Congratulations to JJ Lubinski, Grand Prize winner of the Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. Here’s her winning story, “The Night the Moon Cries.”
The Night the Moon Cries
By JJ Lubinski
I shrug on my tattered jacket, just thick enough to block the bite from the wind as I step onto the cobbled stone outside my door, making sure I lock it tight behind me. I glance at the sky, but no moon greets me. No playful stars wink hello as I pass under them.
Nothing up there to watch over me tonight.
I stroll through my village, weaving throughout the stone and dirt paths connecting the houses. I keep one hand tucked deep within my pocket, fiddling with cubes of sugar, while the other dangles loosely against my side.
The first house I approach is my neighbor’s house, a block away. My house is a ways outside of the village, guarding it. I lift my hand and knock twice, pause, then thrice. A warning to those inside to turn their lights off and stay inside until the sun rises. The candles in the windows are smothered, one by one until the inside of the house is as dark as the sky above me.
It doesn’t take long for me to make my rounds, lights blinking out in my wake as if I am a bad omen. I don’t stop until the entire village is dark, the doors are locked, and my people are safe.
I sigh, trying in vain to smother the anxiety within me as if it is merely a tiny wick of flame. I flip up my hood and stalk toward the outskirts of my village, ignoring the growing flames of my anxiety, threatening to burn me alive from the inside.
I stop once I reach the tallest hill, about two miles from my village. My chest aches, my muscles threaten to collapse from the climb. You’d think I’d be used to this by now. The walk through the village, the climb, the responsibility.
A quick glance over my shoulder is enough to calm my nerves. The village is gone, hidden beneath the blanket of darkness. I lower myself to the ground, fold my legs beneath me, and wait.
A blink of light in the distance is all I need to know they’ve arrived. My ancestors called them Palun. I call them terrifying, yet, I’m drawn to them. I’m the moth and they are my light. They are pale, lanky creatures that only come out on the darkest of nights when the moon is gone. They have the same glow, same color as the moon. My father believed they are the moon’s tears, born out of grief and loneliness from being stuck in the sky for all of eternity.
My father had such an amazing imagination. He loved this responsibility, loved that he was able to get a glimpse of the Palun. For generations, my family had been deigned the protectors of the village. We are the only ones who are able to see the Palun, to interact with them. We keep a watchful eye on the sky, waiting for the moonless nights. The villagers trust us, treat us with kindness in exchange for their protection. I was trained for this the moment I could walk, accompanying my father throughout the village, up the hill.
Tonight’s my first night without him. I think of the moon’s tears and wonder if my own could turn into strange, yet beautiful creatures.
I hastily wipe at the wetness dripping down my cheeks with the back of my hand and force myself to focus on the task at hand. I watch the Palun as they crawl on all fours across the landscape, streaks of white stark against the night. I sweep my gaze over them, counting. There’s only five tonight. I pull the sugar cubes out of my pocket. I brought enough for each of the Palun to get four.
My father had given me many instructions over the years, but there were three rules he always stressed. First, you always bring plenty of sugar cubes with you. Second, never bring light with you. They hate light almost as much as they love sugar.
I inhale deeply then pull the sugar out of my pocket. As one, the Palun freeze. My heart thunders as I watch them all swivel toward me. From my training, I know I have 30 seconds to lay the cubes on the ground before they are on the hill.
I hear the rustling of grass beneath their elongated feet as the Palun charge toward me. I lay the cubes in groups of four, spaced out by several feet—just as my father showed me. As I take the few steps to place the next grouping, I look up.
My heart takes a nosedive into my stomach, and my skin breaks out into sweat colder than the night.
They are ascending the hill already. I can see the gaping holes of their eyes, darker than the sky. Their heads are thrice as long as a human’s and their mouths hold teeth sharper than the knives my mother used to skin deer. They crawl on all four limbs, faster than any animal born on Earth.
The third and final instruction my father always stressed was to never, and I repeat never, have sugar on your person when they approach.
I throw the next group of cubes down, tripping in my haste as I move to place the last grouping down. My chin bounces against the dirt and I can hear ragged breathing above me.
Something tickles my calf.
I stretch my arm out in front of me and flick my hand. I watch as the next grouping of sugar cubes bounce against the grass like dice. I roll on my side, away from the line of sugar cubes. I jump into a squat and force myself to look at them.
The Palun stand on their hind legs, their arms dragging against the ground, in a line before me. They each stand at a grouping of sugar cubes.
It is then I realize I still have four cubes in my hand.
The Palun without sugar steps forward and my breath shudders out of me. There’s a roaring in my ears and I can’t tell if it’s my mind playing my father’s warning on repeat or the beating of my heart.
It stops inches from me, hovering in front of my face.
Its breath is frigid against my skin, pushing stray hairs from my face. It tilts its head in a calculating movement and then looks at my side, where my father would have been. When it returns its gaze to mine, it sits back on its hind legs and bows its head.
The rest of the Palun follow suit.
At a chelonian pace, I place the sugar cubes in the small space between the Palun and myself.
I take a step back, then another.
I watch as the Palun closest to me unfurls its clawed hand. A small pin sits in its palm. My heart lurches in my chest. My father’s pin. I never saw a day where he didn’t wear that pin, fastened right above his heart. It’s my family’s insignia—a full moon with rose thorns curled around it like a serpent.
I snap my gaze to the Palun’s, uncaring of the fear its beady eyes instill within me.
My father was buried in that pin.
The Palun pushes its hand forward. I feel the gaze of the creatures behind it. I force my hand not to tremble as I reach out and wrap my fingers around the pin. The Palun takes a step back and crosses its long arms over its body. Then, it speaks.
“New guardian. We welcome your service, as we welcomed your father’s.”
Its voice is beautiful. It’s the sound of birds welcoming spring. Of water lapping against the shore. The sound of fires crackling in the hearth. It reminds me of all the good in the world.
I nod and mimic its movements, crossing my arms across my chest. I spin on my heel and walk back to the village with the full weight of this responsibility blanketing me like a cloak.
Pushing open the door to my home, I hesitate. I glance toward the tallest hill and see a faint glow. The Palun watching me as I watch them. I take that moment to fasten the pin to the thin fabric above my heart and whisper, “I, Maya Rosetha, swear to not only protect my village, but the Palun, as well. I am the new guardian.”
I watch as their glows vanish and I follow suit, disappearing into my home and beneath the covers of my bed, where sleep eventually claims me.