Fiction · 01/09/2013

For Mom


Eliot was not like other angels. Finding heaven dreadfully boring — what with no smoking allowed and no harmonicas, only a monotony of harps and halos too constricting around the skull and awkward wings arousing muscle spasms shedding tiny feathers everywhere — he volunteered himself as an emissary and caught the next train homeward. Back on earth, he found the nearest bar and breathed in the beautiful filth of his favorite scent: lonely humans. An intoxicating blend of Whiskey and a touch of Pre-Rain, Desperation, with Slightly Burnt Strawberries (there was more to it than that, but for the afterlife of him the full anatomy of the cocktail he never could quite pin down), Eliot wished he could jar the smell and carry it around inside his trench coat forever. When a tuxedoed gentleman seated himself on the stool beside him, he recognized the pair of protrusions around his forehead. You’re from There, huh? Eliot said, sparking up a conversation. So how is it? Well, the gentleman paused to cough here: You can smoke. After some small talk, the two men decided to part ways, but not before trading business cards. Call if you ever consider switching employers, the gentleman had scrawled on the back of his card. That night Eliot went for a long walk through the city. Everywhere he went his favorite smell stung the inside of his nostrils: walking through the alleyway where a man in rags yawned atop a bouquet of bottles his head making a plush pillow out of rubbish, past the old folks’ home where a shriveled woman waited under the soft blaze of an EXIT sign for visitors who would never visit, and finally at the orphanage, where he leaned against a payphone to watch a girl sing some nonsense song on the front steps to nobody in particular. Digging out the card, he fumbled with the edges before picking up the phone. When a voice finally said hello on the other line, Eliot felt a tug on his coat. You dropped this mister, the little girl said, holding up a dented harmonica. No ma’am, I believe that’s yours, Eliot said, sending the girl skipping away with a smile, singing what he now recognized as an old hymn from his youth. Hanging up the phone, Eliot continued his walk through the city whistling, leaving a trail of torn up business card behind him and inhaling the fragrance of his favorite creatures — pinpointing at last the fleeting but unmistakable hint of Hope.



Eliot was not like other minotaurs. With no sense of geography, he became lost in his labyrinth so often that he was exiled from Minos by his own master. Subsequently hunted day and night by those whose relatives had been lost over the years to his father — a formally ferocious man-eater — Eliot was forced to hide among the scorched hills assuming the shape of a common bull whenever caravans would pass. One morning he was grazed by the arrow of a human exile named Adrift, revealing himself to walk upright if only to stay alive. Forgive me, Adrift beckoned, but I thought you were a bull. Before that Eliot had only ever spoken to his master, a vicious man who taught that all strangers were strange and should never be trusted, but from that moment on he and Adrift shared the same caves, helping each other to avoid those who would have their heads: Adrift teaching Eliot north from south, east from west; and Eliot teaching Adrift the art of hiding and the value of a good disguise. While Adrift was away gathering roots one morning, Eliot was caught off guard by a hunting party. Strapping him to a rock, they encircled him and readied their bows. I command you to halt! Adrift spoke from a ledge above. But my lord — they addressed their runaway king, late son of Theseus — we have come to bring you back, and here is one of the beasts that preyed upon our ancestors. Surely he must suffer our justice. No, Adrift decreed. Only if you spare him will I return with you. So Eliot was untied and told of a place where he would be safe from harm. Eliot followed the sun until he arrived safely in the west, where days later he was joined by a strangely familiar trader, who soon removed his beard to reveal himself as the exile-king. How did you escape? And why didn’t you take revenge on behalf of your ancestors? Eliot asked. Adrift grinned, flinging his crown down the hill, delighting in watching it roll before answering. A friend once taught me the value of a good disguise, and I knew from the moment I met you that you were no killer. You had no stomach for it, as I had no stomach for ruling men. And in short, we don’t inherit blood on our hands.



Eliot was not like other snakes. When the ancient serpents informed him their kind was the killing kind, the merciless kind, the kind that all other kinds would come to fear in the glowering nightscape, he decided he wasn’t going to be that kind. Gathered in the grove, all the ancients hissed hysterically at a young snake’s naivety: It’s not a decision to be made my dear serpent. We are what we are and that is what we shall remain. Coiled upon his throne of thorny vine and tiny rodent skulls, King Cobra stirred, sliding down to Eliot. Up close, his collection of scars and broken bones revealed a wisdom earned by many moons crossed and wars fought. Alright young Eliot, King Cobra began: You will go down to the great river then. When you get there, look into the water and report back to me what you find. So Eliot accepted his trial, crossing night toward the great river where he came across a stuttering toad, who immediately fell back in fright on his haunches. You’re afraid of me? Eliot asked. Of c-c-course, said the toad. But why? That’s when the toad led Eliot to the edge of the bank where three pearl-colored eggs lay shining. The very sight of them made Eliot’s mouth water, and no matter what he did he couldn’t shake the terrible impulse to swallow them whole. Do you s-s-see? trembled the toad. If not you, it’ll be another of your k-k-kind who c-c-claims them. The next night young Eliot was found limp in the river, having twisted his body around the eggs to protect them from a rival snake, but having failed. When one brave toad appeared before the grove’s court dragging young Eliot home with tears of gratefulness blinding his every hop, all the ancient serpents erupted in riotous laughter at a young snake’s foolishness, all except King Cobra, who lashed them with a look, ordering a hero’s burial for young Eliot. Bowing to the toad and forbidding any harm to come to him with a flash of his fangs, King Cobra retired to his dark hole, having seen the same thing in the river once many moons ago, and having tried as Eliot to change what he was, spared his life only to live out the eternal shame of his true nature.


Matthew Burnside is author of Escapologies, forthcoming from Red Bird Press. Right now, he is working on a book of flash fables about a boy named Eliot, who is not like the others. Matthew stomps around at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and keeps a list of his sins at