After Momma got sick, Daddy didn’t act the same. He’d go off into their room and not come out for days. I was just thirteen at that time, but Daddy said I was big and needed to take care of things. I liked feelin’ responsible.
Back then, it was just me, Sarah-Beth, and baby Junie, and Junie wasn’t much more than nine months old. She still wanted the teat, but with Momma come sick and all since Junie was born, she had to suckle on one of the momma pigs we had left. We called her Kicker, cuz she would always try to kick baby Junie away when she would try to drink, but after a while Kicker got used to it and would show off her pink belly as soon as she saw Junie come round. Maybe even thought that Junie was her own piglet since Kicker’s litter was so small that year. Once, Sarah-Beth tried to drink some of Kicker’s milk too. She said it was sour, so I never had none of it.
We lived on a modest hog farm out in the middle of nowhere with a not much more than a winter barn for the pigs and a rickety house turned all grey from the sun. The ground wasn’t good for plowin’, but daddy had tried up until all the grass died out and the trees started to shrivel. We never saw nobody neither, but Daddy told us that there used to be a lot of people livin’ out that ways before we were born. Me and Sarah-Beth would run around the farm namin’ all the pigs and smacken’ ‘em into something fierce. They would howl and squeal. Daddy didn’t like that though. He took out his gun once.
When we started havin’ to take care of baby Junie, we would bring her into the pig pen too. She was too little to talk, but we would ask her to say their names.
“That one’s named Big Ed, Junie!” we said. “Can you say ‘Big Ed’?” we said. Sarah-Beth always tried to name one America, but I always told her that you can’t rightly name a pig something like that ‘less you’re just askin’ for someone to get confused. Then Sarah-Beth would oink like a sure hog, and we would fall in the mud and laugh our cheeks red. She looked just like Momma when she smiled, right down to the gums.
Most of the time life on the farm was pretty easy, I’d say. Every mornin’ at the crack of dawn me and Sarah-Beth would go down and put some more wood on the stove, so that the house would stay nice and warm. That’s the way Momma liked it, Daddy would say. We’d eat something small and watch the fire crackle in the potbelly, the hungry tongues lapping across the grain like a horse on a salt block. Then we would go get baby Junie and take her down to get her milk. She would always squint and grin up to her nose at the sun when we walked out. She would clap her hand on her belly and laugh when we played with her special arm. It was smaller than the other one and didn’t work to right neither. Even though Daddy had said that baby Junie didn’t have to drink milk no more, we would still take her to Kicker. It was fun to get her used to all the pigs since there weren’t much else to do, but Daddy insisted that we started givin’ her solid food. So, we’d soften up some bread in water and pop it into Junie’s mouth. I thought she wouldn’t be too happy with it, but she always ate her plate empty.
When we got done eatin’, we’d go out and water all the pigs from some old pump Daddy said his daddy had dug down. You’d have to wait for the mud clear from it before you put your bucket under or else you’d have to make more trips to get good drinkin’ water. That’s what I hated! Havin’ to walk back and forth between to the pump and the pig pen was always my least favorite part. After a while, the pump stopped givin’ so much water, though, and I didn’t have to walk so much. That was nice, but a couple of the pigs died. Sarah-Beth cried for a whole day.
Most of our chores were keepin’ care of the pigs. So, once that was done, me and Sarah-Beth could do whatever we wanted until dinner. I always liked playing inside and was good at convincin’ Sarah-Beth to play what I wanted.
“Go hide and I’ll count!” I’d say, and she would swing her little legs as fast as she could get away. One day, I thought I heard her go out the front door, and I had told her that was against the rules.
“Sarah-Beth,” I yelled, “you better not be cheatin’!” I heard a girl scream, and I had thought that maybe she had tripped or somethin’. So, I ran out to go find her.
I searched forever lookin’ for her: in the barn and in all the pens. Even though Daddy had told me not to, I started checkin’ around the woods. Just as I thought about giving up, I found another one of the pigs outside its pen. Somethin’ had cut into good. It didn’t have a head and all its insides were on the outside in a ring of innards around the corpse like a Christmas wreath around a ham. I went back in the house to tell Daddy, like he said I should. When I walked in, I saw Daddy carrying Sarah-Beth out of Momma’s room. She was bawlin’ and cryin’ her little eyes out, and Daddy gave her a several whoops on the face with an tattered boot for goin’ in there. He put her in the basement for a little while to learn her a lesson. I told Daddy about the pig when he got done lockin’ the door.
“‘Nother one of the pigs got out,” I told him.
“Yeah, somethin’ really got into it, Daddy. Pulled its insides all around.”
“It will be gone in the mornin’, honey, but thanks for tellin’ me. That’s why you’re my big girl.”
