A Cherokee Nation creation story, Grandmother Spider Catches the Sun, was an inspiration for this series, but another influence came about after a trip to Louisiana. Spider webs as big as quilts were draped over the Bayou and in the middle of each was an orb weaver the size of my hand. They looped through those webs with graceful, tapered legs, one more gorgeous than the next. I’ve been hooked ever since.
I’ll write this as my personal truth; there is fear and then there is becoming a parent.
We were hosting a holiday party when my daughter choked. Someone had served her a slice of American cheese and paired it with a fruit roll up. After I’d fished the goop out with the hook of my finger and performed the Heimlich she finally breathed deep, but it is beyond me how anyone thought it was a good idea to feed that combination to a toddler (and walk away). Each edible sheet was so securely adhered to her plate a metal spatula with a serrated edge was required to scrape off the remains. Within a few weeks my hair line revealed a solid strip of gray and it occurred to me then that we are usually defined by what we fear most.
In 2017, The Harpy, A Suburban Fable was published in Vol. II of Woven Tale Press.
Once Upon A Time, there was a Harpy who lived on a hill in a beautiful circa 1882 Victorian nest in the suburbs. She was mean and drank too much. A quick word on Harpies; They are vain, cruel and self-involved creatures. It’s best if you can manage to avoid them entirely.
One day after she’d really tied one on, the Harpy stepped outside the hole-in-the-wall she’d spent half a day in and stood blinking at the sun. As she staggered along the sidewalk, she caught a glimpse of her startling reflection in a storefront window and hesitated a bit to fluff her feathers. When an unsuspecting woman walked past and accentually brushed against her wing, the Harpy reacted by screeching into her face, “Watch where you’re going, you leathery handbag or I’ll pluck your ancient eyes out!” The poor woman toppled to the curb. This outburst and others like it were the reasons people didn’t like her; the half-bird thing was something they would have eventually come to terms with.
Every year, the Harpy traveled with friends to the State Fair at the edge of town. She decided to get all dolled up for the occasion. First, she rouged her cheeks and then applied a long, thick black line around her eyes so that she resembled an Egyptian queen. From her extensive wardrobe, the Harpy chose a reflective bodice embroidered with festive, sequined flowers and for the finishing touch, pinned a flouncy hat to her sea of auburn curls. As she added the last touches to her deplorable catastrophe of a make-up application, she thought to herself, “I’ll be the best thing those meat sticks have ever laid their pathetic little eyes on!”
The Harpy flew across the harbor to the next town over and landed on the front step of a friend’s house. Janice was a founding member and level-three priestess of the Our Lady of the North East Coven. When she wasn’t casting spells upon her neighbors, Janice taught piano lessons to a steady stream of local children and a handful of adults. Her saltbox shanty sat on a dilapidated dock that jutted out into a sheltered cove.
The Sea Witch opened the door and beamed a smile at the Harpy, who in turn squinched up her shellacked face in an expression of disgust. “Gad, Janice! Smells like mothballs and armpits. What are you making?”
“Cabbage soup, would you like a bowl?”
“I’ve already eaten, thanks. Twice. Once before I left home and after smelling your colossal mess of a soup, that last meal has come back up for a visit.”
The Sea Witch drove a 1985 Volvo down a poorly lit gravel road. A pebble was kicked up by a tire and met with the Harpy’s eye, but her fake lashes folded over the stray like a venus fly trap.
“Why must we always take my car, Bertie? Why can’t you fly every now and then?”
“I like to be driven around and I like to drink, Janice. I do not like smashing into things, which is typical when I drink and fly.” The Harpy preened her downy undercarriage and a stream of tangled fuzz trailed out the back windows. A half an hour later, they were parked in front of the Sunset Retirement Community Center.
The Oracle had lived through several great wars, the Crusades and had once mentioned something about a Great Pyramid debacle, but as she was as old as dirt her commentary was barely decipherable. She sat in the foyer of the community center with an aide next to her wheelchair. “Load her in the back. Janice, pull your chair up. There we are.” The Harpy adjusted her seatbelt so it didn’t catch her feathers. “Janice, how long is this going to take? My gentleman friend is meeting me in front of the Gravitron.”
