Once upon a time, there was a mother, a father, a child, and the police.
MOTHER: Don’t lick your lips.
MOTHER: You’ll ruin your smile.
MOTHER: Your saliva is acidic.
CHILD: What is “acidic?”
MOTHER: A corrosive state.
CHILD: What is “corrosive?”
MOTHER: That which causes disintegration.
CHILD: What is “disintegration?”
MOTHER: The moment when that which is bonded falls apart.
CHILD: Tell me a story.
MOTHER: Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lit matches. She stole them you see, any way she could. She stole them from stores and she stole them from people. She stole them from beggars on the street and she stole them from her parents. She put her hands in the pockets of smokers, and when they looked down at her, she would stare back as she pulled out their matchsticks and struck one hard against the cement right before their bloodshot eyes. She lit them all day and all night, though she lived in a hot country, and the fire ate its way down to her fingertips which were blackened with ash. It was New Year’s eve when she stole the most matches, grabbed them right out of the grubby hands of little boys lighting fireworks in the street, lighting them not in her usual manner, but instead by running up to sparkling fountains of fire and sticking the heads into the glow. But the fires died down, the noises ceased, her parents were nowhere to be found. Perhaps they didn’t care.
The little girl, alone in the dark street with only a single box of matches left, takes one out and strikes it across a wall. Spark. A vision of light comes upon her, and standing there before her is another little girl, in a dress made of gold. The fire girl smiles and dances, opens her mouth to say something, but only the sound of crackling is heard. The matchstick burns out and the girl begins to fade, causing the match-lighting girl to panic and light another, then another. If only to watch this beautiful other girl for a brief moment longer. As she lights the matches, the girl transforms slowly, growing taller and more beautiful with every strike. The match-lighting girl realizes the fire girl is not only growing in size, she is growing older, and soon, she erupts into a perfect curve of breasts and hips. Suddenly a new golden shape blazes, a figure of a man. The fire man and the fire woman seem surprised to see one another, and what’s more, they’re delighted. The woman jumps on the man, she smothers herself on to him, coiling flaming leg around burning torso. Speedily, they dance around each other as the girl watches and strikes another stick against the wall. There is a burst of light, and then, the fire man is gone.
The woman looks confused. She stares at the girl, who is the only other moving thing in the dark of the new year. She says something that sounds like the hissing of water as it falls to a hot pan. The girl has gone through more than half the matches now, and the woman looks old enough to be her mother. She strikes another.
Slowly, the fire woman begins to shrink. At first it is unnoticeable, smoke rising off of her becoming gradually blacker and littered with specks of ash. It is not the girl who first notices but the woman, she stares as her hands grow dim right before her eyes. The girl keeps striking matches all the while. The fire woman takes a step toward the girl, and then another. The girl knows there are only so many matches left in the box. She will reach the end soon. As the fire woman approaches she grows hunched and potbellied, her breasts begin to sag toward the ground, her knees bend weakly. By the time the girl has only but one stick remaining, the fire woman looks like a caricature of some ancient grandmother figure, some witch living in a distant woods. The girl takes the stick in her hands and holds it up to the fire woman. The woman takes a deep breath. The girl strikes the match. Their eyes meet for the first time, and they see that the other is terrified. The fire woman blows on the match, and again, it is dark. The girl is alone.
FATHER: You know we adore you.
CHILD: Yes, daddy.
FATHER: We would do anything for you.
CHILD: Yes, daddy.
FATHER: You have to understand there are certain things we cannot explain.
CHILD: Yes, daddy.
FATHER: We cannot explain them to you, and we cannot even explain to ourselves.
CHILD: Yes, daddy.
FATHER: Will you shut the fuck up?
CHILD: Tell me a story.
FATHER: Once upon a time, there was a boy who told lies. He would tell lies to everyone he knew from his family, to his friends, to strangers passing by the settlement where he grew up. As with most occupations, liars become better at their craft the more they practice. Because the boy never once stopped to tell the truth, everyone believed him without a doubt. They believed him when he told them that the moon was a ball of cold pig fat and they believed him when he told them that radios were a species of alien that had integrated into human society in the late nineteen forties. It became so ludicrous that even his teachers believed him when he told them he had gotten a perfect mark instead of a failing one. All the while he, of course, knew that he was lying. It exhilarated him into his early adulthood but soon he grew tired of the townsfolk’s vapid stares of pure, unadulterated belief. He was sick of it. Time to tell a lie, he thought, to end all lies. One that would prove to them all that he was nothing but a filthy liar, who had been hoodwinking them since the day he was born. The thought of doing this excited him so because he was bored, and stupid, and kind of an asshole.
