In 1828 certain men of this village climbed to the peak of Mount Isaac to eat the yolk of the great roc's egg. Yet the savage bird came upon them and, as they fled in their vessel across the lake, dropped boulders and trees from on high until all their rapacious souls were drowned.
bronze cast, 1848, H. Simon Dodge
Town square, Moriah, N.Y.
On Saturday she drove the book bus down to the mineside cottages and served every man who came. They were waiting for her on their porches, rockbound between rusted cliff and shoreline algae, holding last week's books. By the time she had parked, unbuckled herself, and folded her laminate desk down, they had formed a silent line. She propped open the door and Victor, with his flabby hips and goose-honk woman's voice, stumped up the steps first. He shuffled down the corridor of spines, hunched under the low roof, examining titles. Next came Tyler, polite and handsome. He should've been in college. "Did you get the next Henry?" he asked her.
Moriah retrieved IV, Part II from the milk crate at her feet.
Below, Matthew was crowding up the steps to browse the nearest titles on the bottom shelf. His body filled the door, dimming the light and lacing her veins tighter.
"Matthew," she said.
He had a sucker's scowl, and his dark eyes held white points, like they contained a smaller animal's flashlit glare within them. But he stepped back down to the dirt. The line flexed behind him.
Every week Moriah rotated the collection from the library's stock. The men liked their success memoirs, sexy horrors, world records and sociological histories. Tyler was working through Shakespeare, and took an occasional showy jab at poetry. Victor preferred self-help and science fiction. None of them worked; no one would hire them. Three books each, every week, and every week each asked for more. There was no imagining their boredom.
As each man passed by her desk with his new selections, Moriah tore up last week's record. No database: stamps and slips only. Her system's amnesia was a point of professional pride. A few liked to ask her advice. Keller, for instance, who'd taught business courses and had a voice for three hundred students, read only what she picked for him.
Rain rattled the bus roof. Each man dropped back to the dirt like a mother, shoulders curled over his books, and bolted for his den.
Adrian stepped up last, with his skinny burnt-out body and bald ostrich skull. He liked nonfiction mostly, popular history on sea voyages and polar expeditions, gold rushes, disease. He would read the mass-market series with bent and foggy covers, or else dig up some close-kerned text from the fifties with a waxy canvas spine, something a decade overdue for weeding and the municipal bonfire. At the back of the bus, where the emergency exit was the only window not walled over in paperbacks, she planted treasures for him. This week, a battered edition of One Thousand and One Nights, illustrated, and an account by an Arab secretary of his dealings with Viking traders in the tenth century. Adrian plucked them unerringly. Also, his own personal choice: White Fang.
"Again?" she said.
She noted each of the titles. She slid last week's slip across the desk to him, untorn, because the first time she'd come, or actually the second, he'd said, "Wait," when he realized what she was about to do. "Could I have it?" he’d said.
He wrote his name with a left-hander's gimp: wrist curled to protect the broken letters as they formed. She slid the books back to him. She wore dark blouses to camouflage the wet circles under her arms. Inside her sleeve, sweat ran down her tricep. If they could smell her nerves they did not let on.
"Enjoy," she said to Adrian. She said it to all of them.
She closed the door behind him, and reversed the bus up the rutted dirt, which was softening dangerously in the rain. But instead of turning onto the main road back to town, she steered up the grassed and lumpy left fork. The trailhead was just a gravel lot with a sign that read MOUNT ISAAC. Deserted. There were trees to mask the bus' obvious yellow from passing vehicles, her neighbors, the other men who lived in the cottages. She killed the engine and opened the door to the wet air and gleaming branches.
At the back exit, she settled spine-to-spine with the books, on a painted footstool left over from when the bus had served communities flooded with children. The window was a siltscreen, streaming mud. Wind crabbed the poplars. She stroked her hair from crown to throat, and was soothed.
On foot, Adrian plucked his hood up and took the long path to meet her. He was never sure. The first time he'd found her, he'd been carrying his new books to read in the trees, and discovered her in her habit of sitting alone. He'd stood in the clearing. She'd opened the door.
