It was dark now and the night birds sang. Angus heard their calls through his bedroom window and wished them gone. Annabel stirred in the bed next to him, kicked, but didn’t wake. For the last four days she’d been unwell. Tonight, he’d lain with her in their small room until she quieted, listened as her breathing became regular and she lost rigidity to sleep. He imagined her mind at rest, a leniency. She was nine years old, younger than he by three years.
These birds—their music was anxious and obscure, songs of distance heralding distance. Eventually they quelled and silence descended. He listened to the fire in the next room, the soft push of air, and fixed his eyes on the low ceiling above them. Now his sister’s grip loosened and her arm, pressed to his, became slack and heavy. It was just the two of them in the house. Their mother was dead, their father would be returning soon.
He left the bed and made his way out of their room. He fed a log to the dimming fire, laced his boots. He stopped at the front door and listened for any sound from where his sister lay. Hearing none, he lifted the latch and let himself outside.
It was late September, the temperature on the verge of plunging. From where he stood, Angus could clearly see where the cut grass of their property gave way to thicker growth, the dark silhouette of closer trees against the perfect black of the forest behind. A young moon hung low in the sky. Inside, the darkness of these nights was flat, without depth—it encroached and pushed at the windows, asking to be let in. But outside, the dark had quality, a palette and texture of its own.
It was the elm—the one in their yard, their mother’s tree—that had upset his sister. He could see it now, a whorl in the darkness, its branches bending gently in the wind. Tonight, when her fit started, she’d pointed to the window and said the tree had been reaching for them. Angus had not seen this. He’d tried to calm her, but she wouldn’t be calmed. This was the tree their mother had loved and named, decorated in the spring when she was still herself. The decorations were gone now—their father, in his anger and grief, had seen to it—but the thick tree still stood. Its trunk was too large for the two of them, holding hands, to circle. They touched it gently when they thought no one was looking. He’d seen his sister lean her forehead on its rough bark on her way to the barn.
Now, near the door of their house, he stood motionless, daring the tree to show him something, fearful it might. The wind moved through the leaves with a sound like creek water. An image of their mother and the doctor came to him, and he tried to push it from his mind. To remember is to call forth, he thought.In the mornings, she was herself. But tomorrow their father would return and they would have to be even more careful. Click To Tweet
Earlier, when his sister’s fit had begun, he’d cradled her to prevent her head from hitting the floor with too much force; and when he’d taken her to their room, he’d been careful not to disturb her. He knew his presence helped. If he were not next to her, in the bed they shared, her kicking would not stop. She would cry out and speak of things he could make no sense of. He could not guess where the danger to her came from, or how it began; its arrival was sudden. Over the last few days, as these visions had come to her, rooted, and left, they thought only of their mother and what their father had done. She’d had no fever. Now, to recover, his sister would place her hand in his, a cold grip, and press her head firmly to her pillow as if willing herself still. He pulled her close, whispered comfort in her ear. He smoothed her sweat-stiffened hair. It’ll pass, he said. Be patient. It’ll pass.
And it did pass. In the mornings, she was herself. But tomorrow their father would return and they would have to be even more careful.
He watched the woods until the cold drove him back inside. He would lie to his father about the chickens. He’d say foxes or some other animal had bent the wire, scattered the coop. He would not say he’d killed and buried them because they had frightened Annabel and he thought it would help. He didn’t know what the punishment would be, but he was resolved to accept it.
He latched the door, made his way past the low fire, hung his coat, and slipped uneasily into the bed next to his sister. She pulled away from him, and he let her.
He could not imagine sleep coming to him, though eventually it did. But before he fell fully he saw his sister. She walked in front of him, just out of reach, hands at her sides, her feet brown with mud. Do not let him see, she’d said earlier as he held her. When he comes back, please, you can’t let him see.
When Angus woke it was early—the morning light pressed flatly through their small bedroom window—and his sister was not in bed. His first thought was that she had left, and his certainty startled him. But where would she go? She was too young to leave without him; they had not been to town for months. He heard sounds from the next room, dressed quickly, and made his way to the kitchen. Annabel sat at the heavy wooden table, still in her bedclothes. Her brown hair was combed. She wore the white nightgown their mother had sewn—it was fraying at the hem and slightly discolored. She insisted on wearing it when their father was gone. She’d set out two bowls, and when she heard Angus at the door she looked up.
—You slept in your boots, she said.
—I did, Angus said.
—What’s to become of us if we sleep in our boots?
She was calm, perhaps still sleepy herself. She was making fun of their father.
—You need to fold that away, Angus said and sat down. He’ll be back this afternoon.
—I know, she said. You reminded me last night.
—Did you dream? Angus said.
—I did, but I can’t remember, she said. She shifted in her seat and smoothed the nightgown where it had wrinkled.
—What will he do about the chickens? she finally said.
—I don’t know, Angus replied and signaled with his hand that the discussion was over.
