See, it was one of those hot days where all you want to do is hike up the mountain to that oak tree up there and perch like a bird on the highest limb. From up there you can feel the wind running wild over the mountain. From up there the whole valley stretches out in fields of hay and tobacco cut out of the land like squares of chocolate on a pan.
But my mom had me inside washing dishes, and my dad and Uncle Joe were on the mountain hunting, so it wasn’t a good day for stalking through the woods.
My mom stood over the sink drying while I washed.
“That father of yours isn’t worth shit,” she said, running the dry cloth over the dishes fast and hard. “You grow up to be like that, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
She was drying faster than I could wash.
“Swear to Jesus Johnny, you grow up to be like that I’ll take you out myself.”
Mom was mad because Dad had cussed her in front of me and Jenny and Uncle Joe. He had done it before. We had all heard him cuss my mom, but we had never seen him hit her, even though Jenny and I had heard it once – skin hitting skin, fist to flesh. But that only happened when he was drunk, after one of what my mom called his all-nighters.
Usually, my dad and Uncle Joe didn’t get into the liquor until they were already up on the mountain, but that day they must have started early because even before the fight my dad and Uncle Joe were causing trouble, upsetting the hens in the henhouse and chasing J.R., Dad’s gold-flecked rooster, all over the yard. It scared Jenny so bad she ran to her friend Lilly Jane’s down the road and didn’t come back.
My mom said she’d take me out herself because that’s what my dad told me when I tried to stop him from hitting her. I was taller than him but it didn’t matter. He slapped my mom hard across the face, told me he’d take me out with a quick hit top of the head before I even knew what was coming, I didn’t mind my own business. And all that because Mom said he better stay off the mountain and get the hay in before it stormed. I figured she was right too, because there were those dark clouds to the west that mean rain, and I told my dad that. Didn’t make any difference though. He just cussed me and Mom and stomped up the ridge with Uncle Joe.
Used to they would’ve taken me with them. Used to, when I was little, when Dad wasn’t drinking so much, when it was Dad and Uncle Joe and Uncle Billy – Uncle Billy not drinking so the rest sober too – hunting would have meant a good day.
Instead I was in the house doing dishes and St. Lucius was in his pen because my dad said he wasn’t any damn kind of a hunting dog anyway, just a scratching mangy mutt from the pound. Not even worth his weight in feathers, he said, even though I knew they weren’t really up there hunting.
It had never been the regular kind of hunting with trained dogs and bird calls even when Uncle Billy was alive. They would just go up there and walk around the woods shooting at nothing or anything until they were tired. But at least they’d been shooting at something, not just pretending to hunt. At least they’d been walking around the trails and not drinking.
I followed my dad and Uncle Joe the last time they went hunting and they didn’t do any walking, or shooting. They just sat up there on a rock drinking.
My mom was still cursing, but I didn’t listen. Instead I looked out the window and watched St. Lucius scratch around the edges of his pen. It was funny the day we got him. It was four years before that day, so Jenny would have been seven, and I guess I would have been thirteen. I had gone down to the pound on Arches Street to get him because I wanted a dog of my own, but I told my dad I found him down in Newland Holler, just a lost stray. He was madder than hell when Jenny let slip where I got him.
Jenny wanted to name my dog St. Lucius because her teacher had been teaching about strange things in school, Saints and Popes and stuff, even though the Sunday school women over at the Methodist Church didn’t like it, and that day she had heard about this one, St. Lucius. She said he’d been martyred saving some Christians, which she said meant he was crucified like Jesus even though I already knew what martyred meant, and so a Pope had been named after him. That was what she liked, that he was a martyr and a Pope, so that’s what she wanted to name my dog. Mom said St. Lucius was a bad name for a dog, but I said okay because I didn’t care what my dog’s name was as long as he had one. And it made Jenny happy.
The water ran hot over the dishes, steam coming up into my eyes and my hands swollen red, but I didn’t turn the water down.
“I swear Johnny,” my mom said, “no one thinks I’ll ever leave that man, but I could. Jesus knows I could,” she said, but I didn’t think she meant it. And no one else did either.
