It snowed the day our mother died, snow so hard and so soft at the same time that we could neither bury her nor take her out to the barn. So we set her, my brother and me, under the table in the kitchen, and we left her there because we didn’t know what else to do. There wasn’t anyone else to ask, our father dead for years and the village nearly empty and no one to help out two kids left alone in the winter.
Except it wasn’t winter, not really. It was October. Storm like that, with snow like that, we shouldn’t have had till much later, till Christmastime, or even past that more like. But we didn’t spend much time thinking about how the weather had gotten all strange. We just dealt with it.
The Minister wasn’t happy, but then, it wasn’t happy with much of anything these days. There wasn’t much holy going on, and we didn’t pray like we used to, or give it milk to lap up like in golden summertime. The cow had run dry before it died, and the goats were as skinny as fence posts and dried up just like the cow. We didn’t have treats for the little thing the way we would’ve in happier times. But still it yowled and protested when we decided to move Mama away from her bed and put her in the kitchen, which was almost as cold as outdoors, because that wasn’t the way.
“She that bred and birthed you both, and you set her in the cold like that,” the Minister said. It was an old model, a worn-down thing that couldn’t do much more than cavil and complain at us and hadn’t done much more than that, to be truthful, since we were born. My brother just ignored the beast, like he always did, but he was halfway to the Devil, even our mama had said so, and there was nothing more to be done. For me, I felt bad when the little thing hissed its words at us, and didn’t know what all to do about it. Ministers were the word of rightness, and it hurt to not do what it said, but my brother, he had the way of it when he made his suggestion, and I couldn’t disagree with him.
“We got to move her, Merciful,” he said, and I just looked up from crying, because it was a daughter’s job to weep even if you didn’t feel it at all.
“Move her where? It’s cold as sin. We can’t go out.”
He allowed that, and nodded his head even, as if he felt we couldn’t, which I didn’t believe one bit. My brother would’ve mumbled half of a prayer and dragged Mama out himself, if he thought there was a point. With the Minister right there on the coverlet letting itself be seen, though, he knew that he had to do something a little more right than wrong, and that was let himself be led just a bit by his sister.
“Not outside, I guess you’re right. But she’ll go sour here.”
I didn’t say yes, but then, I didn’t say no, and when he took her body under the arms and gestured me to her feet, I took them up and helped him. The Minister paced around our legs with its tail whipping back and forth and said it wasn’t right at all. The kitchen was chill like it never should be, but we hadn’t had a cooked meal in days, since Mama took sick, and most all our wood had gone to the hearth in her room, instead of for stew or bread or what have you. So we laid her out there, under the table, and the Minister padded around her and shook its head at us, and we left her in the dark.
We went back into the bedroom, which was as far from the kitchen as we could get and the warmest place besides. The big bed and our little kids’ beds that slid out of a cupboard were all tidied up, and on the shelf the books that my mother had read to me when I was young were in just the right place, and so were all the clothes and everything else. Except for the bed, where the dent of her body was still warm and the pillow still showed where she had been. The Minister had come with us—always came with us now because there wasn’t hardly anyone else for it to attend to—and settled into the room’s one chair, the rocker that rested in the corner near the hearth. It stared at us with its yellow eyes. The Minister didn’t say anything, but you could almost feel what it was thinking and tell that it didn’t think the best of us, two ungrateful children. And I turned away from its stare, because I was ungrateful, and didn’t regret it, and didn’t want to do anything to make it better.
What Gospel felt I didn’t know. He and I hadn’t ever been close since I was still small enough to suck my thumb and make dolls from sticks. He’d been a wild thing even then, barely wanting to talk to us, barely heeding the Minister, barely sleeping inside the house save when, as now, the weather turned hard and brutal outside or there were things wilder than him around. But I remembered that, when I was very small, he used to talk to me sometimes and tell me things about trees or birds, or about the beasts that slunk by in the darkness and made a meal of anyone so uncautious as to be seen, which Gospel never was. We lost neighbors that way, their houses gaping empty without a body inside, but sometimes there’d be blood spilled on porches or a window broke right out and curtains torn. Gospel knew all the secrets of the beasts and knew how to keep from them. When I was young he tried to teach me, lessons taught in a tongue I couldn’t quite grasp, until about the time Papa died he gave up in frustration and we never much talked after.
