a place I don’t belong
And sunrise will not awaken me.
The spin of life, too short,
Without dreams is like empty
Pants pockets in a shop
Money gone, spent on unnecessary things
Dreams gone, nothing to live for
Life over, too soon.
Yet my heart longs for a dream
To swirl and spin me away
From the world where I am living.
The shape of this book inspires me
To not fear the disgrace of my dream
But to find release in success.
Suddenly my body shakes ruthlessly 
My daydream ends.
But I have found a place
To dream my dreams
In an unmade bed
As sunshine travels off to sleep.

AWWP Author Q&A: Hajar

This is a beautiful collection of poems, Hajar. Can you tell me a little bit about what inspires you to write?

I started writing after my mother passed away in February 2014. Initially, writing was my way of mourning. I began to write about my surroundings: the injustice women face in my country, political issues, corruption, and my everyday life as a woman in a country which is named the worst for women.

There are so many taboos in Afghanistan which require you to act in a way that doesn’t harm your reputation. By writing, I create a completely different world where no one can tell me what or what not to do. As a writer, I have the freedom to decide for myself. When I was a child, I began to notice that the reality of people is covered, and that you needed time and energy to dig that out. I hated that. I wanted to be simple. In my writing, I have nothing to hide. To express what I crave to be is my inspiration when I open my notebook.

Your writing is very personal and introspective. How did you develop this style of writing? Why do you choose to write this way?

I like to write in a way that my subjects are interchangeable depending on the reader’s situation. However, I want my writing to be solid enough to transfer my point of view. I want my reader to feel like they are in my place, so I provide them a key to enter to my world.

Writing, like all other skills, gets better with practice. Reading the work of other great poets influenced me to adopt this form of writing. I choose this way because I want my poems to be real and alive, and I want to advocate my thoughts through them. I believe writers are so closely involved in bringing change that it’s their responsibility to notice the things that people don’t normally see. According to the old proverb, you have to lose something to gain something else. Perhaps, therefore, I sacrifice the blood of my personal stories to grant life to my writing.

What do you hope that American and other Western readers will learn from your writing? What do you hope to help other people understand through your work?

I want Westerners to know that we are trying to bring change. We do raise our voices. We do go out on the street and ask for justice. We want peace. We love everyone, and we are tired of war.

I want people to read my work and learn that although I am a woman far away in a war-torn zone, I worry about the things a normal woman worries about. I challenge myself like any Western woman does. I go to work, despite the obstacles. I talk to people. I expand my network. I want to have a career, and I am fighting for it. I want to have children one day. I want to have someone to trust. Ultimately, I am no different than any other woman a thousand miles away.

In your experience, how does writing help you to deal with the challenges of life as an Afghan woman?

Writing helps me to overcome so many challenges and issues I face as an Afghan woman. As mentioned earlier, creating a world often seems like the only solution to skip the daily sorrows of poverty, inequality, and harassment, not to mention war and suicide explosions.

When I write, no one else has power over me to dominate me in one form or another. I assume writing plays the same role for everyone. Sometimes, I find communication difficult. I cannot talk about so many things, but I can easily write about them. No one judges me. This fact helps me to deal with problems. It also helps me to fight my depression. I can say I am healthier ever since I began to write.

What are your goals for the future? Do you believe that writing has had an impact on those goals?

I want to devote my life to writing. Writing is how I acquire peace. I want to become a professional writer and publish my work, write op-ed for major media, write screenplays for films. I feel every opinion and form of writing is as beautiful as others. I want to explore my writing skills in different forms and themes.

I also think there are so many people out there who are dreaming to hear us. I want to find them and deliver to them what they are searching for. I want to see an Afghanistan where people young and old, women and men read. I dream big, and I have noticed that. But I want to be in my countrymen’s bookshelves one day, in each and every library of Kabul. This is my future goal—though perhaps unrealistic, through my writing, I can picture such a day.

All Manner of Thing

Blood pooled in the corner of the baby’s mouth. His mother sat with her eyes closed. He was warm and sleepy. He matched his breathing to hers. Tired, Sophie thought. The word rolled through her mind like a mantra. Tired. Tired. Tired. She felt it layer over her like the quills of a porcupine. She envisioned herself curled...
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Saver

Seeing the curled photo of his mother and daughter in the small trash receptacle beside his daughter’s desk caused Tom’s stomach to seize. He bent over and retrieved the picture before sitting gently on Lisa’s bed, careful not to awaken her. The photo had been taken less than a year before his mother’s death. In it,...
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