Of Stench & Sisters
Bonnie Martha was the first to drop.
She’s our cow, and when we found her Janie told Mama. Mama got Daddy, and they had a shout about it.
Mama said, “We need to leave.”
And Daddy said, “These things just happen sometimes.”
Mama yelled. “No they just don’t.”
But we all went to bed, and next morning Daddy started digging a hole. Me and Janie watched from the bench underneath the front window. Daddy kept wiping his forehead, and we thought that was the heat, but then he fell down too, the hole half dug and Bonnie Martha still lying on her side in the pasture.
This time I told.
“Daddy’s down too.”
Mama dropped her dish towel right on the floor and looked around frantic for somewhere to put the plate she was washing. She let it clatter on the big wood table and ran out the door.
We watched her lift up Daddy’s arm, and when she let it go, it dropped limp just like our dollies’. Then she tore back inside and ran into her bedroom. Her arms were still bubbled with soap.
I took Janie’s hand, and we walked into the doorway between Mama’s bedroom and the kitchen. We stood there, hand in hand, watching Mama’s face get wet. She was loading clothes into a folding box I’d never seen before.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“A suitcase. We’re leaving. Now let me get to your bedroom.”
She pushed through us hard, and split our hands apart, like Moses’ sea. But as soon as she got in the kitchen she dropped the suitcase and turned right back around, with her hands on her face. She loped to her bed, like that fox loped around the fields after Daddy shot it in April.
“What about our bedroom?” Janie asked.
Mama muttered something, but she never got up.
It started smelling funny outside, so we closed the windows. But then the house got too hot, so we had to open them back up and just wrinkle our noses, even when we ate jam sandwiches. That’s all there was to eat ‘cause that’s all we knew how to make. We ate them at the table, with our backs to Mama’s bedroom. Her wet plate had dried in the heat.
The sun came up, and the stink got tangier. All day it got tangier and tangier, and the heat got syrupy thick, like it wanted us pickled.
Once Daddy started stinking, we went out to ask why he wouldn’t take a bath. But when we saw the flies dancing on his face, we knew it wasn’t any use.
By nighttime, the flies had got to Mama too, so we shut all her windows and her bedroom door, ‘cause we didn’t want her flies getting on us.
All the next day we kept peeking at Daddy through the front window, and when a couple of turkey vultures came and spread their brown wings around him like a cape, that’s when we knew he was dead, ‘cause that’s how Daddy found the fox. When it stopped loping, it fell down, and then the vultures came. Daddy said the vultures don’t come unless something’s dead.
Janie ran into our bedroom and cried. I tried eating another sandwich, but the sweet jam in my mouth mixed with the sour air in my nose, and I kept gagging, even when I held my breath. All day long, Janie wouldn’t eat at all.
When it got dark, I hid in the bedroom with her, and shut the door. But the stink reached through the crack underneath like fingers and crawled on its belly across the floor, up into our bed. We hid under the covers, and that helped a little, until it got so hot underneath we couldn’t bear it. By morning Janie was scratching her face, like she thought if she ripped off her skin her nose would stop smelling.
“Stop it,” I said, and pulled at her arms. “It doesn’t work like that.”
But she didn’t believe me and fought to scratch until I gave up and just crouched in the corner with my nose in my knees ‘cause I didn’t like watching her scratch herself. Her face was my face, and I didn’t want to see my own face scratched.
I took to breathing through my mouth, but the rotten air kept sneaking into my nose holes. And when I did throw up it didn’t even make the stink worse. It made an ugly pink pile on the floor, chunky and hideous, like a picture of stink in a storybook.
I cracked open Mama’s door ‘cause I didn’t know how to clean up the puke. I was gonna ask, but then I didn’t ‘cause there were flies buzzing all around her like a cloud, and her skin was all black. It looked like it was moving. I stared and stared, trying to figure out what would make skin move, but then Janie peeked in too, and screamed, so I closed the door again. I didn’t open it anymore after that.
All day long I paced around the kitchen, and Janie cried and cried on our bed. When I saw that Daddy’s skin was crawling too, I went outside even though the smell was so bad it made my eyes wet and my tummy buckle. I walked over to him with my hands over my mouth and my fingers spread over my nose like a mask, and when I got close enough I saw that it was bugs. All over him. More bugs than I knew the number for, just crawling all over each other and all over my Daddy.
The shovel was lying next to him, but there were so many flies and all of those bugs. I was afraid of them getting in my mouth or up my nose or crawling on my skin or my hair. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get them off, so I couldn’t get to the shovel. I had to scrape up dirt with my hands instead.
When I threw it over Daddy’s face, I saw that his eyes had turned black. Except they weren’t really black. They were gone. Something had eaten Daddy’s eyeballs.
I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. I just kept picking up dirt and throwing it on him and gagging until it got too dark, and then I went back inside and dunked my arms in Mama’s old dishwater. The bubbles had all fizzed away.
I got a piece of bread ‘cause the sun was going down, and Mama would’ve said we should eat. But my tummy felt so twisted. I wasn’t hungry at all, and when I put the bread near my lips I realized Janie wasn’t crying anymore. I set it down on the table and went to our doorway to look in at her. She was still lying on our bed, but she wasn’t holding her nose. When I got close, I saw she wasn’t breathing anymore either.
Daddy didn’t know about Bonnie Martha, and Mama didn’t know about me and Janie. She’d said twins were a special kind of sister, and that we’d always have each other so long as we both should live. But here I was living, and there Janie was not.
I went out into the kitchen and shut Mama’s clothes into her suitcase, ‘cause the last thing she taught me was that you take a suitcase with you when you’re leaving. I didn’t say goodbye to Mama ‘cause I didn’t want to open her door, and I didn’t say goodbye to Daddy ‘cause he was no-eyes dead, and I had to keep my mouth shut when I passed him anyway. He had too many flies, and I didn’t want to swallow one like the old lady in the song.
The handle of Mama’s suitcase dug into my hand, and the stray sticks and bits of gravel all over the road jabbed into my feet. I’d forgot my shoes. But I didn’t go back for them.
I didn’t want to see the flies dancing on Janie.