Noah tumbles from his bed as though he neither tossed and turned all night, nor dreamed bad dreams.
He shares a room with his brother, Daniel, and must be quiet while he slips into his denim shorts, an over-sized Penn State t-shirt, and a frumpy white fisherman’s cap that’s become beige from the nicotine of his father’s smoke.
Light presses bluely through the drapes.
Beneath his stocking feet,
the floor is soft static electricity.
His heart beat hastens
thinking of Erie’s Sunday morning streets:
the gray-blue post-industrial streets,
with paint-peeled brick buildings
rusty dented cars in muted parked positions,
sloppily-stitched graffiti on abandoned shop walls,
the street’s orchestra of source-less whirs and clanking clanks,
its symphony of sea-shelled chatter,
and choir of unexpected silences.
In an excited rush, he forgets the black zipper-up fanny pack hanging on his bed post. When he straps the utility pack around his waist he feels important, like batman, or a pathologist carrying highly-necessary contents: The bugs and bird feathers he catalogues can be combined to cure ebola and old age, but he’s already traveled twelve minutes from his Aunt and Uncle’s front porch—too far to return and retrieve the belt over which he berates himself for the next couple of blocks, feeling stupid.
To reach the horizon-wide steely Erie Lake, it takes him over an hour, but he remembers the way by heart. His final step lands his bare feet in frigid water. Sand like cold grits mushes up to his ankles.
At 6:15 a.m., the shore is empty but for his black sneakers and knee socks, and the towel with a three-pack of sweating Heineken bottles belonging to a pair of frat boys fishing sleepily from a canoe the color of a rain cloud.
Sometimes, the great steely lake and densely coniferous forest awe Noah, how thoroughly the mountains and lake and forestry pre-date and predict him.
For a moment, Noah stands in the water inhaling deeply the clean-cut spring air.
A dripping shrill cry makes him squeeze his toes together and it feels like his calves are blossoming mountain laurels suddenly exposed to the sun.
He removes his beige-white cap and swats the air to keep the gnats at bay.
The people stationed in the canoe look like the wax statues of civil war soldiers.
He can’t spot any fish and this frustrates him.
The gnats are simply a pesky nuisance.
With a small fuss, he backs from the water, the tentacly fringes of his shorts soggy, and he traces the familiar shoreline towards his right, where brown aluminum Nature Trail and Conservation Warning Signs are nailed through the bark of an old oak.
First he jogs, following along the trail, then sprints so fast that when briary vines singe the tops of his feet, he flinches but doesn’t stop. The screeching sound echoes from the foggy darkness of the forest and freezes him solid.
Leaves crinkle. A gentle breeze. A blue-jay flutters from its nest.
The sun shines bleakly through dissipating fog and web of limbs, and there is an uninviting darkness ahead of him. He bends forward and, leading with his hand, swings beneath a pine tree, and heads off the trail.
Noah’s sun-freckled peachy arms feel a surface cold. The little needlelike punctures in his foot begin to feel bloated and stretched and burning, so he limps. He smears dirt on his forehead with his arm.
At the base of another pine tree with a strip of cloth dangling from a branch and pine cone, there is a wooden milk crate that he’d placed there weeks ago and covered with an extra t-shirt.
Inside the milk crate are: two voles, two field mice, two frogs, and two baby rabbits, piled upon each other, all dead, stiff, and decaying.
Again he hears the haunted wail, this time much closer, and worries someone might be injured, but the voice isn’t human.
He replaces his t-shirt over the milk crate and tip-toes in the direction of the high-pitched yooeeaaaaoowling hiss and finds a tree recently fallen and climbs upon the high-point of the log thinking over what he’d heard and dismissing reasons why he’d become so immediately obsessed over this shrill suffering animal sound.
He feels ten times his weight he is so dizzy. He tightens his eyes and opens them
— sunlight, shadow, sunlight, tree. sunlight, shadow, sunlight, tree —
and he realizes the tree he sits upon is rather odd, that it grows not up, but bowed down like a turtle shell, into the earth.
A red-fleshed millipede clumsily advances from the dirt and he snatches it and the millipede tickles his fingers and simultaneously he drops his hat with the millipede. He glares down the trunk of the tree, where it’s splintered and frayed. He inches towards a flowing tuft of fur or brown burrs that shakes like a little bee hive.
Instinctively, as though arming himself against attack, Noah snaps off a gray dead tree limb and hops off the log to strike a rotten part of the tree, to investigate what’s beneath. When he lands he slips over wet leaves, and crashes.
A suffocated whimper: The landing bursts open a belly like an egg-shell water balloon, snaps a baby fisher cat’s toothpick-like bones.
No birds in the trees. No insects to gather. No sun, no rain, no wind from the heavens. No breath in the kit’s lungs, no pulse in its veins, no light reflected from its eyes.
