Spring 2007 Volume One Issue Two
The Unmaking - William Bolen
Our children hold the power to inflict a fate worse than death, simply by chasing an errant ball into the path of a drunken driver's car. And our parents hold the power as well, for they made us, and they can Unmake us, bit by tenebrous bit.
My father was an Unmaker.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'm writing this at the funeral, surrounded by mourners in black who float in their dark lake. I'm drenched by the suffocating wetness of my own mortality. I'm a brother of the deceased, as the dour-faced mortician put it, and there's nothing like attending a sibling's funeral to speed the heart to complete unfinished business. This memoir needs to be written. I need to write it, for all of us.
So, as Dr. Macintyre of the Red Oak Long Term Psychiatric (a graying thin-faced man in a rumpled off-the rack suit) speaks a few words at the podium about the loss of his patient of twenty-two years, I'll try to write out the memory I've suppressed for my entire adult life. A coffin sullenly squats in the front of the room. In its seashell whorls of grains and knots, I feel myself being swallowed whole.
"Never can tell what you'll get until you cut into them," my father said. Sharp silvery light glinted off the face of the double-bladed axe each time he swung it to the top of its arc. I squinted against the brightness, too terrified to blink.
I sat at the end of the log, a wizened knot poking into my bony, six year-old butt. Beside me sat Kate. Her face was buried in her hands. Her quiet sobs made my throat ache. Next to her my mother perched. Mother was watching father swing the axe, her expression drifting from rapt attention to befuddlement. And at the other end of the log, staring at my father with eyes that smoldered with contempt, sat my older brother, Crispin.
The axe swooped down, split through a pine log like a straight-razor through flesh, and bit deeply into an ancient oak stump. My father wrenched the axe free. He was shirtless, the top half of his overalls tied in a sweat-soaked knot at his waist. The corded muscles of his arms and shoulders rippled beneath the glistening surface of his bone-pale skin.
"Trees are just like families," my father said. He swiped the sweat from his forehead and favored us with a self-satisfied grin. "Some are strong and healthy, like that red oak that kept us warm through that bitch of a winter we had last year. Others are weaker, good for nothing but cooking fires -- like this pine here."
He stood a pine log on its end and split it clean. Half the log bounced to rest at my feet. Ochre sap beaded on the pale meat of the twained wood.
"Arthur," Crispin said quietly. In the last few months, he'd taken to calling our father by his given name.
Father's left cheek began to tic. He clenched his jaw, and twin crabapples of muscle thrust out from his jaw. The tic stopped.
"Yes, son." His voice was a whisper.
"She said she was sorry. We all said we were sorry --"
Father thrust a hand toward my brother's face. He didn't touch him, just held out his hand like a crossing guard stopping traffic. Black blood pooled in the bulging calluses on his palm. My brother lowered his head.
I willed Crispin to speak up again, to do something, but he kept his face to the ground. But I didn't blame him. Why should he do anything? In two months he'd be headed off to college; he was almost free. At Maine University he'd be able to take his study of wild animals to another level. When not at school or working, he spent his days padding through the thick woods that threatened to swallow our cabin. He had shown me things, things like eagle nests, and beaver dams, and the ragged furrows etched into tree trunks by roaming black bears.
"This log is like our family," father said, his attention again focused on the wood, and the axe. On the deeply notched stump he set a hardwood log. He looked directly at me. "Davey boy, can you see that this log is like our family?"
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. When father looked at me like that, his eyes bright and hot as windblown embers, I knew better than to deny him. I was still limping from last month's beating. After the whipping, mother had cooed over my welts, gently rubbing salve on my burning back. As she comforted me, she spoke of how father was different. She said the war had changed him, and that he'd been a better man before Korea. But I knew it wasn't true. I'd seen a picture of him as a boy squatting on a hardwood porch, a dozen skinned and bloody rabbits nestled before him. His eyes, those kill-crazy eyes, had stared back at me from his boyhood face.
With invisible speed, the axe slashed down into the hardwood log. Father snatched one of the halves and held it up for us to see. Splitting the log had revealed a pocket of rust-colored fungus inside the wood.
"That's the blight," Father said. "It eats from the inside. Kind of like little Miss Kate there . . . when she went traipsing all over Shin Pond with that . . . boy." Father's face was flushed bright crimson, and the veins on his temples seemed to pulse as he spit the words at Kate's lowered head.
Crispin stood and placed a shoulder between father and Kate. I could see he was shaking.
"Arthur --," Crispin began.
"And every one of you knew about it," Father screamed. "Betrayers."
