Bringing In The Sheaves
Ever since I was a little boy, the cornfields filled my nightmares with the sounds of rustling stalks, and the stench of something decomposing. I guess you could call it a recurring dream, the way the empty fields would fill my head with gentle hot winds and stinging scratches up and down my arms. I blame it on my younger brother, Billy—it was his fault after all. But I don’t hold onto that grudge. I see the girl, Margie, every once in awhile, hanging out in front of the 7-11 or maybe down by the bowling alley. Small town living doesn’t offer up many options, but back then she was one of them—today, less so.
Doesn’t really matter the name of our town, they’re all the same, dotted across the Midwest, filling up the middle of Illinois, long arteries of dust and despair stretching out in every direction. Bluford, Cairo, Dakota—we all worked the fields, tending to chickens, hogs, cows and the like. It was a lot of early morning chores and dark nights where we tried to kill ourselves one way or another.
My younger brother Billy, only three years my junior, he’d tag along whenever he could. Sometimes I needed somebody to shoot hoops with on the back of the barn, or to blame the broken window on, that’s how it went. He was always falling down, his simple skull filled with ideas, massive forehead constantly scratched and riddled with scabs. I didn’t treat him like a simpleton, but he was definitely slow. I’d hear a thud or a slam, something creaking or snapping in two, and I’d go running for the barn, running for the tractor that kept moving into the cornfield, with nobody on top of it, disappearing into the unforgiving folds. A tine of a pitchfork jammed through his meaty thigh, trying to fly out of the loft into a pile of hay below. An angry raccoon disappearing down the dirt road, unwilling to be his pet, Billy’s face and arms bleeding, his wide grin stretched taut over bones that knew no failure. One dead animal or another, cradled in his arms—a hen with a snapped neck, or field mice staged around a tiny table sipping at tea, a stiff cat swung around by its tail. He didn’t mean anything by it, just curious, I guess. We all are.
The girl lived down the road a bit. She was always dirty, constantly lifting her torn skirt over her head, showing off her dingy underwear to whoever would look. But she was sweet on me, sweet on Billy. Margie was a year ahead of me. She probably just wanted somewhere quiet to go where her daddy couldn’t touch her, where her mother couldn’t lay her dead eyes on Margie’s thin arms and pale skin. So we let her come over, after school, or in the summertime. We’d pal around with her down by the creek, looking for tadpoles, or frogs to put in jars, left out on a shelf where they’d dry up and leave our room stinking of something gone foul—rotten and thick.
When she asked us to tie her up, we thought she was joking. We were older now, sixth grade for me, about twelve, and Billy only nine. I had seen a filmstrip in class once, bad illustrations of flaccid penises, the scientific data going over my head, our stunned faces flush and embarrassed by the idea of a naked woman’s body, the idea of what we were supposed to do. It was dirty. And yet, it was spectacular.
We’d seen her underwear before, it wasn’t a big deal, and we weren’t interested in putting our tongues in her mouth. Gross. But we had nothing else to do, so we tied Margie to a post at the back of the barn, and turned to each other, mute, as she smiled in the dimly lit space. We ignored her for a bit, leaving her to squirm, to test the knots, moaning and grunting. She was our kidnapped ransom, so we went about the barn fortifying our defence, leaning broken broom handles against the wall, our weapons, gathering shovels and baseball bats, and a lone, rusty pitchfork, still stained with a bit of Billy’s blood.
Billy finally approached her and licked her face, from her chin to her eyebrow, and she giggled and turned her head away. He spit into the dirt.
“Salty,” he said.
He picked up a stick and started poking her, in the belly at first, and then he raised and lowered her faded skirt.
“Billy?” I asked.
He glanced at me, then back to Margie, a dirty grin easing across his face.
“What? She started this.”
Margie turned to look at me, her eyes tiny fragments of coal.
“Leave him alone, Rodney,” she said, “We’re just playing.”
“Yeah, Rodney,” my brother wheezed, bending over, and raising her skirt. “Let’s see what she’s got.”
I crossed my arms. I wanted to see too. I glanced to the house, and it was quiet, nobody in sight. Billy held her skirt up with the stick, as Margie smiled, and took his other hand and placed it between her legs.
“Nothin,” Billy said. “She ain’t got nothin.”
A car skidded into the yard and Billy let her skirt fall back down, and quickly untied her from the post. His face was splotchy and red, as was hers, but I was cold and pale, on the verge of throwing up.
“I better get home,” Margie said. “Almost dinner.”
She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, and skipped out of the barn, into the sunlight. I wiped my face, the sticky residue of strawberry bubblegum, Billy’s eyes on me, glassy and empty.
* * *
It was all Billy could talk about—Margie. All summer long. I didn’t see her again, not for a while, but he went looking for her whenever he could. He looked for her at the grocery store with mother, whenever we went for a ride with dad, fishing or off on some errand. He leaned out of the beat up Chevy Nova like a dog, his tongue flapping in the wind.
My father always ploughed a section of the back forty, a path out into the corn, with a patch of it cleared out, like his private sitting room. There wasn’t much in the space, just a rusty metal chair and a crate filled with empty beer bottles, a hole dug into the earth filled with cigarette butts and spent matches. I don’t blame my father for wanting this space, somewhere away from our mother, who had an endless list of things for him to do—broken latches and busted screens to fix, buckets of paint that needed to be emptied. As far as I know, he’d just sit out there in the dark, staring up at the stars, drinking and smoking, wishing to be someplace else. Anywhere else.
On the rare evenings when the two of them would go upstairs, turning the television set up loud, hand in hand as they climbed the stairs, all giggles and fists of flesh, Billy and I would head for the fields, to sit in his chair, and stare at the sky. It was as close as we’d get to the man, as close as he’d let us get. We’d find half smoked butts and smoke them, coughing and spitting onto the ground. We’d drink the warm remnants from the bottom of the bottles and cans, sweet and sour and forbidden.