Noah falls, panting, to his back. The wet leaves and lifted-dirt receive him like a sleeping bag, and he stares into the slices of sunlight, his chest pumping like an old piston.
“My god.” He sits up. He exhales. He removes his oversized t-shirt, crawls dragging through caked dirt on all fours beside the dead creature, towards the bowed-down tree. He breathes heavily. He clicks his tongue. “C’mere. It’s OK,” he whispers, but the fisher cat doesn’t even flinch. He reaches into the shadow until his hands fill with the tough greasy fur. He scoops around the little mass and brings the kit between his knees and atop a stone. He pets its dead hind paws, its ridged spinal column.
The kit’s ears are wide and round like gray tulips, its mouth a little O.
Six months ago mother complained to daddy of stomach pains that eventually affected her to the emergency room, where she ended up dying.
I need time to re-adjust, to be seen in public. I hope I didn’t die with her.
My daddy Walter, my brothers Daniel and Noah, and I live in a dark three bedroom house two miles from Erie, which is just south of a great lake.
Oak and maple trees in the front yard shade a fifteen year old un-polished porch. The porch overlooks a wickedly curvy back road that, towards the right winds into a warren of intersecting rural roads and, to the left, descends to a sleepy coal town in Crawford.
Sometimes Daniel and Noah stay with Uncle K, in Erie, so they can be boys and play at the lake.
The family mechanic Roy visits to fix the lights and dashboard of Aunt Chrissy’s white Granada, which is parked at our house and needs some work to fix wiring the rodents have chewed through, preventing the car from starting. The man who arrives is quite heavy, and white, with military-associated tattooed arms and a handle-bar stash and beard. He makes good money, because he does good work for reasonably fair prices.
He jacks up the car, he wants to replace the brake pads, switch the oil and rotate the tires, might as well. Do something else involving words I don’t understand. He is present for ninety-two minutes and now the car is operant; as quickly, Uncle K and Aunt Chrissy are gone till tomorrow. They take Noah and Daniel with them till dinner and daddy takes me to the grocery store.
Place smells like Lysol products, potpourri.
Housewives with green hand-baskets. A house wife’s sun-bleached bangs ride her hot-pink-rimmed shades. She is so beautiful it hurts.
To follow her.
First to the bakery, then the cake mix aisle— it’s someone’s birthday! There is a picnic at her house!
She will visit family or friends and doesn’t want to arrive empty-handedly. Mid-thirties, probably self-sufficient although married and a mother of two or three or four children who anxiously await her return. She makes eyes at my daddy, who is oblivious, as usual, purchasing potatoes, carrots, celery, and fresh parsley for dinner, and on impulse, chocolate cupcakes and bottles of water.
Daddy is a non-stop workaholic, can’t be in two places at once like he wishes. He overworks himself, and then can’t do much of anything for a couple of months.
On the way back home over the Old Road, he idly taps his fingers to some Rolling Stones song and smokes a cheap cigarette down to the filter.
He pats my kneecap, something he’s only done after disciplining me.
At home, when we’re organizing the groceries, daddy keeps bragging about the strawberries Uncle K brought over a whole week ago, and pestering me to try them, when I explain even if I wanted to try them I’d be busy with homework and I don’t have much of an appetite for fruit— but I lie to him.
I plucked a strawberry from the jar the very night Uncle K brought them, and it was too soft and bitter for me, rotting and smelling like peroxide. After I ate a couple of the strawberries, I vomited a little and my face lost feeling.
He’d been sucking them noisily at night watching classic Penguins games all sunken-eyed sinking into his favorite chair. That beaten-down thing is so dirty it gives me the icks.
It’s probably got bed bugs or scabies, not to mention the crumbs are just thrown about, mostly pretzel niblets. They’re so shiny they don’t even look real. He fixes a paper plate full of those shiny pretzel niblets and mustard for himself, but then forgets to make dinner for us, his children.
But dinner hadn’t been his responsibility.
Years ago, my mom cooked, cleaned, disposed of the garbage, purchased the groceries, washed dishes and laundry, cared for the lawn. Daddy worked a couple of shifts at the prison and said he didn’t do anything there except sit and that’s why he gained the weight.
Since she’s died, I’ve taken over her job. Without me, Daniel and Noah would have to fend for themselves. Neither of the boys can even microwave Raviolis. Daniel is scared of the dark and anything hot and Noah is scared of sharp things, like knives, automatic can openers, and especially scissors, because one time a barber nicked Noah’s ear.
We eat a late dinner. My bread is buttered and toasted, with melted parmesan. The soup is thick and salty. After the adults drink an ice-cream kalhúa, Aunt Chrissy offers to take us to Erie, explaining that it’s calling for rain tomorrow around lunchtime and throughout the rest of the day, so her Sunday shift will probably be cancelled.