I had heard people talking, mostly the women at Church. They said my mom might’ve left us – before Uncle Billy’s leg got caught in the hay bailer and we all saw him go, she might have left. But not now. None of us would leave after that, they said. They said that, but I knew better.
Mom wasn’t swearing anymore, but she still ran the dry cloth fast over the dishes and I was glad for the distraction when I heard someone knocking on the door. Annie stood at the back porch, skin as brown as an Indian, saying she wanted to go down to the river and see the swimming hole, maybe swim a little. She wore her jean shorts with the ragged ends, white pieces of cloth handing down against her thighs, and the blue tank top she’d been wearing the Friday before when it slipped so easy off her shoulders, hair clicking with static when she pulled the shirt over her head.
I didn’t even tell my mom I was going. Just shouted bye and ran out quick. But I should have known something was wrong because Annie didn’t bring her bathing suit.
I tried to hold Annie’s hand walking down the lane, but her fingers were limp inside mine and she let her hand drop the first chance she got. I tried putting my hand on her shoulder, over that blue strap and a piece of hair stuck underneath, but it was awkward walking down the hill and I couldn’t keep my hand in place. I tried the small of her back. Annie’s shirt was damp with sweat and warm from the heat of her skin. She let my hand rest there a second then pulled away.
All through the walk down there, a mile or so give or take, I tried to tell Annie about Mom and Dad and Uncle Joe, but she wasn’t listening. I kept repeating myself because I could see she didn’t hear me the first time, but then she didn’t seem to hear the second time either. I saw this after about half a mile but I just kept on talking.
When we got down to the river I looked at Annie. Her eyes reflected the blue off the water and I wanted to kiss her because the sun was bright on the river, tiny lights shining off the ripples like crystals and I’d kissed her before, but her face looked different that day and I could see she didn’t want to be kissed. Instead I asked if she wanted to swim. She didn’t say anything, just looked at the water running slow over the rocks and pooling in the swimming hole. She just kept on staring.
So I said, “Okay, I’ll swim,” and took off my shirt.
My shirt stuck to my back when I pulled it off, but the water was well-water cold, and once I got out past the brush I felt a warm breeze pushing over the river.
Halfway into the river, water running up around my belly button, I started to think that the water was moving so slow and the wind was moving so slow that it might just stop all together. Like maybe time itself would just stop and it would be me and Annie down on the river. Just me and Annie and nothing else.
That’s what I was thinking when I heard the first shot. I knew my dad and Uncle Joe were up there hunting so I didn’t think much of it, just kept wading deeper into the water. But then I thought about the last time they were on the ridge and how none of us heard any shooting all day, how none of us had heard any shooting since Uncle Billy had been with them. I thought maybe that was a good sign. Maybe they were walking the trails with the liquor wearing off. Maybe they would stay up there until they sobered up, then come back down and get the rest of the hay in before it rained. Uncle Joe would sit in the tractor pulling the bailer and my dad would walk ahead of him raking the heavy hay into rows, leaving round bails to sit like fat kings on the rolling hills behind them.
I was about out to the middle of the river, water running slow under my chin, when I turned around to look at Annie. She wasn’t standing on the bank where I left her but had crawled onto the diving rock and sat perched like a hen on the edge of the rock, just where your feet would take their last push into the air if you were jumping. I waved to her but she didn’t wave back. She just stared up the river, her long hair draped over her shoulders, brown skin against white rock.
She sat there like she was thinking about time too, looking far up the river like she could see the end coming. That, or she was thinking about Uncle Billy. She told me before how she thought about the day we heard him screaming from the house and looked out the window in time to see his boot disappear into the bailer, then all of us running and shouting at my dad to turn the motor off but his not hearing because he had his new radio turned up too loud in the tractor cab. Annie said that’s what she remembered, how Uncle Billy churned around with the chains and hay getting all cut up while she ran through the half-plowed field, wind whipping her hair around her face and my dad listening to Patsy Cline on the radio. She said she wondered if Uncle Billy could hear the music playing from deep inside the hay and the chains.
