Ray pressed his palms flat against the dashboard as J.R. jerked the car to a stop just shy of the wooden crossing arm. A coal train shuddered past and rocked the car with its rhythm of steel on steel. The yellow cone of engine light pierced the blue morning air, spread across the hillside of pokeweed and nettle. Ray glanced over at his brother. J.R. drove too fast. He did everything too fast, too showy. Careless, their father would have said.
The red crossing light blinked through the snow encrusted window. Ray turned towards J.R. to comment on his driving, but thought better of it. No use saying anything. Since J.R. joined the Army and went off to Virginia Beach he couldn’t be told nothing. He looked different, his clothes ironed and his rotten tooth capped in silver. He even talked different, his voice all straightened out into that Virginia valley talk.
The last train car shivered by and disappeared behind the bend, following the river and Highway 64 out towards the piedmont.
“So last night Momma was talking to me,” J.R. said, pushing the stick shift into first as the wooden arm lifted, “about this idea she’s got of moving to Virginia. She said she tried to talk to you but you just fussed at her. She said she’s been waiting for me to come home on leave and talk some sense into you.”
J.R. drove the car up over the tracks and onto Riverview Avenue. Ray squirmed in his seat, turned so that his back faced his brother. He breathed hot air onto the glass and wiped it with his shirt. The car smelled of cigarettes and violet perfume. Ray’s momma hardly ever let him borrow the car, even with his new adult license. But all J.R. had to say was I wanna go deer hunting and Momma straight up handed over the keys.
“Ray,” J.R. said, “now she’s serious about this new plan of hers and there ain’t no reason for you to be fussing at her.”
The plan was nothing new. Ray could see she’d been plotting for a long time, pretty much since the day his Daddy died five years back in a quarry accident down in Frazier. A week after his death she started talking about how she couldn’t keep the farm going, even with two nearly full grown boys to help her. She started talking about how much she hated it up on the mountain, hated the cold and having to keep the woodstove going. Said it was lonely up there and the land was mean, hard and vengeful. She’d kept the farm but used his whole pension to move her and J.R. and Ray down off Muddy Creek Mountain and into a one bedroom apartment above the laundromat in Alderson. Now she wanted to sell the farm and move to Virginia Beach. It was nothing new. She’d just been waiting, waiting till J.R. established himself out there, waiting till Ray was almost done with high school.
“I promised her I’d talk some sense into you,” J.R. said.
“It ain’t sense she’s talking,” Ray mumbled.
J.R. pulled his cigarette lighter out and brought it up to meet the tip of his Pall Mall. “You come visit me in Virginia,” he said through the cigarette in his teeth, “you’ll see.”
They turned into the lane and J.R. slowed the car to a crawl. The path was choked full of multi-flora rose bush and greenbrier. They rounded a curve and the old farm house rose up before them, a two-story hulk of a structure covered in imitation yellow brick tarpaper with a hodge-podge of hastily constructed rooms tacked on. J.R. parked the car in the yard and stepped out, stretching his arms and wandering down towards the old chicken coop, overrun now with blackberry vines. Ray opened the car door but didn’t move.
“Man, I ain’t been up here in so long,” J.R. hollered, “must be two, three years now. I betcha theres some fat little deers up here, been munching in the apple orchard all fall.”
Ray came up to the old place as often as he could. He brought his girl Sheila about two weeks back. Told her how his great-granddaddy built the house in 1903. He led her inside and made a fire in the belly of the woodstove to chase out the cold that clung to the frame of the house. Bent close and careful over the fire, lighting first the twigs and paper and then coaxing them into a crackling heat that could sustain a larger log. His muscles relaxed and his mind focused as the yellow flames licked with the promise of warmth. Ray led Sheila upstairs to his parents’ old double bed and burrowed his hands through layers of sweaters and blue jeans to reach the soft mounds of her hips that dipped down into the warm nest of hair. Afterwards they lay under the mouse eaten blankets and stared out the window, but Sheila complained that it still felt cold. The gray-blue evening light stole across the frozen fields while the neighbors’ Herefords moved like patches of rust against the wind blown hillside, their breath billowing in great white clouds as they cried out for feed.
“It’s spooky in here,” Sheila had whispered. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Aw, shut up, you sound just like my momma,” Ray had said, brushing her black curls behind her little white ear.
