Rabbits make themselves low and eat clover, as the swishing blades rush by their heads. The scythe-men have no tender hearts for terrified hares. They keep a clean path to the temple through the yard. No sweat swims their eyes, no daydreams dull their chop. The master cracks no whip, raises no voice above a whisper, yet they toil on. They gather up the grass in linen sacks for their mother. Into the temple they file, past her hungry maw, each son feeds her a fistful of sweet greens from his sack. Each is careful of her sharp, formative teeth. Mother’s tiny belly swells to fill the silence of her temple tomb; its intestinal murmurs bring a flush of pride to the bloodless cheeks of her sons. Eyes glistening with greed, Mother’s delicate tongue gestures for more grass. Soon, her infantile face swells and is nearly swallowed by the tide of her glut. The scythe-men must leave Mother to digest, to ferment, but first, she needed a lullaby.
The required soloist, a boy soprano, was hard-won. The scythe-men grazed for days to find this morsel of a lad. Village parents taught their broods to be quick and cunning. Children hid in the jungle of concrete ruins, avoiding the wild lawns and overgrown grain fields. Adept at snaking low, they wove betwixt passages webbed with wire and steel, the children hid themselves from the scythe-men’s would-be blows. Yet, the scythe-men managed to coax one of them out- with candy, of course.
Little Gus was a young lad, but he already possessed the gastronomical passions of his forefathers, who were prolific professional donut bakers. His ancestors were raised on holes and filling. However, Little Gus, a child born into the wasteland world had never tasted a donut. Nor a bar of chocolate. Not even frosted shredded-wheat. But the lust for the sweet was in his blood, and Little Gus was spanked more than once for stealing honeycombs from the table of Mrs. Minchin, the beekeeper. So, it was no surprise that on a sunny May day, the last day of school, Little Gus followed his nose out of the safety-net of the crumbled metropolis and ventured into the forbidden fields.
The scent, an irresistible Pied-Piper, lured him deeper and deeper into the tall grasses. It smelled better than honeycombs, better than mint, and far, far better than apricots. His fat tummy growled and jiggled as Little Gus pumped his sausage legs faster towards the sweet smell’s source. Abruptly, he found himself standing at the edge of a neatly mown circle, paths leading from the center like the spokes of a wheel. Creeping cautiously into the clearing, he turned around slowly, uncertain of which path to follow. His pug-nose made the decision for him, as a slight breeze wafted the scent from the path to his right. After a sixty-second jog, the boy emerged from the path unto the expansive lawn of a stone house. A very squat house, it rambled far and wide in every direction. A very curious house. But Little Gus didn’t care a frig about the house, for he was focused on what was on the lawn. It was a giant black pot, suspended from a metal bar and chains, over a pit of burning wood. Attending to the cauldron, stood a semi-circle of gaunt men in stained coveralls and brimmed straw-hats.
Little Gus should’ve turned back. His community had raised him to be wary of strangers. Yet, when one of the men beckoned him with a gesture towards the pot, he eagerly obeyed. Stirring the pot with what looked to Little Gus like a stick with a curved knife strapped to the top, the man stopped to unbuckle a tin cup from his belt and held it out to the boy. He gestured “closer, closer”. His hungry animal-brain devouring his rational human-brain, Little Gus rushed to grab the cup. Crooking his leathery arm, the man made a dipping motion into the pot and gestured for the boy to do the same with his cup. Carefully avoiding the fire below, Little Gus peered over the edge of the pot and was overcome by the scent of the brown, creamy pool of swirling liquid. It was the first time he had ever seen chocolate. He thought he would faint and die from the pleasure of the smell before the liquid ever hit his lips. Choking for a second as the cloyingly sweet chocolate sauce coated his tongue, he quickly recovered, then sloppily gulped the rest. Little Gus, looking very much like a piglet after a mudbath, chin and shirt dripping with sticky goo, dunked his cup back in for seconds. Then thirds. Then fourths. He didn’t bother to ask permission. Dunk. Gulp. Dunk. Gulp. The men stood by and let him have his fill. He drank the pot dry.
Little Gus woke-up in the darkness and was very, very sick. Sick as a hound-doggy, as his momma would say. Where was his momma? He was sure this wasn’t his cozy hovel home. He wasn’t even on a proper bed, just curled up on a stone floor. Couldn’t even remember going to sleep. Last thing he did remember was the heavenly brown drink. Oh, the thick sweetness!! He then spewed that thick sweetness all over the floor. Again and again and again. Ruined for sweets forever, he was quite sure of it. His momma was gonna strangle him with her brawny, shopworn hands when she saw all that brown sick on his shirt. If he ever got to see his momma again, that is.
