Nothing here is the same thing twice in a row.
Farmland is sowed and reaped, dirt roads turn to mud during the spring rains. Even the lakes change their color depending on the season, from blue to black to white. The temperature changes cause the cold surface water to become dense and sink, and the warmer water at the bottom of the pond rises up, where it cools and is replaced over and over again, a cycle that has always fascinated me.
The only constant is the thrift shop on the corner. The chipped red brick, cracked windows, the smell of mothballs and dust have all been there since before I was born. I wander slowly through the stacks of books and wonder what my mother saw when she came here. Did she visit while she was pregnant with me? Is that why I have such a fascination with the scent of damp-warped paperbacks and used dresses? I think she would have been the same way, running her fingers across the sleeves of silk blouses to try and picture the women who wore them. Growing up poor gives you a good imagination.
It’s only when I’m leaving that I notice the hands in the window. It’s a basement display, a grimy rectangle that I probably couldn’t squeeze through even though I weigh ninety pounds soaking wet. The hands reach up through the dark, disembodied and strangely beautiful. I’m taken immediately.
“Why do you have those hands hidden downstairs?” I question the owner.
He looks at me through watery eyes and swishes a toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. “What?”
“The white hands. They look like they came from a mannequin. How come they ain’t up here?” Ain’t. A word I only use when I’m in town. There’s no better way to fit in here.
I watch him lean forward on the glass counter and marvel at how it holds up his bulk; the man must weigh 350 pounds. He doesn’t scare me.
“How old are you, son?”
He grunts. “You Mason’s boy? Your mama was Ann?”
“‘Yeah’? I can see Mason didn’t never teach you no manners.”
“How much for the hands?” I ask boldly, making a sudden decision.
It’s the wrong move. I can see it immediately, in the way his eyes narrow and close the rest of him off. He snaps open a newspaper and holds it between us like a drawbridge.
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talkin’ about. Go on home, now. Ain’t got time to sit here jawin’ with you all day.”
I walk dejectedly out the front, careful to make sure he hears the bell over the door. Stealing the hands is easy; the window locks rusted off a long time ago.
The pond is as still as glass in the Missouri-August heat, fringed with cattails and duckweed all the way around. I lay down on the bank and arrange the hands beneath my head so they cradle my face. My mother would have touched me the exact same way, but her hands would have been warm and fragrant from Ivory soap.
For the first time since the accident, something unlocks inside me and rises to the top, the same as the warm water at the bottom of the lake.
Home is a collection of dust and rage. My father stalks around the property, a worn-out husk of a man in overlarge overalls, eating up all the air inside the house. He never was gentle, but my mother’s death has unravelled him completely. He’s a tangle of wires that can’t be put right again.
I’ve learned the Safe Places. Down by the pond, where he never goes; in the attic, where an old steamer trunk of my mother’s holds treasures long forgotten; the hay loft, where tiny dust motes dance in the sunlight and then crowd my nose. Nothing up there anymore but withered boards and a few moldy strands of hay leftover from long-gone horses. Still, it’s one of my favorite spots, quiet and with a view of the fields. I like to know what’s coming.
My father isn’t home when I return, which is just as well. With nowhere to stash the hands, I would have been at a loss to explain them. I slap some jam on a hunk of bread and bring it and the hands upstairs, to the cool, dark place that holds so much of my mother.
With Mason so preoccupied these days, the attic is mine to explore and keep. He seems to have forgotten all about it. The harvester is all he cares about, a great rusty machine that rumbles its way through the fields importantly as though it will dig up something worthwhile. Here there is only wheat stubble bowing to the sunset, a meager corn field that provides only in summer. The loss of my mother seems to have permeated the very soil we live on and rendered it useless. Even the animals are long gone, sold off piecemeal to keep us afloat. Just a few ducks remain in the pond. Mason has been forced to take on mechanic jobs in town, something he hates beyond measure. It’s not the working with his hands he detests, but rather the servitude he feels he’s placed in.
In slats of sunlight I sit and ponder the hands again. Surrounded by cool shadows and dusty boxes, I feel myself growing heavy with the heat of the day. The attic is a special place, rooted in my family’s history and twined in madness. Grime-streaked picture frames lean against one wall, my ancestors staring out at me from the turn of the century.
