This is an old story. Originally it was a flash fiction piece before being slightly expanded. I had fun with the language but it doesn’t fit in with where I am at currently, so I’m publishing it here since I’m not trying to do so elsewhere.
Knowing the air around Joe had always been contaminated, it was easy to imagine it must have been nerves that caused Gilliam’s rifle to accidentally go off and shoot his brother Joe in the toe. In the split second afterwards, in Joe’s unforgiving eyes, Gilliam saw what was to come. Think hibernating microbes, prehistorically frozen, released from their involuntary slumber to resume their insatiable feast on evolving forms. Think jostling a hornet’s nest violently then realizing your mistake, releasing the inevitability of Joe.
Joe collapsed to the ground and rocked back and forth, clasping his nearly severed toe as blood seeped through his fingers and penetrated the muddy snow and the soil below. Before he could retaliate, Gilliam ran off through the woods, over the hill and across a small valley to the top of a ridge, hiding behind one of the large beech trees, its trunk carved by nearly a century’s worth of young lovers. The chiseled hearts and lovers’ names had grown unrecognizable in the smooth bark, like ruptured veins. When the pain eased Joe stumbled to his feet and swiped the slush from his backside, then loaded his rifle without saying a word. The late winter sun crawled higher into the southern horizon, the morning light slowly dispersing the remaining fog. Soaring high above, a red-tailed hawk watched it all unfold as it searched through the haze for movement in the brush below.
Meanwhile, Gilliam’s wife and ex-wife were meeting at his house for coffee and cigarettes. Both tended to smoke more in the other’s presence, though the two had become friends, especially now that Gilliam’s nineteen-year-old son, Jacob, from the first marriage, had just become a father himself, making both women grandmothers before they turned forty-five. Gilliam didn’t mind their friendship, though he worried sometimes that they might compare personal notes. Early on, however, his current wife proved she could be defensive to inappropriate comments about Gilliam, making it clear she hadn’t accepted someone else’s hand-me-down. That was the only way the friendship worked; criticizing Gilliam was off limits.
“He doesn’t like guns,” his wife said, questioning why he’d gone off hunting with his brother. She shook her head. “With any luck, maybe he’ll shoot Joe.”
His ex-wife snickered and smoke trickled out of her nose. She looked like a dragon that had just blown fire. “I say go for it,” she said.
“Just between you and me,” said his wife. “I say go for it, too.”
They both laughed nervously, receding into a long silence as they sucked on their cigarettes and considered the unstable, powder-keg relationship between the two brothers. Gilliam and Joe had always fought tooth and nail, till near death the last time, when Joe, amused by the similarities between Gilliam’s wives, had referred to them as Thing One and Thing Two. Gilliam demanded an apology, and the result led to more than the usual blows.
For most of his teenage years and into his late twenties, Gilliam had tried to follow in his brother’s footsteps, despite being less inclined towards trouble. While Joe remained adamant in the face of the law, Gilliam withered under such constant distress, and with the stable aid of his first wife he finally settled into a more subdued existence. He even began to believe that he could save his older brother if he could just help him see his fruitless end. Such arrogance, however, always led to a brawl. “Like trying to tame a deer fly,” Gilliam’s ex-wife once said to him. She couldn’t handle the disruptive force Joe had in their lives, and when he temporarily moved in, she moved out.
The two women looked as if they could be sisters, each with shortly cropped graying hair, their locks rippling in tightly woven waves against the skull, the texture of bristly steel wool. They had yellow-stained complexions and teeth from years of smoke and booze. Each often joked openly about their appearance – too much sun and smoke and black coffee, they’d say – too much grief.
Too much life, his ex always said with a sigh.
“He’ll never reconcile with Joe,” she said. “I hope becoming a granddad hasn’t made him too sure.”
“I don’t know,” said his wife. “It’s not like him to go hunting with Joe; he’s not like Joe anymore…”
“Never was,” said the ex. “Not really.”
“He’s got responsibility built up,” his wife said of Gilliam, pointing a finger at the ex while still holding her cigarette. “You’ve got to give him credit for that.”
“Yep,” the ex said, exaggerating her nod like a horse. “He does what needs to be done.”