Her hair was fine and limp. She closed her eyes and pinched the hem of her skirt as he kneeled and spread her bare knees. Her skin, in the damp, was goosepimpled, and he palmed her calves to warm them.
"You should wear something warmer," he said.
Her mouth twisted until she smiled. "It's August."
One hand on her thigh, he pulled aside white lace to rub the fingers of the other inside her. She always started so slick for him, but it still took her such a long time, every time, before she forgot him enough to sob and buck, then lean down to cup his ears and kiss his crown.
As he licked her, his knees grated against pebbles on the plastic mat. His hooked back ached. His tongue numbed. He didn't shift around. He kept licking until he tasted blood. He ignored it. He wouldn't embarrass her. In fact, he liked it, how she would stop him as soon as she realized, apologetic, but then it wasn't just a taste but a gush, wetter than even her usual mess, and ferric, and he drew back to look at the bright red gore smearing her thighs. She opened her eyes. "Oh, God!"
He lifted a hand to his face and blood splashed the back of it.
"Your nose!" she crowed, one wrist to her mouth, one hand reaching for him. She laughed.
"Shit," he said. The white lace was an abattoir rag. Red overran the blue of his shirt. "I thought it was you."
"No, I don't, really," she twisted a wrist, still laughing, "ever."
She closed her knees and he followed her out. His hands shone, savage. She dug a bottle of water out of her purse, and tipped it over his face. He held his hands out to the rain, which was too sparse to help. She pressed dusty tissues to the blood still streaming from his nose, and he pinched the bundle there himself. She hovered on the bus steps, grinning, her fingers pink, her face pink.
"I don't know what," he said.
She giggled, again. She used a finger to hook the ruined lace down her legs, and stepped out of it. His blood rubbed her ankles.
"I'm so sorry."
"Can you clean them?"
He reached, but she didn't pass them to him. She held them under the diminishing rain herself. "Of course."
"Don’t throw them out."
"I wouldn't," she said. "Why? Do you want them?"
"I'm joking," she said.
She kissed his cheek, and tried for his mouth despite the tissues, and laughed again when he shied. She climbed back into her driver's seat. He gathered his collar but didn't turn up his hood as he watched the bus bumble back up to the road. His blood in her, smearing the inside of her skirt, dotting her shoes. The panties balled up on the mat. The stain setting. His blood streaming from the lump of lace under cold water in her kitchen sink. His blood, antiqued to brown, locked in the fiber of the thread in the dark drawer of some bureau in a room in the house in which she lived. He never got hard for her, but she'd never been in a position to notice, which meant he had never disappointed her.
Adrian had heard about the village in its second year, was the sixth man to arrive. He spent his days grading the gravel foundations of the cottages, investigating the generator when it guttered, taping plastic over the windows. He carried a knife in his belt. He'd fenced and filled some raised vegetable beds where the spur line used to run the ore carts from the blast furnace. That was last spring; this year the boxes wheedled with radishes, the soil sunk flat, the boards greyed.
When he opened the door to his cottage, the others stayed quiet in their bedrooms. He lived with Tyler, who had dated a sixteen-year-old when he was twenty-one and put videos of her blowing him on the internet when she dumped him. And Matthew: rape and battery. Adrian took off his boots in his bedroom. His new books, the ones he'd had to hunt like eggs, waited on his mattress. She could easily put them on the shelf at the front, or keep them reserved in the milk crate for him like she did the others, but instead she swapped smashed spines and left it to him to note what was new. He'd never asked her to visit him here. Not with Tyler and Matthew. When he opened the door to his little house, what he missed most was calling "Hello?" and having someone rush to behold his beloved face.
Her father's house, which stood at the top of four dozen crumbling stone steps, and had a plaque from the historical society mounted beside the mailbox, had passed to her, like everything else, when he died. It looked out over the lake: sailboats, the distant arc of the new bridge, the lighthouse, the monument, the blunt green mountains. And north, across the bay, the sex offenders squatting in their shacks under the dead iron mine. Coppery seams of dirt slid down to the shore from the mine's abandoned airshafts. When she was a teenager, boys would climb up there with driftwood and the caves would glow orange. Her father might not have looked up from his book for an hour, but as soon as he did he'd ring the foreman out of bed. For twenty years the miners' cottages decomposed, then, three summers ago, the men showed up. Just a few, but more arrived every year. Over a dozen, now. The law was clear about where they could live. No parks, schools, public swimming pools, bus stops within measurable distance. Moriah had none of these things. Moriah was childless.