Father was gesturing with one hand while holding the axe close to the double-edged blade with the other. Crispin reached out and wrapped a hand around the axe handle just below father's.
Mother gasped at the affront.
"She's seventeen years old," Crispin said. "We wouldn't need to lie if you weren't so damned strict."
There was a flurry of movement, and then Crispin fell backwards. He landed on his butt next to me, his eyes blurred with shock and pain, bright blood coursing from his nose and coating his chin and throat. Father leaned over him. Crimson droplets speckled the flat of the axe blade where it had impacted my brother's face.
Kate looked up then, and in that moment I was more afraid of her than my father. She seemed to have changed into an animal. Her pale, beautiful face had been transformed into a vision from my nightmares. Her teeth were bared in the sharp snarl of a wild and angry thing.
I started to get up and help my brother, but then I glimpsed a dark and shambling movement out of the corner of my eye. A black bear, four hundred pounds at least, was lumbering across the clearing toward us. A scream bubbled up in my throat, but Crispin grabbed hold of my ankle and squeezed, hard. It was the only time he ever hurt me. I knew then that he had also seen the bear, and didn't want anyone else to know. I looked at Crispin. He was holding a hand to his ruptured nose. Above his bloody hand his clear blue eyes watered, and in them I could see his want, his wish, his dream.
I waited for it to happen.
The bear roared just as it reached my father. He whirled just in time to catch a razor-tipped paw in the side of the face. He hit the ground and rolled, coming up on one knee. A flap of leaking skin dangled from his torn cheek.
Mother screamed, stood, and fell backwards across the log. Kate hadn't moved. She was mumbling something under her breath.
Crispin snatched my hand and pulled me from the log. My legs felt thick and wooden. He dragged me toward the house, but I couldn't turn my face away from my father and the bear.
With a hoarse, warbling roar, the bear stood on its hind legs and fell upon father. The bear shook his massive head from side to side, and under its belly my father's legs jerked and shook.
Then the bear let loose a soul-shaking bellow, and reared up again on its hind legs. Buried to the handle in the side of the bear's neck quivered my father's axe. The bear swiped at the axe and moaned, but it was stuck fast. A faucet of blood gushed from the bear's throat. The beast wobbled, and then its legs gave out. It slumped to the ground, its great dark eyes already glazing to a dead milky-white.
I looked up at Crispin. He was shaking his head in disbelief.
I looked back at father. He was standing. With one hand he pressed the flap of skin from his cheek back into his face. The other hand was pressed into the side of his chest. Blood flowed through his fingers and splashed on the leaves at his feet.
Then, without a word, he trudged through the leaves, past my brother and me, up the porch stairs, and into the house. In his wake, the screen door clattered shut. I stared as a few blood-tinged leaves tumbled across the hardwood porch.
"Arthur," came my mother's tremulous cry, as her mincing steps sped into a full-fledged run up the stairs and into the house.
I was staring through the screen door into the darkened house when I realized my brother no longer held my hand. I spun around with a little cry, but he hadn't gone far. He stood with one arm draped across my sister's shoulders, pulling her close to his body. They both stared down at the black bear. It seemed smaller now, as if the axe had deflated it, leaving only a fur-wrapped mound of claws and teeth.
I wanted to go to them, but I didn't want to look at the bear. I climbed the porch steps. I pressed my face to the screen door. I heard a low murmuring coming from my parent's bedroom. The electric metal smell that wafted through the screen door reminded me of the spring air just before a thunderstorm blew in. Wanting no part of that, I sat in the rocking chair on the porch and watched my brother and sister.
Crispin had retrieved a skinning knife from the smokehouse. He was kneeling beside the bear, making deft cuts and tearing the thick fur from the flesh beneath. Kate sat on the log and watched. Occasionally her shoulders hitched, and I heard her quietly whimper, but mostly she just stayed silent and watched.
After a while, Kate climbed the stairs to the porch. Her face was a dark shadow, yet when she kneeled to hug me, her eyes softened. A loving thrill coursed through me as for a moment I stared into her eyes of deepest emerald green. Then she was gone.
A few minutes later I went inside too. Crispin was still out there scraping the hide, his back to our little house.
I awakened in my dark room with my legs dangling off the side of my bed. I must have fallen asleep with my clothes on. My boots were laced too tightly, and my feet had fallen asleep, so when I stood up I felt as if I'd stepped onto a bed of nails.
