Rebekah Love has her MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University. She lives and writes in Houston, Texas. She teaches at Lonestar College-Cyfair in Houston, Texas. Her work has appeared in Red River Review, Sombrilla, The Luminous Page, Poetry Motel, Illya's Honey, Rockhurst Review, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review and City Works.
It’s late summer. The brown grass ruffles in the wind, like a field of downy feathers. I’m breaking up clods of dirt, out in the garden. Eli and Hannah are fighting. They do that a lot. Play at being married. Sometimes it feels like it’s just the two of them. I wonder why I’m here.
“It’s a joke,” Eli says.
“It’s not funny.” Hannah picks up her shovel. She swings at Eli. He ducks in under it, catches her by the waist and throws her over his shoulder.
“I’m not one of your old goats.” Hannah’s face is red.
“Stop acting like one.”
Hannah grabs the waist of Eli’s pants. He spins her in circles, but she holds on tight and yanks hard.
“You’re going in the trough,” says Eli. Instead, he falls to the ground. Hannah lands on top and he pulls her to him. He holds her there for a moment, his big hands on her narrow back. She always lets him off too easy.
“Time for lunch,” she says and jumps to her feet.
“In a minute,” I say. I hang back by the water trough. Imagine Hannah rising from it. The cold water dripping from the ends of her brown hair. It runs down her neck and onto her chest.
Before we were born, our parents left the city. The world was a scary place. They bought land together, in the flat middle of nowhere. Lived like one big family, not knowing where one ended and the other began. The nearest town was a hundred miles away. It was a hard life, I guess, but the only one we knew. We learned to plant with the seasons, raise animals for food. Everything was used, nothing wasted. We kept to ourselves and depended on each other.
Last year, we moved away. Me, Eli, and Hannah. We wanted to live on our own. The place we found had just one building, an old barn. We pretty much lived inside it the first winter, except for tending to the animals. Eli did most of the chores. He fed the animals—the cow, mule, and goats—and bedded their stalls. I hauled buckets of feed to the chickens, gathered the eggs that hadn’t yet split from the cold. Evenings, we spent up in the barn’s loft with nothing but the light of a kerosene lamp. We read aloud to each other, played checkers, invented word games. We slept on a big pallet, with Hannah between us. She’d say, “Roll over,” and we’d turn like sausages in a frying pan.
We built a small house this summer. Two-stories with a loft at either end. A door at the side of the house lets into a dirt basement. We store produce there. Eli’s hired himself out again for fall harvest and planting. Hannah and I get ready for the coming winter. She cans the last of our summer vegetables. I stack wood by the front door. Already, we’re lighting the lamp earlier at the end of each day. After dinner, we drink coffee around the kitchen table. Hannah says it reminds her of home.
“Whatta you think our parents are doing?” she asks one evening.
“Waiting for the world to end,” Eli says.
“Don’t make fun,” she says.
“You know I’m right.”
“Those are sincerely held beliefs.”
“Doesn’t make them any less ridiculous.”
I listen to Eli and Hannah as they talk about what it was like for us growing up. One impending doomsday after another, a year’s worth of rations and fuel. Our parents made sure we were well prepared for whatever the latest disaster might be: atomic bombs, biological warfare, meteors.
“Who’d want to survive that?” Eli asks.
“People need to think they matter,” I say. Sometimes I wonder if our parents are still alive. Maybe they've gone already. Into the darkness that follows after disaster.
In dreams that night, my skull explodes. My lower jaw—bare-boned and with teeth still attached—falls to the ground. As if I’d decomposed already. I have visions. About the past, present, future. Once, a soldier from the Spanish American War visited me. From the look of him he’d been dead a long time. If he’d had a shred of vocal chord left, I’m sure he would have given me an earful.
After breakfast, I step out on the front porch. Eli is waiting for me.
“Come on,” he says, “we’re going to town.” He walks to the flatbed truck, hops in the driver’s seat.
I’d rather stay behind, but I climb in on the passenger side.
Eli fires the ignition. “We’re buying a rifle,” he says and he heads for the highway.
“What about Hannah?”
“We need meat. And protection.”
“You know how she feels about guns.”
Inside the outfitters, Eli goes straight to the counter. “I need something to hunt with,” he says to the man behind it.
“What’re you shootin’?” the man asks.
“Anything on the hoof. Last winter, we lived mostly on garden truck.”
The man pulls a rifle from the case behind him, sets it butt down on the glass. “Winchester,” he says. “Gas operated, semi-automatic. Spring load magazine holds five rounds.”
The man hands the gun to Eli, who puts it to his shoulder and aims at the wall. He yanks the trigger and the firing pin falls in a dead click.
“Bring down a deer,” the man says.
Eli hands the gun back. He pulls a good chunk of our year’s spending money out of his pocket and hands that over too. The man zips the rifle into a soft case. He pushes it and a few boxes of ammunition across the counter at us.
Out at the truck, Eli slides his purchases behind the seat. He throws a blanket over them.
“Is that it?” I ask.
“Don’t tell Hannah.”
“She won’t notice?”
“I’ll hide it in the barn, take it out when she’s not around.”
“When you go to town, see a movie or something. Just get her out of the house.”
I imagine sitting in a dark balcony with Hannah, nothing but an armrest between us.
When Eli leaves for work the next day, I ask Hannah if she wants to see a movie.
“The three of us?” she asks.
“Eli wants to get work done.”
“That he can’t do with us around?”
“We could get popcorn, and a coke.”
“What, are we children now?”
“He says we've been working too hard, we need to have a little fun.”
Hannah twists a strand of hair around one finger. “We could do with another sack of flour,” she says. “And cornmeal. We’re running low.”
I drive Hannah to town on Saturday. She says she likes seeing a movie better than she thought.
