Collage by SJ Powell.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of Bunker Projects or its members.For out latest addition to
The Hand-Off series we present a short, fantasy story by SJ Powell. In Mooncalf, Powell explores the easy excitement of one caught up popular ideology, our predisposition to forecast apocalypse, and how we might escape these traps by de-centering the self.
The farmer in the cowl snatches the poison the moment my back is turned. I flip the iron latch of my leather kit, withdraw the syringe, and tell him, without looking, “That is for your mooncalf, not you. You’d be wise to put that back where you found it.”
When I face about, the needle of the syringe held aloft like the rapier of a deathless man, the farmer does not flinch. He does not curse, protest my accusation, or attempt to curry my favor, for whatever his purpose in taking the poison may be. In his impenetrable grip, the teardrop vial is nearly hidden, folded away in a clumsy sleight of hand. Only the cork stopper is visible. Sometime during the farmer’s underhanded snatch it loosened, setting free the most principal smells of the concoction: sour vinegar and mild betony, rotting nightshade, the phantasmic aroma of the unturning root, and milk from a mother cow drawn under a black moon.
The farmer rises, bearing that impressive, threatening stature. The top of his cowled head almost scrapes the ceiling of his one-room shack but the darkness beneath the hood is so vast I cannot discern his face. I lift my syringe and await his next move. Will he throw me out of his home, my kit and poison cabinet of dried leaves, herbs, and roots flying after me? Will he keep my vial for himself?
I’ve never been robbed before. Common folk are often suspicious of my potions, thinking them little different from a swamp witch’s putrid botanicals. My scholarly appearance — my starched robes and trim hair — assures them that, despite the sordid nature of my work, they dabble no further in dark arts. The Master Apotheker is not the threat. Their mistrust of me is nothing compared to the terror and revulsion that overcomes the human spirit: convulsions that rack the skeleton and deluge of tears that flood stricken eyes at the odious sight of mooncalves, the beloved enemies of God, those wayward, malformed children.
“This is not a tincture to be used against your enemies,” I say. “There are others who provide such a service and I am not one of them. I am a doctor who deals out necessary death. I thwart apocalypse. That vial is for affliction. Your moon-blighted mare. Remember why you brought me here.”
“To kill my horse,” the farmer replies. “How can I forget?”
Meant to cure moon-blight in livestock and animals, the only way to cure being to kill, the poison removes the sinister influence of the Moon from bedeviled creatures. Moon-blight is a curse and a benediction. It is a plague that strikes once a month, when the face of the moon is full, and targets animals living and unborn. It is a parasite whose sole host is the mooncalf itself, the beast moon-blight rides like a man upon a horse. These are a few schools of thought, regarding the mooncalves. There are others: The Sin of the Mother, The Sixth Sign of the Zodiac, The Dark Side of the Moon. The Internal Tide claims the moon controls the tides and oceans of the body, the very life-giving water the fetus floats in. The moon in its phases twists and churns that water and fosters calves with two heads, two hearts, and six legs, human-faced piglets, and cold-blooded foals lithe as serpents. I have seen wolves large as houses with bellies big enough to swallow all the inhabitants. Docile lambs with snake’s fangs and the venom and speed to match. A rangale of luminous deer on stilt legs galloping across a field of wheat, waxy bat’s wings flung behind them like capes in a strict wind, the skim of their hooves across the golden ears of grain.
“Then you know what is at stake. You know what danger you court.” I hold out my hand. But the farmer does not relent. His hand clamps tight around the vial, a mind already made up. I try to look past the cowl, searching out the tendons in his neck that will receive my syringe with the most ease. The darkness there is seamless so I look to his arms and the hand holding the vial. His veins are turgid rivers, thick with blood, life’s heady, relentless course. I do not want to hurt him, this silent tower of a man who walked fifteen miles to my town office with the air of one who expected to be turned away and asked me, in the most abject of tones, to please kill his one, most precious horse, for she was sick with the blight and brought only misery upon the world through her mere existence. He was solemn company on the journey back. When he deigned to speak his voice echoed clear and loud over the rumble of the wagon wheels and the clop-scuff of Marius’ hooves against the pitted road. We arrived at his home, a sad stone-hovel with a sadder plot of gray-veined tubers weakly splitting the frozen dirt outside and a rough-shod stable where his moon-blighted mare resides. In the last light of the cold day, he tied Marius up for me. He threw a thick blanket over my horse’s spotted backside and put one broad, hairy hand on his wet snout before bidding me inside.
