Daddy stared down at his hands. His left hand was clenched tightly in his right, and blood ran out through his fingers and dripped onto the rough, freshly-tilled ground. The blood made brief dark spots where it hit and then sank quickly into the soil. It hadn't rained for nearly two weeks, and the irrigation system for the east field wouldn't be set up until the tilling and seeding were finished.
Roger turned off the tractor, stepped down from the seat and hung out the side, one hand grabbing the steering wheel and the other dangling down into space. He looked back at Daddy where he stood behind the tiller. “What's wrong?”
Daddy looked up. The jaw muscles stood out on the sides of his big head and he squeezed his hand even more tightly. His nostrils flared. He took short, deep breaths. His eyes stared through Roger for a second, and then he closed them tightly and let out a low moan. The blood ran down his hands, over his knuckles, formed tear shapes, and fell. Daddy's hands were covered in it.
Roger hopped down from the tractor and walked slowly back toward his father. The wind through the trees that lined the field blew small clouds of dust over the flat earth and made a shrill tone that wove through the constant whine of the skidder. The discordant duet was jarring but familiar. Far ahead of the tractor Roger could hear laughter and shouting as the other kids cleared the last of the large rocks from the field and put them into the bucket of the skidder.
Daddy bent over, still clutching his hand, and looked through the rough steel blades of the tiller. His left thumb lay there, already turning gray, the raggedly severed base chunked dark with loam, the white of the bone partially obscured. He looked at it, and looked down at his hands. “Shit,” he said again. His forearms bulged and his skin, spotted brown from years spent in the sun, rippled. On the ground nearby lay the rock that had been caught in the blades. Daddy nudged it with his foot and tried not to think about the throbbing burning pain that spread slowly up his arm. He looked around. The ground was dry and the thin clumps of grass scattered about the untilled parts of the field were brown and brittle. He looked back down at his hands and exhaled in a short breath.
Roger stopped before he reached the back of the tiller and stared at the blood covering his father's big hands. Daddy was over six feet tall and his shoulders were too broad for Roger to reach around. He was the strongest person Roger knew—he had grown up on a farm, tossing hay bales and wrestling cattle. Roger had once seen Daddy wrestle down a full-grown yellow steer. Now he slumped behind the tiller, bent over, powerful shoulders drooping, face pale, blood running through his fingers and dripping onto the earth and the hard soiled leather of his work boots.
Roger was frozen, eyes wide and mouth slightly open. He could not take his eyes off of his father's hands. His own hands swung limply at his sides, dry knuckles knocking against the large buttons of his hand-me-down overalls, brushing against the soft denim. The wind mixed the scent of dry grass with the tractor's chemical exhaust and the richness of the upturned soil, thick with last years' manure. Over all this Roger could smell the bitter tang of blood. His siblings laughed and cheered as one of them hoisted a particularly large rock into the bucket. Somewhere a truck driver pulled his air horn. It startled Roger, and he took a last few tentative steps past the back of the tiller.
“Go get Michael and Stephen.” Daddy pushed the words out through his teeth. Roger didn't move. His gaze had wandered downward, and he was staring at the calloused thumb that lay in the dirt. Daddy took a half step toward him, bringing his right foot down hard. “Go!”
Roger turned and ran toward the skidder, shouting in his high-pitched voice. His work boots, still a little big for him, rattled on his feet and he tripped, catching himself and scraping his hands on the hard-packed earth. Mark's old clothing never fit him quite right. Most days he would wear his sister Brigid's boots instead, but she was helping in the field today so he was stuck with this pair. Roger scrambled to his feet and rubbed his sore hands on his overalls as he ran on. He wrinkled his stinging nose and blinked back tears.
His oldest brother Michael was the first to notice him, glancing back over his shoulder from the seat of the skidder. Michael switched off the machine and stepped smoothly to the bucket and then to the ground, pulling out his earplugs.
“—Daddy's thumb! Michael! It's on the ground! And he's bleeding!” Roger's high voice sounded thin and quiet after the mechanical buzz of the skidder. He bent over, hands on his knees, and his body began to convulse silently, shoulders jerking. Stephen, the second-oldest, dropped the large brown and yellow stone he was holding into the bucket of the skidder. A hollow metallic dong sounded out and the stone cracked open, revealing a mass of white and yellow crystals, and the children turned slowly toward the tractor, faces twisting from shock to fear. From here they could see past the riderless tractor to Daddy, a tiny bent-over toy man wearing a faded blue short-sleeved shirt and dirty overalls. Brigid took a small step toward the tractor, and then stopped as Michael held up a hand. She looked as though she, too, were about to cry. Michael stared at Daddy. He massaged the back of his neck with one hand and wiped sweat from his face with the other. The wind hit a high note, and Michael looked up, past their father, to the thick clouds on the horizon. He compressed his lips and lowered his eyebrows, then took one long step to where Roger was hunched over.
Michael bent and put a hand on the boy's shoulder. “Calm down. What happened?” Roger took several gulps of air, then pushed his breath out in one long sigh. He breathed in again, more smoothly this time, and straightened to look up into his older brother's face, his blue eyes staring into Michael's. He took another deep breath and rubbed the back of his hand across his face.
