Shall we receive good at the hand of God,
and shall we not receive evil?
On the morning of December 24th, my father, still drunk from the evening of the 23rd , tried to sit at the breakfast table, but instead slipped off the front of his chair, slammed his chin on the tabletop, and bit his tongue off. After he had rolled and wailed and bled on the floor for a couple minutes, he choked on his tongue and died.
His eyes were still open when the authorities came. His hands were stiff around his neck, like he had been frozen while trying to strangle himself. My mom got up to make the call, then came back and sat in the same chair. We didn’t touch him at all. We just watched in silence while a dark purple pool grew around the head of the man we had hated so fiercely only a moment ago.
The authorities didn’t use sirens much in Lower Schinemecas. We were on a farm out in the middle of nowhere, and there was no point in waking up good people on a holiday morning. We heard a lone car roll down our gravel driveway, the doors slamming, one a fraction of a second before the other, and then two men in dark blue jumpsuits rolled in with a stretcher. They came into the house without knocking, my mother knew both of them, but she didn’t say hello or even acknowledge them. They took one look at him, lifted him up onto the little white bed, and covered him with a black rubber sheet. Before rolling him away, they politely announced that Officer Taylor would be calling later. That was the last we both saw of father. No funeral, no nothing.
We could have helped him. We could have knelt down and lifted his shaking body up in our arms, soothed him. Maybe pushed on his chest when he was choking, blown air into his lungs like on TV. But we stayed still during his loud and ridiculous death because we had been in awe. My mother and I felt like we were witnessing the good hand of God freeing us from the devil's tyranny. When I saw his tongue get stuck behind his larynx, I knew he would die, and a silly little rhyme started looping in my head, “he is dead, we are free, Christmas has come early.”
My father’s two favorite punishments for me were the well and the hose. If I had done something wrong, even when I was little, I would have to sit in the bucket and be lowered into the well. Its splintery edges dug into my fatless thighs. If he had caught some recently, he would drop garter snakes on me while I tottered in the tight little space. I would try and steady myself by putting my hands against the well’s cold stone walls, but when I was crying hard, I heaved and shook and wobbled and was sure I would die in that black tunnel. His screams echoed against the stones, “I aughdah just lowah you all in, lowah you in an ‘ring dat board ovah. Honor dy fawder, damn it.”
The well was the scariest punishment, but not the most painful. For pain, there was the piece of hose he kept on the top of the television. If I had been particularly bad, I would have to fetch him the hose and then bend over the kitchen table with the back of my shirt pulled up. The amount of lashes I got depended on how tired he was. My mother could do nothing, she was as much a prisoner as I was. She was never even allowed out of the house except to help with chores in the barn or field. She couldn’t stop him. If she tried it would all get worse.
My mother and I did not speak while we washed the now very red blood from the kitchen’s linoleum floor. We had let our shared silence hypnotize us, and were depending on its energy to keep us going. Once the floor was clean, my mother lit the fireplace and we burned the rags we had used. We sat there on the living room’s hardwood floor, knee to knee, and stared at the flames a long while. It was then that I felt the silence that we were sharing begin to transform and when I realized a strange smile had spread across my face. I looked over at my mother’s smiling face, and she turned and faced me. A lone tear was running down her cheek. Then her face began to twitch and scrunch up and the tears poured out from her tightly shut eyes. I held her close to me and her body heaved into mine. Her blubbering and shaking had broken our silence, and from this broken silence poured a great joyful flood of tears from our eyes. It was all over. He was dead, we were free.
Once the fire died down, we split one of his steaks for lunch. I made the mashed potatoes. After this, we got bundled up in our snow gear and went out for a walk. The sky was filled with dark clouds, and we had to tuck into ourselves as we marched to avoid the bite of the cold wind.
We didn’t talk much, and when we did it was only of what we saw, a black crow against the white backdrop, Grace’s truck coming home with wood. It was a cold winter, but we didn’t mind. It had been so long since we could just leave without fear, since we could explore the trails and neighboring farms that surrounded us. My father had always watched us so closely. Leaving the house without a reason was forbidden and would mean a beating. When we finally turned back that day it was nearly dark and our faces were burning from the cold. We were so happy and exhausted and passed right out into a warm and perfect sleep.
When I woke up the next day, it was Christmas. I looked out the window and saw that the clouds were still there, but that no snow was falling. My mother was already awake and had pancakes ready. After stuffing ourselves on butter and syrup we drove into town. Mom bought me whatever I wanted. I got a yellow dress, a swatch watch, and three cute t-shirts. My mother bought earrings. On the way home we went to the big grocery store and picked up a turkey, some baby potatoes, fresh basil and some pudding.
