Literary Spotlight: Jennifer G. Peper

Literary Spotlight: Jennifer G. Peper

From WTP Vol. V #2

The Harpy
By Jennifer G. Peper

Miss Robin, Jennifer G. Peper. Ink, acrylic, and watercolor on canvas. 13″ x 13″ framed.

Once upon a time, there was a Harpy who lived on a hill in a beautiful circa-1882 Victorian nest in the suburbs. She was mean and drank too much. A quick word on Harpies: They are vain, cruel, and self-involved creatures. It’s best if you can manage to avoid them entirely.

One day after the Harpy had really tied one on, she stepped outside the hole in the wall she’d spent half a day in and stood blinking at the sun. It was a beautiful spring day. As she staggered along the sidewalk, she caught a glimpse of her startling reflection in a storefront window and hesitated a bit to fluff her feathers. An unsuspecting woman walked past and accidentally brushed against her wing. The Harpy reacted by screeching into her face: “Watch where you’re going, you leathery handbag, or I’ll pluck your ancient eyes out!” The poor woman recoiled and toppled over the curb. This outburst and others like it was the reason people didn’t like her, not that she gave a damn. The half-bird thing was something they would have come to terms with.

Every year, the Harpy traveled with friends to the State Fair at the edge of town. She began to get ready by rouging her cheeks and then applied a long, thick black line around her eyes so that she resembled an Egyptian queen. From her extensive wardrobe, she chose a reflective bodice with embroidered red, yellow, gold, and turquoise flowers on it, and pinned a flouncy, orange hat to her sea of auburn curls. As she added the last touches to her deplorable catastrophe of a make-up application, she thought to herself, “I’ll be the best thing those meat sticks have ever laid their pathetic little eyes on!”

The Harpy flew across the harbor to the next town over and landed on the front step of her friend’s house. Janice the Sea Witch was the founding member and practicing level-three priestess of the Our Lady of the North East Coven. When she wasn’t casting spells upon her neighbors, the Sea Witch taught piano lessons to a steady stream of students, including several local children and a handful of adults. Her saltbox shanty sat on a splintered dock that jutted out into a sheltered cove. The Harpy rang the doorbell.

The Sea Witch opened her door and beamed a smile towards the Harpy, who responded by squinching up her shellacked face in an expression of disgust. “Gad, Janice! Smells like mothballs and armpits! What are you making?”

“Cabbage soup. Would you like a bowl?”

“I’ve already eaten, thanks. Twice. Once before I left home, and after smelling your colossal mess of a soup, that last meal has come back up for a visit.”

The Sea Witch drove a 1985 Volvo in reverse down a poorly lit gravel road. A stray pebble was kicked up by a tire, pinged off the chrome side mirror and met with the Harpy’s eye. Luckily, her fake lashes folded over the stray and caught it like a Venus flytrap.

“Holy moly, this car is extremely square! Why are we driving backwards, Janice? What gives?”

Janice pulled the car along the side of the road, shifted into first gear and made a U-turn into the cross section. “I put a whammy spell over my house so that the neighbor across the way can’t steal my cable. Unfortunately, the one I’ve used requires that we can only ever leave the premises backwards, otherwise we’ll turn into chickens.”

“Creative!”

“Why must we always take my car, Bertie? Why can’t you fly every now and then?”

“I like to be driven around and I like to drink. I do not like smashing into things, which is typical when I drink and fly.” As she preened her downy gray feathers, the tangled fuzz trailed out the back windows. A half an hour later, they pulled the car into the semi-circle of the Sunset Retirement Community Center.

The Oracle had lived through the two great wars, the Crusades, and had once mentioned something about the Great Pyramid debacle, but as she was as old as dirt her commentary was rarely decipherable. She sat in the foyer of the Sunset Retirement Community Center with an aide next to her wheelchair.

“Load her in the back. Janice, pull your chair up. There we are.” The Harpy adjusted her seatbelt so it didn’t catch her feathers. “Janice, how long is this going to take? My gentleman friend is meeting me in front of the Gravitron.”

