The last leaves of late autumn cling to skeletal trees. They rustle in a bitter wind and I know it is you.
This time of year, the merriment of the holidays cannot stave off the end-of- days darkness. It is you, rattling your chains, keeping me from sleep.
I could sense you last night, as I lay in your bed with someone else. I had the ceiling painted haint blue but still I smell tobacco and bourbon in a house where neither of these can be found in the daylight. Burnt matches in the sink. Ice cubes rattle in a glass in a room no one is in.
I have thrown away your clothes, your shoes, your wedding ring. I did not give any of these to charity. What charity would it be to me to find your shoes on another man’s feet walking down the street? Still, I see you. That coat in front of me at the Post Office. That mustache on the barista. That thumbprint of a bruise on my neck.
Your letters, I have burnt. I do not need to see your pledges of love, your apologies, your threats; they ring enough in my battered head.
All these things, I purged from the little house we once shared. It does not matter. Like a leviathan unmoored from some sepulchral trench, you summon the pieces of you I forgot or couldn’t find, the fingernail clippings, the hairs in the razor in the medicine cabinet, the blood beneath the floorboards. All these on the harshest December night meet and mingle, rising and converging upon me.
When my love awakens tomorrow morning, in your bed, I will be as cold as this season’s first snow.
A version of this flash first appeared in Second Chance Lit April 2022.
Our men were gone; the last one, Uncle Chick, left six months after my birth. I was the firstborn of a third daughter, who bled out as I entered the world. Growing up, I ran wild in a female pack with my aunts and cousins.
“Tell me a story.” To hear my aunts, you’d think those were my first words. “Tell me about Pawpaw. Tell me about Red Boy. Tell me about the time Uncle Chick wanted to marry Little Lady.” I’d sit at the hearth with Aunt Ang and Aunt Diddy, the two closest to my age, stretching skins on the fleshing beam. There had to be more, I would think.
We all belonged to each other yet each to no one. I longed to be an Other, a somebody’s someone.
“Diddy, tell me about PawPaw. Did he love Mam? Did she love him? How did they love? Did they hug and tickle? Did they wrestle on the floor? Did he kiss her nose?”
“Where you get such notions, Maisie? You seen Mam. She ain’t any differn now than she was when the mens were here, asides the hair. Her hair was reddern then, I guess. You think anyone be fool enough to plant a kiss on Mam’s nose? Not while she’s breathin’, I reckon.”
I couldn’t see no one ever putting their arms around Mam. How had we all come to be though? We had to have been born out of something softer than red rocks and dusty wind. All these hard women around me, I came to think men had to make the world gentler.
“Ang, how was it between us and the menfolk?”
Ang wasn’t so hard as the othern. I’d seen her once with a fledgling that had fallen from an eaves nest. Any day in the season, there’d be five or so fledglings outside the large house. Mam made use of all things, fledglings no differn, so we’d offentimes have Baby Birdie Stew when the snows weren’t high. I saw Ang though and she built that fledgling its own nest from scraps of otter pelts. She didn’t know I watched but I seen her fetching worms and meal bugs for it. I seen her too on the third day, crying, when she found the bird dead and I watched her bury it, nest and all.
Ang fixed with me with a hard stare and I started to thinking I best not ask such questions of any of us.
“Men do things for reasons we won’t ever have no answers for. I seen Chick and kill a cat just cause he could. It was Chick’s own cat. He’d had it since he was done suckling. I heard him crying for it later but he’d done it hisself. That’s when Mam said it’d be best if he was out off to fighting with the rest of ‘em and we ain’t heard nothing from any of ‘em since. There’s not much accounting for what’s in men’s hearts.”
So I am standing in the creek swollen with fresh snowmelt, scrubbing the rusty iron-smelling stains from my britches. I don’t reckon I have heard the sound of horses hooves in quite a stretch so at first I am looking at the sky, blue as kittens’ eyes, searching for thunderheads. Then I see ‘em. I know these aren’t womenfolk. Three people big as bears, with fur on their faces, ride their snorting beasts to the edge of the creek. I see foam on their animals’ necks, steam coming out their nostrils. I shield my eyes from the sunlight and peer up into the hairy faces of weathered skin and bloodshot eyes. Men, I think. These must be men.
Gone. My notions of softness coming from menfolk leave me the minute I see their twisted ugly smiles. I don’t even smile back. The red bearded one spits a stream of brown and rubs the back of his hand over his tobacco-stained lips.
“Well don’t this look like a picnic?” I know he is speaking of me and not to me. I feel hot piss running down my legs and I can taste something sharp and salty in my mouth. Fear. Before I can think of anything to say, anything that might be friendly, I have tilted back my head and howled. It is not a cry like the wolf, hungry and alone, would send out into the cold night, looking for companionship. It is the scream of the rabbit as my arrow pierces its’ hindquarters. It is Ang holding a dead baby bird in her hands. Run. Run, I think, and I am off.
“Hot DAMN! We got us a chase!”
“Get her, Chick!”
Panic. They are on me like vultures on a carcass, rending clothing from limb, flesh from flesh, pieces of me torn and scattered in the short dry grass of the riverbank, which is just beginning to green.
I am above them now, watching as they push and shove one another off of my tattered self. There is blood and spittle, tears which were mine, and a mess I cannot name over all of us.