Their morning routine was set. They finished breakfast and cleaned. Then, in the front room, they sat by the fire. Angus pulled down the one book they owned and handed it to Annabel. He jumped in only when a specific word gave her trouble, or a phrase needed correcting. She spoke with her chin tilted downward, her eyes calmly leveled on the page, lifting only when she was finished with a section, or was proud of working through a passage that had previously given her difficulty. She was small for her age, her thin body a bird’s scaffolding. Her reading voice was light and melodic, her dark brown eyes wide and, for now, in this early morning light, unclouded. She furrowed her brow, a model of young concentration. They were no longer schooled but they read every morning. And she was trying. This mimic of studiousness, her effort and care, her desire to remain still—all of this in the light of the morning, gave Angus hope. They would, he thought, get through this together.
Outside, the smell of yellowing leaves hung in the air. They walked quietly through the stand of birch trees and passed the pond near the edge of their property. The autumn sun cut mid-sky and shone upon the cold grass. There was no trouble as they picked the apples, no trouble as they passed the elm. Annabel called out the birds as they walked: robin, tree sparrow, grackle, waxwing. Angus cleared the path of sticks. They were working to keep the lines of their property visible, to show their diligence while their father was gone. Their solitude was felt and welcomed and made space for them where they felt none before.
When they reached the small barn, however, his sister stopped, and released his hand. Angus called her name. She didn’t respond. He reached for her and she sat down in the grass. He tried to pull her to standing, but she was limp and heavy and would go no further. He stepped away and watched her closely. He was used to this happening at night and had not been wary during the day.
—I’m tired, she said. Don’t be angry.
—I’m not angry, he said and shook his head. She studied the ground, cleared it of rocks. She pulled some tall grass and tied the pieces in knots. She moved slowly, but her eyes remained clear. He said her name again. She cleared her throat but didn’t speak. Soon she tilted her head toward the sky and sat rigidly alert, as though listening for something Angus could not hear. He knelt next to her, unsure what to do. Soon whatever it had been passed. She sighed. Angus sensed her relief. He stood, and moved behind her, scanned the woods in the light of day until he felt the danger to her was gone for good, and perhaps wasn’t coming. He gently stroked the back of her head. Her hair was greasy and brittle. He whispered to her until he felt he could waste no more time.
—Do you want to go back? he said.
—Come with me.
—The cows will be sick. It will only take a minute.
She stood and brushed her coat with her hands. Angus asked if she would be able to manage, and she nodded. He told her he’d follow shortly and watched as she turned up the path and walked slowly to the house. She paused at the elm tree, but she did not touch it. She looked small to him; she was small. He felt a panic rise in his chest but pushed it away. He waited until she was inside before continuing down the path.
The barn was dark and smelled of the earth. The cows did not greet him, though each leaned toward Angus as he put his hands to their backs. It was only after he’d finished, once he’d pailed the milk and refastened the gate, that he saw the poppets—four of them, set carefully against the inside of the barn door, small sentinels of equal height, no faces, just a knot where the head should be.
Their mother had shown them how to make dolls like this when they were little. They were small stick figurines wrapped in torn pieces of sackcloth. He set down the pail he was carrying, careful not to spill. All sound seemed to leave the barn. He looked over his shoulder and then back to the door. The figures were spread with a foot between them so they covered the beam. He walked slowly over to where they lay and gathered them up. They were light, and hastily made.
As he pulled them apart—first by unwinding the securing twine, then unweaving the small twigs (the cloth he put in his pocket)—he felt a close fluttering in his ears and he became even more deliberate in his movements. He scattered the twigs and let the tension out of his neck. When he looked up, he saw that the larger cow had stepped toward him. Both animals stared at him with their flat dark eyes; they swayed dumbly. Angus kicked the stool over, and at the sound both cows started and averted their gaze.
At the house, his sister already had the fire going. He handed her the milk and she took it to the kitchen. When she sat back down, he could see her thoughts were elsewhere but that she was content. He did not wish to confront or unsettle her, not now. He did not need to know why she’d made them. What mattered was that he’d found them before their father had. He took the cloth from his pocket and laid it in the fire, but if his sister noticed she made no indication.
—I like the leaves this time of year, she finally said. It’s like it happened overnight.
—I do too, Angus said.
The house was clean and ordered, as their father had directed. They were as prepared as they would be. Angus looked toward the window. Annabel sang quietly. The sun tracked slowly across the sky and they sat together for a long time without talking.
Their father returned as the day was dimming, later than anticipated. Angus had gone outside to pull the evening wood, and as he stood near the shed, he felt his gaze drawn down to the southern edge of their property. His father was a tall man. Though he’d thinned, he was still imposing in his black town clothes, head bent as he turned up the long dirt path to their house. Upon leaving, he’d told them only that he was traveling to Boston to seek counsel. Now, his hands swung freely, and though he wore the same clothes he’d left in four days ago, he no longer carried his satchel. Angus raised a hand in greeting, but though his father saw him, though Angus saw his head tilt and glimpsed, even from this distance, his drawn expression and sunken gray eyes, he did not break stride nor raise his hand in acknowledgment of his son.
