Issue No. 19, Winter 2016

The Mooneaters
Bradley Sides

It was to end under a tree. It was what they wanted. They nestled in the darkness, mother and son, clinging to the belief that they could—no would—change. She had promised him. He had promised her. Both had remained true. They were determined to keep something, and their word was now the only thing left.

 

#

 

The mother and son’s tiny house stood deep inside what they knew only as “the woods.” Their small construction, if you could really call it such, was fine for them. The walls were sturdy, and the floor kept most cold drafts outside. Two windows, one facing the east and the other looking west, were broken, but old, unhinged pieces of tape kept what needed to stay away outside. The roof, even with its splintered cracks, only let in a few snowflakes. The candles they burned rested on the floor, and the flames never grew strong enough to grow light past a couple of feet. The darkness is what kept them safe. Light was dangerous. What needed to stay out did. Or, at least, it had.

Inside, the boy sat on the dusty oak floor and colored the torn pages from an old coloring book. Frogs, his mother had told him. Once, they lived near water. He whispered the croaking sound she’d made when describing the strange creatures’ voices. He’d never seen animals, but his mother promised that they were, at one time, as real as real could be—as real as mother and son.

The mother sat beside her son and reminded him to stay inside the heavy lines. He listened and obeyed.

“Am I the only good kid?” the boy asked, looking up at his mother.

“You are,” she assured him, cradling his cheeks with her hands.

“Are you the only good mommy?” he asked.

“I am,” she replied, squeezing his face before turning away to cough into her handkerchief.

When she looked down, she saw that it was still there. She had hoped that it was only a fluke the day before. A glitch with her eyes the week earlier. A brief slide into madness. A dream. A nightmare. She couldn’t remember when it had begun. Why did it matter? There was no arguing that it was here.

The brightness of what had come from inside her was unusual, upsetting. In a world where darkness provided protection, the shining, glowing tint had to affect her. She had remembered her own mother’s sickness, and this, she remembered, was how it had begun. Like mother, like daughter.

“Mommy, are you sick?” the boy asked.

“I’m fine. It’s just a little cough. Pay attention to your coloring. You don’t want to go outside the lines,” she said.

The boy ignored his mother’s instructions. Even if she had raised him, he still held a part of his father inside him. Still innocent, but she could see his stubbornness growing. He put down his crayon and stood, glaring at his mother’s ear.

She looked up at her son, watching his eyes, as they scanned the side of her face.

“You have something on you,” he said, reaching out his hand.

“You have something on you,” he repeated.

The mother caressed the side of her face with her hand, slowly brushing up and down.

“It’s nothing, son.” She frantically tucked her stray hairs behind her ear.

The boy, again, paid no attention to his mother. He reached down and hesitantly touched her face. It was the first time he’d touched her this way. She could feel his fear, and she scooted away from him.

“Mommy, you have something on you,” he said in a concerned voice, reaching toward her now with more confidence.

He bent down and grabbed the unusual growth from the side of his mother’s face and began to caress it. “It’s soft, Mommy,” he said. “It’s almost like your hair.”

The boy’s touch transitioned into a slow stroking movement. He bit his lip curiously as he felt of his mother’s newfound strangeness. His world wasn’t one that was familiar with softness. Suddenly, as if struck with the epiphany that the object did not belong on his mother’s face, he pulled on the growth. It didn’t budge, but, being his father’s son, he kept pulling—yanking, tugging.

“Stop! Stop!” she cried.

“It’s stuck to you, Mommy,” he said. “I have to get it, Mommy!”

“Please stop!” she pleaded.

She cried louder, but the boy didn’t stop.

He gripped what grew on his mother’s face again, and he pulled with all of his might, heaving and grunting. Sweat ran down her clenched face. The wetness caused the boy to refocus his grip. His tiny hands fumbling near her ear.

The mother sobbed. Her lips, pressed firmly together, trembled. Was it the pain? Was it the fear of already knowing?

Finally, it broke free, and the boy and mother watched it float to the ground.

The object rested on the cold floor. The boy stood over it, questioning what it could be. The coloring was unusual. Matte. Nearly opaque. But somehow reminiscent of the candle’s struggling flame. The shape odder than anything he could recall ever seeing. Then, it struck him.

“Mommy, is that a leaf?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No,” she said quietly. “It’s called a feather.”

“What’s a feather?” he asked.

The mother opened her mouth to tell him about birds, but just as the first word hit the tip of her lips, a light appeared at the hidden house’s door.

