I am 9 years old. My brother has just turned 12. It is mid June and school is almost out for the year. It is always such a bittersweet time because I know my brother will not be around as much and though we fight and I think he hates me, I will miss him. He will get to stay with my daddy and I will stay here and be my step father's favorite. We will have plenty of play time with "Buddy" and there will be more chores for me to do. Now, my brother and I are finishing our last co-chore. We are to throw six cords of wood through the cellar window which is a small square about seven feet from the downward sloping ground. Our bodies had gotten past the stiff and aching stage and we hit a peak a few days ago. Now, after days of heaving wood, missing the window half of the time, we are beyond exhausted.
Sometimes we find a rhythm and we work in tandem- no words, no arguing. A lot of the time we throw insults at each other- grouchy and wasted by our exertion. Today is one of those days when we are at our worst. We are both sullen and disgruntled, every nerve a throbbing, zapping, open circuit.
Several times one of us stumbles upon turning, falls on a sharp edge of a chunk of wood, bellows with crippling pain, rubs it out and gets back up. Other times one of us chances pulling at the wrong log and creates an avalanche that tumbles loudly and usually crushes toes. We are battered- black and blue, scraped up and wrought with slivers. Every time we step back to survey our work, the pile is still there, just as big as before. We are utterly deflated- hopeless.
We have been at this for hours and I need to rest. I can tell that my brother needs to sit down too. We haven't seen our step father much and we wonder if maybe he has gone out for a bit. I check for his truck in the back. It's not there. Upon my return we fall to the mossy ground amongst the bark and dirt and rest on our bodies in silence. I fall asleep almost as soon as I lay my head to the cool ground. There is no wood pile, no wounds, no thirst, no hunger- just heavenly rest.
My brother is shaking my arm. Wake up, stupid! Most of the time I am like a cat- jumping to my feet, aware of every sound, smell and sight. But today has done me in and I realize I have been careless as my step father slowly comes into focus above me. My brother is heaving wood again as I turn myself to my knees and prepare to straighten my spastic legs. I should know never to turn my back to my step father. He boots me hard and I lunge forward as the ground comes at my face at such an alarming rate that I don't even have time to put my hands out to catch my fall. I feel spikes of wood slide into my skin. I taste the dank earth. I tear with dust in my eyes. I wipe blood from my nose. He doesn't need to tell me what to do as he walks away. He has been swift with his reminder to get back to work and my brother isn't even aware of what just happened. He can see that my face is a bit rearranged, but he is too afraid to do anything but move wood like never before. I join back in. How could I have forgotten to check for his truck in the front yard? If ever again I dare to leave myself prone, I will be more thorough. For now there is no time for tears.
This time we both hear his truck engine come to life-music drifting from the cab. My mother calls out another item she needs from the store and he tells her to keep an eye on us lazy brats before he slams his door and skids away. We know for sure that he will be gone for at least an hour. Even though we know we are being watched, it is a relief to know that he is gone, even if for just this short blessed time.
We measure our movement as we work. He throws, I gather. I throw, he gathers. We have achieved a regularity that allows us to work hypnotically. We are reaching for wood close to the ground now. Our backs are bowed bridges of muscle and spine as we bend. Then a small thing happens that through the haze of exhaustion, becomes something rather large that neither one of us will forget.
It is simply a mouse. We have seen them before, scurrying from dark hollows. We have even seen a snake and some toads. But this time my brother considers the rodent with a look of disdain as she waits for her brood of babies to come to her. The sight of this mother so instinctually caring for her young cracks him. His face distorts as he clutches a smaller stick of wood, raises his arms and lets it come crashing down on them. He strikes at them over and over until not one of them moves. They are gory with their innards strewn about. I have seen my brother throw fits before and sometimes tears would fall too, but this time he is heaving with emotion. He looks small to me, like when we were really young. He does not wear his tough armor now as he grieves for himself, for me, for the innocent lives he has taken and for the reasons why. His violence has stunned me. His soft show of remorse has paralyzed me. The sight of such carnage has imprinted in my mind and I know in that moment that we are sharing a secret born of shame and I remain silent as my brother falls to his knees amongst the mess.
A truck door slams and gashes the surface of our mourning trance. But this cannot be a slow awakening and I am a cat again- nudging my brother to alert him. We are on our feet with wood in hands before he can round the corner.