When Billy started disappearing, this was the place I went. I often found him covered in blood. He wouldn’t say anything, just hold his palms up to me and grin. I’d take him back to the house and clean him up, hosing him down until he started to cry, and then I’d slap him until he shut up.
Margie started showing up again, and she and Billy would disappear into the barn. They had secrets now, would go quiet when I walked into the barn. We’d still take walks together, to the creek and into the woods, even out into the cornfields, lost and scratched by the sharp stalks and ears, hollering for each other, hiding, as we choked on the dust and the heat. Inevitably we’d end up in my father’s room, lying by the chair, the walls of corn around us a fortress against the rest of the world. I only saw them kiss once, but it made my stomach curl. He was too young, I thought, and even though he was my brother, he was clueless about Margie’s advances. I barely understood them myself.
I cornered Margie one afternoon and warned her off my brother. She put one hand on her hip and asked me if I wanted that attention, if her time spent with my brother was something I’d prefer she reserve for me? I told her she was crazy, but she wasn’t wrong. And on an afternoon when Billy wasn’t around, she and I ended up in the hayloft, our wet mouths on each other, my stomach in knots, telling myself this was what I needed to do in order to protect my brother, my hands on her dirty, sweaty body, our tongues a slick disaster.
* * *
Daddy had been on the road now for weeks. Business trip, local fair, something to do with the price of our harvest and subsidies, I didn’t understand it all. I knew that the house was quiet—that we were bored to death, and I knew that the bottle of whiskey that hid above the fridge was slowly emptying as our mother sat quiet at the kitchen table.
We siphoned off part of it, and replaced it with water, disappearing into the fields when she went to sleep. We choked it down as we lay in the darkness, waiting for something to happen. When I drifted off, his hands found my neck, his knees on my shoulders—the air in my lungs disappearing into the night. He’d found out about us, Margie and me, there was nothing else to explain it. He was stronger then I remembered, his eyes bulging in his head as his squeezed on my neck, showing no sign of letting up. I finally brought my knees up, banging him in the centre of his back, throwing him off of me, as air rushed back into my lungs.
“Damnit, Billy,” I choked. “She’s not worth it. You’re too young, anyway.”
“Fuck you,” he murmured, looking up from the ground, the darkness swallowing our sweat, our tension.
“She’s my girl,” Billy muttered. “Don’t touch her again.”
“You’d choose flesh over blood?” I asked. “She’s just some stupid whore from down the road.”
“Shut your mouth, Rodney.”
“I’m sure I’m not the only boy she’s kissing. I told you, she’s no good.”
Billy lay there.
“That’s for me to decide,” he said.
* * *
Daddy never did come back from that business trip. And that wasn’t a good thing. Billy wasn’t talking to me—a ghost that drifted about the property, chucking rocks at anything that moved. For three days we didn’t talk, until I walked past the barn and the stench of rotten meat engulfed me.
I’d let him have the barn, somewhere to go where he didn’t have to look at my face. In the middle of the sweltering barn lay a large metal bowl of cat food, dusted with white powder, and surrounding it was a ring of dead cats. Flies buzzed my face, their grey tongues protruding from their tiny still mouths.
I yelled for him, but he didn’t answer. I headed for the cornfields as sweat pushed out of every pore.
I found him standing over Margie, her arms tied behind her, sitting in the metal chair, buck naked and crying. Billy was holding a pocketknife in his hand, looming over her, poking her skin with the sharp blade. Her whimpers were lost on the wind, but her eyes bore into me.
“Billy,” I said. “Enough.”
He turned to me, his jaw clenched.
“We’re just playing,” he said. Margie shook her head back and forth, afraid to speak, and Billy backhanded her across the face.
“Stop it, Billy,” I said. “It’s over, let her go.”
“She came here,” he said. “She took off her own clothes, she sat in the chair. This is what she wants,” he whined.
“No, Billy, it isn’t. You’ve gone too far.”
“No, this is going too far,” he said, leaning over the girl. I started running to him, but I wasn’t fast enough. He put the blade under her left nipple, her breasts hardly anything at all. Her eyes went wide as his thumb held the tiny pink protuberance, and he sliced it clean off and flung it to the ground. She gasped, unable to scream, as blood ran down her pale skin. He looked up at me, smiling, and I was on him, and we were rolling to the ground, my fists beating about his head, the tiny blade stabbing my back, my arms, until I knocked it out of his hand. I beat him until he stopped moving, and then I stood up.
Margie was crying, snot running down her lip, blood pooling in her lap.
“It’s all right, it’s over,” I said.
I picked up the blade and walked to her, cutting the rope that bound her trembling flesh. I knelt down and held her as she sobbed into my shoulder. Straightening up, I held her face in my hands.
“Margie, don’t come back here. You hear?”
She nodded her head and quickly got dressed.
* * *
With daddy gone it didn’t take much for mother to drift away too. She’d picked up a job at the local diner, and we saw her less and less. Strange men came for the harvest, and we watched them descend on the farm like locust. Billy and I didn’t talk any more.
When the summer ended and a cool wind started to fill the space that used to be our family farm, I went to the barn in search of Billy, ready to bury the hatchet, to move on from the transgressions, to erase from our minds what had happened out there in the fields.
A shadow swung back and forth across the opening of the barn, the stiff bodies of the sacrificial cats long gone, but the rotten stench still remaining. I swallowed a lump in my throat and stared up at the rafters, at his still body, the rope around his neck, his purple face, and a stain of urine in the dirt below his dead body. I took a breath, exhaled, and lowered my head. It didn’t have to be this way.
Or maybe it did.