Author’s note: This is a work of allegorical fiction following Autolyca, an orphan girl trying to survive in the city. When her song and dance routine is upended, Autolyca finds herself with nothing but her wits to survive.
‘My father named me Autolycus; who being, as I am, littered under Mercury, was likewise a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’
(William Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale Act IV scene iii)
She stared at the weathered image of The Fool hanging loosely on the cinder block wall next to the rusted boiler just as she did every morning. When she was a baby—long before memory had become the parasite of the everyday that twisted what was into whatever it pleased for tomorrow—her mother painted The Fool on the burlap sack. She could tell where her mother’s fingers had failed, where the need to stay awake just one more day smothered any kind of grace. Now she was just as old as her mother had been when she had her, a Janus-faced girl who felt trapped between youth and worry over the next meal. Now her mother had been in the dead earth in a Potter’s Field for half as long as she was old.
The image of The Fool winked at her with amphetamine eyes. Autolyca winked back. Just as she always did, Autolyca used her thumb to count along her fingers until she reached the ‘five’ of her pinky. She nodded at the number and headed out of the basement and up into the streets of Brooklyn.
Winter was a time when modified gloves hid Autolyca’s gift. Six wool fingers on both hands, even with the tips cut off for dexterity, failed to garner notice. But when the linden trees were in bloom and made her block smell like honey, her bare hands could have been neon signs announcing her mutation.
One Night Only: The Polydactyl (The Twelve-Fingered Girl)
Autolyca clenched her hands into fists as the honey smell failed to calm her nerves as she headed down towards the East River. There, the idyllic skyline of Manhattan so overused in cinema dumbed down the tourists who were already dazed from the gluttony of the night before. It continued to amaze her that people were so astounded to see something in reality that they saw on screen as if the world were some kind of projection and movies and television shows were the source.
Autolyca had made it a rule to herself never to steal from the locals. Besides, the moment she was branded a thief amongst her own, all twelve of her fingers would be as useless as a classical guitar without strings. As she strode down Franklin Avenue with her hands in her jeans pockets towards the ferry dock, Autolyca looked like just another girl enjoying the spring after a hard winter. She had learned to live with half-truths, even if the true half of it was the worst.
Thirty-something men and women pushed strollers along the sidewalk where bodegas abutted yet another boutique coffee shop or children’s book store. Joggers trotted by in groups of threes and fours while checking their smart watches. Pure breed dogs or the occasional smiling pit-bull pissed and shit on their respective spots knowing full well their distracted owners would still manage to pick up the pieces with a plastic bagged hand. Hipsters and old Polish men nursed hangovers separately, the former with green juice and the latter with a tall boy of Budweiser. Precocious toddlers zipped by on their streamlined scooters with the words of yesterday’s child psychology appointment drowning out their parent’s perfunctory pleas to slow down. Autolyca walked amidst the latent joy of morning in Greenpoint as she passed through the crowd like a neutrino heading relatively north.
There was something childish and brilliant about the names of the streets of Greenpoint. Just as she counted her fingers every morning, Autolyca would name the streets in her head starting from Newtown Creek, the edge of the end of the world of her neighborhood: Ash, Box, Clay, Dupont, Freeman, Green, Huron, India, Java, Kent… While the relative mathematical precision of the grid system of Manhattan beginning at 14th Street had its virtues, the emptiness of numbers shined through every time for her. Here, random names in alphabetical order instilled a moment’s peace that there was some kind of thoughtful order to a place, a thoughtful order with a bit of mischief. But the feeling passed as soon as she turned left on India and towards the ferry dock.
The wind off the East River reminded Autolyca of the long winter. While it was April according to the tilt of the Earth and its point in space, February lingered in the rushing waters of the river. Her empty stomach cringed as she wiped a little stream of snot from her upper lip with the back of her hand as she scanned the concrete dock leading to the ferry. Her appointed place was open, a space between a row of raised gardens bearing parsley and green shoots of summer flowers to come. Autolyca thought of herself as a limpet trudging back to that place that would shape her for the rest of her life, a place that was waiting for her before she was even born. But unlike the limpet, she would not wait for her next meal in patient silence.
Concrete hard as winter’s chill
Plane tree mottled as pickle dill
Fingers sixes as a polydactyl
Look and see and laugh at the fact til’
Your faces as red as drunkards noses
Sorry I cannot stand those roses
Do not pity this hungry lass
But if you do you’re not an ass
Take a picture with this singer
For a star, I’m a dead ringer
Come smile with me, come smile!
As Autolyca continued to sing—lyrics coming and going like words in a dream—she watched as the ferry passengers passed on their way to gawk at approved graffiti and drink ten dollar beers at bars made to look like outposts from the 19th century. She smiled at a passing smile and winked at those who gawked at her many fingers. When the confusion of the crowd boarding and those who were disembarking became as unruly as a wind-tossed sea, Autolyca began to dance.
