By P.K. Lynch
Legend Times Ltd Copyright © 2016 P.K. Lynch
All rights reserved.
She said the world is divided. She said there are tribes in the world, and countries, and countries at war, and factions within factions within those countries, and basically there's a whole load of fucked up shit going on. But the biggest difference, she said, the biggest basic difference was between people. That's what she said.
She said, basically, not all people are people. That is to say, not all people are human. They walk human, they talk human, and in every conceivable way to the untrained eye they are human, but that don't mean shit.
I didn't believe her.
She said you basically got human people and you got sub people. And we were part of that category. We're the subs.
We were sitting in the bedroom and I asked her why it was we were sub. She said it was time I knew and went downstairs. When she came back, she brought company. Seemed I was a woman now, she said, and we kept it in the family. Had done for years. She said.
What goes on inside four walls stays behind four walls, and sometimes what goes on behind four walls isn't even talked about there. There was three of them but only two did it. I never liked it none.
You knew it was coming. It would start on a Wednesday before Pop came home early for supper. Jojo turned up the volume real loud and we'd bounce to Destiny's Child, one sharp eye trained on the window so we'd know he was coming. Only reason Pop allowed that album in the house was the 'Gospel Medley' slipped in at the end. He didn't know we always skipped that one. Jojo was obsessed with that band: Them's Texas girls, Aggie, and look at 'em now, she told me. Them's God-fearing girls, she told him, good God-fearing girls. She shook that tush like she could dance her way out of our crappy kitchen all the way to a Broadway stage. In reality, she couldn't even dance away from Pop's pinching fingers.
He knew how to fill a room, did Pop. We'd all three of us be in the kitchen, Jojo working, quietly humming whichever tune we'd got to before we had to turn it off, and me suddenly with my nose in a book. I did like to read, so it was a convincing lie. Pop would lean back in his chair at the head of the table and stretch his arms out over the wood, stroking it with his big old knobbled hands. You were born on that table, he told me, conceived on it too, and he'd start to laugh. Same every week. I couldn't figure what was so funny. Sometimes he pointed to a stain on the wooden floor beneath it, and told me it was my blood. No laughing then.
I'd stare at that big dirty patch for hours on end, trying to figure what it really was. Jojo was in the kitchen all the while, moving between cupboards, getting it all together for him. No matter how prepared she was, he always managed to surprise her and the food was never just ready to go.
Day after that was Thursday and instead of taking sandwiches out, Cy would come in from the fields for lunch. Somehow he'd always manage to get in Jojo's way while she sliced his bread. I used to worry where that bread knife would land when she was trying to dodge him.
For years it was as if Cy had never even noticed me but it got to the point where, on Thursdays, he would ruffle my hair and pinch my cheeks. Jojo would bang the knife off the countertop and tell him off but he just laughed and said it didn't hurt me none. It did hurt a little but I was just real happy to have him smile at me.
On Thursday nights, both men came in for supper. Before it started on me I never noticed the little things. When Jojo put his plate in front of him, Pop would give her hair a little tug. If she dropped something, he'd smack her backside but he'd be laughing the whole time and winking at me. I practiced real hard just so I could wink back. For years, I didn't see it as anything other than fun. Don't remember Jojo complaining much about it, not even when he threatened to cut that mole off her face. She said later he would never have done it. They left her alone once they started on me.
Pop went first. He didn't take long. Four Sinner's Prayers, usually. But Cy took longer. Pop would laugh and it made Cy go rougher and I'd lose count of the prayers in my head.
Ash never did it. They'd tried to make him once but he couldn't. After that, they just made him watch. Once Pop and Cy were finished and gone, he'd hand me a handkerchief to wipe myself with and then leave, not looking at me, not saying nothing about it. I'd wash it and slip it in with his clean laundry afterward. Same every week, until the day Ash left. I asked Jojo about him and she just shrugged and said, I guess he's different, and that was the end of that.
That was my people. Pop, Cy, Ash, Jojo.
The Jones family.
They called me Aggie.
We lived on a sheep farm but we had a couple of bulls too. Cy bought them without Pop's say-so after getting lucky in a card game. Pop was set to blow. What we want bulls for in the middle of cattle country, when every damn farmer already had all the bulls he wanted? Cy was to take them back but he never did, even when Pop cocked his gun. Cy just banged both his fists down on the table and screamed Do it! His face was red and spit flew out. Before that, I never knew men could scream. That was the only time I saw Cy stand his ground with Pop.
Cy wanted to be a cow man. Said sheep were for women. It's true we were the only sheep farm around, that I knew of at any rate. Anyway, guess Cy knew what he was doing, because there was something about those bulls. People used to come hire them and they'd get taken off to do their business with the lady-bulls, as Jojo called them. She used to be good at getting me to laugh.
