In 2010, we published Adam Novy's The Avian Gospels as two volumes, kind of Old and New Testament style. Having sold out of the two-volume edition, the book is now newly available, now been recombined back into a single volume with rounded corners, gilded edges, a ribbon bookmark, and Bible-style line numbering.
We are super excited! To celebrate, we are calling this "Adam Novy Week" and will feature an excerpt, interview, trailer, or some other kind of Adam Novy miscellany every day. To wrap up the week, we've got something much longer than we normally publish on the web, but we're super, super excited: and excerpt of Adam Novy's current novel-in-porgress, The Gore and the Splatter. About the book, Novy told Ryan Chang in an interview yesterday for Electric Literature:
I’m working on a novel about Perseus and Medusa before they get discovered. The early days of Perseus and Medusa. It takes place partially in mythic Greece and partially the suburb I grew up in. The characters are in the middle of mythic history. One thing about mythology I’ve always been really interested is what the characters know about their place and time in history. There’s this idea that the world is new and folks are creating meaning as they go along. Do they know they’re creating meaning? And what would it be like to be a teenager under those circumstances? Or a parent raising those teenagers, what would it be like? The prose is maybe more normal than The Avian Gospels, but the heart of the book is probably darker.
The Gore and the Splatter:
Pentheus’s bedroom: hardly large enough to fit his mattress, a modest trunk of clothes, a wooden torso on a stick that wore his armor while he slept, and an altar to Athena. The floorplanks creaked, the roof leaked water, porous walls keened in wind. He’d let his mother and his nephews have the bedrooms with the windows. The den was also small, and too close to the kitchen for these rooms to be considered separate entities, and this house, such as it was, sat unevenly on pylons of old concrete, for the ground was a decline of dirt and sand on a rambling scrappy hillside, where any rugged vegetables that flourished in the desperate little gardens were scavengered immediately by rabbits.
The bungalow wasn’t quite dysfunctional, merely ugly, small, grotty, and way beyond the prospect of improvement. Still, the sneaky sisters Casey and Arden enjoyed their lives in an unfairly lavish home, and the house where the miraculous atrocity had happened, with the river and the tree, was nigh short of a mansion, if an ugly, nouveau, tasteless one. Perhaps whoever’d lived there had been killed for being vulgar. Pentheus had been working in a lumber yard adjacent to The Turnbull Farm—a huge, efficient version of the farm where Casey and Arden lived—when Mister Reddy heard that he was tall and took him on as his assistant. Your feet are very big, he’d said, you’ll leave a large carbon footprint. Pentheus thought he’d caught his golden opportunity, but all he got to do was walk beside the boss in heavy armor, sweat until he felt that he would rot, follow incoherent orders and let teenage girls humiliate him. And the pay was just as crappy as the lumber yard. Agave, his own mother, was a maid for Mister Turnbull. She was sixty-eight years old, but still she cooked, scrubbed the floor, washed stains from the clothes of messy children whose privilege didn’t exactly translate into manners. Pentheus and Agave paid their rent to Mister Reddy, who was Mister Turnbull’s partner, though Mister Reddy and Mister Turnbull also paid their salaries. Pentheus and his mother were little more than conduits for money as it looped its way inexorably back to whence it came. Jayden, Pentheus’s nephew, had said they were a kind of large intestine, where food was turned to shit and got excreted without their being able to enjoy it. Pentheus sometimes wished the boy was less articulate.
Turnbull wasn’t really an awful guy. He did not make small talk or pretend to be familiar with his employees, which meant that he was gruff, but never insincere. His wife was not unfriendly and his children were annoying, spoiled and carefree. Pentheus didn’t hate them, he merely loved their house and coveted their lives. He couldn’t tell what they had done to earn them and assumed they had done nothing. They were simply luckier than him.
