Gods and Monsters Installment 3: Music and Moths

Reading Time: 7 minutes

THE STORY TO NOW: The Fates, who own an occult shop in 1980s San Francisco, weave together this story. Seven-year-old River discovers a strange, pale, uncrying baby in a field who gains the name Gabriel. He is half vampire, half human. Read last week’s installment hereSee all installments here.

(Image created by E.E. King with Adobe Firefly.)

Chapter 4

Gabriel

San Francisco — 1961

Music and Moths

Gabriel never cried, even as a baby. He grows into a strange, silent child, given to night wanderings. He rarely speaks. He eats little. He is beautiful; hair is a glossy black, eyes a bottomless indigo, teeth straight and perfect. He never has a cavity. He is in fact, abnormally healthy, never catching a chill, a cold, or even getting a pimple.

He has no friends. Nor is he bullied. Something about him scares the other children.

If anyone had stood beside him in the crowded dormitory bathrooms or crammed changing rooms, they would have noticed his lack of reflection in the mirror. If the nuns had made him play ball in the noonday sun, as they did the others, they would have seen that he had no shadow. But all keep their distance.

Gabriel doesn’t mind. He doesn’t long for friends. He’s the only orphan who doesn’t care that the sisters don’t allow pets. Why would he? Any time Gabriel walks by a tree, birds drop at his feet, their small, feathered bodies still as leaves. Insects turn to dust. Flowers wither. Creatures large or fleet enough run, the smaller burrow underground. Gabriel remains unmoved.

The only time Gabriel shows interest is when the sisters’ ancient record player breaks down. It’s not Sister Agnes’ grief that moves him, nor Sister Maria’s cries of distress. He doesn’t care for temporal sorrow. Rather, it’s the expiry of that which seems immortal. Black plastic and cold metal, which should eternally sing, have become as silent as bone. He glides toward the mute turntable. If the nuns hadn’t had their eyes filled with tears, they might have noticed his feet don’t touch the ground.

They are so trapped in loss that they don’t even try to stop him. He doesn’t touch the record player before it begins to revolve. The needle presses down. Music fills the air.

The nuns are so grateful they don’t even notice that the melodies aren’t quite the same. The harmonies are slightly off. All the hymns play in minor keys. They sound more like laments than hallelujahs, more like dirges than rejoicing.

When the record player wafts “Ave Maria” out into the night, Luna moths with wings spanning seven inches flock around the orphanage. They hover in the air like jade dreams, before drifting lifeless to the ground.

Entomologists gather their bodies in awe. Lunas, native to Canada and the northeastern states, have never been seen as far south as Healdsburg. It’s taken as a sure sign of climate change. In the twilight, bats circle, plucking the stunned insects out of the air before they even hit the ground.

Two weeks later, when the sisters sell the record player at the church bazaar, the moths disappear. But when the children are taken out for a night’s star gazing, the Lunas return, raining down on them like soft, green tears.

Chapter 5

River

Healdsburg —1965

A Cry in the Night

When the next full moon rises, topping the trees with silver, River, enroute to the bar again, hears a nightmare cry. He runs home, afraid to pause, afraid to hear a velvet tread padding behind. Alma is waiting at the door, lips tight and white.

“Where is your father?” she shrieks. “You didn’t look, did you? Why are all the men in my life useless? What have I ever done to deserve this?”

One night, Joseph disappears. After that, Alma takes in laundry and does housekeeping at local hotels. It’s slow in the winter when the fog hangs thick in the redwoods, always cold and damp. She tries to branch out, hoping to supply cakes and pastries to the nearby B&B’s, but she mistakes powdered sugar for flour and her cinnamon spice cake burns, scenting the house with bitterness and disappointment. Her pie dough, which should rise light as dreams, sticks in the throat like heartache. Even the packaged custard she buys won’t gel and must be flushed down the toilet.

She doesn’t notice that River’s hair needs cutting, and his clothes are wearing out. He’s already taken to washing them himself, as Alma has more than enough cleaning to do.

Chapter 6

Gabriel

Healdsburg — 1970

Soundtrack to Nightmare

Despite his great beauty, Gabriel is never adopted for long. The nuns occasionally take him to foster homes, but his silence unnerves people. He’s as impossible to ignore as death. When he’s placed in a home, quiet men begin beating their wives. Sweet-tempered women doctor their cooking with castor oil.

Even after he’s returned to the sisters, his presence remains in the house like the scent of decay, impossible to eradicate. Two of his would-be parents commit suicide.

The only person who keeps him more than a week is a fix-it man who repairs stereos and blenders. All Gabriel has to do is drift near a broken object and it works again, good as new. The fix-it man’s business booms. He becomes successful. He becomes wealthy. No one seems to notice that the refurbished stereos only play in minor keys, or that the small, curious fingers of children get caught more often than usual in the whirling blades of repaired blenders.

One day when the fix-it man is driving home, his truck skids into the trunk of the giant oak that has arched over Dover Lane for more than one hundred years, providing shade from the sun and shelter from the rain. The fix-it man never awakens. He sinks into a coma, a sleep so like death that dreams fear to enter. Due to his recent financial success, he has enough money to afford a place in a renowned rest home in San Francisco, The Quiet Dignity Coma Care Residential Facility.

