In the days leading up to my birthday, I took it upon myself to catch and exterminate the diseased farm cats. Mr. Smith’s farmhands generally drowned them in sacks, and we’d find the cats down in the ponds and caught up among river stones. Rock River ran the western length of Smith Hollow’s fields and forests, and to prevent the river from spoiling Ma agreed I should put the cats out on my own terms.
“And happy birthday, Alice,” she said, and hugged me tight so I could feel her belly pressing me.
“Aren’t you gonna wish your brother a happy birthday?”
I pressed my hand to Ma’s pregnant belly. I’ve got long, thin fingers—piano fingers Ma calls them—and they looked stubby on her wide stomach. She was ripe enough I could almost believe she was due today.
“Happy birthday, Jonathan,” I said.
This particular year Ma held our birthday in extreme regard: it was the final Silvius family birthday before the 20th century swept in and also the summer solstice. Ma reckoned this doubling a magic boon—not coincidence but fate—and proclaimed our seventeenth birthday to be the most important yet.
She made us a breakfast of pancakes, bacon, and eggs. We finished it all, even though I barely ate a quarter of the meal.
“Jonathan must be hungry today,” said Ma as we cleaned up.
Afterwards, I went to the barn and found the black cat with blue spangled eyes and the lurching step—both signs of brain rot. I enticed it with an anchovy, and as the cat ate I wrang its neck. I carried it to the pit where I buried the cats. I could feel kittens in its stomach, and, checking over my shoulder to make sure Ma didn’t see, let myself cry a little bit.
Crying felt good. I hadn’t been able to in a few months, what with Ma working me to the bone since she caught me with Elsa Thayer. If I’d been caught with Elsa’s eldest brother Eli, even six or seven years ago, Ma would’ve pinned a ribbon to my dress.
Those kittens felt like spongy little stones in that mama cat’s body. It was quite a thing. I’d never really thought before how every animal litter was a whole nest of twins. They shared the womb, didn’t they? Just like Jonathan and I had.
When my melancholy passed I covered the cat pit with a log rounds and pine branches to keep the stench down. Today was a day to look forward to, what with the birthday tribute this afternoon. And breakfast had been a good start, especially considering Ma hadn’t cooked with such grandeur since Elsa Thayer. And though my birthday was no huge cause for celebration, Jonathan’s was. Ma was convinced that Jonathan eventually would be born and that it stood to reason he would be born on his birthday.
But, walking back to the house, I had the horrible thought of those womb kittens still alive and birthing right there in the pit. Mewling for their mother amid the corpses of their kin.
Due to the occasion, my day was hectic. On top of the normal chores and the cats, I prepared the barn and lawn for the tribute. I strung streamers among the barn rafters and opened the smoke hatch while I was up there. Then I collected new rocks, swept the hay, and arranged three bales as a bench.
I ran rope from the barn doors to stakes in the lawn. This, said Ma, was so the people didn’t mill about like cattle and trample the grass.
Which was funny, since Ma’s people generally acted meek as mice while they waited for an audience.
Ma was well known around Hamilton County. Most days, wandering souls waited on the porch for an audience with her. People said she could tell you the future, or the past, or what was happening this moment, half a world away. They whispered that she received her Second Sight from the baby living in her belly. I knew this because whenever I went into town, the old men and ladies stopped me either to ask about Ma or warn me about her devilry. “Save yourself, girl,” they would say. Or, “Can she help me?”
And sometimes the young men would say, “If you need to be in a way to be a witch, how about I help put you there?”
I did not much like going to town. But I couldn’t help wonder what Ma was really doing for these people when they came by. Half the time, they came running out of the house after a minute or two. I’d never sat in before. Having another presence in the room mucked with the flow of things— according to Ma. Truth be told, I suspect she does not like having me.
Which, of course, will change when she sees what I’ve done with the cats.
The line from the barn began to form around ten even though everyone knew Ma didn’t take callers before noon. Families came first. Children held chickens by the ankle—some dripping and others fluttering about. The Braggs led a piglet collared in woven grass. I imagine they came with a gift so extravagant due to Ma allowing that youngest Bragg odd jobs around our edge of Smith’s property.
