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FICTION / What the Harvest Moon Brings / Jonathan Louis Duckworth

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Asturias, Spain. 1937.

When Amaranta woke up, the moon was shining through the slats in the shutters. Manuel, her little boy, was tugging on her sleeve. Manuel was a quiet boy who usually slept soundly, not the type to wake his mother over nonsense. He was stout but not quite fat, handsome and sensitive like his father.

“Mama, there’s a monster outside,” Manuel said.

Amaranta pulled the covers over her eyes. “Hush. Go back to sleep.”

“Listen to the sheep, Mama.”

The sheep were bleating outside, but distant, as if something had spooked them away from the cottage. Her first thought was that someone might be trying to steal them, so she got out of bed, put on her shoes, wrapped herself in a warm shawl, and went to the door. When the bombs had been thundering in the distance weeks ago the sheep had been bleating then too. That was the last time she’d received any letters from her husband, Rodrigo, who was off fighting against the Nationalists. Poor, gentle, Rodrigo; she could not imagine him as a soldier, as one who might take life. 

Amaranta opened the door partway and stood in the threshold to survey the pasture. Immediately the cold put its hands on her. The waxing harvest moon shone brightly—always the moonlight looked different, somehow clearer, on cold nights. The sheep were there, but they had moved off, many of them huddling at the edge of the fence at the far end of the pasture, toward where the hillside sloped sharply into the valley.

She scanned the pasture, but there was no sign of any thieves. The cold became unbearable, and she shut, barred, and bolted the door. Manuel was standing at the cottage’s center, still anxious.

“No monsters,” she said, ruffling his hair. “Come, you’ll sleep with me.”

Before her husband went off to fight with the Republicans against General Franco, she’d worried she’d be afraid, as she’d never lived alone before. But she wasn’t afraid, for so long as she had Manuel to care for she could never worry for herself. Such was motherhood’s blessing and curse.

She carried Manuel to the little cot in the cottage’s corner. It was colder than Manuel’s bed—the one right beside the fireplace—but he would sleep better in his mother’s arms. Once they were snuggled together under the blankets, Amaranta closed her eyes and reached for sleep.

But then the bleating got louder. The sheep sounded as if they were ready to run out of their own skins; never had Amaranta heard such pathetic sounds from her flock. And as suddenly as it started, it stopped, all the sheep falling silent. Not long after, there came the sound of footsteps outside, approaching the door.

Amaranta felt Manuel’s rapid heartbeats through the blanket between them.

The footsteps were heavy and unusual; sluggish, as if the person was dragging their feet. There came also the sound of heavy breathing, something halfway between a man sighing and an animal panting.

She held her son tightly to her chest as if that might stop his trembling, and called out, “Who is it? Who’s there?”

The answer came, but not in words. It was more like a growl, something at once familiar and alien. The sound was to language what smoke was to fire.

Manuel’s fingers were pressing hard on her arm now. “Mama, what is it?”

“Whoever you are, you’d better leave,” she said, assuming the hard voice she used when bartering with wool buyers at market.

There came a knock at the door. Not the knock a knuckle or a fist makes, something much heavier, as if a man were to slam his shoulder against the door. Manuel squeaked and pressed his head against her chest as if he were trying to burrow into her. Amaranta called out in warning again, her voice steady even if her body was shaking.  

The knob jiggled. It turned as far as the lock would allow it, while another growl rumbled from the throat of the thing on the other side of the door.

Amaranta prayed the locks would hold. “My husband will—” she started to say.

Three times in quick succession the door shuddered on its hinges from heavy blows. Amaranta saw the wood buckling and knew were it not for the iron bar the hinges would have broken.

Then the intruder’s feet padded away from the door, and Amaranta’s ears followed the odd, dragging footsteps around the side of the house, to the shuttered window through which the moonlight flooded. Something large passed over the shutter, blotting the light, and Amaranta thought she might have caught a glimpse of something glossy, like snakeskin or the shell of a beetle.

If any part of her still thought it was a man outside, that evaporated when the unmistakable rasp of claws dragging against the shutters began. In between scratches, the thing outside made sounds, not quite growls; softer, more like mewling.

“Go away,” Amaranta said, losing control of her voice, “we don’t want you here.”

And that seemed to do it. The beast growled again, but soon it shuffled away. Amaranta stayed awake, holding Manuel tight to her and listening for any sound until the first light of morning broke through the shutters.

When it was bright enough, and once she was sure it was safe out, Amaranta unbarred the door and checked outside. The wood of the door’s face was warped, while shallow clawmarks marred the exterior of the shutters. That wasn’t all. Out in the pasture, already buzzing with flies, was a young ewe, torn open, its body most of the way eaten by something whose jaw could crack the thick femurs of the upper legs that most dogs couldn’t break.

When night fell, it was another cold, bright, clear night. Although it was not yet winter, Amaranta had brought the sheep into the manger and barred the manger door. She did the same for her house, also reinforcing the door with Rodrigo’s heavy armchair, the one in which—before the war—he’d sit and scribble poetry. Such a dear man, Rodrigo was, with his little paunchy stomach and his mournful brown eyes.

She was not in bed when the noise began. Instead she was by the fireplace, Manuel seated on her lap. He was getting big to sit on her lap, but it made them both feel better.

The monster approached the door as it had the night before, and once again Amaranta warned it off, “Go away, we don’t want you here,” she said.

But rather than make it leave, this seemed to infuriate the thing. As it had the night before, the creature hurled itself at the door. Once, twice, thrice, four times, five.

