They walked apart and they did not speak, the low moving sky darkening, and it darkened more yet, such that it roofed the dirt and gravel road and the travelers upon the road in a manner that made this aged and distant Arcadian world appear constrictive, the travelers entrapped, a moment suggestive of past worlds; of all those that had come before them, lives harrowed in the dark vacancies of this place. He stopped and toed a faded and blackened bloodstain. Blood and dirt and nothing more than that. A red-tail hawk in the high winds. The mother stopping and looking back. He’d watched this hawk hunt before. She looked too. Dark smoke caught his eye, and he dropped the paper bag he was holding, an assortment of groceries and truck parts spilling onto the road. A gunshot. The hawk pulling up, calling to the breaking of the darkening quiet. Cody McLean moved quickly through the trees and over the low stone wall. He ran across their pastures, his fifteen year-old legs striding hard, his feet sturdy upon the uneven ground. His father, Conor McLean, a tall man wearing a long dark coat with a hood stood watching the flames of his own making, a blood-soaked sheep stretched over his right shoulder. Fired blood, boiling and running. Long streams of it. Heavy black smoke drifting, and rancid. The boy yelling. Flames cracking bones. The man cleared the sweat from his face and thought, his own father would have done the same. The fire exploding, embers and bits of flaming sheep pushing the boy back. Not the father. Madness, against the raging of madness, he called to his father. The man looked partway over his shoulder, his dark squinting eyes burrowed deep, welled in this moment, impervious to the ways of reason and method, and he viewed the boy. Cody knew his father’s awareness of this place and time was often like nothing more than a quick glimpse of something that possibly was, or was not, there, and he yelled again. The man turned away and tried to lift the sheep from his shoulder, but he could not, his weakness and exhaustion made visible, and he knew not to try again. Covering his mouth and nose with his shirt, Cody walked forward. The father leaning forward, the sheep falling from his shoulder. He dropped his shotgun and placed his large cold hands on his thighs and he coughed, hard and deep, and he discharged a long spittle of blood. The boy looked at the sheep at his father’s feet, blood running from the shot holes in its neck, small particles of dirt drifting to the thick surface of the running blood, the blood soaking into the ground, claimed by the dirt as its own. God’s own bounty. Conor pinched the spittle from his lip and threw it away. He looked at the boy, the boy only just shorter than the man. Burn em. No. They’re poxed. No, they’re not. Burn em. No. Boy—. I won’t. Send em all back to God. He’ll do it, and Kathleen McLean placed her hand to her husband’s face, and in that moment, everything they were was there before them; visible, as if marked as one by the stain of this life. Come inside. He had no fight, no will past hers. The madness in the father’s eyes dissipating, and yet, searching still. He knew his father might not remember, and he hated that. He hated too, the lack of recognition he saw in his father's face. I'm your son, you know it. My words too, you know them. He picked up the Winchester twenty-gauge over-under shotgun and cracked the gun, an un-shot shell in the lower chamber, and he watched his parents walking up the winding dirt path worn deep into the rocky grass hill towards their small stone house. Should they look back, either one, they’d see a boy standing alone outside of their love for one another, their love for him a separate love, a love just as deep and full but incapable all the same of saving him from the unavoidable and pending truth of all that is unseen and unanswerable, despite the intense desire otherwise that the last of his youngness still harbored. He looked at the sheep at his feet, still breathing, its eye bulging large in its socket as if the uncertainty and fear pumping through its blood had crystallized it and turned it to glass. He put the gun to its head and pulled the trigger, the top of the sheep’s head blowing forward, a sprayed trail of blood, brain matter and bone fragment. The sheep burning on. The boy standing. Flames reaching. A gun in his hand.
Kathleen looked at her husband in the claw-footed tub before her, his white thin arms grasping his bony knees, startled and uncertain, and she washed him. She poured water over his head, rinsing him, and he rubbed the water from his eyes. In the cool dampness of the dark death house, Cody reached for a string that hung overhead from a bare bulb. He pulled the string and a hard light was cast. He dropped the sheep to the black granite floor worn smooth to a high gloss from a century and more of spilt blood and foot traffic. The walls, the same thick limestone of the house. Large exposed hemlock timbers supporting the trusses of the tin roof. In the middle of the room next to the sheep was an opening in the granite floor filled with gravel. Above it hung a gun style block and tackle with two double-sheave wooden pulleys and two hand-forged iron hooks. He pulled down one of the hooks and wrapped the rope around the sheep’s legs and placed the hook back over the rope. With just a few hard pulls he had the sheep hanging and swinging several feet above the floor. From a row of butchery tools set into designated holes along the back of a heavy table he selected a bone-handled skinning knife. He walked to the sheep, pulled back its head and opened its neck. He stepped back and squatted against the cold stone wall and he watched the sheep bleed out.
