Tonight, Cy learns about bodies.
Jagged wound, sweet-smelling. Horses running, whisking their fat in airstream and sweat—this kind of sweet. From top rib to skull, a cut had opened his father to find the pinch in his spine. Cy had never seen stitches before, or had even imagined that skin can be sewn. He’s curious, but hesitant to be close to his father’s body lax in the recliner. Cy’s poised to aide his father if need be, set on the drooping couches’ edge. His mother washes dishes in the kitchen, humming. The heater makes the night wool-like, and dinner still lingers in the air.
Cy thinks of tomorrow: Before school, he’ll wake at 5 AM to feed the horses, chickens, and pig, Christmas, who he named when he was five. Their family didn’t get Christmas on Christmas, but Cy has always loved the holiday. Gifts and chocolate, pine needles browning potpourri and the scent of burning logs—the cozy feeling when the windows fog and night comes early.
December now, blue land. Sierra foothills, California, where his family has lived for generations. Cy will walk to the barn in the morning. He’ll pass ice-glazed oaks. Horizon breaking purple. Warmth spreading above his ribs, beating. The barn shining, and the horses sputtering in their coats, hungry. Animal breath shooting to reach him one hundred feet away. Breaking bales stirring heat further, sweating in his canvas jacket, a gift from his parents.
Flat-palmed, he’ll offer grain. His favorite part—the sensitive way the horses’ mouths sweep his skin. He’ll lean his forehead against Cricket’s flaxen one. He’ll feel the big skull, twitching blood.
For the chickens, pellets and potato skin thrown into their wooden house. Christmas sleeps in hay and cedar, kicking in dream. Cy will quietly ladle cornmeal into her trough.
He’ll wait for water to move through the frozen hose, and fill their drinking tubs. He’ll clean away stray hay, and pet the horses one more time. He’ll go back into the house and eat toast and drink milk. His mother will drive him to the bus stop. If the season were summer, he might see a tarantula cross asphalt. He might see a hawk nesting on a telephone pole. When the bus arrives, he’ll sit next to his friend and tell him about his father’s neck surgery. He’ll tell him how his father’s body was sewn.
Cy will go to class, 5th grade. Someone’s mother packed rice crispy treats for everyone. Red and green sprinkles. Pledge of allegiance. Sing-song recite the first twenty-five presidents. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe. Practice fractions. Continue to learn how to write a paragraph. Paragraphs answer questions or explain ideas, and most of the time, they are made with five sentences:
(1) Topic Sentence: one complete sentence that states the main idea of his paragraph.
(2) Body Sentences: three complete sentences that are details, or interesting parts, of his main idea.
(3) Conclusion: his teacher calls this the “clincher,” and he’s still figuring out what that means.
Cricket eats food in my hand. He has big teeth big everything. I am happy. He loves me. I think in his head he also has a heart.
While Cy is at school, his uncle will tend the ranch. This knowledge brings him peace, and he’ll feel proud to have helped by being the first hand out in the morning. He anticipates that his uncle will appreciate that Cy gave the animals fresh water, that he swept the barn floor.
Cy’s uncle is his father’s younger brother. His uncle is missing one arm elbow-down—ground off when cinched in a tractor tanker shaft. Cy hadn’t been born yet when the accident happened, but he’s heard the fragments many times: a limb is ripped with a crunch, blood flows like a sink. Crows erupting from fields of sulfur flowers. Uncle trips through readying the tanker which waters the Barbera grapes. He hulks a blade back into place and the machine wakes, goes to eating his sleeve and he said, I knew it was coming. Nothing to be done but become the thing happening.
His father moans.
Cy comes back from his thoughts and jumps from the couch, wide-eyed. He waits for his father to say what he needs. His mother is no longer humming. She probably knits in her sewing room. Sometimes Cy lies on her floor and practices reading or writing while she plots quilts. He writes stories for her, bank robberies or animal fables, which he reads aloud as she seams.
Turn on the music I like, his father says.
