Five days later he was in the barnyard barebacking their mule Spook, shouting orders to the goats, marshalling them from one side of the pen to the other. The older ones soon wised to his game and bunched up in one corner, refusing to move, leaving the kids at the mercy of the young tyrant’s switch. His father’s old hat flopped, lopsided, against his brow. Its weave was darkened with sweat and the crown was caved in, the straw frayed and torn.
When the first wave of cacklers swept in low, just above the pines on the western edge of the field, he leant his head back and the hat fell to the ground. Spook snatched it up and chewed on it but the act was lost to the boy, marvelling as he was at this flurry of coal-black birds. A second wave soon overwhelmed the stragglers chasing the first. It was followed by a third and a fourth, and on and on until their passings were beyond measure — thousands of birds moving in gusts like the wind given form.
The thresh of their wings was soon lost to a shrill chatter. Such a noise the boy had never heard before. He could feel it in his teeth. A piercing whine absorbing every other sound that dared protest against it — the nervous bleating of the goats and Spook’s fearful braying and his own thoughts, shrieking against the abomination. The hair hackled on his arms and his mother’s voice pierced the din.
The corn! she cried. She was flailing through the gate, Belle by her side. They’s afta the corn!
In one hand she wielded her large kitchen knife and it scissored ahead of her stride, reaping at the goldenrod that had overcome the field with its brazen hue.
The boy slid off the mule. He squeezed between the pen’s cedar rails and chased after her. She had already made the path leading through the Jack pines yet was standing there still when the boy caught up with her. Birds were perched along the branches on either side of the path, as plentiful as leaves. The cackling here was so loud that it forced the boy’s hands to his ears. Through the gap, the cornfield was a seething mass of utter dark. Nothing could be seen beyond it.
Grabbing the boy’s arm, his mother pulled him along the path behind her. The boy stumbled along the hardened valleys wagon wheels had made on either side, gazing up at the hordes around him. He could see now that not all of them were black. Some had red crowns and others deep blue collars and there were starlings too, and sparrows and chickadees. When the smaller birds landed, the larger ones pecked at them and beat their wings, and the smaller birds flitted away. Everywhere the boy looked he found the same so that it appeared to him one vast struggle: the small against the large, the light against the dark, the weak against the strong.
The forest path broke then upon the field and the boy felt his mother’s hand slip from his.
Stay here! she yelled, wading towards the corn patch, swinging the blade in her hand as a scythe, Belle charging ahead of her.
The birds at the edge of the corn rows scattered with the billow of ashes windswept from a fire as his mother hacked at the stalks, slicing them at their base with blow upon blow until a dozen lay felled. Even these the birds assaulted. She cleaved at them, catching one in midflight and severing its wing. It flopped on the ground and she bent to the harvested stalks, bundling them together and dragging them towards the boy, Belle trailing after her, snapping at her winged pursuers.
When she dropped the cornstalks at her son’s feet, the dog turned tail and stood guard while her mistress scavenged the treeline. She wrenched a fallen branch from among the bracken. She broke it in two over her knee then strode back to the boy with the thicker piece and pressed it into his hand. It was near as long as he was tall and there were three prongs at its end. The bark was scaled and loose. It crumbled under his grip.
Ya gotta protect the seed, she said.
The boy nodded and she turned, storming back into the fray.
Birds, five or six of them, swooped past the boy’s shoulder. They landed on the pile of seed corn — little brown swallows dodging among the larger blacks. The boy swung his club. A prong caught one of the blue-collared birds in its breast, making it stick. He knocked it off against the ground, swung again and hit another, startling it to flight before it realized that it was already dead. It dropped like a stone.
He swung again and again and again until he was ringed by their mangled, twitching forms.
He tried to raise his club to strike once more but his arms were as rope and it drooped. His throat was too parched to swallow. He ran his tongue over his lips and watched his mother labouring back from the field, towing another load. Beneath the delirious frizz of her hair, blood from a dozen cuts and scrapes painted her cheeks and dribbled in trails down her neck. When she reached her son, she heaved the bundle on top of the others, the birds ravaging the seed taking flight then settling again as she turned back to the rows. The flock there had become as a waterfall, black and foul, pouring from the trees and flooding the cornfield, its mist coal-speckled against the clear blue sky, the clamour of their feast foaming against the roar of their chatter.
Such was the world beyond where his mother stood, her arms limp at her side, her hair as wild as thorn bushes. She craned her neck and looked back at her son, her eyes wide, astonished and fearful. He watched the knife slip from her hand and stick into the sun-parched earth.
Ma! he called out.
