In the beginning, the earth was rank with moss and the lumbering chestnut oak saw with one big eye. My father was there, wearing his jacket with the blue patches at the elbows and smoking a fat cigar. He breathed the first smoke into existence and let it linger for a moment too long, and when the embers flickered red jewels onto the grass, he turned away as the tender virgin land burned beneath his feet. He was alone back then, with everywhere to run to and nowhere to hide. This is the nowhere where we begin, the yawn and expulsion of him onto the brittle earth. The first mark has been etched into the passage of time by a foreign hand, and from now on, there will always be a yesterday. But before, it was the first day, and there you will find my father: venturing forward, knee-deep in the thistles and wet shoulders hunched, under the same blue bruise forever interlocked between the outstretched fingers of the mountain.
* * *
When Papa comes for us, I am squeezing the moon between my fingers like a piece of wooden shrapnel. It is a toenail crescent tonight. My second favorite moon, after the big pumpkin: the lady’s face, blushing orange and gazing down at us from up above.
“Birdie girl,” he whispers, kneeling beside my bed. I can feel his dark eyes above me, although mine are closed; the intensity of his presence is a match lit against my cheek. “I know you are awake. Do not lie to me.”
I ignore him, rolling onto my back and feigning a snore.
“Birdie. Please.” His voice is sorrow-tinged, following a weary cadence unfamiliar to my child-ears. “I need you.”
I fight the mercy crawling in my stomach, but Papa won’t leave. At last I unpeel myself from the covers, surveying our dark room. The window is too small for much light to seep in from the distant lantern of moon left in the sky. The lady’s half-smile is displeased yet unsurprised. But even in her meager glow, I see my father’s eyes clear as midday.
Papa is young and handsome, and as strong as any tree. But tonight, his black eyes are lost and smeared underneath with purple. I sit up and place a single finger on the silky bag draping the soft marble of his cheekbone. He is just a boy, rumpled at the edges. I say, “Get Nell.”
Nell is still snoring when Papa rustles her awake. She has been dreaming of rabbits, with cottontails and satin pink noses, running through an everlasting field of green. When she awakens and sees that she is not in a field but in the dark, and we are standing above her with unfamiliar looks, she begins to weep. Most things tend to make my sister the cry, the world an inevitable minefield of terrors from the rumbling giant’s feet thunder and the devil-eyed geese who haunt the cattails down by the creek. But today she cries without knowing why, because she does not yet know what Papa has done.
He does not let us see her as he guides us through the kitchen and out the back door of the house. I hold Nell in my arms and cover her eyes, although I struggle to look anywhere else than the sight sprawled in the parlor. The night is the vengeful cold belonging to a fading autumn; dead leaves fracture beneath our feet. Papa hurries us into the car and locks the door, the engine rumbling beneath us like a rousing beast. Nell shivers against me.
“Wait for me,” he says, and disappears.
I crane my neck out the dust-smeared window until I glimpse Papa’s silhouette, moving in front of the kitchen window. He spots me looking and turns off the light. Nell howls into my lap, and I run my hand through the thick velvet of her head. Most of all she fears the dark.
She is alone in the parlor, slack-jawed and eyes left open. I’d have liked to close them, with my gentlest hands, so she would not have to stay looking up at the ugly stained ceiling. But Papa prefers not to see her, not when he takes the oil tin from the garage and spills it over the stockpile of newspapers. He spills on the yellowed wallpaper chalked with my art, the rocking chair, the sheepskin rug, and then Mama. She is made by his hand into an obscene creature, one he cannot recognize and therefore cannot miss. It passes through him, brief as a flicker, that he may as well close her eyes, which are the same blue as Nell’s, and far too placid to ever be brought into proximity of a flame. If he was a different man, had she never bore fangs, he might stay with her in the room and watch it all burn: the room, the bodies, and all the blue eyes in it. But he is otherwise, as he was always going to be, and by the time our car filters onto the dusty road and the blaze is a spot of red in the periphery, silence has settled its thumb over us all.
Papa mumbles as he drives, “I had to do it.” He does not look at me, but he does not have to. My eyes are not blinking but remain steadfast onto him. I want to paint his face, reach out and dip into the wetness of his eyes and swirl on the scales of his hardened palm like an artist’s palette. He is alight even in the darkness.
When he stops the car, Nell is not crying anymore. Papa turns around and puts a hand on my knee, and his grip is tight, nails not crescents but teeth digging into my flesh. I know what he wants me to say, the words of absolution he is willing out of my mouth, tugging off my tongue. It’s what you had to do.