Cy puts his father’s favorite CD in the stereo. Classical piano that his grandmother played. Like water, the notes move. His father’s eyes roll back with pleasure. Cy’s great-grandmother learned to play from her mother, a woman who favored brooding notes, romanticism. When Cy’s father was very young, he often stayed with his grandmother while his parents harvested the grapes. She played piano every night, room a hot box of smoke, rising bread, tea stain. She took them to the forest from which they came. A cathedral of trees. His grandmother smoked cigarette after cigarette. If this isn’t worship, I don’t know what is. She played by candlelight, hands taut from black grape vinegar.
Cy is familiar with these fragments, too. His great-great-grandmother. Notes moving heavily in dark colors. Cy has grown up listening to Beethoven, Bach, Schubert. Music building air forward. Music is a ghost, his father would say. His grandmother said this. Her mother said this.
Minutes pass in the song. Cy sits back on the couch, sinks with a sleepy head.
The melody deepens, lulling the body into itself. Into blood movement.
A scream punctures the night.
His father’s mouth says, What?
Mom is hurt, Cy says.
His father cries out as Cy squeezes his arm. Cy recoils to a raw point as if he’s touched a hot stove. He sits against the couch, legs held against chest. Body aching with his heart.
He’d found his mother convulsing on the floor, tears bunching off her lips. Her stomach hurts her. His father too drugged to move.
Cy could use the telephone in the kitchen to call his uncle. He’s also been taught to dial 911. If there is an accident, if someone is hurt, if someone is doing a bad thing, he’s been told to call 911. Cy knows that if he does, an ambulance from the hospital and police will come to the house. They’ll fix the problem. And until this point, the concept of calling has been simple, doable in the unforeseeable instance. But now Cy feels nervous to talk to someone he doesn’t know on the phone. He can hear the questions collect, and himself silent, unsure how to answer. The sense of dread feels complicated, physical. He doesn’t even like talking to family when they call, awkward lapses of static, what to say, when to speak. He can’t bring himself to trust the action, despite cries begging for his help.
Heat mounts in his face, same as the heat when slicing bales. Sweat thick from his head, and a heavy tired lingers. Sleeping in the music, entering the forest of an older country where he imagines a piano in moonlight. His father would like that—a concert outdoors controling night’s sound.
New sounds: His mother cries. His father’s confused breathing. The piano lapping. The mounting movement is now like the horses, muscular and grand.
Cy strains his face up, stretches his neck and shoulders with intention.
His uncle could call 911 for him, but an issue remains that their ranch sits forty miles from the nearest hospital. Cy and his mother had made the journey that very day to pick up his father from post-surgery recovery. She’d braided her hair and worn lipstick. She had wanted to look nice for his father, her smile always shy even when she talked to Cy.
His mother didn’t like traveling far from the ranch, and she’d explained to Cy that they lived away from the big grocery store and the mall and she liked that. She liked living in a quiet place. She liked being able to see the stars. No light pollution. That is heaven. She liked waking and there are the animals and hills she’s always known. I like the earth, she’d said. Cy loved that he was like her in this way—private, favoring solitude.
She writhes on the tile, his mother. Body squished knees to head. Cy places his hand on her back, feels her seism, fighting herself.
Feels like my stomach blew up, she says.
She talks in piano notes. She tries to stand, but buckles.
He straightens spine to belly.
I’ll be right back, he says.
Get your father, she says. Or, tell him. Tell him what’s happening.
His father’s truck keys hang by the front door. He stands on tip-toes to reach. His father tucked into pain, somewhere in that forest, the dead playing for him. Cy feels the need to explain to someone what he’s doing: I’m going to Dr. Pruitt’s and I’m taking the truck.
His father’s eyes shine like he’s far away.
Cy feels himself more capable than ever before. The plan of action is taut in his chest. He throws on his jacket, slips on his boots, and opens the door to another world.
Black night, lit by fog.
