Oro snatched the grub hoe.
Crashing in hot leaves, she whacked down cow itch, and the strip of red earth filled with seedcrackers. As she worked back from the empty run, where a gamecock in a ribbon of shade strutted, dragging a wingtip, the fish factory kicked off (setting rockheads and shaddock like scattered daggers advancing between lines of yellow gloves). Back of a slat fence, tumbledown and weathered, neighbor Slee yelled, and Bave gave a yolp, while the smokehouse emitted greenish puffs coiling across a pillowed hodgepodge of red oak and plantain with bottoms overrun in sweet flag and beggars’ tick. Oro let up to chafe her leg where Old Nean had laid in a stroke to school her on running off with Wye. “Thet corn will be cleaned this day,” he warned, forwards of Gimcup and Cos, sweat-blackened hat broke at the point, cheek clean to the jawline. He tickled the moke’s rump with the coachwhip, and the unsprung jerked and tilted and clattered toward the village and Cos’s lessons and fish factory.
She hewed her way along the shanty with its encompassing shambles of tire rims, cable, nets, crab pots, metal salvage, and shabby plantains. Under a clothesline poked up in the center with a stave, Jack-jump-ups nodded, and urns tilted, brimming with slick leaves. When she pinched up a grub, she dropped it into a grappling mass in the war helmet. From the line of scrub oaks drifted a familiar beeeyyyoo, and Badshine’s freckled bovine broke through, clickclick-shamp, clickclick-shamp, clickclick-shamp, clickclick-shamp, head rocking, brisket flopping, while Badshine’s beard wagged back of the curving horns, and the carved wheels restated their alaudine plea. Badshine wielded his goad, and the canary-trimmed hip boxes rattled, lurched over wheel cuts, bouncing alongside the dirtflat, making for Wagoncross Goods, where Wye’d be, devouring her battered wordbook. Oro leaned on the grub-hoe and rubbed her leg and thought that Wye is going to spend the whole day closing distance while I’m slipping.
Before Old Nean got wise, she’d hitched a ride by oxcart to go with Wye up a thin and twisting alleyway, the rubber bag for liberating the well fish to the pond in the pleats of Wye’s skirt, a coil of fishing string in her fist. They climbed to the gritstone chantry and well flanked by dented pails. (Below the wood lid, the half-dozen black lancers were circulating like comets about an absentee star, fins stroking mossy and unchanging stones, a full demonstration, in the time it takes to cycle a breath, of the inclination to be free). At the center of the space between chantry and leaf-carpeted hovels, an old busket was sweeping leaves, sack dragging from his belt like a tail, and a bald cur sprawled under a column of insects. The broom hissed, and the breeze bore a clamor of geese and repeated splatter of a hair wash. Wye’s mouth hardened into a bright scowl. Beneath the Grandmother Tree, the harpy was stumping, and migs with dawn flowers in their locks cast lank shadows on paving stones.
“Old wizard bucket,” growled Wye.
“Think on it, Oro. What’s her grift? Keep ‘em ignorant.”
Wye’s people dispraised ignorance. In Wagoncross Goods, Wye’s grandmother, Mernok Wagoncross of Hog City, a bespectacled and sallow matron with a bow-sporting lap cur, would glare from a gold frame above rotating bins of horehound drops, sugared kernels, and molasses lollies, reproofing idleness, smoke blowing, and superstition. Wye liked to mimic her dulcet and sermonic platitudes. Oh, Oro! Arrogance is the high-hung fruit of ignorance. Ignorance. Ignore. Ants. That is, mud in your ears. Licking on your stick of stupid. Slack-jawed allegiance to place. Bottle heaps. Overgrazed flats. Barricades of pancaked buggies. Crude and cruel beasts. Pit hounds. Fighting canaries.
Must have been around Goose Tearing when old Nean flung her in with Grim the first time—to school her for scatting. The door boomed and hook clicked. All at once, blood was streaking down her legs, dribbling over bean shoots like white worms. She’d got up on a tomato can to beat the boards. She turned, sat on the can, and bawled. Tethered by the leg, Grim was pacing, curling his toes at the top of each step: gablocks, blooded by a dozen backbones, blackly scabbarded. This one out of them wild cocks of Györno Cay, no less, Old Nean said, gripping the bird’s legs. Jimps up hellish straight. The charmer popped the cork: he’ll jimp up now like a bloody cricket. The charmer, blinking a milky eye palely tracked at the brow dribbled liquor over comb and down wattles. Let him jimp. Let him jimp up high, stab like an adder. He pinched open the yellow beak and poked a red bead down his throat. Jimp, jimp, jimp, jimp, jimp, jimp, jimp, jimp. jimp, jimp, jimp, jimp, jimp, jimp, jimp.