Mason’s mother, who hung herself when he was a teenager. She had mysterious health problems for years, and death probably came as a relief to her. His grandfather, a dour old skeleton of a man dressed in his Sunday best, eyes me from the corner. He was a shut-in who used to beat his wife and children with his cane when the notion took him. Next to him is Alestair Murphy, my mother’s father, a doctor who came over from Ireland to seek a better life for his family. What he got for his troubles was a wife and son who were dead within a year, leaving him in charge of an infant girl. My mother. I can almost imagine she’s here with me, whispering secrets about her family: the fever that took her older brother and the depression that stole her mother away. When she jumped from the roof of a hotel in St. Louis it was front-page news for weeks.
I’ve often wondered how a mother could do that, jump to her own death and leave behind a baby who needed her. What did her ghosts whisper before she swan-dived to solid ground?
In my mother’s steamer trunk there is a leather-bound journal with the letters E A M stamped on the front in gold–Elizabeth Ann Murphy–and her wedding dress, carefully wrapped in tissue paper. There is a thick bundle of letters bound together with a red ribbon, a jewelry box that contains only a broken pearl earring, and a jar of dried flowers that I assume must have been her wedding bouquet.
There are also photos of her as a teenager and then of her with my father. When I first found the trunk and looked at the pictures I was astonished to see him as a young man peering out from beneath the brim of his hat. He looked distinguished, handsome, free of the lines and fissures that mark his face now. He looked like a man worthy of my mother.
I don’t want to disturb anything today. I had come up with the intention of taking it all out, running my fingers over the seams and jagged paper edges, but instead I lie down on the dusty floor and close my eyes. Maybe the hands have filled this hole in me.
I wake up, fast and hard, at sundown.
I blink stupidly against a dream, batting it away: my grandmother walking slowly across the ledge of a tall building, carrying my infant mother on one hip, swaying dangerously close to the edge.
My father’s truck is trundling up the gravel drive, wheezing like an old man. The hands go gently into the trunk before I head downstairs. I’m drinking straight from the tap at the sink, cool metallic water in my parched throat, when he stumbles in like an actor in a play.
“Take your eyes off me,” he mutters. The whiskey-stink is a halo hovering over his head. “Your fucking ducks are making a racket out there.”
I’ve never known what it was that turned my father’s heart against me. I’m not even sure he knows, exactly. When I was little he took me fishing, showed me how to use the tools in the barn, gave me a sip of his beer after I fell off the tire swing and banged my knee up good. But since the accident, he can barely look at me. Maybe it’s because I’m so puny, hardly the man a father wants. It’s been a year and I’ve grown into a disappointment.
I’m tired. There’s no fight in me tonight, and maybe he can sense it through the haze of rotgut. Instead of engaging he walks past me, head down, limping, a prize fighter who has aged out of the game. When I hear his footsteps on the stairs and in the bedroom beyond, I pull out an old coffee can from under the sink–my stash of dried corn–and head down to the pond to feed the ducks.
It’s coming on night but they’re still out, paddling around and talking to one another in their funny voices. A few of them spot me and come running eagerly up the hill. It’s the only part of my day when someone is happy to see me and I eat it up, sitting down on the bank so they can pluck the corn from my palms. My mother used to laugh at their little white cotton tails, how they flipped up pertly in the water as the ducks dove down for fish. I can’t remember the last time I laughed.
I wake up sometime later to my father’s bellows of rage, incoherent yelling that sends my heart stuttering into my throat. Something is scraping and thudding down the hallway, pulling me further out of sleep.
“Fucking Ducks!” he screams as I yank my bedroom door open. He’s on the landing in his underwear, pistol in hand, jeans tangled around his ankle. The sound I’d heard was his belt buckle sliding across the floor. He’s wild-eyed, intent on killing some thing or some demon. Maybe both.
“Mason,” I say, but he bears me no mind. He’s almost at the top of the stairs and I can imagine him toppling forward, catching his foot in his pants and going all the way down to a broken neck. For a moment I can actually see it happening and wonder, not for the first time, whether it might be kinder to just let him leave his misery behind. I speak again just as he stretches his foot out.
He stops and turns, pistol held at the ready. His hair is standing in wild, sweaty spikes. more grey than black, more grey than I’ve ever noticed before. “I’m going to shut those fucking ducks up!” he says. “Can’t get no sleep around here and I’m goddamn tired!”
“I don’t hear anything.”
“I didn’t ask you,” he spits hatefully, eyes slitted like a snake’s. “You never was on my side. Ain’t that what a son’s supposed to be? Loyal? You know I can’t sleep and still you go down and feed those ducks and get ‘em all riled up at night. It’s a goddamn shame.”
It’s the most he’s said to me at one time in days.
“Pop. Come on, let’s go back to bed. They’ll settle down, they always do.”