We huddled close to the wood-stove, teeth chattering until the fire woke and chased the chill from our extremities. The farmer accepted my offer of marigold tea, as many others before had refused, and he drank it stoically, without ever lifting his hood to reveal his face or mouth. Yet he drank deep. I refilled his plain, chipped cup three times and I did not want to hurt him as I rarely want to hurt anyone.
“Come now,” I say, with all the charm I possess. I try to conjure a spirit of fellow-feeling in him. “You must have seen or heard. How the moon spit fire upon the stars the day of the Old King’s assassination. That penitent green army marching from the south, enveloping all that they pass in mushroom and ivy. The sack of Ichenborough. The comets that startle the cows at night and the swarms of locusts eating up all the grain, the rising costs! The mooncalf encampments growing in the northern forests. The world is upheaval and we must do all we can to restore balance and protect our way of living. By order of the New King, Younger Brother Blessed by Great Knowing and his glorious visions of the Empyrean. You were right to call on me, sir.”
“The present system of things leaves much to be desired.” The farmer’s voice rakes the lowest mantle of the earth. I imagine he speaks little, with only a cursed horse and fetid tubers for company. “If only I were ignorant to the thousand ways the world finds its end.”
“The Enemy sends his armies,” I say, the adage coming easy. “We fight a thousand battles.”
“And how wages the war, good soldier? Tell me the terrible things you have seen, O butcher of mooncalves.”
His words are baited and I nearly bite. I am no butcher. I have seen the crown-appointed men sent to kill mooncalves and their methods differ from mine. Gleaming swords, sacred whips, and half-moon hatchets they wield. Their scent is steel and iron cut with blood. They are the rare souls with will enough to bear the sight of mooncalves without collapsing or losing their bowels. They are often priests, mothers, schoolteachers, woodsmen, shaman, or men of war.
It is said I am a more merciful killer than them. The Master Apotheker with his apotropaic poisons and potions of endless sleep. I am called a doctor because my profession has much to do with the natural processes of the body, the pulse of blood and the rate of breath. But death is death and killing is killing. I am the same as those God-driven hunters, my blade shrewd and keen.
“I have not come here to impress you with horrors. All that I have seen — great terror and great beauty are halves of life.”
“And my mare,” the farmer says, weary. “She is a part of life. She walks this earth as gracefully as all other creatures of the land, sky, and sea. Is she such a terrible thing, to be condemned to death?”
“I have not seen her. But if what you say is true – ”
“Born under a red moon, gorged on saint’s blood,” he intones. The auguries of the dismal birth dredge up from within him, like sludge-water from a poisoned well. “No birds cried and the air was thick with salt. The waves stopped and stood tall. The pendulum spun a wide arc like a knife cutting the wind. The swallows took the shape of a serpent shedding its skin. The chicken bones scorched in the fire and the cracks all read: the end is near, the end is near, the end is near.”
The auspices are so vile in their meaning that even I am beset with shivers. The syringe goes limp between my fingers. I swallow hard and reach deep for my conviction.
“Then she is a mooncalf,” I insist. “She herself a harbinger of ruin, destruction, and undoings in the weavings of our world. Wherever she goes, she will be hated and hunted. Wherever she goes, evil will be attributed to her. Her death stalks close and it will not be pleasant.”
The farmer shakes. The sight moves me like tremors in the mountains. I set the syringe down. I come around the table and stop short of touching him. What comfort can I give this man?
I say, “You love your mare deeply. You have protected her well and you protect her still. Your heart is admirable. I can tell you are good. When you put love in a thing, it is beautiful to you even if it is ugly to others. I do not wish to hurt your beloved horse. I will be gentle with her, to the end.”
