I remember one morning toward the end of the occupation, leaning on a doorframe, looking through a long rectangular window at the cops commingling across the way down a grassy hill. They looked ready for a battle of biblical proportions, and so they were. Coat of mail made of Kevlar, scutum made of clear plastic, guns to shoot bullets instead of slings to hurl rocks.
But there would be no battle. No clear-eyed person who took one look my father would call it a battle, what was coming.
A slaughter, maybe.
The cops sipped from Styrofoam cups and laughed together as they awaited the go-order. My wife Lillybeth came up behind me and put her arms around my skinny middle. She looked at the cops and she saw.
“Don’t worry about them, Roger,” she said. “We don’t need no armor save the shield of faith.”
She took my hand and led me away from there because we weren’t supposed to be by any windows. She floated ahead of me through a corridor of lockers. I felt like I was wearing cement shoes.
I was the last of my father’s nineteen children and the first to be graced with his forename because I was the first boy. My father was already sixty-some when I was born. He made grand promises to me of life and work, the things that make up the dark side of the earth. He would tell me in private that it was a full-time job and then some providing salvation to his children, that he knew I would build upon what he had built.
My entire family was holed up on the grounds of this huge education complex named for a guy called Miller. All I knew about Miller was that he’d been a famous goods trader or politician a long time ago. The moms had taught me and my sisters at the family ranch since we were tots so we didn’t know much about Tenebril County writ large.
Our ranch took a lot of work. My sisters were always about, keeping things running. They were one big superorganism to me. They were water coursing around a log. They were directed by the moms, who in turn were directed by Mama Bean, and ultimately by my father. Even the youngest of my sisters had been pressed into service by the time I might have been useful. There were few expectations on me when it came to keeping the ranch in good repair.
The moms belonged to us all equally and there were six of them in total. All of us children were theirs, and all of them were ours. Except that Rosie was Haitian-African. And Frangelica had a big Dutch moon face. And Liza weighed about three hundred pounds. And Kory weighed about eighty pounds. And Magda had descended from the Aztecs. And then there was Mama Bean, all crane-like with a hook nose, like me. So, of course you could tell which kids went with which moms.
I was Mama Bean’s only. She’d been the first to join my father and the last to give him a child. My birth was something of an unforeseen miracle, supposedly. She got her name because bean was my first word, and when I said it I’d pointed at a can of beans she was holding. My sisters thought that was pretty cute.
Mama Bean didn’t talk much about her life before coming to the ranch, except she said she’d worked in an actuarial office, which meant nothing to me. She was the only mom who hadn’t been a reclamation. That’s what my father called those at the ranch who weren’t blood family. Mama Bean hadn’t been involved with drugs, hadn’t been a prostitute, had never lived on the streets. It’s true she didn’t have the pinprick scars on her arms the rest of the moms had. Still, I can’t imagine she wasn’t running from something. She bristled with energy. She only sat when she had a task that required sitting, and no matter what the task required she’d throw herself completely at it. I think her intense focus doubled as distraction. I think she thought that if she wore herself out enough each day she would avoid the moments before sleep when the past creeps around the corner of your mind.
I knew as much about the world outside the ranch as I might have known about a ridge across a strange valley. My knowledge was based on pure imagination. Until one afternoon, when the world outside came into sharper focus.
I was sitting at our long supper table reading a comic book version of the Book of Jeremiah. My father had built the supper table himself from a great white ash befallen by lightning. The table smelled faintly of burning if you put your nose to it.
Mama Bean was also at the table. It was hot for early autumn and she was knitting a sweater I figured was for me to wear when it turned winter. I figured everything was for me. I was seventeen years old. Her needles were clacking snappily and she was fuller of electricity than usual. She was saying something like this:
“Well, I’ll never get this finished, I’ll never get this done. Third time’s the charm, they say, but I’m sure I’m twisting each and every one of these stitches. I can’t tell what I’m doing wrong. I’m not very good at this, I never was. I don’t like it very much, I don’t find it very relaxing to be honest with you, junior. It’s not a relaxing way to pass the time. Everything I know about knitting sweaters I learned from Mama Frangie. I guess that means she’s not a very good teacher. Or maybe I’m not a very good student. It doesn’t need to be perfect, I know that. But we don’t get many chances to make a good, simple thing that serves a real, clear purpose—to keep a person warm, do you see? It’s called pride of craftsmanship, no matter whether you’re building a house or knitting a sweater. But what do you do if you’re just no dang good at the thing?”