After the families came those people whose families were left home, lied to, or did not exist. Their gifts were more varied: a bushel of strawberries, broken whitetail antlers, a puppy half torn by the coyotes, even some firearms from the Great Rebellion.
I didn’t recognize the man with the rifles. He was short and one of the rifles was all but his size, though he held it very easily under his arm, as I might hold a rake or hoe. I wondered what this rifle was named. Was this the model of gun that killed Uncle Marcus? Ma said it was okay for us to call Uncle Marcus “father,” but I couldn’t get used to it, never having known the man.
Uncle Marcus died thirteen years before I was born. To hear Ma tell it, Uncle Marcus came back from the dead and traveled north. The journey took him some time, but he finally showed up one night in Ma’s bedroom. And then Ma would laugh and say she couldn’t go into this part too much— or at least she used to laugh, before Elsa, and now I imagine she would strike me— only that afterward Uncle Marcus disappeared into a ray of moonlight. And that, as she tried to fall asleep, she could feel two tiny people growing inside her.
I was born a year later. Three months over, meaning I came out stronger and with more spirit. Ma often wondered what sort of spirit Jonathan might be born with. Often in these grand imaginings, I would see a distinct love in Ma’s face. I knew she loved Jonathan most.
By noon, Ma’s flock stretched all the way back to the farmhouse, well past my rope-run. People eyed one another. I walked to the front of the line and hauled the door open. The line surged forward but I slipped into the barn and closed the door behind me. Ma sat on the hay bale bench as a queen would sit on her throne. Her belly sprouted massively. I fancied that if Jonathan kicked I’d see a tiny foot right through the nightgown she wore, taut only around her stomach.
The firepit waited pregnantly before her. When dusk fell and her parishioners dwindled to none, I would light the fire and present her my cats. A gift that would outshine any of the paltry offerings outside.
“Shall I let them in, Ma?” I asked.
Ma nodded. “And you come sit down here next to me,” she said and motioned to the hay-strewn dirt at her feet.
I unlocked the door and told myself that I was debased sitting so lowly next to her. But I have to admit a certain pride in the proceedings. Even lower than Ma, this devotion was now partly my own.
Ma reacted identically to each gift: with a solemn nod and the briefest touch on the parishioner's forehead with the back of her fingers. It was a kind gesture. Loving, even. Watching her repeat it began to turn my lip. This was the same hand, after all, that once broke the Bragg boy’s arm so badly Mr. Smith had to use stucco to set it immobile.
Ma organized the gifts into piles. In fact, I was one of these piles. By the end, I was walled in by hemp stalks, corn stalks, and stacked gourds. On Ma’s other side was a greasy pile of varmint corpses, deer antlers, and snakeskins.
Finally, the line dwindled. No light shined through the slats in the barn. Nobody else came through the barn door. I began to sort the gifts in order to make my way free of them.
Ma had the Bragg boy tipping well water into her mouth from a ladle. “Get rid of this hay, boy,” she said. Then to me: “And don’t you have a gift for your brother, Alice?”
I left the barn with a spade shovel and a wheelbarrow.
For a few minutes, I worked to uncover the cats from the lye and the dirt. I had them buried in a copse of trees down the lane, in the same place where I’d buried our old farm dog, Wing, after he’d been run down by a carriage. I’d found him huffing in the grass and Ma had me throttle him out.
I took care to put the mother cat on top. God must’ve read my thoughts this morning because not one of those kittens had been born.
I threw a white sheet over the wheelbarrow.
When I re-entered the barn, Ma was waiting on her hay throne. I wheeled the barrow near the bonfire and set to lighting the fire. I did not disturb the white linen. The Bragg boy came back into the barn leading a mule. The mule began to eat scattered hay. As the mule munched, the Bragg boy bent over, and for a moment I thought he meant to eat too. Instead he took a pick to the mule’s hooves. Without preamble, the mule kicked back and caught the Bragg boy in the head. The pick spun end over end into the hay and the Bragg boy flew almost as far.
