A Terrible Energy
A Terrible Energy
I was six that first week of August in 1918, when it seemed the earth gave off rolling waves of heat that crossed central Pennsylvania and nearly suffocated all of us. The afternoon air was dense and dust hung in the light that passed before the house's dark wainscoting. My mother kept every window open, inviting a breeze that would not come.
Late on the eighth day of August, my mother came in from the yard and untied her straw sunhat, placing it on a hook in the back room as she often did. She was pretty, beautiful even, and just twenty-four. I noticed she staggered a bit on her way into the kitchen, where she braced herself against the sink. She rinsed the tomatoes and cucumbers she'd let us pick from the garden in the early morning. Occasionally she glanced at my youngest brother, Gilbert, not quite a year old, who played on a blanket on the floor. My other brother, Abel, sat at the table across from me, slapping at the rash that had blotched every bit of him from the first day of the heat. A loaf of bread sat on the table, covered with a towel. My mother had baked during the first day of the heat, but started to ration the bread when it did not let up. From the window over the sink, she gazed out to the barn and fields.
I'd sensed from the first moment I had any awareness of my mother as an individual—not just my mother and my father's wife—that she sometimes looked like a wild thing that we'd caged up. In these moments she looked uncomfortable being wife and mother in that house, the yard. She'd pull at her clothes, as if she'd outgrown them, as if she were a butterfly bumping at the edges of its cloth cocoon. In this moment, still with one hand on the sink, she yanked at the apron that always hung from her waist and pulled stray hairs from the side of her face. She glanced over her shoulder. "Guy, we need water," she said and motioned her head toward the pail near the door.
I was so pleased to have something to do, I grabbed my brother Abel by the wrist. We went together with the pail into the yard. I could see her face in the window as we ran across the lawn to the well pump. She'd be afraid we'd overheat, so I pulled at Abel's hand to slow him.
Even through the kitchen window, I could tell her eyes were on the fields beyond the yard. I knew they searched even further, to the line of trees that bordered those fields. She often gazed into the distance, as if searching for something. As always, I looked in the same direction but saw nothing more than overgrown pastures and the long stand of trees that bordered them. When she turned her eyes to us, it was as if she was startled to have sons at all. I felt jealous of this constant, haunted pull to be elsewhere. I feared its power, which seemed capable of making her drop everything and run away from us if tugged exactly the right way. In that moment I felt guilty for being there, for tethering her to the house as we did. I had no doubt that she loved us, but I also understood that it was possible for her to love us and want to be some other place. I knew the feeling too from the many times we'd had to hide from my father. It was unspoken between us, this sense of understanding and sameness that came from his tirades.
I pumped the iron handle while Abel held the bucket beneath the spigot's clear stream. At almost five it was obvious he would be more like our father, with the same fine, blonde hair and pink skin as my father and his family. He had a strong, stocky build, which made him still look like a baby. I was scrawny and dark, just like my mother and much of her family. You are a real Hagan, she would say when we were alone.
"I want to," Abel said.
"Ma'll whip me 'cause of that rash," I lied because I wanted to do it myself. The year before I could barely reach the pump's lever, but now I plunged it down with one arm. It seemed I'd just started when my mother knocked on the window. The pail was full and we carried it to the house.
"Don't spill," she called. Even when she was demanding something of us, her voice was gentle, perhaps even a little weary. "Your father won't take to water on the floor."
We shuffled the bucket to the sink.
"Now sit. I won't have you get overwrought." Her eyes were on me, as if she knew I'd liked feeling the motion of the pump despite the heat.
"Sit," she said, placing her hands on the back of my chair. "I'll put food on the table."
"I'm not hungry," Abel protested. He rubbed at his inflamed skin but stopped before she could pull his hand away. His temperament matched our father's, but the ready anger meant little in one so young.
"You will eat nonetheless," she said as she strained to lift the cast-iron Dutch oven to the table. I could see her wrist was bruised when she rested it against her waist. It made me angry to be so small, to not be able to protect her. She ladled the soup she'd made the day before into our bowls but hadn't bothered to heat. She laid out a board of cut vegetables and took her seat at one end of the table. She said a quick blessing, lifted her head, and nodded the familiar signal. We dipped spoons in our bowls.
