Ours was a house of whitewashed wood, rotten and peeling in spots, five acres of feed corn a tall moat between it and the nearest neighbors. I died to give you life in that narrow home, my Evram, with its steep staircase that you managed by the age of two.
At five you raced down those stairs from your room, a blur of red hair and overalls. Sprinting past the large room that served as kitchen and dining both, where your new mother, a heavy woman with a slight voice, hair forever in knots, fussed over bubbling stews and canning in autumn. You charged outside to the wonder of the fields, trading the awful quiet for birdcalls and insect hum.
Silence reigned in that house as it does in the grave. The words that came later, even years after my death, were as spare as the furniture in that home. Your father barely spoke and never of me.
Your Stepmama only told you, “Your first mama is always there. She watches over you, forever and ever.”
And I am and I do, my Evram, though I envied her. Not for the breath in her lungs or blood in her veins, but for how she held and bathed you. How she tended your meals and knee scrapes. For I was gone.
You were old enough to work the land at six.
You followed as your father elbowed through the rows, his hands forever stained with tractor grease and nicotine.
“The corn is both man and woman. If we don’t pull the tops it’ll make its own children.” My husband’s massive jaw clicked when he spoke, as though a ratchet formed his few words.
He plucked a tassel and threw the spidery leaves at your feet.
“We want the bull rows to be the father.”
He hoisted you to level with the tops of the corn and faced you to the rows on either side. The bull rows had a red string knotted every ten feet at their tops.
“Those tassels stay.”
You gazed down the long rows, eyes straining to reach the end. Your voice barely a whisper as your father set you back down.
“You gonna be with me pa?”
As if showing him how it would be done, you reached for one of his callused hands, and that gesture brought a feeling I had no name for, an echo where my heart’d been. Turning away, your father buried his hands in pockets and rocked back on his mud-caked boots. He cleared his throat and spat in the dirt.
“You pull as many as you can. I’ll fetch you at sundown.”
Striding down the long rows that closed off the sky from your head, you yanked what seemed a million tassels, bending the plants to meet you. You were tall for your age. Your faded overalls, new last year, barely covered your shins, but the corn plants were taller by more than half. From the reaching your back burned like fire. A worse pain screamed your hands; the tassel’s leaves were sharp as razors and tiny cuts crisscrossed your palms.
By midday, you couldn’t see anything from your tears. You grabbed whatever plant crossed your path, ripping the tassel before stumbling blindly to the next.
In the full heat of afternoon you bunched on the ground, your knees a shelf for your chin. You fished your lucky rabbit’s foot from your pocket. The snowy fur and pointy claw your fingertips loved. Above you, the corn leaned like an angry mob.
You cried for what might have been hours—I don’t sense slight time well, anymore. The sun dipped and you bawled till your stomach ached and you could barely whimper. Your throat sang with thirst, and the salt of tears gave a fiercer edge to your want.
Then, through blurry eyes, you saw your father’s massive boots.
You wrapped your arms around his legs, rubbing streams of tears and snot into the oily denim and clutching the firm muscles of your daddy’s calves. He shook you off as though you were a rutting hound. He dropped a handful of tassels on the ground, a dozen or more garroted with a red string.
You tried to reach your father’s eyes but the waning sun and the half-moon brim of his hat kept their target secret. His hand rose up, blotting out the orange disc of sun that torched the corn tops, and he slapped your face with a sound like the shutting of a great book.
Without a word he turned and disappeared into the corn.
It was not the striking that surprised me. I understood his anger. It was the leaving I could not abide. You had no tears left. You touched the burning on your cheek and thought about what it was going to feel like to die in the field. Would it hurt? Would the foxes and mice eat you up?
I wanted so to hold you. That’s all I wanted, even before you were out of me. That’s all I want. But the earth’s arms were stronger, so I put my voice deep in your mind:
It’s just like a story your Stepmama read you, a story I would have read you, My Evram . . .
The one about the two children who left the bread crumbs to find their way home. You had something better than breadcrumbs for the crows to gobble. You’d follow the fallen tassels and chart your path through the corn, back to the house before dark.
You squeezed the rabbit’s foot in gratitude and apologized for doubting its power. The tightness in your guts released, like the untwisting of a rope, as you scoured your cut up hands in the dirt, watching how the earth mixed with your blood, making the blood black and marking your palms with hexagrams. A mound at your nose, you witnessed a horde of ants marching to and from their home. You felt the leftover sting on your face and crushed a dozen ants with one balled-up fist.
Death was routine. Between the humble meals and grueling chores there was always death. Mine was just another part of that cycle, lost in the years of slaughtered pigs and chickens. Death lingered about the place as common as the stink of manure.
