by Eric Hawthorn
The animals know.
The animals sense Punch’s restlessness, his thirst for butchery.
Snakes slip from their holes and make for the forest. Mice pour from cracks in the pavement and scatter into the mountains. The birds abscond into the clouds.
The people are the last to know. Maybe it’s Punch’s steadfast grin—a beguiling, toothy hilarity.
Hello, Mr. Punch! What news?
All eyes on his grin, his calm, beady eyes. (No one sees his bony grip tighten around the sturdy, knotted stick.) His grin is the cheerfullest contagion: it leaps to passing faces like light to a mirror.
Soon, his grin is in the barn, milking the cows. His grin is working in the field. His grin is playing ball in the alley and feeding the baby and stirring porridge over a happy flame. The whole town is grinning. Such a lovely afternoon!
Even as the snakes slide from their hiding spots and vanish into the woods, even as the mice skitter down the street and birds dissolve into the breeze. Even as the entire town goes quiet, clouds wall out the sun, and every windmill in the valley creaks to a stop.
Still, that grin.
Fun Fact: the author composed this story in rehab, midway through an eight-day Librium taper, on the back of an Institution-mandated worksheet about Consequences.