The Mother’s Tale
You know this story, son. Or maybe you don’t. Either way, here it is again.
Down deep in the high desert, in a stretch of rough land deposited between the Sacramento Mountains and the radioactive white sands of the Tularosa Valley, there lived a poor family by the name of Prosper, who, on the first blue moon of the century, gave birth to a beautiful monster.
That’s you, Max.
Max, my monster. Unexpected, unwanted, and unloved—by your father and brothers, understand, not me. Never me. I loved you the moment your ignorant hunchback of a father climbed on top and planted you inside me, a tiny blossom of hope amid the ruin of my body. What’s the ancient saying? The world has another chance. So you gave me strength. Hope. And fear. Yes, fear. I feared your arrival, Max. Oh, you were a watermelon in my tummy, and for a woman without legs, well, you can imagine—I literally was a medicine ball with arms, torso, head. You kept dragging me off my wheelchair with all your kicking and tumbling and when you finally arrived—half a woman giving birth to a giant!—I wailed and cried and cursed, afraid you’d split me in half, destroy what was left of me.
And if I can be honest, please, allow me to be honest Max, I wanted a girl. Just to balance things out, you understand. But I’m so happy you lived my beautiful boy, Maximillion Prosper. I didn’t care how you looked.
Bulbous head, sourdough skin, silky gray hair. You lay awake in your crib at night, golden-green eyes wide as nuggets, conch shell ears sucking in the sounds of our nightmare desert—coyotes yipping in the poison foothills, nuclear sludge trains whistling on their way to Carlsbad, the dull hum of tests in the valley, the crackling of the Milky Way.
A monster boy for a monstrous world.
Your appetites proved monstrous, too. You sucked me dry and then drank raw milk from the family cow and ate chip steak with your vegetables. You grew into a brute. Shoulders broad as a plow, chest puffy with marbled meat, tree-trunk legs—all good for simple manual labor, but you also had an egg shaped head and a soft brain.
Without a sharp mind to take measurements and calculate weights, you were limited. So while your brothers dug root cellars, installed cisterns, built windmills, mended devil’s rope, forfeited the fallout shelter, and ran the purifier, the best you could do Max, was follow simple orders—dig ditches, haul buckets from the well, snap the necks of chickens, and drive the waste truck.
You remember the waste truck, don’t you my brave boy? The most dangerous job on the ranch. All the war scrap dumped on a flatbed and hauled out to the highway for the government spooks to collect, defuse, reuse, and recycle. A rolling cocktail of ex-explosives. Yes, we got tax credits for returning their weapons—land mines, tins of gas, barrels of sludge, rusty drones. If I’d still had my legs and decent eyesight, I’d have ridden shotgun or taken the wheel myself—you know this, Max. Your father and brothers? Bah, cowards! They sent you out each time, hoping you’d light up like a trinity mushroom.
Or, get eaten by the dead.
You’ll remember that wide carriage road rambled through the foothills past a cemetery, the yellow puss of waste seeping up through the crimson-black clay. In the eternal age of testing and fallout and atomic fairy dust, all our nightmares about the dead came true, and at least once a week, a corpse would finally collect the right dosage of atoms required for reanimation and claw its way to the surface. If they wandered out to the road, you’d just hit the gas and pummel them into pancakes. The truck was a clunker and there was always the danger of breaking down, but you could fix a tire quicker than most, and fire a shotgun even quicker. Plus, you stood as tall as a horse on its hind legs. The dead seemed afraid of you.
But there was also that deranged hermit who lived on Cobblers Knob (so named because the bowl shaped ridge looked like a giant shoehorn) the one who took potshots as you drove by. Rumor was he’d been a scientist who worked in the labs, driven mad by guilt and his own melted flesh. Another coward. The world is full of them, son.
I’m not sure why you lacked fear, Max. You were simple, not stupid. You knew in your heart life was dangerous, but you never worried. You didn’t even understand death. Sweet, dumb, death. Oh my innocent boy. The innocent die quickly out here, even in strong families like ours, so I knew I needed to teach you fear.
Do you remember the night I tried to explain? Two days after your father died, we sat at the edge of the Honda Arroyo in tattered lawn chairs and watched the sunset sink over the White Sands bombing range. A stealth bomber, no longer stealthy, droned across the turquoise horizon.