The Sea Witch drove in a gigantic circle for the next twenty minutes and in doing so unintentionally retraced their route over half the county. They also managed to defy the laws of physics when the Harpy became impatient, jammed her great wings out the windows of the Volvo and proceeded to fly the car up into a tree.

The Oracle’s magnified eyes gazed imploringly out from her glasses and over the upholstered front seat. “I have to tinkle.” Then the giant conifer began to sway when the Harpy tried to pull her wings back into the car. “This plan needs some magic mojo, Janice. Come on! Let’s have it, witchy poo!”

“I would feel more comfortable if I had my book with me so that I can be prepared and review.”

“I’m telling you right now that if you don’t cast some mother load of a spell in a jiffy, we’re going to resemble that horrific excuse of a soup you tried to feed to me back at the house.”

As if to drive the point home, they felt the car begin to give. There was not a moment to lose.

The Sea Witch snatched her wand out of the glove compartment, cleared her throat, and in hushed tones, began to recite the spell.

‘Oh Pine tree, dripping with motor oil brew,
Fill our fenders with sap for some super strong glue,
We’ll tread down your sinewy trunk where it grew,
And arrive at your bottom feeling good as new.’

The Harpy and her cohorts, matted with pine needles and sap, landed quite plainly in an open meadow. The engine wouldn’t turn over so they left the car behind, but didn’t bother to take Oracle’s wheelchair because no one wanted the trouble of unfolding it. The only way to transport the Oracle was for her to ride on the Harpy’s back and even though she was as light as a feather, the Harpy was still put out by the inconvenience.

They found themselves in front of a local watering hole.

“Guess what? You two peons may join me for a celebratory drink in honor of being in my presence. This evening has been nothing short of a complete and utter waste of time. My outfit has been destroyed. I will never get the sap out of this fabric. Ruined. I just want to get inside, no questions asked! Move it!”

They walked into the bar and the Sea Witch escorted the Oracle to the restroom in the back. The Harpy made herself at home by perching on her favorite stool and glanced around to see if she recognized any of the regulars. She spotted the bartender hiding behind the beer taps.

“Barkeep! I’ll have a triple quadruple, on the double! Make it snappy, hayseed!” She frequented the bar so often that the poor man knew the drill. He lined the glasses up in front of her and proceeded to pour five dirty martinis with fistfuls of olives in each.

As the Oracle and the Sea Witch were shuffling back from the restroom, a thin man with a hollow face rose up from a table in the back of the bar. He was wearing a black leather jacket with thick, metal spikes sticking out all over it. On the back was a primitive rendering of a 1980s hair band.

Janice and the Oracle sat down next to the Harpy. The Sea Witch waved down the bartender while he was frantically mixing another batch of martinis. “Young man, I’d like a Diet Coke and my friend will have a seltzer with lemon. Thanks very much.”

“What are you supposed to be?” The question came from the hollow-faced man who was now standing behind them. The bartender left his post and slowly walked toward the back exit. A smattering of intoxicated locals scuttled underneath tables. The Harpy looked up from her drinks. “The Andrew Sisters.”

He made a sound like a chainsaw starting up that could have been interpreted as a laugh.

“Maybe seventy years ago. Now I’m looking at the local mutant barfly, some wrinkled up prude, and an ancient strip of beef jerky wearing diapers.” He smelled like cigarettes and hard liquor.

The two old souls pulled away from the bar and retired to the back with their carbonated beverages. Bertrudence, the name she’d been known as for the last few hundred years, slowly turned to face the stranger behind her. She dramatically flexed her talons, arched her back and fanned out her wings.

“I’m not supposed to be anything. You’re probably supposed to be employed, sober, and relevant, but you aren’t.” She sucked down her fourth martini and whistled through her teeth. “Life sure is funny.”

The interior of the bar was illuminated with the sickly glow of neon beer advertisements. The Harpy couldn’t tell if the man was actually beginning to swell in height and girth, and his skin, originally a blotchy ochre, was darkening to a moldy green. He pulled back as if to throw a punch and swung, caught her throat and launched her towards the back of the bar. The Harpy smashed into the wall and nearly went through it, but instead remained suspended in a hole, upside down, encased in faux wood paneling and plaster.

