by Ree Davis
I seize the rooster from his perch above the hens. They ruffle against the side of the coop and fill in around my skirts as I carry their cockerel outside. He fights against the fingers I wrap beneath the pointed feathers of his neck to hold back his morning proclamation. It is just before dawn.~
I knew when the boy appeared in the kitchen—his lungs so worn from the run and the heat he was near fainting—this would be the end. All that had come before would crash in on us, and I alone would have to keep my senses. I alone would bear the family’s honor. I alone, as it had been for the past four years, since the influenza took my Jacob and our Alex in 1914. I to bear the honor for the survivors, for what we’ve become. The homestead gone. Boarders in the house. My sons, born to tend a family farm, now working deep in the mines. Like steel and stone to survive, I’ve been. My daughter was not even strong enough to bear up under her husband’s tirades. No good woman walks away from her husband.
It was on the wagon in the waning light at the crest of the hill that my youngest, Leland, the boy, and I heard the shots. Then I knew, like a pit so deep my insides might cave in had I not the strength of my heritage, that what we’d find would change us. Change everything. That there would be no moments for sadness or tears. Not now or ever. I would make the decisions. Difficult decisions about what might ruin us. What might finally bury our family name. And what was left of our pride.
The house stood tall and mute in the empty yard. Out back the lawn stretched to dark fields at its edges. There, my wretched son-in-law Garrick on his knees before the privy. Collapsed in a stupor even the sight of the splintered and spattered privy door did not break. I sensed the horror my son felt. His anguish reaching out from beside me. We could not allow the boy to see. To know. To understand.
“Go to the house,” I said. My finger in the air like the reaper. The boy jumped from the wagon and backed away. His eyes darted from me to the privy until he turned and ran. I myself became hard, impenetrable, as I walked to the privy, dark and yawning in the hot night. Inside was what was left of my daughter. Sin a mark where her face once was. The boys riddled through. Their blood black as night.
“Go fetch Doc,” I called back to Leland, still frozen in the wagon. My son could not be a part of what must be done. I have asked too much of him, my youngest, and could ask no more.
Then on my knees I prayed to God for forgiveness. Forgive my sins. Forgive my daughter’s sins. These the greatest sins. Murder. Suicide. Thanked Him that the boy Guy was safe. That one of hers was spared. Prayed for the souls of his brothers, Abel and Gilbert, now His lambs. Prayed that my own Jacob would forgive me too, for letting it go on between them. For letting this happen after all her pleas. That I might still join Jacob in the Lord’s Kingdom. Asked Him to take the visions from me. So I wouldn’t see in my mind what I seen tonight. Asked for no forgiveness for Garrick. Asked Him to forgive me for that.
Later in the kitchen, the world felt emptier than it ever had.
“Son,” I said, but Leland pulled away.
“What’ve you done?” he said. Blood still on his shirt and trousers from breaking apart the privy. Then kneeling in the lawn as if it still stood there, his forehead in the grass.
“What is best for us all,” I said. I reached for him. “I will wash those.”
“This blood won’t wash away,” he said.
“Blood washes away with cold,” I said. “Every woman knows.”
“My sister is dead. My nephews. Guy so broken his voice is gone.”
“I did what must be done.”
Wrapped them in blankets. Tender, careful, on my knees in the yard. I looked at her like no one could. My daughter. Saw what she had done to herself. Where her pretty face had been. Her hair tangled with blood. Touched her. Her delicate ankle in its white stocking. Her chickens running in the dark yard as if to warn of the End of Days. The pain hit me then. Speckled through me, as if I too had been blasted by a shotgun. I swallowed it. Much can be forced down with strength.
Her room quiet and peaceful. A good place to lay their bodies down. Garrick first carried the boys, one by one. Laid them across the foot of her bed. Then he staggered in the lawn as he lifted his dead wife. A sob erupted from him.