I struck a match on my left stump and said, “Do you see that bomber, Max?”
You gazed at the pitch-black triangle, barrel-rolling through the cumulous. “See it? Yes. I see it, Mother.”
“People are afraid of those planes. Those planes—that plane—carries bombs. Bombs make holes. In the earth and in us. People fear those planes.”
You screwed up your face and picked your nose. “It makes loud noises.”
“Yes,” I sighed, “and that noise is a signal to duck and cover.”
“But why fear?”
Oh my. How to explain? My stumps tingled. Phantom legs. I felt the urge to stand up and pace. I missed pacing. I used to pace and smoke and talk out my ideas that way. Now, I can only pace inside my head, a marble bouncing inside a tin can. Maddening.
So I tried using the great snake as an example. A mile out, in the maze of canyons, the brownish-white tip of our local mutant rattler flicked its tail. Sunlight bounced off its diamond skin. It had eaten a whole pack of coyotes the night before, so we were safe for another month or two, but we always kept a carload of eggs on hand, just in case.
“The snake,” I said. “The whole valley has been afraid of the snake since it crawled out of the earth. You know why we feed it?”
“So it doesn’t eat us.”
“Right. Do you remember the bad people who once tried to feed you to the snake?”
I shook my head. “You were so young. The snake hadn’t fed in months, and these desperate people almost threw you to him, but your brothers saved you. We fear the snake, but must also fear other people, Max. People mean harm, and you need to be able to sense it. You won’t be able to survive without a sense of fear.”
“Fear is a trade, mother?”
“It’s not trade, or a skill.”
“The way you talk it sounds like one.”
“You can learn it, yes, but-“
“Then I will learn, if you think it’s important.”
Our talk worked too well, and against my wishes, you left. Most people are scared to journey beyond their twenty-acres, but not you. You left to learn about fear.
But maybe I did you a favor. Fear would find you, and you would die. And dying would teach you, now wouldn’t it?
The Wild Woman of the Alkali Flats, as told to the Widow of Oppenville
Piss on that story. Hear it again I’ll cut off my ears. No. Check that. Done hurting myself. Cut out the tongue of the teller. Kill the messenger. Please tell me something new, sister. Everyone in the valley knows the goddamn story of The Boy.
Boys, boys, boys—so many stories about boys. Not like our valley don’t have questing beauties and scheming crones. How about that Mescalero girl who saved her people by embracing white technology and building a rocket to Mars? Ha! Love that one! Red Indians on the Red Planet! Or how about The Matron of Otra Lado who tore down The Wall, brick by brick, year by year, and reunited families as they crossed and re-crossed that line drawn in the sand by goofy men of The Past? Or The Lonely Widow of Oppenville, who carried magical seeds that restored fertility?
Oh. You’re the Widow, huh? No seeds? Bah, I knew that one had to be fifty-fifty. Oh well, my story is pretty good. How I survived in the salt flats all these years and built an aquifer network that saved the southeastern valley? Yes, that was me.
Yehah, maybe later. You’re on a mission, I can see. No sister, I won’t kill you if we talk about The Boy, that was dead talk. I’d never kill a woman. But why do we need to hear his story again? I know, I know, he was a little funny in the head. An innocent, not hardwired like the rest of these monkeys to stick their wicks up our yonis. I get it.
Oh, you’re hunting for parts of his story? I might have a piece. What can you trade? Ah, just kidding sister. For you, it’s free. Here it is: The Boy married the scientist’s daughter and lived happily ever after! Ha! You don’t buy that, do you? Neither do I! Just made it up! Or maybe I did hear it once. Can’t remember. No, that’s my piece. What do you have? The middle? Phew, nothing more useless than the middle of a story. A windmill without wind. Piss on middles! Pale, lumpy, flat, no idea what end is up or you where you started or how it ended.
Cobbler’s Knob? To the North. Follow the Malapais road. No, I won’t join you, damned if I’m humping around this wasteland looking for some scientist’s daughter. I’ll wait till it’s on the wind. Hear it eventually. But listen, storyteller, if you’re going to stay the night and gab, explain to me the fear factor. Does your fat middle have that much?