The bulls were kept indoors over winter and looked after real well. They got the best food Cy could find, and when I grew tall enough I was allowed to comb them. As long as you stayed calm and kept sharp, you'd be alright. It paid to keep an eye out for Pop as well, because the bulls got nervous around him. Everybody got nervous around him.
Me and Jojo never had much to do with the farm until lambing season. Then we'd go from five hundred sheep to five hundred sheep plus a thousand lambs. It got real busy around then. I'd finally got to an age where I could help at night. I was tired from March till June but I liked it alright. Jojo showed me how to feed them from a bottle if their momma refused them. But the rest of the year it was just Pop, Cy and Ash doing the work. Jojo fed us and looked after the house while I was kicked off to school in the town.
The town was dead. One little main street with a few stores selling random stuff, one dusty antique place that I never in all my life saw open, and a filling station in front of old Huck Rawlings' place. The only thing the town had going for it was the school. It was big and modern. Looked out of place sitting beside the rickety town but someone somewhere had decided we were the best spot for it and kids were bussed in from all over. I cycled the four miles there and back until the snow came, and then Jojo put the chains on the truck and drove me.
School was deadly dull apart from the times you got pulled into a scrap. I respected the teachers, even though most of them were dimmer than glow-worms in fog, but some of those kids needed a bashing. They'd get smart with me and say things about my family, leaving me no choice but to straighten them out. Jojo used to argue about me with the principal, Mr Ginn, until eventually everyone decided it would be best if Jojo taught me at home.
Our momma made our house look like a library. Books took over the whole place until one day, Pop got the devil in him. The devil always arrived with the whisky. He built a bonfire and threw dozens of Momma's books on, before passing out on the porch.
One we saved was a prize given to Momma when she was a girl. Inside the front cover it said Awarded to Marilyn Coombe for General Excellence. Jojo kept that one separate from all the others. There was a story called Jack King the Pirate Kid. John King was a bad boy who deserted his momma and ran away to sea with a bunch of pirates. I used to make Jojo act it out with me in the old fishing boat my momma had brought with her from the coast when she married my pop.
I'd whittled the name Jack King into the wood, even though Jojo had told me boats had to be girls and it was weird to make it a boy boat. I said it wasn't any weirder than having a boat moored on a sheep farm, miles away from any water, and Jojo said Momma was a stubborn kind of gal. After Momma walked out, Ash worked on it, said one day Jack King would be back on the sea, but that old boat sat there for years, rotting its way through every season. Me and Jojo sailed it a thousand times. If a person's got the mind for it, they can travel anywhere they like without moving an inch.
At the time, I had no real recollection of our momma. No one said anything much about her, except Pop, who got the conniptions every now and then and started shouting the part about her being a whore. He used to tell me she'd run off with pirates, and for a long time I believed him.
Don't you girls go getting any of your momma's hifalutin ideas, you hear? You're good girls. Not like that pirate whore I was damned to call a wife. Aint that right, Cy?
Cy nodded, his teeth exposed by his tight smile, his tongue darting between dry lips.
That's the truth, sir. That sure is the truth.
Jojo basically raised me herself. I learned all about everything from her and Momma's books. Being farm folks, I liked to know about the country. I learned about how the land had always been here but the people constantly changed. First we had the French folks, then the Spanish and Germans too, and then we had to fight to get away from Mexico that one time. Guess everyone's fighting to get away from someone. Unless they're Jojo. Unless they've got no fight left at all.
The day my story starts happened by accident, which I guess is how a lot of stories start, because who in the world gets up in the morning knowing for sure how their day's going to end? It had been a long, slow burn of a summer. Time was I used to love the summer. Must have been pretty boring for Jojo having to look after such a little sister but she never let it show. She was so much older, she should have been going to parties and meeting boys instead of building dens and baking cookies with me, but to her credit, I never felt she wanted to be any place other than where I was. Not that Pop would have let her go anyway. But this was the summer after it started and things with me and Jojo were different now. She hardly ever spent any time with me, and when she did, she'd just get annoyed and snap when I tried to talk about what was going on. After a while, I learned not to ask. I fell in with her silence. Guess it was the silence eventually that allowed me to go.
I was coming down the stairs carrying laundry. The front door was wide open and the thought slipped in and planted itself. I could just leave right now. It was that simple. Momma had done it. Ash had done it. Why not me?