With each successive blow, the door rattled, Rodrigo’s chair shook, and the iron bar slid a bit. Overcoming her own terror, Amaranta let go of her son and rushed to the door, forcing the bar back in place. As she did, she felt the reverberation of the creature’s violence.

“Go away,” she screamed.

And the assault ceased, and the creature moved away from the front door, once again tracking around to the side of the house. While seeing to the door, Amaranta had left her son unattended, and when she turned back she was horrified to see he’d gotten up from the fireplace and had walked over to the window.

“Manuel, get away from there,” she said, but just as soon as the words left her lips, the shutters and window both broke, shards of glass and wooden splinters showering her boy.

A clawed hand reached through the opening and groped blindly for Manuel. The boy didn’t move. He stood still, watching with a serene expression the hand feeling around, somehow unafraid as it came closer to finding him.

Amaranta, who had pulled the iron poker from the fireplace, rushed across the room and swung the poker at the hand. The poker’s hook lodged itself in the scaly palm, the thing shrieked, and the hand closed into a fist around the poker. It pulled back. 

From where Amaranta summoned the strength to keep herself from getting hauled through the window, she would never know, but she dragged her heels and fought and wrenched the poker out of the thing’s grasp and then swung and swung and hit the creature’s hand again and again until, broken and bent, the paw slipped back out into the night.

“Get out, get out, go away,” she yelled, shaking the bloody poker, her body buzzing with a terrible, corrosive sort of triumph that soon faded and left her feeling cold.

When she’d stopped yelling, Amaranta noticed Manuel had begun to sob. “Papa,” he said, “I miss papa.”

When morning came, Amaranta inspected the manger. The door had been shattered, the iron bar bracing it warped. Only one sheep had been gored, while the others were all cowering in a thick mass of trembling fleece in the manger’s corner.

She thought of leaving with Manuel, of looking for help. Their nearest neighbors lived across the valley, almost two kilometers away. She could not leave Manuel alone, nor could he make such a journey on his own feet, nor could she carry him that far. And besides, what if the monster was waiting in the valley for them?

Her best hope, for now, was to fortify the house. Tomorrow was Friday—the baker’s boy would come to deliver bread in the morning, and Amaranta could get him to enlist help—the old men and younger boys who hadn’t gone away to fight—from the surrounding farms with guns and axes and clubs to wait for the monster. She and her son only needed to last one more night on their own.

After doing what she could to fix the shutters and preparing dinner for herself and Manuel, Amaranta, exhausted, lay down on her bed to rest a moment. It was still light—night wouldn’t fall for another few hours, which would give her time to rest her eyes. As she drifted in and out of sleep, she saw the light slanting through the shutters changing, yellowing, then becoming gold. Between what seemed like two blinks of the eye, she caught Manuel standing by the doorway, staring at his father’s chair. It almost looked like he was sizing it up.  

Amaranta dreamed. She dreamed of better days, of summer, of Rodrigo.

It was the sound of the door’s iron bar falling to the floor that woke her. When her eyes opened, the light bleeding through the slats was moon-silver. Cold air rushed in over her face through the open doorway. Rodrigo’s chair had been pushed aside and all the locks had been undone. From the inside.

A jolt of terror roused her from her stupor, and she was up in an instant. “Manuel!” she called, but her boy was nowhere inside the cottage.

She didn’t bother with shoes or with a shawl. She only took the hatchet used to split firewood and raced out of the house. She called her son’s name, but she didn’t have to search long for him. She found him under the shade of the sprawling oak tree behind the cottage, the tree where in peaceful times Rodrigo had sat and napped after a day tending the flock.

There was her son. And there was the monster.

She saw it now, the totality of its being as it held her son in its clawed hands. It was bigger than she’d expected, almost the size of a cow, with a hunched body and a ridged backbone of needle-like spines that extruded through the skin. Its hide was made from glossy scales like the belly of a snake, while more spines bristled from its shoulders and on its head where hair would be on a man. The hands were enormous, large enough to easily crush a boy’s skull.

And yet the hands did not break her boy. In the way it held Manuel—who was calm, content even—there was obvious concern, painstaking concern, for the beast held her boy by his legs and his head, balancing him on the heels of its palms so that its claws did not touch him.

“Mama, it’s all right,” Manuel said, waving to her.

Dazed, delirious, terrified, still holding the hatchet, Amaranta stumbled toward the oak tree. So cold was the ground it burned her bare feet. Seeing her, the creature’s huge, muscular form rippled with tension and concern, but the eyes—two human eyes set in a monstrous crocodilian visage—stared at her. Soft brown eyes.

Amaranta dropped the hatchet. The monster set Manuel down gently. Manuel sat beside the monster, laying his head against the beast’s knee, which bent the wrong way, like a dog’s leg.

Amaranta came closer and though the monster flinched away, she reached out and took its hand, the mangled one, and touched the wounds she’d inflicted the night before.

“Oh Rodrigo, how the war has changed you.”

Her husband leaned his head forward and showed her the pale length of his neck. Amaranta stroked the cold, smooth scales of his throat and knew, somehow, everything would be all right, just as it had been before.


Jonathan Louis Duckworth received his MFA from Florida International University. His fiction, poetry, and non-fiction appears in New Ohio Review, Fourteen Hills, Gulf Coast, Meridian, Tupelo Quarterly, Pseudopod, Superstition Review, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere. His chapbook “Book of Never” was published by Finishing Line Press.