The stories say he set out to find fear. To me, that’s a sea of red flags and red herrings. (What’s a sea? A herring?! Oh sister.) Who the hell sets out to find fear? A) It’s not something you can find. B) Fear will find you, so why the fig go looking for it? Fear grows in your backyard, slithers in the arroyos. Only a man—a boy—would seek out fear. Women, we’re born into this new world afraid, and it serves us, protects us, gives us an invisible shell.
So let’s hear it. This should be good. Even if it’s a middle.
The Middle, According to the Widow of Oppenville
You’re right to be skeptical, sister, but The Boy did set out to find fear.
It’s more tangled than it sounds—here’s what my grandmother told me, as told to her by The Boy himself, so it might be slightly exaggerated. The Boy was an innocent, and the innocent have a great capacity for exaggeration.
We believe The Mother—her nickname in the valley—wanted him dead from the start. You could hear her screams in the foothills for days. Not just birthing screams, but post-partum rage. She’d wanted a girl, a breeder, a female vessel to keep the family line going. As it stood, her clan was all seed, no eggs. A vile equation, but that’s how desperate women think. Reduce everyone to sex organs. (Sometimes we’re not so different, sister) A third boy was useless enough, but a boy with a soft head? Dog meat.
So when her husband died, The Mother knew her time was up, no more chances. The hunchback was the only one on this earth that would rut with her. (Yehah, don’t say it. No doubt she thought about seducing a son) The family line was at an end, and she knew it.
The brothers hated The Boy, too. Just because. They once tried feeding him to the great serpent, but that didn’t work, so they made him drive the waste truck out to the government road, hoping that if the zombies didn’t get him than maybe the hermit on the Knob would blow a hole in his head. So The Boy was at risk of dying every week—again, no different than us, right sister? Somehow he survived his murderous family, and I imagine he knew, simple as he was, that if he didn’t leave soon he’d die.
Of all people, he asked his brothers to teach him about fear. So one day in late spring, with gray clouds hugging the mountains, they walked him out into deepest arroyo in the valley, where the sandstone cliffs stood at right angles, and told him to wait at the bottom. Fear would soon arrive, they said.
They surely thought the serpent would get him, but the fools didn’t count on the storm. It came on quick, as it does in that season.
Fat raindrops started to fall. The Boy didn’t mind. He loved the gift of water, since he saw so little of it all year. He stuck out his tongue. He washed his face in a puddle. The wind funneled down the arroyo, prickled the hair on his arm, brought the smells of burning cedar and coyote urine. Lightening flashed and the angels bowled ten-pins, cracking the sky open. The Boy chuckled. He knew what was coming. And there—a single rivulet of rainwater snaked towards him from the upper canyon, a dung colored stripe that collected dirt, seeds, and twigs, now joined by another glossy ribbon, then another, and another, and he began to play a game, see if he could outrun them, but soon a whole Medusa of ribbons slithered after him down the arroyo and he was running and laughing and hopping from rock to rock as the deluge of water snakes bore down and then melted together to form a wide wet tongue that rolled and slopped over the red dust. A slice of the canyon wall crumbled like pound cake and collapsed in a brown stew of rock and tumbleweed and coyote bones.
The Boy reached an overhang, where the arroyo dropped even deeper into the earth. Here, in this deep and narrow section, is where the residents of the valley, lacking a town dump, tossed all their bulky trash—tires and hubcaps, Geiger counters and ham radios, rusty bikes and defused warheads. The Boy leapt from the overhang and landed on an old gas stove, just as a cascade of water shot over the cliff behind him. The water bubbled and frothed. The stove shifted and bumped against a fridge against a bed spring against a washer and dryer—soon the whole mess began to float and bob down the canyon, the water level rising and rising until The Boy could peek over the lip and see his home fading in the distance.
As the water bled south, it collected more trash—air conditioners, cattle grates, oil tanks, windmills, feeding troughs, horse bridals, plush sofas and cane chairs, box-spring mattresses, and, best of all, an old Chevy convertible with a death spear welded to the hood. The Boy leapt off his stove and dropped behind the wheel of the Chevy and steered it to the crest of the junk wave. The storm raged directly above him now, a pulsing gray magnet pulling him onward, sideways sheets of white water soaking his vision as he hooted and slapped the dashboard.
“Faster!” he cried. “Faster! Faster!”