I hoped she wasn’t thinking about Uncle Billy, even though it was hay season again and we could both hear the whine of a tractor on the other side of the river, because she looked nice sitting up there, nice in a strange way like those armless Greek statues you see in schoolbooks – those statues that look pretty and sad all at once. Annie looked just like that, pretty and sad up on the diving rock, when a second shot came ringing off the ridge. But this shot didn’t sound like the first. It didn’t have that fast zipping sound a rifle makes and I thought maybe Dad took his Smith and Wesson up with him because he sometimes did that, but I couldn’t think why he would fire it.
“That wasn’t a rifle shot,” Annie said, and I wanted to agree, but she still looked sad and I couldn’t think of anything else.
And anyway I didn’t have time to talk because then we heard a yell, not like the call we used to talk from ridge to ridge and ridge to river but a low devil-sounding yell. A deep animal yell. Like those feral cats that make so much noise fighting each other, their low moaning cries, and I knew it came from my dad.
“What the hell was that?” Annie asked, but I didn’t answer.
The river was hot around me, even though a minute ago it was cold as ice. I pushed my feet up and down inside my sneakers, water squishing in and out.
Annie stayed quiet until I was almost back to the riverbank where the water ran cool again around my shins and dripped from my shorts. I watched the drops hit the shallows of the river, their rings circling out till they hit one another, and Annie still stood up on that rock. She didn’t come down to me. And that’s where we were – her high up on the rock, legs spread apart like a super hero, face blacked out by the sun shining around her – when she told me she wouldn’t be coming around anymore. First I thought she meant coming back to the river.
“That’s okay,” I said. “We can go swim down at the Terrace or the Y,” but she said no, she didn’t mean that.
She wasn’t going to the river or the Terrace or the Y. She wouldn’t be around at all anymore.
I just stood there with this kind of numb feeling and I must have stood there for a while because all of the sudden my shorts weren’t dripping anymore. I took the last few steps out of the river and Annie took a little hop onto the dirt path leading back toward the house. She started walking so I followed her.
I asked where she was going, but she didn’t say anything, just kept walking up the first big hill, her eyes fixed on some spot up ahead. I thought maybe she would go to her brother’s place in the next valley over, because he’d left about a year ago – right before Uncle Billy died – to live with his girlfriend in Hancock County.
“You going to live with Sam, all the way over in Hancock?” I asked, but she said she wasn’t going to Hancock or Sullivan or even Amblin County on the other side of Elizabethton.
“I’m going far away,” Annie said to me. “I don’t know for sure where yet, but somewhere all the way out of Virginia. I’ve got to get away from these mountains and valleys.”
I tried to imagine somewhere like that but all I could think were words like flat, vulture, and Arkansas.
“What about your parents?” I asked her. “Don’t they care if you leave?”
I thought she’d say something about how she was almost eighteen and could leave if she wanted to, but she didn’t. All she said was that she had to go.
We were past the big hill. All that was left was the small one, then the pond and we’d be back to the house. I had to think of some way to keep her out there. There were so many things out there that could make her stay. The trees, maybe. I would point out the trees, especially the big oak trees and how pretty they were, how they made things like Mom and Dad fighting and Jenny being scared just kind of go away. Or the creek that ran from the cow pasture down to the waterfall. I would remind her how we climbed that waterfall when we were little. I would tell her, in case she’d forgotten, about the time she put her whole hand in a bunch of stinging nettle and I sucked on her fingers, my tongue going numb from the stingers hitting it, until it didn’t hurt her anymore.
“Look at the trees,” I told her, pointing across the creek that ran alongside us, water running slow toward the river. “You’re going to leave those trees? Look at that one oak tree. How’re you going to go somewhere where there are no trees like that?”
Annie looked at the tree, her eyes squinty.
“It’s just a tree, Johnny,” Annie said, and my mind went fuzzy.
I should have told Annie to look at the hay field on the other side of the creek, to watch how the wind ran through it, rolled it like waves. I should have reminded her, because she could have forgotten, how we used to play in the hay barn when we were little. We’d play king of the hill and needle in a haystack and afterwards we’d be red and itchy, uncomfortable from hay running over our bare skin, but uncomfortable in a good way. I should have told her these things because telling her would make her stay, but instead I started talking about last Friday night.
