Issue 20 / Winter 2020
Remember the hydra: if you cut off one of the hydra’s heads, several more will grow to replace it. Difficulties have a habit of multiplying exponentially. An unholy tryst in the trees and four heads emerged.
The four children lived in Michigan with their single mother and elderly grandparents. By the time they were school age, the men who returned from the war preferred the automobile factories to the farms. Fields were left unplanted. Pastures turned to meadow and prairie without enough animals to graze. But the Averys wouldn’t sell, not yet. In the summer, teenage boys from church were paid to bale the hay and stack it in the barn. In late afternoons, the four children scampered like mice in the loft, nuzzling their faces in the sweet smell and lifting their noses to something like dirt and sugar, like sunshine with the afternoon light tunneling through the wall and ceiling planks. They nested in the gaps, skin not yet itchy from the grass scratching at their legs and arms.
The two boys had the same hazel eyes and thin lips with wide smiles seldom shown. Their black infant hair spun a lighter shade of brown as they grew older, and their front teeth bucked among the gaps in their mouths, large against their childish lips. But they were tall for their age; they were long, lanky, lean upright animals among the barrel-bodied farm stock. They shared movements—the way they gripped forks and knives with force, the way their hips moved little and kept their gaits stiff. All four were wild children, independent, ready to lunge and strike, but forced into submission. For Charlie and Phil, the tension lied in muscles contracted like skittish barnyard cats slinking along the circumference of the stalls, along edges and walls, along dark corners where the sunbeams seldom reached—Charlie because he was shy, Phil because he was angry. They were not puzzle pieces that had been cut perfectly with the precision of a newly sharpened blade. They were torn apart, slightly mangled, but still expected to belong together.
They built forts and tunneled in the hay loft, allowing no one else to enter, not their mother, not Helen, not Clara. Charlie would go in first, farthest into the hay stacks. The air was dark and musty, wafting with particles of dust and debris. He curled in tight and rested his head against a bale, the sharp edges of hay lightly pricking the skin on his neck and the space behind his ear, reaching through his hair to touch his scalp. Charlie plucked the longest blades from the bales and nibbled and chewed until the hay was a soft pulp that he swallowed.
From the den, Phil watched his sisters play in the loft. Their dolls were woven from straw and tied with twine, and the girls staged them on a block of hay. Even at seven years old, Phil understood something of theatrics, and when he looked at Helen, he saw spotlights and heard applause.
He and Charlie completed the tunnels by burrowing themselves further among the stacks. They covered their faces with their hands and pushed their way forward on elbows and knees. They wiggled between bales of hay, making passages and routes sized only for rodents or small children. They had secret entrances, holes covered with thick patches of hay where they could quickly stomp and duck in. They were moles in the field, needles in the haystack, but they pretended they were settlers in covered wagons or sometimes Indians in wigwams and teepees, and from the outside, they could hear the noise of theater and tea parties. They could hear the savages play.
“You’re going to hurt the baby,” Clara said, laughing. When Phil and Charlie peeked from their hiding spots, the girls were pulling apart straw limbs because murdering babies makes good plays, but Phil and Charlie had no interest in murdered straw babies and crawled back into their secret spaces.
The insides of the bales were still damp, but the hay on the surface was dry and brittle, just rough enough to scratch. Sometimes if they looked closely enough, they would find patches of soft brown fur from the nested rabbits too young and too slow to escape the combine. But the boys did not care about dead baby bunnies either.
Some say our fears turn us into monsters.
“This has nothing to do with fear,” Phil would have said years later when he was home for the funeral, staying just that one week, but if someone would have called him a vicious beast, he wouldn’t have denied it.
The children spent most of their time with only each other for company. They walked the road to and from school as if they were haunted. They learned something of reading, writing and mathematics as if they, too, were already ghosts, specters on the playground.
The boys were haunted by the ghost of a man they imagined was somewhere outside waiting for them, as if haunting was a kind of hunting. And so they waited for him as well, as if they knew one day they would be ambushed; one day the combine would come and tear their world apart.
Their mother did not know their father’s name. She didn’t talk about him either, and neither she nor the children’s grandparents had the energy to lie. He was killed in the war would have been easy enough in those early years, but they knew the truth eventually finds its way back to the kitchen table. So they said almost nothing.
