Abraham whistled home at dusk. Crickets sang in the brush, sagebrush sang in his breath. It was a mile from the grid road, where the school-bus dropped him, to the trailer he shared with his father.
His lunch pail banged his thigh with each step, heavy with collected stones and the carcass of the prairie falcon he had found in the schoolyard. It was past decomposition, the delicate bones exposed in a dusty framework seen through a nest of crumbling feathers.
He passed the rusting hulk of the Deere combine, glorious apple-green and gold now oxidized to blood-red, its scabrous surface inscribed with witch-sigils and Old Babylonian arithmeticals. His father believed in witches, and golems, wendigoes and capricious smirking gremlins that could bite through tractor tires in the dead of night.
In town they laughed; but they didn’t laugh at the money his farm brought in. Paid respect is better n’ earned respect, boy, his father told him. Cause it don’t matter if you lose it. You can buy back paid respect. Once you lose earned respect, you ain’t never getting that back.
Something barely glimpsed moved in the tall grass to the right of the path, but Abraham didn’t look. It was better not to, usually—anything that made that much noise wanted to be seen. No sense in giving himself nightmares; the thing was likely harmless–so long as you didn’t give it space in your mind. The movement tracked him, with the stealthy crackling of the Caragana bushes that lined the final approach through the field to the trailer. Abraham kept his eyes on the lone light-post standing sentinel in the yard. Its glowing nimbus held a swarm of flies, giant bluebottles and green-backs throwing back the light in dizzy flashes. Their buzzing informed the night, louder even than the hum of the halogen bulb and the distant susurrus of traffic from the highway.
Sea-blue shadows of the television swam in the windows of the house. Jacob had been running the TV twenty-four hours a day since the accident; some days the old man didn’t even put on his work clothes, much less leave the farmhouse.
In town, between the snickers and the sideways glances, the men idling in the restaurants and at the hardware commented on Jacob’s absence. Not that he cronied with them; he referred to them, with venomous contempt, as coffee boilers. When they asked, in their cunning, smirking manner, if the old man had fell down the terlet or sumthin’, Abraham ignored them and their laughter. Better not to say anything, no matter how the words burned to come out; people listened hard in small towns.
When he entered the house, the roar of the television fell to a hush. He could hear the rasping breath of his father. The mud room smelled of ancient boots and raincoats, the house itself rank with stale cigarette smoke and the stink of blood.
“I heard people talking about you in town again,” Abraham said. “Bill Carmichael even asked me when you’re going to stop into the dealership and go over your account. I-”
“You didn’t talk to him, did you? Tole you once, tole you a hundred times, when them high-noses talk, you just keep right on carrying on.”
“I didn’t say nothing,” Abraham scowled in the mud-room mirror. “I mean, I didn’t say anything. But they was… they were looking at me awful close. Maybe you ought to go in and show your face. At least talk to Carmichael.” Abraham made himself a sandwich. Three pieces of bread, six or seven hunks of cheese from their own dairy, ragged slices of deer sausage from last October’s hunt, stacked up like birch blocks in a kid’s toy tower. He ran it in the microwave for thirty seconds. Then mustard, the obscenely bright French’s kind that his father said tasted like a salt lick.
“You makin’ one of those goshawful sandwiches?” His father rustled in the other room. “Jesus-please-us, but if that don’t smell bad. Make ya fat, that stuff.”
He wasn’t helping himself, Abraham thought, being cooped up here in the heat of the house all day, ever since the accident that had taken his wife. Jacob refused to turn on the air, saying the recycled air bothered his sinuses. Abraham knew the old man just liked the heat, always had.
Abraham stepped into the living-room, taking a huge bite of his sandwich, absentmindedly kicking the tiny corpse of a barn swallow out of the way. Tiredness smoked from the old man in thick psychic waves. Never cleaning up, even though they knew how careful they had to be, in this day and age. Who knew when a neighbour would stop by? A salesman, even. Anyone.
“Dad, you ain’t cleaned up your mess. You know better. ” His father’s rheumy eyes twitched. The corpses of falcons, rooks and hawks lay on the tacky carpet, drying blood stippled on the walls and the bright window of the television.
Abraham examined the remains of a tabby barn-cat. Eviscerated, but none too cleanly. Ragged clumps of fur floated like milkweed, dancing in the humid air. Strange; he should have seen something, anything from a kill like that; but the weather today had been the same sullen thick heat it had been last week. He tossed the carcass to the floor. “Dad, you better-”
“I better what?” Jacob spat, rising from the chair so quickly it squealed like a frightened animal. He rounded on the boy, John Deere cat askew on his head. Spikes of greasy hair stuck out like escaped straw from a scarecrow’s burlap skull. “Suppose you think you’re the man around here, now?” He poked Abraham in the chest with one long bony finger. The nail was yellow and ragged, and snagged on Abraham’s flannel shirt. “Look like you’re on your way to the goddamn dancehall in them clothes, anyway.”
“You look like you’re on your way to a casket.”
Jacob’s hand, hard and quick as a willow switch, splatted into the side of Abraham’s face. The old man panted, eyes rolling like a calf in a thunderstorm.
“Sit down, old man,” Abraham said. His face bore an angry red mark; but his eyes were clear and steady, pinned to the old man’s. “Sit down and settle yourself. I’ll get your dinner.”
“I don’t need to be taken care of, you little pu-” This time, Jacob’s slap met the flesh of Abraham’s own right hand; they appeared almost the same size in the flickering TV light.
“I said sit. Now.”
For a wonder, Jacob did.
He shifted under Abraham’s gaze. “No rain today.” He looked reproachfully at the cat’s body. “Hell of a thing.”