“Didn’t that mean something?” I asked her. “You’ve never done that before,” I said knowing it was true even if Steve Johnson had seen her in Mikey Parson’s car last winter.
She made a face like she was going to say something, but then she got this glean in her eyes and her lips puckered up. She didn’t say anything.
“We could do it again,” I told her, even though I knew I shouldn’t. I knew it was the wrong thing to say before it left my mouth.
Annie was walking so fast we were almost running and her eyes were squinted almost shut. Her lips parted and I could hear heavy air flowing in and out.
“No Johnny,” Annie said. “It didn’t mean anything. It didn’t mean anything Friday and if we did it again it wouldn’t mean anything again.”
I wanted to ask her, if it didn’t matter, why she had wanted to do it, but her face told me asking wouldn’t get an answer. She had this face that said nothing would make a difference now.
“I thought it would make a difference,” Annie said. “But it didn’t. It won’t.”
When we got over the last hill I saw my mom standing on the front porch. Dad and Uncle Joe were in the yard and I could tell something was wrong before we were even halfway across the field.
St. Lucius was sprawled in the grass in front of my dad and Uncle Joe. He was howling and I wondered why Annie and I hadn’t heard it coming up that last hill, but then Annie said she had wondered what all that noise was, so I just didn’t hear it somehow. I thought it was strange that I didn’t hear my own dog crying, but then I started to realize exactly what was wrong. St. Lucius squirmed and writhed in the grass and blood poured out of a bunch of splattered holes in his belly. His fur was caked and matted. And then there was another hole top of his head, a stream of dark blood coming out of it.
I walked over to St. Lucius and I was feet away from my dad and Uncle Joe when I smelled the liquor. It was so strong I thought it’d knock me over. I looked down at my dog. He quivered all over. His eyes were closed.
Up on the porch I heard my mom make a heavy noise in her throat and somewhere behind me Annie shuffled her feet, sneakers running through dried grass making a brittle, dead sound. My hands were balled up in fists and I thought what I would do with them, because I knew right away my dad had something to do with it, even if I couldn’t see the how or the why. But then Uncle Joe said it was an accident, that St. Lucius must have gotten out of his pen and followed them up the ridge and nobody knew.
I looked at my dog and there were two different shots, one from a shotgun and one from a pistol in his head. I wondered about those holes. I wondered about how neither of them had taken the shotgun with them. And I wondered about how I hadn’t heard a shotgun fire all day. There was one rifle shot, then my dad’s Smith and Wesson, then that yell.
My dad’s Smith and Wesson was holstered around his waist and Uncle Joe’s rifle was looped around his shoulder. But before I could ask about the shotgun holes Uncle Joe explained that someone else must have shot my dog with the shotgun, because he and my dad hadn’t taken one with them, and how they had tried to shoot him once in the head, to put him out of his misery Uncle Joe said, but then he didn’t die.
“We figured he must have really wanted to live to have lived through all that,” said Uncle Joe. But I knew that wasn’t true because my dad would have been cussing a blue streak if he caught someone else hunting on his property, and Uncle Joe slurred his speech he was so drunk.
The whole time my dad didn’t say anything, just stood there with his arms hanging down his side, fingers spread wide. I thought again about my fists, my hands. I raised my knuckled hand, but when I looked down it was my dad’s hand I saw – blistered, work-burnt.
It was Annie who said something. She told my dad he was full of it. Just like that she said it.
“Mr. Boyd you’re full of it,” Annie said and it surprised me so much to hear words like that said to my dad that I couldn’t do anything. I just waited for him to blow his top, but instead it was my mom.
She was still on the porch, standing so still it was hard to believe all that noise came from her. She didn’t wave her arms or anything, but curses flew out of her like I never heard before. They were so bad Uncle Joe turned red. Or maybe that was from the liquor.
At first it was all noise and I couldn’t make out the words, but then I got the gist of it. My dad shot St. Lucius; he shot him on purpose.