He called to his sister and she came to the door. They received him side by side, wordlessly, and parted as he drew near. At the threshold he stopped and looked down at his children. He did not smile, he did not endear himself, but Angus thought he saw some of the firmness leave his shoulders. From his outer pocket, he pulled two small, bound books and held them carefully.
—This is my greeting, he said. You are to put them under your pillow. And read them when you have time.
Angus asked if there was any news. His father gave no answer. They took the small books and their father entered the house. Near the fire he stopped.
—I feel as though I’ve been walking for days, he said. For a minute or two he warmed his hands. Then he announced his intention to rest and locked himself in his bedroom.Angus pressed his palms together. Soon he felt her presence in the room and could not push it away. Click To Tweet
They had no dinner. Night descended, a heavy curtain, and their father did not emerge from his room. Angus sat with his sister near the fire. He watched her carefully for any start or sign. She sat perfectly still, gazing intently at the slow-burning wood. Since their mother had passed, their father demanded a rigor of them they could neither understand nor anticipate, and they had practiced their silence in his presence. Eventually, Angus opened the small book his father had handed him and read enough to ask his sister for hers. She gave it to him without complaint.
—I’m thinking of her now, Annabel finally said.
—You shouldn’t, Angus said. He knew he should reach for her, but he did not.
—I just wanted to tell you, she said. She laced her fingers in front of her chest and brought them to her lap. I don’t feel sick, she said. I’m just thinking of her.
Angus pressed his palms together. Soon he felt her presence in the room and could not push it away. Her illness had been a spiritual one, and this was their mother now: an impression, a flickering—a feeling to be hushed. When the doctor arrived, brought by their father, they’d watched him administer his thick fingers to her body as she cried out. They’d been told to wait outside. Later he’d questioned the children about what they’d seen, and Angus had looked into his strange face and answered honestly—he’d watched as she’d become anguished at the sight of animals or was otherwise touched by something he could not see. She spoke of dark figures, of a mist that came from the woods. Pain entered the room, passed through her, brought a heaviness to her bed. Their father was frightened, and from his sternness they took their cues. They stood by her side and winced at her touch as she called for them. My children, she’d said, then stopped speaking altogether. They could not deny the bruises on her body. This is not uncommon, the doctor had said. One hopes it does not spread. Their father, a strange light in his eyes, had said nothing as they removed her from the house. Two members of their church had come the next day to help their father dispose of her belongings. They’d looked both sorrowfully and fearfully at the children.
The next few months had been desperate, bleak, and silent at home. Their father, always stern, became remote and hard in his practice. In the house, he took to new habits: squaring the furniture in each room; scrubbing the mantle of soot upon waking. They felt his anger growing. He showed them neither attention nor kindness. His punishments became erratic and severe. He’d forbidden them to leave the property, and when he was home, he hovered over the two of them like a heavy sky that opened and flashed without warning. He took to retiring before dark so that he might wake in the deepest part of the night to read and pray. Angus had heard him from their bedroom, silently reading and writing, the turn of a heavy page, a sigh, a small plea. Occasionally a harsher sound had come under the door, a sharp and erratic whispering that kept both him and his sister pressed firmly to their beds, waiting only for morning, when the house, no longer of the night, returned to its recognizable shape.
Without being instructed, they knew not to ask of their mother and to bury their accusations. They missed and spoke of her only to each other. In dreams, they understood what they had done; but upon waking it was less clear what was required of them now. They had failed to go to her. Their father had brought the doctor, and then she was gone. She had never been happy, but she was theirs. Now their father was the only person they saw. He left the house during the night, and came back in the morning, bringing with him no news, only a torment that clung to his dark coat like dew frost.
Now, near the fire, with their father home, Angus tried to remember his mother’s face and he saw only Annabel’s.
—If you look closely, she said, in the embers you can imagine a small village. Lit up at night, during the winter.
—I see it, he said. There are people everywhere.
Eventually, the fire quieted and neither child reached for wood.
That night, Angus held his sister’s hand and spoke softly to her in bed until she fell asleep. No visions came. No disturbances, no kicks. He woke only once, hours later, to the sound of his father pacing the room outside their bedroom door, slow footsteps that whispered across the wide, cold boards and gathered themselves at the foot of his heart.
The next morning brought rain. Their father sat with them as they read, eyes closed, as still as a painting as they recited the chapters, passed the book, and recited again. Watching him, Angus wondered if he was sleeping, or was even there in the room with them at all. But when Annabel stuttered a phrase or asked a question, his eyes fluttered open and he issued a correction or a terse answer, his sternness returned. Angus had told him upon waking about the chickens, and about the foxes that must’ve taken them, and quietly, in the night, but he’d only nodded, calm, unsurprised. Was she frightened? he’d asked. And Angus had said they both had been, but not overly so.
After he put the book away, he sent them to the barn. When they returned with the milk, he stood in the door and instructed them to go to town for eggs, since they now had none of their own.
—We haven’t been for months, Angus said.
—You’ll remember the path, his father replied. Then, more softly, he said: You will be welcomed. I have done good work.
