sixty-eight (burn)

by nike, October 23, 2016

Our father coming in from the garden, or us going out to stand in the weedy patch of rhubarb and watch him cut, with a knife we were sure grew bloodier with each cut, the long pink stalks. The exact gesture with which he gathered the poisonous leaves in one hand and cut with the other. He used the large knife, shaped like a moon, the same blade with which our grandfather had cut the cane, and severed his left hand. Our grandfather liked to show us the stump (a spider-crack of white across shiny pink), but our grandmother thought it gruesome, shooed us away and folded his cuff down over the wound. Buttoned him closed and made him tea. Our grandmother fed us slices of apple wrapped in cellophane cheese and tied our hair in braids so tight they made our temples ache.

We would sit on the back step with the sugar bowl with the blue patterns on it between our knees. We would lick a stalk of rhubarb and dip it deep into the sugar and then chew like mad. Like cows. Until the rhubarb was sweet, fibrous looseness in our mouths, and then we would both hawk and spit, as our father had taught us. We gobbed up great foaming blobs of spittle with which we aimed to stain the concrete path from the back door to the washing line. We grinned at each other with open mouths to show our pink teeth, our darkened gums. We looked like cannibals, like warriors, like zombies.

Our father ate meat every day, a ritual. He ate raw flesh that our mother ground and seasoned then served for him on a thick white china plate, topped with a raw egg yolk. The first thing I learned to do in a kitchen was crack an egg and sieve it from its white with my hands. Cradling the yolk and slipping it from hand to hand until there was only that bright warm sun in my palm. Using the back of my hand to make a crater in the raw meat (cool, pink) and then sliding the yolk into it without allowing it to break, and carrying it to our father while my sister trailed behind me, responsible only for a fork and napkin.

After the sugarcane fires on midsummer night, we painted our faces with muddy ash. The ash was greasy, still warm. The men hollered and threw empty bottles of beer into the flames, into the fields where they would work tomorrow. Snakes fled the heat, and toads, gushing out between the rows of burning cane as if from the throat of that terrible sister. The one who was cursed. We ran to the other edge of the field (through darkness, our bare feet stained with red earth, heat burning our left sides, cool unflamed air on our right) seeking the other sister’s mouth. Diamonds and pearls and roses without thorns. But there was no opposing miracle, no prettiness, only hot flames and flaming toads.

We beat the toads to death with spades, as our father had shown us. We were amazons; we were warriors with blood spraying up on our shins. We had heard that in England the hunters striped their faces with the blood of foxes. That in America warriors scalped their enemies. We had seen the skull of an Aboriginal woman kept in a glass box at the school. Mary, she was called, but nobody knew what she had called herself, or where she’d died or when. There was a hole in her temple the size of a twenty cent coin, or the tip of a spear. Hail Mary, Mother of God, be with us now and at the hour of our death, we recited in the chapel, and for a long time Mary’s skull was, in our minds and in our midnight whispers (we slept head to foot in a double bed), mother of God, mighty and dark and full of rage. When my sister screamed I screamed louder, and used two fingers to paint stripes of toad blood on our bare chests. Our mother wept in the bathroom that night, after all the flames had been beaten down, and the pig was scraped from the spit, with the door locked and our father shame-faced in the hall. She wept and called us savages and scrubbed at our faces with Solvol and scraped our hair into clean, dark ropes.

In our bed we lay, not dreaming, darkness and the smell of sweet ash fell around us. Our mother was outside in her nightdress tucked up at her thighs, spraying the house with water from the hose, fearing that the burning flakes of ash would light up our wooden house. That our home would become a bonfire. We would be caught in the belly of the burn; we would be sacrificed like ancient virgins. Burned to nubs of fat and bone.

The sound of frogs caught in the downpipes, their booming voices amplified and green. Our father telling our mother to put away the hose and come inside, saying that’s rain, then, come inside. And the storm beating down. Balls of hail as big as our fists on the lawn, in the garden, crushing the rhubarb and raising the smell of wet ash to the window. Our mother outside in the storm, barefoot, dragging on our father’s arm as he bends and cuts. The moon a blade in his earth-dark hand. Water gushing in the pipes, falling in sheets from the gutters and dripping into metal pails set out on the floor. Our poddy calf trapped in the mud and its mother (fucking stupid fucking stupid yells our father) bawling as it drowns, the mother refusing to leave her calf’s side and sinking deeper in the mud with every hour.

My sister said a prayer and I said Holy Mary and after that we considered their accidental grave holy ground, the calf and its mother our holy ghost and dreadful spirit. Bony chewers in our prayers.

Our mother mixing wintergreen and oil, which smelled like toothpaste, grinding it in the pestle with her strong arms that never held us but held a foal, a goat, a hen. Nursed a calf and held my father’s head against her breast. Who smelled like work and earth and sometimes like the weeds with which my sister and I made crowns.

I remember she touched me once, when I was moving past her. Put her hand on my arm, above the elbow but below the shoulder (I can still feel the steel of that grip, sudden and unexpected), and towed me back towards her. I would have drifted, but she moored me.

I would have wandered. I would have drowned.

[This piece was written in response to a writing task, which was to write from the POV of a girl child, allowing her limited perspective to drive the narrative/description]

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