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The Hattercap and the Comic Book Artist

The Hattercap and the Comic Book Artist
by Nick Poniatowski

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Tonight, Rachel dreams that she’s giving birth to an apple again. A few months ago, it was a red delicious with a dopey face that only a mother could love. But tonight—the night that her at-home pregnancy test reads positive—it’s not a red delicious. This one is black and rotten, like the apple a fairy-tale witch might give to a fairy-tale princess in order to destroy her. It falls out of Rachel’s body and hits the white tile of the bathroom floor with a dead thud, leaving a splatter of grayish sludge. Flies buzz around the fetid flesh of the apple, their maggots already embedded in the ooze. She searches the bright white bathroom for something to clean it up with, and under the sink, she finds an apple corer with saw-toothed blades. She’s not sure how she knows it, but her husband Geoff put it there. She picks it up, turns around, and sees the apple. It’s smiling up at her. And she brings the corer down on it. When Rachel wakes up, trembling, she tells her husband she’s going downstairs for a glass of water and she’s careful not to make a sound grabbing her keys from the hook by the door.

Rachel drives quickly down Ten Mile Road toward the Detroit Zoo. She’s wearing her pajamas: gray sweat pants and a Magic Castle comic book T-shirt, her favorite one that shows Lady Lancelot blowing away the Green Demon with a Gatling gun. Magic Castle is the only thing Geoff will let her have, even if it is sitting on the mantle like a flower vase.

She turns on the radio. It’s a comedian. Not even bothering to find something on a different station, she turns it off. This night calls for sobriety, seriousness, salubriousness, words that hiss in Rachel’s mind like a venomous snake. Tonight, she thinks, I have to find out the truth.

The brick in the zoo’s wall is just where Zev said it would be. It looks like any ordinary brick, except it has a charcoal sketch of a mushroom on it. From her pocket, Rachel pulls out the Périgord black truffle that Zev gave her when they first met. She holds the bulbous mushroom up to the brick, and the Périgord melts, bubbling lazily like an egg on a frying pan. The truffle disintegrates, and the brick depresses into the wall. Rachel is momentarily deaf, the stars swirl above her in violent spirals, the smell of earth magic—murky and alive—fills her nostrils, and in an instant she’s pulled through Zev’s fae passageway and trapped inside a zoo cage.

“Rachel Claven!” The voice is boisterous, echoing in the night with false hospitality. Rachel can’t quite make it out yet, but she knows that the large shadowy form on the other side of the cage is Zev.

“Warthogs,” Rachel says nervously, because she can’t think of how she should greet the faerie in his home. Zev laughs uproariously.

“Indeed,” he says. Rachel used to like his British accent. But that was before the nightmares. “You get used to the smell, but they make for awful conversation. I have a much better rapport with farm pigs. Still, it’s home.” Zev laughs again. In human form—as he is now—Zev is enormous, bald-headed, white-bearded, and his skin is the color of the pickled ginger you get with supermarket sushi. When Rachel first met him a year ago, she thought he looked a bit like Santa Claus in a blue janitor’s uniform. Since he’s a hattercap, however, Zev spends most of his time in mushroom form. Rachel hasn’t seen him like that, but she imagines him to be one of the more disgusting mushroom varieties: enoki or morel or wood ear, perhaps.

“I’m sorry, Zev. I just… I had to see you.” Zev raises his thick eyebrows as if to say, Yes… spit it out. “I’m pregnant,” she says. Zev’s eyebrows don’t lower.

“And…? Isn’t that what you wanted?” Rachel pulls at a loose thread on the seam inside her sweatpants’ pocket as she eyes the warthog piglets snuggled up against a sleeping sow’s belly ten feet away from her.

“Well, yes… but I don’t think I want to be anymore.”

Zev paces toward the sleeping warthogs, his head lowered in thought. “You did seek me out to help you have a baby, did you not?”

“Yes.”

