Under a Callous Moon

By Robert Russell

 

            Across the stretching glade, silvered under the moonlight, soft imprints sunk underfoot as the boy crept up to the complex. The monument loomed, a menacing silhouette against the lunar corona cast beyond a veil of drifting clouds. Caressed by the howling breeze of a cooling autumn night, the building stood, a mystery, a secret. Curiosity coaxed the boy, beckoning his ankles. Encroaching the tin siding, he located a point of ingress, a thick rust-stained slab tucked into the adjoined edgings. The handle sharp with cold screeched as it was wrenched under his grasp, and the grit-worn hinges chorused in response to the door’s whipping-open. 

            Darkness saw his feet first, sprawling, creeping, turning the threaded soil into void. Inside was without sound and nearly light save a small flittering in the distance. He took a step and stood. Peering left then right, shadows danced along arching timbers, domed and bowed to support the shell of the structure. The wooden limbs spread and splayed downward like ribs from the spine, the roof connecting walls making an architectural exoskeleton. He shouted hello, and echoes of lo ran down the hall’s walls, lowering until diminishing to naught in the darkness at the far end. A decommissioned plane hanger, the boy presumed, something from the ‘50s, likely renovated into great holding cells for live meat awaiting the abattoir. A subtle redolence of decay hung stalely in the air. For a moment, his mind flashed a projection of pigs, hundreds forcibly fenced and thrashing, earsplitting squeals reverberating against the metal sheets, the homogenous pen writhing amoeba-like and shifting topologically. A mental mass dungeon predicating imminent death, and eerily, he thought, it still seemed that way. He stepped into the silent cavern.

            Amid the darkness, a flame flickered from the dirt floor; well as ways inward but nonetheless a reprieve to isolation. As he approached, the convulsing glow threw cylindrical outlines upon the dirt that bent to meet an object adjacent it. A lantern and box, two lone but fearless companions, sat like tombstones before the murk. He sidled up, peering down, then lowered himself before the objects for better inspection. Warmth met his face like an embrace. Shadows fled from his movements, rapid and sudden, pitching peripheral puppets on the walls of the enclosure. His ears caught phantom whispers, but turning his frame round, the boy found only the empty space that cloaked him like a woolen shroud from all sides.

He took the box into his hands, tracing the rivets and ridges, markings and indentations of unfamiliar design. It was of considerable size but almost weightless, lighter than a Styrofoam cooler. The balsa of a tawny cream hung cradled in his fingertips as he gently turned the chest, feeling for a fissure to pry open. He found it, inserted the fragile stubs of his nails under the ledge and forcefully torqued. The cover to the box budged slowly under the lift, the blackness that hid its contents growing wider and wider. He managed to lever it an inch or so ajar before his left forefinger’s nail detached sending a rip of pain screaming from his hand. The boy flailed, dropped the box, and sent his hand to his mouth to stifle the sting. With blue eyes welled and tongue dancing upon the distal flesh, he glanced downward at an open chest.

            Briefly, an instance came to the boy of an Easter many years back when his mother had enthusiastically endeavored to place plastic eggs around the house and yard. Having refused to enlighten him with neither hint nor count, Mother sent son off to hunt. The day had been bright, he remembered. Rays of light flamed the oak tree in the front yard, and gold leapt from the branches in through the windows to reveal on the illumined hardwood beetle shells and dust that lined the long cornices. He searched and searched as clocks’ hands spun, running clumsily to and fro, overturning chairs, yanking up carpet frills, throwing back curtains, pulling cabinets, ransacking closets, displacing overcoats, and tearing down winter wear, all to no avail. And while he knew he would be scorned for causing such mayhem, never did he relent; he just kept powering through, not tiring nor losing momentum. Then he happened upon the old wooden chest home to a great many books belonging to his father. In the dark stain of the wood, smoothened from furbishing, glistened his young face. As his hand met its reflection in the tarnished bronze of the latch, his heart skipped with a childlike anticipation. With a quick flick of thin fingers, it was undone, and the boy gripped both sides and not without difficulty slowly opened the thick lid. Inside wedged into the crevice between two towering dust-covered stacks of softback classics was a pastel green plastic egg. His face flushed, blue eyes beamed, and in one motion the egg was open in the palm of hand. The dollar bill peaked out from behind egg’s edge as if discreetly spying him from across a distance. He plucked the paper, unfolded it, held it before his nose with two hands, and smiled. With a crisp twenty, he was rich man with the world at his disposal.

            The dwindling flame behind the murky lantern panes cast a light that deepened the darkness within the open box as if it were a well with no end. He fell to his knees, inched closer, and gripped the warm wiry handle of the lantern. Stiffly he raised it above the box and let the light fall into the open space. Upon the ringed rivulets spiraling and curving to form odd symbols and shapes scripted into the wood lay a piece of parchment crumpled but peacefully resting. It was a letter. The boy returned the lantern to its home and lightly extracted the letter. Tattered and frail in his hands and under the dim, golden lantern light, he held it up. Fragments of ochre-stained edges took flight. The material was stiff, stale like a papyrus, but there was ink, and as the boy’s vision adjusted, words, lines, in a messy cursive came into focus.