My bedroom door stood open. Through the doorway, I could see into the living room. Moonlight shone through the window, casting a glowing rug of eggshell light upon the floor. The moonlight rug flickered as something big and dark passed between it and the window. I clapped my hands to my mouth to stifle a gasp. I caught a whiff of a cloyingly rich smell that reminded me of raw hamburger. Something glinted by my parent's door and a moment later I heard hinges squeal in rusty protest as their door swung open.
"Hello?" I called. My voice was a trembling reed, and scarcely whimpered past my numb lips.
Something growled. It was the visceral ground-glass grinding that could only come from the hungry throat of a wild animal at its most bestial. Warmth leaked down from my crotch and I realized I'd wet myself.
Then mother screamed, and my feet carried me into the living room before I realized what was happening.
At their door, by the flickering light of a candle on my parent's bedside table, this is what I saw. Mother had her back pressed into a corner. From her open mouth trilled a high-pitched moan. She seemed to be trying to propel herself through the walls. Her bare feet skittered on the wooden floor.
Father was in the bed, propped up on pillows. Mother had wrapped torn sheets around his wounds. Darkness was soaked through the makeshift bandages. His matted hair stuck up at wild angles. Paler than the moonlight, the skin of his face was whitewashed and luminescent.
At the foot of the bed stood the beast. It was a black bear. But something wasn't right. The bear had no claws. Instead, pale white hands jutted from its arms. And in the hands was grasped the truly frightening thing, the thing that dropped me to my knees beside the bed of my father; it was the double-bladed axe. I shook my head in denial and whispered that it could not be. The bear lurched upward, lifted the axe high above its head, and with a bone-chilling titter, swung it down into my father's skull.
I curled into a ball on the floor and covered my ears, but still I heard the noise the axe made as it cleaved the fatal cut, and then kept chopping.
Later, the bear-thing trudged past me, its gamy fur brushing against my quivering face.
Much later, after my mother had fainted in hysterical exhaustion, I felt a hand caressing the knobs of my trembling spine.
I sprung up into a sobbing hug. It wasn't until I felt the rough beard stubble rubbing against my tender cheek that I realized it wasn't Kate who comforted me, but Crispin.
He led me back to my bed and tenderly undressed me. I couldn't stop staring at his tired eyes, searching for signs of the madness that must have been lurking behind them. I thought of how he must have done it. How, in the deepening twilight, he must have stared up at the drying bear pelt and ached for the dead animal, which had been defeated by my father -- just like the rest of us.
Crispin left me alone in bed with my thoughts. I heard my mother whimpering in her sleep, but I felt strangely devoid of pity, my compassion for her stripped from my heart by her inability to end my father's cruelty.
After a while I heard the quiet murmur of voices through my open window. I tiptoed over and looked out. The rosy gauze of dawn's light blanketed our yard. It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the light, and longer still for my mind to comprehend what I saw. Crispin stood with his back to me, his hands clasped tightly behind his head. On the log before him sat a figure clothed in the skin of the bear. I glimpsed the pale naked flesh of someone's belly in a gap where the bearskin fell open. Crispin reached down and pushed the bear's head back, revealing the person beneath.
Her face speckled with blood, her eyes twin pinpricks of reflected red dawn, sat our savior: my sister, Kate.
A tear splatters on the page beneath my trembling pen. The mourners are gone, so is my sister's casket. I wipe my eyes.
And then Crispin is beside me, his arm draped across my shoulders. He leans in close and reads what I've written.
"Sometimes I would forget," I say. "I'd be coasting along, enjoying life with Marion, and weeks would go by, months even, and then I'd realize I hadn't thought about Kate, about father, for a very long time."
Crispin nods. "Me too. I'd feel guilty, but then I'd remember that Kate would want us to forget. That's why she did what she did . . . why she erased herself to become our father's Unmaker."
I feel the tears welling up and say nothing. Crispin stands, and I follow him out into the bright November morning. Marion waits outside beneath the branches of a sprawling oak. Only a few burnt orange and lemon yellow leaves still cling to its branches. As Crispin and I approach, a breeze passes through the churchyard, and a few more leaves fall to join their brethren in their whirling, tumbling dance.
Marion kisses the tears from my eyes. Arm in arm between Marion and Crispin, I walk to the parking lot.
Crispin gasps, and stumbles, just a bit, but then he keeps walking, and I know Marion hasn't noticed. But I do. He's seen something in the thick woods behind the church. I follow his gaze. Just before we reach my car, I see it. In the thickening shadows beneath an elm with leaves of burnished gold, a dark, sleek-furred shape with eyes of emerald green sits watching. It could be a bear. As I pull the keys from my pocket, the shape turns and fades into the vibrant wildness of the woods beyond.
- END -