Though She Be But Little
By C.S.E. Cooney
Emma Anne had a tin can attached by a string to her belt. Lots of things on strings bounced and banged from it: some useful (like the pocket knife), some decorative (a length of red ribbon longer than herself, looped up), some that simply seemed interesting enough to warrant a permanent yo-yoing to her person (a silver hand bell, a long blue plume, the cameo of an elephant head wearing a Victorian bonnet).
“Emma Anne’s Heavy Weight Stacked Plate Championship Wrestling Belt,” Captain Howard called it. Captain Howard often capitalized the first letters of words she spoke out loud.
The belt was leather and embossed bronze, like a python wrapped twice about Emma Anne’s torso. It had appeared along with Captious and Bumptious the night the sky turned silver. So had the tin can. They were all part of Emma Anne’s endowments. (“Endowments” was the pirate word for objects or traits materializing Post-Argentum. “Post-Argentum,” another phrase of their design. Pirates had words for everything. But pirates were liars.)
Emma Anne hadn’t known how to use any of her endowments at first. Nothing was obvious until it was.
She brought the tin can up to her mouth and spoke into its cavity as clearly as she could. Endowments obeyed intent.
“Emma Anne to Margaret Howard. Come in please, Captain Howard.”
Captain Margaret Howard, Way Pirate of Route 1, did not deal in tin cans. What she had was her parrot, George Sand. George Sand got reception.
“Rrrawk,” Emma Anne’s tin can blatted back at her. “Whaddya want?”
“What do you want, over,” Emma Anne corrected.
She wouldn’t have corrected Captain Howard to her face, but George Sand never failed to get on Emma’s nerves.
“Rrrawk! Take it and rrawk yourself,” said George Sand. “Over.”
There was a pause while Emma Anne’s chest tightened.
The tin can blatted: “Cap’n Howard makes her apologies for her rude bird, over. Please continue, kid, over.”
She took a deep breath and decided not, after all, to cry.
“Captain, I’ve had a second visitation. It’s the Loping Man for sure. I think he’s coming for me tonight. Can you please meet me at Potter Hill preserve? He’s been showing up around eight o’ clock, so if you could come before that, I’d be really . . . But I understand if you’ll be out, out . . .”
Emma Anne knew the word she wanted to say, or knew that she had known it not too long ago. It dissolved at the back of her throat like a Vitamin C tablet. Left a tang.
George Sand provided.
“Carousing!” it squawked. “Roistering. Wassailing. Possibly pillaging. Pirate Banquet tonight up at The Grill. Starts at seven. Mandatory.” Another pause, wherein (Emma Anne surmised) Captain Howard related something to her parrot even it would not repeat. “Er . . . over.”
“Bye,” said Emma Anne in a much smaller voice. She let the tin can fall. It bonged hollowly against her knee.
Captious sighed. “Well. That went about the way we thought.”
Bumptious let out a gentle “Oof” as Emma Anne flopped against his head. Being composed of fake fur and synthetic fiber batting, he was barely fazed by Emma Anne’s constant, casual assaults upon his person.
“Margo Howard’s not reliable,” said Bumptious. “She used to be, before the sky turned silver. Remember how she organized the book club? Volunteered for every church committee? She made loads as an X-ray tech, too, Emma Anne, and always so modest not to mention it. But she did have one of those halfie cars that ran on lightning as well as gas, and you know they didn’t come cheap.”
“Electricity,” Emma Anne murmured to herself, to make sure she remembered it. It was hard to think, with the Loping Man looming close as nighttime. “Hybrid. Hybrid cars.”
“She sure ain’t modest now,” Captious observed. Captious was a weasel, stuffed, like Bumptious, about a third his size. Like Bumptious, occasionally sentient. “And who needs cars anyway, when you got a big old flying alligator for an endowment? Eats prisoners for fuel, all the parts. Very sustainable.”
“What if you run out of prisoners?” Bumptious countered. His orange eyes glinted. They were made of that hard, cool plastic that looks and feels like glass. Emma Anne liked to tap on it with her fingernails when Bumptious was asleep. “At the rate she goes through prisoners . . .”