My mother rose once more to glance out the window. She expected my father home. Perhaps she'd heard something. She sat down again, unwrapping the bread and slicing pieces for each of us. She swept the hem of her apron across the creases in her forehead.
• • •
The table shook at the slam of the front door. The custom was for my father to come in through the back room after work, where he removed his boots and deposited his soot-covered clothes on the hooks above the brooms and pails kept there. One side of that small room contained guns and ammunition for hunting, but otherwise it served as a vestibule for changing from the dirty clothes of the farm and mines, thereby saving the house's interior rooms, which my mother kept spotless. I imagined coal dust filling the front hall, spreading throughout the house like a tide of explosive blackness.
"Why is no one here to greet the man who provides your bread?" His voice was hoarse and each word slurred into the next.
My mother stood. His presence in the front hall must have put her off kilter, and maybe this was what he wanted. Sometimes I believed he preyed on her that way. More than once he'd accused her of being mad. "Your mother is prone to hysteria," he would say. Though it was clear to me that he'd done something to push her mind away, just as he had the night before. I watched my mother, hoping to stop her with my eyes. She limped as she went to the hall. Until that moment she'd tried to hide last night's injury from us.
I'd been awakened in the middle of the night by noises in the kitchen below. The muffled sounds of their voices—my mother's soft, yet determined, and my father's loud and insistent. I went halfway down the stairs, looking for a vantage point to see into the kitchen without being seen. A chair lay on the floor, broken. The table sat in the center of the room but off angle from its normal position. Bowls, cups and food were strewn on the floor. The other chairs were haphazardly set about, as if someone had been playing a game. I crept to the doorway. It took a moment for me to locate my parents, who were against the wall beside the back door. My father's back was to me. He still wore his soot-covered work clothes and boots, and this first violation meant some sort of end to me even then. He held my mother against the wall with one hand at her neck and the other pulling her dress. Its skirt was bunched up at her knees and soiled with the same black soot covering my father's clothes. Her sleeve was torn and her arm was bleeding. My mother's feet banged and slipped against the wall in an attempt to gain a foothold. Her eyes were wide and panicked. I slipped inside the doorjamb. She saw me and shook her head with no more than a tremble. My father looked over his shoulder. I jumped from view, slid into the closet under the stairs, and listened, but heard only his grunts until he banged through the hall, up the stairs, and into their room.
I awoke in the closet. The house was quiet. I peered into the kitchen. The table was clean and in its right place with the chairs pushed in around it. The dishrag my mother always had hooked on her apron was folded and hanging from the sink, exactly where she placed it at the end of every day. The wall where my parents had been bore no evidence of their struggle—white-painted plaster with waist-high wainscoting. A lone chair propped in a corner with one leg and three rungs lying in its seat was the only proof that what I'd seen wasn't a dream.
Last night's scene became real again when she left us and closed the kitchen door behind her. I followed, though I know she didn't want me to, dodging to the hall through the parlor. In the heat the room seemed tired, as if it could no longer maintain the pristine veneer required of a place reserved for visitors.
My father filled the front hall, teetering on heavy legs, which meant he was drunk. In the hallway's dim light, his skin darkened to crimson at the edges of his features. His clothes were covered in soot, but he must have rinsed his face and hands when he stopped at Mike's, with its long dark bar and its lineup of men covered in the residue of the Pennsylvania coalmines or the dirt of their farms. I'd once gone there with my uncle Leland to retrieve my father and was struck by the darkness of the place, of the men, their eyes bright white against the blackness of the coal dust that had infested their pores.
My father muttered under his breath and spat on the floor. My mother stopped in the hallway a few feet from him. The saliva seemed to seep into the grain and darken the wood, forming a stain where his spit had fallen. In that moment I wanted nothing more than to defeat him. I vowed to myself that I would not rest until he was gone from our lives.
"Supper is on the table. I can help you get cleaned up," my mother said. She clamped her arms together over her waist. Her sleeves were rolled up to the elbows, and her hands slipped against the film of sweat on her skin.
My father studied the stain on the floor with narrowed eyes. "I saw some of your worthless brothers this evening."