I loved Daddy back then, “How long is Sarah-Beth gonna be down there this time?”
“Long time. She never learned like you did, baby girl.”
“She just misses Mamma, I think.”
“We all miss Mamma.”
“Is she feelin’ any better, Daddy?”
“You know not to ask about Mamma, baby girl.”
There was another shriek comin’ from outside. Daddy sighed and unlocked the basement. “How about you get Junie?”
I didn’t like the basement. I learned Daddy’s lessons early, so I wouldn’t have to go down there.
“It’s dark down there, Daddy. Can’t I stay up here with you?”
I remember smellin’ somethin’ right foul come off his chest and from the cracked door to his room.
“Go get your sister,” he snapped. So I did, and me, Sarah-Beth, and baby Junie stayed in basement until Daddy said it was alright to come on back out. While we were down there I could hear Sarah-Beth still snifflin’ and whinin’.
“Why you gotta do stuff like that, Sarah Beth: stuff that Daddy tells you not to?”
“I saw Momma. She looked like a scarecrow.”
I really wanted to ask, not for me but for Junie. I was real worried that she would never get to know her mother, but Daddy said to never ask about Momma so that’s what I did. “That’s why Daddy licks ya’. He says you never learn your lessons.”
I could hear wipe her nose on her sundress,“Maybe.”
We heard more screaming from upstairs. Lasted for a couple of hours. There was always a lot of commotion when we went into the basement, and baby Junie started cryin’ up a storm. I had to tell Sarah-Beth not to hold the baby’s mouth shut cuz she couldn’t breathe. We didn’t like when Junie started cryin’ cuz it took her a long time to stop.
“She’s probably hungry,” I said.
I popped my finger in our baby’s mouth, and she pecked on it, tryin’ for some milk. “She thinks it’s Kicker,” I tried to tell Sarah-Beth, but she wasn’t paying attention. She walked along the wall, running her fingers against the shelves of mason jars. You couldn’t tell cuz of how dark it was, but Daddy kept a lot of preserves down there: fruit like canned pears and peaches and apples, some tomatoes and onions too. There were also stacks of tubs filled with beans and rice lining the walls, but mice had done chewed into a couple of those. The preserves were safe though, and sometimes I’d go into the basement, lookin’ at all their different colors and thinkin’ about what they tasted like. I liked knowing most of the jars were still full. When Daddy let us out of the basement, and it was already almost day time, and he said he could take care of our chores that day. When he tucked me into bed, he had already bandaged a couple wounds on his arms and hands.
“They hurt, Daddy?”
“Now don’t worry about that, baby. Did Sarah-Beth remember to latch the pen today?”
“Good. You got to keep an eye on her. She’s not careful like you are.”
Daddy didn’t tuck in Sarah-Beth that night. I’m not sure she would have wanted him to either. She always got really cold when Daddy beat her, and as soon as he left the room, she was up, lookin’ out the window.
“Daddy, will whoop you again if he sees you up.”
She didn’t say anything for a while, just standin’ with the morning sun on her face lookin’ real intent at somethin’. “I just had to know. ‘Cuz I saw what got to that pig last. It looked just like Momma.”
“Don’t tell lies, Sarah-Beth.”
“I know what I seen.”
Recently, she was always making up those kinds of stories. I went to sleep without sayin’ another word.
The next mornin’ I noticed that Junie didn’t look too good. She’d turned real pale and didn’t want to eat. I tried to ask Daddy what we should do, but he was in his room takin’ care of Momma and said that he was busy. All the chores were already done, and Sarah-Beth was still sore from the day before. She didn’t want to play. So me and baby Junie went for a walk, ‘cuz I thought that it might make her feel a little better to get some fresh air and see the pigs. We were walkin’ to the pen when Junie started cryin’, and she threw up.
“Its alright, June bug” I said, and I’d pat that poor angel on the back. She was as grey as a ghost, but we kept walkin’. Around the corner of the pen we could see into Daddy’s room; he left the window open that day probably so Momma could get some fresh air too. It was cool and a nice summer day for that kind of thing. Me and Junie could see Daddy doin’ something inside, and he’d pop in front of the window now and again. I’d point at him with Junie’s special hand and say, “There’s Daddy, Junie? What’s he doin’ Junie?” I’d tell her how hard of a worker Daddy was, and how him and Mamma used to dance in the kitchen before she got sick. I told her how Mamma used to make pie, how she would mush up the butter and flower in a bowl, how she would can her own fillings, how she always let me and Sarah-Beth lick the spoon when she got done smoothin’ out the fruit. I told her how Daddy said not to get into any of the cans, so Mamma would have somethin’ to bake with when she got better. Junie didn’t seem like she cared all that much though; she just closed her little blue eyes and went right to a nap.