“Eh, they probably beg her to throw ’em to the alligator once she’s had her way with ’em . . .”
“You don’t know her!” Emma Anne yelled, pushing them both away. Bumptious tumbled onto his back, legs sticking straight up. His tail hung limp. He had no stripes on his belly. “You don’t know her now, and you didn’t know her then. Or me. You weren’t there! Stop pretending you were!”
A short, messy scrabble took her from her nest of bricks at the bottom of the old smokestack where she slept, and right to the ledge. From there, careless of her knees, she jumped down into the green and golden wilderness of the overgrown lot where the smokestack stood.
At her intrusion, the insect orchestra encountered a fermata. But when she made no further rash movement, it started up again, pianoforte. Emma Anne stood still, legs itching, staring blankly into the heady, dying afternoon.
Mugwort grew up all around her, higher than her shoulders and fragrant as chrysanthemums, leafy underbellies a play of silver and white. Tall, tumbleweedish sweet clover, with seeds that smelled of vanilla, tangled up with spotted knapweed, then trailed off into plumy golden rod, floating foxtail grass, haughty towers of purple asters.
Emma Anne might turn left and wend her way to Mill Town. She might turn right and sit meditatively on the bank of the Pawcatuck.
There were paths through this place, but you had to know where to step. Roads embroidered the old Potter Hill preserve dating from 1911 when the mill had first been built, with its water wheel and red brick textile factories. A hundred years later, the Preservation Trust had reclaimed the preserve as a historic site and walking park.
When the sky turned silver, Potter Hill became . . . Something else. Just like everything.
She craned her head over her shoulder, glancing back at the smokestack. The entrance to her hideaway was too high to climb to without assistance from the three-legged chair haphazardly stashed in a nearby bush. Both Captious and Bumptious had poked their noses out of the hole to stare at her with their plastic eyes. They never moved when she was looking.
“You really ought to take us with you,” advised Captious with a look of cunning. “You know the Loping Man is lurking.”
“What can you do?” Emma Anne asked.
“Protect you!” Bumptious asserted stoutly. He was good at assertion.
Emma Anne ignored him. “Anyway. He won’t be around right now. The Loping Man’s not into daylight hours. He’s more crap . . .” She paused. The word she wanted was vanishing at the edges. “Crap . . .”
“Craptastic?” guessed Captious.
“No, creep . . . Crep . . .”
“Creepissimo? Creepilicious! Creepo-mijito?”
“No! Stop! I know it . . . It’s . . . He’s . . . He’s crepuscular!” She paused, grinning. “You know . . . Like deer? And rabbits?”
Weasel and tiger stared as only stuffed animals can stare. They often chose to desert their sentience as a kind of consequence whenever they thought Emma Anne was getting above herself.
Though they were her closest companions, though they comforted her through thunderstorm and famine, she did not trust them. Endowments could take you over if you weren’t careful. If you didn’t try to remember all the time that you hadn’t always been what you’d become.
Take for instance Mrs. Emma A. Santiago, Navy widow, age sixty-five.
When the sky turned silver, Mrs. Emma A. Santiago woke up Emma Anne, eight years old in her jimjams and Velcro sneakers. One belt, one tin can on string, two stuffed toys the richer. Sans house, sans car, sans monthly Bunco night with her girlfriends of forty years, sans everything.
(The Bunco Gals had all been turned into the Chihuahua Ladies, who tottered around Mill Town on red high heels that were fused with the flesh of their ankles. Their necks were long and smooth, covered in fawn-colored fur, their heads tiny and large-eyed, with long ears that twitched at the slightest sound. They traveled in a pack of twelve, furry necks writhing like pythons, and yapped whenever they saw Emma Anne. She avoided them — and Mill Town — until her supplies went from meager to mere rearrangements of empty jars and boxes.)
Captain Margaret Howard said the silver sky had come to turn people into what they really are. She said this as fact, the way pirates say things.