Kathleen finished bathing Conor, and he stood, oversized and frail, and there was strength in his bones yet, some, but that was all there was.
Cody looked to the other side of the hanging, blood-letting sheep, at two stools and a thick section of aged maple next to a cold rusted airtight stove, and he felt the vacancy of those stools now more than ever. So many days, and so young, and he remembered. He always would. The flare of a wooden match, the good smell of it, his grandfather’s words: What matters, boy, is what you do with your life, not what happens after you’re dead. Narrowed dark eyes behind thick blue pipe smoke: And how will you live your life? With dignity. Why? No matter what happens, I’ll always have it. Cold thick fingers on his chin: In the old language? Urram. A smile and the smell of whiskey: Aye, boy, Urram.
Sitting on the edge of their bed, his breathing faint and shallow with a slight sporadic rattle, Conor wondered; of the fires of hell; of death coming; death here, settling. Waiting. Blood running—the flames of his purging. And his tears came.
Cody cut the sheep the length of its underside, his hands working inside the warmth of the sheep, cutting away its entrails.
She dropped her bathrobe to the floor of the bathroom. She was slender, falling just on the side of tall, her thick honey-colored hair running to a length just past her shoulders. She put her hair up and stepped into a new tub venting steam from the hot running water. She leaned back and pulled her knees to her and looked at the room filled with a low soft light spilling out from a single shaded lamp and in the absence of the moon and stars the world beyond the thin glass of the window appeared to be a moving black, the drifting fog, a harbinger perhaps, from an abyss unknown of all things to be feared, real and imagined. She slide her legs beneath the water and leaned her head back and closed her eyes. Beyond here was nowhere. It was gone. All of it.
Cody entered the mudroom spilling over with coats and boots and assorted other pieces of outer clothing, bits of tack and various outdoor implements and tools, and he closed the door. The gun rack mounted on the wall had an empty space just above a Lee-Enfield .303 and just below a Browning semi-automatic .22. He placed the Winchester there. Resting on the bottom of the gun rack was an SAA Colt .45 Peacemaker with a chipped pearl handle and several boxes of ammunition. He sat on a narrow wooden bench and removed his boots. He scrubbed clean the blood covering his hands and lower arms. He dried himself with a dish towel and removed a warm plate of stew from the oven. He picked up the waiting utensils from the counter and walked into the front room. He sat in an armchair next to a large Rumford-style fireplace with a small fire burning. He placed his plate of food and utensils before him on the coffee table and he leaned forward and began to eat. A carriage clock on the mantel ticked. The warm light of the fire and the flickering of tall heavy candles burning on the wooden coffee table highlighted Kathleen wrapped in a heavy white bathrobe sitting on the couch. The worn and tired-looking features of her face. You’re upset. He didn't answer and he didn’t look up. Don’t be. Why, because he’s sick? She pulled her legs to her, on their sides in front of her, and she looked at her son. She looked at her paintings of the farm mounted on the wall next to the fireplace. This is all you know. It’s all I need to know. No. He started to eat again. She watched him. It’s not true. He looked up. There’s so much more. Or at least there could be. He placed his utensils across his plate and stood. We’ll figure it out. Cody. He stopped and looked back. Mom, please. Check on your father before you go to bed. She watched him leave the room and she looked at an oil paintings of hers on the wall, the three of them walking, their shadows stretching long on the road before them.
He pushed open the bedroom door to the paneled room, small and shadowy with only a bedside lamp on. The air was still and somewhat stale. He entered the room and sat in a straight back chair next to the bed. On the bedside table were several pill bottles of different sizes, a hypodermic needle, a small bottle of morphine, a bowl filled with water. He looked at his father’s pale face, his sunken chest rising and falling, and he waited to see if he’d open his eyes or speak. He sat for a while. His father’s hand reached out from beneath the covers and found the boy’s wrist. He tried to speak. Cody leaned closer. Keep an eye on her. He waited to see if his father would speak again, and he looked at his father’s hand, thin and bony and aged, long crooked fingers. He lifted it and he put it back under the covers. He got up and walked to the door and looked back. I will. I promise. He waited again, and he closed the door behind him.