Her legs buckled. She teetered sideways and slumped to the ground. He dropped his stick and ran to her screaming, Ma! Ma! When he reached her, he knelt and wiped away the hair lathered to her cheeks with sweat and blood. She lifted her hand towards his face but it faded. The boy clutched at it and she smiled, wan and desperate. A tremor coursed through her and she screamed, jerking her hand away and clutching it tight to her belly. Her eyelids pressed into seamless pits and her teeth mashed against her lips. Then all at a sudden the tension fled her and she went limp against the ground. The boy took her hand again and pressed the back of it against his cheek, its fingers twitching like the legs of some dying thing.
He heard Belle bark and turned. There was a crow pecking at the eyes of the bird he’d impaled with his stick. Belle pounced at it. It took flight and the boy watched it striving for the forest before it was lost to the sun’s harsh glare. He felt for his father’s hat to guard against the bright but it was gone, he couldn’t remember where. Cursing himself for losing it, he looked to his mother’s crumpled form. The hem of her skirt was mired in blood, the shadow at her back as thin as a wheat stalk, the air around her miasmic. The cackling seemed to be coming from the other side of the world, its rabid shrill dulled by his exhaustion, and he heard his father’s voice raging against its fury.
Git her out of the heat, boy, it said. It’ll kill her.
He circled to her front and bent to her ear.
Ma, he said. Ya gotta git out of the heat. Ma!
She groaned and her eyelids shuddered. He waited for her to rouse. When she would not he wrapped an errant strand of her hair around his finger and gave it a sharp jerk, snapping it off at the root. Still she did not stir and he stood and tried to think of what his father’d do in his stead. He saw him lifting her from the ground and turning towards the path. In his mind it didn’t take him more than a half-dozen strides to get her through the pines and not a single step more before he made it to the pasture gate.
He scanned the forest, following its line until it gave way to the beaver dam on the far side of the field, then looked back to his mother and saw her knife stuck upright in the dirt. Its handle was made from a piece of maple worn smooth and its blade of a grey metal that reflected only a world cast in shadow. He pried it loose from the soil and skulked along the treeline until he came to a lone cedar among the pines. He hacked at a low branch. After the third swipe it fell to his feet. He hacked at another and severed it in two. Laying one on top of the other, he dragged them back to his mother. He draped the webbed bough of one over her face and then softened a hole in the soil with the knife. He used his hand to dig it down to the depth of his elbow and took up the other bough. He trimmed the infant branches from the stem of it and stuck it in the hole, leaning it over his mother’s face and packing its base with dirt.
The shade fell where he’d wanted it but the sun still punctured the gaps, alighting islands on her cheeks and forehead. He dug another hole behind the first and stuck the other bough in, tweaking it until her face was covered by its shade. Returning to the cedar, he harvested another six of its branches, the last as thick as his leg and taking ten swipes to hack loose. He trundled them back in two trips and hedged them between his mother and the sun.
When he was done he was dizzy and had a terrible urge to lie down beside her but was saved from this by his thirst.
Belle had since retreated to within the hedge’s cover. When the boy turned towards the path leading into the forest, she stood on wobbled legs and barked feebly at him.
I’ma fetch us some water, the boy said. You stay with Ma.
The dog sat on her haunches and watched the boy set off, dubious it seemed of his slow plod and the way he stumbled over the wagon trail’s scored ridges.
The trees were all but emptied along the path. Only a few of the lesser birds skittered amongst the branches. A crow cawed at him from behind, hastening him through the breech and into the pasture. Meadowlarks twittered and dragonflies flitted. Thistles stung his legs and the tall grass tangled his feet. He tripped and fell then rose and drove his legs forward in a staggered line towards the barn.
Spook was at the yard’s fence, shaking her head and braying mercilessly. He marched past her, sneaking between the cedar rails and hurrying to the well. He pumped the lever and drank from the flow then pumped again and dunked his head under, wetting his hair.
A splash of cold water like that’d shore do Ma a world a good, he thought, wiping the wet off his face.
As he strode towards the house he tried to think of how he could get more than a potful out to the corn patch.
If ya could carry it, there’s that ol milk cask in the shed.
He thought of his father’s wheelbarrow, how it was too heavy for him to lift even empty. And of Spook, only a few weeks ago harnessed to a tree felled for winter wood, his father lashing her backside into ribbons to get her to lug it across the pasture. And then he recalled how two summers’ past his father had harnessed three of the hounds to an old wagon and had cheered them on as they pulled the boy around the yard. His mother had watched, shaking her head against the foolishness of such a thing, her scorn suddenly turned to horror when one of the wheels had struck a rock hidden in the grass, toppling the wagon and driving the boy into the ground. By the time she’d reached him there was a lump as big as a fist swelling his forehead. While she carried him back to the house, he’d watched his father catch up to the dogs and untether them from the wagon, born into bits from the abuse.