The Sea Witch drove in a gigantic circle for the next twenty minutes and in doing so, unintentionally retraced their route over half the county. They also managed to defy the laws of physics when the Harpy became impatient, jammed her immense wings out the back windows of the Volvo and flew the car up into a tree. The Oracle’s magnified eyes gazed imploringly over the upholstered car seat and the Harpy panicked. “This plan needs some magic mojo, Janice! Let’s have it!”
“Honestly, I would feel more comfortable if I had my book with me so that I could prepare and review.”
“Janice, I’m telling you right now that if you don’t cast some mother load of a spell in a jiffy, we are going to resemble that horrific excuse of a soup you tried to feed me back at the house.” As if to drive the point home, the car began to sway. There wasn’t a minute to lose. The Sea Witch snatched her wand out from the glove compartment and in hushed tones, began to recite the spell.
“Oh Pine tree, dripping with motor oil brew,
Fill our fenders with sap for some super strong glue.
We will tread down your sinewy trunk where it grew,
And arrive at your bottom feeling good as new.”
The Harpy and her cohorts landed quite plainly in an open field, matted with pine needles and sap. The car engine wouldn’t start so they left it behind, along with a written note in cursive wedged between the window and the dashboard explaining to whomever read it that the owner would be back in the morning. They didn’t bother taking the wheelchair from the trunk because no one wanted the trouble of unfolding it, but the only way to transport the Oracle was for her to ride on the Harpy’s back. Although she was as light as a feather, the Harpy was still put out by the inconvenience. After twenty minutes of walking, they found themselves in front of a local watering hole.
“Guess what? You two peons may join me in a celebratory drink in honor of being in my presence. This evening has been nothing short of a complete and utter waste of my precious time!” The Harpy wailed. “This outfit is saturated in sap, completely ruined, you can’t get this stuff out of anything. Unbelievable! I need to unwind, girls, so let’s hustle!” She plucked the Oracle off her haunches and shoved the elderly pair into the musky den. Once inside, the Sea Witch escorted the Oracle to the bathroom, leaving the Harpy to perch on her favorite stool and brood. She spotted the bartender hiding behind the beer taps.
“Barkeep! I’ll have a triple quadruple on the double! Make it snappy, hayseed!” She frequented the bar so often that the poor man knew the drill. He lined up five long stemmed glasses and proceeded to pour five dirty martinis with fistfuls of olives in each.
As the Oracle and and the Sea Witch shuffled back from the restroom, a thin man with a hollow face rose up from his seat at the back of a bar. He sported a black leather jacket embellished with thick, metal spikes and on the back was a primitive rendering of a 1980’s hair band.
Janice and the Oracle sat down next to the Harpy. The Sea Witch waved down the bartender while he was frantically mixing another batch of martinis. “Young man, I’d like a Diet Coke and my friend will have a club soda with lemon. Thanks very much.”
“What are you supposed to be?” The question was posed by the man in the leather jacket. The bartender left his post and slowly walked toward the exit sign. A smattering of intoxicated locals scuttled underneath tables and the Harpy looked up from her drinks. “The Andrew Sisters.”
The man made a sound like a chainsaw that could have been interpreted as a laugh.
“Maybe seventy years ago. Now I’m looking at the local mutant barfly, a librarian and a wrinkled up strip of beef jerky.” He smelled like cigarettes and hard liquor.
The two old souls pulled away from the bar and retired to the back with their carbonated beverages. Bertrudence, the name she’d been known as for the last few hundred years, turned to face the stranger behind her. She dramatically flexed her talons, arched her back and fanned out her wings. “I’m not supposed to be anything. You’re probably supposed to be employed, sober and relevant, but you aren’t.” She sucked down a fourth martini and whistled through her teeth. “Life sure is funny.”
