The Herds

The herds are charging through the room

Mother is crying.
They have sensed something sinister, some danger perhaps: the snarl of a lion, the lurk of a predator on the prowl. Or maybe they have detected some force we cannot discern, some signal portending events more apocalyptic: the trembling of the earth, the violent belching of a not-too-distant volcano.
They could not explain it to you. It’s something they know, something they must absolutely do.
The grasslands are a strange place: wild, unpredictable. Too many things can happen, too many things can go wrong. Not a place for civilized men, not a place to build a house, raise a family.
So mother has said. So she points out, even now.
The front door is gone. It has been pounded into nothingness, it has shattered into millions of minuscule pieces which scatter throughout the room from the thrash and sway of the animals. The house rumbles, trembles from the constant striking of hooves against the bare wooden floor.
We try to ignore the disorder, pretend it is not happening, we try to reach out to mother and ease the pain, but the din is more than we can bear.
Mother stops crying. She looks at us from behind glazed eyes, mumbles something we cannot comprehend. Her voice is low, almost inaudible against the stampede she has fostered. Her face is frozen with guilt as if she knows we too have suffered. She looks on from the head of the stairs, helpless, because she wishes to stop the chaos. She is distant and frightened, enwrapped in an eerie silence that helps her confront what she cannot control.
We try to comfort her — we, her sons, who have inherited this land, who have had to cope with the wilderness ever since we were born — we shout at her over the deafening clamor.
“Mother,” we beg, “can’t you forget what has happened? Can’t you put the herds to rest?”
Maybe this is wrong because she tears violently at her hair and sounds a high-pitched wail which blends with the roar of herds — rhinoceros, she says, zebra, gnu — and becomes indistinguishable.
The beasts enter so quickly, so helter-skelter they cannot be counted. They are like unwanted guests: they come and go with no consideration for others, their voices loud and gruff, their manners so ill you wish they would leave as quickly as they came.
But they don’t. Or they do, but their friends keep arriving without warning.
And mother continues to watch with the eye of one who sees what others cannot.
We try to convince her it’s not her fault, that the herds have come on their own, that just as they came, they will surely leave. Though nothing will ever be the same. We understand quite well, we tell her, we emphasize that fact in empathy with her dissonance and fear.
But she wails on, on and on, and no matter what we say, we cannot stop her.
Because the beasts keep coming, an endless stream of rolling flesh and muscle whose every thunderous step destroys a bit more of what has toppled over and broken: mother’s good china, which she inherited from grandmother who died on mother’s wedding day (there is no relation between those two events, she would insist, no cause and effect, but we always knew better, given the nature of God and retribution, given the nature of the man she married and has lived without for all these years), the good crystal she pinched and saved for before things turned sour (how she would lie, she would say, how she would hide her savings and count them at night under the light of the moon when he was fast asleep, after he had had his filthy fill of her), the silver he bought her early on, beaten and flattened now into a shapeless pulp, before he unwillingly sired us, after she hounded him, way way before the day he up and left.
That was when she started crying, that was when the world took a nasty turn and barreled ahead out of control.
And we wonder if we have had some part in all of this. And we wonder if our very presence, our unwillingness to confront the wilderness head-on has caused a disturbance that has forced the herds to suddenly run.
But you can never tell why things happen the way they do. That’s what mother has always told us. You can never know what horrible things will take place in the wilderness where men and beasts are bound to clash, she still warns us, where men slaughter men and women sit helpless against the violence they must endure, where any move, sudden or not, the flash of lightening, perhaps, the swift clap of thunder, is apt to spark a stampede you will surely be unable to reverse.
Mother stares across the room, past the charging herds, past the walls, it seems, past a place only she can see. We wonder if she can tell, if she can hear what is taking place around her. Her eyes sparkle like glass, like rich blue crystal gleaming in the sunlight, the blue of a flame about to rage out of control, the blue of a calm sky awaiting the outbreak of storm. It’s as if her life rushes by like angry clouds she watches from the shelter of her room, safe behind the glass, from the rain, from the murderous lightning, the awful, vengeful thunder – God’s certain retribution for something terrible she thinks she has done- and every now and then her girlhood dreams flash by like bright rainbows that appear and dissolve instantaneously from the swift movement of the black, billowing masses. Wondrous dreams, white fluffy fantasies bouncing gently before her eyes like balls of cotton.
Then suddenly they fall, tumble down the stairs like sacrificial sheep, down to the threshing floor where everything snaps and shatters, mother’s radiant dreams snuffed out under the hooves of beasts who lurch forward with no concern except for themselves.
And mother screams, darts down the stairs to chase them with no thought of herself. She wants to snatch them back before they are trampled forever, and before we can grab her, stop her from her madness, she is down with the beasts, down among the rumbling clamor. She grapples on the floor, struggles to get up. She rises, goes down again, rises once more, glances momentarily at us with a gleam in her jaded eye, as if that’s where she belongs, as if this is the culmination of a life in the wilderness where men and beasts cannot mingle, except for one glorious moment.
For now she is dancing, it seems, waltzing on the living room floor, hand in hand, beast and woman, executing a graceful minuet in that split second before she disappears, falls forever under the raging hooves as we watch and wonder if the stampeding will ever ever stop.

Mike Maggio’s publication credits include fiction, poetry, travel and reviews in many local, national and international publications including Potomac Review, The L.A. Weekly, The Washington CityPaper, and The Washington Independent Review of Books. His full-length publications include a novel, The Wizard and the White House (Little Feather Books, 2014), and a novella, The Appointment (Vine Leaves Press, 2017). His latest collection of poetry, Let’s Call It Paradise (San Francisco Bay Press, 2022 won first prize in the International Book Awards competition. The Herds is from his short story collection, Letters from Inside (Vine Leaves Press, 2019).