“Weather,” Devin Pitts
My father’s name was John Brown, my grandfather and his daddy before that. But that is not what they called me. Back in the war, my father beat a German fella to death with a stick of firewood out in the cold and the snow. He took the boy’s Luger as a souvenir.
My mother said that he came back something awful, came home thirsty, a drinker. I guess I never knew any different. She always said that that was the devil down there in his belly. But I think with all that drinking, the devil can probably swim better than folks let on.
It was the summer of 1951 when I first saw the wolf: a scarred up hound with his barred teeth, and ratty shirt, and sour mash. He had woken me up falling over his own feet just outside my window.
Something heavy was being dragged across the floor downstairs; I could hear it raking across the wooden slats. I got up quick and quiet from bed, pulling the covers with me as I crept out onto the landing of the worn, cedar steps. My mother had pulled one of the dining room chairs out and shoved it under the handle of the door. There was one heavy knock, and she said as soft and still as she could, “Now, go on. You’ve done drank too much, John. Go on.”
He was tapping on the door then, patient as a cinder.
“Go on and sleep this off out there in the barn loft…,” she said.
“You had better. better. open. this damn door, woman,” he slurred.
Right then Momma put her shoulder to the door, her face was wet with sweat.
“John, please. Please,” she said, “just go sleep”.
He smelled her fear, and that lit on fire all the liquor in him.
He went to banging on the door, kicking it, howling, and he beat the thing to splinters; busted the steel bolt clean through the frame. And there stood my mother frozen in place, terrified, fighting to keep calm, her hands straight out in front of her.
The wolf’s eyes were on fire, endless burning coal shafts smoldering down to gulfs of ash, and he said just as soft as brass shavings, “Now then,” as he ran his fingers through his beard. He emptied the thick, glass bottle down his gullet, every last drop on down to stoke the flames. He stretched his arm up and brought the bottle down hard, with all the weight of hell, to the left side of her head.
And she didn’t scream, didn’t start crying, just laid there brave, wrenching, and dying.
He sighed and lifted his head. And that’s when he saw me, all crumpled up, and filled with spent nerves and gouges of hurt and terror, bundled up in the thin quilt that she had sewn for me. I think that it startled him, like he forgot that he had a son, forgot someone else was in the house. But he remembered now, and my steady sobs fed him, turned all the embers over. He shot toward me, skipping steps, until, when he stooped down, he was an inch from my face. And he whispered to me. He looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Just a secret between me and you.”
He stood up, collected himself, and straightened his collar. He flattened his hair, and casually walked back down the stairs, carefully taking each deliberate step after the other. At the bottom he stumbled straight for her, tearing the shining, golden locket from her neck. He opened it, read it slowly, and gave a sharp laugh, dropping it into one of his trouser pockets.
Slowly, he went for the phone. He flashed a saw-toothed grin and dialed the sheriff. And the clever wolf said through necessary tears of beaded glass, “Oh, Ascel, something awful’s just happened…”
He told the sheriff that he had heard screams from the house. “I was sent off to sleep in the barn for the night, you know I get carried away with the drinkin’,” he confessed. “Well, I got up when I heard them screams, and headed for the house. There was a man just inside the door there, dressed up in black. He had his face a covered with a piece of cloth with holes cut in it, and was trying to rip the locket off of her neck. Well, I run up to him, I was gonna stop ‘im. But he was too damn quick, and I was just too drunk,” he rubbed his jaw through his thick beard as his empty chest shuttered with every pause. “He cracked me right in the mouth, and put me out just like that!” He snapped his fingers. “When I come to, that man was gone, run deep into the night, and my wife was a layin’ there, just as cold and dead as she could be.” His chin quivered. “I guess she just put up too much of a fight.”
And so they all came and went. They split green pine, and drove coffin nails. And they dug up earth and said their prayers. And we all buried Momma at the base of a poplar tree that was in full bloom and terribly beautiful.
The years pulled life away. Seasons shifted from blue to gray, and the rain came. All the rivers broke their banks and took the bridges with them, and the tilled rows of black soil washed away on down toward the mouth. And then the sky froze over, and all that water turned to ice. Trees burdened, that creaked and moaned, all lost their limbs, and icicles like teeth hung from the eaves.
The horses had to have their water broken. I got a hatchet, and made my way to their troughs; my boots crunched on the lifted clay. After I climbed over the fence, though, I saw only a single foal. He was pacing around the far side of the fence, his bay coat black with sweat and frustration. An iced-over limb had given way and broken clean through the boards of the fence. All the horses had escaped except this single, little colt that couldn’t quite figure out how to navigate through the debris.
Christ, I didn’t want to have to wake him up. I just wanted to find the horses, and fix the fence, and be done with it. But as I made my way through the swaying trees with their brittle leaves, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to round them up and get them back to the pen alone. I would have to wake him, have to tell him that horses were loose, missing, and that a section of the fence was busted.
No dawn made its way into his room; covers had been nailed above the windows. I remember the smell of stale Chesterfields and horrible bourbon. He was badly hung over and barely awake. Every bit of that devil twisted, and jabbed, and clawed inside of him; made him angry, aggressive: a hurt dog will rip you to bits.