He'd always been obsessed with my uncles, as if they somehow vied for my mother's attention. She had been one of only two girls in her family, and the youngest and prettiest. After her father, Pappy, died, Mamie had had to sell the family homestead, bought a house and stables in town, and took in boarders, mostly miners who came through to work in the area's bootleg mines, which would start up and then be abandoned when the coal was spent. My mother had told me how those men laughed about crawling on their bellies into the dark. About nothing holding the earth up but their own backs. These men didn't wear their work like a burden, as my father did, but as something that bound them together. Ma said they passed a bottle around under the table when Mamie wasn't looking and winked at my mother as a girl, their faces scoured in the outside shower.
The brothers were something else. Perhaps guilty by association, running around that same house as the miners, with my mother there to help Mamie clean up after them and feed them. Or guilty for their closeness to my mother—my father sensing the bond of blood being stronger than that of marriage. Still, my father saw something unseemly about the brothers and the boarders, and it was something he never failed to mention when he drank. Even then I knew what he thought was fantasy, driven by some disgust for anything he did not control.
"Don't," my mother said with her eyes on the stained floor. "Please, Garrick."
"I saw them. I did. Working at your mother's, they were. Saw me go into Mike's and came over to ask about you. Yes, sir, they always want to know how their sister is."
My mother's face grew red from the heat or mortification. I felt red from anger, because I liked my uncles in some ways. But I didn't trust them. Asking after her wasn't enough. My mother said she and her brothers were close, but they and their wives had seen the bruises and scrapes on her and on us. She'd asked for help, for them to take us away or make my father stop. She'd pleaded with the oldest brother, Otis, only months ago. His wife, Bessie, and my mother had grown up together. Bessie was pretty like a doll, with fair skin and golden hair. Even though she and my mother were the same age, her face was like a girl's, and I'd grown to dislike her for it. When my mother went into the parlor with Otis that day, she begged him to take us with them. But Bessie only fed us a ham supper and they were gone.
"It's just family is all," my mother said.
"Is that what it is? Family?" My father's words slurred.
"Stop," she said. She didn't look at me but said, "Guy, you get outta here. Go on back to the table."
"Mama said you couldn't be right," my father said. "Couldn't trust one man to be good, let alone seven. And then them boarders." He wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand. I didn't believe a man like him, who'd once lifted me clear off the floor with one hand using my nightshirt like a sling, could cry.
"Stop, Garrick. Please."
The hand fell and his eyes seared into her. His anger like the day's rising waves of heat. "Your mother taking in boarders? What would your pa have said?"
"Don't look to my family for what we face now."
My father straightened, appearing almost sober. Then he grimaced. "Strangers in your house, eatin' at the family table, sleepin' under your roof. You like some kinda servant. To men. My mama knew better'n me. I should put you outta your misery. Should send you on to God." His eyes held steady but blood filled his face in angry speckles. He appeared about to boil, and I thought he might fall over—hoped he might. If he did, I'd tromp on him with all my might.
"Yes," he said. "Put you out of your misery." His voice turned low and rough. "And end mine."
Beads of perspiration collected in a line above my mother's lip and rolled down her neck. "Guy," she said, still not looking at me. "You get outta here before I lose my patience."
I slipped behind her and into the kitchen, leaving the door open a crack so I could watch.
"You've been to Mike's again," my mother said.
My father lunged forward, his hands grasping at the air. She stepped aside and he stumbled. He fell against the parlor doorframe. A moan escaped him.
"Mama," I cried. I couldn't help myself.
"Guy, stay in the kitchen. Stay with your brothers." Through the door I could see the veins standing up on her arms. She faced my father. "Let's get you cleaned up." She reached out to him. "Food will do you good."
"No." My father arched his back, trying to gain equilibrium as he stepped away from her.
I heard the folds of her dress whisper against the door and the creak of the wood as she leaned on the doorknob.
"Where are your brothers now? You can't count on them," he said, hissing through his teeth. "God is your only hope. God and your husband."
She slipped into the kitchen, locking the door behind her. She nodded at me to do the same with the parlor doors. She dropped the keys in her pocket. I fell into her skirts. My father pounded on the door. My mother pressed her body against it. I could feel each of his blows through her. I looked up to her to see what to do next. She scanned the room as if she didn't know where she was.
"Mama." My words were more cry than whisper. Like a child, when I knew she needed me to be a man.
The house fell silent, but I could hear him breathing on the other side of the door.
His voice grew calm. "Boys? It's your father. Get your mama away from the door. She needs to get me supper."