Some days, she'd look out over the lake and see the roc: an eagle the size of a 747, hump-backed like a dromedary, white-feathered, one-eyed, circling for serpents that went extinct a century ago.
Moriah kept the habit, even after her father's death, of walking to town on Sunday and sitting at one of the three restaurants there. She was spooning her soup when Tyler passed by the plate glass. He carried his satchel over one shoulder, heavy with his new Henry, his dark hair wet at the temples from the afternoon sun and the long trek up from the lake. The walk itself wasn't illegal. Perhaps it took him an hour. But the men's requirements were specifically ordered, delivered, parceled out. Usually when they walked, Adrian had told her, they walked north along the shoreline, or up the trail towards Mount Isaac, not into the town's petty core.
Tyler crossed the square to Delia's, where he could order a coffee or an ice cream, if he had the money. He paused against the burgundy clapboard, squinting. The bronze statue of the roc claimed the centre of the square, warm and green: she was depicted as a streaming molten creature, the ship below splintering under a buckshot of boulders the size of elephants. One of her wingtips brushed the lake's surface as she wheeled away, beak split wide with hate. Her missing eye was gouged empty. Moriah had heard her scream once, a plummeting pitch black as the mine's whistle. The windows of her father's library had wavered in the blare. That was another unhappy gift from her father: the key to the cold blast furnace and its silent steam-whistle.
Tyler stared at the statue like a tourist. He had an open throat and flushed cheekbones, long legs and loafers. Just looking at him, no one would guess where he'd come from. But the government database was freely accessible, searchable by county and street, by name, and its controlled vocabulary had an Old Testament omniscience that treated privacy like a perversion. When Moriah had volunteered to drive the bus on Saturdays, her preference was to know nothing. Sometimes, though, they insisted on telling her. Adrian said Tyler talked too much, Matthew not enough.
One of the Tanner girls came out of Delia's, aproned and bunned, and stepped to the curb between bougainvilleas. She lit a cigarette and Tyler watched her inhale. He came forward and she turned as he spoke. She passed him a smoke, then lit it for him. He said something else, she replied. Tyler kept speaking, and she laughed.
Moriah waited at her cleared table. The cook's wife refilled her tea, but didn't press the bill. Some other customers came in. Parents and their two children, passers-through.
Tyler peered into his bag, and handed the girl a pen. He produced a book, flipped through it until he'd selected a page to offer her. She scribbled, returned the book, scuttled back into Delia's. Tyler sat down on a bench. He lit the second cigarette he'd begged off her. He tore the page from the book and studied it. He folded it twice. The book, Moriah saw, was the Keats she’d handed him yesterday.
Her father had lived his last year entirely in his study, sleeping on a cot. When she came down in the morning, she found windows open, his books turning their own pages. She'd promised the house to the historical society. Yet here she was, still living in it. She'd kissed his hot and waxy forehead, his shoulder bared at the open neckline like a woman's. He died in his nightgown, on the floor. Her father, who had told her the town had been named after her, a hundred years in advance of her birth.
Wednesday evening, the grocery van arrived. Adrian was at the front of the line as Keller, fat and sweating in the breeze, sorted the cardboard boxes and white plastic bags on the rocks. He scraped at his paper with a ballpoint. The driver sat smoking out his window, engine idling, gazing across the water to town, where the painted houses striated the slope in turquoise and ochre. A few pleasure boats shrugged around at the jetty.
Keller, who'd been king of his classroom once, governed the lists and handed the driver his hundred and fifty dollar fee. The driver, Luke, re-counted the singles and fives in his lap, slowly. He'd delivered their groceries from the beginning, even when storms iced over their dirt drive and they had to clamber up the slope like goslings, handing cash and produce up and down the line. Normally, he got out of the van, made a few jokes, talked baseball with those who cared. They'd started to care.