I told him what had happened, mindful of every growl and motion made. He sat up slowly, took a long breath in, and lit a cigarette with the last match of the book. He didn’t say a word; just got up and dressed.
Outside he glared at the mess the fence was in. He said, “Tie that little one up over there to that telephone pole,” as he leaned on a beam of the fence, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. I went into the barn and got a piece of rope and a handful of sweet feed. I coaxed the little bay close enough with the feed to get the rope into the chin of his bridle and calmed him best I could with words until I could get it knotted. He seemed alright; led fine, didn’t try to take off or anything.
I got him tied up to the creosote soaked pole and started walking back towards ol’ John Brown. But when the rope went taut on that little horse, it spooked him. He went to fighting, and jerking, and screaming, his eyes darted wildly back and forth. Foam gathered in the corners of his mouth as he brayed. Then he reared up, the poor beast, and lost his footing on an icy patch of earth.
Several crows cawed lonely where the evergreens met the sky. The little horse laid still and scared. He had pulled his head loose from his backbone. As he’d fallen, the rope went tight and held on that sticky pole. And as his body had continued down, his head remained in place. And there he layed, handsome and bay, piled up on the frozen ground. John Brown was walking away, headed for the house.
Briars began to sprout in my chest. I listened to the foal struggle to suck breath through his lips, watched his legs that doddered in place, his young nerves firing signals that would never be received. His eyes were frightened and dilated and looked like little balls of burnt motor oil.
I got on my knees close to the horse, untied the rope, and carefully held his head as it slumped down onto my thighs. Something freezing touched my neck. When I turned around I saw the wolf, hungry and holding the Luger, smiling like hell.
“Put him down and out of his misery,” he said, tapping the pistol on my neck, as all those briars wrapped and grew. I didn’t look up at him, didn’t need to. I could hear him gritting his teeth; serrating them into fine, white, ivory lines. He bent down, and the starving wolf, he said through locked jaws, “You best fuckin’ do it, boy”
And I did it, full of thorns, with tears in my eyes. I kept my hand on his heart, said that it was all going to be alright, gonna be just fine. And I took a shallow breath through the wiry thistle and put a bullet in the baby horse’s head.
The wolf crooned and stretched, full of warmth and pap, and pried the gun from my hands. He said that it was time to go for the others. I swallowed hard and stood up. Eventually, after I hauled all the splintered board of the fence away, leaving a clear opening to the pen, we started off. Half a mile into the dark woods we found them, all milling around aimlessly in a frozen creek bed, pawing at the straw. The wolf took an old mare by the bridle and walked her, indifferently clicking his tongue. And as the others dumbly followed, I took the rear, a little yearling, and tugged him hopelessly along, on back to the fields.
Then, in 1965, Vietnam caught on fire; it blazed with incendiary bombs and tracer rounds. The compost had been calling me for quite a while, so I figured it was about time I answered.
I told ol’ John Brown that I was taking the truck to town for a load of hay and that I’d be back in an hour. Rust had eaten holes in its bed, and the vinyl seats had split from years. I drove straight across the bridges and down to the registry where the army was starving for young men to send. The enlistment papers were crisp and white. They had a printed war eagle at the top that held silver arrows as all the olive branches burned away. I signed and dated in wet, black ink, smudging the end of my name with the side of my hand.
When I got home it was near dark, and the wolf was waiting in the barn, drunk and eager.
“Where’s the hay,” he managed. “Where you been, boy?”
His fists tightened to granite at his sides. “You did what?” He coughed through his cigarette.
“I’m goin’ to war,” I said like badly slipped gears.
The old wolf’s muscles twitched, and ached, and begged to tear me apart.
I let him take the first swing. It caught me right above my left eye, twisting my head. I grabbed his wrist before he could draw his arm back again and brought my knee up hard into his hip, split his rickety bones. I bashed him in the cheek. He yelped and fell whimpering to his back. The thorns, they spread like fever through my body, and I beat that old wolf until his breath was only gurgled blood.
I got up, knuckles split like seams, and backed away heaving for air. The old man struggled to his hands and knees; hacked and gagged on the taste of copper, tried to steady himself. He started laughing, softly at first, through sticky and drying blood, and reached into the back of his pants. And he pulled that old, tarnished Luger.
I charged towards him, my feet sent up little plumes of dust behind me. His swollen eyes went wide trying to aim his shot, but he was still too drunk, still too rattled. I knocked the pistol out of his hands and sent it tumbling through the dirt. And I watched the eyes of the wolf that I had feared above all else as he panted for air. I bent over and picked up that pistol, and said my peace through gritted teeth.
I remember the barn floor, red with clay and boiling blood, and how the evening pressed through the thatch. I straightened his shirt and flattened his hair, drawing dirt and lumber dust deep into my lungs. I reached into the wolf’s hip pocket and pulled out her locket. It had been worn featureless down to a pitted, matte finish. I opened it, and there on the right side, in scrawling cursive, it read: “All bad weather’s bound to turn.”