“The mooneaters,” she whispered, clutching her son by his arm.

 

#

 

For him, there was no before. The boy had never lived in a world free of the mooneaters. The stories his mother told him haunted his dreams. In those stories, she couldn’t remember the year or the season and she couldn’t quite recall how that they began. She only knew that they were. And, really, that was all anyone needed to know.

She recounted how the mooneaters, shoulder-on-shoulder, climbed on top of one another, reaching high enough to pull away the stars. Together, these trees of mooneaters swayed like fractured limbs battling the wind. Trees top heavy and certain to crash to the ground. She described the mooneaters with their long, dirty, and bony fingers. Their disgusting hands extending into the sky and pinching the stars out of place. Feverishly and ferociously, growling and howling, they ate them. Night after night, they, these mooneaters, ate the stars. Their bellies glowed. The mooneaters would fight one another to stand at the summit of each pile, where one of them would grab a star from the dying sky and toss it below. The tall group of beings would collapse, chasing after the helpless star. After it was gulped away, the towers would reform, with greedy hands and reckless feet trying to make their way to the top once again. The madness would soon recommence, as another star was flung below.

After some time, and after all of the stars, and, yes, the moon, which was the last to go, were gone, the mooneaters were the only light left except for the stray ember or candle flame. They were full, but not content—of course. Not the mooneaters. They began eating one another. Addicted to the glow the other bodies carried.

People were quick to join the mooneaters. People needed light. They said they couldn’t live without it. Their crops would die. Their animals would be next. What about their kids? I have to be a mooneater to save my family, they reasoned. That’s how the conversion began. Justifiable reasoning.

People who hadn’t even participated in the destruction of the stars and moon wanted the glow. They, just like the ones already in possession of luminescent bodies, ripped into the others. They were all the same. Even if it took a few extra days or weeks, they were mooneaters, nonetheless.

The mooneaters became so eager for any resemblance of a glow that they chased down those who didn’t have a trace of the moon or a star in their bellies. The whites of the eyes was enough.

The mother told her son how she’d watched boys his age abandon their own mothers to join the mooneaters. One boy—in a memory she would never forget—kicked his mother in the chin because she was trying to hold him back from joining the mooneaters. He kicked so hard that the mother lost her grip. The boy, who couldn’t have been over the age of ten, took off running toward a group of mooneaters. With a knife, he sliced open one of their bellies and removed a star. Just as he put it to his lips, another mooneater ripped the boy apart, placing the star into an already lit body. She could do nothing but cry. In her story, the mother didn’t tell the boy everything. She didn’t want him to know how the other mother, broken with loss or, perhaps, hungry for her own glow, walked into the circle of mooneaters and met the same fate as the little boy.

In the darkness, the mother blamed the mooneaters.

The mooneaters were the reason she couldn’t go outside with her son.

The mooneaters were the selfish ones who killed all of the animals.

The mooneaters were the cause for everyone the mother had ever loved being gone.

The mooneaters were…

 

#

 

The mother and son stood motionless. The feather was before them, and it twitched softly against the floorboards. The candle flame casted a small, billowy shadow, which neared the wall. Neither person paid the unusual object any attention. Not with the mooneaters being present. The mother’s hand slid carefully and quietly down her son’s arm, as her grip loosened. She wanted his hand, and she moved until she grasped it.

The boy had held his mother’s hands every day of his life. He knew her crevices. He recognized her calluses. What he felt was different now. Her hands were prickly—ticklish.

His eyes glanced to the place where their hands met, and he saw the blurry edges of the budding fibers under the shadows.

More feathers. They were covering her hands.

She coughed again.

He closed his eyes and held firmly.

She knew the woods. After all of these years, she still could place every tree and every stream. She had told herself that she couldn’t forget them. If the mooneaters ever came, she, and she alone, would have to remember. And here they were.

The mother and son watched the brightness build around them. At first the light was only near the entrance. The gleaming bodies shone through even the smallest of cracks between the wooden door and the floor. Even along the walls, the previously unknown fractured lines in the paneling became clear.

The boy, being unacquainted with such brightness, closed his eyes and turned his head to the still dark corner behind him. The intensity from the light caused tears to fall down his face.

“It’s okay,” the mother whispered as soft as she could, falsely believing that her son was crying from fear.

The boy couldn’t understand what she was saying, but he knew her words were kind.