When the boys were very young, they tried to guess their father’s life: he was a poor boy from rural Louisiana who grew rice and trapped crawfish; an heir to a defunct Mississippi plantation; a cotton-picker; someone who had a need for adventure, for work, for money, for rebellion; someone who was lost, who was lonely—who, like them, had few friends; someone who never went to school and didn’t know how to read or write; an ex-convict who didn’t know how to start again; a man who was enamored with the great expansive lands of the U.S.A.; a cowboy from another era. They tried to guess his name: George Wilson; Leonard Cross; Alexander DuBois; Jeremiah Jackson…They tried to guess his age when he met their mother: 25; 34; 42; surely no older than that, 55?
“Your father was a bad man,” their grandfather once said when they were in the truck, all three sitting on the blue bench seat. It was winter, and they could see their breath even though they had been driving for twenty minutes already. When their grandfather shifted gears, the truck lurched slightly forward then back. Later, much later, when they were adults who had already done their military training, they understood what their grandfather was trying to tell them. Their father was a rapist, a child rapist if you considered 15-year-old girls children, and the State of Michigan did. He was a criminal who took the Lord’s name in vain. He was a fraud, a man who was not who he said he was. And their fear? What if, deep down, they were just like their father? Most likely he was out there somewhere, a savage in the night. What if, sleeping inside them, waiting for them to grow up, were monsters of the same sort and caliber? They felt their innards grow ugly with the thought. Sometimes they imagined they simply sprung from a darkness, neither God nor man but a vacuous hole, an abyss perhaps, and an abyss was not a monster; it was nothing. At worst, they would become nothing, so they decided they would feel nothing. They hacked at what they felt until they were numb. But no one told them the metaphorical sweeping under the rug makes it more difficult to clean up the pieces, and eventually, someone would get cut. The fragments will gauge the skin, as if every shard grows its own set of teeth that lodges into the wound, and infections spread easily.
“Do you think he knows we’re here?” Charlie asked one afternoon close to dinner time.
“No one knows we’re here,” Phil said.
The answer didn’t make sense to Charlie. “Everyone knows we’re here,” motioning toward the house, toward their sisters.
“They think they know we’re in the barn, but they don’t know. They don’t know we’re in this spot,” he said. “They don’t know we’re here.” Phil lifted his knee as high as he could while sitting in the enclave and stamped his foot for emphasis. Here. “No one can find us right now.”
No one could find them, and what they thought they knew pleased and scared them at the same time. And over the years they broke that fear into miniscule pieces, cracked and splintered it into tiny, pointy-edged shards then stuffed the pieces deep into their pockets and leaned on each other, both so heavy, balanced so precariously, that when Charlie died in a Saigon hotel, Phil toppled over.
Autumn was coming, and the boys huddled together in the dark crawlspace as the afternoon sun slipped through the stacks, the bales and around each singular cutting. The light from the covered hole above them was golden from sun and hay, and the boys lay together and listened to their mother call their names. The girls had already gone back to the house. They couldn’t see them, but they thought they knew where they were. Two girls in the kitchen were gathering plates, forks and water glasses. They couldn’t see their mother, but they knew she was filling the bucket from the well. Their grandmother was checking a casserole in the wood-burning oven. Their grandfather was in the wagon shed, and the few teenage boys who stuck around for other work after hay season were walking home.
And Charlie and Phil stayed huddled together, knowing what they knew and could not see, huddled together as they would find themselves with other men a little more than two decades later in spaces not much larger, spaces seemingly made for children, the other men practically children themselves, teenagers in hiding.
And they knew he was out there—the man they couldn’t see.
“No, I mean does he know we’re here?” Charlie repeated. “Does he know we’re alive?”
After dinner, the cows always came in to be fed. The sun was setting earlier in the day, and the light entering through the doors and the gaps between the wooden planks wasn’t always enough, and they didn’t have electricity in the barn yet. Matchboxes were kept in old coffee tins, and the two kerosene lamps kept near the barn door were lit and hung from nails hammered into beams and support columns. Their grandfather opened the trap of the grain chute, and the feed came pouring and dusting down into the trough. Helen and Clara sat in the stalls caressing the calves while their grandfather adjusted the Surge Milkers on the mamas’ udders. The boys checked their reflections in the metal and ran behind the row of milked cows, quicker than the lifted tail signaling the coming spray of urine. In that moment, the cows were half living, half machine. Biology had been mechanized, and there was talk of the farm becoming industrialized. Their grandfather Charles saw it coming, agriculture factory-made like the automobile, and the question was to invest or not.