“You will use this to kill her?” He opens his hand and the vial rolls in the valley of his wide palm. Inside the liquid roils, the color of fatty tissues. “Will she suffer?”
“I swear it will not hurt. It’s a dream’s embrace.”
The farmer says nothing. The hand not holding the vial flies out, not to push me back, but to pull down the cowl. It lifted marginally to reveal the shadow of his lower face. Hidden again, but the shape of his mouth and jaw sits with me like impressions of light behind my eyelids. I feel the beginnings of a headache, a ringing in my ears.
I resist the urge to kneel, to root out the darkness beneath the hood and get a better look at his face. “Will you take me to her?”
I worry he will refuse and bring the circle back round again. He closes his hand around the vial and nods, just once.
The floor of the stable is overlaid with a carpet of hair, overlong locks of glossy black. Not shorn or sheared, the hair flows as if growing from the scalp of a giant, healthy and sleek with oils. It blankets the wood walls and drapes from the low beams in trailing curtains, partitioning the stable into shadowed rooms and corridors. The farmer wades through the luscious hair like one who plunges into an oft-visited pond, an air of homecoming. He rises to the balls of his feet, perhaps without realizing. His balance and the surety of his gait reminds me of a goat.
I hesitate at the threshold of what is undeniably a creature’s den. I doubt I am welcome. But the farmer gestures and I follow. The hairs parts for the blunt instrument of my body, like water before a ship. The fine strands cling to my arms and give off an intoxicating scent, sweeter than honey from the comb. The many strands glitter impossibly in the near-dark and bring to mind beads of dew on spiderweb. Most of the hair lay loose and free, rolling like waves. Parts are plaited into large twists, like hardy rope. Tiny braids knotted around clay beads and river-shells. Thick bundles tied with tattered ribbon. The only seeds and scraps of color in that sea of blackness.
The moon-blighted horse rests at the end of the single stall, curled up in a deep pool of black hair, like a lady in recline. Hair shrouds her face and body in a gossamer vestment. I am struck by the impression of an unbearably shy woman, peeking at me past her tresses. Despite her coyness, I can see her hooves, splayed three in the front and one in the back, like the foot of a bird. The musculature of her legs tells me how she might run, not the cantor of a horse but the steady amble of a chicken. Her forelegs are folded across her chest like the dainty arms of a sprite. Her hooves are not human hands but if asked, I believe she could play the harp more skillfully than any court musician. They just have that look of capability.
The farmer enters the nest on his knees. He makes odd, chittering sounds, like the splintering of frost over a pane of glass. The horse greets him. The sound of glacial fissures hits my bones all at once. My lungs crush in my chest. My heart goes rabbit-quick with panic. I peer around the farmer’s bulk to see his moon-blighted horse in full. Morbid curiosity flares in me faster than candlewick under flame. These creatures at odds with the world, forsaken by the moon, at the edge of All-Knowing. What do they look like? How long will I last before I succumb to the sight of them?
She recoils from my sight and I think first: you poor thing. What a life you must live for flinching to be your nature. What persecution, what drudgery.
Such creatures have existed, reviled but not persecuted, for many years until the Age of Splendor saw their deaths bound into law. Birthed from the visions of the New King, justification for their deaths were sanctioned in the courthouses and since have taken up residence in the hearts, minds, and souls of all people in this doomed, foolish land. Mooncalves are a threat to human life, for they cannot be tamed or domesticated, made into workers or kept as companions. Their milk is toxic, their bones are ash, and their meat is full of worms. The only value is in their corpses — not as trophies or relics — but as the physical proof of death. Mooncalves are without fear. In the evergreen garden from which all earthly life sprung, mooncalves are the only creatures who do not submit to Man or God. They have alien will and they are so hideous, we cannot even look at them. They are an attack on the very senses, anathema to human living and sensibility. Each time a mooncalf is born, a calamity is unleashed upon the world. Their joy is fire-rain on our fields of wheat and barley. Their sorrow is pestilence amongst our elderly and young. The dust kicked up by their feet skews the heads of comets and brings them hurtling through our atmosphere, obliterating our homes and places of worship.