Back home, I can tell Eli's been fooling with the gun. He acts guilty, offering to do chores around the house. I wonder how he’ll explain a dead deer to Hannah. I imagine him pulling up with one in the bed of the truck—a trickle of blood on its white chest—and the look on Hannah’s face when she sees it.
My father fought in the Second World War. When I was a child, he used to tell me stories about it. How the military put together a special unit to fight in the Pacific. They made these soldiers tougher than anybody, threw animal blood and guts on them, had them eat things nobody in their right mind would. Green meat, and stuff crawling with maggots. The things these guys did—lop a man’s head off with piano wire or slide a knife into the soft space at the back of the neck—it wasn’t just about courage.
Eli can play the big man with his gun, if that’s what he wants. I’ll be the one with Hannah.
Next week I take her to the county fair. We drive out to the reservoir and sit next to the water. Hannah says, “We should swim here next summer.” Which means maybe she’s thinking about a future, with the two of us. But it’s like that already. Eli comes home after dark and goes to bed early. I help Hannah with the dishes. We sit up late and talk. We did that when we were kids.
It surprises me how easily Eli fools Hannah. He brings home packets of raw deer meat. Says whoever he’s working for gave it to him. When he and I are alone, he tells me he’s bagged several already, trades off part of the carcass for processing. Sometimes he barters the whole thing for supplies or more bullets.
I don’t really care what Eli does, as long as he stays away. I like doing things for Hannah. I put in a pitcher pump for her out at the well. She bathes there in the evenings, in the light that hangs at the edge of the sky. I can tell which part of her she’s washing by the way she moves.
Eli comes home one day and finds me looking out the back window. “What’re you doing?” he asks. He looks past me to Hannah.
“Waiting for sunrise,” I say.
Eli looks at me funny, says, “Come out to the truck, help me carry stuff in.”
A few nights later, Hannah and I are alone, playing poker in her loft. “Hey,” she says. “Something going on I should know about?”
I shrug my shoulders and toss two cards on her pallet.
“We hardly see Eli anymore,” she says.
“He’s making money.” I hate to give him credit for anything.
“That’ll change soon enough.” She sits against the wall with her feet stretched out. I look at her high arches, her toes shaped like tiny spoons. She draws more cards from the deck and hands them to me. “Winter’s almost here,” she says.
Things will be worse with Eli around.
“We’ll be snowed in,” she says.
I picture Hannah and Eli in close quarters again. He’ll brush up against her at the kitchen sink, lean his body into hers.
I throw my cards down and get to my feet. “Gotta go,” I say.
I scoot downstairs, slide into a pair of boots and out the door. I can’t keep my hands off Hannah if I stay. Maybe she wants them on her. I don’t know.
The ground is dry and cracked, like it’s never seen rain. The wind bawls at me across the open fields. The rifle is hidden somewhere inside the barn. I turn over grain sacks in the corner, climb the ladder to the loft, roll bales of hay away from the walls. There’s the gun, zipped in its leather case. I pick it up and feel the weight of it.
I remember the soldiers my father told stories about. At the end of the war, the military had a problem. Trained killers with no enemy left to fight. So the army sent these guys to the front, thought they wouldn’t make it back. But I know some of them did. One came to me in a dream. He was in some state of mind, too. Said the hangers in his closet had to be one inch apart, and the gear he stowed on his shelves—shoe-shine box, gun cleaning kit, clothes brush— kept in strict order, everything facing the right way. Or he might have to kill someone. This guy, he missed slicing off noses, mounting heads on pikes.
I open the leather case and finger the smooth barrel of the rifle. Reminds me of the bunker we had back at the family compound, where our parents kept a small arsenal. Sometimes, Hannah and I snuck away and played alone down there. She let me touch her in places that surprised me with their softness.
“Can God see us?” I’d ask.
“Not down here,” Hannah would say.
I could see the outline of her body in the grainy light from the bunker door, her breath mingling with mine.
More often than not, the three of us played together. Eli always insisted on being the husband, and Hannah was his wife. I pretended to be a neighbor, or their kid.
I can smell Eli’s gun, the metallic oiliness of it. The soldier from my dream said it felt good to off people, especially when they needed it. Like his wife, who nagged him to death over things he couldn’t change. He thought about gutting her, but he didn’t. I believe him. If he had, she’d be coming to me in the middle of the night, wanting her pound of justice. Asking me to cut his balls off or run him down with the truck.
I hear the growl of it out front and hide the gun back where I found it. Maybe I don’t need to kill anyone. I’m not like that. I read this article in a magazine once, at the library. Some people share mates when there aren’t enough to go around.
I lie in my loft that night, listen to the sounds Hannah makes when she sleeps. Her skin moving against the rough covers. I should go to her. She’d like that.
Next day, Eli disappears again, somewhere he doesn’t tell us. Probably with his gun. Hannah and I work in the garden. We dig up the last of the autumn vegetables. I watch Hannah lean her small body into the shovel. Her legs are freckled from the sun. Her hair is roughed by the autumn wind. I want to touch her, tell her how I feel.
But Hannah’s not in the garden. She’s out in the pasture on a bed of wild flowers. Their stalks hairy up to the petals. They’re gathered thick beneath her, like a cluster of bruises, with middles of hot whiteness. Like her skin beneath my hands. On her ankles, the backs of her legs. The goats wander loose around us, nuzzling the ground. But Hannah is screaming.
I’m on the ground now, too. A falcon wheeling in the sky and Eli standing over me. Hannah’s shovel is in his hands. He drops it, scoops me up like a baby, and carries me to the truck. He throws me into the flat bed of it. The wooden slats hard against the parts of me that rest heavy. We’re moving away. The sky is dark, like it’s winter already. A blur of snow fills the widening space. Between me, Hannah, and home.