Pentheus removed his metal boots and walked softly into his bungalow. He checked his teenage nephews, Jayden and Tori, whose little bedroom was the first door on the left, and where a willow in the window made the moonlight a mosaic on the walls. Tori lay asleep in his clothes, an open sketchbook by his bed. Pentheus closed the book and pulled the covers up to Tori’s chin, then he looked at Jayden, who stirred and muttered in his sleep, his eyes half-open, gazing at the window. People who slept with open eyes scared Pentheus; he didn’t know if they were really sleeping, or what happened in their minds. Did they have access to a consciousness unknown by normal sleepers? He tucked a lock of Jayden’s hair behind his ear and told the boy he’d be okay, that whatever tumult he endured in dreams would disappear when he awoke. It was just the kind of well-intentioned lie that Jayden hated. Pentheus also hated optimistic bullshit, but, as far as he could tell, this was what you did with kids: told them life could be more just and worthwhile than it was unfair and disappointing. That joy could outweigh sorrow. If they bought it, they could maybe make it true in their own lives. I’ll do the best I can for you, he said, though Jayden didn’t seem to hear and kept on babbling his nothings.
Pentheus went back to his room and said his prayers, and lay miserably in bed, half-asleep, until his door swung open with a violence that that made him think his room had been attacked. Leaping to his feet, he grabbed his sword and held it up above his head.
A teenaged-looking girl in robes of brilliant white, a helmet, and a dazzling silver shield stepped in his room. She stood between his mattress and the altar. He got onto his knees.
* * *
Athena, goddess of the soldier on the quest; courage, wisdom, and of everything that’s admirable, had crouched behind a bush and watched as Pentheus shlumpfed into his shack, his massive shoulders drooping like a bridge about to fall. Not that he had ever had the puppydog exuberance of other soldier boys that she had known, and she had known a lot of them, but to see him this unhappy hurt. A warrior with a pedigree like his should have a better home than this one, he should have his own command, a lavish hall and servants; he should be ankle deep in plunder. Instead, he rented from the slumlord that he should have been himself.
The goddess hiked her gowns and climbed as softly as she could the creaky wooden steps into his house. She had snuck into a home a million times, and the hardest part was carrying the shield through the door with it hitting anything, or not knocking overcoat trees or a vase. Or keeping on her helmet without its tall purple that got nudged off in low doorways. All of this and more had happened many times, and it was never not embarrassing; there were instances when people thought that she was not a god, but just an oddly-dressed intruder. She’d stopped wearing metal combat boots a hundred years ago and now she wore her flip-flops, though she made sure her father saw her in the boots when she was leaving Mount Olympus. The rotten floorboards in this shack almost collapsed beneath her feet, and she weighed next to nothing. They didn’t creak so much as crunch, like they were sand.
She slipped in Pentheus’s room and surprised him; he gained his feet and took his sword very quickly for a man his size and age, for a man of any age. He still had speed—his speed had ended many lives—but when he realized who she was he knelt.
“Nice to see you, too,” she said. “Are you happy with this house?”
“You’re one to talk, you’re still running errands. This is what, a four-hundred year internship? If you’re going to wake me up, then bring me a cup of fucking coffee.”
Thirty years before, the two had fought beside each other in the battle of Chicago, going block-to-block and room-to-room throughout a cold and endless city, against an army who were fighting for their homeland, who were supposed to have behaved like they’d been liberated, though it hadn’t quite worked out that way. Those were good times for the goddess, who couldn’t die—though Pentheus and his men could—and at the campfire every night, before the fighting really started, she would laugh and sing and drink with him, and she’d felt like she belonged, like this was an adventure they were having and she had all these friends who’d never die. It surprised and disappointed her to remember how traumatic war could be for humans. This encounter lived on in her memory as an idyll so long as she remembered it superficially.
The battle of Chicago—or, as Mister Reddy called it in his histories, The Great Chicago Fire—had begun as a dispute between Poseidon and Zeus, over concubines or something, and tension filtered through the layers of bureaucracy and local tribal rivalries, with loyalties exploited on both sides, and finally expressed itself in war, though the humans on the ground—like Pentheus—were unaware of all these machinations and thought they fought for, like, identity or freedom, or some tangible advantage in their lives. Human beings often made this error and the gods were quite content to let them make it. She’d struggled not to think of what a massive lie this was, and it seemingly had worked; she had forgotten how remorseful she had felt.
It came back to her now, seeing Pentheus in his dumpy little bedroom. Once she’d severed contact with a human she tried to never re-establish it, but a couple days before, her father had been reading a report about the Reddy Jurisdiction and he learned that Pentheus lived there. Go and see him, said her father. See what he is up to. Ask him how he wasted all that talent.