There wasn’t much to do with the pigs since Junie was asleep so I went and got a blanket from the house and put it into one of the troughs to make a little crib. I laid her down and she looked just like baby Jesus from the picture books. A couple of the pigs came by and snorted at her real gentle like, and I was sure she’d feel straight as a maypole once she got a little rest.
Junie was such a sweet little pea, but Daddy didn’t seem to take to her that much. I always wondered why. She didn’t never do anything wrong, not like Sarah-Beth did. Once, I heard Daddy said that it was Junie’s fault for making Mamma sick. He said that Junie was a bad baby, but I didn’t believe that. I always thought that Mamma would be real proud of all of us once she got better, even Sarah-Beth.
I was kickin’ rocks into the woods, thinkin’ about all that stuff. Seemed like the forest got closer and closer each year, all those yellow trees bowin’ down towards the house. Sometimes in the spring they would have leaves the size of your hand, and Daddy used to put them in between the pages of a book and scratch ‘em up with a crayon. When he got done doin’ that with a bunch of ‘em, he’d put ‘em all up on the wall. “Trees used to look like that,” he’d say, “Used to be full of leaves and flowers.” I didn’t know what flowers looked like ‘cept what Daddy would draw up for me. He said the world wasn’t a place for beautiful things anymore, said that’s why me and Sarah-Beth couldn’t play in the woods.
“That where all the flowers went, Daddy? The woods?” I’d ask and he’d always say, “Somethin’ like that, baby girl.”
Just then, I heard Daddy yellin’ up something awful, and wouldn’t you believe it, Sarah-Beth done tried to get into Momma’s room again. I walked in the livin’ room just in time to see him lick her across the jaw. Daddy had her by the hair and opened up a dusty old Bible that he always kept on the coffee table. He pushed her face right down in the pages like you do with a dog when it has an accident in the house.
“God don’t like little girls who don’t obey, Sarah-Beth. Sends ‘em right to hell!” he hit her face on the Good Book so rough that the glass underneath cracked and splintered all over the tight knit rug below. “You wanna go to hell?”
Sarah-Beth was tryin’ not to step in any of the glass, “No, Daddy.” Her head was already bleeding.
“No? They used to kill girls with big ‘ol rocks when they were bad. Do you want that?”
He dragged her to the basement and threw her down the steps. I could hear her gasping for wind when she hit the bottom. Slamming the deadbolt shut, he spun around to me with a fire in his eyes, “What do I always say about Momma’s room?”
I could see a tooth on top of the broken bits of the table, “To not go in it.”
He nodded and stormed back to Momma’s and him’s room. Sarah-Beth had what was comin’ to her, but this time I didn’t feel so good about how Daddy handled things. I sat down on floor, careful not to cut myself, careful not to make a bigger mess, careful not to make a sound. People’s spittin’ and hollerin’ always turned me pretty sour, so I just stayed right there thinkin’ about things. The world just feels real small in those moments, those times when nothing’s makin’ a peep. I swear, that house got so quiet sometimes, you could hear the mice whisperin’ in the walls, and you’d wonder what they are talkin’ about. I don’t rightly think mice can talk, though.
I wanted my Momma back.
Things stayed nice and quiet like that all the way until sundown. Through the window, I could see the golden ribbons of twilight makin’ their way through the trees right to the house. They’d cast these longs fingers that clawed along the floor beams as they got closer to disappearin’, and for the first time in my life I kinda wished they’d take me away from the farm. I wasn’t too certain that there was anythin’ out there past the forest, though; Daddy said there used to be. I stuck out my toes, catchin’ the last bits of sun on their tips.
Sarah-Beth had been in the basement for a while, figured she would be there all night if Daddy wound up fallin’ asleep. So I tip toed over the glass and to the basement door where I could hear Sarah-Beth tappin’ her toes against the wood. Screwin’ open the deadbolt, I peeked my head in, and the door stopped on its hinges when it bumped into Sarah-Beth who was sittin’ on the steps.
“Better come out. Think Daddy’s done gone to sleep now.” I sat down beside her. Her cheeks were flushed from cryin’, and her bleedin’ mouth had gone and ruined her dress. “Why do you gotta do that? Do what Daddy tells you not to?”
“I had to know for sure. I saw Momma, Rosie,” she put a hand on my cheek. “Out in the woods.”
I got plum mad at that, “Stop with that!”
“I’m not lyin’! Momma ain’t in her room like Daddy says she is.”
“Liars go to hell, Sarah-Beth!”
“I can show you.”