To be back by nightfall they would have to leave now. Angus retrieved his coat from the back of the kitchen door and brought his sister’s as well. Their father said nothing upon their departure, but Angus felt his eyes on them as they made their way down the narrow path that led away from the house. At the veer, Angus quickly turned, and saw their father had disappeared inside and closed the door.
The path was narrow and cut through dense growth. In the summer, the light shone through and cast brilliant shadows, mottling the dirt underfoot, but now the yellowed leaves had begun to fall, and the gray sky, and the morning’s rain: the path was black mud, and suckled their boots. When they could, they walked adjacent, letting small finger branches brush and whisk over their coats. They did not speak much. Annabel, walking ahead, picked a blade of tall grass and tucked it behind her ear.
—I’ve missed this, Annabel finally said.
—We shouldn’t linger, Angus said. But he felt at ease too.
The trip usually took an hour, but it felt to Angus, upon breaking through their path to the main road that led to the village, as if much more time had passed. The sun was not visible in the sky and cast no shadow, but the wetness had returned, and it seemed as though a low fog was settling. He took Annabel’s hand, a cold touch. A carriage approached and they stepped aside. They followed the road until they found themselves in the wide square that gave shape to the village. They made their way past the small buildings and houses. Angus wondered if they would see anyone they knew, but even as the few people they passed stopped to stare at them, he saw no one he recognized.
—They’re looking, Annabel said.
—I know, he said, and instructed her to put her hood up. He did the same.
Windows were covered with cloth; storefronts stood empty. Very few people walked outside. A brown horse, tied up, unsaddled, jerked his head against a post. They found the store they were looking for and knocked. A young girl opened and let them in.
Inside, it was warm—a full fire cracked the air, drove the wet out—and Annabel cupped her hands near it as Angus collected the eggs. At the counter, he mentioned his father’s name. The man quickly snapped the ledger closed.
—Take what you need, he said. He was looking intently and unkindly at Annabel, who, Angus could see, had heard and was working to keep her eyes on the fire. The girl who had let them in had disappeared.
—Thank you, Angus said. He bundled the eggs and tucked them under his arm. The man made no reply, but looked at Annabel as if she had stolen something.
—What’s under your coat? the man said.
—We’re leaving, Angus said, and Annabel followed him out.
—That man was afraid of us, Annabel said when they were back on the road.
—That’s not true, Angus said. He pulled her close, but she shrugged him off.
—It is, she said.
—Don’t think about it, Angus said.
They walked a different path through the village on the way home, one that took them past their old school and the church. A richness of swallows banked overhead, black dots; the sound of a hammer on steel sharpened their ears.
—They’re just birds, Angus said when Annabel winced.
They crossed the green. As they rounded the corner near the church, they saw a crowd had gathered around a man who was speaking on an elevated platform. Angus recognized him immediately and tried to steer Annabel away, but she’d seen him too: it was the doctor who had come to the house with their father. It was impossible to hear what he was saying. He paced back and forth. He was not a tall man, but he wore a large billed hat and seemed bigger, somehow, than Angus remembered. Next to him on the platform stood a thin woman, dressed in black, who looked down at her feet. The doctor pointed at her, and she nodded, or shook her head. The crowd formed a thick, silent circle around the two of them but was quiet. Angus yanked at his sister’s arm, but she shook him off.
—It’s time for us to go, he said, and squeezed her hand.
—What’s going to happen? she said.
—It’s not our business, Angus said.As they turned to leave, a woman near the back of the circle slowly turned and looked at them. Her face, from that distance, looked to Angus not like a face at all, but an expressionless mask. Click To Tweet
A call went up from the crowd.Finally,Annabel assented. As they turned to leave, a woman near the back of the circle slowly turned and looked at them. Her face, from that distance, looked to Angus not like a face at all, but an expressionless mask. She motioned toward them, but when they did not come, she turned her attention back to the doctor.
They retraced their steps until they found themselves back in the town square. They followed the road, found the seam in the woods that gave way to the dirt path that would take them home. Neither wanted to return so soon, but it would be dark, and there was nowhere else for them to go.
Their father was not at the house when they arrived. They were used to it at this point, these night entrances and exits, and when they had the house to themselves, Angus couldn’t help thinking this could be their life, just the two of them: unseen, left alone, out from under their father’s moods. But their father always returned—sometimes exhausted, sometimes lit from within—and never told them where he’d been or why he’d left or what he’d seen. In the months following their mother’s death, Angus had stayed up with him, near the fire; but whatever streamed darkly across his father’s mind went unshared. Occasionally he’d felt his father’s gaze on his back and it registered coldly; but when he turned, the gaze transformed, and Angus could no longer locate the ill will he was so certain of. One thing he was certain of, however: his father, a strong, tall man, had grown sinewy these last few months, his arms thinned and his hands veined, almost as if he were disappearing into himself, leaving the world for someplace even more stern and unforgiving. We cannot call what we did a mistake, he had said to Angus one night while Annabel was asleep. It was she, he said, who did what she shouldn’t have. Angus had nodded and said nothing. He understood when his father was inviting him to speak and when his silence was required. Where do you go at night? Angus asked, but his father did not respond. I’ve given you everything you need, he finally said. I’ve done my best. With him they’d walked to the village to see their mother’s body. With him they’d come home through the darkening woods in silence. Only later had Annabel shown Angus the poppets their mother had left for them—a boy and a girl, made from twisted sticks, eyes of dried berries. She had fit them under their bed, where the hard mattress met the frame.