A diamond back rattlesnake, which had made its home in the glove compartment, crawled out and tried to strike him but he grabbed it by the head and tossed it on the hood, where the reptile curled around the death spear and held on for dear life. The Boy howled as the car cruised through a tunnel of cottonwoods and pitch-pine forest, dried-up lava fields. They tore up a media-mogul’s ostrich farm and an ancient pioneer graveyard—ostrich eggs, splintered coffins, faded tombstones, femurs and ribs clattered into the cab of the Chevy.
Finally, the rains tapered and the wave hissed into a shallow floodplain, leaving a trash-strewn trail. The Chevy bumped and creaked on the dregs of the flood and finally ran dry outside my grandmother’s church.
She remembers the moment well. Sunday service had just let out and here came this laughing brute of a man, soaked to the bone, a valley’s worth of junk heaped around him, and he stepped out of the car, soggy boots and muddy overalls, and his first words were, “I’ve come to learn about fear.”
People laughed, but the padre saw a fool that needed molding. He made it his mission to teach The Boy fear. First, he walked him into the church, showed him the bearded and bloody man nailed to a wooden cross, and said, “This man’s Father. He is the one we all fear. Someday He will return. We fear that day and long for it. You should fear Him.”
I know, sister. Bear with me. The bloody man on the cross and the wretched father who sacrificed him so others could live—an old, dangerous fairy tale. Always pockets of believers who buy into this ultimate happy ending of the afterlife, but you follow the thread, yehah? Fear. It was a fairy tale based in fear. The Padre thought it would teach him. The boy lived with my grandmother and her people, and he saw every week how they cowered and trembled and quaked on the wooden benches in the shadow of this bloody man on the cross, how they wailed and screamed and begged forgiveness.
But he learned nothing, just grew more confused.
So every night The Padre read The Book to The Boy, hoping to scare him with its stories of incest and murder and multi-headed beasts, but the boy laughed at the scary bits and was confused by the repetition. After services, they walked out to the floodplain, where criminals had been nailed to crosses and drowned. From a distance, they watched a cousin of the great serpent carve a new arroyo and consume a whole village of screaming sinners. Padre showed him the breeding ground of the great cats, which had multiplied and now once again stalked humans, he showed him the slime trails of unknown monsters born in the New Sun. But none of it worked. Finally, at his wits end, he took The Boy to The Sun Tower, where men created the New Sun, where all fear was born.
This is where my piece ends, sister. I don’t know what happened in the Tower that night, but the Padre is dead, I know that much, and the boy kept wandering. He may have run into the Alamogordo Posse, since their bodies have been discovered. But until I find his wife, or him, I won’t know the rest.
The Scientist’s Daughter, as told to The Boy and the Widow
Rumors floated North. A giant man-child stomping out of the testing fields, glowing yellow (not green, like an old legend) and streaked with burns. They said he’d slaughtered the Alamogordo Posse, which I didn’t believe for a minute. Valley folk—mutants and breeders alike—know to take shelter when the Posse rolled into town. The Posse roll over for nobody—even if they don’t kill you, they’ll make you a catamite or worse. So the idea that one man—a boy!—took them out, it just seemed impossible. But we live in impossible times, don’t we sister? The story I heard said he’d actually been sitting in The Sun Tower, waiting for them, and when they climbed up to get him that he ripped them apart with his bare hands and then bowled with their skulls and stretched their skins out for a tent. Horrible!
He sounded worse than the Posse, if that’s possible. Inhumanly strong. No need for weapons. A beastly boy. I also heard that he’d hunted and killed the big cats, that he’d tamed the great serpent, and that he was walking north on the Malapais road, heading for us, killing everything in his path without mercy.
But the myth was just you Max, you big dummy.
I’m sorry, honey. Forgive me. But you are huge, and a little slow, (in the best possible way!) Right? Okay. It still amazes me how you don’t know your own story, or what it means, and how everyone needs to keep telling it to you. You’re a hero without ego, a man minus the mythology. But also an innocent with blood on his hands. Did you really kill that preacher? No? People say you did. An accident? You both stayed in the Sun Tower? Why? How did you survive? And the Posse? Is this true, too? They deserved to die, but mehow, their skulls? Really? You bowled with them? Well, your size is what saved you. Trouble bounces off you like pebbles tossed at a tank. But listen, the one part of your story you really need to understand is the beginning.