He figured it must’ve been the guys in the cover-alls who put him here, wherever “here” was. Probably some kind of dungeon. Sort of thing he heard about in fairy-tales. In the stories, bad people were always getting put in dungeons for doing bad things. But he hadn’t done anything bad, had he? Racking his brain, he suddenly remembered the chocolate. Another wave of nausea overtook him. Of course! Stupid! He had forgotten to ask for more of the brown drink. Just took what he wanted. Took all of their drink without asking. Little Gus had completely forgotten his manners. That must’ve been it! Manners, his momma always said, were invented to keep people from killing each other. Well, he forgot his and now he would probably die.
Unless… unless he killed the other guy first! No that wouldn’t work, dummy. There’s like, a whole gang of those guys, and you’re just a kid. They could break you into bits with those knife-sticks. He wanted to scream and thrash his limbs about, but held it in and only moaned a little. Curling into fetal-position, he squeezed his eyes shut real tight- that always helped him think. Think Gus, think! His cogs were clogged with cream, but they began to turn, albeit slowly. So, he had lost his manners. What did his momma tell him to do if he lost his manners? The spankings with the chewed-leather belt he certainly couldn’t forget, but what was it she told him to say afterwards? His sugar-crashed brain struggled to remember…
“I’m sorry!” Little Gus cried out.
That was it, those were the words. If he lost his manners he was supposed to say sorry. He would apologize to the strange men. It couldn’t hurt to try.
“I’m sorry! Hey guys! I’m really, really sorry I drank it all! I should’ve asked you guys! Please come back! I’m sick!” the boy screamed and pleaded until a patch of light finally illuminated his miserable face.
One of the men stood in the open doorway and motioned for Little Gus to get up and follow. He jumped up and wiped his mouth on his sleeve before squeaking out, “I’m sorry, Mister, about not askin’ for those seconds! I’m real sorry and I’d like to go home now! Please.” He made sure to add the “please,” this time.
But the man in the straw-hat ignored him. Little Gus panted, trying to keep-up with the man’s rapid pace as he led him through a series of intersecting tunnels and up and down and up and down several flights of stairs, carved from the stone of the floor and roof.
“Is this the way out, Mister? You takin’ me outside?”
The man took a sudden right turn, through a narrow slit in the wall, which Little Gus would’ve trotted right past, had he not been yanked inside by his shirttail. The chamber was like nothing the boy had ever seen. It was vast. In the ruined metropolis of his home, there still stood the skeletons of skyscrapers and the broken eggshells of concert halls, but nothing like this. The walls, pocketed with niches stuffed with bizarre knickknacks, babydolls, bones, smoking pipes, gator-heads, strands of shining beads, rose up perhaps thirteen-stories to meet a circular vaulted-ceiling. Little Gus knew he must be indoors, but the ceiling glittered with what looked like stars. An enormous, metallic, sickle-shaped moon hung down on chains from the dome. Linen bags, some overstuffed with grass, were piled high against a section of wall. All the men were there, straw-hats in hand, blank-faced, surrounding a curtained platform in the center of the room. Little Gus had a dreaded feeling that his apology had not been accepted.
“Um, excuse me. Guys? Can I guy go home now, please? Please? I promise I’ll mind my manners and my momma can pay you back for the brown drink and I’m so sorry, really, guys, so can I please go home now? Please? Look I know I was rude and—“
“What’s your name, child?” A voice from behind the velveteen curtains interrupted him sharply.
A female voice who called him “child,” yet sounded like a child herself? One of the men prodded him in the ribs and he spit out an answer, “Little Gus. Um, well, it’s actually Gustov. Gustov Heinz, um, uh, ma’am.”
He felt that the addition of “ma’am” might score him some of what his momma called ‘brownie-points’ (he had never had a brownie, but imagined they were so amazing that they were once used for currency).
“Little Gus, is it? Hmm… are you quite little?” Her voice was a golden purr.
“Not at all,” he said proudly, puffing out his gut, “I am quite fat!”
Tinkling laughter danced out from behind the mossy curtains.
“Good. Very good. Very glad to hear it. Fat boys are my favorite.”
Little Gus blushed scarlet.
“Little Gus?” she crooned, “would you be terribly sweet and sing me to sleep? I need a lullabye to send me off.”
The boy shuffled his clunky feet. Well, he did have a good voice. Always picked to sing the highest “hallelujah” for the caroling time. He knew he was gifted. Proud of it, too. But why was he blushing? Why was he shuffling and smiling like an idiot? These crazy guys kidnapped him, and now he was grinning like a doofus, just because some girl, who he hadn’t even seen, wanted him to sing? Some girl? Boy, he sure was sick, all right!