Now Gospel was sitting on his little truckle bed, the one his legs barely fit on any longer. His big feet hung over, with his shoulders leaning against my bed halfpulled out from the wall where he sat. His hair was dark and wild, filthy with grease and held back, as much as it was, with a tie of leather from a big cat, one of the things almost safe to hunt, though not to eat. His hands were scarred and dirty, the nails torn where he held them before his mouth, staring blindly out, maybe at the Minister, who stared right back, but maybe not, maybe at the fire instead. Gospel was almost fifteen, near three years older than me, a man or close enough, though there was no one left to say if he was or wasn’t. He was, in fact, The Man, the only one we knew of, though there were still two other women, so I wasn’t The anything. At his belt he had a big knife, with a ragged leather-wrapped hilt, and a gun that didn’t have any bullets but that he wouldn’t let away from himself for any dear thing at all. That gun had been Papa’s, and I remembered the sound it made the last time it was ever fired, when Papa got himself killed by a stranger in a fight six years ago. Gospel’s held it close ever since, for what earthly reason I could never imagine.
He noticed me scrutinizing him, and he shot me a look fierce as the cold wind outside, and then he turned away all at once because the Minister gave a little hiss. Gospel was my brother. He wasn’t supposed to hate me, but I thought sometimes he did, and I think the Minister thought it too.
“You’re each all the other has left,” the Minister said, soft as snow falling against a paper window, barely in hearing above the crackle and pop of the burning wood.
“Don’t think I don’t know that,” Gospel said with fire in his voice, almost settled but not quite yet, still a boy mixed with a man.
“There’s knowing, and then there is knowing,” the Minister replied, and curled its tail up and around to wiggle in the air, with that attitude that it got sometimes to make me want to pull out all its whiskers.
“I know it too well, Minister.”
The Minister only hummed a considering hum and turned to look at me, where I was trying to barely see it out of the corner of my eye, and none too successful at being sneaky like that. “Merciful, do you know as well as your brother?”
“I know. I know he’s all I got, and all I’ll ever have, like as not, the way the world’s going.”
“The world goes as it’s meant,” the Minister said, like it always did if you asked it a question about such things. Furious it could make me, and was coming close now, though it could be kind as well, and it would be, I was sure, once we asked it nicely to do so. It was made to look after us, body and soul, and it would if it could, though what exactly a thing in the shape of a fat gray cat could do to protect our bodies I’d never been sure.
“So it was meant for Mama to die tonight?”
The Minister tilted its head to the side and stared at me. “I suppose you could say it must have been, or else she couldn’t have done so.”
“Don’t even talk to it, Merciful. It didn’t help with Mama all these years; it’s not going to help us now.”
“You don’t know, Gospel. Maybe it knows things.”
“Like what? What do you think it knows?”
“Secret things,” I said, and the Minister hummed and repeated me.
“Secret things,” it said in a sort of hissing whisper. “I know many secrets, yes.”
“Tell me one thing you know that I don’t!” Gospel demanded, springing to his feet. He stepped around the tail end of the big bed, toward the chair. I stood in the doorway still and didn’t dare to move.
“I know the beginning and end of all things,” the Minister said.
“So you knew our mother was going to die?”
“Everything dies, Gospel.”
My brother shook his shaggy head and turned to me. “Soon as the snow stops, soon as the weather turns again, I’m gone, Merciful. I stayed for her,” he said, gesturing past me to the darkness behind, “but she don’t need me anymore. You can come or not, I don’t mind either way, but if you come, I won’t slow down for you.”
“You can’t leave me,” I said.
“You’ll be leaving yourself, if you want to stay. Anyway, the darned Minister here will help you through it all, just like it helped Mama.” His voice was all sarcasm and bitterness, but then he shook his head again and sighed. “Don’t matter yet, anyhow. The weather’s going to be like this for a spell, I suppose.”
“A long spell, indeed,” the Minister said. Gospel gave it a hard look; but then, he had a supply of those laid up to give to the thing. It paid him no mind and then curled up on the chair and seemed to fall asleep—not that I believed it, and neither did Gospel, I’m sure.
We didn’t say anything for a time, Gospel still standing at the foot of the bed, almost so close that I could’ve reached out and touched him, but so far away that I couldn’t even connect. Then he growled a little and pushed past me into the dark, and a minute later light flared up as I turned slowly around, and there he was, plopped down on the bigger of the two chairs in the sitting room, with the empty doorway to the kitchen framing him from behind and an oil lamp on the table beside him. He didn’t say anything, but he pointed with his first two right-hand fingers at the other chair, our mother’s chair, which was just next to the table. I nodded and went to sit in the little pool of light.
