by Marie Bacigalupo
Isaac lay awake, gazing out the attic window as the rising sun cast off the shadows and lumbered over the glistening stalks. The peace of the Kansas wheatscape belied the upheaval in his heart. The boy longed to stay abed, to forestall the parting demanded of him. But schooled in obedience, he bestirred himself when Ma called with breakfast.
On the stairs the boy heard muttered curses. He tiptoed onto the splintered slats of the kitchen floor just as Pa slammed the door behind him. Tomorrow Isaac would go to the fields to help with the threshing.
Until the accident Isaac had frolicked to the music of birds in a field of blazing sheaves, freed from confusing rants against the high cost of grain and the falling wheat prices and the rise of Anti-Christ. With his speckled dog, joyously named Summer, he had gamboled amid the fragrance of gilded shoots murmuring their secrets in soft breezes. Until yesterday.
Yesterday, deep in the time of threshing, an errant stone had wreaked destruction: the thresher damaged, the wheat now languished in the field untended. The son quaked at the memory of his father’s roar. We must use the flails and finish the work by hand. You will do your part, Boy.
The time of parting had arrived. The orange sun, pendulous as a full womb, hung low in the August sky. The child stroked the mongrel’s spotted flank like Aladdin his lamp, wishing for a way out of his dilemma.
Back in April he had begged more than once to be allowed to house the animal. Pa had shaken him hard and locked him in the storeroom for stubbornness. Hain’t no money for another mouth to feed. But the pup kept following him, so he took to sheltering it in the abandoned shed before returning home.
Isaac roused himself, swiped yellow hair out of cornflower blue eyes, and started for home, disquieted by the contrary feelings his father aroused. He had not gone far when his breath caught at the rustling of sheaves. A voice bellowed through the field: ‘Tardiness is Satan’s work, Isaac; you’re wanted on the threshing—’ His father’s eyes widened above the untamed beard. Looking over his shoulder, the youth blanched: the dog was trailing in plain sight!
His sins were in the open now, his doom fixed. Head bowed, the child turned to his father. ‘I could na leave the animal on the road to starve. It will na keep me from my chores, Pa, and will na cost us. I’ll feed the beast from my very plate, mebbe catch it some rats.’
The boy’s fingers skimmed the dog’s back. At his touch, the creature reared its head. He smelled the son’s fear and the father’s rage; staccato yelps gave way to frantic leaps. The dog lunged, nipping the farmer’s hand. A single drop, spilled, and the earth received it.
Raising his battered straw hat, the man wiped his brow with a forearm and dragged his son from behind by the crossed straps of his overalls. The barking mongrel scudded behind as they entered the homestead.
The woman clutched her husband’s rolled-up shirtsleeve, ‘Abe, he be only seven year—’
‘Shut your mouth, Woman. The boy must heed me.’ He wrenched himself loose. ‘I do na scrape my hands bloody and break my back weeding and hoeing and reaping and threshing so a moony stripling can neglect the land that puts food in his mouth.’
His wife stepped back, her nails scraping white tracks on her leathered cheek.
The farmer drew his belt from the loops of his soil-stained jeans. He slipped the belt through the buckle and tightened the loop around the dog’s neck. Ordered to take hold of the strap, the boy first hesitated, then obeyed. Summer spun circles in the packed dirt.
The man walked away, returning with a pistol, forcing it into his son’s free hand.
‘Husband . . .’ from the woman, rapid-fire blinks, her lips a taut line above her chin.
‘Shut your mouth! The land must come first. It will provide his sustenance when we are in the earth.’
He turned to his son. ‘Shoot the dog.’
The boy recoiled, dropping the weapon.
‘Shoot the dog, Boy! You do it, or I will, and thrash you as well!’
The child looked up at the looming shape through unspilled tears.
‘Do like I say. Do na have me tell you again.’
The son shuddered in the deepening dusk. The acrid incense of burnt husks stung his nostrils. The field lay barren, the wheat harvested and dried. Only the threshing remained.
Isaac bent to whisper final endearments, retrieving the pistol as he rose. He scanned the horizon till his clouded eyes cleared, then he pointed the barrel inward. Oh, he mouthed, and blasted a bullet through that Oh.
Just before the gun exploded, a dawning of the boy’s intent propelled the father forward. ‘No!’ But traveling at 3000 feet per second, the bullet outpaced him.
The mother’s wail sliced the air, merging with the baying of the dog.
The father sank to his knees in the dirt, shaking his fists skyward, soundlessly echoing the general lamentation.
The projectile shattered the son’s teeth, its trajectory exploding through the soft tissue and colliding with the cranium. The collision slowed it down, the bullet lingering long enough for flashes of memory: A wheat field whistling in the breeze. A chorus of antiphonal birdsong. A pup cavorting in the summer bloom.
The boy’s arms flew open at his sides. A spray of bone shards, then the ravaged skull thudded crimson onto the spent earth.
It was the close of the golden hour, the retreat of day sapping the vigor of the sun. Frail beams, like neglected stalks, bowed to the will of nature, till the lengthening shadows swallowed the light.
Marie Bacigalupo studied under Gordon Lish at the Center for Fiction, and attended One Story and Narrative Magazine workshops. She holds a Ph.D. in literature. Her work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Journal of Microliterature, Examined Life Journal, Perspective Literary Magazine, Spark: A Creative Anthology, and elsewhere. She won First Prize among 7000 entries in Writer’s Digest’s 13th Annual Short-Short Story Competition. Her self-published novel, Ninth-Month Midnight, is available on Amazon.