“And I gave you what you wanted. What’s changed, love? What can I do?” Rachel winces at the “L” word, and again as Zev’s lips form seductively around the “O” in “do.”

“I’ve been having nightmares… about the baby.”

“Side-effects of the fertility magic, nothing to worry about. Don’t take any heed in them. They’ll get progressively worse, but they’re harmless.”

“I’m scared the baby isn’t mine.”

“Nightmares are often a side-effect of hattercap magic.”

“But… I’m sorry… I guess I didn’t ask you when we first met, and forgive me if I sound ignorant, but I don’t know much about your magic, and I can scarcely say I understand it…” Zev raises his eyebrows. Spit it out, woman. “How does the magic work?” Zev laughs. One of the piglets squeaks, a sound that reminds Rachel of a dog’s chew toy.

“The magic merely allows you to bear children, even with your condition.” Rachel nods slowly, soberly, salubriously, trying to put her ill mind at ease with what Zev just told her.

“You understand, love?”

She thinks she does. The baby is mine. It has to be. I’ll go to the gynecologist, and it’ll be fine. My normal, healthy, human baby will be fine.

* * *


The next day, Rachel goes to the gynecologist without her husband. If Geoff didn’t have to work, he’d probably go, but not because he wants to support Rachel. No, he’d go because he’s a doctor—albeit a neurologist—and anything medical that involves his wife gives him an opportunity to educate her with his vast knowledge.

But Geoff has to work, so Rachel goes alone to see her gynecologist, Dr. Rowe. Dr. Rowe is tall, dark, and polite; and Rachel admires her professionalism and envies her career. Rachel never went to college, but not because she wasn’t smart enough or didn’t have the opportunity. Geoff just didn’t want her to go.

“My house is too large for you to be away for that long,” Geoff had said. “I need you to keep house, honey. Handle correspondence, cleaning, decorating, organizing social affairs, be the doctor’s wife, that sort of thing. You’ll be like, uh, what’s-her-name from that Alfred Hitchcock movie. You know, the girl that takes over running that big mansion. Sound like fun, eh?” Geoff said this to her when they were first married, ten years ago. She was eighteen at the time.

“The movie was Rebecca. It was about adultery, and the mansion ends up burning down,” she told him. But Geoff just laughed like she didn’t know what she was talking about.

If Rachel did have a job, she’d be an artist. Her drawings have been purchased by just about all of Geoff’s wealthy friends, and not because they feel obligated. All of her artwork is from Magic Castle, her graphic novel series. It’s about a queen named Lady Lancelot and her round-table of knights, set in the post-apocalyptic city of Nova São Paolo. Everybody who reads it tells Rachel that it’s gorgeous and could easily be published, but whenever the subject comes up at parties, Geoff chuckles, tousles Rachel’s hair, and changes the direction of the conversation. So each leather-bound episode of Magic Castle remains prominently displayed on the mantle where everyone who visits the house can see it, elusive and otherworldly. Geoff makes sure their housekeeper, Matthew, takes care to dust each page because he wants to keep the books pristine.

“It’ll make Rachel happy,” Geoff always says.

Dr. Rowe confirms that Rachel is indeed pregnant, tells Rachel how crazy it is that her cists are completely gone, and schedules an appointment for her to come back in four weeks. Rachel is so excited that she almost forgets about Zev and the nightmares. She all but skips into the hospital’s main corridor, her thoughts filled with baby toys, baby clothes, baby furniture, baby sounds, baby smells, but not baby names.

Beneath the fluorescent lights, Zev is mopping the floor.

“There you are, love! How’d it go? Everything fine, I trust. I know, I know, you want to thank me, but your glowing face is all the thanks I need.” He stops mopping and props his hands on the end of the mop handle, assuming a relaxed stance.

“Yes… thank you. I have to get home now.” She tries to walk past Zev, but he tilts the mop handle down, blocking her path. “Can you let me through?”