I put my finger to my lips. Nell is sleeping, and she dreams of dogs.
* * *
We seek shelter in the mountain and wait out the impending storm. Nell is crying the whole while. She is caught in the space between the only home she has ever known, and the motherless land we wander through now, lost into the future. Each night we curl on the unfurnished wooden floor of the cabin, Papa and Nell on both sides of me. Papa does not sleep but stays awake and silent, his ragged breath quiet in my ears. In the morning he strips naked and lies bare against the earth, screaming curses which are smothered by the open air.
One day we realize that we are not alone on the mountain. It is a moving beast, with snakes crawling like intestines through the gutted ice lakes, and wherever we turn there are eyes watching behind the bushes. Most frighten away from us, at Papa’s booming voice; but the wolves howl at night, undeterred by our presence. I have never heard the wolves before, and their voice sends my blood cold. I tell Papa they sound like they are in mourning, but he shakes his head.
“This is our mountain now,” he tells me.
“It was theirs first,” I remind him. “We just came into their home.”
“Wolves do not have homes,” he says, and takes to building a fence. Not appeased by the barrier, he foregoes sleep and parades the perimeter throughout the night. He aims his rifle tautly at any yellow eyes peering from inside the darkness.
The days pass slowly sequestered inside the cabin. I do not read any books but the one I am writing for him. I let his words spill over me like oil as he paces, my hands never quick enough in putting down ink as he dictates our destiny on the mountain. The newfound silence has made his voice louder, and I find I can no longer turn away from his call.
“Write this, Birdie girl,” he declares. “I have been born into a belly of a hungry beast, and I have slayed it from the inside out. I have conquered the flesh and now I become its mind. I think, and the earth moves beneath my feet.”
I scribble and watch him with fear and amazement. I have never seen my father burn so brightly before, and untethered to my mother, there is no longer anything left to hold him down to the earth. He is the biggest creature on the mountain, his words fierce as the yellow heart of a flame. I cannot write fast enough.
But sometimes he pauses, and I am the one who fills these fleeting silences.
“The parasites,” I offer. “They have hidden in the cracks. Under the floorboards, in the rubbish, where we cannot banish them.”
He beams. “Write this, Birdie. There were evils necessary for me to keep, the ones that festered beneath our feet. I could rid them easily, with a snap of my fingers; but no. I need them to choose us, Birdie, my little Birdie girl; and for them to choose us, there must be a choice made. They will love me, Birdie, not because they have to. Because they have heard the wolves and chose to follow my voice instead.”
“Them?” I ask.
He gazes out the window to where Nell lies meekly in the cold.
“The children,” he says.
* * *
While Papa goes off on errands, an island of me and my sister slowly forms. Her delusions, I am afraid to admit, have only been strengthened by our seclusion in the cabin. I wonder how long until her mind wanders too far away for me to grasp it, and if it will solidify to marble next to Mama and all the other fossils of our past.
When Papa returns, he bears with him a burlap sack seeped with blood. Nell is hungry all the time, and her stomach roars at the stench of animal blood, which ripens the stale winter air. But when he wields the fishing knife, she spooks, and it instead falls to me to prepare our meals. It is a thankless task, but I always do as I am told; severing the soft woolen lining from the tenderness beneath, hanging the skins to dry on the rod and flattening the muscles with my hands and sharpening the bones. We do not stop until all the ties have been severed, the parts parceled away, stored in jars and tins for our own usage. I wish to close my eyes, not to the sight of blood but to the wrongness of the amputation, and the empty feeling in my stomach when I realize that there is nothing left to take away. But I am not my sister, and I cannot pretend not to see, so instead I watch my father. He does not mind it, stripping away the faces and the smooth black beads of the eyes and scattering the minted teeth. They have found their value, he tells me. None of it will go to waste, not the bone rinds I whiten to a polish or the remaining blood which we eventually soak into rags the color of rust. It is our right, Papa says, to feast upon the creatures of this earth. They knew what they were meant for the moment they became creatures instead of men.
I have seen the hearts of most creatures set upon the table, but never the heart of the wolf. The mottled purple thumbprint of the fish, the soft apple of the black bear, the pulp of the deer and the rabbits and the squirrels indistinguishable when slickened onto the canvas of my palm. But the fruit of the wolves we have always been denied. When we hear their howls, Papa locks the door and bars the windows. There is much I wish to ask him, but the truth of the wolves will never be mine to know. I am learning to accept this.