“Okay, listen, if I sing for you,” Little Gus cleared his throat, willing his voice not to break, “if I sing this, um, lullabye for you, will you let me go home? Tell your guys here to take me back?”
Tinkling laughter became a deafening clang, as the creature behind the curtain boomed her mirth, amplified by the vaulted chamber. He cringed. Laughter assaulted his ears.
“Okay,” he said, after her laughter died, “I’ll do it. I’ll sing. Is there a song you want or should I choose?”
“Oh,” she giggled, “you choose, you choose.”
“And you promise that I’ll get to go home?”
“Oh, yes,” she replied, in almost a whisper, “please begin.”
But what to sing? He knew plenty of songs, for sure. The other boys had always teased him and mocked him for his ability to hit the highest notes, but he knew they were just jealous of all the adult attention he got. After clearing his throat a few times and doing some vocal exercises to warm up, Little Gus sang an ancient favorite of his momma’s. It began with, “First I heard a sacred chord…” and it crescendoed with a “hallelujah” so powerful that it shook trinkets down from the alcoves and elicited sobs of joy from the girl behind the curtains. When he finished, Little Gus wiped a tear from his own eye. The strange men remained unmoved.
“Little Gus,” she called, her voice breaking, “will you come here and let me hold you, while I fall asleep?”
Little Gus didn’t want to be held by her. He wanted his momma. He wanted to get away from this creepy cave and these soulless men, but it seemed the girl controlled everything. Sensing his hesitation, a few of the men stepped towards him.
“Yes! Okay, yes! I will,” he called out, “but you’ll let me go home after this, right? Promise? On your heart, hope to die, promise?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of keeping you. Now come.”
Making his way swiftly to the platform, Little Gus threw back the curtains. What confronted him was the most beautifully horrific creature he could ever have imagined (and he had imagined some beautifully horrific things in his young life). She was a girl. A girl he knew! Or, rather, he used to know. She was Violet Snodgrass, from his village. She had gone missing last summer. But this wasn’t the Violet Snodgrass he remembered. No, not at all. The Violet Snodgrass he remembered had vibrant red hair and porcelain cheeks smothered by freckles. She was the kind of girl who moved like an agile alley-cat through the jumbled ruins of their town.
The Violet before him looked as if she couldn’t possibly move an inch of her massive, blubbery bulk. Reclining in a bed of what looked to be soil and tangled vines, her once fair skin had taken on a puce hue, the face, bloated, obscured the once-smiling “Irish eyes,” and her russet hair was snarled with thorny flowers and skanky weeds. She was pregnant with nature, beaming with the bounty of the land. She was Mother. She was the greedy goddess. Her essence was gluttony; she found a kindred spirit in Little Gus.
“Come, come boy, you know me.” She held out her plump arms.
Little Gus tried very hard to resist, but he was heady with her scent and let her enfold him in her bier. Violet-who-was-not-Violet rocked him to and fro, while she hummed his lullabye, “Hallelujah.” It was the village song. It nurtured them. It sustained them during their bitter winters. And here, in the apex of spring, it would help them grow. But a village couldn’t live on music alone. You had to feed a village for it to live. Feed it to grow. Little Gus, fat little mascot of the village, cherubim with the voice of gold, felt his tummy growl. Violet felt it, too. Her arms wrapped tighter around him, pressing his mouth into her massive neck, humming louder and louder “hallelujah,” as he panicked for breath.
Little Gus fought back the only way he knew how. He ate. Opening his jaws as wide as he could, he grabbed the fleshy folds of her neck and chewed. Oh, Violet would’ve struggled harder, but the vines conspired to hold her down. Her soil bed lapped up the blood. Violet’s neck was even sweeter than the brown drink, and his stomach growled with insistent pain, the second-brain demanding more. He hadn’t eaten all day, after all. The cheek-meat was like clover. Her thighs smacked of cinnamon, and her rump held a surprising hint of honeycomb. The entrails, though tempting, he left to the beetles and worms that burrowed up from her bed. When he had finished, so stuffed he could hardly stand, the scythe-men were there before him, wiping him clean with wet grass.
The whole village rushed to meet Little Gus as he emerged from the field.
“Hallelujah!” cried his momma.
“Hallelujah!” cried the whole village, even the boys who picked on him at school.
Funny thing was, his momma didn’t even mind that he couldn’t say where he’d been. She didn’t even ask. No one asked. She was just thrilled to have him back from the field in one piece. After making his favorite dinner, she plied him with honeycombs, his favorite treat. But Little Gus said something that they had never heard him say before, “No thanks, I’m full.”
That winter in the village was remarkably warm and wonderful. Everyone got plump. Their harvest sustained them. Hallelujah. And in the next spring, the rabbits made themselves low and ate clover, as the swishing blades rushed by their heads.