So but The Great Chicago Fire: when her dad came to a compromise with Poseidon, Athena was instructed to withdraw, and she left Pentheus behind. Of the thousand men from Thessaly he’d sailed with to the battle, he was one of only four who would return. Chicago took him prisoner, but he killed his guards and carved a trench through many men and boys—his weapon glittered like a butterfly in a glade—until he reached the shore, and a boat, whence the goddess guided him to safety, though there were problems with that, too; she read the map wrong once or twice, though perhaps she’d made mistakes on purpose, she loved his company, loved to have him to herself. Before those nights, she’d called him Penny, a nickname he disliked, but when she saw he wouldn’t complain about his wounds—grievous wounds—she changed his name to Pent-Up.
When they finally arrived in friendly territory, Pent-Up was very nearly dead and spent a month in an infirmary. The doctors would have triaged him but she would not allow it. She acted as his nurse—by now she saw that she essentially had killed him—and plundered all the food and medicine he needed, kept a vigil by his side, and, at night, when he was feverish and everybody else had given up, when even he had given up and maybe she had, too, when she realized he might actually die, she relented, and she slipped into his bed.
Pentheus survived. They made plans about the future and perhaps she had believed them. Then another war came up in Syracuse or Crete, and another group of prodigies; her father ordered her to leave and so she left, and she did not say goodbye. Pentheus woke and she was gone; he never heard from her again.
Twenty-seven years had passed since she had seen him, an eternity for humans and a long time for her, too. Every now and then, she heard a rumor: he had lost heart and retired, he’d gone broke, he had fought again for cash to pay his debts and always picked the losing side. His brother Cadmus had gotten famous, but Cadmus disappeared and no one knew what happened. Pentheus’s skin had lost its gleaming ivory smoothness and he looked like an old softball but he still retained the confidence to tease her, and there weren’t a lot of other human beings who could say that.
* * *
“I remember when you got that,” said Athena of his armor . “It’s amazing you’re still thin enough to wear it. Maybe all the people you killed added their vitality to yours.”
“I didn’t know it worked like that.”
“It probably doesn’t. I don’t even know what vitality is? My dad said it once and I liked how it sounded. So um, why do you live in a closet?”
“I let my mother and nephews have the better rooms.”
“How much better could they be? This ain’t no dream house.”
“We’re saving for a down payment,” he said, but the words felt embarrassing to him.
“What’s a down payment?”
“Well, say you want to buy something really expensive, but you don’t have all the money for it, so you pay some up front and ask a bank for a loan, which…”
“Okay shut up this is boring, I don’t use banks.”
“Consider yourself lucky.”
“It’s not luck. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
Easy for her to say, thought Pentheus. He wiped sweat off his forehead. He was still on his knees like a dog, he did not know what to say, and he wanted her to leave. He had dreamed about this visit every night for almost thirty years and now he wished that it would end.
“Stand up,” she said. “It’s like you’re making fun of me.”
He stood and looked the goddess over. Her silver helmet, with its tall purple plume, was too big for her head; the baggy quality of her robes made her seem like a child who was hiding in the curtains. Her blonde hair fell in droopy curls, and her skin had the glimmery, expensive-looking softness only princesses possessed. Her eyes were blue and complex with suspicion—they seemed to buzz with contradictory information; they were almost incoherent—her features small and delicate and priceless, and yet, while all the elements were exquisite, the impression wasn’t of perfection, but fatigue. She looked weary, even sad.
“Don’t you pity me,” she said. She flung her shield to the ground and put her hands around his throat. She squeezed, and he tried to force her off, but this seeming child of less than half his size was the strongest thing he had ever fought, he who’d stayed alive in battles using just his hands. He shoved against her face to no avail, her strength forced him backwards, then he tried to pry apart her arms, to use his weight and height—this failed, too—and soon she had her knees on his chest. He couldn’t breathe at all.
“Fight me,” said Athena, her helmet falling off her head, her hair a mess. His suit of armor crashed. “You fucking coward. You were supposed to be tough.”
He grabbed his sword and tried to swing it, but Athena caught the blade and snapped it into bits. She stabbed a shard beside his head.