Emma Anne wasn’t sure. But she did remember thinking, in her old life, that she’d never succeeded very well at feeling grown up, that the achievement of adulthood had seemed a series of accidents covered by pretense. She had feared dying not for death’s sake but because of the malingering notion that she’d missed several key milestones in life.
She wondered, if given the choice, she’d’ve chosen death over this perpetual childhood. She had never wondered enough to put it to the test. Yet.
In all likelihood, she wouldn’t need to. Death might come (indeed, tonight would come, as sure as gators fly) in the form of the Loping Man, and she, a child alone in the wilderness, powerless to stop him.
It was barely six when Captain Howard came to Potter Hill. This late in the autumn, that made it almost full twilight. But Captain Howard was a one-woman bonfire and lit up the overgrown lot as she glided into it.
Her vest was scarlet with golden frogs and golden tassels. It swept to her knees. The vest, though idiosyncratic, was not an endowment. Captain Howard had “pilfered” it from the Mill Town Theatre, which had not, for whatever reason, changed into anything other than itself when the sky turned silver. She wore a blunderbuss at her right hip and a cutlass at her left — they’d appeared under her pillow and in her shower respectively, just Post-Argentum, where she couldn’t miss them. (Change occurred more rapidly after that. Returning, bewildered, from a walk around what had been her neighborhood that first morning, Margaret Howard had discovered her home had become a kind of grotto, complete with the sound of sea waves crashing in the distance and a thin green veil of damp on the granite walls, and all the sofas changed to sofa-shaped mounds of ingots and goblets and pearls and things.)
In that offhand brazen way she had, Captain Howard shouted, “Ahoy, Matey!” and leaning over her saddle, dumped the contents of a large greasy paper bag labeled “The Grill” onto the designated “stoop” of Emma Anne’s smokestack. Such riches tumbled out! Biscuits sogged in gravy, a roasted turkey leg, two twice-baked potatoes wrapped in foil, corn on the cob — salted and buttered — a flask of hard cider.
Emma Anne stared. From food to Captain. From Captain to food.
“Oh . . . well!” said Captain Howard, interpreting this look. “So I Dropped in on The Grill on My Way here for maybe Five Minutes while the Caterers were, you know, Catering. Picked up a Few Things. Purrrloined them, you might say,” she added, with great relish. She tended to roll her r’s at her most piratical.
“Scoundrel!” George Sand squawked from her shoulder. “Brigand! Bandit! Thief!”
The Way Pirate of Route 1 bowed with the falsest of modesties from her seat on the back of her flying alligator.
The alligator, named H. M. S., hovered gently at the mouth of the smokestack. She could maintain a hover for hours, maybe days. She didn’t have wings or need ballast; just . . . she seemed to prefer air to land. Margaret Howard had found H. M. S. sunbathing on her rooftop one morning Post-Argentum. After that, she didn’t miss her Prius.
Floating before the entrance like that, Captain and gator blocked out most of the dusk. Emma Anne was comfortable in that dark. She liked that her smokestack was too small to fit people like Captain Howard and H. M. S. That meant her smokestack was safe. The surface area allowed for a maximum occupancy of herself, Captious, Bumptious, and a few supplies. On the vertical, it was occupied by a small bat colony that benevolently kept Emma Anne malaria-free by consuming a brute majority of the local mosquito population.
“Anyway, Kid,” continued Captain Howard at her airiest. “Just thought you might be Hungry. Eat!”
Emma Anne hastily swallowed a gobful of cheesy potato, but not before she politely thanked Captain Howard for dinner. It had been a generous gesture. Nor had it been, Emma Anne believed, the pirate in Captain Howard who did it; it was an act of pure Margo, her friend from before. The one who’d started the book club and ran bake sale fundraisers for any shaggy cause that came begging. Margo’d done good works and well, not seeming to care if the tasks proved thankless or less than successful. Margo had not been a Bunco Gal. “I’ll donate my ten bucks a month to UNICEF, thanks,” she said the first few times Emma Anne had invited her, until Emma Anne stopped inviting her.
But by now, Margo was mostly the Way Pirate of Route 1, and it was best to mind your manners around her.