Grim had taken a blade to the breast and was pecking blobs of his own blood. Occasionally, he released a long, cruel groan. Over his bowl of porridge, full of cashew and pea, his head tilted, eye magnetic. A filmy shutter slid across pyrite rays. In the center, a black bead was probing. Savagery lingered in the gold, but the pupil radiated deviance. A force shivered from his eye to hers, and she felt a raw, dazzling stupefaction spreading over the top of her skull.
“Oro, put a point on it!”’ Wye’d snap down her writing stick on the open wordbook and teetering columns of a repeated term. Ominous. Denunciatory. “Or get prepared to roll up your sleeves like your old Gimcup. Some fool has to slave over a fish belt.” From Goose Tearing clear through to Gloombox Burning, Oro lumbered through fiery noons, her mind a mush wall upon which nothing would be pinned, a dripping sanctuary, gathering in steam mystic accoutrements—a string-wrapped shrew, an anchor, a tooth on a scale, a metal button from Slee’s brasspants—for some insalubrious birth or sacrifice. Over her ear, a nameless will guided her on toward a destiny outside her grasp, while Wye’s bookwords dulled, syllables disintegrating like crumbled bread in broth. Oro filled a cashew bag with chert and practiced throwing on posts, walls, buoys, and hens; yet there was no creeping up on a bog-wandering Grim, touched only by Nean, who hand-fed him bovine liver, and getting him with a lucky throw.
Beneath the Grandmother Tree, the harpy pulled the tallest mig by the hand, who raised her streamer among those hanging and drifting. Wye rolled her eyes. “Cagey as a peg-legged bunco.” From the harpy’s claw, smoke whirled to the rim of a sun in the leaves of a fig tree so monstrous that during the hottest part of the day, idlers would start up bone games in her laps. Another mig stepped up. “Learn it all, Oro,” said Wye, adopting Mernok Wagoncross’s musical adjuration. “Keep your head. Never look twice at any yeg on this cay.” A second mig, like a specter in the pall, groped among leaves. “What’s so awful, Wye? You know, I done that. Look, look. Hang it on up. Bang, your ass is wood.” Eyes rolling, Wye twisted her mouth, pale teeth in fish lips that opened and closed under one eye, canting a hip bone, throwing out branchlike elbows, rubber bag, and fishing line in her fists, taking up an indurate, arboreal pose.
Oro counted up cornrows. Dog meat! Under fleet cinder-pink clouds, Charybdis figs hissed, great tongues lapping, and rags flapped and wandered down the line, while the stunted gamecock, tail fluttering, challenged roosters in the weald. Figs stilled, and sweat trickled over her scalp. Steamers bayed, mournful and sagacious, bound for cays of the Far West. (In her illustrated tome, An Age in the Far West, Wye would read aloud of rose-scented burgs of the ambit, New Angeles and Plover and Fort Bensalem: humming with steam buggies and buzzbikes, sparkling with palaces of glass and tea-cup ponds in stone-tabled parks). As she leaned on the grub hoe, she closed her eyes, and fish factory growled, and gloves flashed.
Back when Lushy Farland’s jaw was swelled up like a black squash, Oro took Lushy’s apron and knife and waited in that wet gaslit cabinet full of hoods cinched and showing only some oval of a face, old or young, mouth gaping, eyes dark and blank. Signs on the close wall read Tally Queen: Almát Jacobs. Work fast, no excuses. In the next minute, beat your all-time. They shuffled in puddles, pulling on gloves, tying aprons, no one speaking: the rule, couldbe. Massive, iron doors clashed. Oro sweated. Her hands went cold. In a fire, they’d pile up and roast. A clutch engaged, and a thousand wheels rattled. Belts rumbled. Over the top of a rolling spindle, haddock slid, channeled between knives flashing and cutting along fins and gill slits, carving by bone, flicking up gore. She’d stood with Lushy’s knife in her glove while a munter behind yelled, your dropping conflagration makes me puke! She sawed through a layer of scales, and the blade hit. Your calling inferno makes me wretch! The channel filled with slime, blood, scales. On the wall, in splashed gunk, loomed an image of the Holy Mother, the folds of her cloak blood-brown, a yellow glow fanning around her head. Set me loose. When the iron doors opened for the noon whistle, Oro stuffed the rubbers and apron and hood in Lushy’s socket and took the circle to Wye’s. Wye said, what did you even step foot in that place for?