Her hand was bleeding; there was blood all over his bed. She stood and backed away, and he gulped at air; his heart had never beat so hard. She wrapped her hand in her robe and picked her helmet off the floor, and then she took her shield. She was also out of breath.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “Are you okay?”
“I don’t need anyone’s help, I’m fine, I’m perfect, okay? But you. You complain to my father day and night. You cry that no one pays attention to you, like, boo hoo Pentheus, you’re supposed to be this person that everyone feels sorry for.”
He stood up from his bed; his robe swung open. She saw his scars, not just the ones he’d gotten in Chicago, but scars from other battles. He must have been in so much pain.
He closed his robe, ashamed; she looked away and shook her head; her eyes were filled with tears. She took his hand and held his fingers, rough as stone, against her face; she kissed his hand.
“Make something happen,” Athena said, apologetic, almost pleading. “Take your life in hand. No one’s going to help you unless you look like you don’t need it. We don’t attach ourselves to losers.”
“I’m not a loser.”
“I know. But you have to prove it, Pent-Up.” She turned and kicked a hole in the wall; wood and sheetrock flew in bits into the night and hit the trees, and the birds began to shriek.
“I needed that wall.”
“Then get a better one.”
* * *
At dawn, he used a bow and arrow to kill a rabbit in his garden. Rabbits can’t see straight ahead; he shot it right between the eyes, and hid his own eyes from its throes, which he’d imagined would be quiet nasal groans, but no, it screamed like a baby for what seemed like two minutes, and when he fetched the corpse, he saw he’d missed the head and hit its back. The shaft had gone clear through the body, the arrow stabbing deep into the ground. He used a shovel to extract it.
The wall Athena’d kicked had been obliterated; thorny brambles sprouted from her blood. They grew out from the bed, the floor, and filled in where the wall had been; already they were gray and hollow: thorns born dead. He’d used the thorns as cover for his rabbit-hunt, and shot his bolt between the points.
He built a fire in the wood-burning stove and made coffee for his mother, though she considered it an insult when he did her chores, and let him know it when she came out from her room. “You think I’m old,” she said. “I was up already,” Pentheus said, “I wanted to save you the trouble. You kneel down so many times a day. I can help you just this once.”
“Better you should help me retire,” she said.
“I’m trying,” he said.
She was sitting in her chair at the table, and Pentheus kissed her on the forehead, but she waved her hand dismissively. She wasn’t so affectionate. They were both wearing uniforms: she in her black servant’s dress and white apron, and he in his armor. The stiff penumbra of her hair had gotten sparse, and she was getting smaller, but age had somehow pared her to a minimal, essential angularity. She was strong, and could probably chop a tree down if she had to, or at least she thought she could. Also, she was admirably frugal and determined, and he saw that his distaste for the garish was informed, at least in part, by the regard he had for her. The other part was jealousy.
He told her he had killed a rabbit in the garden; they should eat the thing for dinner. “Eat a rabbit!” she exclaimed. “But you adore them! You always have!”
“I still love rabbits,” he said, staring at his toast, “but we should see them as a kind of opportunity. This is the sort of difficult choice we have to make if we want to succeed.”
“But rabbits,” said Agave. “I remember when your father couldn’t take you fishing because you felt bad for the fish.”
“Yes, mom, I remember that, too.”
“And the worms,” she said, “you didn’t want to put them on the hook.”
“Can you please shut up about that?”
“Your father told you it was how the world worked, the big eat the small, but you said you didn’t want to participate. You were such a sensitive little boy, we never thought you’d make it. Maybe we were right.”
Pentheus went out to the porch, where the rabbit carcass dangled from the roof. He took the rabbit off the rope, brought it in and slammed it on the table. “I’m not the same person I was when I was ten.”
“Apparently not,” she said, and took the rabbit to the cutting board, where she stripped it of its skin.
Pentheus woke the boys, who arrived to the table wearing clothes they had slept in and would wear to school today as they had yesterday. Jayden, seventeen, had floppy brown hair and languid, slow brown eyes, and it seemed that he would never shed his baby fat. He had asthma, and the rigors of the woods, of the trails, chopping wood, exposure to the weather, and all the chores endemic to their lives, with their liftings and their haulings, left him wheezing. Tori was sixteen, scrawny, pale and glowing as the moon, and dyed his clumpy blond hair blacker than his clothes. His eyes were either brown, green or gray, depending on the weather, and he always clutched a sketchbook.
