I. From Father
We wanted to live our lives in dog years. Each day’s value was fifty-two times its normal worth, at least. Beauty and vigor and youth were ours, and it was splendor. Her afternoons were free and I would clear mine, wiping appointments from my work calendar as easily as I would wipe away the clutter and cloth from our dining room table before hoisting her there, breathing. Breathless. The only sounds were the flurries of inhalation and cotton rustling and the table’s creak. She and I both were firm then: our skin, her thighs, my hips. We promised to be together to see one another wrinkle and sag.
Soon our love was multiplied a countless fold by our own creation. You were perfect, more perfect than we had thought possible. On the first day you breathed, we lay together, sardined on the narrow bed with sanitized sheets. You slept. We counted your fingers and toes, kissing them all, wondering what might become of us now that we had this life depending on us. We drove slowly home the next day, caring nothing about the long line of cars behind us.
All ten fingers lengthened and grasped and eventually no longer needed our own fingers to hold on to. You were yourself and your own, more independent than she or I ever was. She called you her warrior.
She knew before either of us did that she was beyond protecting. She was wearing her blue dress, the one I bought her on our honeymoon, the one that dips just below her collarbone. Dipped. Outside the window, the tree caught her gaze. You were playing below it, make-believing with friends. Foreign words like “antigens” and “stage four” poured from her mouth, and I thought that if hopelessness had a sound, that would be it. Outside, you were climbing the juniper, your long limbs scrambling up the bark, its branches quivering as if it had heard her, too.
Cells aggregating and spreading forced us to consider every twenty-four hours once more. The difference, though, was the forcing. When time is forced, it slips through one’s fingers and falls away like her hair started to a few weeks into treatment. Even though the sun shone bright that day, she sat under the tree and cried. You, in your strange, young wisdom, said nothing but wrapped your thin arms around her shoulders.
January came and everything was barren. Her collection of scarves grew exponentially. I tried to make our bedroom a livable place, and you helped me fill it with all her favorite things: books, brightly colored pillows and rugs, music. At least two months had passed since she had lazed beneath her tree, newspaper in one hand, apple in the other. Now the weather had turned more foul and gray. Clouds rarely parted. Her smile, though, remained.
The length of that last year together had dragged and raced in equal measure. The new year did not feel new, and it was the first snowfall of winter that was memorable not only because it hadn’t snowed in fifteen years, but because it took her from us. We took turns, you and I—you, in your too-short jeans and down jacket, I in my button-down flannel flapping in the chill—to dig and place her dust beneath the juniper tree. That night, I woke to your shouts. Standing at the window, I saw your diminutive figure overshadowed by the hugeness of her grave. You were angry, and it was the first time I had heard you raise your voice to anyone or anything.
“Why can’t you breathe?!”
II. From Stepmother
It’s not like I had a choice. It would be ridiculous to suggest that I had a choice. Your father loved me first, you know. Truth be told, I didn’t think much of him when we first met. He started coming into my shop, kind of a mess. I suppose your mother had just died. But really, he should have cleaned himself up a bit, going outside like that. He ordered, we chatted, I helped the next customer. He came in the next day, and the next, always for a cup of coffee. Every time he came in, we’d chat a little more. He told me about you, he told me about his woodworking hobby. He told me about your mother. It was all in passing, though. He’d bring these things up openly, carelessly. He didn’t seem to care what anyone thought. But, you know, I really wonder. Why did he talk to me so much if he was so sad?
He told me so many little things. I don’t know why I paid him any attention, really. I’ve had many men more handsome. He was just another regular. Finally he started cleaning himself up, and maybe that’s when I noticed him. Yes, I think that must have been when it was. He cleans up real nice, your father. I asked why he was dressing so sharp now, and he said he had finally gone back to work. A big banker man, your dad is. He hadn’t seemed like it. He didn’t have the right arrogance, I thought. He had the wrong smile—too sweet, and just a bit too sad.
He offered to buy me coffee the next day and I told him I had all the coffee I wanted right there. He laughed and took me out to dinner instead. To a fancy place, I remember. I had never been there before. It was the kind of restaurant where there’s more than one fork at the place setting, and he wore his small smile the whole night. He made me laugh, your father. He wasn’t like the men I had been with before; he pulled the chair out for me, and asked how my day was. A real gentleman.