The oak’s trunk is gashed so deeply that for a month, sap leaks from its heart onto Dover Lane. It seeps into the pavement, dyeing it such a dark, lasting red that even after the tree is cut down and carted away, the stain remains.

Whenever it rains, the road becomes so slick that drivers skid wildly out of control, flipping their cars, overturning in nearby fields, and occasionally sliding onto the Dover bridge and somersaulting into the shallow, rocky river below. In fact, if you take into account the auto accidents, suicides, and matricide that Gabriel induces, his death count would reach well into double digits.

At eighteen, when Gabriel leaves the orphanage, the sisters breathe a sigh of relief.  He has never been any trouble. Never talked back; indeed, rarely talked at all. He is obedient, clean, and scentless. The nuns can find no fault in him, but neither can they feel affection. He makes them forget Christ and contemplate Gabriel. He induces guilt. His very silence screams for attention. He is a shadow in the soul.

Chapter 7

River

Healdsburg — 1976

Pity and Friendship

River roams the woods after school collecting mushrooms and looking for animals. He takes whatever jobs he can, wherever he can, giving one quarter of the money to Alma. The rest he wraps inside an old wool sock and hides under a loose floorboard. He splits logs for firewood, growing strong and muscular. After school and weekends, he works for the local veterinarian. River has healing hands, at odds with his rough appearance. Wounded animals find comfort in his arms. He brings orphaned kittens, puppies and even an occasional rabbit home to foster.

“I cannot stand the smell of that stuff you feed them,” Alma says. “Besides, they’re dirtying my sheets. I want you to get rid of them right now.”

River looks at her with steady, emotionless eyes and says nothing. Alma retreats, wondering why life has become a series of misunderstandings and bad fortune.

On River’s birthday, Alma bakes him a flourless chocolate cake. She tries to be careful, reading the recipe twice through before she even begins to mix four ounces of bittersweet chocolate, butter, and eggs. But the cake is so bitter even River’s growing puppies, who eat spoiled refuse, will not taste it.

When there is a parent meeting at Healdsburg High, Alma goes, hoping for the pity of friends. She doesn’t realize that pity and friendship never reside under the same roof.

Over punch and cookies, the mothers chatter like quails. Only Alma’s banana bread, sour with resentment, is left untouched.

“My Jenny just spends all her time doing homework,” Sally Parsons says. “I really worry if it’s normal for her to not have more social life… but she is determined to get all A’s.” Sally sighs and opens her palms in a “what can you do” gesture. Alma hates Sally and her oh-so-perfect daughter. She never has to worry about bills or wonder if the mixture in the blender contains puréed rats.

“River spends all this time in his room with tiny animals he brings home from the vet,” Alma says. “He even takes them to bed with him, that can’t be healthy, can it?  They dirty my sheets, and lord knows, I spend enough time washing as is.

“He uses saucepans, my saucepans, supposed to be used for humans, to make baby formula for dogs, cats, and rodents. It smells horrible. Really, it makes me feel ill. Once he even got ringworm. But does he listen when I tell him to get rid of all those animals? No. He looks at me as if. . .”

“He loves animals—that means he’s got a good heart, dear,” Sally Parsons says, patting her hand. “You should thank God for having such a boy.”

Of course, Alma thinks, it’s easy for Sally Parsons to bless River’s heart. Sally Parson’s girl would never dirty a sheet or bring home vermin. She’d never boil odd concoctions late at night or ignore her mother.

“You don’t know how lucky you are to have a boy who never gets into trouble,” sighs Mrs. Jackson, the sheriff’s wife.

“And he even has a job and brings home money, I hear,” says Sara Kelly. “With my Chip, it’s all football, football, football and girls, girls, girls—you really are blessed.”

But Alma can see the pride behind Sara Kelly’s eyes. She knows Sara would never trade her football star for a boy who suckles rodents. She tightens her lips and says nothing.


Watch the author read this week’s installment in the video below:

 

NEXT WEEK: Gabriel hitches his way to San Francisco. Truckers desperate for company, or lonely men drawn by his shining beauty, pull over and throw their doors wide. But, after only a few miles, they turn off into small towns, muttering about relatives to visit or business to attend to. They take small dirt roads, adding days to their trip in order to avoid Gabriel’s bloodless presence and bottomless eyes. Gabriel’s presence in their cars is like the scent of mortality.

Edited by Mitchelle Lumumba and Sophie Gorjance.

E.E. King is cohost of the MetaStellar YouTube channel's Long Lost Friends segment. She is also a painter, performer, writer, and naturalist. She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. Ray Bradbury called her stories “marvelously inventive, wildly funny and deeply thought-provoking. I cannot recommend them highly enough.” She’s been published widely, including Clarkesworld and Flametree. She also co-hosts The Long Lost Friends Show on MetaStellar's YouTube channel. Check out paintings, writing, musings, and books at ElizabethEveKing.com and visit her author page on Amazon.