A cool drop of her sweat fell on my face as she bent down and whispered, "Guy, get your brothers and go outside. Hide." She pushed me with one hand as she held her other fast against the door. I pulled Gilbert from his chair and herded Abel, who never took his eyes off her, to the back.
My father's fists hit the door in rapid succession. The blows thundered through the room.
"Guy. Abel. Open this door." He growled, "You are as useless as your mother." The pounding began again.
I pulled my brothers into the yard and on to our most reliable hideout—the outhouse. My father had discovered our other hiding places—the barn loft where we'd pull up the ladder after us until he burned all the ladders in the yard, the chicken coop, the space beneath the porch, the fruit cellar under the barn, and the fields. But my father never looked for us in the outhouse, even though the small structure sat right at the edge of the yard, so obvious it became invisible.
I heard my father's kicking through the door all the way across the yard. I heard banging and clamoring, and while I was scared, I wanted to leave my brothers to help her. I also knew this was not what she wanted of me, so it took everything I had to stay there, hearing the crashing coming from the house, but unable to stop whatever was happening inside.
I saw her through the back door. She was coming to us, but something stopped her—maybe he'd grabbed her ankle—but then she kicked and was free. She ran into the light.
"Mama," I whispered from the outhouse. She staggered across the yard, her hand against her back with one leg dragging slightly.
"Here," I said.
The outhouse must have looked alone and vulnerable in the sprawling lawn, because she appeared to search for an alternative. She hobbled toward me. She leapt in, bracing herself against the back wall. I pulled the door, pushing the latch tight. I put my finger to my lips. "Sh h," I whispered.
The stench in the outhouse was horrible. The walls were splintered. Sunlight streamed in thin lines through the cracks between the siding boards. Abel whimpered. Gilbert, who'd always seemed somewhat oblivious during my father's tirades, wrinkled his face into a frown that seemed on the edge of a wail. My mother shushed them. The silence outside seemed to explode around us. My mother twisted in circles, scanning the view through the structure's cracks. She sat on the wooden seat cover and pulled my brothers and me together.
Time slowed, as if each second held the full weight of our lives. Had my father passed out in the kitchen? Drink made him restless and my mother always said restless men did not stay down for long. It seemed this time that the whiskey at Mike's had gotten more potent in the heat and poisoned my father's mind. I sensed my mother thought this too as she rested her head against the wall. She balanced Gilbert on her lap and put one hand to her back.
"Are you hurt?" I asked.
"Sh-h," she said.
A faint sound came from the house. At first it wasn't clear, but it grew louder and I realized someone was singing. My mother stood from the seat with Gilbert in her arms. The voice was my father's.
"When sinners see their lost condition, and feel the pressing load of sin," he sang. His voice grew stronger with each word.
My mother peered through the boards to the house. I stood next to her, staring at my narrow view of the yard. Behind us Abel began to sing, his voice thin. "Then stilled are cries…"
"Sh-h." My mother turned and put her finger to her mouth.
"I want to sing. Why can't I?" His voice was a soft whine. His face too similar to my father's. I wanted to hit that face.
"Hush now." My mother returned to peering between the boards, her voice soft. "Later."
My father's voice grew closer. He was in the back room.
"Then loosed is Satan's every band,
In death is hope and consolation,
The soul is safe in Jesus' hand.
When we shall walk through death's dark vale,
His rod and staff shall never fail."
He stopped singing. As we waited, the absence of his voice felt worse than his words. I could hear my mother's breath, rapid and slightly ragged.
"God is watching, woman. He knows what is right and what is wrong. God knows poison is in your soul."
My mother stretched an arm out to one side, her hand flat against the outhouse wall. Tears welled in her eyes but did not fall. She looked to the ceiling and blinked them away. "God protect us," she whispered. "Amen."
We heard cupboard doors banging open and shut, and a cascade of metal hit the floor. My father grumbled, then kicked something. A few moments later he emerged on the back step with a shotgun in his hand. My mother tried to turn us away from the sight, to cover all our eyes, but there were too many eyes to cover. I tried to push back the fear that hammered inside my chest.
"God knows no man should suffer from the misdeeds of his wife, and no whore of a wife should be allowed to continue on earth." My father's voice was level, as if it were any other day.
Abel stood. "Pa!" he cried.
My mother grabbed him and wrapped her hand over his mouth, pulling him into the fabric of her skirt.