You’d cut worms in half and watch the parts wriggle the dirt. You’d drown spiders in teacups. You’d strip wings off a fly and drop it into a thimble full of kerosene. You’d watch the fly struggle and put a match to the thimble, observing the fly crinkle up in a tongue of orange and blue flame. You were not a cruel boy but a curious one. You studied death as some did the stars.
Only my father-in-law’s death was hidden. You witnessed only the hushed whispers that filled that corner of the upstairs, the thick smells of liniment oils and bedpans hauled off by your Stepmama. The Towners were strong stock, stronger than my family of thin-hipped women and men with weak blood, and your grandfather went on dying for years in the darkness and quiet of his room at the end of the hall. Nine years of dumped shit from an unseen grandpa till one day strangers carried him out on the door that had closed off his room from those of the living. A bed sheet made a tent of his bony nose and one hand poked out and bobbed a “so long” before the final slam of the screen door for the old man.
You didn’t work the day of his funeral. You watched the road, sandwiched between your parents on the pickup truck’s bench seat. From the corner of your eye you saw your Stepmama check her lipstick in a tiny circle of mirror. On the other side your father worried a cigarette and pulled at the lopsided knot of his tie. He stared ahead when he finally spoke. Like he was speaking to the road.
“Man puts his life into the fields. Fields take it outta him. Year upon the year.” He exhaled a stream of smoke. “But the Towner family’s got their tree. You can cut off a root or a limb, but by god we’re still there. Always.”
His Stepmama nodded and mouthed an amen.
White faced and solemn, you stood above your grandfather and watched the dirt gather on the coffin’s top then roll to the tight space at its sides. You wondered again if death hurt. Not the dying, but death. Was it nothing but that last pain one felt carried on for eternity?
You tried hard to imagine your grandfather in there. Enclosed in blackness, not even enough room to scratch that tremendous nose you’d taken on. I strained to put my thoughts in your thoughts: No use in tears, my Evram. Death comes sure as the setting sun. The old go. They make way for the young.
And you nodded and you didn’t cry.
Nor did you cry when the hired hand, Joshua, was killed and you’d been the one to witness it. You didn’t shed a tear though you’d liked him.
Joshua “The Talker” always telling jokes, showing you how to hypnotize chickens or burp on command, things your father had no use for. Every day, after finishing your chores, you followed him the way a stray dog follows the one who shows it kindness.
You were helping him work on the harvester, sitting high in the driver’s booth, turning the engine on and off at his order, when the thing happened. He’d brought you a present from the county fair, a wood carving with three monkeys sitting on a log. One covered his mouth, one covered his ears, the third his eyes. You ran your fingers over their tiny heads, amazed at the detail of faces and fingers. You giggled at their silly expressions when the thing happened. Fast and sure, the way accidents always do.
Your father found you in the corner of the hayloft, crumpled down, head buried in your hands. Nothing strange in that. A ten year-old boy sees a man near-cut in half, face down in the now red, straw floor. Many a grown man would hide his face too, and your father touched you gentle for the first time in years.
You told no one Joshua hadn’t died right away. Not a soul but me knew that Joshua had looked at you, reached his arms and tried to speak. In those dying eyes you saw something. Like a look one gets in the corn. As though fixing on some distant point, some place past the dusty light of the barn, beyond the straight rows of the fields. You thought that place might be heaven, that’s where your Stepmama said good men went, but Joshua didn’t look happy. He didn’t look scared either. Joshua’s eyes looked empty, you thought. Empty of all but a flicker of surprise from being let in on a secret.
For your thirteenth birthday your Stepmama bought you the butterfly hunting kit you wanted and you went nowhere without your net and killing jar.
Catching the butterflies was simple as walking. There was no need for sugaring as they were all over the field and landed on your outstretched arm like crows on a phone wire.
It was the dying that interested you. The unraveling of the secret.
You’d press your nose up to the glass of your killing jar and watch the graceful insects falter. You came to know the instant they were going to die. You’d rub off the fog you’d breathed on the glass, watch their tiny pinhead eyes, and hope for some glimpse of… something.
You were good with your hands. You’d pin them right through their middle. You’d take your spreading board and get the wings just right before fixing them.
Your Stepmama praised you on the variety of your catches which now lined the walls of your room—moths of every kind and shape, Sphinxes and Royals, the sun hued Monarch and Sulfur. Like foreign stamps they hung on their pins in their frames. For a time it was all you could do to keep up with the mounting of your captures.
But the slowing of rapping wings in the killing jar was like sleep. Even when you heard the dead butterflies beat against their glass frames at night you knew it was just a trick, a thing you liked to do in your head. Still, you’d listen for a while to their tapping, wondering where it was they flew and what they saw there. You’d listen and think on it till your head ached and your eyelids fluttered like their wings, carrying you into sleep.
Awake at dawn even on Sundays. Eight acres of corn took at least two men but it was only you and your father, with no money for hired help anymore.