Captain Howard pooh-poohed Emma Anne’s gratitude with a negligent hand motion. She had perfected a certain flick of the wrist that sent her cuff-lace frothing over the warm brown elegance of her wrist. Her hair was a bundle of ropy black braids, atop which perched a scarlet tricorne like a caravel.
“So, you’ve seen your Gentleman Caller again, have you?” she asked. “That’s, what, Twice now you said?”
Emma Anne gagged, spat up neatly in a napkin. “Yes, Captain. Twice. Last night was, was the second time.”
“Hmn. You know what They Say Happens on the Third Night?”
“Yes. He . . . That’s why I called you.”
The first night you see the Loping Man, it is clear you have come to his attention. He stands for hours, at a distance, peering and peering. If you try to sneak away, he’ll follow, always just in sight.
On the second night, the Loping Man comes closer. Close enough that you can see his lips writhing, stretching, puckering, smacking, working. He is close enough that the sound of his chewing eats at your ears.
On the third night . . .
On the third night, the Loping Man, he’ll throw you onto his shoulders and he’ll run with you. Run and run and run and run. You’ll die up there; he’ll run so long, you’ll starve and die. Or die of fright. And you’ll turn to bones, which will clatter against the bones of all the other children he’s taken, which drape his neck and chest like handcrafted bamboo and coconut wind chimes.
How Emma Anne understood all this, never having met the Loping Man face to face — or indeed any children other than her own self — she did not know. It was as if she’d always known the legend of the Loping Man, ever since the sky turned silver. A story she’d been born into.
“When he walks,” Emma Anne whispered, “his knees come up to touch his ears. His mouth is awful. He — he’s worse than anything in Mill Town.”
Captain Howard, who fancied herself a fairly creditable contestant in Mill Town’s pool of Big Bads, looked affronted. “How So?”
“I don’t think . . . I don’t think he’s from here. I don’t think he ever was.”
“Ah.” Captain Howard cleared her throat. She toyed nervously with one of her gold-worked buttonholes. “How on Earth — if you’ll Pardon the Archaic Expression — can you even Tell anymore?”
“I just can.” Emma Anne scooted a little closer to the mouth of the smokestack, trying to peer into Captain Howard’s shadowed eyes. “The Loping Man’s like the endowments. Like H. M. S. and Captious and Bumptious. They came after. They’re not made from anything that was before. I mean, even George Sand was your ugly French bulldog before it was your parrot.”
“Georgie was Never Ugly!”
“It farted all the time, Margo. It had bad breath.”
“She was an Old Dog.”
“It’s a pretty ugly parrot too.”
“I can’t believe I stole dinner for you, Santiago!”
They glared at each other. Suddenly it was as if Emma Anne weren’t eight and Margo Howard weren’t a pirate. And they were friends again and could speak as friends.
Bumptious began growling. Captious started up a wheeze. H. M. S., gently, buoyantly, turned her face so that one yellow eye shone like a lamp into Emma Anne’s dark space.
Captain Howard cleared her throat. “Look, uh, I can’t stay much longer, Emma Anne. They’re expecting me at The Grill. We’re electing a Pirate King tonight after the Banquet, and I have to be there. I just stopped by to — well. Anyway. Good luck with the Loping Man and all. I thought maybe I’d lend you my . . .”
She patted first her right hip, then her left, as if debating whether to part with cutlass or blunderbuss. Her hands trembled. Emma Anne understood. It would be the same for her if she tried to give up Captious or Bumptious.
Finally, Captain Howard’s hands fell, heavy and still, to rest on her thighs. Nothing more to say. Emma Anne bit her bottom lip so hard her teeth almost went through.
“I get it, okay? But I had to, to call. You’re the only grown-up I know.” Captain Howard was, Emma Anne reflected gloomily, the only anyone she knew. If you didn’t include the Chihuahua Ladies, whose long necks and tiny teeth scared her.