My father stopped, scanned the yard, and said, "Did I hear my boy Abel?"
Through the boards I saw my father march down the steps. He tripped over the last one and toppled to the ground. The shotgun fell to his side. He struggled to his knees, then to all fours, and shook his head. He jerked himself up, pushing against his knees as he stood. He trudged a few steps toward the barn. Then he turned, searching the patch of lawn where he'd fallen. He retraced his steps and bent to pick up the gun. He studied it as if wondering what he intended to do with it and then went back into the house.
The farm fell silent. We had been in the outhouse before, stood in the raunchy stench of the place, hiding and waiting for a sign that it was safe. Now it felt as if the world outside would never be safe again.
My mother released Abel. His face blotchy from her hand. She patted the seat. "Sit, child. Pa's not feeling well. He wants us to stay out of his way and be very quiet. Do you understand?"
Abel's eyes widened. To him our father was still more father than menace.
My mother spun around in the small space. I didn't want her to feel so alone and tried to get her to take my hand, but she flung hers to her face.
"God, if you have deserted me, then I must desert you," she said.
I didn't know much about God, but I did know that you didn't ever say anything bad to him or about him. I yanked at her hands. "No, Mama," I said.
"I curse everyone."
"Take it back," I whispered. It seemed too much to tempt God's anger while my father was after us. "Please, Mama."
She knelt down. "My precious boy, Mama's angry and hurt. It is so hot. Your father is having one of his spells." She straightened my shirt. "No one is here to help us, so we must help ourselves. We must get away. I can't carry either of your brothers now. You are the fastest." She knelt before me in the cramped quarters and took me by the shoulders. "Remember the Brenners' house down the road?"
I nodded but I didn't want to go. Did not want to leave her side for the empty fields between our house and the Brenners'. Did not want to leave him either, and the chance to help stop him from ever hurting her or us again.
"Do you know the way through the field?" she said.
I did, so I nodded again. Then I shook my head. "No," I said.
"Yes. You are going to get help. When I open the door, you run behind the barn. Then through the fields to the Brenners'. Do you understand?"
"I don't want to."
"Guy. I cannot go. You are our only hope. Or we are trapped." She shook me firmly by the shoulders. "Do you understand?"
"Do not stop for anything. When you get to Mrs. Brenner, tell her to send her field hand. Tell her where we are, tell her your father's been at Mike's. Then run to Mamie's. Do not stop until you get to her. Be as swift on your feet as you can."
My face felt as if it held all my weight, and now I had to be more man than child.
My mother leaned to kiss my forehead, her lips stopping there for a moment longer than usual, as if breathing strength into me. She stood and flipped back the latch, but held the door closed with one hand. Her eyes met mine and, for a moment, we were one. Then she swung the door open. "Go now. Run."
• • •
I darted out the door, across the yard, and into the field behind the barn. The corn was thick and gone to seed. The sun scorched the dried stalks in long angles. They broke in dusty bursts all around me. Only a few hours of daylight remained. Did my mother watch me from the door? Did she feel the clean air on her face? Did she see me disappear into the overgrown field?
I ran determined to arrive at the Brenners' farm, find someone, and return to save my mother and brothers. I imagined how, with them trapped in the privy and my breathless run for help, I could make everyone recognize what we'd been through. I practiced the words aloud, "My father is drunk. He has broken down the kitchen door. Trapped my mother and brothers in the outhouse. He has a shotgun. He will do something very bad. He is crazy. Come. Now. Or he'll kill them."
They'd believe me because of how my lungs held tightly on my breath and how the dust of the field covered me. Because of what I'd say. They'd finally see my father as a monster. They'd finally come and rescue us.
The heat was like a blanket as I ran. The temperature rose within me. I thought only of returning to our backyard with the Brenners' hand. He was a big man, not smart, my mother had said, but strong and decent. He could stop my father. I'd make sure he brought a shotgun. Just in case. And Mrs. Brenner, she'd step from the wagon and lift her skirts as she ran to find my mother. I'd run too, to the outhouse door. I'd yell that it was safe. That she could throw the latch. I'd hear the relief in her voice, feel her arms around me. We'd finally be safe. It would be over.
The hand would rope my father's arms behind his back and drag him to the wagon. He'd be thrown in and driven over the bumpy road back to town. With his hands tied, he couldn't hold on. The wagon bed's hard wood would beat against him, bringing on bruises, welts and splinters.