Once Papa leaves us, a blizzard bellowed in his absence. The mountain becomes treacherous overnight, bones jutting from the earth and the wind tempting us outside with her unanswered prayer. I watch by the window, waiting for the rising black smudge of my father in the distance. But days glide into weeks, and the snow keeps falling. The glass cracks from the cold, and I can no longer make out the shadows of the woods, the figures or the trees which beckon us with long white arms. The wind, or otherwise the wolves, calls louder and louder.
Nell is anxious for Papa’s return, but more so she is hungry. We have eaten the last of the deer, chewed on the bones until our teeth cracked, and even devoured the filmy white scales of the fish. Hunger has curdled within Nell, alive, a sentient thing. She vomits the little sustenance she gets into the snow, her body’s way of rejecting my futile attempts to nourish her. I hold her at night, feeling the sharpening of her bones like ice picks beneath my hands. I do not know how much longer she will outlast Papa’s voyage. She cries for him now. I knew in time she would let Mama’s truth slip from her fingers, would cling to Papa’s instead, because it was the only one there and that is what you do when you are drowning. You take the saviors that you are given.
I kiss Nell when the moon blossoms in the sky. The snow has stopped, and for a moment the mountain is silent. When I venture outside, the cold finds me and searches with grabbing hands. I want to say, I do not have the answers you seek. But it swallows my voice, until I feel it pressing against me, the massive body of it surrounding me. The moon is also burning, the way a tree burns, bleeding from the inside out.
“You cannot have her,” I say, and the wolves howl. I do not understand their voice, but I hear the answer all the same, and cringe at the bitter words.
The winter is so long ahead of us. Nell is feverish, and her eyes can scarcely open. I cannot wait for Papa any longer, if ever he will return to the children he has left behind.
I hold the fishing blade under the light and survey its sleek silver point. I imagine the carcasses, slabbed on the table, the bodies that cease to be bodies and became dinner instead. I have never felt its sharp bite before, and I know that I might never feel it, the same way I know I could walk out the door and disappear into the snow forever if I would choose. But I also know that I have been bound to all this somehow, in a way I am unable to resist—and for that reason I stay. Still, I wince at the blood which rises from my palm in smooth beads. I am surprised by its redness. I had never imagined it would be that color stewing inside me all the while, so dark and blistering against my skin.
I press my wrist under Nell’s nose, the scent of my blood stirring her awake. Her eyes are round, and even in her weakness she knows she cannot accept my offering. But even as she turns away, the cold furrowing itself into her in a way no father could ever unburden, I prop her up by the neck and force her mouth open with my fingers. I let her take what is mine in slow droplets, let it fill what Papa has carved empty.
In the morning I awaken and find Papa has returned. He lies next to me, and I fight the urge to bury into his warmth. I had forgotten how warm he was, his body breathing life back into mine, although his beard is ridden with frost and the evergreen scent of winter still lingers on his skin. In the dewy light, I see that the tissues of his cheeks are scarred with claw marks, but he smiles at me broadly.
“Birdie girl,” he says. “Good morning.”
“You left us,” I tell him. My voice is loud. It has never been loud before. I frighten a bit at the sound, at the absence of silence behind my anger. I never realized it was there, that I have been hating my father all this while, but if he can feel it, he only laughs.
“Where were you?” I demand.
His eyes are so dark they have crossed into brightness. “I’ve been here this whole time.”
“No,” I say. “You haven’t.”
“Birdie,” Papa chuckles. “Would I ever leave you?”
Nell has not woken yet, still sleeping off her maladies, but I know she will welcome Papa and be none the wiser. But I look at Papa, the stranger I wish had forgotten me, and let him study me carefully as though unraveling threads in his fingers.
“What?” I feel petulant and child-like, pretending as though he cannot see me when I cover my own eyes.
“I should’ve known she’d be a liability.”
I do not respond, turning to my side. Papa hums a merry tune. I want to ask why he is singing, when winter’s noose grows ever-tighter.
“You can say thank you to your father, Birdie girl. I have decided that I will not be leaving any longer. I have found the answer. We will never be alone again.”
My body braces at his words. I can feel it then, that the air is not silent and will never be silent again. For although the snow has stopped falling, the footsteps grow louder and the murmurs in the wind broach closer, until I can hear nothing else.