“I saw you out the kitchen window,” she said, “get that damn dog out of the pen and then get the shotgun out of the shed. I’ve never seen anything like it,” my mom said and I felt like I was losing ground, like it was just sinking away beneath me. “I knew you were bad when I married you,” she said, “but I never thought you’d have done something like this.”
My mom had moved off the porch while she talked. She grabbed my dad’s Smith and Wesson from his belt loop and handed it to him.
“Now put that god damn dog out of its misery.”
At first my dad didn’t move, not an inch.
St. Lucius didn’t look like a hunting dog because he wasn’t a hunting dog. When I got him he was furry and white, like he was all fur and nothing else, and he kept licking Jenny’s nose and trying to eat her hair. Jesus was I glad Jenny wasn’t there. I looked down the hill to Lilly Jane’s but there was no one outside. I kept looking, past Lilly Jane’s as far as I could down the winding road until the mountains took it from my eyes. The road snaked through the ridges, yellow line racing the wind as it ran through the trees and quiet houses, running right out of the valley.
My dad stood still, holding the gun and looking down at the grass. Then he got this funny look on his face. His forehead wrinkled a little and he handed me the gun.
“Your dog, Johnny,” he said, “your responsibility.”
I looked at my mom and at first she just looked surprised, the same face she made when Dad hit her earlier, but then she seemed to drain out of her body all at once. There wasn’t anger or sadness or anything on her face. It was just empty. I tried to look into her eyes to see if they would tell me what to do, but turned away from me and walked inside the house.
Then Uncle Joe was on his knees saying it was his fault.
“I tried to shoot him, I tried. But I missed,” Uncle Joe said.
Someone asked why Uncle Joe would want to shoot St. Lucius, and it must have been Annie, but her voice sounded strange and far away.
Uncle Joe said no, he didn’t shoot St. Lucius. Up on the ridge, Uncle Joe said. Uncle Joe tried to shoot my dad up on the ridge.
“I shot at him,” Uncle Joe said, “but it was his fault. I shot at him because it was his god damn fault.”
Uncle Joe had shot at my dad with the rifle, but he missed. Dad had fired the Smith and Wesson straight into the air. Then he put his gun in Uncle Joe’s hand.
“Put the barrel on his forehead,” Uncle Joe said, “and put my hand on the trigger.”
But Uncle Joe couldn’t shoot my dad, and my dad couldn’t kill his brother.
“I followed him all the way down here,” said Uncle Joe, “watched him pull that dog out of the pen. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t.”
My mind should have been racing with thoughts or fuzzy with confusion, but it wasn’t. All I thought about was that road, that yellow line running fast out of the valley. The gun felt heavy in my hand. I looked down at my dog, the blood still slowly seeping out. Slow like night’s darkness leaking off the morning fields in that endless kind of way, making it hard to tell when the sun is still sleeping and when it’s up, taking its place among the clouds and the tall, tall trees. I pointed the gun at St. Lucius’s head.
But Annie wasn’t standing behind me anymore, and I remembered what she said, how she wouldn’t be living down the road anymore. How she was leaving. I thought about Uncle Billy and how if he’d heard the yelling my dad could have pulled him out of that bailer, grabbed Uncle Billy by the cuff of his jeans the way he must have grabbed St. Lucius by the collar and pulled him out of the pen.
Annie walked down our long driveway toward the road, hair swishing across her back, and I thought I should stop her, or go with her. But my dog still lay at my feet, and the gun was still heavy in my hand. I looked at my dad. His face was turned down but his eyes looked right at me, and I thought I saw something underneath those hazy eyes. I thought I saw my father’s eyes searching.
I pulled back the hammer. But then I felt that soft valley-breeze on my back pushing time forward, and it was done. St. Lucius’s eyes were closed. The grass around him was watered lush-red. I let my hand fall to my side, because see, there were still those oak trees by the river. And the river still sat back there cool and bright. There were square bails piled in the barn below the hill and wind running wild through the unplowed hay in the two-acre bottom. There was the creek and the waterfall. There was the pond full of fish.