Oro dropped the grub hoe, scraped up cow itch, and dumped it over broken staves. Stood there blinking. Melting like a lump of tallow in Gimcup’s skillet. Among teeth of bedlam architecture, a loaded pole wagon was creeping, marshaling odors of sawdust and sap, while egrets stole among camphorwood trees, wings beating slow as hearts of bovines. A fish buzzard carved over the wet meadow, head pointed down, shadow licking sweet flag, glasswort, and hummocks of sawgrass before it clinched to a barbed and forking spear. It bided its time, rippling in gusts, hunched and eyeing the barrow skull. Trussed to a fence pale, high-crowned and grinning, hung the skull, a bit of flesh curling on the nose, blowflies crawling in and out. That squeal like nothing she had ever heard. Like demons in a pit. Old Nean had tied the legs. Slee stood on the head, arms folded like he had all day. Old Nean tied the snout, damping the squeal, and she closed her eyes. At the end of another long horse-trading with the tall neighbor, Old Nean tromped in the doorway breathing heavy while the lantern filled the space with gold light and changing shadows. When she opened her eyes, four hands were probing the blubbery throat, and Slee was crouching, boots on the head. She had got to thinking—how it would be. He pushed in the long knife, and she closed her eyes. Stood in the doorway with the lantern lifted toward the loft where she and Cos slept. Old Nean stood swaying in the doorway squinting with the lantern below his knuckles and casting rings on the plank floor and said if this old yeg cannot take you to school no yeg can. Old Nean bellowed at her to get that bowl under. The squeal gurgled. Slee pulled the barrow around by the ear: a carcass pale and mute.
Oro climbed amongst buggy hoods, cod pots, boat wood, cut limbs, hogsheads, and by the scoop of earth, knelt to dish pipewater to her cheeks and forehead and neck. She settled against green and cool bricks in the gloom of a spangled teak, drawing her knees up before clouds channeling between bluffs, striping the tract of oak and plantain. Graybills rained down and bounded about a jumble of boards and flattened oyster baskets and flew all at once as Bave pushed through a gap between pales. He came shoving his wet nose at her. She patted the heavy, battle-scarred head, streaked with ashen mud and smelling of polecat—the eyes, blithely glazed and beanblack and jocular in whiskey-colored penumbrae. Bave marked the fence and tree and lapped in the soggy hollow and plowed leaves with his snout. A dong, dong, dong of a loose bovine floated from the Buggy Trees. At the cockerel run, a stunted chanticleer was pumping and rasping. Strung bottles darkened where Old Nean had tied dead Grim’s claws and hooked him up on a spike on the crossmember to bleed into a pail. Back of the sagging, rusted roof, oaks tossed like one living anatomy, and cow itch shuddered, and bottles clinked.
On that day, when the buckling roof recalled for her the factory’s ruckus, Oro got up and opened the door and kept it with Badshine’s pot-metal duck. She sat down again on the low stool, chin above the table’s edge. Gimcup had scorched the gruel again. Across the plank top, Old Nean lifted his jacket from the peg. He patted pockets and groped for the fallen tobacco pouch among wood rounds. Burgundy sneeze-rag round his throat, Cos was dinging his spoon while Gimcup bore the pot. Before she finished ladling, Cos was shoveling up gruel.
“Harpeeee, due north.”
Behind a figure cut from the light between gate posts, Grim dashed from a thicket. Dragging a broken tether, one blade shining at his heel, he burst up, a goldish fury, hackles splayed, legs cocked. Oro would recall an extended shriek. Then a wing striking, striking. The harpy thumped over the stoop. She looked at Oro on her stool, forehead wide and weathered like a riverbank under a dull scruff. Old Nean shuffled to the doorway. The harpy fisted up the twitching trophy. “Old cock, you overlook Gloombox Burning?” Without encountering the enchanted fingers, Old Nean laid hold of Grim’s feet, and he backed away past Badshine’s duck.
She saw that.
Saw his broad hand slipping over pale feathers and tail plumes.
Bave sprang along pales. Shoved his nose into a slot admitting a bottle down under ropy, packed forearms. The face overtop was long and sharp and neck corded from hauling bricks up at the dig. The bottle tilted, and Slee’s Adam’s apple jogged under a slosh of cloudy liquor. “How goes it, Uncle? Kicking cans, today?” Slee made a rasp in his throat. A spit glob stretched in sawgrass while he gave the wheel track a hard stare. Metal. Salvage to be dug up. Cut loose. Hauled. Cashed in on. Nothing to be wasted on hello. Up from her grass shoes, his look went on determining length, aspect, shape.
