We were in our suits, dusty black shoes and short black ties. The adults stared at us, soft, damp, incessant eyes, convinced that we didn’t understand, couldn’t understand, not at our ages. Impossible.
We listened to them fuss over the perfection of this and that, only one chance to get this important thing right. The air inside house shrank under the weight of that stress.
We did our best to offer a wide berth to the strained parents, aunts and uncles until, finally, I led the parade through the kitchen—smelling of pastries and liquor—and out the backdoor into the fresh air.
Freedom reeked of opportunity, a breeze blew dry grassy smells about the atmosphere, over the backdrop of impending cooler October temperatures. Keep clean and stay near, both relative demands, both waned and greyed under freedom’s sun.
I am the oldest of the boys, a trio. My brothers each stepping down one year at a time from my ripe ten years. Wwere children in body and mind.
I didn’t think anyone would notice our absence, didn’t think anyone would mind since they all spoke down to us and treated us as lesser beings, things to keep out of trouble and to mind our manners. I didn’t see what was so special about any of them with their little plates and short plastic Dixie cups holding golden whiskey, that, somehow, no matter how many sips they took, stayed somewhere around an inch from the bottom.
I explained to my brothers that we couldn’t stray long, a quick hunt.
We always called it a hunt back then and our hunts always took the same route, for starters anyway, there was always room for flexibility once we’d put distance between ourselves and the house.
Behind our home there was an old train track, the rails long gone, but sometimes when we were lucky one of us might chance upon a rusty spike, we always said that kind of thing was good luck. Sometimes we pretended it came of Viking or Native origins, but we all knew it was just old railroad junk.
It was cool in the shade and the track ran along a clearing in the bush. The grass stood tall on the edges of the track, a few strands of grass shot up through the gravel along the track bed.
I pulled a fairstringer and popped it into my mouth.
A stringer is what we called chewing grass back then. Find a good one, along the gravel’s edge always had good ones ripe for plucking, tear away the dirty root and pop it into your mouth, pinch it between teeth. I think we must’ve seen a farmer do it or maybe a TV cowboy and adopted it as our own.
My stringer dangled and swung, its bloom weighing the far end creating an arc. I had mine and it would only be seconds before I heard the yanked grass behind me. Being the oldest I was always first to pop a stringer. I took two steps with that grass stretching two-feet from my face before my brothers noticed and plucked their own.
I think we figured it made us look older, tough and wise.
That morning I stepped quickly, quicker than normal so as to avoid any trouble should anybody at the house notice our absence. We continued up the tracks, double-time.
If we stayed on the tracks too long, the path veered right into town and past the old mill. We’d pretty well hunted out that location already and the winos living at the mill gave us the creeps. They had rotten teeth and always smelled like sour booze and rancid piss. A couple of them used to smile at us.
Instead of heading for the mill, we took the grassy path that led to a gravel road out to some old farmer’s fields. There was a creek running beside the path and sometimes we’d pick cattails and sword fight, we didn’t stop that morning for a sword fight. Cattails clung almost as bad as burdock prickers and we knew Mom wouldn’t be in the mood to pick us clean one fluffy quill at a time.
The cattails fell into our past for the moment, we’d been gone maybe twenty minutes, but since I’d quickened the pace, we weren’t seeing time in a proper sense. The distant landscape made it seem a good deal longer. I called back to my brothers that after couple more minutes, and we’d head back home.
We stepped onto the gravel lane leading back to the farmer’s fields. The lane was a lot like the weed overgrowth on the tracks and since my stringer was soggy, I spat and picked a new one. I heard two more spits behind me to let me know that my brothers hadn’t wandered astray.
I gawked upwards at the clouds, looking for a sign of a higher power, or an animal shape. I often made animals of the clouds. I saw one that resembled a wolf and I was about to tell my brothers when my youngest brother, Robbie, called out from the middle in line.
“What’s that?” he asked. His voice full of wonder.
I looked down, but continued three more steps. A few flies buzzed and a gentle breeze swished the grass around, but other than that, it was quiet. The stink was bad like a forgotten ham and cheese sandwich.
“It’s a deer,” I said, although I wasn’t entirely certain as I’d never seen one up close and never seen one on its side.
“Is it sleeping?” asked Hilly.
I didn’t answer and I crept forward. The thing’s eyes were wide and the eyeballs seemed a bottomless-pit black, its purple-pink tongue slung out of its mouth and its head drooped off to one side. I nudged it with my shoe.
“I don’t think it’s sleeping, I think it’s dead,” I explained.
My brothers stepped to my side to gaze at the animal. We stood like that for a while, none of us speaking, the grass in our mouths motionless, the grain tipped ends of our stringers just about touching the animal.
“It isn’t getting up, is it?” asked Robbie.
“Can’t get up when it’s dead, don’t be stupid,” I said.
We stood in silence a while longer. A shadow passed over us and I looked up. Two buzzards circled revealing ominous intent, animal knowledge beyond the nature of boys of a hunt.
“How do you think it got dead?” asked Robbie.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
At that moment, something felt very familiar and I could sense that my brothers felt it too. We gazed into those dead black eyeballs. The flies started in more and more by the minute, and I wondered where we went from there.
“It was a good deer,” said Hilly.
Neither Robbie nor I questioned the statement. It was just about right, felt good and proper, although none of us had ever seen the animal before that moment.
“Had a good family too, I bet,” added Hilly.