So that’s that, the boy told himself, hurrying up the steps and onto the porch.
The kitchen door was open. He charged through it, ran to the stove and snatched up his mother’s cast-iron pot. Water sloshed in the bottom and he heard the thin knock of eggs against its metal. He pried off the lid — there were three hardboileds in it. He refit the lid and turned for the door thinking he was forgetting something.
It came to him when he’d reached the porch.
A cup, he thought.
He dropped the pot and ran back into the kitchen. He hoisted himself up onto the counter so that he could reach one of the tin cups that hung on hooks below the cupboard. Coming back to the door he paused, trying to think of anything else he might have forgotten.
Well tain’t like yer goin ta the moon.
The assault on the corn had continued unabated, though now it seemed that some light sparred through its gloom. And there were more crows on the ground, picking over the remains of the cacklers, scores of which now pocked the field. New shadows ranged high against the blue, too large to be anything but hawks or maybe eagles. As he broke from the berth of pines the boy watched one of them dive, following its descent into the seething mass.
His mother lay on her side within the shade of the cedar hedge. Her eyes were open and their whites shone against the grey hollows engulfing them.
Gawd, he thought as he walked towards her, don’t she look like that chicken ya found last winter, caught out in the rains. It had stared at ya too. Remember. So ya’d thought it was just sick but it weren’t. It was dead. And it’d been yer fault. When the rains had started Pa’d sent ya to put em away but ya’d missed one. It must have been cowerin under the eaves. He hadn’t blamed ya but there it was. Its feathers limp and dirt spackled. You’d cried so hard it’d made Pa laugh and pluck ya into his arms.
He’d said, It’s jus a chicken, son.
But here was his mother looking at him the same way.
The boy watched her and prayed for her to blink. He counted down from five, telling himself she’d blink before he’d reached one. When he got to two, he stopped and took a deep breath. Her eyelids quivered.
I brought ya some water, he said, setting the pot down beside her.
She licked her lips.
Taking off the pot’s lid, he fetched the cup and dunked it in. When he turned back to his mother, her eyes were closed.
Ma? he said. I got the water.
She opened her eyes again. The boy tilted the cup to her lips. Most of it dribbled over her chin but enough got in her mouth to make her start coughing.
More, she said when she’d subsided.
Y’ought’n sit up, the boy said. You’ll choke again.
Y’ain’t even tried.
I don’t believe ya.
He glared at her and she swallowed hard.
She laid her hand flat on the ground and cocked her elbow. The muscles on her forearm tightened a moment then relaxed. A tear glistened at the corner of her eye.
Ya jus need some help, the boy said.
He straddled his feet, one on either side of her head, burrowing his hands under her shoulder and bending his legs and lifting, straining against her weight. After a moment, she cried out and her shoulder broke free from the ground. He felt her rise. Then the pressure was gone. She was resting propped on her arm.
I tol ya ya could.
The faintest smile parted her lips and then she was coughing again. She leant over and choked up a thick globule, its green, the boy could see, speckled with red. Wind plucked at the sinews of spit straddling the distance between her lips and the ground. Thunder rumbled. Belle raised her head, whimpering, and the boy looked skyward. Storm clouds broke against the treeline above the granite ridge on the far side of the field.
The rains is come early, he said.
His mother peered past him, her eyes growing wide under the threat.
I guess y’ ought’n be gittin home then.
I ain goin leave ya.
She reached out and brushed the back of her hand against his cheek. Her touch was as light as a feather.
Yer goin have to walk, the boy said.
I’ma build ya a tent. Pa showed me how.
She groped for his hand and took it and squeezed it no harder than a baby would have.
If the rains come I’m done fer. I ain goin—
I’ma build ya a tent. I’ll—
She squeezed his hand again and this time drove a sharp nail into his palm so he’d listen.
I’m done fer, y’understand. Ain’t no two ways about it. If the rains come I won’t make it and you’ll be on yer own til yer pa gits back. Ya need to set yer mind to that. Look at me.
But the boy wouldn’t. He stared up at the clouds boiling angry overtop of them. Raindrops fell on his cheeks as fine and as sharp as needlepoints.
Look at me, she said again. Her voice had gentled and the boy was powerless against it. When he turned back to her, sweat beaded her forehead and her cheeks heaved. She coughed again.
You can do it, she said. I know ya can.
Lightning flared from within a great black mass just now usurping the lesser clouds and the both of them waited for the thunder. The lightning flashed again. It lit a fringe around the cloud and there wasn’t a sound in the world except his mother’s wheezing breath. He reached into his pocket, searching out the tooth. His fingers dug past his knife and his magnifying glass and probed the crevices but found nothing there but a small hole.