I hoped my mother didn’t expect a response. My glass of chocolate milk was sweating so I swigged it down.
…and for the habitations of the wilderness a lamentation, because they are burned up, so that none can pass…
I stood and the glass slipped from my hand and exploded across the floor in all directions. Mama Bean slapped her needles on the table and halted her rambling and said, “Roger, godda—” before catching herself. I’d never heard anyone talk like that. I stared at her, frozen. It was a good thing she did catch herself because my father was just outside the back door and I’m certain he would have taken her to the barn as I had seen him take each of the other moms at one point or another. Mama Bean left the kitchen holding up her prairie dress, cotton bunched in her hands and swaying around her ankles.
I was picking up curved slices of glass with my fingertips when my father climbed the back steps into the kitchen. He took off his hat and placed it on the table next to Mama Bean’s needles. He wiped his bald head with a handkerchief and asked how I was doing. I said I was doing just fine, except that I broke a glass. He said that it was all right and that one of my sisters would finish cleaning up. Then he said he would like to discuss a few things with me and asked me to sit with him. He said I had been a man for a while now, and there were certain things I needed to know. Foremost, that it was time to take a wife. He had someone in mind. I told him that I accepted his providence with an open heart. He said I was a sweet boy.
Then, as if to get all the you’re-a-man-now conversations out of the way at once, he told me about taxes. I’d never heard of taxes. He told me about how the world outside the ranch used them to pay for roads and schools and such, and that the family was in trouble with them. I said I didn’t understand why we would be in trouble with taxes because we did everything at the ranch ourselves and we didn’t need no help. He said he felt the same way but it didn’t matter how he and I felt. He asked me if I felt prepared, if called upon, inside and in my spirit, to resist. I told him that with providence there was no need to be afraid. He called me brave.
Lillybeth and I were married by my father a week or so after I broke the glass. She had been a reclamation, living in one of the cabins behind the big house, which was where the blood family lived. She must have been twenty or so years old. I hadn’t formally met her before we were married, but I had seen her around, carrying buckets of slop for the pigs or putting up a new gutter on her cabin, or any other such thing that needed to happen for the ranch to keep going. I hadn’t thought particularly about her. She was just another reclamation before she became my wife.
My father presided over our ceremony in a parcel of pasture drenched in wild violet lupines. My sisters built an arbor, painted it white. Beneath the arbor there stood my father and me and Lillybeth. My sisters and the moms sat on pews brought out from the barn. Mama Bean kept whispering to Mama Frangie about something else, something other than my wedding, until my father gave her a look.
Lillybeth held a bouquet of jonquils. Their whites matched her dress, which had a long lace train that my father explained represented her long journey back to purity. I lifted her veil and saw her little pug nose, the coarse black hair that fell to her shoulders in tight curls. Our lips met. This much I knew to do.
So that we could have our privacy, Lillybeth and I were to live in a side-house, which my sisters had used for junk tool storage. My sisters spruced up the side-house, scrubbed it, put the junk tools in a corner of the barn. The side-house had a sink, a table, and a bed. “So you can have your privacy,” my father said, nodding, when he told me about it. I didn’t get what he meant at first because I knew we still had to use the toilet in the big house. Lillybeth knew, though, and she showed me.
Lillybeth seemed a nice, tender girl in many respects. She would capture houseflies under bowls and let them free outside. She would close curtains noiselessly at night. She had a lovely singing voice. Sometimes I would wake in the early morning while she was still asleep and she would look so small to me. In the red-dun dawn I felt the knee-jerk of deep affection. I could hardly believe she was a reclamation, that her life not long ago was full of needles and beatings.
That’s a guess. I don’t exactly know what Lillybeth’s life was like before she became my wife. She and I never talked about the past. There were too many beautiful days and nights to look forward to.
We see what we want to see. At the time it never occurred to me that perhaps Lillybeth had not wanted to marry me. After all, I was my father’s son. I was the son of the man who knew everything, and I had everything coming to me. What girl wouldn’t want me as her husband?
I think about it sometimes.
I couldn’t tell you the signs I missed, if they were there. If they were there, I couldn’t see them. Maybe her gaze out the window lasted a second too long when I brought up any length of time more than a few days on. Maybe there was a shimmy down her arm when I touched her. Maybe she looked at me like I was an idiot when I said I hoped she could deliver me a son straight away. Maybe. I don’t know. If it’s true I wasn’t the one she wanted to be with I couldn’t have known as much as a blind man can’t see his own nose. I just wonder. I can’t help myself now, years later, thinking of what could have been under better circumstances.