We'd finally be free.
• • •
I broke through the field and into the Brenners' yard, screaming at the top of my lungs. I ran from the house to the barn, but there was no one. I yelled as loud as I could, searching the outbuildings, but the wagon and Mr. Brenner's carriage were gone. My heart seemed to leave me. I gazed back to the path I'd made through the corn. I was panting from the run and the search around the farm. I considered what to do and remembered my mother's words. Run to Mamie's. Do not stop until you get to her. Be as swift as your feet can take you.
I began to run again, down the dirt road to Four Corners and to my grandmother's. My legs were beyond tired, but they moved at a steady pace. My lungs found a rhythm, as if a new wind filled them with strength not wholly my own. The summer's corn was high on either side—taller than me by at least a foot. No one was on the road, no horses, no carriages. It was as if everyone was hiding. I ran and ran and tried not to think of my mother and brothers. How long had it been? I didn't allow myself to dwell on it. I glanced over my shoulder to see if anyone had come up behind me. But I was alone.
It seemed forever before I got to the swell of the hill and, beyond it, the intersection of the two roads that met at Four Corners. On the far hill sat Troutmen butchers. I thought of the trips I'd made there with my mother. I felt a guilty pang of hunger. My feet flew, one quickly landing as the other lifted, dust rising around my shoes. Evening was approaching and a wide, orange sunset was taking form in the distance.
Mamie's house took up a large plot. I got to the back door of the rooming house and slammed into the kitchen. My breath burned in my lungs. My grandmother was at the table. She looked down her glasses at me. I couldn't speak but the panic in my eyes reflected in the lenses of those glasses. It took Mamie no time to understand what was happening. I can't remember what I said, if I said anything, but I can still see her face. Hardened, angled features that revealed nothing.
Leland stood in the doorway behind me. I turned. "We must go," I said to him.
"Your sister and the boys are in trouble," she said and put down her work. Her voice sounded as if she was scolding.
No other words were spoken as Leland prepared the wagon and placed his rifle behind the seat. He watched me, perhaps trying to determine answers to what had happened. He was younger than my mother, but not by much. He helped Mamie onto the bench, and when he lifted me into the seat between them, he gazed into my eyes. I thought then he was looking for hope, and when he looked away, I felt a crushing weight. We headed up the hill toward my family's house in silence. Mamie sat forward, her spine stiff.
I was filled with anticipation. When they saw what had happened and how my father was, they all would finally see the truth. I thought my life would change forever.
Leland snapped at the horse, but I wanted it to go faster. I wanted them to see everything, to know how bad it was, but I wanted my mother and brothers to be safe. I couldn't think about how much time had passed or about what might have changed between now and the moment I'd leapt through the outhouse door.
The heat was blazing off the end of the day in a fiery sweep across the sky that tinged dark as blood where it met the horizon. The road seemed longer and lonelier than when I'd run down it. We were about a half-mile away from the house when a blast erupted in waves through the sky and pounded against my ear. The silence that followed rang in my head and made me cover my face with my hands. Then another shot cracked out louder than the first. The horse pulling the wagon halted and reared up slightly. We sat motionless, uncertain what the shots meant. Uncle Leland stood and gazed across the fields. The sun was low on the horizon, and deep red was giving way to gray night.
Uncle Leland sat forward on the bench and snapped the reins with fury. I felt urgency greater than before. I hadn't allowed myself to think of anything but saving them. I couldn't allow myself to feel fear welling inside me. It seemed I still might be able to wish it away.
We came up the ridge and could see the house in the distance, so unchanged from any time I'd seen it before. Leland drove the wagon to the barn. The privy was to our right in the distance, facing the house, its door held on by only one hinge. My father sat in a heap in front of it. His arms limp at his sides. His legs folded beneath him in a kind of prayer. He turned to see us. Leland leapt from the wagon before it stopped. I started after him, but Mamie had gotten down from the wagon and grabbed the scruff of my neck.
"Get in the house," she said, pointing to the open back door. "Do as I say."
Mamie's grip on me was hard, and her thin fingers seem to clutch down to my bones. A hot lump filled my throat. Tears streamed down my face. I wanted to see my mother and brothers, to learn what had become of them, but did as I was told and stood just inside the open back door.