Flat wood cracked, nails squeaked, and a boot knocked through. Slee wangled out and planted heels of boots that buckled three times up his calf, won off a slick. Alongside the pale that had fallen and bounced on an iron mill in sawgrass, he scanned the track, his vest raggedly dangling about woody arms, the bull-hide belt, also won off a slick, an oversize one, glaring with metal shells and tailing at his knee. His mouth twisted in knife-cut whiskers, gargling an injunction that ended take you to school. She pushed herself up out of leaves. She sidled along the brick pile, her grass shoes, feeling their way, finding limbs, bricks. She’d got to thinking on it. How it would be.
Though she’d no key, no torch. Nor the least reason to believe. Old. Nean. Filling in. At the factory. The bottle dropped. The belt slid, shells glittering, like a whip snake of unpredicted length. Stopped by a gating arm, she looked down at the tail of the belt snapping free, flying back.
He seized her by the mouth, fingers punching into her jaws, his face coming down at her scrub-browed and rancorous, breath hissing through broken teeth, filling her nostrils with a rash of corn liquor, rancid barrow, and wood rot. In the clay-colored and turbid depths, ruthless centers emitted yellow waves of pure meanness. He latched onto her bream like a pit cur, scraping her along the brick pile. Oro’s hand came up, a broken sharp-edged mossy brick in the palm. She let him have it, wide and wild, right about the shoulder. Slee’s lips writhed—teeth full of gaps and black-rimmed, and his eyes widened, eyeballs in great pale wells. He jerked her off the pile, and the brick hit her grass shoe. Slee’s fist left the harbor. From long way off, she saw it firing. It bashed her like a hamaxe, whump, ripping across face bones, shattering light, unlading smithereens.
She heard a brick tumbling. Picked up forcible masculine syllables. Bave was yarling. Dancing along green bricks, thudding about in bright hot grass. She slid over lantana. Her hair was tearing at the roots. Dirt and weeds ripped beneath her fingers while she scrabbled for a wheel, cable, governor, windlass, hogshead. Her shoulder hit wood, and she locked on. She growled through her teeth. Tree root, she thought. Banyan root. Oak root. Magnolia root. Camphor root. Root, root, root, root. Grappling her ankles, the tall swain was towering, snarling, seizing at her feet. Bump you like a. He secured one ankle. He yanked. Her wrists scraped but held, with no second will to dampen the ground of fury. I’ll cut you, she screamed. I’ll cut you. I’ll cut it off and feed it to a pig. I’ll nail up your balls. Her arms were wrapped round the fence brace, knees pumping, and one grass shoe slipped off and then the other. She got in a solid kick, and he grabbed his groin. In the grass, he found his belt. He gripped her ankle. She twisted and stabbed her feet and gripped wood. The belt missed or glanced as Slee fought her pumping heels. She battered his legs. He spat, and globs struck or flew by her head. Over her shoulder, beside a raised fist, his face was a slit-eyed and snarling blur. He aimed a kick. Another went up wild and high, and he fell and scrambled up. His boot slammed into her. It bashed between her legs and behind her buttocks, and her chin struck the wood. Like a berserk gamecock, Slee capered, boots flying, belt whipping. He roared deprecations. Each crack of the lash and metal shells left a fiery welt. Stripes across her back and buttocks and ribs scored the flesh of the soul with a blaze of contempt and ignominy and savagery, stoking within her a white-hot blaze. She could feel her own shrieks, madcap and ferocious, tearing her throat as she trampled in the direction of his chest. His boot collided with her like post mall: he’d break bones.
Bave danced in joyful consternation. He galloped off and returned and sprang about, chain jingling. With a roguish growl, he vaulted and hung up between them. The ears flopped two ways as he worried her knee or Slee’s. Slee went to battering its ribs, and Bave threw his snout, yelping, keyoo keyoo keyoo keyoo keyoo keyoo. Slee was toppling, reeling his arms—the cur across his lap—crashing backward onto the iron grain mill. Bave dashed away, yelping. Slee lay on his back with his mouth open. Oro dashed past the brick pile and down the cockerel path. She limped, barefoot, panting. Between silver magnolia trunks, hens were streaking for grubs in the helmet. She wiped her chin and looked down on a bloody palm. She turned onto the track, skirting the moke’s shit apples, bound now for Wye and wordbook, leaving the sagging overhang and row of bottles, where the harpy, spell-breaker, providential gladiator, agent of a mystic and arboreal grandmother, looked her in the eye and lofted her stained and shuddering foe.
—An earlier version of “Grim” appeared appeared in Queen Mob’s Teahouse.