"This is sick," Luke said to the money in his hand.
Keller laughed. "What, you want another raise?"
"No," said Luke. He flicked his cigarette onto the ground, where it continued to burn. Men swiveled to eye it. "I don't want shit from you."
Keller cocked his head, his smile frozen.
Adrian shifted. In line behind him, men plucked at bag handles, looking at the contents.
"I don't get it," said Keller, careful and amiable. "You want to-"
"You sickos feed your own asses." Luke said. His eyes flicked along them: a ragged string of men in faded clothes, varying hygiene, men who chose to line themselves up.
"What's that fucking mean?" said Matthew. He stepped sideways.
"You heard me, pervert," said Luke.
Matthew stalked up to the van window, but let Keller shift his bulk between them.
"Matthew," said Keller.
"What's happening?" squawked Victor from the back of the line.
"Why don't you just tell us what happened, Luke?" Keller couldn't help it, his natural mode was condescension.
"We'll figure it out," said Adrian.
"Yeah, what happened, Luke?" mocked Matthew.
Luke's lip twisted. "Like you don't know."
"No," said Keller. "Obviously we don’t."
"Pussy doesn't know shit," said Matthew.
"The sheriff just picked up that kid," said Luke.
"What kid?" said Matthew.
"Letting you people stay here like this," said Luke. "We all knew what would happen."
"What did he do?" said Adrian.
"They found her up the twenty," said Luke. "Before anyone even knew she'd gone. We should've kicked you out when you first showed up. We should've made her get rid of you." His eyes flicked to the sky over the lake.
"Did he hurt her?"
"Moriah?" said Adrian.
"Tyler?" said Keller. "Are you talking about Tyler?"
"The old boys are done with you. They're calling her down," said Luke.
"Who are we talking about? Who is she?" Adrian pushed in, impatient.
"She's a sixteen-year-old girl, you sick fucks," said Luke.
"Is she hurt?" Keller repeated.,
Luke glared. "He's gonna end up worse."
"You think?" said Matthew, pushing. "How do you think you'll end up?"
"Matthew, Jesus," said Keller, pushing him back.
"What the fuck are you gonna do?" said Luke to Matthew.
Matthew bounced. "Get outta your little car," he cooed.
"I warned you," said Luke. "I warned you. That's all you get."
He grated the van into gear. The tires kicked dust and pebbles into the produce.
Keller adjusted his glasses. Then he took them off and polished the lenses with the tail of his denim shirt, which was wet in patches. The lake smelled warmly green. Driftwood clattered at the waterline. High above the lake, the roc drifted on mile-long wings.
For years, Adrian had spent his summers out west in a fire tower. Shifts in the cupola lasted as long as daylight, time cut to facets by radio check-ins every twenty minutes. The furred horizon was tortoise-shelled with passing clouds. The stray dog that came out of the woods went right back into them. The truck full of locals that drove up one July tried to shout him down from the tower. They had gasoline and rifles. They knew his name. He had the radio. He pulled up his ladder. They toppled his water barrel, cut his trash down from the tree, tore up his cabin, pissed his bed. He perched, silent. They could see him up there, but the red plastic jugs stayed in the truck bed. The rifles were handled, but not fired. Hours after they left, the ranger came by. She didn't get out of her truck.
He could've never got the job again, anyway. That was years ago, before the conviction.
"We can't stay here," he said. Men lingered on the rocks, nowhere to go but their mattresses. Matthew tore through his grocery bag, swearing at nothing. Victor sat on a flat rock and opened a package of strawberry wafer cookies. Keller wiped sweat from his lip.
The roc floated higher. Her copperplate eye watched their mouths move from two miles off. If she landed on the interstate bridge the trusses would bow. If she stooped to pass her airliner body overhead, the shacks wouldn't hold through the hurricane. Even farther above, deep in the peaks, her naked egg gleamed.
The sheriff stood in uniform at Moriah's door with his hat off and sunglasses on. He hadn't caught his breath from the steps. The Tanner girl was in the hospital, now, and safe.
“Which act, specifically, is assault, Robert?” said Moriah.