That night they were alone, but pretended they were not. They remained alert until they could stay awake no longer. Annabel was still, but Angus dreamed. In this dream, a great rush of swallows dipped across a snow-covered pasture, which he knew, though he didn’t recognize it, to be their property. And when he woke it was to his sister, gently comforting him, whispering in his ear. She was talking about their mother, and Angus let her. She was kind, his sister was saying. She was beautiful. She was ours.
When they woke, the house was still and empty. In the quiet of the morning they passed the book to each other, finished, and their father had not returned. The wind came up, bringing with it a brief rain. After lunch the weather calmed, and the two of them walked the property, listening to the woods and the encroaching season. Annabel touched their mother’s tree. The paths on the property crossed, converged, knit together only to split unexpectedly. Some Angus had cut with his father. Others were natural, the range of deer and bear, of other night animals.
—Where do you think he is? Annabel finally said.
—I don’t know, Angus said.
He followed his sister, snapping twigs. He cleared the path of small rocks. The leaves were almost gone; the cold hastening. The pond—that was where they were going, where his sister said she wanted to go—was ringed by willows, and the dirt path turned to mud as they came closer. In the winter, the pond froze with a thin layer of shallow, glinting ice that sucked the shore, but it was too early for that, and as the two of them made their way carefully around the soft and giving grass, Angus was struck by the illusion of depth given by the water. They swam this pond in the summer, careful to keep their feet from the grabbing mud—he knew the water to be shallow save for the very center. But now, standing on the northern bank, he was taken by the feeling that the pond had grown both wide and deep since he’d last swum across. He picked a small rock from under his boot and tossed it. The water accepted the stone and sent a small wave circling back to him.
—Don’t do that, his sister said. Please.
—Why not? he said, but she didn’t answer. He looked across the water at the trees and then looked back to her. She stood a few feet away. Though she was bundled against the cold, Angus could see she was shivering. Her long hair hid mostly under a cap, but a few strands, picked up by the wind, played in front of her face and caught in the corner of her mouth. This had been their favorite spot. Their father, who could not swim, never joined them here.
—Angus, his sister said, and showed him. In her hands she held two poppets like the ones their mother had left them.
—Why are you making those? Angus said.
She said nothing. Angus watched closely.
—Stop. You know what will happen.
—I’m not making them. I found them. They were in my coat. She began to squeeze the figures, then seemed frightened by what she was doing.
—Don’t lie, Angus said. Stop.
He reached for the figures, but she thrust them back into her pockets. He grabbed her coat at the shoulders. At his touch, her knees gave, and he struggled to keep her standing, off the grass, away from the mud. She began to fight but he held her still. He felt a great sadness well, and then a panic. He thought he might be on the verge of violence. He shook her twice until she grabbed at him, and then they were both sitting on the wet bank.
—You can’t have them, she said. She was crying.
—Give them to me. Give them to me and we’ll bury them.
—It’s getting worse.
Angus looked to the pond. The wind picked up and he watched a leaf fall from one of the tall trees, slowly twist, and land on the surface of the water.
—Stop, he said again. He was crying now.
—It’s her, Annabel said. Angus knew she was talking about their mother. She can hear us, Annabel said.
—Give them to me, he said, reaching now for her pockets. Eventually she heard him and drew the figures from her coat. He felt no charge at their touch, they had no weight. He unwound them, stood, and found a rock. With the twine he wrapped what he could around the rock, threw the rock far into the water, and then his sister lay back in the grass.
He waited as she kicked, and then, as the gasping began, he went to hold her. She batted the air in front of her face with her hands, but Angus saw nothing. Eventually, he lifted her from the grass, and they made their way back to the house. He put her in bed, washed her clothes. His fear was a live thing; then, as the fire he started took hold of the room, that fear unbraided and thinned into strands and he found he could control it. He made dinner, and Annabel ate. Eventually, their father came home. They greeted him quietly and tried not to shrink as he took himself to bed.
Later that night, when he heard his father outside their door, pacing then settling, feeding the fire, Angus left his sleeping sister and walked quietly to the foot of their bed. Through his window, he could see the dark night, and the small glow pressing from the window of the main room where his father sat. It threw a circumscribed circle of light on the path that led away from the house. Beyond that was the woods, then the village, and then what he did not know. His panic returned and he pushed it down. When it seemed his father had settled, he made his way to their bedroom door, opened it, and slipped out. His father was fully dressed. Open before him was a book he was not reading.
—She might have gotten better, Angus said.
—Don’t speak, his father said. It would not have happened. It has happened nowhere else.
—We might have done differently.
His father coughed and reached with his hand to cover his mouth.
—A man should not have children, he finally said. It was your mother who left us. It was she who answered what she should not have. I tried and she did not listen. You are wrong. About everything you are wrong. He coughed again. Have you noticed the swallows? he said. They’ve returned.