Your crazy bitch of a mother—she lied to you. Surprised?
A jealous one, your mother. Jealous of me. She thought I was the most beautiful woman in the valley, which just meant I still had legs. Anyone—anything—that walked was lovely to her. I was missing so many other parts of myself—a pinkie, a breast, a few inches of intestine—but those I could hide under clothes, and I’d taken care of my face, protected it from sand and sun, so by the valley’s mutant standard, yehah, I was a catch. But your mother, when she learned of me, she saw a freak of nature—but also a way to keep her family going. She wanted to steal me.
Cruel trick of this new world—I’m the most eligible woman in the valley and all the men are mutant meat puppets with rotting limbs and radiated dongs.
Your family grew up in the shadow of mine, Max. Literally. Cobbler’s Knob overlooks your homestead. High up we could see anyone coming. We also had the graveyard encircling us, a poison ringworm of the dead. Nobody with any sense walks through graveyards. The radioactive zombies can hear your footsteps, and up they crawl to drag you down. The only safe way to the top of the Knob is Shoelace Ridge, a winding single-track of crumbling sandstone and natural bridges. You’ve got to be half-mountain goat to scramble over all that loose scree and boulders the size of dinosaur eggs. Hard enough for a bi-ped with two strong limbs, so your legless cunt of a mother sure as shit couldn’t reach us. Or her coward sons.
Yes, my father tried to put a bullet in your head every time you drove by in the waste truck. He did it out of fear and anger, but those emotions keep you alive in the new age, and there was a lot to be afraid of. Your family, especially.
That truck you drove Max, the stuff you returned to the government—my father was afraid the feds would turn it back against valley. You were too dumb (sorry, innocent) to know that. But your family, oh they knew. Tax breaks for vengeful mutants. Money for murder. And my father felt justified in trying to stop you, cause he’d been a piston in the machine, too—a machine that everyone worked inside without knowing the outside was planning our end. All innocent, all guilty. That’s how I see it. The fathers of the 1st sun are long dead, and now we, their bastard brood, we’re all just punishing each other for their sins.
So your family, you understand, was evil. Except you, Max, as it turns out. But back then, you were just a dot in the cab of the truck. We didn’t know.
And one day the truck stopped coming. We worried your family had something up its sleeve, but two months went by, so we figured they’d finally killed you. We kept on keeping on, as a poet once said, shooting the dead and praying for rain. I so wanted to leave the Knob. We hadn’t left in years. The ridge and Knob were my whole world. I was like an albatross living in air.
Then, after father died, I started making forays. I got adept at rappelling The Shoelace. I improved my system of retractable chutes and ladders. I built up the muscles in my shoulders and legs so I could vault, run, jump, tumble. On the ground, I hunted roadrunners, marmots, lizards, jackrabbits. I got good at sniffing out the dead and the living. My nose knew every scent of man—semen, sweat, fear. I killed a lot of men. To be a woman in this world is to have killed men. It’s become normal to chop and slice and punish these apes. I almost pity them, reduced to such primal urges. So when I heard the rumors and finally saw you trudging north on the Malapais, a hazy bubble, I hid behind a slab of obsidian and raised my gun.
So yehah, I almost shot you, husband. But your eyes. Your eyes caught me. Eyes of a child. A lost child. And then I recognized you. You’d collected some years, lost some hair, but you were the boy I’d always seen in my binoculars, behind the wheel, fearless and alone.
I couldn’t believe you were alive and right away I wanted to protect you. Ironic—me wanting to protect a man. But it had been so long since I could trust someone. I won’t call what happened love. I didn’t fall for you. I just saw an opportunity. Protection and partnership. That’s what drives people now. Safety. Not love. Pragmatic serotonin.
I brought you back to the Knob. You were a natural climber. I don’t think you even realized you were home until we glassed the valley and I pointed out your family’s ranch.
Yehah, your mother always wanted to get rid of you. Foolish. Anyone could see you’re the perfect man for these times. Fearless. Simple. Easy to lead by the nose. And full of love, not hate. If you’ve got no fear, you naturally love everyone until they try to cut you. And if they try to cut you, then you kill, right? So yehah, why wouldn’t you think that you mother loved you? You’ve heard from the Widow how she screamed in rage after your birth? Well, she screamed even louder the day you returned. Funny, how a mother who wanted to kill her own son tried to teach him about fear. Maybe it was her own twisted logic, her way of trying to warn you about her.