“Well come on,” J.R. hollered. “Watcha waiting for? The deer ain’t gonna come and climb in the trunk.”
Ray stood and reached into the backseat for the rifle and bag. He followed J.R. along by the old garden plot where the fence sagged over the rotten posts. In his daydreams Ray set new posts and rolled out wire to protect the plot where Sheila would plant her tomatoes, okra and string beans. They skirted around the house and took the path past the old garbage pile out towards the cliff. Their feet crunched through the frozen crust of old snow. J.R. walked in front, head high, rifle slung over his right shoulder.
“Watcha thinking about, huh?” J.R.’s voice came out in a nasal whine. “Cat got your tongue?”
Ray shook his head. “I was just thinking about my girl, Sheila,” he said. “I was thinking about asking her, after we graduate and I get a job and all, if, you know, she’d wanna move up here with me. Fix the place back up again. But now Momma’s talking all this foolishness.”
“Two things I got to say to you, Ray.” J.R.’s laugh erupted in a snort. “First off, no matter how well you’re hung or how much money you planning on making, you ain’t gonna be able to convince a girl to move up here with you. The place is falling apart man, wasn’t all that well built to begin with. ‘Sides that, you don’t wanna marry the first girl you fuck, there’s a whole lot more pussy out there in the world. Move to Virginia Beach with Momma, you’ll see what I mean.”
Ray stared up into the tall arms of the walnut trees where they reached into the low gray sky.
Out in the back pasture the wind had sculpted the snow into miniature glaciers and knee-high mountains. Ray’s senses perked up. He stood still in the crystallized grass and trained his gaze along the edge of the stand of oaks that rimmed the pasture. He took his wool toboggan off and stuffed it in his coat pocket, freeing his ears to catch the slightest rustle or footstep.
Ray followed J.R. into a nearby grove of tulip poplars and crouched low, leaning back against the trunk of a mid-size tree. After a few minutes of stillness the animals resumed their activity. A woodpecker’s tapping sounded from the branches above Ray’s head. A plump rabbit bounded between tuffets of gypsum weed. Ray eyed it, watched its fat body bounce across the snow-ice. He raised his rifle but J.R. slapped his arm down.
“You do that,” he hissed, “and you’ll scare off every damn deer from here to Kingdom Come.”
Ray slumped back against the poplar, reached for the thermos of coffee. His fingers ached and he wished he were alone. Off the edge of the cliff at the far side of the field he could see the raw open earth of the Frazier stone quarry. He always figured he would work there, even after his daddy got killed he’d still thought of it as a good steady job. But the tipple burned down in ’99 and they closed the whole operation, said it wasn’t making enough money anymore.
“Ray,” J.R. whispered.
Ray followed the barrel of J.R’s rifle to where it pointed amongst the oaks. At first he saw nothing. Then his eyes focused and there appeared the soft slender legs and white tail of a doe, half-hidden behind the trunk of a black oak. She broke from behind the tree and disappeared too quickly into the deeper woods.
“Shit,” J.R. said.
Ray leaned forward, his own rifle raised.
“Now don’t get all trigger happy,” J.R. whispered. “We’ll get her, that’s for damn sure, we just gotta wait her out.”
They sat there a full twenty minutes before either of them spoke again. The first heavy snowflakes began to fall. They sifted down like feathers and clung to the broom sedge and ground sorrel. The deer did not reappear. Excitement ebbed out of Ray and left a cold anxiety. He ran his hand along the barrel of his rifle, felt it smooth against his palm. His fingertips found his daddy’s initials carved into the stock. When he was seven his daddy had placed the rifle in his hands, set him down by the trunk of a pin oak and told him not to come home without at least one squirrel. He’d sat at the base of the tree for hours without managing to kill anything. He needed to piss bad but was afraid to move for fear of scaring away the few squirrels he’d seen. He sat stock still till warm piss spilled down the inseam of his jeans and even then he didn’t move, picturing his empty hands and the anger rippling like dark clouds across his daddy’s face. After a long while J.R. had come upon him and pulled him up onto his feet, laughing. He’d opened his thermos of lukewarm coffee and poured it down Ray’s leg to cover the urine, then handed him a squirrel out of his own bag and sent him home. The rifle was still a beauty. Ray didn’t get out hunting as much as he’d like but he cleaned and oiled her almost every weekend. Sundays he’d take her up on the hill behind the town water tower to shoot RC cola cans.