Sighing, shaking her head, Captain Howard groaned, “Oh, Emma Anne! I can’t help you. Don’t you see? It’s nothing to do with the Banquet really. It’s that . . . You’re my Feral Child. All Pirates have one eventually. We’ll have to fight a Duel to the Death one day and Only One will survive. If that. We’re Natural Enemies.”
“And yet you keeping feeding me.”
Captain Howard took off her hat and fanned her face with it. She looked guilty. Emma Anne couldn’t tell if it was pretend guilt or spontaneous disclosure. She muttered, “It’s your fault for being so damned skinny. How can I fight a Duel with a Scarecrow? Not sporting.”
“How can you fight a duel with a corpse?”
Again they exchanged glares, so nearly friends they almost hated each other.
Emma Anne broke first. She pulled her knees up under her chin and set her forehead between them.
“Go away. Just go away. I don’t need you. I don’t care.”
Captain Howard’s hand reached into the smokestack to squeeze Emma Anne’s shoulder. In a low, urgent voice, almost as if she were trying to speak so that H. M. S. and the stuffed animals could not hear, she said, “You’re my Doom, Emma Anne. That’s clear as the Silver Sky. But your Doom is the Loping Man. I think that means you’ve been given the tools to face him. You’ve had them all along. That’s all I know.”
Emma Anne jerked her shoulder away. “I have a tin can. I used it to call you. You can’t help me. You just said.”
Captain Howard stiffened. “Aye, then. That’s what I said.” She slapped the tricorne back onto her braids. “A Rrrright Rrrrascal I be, me hearty,” she added with bitter jocularity, leaning forward in her saddle to press her whole body’s weight against H. M. S.’s head. Endowments respond to intent, but alligators respond to pressure. Captain Howard used both in spades.
They flew off into the twilight, outlined in new stars, making sensuous S curves all the way back to Route 1.
The Loping Man came by moonlight. He must always come by moonlight. The first thing you see, far off across the overgrown lot, is the dull, radioactive glow of the bones draped all about him. But before that, you hear the chewing. It is louder than the soughing of knapweed and mugwort, louder than the night sigh of spear grass, and it is awful.
Emma Anne heard it. That sound shrank the horizonless prairieland of her daytime domain to its exact dimensions: ninety-four feet long by fifty feet wide. She saw the green glow, and saw it grow, and scuttled back against the far wall of her smokestack, clutching Captious and Bumptious close to her.
Captious hissed, “Stop breathing!”
Emma Anne smashed a hand over her nose and mouth, and reduced herself to an airless heartbeat. Only a hearth-shaped patch of outside was visible to her strained eyes, moon-soaked to a depth-defying gray. The insect orchestra had shivered to a hush at the Loping Man’s excruciating progress.
He moved as slowly as the hour hand of a clock so long as you held your breath. The moment you gasped, he would tick forward at second hand speed, like a roach when you turn on the lights.
In the blackness of the flue, Emma Anne could not see Bumptious squashed in her lap, only feel the long, silent reverberation that was not a purr. Captious was quiescent in her fist.
The hesitant SHSHSHing as the Loping Man rustled forward. The distinctive CRIIIICK as he lifted his long folded forelimbs right up to his ears. The curt staccato TOCK as his feet touched down. The long silences between while he waited, daring her to inhale.
Soon, he was close enough that Emma Anne’s spotted vision caught the movement of his mandibles as he chewed. The endowments on her belt trembled and danced on their strings like a mobile in a windstorm.
SHSHSH, CRIIICK, TOCK.
He had the benevolent face of a mantis: prophetic, wizened, gray-green, vaguely worried. His compound eyes were mournful, fixed on Emma Anne’s face.
Alas! Breath burst upon her. Despair poisoned the sweet night air as it filled her lungs, and he was too close — right-outside-her-smokestack-close — his-head-level-with-her-hearth-close — and she had seen him neither lope nor leap, nor heard the final TOCK of his step. She wondered if her own heartbeat had out-slammed it. Green bones loosely wound him, like the Mardi Gras beads and feather boas that the Chihuahua Ladies née Bunco Gals wore, even now, traveling in their pack of twelve.
Where are they now? thought Emma Anne, and began to cry.