“We at war,” my father was saying.
Not long after Lillybeth and I were married my father called the family together in the barn after supper. I’d never seen him so red before. His wrinkles had become tributaries flooded with sweat. I thought he might have a heart attack. I stood, to see if he was feeling well enough to continue. He held up his hand, looked beyond the barn doors into the darkness, and stayed upright and fervent.
“Oh yes, children. Make no mistake. We at war, and the barbarians are at our gates and they will stop at nothing. They must know what our faith is made of. They must feel it. When you step on a hill of fire ants you are stung a thousand times, between your toes and underneath your foot so that you cannot walk. We must teach them. We much show them. If they intend to take what is ours by right, then we will not hesitate to respond in kind. This will be our glory. I have heard it. Oh yes, I have heard it. For those who suffer for the sake of righteousness, be not afraid of their terror.”
I had never felt terror, never seen it with my own eyes. How could I fear something I hadn’t seen? I kept that question to myself. It smacked of blasphemy. Yet it begat other questions and altogether they burst outward, big as a universe.
A steep hill and a long dirt road led up to the big house. The big house was painted white and had green shutters astride its windows. It was magnificent and huge, but my world within it was small. Off the kitchen I had my own room with just enough space for a bed I outgrew by the time I was thirteen. I didn’t care. I was the only one in the big house who could find solitude by simply closing a door.
I remember many mornings being awoken by Mama Bean starting in on breakfast. Big batches of fried eggs and pork and sweet loaves that were to be saved to eat after supper. I would wake but keep my eyes shut in gentle resistance to the new day and I would drift in and out of dreams while the rest of the moms and my older sisters trickled in and had conversations that I could understand but not comprehend because I was too young and sleepy. Sometimes I would creak my door open and try to tiptoe around without being seen, but Mama Bean would always catch me and say, “Well, look who’s up early!”
By competing creeds from my father and the tax assessor of Tenebril County, it came to pass that six rusty pickup trucks were perched in a semicircle atop our steep dirt road. I stood at the centerpoint of them. My sisters and reclamations were in the truck beds, wrapped in blankets. I would not join them. No others resisted what plainly seemed to me a most uncertain future at best.
“Come on, Roger,” Lillybeth said. She sat swinging her legs off the open tailgate of the middlemost truck. “You and me got a new life ahead. All of us do.”
“What’s the matter with the life we got?” I said.
My father leaned out the driver’s window of the truck Lillybeth was sitting in. He squinted from the sun behind me and he leveled his hand over his brow to see better.
“I said all in. That means you too. We got no more time. It’s your last chance.”
My knee began to bend, to walk and to join them. A reflex. I made my knee stop.
“Roger,” my father said, lowering his hand. His forehead relaxed and he looked at me with full, wide eyes like balls of black treacle cake iced with sun’s fire. Mama Bean sat next to him in the cab. The back of her head betrayed no movement. In the side mirror I could see only her cheek and sharp jaw. She was still, bound to the road ahead.
A moment later the trucks were off. They wound down the road and dropped one by one out of sight over a distant ridge I’d never seen the other side of. Then I was alone, covered in dirt and smarting all over from tiny stones that had kicked up like buckshot.
The dirt road pointed westward toward the ridge. The violet pasture where Lillybeth and I were married lay to the north, and to the south about a half-mile out there began a mixed weald of ash and hazel that ran parallel to and on over the ridge.
I stood there, suddenly alone. The back of my head became hot and I felt looked upon. I spun around but there was nothing save the big house. The hot feeling persisted at the back of my head and I spun again but the dirt road was all there was.
A wind came and prickled my arms. I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, no sweater. I knelt and sat cross-legged in the dirt, facing the structures of our land: the big house, the side-house that Lillybeth and I had shared, the reclamation cabins, and the barn. I noticed that these structures, unaccompanied by the tide of human noise, appeared flattened into the landscape, no more than a drawing on a thin sheet of paper. What were these constructions if they were not for my people anymore? I thought on this for a time. This land would take breaths that lasted eons.
The back of my head felt hot again and I twisted around. A pickup truck was coming over the ridge. Figures bounced in the truck’s bed. The truck was swallowed in a cloud of dirt when it skidded to a stop at the top of the road. I continued to sit, twisted. Out of this cloud a great lurching figure emerged. My father took my ear and made my entire self rise and walk. The callouses of his fingertips chaffed my ear and I went where he directed, callow and weak as I was compared to he who was no spring chicken but whose bone and sinew were still hard as onyx.