Angus said he had not.
—You must remember to always tell the truth.
—I have seen no swallows, Angus said, and closed his eyes.
His father lay the iron down near the hearth and turned so his back was to his son. The conversation was over. Eventually Angus took himself back to bed. His sister shifted and released the blankets, reached for his hand.
Sometime later he heard his father stand, and then he heard the latch of the front door, a small metallic click, and the quick swing of the hinges. And then the house settled into a complete, recursive silence.
Morning came, and with it the work of the day. Their father cut in the backfield while Angus and his sister gathered and tied the grass. It was slow work. The day was cold. Angus watched his sister closely—their father was far enough away that he might be able to help her before anything caught his attention—but Annabel showed no sign of trouble. She was not happy, but she hummed as she worked, tying bunches, scuffing her boots after bugs while Angus did the lifting. Angus guessed she was as wary as he was, as vigilant, but he could not know. She seemed exhausted. Their father, sweat-drenched, swung the scythe in a stiff-backed, rhythmic way. Only once did Annabel startle, and stare deeply across the field to the woods. Angus followed her eyes but could see nothing himself, and Annabel, aware of the slip, bent herself more fully to the work. Their father, consumed by the balanced shushing of his blade, saw none of this.
They finished and as the sun began its descent, they followed their father inside. Once in the kitchen, their father sat rigidly at the table in the corner as the children prepared the food.
—Almost winter, he said.
—Yes, Angus said. He dipped three cups and set the milk on the table. Annabel reached for a small bowl to prepare the eggs. He searched for something else to say but could think of nothing. As he brought the milk to his mouth, he smelled foulness.
—It’s soured, he said. He quickly put his cup down. Don’t drink it.
—It’s from this morning, his father said.
It was then that it happened. Annabel cried out and Angus turned at the sound. She now stood with her hand pressed tightly against her mouth in an attempt to reclaim the noise. It was too late. Her knees buckled, recovered, and she walked quickly across the kitchen. Move, he thought. He stood and crossed to where she’d been standing. She was now near the door and looked at him pleadingly. With her hands she began smoothing the front of her dress. Then he looked in the bowl where she had cracked the eggs. Curled at the bottom of the bowl were two half-formed chicks, red and dark, spread with sparse black feathers. They were beaked but had no legs.
—What is it? his father said.
—Nothing, Angus said. He tried to cover the bowl but was too slow and his father stood beside him.
—What is it? he said.
—Nothing, Angus said.
His father put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him out of the way. Angus could not read his expression.
—Who has touched these? he said. Shaking, he reached for the remaining eggs and slowly cracked each into the bowl. Look! he said, and brought the bowl to Angus. His hands were white from the grip. In the pool of glassy albumen Angus counted four more malformations.
—Who has touched these eggs? he said again. He spoke quietly now and was looking only at Annabel. She did not return his gaze.
—We all have, Angus said.
—I have not, he said. Carefully, he set the bowl by the kitchen door. When he stood, his eyes were bright.
—Undress, he said to Annabel.
—I touched them, Angus said.
—Undress, he said again, this time to both of his children. I’m not going to ask again.
Angus could feel his sister, next to him, struggling to stay on her feet. He could not look at her. He slowly took off his shirt. He loosened his pants and let them fall. Finally, he glanced at Annabel and saw she had done the same, her dress now on the floor, her eyes downcast. With shame he saw the marks he’d left on her arms when he’d grabbed her near the pond. But they were far from the only marks on her, and Angus saw his father tremble at the sight of his daughter’s bruised body.
—She fell from a tree, Angus said. You were gone.
—Do not lie, he said.
—She’s fine, Angus said.
—Do not lie, he said again. He instructed them to kneel and when they did, he turned and walked from the kitchen. Annabel began to cry. She tried to speak but no sound left her throat. Angus felt his mind go empty. His father was too big. There would be nothing he could do. I’m sorry, he told his sister. She did not move. If she heard him, she made no indication. When their father returned, he wore a new expression. He was no longer afraid or surprised. He appeared remote and focused, and to Angus almost unrecognizable, as though this was a man they didn’t know, someone else wearing their father’s face. But that impression was fleeting. In one hand he held a rag, and in the other he held a switch.
He’d beaten them before, but not like this. He swung for the backs of their arms and feet, his breathing deep and rhythmic and unhurried.
When the punishment finally stopped, their father broke the switch and stepped outside. It had grown dark. Angus reached for his sister’s hand. She did not take it. When their father finally returned, he carried a stouter branch. He was sweating. Neither child moved.
—Someone is calling for you, he finally said. I will show him out. He stood before them and raised the thick switch and cut the air once, twice, across the heavy distance between them, then walked toward Angus and roughly pressed the switch to his son’s chest.
—You are a fearful boy, he said. He was swaying, slightly, and looked toward the open back door. I am asking for your help.
—She has a fever, Angus said. She caught a chill.
Their father’s expression did not change.
—Neither of you is to leave this house, he finally said.
Angus nodded. His legs radiated sharp pain. Annabel had gathered her clothes and was holding them tightly.