“Daddy said he heard the tiller catch a rock, and he went back to get it out. He must have slipped, and he—” Roger stuttered over the last word and stopped speaking, trying to breathe steadily. Michael straightened, his hand still on his brother's shoulder, and looked at Stephen. Stephen looked at his older brother and then looked at the clouds. He shrugged and made a small gesture toward the skidder.
Roger focused on his breathing. Michael was eighteen, a year older than Stephen and seven years older than himself. Michael was louder than Stephen and had a shorter temper, but he was the oldest and knew almost as much about farming as Daddy. When their parents weren't around, Michael was in charge. Michael rubbed his hands on the front of his shirt and took a deep breath. The other children were all looking at him, waiting. He pointed to the clouds.
“Karen,” he said, “drive the skidder. Just keep picking rocks and we'll try to get the field done before it rains. We're already late getting this crop in and we can't afford to wait.” Karen nodded, her eyes flicking again briefly to the sky, and took the earplugs. Michael turned to Gregory. “Are you okay driving the tractor?” Gregory looked at his oldest brother, eyebrows raised, mouth open. When he wrinkled his forehead like that, Roger could see the scar where Gregory had cut his head on a table playing tag when they were younger. “Are you okay?” Gregory nodded at last, and hitched up his patched blue jeans. “Good. Come on back to the tractor with me and start tilling.” Michael turned to the others. “After you finish with the rocks, you can get out the small tractor and hitch up a tiller to that one too.” Michael turned again. “Get as much done as you can. We can seed after the rain, but we'd have to wait a few days to till.” They all nodded. “Roger, stay here.”
Roger looked at the clouds. “He said to get you and Stephen both.” He turned to his older brother and clenched his small hands into fists at his sides. “And I'm coming too.” Michael's eyebrows fell and he opened his mouth. Roger gritted his teeth and fought not to break his brother's gaze. Michael didn't speak. The two stared at each other, Michael's weatherbeaten face bearing down on his brother's smooth one. Finally Michael shrugged and gave a small nod. Karen had already climbed into the skidder, and Michael and Stephen began to run toward their father. Roger ran after them, and Stephen paused and stooped to let the boy jump onto his back. Gregory bent to tighten his boots and then followed, loping after on long skinny legs. He was nearly as tall as his older brothers, but he had grown almost five inches in the past winter and his body was thin and wiry. Roger gripped Stephen's shoulders and watched his oldest brothers run, sun-bleached hair flapping on large skulls, thickly-muscled brown arms swinging. The skidder whined to life behind them and their work boots thumped heavily on the hard dry earth.
Daddy was sitting when they reached him, head down, brown hair hanging, blood pumping from between the fingers of his right hand and soaking the dust and fabric of his overalls. His legs were splayed out to either side and his feet had ground furrows in the loose tilled dirt. He tossed his head up when their footsteps slowed, and they could see that his eyes were glazed. He nodded toward the tiller. Roger pointed at the thumb. “It's right there.” He looked down at his own outstretched hand and gagged. Stephen lowered Roger to the ground and crouched next to the machinery. Michael and Gregory moved to Daddy's sides and pulled him to his feet, both hands under their father's armpits, knees popping as they hefted his weight. Gregory's strain showed in his face, but Michael's eyes were locked on the blood on his father's clasped hands, and his mouth was slack.
Stephen reached out through the sharp metal teeth of the tiller and picked up his father's thumb. He brushed the dirt off of it gently, hesitating to touch the congealing dirty mass at the base. “You should put your arm above your heart.” Stephen's voice was distant and almost lost in the wind. They all stared at the thumb. Stephen's hands were just as calloused and thick as Daddy's. Roger looked away first, twisting his whole body and casting his face down. He scuffed the ground with his feet, and Stephen looked at him. “Roger. Put his arm above his heart.” Roger moved to his father's side and pushed up on his left arm, propping it up with both hands. Gregory moved away slowly, gently transferring weight to Roger and making sure that Daddy wasn't going to fall. Michael nodded to him, and the thin boy made his way back toward the seat of the tractor.
Michael started to walk Daddy toward the house, and Roger moved along with them, holding both hands above his head as far as they could go. Blood ran down his father's arm and onto Roger's hands, then down the boy's arms and onto his shirt. From this close Roger could smell his father's sweat, a rich, comforting odor made sour now by adrenaline and almost overpowered by the metallic scent of blood.
Stephen walked with them for a few steps, watching to see that they could support him, and then began to jog ahead. “Bring him to the house,” he called back, “and get him water. Keep his arm elevated.”
“Where's Mother?” Michael looked at Stephen.
Stephen looked back and slowed for a moment. “She's at St. John's—she took the blue car. I'll call her after I call the doctor.” He turned and sprinted toward the house, long legs kicking up dust that was instantly caught by the wind, left hand churning, the other held awkwardly in front of him, fingers bent into a tight cage around his father's thumb.
Michael and Roger walked their father slowly toward the brown farmhouse. The sun was ahead of them, and Roger had to squint a bit to see their target, which rose up from a small grassy hill in the center of their property. The three were silent. Daddy moved his wide feet ponderously, as though his work boots had been soaked in water. The flow of blood was slowing, but Daddy was putting more and more of his arms' weight onto Roger.
They topped a slight rise at the edge of the field, and Roger looked back at his brothers and sisters. The clouds hung closer. Roger pushed his father's arms higher. He thought they could beat the rain.