 

I didn’t want to.

But I loved her so I had to.

 

            Beyond the roof’s slated slats, the overhead clouds had thickened, swirled into great nimbi plumes from which rain now fell. Soft patter quickly accelerated until pelts assaulted the tin awning, shots multiplying and shuddering down the hollow. The boy with a wincing rictus of confusion glanced upward to notice the storm’s clamor. His upturned head extended his sight slightly enough to notice he was not alone in the great hall. With neither words nor mercy, a large pair of hands, wraithlike and doubtless attached to bulbous sinews of muscle, reached downward and seized the boy’s shoulders. He was yanked to his feet and onward thrust. The boy fought back, lashing soft fists with all his might into the amorphous dark of the figure but in total vain. At once the back of his calf was clubbed and immediately he was on the ground. There was no stifling his cries. Pain-stricken and immobile, he found himself being lifted by his jacket’s back and began moving. Thrashing mid-levitation, his abductor once more dealt him a whip that this time blurred his surroundings. Agony collided like a car crash with shock and fear enough to allay the boy with a deep sleep.  

            Dawn broke and gray mist lifted in large exhalations off the dew-laden pasture in silence. The boy’s trodden imprints returned to their former nothingness. At the woods’ edge, a hound traipsed into the open land, body bouncing and tail too. Along the outer wall of the monument the animal walked, fluctuating between shadow and sun before catching the scent of an object within reach. The dog followed, found, and sniffed at a lone shoe lying tucked into the wet turf. A moment later it continued on trotting, disinterested, totally unaware of the night’s earlier occurrences. And the world too was in a state of unknowing, an ignorance that muffled to naught the cries of the taken child and purged the earth of any remnant.

 

¨¨

 

            Beheld in the black eye of a falcon soaring amid the stratus, a sputtering 1991 Volvo carved curves through the barren trees that poked like pinpricks through the craggy white fabric of the mountain. Winds weaved between trunks like rapids, converging to cascade down the incline into the winding road, a torrent which rattled the vehicle and sent paint chips flying. The large shards of blue settling on the lonely wet asphalt left behind were not the merest concern of Dorothy Edwards. Onward she kept, unaware.

             Below the blasting heat’s hum, static interrupted a man’s monotonous reciting of uneventful afternoon news, nothing anyway worth listening to, and besides, Dorothy’s focus was far from the radio, far from the cab of the car, far from the snaking skyline, and far from the wintery steep of the sloping forests tarnished with icy snow. She had but one thought, one face in her mind, that of her missing boy’s.

            Imposed onto the road parting great walls of dark bark, her old home’s kitchen of only a few months before, clear as the sky, drifted into view. The steering wheel under her grasp took the texture and weight of a pan’s handle, and the invigorating scent of spices plumed into the foreground. Crackle and hiss spewed from the spitting pan, the mélange of peppers, chicken, mushrooms, and garlic slipping and sliding in the buttery oil. Broccoli boiled in the pot adjacent. The set table, against the wall, under portraits of stick figures drawn by crayon then marker then paintbrush, held two plates with silverware and glasses before two of the three chairs.

            “Mikey! Din’s ready!”

            Movement aloft, urgent steps crossing creaking floorboards, then pounding upon stairs, rounding the corner, growing closer and closer. Leaning on the frame of the doorway like a stumbling drunk, Mikey peered into the scene, stupefied. His mother veered and told him to pass her the plates then take a seat, she was finishing up. The stir-fry steamed as it traveled from cast-iron to porcelain, billows rising until reaching the ceiling then sprawling outward before evaporating. Be careful, it’s hot, she told the boy who stared with anticipatory glints in his pupils, glints a mother knew very well. Back to the counter, she took the pitcher brimmed with iced tea, a few extra napkins, and joined her son at the dining table.

            “I may’ve outdone myself this time, Mike,” proudly she stated.

            “Well done, Ma. It’s very good,” the boy mumbled through a mouthful. Both were famished, as they often were by dusk, boy from a day full of exploratory adventures, mother from the ardor-sapping of a day’s housework and upkeep. 

“Say, you find anything good out there today, Mi?”

            “Nah Ma, nah really, little bit of mica but that’s all.” His left hand vanished from the tabletop momentarily and returned from his pocket with a jagged, gray schist no more the size of a quarter. A fine powder collected in the creases of the boy’s palm.

            “Well hey there, look at that! ‘Least that’s something! Where did’ya find it?”