“I’m gonna circle around,” J.R. announced, “see if I can’t get her, if nothing else maybe I can scare her out and you can shoot her in the field. We can’t stick around up here all day if it’s gonna snow like this.” He turned his face up, and squinted into the whorling flakes. “We’re likely to get stuck, Momma’s car is awful low to the ground.”
Ray nodded and watched J.R. rise and start off in the direction that the doe had fled.
“Now be ready,” J.R. called back. “I might scare her out soon as I walk over thata way.”
Ray stood quickly and lifted his rifle to his shoulder. He heard no noise aside from J.R.’s footsteps in the dry leaves and the echoing whistle of another coal train in the valley. Ray scanned the tree-line for movement. His right finger rested lightly on the safety. His left hand held steady on the forestock. If he could be the one to shoot the doe, to dress her there in the field and carry her back to town, if he could be the one, then maybe J.R. would quit acting like he was the cock of the walk. Maybe his Momma would listen to him for just one second.
From the branches above Ray’s head sounded the racket of a squirrel cutting nuts. He lost sight of his brother among the bare branches. The snowfall thickened and blurred his vision. His eyes swam fast up and down the edge of the trees, searching out the soft brown of the doe among the leaves. He gripped the rifle, butt snug against his shoulder, forestock firm in his left hand. He heard a rustle and swore he saw the flicker of a white tail. He pulled the trigger. The shot split the silence as the recoil shuddered back into his shoulder. J.R.’s twisted scream sounded out from amongst the pin oaks. Ray knew it right away but his mind raced to rewind it. To bring it back and change the one little movement of his finger.
He dropped the rifle and took off across the icy field. His breath boomed loud in his ears. Snowflakes spun before him. His eyes scanned the trees. He could not find J.R. by sight and had to call out to him and follow the fading voice. He lay turned over on his side, face contorted with pain. Thick blood spilled across his chest, steaming in the snow. Ray dropped to the ground and grabbed J.R., pulled him onto his lap. His eyelids drooped and his breath came shallow. Ray tore at his jacket and the stuffing flew out. Tiny white feathers mixed with the snow and clumped in the blood. Ray pulled opened J.R.’s flannel and ripped through his white undershirt to expose the pumping bullet wound.
“No, man, no,” Ray whispered, but the snow clouds sucked up the sound and the silence rushed in.
Ray’s own heart sped up, pumped faster for each slowed beat of his brother’s. But the blood flowed freely. It soaked down through the layers of J.R.’s clothing and gathered in Ray’s lap in a warm, wet pool. J.R’s muscles relaxed and his empty body weighed heavy in Ray’s arms.
In the silence Ray could hear the almost inaudible spattering of snowflakes against the oak leaves. His terror, too big for his body, spilled out and filled the hushed forest. He sank back under the weight of his brother’s body. He pictured his mother’s face. Her eyes as they had been after his Daddy died, narrow sockets slumped above a wordless mouth.
Snow fell and gathered in the palm of J.R.’s outstretched hand. Ray struggled to stand. He grasped the awkward bulk of his brother’s body and beat back the cold quiet fear. He followed the path they had made through the cow pasture, desperate to get J.R.’s body inside. He passed the rifle and backpack half-buried in the snow and stumbled on, his toes numb in his boots. Snow sealed the line between fields and sky. A world of white. Ray bent and hefted J.R.’s body higher to block the stinging flakes. His face brushed the now thick blood which painted a streak of red across his cheek.
The going was easier in the woods where the snow did not pile as deep, but Ray’s arms ached under the weight of the body. At the edge of the yard he paused and buckled with a guttural sigh. He stared up at the dark hulk of the house. It leaned to the left and the roof hung soft with rot under the wet weight of the storm. The living room windows were crisscrossed with cracks. Ray’s fingers lost their grip and he let go. He watched as J.R.’s body slid off his lap and into the snow. The world was without sound but Ray knew that somewhere out there the doe stood watching, her giant black eyes unblinking, waiting for the danger to pass. Waiting for the winds and rains to push the house till it collapsed. Waiting for locust saplings to spring up in his momma’s kitchen and twisted oaks to climb through the window frames. Waiting till it was all undone.
Photo by Choo Yut Shing