an excerpt of “From the Horse’s Mouth”
by Bernie Mojzes
From Gaslight and Grimm: Steampunk Faerie Tales, edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Diana Bastine, now funding on Kickstarter.
“Once upon a time there was a girl…” the horse head says, before wheezing into silence. It hangs on the soot-stained wall, jaw moving like it’s chewing cud, grinding worn molars against yellowed bone and rusted iron, a hideous scraping that hurts just to hear. Then the fire in its eyes goes dead, and even that stops.
There’s jeering from a handful of the pub’s denizens–old regulars, you suppose–but most folk don’t notice, too busy in their drink and their card games, in their boasts and arguments, debates and digressions. In the working girls who flit bright like wanton butterflies through the crowd.
A heap of rags stirs at the corner of the bar; as it moves, its parts become distinct: thin arms, stooped body, wild, grey hair atop a wrinkled, sagging face.
Could she be the one? This broken, toothless hag?
You’ve heard rumors, followed them to this festering canker of a city, to this street, this pub, hoping against all odds that you’ve found her. And now, hoping you’re wrong.
The hag doesn’t look from her empty cup.
“There’ll needs be brandy, if you’re wanting to hear more.”
Her voice is like factory smoke scraped across a farrier’s rasp, harsh yet insubstantial.
The bartender glances over, but the others gathered around the horse head wave their hands in dismissal. They’ve all heard this tale before.
You reach for your purse.
The bartender takes your money and fetches three drinks: one for you, one for her, and the rest of the bottle for the horse. He doesn’t offer you change.
When the old woman turns to bring the horse its brandy, you can’t help but gasp. Her face, her throat, the flesh of her hands is a mass of scars: punctures and tears that hatch her skin in fine white lines and pucker her flesh. One bright blue eye regards you with cold disdain; where the other should be is just an empty socket.
She stares at you for a long, uncomfortable moment, then shakes her head and shuffles by to pour the brandy in the horse’s mouth. It doesn’t run through the holes where the desiccated flesh has peeled away. The old woman flicks a match against the wall and touches it to something deep inside the skull.
The eyes warm. The horse head hisses. Gears turn. It makes a noise that is part fire and part old man clearing his throat. And then it begins:
“There was once an old queen whose husband had died, and who loved her daughter very much, and…”
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Much to his embarrassment, Bernie Mojzes has outlived Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Janice Joplin and the Red Baron, without even once having been shot down over Morlancourt Ridge. Having failed to achieve a glorious martyrdom, he has instead turned his hand to the penning of prose, in the pathetic hope that he shall here find the notoriety that has thus far proven elusive. In his copious free time, he co-edits and publishes Unlikely Story (www.unlikely-story.com).