I put down the basket and looked out. We had six hundred acres of land. We were small fry but it was big enough to get lost in. I guessed the men must have been on the far side of the farm. I stood in the doorway, half in, half out, waiting for any of them to appear. Funny how just a thought can make you feel guilty.
The summer had been a gusty one with more dust devils than normal blowing through, but everything that day was so straight and calm. Above me, a single wisp of cloud stayed still and quiet, abandoned in the big blue.
I started to walk. Just casual, not going anywhere really. I ran my fingers over the bow of the patched-up fishing boat as I passed it. Insects hummed and scratched in the long grass beside me. Every step I took on the graveled track sounded like thunder. As I got further from the house and my plans were gradually making themselves real, I began to pray I wouldn't meet Pop or Cy coming the other way in the tractor.
Halfway along the track, right where the ground rises a little bit, I stopped and looked back. Still see it in my mind's eye, clear as that day itself. Our house, painted white with burnt orange shutters, trusted keeper of secrets, and her alone, upstairs at my bedroom window, staring down at me. I'd never looked at her from this far away before. I didn't realize she could be so small. How long did we stand there holding each other's gaze, reading each other's thoughts? I willing her to join me, she willing me to come back.
The spell broke. Pop appeared from round the back of the house, bellowing something, I couldn't say what, and he charged in through the open door, fierce as one of Cy's bulls. When I looked back at the window, Jojo was gone.
I ran hard. Every time my feet hit the ground, little bits of dust and stone blew up and filled my shoes. Flew in my mouth too, but I didn't notice till later. Kept my back straight and didn't look back once.
I reached the end of the track and for a minute I was stuck. A person could only choose left or right from our gate. The right road led to town where people knew me. I chose left. That way was the rest of the world. No saying how long it would take before I got to any place worth being. No saying I'd even manage that.
Pretty soon I had no run left. I slowed to a walk but kept looking over my shoulder. I couldn't guess if Jojo had covered for me. Every time I saw a car coming I dived down the bar ditch, knowing all the time that if Pop came after me in the tractor, he'd be sitting so high that no ditch short of a canyon would be deep enough to hide me.
Seemed I walked a good long way before coming across a patch of snakeweed, all rude and yellow, and I almost laughed out loud. Pop hated that plant, as did just about every farmer because it's poisonous to animals, and here it was, thick enough to hide a person. I hunkered down behind it and waited for nightfall, and all I could hear was Pop's mocking voice: Look at yourself, girl. Nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
Hard sitting still so long. My heart beat like a drum for the crickets to sing to. Mouth so dry, I scraped my tongue along my back teeth to try and make saliva. There was nothing to distract me from the thoughts rolling round my head. What would happen to Jojo when Pop realized I was gone? If I went back now, maybe it wouldn't be so bad. But then his hands, his thick bristles. My fingers sank into dust, scrabbling for something to cling to, something to keep me there, anchored, as though I'd ever find courage to move. My throat ached with the effort of not crying out her name. I should have asked her one more time. Begged her. Her voice came to me then, more real than the stones that scratched my fingers, saying the same thing I'd heard a thousand times before.
But what if Momma comes back, Aggie? How will she find us?
Pop needs us, Aggie. He aint no good without a woman to look after him.
His hands. Those bristles.
It aint right, Jojo. It just aint.
A buzzard circled above me. I must have seemed pretty small to him, sitting all crunched up behind that bush. I flapped my arms to scare him off but he just came lower, like he was sizing me up. I searched the ground for something to throw but then he swooped and landed a little further down the road where some creature had come to a sticky end. There was nothing to do but watch as the sharp beak pecked and forced its way in, tugging at the insides like a rope. The bird fed a while and was joined by two more. Their heads hammered up and down, in and out of the deadness, and when a car or truck came by they scattered, returning seconds later to feast some more.
At last the sun sank and the moon sailed high. I forced my head to tell my body to stretch out, stand up, start walking. I passed what was left of the road kill. Turned out to be a luckless armadillo lying on its back, two front claws pointing skyward in pointless defense.
The road was almost dead in the night, save for those snakes that seeped from the grass and lay down on the tarmac to draw the day's heat. I paid them no mind, more wary of approaching headlamps than the coon tail rattlers. Whenever they gleamed in the distance, I lay flat in the ditch until they passed by. One time I heard a rattle real close in the grass beside me but I didn't move an inch, preferring my chances with a snake than with Pop.
The moon was fat and made a good light to walk by. I willed the rain to come, and when it did I tipped my head back and caught a drink. Lucky I didn't catch a chill as well. As I told myself over and over, there's always a silver lining. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Armadillos by P.K. Lynch. Copyright © 2016 P.K. Lynch. Excerpted by permission of Legend Times Ltd.
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