“We’ll work it out. We always do.”
“Well boy, with your mother gone, I got just the thing, right here. Not like I need it no more, and-”
Abraham threw down his napkin, jaw muscle working as he chewed. “Don’t you even talk about it. Don’t you even.” He walked to the kitchen to clatter the pots and pans, and Abraham stared after him.
After the house was cleaned up, supper eaten, coffee drunk, and the evening’s work complete, they slept. Abraham dreamed of the sun turned to blood in a sky the color of ash and bone. He slept heavy, as usual, in the light of a bloated yellow moon.
Sometime in the night, Jacob crept forth, crossing to the barn.
* * *
Saturday morning on the farm started at five AM. Abraham was surprised to see Jacob already up, work clothes on, his John Deere cap tilted jauntily back on his brow.
“Morning,” Jacob grunted. “Breakfast’s cooked, on the table. I ate, gonna get my coffee saucered and blowed and take it out on the porch. Come on out when you’re ready.”
Abraham ate quickly, brow furrowed. The food was good; better than he could fix for himself. Even the coffee tasted better. When he limped outside, Jacob was standing, limned in the dawn-rose.
Jacob turned as Abraham thumped down the steps. “What took you so long? Gonna be a fine day, I can smell it.” He upended his coffee in the bushes and set the cup on the porch railing. “Pitter-patter, let’s get at ‘er.”
The barn, first. The hardest work of the farm came the earliest. The mournful lowing of the cows changed to grunting, shuffling anticipation as Jacob and Abraham entered.
“I thought maybe number Twelve could go today. He looks about ready. What do you think?” Strange how quickly, after months of running the farm practically single-handed, Abraham reverted back to the child-like reverence for the old man’s experience. That’s how it had always been; the son looking to the father. For appreciation, for forgiveness, for blessing.
“Looks OK. Hm. Naw, he’s a good one but I believe we got ourself a winner here.” Jacob stopped in front if number Seventeen’s stall. He eyed the animal speculatively. “Yuh-huh, he’ll do nicely. Tell you what, Abraham; you pick the knife, how’s that sound?”
It sounded like small appeasement, but one Abraham was willing to live with. After all, hadn’t he been complaining to the old man just the day before that he had to do all the work? If Jacob wanted to put in his fair share, that was only proper. And the selection of the knife was important, no denying that. Abraham bent to lay out his knife belt. Gold, silver and steel flashed in muted glory. He examined blades, from the softest razors, suitable for birds and reptiles, to the hardest and most modern German industrial steel.
Finally he settled on a stone dagger that he himself had purchased from a genuine shaman down at the Medicine Creek reserve. It was rough, chipped, not much to look at, but in the right hands, a powerful talisman. As he rose, he saw a spot of blood on Jacob’s overalls, high up on his thigh. He stopped, still bent at knee and back, staring at that violet spot.
“What’s the matter boy? You all humped up like a jackass eatin’ thistles. Let’s get movin’ before the day heats up. Today’s a lucky day, I can feel it.” But even as Jacob spoke, the light changed. It leaked into the barn like cold water–milky, weak, indistinct. Abraham walked to a window and stared. A storm was rolling in. Rain hung in membranous sheets from a roiling cloudbank to the east. It approached quickly, staining the ground beneath purple and grey. Abraham could smell it now, like cold steel and clean stone. As it moved toward hem, he could taste it in the air, a copper tang like blood.
He turned to his father, whose face showed a curious blend of sheepishness and resolution. It was a look Abraham had seen countless times before, on desperate men. Men forced into a corner, walking into a bank to borrow, hating it, hating themselves, but the knowledge of necessity in their face. He had never expected to see it on his father’s face, and it hurt.
“You went ahead and did it anyway. Didn’t you? Goddamn it.” He was brought short, his head rocked backwards by a slap from Jacob’s heavy, calloused palm. The pain was like a hornet’s sting, venomous and biting.
“Don’t you ever talk like that to me, boy. Don’t you ever.” The old man’s eyes raged in the angry light of the coming storm. Rain began to patter the dirty windows of the barn, first in isolated drops, then a fusillade. “I did it. You’re right. You knew it this morning, though. And you didn’t say a word.”
Abraham knew that he was right, but still, he only stood there, one side of his face burning, the other cold.
“I had to do it, boy. You know it, but you don’t understand it, not yet. One day, maybe.”
Rain sheeted down in the yard, the dust turning into mud as he watched. The smell of it was huge and thunderous, saturating the air as it saturated the ground. The cattle moved restlessly, hooves stamping into straw in contrapuntal rhythm. Wind whooped and sang in eaves where the swallows huddled and hid in silence. Lightning flashed, three times. The lustrous purple after-image painted Abraham’s vision.
There was nothing more to be said. He walked to number Seventeen’s berth to begin the days work. The cow’s eyes were wide and blank in fear, reflecting the ashen light. One cut to the throat, quick and sure. Abraham slashed the animals flank in a long sweeping stroke, laying the flesh back, ushering the blood forth in a weeping rush. The animal bucked and bellowed, but Abraham was sure and steady. He moved in to the deliver the final cut; under the shelf of the jaw to the bottom of its throat. His hands gloved in hot blood, he stood back, watching as the animal swayed, then collapsed to the soaked straw. Three cuts, because three was the number of power. Flesh, blood, and spirit. Three to guarantee good crops, three to bring the rain, three to bring the sun.
Copyright © 2013 Jeff Barr
Jeff Barr’s stories have appeared in Encounters Magazine, Surreal Grotesque, and JukePop Serials. His website is www.jeffbarr.com.