Hunger devoured everything, even the self-self-consciousness of a teenage girl. Of course, the first season of her performances were wrought with failure and embarrassment. But now, in her fifteenth year in Brooklyn, Autolyca danced and sang knowing everyone was watching. She swirled amidst the half-conscious crowd as witty lines made them laugh and her limber grace bewildered their eyes. She brushed the shoulders of men and women, she flipped and high-kicked to the delight of the children. She played with the nuances of notes in her four-octave range and sank into false melancholy when the laughs were too great. People watched as the ferry departed, forgetting whether they had come or had forgotten to go. Autolyca held her outstretched fingers to her face and smiled between the twelve, one spectator asking another: ‘How many of those does she have?’ Amidst the song and dance, somewhere between where her jeans met her stomach, a collection of trinkets was filling the space where the food should have been. Wallets and watches and earrings and purses, another leap and all would be revealed.
“Encore!” A middle-aged man yelled, nudging his wife a little too hard.
“Yeah, encore!” Others yelled, as a good portion of the crowd was dispersing.
“Thank you, thank you all,” Autolyca sang. “And I beseech you, I am only here to bring a little mischief to your day. I bid you, adieu,” she smiled, bowing.
“Wait! Here’s a little something—“ The middle-aged man mumbled.
“No, no. I’m actually a spoiled rich girl just trying to do something kind,” Autolyca laughed pensively, backing away.
“Where the hell?” The man mumbled, patting himself down. “Sweetie….do you have my wallet?”
“No,” his wife said. “It’s always in your back pocket. You just had it. I just saw it.”
“I just had it,” he said, still patting himself down to his ankles.
“My earrings!” A young woman cried. “My fucking diamond earrings,” she shouted, pulling at her earlobes. “You six-fingered bitch! I know what you’re doing!” She pointed, as she pulled out her phone. “I’m calling the fucking cops, you feral cunt. Fucking dirty city. I wanted to go to the Bahamas! Well…someone frisk her! Fuck! Do I have to do everything?”
Just as the wind can die and turn a sailor’s joy to sorrow, so the spectacle on the dock had turned from wanton entertainment to abject anger. As another ferry drifted into dock, Autolyca tightened her belt and ran. Her legs bound like they were blessed by the winged heels of Mercury. As two of the male spectators pursued her, the purloined wallets flopped against her stomach while the earrings and watch were tucked away in her strategically tight underwear. In spite of the awkward ballast of treasures shifting and poking her, Autolyca ran with a seeing abandon towards the beginning of the alphabet of Greenpoint. She felt in her bones that if she made it to ‘A’, she would be free.
When concrete became asphalt, she turned left and soon found Huron as two pairs of pursuing steps became three. When she reached Green, she looked back and saw five men in pursuit. Freeman was followed by Eagle, Dupont somehow failed to appear and Clay became Box. Another glance back revealed a cadre of men in pursuit as if the ferry had been some kind of pirate ship and Autolyca was the town and treasure to be plundered. As Ash Street unfolded, Autolyca ran through a patch of manicured grass tended by pigeons and saw the end. The toxic waters of Newtown Creek loomed over the aluminum railing marking the precipice of her world. A dozen men stomped to a halt as they heaved the morning air.
“Just give me back my wallet,” the first man said, panting.
“And my wife’s earrings,” said another.
“And my youth,” said a third.
“And my hair,” said a balding man.
“And my wife,” said an unseen one.
“And my lost dog.”
“And my cigarettes.”
“And my hope.”
“And my sex drive.”
“And my pride.”
As Autolyca searched within herself for the lost things being named to her, she found herself pressed against the railing above the creek. With every cry for something lost, the group of men took another step closer to her. It was a Broadway musical without a soundtrack, a dance with only one step. She half-expected them to start snapping their fingers before the chorus joined in. But demands for all the things life carried away like flotsam kept spilling from the men’s mouths as they drew closer. Somehow she had become the synecdoche for the great nameless thing that stole things away. The men’s eyes burned like dark stars as they carried on without blinking. When one of the men was close enough for Autolyca to smell his breath, she began to sing softly.
Have you lost your watch or wife
Either way, you still have life
Hair is thinning dog is lost
At least you are not tempest tossed
Hope is chimeric pride a sin
Sex is fickle I’ve more than ten
Have a smoke and forget the jewelry
Rhymes are fleeting I speak truly
Now get you gone you pirates fake
I only took what I had to take
Now turn around and walk away
For life is brief as the buds of May
Over the course of her song, the men’s eyes drifted back into their heads. Their slow march halted and they listened. When the whites of their eyes gave way to vision, they looked around in confusion. Clasping the railing with all twelve of her sly fingers, Autolyca watched as the group of men became a collection of individuals wondering how they had gotten to the edge of the end of Greenpoint. One man departed and was followed by another. Some kind of hidden custom sent each one away with an exhausted resolution. By the time the last of them had taken a right on Box Street, Autolyca let go of the railing and counted her fingers with her thumbs. All of them were still there.
A dozen or so pigeons pecked at an open pizza box while the ferry sounded its horn on the river behind her. Autolyca smiled and approached the wall-eyed pigeons. She knelt over them and began to sing softly to them. As she instructed them with a playful lilt to her tune, the pigeons listened and knew exactly what to do.
About the Author
Hayden Moore was born and raised in Georgia and has lived in New York City for the past twelve years. In the past six months, he has been published four times for his short stories: twice in Corner Bar Magazine, once in Metonym Literary Journal and once in Drunk Monkey Literary Journal. He lives with his wife and cat on the waters of Jamaica Bay in Queens.