The house sits on a slant. At the bottom of the incline is the barn where the animals sleep. Creaking porch, feet slide on baby ice. Steadying, hardens every muscle that he can summon. Above, the moon wears a halo.
Rarely has Cy been outdoors alone at night. He’s overwhelmed with the demeanor, a quiet more secretive than peaceful. The truck is parked outside the barn beneath a giant live oak, its arms disappearing into sky.
The ranch was founded in 1885 by his father’s side of the family. Cy has heard many stories about the property which he internalizes with pride. The land has long known him through people related to him. The land may love him the way he loves it.
Grass crunches under his boots. Air rings at a low pitch which Cy feels in his eyes. He walks carefully down the hill. Approaching the truck, he hears the horses sleeping, heaving giant lungs. He feels the inert animals, minds full in sleep—suddenly strange to Cy that they would dream of anything. Downy visions muscling through grass. Land picked up in their hooves and carried, galloping. Sky turning in circles day to night.
The driver’s side door is stuck with ice, so he throws all his weight into opening it. Inside the cabin, he can still see his breath. He’s driven on the property twice before, but his father had both times been beside him to instruct. He fumbles the keys, aware of how loud the sound of his own body is, his twisting wrist and breathing and tapping foot.
Dr. Pruitt, retired, lives ten minutes down the dirt road. For years, he’s been a family friend, joining them for church or Friday night dinners. He’s always been kind to Cy, teaching him the names of bones and explaining how light is many colors moving so quickly that it makes everything that he sees. Cricket, rain, mom, dad. Cy knows that the doctor will help him.
He peers at live oak in front of the truck. Like the house’s walls, the tree has known his family. Its body rooted deep. It’s seen many people pass.
In her final years, his grandmother, the piano player, had fallen into the habit of telling him every story in her head. She lived with them for two years. Long days of summer, Cy passing her room back and forth in game. He was imagining a rodeo, or that he was a soldier. And one day she beckoned him in, said that she liked his imagination.
Let’s trade stories, she’d said.
Cy had understood that if his parents heard their exchanges, they would have been upset. His grandmother’s stories were often strange, sometimes frightening. But his grandmother told them with such sincerity that Cy couldn’t stop listening. Her voice wrapped in longing, and so Cy longed for these people too, his dead family members, longed for a world where he’d known them all, and where his grandmother had never lost them.
The story he thinks of now:
Alma, his father’s great aunt, never married. She was quiet woman who liked her privacy in nature. Body wide to sun, combing the land on solo walks. Collecting limestone slivers and snakeskins. Alma picked bouquets of yarrow and hung them to dry in her room, now Cy’s bedroom.
There came a time when Alma’s oldest brother arranged marriage for her. The man was older, and eager to marry. His grandmother never told Cy what happened exactly, but that the marriage ended before it began, and that the man did a terrible thing.
Shortly after, Alma grew sick in 1915, years before penicillin was available to her. Cy learned that penicillin is medicine that keeps people from dying. The skin on Alma’s face began to rot like the flesh of bad food. Alma’s forehead peeled. Pock marks appeared as if a nail were hammered in and torn out. She grew translucent. Over time, her upper lip shriveled. She went blind. Her thoughts went away, too.
One late afternoon not long before Alma passed, Cy’s grandmother entered Alma’s room. She was just a girl, and as she opened the door, her breath caught. The walls covered in bouquets of white yarrow, floor to ceiling. As the sun flooded in, the flowers acted as bulbs, auras burning glow.
Seems as though hours have passed when Cy finally turns the truck ignition to life. He imagines Alma hovering near the oak, faceless, so he leans his head against the steering wheel. The hardest part has yet to come.
Cy clutches his knees, hands sore. He lets go. Blood surges through his head.
Squinting, he finds a person in the truck headlights who hadn’t been there seconds before. It takes a moment, but he then recognizes Dr. Pruitt.
