The moon child, Hala, stood in a squat clay shack on the cusp of the Tanzanian wilds working a mound of bread dough with the heels of her hands, throwing her whole body into the movement as though it was the rough beginning of a ritual, a moving of the spirit. It was near nightfall and the fat sun hung low in the sparse summer sky as the moon rose, bright and gibbous. On the cot behind her the boy sat, singing a lullaby.
Hala gazed through the open window and across the dead yard to the plot where her mother was laid to rest years prior, and watched the long shadows lapse across her grave. Before the sickness took her her mother was favored, blessed by the spirits. She was not moon touched, like Hala and her brother, but she could speak to the spirits in their own tongue, and read the words of gods. She knew, and had always known, what there was to know about the world, and she held all of its secrets and evils in her mouth like the memory of a song half forgotten.
Sometimes in the dark of the night when the boy, still a babe, slept soundly between the two of them Hala’s mother would whisper the world’s secrets into her ear. She spoke to her of dark delights and the men that roamed the shadows, combing the plains for all of the good things the gods kept from them. She spoke to her of haints and the witches who bound them with the dark craft, told her the tales of gods and God and the magic of the moon and sun and the bright scatter of the shifting stars. She spoke to her of pain, the hunger that burned in her belly like a hot coal. She spoke to Hala without saying anything at all.
In the days before her death, her mother told her stories of her own kind. She spoke to Hala of moon children, a race of pale skinned white haired men and women like her and her brother, born with the moon’s magic in them, true as blood. She told Hala about a man of the moon, white skinned and white haired, who was found limbless on the open plains, and left to the vultures. There were murmurings of the men who killed him, hunters who harvested his arms and legs and took them west to the witch king who paid them thousands in return. There was talk of the dark craft, talk of spells and shadows, soothsayers who practiced in the westerns wilds; whispers of witch work and snatchings, children of the moon like Hala and her brother who were maimed and slaughtered or taken in the night never to be seen or heard from again.
Or so the tales were told.
Behind Hala the boy stood, chewing a bit of burnt bread. A men’s shirt hung over his shoulders loose, the frayed hem touching the tops of his knees. He was barefoot, dirty, his blonde kinky hair matted with mud, his face traced with sweat that slipped down his cheeks like tears. His lips were chapped and bloodied.
“Tell me a story,” he said.
Hala drew the shade across the window. “There are no stories to tell.”
Hala did not consider herself particularly magical. She had no power to heal the sick or speak
in the tongues of spirits. None of the haints or wild gods came to visit her in the night. She could not see the future in the flames of a rising fire, or command the water to surface in drought times. Hala couldn’t call rain from the clouds or bring food to their table with a plea or a prayer. She had no say over the world, no power to wield the way her mother did.
All she had was the boy, the shack, and the meager reap from the red clay dirt.
She had the flesh and bone she was born to and little else.
That night Hala slept on the cot, the boy tucked into the crook of her waist, listening to the whisper of the rolling high grass. The wind rustled through the shack’s thatching and the air was heavy with heat. The bright cast of the moon shafted in through the windows and the night birds sang the songs of slumber.
Hala drifted, drawn into the grey tide of her dreams, losing herself as she slept. She saw her father on his deathbed, tearing at his bandages and binds. And then her mother perched atop a wooden stool plaiting her hair in front of a mirror. She saw her brother grown into a man, the spirits dancing all around him, saw shadows reel about the walls, saw snakes and lions walking on human feet.
Then she woke, to a sound like the whistling of crickets, and saw a faint shadow slip past the window. She rose to find her mother, looming in the threshold, the white moonlight about her shoulders like the pale covering of a shroud.
“The witch’s men are coming,” she said in a scraping whisper that filled the shack like a rising wind. “You must take the boy and run. Take him to the sea.”
Hala’s heart slipped into her belly, thrashing. In the corner of the shack the boy pulled at his sheets, mumbling gibberish, snoring.
“The moon is up,” Hala whispered, her voice thick with sleep. “We’ll be seen.”
Her mother skimmed across the room, moved to the foot of the bed and stood above them, faint as a shadow.
“Go to the wilds,” she said. “Go or the hunters will come for you. They will give your bones to the witch king.”
Hala woke with a start, roused the boy at once and dressed him, packed their belongings in a canvas sack. She took the book of stories—the only inheritance left by her father—and a length of wooden beads, two of the bread loaves she baked that morning, a waterskin half full, a length of cloth, copper coins, and a steel knife with jagged teeth.
They walked the plains hand in hand, picking their way along the rugged trail that cut through the rolling high grass. It was a long path, a thin one, that weaved through the wilds and often lost itself, swallowed by the shrubs or fading into the red Serengeti dust, and disappearing entirely.
“Where are we going?” asked the boy, stumbling along the path.
“To the city.”
“The city on the sea?”
“Yes,” said Hala. “That one.”
“Why are we going?”
Hala pressed through the brush, thorns pulling at her clothes, and held the bramble branches back away from the path, so the boy could pass unscathed. “Because all of the good men are there.”
He was quiet for a moment, tripping over the tops of his sandals as he trudged along. “Where are all the bad ones?”
“They’re here,” said Hala. “They’re coming now.”
“Yes. For us.”
“Will they catch us?”
Hala clutched the boy’s hand tighter. “No,” she said. “Not tonight.”
They walked on, picking their way through the brush, wading through the high grass that rolled like water with the breath of the streaming wind. Hala’s belly ached with hunger and her tongue was thick, her mouth sour with thirst. She paused to sip from the waterskin, then let the boy drink his fill as she scanned the black wilds behind them.