            “From the banks of Hazel creek. Not as good as that garnet I found down there by Waterstone quarry.” He said this with an upturned pitch of the voice that signaled indirection, something that always got on his mother’s nerves.

            “Dammit Mikey, you know I don’t want you going down there, hon. It’s much too dangerous. I couldn’t bear it if you ended up hurting yourself.”

            “Mom, but all the good ones are down there.”

            “Don’t do this, Mikey. I’m not gonna’ say it again, you hear me?”

            “Yes.”

            “Yes what?”

            “Yes, Ma’am.”

            She lowered her head, focused again on her food and he the same. They ate and a few minutes passed in silence, his mother looking at her son. Admiration and wonder took hold of her. Simply watching him eat–his tiny movements, the subtle changes in expression with each bite, savoring the delectability as if he were memorizing the tastes, his simple delight and enjoyment of her food–filled her with a love that warmed her soul. And in her rapt stare, a broad smile crept into the corners of her mouth, a loving laugh held behind her teeth.

            But now, as Dorothy gripped the steering wheel with haggard hands and drove through the mist that descended from the skyline, there was no smile. Her smile had been ruined. Her face had lost its roundness, the sparkle of her iris gone. Eyes of deep blue had grayed and now peered from atop violet vestiges of sleepless nights. Worry had carved lines into her forehead, and lethargy had deflated her cheeks. Her once rosy visage was all but a mask riddled pale with grief, gaunt and ghostlike. The radiance which once had so bathed every moment of her existence had now been extinguished, abruptly replaced with a sorrow beyond dreams.

 

¨¨

            Rounding a blind bend and entering a steep slope in her trek, the Volvo was suddenly assaulted with a great object that dropped onto the windshield, instantly shattering the glass, spewing shards into Dorothy’s face like shrapnel from an exploding mine. Dorothy jerked the wheel violently, sending the vehicle into the guardrail which buckled from the powerful impact. Momentum kept the car in motion, and the rail’s disheveled metal snagged one end of the bumper which launched the car spinning downslope in wild revolutions. The tires screamed against the wet surface of the road. Dorothy’s senses were blurred, time ceased to exist, and a weightlessness seized her, levitating the car, her body, her mind, Mikey, the world.

            Wisps of smoke hissed and lifted from under a mangled hood. The vehicle was beyond recognition. Wedged into sharp crags of mountainside granite, the car’s cab was crinkled like a can, folded into a metallic deformation. Rubber ribbons spiraled round the bearing of the back right barrel. Blue chips of paint imbued with sands of glass littered the surrounding snow in a kaleidoscope of color and glare. Dorothy inside, her bleeding forehead resting against the softness of the steering wheel and staining it red, groaned as she gently lifted her head to assess her state. Her vision slowly cleared from the blur of a concussive pall. She was alive, to her surprise, but in great pain. Pressed against the wheel, contorted under the pressure of the back seat, Dorothy managed to open the driver’s side door. She folded her legs, one by one, out of the cab, and slowly maneuvered her way from the wreckage and into the blustery cold. Whimpering with each step, Dorothy limped the short distance back to the road and found the cause of the accident.

            Upwards a ways centered upon the swaying double-lines lay a large black bag that appeared of plastic material. Coaxed by curiosity, Dorothy squinted at the object as she trudged back up the hill. Torrents of freezing wind stung the gash on her forehead, her eyes watering to blindness. She swaddled her arms under her coat, attempting to feel the warmth of her chest, shivering and shuddering, her hair flying in a frenzy against the howl of the mountain. Overhead an exaltation of larks fled a black-eyed falcon, the throng weaving and whooshing between a labyrinth of branches before crashing over the treed sea in an ominous swoop of wings. The darkening overlay of an overcast sky, rolls of baleful gray, hovered just above, a cover near enough to touch. Dorothy came upon the crash’s culprit.

            Before her feet was a body bag, irregularly shaped and dense with a weight inside. Lowering herself to the wet road, her ankles, shins, and knees repelling every inch of movement, Dorothy’s heart thumped with neither rhythm nor relent. The mountain’s shadow fell upon the road, creeping to and enveloping Dorothy and the bag. Scrutinizing the mystery, Dorothy located a point of ingress, a sharp end of a zipper leading the length of the bag. She held out a hand and stopped. Peering left and right, her neck aching torturously in the turn, she realized her isolation. There was nobody here in the great Appalachian Mountains. Her fingers moved upon their own volition, and the zipper undid itself. Heart rapidly palpitating between shallow breaths, her skin crawling under the suspense and cold, Dorothy reached out and pulled back the sides of the bag. Inside lay Mikey. Dead. Frozen. Gone. His lifeless body cradled inside the refuge of plastic like waste. Strapped to his chest, crumpled but peacefully resting, was a tattered and frail piece of paper that read:

 

I didn’t want to.

But I loved her so I had to.