The interior of the bar was illuminated by the sickly glow of neon beer advertisements. The Harpy couldn’t tell if the man was actually beginning to swell in height and girth, and his skin, originally a blotchy ochre, was darkening to a moldy green. He pulled back and swung, caught her throat and launched her toward the back of the bar. The Harpy smashed into a wall and nearly went through it, but instead remained suspended in a hole, upside down, encased in faux wood paneling and plaster.
“Bertie!” The Sea Witch called out from underneath the pool table. “You’re stuck in the wall!”
The Harpy coughed out some plaster dust. “I am well aware of that, Janice.”
The man was now a monster. He snaked through barstools and patrons, deliberately kicking people with the silver tips of his boots. Just before he reached the Harpy, the Oracle put down her club soda and moved to block his path. She levitated off the floor, just a little.
“A mighty spell will land upon thou cheese block noggin’ to dissuade thee of untimely infantilizing!” The Oracle looked exactly like what she was; a seven-hundred-year-old partially mummified floating woman who was howling her latest vision.
The Harpy’s attacker had morphed into something that looked more like a gargoyle than a man, and removing the Oracle was as easy as flicking a beetle from his sleeve. The Oracle landed in a crumpled heap on the far side of the room. As he grabbed the Harpy by the neck and peeled her out of the wall, she managed a gargled moan toward the Sea Witch.
“This is unprecedented! I’m out of hooch and about to get plucked by this psychotic redneck! Please get out your wand and get us the #$@% home!” The man tightened his grip and shook her so violently that it looked as if a comforter had exploded. She resigned herself to sinking into a silent abyss.
When the Harpy opened her eyes, she found herself suspended in a great rolling skyscape. Towers of billowing clouds illuminated searing gold and brilliant red so fantastical that nothing on this earthbound plane could compare. She was majestic, regal and absolute in fearless, angelic perfection. Somewhere in the distance she heard a shrill siren, but she was so distracted by her happiness that she ignored it. The ends of her wings radiated a pure, unadulterated light. The noise fired up again, becoming louder and louder, a horrible, grating sound and something hard and gritty was mashed up against her face. It took a few beats before she realized she was on the floor and the horrible noise was coming out of her own mouth, so she closed it.
The Harpy gingerly raised her head and caught sight of overturned tables and splintered wood. A sharp pain ceased her movement as she tried to turn her head and she began to cry.
The Sea Witch was sitting on the floor of the bar holding a pack of ice against the Oracle’s head.
“What happened? I thought I died. It was nice.” She sniffed and started to sit up again.
“Everything happened so quickly. I ran over to Agnes and assumed the worst, but look- she’s very pliable. Then I turned to you and that whatever it was, honestly, I wish you would exercise some restraint in choosing who you spend your time with. He said he was an old boyfriend.”
“How did it end?”
“I turned him into a bug. We were going to put him in a glass and save him for you, but he was accidentally trampled by someone on the way out.”
Tears ran down the Harpy’s caked on foundation in channels. The pasty flecks pooled together with the eye shadow and gave her a garish, yet wistful, expression. “Maybe it isn’t worth going through this world alone. I don’t know. I’ve always been something of a loner.” She peeled off one fake eyelash, balled it up and dispensed it into an ashtray. “Maybe I need to soften my edges a bit. After all, what’s the point of inflicting misery upon the masses if there isn’t anybody around to enjoy it with? Isn’t that the fun of a shared experience, having witnesses around to watch the carnage unfold?”
The Oracle took a sip of her club soda. It had, remarkably, stayed upright.
“Thou unholy coupling with yonder allegorical green beast is haunting to mine own senses! Thee has’t causes great cataclysmic upheaval of odiferous drinking establishment.”
The future was bright for these magical, supernatural gals. Finally, after so many centuries, they had the perfect opportunity to band together and get down to the business of unleashing their collective fury upon the world of mortals. They promised each other they would do just that, as soon as they learned how to play bridge. The End.
Jennifer G. Peper is an artist and a writer. Since 2016, her essays and short stories have been included in Knee-Jerk, Gone Lawn Magazine and Woven Tale Press. She has collaborated in several art exhibitions, including the traveling literary/visual art exhibit, A Book About Death and most recently, her illustrations were showcased in Taxicab magazine.