There’d been strong words about the Sunday work. You heard them pass between your parents at night. But like everything in that house, those words ran into a silence mightier than logic or tears. On Sunday mornings, the silence felt like a change in the weather as your Stepmama pinned her hat on and wobbled her heels across the yard to the pickup truck. She’d sit alone for a moment, frozen like a photograph, before cranking the motor and setting off for her three-mile trip to church.
As for school, it was five miles away. It wouldn’t send you anywhere but back to the farm, “No wiser for the trip,” your father said to you, twice a day, when you looked up from the fields as the piss-colored bus roared past on the county road.
Still, out of respect for your Stepmama, he’d given you the choice.
You chose the fields, alive with mice and crow. You chose the barn where you could corner rabbits and occasionally a fox. At night you had time. After your chores you loped upstairs to do your work. At sixteen, you took to locking the door of your room.
Under your bed were the tools your father had written off to an absent mind or shiftless laborers, and canning jars with lids sealed tight for the smell. You filched the empties from the root cellar and it was there, in the back of the canning shelves, where you found the skull.
You found it in the winter, in the middle of a stretch of days blank as the snow that shrouded the fields. You found it in that long third of the year when the Towner house was still as an abandoned church, and your stepmother would knit—no sound but for the clack-clack of her needles, and your father would alternate between the almanacs and napping. You found it in those endless months when you kept to your room, trying to make the most of the animals you’d stashed in the fall for the lean season ahead.
Down in the warm mustiness of the underground the skull waited for you, not by the empties but buried three rows deep behind the peeled tomatoes and plums. You’d come down for a new jar but been distracted by a field mouse, its shaking whiskers coated thick with preserves from a burst jar. You chased it.
The candle in your fist pushed back into the dark of the shelf, a dozen flames reflected on the curved jars and beyond that the moist beads of the mouse’s eyes. Its body hunched and trembled against the wall. Your other hand followed, grabbing the mouse. You were gentle. Careful not to snap its toothpick ribs, you forgave the teeth sewing a stitch of panic in and out of your callused thumb.
Then you let it go. Not from pain or fear but because your knuckles brushed it. A thing like wood but not wood. The mouse sprang from your slack grip and took to a space between two oddly stacked jars where it stayed, watching your giant hand move past.
You pulled out eleven jars before you got a clear view. That skull was a trophy of sorts. A hidden memory, held on to from a war my man never spoke of except in uneasy dreams.
With all my will I made that skull my home. From inside it I stared back, as if saying, Well what are you gonna do?
“I’m taking you upstairs,” you said in the empty cellar.
Up. You cradled me under your arm like a melon, past your father with the tipped beer and red eyes, to your room.
That night you didn’t hear the butterflies in their frames, or your favorite jawbone rattling in its Mason jar, or the humming of your threadbare, rabbit’s foot. You heard only me. I whispered in your head all night and you listened. You leaned into me, straining to catch a voice you’d known before birth.
Do what needs doing, I said.
The tongue came first. A stray dog gave it so I could talk better. After, my voice was music, better than your radio. If you cocked your head you could hear me from the fields, at work. Over and over I said to you,
There is a place past them fields. One day, you’re gonna walk to the end of those rows and up the hill and keep going. You ain’t gonna turn around, my Evram. You ain’t gonna see your fake momma’s tears or hear your daddy’s shoutings, you gonna keep walking.
Your daddy would cuff you for not listening. But you were listening. You loved my voice, rapt at the soft river of my words. Nice words, as I never called you “senseless” or “slow.”
The dead could come back. You knew that; your Stepmama told you so. Maybe my voice had something of that Jesus of whom she spoke so highly. His portrait hung in the living room and you used to stare at it and wonder how he ever unstuck himself from that plank of wood.
Just in case, when you caught a fox, you cut its skin to size and glued it to my skull so I had hair, like Jesus. You let it hang long down the sides.
It’s me. It’s me. I urged you on. I made you promise. The eyes were the trick.
Windows of the soul, my Evram.
You saved them for last but broke your vow.
You guided a calf out to the field under a thumbnail moon. You left it bellowing and blind in the rows. Blood streaked your coveralls. You buried them in the field and slipped back into the sleeping house naked. Up the steps you moved, your beautiful body careful with its weight by the loose board. Gentle as eggs, you gripped an eye in each hand.
But I would not see you. You stroked my fox hair and talked to me, telling me your problems and fears, asking questions. You stared into those eyes and prayed for recognition. But all you saw were the dumb eyes of that calf staring back. You imagined what your father would do upon finding the sightless cow in the trampled corn. All for nothing because you’d done it wrong. Broken your promise.
You bunched your fist and knocked the skull to the floor.
“You ain’t even real,” you said. “You’re a voice in my head or the devil. I made you up!” You raised a hammer over your head, ready to splinter it to pieces, but I called to you.