The sun sparked the lake behind him.
"We don't need your permission," he said, though all of it was hers: the whistle, the mine, the land. "You know we'll just go in there and fire it up."
The key to the blast furnace lay in a desk drawer. She stared at him for so long he grew impatient, and reached for the door to widen it, and the man's hand approaching riled something fanged in her. She shut the door hard.
When her father had been alive, he'd chaired the meetings she'd never been invited to attend. Now they'd light the furnace to sound the whistle, now they'd call her down, and Moriah had no say at all.
When she arrived at the cottages, Victor sat reading on his stoop. The windows shivered in the lake wind. The shoreline was empty.
"Victor?" she said.
"They stole most of the books," he said. "I told them. These are the ones they left."
She blinked: he had a stack of two dozen beside him.
"Maybe they'll have to burn them," he added.
"Where did they go?" she said.
He gestured upwards: the mountain.
"Everyone?" she said.
"They left hours ago. But they'll come back," he said. "Tyler won't."
The steps to Adrian's front door bowed under her. There was no deadbolt, like whatever was inside was guaranteed to be worthless. She paused in the hall: three white bedrooms with white mattresses and yellow pillowcases. In the kitchen, Matthew stopped, one hand deep in his stuffed knapsack. All the cupboard doors were splayed.
"Matthew," she said.
"Cunt," said Matthew. "Fuck yourself." He'd consumed her entire yellowed collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Tarzan the Untamed. Tarzan and the Ant Men. Tarzan at the Earth's Core. The kitchen was barely a closet. She took a step back. Another one. She'd never looked at the database, where it was described: aggravated sexual battery, assault, the acts contained therein.
She raised her hands. "It's fine," she said. She glanced into one of the bedrooms. His, or Adrian's, or Tyler's, all indistinguishable from one another. The air shifted, turned over to reveal the smell of something bacterial in the sheets. She wanted him to stop looking at her with his pinpricked eyes. She turned her back on him and stepped down onto the rocks.
"Are you going to take these?" Victor asked. He held his returns: Radical Acceptance. How to Fall Out of Love. Jurassic Park.
"Keep them," she said.
Matthew exited the shack without looking at them. He set off up the dirt to the main road. If he walked along it, he'd be plucked up so easily. But Moriah didn't call to warn him. Behind him, the door drifted open again.
"You should leave," she said to Victor. "It's not safe."
"I can't hurt anyone," said Victor, who'd gang-raped a girl when he was fourteen. He was right, though. In the database, she’d read how his mother and the town doctor had made sure of it.
The trail up Mount Isaac began in the clearing. Adrian looked away from the empty lot where he had found the bus, and her in it, so many times. "It doesn't go anywhere," he said to Keller. "Just up."
"How do you know?" said Keller.
The men carried their groceries and belongings in the same plastic bags. They were rich in plastic bags, thanks to Luke. Keller wore his white sneakers and a sagging backpack. Someone had emptied Tyler's abandoned satchel and filled it with tins. Adrian had his duffel and his knife. They didn't speak as they walked. The path, which started as a wide, pine-needled boulevard, narrowed to a goat trail that skirted ledges and hopped up rock. In places, steps had been built. Crossing a stream, there was a bridge made from a fallen trunk. The late light candled the undergrowth.
Adrian took off his jacket and carried it. The sun set and he put it back on. The trees greyed. The clearing he chose had a trickle of water seeping from a rock face, which he told them not to drink until they'd boiled it. He'd brought a pot. No one else had. They'd all have to eat and drink out of their torn-lipped cans. "Get some branches," he told them. "Make a circle with those rocks." He showed them how to tie together a lean-to shallow enough the heat would stay close. They were useless, most of them. They waited to be directed. Keller, wearing his blanket like a lord's furs, repeated Adrian's instructions in a voice that got them moving.
The clearing purpled into something uneasy. The fire, tentative and then suddenly fat and overfed, spat orange into the sky.
"It's too big," said Adrian.
"It'll go down," said Keller. "It's all right."