Joe wandered over the hill and into the valley with his head down, limping, following his brother’s footprints in the half-melted snow. The night before had been cloudy and warm, but the morning chill halted the melt. He switched the safety off and held the rifle’s barrel in a ready position. The morning light, now a dank metallic-gray, leached through the rising fog and glistened on his rifle’s barrel, giving the steel a dull gritty look, like a medieval sword revived from the dark ages. Gilliam kneeled next to the beech tree and set the sights of his rifle on his brother. He didn’t know what to do. Accident or not, Joe would keep coming. He’d want restitution, and he’d want to take more than he had received. An eye for an eye would never cut it with Joe. You got even, sure. But you also made them pay a hell-of-a-whole-lot more for starting it in the first place. If Gilliam could sacrifice his toe, he would, but that would never satisfy his older brother.
Joe stopped in the middle of the valley, his senses open, on fire, illuminating the charged affinity he felt between the sensuous earth and his departing blood. He had never felt more alive, invigorated by the pain and fierceness of all that lived. He was happy with his anger. He could feel the roots of trees flexing their sap-filled muscles as they fought with every fiber for an inch of more space. The trees were angry. He could feel the dead cold eyes of crows darting over the arena, perched in the trees, gleefully anticipating the bloody battle and the possible meal to follow. The crows were angry. The hawk sliced through the chilled air above, wings tensed, eyes focused, penetrating the vaporous fog and brush below for its prey, eager to snap the inferior neck of a mouse or chipmunk and snuff out its audacity to strive for more life. The hawk was angry. A squirrel ventured out from its drey and dug its sharp claws into the bark of an oak tree, grinding its teeth in rhythm with whatever energized source had viciously forced it into this frenzied life. Tiny creatures – millipedes and ants and grubs – hibernating below the frost line in the depths of the earth, pulsated in the soil’s capillaries with their tiny angry hearts. He could feel it all unfold, their emotions circulating through the fog and into his lungs and heart. Even Gilliam’s presence shuddered on the ridgeline, gun ready and full of fear. “Go ahead,” Joe yelled, phlegm-heavy, his voice resounding through the woods like buckshot of lead. “Do it.” He’d put up with Gilliam for far too long. No more. Time to feed freely from all the world, without constraint, and push his weaker sibling from the nest for the long, inevitable fall.
Gilliam could see Joe’s hardened expression through his rifle’s scope: his lower jaw jutting out and held high; his long black hair, wet from his fall in the snow, standing up and waving wildly. With his twig-like legs emerging from beneath his heavy coat, he looked like a pterodactyl with a gun having descended from the trees for his meal. Thin, wiry, strong. Gilliam steadied his rifle. His fingers hadn’t warmed and felt numb. His metal belt buckle cut sharply into his soft belly and crystals of ice melted on his mustache and seeped into his mouth. Everything was on the move, probing. His heart pumped erratically as cortisol flooded his blood. The stripped bony limbs of beech and oak trees reached skyward, pleading to the sun for a return of their fallen leaves. The caws of crows reverberated prophetically through the thinning gray mist like rabid calls from his long dead father, most likely still insane in the troubled ethers, as the hawk swooped above the treetops, harassed by two small blackbirds on an aerial assault with hard-bitten beaks, every niche filled with the unwavering.
The two women were planning a trip out west to see the new grandson. Just the two of them, they’d told Gilliam. They were proud of their friendship – if they could come together, linked in a cross-country trip and connected forever in a grandson-step-grandson relationship, for all of their relations to witness and admire, certainly everyone in the family would be inspired to get along. They could be the glue that kept Gilliam strong and held the family together, even in the face of a raging storm, like Joe.
Gilliam’s ex-wife had done most of the legwork in setting up the trip, seeing how she was the biological mother to Jacob. Only when it came to Gilliam did she take a back seat.
“I’m glad Jacob lives far from Joe,” she said with relief.
“Me too,” said Gilliam’s wife. “You think he’s ready to be a father?” Smoke whistled from her nostrils like steam from a kettle. Jacob’s family history spoke for itself and both women knew what was on the other’s mind.
“He’s a good boy,” said Jacob’s mother. “Besides, I’ll have no more Joes in this family.”
Gilliam’s wife nodded in agreement. “Two grandmothers ought to be able to keep him on the straight and narrow,” she said, referring to the grandson. She used her finger to punctuate the point.
Both women settled their cups into their saucers and kept a wary eye on the clock. “He ought to be back soon,” said Gilliam’s wife. They bobbed their heads slowly and for a moment fell silent. “I know he’s eager to see the new grandson,” she added.
“Has he said so?” asked the ex.
“You should see him,” said his wife. “He’d give his eyeteeth to come along.”
His ex drew from her cigarette and felt the smoke circulate in her lungs like a rake of barbed wire. “Amazing,” she said, reflecting on the past, “how much he’s changed.”
“Ain’t nothing to stop him now,” said his wife. “He’s proud, now.”