“Sure thing, love. But tell me something. Why the sudden change of demeanor? Your face got all glum when you saw me. Something wrong?” Zev asks.

Rachel lets out a long sigh. There’s no use hiding things from a faerie so she says, “When I come back in four weeks and have the tests done, will the doctor find out something strange about my baby?”

“I’m not sure I catch your meaning.” Zev takes out a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and blows his nose like a trumpet.

“Is this baby really human? Did Geoff father it?”

Zev carefully folds his handkerchief into a triangle, then a smaller triangle, then a smaller one, and then tucks it into his pocket. He says, “It’s Geoff’s. Hattercaps can’t breed with human women.” Rachel squints, unsatisfied. “And hattercaps can’t lie.”

* * *


When Rachel first met Zev, he was mopping the same floor, wearing the same blue janitor’s uniform. She’d gone to Dr. Rowe to see if there was anything that could be done about her cists. Dr. Rowe took off her glasses, leaned toward Rachel with her elbows on her knees, and told Rachel, “I’m sorry, but you’ll never be able to get pregnant.” She gave her some information to take home about adoption, and Rachel left the office with tears dripping down her face like jewels. A large janitor with a white beard stopped her in the hall.

“Why the tears, love?” he asked, frowning in simpatico. His frown endeared her to him instantly, and she found his use of the word “love” to be comforting.

“Oh, it’s just a silly thing, really. I want to be a mother so bad, you know?”

“There, there.” He patted her on the back. She didn’t think it was such a silly thing at all; she wanted to be a mother very badly. She wanted to have something to love unconditionally, something that would love her unconditionally, something she could call her own, something that would make Geoff pay attention to her, something that would show Geoff that she wasn’t worthless, something that would give her life purpose.

She sniffled. The man was so close that she could smell him. His scent reminded her of earthworms after a storm or mushrooms being washed in the sink. She fell into him, sobbing into his brawny chest and getting his shirt wet.

“I’m Zev,” he said.

“Rachel.”

“I know, love. I think I can help you.”

Their ensuing conversation went on-and-off for over a week, due to the seriousness of Zev’s proposal and also due to Rachel’s general disbelief that Zev was a faerie. But Rachel eventually suspended her disbelief after she discovered that Zev could make mushrooms grow on anything just by looking at it. She agreed to let Zev work his fertility spell on her. His only tithe: Rachel would have to let Zev name the baby. She agreed, and they met in a park by Rachel’s home. There was no magic word, no bolt of lightning, no glittering dust. Just a touch on her belly. Then Zev gave her a Périgord black truffle with instructions on how to find him if she needed to and told her it might take awhile. A baby would come eventually, and it would be healthy and fine.

* * *


During her second trimester, Rachel dreams that she’s in a cemetery with Geoff. They’re standing in front of a massive gravestone, but in typical dream fashion, the words on the stone are incomprehensible. They’re words, but not words. She’s naked, brown skin glistening with sweat, but Geoff is wearing a black tuxedo with old-fashioned long tails and a top hat. Her belly, she notices, is much larger than it should be for her second trimester, or for any trimester.

Geoff faces Rachel and points to something behind her. She turns to see a black coach being pulled by horses without a driver. It stops in front of them.

“It’s for you,” Geoff says. Rachel hobbles up the steps and ducks inside the coach. She sits on the velvet seat and immediately feels a sharp pain in her abdomen, arches her back, and gives birth to something. After fishing through the impossibly deep pool of blood and birth fluid, she pulls out a tiny figure no larger than a pear. It’s a living, breathing, miniature version of herself, complete with pregnant belly.

Rachel wakes up in cold sweat, screaming.

“More nightmares?” Geoff mumbles sleepily.

“Mmhm.” But she already can’t remember the dream, and for some reason she thinks of those Russian dolls that open up to reveal a girl inside a girl inside a girl, hollow things with no real purpose.