—Take her to bed, and see to her, he said. Do your best. He reached for the bowl and carefully tucked it under his arm. He left the kitchen and walked out of the house.
—It’s going to be all right, Angus said. It’s going to be all right. He reached for Annabel’s elbow, and, careful not to touch the welts blossoming on her arms, helped her to her feet.
—Annabel, he said, and took her to their room. Whatever had been happening—it was now coming to a close. The children could feel that. That night, Annabel talked and Angus made no effort to shush her. She spoke of a red sky, and of a golden thread wrapped around her hair. He’d tended carefully to the welts on her legs and arms, and she had not winced as he cleaned and dressed her. He waited for her to kick and yell, but she did not. Then she’d cleaned his wounds and helped him into his shirt. There is a world outside of this one, she said as they lay down. Angus asked her to describe it, and she did.
The night came through their window and bathed them in darkness. It seemed, perhaps, that this night would not end. It was a welcome thought.
Later, when Annabel stiffened, he held her gently in his arms. He put a corner of their blanket in her mouth to stifle her cries. He could not look at her eyes as they rolled back, but when she quieted, he put his hand to her brow and dabbed at the small amount of blood that had run from her nose. Then she finally slept, and Angus felt her isolation completely.
The doctor arrived two days later. It seemed as though the house had summoned him itself. Angus saw him from afar: he’d been moving grass to the barn, and when he turned up the path to the house the doctor appeared near the mouth of the woods as though he were the breath of breeze himself. He carried a small case and was dressed in an oversized brown coat. He wore the same wide-brimmed hat they’d seen covering his head, shading his round and drooping face, in the village. The wind picked up. On the ground near where the doctor stood was a larger case, and behind that case stood their father.
Angus walked quickly to the house and called for his sister but received no answer. He left the milk in the kitchen and tried to calm himself. When he went to their bedroom, he saw Annabel sitting rigidly on their bed.
—He’s here, she said.
—I know, Angus said. In her hands she held one of the poppets their mother had made. Come on, he said. He took the figure from her and returned it to its hiding place. He didn’t have time to take it apart. Come on.
She was pale, her hair tucked roughly behind her ears.
—Are you prepared?
—Yes, she said.
She stood. Angus unrolled his sleeves and then rolled them again. They heard the front door open and there was nothing to do but stand and go to their father.
When they entered the room, the doctor turned from where he’d been warming himself against the fire. He was a small man. Something about his appearance was off: his arms were too long for his body, or his legs too short. His hat, which he had not removed, no longer cast a shadow over his face. His hands were gloved. With a small flourish, he took off his hat and placed it on their father’s chair. His black hair was unkempt, a nest.
—These woods, he said, are thicker than I remember.
—We’ve fallen down with our cutting, their father said.
The doctor nodded. He asked for water and their father returned with a cup. He drank in one long pull and set the cup on the table. He spoke nothing of the village, or of his reason for visiting, but he didn’t need to. Angus knew his father, whose eyes were alert, had sent for him and brought him here.
—I’ve had little rest, the doctor finally said. He sighed. I remember this house. This living room. Your mother, he said, turning to Angus. She lay right here. He gestured carefully with both gloved hands, articulating the area where they’d placed the small mattress on the floor, the sweat-soaked pillow. And you, above her.
—We’ve done as you suggested, their father said. This home is bare and scrubbed.
The doctor looked at Annabel, then back to the fire.
—Three separate farms in the last month, he said. No crops grow. In the village it is no better. Children refuse to eat.
—Until two days ago, I had seen nothing, their father said. And I have been watchful.
—We read every day, their father replied.
—No more could be asked, the doctor said. He walked the room slowly, examining windows, running his finger along the frame. Angus watched as Annabel began to shift her weight back and forth. Her eyes remained on the fire.
—I will ask for some privacy with the children, the doctor finally said.
Angus saw his father’s expression turn. His eyes darkened. He made no move to leave.
—If you don’t mind, the doctor said.
—No, their father finally said. He left and shut the door behind him.
The doctor turned to the fire. Finally, he asked if they’d seen the swallows, and when Angus answered no, he turned and smiled. That’s right, he said. There are no swallows. His teeth were crowded atop one another. He picked his hat from the stool and handed it to Angus.
—Please, he said, sit.
Angus did as he was told. Annabel remained standing.
—Your father, he began, has traveled a great distance, and is still traveling. But he is concerned. And he loves you very much. You are dear to him.
Neither Angus nor his sister lifted their eyes from the floor.
—This is delicate, the doctor finally said. I will speak to your sister first, and then I will call for you.
Angus remembered no delicacy from this man, but he could think of nothing to do for his sister that would not bring more suspicion. When their mother had been examined, Angus had paced the entryway until the doctor demanded he stop. His sister had cried out and had to be held by their father. They’d made things worse by becoming upset.