"What have you done?" said Leland, now behind my father on the lawn.
"It was her," my father said. His arms flew up, like he was calling out to God. Tears poured from his mouth and nose. "She's not been right. Never."
Leland put his palms to his eyes as if trying to push whatever he saw from them.
Mamie now stood behind the men. Her hand flew to her mouth.
"You know as well as me," my father said. He reached up as if to grab Mamie's hand.
The moment was endless. The doorway held me fast. Mamie seemed to have stopped breathing. The men faced her rather than whatever lay inside the privy, but her eyes held steady.
"You say my daughter did this to her own children? To herself?" Mamie said. "Here in the privy?"
I wanted to call out for my mother, but my throat felt stiff and hard. I wanted to run to see what they saw, but felt tethered to the house by unseen hands.
My father stood and looked at me. Our eyes met but he didn't seem to see me. As quickly as his tears had arrived, they disappeared, and he seemed completely sober. "This heat has been hard. Most especially on her," he said. "She has been near impossible. Like her mind was gone."
"She would never," said Leland.
"No," said Mamie.
My father pushed the privy door closed and leaned against it for a moment. "God knows women are hauled away for less than what she's done to them boys," he said. "You've seen the bruises."
The lie rippled across the lawn and into me like a bolt of electricity. I wanted to cry out, to call 'No,' but when my mouth opened, my voice was silent. I leapt into the yard and ran toward them. Mamie stepped in my way, her fingers resuming their grip on my bones. She turned me around and propelled us both into the house. She closed the back door and dragged me into the parlor, where she pulled me tight against her skirts.
"Your mother's gone," she said. "My child, they are all gone."
I felt strange, as if my heart had been emptied. I could smell the bergamot that Mamie had been tying to dry when I'd run into her kitchen. Her homespun skirt felt rough against my cheek. The clock above the mantle banged out each second; behind it the grind of crickets grew. Through the parlor window I saw Leland pull away from the house in the wagon. His rifle rattled against the seat. A cloud of dust followed him. The parlor seemed colorless. Somewhere, further away, I heard my father's great, chugging sobs. My hate for him had formed a rock that sat solid and unyielding in my throat.
When Mamie released me, the night had moved in around us. She took me by the hand to the parlor settee and I sat. She switched on a lamp and slid both parlor doors open so I could see into the kitchen, where she righted the table and set back the chairs until she realized one was missing and found it broken and leaning against the wall from the night before. She picked up the broken leg and rungs. She turned them over in her hands and glanced at me. Then she placed them neatly back on the seat and moved the chair and its pieces to a corner of the room. She swept up the broken plates and cups. Scrubbed at the spots of soup and tomato that had seeped into the wood floor. All the while she mumbled, as if she was having a conversation with someone I couldn't see.
My hands clenched the settee's green velveteen upholstery, but somehow it didn't feel soft like it should, but like the horsehair stuffing that lay one level beneath. My breath came in little bursts in rhythm with my heart. I focused on Mamie and her movements in the kitchen, my concentration grew so intense that the sounds beyond the kitchen walls vanished, and the only two spaces in the world were the dim lights in the kitchen around Mamie and the one that illuminated where I sat. All the windows were open, and a tiny night breeze slipped across my face, like something restless and unseen toying with my cheek.
Inside a pain grew as if my heart had been ripped out through my face. Though I was intact, the one who survived, it felt as if I'd been dumped in a well and brought up for air. As if I were opening my eyes and taking a breath before being dropped in again and seeing, for just a second, my last glimpse of life. I sat there, my hands pressing on the velveteen, imagining the outhouse with its off-kilter door and what might have become of those inside.
Mamie came to the parlor. "You are not to leave this room," she said. "Do you understand?" Her eyes stayed on me until they disappeared behind the last slit as she closed the hallway doors. My ears awoke and I heard her footsteps sound through the back of the house like the beat of a drum.
"They can't be found here," she said. Then her voice moved further away. "Get blankets from the barn."
My father's breath came in gasps, as if he was unable to speak. "I can't," he said.
"You will," Mamie said. "They must be inside."
I wanted to run to the doors, throw them open, run into the yard, to see. But my limbs were locked into place by the settee. My feet dangled useless, interminable inches from the floor.