“You’re too stressed. Can’t be good for the baby.” He pats her tummy and falls back asleep with his hand resting there.

Rachel tosses the rest of the night and gets up at six. She makes breakfast—tea, hard-boiled eggs, and an English muffin with marmalade. She enjoys it, making breakfast by herself without Matthew. Today’s his day off. Although Rachel gets along with the housekeeper, she always wondered why Geoff found it necessary to hire one if she stays home all the time. If asked, Rachel would say that Matthew is her friend, probably her only friend. But watching Matthew work all day, “keeping house” as Geoff puts it, makes Rachel feel inadequate, worthless.

Rachel sits in the breakfast nook, eating the food and intermittently sketching out a drawing of Lady Lancelot and her captain, Lady Gutierrez, both hiding behind a rolled-over delivery van from an incoming pack of ravenous zombies. Rachel lightly sketches a winked eye on Lady Lancelot’s face, like the queen knows something about the zombies—a weakness perhaps—that she can use to her advantage. Rachel is so engrossed in her drawing that she doesn’t notice Zev standing at the stove.

“How’s the baby, love?”

Rachel’s pencil digs into the paper, casting a black line across the drawing. “You scared the hell out of me, Zev.” She catches her breath. “What are you doing here?”

“You didn’t tell me how your gynecologist appointment went. I wanted to make sure the baby’s healthy.” Zev turns on one of the stove burners, the one with the red tea kettle that Rachel left half-filled with water, making himself very much at home.

“The baby’s fine, thank you. She’s due in four months.”

“Vernal equinox?” Zev asks, putting a tea ball into a cup. “Earl Grey?”

“Yes, and yes. Really, Zev, the baby is fine, but you have to leave because my husband will be up any minute now.”

“I think I’ve come up with a name for the baby,” Zev says. Rachel almost chokes on her tea.

“What is it?” She’s expecting it to be something ridiculous out of a fairy tale, along the lines of Rumplestiltskin or Klabautermann, something the child would hate her for the rest of her life.

“Don’t worry, love. It’s not something you should be concerned about. It’s funny… you humans always worry about things you can’t control.” Zev sits across from Rachel and turns her Magic Castle drawing 180 degrees. He smiles. “This is really good, love. Your art will make you famous someday.” He blows on his tea before sipping it noisily.

“If I have no control over the name, then what difference does it make if you tell me?”

“Sound logic, I suppose. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what the name is. The tithe doesn’t work that way,” he says. Rachel wonders if anything hattercaps do works the way it should. “I don’t consciously know the name. But…” He sips his tea again and sets the cup down. “Your husband will verbally name her when she’s born. It’ll be the name that’s swimming around my subconscious mind.”

“You’re kidding me, right? This is a real load, you know that, Zev?”

“Hattercaps can’t lie, love.”

“Hey, Rae, who’s our guest?”

Rachel does choke on her tea this time as Geoff shuffles into the kitchen in his burgundy bathrobe and slippers. She coughs violently. “Geoff… this is Zev. Zev… Geoff.”

They shake hands. For nearly an hour, the two men seem to hit it off nicely—as if they’re old buddies—talking about the stock market, medicine, whatever. Geoff doesn’t seem to notice or care that Zev is in a janitor’s uniform. After a polite good-bye, Zev leaves.

“Where’d you meet him? He seems like a great guy,” Geoff says.

“Lamaze class.”

“Hm.” Geoff nods, a little impressed. “Gonna be late to work today,” he says as he heads upstairs. Rachel busses the dishes to the sink, grumbling the entire time, mimicking Geoff and Zev’s voices.

Hattercaps can’t lie, love… Oh, he seems like a great guy… Just get out of my life!”

And she realizes that he never will when she sees a mushroom growing inside one of the teacups.