I sat in the truck bed with my three eldest sisters. No words were said to me. My father drove. The big house rumbled and shook as if overtaken by some distant earthquake. I put my hands over my face as the peak of the big house disappeared. The cab window slid open and my father pried at my hands until they came free, so that I would see all the things that were new to me.
I lay on a military cot in Homeroom 3 counting the ceiling’s pockmarked drop tiles. There were two hundred and twenty-five tiles, and five stuck-in pencils toward the rear of the room. Homeroom 3 had become a sort of personal detention space. I felt no movement to participate in my father’s sermons. I decided I’d rather count ceiling tiles. We were entering our third week occupying the Miller School.
I heard rejoicing outside my cell and so I creaked the door open. Through a narrow space there were my sisters in a circle holding hands and dancing as the bottoms of their dresses swung as pendula around their ankles. The moms and my father and Lillybeth stood outside the circle and clapped a simple beat. Lillybeth’s knees bounced softly in rhythm. She turned and saw me watching and started toward my cell.
“Let me in,” she said. I opened the door and she slipped inside. I sat at a desk in the front row and Lillybeth sat at a desk adjacent. I wondered what the children here learned.
“Roger, we’re close,” she said. “We’re so close I can feel it. I heard your father on the walkie-talkie. I know what’s going to happen. Oh, it was magnificent, the way he talked to them. He set his voice in gravel just the way he does and he said, ‘There’s only one way this is going to end.’ Just magnificent. He called them the negotiators, which is funny because we’re not negotiating. They took our sacred ground. ‘There’s nothing to negotiate,’ that’s what he said. He told them they could get their school back in one piece if they give our land back and say they won’t bother us no more. Simple! And he said if they ain’t gonna do that, then they already know how this is all gonna end.”
She interlaced her fingers and brought her palms together tightly and then she threw her arms out to a T until she couldn’t reach anymore.
“Where will we go after that?” I said. “Won’t they put us in jail?”
“Don’t be silly,” she said.
Lillybeth kissed me on the cheek. She flitted out of Homeroom 3 and re-joined the circle, clapping alongside my father. Mama Bean danced in the middle, kicking her ankles out from beneath her dress. Through the moving legs I caught flashes of red. I studied the spaces between the legs and within those spaces I saw gasoline canisters.
Homeroom 3 was in a relatively isolated corner of the Miller School. From its windows there was a short drop down to a grass yard and, about fifty yards straight out, there grew a thick wood of some type of tree I didn’t recognize. I hooked my finger around the lock of one of the windows and gently tried to move it. The lock opened easily. I tried the window pull and the window too opened easily. I sat on the sill and swung my leg outside, just to see what that would feel like.
I put my palms on the chipped paint of the sill. My face became hot. I expected to look up and see my father inches from my nose. Instead, there were my sisters and Mama Bean, still dancing. But my father had fully turned, and he was looking at me. I held the sill tightly to keep the pull of his gaze from drawing me back in.
He broke the spell first. He rounded the circle and took hold of one of the red canisters. He held the canister aloft and tipped it. He watched me all the while as he circled the dancers and spilled the contents of the canister, then dropped a flame from his fingertips. The flames increased but the dancing did not cease. These dancers were indifferent to their burning. They exulted as if in an open pasture on a spring day.
I fell to the grass and I ran and I didn’t look back for fear of turning to salt. I prayed to anything that the cops would not see me. I heard shouting, go-orders being given, and smelled the wisps of black smoke that would soon turn to clouds.
I burst into the woods where it was dark and mossy and fungal. My legs burned and my ankles ached. I jumped roots and my arms were opened by branches and briars. At last I fell to my backside and found myself interrupting the supper of a feral hog many times larger than the bacon pigs we’d had at the ranch. The hog raised its head in alarm. Its snout was caked with black loam. My chest heaved and so too did the ribs of the hog. The hog let out a guttural roar that in a single breath rose into a high scream. My chest swelled and I erupted with an ungodly cry of my own. The hog and I quieted as one. If a hog can shrug that’s what this hog seemed to do and it went along its way, sniffing. I remember looking up and seeing insistent shards of light way up high, a brilliant green and white lambence that broke the canopy of the tallest trees I’d ever seen.
Clark Merrefield works as writer and editor in Boston. He has a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. Published works include many news articles for a range of media outlets, and he has worked as an editor on three books. This is his first published work of fiction.