This is the lie he told them: “Tonight, when the pig fat sphere rises high in the sky, and the crickets start their war chants, a wolf will come from the northeastern hill, large as a garbage truck and gray as a storm, and swallow whole each and every citizen of the town. Except me, of course. I’m far too clever for that.”
There was much panic. Much crying. Much last will and testaments and other assorted pottering about. Not a single citizen thought to leave the town though. The boy who lied said as much, everyone but him was doomed. He came home that night to a deep embrace from his mother and father, who both extolled how proud they were of their boy and how lucky they were that at least their only son would survive the coming onslaught. The boy laughed. He went upstairs and took a shower, brushed his teeth, and paused for a moment at his bedroom window, which faced the northeastern hill. Standing erect atop the hill, the full moon rising in the backdrop, was the shadow of an enormous, gray wolf.
He watched mouth agape, as the wolf slowly strode into town. The beast deftly plucked people one by one from the safety of their homes with its shining teeth, threw them in the air, and swallowed them whole. It paused only once, directly in front of the boy’s window. An enormous brown eye stared into the the warped pane and said “No, far too clever for my tastes.” Then the wolf crouched down and the boy heard his mother’s scream.
When the morning came, the town was empty and the boy was alone. Who would feed him now? Who would listen to him when he told his marvellous lies? He knew he had to do something, but what could he do? He walked into one empty street and then another, on and on, the rustling of dead leaves underfoot being his only companion. The town has become a forest, thought the boy, and I didn’t even notice. He walked and he walked, northeast through the mud soaked grass and over the hill beneath which both the wolf and the moon had disappeared. Before long, he found himself in front of an enormous cave.
“Little boy,” said a voice from the dark, “Just because I cannot eat you does not mean I cannot tear you in half and leave you for the worms.”
The boy froze in fear. He had not thought to bring weapons or armor. His only defense was the one that came naturally.
“But why would you do that, mother?” He said.
“Mother?” said the wolf.
“Yes, it is I, your son.”
“Ah, yes. Welcome home,” said the wolf, though she did not sound convinced. Maybe the boy simply did not know what a convinced wolf sounded like.
He walked slowly into the cave and as his eyes adjusted to the total darkness he saw that the wolf was lying on her side. Her belly was swollen round as the moon.
“Come rub my stomach, child, and when I am less full we shall go hunting.”
The boy approached. He held his hands out gingerly.
“You know mother, there is a faster way for you to lose all that weight.”
“There is? Tell me more,” said the wolf.
“There is a zipper on your belly. When I pull on it, all the townsfolk will be freed.”
The boy swiftly ran into the wolf’s fur coat and grabbed and dragged at it, looking for the pull tab. Click. There it was, right above the wolf’s six breasts. The boy pulled and the wolf groaned. Out in one pop came a ball of limbs and surprised heads, the townsfolk, each and every last one still alive. They got themselves up off the floor and began to cheer at their good fortune. Then, someone began screaming again.
And the townsfolk did run, for chasing behind them then in that darkness were two monstrous animals, large as garbage trucks and gray as storms: a hungry wolf and the wolf’s son.
POLICE: What did your father tell you?
CHILD: He said, “Good night.”
POLICE: What did your mother tell you?
CHILD: She said, “I’m sorry.”
POLICE: What did you dream of that night?
CHILD: I dreamt I was on a slow boat gliding down a river of milk. The sun was shining and the man who was steering the boat told me we were soon coming to port. Then, the gunshots.
POLICE: What will you dream of tonight?
CHILD: I will dream of my parents.
POLICE: Do you want anything else from us?
CHILD: Tell me a story.
POLICE: Once upon a time there was a husband and wife who were granted three wishes. How they gained these wishes does not matter. They were granted three wishes and only three, and as it was not a happy marriage, as many marriages are not, they decided to divide the wishes in half exactly. One would go to him, the other to her, and the last would be something that they could split between the two them exactly. Let us say that they wasted the first two wishes on frivolous, stupid things which are unimportant to this narrative. Imagine that they both wished for golden donkeys, if that piques your favor. It is the third wish that matters.