I told you how I’d always been there. How I was watching over you, forever and ever. How I remembered your first breath alongside my last. How my scream-turned-sigh reversed and echoed in the tiny clouds of your lungs, as the midwife wrestled you from my shuddering womb. How my last deed was to give you life. How your daddy might never forgive you for taking my life with yours, but I loved you and yearned to hold you.
You set that hammer down because I was the torch inside your head. I helped you see things in the dark corners where your mind, alone, could not reach.
Like about Hansel and Gretel. I told it again, my way, and made you think further on it, past the end.
What’d they do when they got home, my Evram? To the father who’d left them to the wilds of the wood, and hoped never to see them and their hungry little mouths again. That father who seemed happy that his children were back, was he mindful of the fact that children were now killers? Was he mindful of the great book and an eye for an eye? What’d those children do after the story ends? What’d you do, my Evram?
In bed, you blinked your eyes and clenched your fists.
You’d tell your parents over breakfast. Your Stepmama always said you should come to her if there was anything you needed. “Anything at all, honey,” she’d always said, pushing her glasses up her nose.
Your fists uncurled on the blanket as you rolled onto your belly and drifted to sleep, a tiny smile pressed into your pillow. First thing in the morning you’d tell them what you needed, you promised, and make things right.
You sat in the sunny part of the hill, your father’s shotgun balanced between your bent knees, the barrel fresh bread warm through your jeans. You tipped it from one leg to the other and the butt of the gun twisted a divot into the loose dirt between your feet. You steadied the barrel against your leg and brought your other hand up to your face in a salute, cutting off the sun from your eyes.
Down by the house the screen door was loose and winking in its frame from the wind, the same wind that blew your hair out of part on the hill. You couldn’t hear the door slam, just the wind and the trees catching the wind in their leaves. From here, the paint job you and your father labored over three summers back still looked passable and you couldn’t make out the slight lean you knew existed in the porch. You tipped your head up and watched a small cloud skirt the sun. The thinning white edges made you think of corn silk, which swung your mind to the harvest and the ears that would rot in the field and suckle the crows.
You pulled your stepmother’s hand mirror from your rucksack and held it to your face. You remembered trying to count your freckles as a child. Twice, you’d gotten past three hundred, lost count and given up. You looked into your blue eyes then put the shotgun barrel in your mouth, watching in the mirror how it stretched your lips. You kicked off your boots and wiggled your big toe inside the trigger guard, then focused your attention back onto your eyes. Your pupils stared down the speck of themselves, searching their black like a tunnel’s entrance.
You swallowed with difficulty then jerked your toe against the trigger, holding the mirror steady.
You heard the click. It was an old gun, now jammed for good.
Good lessons take time, I sang in your head. Time and effort. There ain’t no shortcuts or easy ways. Learning’s work. You gotta plant and harvest, my Evram. Plant and harvest.
An ant made its way up through the wiry hair of your legs. You scratched close to it and then let it pass. It was almost to the elastic of your underwear when you stood up. You picked up your sack, brushing away the flies, and let the shotgun drop in a patch of weeds. Grass threaded through the spaces between your toes as you moved down the hill.
All things considered, it had been a good morning. A “capital morning” your Stepmama would have called it.
She had gone so quiet. She’d folded her glasses up and said a prayer.
Your father had been harder. He’d come at you and made you shoot him in the legs to knock him down, but that had been good. For in that you’d seen a side of him you’d never known. Your daddy could cry, you knew that now, though I’d known it already. He’d been a hard man but not a bad one. I’d watched him pour his eyes out into my grave. The faraway look in your father’s eyes at the end made you know, too, your daddy had been no different than any of God’s creatures you’d watched die.
Halfway to the house you cut the long way around, avoiding the part of the field you knew would be muddy. Instead of completing the circle, you continued up toward the county road and away from your home of eighteen years.
The mirror was still in your hand. You stopped; thinking you should replace it before your Stepmama noticed it gone missing. I reminded you it didn’t matter and with the smallest of giggles escaping your beautiful, crooked mouth, you tossed the mirror into the fields where it winked in the sun once, twice, then disappeared.
You made your across the road and up the hill, here, to the cemetery spot where I’ve watched you all these years of my death. You stroked the stone with my name. The name I’d forgotten as no one spoke it.
On hands and knees you began to dig. You pulled at the soft dirt, finding your way deeper in the earth. You dug till the sun was gone. You dug even as you imagined your father yelled your name, over and over from the house, the anger in his voice lost from the distance. It was only the wind.
You dug till you reached my box and opened it. You pulled the skull from the sack. Your father’s blue eyes placed in it now—eyes, your father proudly said, many times, that could find a black rat on a moonless night.
You stretched your man’s body out and at last you held me, my Evram, and I you.
Originally published in From Their Cradle to Your Grave, edited by Kevin G. Bufton.