Jayden and Tori were the sons of Pentheus’ older brother Cadmus. Cadmus and his wife Harmonia had vanished. No one knew where they had gone. They might stay away forever or come back at any moment. They could be dead, or not. They could have run away because they didn’t like their children, or the gods might have killed them. For those they’d left behind, loss had settled over everything like ice that wouldn’t melt.
Pentheus and Agave had stepped in to raise the boys, and they’d settled in this cabin two years ago. The sons of Cadmus looked just like their father. Jayden was a pudgy and crestfallen Cadmus, and Tori was a scrawny Cadmus who’d seemingly begun to disappear from within. Pentheus himself was an oversized, unfinished, battered version of his brother. They all had the face of Echion, their father, Agave’s long-deceased husband. Jayden liked to say that they were haunted, or rather, he didn’t like to say it but said it anyway.
Pentheus served them eggs and toast, which Tori asked to take outside, so he could eat as he was drawing the sky and trees. Pentheus had suggested Tori make a drawing every morning, it would help him grow as an artist. The walls of the kitchen and the living room were covered with his drawings and his paintings, some of them in frames the boy and Pentheus had made, a skill they’d learned from catalogues that Pentheus sent away for.
“Before you go outside, show me your homework,” Pentheus said. Tori handed over a folder filled with pages neatly organized by subject, red for history, blue for science, green for math, and black for Greek. Pentheus, who helped the boy keep the folders straight, thumbed through the pages. “What’s this picture of a skull?” he asked. “It’s called Phrenology,” said Tori. “Science discovered we can tell what kind of person a person is by studying bumps on their head.”
“Oh, phooey,” said Agave. “It’s all the month you were born and the position of the stars.”
“Has any considered that the planets might not give a shit about us?” Jayden asked.
“Watch your language,” Pentheus told him, but Agave grinned. “They’re just a bunch of rocks and dust that spin around,” Jayden said. He laid his head beside his plate of untouched food.
“How about this one?” Pentheus asked, holding up a picture of a triangle.
“The Food Pyramid,” said Tori. “It shows how eating lots of bread, steak and milk will keep you healthy.”
“That part I agree with,” Pentheus said.
Having passed his little interrogation, Tori left to draw. He got a little happier each day, and, in doing so, he left Jayden behind. Jayden was very smart, but so far, it had only led to sorrow.
Pentheus asked Jayden how a boy as intelligent as him could get a D on his term paper. The subject of this essay was a book called Iphigenia’s Courage At Willingly Surrendering Her Life To The State And To He Who Gave Her Life In The First Place, So He Kind Of Owned Her Anyway, a text by Mister Reddy everyone read in school. Jayden had called his paper Courage May Not Be The Word, But Then, There May Not Be A Word At All. Pentheus flipped through Jayden’s essay and alighted on this sentence: It’s like we live in this world, but we use the language of another, made-up world, which is why we’re always wrong about things. Beside this line his teacher had scrawled the word IMPERTINENT.
“Everything is impertinent,” said Jayden. He’d made a similar argument last month, when he’d flunked a test in math. He’d refused to answer any of the problems on the grounds that real-life problems had no answers and that math inflated expectations that could never be rewarded. There aren’t numbers in the mind, so why bother?
“Your grades are not impertinent,” said Pentheus.
“My grades most of all.”
“They’re pertinent to what kind of adult you’ll be,” said Pentheus, who felt that this was solid ground. Pentheus himself had struggled in school, and here he was, struggling as a parent. It seemed impossible to say what he intended, and he never really knew what he had meant until he’d spoken, which only told him what he hadn’t meant. Speech and thought were endless cancellation and revision.
“It’s not that everything’s not impertinent,” said Pentheus, pulling his chair beside the boy and trying to portray irony, severity and sympathy all at once. “Of course it’s all impertinent. But it isn’t enough to be right, especially with people who are stupider than you, like your teacher. You have to play the game a little.”
“Just give them what they want,” Agave said.
“You’re both saying be manipulative,” said Jayden. “That’s cynical.”
“I’m saying fulfill your obligations,” said Agave. “I don’t know what the hell he’s saying.”