“Easy, dear,” I say and kneel. I keep myself where she can see me. I speak so soft, all sound dampened in that long-haired den. “Easy.”
Strands of hair fall unceasing from the roots of her glistening coat, a silken waterfall pouring without interruption or end. Her hair is not the dead hair of humans, limp and unfeeling. Her hair lives, shimmering as the air does on heated days. Each strand moves as if caught in a breeze, the floaty, shifting motion of a woman’s summer dress. The hair clothes her down to the fetlocks. When she moves her black head, neck sinuous as a swan’s but thick like a tree trunk, I almost forget how to see her. Her whole visage teeters on the very nerve of my eye that knows how to perceive. Blood bursts in my nose, phosphenes bob in my vision. The moon-blight sits in her eyes, silvery and limpid like spilled mercury. She is a horse, but her eye sockets sit forward in her skull like those of a wolf. A pale tongue slithers past her lips. I am indelible prey.
“How lovely,” I murmur. I dab the blood from my nose with the cuff of my robe. The farmer has not taken his eyes off me. His face is cloaked in black but his stare has more presence and weight than a hand on my shoulder. “What do you call her?”
“Umbra,” he replies. Her name is not any easy thing for him to give. I observe the way he pets her or rather, the way she touches him. He holds his hand outstretched. Hairs thinner than fishing line rise from the masses to curl and twine around his fingers and scarred wrist. They tug and he follows like a marionette, pulled deeper into Umbra’s cradle of hair. “She is my shadow and my heart. She is my savior.”
“You are indebted to her.” Never have I heard anyone speak of a mooncalf with such fondness and gratitude in their voice. Gratitude was usually reserved to me, for removing the mooncalf from one’s sight, relieving them of the affliction of proximity.
“I would not be here before you, if not for her. When I was trapped in a maze of darkness, she brought the light. When my captors sought to keep, she hid me in plain sight.” His tone takes up the arms of passion. Despite myself, my heart stirs. “My first steps as a free — a free man — I took with Umbra by my side. Can you understand a bond such as this? What it would mean for either of us to go without the other? Do you have any feeling in your heart? Any at all, Master Apotheker? Death-dealer?”
If I was a man given to speaking the truth, I would tell the farmer this: the first animal I brought into this world with my own hands was a mooncalf and I loved it more than God. A child myself, I was suddenly a mother, such was the force of my loving. My father’s farm was replete with livestock and I thought of the cows, the horse, the sheep, and the goats as my own kin, brothers and sisters, even mother, where I had none. I had many duties on the farmstead; I was at best a second pair of hands when my father had need of them.
I will never forget the mooncalf I helped birthed: a day after the full moon, I scattered feed for the chickens and the patterns left in the grain showed the bends of two riverbeds intertwining, two craggy mountain ranges jutting against each other. Later that day, one of the nannies went into labor and my kids were born — twin goats sutured along the spine. I will never forget those first, ungainly steps. How could a creature that should not be still know all the steps to living, without being told? Connected though they were, the kids walked like an argument, which was how I knew they were two, not a single kid as my father was bellowing. His disgust had a righteous sheen to it but it was nothing to the sun-on-ice glow of the kids’ furs. I searched their caul-slick bodies for the corruption of which he spoke but I could find nothing, not in their fur, not in their hooves, not in those pearl-eyes the Moon herself must have bestowed in their faultless faces.
The hatchet my father thrusted into my hands should not surprise you, farmer. It should not have been a surprise to me. He told me I am responsible for what I bring into the world. I cannot let evil prowl wild in the night.
Because he was my father and he was my law, I could not refuse. I was nine. I split firewood for the hearth and I was taught to swing hard and make decisive strikes. I did not hesitate. My children’s lives were short but they did not live long enough to suffer. I made it so.
To this day, these death-dealing hands have wrought nothing finer.
But my living is not made by telling the truth. So I say to him, “No feeling such as yours.”