When we got home, my mom cut the motor at the top of the driveway, like she always did, and we listened to the heavy rubber tires crunch into the stones while we rolled toward the house. Our minister was there, waiting for us on the porch, blowing hot breath into his hands to keep warm. He bowed to my mother after we had gotten out of the car, and then stared at the shopping bags we were carrying. “I am so sorry to hear what happened,” he said, looking deeply into my mother’s face.
“Oh, I know George, let’s get inside, it looks like a storm is coming,” she said, pointing her nose at the sky. They came inside and the minister sat down on the couch beside me while my mother got tea and water. The minister turned towards me, "You must be pretty sad, huh?”
“Yeah, I guess."
“I was very sad to hear about his passing."
“Of course, you’re in shock right now. A father is one of God’s greatest gifts and you must be overcome by the loss." My mother came in with tea for the minister and water for me. She sat across from us on the edge of my father’s old chair, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees. “Beth, I am so sorry, again, for your loss.”
“Thank you George. Thank you for coming on the holiday, I’m sure you have family to be with.”
“Oh, it’s no problem Beth."
“So, what can we do for you George?”
“Well, I am just here to express my condolences and offer my support. I hope I am not intruding?" He said, looking through the living room door at the shopping bags in the kitchen. He prepared to stand, but my mother lifted a hand for him to stay.
“I’m just wondering about the visit George, why now? You come to see all the new widows?”
“I know you don’t know me as well as some Beth, but Leroy, Leroy was a religious man. He came to church often and I was,” George paused for a moment and prepared to ask a question he felt he already knew would have a disappointing answer, “I don’t know you very well Beth, since you never came with Leroy, so I just thought I would come over and offer my condolences and inquire about if you were planning to have Leroy buried at his Church and all, have you thought about it?”
“Well George, we thought we would have to burn him up in Amherst."
“But Beth, Leroy was a Christian, you have to honor his wishes. I know he would have wanted a Christian burial.”
“I am not sure how well you knew my husband George, but he was not a good man. He was no Christian, not in any sense. He beat both me and my daughter, and generally made our lives terrible. Besides, we are poor and we don’t have money to start wasting on burying."
“Leroy and I talked often Beth, I know this wasn’t a happy home. I know. Sometimes life doesn’t give us what we hoped for, but all of us must face these trials, these disappointments. It doesn’t mean we turn our back on the Lord, who loves us so much. That would be a terrible mistake, an unforgivable one." He paused for a second. "Now I know the boys from the morgue will be holding Leroy till the 28th, I hope in the meantime you reconsider," and then he turned his wooden face towards me, “I am sorry for your loss dear, it is a sad and terrible thing to lose a father so young. I am also sorry he was bad to you, but you must forgive him. Honor thy father,” and with a glance over he finished, “and your mother too. "
And then he left and the house was quiet again. In my head I cursed him for all that he never did for us. What did he know about anything? From the expression on my mother’s face I knew my thoughts echoed her own. Still, the minister had ruined the first Christmas I thought I might enjoy, and though we got out the food to make our dinner, I didn’t take out my presents that day.
The 28th came and went and the town burned the body like my mom wanted.
A house empty of my father was not filled with the love that I had been missing for the past thirteen years. In the mornings, Mother stayed in her bedclothes and barely spoke a word. She moved slowly and performed every action like she was resigned to it. When she did speak it was quiet and muttered. Instead of the snuggling and long chats I had hoped for, the house was instead filled with my mother’s depression.
At night, it was the opposite. It was as if she was saving her energy all day for her nightly complaints. Every evening, when I stepped off the bus from school, I knew a more excited despair would be waiting for me on the other side of the door. Her main gripe was about what a bad provider father had been. How he hadn’t planned for us and that there was no insurance and no savings. She complained that she could not run a farm on her own and that most of the hands that had helped father would not, she guessed, respect her or deal with her fairly.
As the weeks passed she grew more miserable about our situation. I started to resent her and all her negativity. Though we had never spoken of it when father was alive, I always thought there was a pact between mother and I. That are shared situation had bonded us and that if Father wasn’t there we would be the best of friends.
But I discovered she did not want to be my friend and that she was not the woman I had imagined. She was a complainer. I knew she was too physically weak to stand up to father, but as one dinner of chuck and steamed cabbage followed the next, each served with rants about the bleakness of our future, something else was becoming clear. She was too weak for this world. She had needed father. He was the one who built the house we were living in. He was the one who kept us well fed.
Spring approached and the thawed earth was ready for planting. Mother did nothing. She had calmed down over the past weeks and had started to spend the nights quietly in her rocking chair. One evening a man, the eldest of the Finnish family that had moved into Lower Schinemicas a few years before, came by to ask what her plans were for the upcoming season. I thought he was being polite and was asking if she would be hiring hands, but my mother took it differently. “Ghouls,” she said after he had left, “the man has been dead only a few months and already they are divvying up the lands."