You are not allowed to cry, I said. I picked up the shotgun, sticky with blood. Hidden in the folds of my skirt as I followed my daughter’s body up the stairs. Shells that had been scattered on the kitchen floor loose in my pocket.
The bedroom looked tidy, too fine like she kept it. Garrick—part drunk, part boy—hung his head. Why had God wrought such a cruel and useless man on this family?
My heart seized up, leaving no space for feeling. Or any part of a real heart. Been coming on. No husband alive. Eight surviving children. This place forsaken. Slag heaps like mountains around us. A new coating of black on the windowsills every day. Men with soot embedded so deep in their nails the undertaker could not remove the stain. All that was left was strength. Fortitude. Perseverance. Honor.
Are you sober? I asked, but did not wait for a reply. I knew where he kept his flask, in the drawer beside the bed. I pulled it out. Handed it to him. He drank it empty. His eyes on me. His body sunk into the wall.
I gave him the gun and the shells. Shoot the room, I said.
You’re crazy, old woman, he said. His words a slur.
Your wife kills your children in the privy? Shoots herself there? I said. Counting on his drunkenness. At least here there is decency.
The privy had been blood and stench. Open and dark. The door part pulled from its hinges. The sides blown through with holes. When Leland returned, we pulled it apart, placed the boards deep in the fields, as if it had never stood there.
“Deceit?” Leland said. His hands opening and closing at his sides.
“I removed the shame.”
“Abel might’ve lived.”
Doc had put his stethoscope to Abel’s chest. Then lifted the five-year-old in his arms to the boys’ bedroom. I prayed for the Lord to take him to be with his mother. Prayed he would not know again the horror of this night. Stayed beside him until his last breath was gone.
“Son,” I said but Leland backed into the doorway. “Abel’s breath was so faint, we did not sense it. The child was too near death to bring back. Those boys were finally given peace.”
Leland’s face sunken, hollow. “There is no peace for us,” he said. “We’ll never know it again.” He stared at the floor. “This is our price for not helping her. And for you shooting those boys, dead or alive.”
“I shot no one.”
“Putting the gun in Garrick’s hands is the same as your own.” His face dark like a tomb.
“No,” I said.
“You care too much for the wrong things.” Leland’s voice rose in the empty kitchen. The anger in his face like a demon overtaking him.
“I did only what I know.”
“What knowledge do you have, to do what you did?” He slammed the door to his room.
My face against his door. “She couldn’t be found there. It could not end like this.”
I cursed my daughter for cursing me. What else could it be but a curse? To shoot her children in the privy? In the rank and sordid heat. To shoot herself? To commit sin upon sin? This curse she’d placed on me. The shame on this family. On her own. Better to put the shame on Garrick. Then only sadness for us, regret, not disgrace.
“Someone had to pay!” I called out.
Leland had sat at the table downstairs with Garrick and the other men in our vigil for Abel. Pouring whiskey between them. Leland had not protested when the sheriff hauled Garrick away.
Outside I feel myself nearing the other side of the day, with sunlight rising between the house and stables. The earth’s red glow spreading as the day’s heat is birthed. I do not want to see that light. For it to bring another morning, unlike any that had been before.
In my mind I see fragments. White and blackness. Green lawn and lamplight. A broken chair in a corner. Shotgun shells scattered against wood planks. Summer vegetables smashed on the kitchen floor. Bruised flesh. Linen speckled red. Men hunched over whiskey. Guy—just a boy—staring at dark spots on his father’s shoe. My daughter’s eyes pleading. Her husband’s rimmed red like a beast.
God is with me, guiding me, filling my hands with new strength. Strength to go on as I have. Strength beyond my own. Strength only He can offer. Or the Devil. The same Devil that came to my daughter. That held the shotgun on her boys as the first sin, and pressed the trigger with her toe for the last. The same Devil’s hands wrap around the rooster’s neck, wring it with one twist, and help keep God’s day from coming on.