“As I thought,” the farmer replies, lashing me with his bitterness. “You have no heart at all. You are all servants to your twisted morality. If the world needs saving, it’s from you — you men.” He bows his head and presses his crown to the mare’s, a gesture full of such grief and longing I do not need to see his face to know his tears.
His despair is contagious. “Sir, it is time. Please give me the vial, so that we may put Umbra down to rest.”
“Yes. You are right. It is time. It is time.”
I hold open my hand. The farmer stands tall, taller than he has before. The den bulges to contain him. Something is ripping, tearing. Everything is whole. His cowl grows edges as if carved by claws. The sudden height and breadth of him are stakes in my eyes. I gasp, wince against the pain in my skull, and force my head to my knees. But it doesn’t matter if I can see or not. I am a witness either way. Hear his words, falling harsher than thunder:
“Apotheker, you will know the end. Know my beginning. The soothsayers and the heads of town read the signs on my infant body and the signs — they told me because I could not read them — said the end, end. If I had a mother, I did not know her. I was no boon, no blessing. The head-men locked me in the earth, beneath the worms and the roots, trapped me deep with the airless things. Defenseless as I was, they could not simply kill me and be done with it. The portents of my birth granted me unholy protections. I am misfortune’s child. I am the sire of desolation. Cataclysm that I am, killing me would bring end to the world over. I would render the forests to sand. I would suck up the oceans and lakes. I would black out the sun. Left free, I would eat them up, soul and all. Know the precarity that I lived! Know the maze, know the dark, know every noble challenger sent to vanquish me! Know that I killed them all. I was the threat, the fortune, the fortress upon which the whole ruinous town lived. A kept thing, cherished beyond measure, hated beyond sin, cast into the dirt, granted every earthly misery except death. Now I shall have it! It is you who brought it to me!”
I raise my head in time to see; the farmer tosses back the contents of the vial like the poison he believes it to be. I have tasted the potion and I know its taste to be mild and unassuming, innocuous as the milk that is its true base. The most effective poisons have no taste at all. But the farmer swallows it like something foul, meant to kill, his body screwed in a grimace.
Head back, the cowl falls from his face and that unassailable darkness scatters, like leaves before wind. I see him in all his awful glory — I learn later that the vessels in my eyes burst and spread red across the white sclera. I do not register the way my whole body rebels against the sight, the spasm of my limbs, the throb of my temples, the near hack of my tongue on my teeth. I only see the crescent dance of his horns, brighter than bone, curved and cleaved like a cliff edge. His eyes are shut tight, wrinkling the age-old brand upon his furred forehead, an emblem whose origin I cannot make out. It is unimportant. My mind keeps catching on meaningless details, just to stop me from seeing his impossible body in full. The cowl must be charmed, I say to myself as a prayer, to conceal his true bearing. He is a battered, broken down ox. Stranger and kin to the species that plows a barren field under the fiery whip of a merciless master, and suffers season after season dragging a heavy load as the field sprouts vipers without ever knowing why, only that the lashes are his communion in life, the vipers the proof of his incapacity and that he might only exist for this: the field the labor the yoke the master. He is a pitiful beast, shaking like a child as he waits to die. He is frightened. I lose my terror and gain my wits.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” I say, calm for a man with blood in my eyes and mouth. “It wasn’t meant for you.”
“I see freedom for the charade it is. The world on fire and you people still choose genocide.” The vial held more than a single dose. He will fall and crash hard. The potion gathers a hold and runs him over from the top of his head, raking his uncut mane into shaggy peaks. “I refuse to play your game.”
“You need to sit down – ”
“The province of death is mine alone. You cannot tell me when to die.” He stumbles, one knee crumpling beneath him. His massive form slumping to the ground produces a fearful quake in the small stable. He slurs like mountains rumble in slumber. “You cannot choose when I die. None of you. Only I.”
His head lolls. Umbra rears to her hindlegs at the sight of her master lilting into unconsciousness and lets loose a sound like upset moonlight, cold agony. He gropes for her blindly. Still, he says to me, perhaps not to me, “Only I, only I.”