“I think he was just wondering if he would be getting work again.”
“Really,” she glared at me scornfully and for a moment I was worried she might strike me, “and what would you know about these things?”
“I just thought…”
“Please child, don’t bother me with things you don’t know.”
When spring came, and the fields were still not tilled, I noticed that some of the pickups were going by slower than usual, eyeing our fallow land. Men were pointing out driver side windows as they passed, saying things to the other men in passenger seats. Mother noticed as well but we never talked about it. What was happening to the land and how we were going to get by were not to be discussed. By this point my mom did not want to discuss anything.
Near the end of the school year, food was getting scarce. My homeroom teacher, Mrs. Thompson, had started to bring sandwiches and chopped carrots to school for me each day. All the adults were treating me differently. I was the poor girl with the crazy mother. They were all being kind, though it was a forced kindness. Kids told me that all the parents were talking about my mother. About how she was depressed and never left the house. How she wasn’t able to feed or take care of herself or me. The guidance counselor and the teachers all knew what was going on, but nobody called the police or child welfare. It was gossip, but it didn’t make it any of their business.
By summer, a few weeks after school was over, when there weren’t even potatoes left in the root cellar, she killed herself. When I found her, the top half of her body was out of the bathtub and on the floor, the side of her face attached to the tiles by her own sticky blood. Her legs were still in the tub of pink water. It looked like she had tried to get out at the last moment, but she hadn’t had enough strength left to stand, so she collapsed over the side.
I was sent to live with my Aunt on the other side of the province. She also lived in a small town, but her husband was a carpenter, not a farmer. They paid for mother’s funeral. It was a special one for people who took their own life. I didn’t cry at all. If I had, it certainly wouldn’t have been for her, who had never protected me or helped me or did anything for me other than the Christmas she bought me the swatch watch.
I kept these feelings, about hating my mother, to myself. I kept everything to myself really. I was already so scared of the messed up thoughts in my head, I worried that if I put words to these thoughts, and others heard them, that they would become permanent. Like putting my thoughts into words would make them all the more real.
My Aunt, who I was to call Auntie Joanna, and my Uncle, who I was to call Uncle Jared, didn’t have any kids. I didn’t really know them, I hadn’t seen them since I was six. I settled into the guest room, which had a fully stacked bookshelf. Mostly they just left me be, they didn’t crowd me or pry about how I was doing. They were just always there with big smiles ready. I would come down the stairs and find them in the sitting room quietly sharing their night, Auntie knitting and Jared reading. They would look up at me and smile when I came in, waiting to see if I had a question or if I was just wandering around.
The food was delicious. Auntie cooked all sorts of breads. She always used molasses as a sweetener, and the smell of it was constantly filling the house. Muffins, honey glazed banana breads, white rolls, and thick scones were always sitting on the counter.
“Just help yourself dear,” she would say, and in a couple months I put on a lot of weight. By winter you could almost call me chubby. It was the only time in my life that I felt good for days in a row.
It had been storming hard that winter. The house was drafty and the floors were always cold, so the three of us had spent most nights huddled near the fireplace. Jared and I would read while Auntie knitted or crocheted. It was very quiet and warm.
On Christmas morning, the sound of the wind, pushing and sucking on the house's sealed windows, woke me up early. I heard voices downstairs. I shivered when I got out of bed and my sleep warmed feet touched the floor. They hadn’t mentioned anything about what we would do to celebrate Christmas and I assumed they thought it was too soon since my mother passed.
But when I got downstairs, I saw the most beautiful sight. Where just yesterday there was a coffee table, a tall dark green Christmas tree now stood. The tree was decorated with red and golden balls and big candy canes hung off many of the branches. On the very top, with a yellow light bulb glowing on his inside, was a plastic Jesus, standing with his palms forward and a beatific smile on his face. Underneath it all were presents, wrapped in bright new Christmas paper. The two of them, who had obviously worked all night getting this ready to surprise me, didn’t hear me come into the room.
When they finally turned around and saw me, awestruck with a hand to my mouth, they were positively beaming, “Merry Christmas!” they chorused, and I started to bawl. I cried so much, so hard, that I fell to my knees and collapsed in on myself. I heaved and sobbed. At first, for a split second, they must of thought I was crying from joy, but when I began dry heaving there on the floor they knew it was something else. Auntie held me, trying to comfort and contain all the pain the was wracking my body. But the hot tears continued to come. The tears filled my mouth with a salty drool and soaked the collar of my nightshirt. Jared went to get some of the apple cider he was making, and for a moment, I was startled by the hot scents of cinnamon and apples, and calmed down. But when I looked past the mug, and up the arm to the face offering me the cup, when I saw his loving and hopeful eyes, I began to choke, and I burped up the tears that had dripped down the back of my throat, I coughed them all up, and then it all started again, the relentless heaving tears.