The warmth of the fire surrounded Kathleen’s coiled body like some form of healing she wished she could will deep to her bones or beyond, should such a place exist. She was tired, and she leaned her head back and closed her eyes and slept.
The hood of his oilskin Mac pulled over his head, Cody walked from the house to the barn. He opened the man-door and stepped inside. The animals stirred and rustled. He dropped his hood and switched on the overhead lights and somewhere pigeons fluttered and flew to a perch overhead. The sound of rain striking the large tin roof echoed and magnified throughout the barn. The smell of ancient timbers, worn floorboards, aged and wet white pine siding, the animals, slightly soiled straw bedding, the feed and the steady cool draft of damp air all blended to one smell that was both familiar and welcoming to him. He tacked up the bay they called Hollywood and took her from the stall, her hooves clipping on the wide worn floorboards, the sound hanging, long and lonely, in the cold barn air.
In the distance moving over the empty pasture, his hands folded over the pommel, his shoulders hunched forward, his head down, the rider and the horse appeared silhouetted as one against the rainy blue-black of the evening’s darkness.
Conor coughed. Kathleen woke. He coughed again. She sat around and poured a glass of water. She nudged his shoulder. Conor. She nudged him again. He opened his eyes and tried to push himself up. She held the glass to his mouth and tipped it back. I’ll get your shot. Not yet fully awake, she felt her anger returning, anger she thought had passed and gone long ago, given way to the acceptance of what they had become, the gutted and hollowed sleeves of that which they once were, and worse yet, of what she thought they might become. Anger nurtured by her own shortcomings and self-betrayal, by the permitting of herself to see that which truly could no longer be seen in his sick and ruined self: the boy, the man, the husband, the father, he once was.
Beneath the light of the moon and the stars Cody swung a sledgehammer onto a metal wedge, splitting another block of hardwood. The fire behind him burning high and hot, reaching far into the darkness. He picked up the wedge, set it into one of the halves of the split block and brought it down again. He set the wedge into the other half and split it. He leaned the sledgehammer against the log and picked up the chunks of split wood and tossed them onto the fire, a spray of embers reaching far into the night, and beyond that, and farther yet, in search of some unknown celestial map of this world, setting alight the way of the future. A future this night that was his, and his alone.
She couldn’t get back to sleep and she watched her husband sleeping. She leaned to him and whispered, Can you remember? And she ran her finger down the hard outline of his weathered face. All those years when we were just young? She kissed him, in the dark, and she put her head next to his, her arm around him, the shell of the man she loved. She closed her eyes and took him in. She closed her eyes and took him in, all of him, that long ago boy, and she did not see the tear that came to his eye. She did not see the lessening of him yet. How’s Cody? She looked to the window. He’s still out there. He’s upset? He’ll be fine. He coughed again. Go back to sleep. You were right. Oh? There should be more to this than just what we inherit. I inherited you, didn't I? There wasn't much choice, was there? Besides, I thought it was the other way around? It was, and she placed her head back on his shoulder. Every day. She lifted her head and looked at her husband. Those days, when we were just young. She put her head back to his shoulder. How could I not? We’ve had a full life. There’s still Cody. Is there? He’s a good boy. You’ll be fine. Will we? I’d take you with me, if I could. We might find a field up there like your father’s? That’d be nice, wouldn’t it? Yes it would. And they were silent, and in the darkness they slept, and together they dreamed, of those days, so young and free, under forever skies. Death waits patiently.
Cody split the last block of hardwood. He was shirtless and sweating. Tired, he leaned the sledgehammer against the log bench and pitched the last of the wood he’d split onto the fire. A fire to light the way to what? He did not know. Eternity is not a question for the young. And so he burned the night like a scream for help, consumed as he was by a darkness he could not comprehend. A darkness fueled by his hatred and inability to understand the events of his life, now laid bare before him, like so many slow deaths of familiar and constant sounds and the awareness that comes with new sounds, that once heard are difficult to ignore and harder yet to contain. Sounds that burn and blind, leading him to this field alight as it was with the full glory of the stars and the moon such that it be a perfect night for the taking of a stand, yelling: Fuck you, God. And in that moment the father died, leaving a boy standing alone in the dark burning fires. Like his father before him. Lives harrowing deeper yet in the vacancies of this place. None more than hers, with nothing left to be feared, real or imagined.