Umbra’s keen hits a spine-splitting pitch. Her floating hairs, once tranquil as river currents, writhe and roil, distorting the air. The dew on each strand fizzles and explodes, conjuring up starbursts of lightning that scorch the sleeves of my robe as I throw my arms up to shield myself. The scent of smoke hits my nose just as my stomach lurches. I cough and retch but nothing comes up. I steady myself and drop my arms.
Umbra is crouched low to the ground, as a wolf does before it strikes. Her hairs quiver and weave into a glimmering tapestry before the limp body of her master. I see him, then he is gone in a dastardly trick of light. This is how she saved him from the labyrinth, from those men. How clever! She lunges at me with her mouth bared, rows of scythe-like teeth. I step back and back no further. I hit the wall. Umbra cries again, that silver-needle tune, and extends one of her horrifying, adept hands.
My body can hardly bear it, that unnatural limb breaking space to grab me. I tremble, my mouth foams, but it is not fear. I have always been good with animals.
I empty and refill the tub three times before he wakes. My back is turned. I am studying the wedge of dawn between the barn doors. The line of my eye goes past the doors and onto the pasture. My ear, as always, is attuned to the sound of bells. Thirteen bells, all unique in pitch and tone, swinging about the necks of my children. So no matter how far they wander over the hills and plains that are our land and our land alone, I will know where they are. I am listening so deep to the melody of my children, the off-beat, ill-timed blongs and dingelings, that I miss it. The last of the potion coaxed out by the herbs and heat of the bath: hollyhock and mallow, chamomile and ground ivy all from my garden. I miss the moment his moon-bright eyes snap open and see, not the black misery of nightmare or the gray specter of death, but the swirls of dust and cobwebbed beams of the rafters, the cathedral-high vault of my barn, and dawn.
The bathwater sloshes. He takes a sharp, ragged breath through his bovine nostrils. Then:
“What Hell is this?”
“Hell to some, perhaps. Heaven to others. Marius and I brought you back to my home after you collapsed. Umbra is safe. She is just outside. The bath was to wake you. May I turn around?” I say all this in a single breath.
“You may not,” he says. He does not grab me by the neck and break my feeble body against the barn supports. He does not run me through or pierce me with his broken horns. He can do anything to me, with my back turned. My poisons asleep in their cabinet, my syringe and scalpel locked in their kit. I am at the mercy of fate, helpless as a kitten before a bear.
“Why am I still alive?” the mooncalf says at last. “Why am I here? The poison – ”
“It was not poison,” I tell him. “Not all the way. It brings about a sleep that resembles death. Juice of the mandrake and a bit of poppy’s milk to cut the nightshade. It slows the pulse, takes the living out of the limbs, makes you colder than a corpse – ”
I shut my mouth. I want to see him again in wakefulness, in the light, without the darkness of his cowl.
“You were never meant to die,” I speak, unbidden. “Not by my hands. Umbra neither. No one was going to die last night.”
The mooncalf scoffs, disbelieving. I feel the hot plume of his breath against the back of my neck and hear the gnash of his teeth like bloodied stones. “You expect me to believe such a thing? A sawbones of mooncalves who does not kill?”
“You’re alive, aren’t you? You brought me to kill Umbra and you’re both still alive.”
“That means you failed, butcher! I am supposed to be dead – ”
“I did not fail!” I shout. My ears ring in the silence that follows.
Water from the tub splashes onto my back. “Turn around, Master Apotheker.”
I do, shuffling on my stool. I lift my gaze when he bids me. My eyes burn as if rubbed in salt.
He stands in the bath, big in even the biggest of the iron tubs I keep. Water trickles off the end of his brown snout and plinks into the tub, whose oily surface hides his cloven feet. Again, my mind refuses the entire picture and instead catches on water taking the paths of rippling muscle and scar tissue. His hands arrest me. How benign they look, the kindly able hands of a carpenter or an artisan, all the dirt beneath the nails and the lines across the palms. His eyes, as if the moon floated down from her perch in the dark and took up residence in an ebony lake.
“You are a liar,” the mooncalf says to me. “None of this makes sense. You should be dead. Where is Umbra?”