Or maybe she knew you’d always return to extract judgment.
The Boy, in his own words, as remembered by his wife.
Mother, I’m home, it’s Max. Remember me? I’ve had an adventure. No, I didn’t find fear. Don’t cry now, Mother, why are you crying? No, I still don’t know what fear is, but I know rage and bitterness and anger and I know people meant to hurt me. Like you, Mother. You meant to hurt me. Don’t lie. Yes, from the beginning. This is what my wife tells me.
Oh yes, I have a wife now, Mother, the most beautiful woman in the valley. Her father was a scientist. Here she is.
Stop crying, Mother, stop screaming, stop now. Why are you pointing at her legs? Don’t call for my brothers, I snapped their necks. Don’t struggle or my wife will shoot you.
A story? Your side? If you want, I suppose, yes, we’ll both listen. Go on.
Hmmm. I remember you and I sitting outside and watching the bomber. Yes, but why do you keep saying that strangers tried to feed me to the snake. I know it was my brothers. Why do you lie? And the waste truck? Oh no. You wanted me to die, Mother, my wife has explained this to me. She says you are evil, that our family did horrible things to other people. I’m sorry, Mother. No. Your story is done now.
Please, don’t scream, it’s very loud. Here. I’m going to pick you up. Don’t bite me. Okay, up we go.
The Scientist’s Daughter, as told to the Widow
The Mother, she’d been hoarding unicorn root. I knew she’d been cultivating the seeds and selling them on the black market to desperate women and families. Fertility should be available to everyone. One more crime she was guilty of.
My husband knew what needed doing. I’d told him everything. He knew about her crimes, not just against him, but others in the valley. We agreed to execute her, but it was his idea to feed her to the snake.
I was afraid at how cool and collected he was. Machine like. I could see how he’d make a good solider. A man without fear is a man without empathy, but he did kiss her on the forehead (forgiveness?) before throwing into her into the arroyo. She crawled around in the red dust, helpless, a fly stuck in a web, as the snake slithered his way down the canyon. Easy pickings. He slurped her up, swallowed her whole. We watched the lump slide down his gullet, the twigs of her arms pushing against his leathery skin. She was still alive. I could hear her screaming. (I still do, in my dreams) A quick bullet to the head? Yehah, more merciful, but bullets are expensive and this world demands cruel justice. The wicked must die wicked deaths.
But thank mehow my husband cried after. At least he knew sadness.
The Boy, one last time, as told to his wife many years later.
You hated me for a long time, remember? There was something you wanted me to be, but I didn’t know what it was. You got more angry the more you tried to explain to me what we needed to do, and you said you would teach me, but I was sick of people teaching me things, or trying to teach me, but you said it was important for the future. You shook the unicorn seeds at me and said, “I haven’t swallowed these for nothing!”
You said you’d been trapped up there on The Knob, so you had much to learn too. You said that we could learn together.
I was sweating buckets when you led me to the bedroom and took off my clothes off and kissed and rubbed me all over. Then you grabbed me down there and I almost snapped your neck, but you pulled and tugged and slathered me in juice and it felt not bad and I let you keep going, but then you lay me down and my heart galloped because now this was the moment when you’d slit my throat, but you moaned and told me to just relax, and you said again you hadn’t done this ever before either, that it was okay, and I struggled, I didn’t want it, but then you grabbed it and stuck me inside you and screamed and I thought why oh why would she hurt herself like that, but then you rocked back and forth and held me down and kept me inside you and my vision exploded and I felt like a rocket ship taking off, and my heart galloped faster and faster and I shivered and trembled and kept exploding.
And you bled, so I did hurt you, and for the first time I shivered at the sight of blood, but you cried and laughed and said it was okay, that we could do it again and you wouldn’t bleed, and so after all my adventures, after riding that flood and killing that Posse and killing those cats and surviving the walk North and killing my evil family, after all that, here, in this soft bed, is where I finally learned. And do you remember what I said?
Now I know, dear wife, just what fear is.