I nodded and then Robbie nodded.
“Used to come to the house sometimes in the mornings, nicest deer I ever met,” said Robbie.
“You know it,” I said.
We stood silent awhile just looking down at the deer. Although terribly unreliable, my mental alarm clock started beeping at me, it was time for the hunt to end and get back before Mom missed us.
“We’ll all miss you,” I said and turned around, my brothers echoed my sentiment and we took back toward the train track.
“Sure was a good one,” said Robbie.
“Nicest deer ever was,” said Hilly.
“You bet, you bet. Poor family’s probably heartbroken,” I said.
We’d said all the nonsense that came to mind, stuff pulled from our memory of the morning in the house, and turned to head along home. My gaze returned to the sky. I thought perhaps the wolf in the sky might be dead too and was about to say so when Robbie interrupted my chance again.
“Who’re you?” he asked.
My eyes came down on a tanned woman, skin and bones in a ratty green dress. Fungal green crept around the corner of her mouth and about her eyes. Hilly stepped to my side, tight, and I played the role of protector, although I didn’t feel up to it.
The woman smelled swampy and her hair had clumps of mud riding along the strands.
“Nobody,” the woman whispered. “You were wrong, you know.”
We could just barely hear it over the wind.
“Wrong?” I whispered back.
The woman whistled, “Catcha-chicka-commuh.”
Behind us there was a rustling and we saw the deer climb to its feet and bound away. The woman nodded to us and followed behind the deer, into the grass.
“Kiss your nanna; she can still feel it and under the ground is a lonely place,” said the woman as she continued to walk into the tall grass.
None of us dared looked back to where we’d seen the dead animal, none of us dared stare at trail that the woman left in her wake. Instead, we ran. We ignored stingers and cattails, ignored the salvage of the train track treasures. Not a thought went to the homeless men living at the old mill up the tracks.
The house came upon the horizon like hope’s beacon. Our father was on the back porch with my uncle Lou. They both had coffees instead of whiskeys. Lou nodded to us. His eyes were red like he’d been crying. The scent of cigarette smoke lingered in the air, but neither man had a cigarette lit.
“You boys best get inside, we have to go to the cemetery soon and your mother’s been running all over looking for you,” said Dad.
“Are you going to bury Nanna?” I asked. My breath was short and wheezy.
“You can’t, she’ll be lonely!” said Hilly.
“And there’s worms!” Robbie added.
Our dad looked at his brother, “You boys understand that she’s dead, right?”
“Yeah, but you can’t put her underground! You won’t do it, right?”
I turned to see if my brothers held firm with my conviction, they both nodded, Robbie had tears in his eyes.
“Boys, she’s dead. She can’t feel anything now.” said Dad.
“Yes she can, yes she can,” Hilly moaned.
I burst into the home. The hearse had arrived and men stood in the living room, awaiting their chance to snatch up the corpse. My grandmother had died in her bed and the next day one of those same men came and fixed her face to make her look more alive. After that, they moved her body to the parlour and the away family came in the afternoon to pay respect.
The box was still in the middle of the vast parlour, surrounded by photographs and dusty old books that nobody would read ever again. The adults talked in low tones, clinking ice in glasses and eating finger foods while I led the parade to the box and flipped open the lid.
We stared down at that face, the sleeping dead face of our grandmother. I looked to my brothers, they gave me the go ahead eyes and I leaned in. Kissed her cheek.
The room had gone to silent, I heard my mother crack into fresh sobs when Robbie and Hilly both took their turns giving kisses. We waited for something, anything. My father came over and put one hand on my shoulder, one on the casket’s lid.
“Bye Mom,” he said and gave his mother another kiss.
“You can’t bury her,” I whispered, tears spilled down my face, “She’ll be down there forever, alone.”
“Oh, Davey,” he said and turned to me.
My eyes remained fixed on the body in the casket. Robbie gasped, I inhaled a deep breath through my nose and Hilly fainted.
The adults rushed around and my protestations fell onto agitated, but unhearing, ears.
“She’d dead, just shut up about. She don’t know nothing now,” Uncle Lou spoke quietly to Robbie and me, his voice came out like venom, “Just shut up, all right?”
The casket went into the ground. I stood with my brothers, trying to reconcile what the adults said and what I’d seen.
“You saw her, right?” Hilly asked.
I nodded and looked at Robbie, “Her eyes looked cold as winter,” he said.
That was right, they did. She’d blinked once when our dad wasn’t looking. Cold as winter that blink. Cold as winter and she’d be under that dirt waiting for someone to dig her up. We all knew what we had to do.
“We’ll come get her out tonight,” I said and took the hands of my brothers and squeezed.
“You wouldn’t let nobody bury me, would ya?” Hilly asked.
“’Course not,” I said.
“Me neither, k?” said Robbie.
I shook my head, no way. “They didn’t see, couldn’t or they wouldn’t put her down there.” They didn’t see, didn’t want to see. Dead keeps going on long after burial, dead keeps going on forever.
Gosh I love this story so much. It makes me think of visiting my mom’s family up in Iowa, and the exploring we did up there when I was a kid. (We were the away family.)
Former homeless hitchhiker and high school dropout, S.L. Dixon is Canadian and his short stories have appeared in magazines, digests, literary journals and anthologies from around the world. He’s married, has a cat and currently resides in a small coastal community in British Columbia, Canada.