How did the doctor get here? Had Cy’s father called him? Dr. Pruitt stares at Cy through the windshield and smiles. The man wears a tweed coat and a scarf, his skin white in the light, eyes reflectors. He walks to the passenger’s side and opens the door.
Cy wonders why his knees are damp. He doesn’t remember mud, but there it is in the creases of his palm.
The doctor takes Cy’s hand.
Why are you here? Cy asks, stepping from the truck.
The doctor looks down at him.
For your mother.
But how did you know?
The doctor smiles again.
I tell you what though, your parents have got a hero for a son.
Cy follows Dr. Pruitt to the house. The walk is different; Cy walks on a set, or a memory. He remembers this path, treaded every day, but has he ever done it like this? Out-of-body. His parents somehow unreal. Dr. Pruitt, an apparition.
Inside the house, piano notes pronounced yet peripheral like wallpaper. His father is awake with fresh tears.
Dr. Pruitt goes straight to the bathroom where Cy’s mother is moaning, and Cy follows feeling dazed.
The doctor rolls his mother onto her back, holds her neck and presses into her stomach with his fingers. She yells out.
It’s a ruptured ovarian cyst, the doctor says. Breathe with me.
Her chest in unison with the doctor’s.
I called the ambulance when Cy came for me.
Cy searches his mind. At a point between now and turning on the engine, Cy lost the moment. He lost the drive from one point to another. His mind has folded it when he didn’t know minds could do that.
His mother begins to vomit, force turning her red.
The doctor pulls her hair back.
And as when listening his grandmother’s stories, Cy can’t pull away. He can’t stop watching. He wonders if he could be the exception, the one who never dies, who never feels pain such as this. Somewhere in this house, he wonders if he could stay protected forever. The house as large as a town. He can almost see his younger self at his grandmother’s feet in the room across the hall, craving the most frightening ideas.
Last spring, Cy rides with his parents. The hills are still green, before the stretch of yellow earth arrives with summer. Air supple in rain. Everything sparked: clouds, muscles, his throat taking in dampness.
Cy rides Cricket, his mother rides Bee, and his father rides Oreo. Cy is ahead, breeze made into wind by his speed, lifting him. His parents trail behind, both their faces pink. Cy heads for a neighboring orchard. The landowners never mind when his family rides through, and even allow them to pick an apple for the horses. As Cy rides, his hand hovers on Cricket’s neck, blood hot.
He enters lines of trees. Steadying Cricket, wind dies in his ears and rain is magnified, tapping leaves. He picks a couple apples. The vinegar odor of his body mingles with Cricket’s bready scent, all warm around him.
Before dismounting to feed Cricket, he bites into his own apple. Torso leaning back in the saddle, hips stretched. Water wanders down his face. He hears his parents enter the orchard, weaving through the trees, but not heading straight for him. They’re seeking the perfect apple, or enjoying a moment of solitude. Cy takes big bites of his fruit, juice squeezing his jaw.
His parents haven’t ridden up to him yet. At the thought, time physically, entering his body, just when he notices it had been missing
He rides through the identical lines. His parents do not return his calls, and so he rides back toward their property. When he reaches the open field, he sees that his parents are stationary and talking on their horses. He rides over and asks why they didn’t join him with their apples, and they say they hadn’t gone into the orchard. They say that his father’s back had begun to pinch, as it had been doing for years, and they had stopped until the pressure passed. Cy insists that he heard them ride through the trees, but his mom shakes her head.
It’s only because you were expecting us to, my love.
For weeks after, Cy thought about the clear sound of his parent’s horses. He was sure he had sensed their movement around him, same as when he’s in the living room and feels his mother in the kitchen baking or his father resting on the bed. When he can close his eyes and see exactly what they’re doing, movement for movement, palpable. There they are, near to him, the planets in his orbit.
Sometimes stuff I think turns into a real thing. Skin is fixed like shirts. Mom likes the earth because our family lives in it. I like their music. I think I love the dead things.
Cy stands beside his father’s still body. The house no longer smells of cooking, but his father’s ill moisture and ointment.