“That was your brilliant plan? Leave her to fight to her death?”
His eyes narrow into twin blades. “Umbra has walked this earth since your mountains were plains. She should’ve killed you.”
“Maybe she would’ve, if I were a different sort of hunter. Hear me.” I rise and he looks surprised to see me so tall, buttressed by all the pride in my heart I feel but never show. I speak my truth.
“Every shepherd, dairy farmer, huntsman, priest, and godly woman who has to come to me, crying of the beast in the barn or the woods or amongst their flock — every single one of them who asked me to rid the earth of this abomination, this travesty against God, this denizen of the nightmare — I have refused them. I have denied them their petty deaths at every turn. In their cult of death I have created a stronghold! With my own hands. Years after years of lying, thieving, and scrounging to build it all. You are the proof. You are standing in it. Look, look around you!” I throw my arm wide to the cavernous barn, the empty stables of hay, the troughs of water and bags of feed. “Listen!” I demand and in the quiet between us swells the sounds from outside: the gentle chuffing and grazing of mooncalves saved and delivered, the dingding as they circle the barn, meander the hills, slake their thirst from the happy creek. “Do not mistake me for some sentimental fool. I know better than anyone that mooncalves are not creatures to be kept. Many I bring here flee within the hour. But they leave with their lives, theirs for another day. Those who stay, I make home with them! I am no butcher! I am a doctor – ”
A fourteenth sound pierces the melody. I go quiet and lift my ear to it. Not the single, hollow note of my children’s bells, it is a stirring aria, like the play of crystal snowflakes in a winter squall.
The sound rips the mooncalf wide open. The harshness of his expression — his vexation at his suicide denied — yields to silver tears. His snout streams rivers of mucus. His breath hitches. He did not believe me until he heard Umbra, alive and well.
“You are — you thwart apocalypse. I am the world’s end. I am blight, I am calamity. Why would you save me? Why would you save any of us?”
I touch him, as I have been wanting to since the moment he walked into my office and I spied his strange gait, his uncanny posture, and his tremulous voice, a creature trying so hard to speak the tongue of Man. I have to strain my arm to do so. His shoulder is warmer than smoldering coals, even damp.
“Men are makers of their own apocalypses. When my world ends, I will know because I will be gone with it. You can — you can convince a man that anything is moral. Anything to prevent the end of a world. I am a man. Perhaps I am mad to save you. But I cannot help it and I do not want to. I do not care about the worlds of others. Only mine.”
“I was growing my death mask,” the mooncalf says, through tears. “I was born for annihilation. I thought that if it were my choice, I would – I would – ”
He stumbles. I grab his other shoulder and try to control his fall but he is many pounds heavier than I. I end up wet, half-supporting him as he swoons in the tub. The severed tip of his horn brushes my face.
“What – what have you given me?”
“No creature is born marked for death,” I tell him. “Not even you. I know you did not intend to have this life. But you have it now. Will you live well, Mooncalf?”’
“Will you live well, Esau?”
His mouth moves but makes no noise. I withdraw and he watches me, ears flicked forward to hear every move I make before I make it.
I move slow for him. I walk to the barn doors and heave them open. Umbra glides in, followed by the dawn. She noses her way past me and surges to her master, trilling her crystalline song and laving his face in licks of her ivory tongue, as mothers do to newborns.
I have to attend to my children but I stop at the threshold to see his face once more. Esau has the dazed, wounded look of someone in an impossible dream. He accepts Umbra’s caresses with the same fear of unreality. I leave him there to ponder what he had never been given: his own life and a way to live it.
Before “Mooncalf” was a story, it was a writing exercise, prompted by the Wikipedia definition of the word mooncalf: a foolish person; the monstrous birth of a cow or farm animal; such malformed creatures are the product of the sinister influence of the Moon on fetal development. I had carried the definition around in my journal for a year or so without doing much with it. I found mooncalf an evocative, even affectionate name for so-called biological misfits and freaks of nature.
