Joyland

The Midwest |

The Enchantment of Alon

by J.A. Bernstein

1

Sgt. Alon Gar, Battalion 8110 (Reserve), was mystified by this one. He stood along the deck of his mother-in-law’s house, twelve miles east of Afula, his dimming iPhone in one hand, a glass of water in the other. Inside, his coughing daughter was finally asleep. It was shortly after three, the moon a wet wisp shimmering vaguely through pines.

He scratched his boxers, farted a little bit. The beasts were going at it again, rollicking along the sloped roof—probably damaging the tiling, as well. He wondered if he should report this, or who would believe him if he called.

For the third straight night, Alon was watching unicorns mating, though he’d never seen them do it as violently as this, and it occurred to him, sipping his water, which he did now, rather gingerly, that the mating must be a lark: something done merely for pleasure, since unicorns could not reproduce. They were like hinnies, or mules. How else to explain their diminished presence on the planet? He wasn’t even sure that they’d existed until last week. He’d read about them in children’s books—his daughter loved Lewis Carroll—and he recalled a few phrases from Psalms:

He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.

Save me from the lion’s mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns.

The original Hebrew was Re’em, translated variously as “unicorn” or “ox,” sometimes even “oryx,” as the Septuagint would have it. But there were no oryx any longer; they’d been hunted to death by the Bedouin, and even unicorns, he gathered, had to have become scarce, flitting in and out of captivity.

He didn’t care to disrupt the current display, though they were doing a number on the tiles, and he also found himself frightened that they would wake up his daughter again.

Scratching himself, he went inside the house, feeling a bit better now, and climbed back in bed with his wife.

2

At around five, Alon heard a clanging again, this time from the bathroom. He rose in the tenebrous dark, fording the shadows cast by the room’s slatted blinds, inhaling the carpet’s wet stink. Oddly, a soft glowing emerged beneath the far door. He slid it back slowly, trying not to wake up his wife.

Beside the sink, a pink nightlight was on, and beneath it stood a tiny wood gnome.

“Good morning,” the gnome whispered in a gravelly voice. He was wearing a pointed red cap and a padded green shirt with a belt. “Wanna smoke?” he asked, holding out a packet of Wisams.

“I quit.”

“Who’s that?” asked his wife, calling out from the bed.

“Just talking to myself.” Alon gave the gnome a sharp look.

“I’ll bet you did,” the gnome whispered. “Just like you let those two prisoners escape.”

“Who’s there?” called his wife. “Are you talking to someone?”

“Only myself.”

“I really think you should get help.”

“Would you go back to sleep, please?”

Alon washed his face in the sink. When he opened his eyes again, the bearded gnome was seated on the toilet, his slumped body the width of the seat’s curving edge, his pointed cap rakishly cocked. He ignited a tiny white Bic. “It’s been a while since you fucked her.”

“No shit.”

“I don’t suppose you want any help.”

Alon appraised him menacingly.

“I mean, not me personally. But we can talk pills. You know, there are people you can go see for that.”

Alon squeezed his toothpaste. He bit his brush.

“Or maybe a massage would get it up.”

Alon tossed his brush at the elf. The little man continued smoking.

His wife rose up in their bed. “Sweetie, do you want to come to bed?”

“Just saying,” said the little man, turning. He flicked his ash in the bowl.

3

It wasn’t the presence of dragons that unnerved him. Those Alon could plainly accept. After all, the Bible was rich in antecedents.

In that day the LORD with His sore and great and strong sword will punish leviathan the slant serpent, and leviathan the tortuous serpent; and He will slay the dragon that is in the sea.

Thou didst break the sea in pieces by Thy strength; Thou didst shatter the heads of the sea-monsters in the waters…Thou didst crush the heads of leviathan.

No, what vexed him, as he washed his daughter in the tub, leaning down to scrub the foamy water from her ears, was the sight of the fishtailed man. This was no sea-beast, or tannin in Hebrew. The figure was a bearded creep. He sat ogling Alon’s daughter, his pointy tale slick as a flame.

“Can I help you?” Alon asked him.

The merman was leaned on his side, one hand propped along his fishtail, the other gripping the tub.

“Who is this, Daddy?” asked his daughter.

“I don’t know,” Alon said.

“What does he want?”

“Who knows?”

At least he wasn’t smoking, like the gnome.

Later, when Alon removed his daughter from the tub and began to towel her off, the merman perked up, propping himself along the edge. His oily hair glistened—almost like a mermaid’s, but uglier. And dark. A few water beads clung to his beard. His purple eyes blinked. “Looks like she’s growing.”

“Who the fuck are you?” Alon shouted.

“Honey, what is that?” asked his wife. She was folding laundry on their bed.

“Nothing.”

“Daddy’s got a friend,” said his daughter.

“Really?” asked his wife, from the bed. She leaned into the bathroom, peering around the door. But when she looked in the tub, he was gone. The merman, that is.

A rubber ducky floated by the drain.

4

The last straw was undoubtedly the centaur. Unicorns, Alon could accept. Even kelpies, which he’d seen a few times, mostly while driving by the Habonim Beach, usually after sunset, when surfers were just setting out (one even transfixed him, then disappeared over a wave, her naked buttocks glinting in the surf).

This evening, as he stood filling up his Kia at the Sonol Station, the auburn sun sinking in the west, encircling Route 4 and enshrouding Allenby Interchange, he heard a slight commotion to his right. Above a Hyundai hatchback, which was parked at his side, a gleaming figure rose up from a horse. She had long ashen hair and was chewing on a flank of red meat, what looked like an arm, in fact. Alon could not see her face. He stopped pumping. The display said 286 sheks, which he thought was erroneous—they must have charged him full price, despite his Club Discount. Disregarding the meter, he turned to find his wife biting down, sinking her teeth into a mountain of flesh—what looked to be a dark, severed arm. The arm was long, lean and muscular, bronze but not tanned. Possibly an Arab’s, from what he saw. Gushing blood dripped from her teeth.

“Honey, is this horse-thing a new kind of look?”

She whinnied wildly, raising two hooves from the roof. The car’s driver was inside buying Twix. He soon returned with it. He gave the horse a long look.

“Does she belong to you?” he asked Alon.

Alon wiped his face. The gas meter was beeping. He’d forgotten to pull out his card.