“Dear, my dear, my dear, oh what is it? Please, please,” Auntie said, now crying herself, still holding me against me her warm body, pleading for calm, “please dear, tell us, tell us what is going on."
But I thought I couldn’t tell. I knew I couldn’t explain how I felt and that after she failed to understand, I would be more isolated. “Is it your mother dear? Do you miss her? It’s ok, I miss her, I have missed her for a long time." My Aunt’s mistake, about me missing my mother, stopped the flow of the tears, but I stayed in her arms.
“No,” I said, “it’s not that, I don’t miss her."
“What dear? You don’t miss her?”
I knew it sounded awful and I wanted to take it back, but it was so true. Auntie had loosened her hold on me and was now looking directly at me. She wasn’t mad. “It’s just,” I said, “she never stood up for me. She never stood up to my father."
“What are you talking about?"
“My father used to beat me and stuff, and mother did nothing about it."
“What do you mean he would beat you? Like he hit you?"
“Well dear, its not right to hit anyone, especially a child, but…"
When she became lost for words, I realized then that she had little idea about what her sister and I had been through. She thought I was just depressed from having lost my parents and all the hitting talk was unexpected. “Auntie they were terrible parents, they never loved me,” I motioned with my face towards the Christmas tree, “not like this."
“Well dear, everyone shows their love in different ways. It’s harder for some, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t love you, that your parents didn’t love you."
“Auntie I hate them, I do. They were so terrible to me,” and I started crying again, “and I am glad they are gone, that I am here with you."
I tried to hug her tighter but she held me at arms distance again, and she had a disgusted look on her face.
“You shouldn’t say those things you are saying. The Lord wants us, to honor our mother and father. He commands it."
“But it’s true. My father was horrible, he tortured me. He would put me in the well and my mother was a coward. She did nothing.”
She slapped me across the face at this point. Uncle quickly put down his apple cider to restrain her, even though she was perfectly still after delivering the blow. When, with a stinging cheek, I looked at Jared's face, that was now so close to mine, I saw he was appalled as well.
“It’s not like I killed them,” I said, and I grabbed the puffy winter jacket my Auntie had bought me, pulled on my winter boots, and slammed the front door behind me as I left the house.
It was freezing outside and the blowing snow swallowed me right away. I waited a minute before stepping off the porch. When they didn’t come rushing after me, I headed into the whipping snow. The stairs were slippery, but I managed them fine.
It was the road that was going to give me trouble. I got to the end of the driveway and watched a few of the cars pass. Each passing was announced by highbeams emerging from the white void a few moments before their vehicle slowly drove by. But one old pickup wasn’t so lit up, and wasn't coming so slowly. As I waited to cross the road, I didn’t notice it gliding along the shoulder. I saw its dim lights and stupefied driver for only a brief moment before the truck hit me. Then I felt nothing at all.
I wasn’t cold anymore, there was no blizzard. Everything was warm and dark. The only lights I could make out were tiny and red and far in the distance, like I was looking at a night sky full of red stars. I knew I was dead, that the truck had killed me, but I wasn’t sure where I was.
So I walked towards one of the constellations. As I got closer, I noticed that it was in a triangle shape. When I finally saw the green plastic tree, strewn with cheap Christmas lights, I knew I was in hell. When I turned around, and saw the gaping maw of a giant millipede smiling at me from the darkness, then thrusting its ring of drool covered fangs towards my head, I was sure of it.
So I ran. I ran blindly through the darkness, guided only by the light of the trees and some giant steel boxes that were scattered everywhere. I feel in ditches, caught my shins on rocks, dodged enormous insects, and basically stumbled in terror for the whole night. But gradually, everything got brighter and I saw my first morning in hell.
I was surprised I hadn’t been eaten. I must have ran past dozens of those laughing millipedes. I don’t know how I made it. But in the light of the morning, I saw that the millipedes mostly kept to the ditches. And that if I went slowly and planned my route carefully, I could avoid them.
In the morning I also noticed the presents under the trees. They were all wrapped in a mishmash of animal and snake hides. The first one I unwrapped had a soft red and white Christmas stocking inside. The second had a fork, spoon and knife set with Santa Claus heads at the end of the handles. The third was full of silver and gold tinsel. I kept unwrapping present after present, tearing through the motley leather wrappers, and each present, whether a blender or a pair of socks, followed the same Christmas theme.
Frustrated, I took the one full of candy canes with me and continued to explore. That’s when I saw your fire. I hid behind a mound of gravel and peered over the ridge at all of you for quite a while, trying to see if you were monsters also. That’s when that giant millipede you killed came up behind me. I heard him giggle just before he struck. By then I was pretty certain you were all human, so, as you all know, I ran down here hollering and screaming. Thank you so much by the way, you really saved my skin. You all seem like such nice people.