He wavers, considering. “Get out of my face. You look just like her, I can’t stand the sight of you.”
He kicks away the pants from around his ankle, sending them down the stairs, and humps past me toward his bedroom. He keeps the pistol at shoulder-height, and as he walks by, I can almost see reflected in it the images of the ones who came before us. Their madness and easy rage, tumbled down into our DNA like a prophecy.
The mirror proves him right.
I never pay much attention to my looks, just stand over the sink long enough to rake a comb through my hair in the morning, but since summer ended I’ve lost my tan and my freckles are more prominent, scattered across the bridge of my nose just like hers. Cleft chin, dark hair, pale eyes. As I move closer to 16 I have more of her in me than I ever did. I marvel at my own face in the morning light.
Up in the attic, I lay down with the hands again, settle them around my face like parentheses. My mother’s clean scent wafts from the open trunk and it’s like she’s there, really there, for the first time. She used to tell me to keep my fingernails clean, so I take a brush to them every night and scrub until my fingers ache. She taught me how to peel potatoes, and how to mend a button on a shirt, and I’ve practiced them both until I can do them with my eyes closed. She never told me how to get along without her. I can’t tell if I’m doing it right. I reckon not, otherwise I wouldn’t be hiding the hands.
All around me are the eyes of judgement, ancestors who passed me their madness like an old, ill-fitting suit. For the first time, I wonder why all these framed photos are stuck in the attic, resigned to infinite dust and gloom rather than hung with the rest of the family photos downstairs.
And then the shooting begins.
I throw open the attic door and clamber down the hall, my legs wobbly with anticipation. The screen door is flapping in a leisurely breeze like something from a dream, banging slowly against the frame and punctuating the gunshots every few seconds.
My father is standing at the edge of the pond, taking aim at the ducks. The birds are terrified, worked into a frenzy by the noise and by the three dead bodies floating on the water. Feathers hover in the air like confetti; the smell of blood is sickening. I’ve never had the stomach of a hunter.
“Pop! What are you doing?”
“Go on back in the house,” my father shouts. “This is a man’s business.”
“Stop this now,” I say. “If you’re mad at me, take it out on me! Leave them alone!”
He stills, lowers the gun. Turns his head slowly without raising his eyes. He’s breathing heavily, his t-shirt soaked with sweat. Around us, the ducks create a cacophony.
“You think I’m doin’ this to punish you?” he asks.
“Why else?” I shout.
He laughs, a sound I haven’t heard in so long that at first I don’t understand. He seems to be choking. “You don’t know shit, boy. You don’t know.”
“So tell me.”
“It was ducks that killed your mother,” he says, and the last word sticks in his throat and becomes a hitching sob. “Those fucking ducks.”
He’s lost it. I imagine his portrait sitting up in the attic with the others, a lineup of insanity.
“That’s not true,” I say.
He drops the arm holding the gun, defeated. His clothes, I realize, look two sizes too big for him. He could be a child if not for the lines on his face.
“There was feathers stuck in the grille of the car,” he says. “Cop said they must’ve crossed right in front of her. You know your mama, she wouldn’t hurt a fly. She swerved and the mud took her out. Damn ducks and a fuckin’ dirt road is what killed her.”
I edge closer to him, watching him cry for the first time in my life. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“Because you been takin’ care of ‘em, feeding ‘em. I know you love ‘em some. I tried to keep away, but I can’t sleep. Cain’t eat. I can’t abide them here. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he says, sitting down gracelessly in the tall grass.
I close my eyes briefly, take a deep breath. I know what those ghosts were whispering to my grandmother before she leapt, her green dress fluttering behind her like a streamer. Did my mother hear them too, before she put those pictures in the attic?
The breeze is still blowing softly, shivering through the weeds. Caressing my face. I think of the hands in the attic and imagine them floating to the bottom of the pond, slivers of white flashing through green before disappearing.
“It’s okay, Pop,” I say, slipping the gun gently from his hand. Most of the ducks have scattered in terror, but one remains on the water. Probably injured. I raise the pistol and take aim. “It’s okay.”
Amanda Crum is a writer and artist whose work can be found in publications such as Eastern Iowa Review, Blue Moon Literary and Art Review, and Barren Magazine, as well as in several anthologies. Her first chapbook of horror poetry, The Madness In Our Marrow, made the shortlist for a Bram Stoker Award nomination in 2015; her latest, Trailer Trash, will be published by Finishing Line Press in early 2019. She currently lives in Kentucky with her husband and two children.