“Bertie!” The Sea Witch called out from underneath the pool table, “You’re stuck in the wall!”

The Harpy coughed out some plaster dust. “I am well aware of that, Janice.”

The man was now a monster.  Slowly and deliberately, he sauntered toward the back of the bar. He kicked barstools and patrons out of the way with the sharp, silver tips of his boots. Just before he reached the Harpy, the Oracle stepped between them and started to levitate off the floor, just a little.

“A mighty spell will land upon thou cheese block noggin’ to dissuade thee of untimely and aggressive infantilizing!” The Oracle looked exactly like what she was—a seven-hundred-year-old partially mummified floating woman who was howling her latest vision.

By now the Harpy’s attacker had physically morphed into a menacing, green giant. He looked more like a gargoyle than a he did a man, and removing the Oracle from his path of destruction was as easy as flicking a beetle off of a sleeve. The poor Oracle ended up landing in a crumpled heap on the far side the room. As he grabbed the Harpy’s neck and peeled her out of the wall, the Harpy managed a gargled moan toward the Sea Witch.

“This is unprecedented! I’m out of hooch and about to get plucked by this psychotic redneck! Please get out your wand and get us the #@$% home!!” The man tightened his grip and violently shook her. It looked as though a comforter had exploded. The Harpy resigned herself to sinking into a black abyss.

When the Harpy opened her eyes, she found herself suspended in a great, rolling skyscape filled with billowing clouds. There were towers of searing gold and brilliant red so fantastical that nothing on the earthbound plane could compare. She was majestic, regal and fearless; absolute in her angelic perfection.

Somewhere in the distance she could hear something like a shrill siren, but she ignored it. This was as close to happiness as she’d ever been and she felt completely consumed by her sublime surroundings. The ends of her feathers radiated a pure, unadulterated light.

But the noise fired up again.  It became louder and louder, a horrible grating sound ringing inside of her head. Something hard and gritty was smashed up against her face. It took a moment for the Harpy to realize that she was face down on the floor and the horrible noise was coming from her own mouth, so she closed it.

Slowly and carefully, she raised her head and caught sight of overturned tables and chairs, broken glass and splintered wood. A sharp pain ceased her movement as she tried to turn her head and she began to cry.

“Bertie?”

The Sea Witch was holding an ice pack to the Oracle’s head. The Oracle’s magnified glasses were crooked.

“What happened? I thought I died. It was nice.” She sniffed and started to sit up again.

“Everything happened so quickly. I ran over to Agnes and assumed the worst, but look—she’s very pliable. Then I turned to you and that whatever he was, honestly, I wish you would be a little more reserved in your choice of company, Bertie. He said he was an old boyfriend.”

“What happened? How did it end?”

“I turned him into a bug. We were going to put him in this glass and save him for you, but he was accidentally trampled by someone on the way out.”

Tears ran down the Harpy’s caked-on foundation in channels. The pasty flecks pooled together with the eye shadow and lipstick, giving her a garish yet wistful expression.

“Maybe it isn’t worth going through this world alone. I don’t know. I’ve always been something of a loner, but maybe I need to soften my edges a bit. After all, what’s the point of inflicting misery upon the innocent if there isn’t anybody around to enjoy it with? Isn’t that the fun of a shared experience, having witnesses around to watch the carnage unfold?”

The Oracle took a sip of her seltzer. It had, remarkably, stayed upright.

“Thou unholy coupling with yonder allegorical green beast is hauntingly vexing to mine own senses! Thee has’t caused great cataclysmic upheaval of dank and odiferous drinking establishment!”

The future was bright for these magical, supernatural gals. Finally, after so many centuries, they had the perfect opportunity to band together. The Harpy, Sea Witch, and the Oracle promised each other they would get right down to the business of unleashing their collective fury and fitful, repressed minds upon the world of mortals, as soon as they learned how to play Bridge. The End.

Jennifer G. Peper is a visual artist and a writer. In 2016 her essay, “Middle-Aged Yoga; A Review” was published in Knee-Jerk Magazine. She has collaborated in several art exhibitions, including at Otis College of Art and Design, the Queens Museum, and Briarcliffe College.

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