* * *


Rachel’s nightmares stop when the baby comes. On the day of her daughter’s birth, Rachel packs a portfolio case with art supplies so she can draw during any downtime there might be. But the delivery isn’t as easy as she hoped. For almost twelve hours, Rachel is sweaty, sore, drowsy, and doped up. At the beginning, she manages to draw a single panel that shows Lancelot walking backwards toward an abandoned gas station. In one arm, she’s aiming her machine gun at some unseen threat just outside the panel’s edge. In her other arm, she’s carrying Lady Gutierrez’s limp body over her shoulder. Gutierrez’s mouth is half-open, like she’s trying to moan something.

At the first sign of elevated blood pressure, Geoff insists that Rachel have a C-section. “I am a doctor, Rae. I know this stuff.”

When Rachel regains consciousness after the operation, she’s holding a baby girl. Although the baby is screaming her head off, Rachel thinks she’s beautiful.

“It’s our daughter, Rae. Welcome to the world, little lady.” Geoff wiggles his finger on the baby’s nose, and she stops crying. “I came up with a name,” Geoff says.

Dread enters Rachel like water in a sinking ship. “Oh?”

“Her name is Rachel. Just like her mommy. She’ll be a Junior, Rae. Isn’t that wonderful?”

A long moment drifts by like a child’s balloon that’s been let go, and Rachel doesn’t know what to think. Rachel. She wasn’t expecting this. It’s touching, in a way, but she wonders if Zev’s plan all along was to give her a changeling-baby that’s meant to replace her, like some awful fairy tale. Wouldn’t that be just like Zev? No matter, she thinks. She’s mine, and I love her.

* * *


The next few months fly by as tends to happen when a new baby is in the house. Rachel Junior says her first word—dada—at six months, and she’s a wild and curious baby. She’s fussy too, and Rachel Senior is often frustrated by how quickly Geoff can calm the child down. She also finds it odd that Zev continues to drop into her life. The hattercap becomes best friends with Geoff, spending hours and weekends in his company. Zev manages to become a common sight in the Claven household, especially after Matthew turns up in the local news—found dead in the woods with no cause yet determined—and Geoff hires Zev as their live-in housekeeper. At seven months, Rachel Junior learns to say “Zev” before she learns to say “Mommy.”

* * *


Lady Lancelot is running out of time, running out of hope, Rachel thinks as she stares at the paper in front of her, chewing on her lower lip. It’s early morning, and Rachel wants to get a lot done today. Yesterday, she pulled out her drawing supplies from the basement where they’d been sealed away in a giant rubber tub like a mummy in an Egyptian tomb. Lady Lancelot is still trapped in the gas station, and Lady Gutierrez is still dying. Rachel has drawn the two women sitting on the floor, facing each other, with their heads on each other’s shoulders. Lady Lancelot is holding a hand grenade behind Lady Gutierrez’s back. There’s just enough space above the two warriors’ heads for Rachel to write, “Our last grenade… and it’s a dud.”

Rachel hears the baby crying on the monitor and she sets the paper neatly into her desk drawer. Lady Lancelot has been holding out for reinforcements for a long time. She can wait a little longer. Rachel goes upstairs, and when she gets to the nursery, the baby has stopped crying. Rachel Junior looks up at Rachel Senior, giggles, and white mushrooms sprout from the crib’s pink railings. Rachel gasps.

“Zev!” Rachel careens down the stairs so quickly that she’s out of breath when she gets to the bottom. She goes through every room in the house like a whirlwind before spotting Zev and Geoff on the back patio. Geoff is sitting in a lawn chair, and Zev is massaging Geoff’s back.

“Zev, I think we need to talk,” Rachel says.

For a moment, no one says anything. Then Geoff breaks the silence and says, “It is a shame Zev left though, isn’t it, Rae?” He chortles. “At least your cooking’s improved. Wonderful breakfast today, honey.” Geoff’s eyes are closed and his head is tilted back as Zev works a knot in his shoulder.

“I didn’t make any breakfast today,” Rachel says. She waits. “Geoff?” No response. “Geoff? Hello?”