That afternoon when Charlie and Phil thought about their father while hidden in the hayloft, Phil showed Charlie the box of matches he had hidden—short-stemmed matches that bloomed against friction, matches children were never meant to touch.
“Philip and Charles,” their mother called. She was much louder than expected, much closer than they thought; on the floor of the barn in the doorway, most likely. “Right now,” she said.
They boys held their breath, pushing their bodies tight into the depths of their tunnel. The cows were still in the field, and the boys thought they would go in the house in a few minutes. They would say they didn’t hear their mother calling them, that after the girls left, they went into the fields. They checked on the cows. They heard a noise. Something happened, they thought. They thought they would think of something to say. They would go in soon. But first, there was the contraband: there was the box of matches.
The matchbox was red, white and blue. It had an eagle and looked like patriotism ready to be released. These were matches army men would carry, the boys thought. “Safety matches,” the box read in capital red letters, though there was nothing safe with matches near dry hay in the nested bedding they curled themselves into, near the thatched roof they made to cover the entrance to their imagined hut. There was nothing safe about matches held in the hands of twin boys who were children, years before either boy would own a cigarette lighter, years before they would find themselves as slightly older men among the teenagers they traveled with—dressed alike as an army of twins through jungles, years before they breached through the forest trees where fires were lit, and the dry grasses and leaves burned with the dark-haired babies who were too young and too slow to escape.
“Baby killers,” the girls and boys from the theaters and tea parties cried. Phil would read about it in the papers, hear about it from journalists. Charlie died before he ever heard anything about that, but at that point, nothing could have shocked either of them, not even if Charlie wasn’t dead.
In the hay hut, they waited for the enemy to attack. They waited in the dark for what they knew was out there. Rifles sometimes jammed, but bows and arrows did not. Sometimes things are pretend. Sometimes they are not.
“If I have to call you one more time,” their mother warned from somewhere near the entrance to the loft.
“We can smoke signal,” Phil whispered.
“But then everyone will know we are here,” Charlie answered. Was that a good thing or a bad thing?
Phil wanted to signal. An S.O.S., or even better, a call to war. They could let the smoke out in puffs of clouds through the covered hole above their heads. They could burn the whole jungle down.
They crouched in the hole they dug for themselves, camouflaged without even thinking about it, hay stuck in their hair and on their clothes.
“What if the hay catches on fire?” Charlie asked. The matches made him nervous, and he almost heard the eagle on the box laugh at him.
From where Charlie sat, it looked like the eagle opened its beak. He couldn’t be sure. Phil tossed the box back and forth between his hands.
“If it does, we’ll blow it out.”
“It will make better smoke.”
“A short puff for help. A long puff for war.”
They could hear the thick splinters of wood rattle in the cardboard box. Or it might have been the eagle they heard. Or it might have been the enemy. The gusts of wind pushed against the side of the barn allowing for the creak and whistle under the eaves yards from their position in the stacks. They climbed high into the loft and dug low. They held the mountain, for now.
“What if he finds us?”
“What if he wants to take us with him?”
“What would you do?”
“I’d chop off his head.”
“I’d stab him in the heart.”
They planned their code, and the loft was quiet. The boys did not notice that their mother was no longer calling them. They did not wonder if she went to the gates of the pasture looking for them or if she went back to the kitchen, filled another bucket of water, and told their sisters to go find their brothers. They forgot about her. Instead, they argued over what to say and how to say it, and both brothers developed the sneaky suspicion that the enemy was on the inside, hiding in the grass.
Remember, boys, it is the principle that matters. Cut off one head…set fire to one thatched roof…bomb one rice paddy…stab your pain through its heart…it will come back threefold, and that which will kill you is immortal.
But that, they would learn.
A boy looked at his identical other, and soon, elbows were shoved and feet were kicked, and the matches were dropped into crevices between the bales.
When the light suddenly burst forth into their tunneled trench, they could see the redness of each other’s eyes, swollen and irritated from the hay, each holding his breath, refusing to cry. They glared and forgot about the lost matches as a hand reached down between them. It was their grandfather, pulling them out of the hay, one boy at a time.
Heather Momyer is the founding publisher of Arc Pair Press. Her fiction chapbook, How to Swim, was published by Another New Calligraphy, and her stories and essays appear in The Forge Literary Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, Puerto del Sol, Psychopomp Magazine, Bennington Review, and other journals. “The Hydra’s Heads” is an adapted excerpt from her novel-in-progress, tentatively titled The Volary. She lives in Tacoma, WA.