Bunco Gals needed only twelve to make up their tables evenly. Four to a table, partners sitting across from each other. Each gal shelled ten bucks into the pot, making a tidy pile for the end of the night, when both winners and losers trotted away with a fistful of swag — some amounts more nominal than others — and only the mediocre players leaving empty-handed.
Emma Anne had always been the thirteenth Bunco Gal, earning her the nickname “Ghost.” As odd one out, she would begin the first rotation of the game rolling dice for an invisible partner. This, she felt, was her just punishment for never once having failed to RSVP late, but it did dislocate her socially right from the get-go. It set her at an invisible body’s distance from the rest of her friends.
Poor Ghost! Her friends laughed at her, and laughing, forgave her. Our late, great Emma Anne.
She was, or had been, just dreadful at checking her email for the monthly Bunco Gals Party Night reminder newsletter. Never mind replying to it. Eventually her friends, organized by Xime Ortiz, arranged to take turns calling her personally on her landline (“You should really get a cellphone, Emma Anne! For emergencies!”), and usually twice: once to invite her, once to remind her.
They even started picking her up in their Buick Centuries and Chevrolet Impalas and Cadillac Club Sedans, with the tacit understanding that Emma Anne was, in turn, to be designated driver on the way home. This obligatory inability to consume more than one margarita during the between-the-rounds pitcher pass was but another barrier to her social enjoyment. It did, however, enable her, as the only adult equal to the task of counting to twenty-one by the end of the night, to keep a fairly tidy score, and therefore a modicum of self-respect.
But she never did buy that cellphone . . .
. . . for emergencies.
Staring into the Loping Man’s gravely gentle eyes, Emma Anne forgot to fear her friends. Oh, but she missed them. She wanted them back, yaps and fangs and beads and all.
She sucked in a huge breath, slowed time, her fingers moving to the hand bell hanging from her belt. If Emma Anne were still who she once had been, she’d have called it a Bunco Bell, identical to the one used to ring their game to order. But tonight she was just a child gone feral under a silver sky, and this bell was her endowment.
If only she knew what it was for.
The Loping Man’s raptorial forelegs lifted, slow as sap moving, landing delicately on the hearth of the smokestack. Slow as grass dying, they reached for her. His jaw worked and gaped, worked and gaped.
Did he, then, take the head first, before all? Chew the brains like bubble gum? No chance of survival then, of jumping from his back as he ran. She’d just be a body, slung across his shoulders for a later and more deliberate mastication.
His segmented abdomen looked vast, insatiable, capable of containing several Emma Annes and all her endowments.
“Captious!” she squeaked, expelling breath without replacing it. Her left hand pinched the silver bell’s clapper, holding it soundless. Her right hand clutched some part of the stuffed weasel. “If I close my eyes, can you move fast enough?”
A dubious pause as Captious agreed to understand the full import of the question.
“There’s fast enough,” she said, “and then there’s suddenly you’re a head shorter and a human stole. It’s kind of fifty-fifty.”
“I can!” Bumptious piped up from her lap. “I can move fast enough, Emma Anne. If you trust me.”
Emma Anne sat in the brick dust and bat guano and her own warm urine, nose and eyes running, mouth dry. Not breathing. But those forelegs kept sliding in, inexorably, that triangular head following, and soon the Loping Man would be there with her, right inside her sanity. No, not sanity. Her septic tank. No, that wasn’t . . . sanctum! Sanctum Sanctorum, from the Latin . . .
Oh, he was enormous, colossal, an armored giant, but so very terribly compactable. Yes, and maybe that was where he went all day. Not away, but down, folded into leaf and twig and compound eyes, origamied into torpor.
“I won’t look,” Emma Anne promised Bumptious with the last of her breath. “I promise.”
An ecstatic Bumptious cried, “Thank you!” as Emma Anne’s eyelids slammed shut.
She gasped for breath.
Stink seeped back into her nostrils: the ammonia and cat litter smell of the guano, her own excreta, and the Loping Man’s rapidly invading odor, like the damp mystery of mushrooms, as he pressed on, pressed in, at speed.