Now the doctor sighed and, carrying his small case, moved with Annabel into their bedroom and shut the door.—Who has touched these eggs? he said again. He spoke quietly now and was looking only at Annabel. She did not return his gaze. Click To Tweet
He heard no sound from their room, no thrashing, no cries. Stillness was required in the presence of this man. The fire cracked, splintered, burned itself, glowing, down to embers. At first Angus had been afraid to move, and now, with the doctor’s heavy hat on his lap, he found he no longer wished to move at all. He was aware of time passing. The silence in the house deepened. He tried to imagine his sister and he called to her in his head, but then his mind settled and emptied. At some point, he sensed he was no longer alone in the room and he saw his father’s pale face at the window, pressed to the glass. He eyes were like burning pieces of coal. His mouth hung open. He looked to Angus like anger itself, and he was afraid; but soon his father’s features blended with the darkness and his face became a blank mask: an image of his father, but not he. Angus looked away. When he looked again, his father had disappeared.
Finally, the door opened and the doctor stood in front of him.
—She needs rest, he said, and closed the bedroom door. He walked to Angus and set his small case on the floor. Does that door have a lock? he asked, and Angus shook his head. No matter, he said. He instructed Angus to stoke the fire, and Angus stood as if suddenly released.
—What have you seen, the doctor said when Angus sat back down.
—Nothing, Angus said.
Now the doctor moved very close and stretched his gloved hands in front of him. He began using his thick fingers on Angus’s arm. It’s all right, he said. Angus said nothing. Roll up your sleeve, he said. Angus did, and when the doctor touched him again, he felt the air leave his body. Your sister is in an unusual state, the doctor said. And I need your help. He took a small glass vial from his case and held it to Angus’s forearm. Angus felt a pressure, as though the glass were a small mouth sucking at his skin.
—Has she been calling out? the doctor said.
Angus shook his head.
—I don’t believe you, the doctor said. Angus began to feel a small circle of heat form on his arm where the vial touched his skin. You can tell me, the doctor said.
—She is in pain, Angus said.
Angus’s vision blurred. He wiped at his eyes with his free hand and was suddenly cold.
—My father’s watching, he said.
The doctor stiffened. He looked up from his small case and clasped his hands together, thick fingers knitted in front of his chest. The vial that held on Angus’s arm did not release. He felt his throat go warm.
—Then tell it to me in my ear, the doctor said and leaned close.
It seemed to Angus that the two of them were no longer talking to each other. Or, they were talking, but without sound. The small doctor tilted his head so that his eyes fixed on the floor and Angus leaned forward so there was no distance between them.
—You poor child, the doctor finally said. He reached out and put a gloved hand over Angus’s ear, then dropped it. He packed his case. And when he stood to leave, Angus saw his sister in the doorway to their room, hidden behind the half-shut door.
They had no dinner. When their father returned to the house, he pulled the book from the shelf and they read together. He asked them no questions about the visit, and as the night went on and true darkness took hold of the woods outside, Angus found himself wondering if the doctor had been there at all. Nothing in the house had changed. There had been no yelling, no crying like last time. But when he saw the red circle on his forearm he knew. When he looked at his sister and saw she had withdrawn, completely, into herself, he knew. The doctor had come and had pulled them both to him, as he had before.
Finally, their father closed the book. He stood and embraced his children. When he held Angus, it felt to Angus as though he were leaning into the trunk of a large tree. With Annabel, he was more tentative, but he enveloped her nonetheless and held her tightly.
—Tomorrow will come, he finally said, and sent them away.
Angus knew that neither he nor his sister would sleep, but for a long time they did not speak. They waited in their room until their father stopped his pacing, until the light from the fire dimmed under the door, and they were sure he had taken himself to bed.
—She’s here, Annabel finally said. She was with me.
Angus said nothing.
—And she forgives us.
—What did you tell him? Angus said.
—I don’t remember, she said. It felt like I wasn’t even there. Then she said, Are you afraid?
—I am, Angus said.
—Don’t be, she told him. I’m not.
The wind tore briefly at the shingles of the house, then relented. The night spun out and wove itself around the two of them.
And when they did come, Angus saw them from the small window in their room. Ten to twelve lanterns swung up the path, a slow and deliberate constellation that lit the woods. He called his sister. He heard the latch on the front door and knew their father had left them.
He went to their bed, made it, and returned to the window.
—Annabel, he said.
—No, she said.
—Annabel, he said.
—It’s what I wanted, she said.
The lanterns were closer now, and gave shape to the night outside. Someone was singing, a low sound that cut through the house and pressed across the field. She held out her hand, and Angus took it. Her hand was warm, and in his he sensed a deep heat blooming. The moon shone through the branches of the elm in their yard. When they were younger, Annabel had always been the first to laugh, his mother’s favorite. Images came to him, some he couldn’t place. The dark path through the woods; frost on the leaves; a robin drying its wings. His mother, in light, applying pressure to his fevered head. The heat from his sister’s touch moved up his arm and spread across his shoulders. He had her hand and she would not let go. Behind him came a sound like water rushing over rocks. He stood in the room, but it was no longer theirs. You know what’s coming next, his mother said. But Angus didn’t know. Annabel, he said, but she wouldn’t answer. It was easier this way, and it was like nothing he’d felt before.