The couple argued about what kind of wish they could make that could be split in half perfectly. Certainly, money was the obvious and easy answer. But their individual golden donkeys were already making them fortunes enough to last several lifetimes. The wife suggested that perhaps they should wish for the husband to have a larger penis, knowing that his erectile dysfunction made it so she only ever got half anyway. The husband had the idea that maybe they should wish for happiness, so that each of them could at least be halfway happy. The wife brought up fame, which meant that the two would both be mediocre D-List celebrities. The husband mentioned taste off-handedly, though the time had long since passed where better taste could have saved them from one another. One night the wife awoke from a nightmare and had a brilliant idea: they could wish for the child again.
Once upon a time, you see, the husband and the wife had had a child, a beautiful child who had died young due to an incurable disease. They had loved the child dearly and perhaps even loved one another dearly during that trying time. They weren’t always happy, but love and happiness do have so little in common. When the child finally succumbed to the illness, the husband and wife found themselves strangers to one another.
The husband was on board with the idea, checking all the clauses and clichés to see what could possibly go wrong. They would not wish for the child to come back to life. They would not wish to have another child like their first. They would not wish to travel back in time to when their child had still been alive. They would wish for the same child, again.
And so the child was born. A beautiful child.
“Half you and half me,” said the husband, or the wife. It does not matter.
They did love the child. Whether they grew to love one another again during this time is less certain. They did love the child, though, rest assured. For a time.
They played with it. They sang to it. They took it for walks in the park. They bought it everything from the new iPad to a college trust fund with their donkey money. They even thought to give it a name. “But it already has a name,” one of them corrected.
Then, one sunny day, the wife realized that the child was two years old. She dropped what she was holding and left the child on the changing table. She dashed into her husband’s office.
“The child is two,” she said.
“So?” he says.
“Our child was never two,” she said.
There was a long silence. Then the husband took the glass he was sipping from and carefully smashed it against a wall. He marched out of his office with his wife trailing behind him and right into the child’s room. It sat there staring at him, putting its feet in its mouth. The husband and wife took a good long look at it.
“You know,” said the wife, “I don’t think our child had that nose.”
“Are you sure?” said the husband, “I think the ears are a little off.”
“It certainly was never that pale.”
“Didn’t we used to say it had your eyes and not mine?”
“This isn’t the same child.”
“This isn’t the same child.”
For the next few years, the husband and wife grew wary around their child. They knew how these kinds of wishes played out, how it might come back to bite them in the end. Every time their child was out of earshot, they would whisper to one another about what might be wrong with it. They speculated it might be a devil. Or a changeling. Or a serial killer who simply looked exactly like a child. The child by all rights seemed to be an ordinary child. A beautiful child. This was what terrified them the most.
They didn’t sleep. They broke into constant fighting. They cheated on one another and developed gonorrhea and genital herpes, respectively. The husband began collecting guns and the wife began collecting little blue pills at the bottom of her purse. The first time the child tried to crawl into their bed after a nightmare and the wife promptly ejected herself from the room to vomit in the bathroom sink. The husband said something distractedly about it not being anyone’s fault, staring out the window at the golden donkeys grazing in the garden.
The husband and wife went to therapy. They went to Europe to find themselves. They went to the police. Still, they had no answers, and one day the child was no longer two. It was six or seven or something like that, who cares. It layed in bed that night staring with its hideously ordinary face and its bright, accusing eyes. It asked its mother to tell it a story. The wife smiled and said yes, of course. She began and she ended. It was a stupid story, about a prince who wished for true love and through fate was married soon after.
“But how did he know?” asked the child.
“How did he know what?” asked the wife.
“How did he know that his wish had been granted? What if it had yet to come?”
“If it had… yet to come,” repeated the wife.
“Yes,” said the child.
And the wife didn’t know, so she told the child she was sorry. The husband had been listening in on this exchange. The couple’s eyes caught one another in an estranged moment. He walked into the room and said good night and kissed him on the forehead.
The husband and wife looked at the child. They looked at one another. They walked hand-in-hand away from the closed door of their beautiful child’s bedroom, down the creaking stairs, past the kitchen and the glass casing of a mounted shotgun, out of the doorway, across the veranda and the garden where the golden donkeys slept standing up, through a great wood, and beyond into an illimitable darkness.
That night, the child had a dream.
MOTHER/FATHER: Tell me a story.
FATHER/MOTHER: No, you tell me a story.
MOTHER/FATHER: Once upon a time, we had a beautiful child–
FATHER/MOTHER: That story again?
MOTHER/FATHER: It is the only story.
FATHER/MOTHER: It is the wrong story.
MOTHER/FATHER: And we must keep telling it, until it is right.
RENO EVANGELISTA lives in Manila, in the Philippines. He has work in or incoming to Outlook Springs, Rose Red Review, and (b)Oink Zine among others.