I ran to him. His nose bled and so did the soft spot on his temple where the hoof had connected.
“Mor?” he said. Froth spilled from his mouth. “Mor?”
The mule munched hay. I didn’t even know the boy’s name. Or at least I couldn’t remember. I must’ve known at some point. I stroked his brow and blood stuck to my hand. Ma was sitting forward on her throne, peering around that belly.
“You’d better fetch Mr. Smith,” she said. “He could perhaps do some doctoring.”
I could not make out her expression as she said this and I didn’t want to. She tended to have a bloodthirsty bent. I was not enthused to leave the boy alone, but when Ma spoke I jumped. It’s funny, I think, how pleasing someone can become so cowardly.
Mr. Smith lived two miles up the road, but I am a strong runner. I took off from the barn door, loosed my jaw, shook my legs on the hoof. Let the burn creep into my lungs. Next thing I knew I was coming up on Smith’s farmhouse. Like most of my good runs. it felt like I’d gone to sleep and woken up there.
Mr. Smith himself was chopping wood beside his woodshop. I gasped nonsense to him as I ran up, out of breath, but the tenor of my voice must have alerted him to the gravity. He threw down his ax and hobbled over to his grand carriage.
The carriage was all cherry wood and black leather, with a shining gold-handled whip stuck like a fishing pole between the seat cushions. The seat was plush and I’d bet my life it was filled with something softer than hay. Maybe ewe down or cotton.
The rumor was that Mr. Smith made a fortune during the Great Rebellion. This accounted for the many acres of Smith Hollow. Enough land that Mr. Smith employed our family, as well as the Braggs and Thayers, to work the land.
Mr. Smith already had one horse hitched by the time I ran up. He was a huge man. Though elderly, his shoulders were broad, and he stood almost as the Percherons.
We did not speak while he hitched up the other beast. Despite the predicament, I was excited for the ride. Many times I’d seen those Percherons pulling this sled like it was nothing. But the ride back took much longer than the run there. At least that was how it felt waiting on that carriage seat. For an eternity I watched the Percheron’s haunches plunge. Mr. Smith and I continued not to speak. He was known to be a quiet man, and also one who preferred not to have words spoken to him. Ma said this was also due to the Great Rebellion, on account of Uncle Marcus and Mr. Smith being brotherly during the war.
When we finally returned, the Bragg boy was sprawled in the dirt outside the barn. Ma was on her knees next to him with her head on his chest—listening to his heartbeat, I suppose. She’d drug him outside. The barn door was closed tight. It struck me that my head had rested on Elsa’s chest much the same way when Ma had found us. This recollection felt dirty—to remember Elsa with the boy scarecrow crumpled in the dirt.
Ma stepped back from the boy. She looked like she’d just been caught peeping Tom. Suddenly I dreaded the boy’s death. But I was immediately guilty for thinking Ma would do anything like that. She would never kill a boy.
Or rather, I amended, she’d never killed a boy such that I knew of. I couldn’t help but think of the way she’d watched me as I’d killed Wing.
In any case, the boy yet breathed, though a purple crown set on his brown and his left eye was knocked halfway around the other way.
Mr. Smith came down from the carriage and knelt by the boy. The barn loomed above them like a dark cave. Mr. Smith began to press the boy’s chest like a bellows. The boy bobbed about. His hands and feet flailed in time. When Mr. Smith stopped pumping so did all motion. Mr. Smith put two fingers on the boy’s neck and with his other hand he prodded the soft spot on the boy’s temple. Blood formed a halo behind the boy’s head.
“What’s his name,” I asked.
“Enoch,” said Ma.
“He’ll pass on in a few hours,” said Mr. Smith.
“We need to tell his mother,” I said before I knew I was speaking. Enoch was dying with his mother none the wiser. We three knew a foul secret that was not our business to know. His mother should be the one kneeling over him, not Ma, or Mr. Smith, or me who hadn’t even remembered his name.