Sarah-Beth shot up like a toad on a hot plate, draggin’ me along with her. Pieces of her hair were still all matted to her head. I didn’t want to follow; I knew I shouldn’t. Daddy had said not to look, and I knew that. I knew not to look, but Sarah-Beth took me outside, ‘round the corner and to the open window. We crouched under the windowsill. She pointed up and over, lookin’ like she was about to cry again. I shouldn’t have, but I did. I saw in the room. I saw Daddy sleepin in bed, sleepin’ with a pig in one of Momma’s old dresses. I didn’t want to see anymore, but I couldn’t stop starin’ ‘til Sarah-Beth yanked me down back under the window.
“Get down! You were only supposed to peak!” She started drummin’ her toes real nervous.
I was speechless and starting to shake. I could smell copper in my nose, and my head got whoosie, especially after we heard the screamin’ coming from the woods again. Sarah-Beth jumped at the sound. I didn’t. I felt like my body was full of dust, like I was about to float away. The pigs started squeelin’.
She grabbed me at the shoulders, “Where’s Junie?” I couldn’t remember. “Hey! Where is baby June?”
Another scream ripped through the air.
“Pig pen,” was all I could say, and Sarah-Beth started runnin’ with me by the hand again.
Gettin’ closer to the pen, we could see that some of the hogs were out, and the ones that weren’t, were tryin’ to climb there way over the fence. Even the nice ones, ones that I had named ran away from me when we got close, lookin’ at me like I was a jackal. I tried to pull my arm out of Sarah-Beth’s grip, so I could try to corral the spooked pigs, but she held me even tighter. She said we needed to worry about June first. I was worried about June. I was worried about the pigs too, and Sarah-Beth and all. I was worried about everyone and everything at that point. I was the responsible one. Whatever had gotten into the pen had managed to open the latch, but by the time we got there, it was gone. Some of the pigs were still crawlin’ over each other to get out, though. I went straight to the trough where I had laid our sister. The blanket was still there just as I left it, but June was gone. I stared in shock and disbelief, and I could see Sarah-Beth dartin’ her head back and forth from me to the empty manger.
“Where’s Junie?” she pleaded, an obvious lump building up in her throat.
We covered our ears at yet another scream, this time much closer. Closer than I’d ever heard before. It couldn’t have been any farther than the other side of the barn. Then, we heard another sound, another cry, and even in light of everythin’ else, it was the worst sound I had ever heard. Worse than the sound a pig makes the night before we find ‘em dead outside the pen. Worse than the wails that came from the woods and into our house when we are in the basement. It was Junie callin’ for help. She was whimperin’ real soft.
From the other side of the barn.
I didn’t need to think. If I had taken a moment to think, who knows what would have happened. I threw Sarah-Beth in the barn and followed after her, making sure to shut that old wooden door as soft as I could manage.
The barn was empty in the growing dark, with concrete floors carpeted with rotten hay for the pigs to sleep on when it got cold. The air was moist and claustrophobic, like a crypt. Holdin’ my breath, we listened as Junie’s little peeps made their way along the side of the barn, and I dared a look through two warped boards of the door. The pigs were frozen still, staring, hardly even breathing. I saw the arms first, caring baby June in hands with gray, gangly fingers laced like the brittle wicker of a basket. The whole boney mass screamed and moved on tip toes at the ends of its stilted legs, and its chest swelled and shrunk unevenly. Junie stopped cryin’ when she looked over at Kicker. It stopped cryin’ when it looked over at us. I couldn’t pull away from its gaze. It was draped in moth eaten rags, haplessly patched together, and on its head, in a nest of tangled strands of cobwebs that barely passed as hair, lay a crown on chained daisies. It reminded me of someone I used to know. Someone who used to kiss my head at night and tell me they loved me. Someone who didn’t snarl with teeth nesting in bleeding gums. Someone who looked like my sister. Someone who never used to scare me. We stayed like that for a long time, neither of us movin’ a single muscle. I thought at any minute, it would… Well I didn’t know what it would do to us, and I never figured out because after a while it just walked away. Walked away with baby Junie into the woods that was fillin’ up with the evening mist.
I choked back sobs as I fell to my knees. Sarah-Beth wrapped her arms around me, skin still taught with goose flesh and all, but I felt safe like that. We both cried real good once we started to hear the pigs snortin’ again. Our voices bounced off the walls and the tin roof back into our ears, filling the room with the bereavement that Junie deserved. She wasn’t coming back. We knew we’d never see our baby sister again. We stayed in the barn for hours, too terrified wander back into the night. When we ran out of tears, Sarah-Beth laid her head down on my lap, lookin’ at me like it was all a bad dream. “Did it get Junie?”
She drew up her dress to wipe her nose, “Bet that’s what got Dougie too.”
“Rose,” Sarah-Beth unveiled her dirty face from behind her dress, “was it, Momma?”
I said no, even though Daddy said liars went to hell.