The piano has become permanent.
Rifts, transitions on cue with the heart, makes the hour into which they move deeper. The sound feels like looking at his father’s cut. Feels like the sore growth inside his mother.
The ambulance had come. Dr. Pruitt accompanied Cy’s mother to the hospital. The paramedics had said that she would be fine, and that when an ovarian cyst ruptures, the pain seems unbearable.
His father says, You did good tonight. Tell me, what was it like driving by yourself? Was it easy?
Cy stares at the ground. He tries very hard to remember that the drive happened. His damp pants and dirty hands.
He remembers that he had walked to the truck and that it had been cold outside. He heard the horses sleeping. He had imagined them snug in hay. Or maybe they were standing as they sometimes did, unconscious, things from a dream.
He’d struggled with the keys, but eventually had been able to steady his hand. He’d turned on the engine, a roar. Car in reverse, R, inching back, foot dusting the break. D for ‘Drive’. The truck making steam, rolling down the driveway in slow motion.
Dense fog. He’d pushed onward, accelerating for his mother.
The memory begins to open: truck crawling down the muddy road, ice crystals catching headlights. A shadow moves through the fog, running inhumanely fast. A thing made of speed, not a physical being. He thinks of the the orchard ghosts. Alma, her yawning eyes. A weight bumps the truck bed, and a hard whine cuts over the motor’s rumble. Cy slams the breaks, hands mid-air trembling.
The weight hits the truck again, and Cy looks in the rearview mirror to find red break-light. The bump again, this time at the truck’s head, and he doesn’t think. He just hits the gas.
I think I killed it.
His father looks at him without expression.
There was an animal. A colt.
Cy kneels before his father’s chair. He wishes he could hug him. Cy wraps his hands around his father’s ankles and cries.
Earlier, when Cy got out of the truck, the colt was trying to stand up. It’s back legs were crushed, shining like his father’s scar. To hear its cry felt like being out of breath.
He tried to pet its neck, but it bucked its head at him. Eyes naked with fear. Cy looked away. The fields, the oak groves, the streams where cattle grazed—all would come for the colt. All would take the body into itself. Cy felt deep shame, and a sadness like he’d never known. With all of his heart, he did not want to hear an animal so god-like crying. To Cy, the night was at the end of the world.
But his mother needed him to fetch the doctor. He could barely drag the body from the road, let alone lift it into the truck bed. He had to leave the animal behind.
More than anything else, the colt’s weight had frightened him. Something so large left unmoving. Cy took a handful of bloody mud and stuck it in his pocket.
When I grow up I will have horses. They will have a lot of room. Mom and dad are dead because I am old then. Sometimes I look at their bedroom and I miss them. Sometimes they are still there.
His father asks him to feed the horses in the morning.
Cy releases his grasp on his father’s ankles. Wiping his eyes, he’s never felt so tired.
He says, That’s my job, dad. I love my job.
His father suggests that he bring the horses carrots. The bag of raisons.
Cy nods—he likes the idea. He’ll bring the horses treats. He’ll wake earlier so that he can spend more time with them. He’ll walk down the hill in his jacket and boots and he’ll break hay.
He rests his hand on top of his father’s.
Cy will go to sleep so that he can wake early. He’ll spend the morning with the animals in their home. Barn’s cold wood fresh as the new day. Mist graceful through slats. He’ll listen to the animal hearts. He’ll ask the horses questions about their lives. He’ll listen to their answers, and he’ll consider carefully when they ask questions in return. Every morning for the rest of his life, he’ll go to feed them. He’ll fall in with their rhythm, their imploring weight, big breaths. He’ll hum to them. He’ll sing. He’ll search his mind, day in and day out, for the best way to break the truth.
Kayla Eason is a writer and photographer based in San Diego, CA. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction, from San Francisco State University. Her work has appeared in Shirley Magazine, Dream Pop Press, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Vagabond City Literary Journal, and elsewhere. Visit her at kaylaeason.com.