Mr. Smith floated to his feet. He wasn’t looking at Enoch but at the barn. At the closed door, I thought. Finally, he said: “I’ll tell Mrs. Bragg.”
“We can prepare the body for her,” said Ma. “Bring her over in the morning. She won’t even be able to tell he got kicked.”
“Mor?” asked Enoch Bragg.
“Yes,” said Mr. Smith. He shuffled back to his carriage—now even older—and took his time mounting the steps. On his way home he circled the barn to get going the right direction. The Percherons thundered by, kicked up dirt that swirled away in the wind a moment before reaching us.
“Bring him in,” Ma said.
I took Enoch by the ankles and drug him over the threshold of the barn. Ma followed me inside.
Enoch’s mule was deep into a hay bale. My gift was linen covered and forgotten next to the firepit. Well, forgotten by Ma. She dogged me to haul faster. Though the boy wasn’t big, he sure was heavy. Ma had a hand on her belly and I could tell the excitement was making her weak.
“Why don’t you go sit down, Ma?”
She sat on her throne I lay Enoch by the fire next to all my cats—just to see if she would notice.
“I think I felt Jonathan kick,” Ma said. “What do you think, Alice? What would you do with him?”
I wasn’t sure if she was talking about Jonathan or Enoch. “Take him to the mortician rather than do it myself,” I said.
“Oh, Alice,” said Ma. In the dark, her belly seemed still darker than the rest of her.
“Hang him upside down from the rafters. We’ll bleed him.”
But I couldn’t keep my attention from the covered wheelbarrow. My gift. Beneath the sheet I envisioned the dead mother cat birthing a litter after all—stillborn but for a single kitten. And the kitten wouldn’t die, but live on her dead mother’s leftover milk until, strong enough, she would crawl from beneath the sheet and escape.
“We’ll collect the blood and freeze half for winter,” said Ma. “After you string him up, grab a milk pail and a few yards of wax paper.”
What was it like to be born under that sheet? I wondered. Right into the white void. Did it feel like a blindfold, or like blindness? And I realized I knew the answer: at first, a rag over your face was like a blindfold, but if you kept it there long enough you’d eventually go blind. My memories flashed awake like lightning behind haze, moments of clarity punching through time’s blur. I remembered suckling on my mother’s breast—the musk of her nipple and armpit, the sweet taste of her milk. I remembered looking into a white void. Too young, then, to know that after the feeding Mr. Smith would draw the rag from my face and the world would jump back to life. But I remembered all of this, now, the lightning overtaking the haze.
Ma would pass me off to him, averting her eyes, unable to stand looking at me, and Mr. Smith, much younger then, with arms covered in dark fur and hands big enough to cradle me whole, would walk me to my crib.
“Are you ill, dear?” Ma asked. I about jumped out of my skin at the sound. She was squatting, hand on the small of her back, to tie Enoch’s wrists with rope.
“I had a memory,” I said. I felt like I’d just woken up from a too-long nap.
“Oh Alice,” said Ma, “I have those sorts of memories, too.” She smiled and I could see her smile floating. “Now come over here and tie his other wrist. It isn’t all memories, you know.”
It isn’t all memories, you know, I thought. It isn’t all memories.
Before I could consider the decision for too long, I strode from the barn. I did not turn to see Ma standing before her throne of hay. I did not turn and see Enoch’s mule, or Enoch. I did not turn as Ma yelled to me—though I did begin to run.
I ran until I grew tired.
When I finally looked around, I did not recognize anything. I reckoned I was still on the farm but nowhere I’d ever been before. The world was varying shades of gray and black, with dashes of color in the wildflowers and the yellow stars reflecting them. I couldn’t see a single shade of white but the moon and stars, as if white linen floated behind the black shield of the night sky.
Out here I could imagine I’d come from anywhere.
I could see my way anywhere.
I ran on.
J.M.J. Brewer is a fiction writer from Wisconsin. He received his MFA from Oklahoma State University, and he is currently studying at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His work has appeared in F(r)iction. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.