Daddy agrees it would be good for the boys, and while they don’t argue, I decide to stay with him to tidy up the house and keep him company.
Our home feels empty without Daniel and Noah. They are responsible for our family’s daily rhythm. I’ll be awake early tomorrow morning to dress them in fresh clean laundry, to toast waffles and heat the butter and syrup, and while they wolf down breakfast, check that the proper books are in their respective backpacks, review the completion of their homework assignments, tie up their shoe-laces and comb their hair so they don’t look ratty, unkempt, or neglected.
Then daddy, exhausted of his apathy, sleeps on his favorite chair, his rough calloused hands pinned over the remote controller, grubby fingers over the pause and play buttons, the television the only light in his dim den, re-running a family video in which Mama is dressed in a lime-green gown and splashing sparkling champagne from a crystalline glass, smiling widely, on the precipice of laughter, her stomach petitely pouch-shaped, pregnant with me. Her wrists are slender. I realize how little I resemble her sixties’ flower-girl look, the wavy full hair and environment-tone powdery make-up, slight hues of pink to complement her gown. I approach the television to turn it off, but daddy says, “I’m watching that,” which startles me.
“Your eyes were closed, I thought—”
“I’m resting Abby,” he grumbles.
“Doctors say it’s not good to dwell.”
“Not good to forget, either.”
The den surrounding him is a suffocating clutter. Heaps of medically-labeled bills, fishing rods with tangled line and loose hooks, clothing in unorganized stacks, Hershey’s chocolate wrappers, coupon clippings and glossy advertisements from months and months ago strewn about like he’d left a window open to a terrible thunderstorm.
“I’ll clean up, sweetie,” he says. “Just haven’t gotten around to it.” As I’m about to leave the den, he says, “Hey. This is the best part. Help me up.”
I bend into him and he takes me around my neck and wobbly stands. He turns up the television. He drops the remote onto his chair. “What’s going on daddy?”
“This song, sweetie. Played at a festival when your mother proposed we marry. C’mon let’s dance. It starts off fast and then suddenly slows down, it’ll be fun,” and he tugs me inward by the waist. He smells strongly like chicken broth. His eyelids are violet and swollen.
“Dad, I have chores—”
“They can wait, sweetie.”
I don’t remember which song was playing, only that it was very long— never seemed to end.
After some contemplation, Noah lets his brother Daniel in on his little secret. While Chrissy, Uncle K, and Abby sun-bathe and talk of empty subjects, Noah walks Daniel into the woods near the lake, speaking like a magician, in high haughty tones, about how, “what I’m about to show you will rock your cradle, totally blow your mind, you’ll never think the same way again, but you can’t tell anyone what you see or you’ll ruin everything,” and Daniel soaks everything up, his eagerness outweighing fear over the heavy responsibility of a secret.
“I don’t like this place,” says Daniel.
“This place don’t like you, because you’re retarded,” says Noah.
“You’re not supposed to say retarded.”
“But papa says ‘honest is best.’”
The milk crate, set against the base of a tree, is just like Noah had left it, except now it contains a stiffened fisher cat kitten and tiny birds he shook from their nests and collected.
“You know how to tell a female bird from a male bird, retard?”
“Kinda bird is it?”
“Don’t matter what kinda bird it is,” says Noah. “One has a little thing on it, and the other doesn’t. Every animal is the same.”
“Well my teddy ain’t got a little thing on it and he’s a boy.”
“Your teddy ain’t a real animal,” says Noah. “Cover your mouth now,” he says, “Like when we play cowboys and Indians.”
While Daniel crushes his nose with his t-shirt, Noah swipes the cloth from the milk crate, loosing a storm of flies like chaos from Pandora’s Box, and then reaches into the milk crate.
“These are mice,” says Noah, holding in his palms a couple of walnut-like voles. “C’mere, man. Look at em. See the one’s got a little thing right there. See it?”
Daniel nods. He pinches his nose.
“Now look at this one.” Noah points at the dead female vole. “Nothing. They’re totally different.”
“That’s disgusting, Noah, they’re dead. I think I should tell ma—”
Noah looks askance at his younger brother. “Aww it’s OK. That’s what I wanted to show you. This is how they like make babies,” and then Noah directs the dead stiff vole penis towards the dead stiff vole vagina the dead stiff vole anus the dead stiff vole mouth the dead stiff vole eyes the dead stiff vole ears,
And Noah cymbals the dead stiff voles together, the sound of smashed up dead voles sounding like chewing too much food —
“Noah? Daniel?” cries Abby. She marches along the lakeside Nature Trail. “Where you’d you boys get off to?”