This is what would essentially be the prologue to a novella-length story I’ve been working on, unrelated to Aurian and Jin. It’s just a draft, really, but I’d appreciate thoughts: this is a little more heartbreak than I’m used to accommodating in a first chapter. Not sure if this is worth going on with. Don’t worry, the main character is only a kid in this bit.
Southern Gothic, one of my lost loves, with hints of mythology (bonus points for the person who can guess the story from this chapter) and what’ll be some very American magic.
The thing was warty, green, lopsided. It had skin like a grapefruit gone mad.
“It’s a hedge apple,” Granddaddy said, smiling at him. “No–don’t try and bite it, son. It ain’t for eating.”
The little boy took the fruit away from his mouth. “It’s so big,” he said. He weighed it in both hands. “It’s heavy.”
“Solid all the way down to the core.” Granddaddy knelt beside him, pointing. The little boy could smell his aftershave on the autumn breeze, an old-man smell mixed in with the loam and sweet rot of the woods: he looked where his granddaddy was pointing, all the way up into the trees.
“They grow up there,” Granddaddy said. “Can you see ’em, Rusty?”
Rusty could. They looked almost normal so far away, like golf balls or dim green marbles. When the wind moved the boughs of the tree they stayed in place, anchored by their own clustered weight. Rusty thought about his mama, about the pendulous way she moved now, how she swung out from her belly like the branches around these not-to-be-eaten apples.
His mama’s belly, she had told him, was full of a baby sister for Rusty. He thought babies must be like peas, or apples, or corn. They grew and grew and grew, and any day they might pop out. Mama seemed happy enough about it. It was just that when he went to kiss her goodnight, there was no more room in her lap.
“Why do they call ’em apples if you can’t eat them?” Rusty asked.
Granddaddy just laughed.
“I don’t know, son. Why do they call a cow’s doodie a pie? Don’t look very tasty to me. Sometimes a name is just a name. Speakin’ of names, I think I hear your mama calling you in for supper. C’mon. You can take the hedge apple with you.”
Rusty followed his grandfather down the path, turning the funny green fruit over and over in his hands as the great Piedmont trees dwindled to underbrush and pine needles. He could see his backyard from here, the firewood piles and the live oaks and the little well, its roof shingled with scalloped working in the eaves. He could see the tire swing turning idly in the breeze, smell what was definitely mama’s split pea soup drifting through the open kitchen door. The magic of the woods seemed very far away, the silence composed of small sounds and growth and decay.
“Won’t you come in for dinner, Granddaddy?” Rusty asked, being polite like mama taught him.
“Rusty,” Granddaddy said. “You know I can’t do that.” The old man listened for a moment, his head cocked–his grey hair, shaggy and grown out like an old hippie’s, brushed his shoulders as he did so.
“That ain’t callin’,” he said, after a moment.
Rusty listened too. He could hear his mama’s voice loud over the lawn. He could hear Papa’s voice too–he hadn’t known Papa was home again. They were shouting at each other. Rusty heard a crack like a cast iron skillet hitting a wall. He heard many little bumps and crashes, a symphony of painful sound. He heard Papa’s sun-bleached Cavalier start, saw the trails of dust as it whipped down the dirt road almost on two wheels.
They lingered in the air, the dust and the smoke. A burger wrapper, whipped from the car by the wind of its passing, settled slowly to earth.
The old man took Rusty’s hand in his own liver spotted ones, knelt once more so his eyes were level with Rusty’s. His eyes were poison green, the green of new leaves, the green of the hedge apple in Rusty’s pocket.
“Listen to me, boy,” he said. “There’s an old tale about hedge apples. Tale older n’ your house, all the way back to the first settlers in these parts. If you’re lonely, they used to say, and you need a friend, all you have to do is tell a hedge apple, and a friend will come to you. You understand me?”
“Yes, sir,” Rusty said, though he didn’t understand at all.
“Remember,” Granddaddy said.
“I promise,” said Rusty. “But won’t you–”
“I can’t,” said Granddaddy, his voice rough. “You know the rules.” He squeezed the boy’s hand and let it go. “I’ll watch you, though. This I promise.”
Rusty nodded, knowing not to press Granddaddy too hard. He could get tetchy if you pressed him too hard, and then it took a lot of buttering up to get him sweet again.
Rusty tramped across the yard, past the oaks and the swing and the cheerful little well. Mama had the screen door propped open on a rock. When he came in she was sitting on a stool in front of the big-bellied stove, an ear of corn unshucked in her lap. There were several ears, already shucked, piled on the cutting board. The silk from these clung to Mama’s white pregnancy dress. They glittered like strands of something precious in the wet blood that coated her legs.