But now, there came between her body and the Loping Man a roar that better belonged behind an enclosure of stainless steel wire rope mesh than in the non-living body of a plush toy. Bumptious had attacked.
Almost immediately, Captious began to writhe in her fist.
“Lemme go! Lemme go! Hellstars and moonworms! He’s halfway gone to gullet! No, Bump — don’t! EMMA ANNE, LET GO!”
She didn’t have time to obey; Captious sank her manifestly non-textile teeth into her wrist and wriggled loose. A weasel-shaped wind tunnel shot from the palm of her hand toward the hearth.
Just the sound of chewing.
But not, Emma Anne noticed when she dared peek again, easy chewing. It was half gagging, half gurgling, as if the Loping Man had thought he was getting squid nigiri for dinner and ended up with a mouthful of magnapinna mixed with cotton candy.
Emma Anne’s trembling left hand released the clapper of the silver hand bell. It chimed faintly against its bowl. Outside, not so very far away, an answering chorus of yips lit the night. Wrist throbbing, Emma Anne stared down at the endowment, and understood it.
Why, after all, did the Chihuahua Ladies always seem to turn up whenever Emma Anne came to Mill Town, following her — and her chiming, clinking, tinkling belt — around?
They recognized the Bunco Bell.
And they wanted to play.
Emma Anne lifted the bell in hand with new vigor and gave it twelve sharp rings. The bats in the smokestack awoke, diving all ways for open air. The Loping Man flinched back from their wings. Or from the noise. Or perhaps he sensed, not far behind him, the red thunder of high heels, the raking-in-the-making of manicured claws, the loyalty of old friends to their Ghost.
As crowded as the smokestack had been a moment before, it was now deserted of everything but Emma Anne. Captious and Bumptious, the bats, the Loping Man, all gone. Even the echoes of the silver bell, gone.
Outside, the world exploded in sound.
SHH. TOCK. FLAP. SHH. YIP. YIP. FLAP. TOCK. TOCK.
All this, threaded together by growling, scuffling, dragging. Something hurled at speed against the brick base of the smokestack. Emma Anne flung herself to her belly and crawled to the ledge, peering down into the starlit dark over the lot.
The Loping Man bled a black-green ooze that glowed, illuminating at least himself and whatever his blood fell upon. He was still chewing, frantically, foam and synthetic fiber batting bulging from his cheeks and the upper seams of his segmented abdomen, where he seemed to be . . . bursting.
The Chihuahua Ladies harried him, doggedly. But though they were fierce, the Loping Man’s right foreleg swept two of them off their feet, his left spearing another clear through the shoulder and flinging her into the mugwort and sweet clover and knapweed in a fireworks of fragrance.
At that petering howl of dismay, Emma Anne dropped the bell and groped for her belt. Her fingers found the loop of red ribbon, and tugged it loose. She ran it between her hands, pulling the midsection taut. Without daring to think about what she did, she pushed herself into a perching crouch, and waited, waited, waited till he was close enough again — and jumped from the smokestack right onto the Loping Man’s back.
Once, twice, thrice went the red ribbon about the prothorax. Her legs squeezed lower down. His limbs rose around her like scissors every time he moved. He flailed as she pulled. She pulled tighter. His thrashes went wild. He backed up against the smokestack as if to rasp her off his back, like a bear marking territory on trees, or a businessman scraping dog shit from his shoe. She looped the red ribbon about one fist, and tugged her pocketknife from its knotted string.
Just beneath the jaw then. That killing jaw, spilling over with the stuffed bits of Captious and Bumptious.
Let no child wake to the sound of his chewing again.
Emma Anne arrived late to the Pirate Banquet, but she was used to that. Besides, she reflected, could you be late if you were never even invited?
She rode in through the open doors of The Grill.
