Fiction · 11/05/2014

A Murder

Our father has buried his heart in the yard. We’ve searched for it every day for weeks now, my sister Janna and Fig and I, and so far we’ve found nothing. When we come inside to eat or sleep, our father stares right through us. His eyes are rusty metal, the blue has leached out of them as if they were calico left out in the rain. His jaw hangs slightly open. Every morning Janna shaves him, stropping the razor until it gleams white as moonlight and scraping the patchy gray beard from his cheeks. Every evening she feeds him with a heavy silver spoon, oats boiled and sugared, mashed beets and onions, herbs she has prayed over and ground between stones. I busy myself with the cooking and cleaning. I try not to look at the hole in his chest.

Ever since our mother left, my sister and I have had to look after the farm. At first we continued with our usual chores, feeding the chickens and pigs and pumping water for the horses. Janna scrubbed the floors and scraped ash from the woodstove, and I brought down the bales from the hayloft and forked them into bedding for the horses and the cow. We tended the vegetable beds that our mother had planted and walked miles through the neat, geometrical rows of green corn stalks without really knowing if there was anything to be done. In the evenings we sat with Fig, exhausted, on the porch steps and stared out at the limitless indigo sky of the prairie. It was coming on harvest-time, late in the summer, and the crows were returning. Every year, late in summer, they appeared in their hundreds flying west-by-northwest as if they knew where they were going. Years ago, when we were small, we had asked our parents where the crows were headed, but their replies had answered nothing.

“Perhaps they’re going home,” our mother said. She was smiling as if she was making a joke, but her eyes seemed bleak and tearful.

“They’re bringing back the barren times,” our father said. He took his pipe out of his mouth and tapped it on the sole of his boot so that embers red as heart’s blood cascaded onto the dust. “They’re bringing us scraps of despair in their beaks. If they land in the farmyard, we’re done for.”

One morning I was digging in the irrigation ditches, trying to keep the channels clear so the corn would get water, and I heard Janna screaming out back by the coop. I heaved myself out of the cut, and she came running. I could see her basket on the ground some yards behind her and the eggs she’d spilled shining like eyes in the sunlight. I caught up to her and held her fast while she sobbed and shuddered like a child who has awoken from a nightmare. She pointed at the chicken coop, so I sent her inside and walked back through the barnyard. The coop was full of slaughtered birds. Half our chickens had been pecked to death, and the meat birds had been torn apart as if by dogs or foxes. When I came back out, crows swooped down around me, cawing with the voices of my mother and my father. I tore a slat from the fence around the chicken-run and batted blindly at the shrieking birds, and before long they took themselves off. By nightfall the wounds on my arms had healed, and I wondered if I’d been imagining things, making stories out of wood-smoke and shadows.

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Janna tells me she sleeps well these days, regardless of our troubles. She lies beneath our mother’s quilt with Fig curled up at her feet. She says she dreams of nothing now. She raises her eyes from her breakfast, her bowl of grains and nuts and milk, and searches my face to be sure I understand her. “I dream every night now, but my dreams are empty vessels. My body fills with dark, cold water, just like the farm floods in spring when the rivers run over. I dream all night of nothingness, and then I come downstairs.”

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I wish some flood would cover me and bring me peace and comfort. Every day I miss my mother. My heart seems to have been torn from my chest, just like my father’s. Sometimes I go up to her sewing room when Janna is busy with our father. I close the door so that Fig can’t follow, and I sit in the armchair that no one ever used, the one our mother draped swatches of calico over when she didn’t have anywhere else to put them. The room is full of Mother’s smell, lavender and starchy cloth, and the hyssop that flavored her tea. It has also retained her silence, the atmosphere of quiet contentment that she exuded when busy with her sewing. Her ancient Singer sewing machine seems to dominate the room, its black enamel and fussy gold lettering giving it an air of slightly pompous authority as it perches on the battered oak desk. The dressmaker’s dummy occupies one corner, iron hoops and wooden moulds in the shape of a lady’s torso, its head a shrunken knob. The window opens outward, and you can climb over the windowsill and step out onto the roof.

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The night our mother disappeared, I went up to her sewing room to find her. The room was dark, but the window was open, and the wind had blown rain across the work table and the dressmaker’s dummy. I called but no one answered, so I leaned across the casement to reach the brass latch on the window, which was shuddering and flapping in the wind. That’s when I saw Mama. She was crouched like a cat on the corner of the rooftop, her nightgown slicked to her body and her black hair strung in rivulets over her shoulders. I screamed into the gusts, but she apparently couldn’t hear me, so I clambered out onto the roof. The shingles were slippery as grease under my slippers, and I was gasping with fear as I scuttled toward her, going crabwise on my hands and knees, mostly blinded by the rain.

“Mama! Come in now!” I hollered. The woman turned her head and hissed at me, baring her teeth, her eyes as opaque as a bird’s. Then she launched herself into the darkness and seemed to grow instantly smaller, as if she were traversing the night at incalculable velocity. In the morning I found Papa in his armchair by the woodstove. His breastbone was an open wound and his ribs were wrenched and shattered, just as if he’d been struck with a woodcutter’s axe.

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The crows come an hour before sunset. Janna’s feeding our father from a heavy brass ladle, broth made of turnips and a boiled chicken carcass. I’m knotting up baling? twine, trying to make a net. Fig is curled beside the woodstove, moaning softly in his sleep. When the carriage and the motorcycles turn off the section road and into our farmyard, my sister and I both look toward the door. Even the dog’s eyes flutter open, and he twitches as if troubled in his sleep. I put down the twine and fetch the bird gun from the cupboard.

“Won’t help,” Janna says. “There’s too many.”