The light’s intensity continued to grow from the outside. The mother remembered long before the mooneaters. She would sit on the grass and look up at the sky. Her favorite memories were when the moon shone so brightly that none of the stars could be seen. The moon, being so seemingly alone, managed to be beautiful and strong.

The door that stood before her reminded her of those nights.

Instead of the surmounting brightness adding more fear, the mother felt more focused—more aware of what she had to do.

“Blow out the candle, Son,” she said without even the faintest trace of quietness.

Without hesitating, he bent down and blew just as the door came down.

 

#

 

Her own mother’s sickness had appeared suddenly. A doctor couldn’t have helped. She’d simply reached her end.

She’d resisted the mooneaters. She, like her daughter, was one of the pure. When the coughing came with the splattering of blood and the feathers sprouting on her cracked, dry skin, she cried.

Her tears fell not because she was scared, which she was not. They dampened her cheeks because she knew it was finally over.

She could bask in the light once again.

She could roam the forests without a care.

She could fly away to a land absent of the mooneaters.

Just as the last feather sprang from the only unopened pore on her skin, she rose from her bed and transformed. Changed into something new—something better, something free.

A mooneater broke into her bedroom and stood still, observing the unusual creature that flew around the room. This wasn’t what the mooneater had expected to find.

The bird’s white feathers beat the air rapidly and spun, looking as if it—she—were a shooting star. The mooneater salivated and patted its hands. It shook with glee.

The bird flew around the room, singing loudly and beautifully. The melody carried out through the small house and up into the nearby woods. Snow that had clung to the branches fell to the ground. The bubbling water in the nearby streams went quiet.

Then, the bird burst through the window and out into the open.

The mooneater ran toward the shattered glass, maniacally flailing its arms. But there was no use.

The bird was free.

 

#

 

The mother and her son had heard the mooneaters break down the door, and they could hear the dirty feet rumbling against the hard oak. The mother yanked at her son’s arm. “Come. Come,” she whispered. “We have to leave now. They’ll rip us apart.”

She coughed and spit onto the floor.

The boy could feel her phlegm ricochet against his arm.

In the darkness, he looked for his mother’s eyes. This must be what it’s like to be a mooneater, he thought. To search and search for that whiteness—for that light.

He stood still and stared toward the direction from which her words came. The boy could hear her. He could feel her hands pulling at his skin. He wanted to see her.

Her coughing continued. Now, worse than before.

She struggled to find air. Her breaths came rapidly and she fought and fought against herself until all that was left was a soft gurgle.

Then, just as she went quiet, the boy’s wish was granted. He could see his mother—his newly transformed mother.

One of the mooneaters stood before him, glowing like what he imagined the moon must’ve looked like.

Oh, how the stories of the old nighttime sky had thrilled him.

The stars.

The constellations.

Of course, the moon.

But, those small pleasures were gone from the boy’s world, and it was the mooneaters who had taken them.

The mother, covered in majestic white plumes, twirled in the air.

The boy watched in awe.

She whistled and chirped loudly, calling her son to follow her, and he did.

As she dived over one mooneater and tumbled below another, the boy did the same. The giant claws tore at his skin, and their fists pounded into his young skin. Their glowing, rotund bellies swayed in the place that he had always known as home.

His feet never stopped moving. Not even after they hit the grass.

He ran after his mother as she led him deep into the dark forest.

 

#

 

It was to end under a tree. It was what they wanted. They nestled in the darkness, mother and son, clinging to the belief that they could—no would—change. She had promised him. He had promised her. Both had remained true. They were determined to keep something, and their word was now the only thing left.

The howls came from behind them. The mooneaters would never stop.

The boy didn’t have any feathers. Not yet.

So, she did what any loving mother would do: she dived into him and knocked him onto the cold ground. Her sharp beak plunged into his skin. She flew up to the lowest branch and rested. Then, she flew into him again. He didn’t make a sound. The feathers were coming.

The mooneaters would be too late.


Bradley Sides is a writer and English instructor. His work appears at Electric Literature, Fiction Southeast, The Lit Pub, Literary Orphans, The Rumpus, Toasted Cheese, and elsewhere. He lives in Florence, Alabama, with his wife, and he is working on his first collection of short stories.

  • Ruth Asch

    Riveting, fantastic, painful and beautiful; this story will stay with me.

  • Nina

    Wonderful story! I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so moved by a piece of fiction. This one is so devastating but so beautiful.