“It would just be great if you didn’t see the bad side of everything,” Pentheus said.
“You want me to lie to myself then.”
“A pessimist is always right eventually, but he’s miserable all the time, too. Who cares if you’re right? You’re better off being happy.”
“So that’s why I have this shitty job,” Agave said. “It’s all my point of view. Thanks for fixing my personality, now I can go back to scrubbing floors with a more enlightened attitude.”
“Mom, you’re not helping. He’s a kid, he deserves a better chance than we had.”
“I’m the one who deserves better,” Agave said. “You had a great chance. Don’t go blaming me and your father.”
“I don’t deserve anything,” said Jayden.
“Don’t talk like that,” said Pentheus. “Of course you do. We all do.”
Tori burst through the doorway into the kitchen/den. “Dude,” he said to Pentheus, “What happened to your room?”
He still had not decided how to broach Athena’s visit, and now that the time to do so was upon him, he felt bereft. Tori took Jayden outside to see the thorns, and Pentheus and Agave cleaned the kitchen before they went to look themselves. By the time they got outside, a crowd of neighbors had gathered by the thorns that burgeoned like a wave about to crash from what once had used to be his wall.
“What on earth,” Agave said.
“I was visited,” he said.
“By whom? What kind of visit? What do you mean?
“Don’t ask. It was very serious. It’s an opportunity.”
“Or a warning,” she said.
“You’re saying it was a god,” said Jayden.
Pentheus said, “Yes.”
“How did you get noticed by a god? Who do you know?”
“I didn’t know anyone until now,” he said, omitting certain things because he didn’t how to explain them, and because, with his connections, he should really have done better.
“A god just fell out of the sky and came to see you.”
“There is justice in the world after all,” Pentheus said.
“The gods are supposed to help,” Agave said. “This will topple the house.”
“Did you ask about Mom and Dad?” Jayden asked.
Pentheus realized he had totally forgotten. “No,” he said, “but the god said it was coming back to check up on my progress, so I plan to ask then.”
Jayden frowned and turned to see the thorns. He walked up to the house and inspected them, and when he tried to feel them, they drew blood. “I can hardly assimilate this,” he said.
Agave shook her head, and Pentheus assured her they were safe, though her distress had hardened into disapproval. Tori looked enthused, but the episode had influenced Jayden in unprecedented ways: he looked absolutely stunned; alert and flushed and engaged, his eyes revived, lips muttering on their own, as they did when he was dreaming. He was hopping up and down, every part of him in motion, like a cat that chased a moth.
The family had their jobs and school to get to. Pentheus walked with his family through the dumpy little cabins of the settlement, with yellow chunks of trees chopped down for fire at their feet, laundry rippling in the wind, the scent of bacon, coffee, woodsmoke in the air. The sting of forest. He said goodbye to his mother and he kissed her on the cheek. The trail ran through the settlement in two directions. Agave would go east, to The Turnbull Plantation, and he would go west with his nephews. She demanded that he let her walk alone, and he pretended to assent, but he paid a pair of Turnbull’s servant girls who walked the same route in the morning to make sure nothing happened to her.
Saying goodbye to his mother reminded them both of Cadmus. They didn’t want to see each other’s faces so Agave turned away and he put on his helmet.
The trail switched back and forth through a gorge, trees crowded out the daylight, and the sky seemed more and more remote, but Pentheus knew how close it really was. Tori showed Pentheus his drawing. A woman floated naked on a river, and her hair appeared to wander from the river to the land, where it blossomed into tentacles of thorns that clenched a house and seemed to pull it toward the water. Pentheus said the image was incredible, that Tori had a vision, and though he didn’t know if it was true, he felt obliged to be encouraging.
His discussion of the drawing was halted by a river he had never seen before. It slashed across the ground like a spill which had yet to be absorbed; it hadn’t fully dug its trench. He and Tori splashed through water almost at their knees, but Jayden was reluctant, and had yet to pick a path when Pentheus had reached the other shore.
“What did your visit mean?” Jayden asked, his face so frantic and his breathing so excited Pentheus worried he would give himself an asthma attack. “What did you get out of it?”