The men were ravenous. They hung skewered and foiled meat in the flames, dropped tins of beans in the embers. They pulled candy, cakes, bread, pickles, fruit, and fish in oil from their bags. They tramped through the underbrush, gathered more wood, and argued over who got to wail the hatchet down into it. They yelled and laughed like drunk miners in the black beyond the fire's halo. Keller, juicebox in hand, sang in a full baritone.
"They'll come after us," Adrian said.
They ignored him. Their shadows limped around. They yowled.
The sun was setting when the roc flew over Moriah's head. Her passage bent the trees. Pinecones and twigs rained down. Moriah looked up to glimpse her underbelly, one wing pink-tipped, the primaries splayed and curling up, the other wing lost beyond the treetops. She carried a bull elk in the wrought iron cage of her talons, head twisted, mouth gaping with inaudible bellows. The whistle hadn't sounded yet. It took time to kindle the furnace, work up the critical steam. Moriah had no doubt she would hear it. It would ring the rocks.
She hurried on, but the path was steep. She did not like to be travelling away from home during twilight, and she paused at a ledge as the sun dropped behind the peak. The air grew serious while she crouched, stroking her hair from crown to throat. The dead light made a hollow dome of the sky, not unlike the cave of her body, where she cozied herself, the little child, the one who always required such a long, slow process of soothing.
She continued along the path by feel. It was full black by the time she heard them, smelled their smoke. She came into the clearing, one arm raised to protect her face from swiping branches.
Adrian, on the far side of the blaze, stood up, squinting into the darkness at what she might be.
Then the whistle's shrill stopped the air. The black turned to glass. It cracked against every peak and came back at them—triplicated, hexed.
"Get away from the fire," she hissed. "You idiots."
The men swarmed confusedly, some towards her, others looking past her, into the trees.
Adrian smiled as he recognized her.
They had never shared a meal. Every time it rained or snowed, she had imagined going to his house and tapping on his window, but that led to imagining how he passed his evenings, every evening, and it was too painful.
"They've called her down on you," she said, but they didn't know what she meant.
The fire crouched to a blue glaze under the logs, then leapt up as its heart collapsed. The mountain shifted left, or down. Men were gone. Instead: a mangle of scarred yellow claws. Moriah pulled herself up out of the grass. The roc tossed and gulped a bloody body down. She struck another. Her wings crooked above, a second sky. Men rushed like mice through the clearing. She stalked forward on tree-tall legs, she pinned them, she ripped them with her beak. She flapped once to balance herself and the air cracked.
Moriah reached Adrian where he crouched, gripping the hatchet. She tugged at him. The roc turned. A membrane slid across her orange eye. She was so old. Older than the mine, older than this fissure of a lake. She'd laid her egg when her nest rested in a swamp. The mountains had formed under her. She'd lost one eye to the muskets of the men who raided her nest, but she'd destroyed them. Her beak opened; her arrow tongue curled. Moriah had never asked, and Adrian had never told her, what his crime had been. The roc turned away.
Moriah knocked the hatchet from Adrian's hands and shoved him back, towards the trees. She pushed him faster. She looked over her shoulder. The hole of the roc's empty socket glared as she snaked her neck and speared Keller—who had never paid for his students' drinks but had led the drunks home and helped them with their shoes and into bed and accepted what he took as invitations—and tore him open like a wren. She ate him in two pieces. Moriah, at Adrian's heels, fell with him into the stabbing clutter of the low trees. She seized his hand. They broke branches, pushed blind. They didn't look back.
What was left living of the men was crawling crippled around the meadow. She was delicate about gathering them in her claws. When she launched herself, the downdraft snapped trunks. The bonfire's remains roared up and jumped into the grass. She beat, and hauled, lifting above the treeline into the open air. She circled the peak. Below, Moriah glowed golden, lights reflected in the lake. She The roc passed close to the teetering scree where she tended her egg. She let the men fall there, into the sharp rocks. Three or four of them. They could gnaw ice and old bones until it hatched. Her diamond egg, white enough to fall through, bright enough to snowblind, filled with an evil and naked creature that breathed warmly through its shell, utterly beloved.
Congratulations to Paige Cooper for being a Gulf Coast Prize Honorable Mention.