Then I heard them in the hall. My father grunting and gulping like a fish deprived of oxygen. Fabric dragged heavy against the walls. Footsteps weighed down the stairs, which let out loud cracks and creaks. Three times I heard them pass through. Then the familiar squeak of the door to my mother and father's room closing. Mamie's voice muffled by layers of walls between them and me.
A shot rang and the settee released me. I flew under a table in a corner of the room. My arms covered my head. Tears crushed the inside of my skull. The smell of burning cotton. Pounding against a door. A door breaking from its frame. The upstairs being ripped apart.
I stayed until the voices and heavy footfalls of men beat across the front porch like thunder. Then the doors slid open. My uncle Leland crouched beside the table. His legs crossed before me on the floor. His hand reached for me. To pull me up from the well. Then I saw Mamie's skirts appear behind him.
"You are safe," Leland said.
I crawled out to stand before him. Doc came running from the darkness into the open doorway.
"Upstairs." Mamie gathered her skirts to follow. As she went up the stairs behind him, she said, "They are all dead."
The words cut me into pieces. Glimpses of life seemed to splinter off me and spin in the air like phantoms. Visions of my mother by the sink with her hair falling in wisps around her face. Gilbert, fat and naked, in a pan on the kitchen floor. Abel's legs askew as he wrestled with his dreams. Once, when I'd awoken in the middle of the night, my mother had crawled into bed beside Abel and me. I'd been clutching her thick braid of hair in my sleep. Now my hand felt the loss of its silky thickness. It would have been natural to cry, perhaps even right, but my throat held my feelings in a stifled grip.
Leland went to the stairs and gazed up. I crept past him.
"No," he said.
I took them two at a time.
Mamie and my father stood at the edge of the room. Doc bent over Abel on the floor. I stood unnoticed in the doorway. Gun blast speckled the room. My mother's body ringed with charred bedding. The shotgun angled across. Her face a tangle of hair and darkness. Gilbert lifeless on the floor.
"He's still breathing," said Doc.
My father fell beside Abel. "My God."
"Alive?" Mamie's hand over her mouth. Her eyes wide as if opened by force.
"Get him to his room," Doc said.
I slumped to the floor. My mother and brothers blurred. Smoldering bedclothes like paper. The smell of something else. One of Gilbert's shoes had fallen. I clenched it in my hand. My father's expression when he saw me in the doorway. He'd forgotten his other son.
My father lifted Abel. Mamie tried to take the shoe. My grip was strong. She pulled me up and to the hall, closing the door to my mother.
Abel in his bed. Blood as black as night.
Mamie led me step by step downstairs.
I stood in the hall with the shoe in my hands. Men clomped by. Bessie and Otis. Bessie glanced at me. The horror in her eyes like a grounding wire that wiped the prettiness away. She put her hand across my shoulders. I flinched away.
My father at the kitchen table with a glass of whiskey. Still in the sooty clothes of work.
"She'd been in a mania for days," he said. "I came home to them locked in up there." He eyed the ceiling and took a drink. Someone refilled his glass. "I was too late."
Everyone's eyes were on him. His voice grew more even as he spoke. "A blast must of set fire to the bed linen."
"Not much burns in this kind of air," one man said.
"At least my eldest was spared." He looked at me. My throat closed tighter. "Come here, Guy."
I took a step back. The smell of sweat and dirt and smoke filled the air. The broken chair sat unnoticed in the corner. All the men took a drink, as if they could swallow away their thoughts. Across my father's shoe ran dots of black red. Mamie passed by, her hand cool on my head. I turned and ran outside.
"Her mind has never been right," my father called down the hall.
I vomited off the porch until I was empty. Leland came out behind me. We sat on the stairs. My head in my arms. The soft step of Bessie's shoes. The smell of the roses she fussed over like children suddenly stronger than anything. I looked at Leland. He and Bessie stared at each other. Bessie's eyes rimmed in gray circles, as if her life had been pulled from her. I would hate her forever for leaving us that day.
"Did she do what they say?" Bessie whispered.
"No," Leland said, his eyes on me. It seemed he was as unsure as I. "She would never."
"But then it's murder," she said. "Isn't it?"
Leland reached down, put his hand on my shoulder, and squeezed. Night had gone to full blackness. Fireflies hovered everywhere like stars burning out and starting up again. The flashes like little sparks of pain.