“Be right back, Geoff. I’ll bring out some tea,” Zev says. He brushes past Rachel and whispers to her, “Let’s talk.” He leads her into the kitchen and shuts the sliding glass door behind them, leaving Geoff outside.

Gears begin whirring in Rachel’s mind, turning smaller, more complex gears as she realizes what’s been going on this morning. “So that’s it, isn’t it, Zev? My child isn’t some sort of changeling you sent here to replace me. You’re the changeling. You’ve made me invisible to Geoff and taken my place.”

“Almost,” he says. Rachel furrows her brow. “You got that last part.” Right before her eyes, Zev’s appearance changes. As with all of his magic, there is no incantation, no flash of light, no slow, morphing transition. One second he looks like big, bearded Zev, and the next second it looks to Rachel as if she’s staring in a mirror. “But haven’t you figured it out yet, love? The baby is mine.”

Rachel stumbles backward, startled at the sound of her own voice coming out of Zev’s mouth. “What? But when I was pregnant, you told me it was Geoff’s!”

“I certainly did.”

“Then how can it be yours? And didn’t you say that hattercaps can’t mate with human women?”

“Indeed, we cannot.”

“But… but…”

“What I told you was this: The magic allows you to bear children. The baby is Geoff’s. Hattercaps can’t breed with human women. And hattercaps can’t lie,” Zev recites.

“And you just said the baby was yours.”

“Spot on, love. Mine and Geoff’s. You were just the vessel to carry it into your world. And now that I have my child, I no longer have need of you.”

“You killed Matthew, didn’t you?” Rachel asks after a pause.

“I did. If the autopsy pathologist cared to do a micro-analysis, he’d find spores in poor Matthew’s lungs.”

“You’ve been planning this from the beginning,” Rachel says slowly. Then, with fierce determination in her eyes, she says, “I’m going to stop you, Zev.”

“What are you going to do? You’re a nothing. No one knows who you are, and as far as they’re concerned, I am you anyway.” A breath that Rachel didn’t realize she’d been holding hisses out through her teeth, and she turns around and walks away. “Ha!” Zev laughs. “You always were such a weak creature, love. That’s it, just walk away.”

With Zev following her through the house like a specter, Rachel packs a suitcase with her most prized possessions. “Goodbye, Zev,” she says as she finally walks out the door.

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A week later, from her loft in Los Angeles, Rachel gives Lady Lancelot the reinforcements she needs. She eventually goes on to publish Magic Castle and becomes famous for her art. A hattercap never lies. Had she been in Detroit at that very instant, the onset of her fame, she would have witnessed Zev disappear into thin air and a china teacup crash to the floor. No magic words, no poof of smoke, no flash of light. Nothing.

There are moments in the following years—passing a janitor in a hospital corridor or eyeing the plastic-wrapped blue Styrofoam boxes of mushrooms at the supermarket—when she wonders how little Rachel is doing, that fae-touched girl she loved like a mother. She wonders how Geoff is doing, that man that made her feel like a hollow wooden doll for twelve years. But even when she says hello to those janitors or buys those mushrooms and eats them in a salad, she won’t wonder about Zev, sent back to his world by his own magic. Zev is—and forever will be—a nightmare that she banished with courage, something far more powerful than a Gatling gun or a hand grenade.

* * *


Nick Poniatowski is originally from Detroit, Michigan and currently lives in Jacksonville, Florida. He's traveled to London, Dublin, Barcelona, Madrid, Cozumel, and would like to time-travel to the post-apocalyptic city of Nova Sao Paolo. His fiction has appeared in At-Large Magazine.

What advice to you have for other fantasy writers?

Let your characters tell the story. After all, they're the ones living in the world you've created.

2 comments:

Amy said...

Very cool!
I liked the twist at the end. : )

Nick said...

Thank you! I'm glad you liked it. :)