It was silent in that room, with the two chairs in the middle of the chamber; a loom up against the back wall; a chest with spare clothes; and a box that held old wooden toys, most of them carved by Gospel for himself and then given to me when he got too old to bother with them. Not by Gospel; Mama gave them to me in the narrow space when she still cared a bit about the world after he had already quit. There was the big old bearskin rug in front of the chairs where I would sit and do my lessons or knit or whatever it was that I did in all those days that had gone by. Papa got that rug by shooting a bear back when there were still bullets for the rifle, grown rusty and pointless, that hung beside the door. There wasn’t a sound except for a faint pop now and again, and the fainter hiss of snow on the roof, and once, perilous quiet, the sound of a cat yawning.
“So are you coming with me?”
“I don’t know any woodcraft,” I said.
“You’ll learn. Or you won’t, I guess. But there’s nothing here anymore, Merce. Nothing to stay for, no one at all. There’s other places, there’s got to be,” he said, sounding maybe a little desperate, maybe a little defiant. “Places where there are people still. I can find you one and leave you there, and then I can head out on my own and not fret.”
“You wouldn’t fret about me, Gospel,” I said, with more venom than I thought I had in me.
He lowered his face so that the tangles of his dark hair fell over it. “Maybe I wouldn’t. But maybe today I feel like I should, and I’m going to for a bit. How’s that? Go through the motions for you, if you like that better. The point is, I’ll take you away if you come as soon as we can go, and I’ll get you someplace with more people, someplace you can make a life in, not this dead little pit of a village.”
I leaned forward and brushed away his hair, so that he looked up through his thick eyelashes at me. “I don’t know anyplace else, Gospel. How can I live anywhere but here?”
“How can you live here? There’s nothing left. Two goats and four chickens, Widow Cally through the orchard that hardly produces, and Jenny Gone way up the other side of Stony Mountain. The Minister? That’s it, Merciful, that’s all you have here. The Widow’s past seventy, and Jenny’s half as crazy as Mama was, and that’s still saying a lot. You got to come away with me, or you’ll die.”
“I’ll die out there anyways. There’s nobody left out there, either, Gospel. When was the last time a tinker came by? When I was six. I remember because Mama bought me two ribbons for my hair for my seventh birthday. Six years, Gospel, since we’ve seen anyone, unless you’ve seen somebody and never told.”
He lifted his head and swallowed. There was dark fuzz on his upper lip, the mustache he had tried to grow in for months but it never yet came, and it made him look like what he was, a boy trying too hard to be The Man. “I see signs sometimes. Footprints, an old coat in good shape hanging on a stump like somebody just took it off a day before, and once I saw a snare. But no people, no. Nothing like that.”
“So what do you think we can find, Gospel?”
“Something. Anything. There’s got to be someone left. We can’t be all there is.”
And I knew then that for all he played the part of the outsider, he was the one who needed this place, who needed Mama and me, more than I had ever needed him.
“How far have you gone, Gospel?”
“Oh, Lord. Days down the river, and two days up it till it’s just a trickle in the rocks, and over Windblown Ridge, and down past the Hollows. I’ve gone everyplace I could think to go, Merciful, and I’ve seen places where people were once, empty houses and broken roads and graves dug deep back in the forest where nothing could disturb them. Never a soul, though. But they got to be out there, right?” He smiled, a little hopefully, at me, his sister who he hated maybe but needed for certain, and I didn’t have it in me to hate him right then, so I reached out and took hold of his hand.
“I bet the Widow Cally has a map up at her place, and we can look and see where you’ve been, and see where you could go to maybe find somebody. And if you did, we could all go, the four of us, and we could live with them.” Or they could come live with us, but I didn’t say that, even though I didn’t ever want to go from home.
“Do you think she does? I never had the courage to ask.”
“Well, you’re the head of the house now, Gospel. Neighbor to neighbor, you can ask her anything.”
He nodded slightly. “Yeah, I suppose I can, can’t I? I suppose I can walk right on up there and ask if she’s got a map, and by the way, our mother’s dead.”
It got real quiet again after he said that, both of us thinking of the thin, sad woman who was growing cold in the kitchen, and all the snow falling so we couldn’t bury her, and how terrible it was to be orphans in the end of the world.
Copyright © 2013 by Jason Vanhee