I nod in agreement, but I load the gun anyway, cracking it open and inserting two red shells.

There’s maybe two dozen crows right outside the house. They are migrating out of their animal state, and the journey has left them decrepit. Some are still as nature made them, but others are almost human now or melded with fallow-deer or foxes. Their scimitar beaks protrude from the windows of their old-fashioned carriage, which is black as a hearse with gilded wheels. It’s drawn by debauched men with the heads of giant birds, one of whom has harnessed his antique motorbike to the coach and is idling its raucous engine. They wear long tattered coats of an antiquated pattern, and some have busted opera hats or leather cowls and goggles. Their master wears a preacher’s coat and gaiters. He emerges from the carriage, where he’s been sitting between two females with gold-feathered wigs and dark glasses. A single crow perches on his shoulder, one of its eyes bleeding red.

“You can’t come in here,” I tell him.

The Master of Crows removes his mask, grasping the long curved beak and pulling the feathered helmet from his head. His face is our father’s face, though bearded and somewhat younger.

“Think I don’t know that, boy?” he asks. His voice is soft, almost womanly. His eyes flick from me to the window, then to the doorway, then the peak of the roof. Is he looking for our mother, or is he searching the premises for something to steal? His companions, the other crows, seem bored and disgruntled. They shift their weight from foot to foot, spit tobacco juice into the dust. “I can’t come in, and that’s the law. I wrote it myself in the blood of my ancestors, and I ain’t about to break it. Not like you broke your father’s heart. Not like you ruined your mother’s life, and cast your sister out to work in the cornfields.” He smiles, and his eyes are turquoise stones.

All crows are liars as well as thieves, but his accusations stab me. I raise the gun to my shoulder, just the way my father taught me, and sight down the barrel at his narrow, mocking face.

“Shoot me, you’ll only harm yourself. Cut my throat, your blood’ll drown you.”

“Clear off now,” I tell him. “There’s nothing left here for the sorry likes of you. You’ve taken all we had. Now just leave us.”

The Master points his feathered arm across the barren cornfields. “All you had was that horizon line. All we wanted was a little less distance. Your mama understood that, boy, even if you and the girl don’t.” He replaces his helmet on his shoulders and is once again a bird with a man’s legs and body. His beak opens wide and emits a single rasping note. The motorcycles fire up and the enormous wheels of the carriage scrape for traction in the dust. Then the crows are moving with surprising grace and fluidity into the ragged edges of the cornfields. In a moment they have joined the migration that throbs across the bleeding ochre air.

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That night I dream of rotting birds. They are everywhere, dotting the farmyard. Their corpses are desiccated husks, gouts of dull black feathers, but they are so full of maggots they seem animated and alive. “Keep the dog back!” I yell to my sister. She’s standing in the doorway, and she’s already holding Fig. Darkness bleeds out of the cornfields. It is neither day nor nighttime. At the edge of the field stands the dress-maker’s dummy. It is wearing one of Mama’s white nightgowns. Mama’s head is stuck on top of the knob of white wood. She’s smiling at me benignly, but I’m afraid to go anywhere near her. I awake cold and sweating, and the sun’s already up. When I get downstairs, Janna’s feeding Papa. His eyes have clouded over. Grey porridge drips down his chin.

“What does it mean, to bury your heart?” Janna whispers.

“Nothing,” I tell her. “Don’t mean nothing.”

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It’s the dog, Fig, who unearths our secrets. He appears on the verandah when the sun is at its apex and Janna and I are toiling in the kitchen. Noon is yellow in the windows and the air feels thick as honey.

“Get the door,” I tell Janna. She opens the screen to let Fig into the kitchen. He goes straight to our father’s chair, his blunt claws clicking faintly on the lino. In his mouth is a torn swatch of golden organza. He mewls and rubs his back against the side of Father’s chair.

“That’s from Mama’s dress,” my sister says. She drops her broom and bolts through the doorway. I glance at the old man, whose limp hand is draped on Fig’s back; then I follow the girl into the farmyard. She’s running through the rows of corn, her loose hair as gold as the organza. She’s following some compass in her head, navigating by the light of an invisible Pole Star, as blind in her conviction as the nightly migration of crows.

The patch where the dog has been digging is only a few hundred feet from the house. Janna’s moving so fast she runs right past it. She stops herself and turns around, chest heaving and face bright with sweat. I drop to my knees on the churned earth and dig with my hands until I find my mother’s body. She’s been dropped into a shallow grave and covered with inches of dry, dusty soil. If we’d chanced on this particular spot among the hundred of rows in the cornfields, we’d have found her days or weeks ago. Her face, when I gently wipe the dirt from her features, seems calm and unsullied, as if she passed from this world without insult or pain.

I lower my eyes and concentrate on digging. Janna kneels right beside me and starts to scoop soil with the palms of her hands. Before long, we’ve bared the whole body.

Our mother is pointing up toward heaven, her finger wrapped in yellow thread as if it were a spindle. Her other hand clutches a box made of thin strips of rosewood. It’s the cask she kept her needles in, and her thread and spare bobbins, and the little blade she used to rip open old seams. Her fingers are curled around it, long and pallid as corn-roots.

Janna reaches for the sewing-box, tries to tug it from our mother’s grasp.

“Don’t open it,” I tell her. My mind is filled with distant wings, with the watermark of childhood dissolving.

I can hear the torn heart beating like a shutter in the wind.

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Stephen Guppy has published two collections of stories, three books of poems, and two novels, the most recent of which, Like I Care, was reviewed in Necessary Fiction. He teaches at Vancouver Island University and blogs in slow motion at http://wordpress.viu.ca/guppy/