You remember the rest, of course. I came to meet you; your father had cooked a nice dinner. I even brought Marlene, still just a baby. You shook my hand, all angst and darkness, furrows riding your brow like Death on his horse. But then you sat next to Marlene at dinner and you made her laugh like I never could. She looked at you with warm eyes. It was the first time I saw you smile.
Years went by, you know. Your father was kind, and welcomed us. He kept his small smile, but the light behind his eyes did fade. Marlene was just fine. Fine with the wedding, the moving, the adjusting. You made it easy for her. She was your true sister, you always said. But I knew she wasn’t. She had been part of me before, and I knew what your father would give to Marlene would never be as much as he gave you. Yes, he tucked her into bed at night singing the same sweet lullaby he crooned to you sometimes when you thought I could not hear. But my gut told me he couldn’t be that good. What if something happened to me? Would he still tuck Marlene in at night and smile at her? Would she really have all she needed? What else was I supposed to do? Blood runs thicker. Doesn’t it?
I had thought about it before. Your father was at work. He always was working late, leaving home early, his smile getting smaller and smaller for me as the years went by. You sauntered in, having just arrived from school, and you wanted a snack. Our apples had just come in. I had spent all day before stocking up on the golden deliciousness, and you were there to ask for it. Of course, son, I said, of course, choose one. Here, I’ll even open up the trunk for you to have your pick of the sweetest, ripest one. Surprise danced in your eyes, and you forgot for a moment that I was not just the woman standing in place of your mother.
The trunk was deep and wide, an antique from my mother’s side of the family. My own mother was watching me then, I could feel her, invisible hands guiding my own to rest gently on top of the open trunk. The lid was unhinged, a wide jaw of wood and metal and you, rummaging in it, trusting. Yes, that one looks wonderful, and I pointed to the back. Your tall frame knelt and reached. Jaws clamped shut and your own mouth was stuck in a little frozen o, your last breath a grunt released while reaching for an apple.
III. From Marlene
I thought I saw you, your head on like my doll, the one you gave to me for my birthday. That doll, ‘member? The doll has a head on it, and a face and eyes that are not real. They looked like your eyes, though, because they stared at me and were blue. Your head was like my doll’s head because the neck had a black slice through it. ‘Member when I brushed her hair and it came off? And you fixed it? There was a red slice on your neck, too. I thought I saw it even though Mamma gave you a kerchief. You never wear kerchiefs. She is wrong a lot of the time.
You were sitting there and your eyes looked like my doll’s eyes and your neck looked like my doll’s neck but you were sitting. So I asked you for the apple and you didn’t say anything. You didn’t say yes or no, just nothing. You scared me, so I told on you to Mamma. Mamma said I should give you a slap if you didn’t answer me back, and I asked you for the apple but you still didn’t say yes or no, just nothing. You always were a good sharer, though, so I knew, I knew Mamma was wrong again. Remember when you shared the apples and we climbed the juniper tree? We climbed to the top and you said that sometimes you wished you were a bird that could fly to heaven and see your real Mamma? I remember. So I knew my Mamma was wrong again, but I still hit you. I was angry, but I don’t know why. The thing that happened to my doll when I brushed her hair too hard happened to you and I ran away. Mamma said it was my fault.
She slapped me on my face and told me to stop crying, but I cried anyway. I didn’t want her to slap me anymore, but I couldn’t stop. Mamma told me we had to change what I had done, but I knew she did it. I could tell by the hurry she made when she hugged you and put you on the kitchen table. She told me she had to make dinner now and to stop crying. She told me not to watch. I sat in the cupboards like when we played hide and seek. I sat there in the dark under the sink and I watched the silver go slice. Mamma made you bleed.