The writing exercise got me dreaming but the story really didn’t take off until this past summer, when I became interested in omens and fears of the apocalypse. In “Mooncalf,” I consider the apocalypse in its most fantastical sense — hideous monsters and moon-volcanoes spitting lava. I also emulate a long-standing human tradition of constructing apocalypse. What the end of the world looks like — the signs everyone recognizes and gathers as evidence that the apocalypse is nigh — differs according to specific cultural groups, contexts, and times. Across history, reformations in society have provoked widespread anxieties about the end of the world and an increased propensity for seeing signs and omens: political corruption and instability, looming war, rising costs, worldwide sickness and death, economic inequality, environmental degradation and destruction, even supernatural, otherworldly threats.
The nameless society of “Mooncalf” is Euro-Christian-inspired, possessed by a fiery hatred of the Other and driven to the evangelical persecution of the mutant livestock. The fun and challenge of this short story was coming up with a breed of animal that people in this context would really fear. Mooncalves’ grotesque appearance, of course, would provoke anxiety and disgust in a society with a great fear of cultural and social hybridity. But I wanted something more visceral, more than the visual. I really liked the idea of a species with its own agenda, a caste of animal ignorant of and disruptive to the Chain of Being and humanity’s status near the very top. Animals who cannot be tamed or domesticated, made workers or kept as pets. Their meat is inedible, their pelts and bones refuse to be clothes or tools. They are resistant and contemptuous of humans’ wanton exploitation of animal creatures. They are conniving, working toward their own freedom and an infernal rewilding of the human world. I didn’t want to make moon-calves saints. I think they are self-interested, capable creatures, innocent and guilty in the same way that humans are. For a culture with a strict hierarchical basis that believes humans to be Adam, sovereign over all other creatures, I thought a species of animal that could reject that notion with every fiber of their being might be very scary.
Most of all, I was very motivated by the character of the Master Apotheker. Once I really got to know him, I wanted to create his circumstances — a world in which a doctor must masquerade as a killer in order to save lives. All the conflict unfolded out of that premise. I was curious about a tender-hearted man who has to hide his love for ugly creatures. I wanted to write about this man being conscripted into someone else’s suicide. Through the Mooncalf, I wanted to commemorate the strength it takes to continue living in a death machine, a kingdom that manufactures your destruction, a nation that lives and breathes only because you die, yet refuse to die.
In the end, I like to write about monsters being saved. I like gloomy stories where dark clouds part to reveal glimmers of hope and love.
I am a writer hopelessly indebted to the books that I read, the games that I play, and the shows that I watch. They are the bright threads in the tapestry of any story I write. Here are some of the things that kept me company as I wrote “Mooncalf”:
The Plague Dogs, Richard Adams
Tender is the Flesh, Agustina Bazterrica
Castlevania, Powerhouse Animation
The Darkest Dungeon, Red Hook Studios
“The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac,” Mary Oliver
“To Prisoners,” Gwendolyn Brooks
 After the style of Octavia Butler, as seen in Bloodchild and Other stories.
 “Mooncalf.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Aug. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mooncalf.
 “The Little Book of Cosmic Horror.” YouTube, uploaded by hochelaga, May 19 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZWAX5L_t9k&ab_channel=hochelaga
 Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson
Collage Image Sources
- Kantor, Eliran. “The Divinity of Purpose.” 2013, Germany.
- Duraksama, “Flock of Birds Flying the Red Sky,” Pexels Stock Images, 2022.
- Williams, Ken. “Winter Solstice Dawn Illuminates the Passage of Newgrange.”
- Novoa, Pedro Requeko, “Minotaur,” 2010, Madrid.
- Leeashby1980, “Horse Stable,” Pixabay Stock Images.
- Kus, Agata. “Blue Sun,” 2020.
- Bresslern-Roth, Nobertine, (1891-1978) “Watusi Cattle Drinking”
SJ Powell is a Black speculative writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. Their work is concerned with non-human beings, strange intimacies, and worlds that are not our own. They received their BA in English and Africana Studies from Williams College. They are a member of the hotbed collective and a current Hutchinson Memorial fellow. Their work has been published in Atlas and Alice Magazine. They can be found on Twitter @sjpo_well.