The plains were loud with the noise of the night. Flies swarmed around her head and hummed in the thrush that grew along the path. The wind stirred and whispered. In the distance she heard the sounds of beasts or men she didn’t know which, and her heart beat like a feral thing clamoring to be free of her, hot fear licked through her limbs like blood.
“I’m scared,” said the boy in a whisper. “I’m scared.”
Hala said nothing. They walked on.
Down the narrow cut of the path they went, between the trunks of the wild palms wading through the sweet grass. A heavy fog hung above the plains, churning and swelling as they walked as though the spirits of the Serengeti had stirred to life and taken form.
Then there was a howl, the call of a beast, and a clear, keen light broke through the black. Hala turned, saw the hunters in the distance, catching glimpses of them as they moved through the grass shouting and murmuring in a tongue she could not speak. The bright cast of their flashlights speared through the brush and split the darkness. One of them, a tall scrawny figure more tree than man, caught sight of them and loosed a yell like the scream of a hyena leashed.
Hala caught the boy by the hand and they ran, fled, tearing through the wilds feet slapping the dirt, the grass blurring behind them ripping at their clothes as they passed. They ran like the wild things, like the spirits from the half-world. Fleeing, blinded by the black, they flew.
When they could run no more Hala pulled the boy into the fat shadow of a baobab tree and squatted low to the dirt, the boy crouching breathless at her side. A slick of sweat slipped down his temple and fell along his jaw, dangling like a jewel at the dip of his chin. The moon spread its fingers through the tree’s branches, pale light breaking through the leaves and dappling the dirt.
In the distance there was shouting, the clash of falling feet.
Hala turned to the boy. She said, “You will ask the spirits for mercy and they will hiss and spit and whisper and when they do you must answer them. You must. Do you understand me?”
The boy shook and cried.
“Tell me if you understand.”
He nodded. “I understand.”
Hala took the pack off her shoulder and slung it over his. “Then run. Go to the grass and run. If you stay low they will not see you. They will not catch you if you run fast.”
“What about you? Where will you go?”
“I’ll follow you,” she said. “I’ll follow you wherever you go but right now you must be brave and go without me.”
The boy wept, took hold of her hand. “I can’t.”
“Yes you can. You must.”
“But you’ll find me?”
“Yes I’ll find you but only if you go,” she said and she pushed him towards the swelling
grass. “Go now.”
The boy faltered, the pack hung heavy at his shoulder.
“Run,” she said, she pleaded, and the boy took a half step back and was gone, disappearing into the darkness of the rolling plains, swallowed by the black.
Hala stood alone on the wide stretch of the Serengeti, and called for the hunters to come for her and they did, emerging from the rolling grass and onto the path, armed with axes and blades, black machetes as long as her forearms. All of them looked alike: tall, black and spare, their clothes hanging loose, like laundry strung to dry in the branches of a tree. The tallest of the three, a man with a face like a wood-carved skull, edged towards Hala, knife in hand. When he spoke his teeth flashed white in the darkness. “Are you alone?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m alone.”
“There are no others?”
“No there are no others.”
“I thought I saw a boy.”
“There is no boy,” said Hala.
The man laughed. He asked no questions. “Drop the blade.” Hala nodded, obliged him, stooping to stake her knife in the dirt. “Did the spirits send you?” She asked.
“No,” said the man, and he drew nearer, his machete slung low. “The spirits did not send us.”
“Then why have you come?”
“To harvest,” said the man. “To take.”
“What have you come to take?”
“What you have,” he said. “Whatever you have to offer.”
“I have nothing,” said Hala. “I have nothing to give you.”
The men gazed at her, squint eyed, through the bright cast moonlight.
“Nothing is enough,” he said and the beasts set upon her.
The boy heard a cry that echoed across the plains, splitting the night in two. The pack slipped from his shoulder and hit the dirt and he cried out to the spirits, screamed to the gods, but they did not answer, they did not heed his pleas as Hala said they would.
The plains were quiet. The wind moved, silent, stirring the high grass.
Crumpling to the ground, he shook. He wept.
Hala lay on her back, smiling at the pale face of the moon, letting blood. The spirits whispered all around her, her mother among them, wandering the jungle like a shade, a shadow, whispering stories into the wind.
Hala gazed into the black of the night sky and saw the moon open its mouth, bare white teeth as sharp and keen as the fangs of a jaguar. Then the moon spoke to her in her mother’s voice, told her the stories of beasts and men, stories she had never heard before and would never hear again. As the black gathered round her the spirits stirred and quickened. The night flies hummed and whispered to the screams of the soaring birds. Hala saw her mother break from the belly of the plains, and emerge from the grass moving like cloth caught in the grasp of a violent wind. She hovered for a moment by the edge of the path, then fell to Hala’s side.
The gibbous moon lagged overhead. Her mother whispered a story in her ear.
Hala saw the spirits rise, then nothing at all.
The boy, the moon child, emerged from the swell of the high grass, the pack hanging heavy on his shoulders. Across the rolling Serengeti he saw the city, and the wide stretch of blue sea beyond it gleaming like cut glass. Dust moved with the breath of the wind and the low-sung moon slipped into the rolling water and disappeared.
Over the lapsing plains a red sun rose.
BIO: Alexis is a college student and writing tutor. Her short story “Sin Eater” was published in the literary magazine Beorh Weekly. Her short story “Baby Doll” was a Writers Digest Annual Writing Competition honorary mention and was later published in the Spring 2016 Issue of the Literary Hatchet.