Mama’s voice was like raw rock. “Rusty,” she said. “Hey, honey.”
The blood had filled her left slipper. It dripped down onto the linoleum in the silence. Drip, drip, drip. Rusty wanted to hug her but his arms wouldn’t move.
“Where’s Papa?” he asked.
“He’s already gone, honey. Maybe for good this time. Don’t you worry.” Tears coursed down her cheeks. “Rusty? Do you remember the number Mama taught you to call when there was an accident?”
“I can call Granddaddy,” Rusty said. “He said he’d be watching. He’s right here.”
The woman let out a strangled sound, something halfway between a sob and a scream. Rusty scampered backwards. Mama had never hit him, but then again, Mama had never made that noise. Mama’s eyes had never been so crazy. Mama’s mouth had never hung open and slack, her jaw jerking like a caught fish.
“Your granddaddy is dead,” Mama snarled. “How many times do I have to tell you, Rusty? Your granddaddy is dead. He. Is. Dead.”
She lunged off her stool, took a wild swipe at him with the ear of corn. Rusty backed up almost to the kitchen door, almost to freedom and the lawn and then the wood and Granddaddy. He would have taken off had she not slipped in her own blood, and fallen to her knees, and started sobbing.
Rusty didn’t like seeing Mama cry. It made him feel real worried, real little and scared.
She was skinny again, he noticed. She was skinny, and she had one eye puffed almost shut.
“Did Papa take my baby sister?” he asked. Papa took things sometimes. Packs of cigarettes, Mama’s car. Last time it had been the silver, which Mama called ‘ancestral’. Rusty figured that was a brand, like Jiffy or Aunt Jemima, but it must be a nice one if she kept talking about it.
Mama kept crying. She was crying harder than she had over the silver. She cried and cried and cried. On the stove, the soup started to boil over.
Rusty, who had learned about such things from his mama, turned the burner off.
Rusty didn’t know what to do. He put his arms around her, as far as they could reach.
“Just get upstairs,” Mama said. He could feel the rigidity like a branch inside her. “Get upstairs. I’m gonna call the number. I’ll be back before you go to school tomorrow, okay? Just get upstairs.”
Rusty was only a little boy. He went upstairs, climbed into his little bed and buried himself under the quilt. He stayed there until he heard the sirens, heard the ambulance men taking Mama away. He stayed until the last rays of the sun had set and all he could see, all he could feel and smell and breathe, was darkness.
He took the hedge apple out of his pocket, felt the hard puckered skin of it with trembling fingers, and remembered what Granddaddy had said.
“I need a friend,” he whispered to it. “Please, please. I need a friend.”
The apple, bumpy and dumb under his fingertips, said nothing in return.
He fell asleep clutching it, rich red dirt under his nails, the smell of the woods in his nostrils.
It was only once he was asleep, and the house completely silent, that the hedge apple began to shake.
It was just a little tremble at first, like the beating heart of a bird. Then, with a faint pop, two warty green arms extended from it, followed by another pop and two warty green legs. The feet on the end of these legs were bird’s feet, three toothpick talons ending in three toothpick nails. They extended, stretched, made cartoonish shapes as tendons warmed up. A head, saggy and droopy and wedge-shaped, followed the legs and arms.
Two eyes, poison green and slitted like a cat’s, opened. A third eye, protected in the folds of hard skin on the back of the neck, opened as well–this eye was red and round, and it never blinked. It cast a little ray of red light before it, and this ray swept back and forth in the gloom beneath the covers until it found the sleeping boy’s face. The two green eyes had a sparkle to them–soul or spirit, mischief maybe–that suggested a conscience inside the hedge-apple body. The red eye had nothing. The red eye, open and unwavering, was a miniature window to some place people didn’t much want to be.
The boy, perhaps sensing he was being observed, stirred in his sleep, mumbled something, and opened his eyes.
The red light disappeared immediately. The eye vanished beneath a warty green membrane, and the neck-folds gathered over it as though it had never been.
The creature smiled, showing three rows of yellow teeth. It turned its head, so the boy could see its face.
“Hi there, Rusty,” it said. Its voice was soft, barely more than a bedtime whisper, but Rusty thought he could have heard it from across the yard. It was a nice voice, a happy voice. It sounded a little like his friend Sam’s papa, who was big and jolly and always gave Sam a hug and a kiss and never ever hit him, not even to spank him, not even when he’d done something bad. “My name is Azoth. I heard you needed a friend.”