“Inspiration,” Pentheus said across the water. He agreed with himself for the most part, but he worried, inspiration to do what? The river-sound added to his tension; it wasn’t merely new, it was loud. Whatever had caused all these new rivers was probably not good, but he’d been singled out by a goddess and felt a member of their team, so he would not complain. Tori drew the river in his sketchbook.
“So this god,” Jayden called, “whoever it was, it told you what to do.”
“Something like that, yes,” said Pentheus. “I’m going to be equal to my desire.”
“I said I’m going to be equal to my desire.”
“Equal to your desire,” said Jayden. “Like, if you want a thing, you’re going to take it.”
“Yes I am,” said Pentheus, with pride, for, in explaining this to Jayden, he’d explained it to himself. “I’ve learned that if we wait our turn, our opportunity will never come.”
“This changes everything,” said Jayden. He kicked his way through the water.
* * *
That night, Pentheus took his sword, checked to see the boys were sleeping, then he left the bungalow and walked around the outside of the settlement, so nobody would see him. Villagers often partied at the fire pit until dawn, which infuriated Pentheus, who tried to teach his sons productive habits and could have done without this contradictory information, especially since the revelers made indolence seem fun, and he himself wished to join, but he had to set examples.
The point is Pentheus had to go unseen. Nobody could know what he was doing.
He met the trail, which he followed to the Turnbull plantation, though he did not take the trail itself, but walked among the trees beside it, again to go unseen. The moon lit his way, and he knew the gods were watching. When he reached the grounds of the estate, circumscribed by tall and densely perfect hedges that acted as a fence, he took a canvas sack from his pocket and put it on his head. He had cut two eyeholes in it. He also had a metal glove from his armor suit, a candle and some matches, and his sword.
He used the sword to hack a passage through the hedge, and ran across the yard to the house, a three-story manor of brick, with a green back door and green windowsills. As a worker in the lumberyard, he had never been allowed into the house. His mother used the servants’ entrance. The back door was unlocked, for the Turnbulls felt secure, but he would smash the doorway later, in the manner of whoever had destroyed the doorway in the house with the river and the tree. He would also ruin other aspects of the house as they occurred to him, and his work would be ferociously obscene, so full of wrath it would look as though a god had done it.
The kitchen smelled of turkey and mashed potatoes, which he assumed his mother had made for dinner. The Turnbulls got more out of his mother than he did. It pissed him off. He wandered through the downstairs in the candlelight, through room after room of velvet sofas, shiny tables, shelves with books he wasn’t sure he wanted to Jayden to have access to, until he found the stairs, which he climbed, passing the portraits of the happy-looking family. He blew the candle out.
When he reached the second floor, he let his eyes adjust to the dark. He opened all the doors, and the rooms where children slept he left alone. He found the Turnbull’s bedroom; moonlight leaching through the curtains lit their bed. Turnbull snored. In the shadowdarkened doorway, Pentheus placed the metal glove on his hand.
Then he walked up to the bed and grabbed Turnbull by the throat.
Turnbull had a beard that overwhelmed his tiny chin. Even in his sleep, he looked exasperated. Pentheus considered him the man who had everything, and he wasn’t about to change his opinion now, even though he didn’t have a chine to speak of. “What the hell is this?” Turnbull said.
Pentheus hit him in the nose with his metalgloved fist.
“Leave this house now,” Pentheus said, and punched the man again, this time with more confidence and force, and again with more the third time. Turnbull’s nose was bleeding, and the pattern on his face seemed like carnations.
He felt justified from all of the adrenaline that surged in him, but he didn’t want to kill the guy, just to run him out in such a way that he would never think of coming back. “Leave,” he said again. “Take your family and fuck off somewhere else.”
Missus Turnbull was awake, and once she took the earplugs from her ears, she started screaming. Pentheus unsheathed the sword and pressed the blade-tip underneath her chin. “Move and you’ll cut off your own head,” he said. He’d been practicing this line, but it didn’t sound too good, so he said it again. Then he turned back to Turnbull. “What are going to do?” he said.
“Promise that you’ll leave,” Pentheus said to Missus Turnbull. “Say it now.” She said it. She didn’t want to fight, but he hit Turnbull one more time, to be certain he looked cruel. He decided to forgo damaging the house, for he felt he’d made his point, and he left without regrets, except for how the Turnbull children saw him from their doorways, shivering in terror, tears streaming down their faces.