Pa ain never comin back, he cried. He ain’t!
Nearing dusk, retinas of smoky-blue blinked at them through the clouds and patches of sunlight scoured the field. The birds had departed and in the fading light, the cornstalks looked like the shafts of arrows forgotten in some battle-ravaged land. The rains had amounted to no more than a sprinkle and the sky celebrated their fortune with a dazzle of deep reds streaked with orange.
Ain never seen a prettier sunset, his mother said, lying on her back and gazing up at it.
Flies buzzed about her and she made feeble swats at them. One probed about the boy’s cheek but his thoughts were elsewhere and he minded it as little as the breeze plucking at the hairs curtained over his brow. Sitting there, cushioned against his mother, he was thinking of how, on any other evening such as this, his father’d be ambling back from the barn, whistling, his hands in his pockets, his shoulders shrugging to the laze of his stride. The boy, shooing the chickens towards the coop, would look after him as he mounted the porch steps, stopping momentarily to gaze down at his wife. Her head would be leant back upon the cedar rail chair, her hands cradled over its arms, her eyes closed, wearing the faintest of smiles — glorin in the day, she’d have called it. Pa’d kiss her forehead and ask her if she’d like a cup of tea. She’d open her eyes, blinking as if she were seeing him for the first time. Hmmm, she’d say and squeeze his hand. I shore would. When he’d turned to the kitchen she’d call lightly after him, And don’t skimp on the honey.
By the time the boy had locked the coop and was making his way back to the house, his mother would be warming her hands round the cup in her lap, his father leaning against the post striking a flint-spark into the tobacco trailing over the bowl of his corncob pipe. The boy would step up beside him and man, woman and child would watch the last traces of sun leaking out of the sky.
Belle let out a sudden snarl and the boy sat up from his dreaming. The hair bristled along her back and her jowls quivered over the razored points of her teeth.
What is it, girl? the boy asked, reaching out for her.
Shirking his touch, she hunched low and then bolted for the forest path, yapping against the sin of whatever it was that was out there. The boy leapt to his feet and took a step but was unwilling to leave his mother.
There came a volley of barks, blistering the quiet and then fading without so much as an echo as if whatever it was that was out there had devoured them along with their mistress. The boy snatched up his three-pronged stick, never once taking his eyes off the black-walled corridor leading through the pines. He listened past it for a sign of what was to come but the encroaching dark locked away the secret of it in silence and shadow.
He listened and waited, holding the stick as a ward against the fear pitted in his belly. There came then the rush of paws thumping up the path and the boy thought of his father facing off against the dogs. He switched the stick to his left hand and fumbled the knife out of his pocket with his right. He pried the blade loose with his teeth. Its silver caught not a glint of the moon, buried now beneath a solitary cloud.
He clenched it tight and gritted his teeth.
Come and git me you sons of bitches. His voice cracked, his throat parched and his lips as sand.
The paws met with the crackle of leaves and their canter took form against the nightshade. The boy could see the flap of the dog’s ears and saw in its stride a familiar gait.
Gawd, Belle, he said, y’ever gave me a fright.
He folded his knife and pocketed it and still she came at him, her pace unrelenting.
Whoa now, had barely parted his lips when she was on him, tackling him to the ground and pinning him beneath her, licking at his face.
Wha’s got into ya? he said.
He pushed her off and sat up.
She barked at him, her head bent over her two front paws, and it struck the boy as odd, seeing her that way, for she’d never been one for such play. Then he caught sight of her eyes, their colour straining against the dusk. They were blue. Blue like his father’s.
Sky! he cried.
Hearing his name, the dog slunk towards him, humbled and shy, his head lowered, repentant of the trick he’d just played. The boy wrapped his arms around his neck and buried his nose in his fur. He smelled of river mud and for a moment the boy didn’t see the meaning behind his return, so glad was he to feel the pulse of his dog’s breath against his chest. Sky, here again when he’d never thought—
And then its import wedged itself inside of him. He looked again to the wall of darkness, barricading the forest against the field. An orange ember burned a hole in the pitch at the height of a man. Belle jittered below it and his father’s pipe smoke flavoured the breeze.
Pa! he yelled and rushed to his feet.
The moon’s swollen crescent pried itself from under the cloudscape, birthing his father into light.
Land’s end boy, what the hell are ya . . . His voice trailing off as he caught sight of the ravaged field.
In the next instant, his father was kneeling beside his mother, forcing his hands under her back and lifting, all of it happening at once so that time seemed to have loosed its hold over them. Her body convulsed against his. She let out a pained sob and never had the boy heard a more joyful sound.
Her arms latched around her husband’s neck and the man turned, hurtling past his son, the dogs nipping at his heels, chasing him down the path towards home.