Papa came home. He smelled the stew that Mamma had made, and he gave me a big smile. He told me he thought Mamma had made something good for us tonight. But he asked where you were, and Mamma lied. He ate it all up, and when he asked why Mamma didn’t want any, she said she had a tummy ache, and when he asked why I was crying, she said I lost my doll. After dinner, when he went to his room, Mamma slapped my face again and told me to take my crying outside. A bucket full of you was under the table still and she made me drag it out before Papa came back for coffee. Instead, I ran upstairs and got my favorite scarf—the one I found in a box in the closet, the white one, silky smooth like a princess veil? I took you and my crying outside, just like Mamma told me to. Even though it was starting to get dark, the juniper tree didn’t scare me. The outside was quiet, and the stars were starting to come out. I wrapped you in my scarf, and kissed it like I’ve seen you kiss the presents you always leave for the tree. Dug a little hole, right there for you, and you went in. I wanted you to come back. My skirt clumped with dirt from burying you, but it was okay. I could stop crying. I could breathe.
IV. Goldsmith, Cobbler, Miller
Tuesday was normal for us. It started as all other days start. We rose early, ate breakfast with our wives, hurried out the door to work. The sun shone hot that day, but the sky was blue and we had our health. Much to be grateful for. Morning was slow— a few customers here and there, but nothing of note. Clients chatted, and in such a small town as this, gossip spread. Did you hear about the mayor and his secretary? one said, her mouth pursing with the words. What about the Baker kid running out of town? A wink, and out she went, order in hand.
We ate lunch, unraveling meat sandwiches from tin foil folds, wiping fruit juices from our prickly chins. Thirty minutes of rest, and then back to work. Pounding, shaping, until we were done, never resenting the fact that we were so few, that our trades were as old as we were. Afternoon shadows grew long and a song drifted through the windows. Its tune was simple, its melody lilting. A birdsong. Yes, a bird. But words drifted through our minds.
My mother, she killed me, oh!
My father, he ate me, no!
My sister, my sweet,
laid my bones at your feet,
bound in silk, how my beauty shines so!
Our eyes drifted through the glass to the branches of the tree outside—a bird, red like a fiery sky, plumes of grassy green and a golden throat, where the song had nestled deep—and we had to hear it again. The bird’s eyes looked through us, and we knew we had to give up what we had for him to share his enchanting song again. We lifted our offerings: a glittering golden strand, crimson slippers, a heavy mill stone. He repeated his hymn and flitted away, laden with these. It wasn’t until his departure did we realize we had all been holding our breath.
No one will believe what they see—a tree, its opening, he, who died in wooden jaws to be released from those of another sylvan thing. Trees are not meant to open and yawn, to birth birds from bones. To sing.
Red like the blood when he was born, the bird’s wings flapped until it settled, one foot and then the next, onto my branch. He repeated his ballad. She, the second who had shared his father’s bed, grew fearful. A dirge, her own, was the bird’s song in her ears. Worries of the world outside and lies of the son’s disappearance raced across her tongue to reach his father.
The father, who had made love at my base so many years before, stood sturdy outside the doorway and heard none of his wife’s babbling. Happiness lived in his cheeks. His exclamations of the warm air, the cinnamon scent on the breeze, the beautiful bird’s notes shook my leaves. A golden chain, a gift, settled onto the man’s neck and he rejoiced in the bird.
The sister’s tears fell fast and slippery, but she, being innocent, knew what might come. The girl—although bloodless, a sister in heart—emerged from the house, tears drying on her rosy face. From the branches the bird dropped a pair of shoes for her that glistened like rubies. The girl smiled and was calm.
The wife, oh, the wife. She rose, ranting, from their table to quell the truthful refrain, her curses rattling the windows. She then saw the gifts—the golden chain, the glittering slippers— and perked at what the others had received. Gingerly, aware of her guilt, she approached. The bird let loose his vengeance. Down fell the weight of the stone. Dust rose, and her body rested. Blood pooled at her skull, like his had at her hands.
No one will believe what they see—a tree, its opening, he, who died in wooden jaws to be released from those of another sylvan thing. Trees are not meant to open and yawn, to re-birth boys from birds. To breathe.
Sara Button has farmed in Italy, taught Latin in Arizona and made hostel beds in Ireland. Her work has appeared in places like Litro UK and BBC Travel, and she has an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. She now lives in California.