The Grill, in 1912, had been a fruit and vegetable stand owned by a tiny Italian man full of nautical invective and conflicting tales about his arrival on Ellis Island. The stand later became a full-service cafeteria for Mill Town factory workers. Still later a discotheque, complete with gold-laméd Go-Go dancers in cages. Now it was the favorite watering hole of pirates, which meant a fishy smell, a lot of black and red décor, a great deal of skulls, snakes, and the occasional hourglass.
Emma Anne didn’t know how many pirates there were in Mill Town and its environs. There seemed to be hundreds. H. M. S. was not the only floating alligator tethered to the flagpole outside.
Raucous as they were, the whole hairy, tattooed, shirtless, accoutered, and aggressive lot of them fell silent at the sight of her. Even George Sand, stalking back and forth along the scarred bar and holding forth at length, RRAWKED to a surprised standstill.
Mounted on the now-headless Loping Man, Emma Anne was taller than the tallest of them. The skin of her legs stuck to his abdominal chitin, glued there by his ichor, and she was not sure if she would ever be able to tear herself free, or if she herself had now become, in essence and in accident, the Loping Man. Her hands were tangled in the red ribbons that bound his thorax. From his neck hole, where her pocketknife stuck out like a bolt, sprouted two partially chewed stuffed animal heads: one a tiger, one a weasel. They peered around The Grill with eager or ironic plastic eyes, and did not seem to care much anymore if their movements were witnessed.
Chihuahua Ladies flanking her like an honor guard, Emma Anne rode right up to Captain Howard.
The Way Pirate of Route 1 was sprawled on a throne of yet more decorative human skulls, wearing nothing but a lopsided paper crown from a defunct fast food restaurant Emma Anne could barely remember. Goober Bling. Booger Ring. Something.
Blunderbuss and cutlass bobbed through the air like a conductor’s batons as Captain Howard led the pirates, badly, through an incoherent variation of “Fiddler’s Green.” She continued bellowing verses long past the quelling of her pirate court. Whether this was because she was drunker than they or simply less impressed with Emma Anne’s entrance only she could say. But at last even she stopped, squinted one eye, and looked the newcomer up and down.
Emma Anne, glowing with gore, returned the glare. “Guess you got elected, Pirate King.”
Captain Howard burped. “Guess you survived the night, Feral Child.”
They eyed each other, waiting for the gauntlet slap, the taunt, the inciting incident for their final Duel and Doom. Emma Anne sighed and rolled her shoulders.
“Got any food, Margo?”
Her grin skullier than an ossuary, Captain Howard spread her arms wide to indicate the masses of lasagna, the mounds of Italian bread, the wheels of parmesan, and heaps of cannoli, struffoli, panna cotta.
“Maybe,” she teased. “Sing for your supper, Santiago?”
Emma Anne opened her mouth — to sob? to scream? — and choked on a surprised laugh. Raising her chin, she squared her shoulders, met Captain Howard’s gaze, and bellowed:
“I dug his grave with a silver spade!”
Everyone — Captious, Bumptious, the Pirate King, her pirates, her parrot, even the Chihuahua ladies — joined in.
“Storm along, boys! Storm along, John!”
About the Author
C.S.E. Cooney is the author of World Fantasy Award-winning Bone Swans: Stories. Her short novel “The Twice-Drowned Saint” is included in Mythic Delirium’s anthology The Sinister Quartet. Her forthcoming novel Saint Death’s Daughter will be out with Rebellion in Spring of 2022. Other work includes Tor.com novella Desdemona and the Deep and a poetry collection: How to Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes, which features her Rhysling Award-winning “The Sea King’s Second Bride.” Her short fiction and poetry can be found in Jonathan Strahan’s anthology Dragons, Ellen Datlow’s Mad Hatters and March Hares: All-New Stories from the World of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, and elsewhere.
About the Narrator
Julia Rios is a queer, Latinx writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator whose fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in Latin American Literature Today, Lightspeed, and Goblin Fruit, among other places. Their editing work has won multiple awards including the Hugo Award. Julia is a co-host of This is Why We’re Like This, a podcast about how the movies we watch in childhood shape our lives, for better or for worse. They’ve narrated stories for Escape Pod, PodCastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders. Find them on Twitter as @omgjulia.