Asking For Forgiveness
We stand at the edge of the ancient forest, yellow blurry eyes weeping with sickness, as a cool breeze pushes through the leaves, the light flickering in the cabin, as the day starts to slip away. We are more than we were last month, double what was birthed last year, and none of us remember being upright—we stand on all four now as if this was how we were made.
We watch the boy fill his bucket with sand, and then empty it, and then fill it again, sitting there with his short blonde hair and overalls, smacking his lips as we smack our warped mouths open and shut, not a care in the world, the lad, acres of dead land stretching out in every direction, her eyes on him from the kitchen, our eyes on him from the drifting shade.
Lips cracking as our fetid grins widen, the teeth come out—sour saliva spilling onto the dirt path, our gangly limbs shaking, sores mottled with flies and squirming maggots, waiting for the right time to claim him as our own.
The sun is descending, the moon slow to rise, and the boy still plays in the box, no sign of the change yet, a cough from him and he stands up slowly, thumb in his mouth, rubbing at his eyes with tiny fists, falling back down, and then gradually tipping over.
The screen door creaks open and she wipes her long, slender fingers on the stained, faded apron, a stray strand of yellow hair tucked back as she steps outside, slow to approach him, humming something under her breath, hoping the boy is tired, not shifting, hoping that the movement she sees in the encroaching woods is nothing more than the fluttering wind, her sigh in unison, the boy merely asleep.
We murmur mother, but her gaze only touches the edge of the yard, before darting away.
We must bide our time now, we were too early it seems, so we retreat to the cave, where one by one she brought us, hand in hand, down a long, winding path, thorny branches reaching out, nipping at our bare, mottled flesh. For each of us it was a secret, something she whispered to us in the middle of the night, her vanilla lavender lips on our foreheads, her promises and apologies falling on deaf, damaged ears. She was our mother, and we were her children. We trusted her when we were submerged in the bath—soap bubbles and laughter, pushing our heads under, but then lifting us back up. Her tears were tears of joy, we thought—she always brought us back up into the light, up out of the water. She never kept us under. Perhaps those hesitations, those extra seconds, went unnoticed.
On the nights when the moon filled the sky and the windows leaked light, she would open the creaking door and slip away for hours on end. What were we to think? She always had something to do—water from the well, fruit from the bent apple tree, down on her knees in the garden, pulling and grunting, basket over one arm, basket over the other, knife in the kitchen slicing, boiling water, oil heating, a slip here and there, a gasp and a red trickle, but these are the ways of the land. Nothing here was foreign.
The berries on the other side of the hill, sometimes strawberries, sometimes blue, her hair filled with twigs, the scratches up and down her arms most definitely from thorns, not him, the clothes drying on the line, her delicates, never dotted with blood, it must be the berries, we told ourselves. What did we know? We were babies, then—still babies now.
In the cave we snap at each other, and then huddle in the middle, pressed up against each other, for warmth, for companionship, out of habit, and memory, as we hope for something more. Perhaps tomorrow we will stop the cycle—or perhaps she will bring him here, the coward that she is.
Our father was a rumor, an echo, something only to be seen out of the corner of your eye. Our father was a woodsman, arms like tree limbs, beard as if born from bear, disappearing for days, for weeks, returning with so many things—tiny bird skulls, beads on a string, flowers for mother with purple blossoms and veiny leaves. The wood was stacked along one side of the cabin as high as it could go, the steady chop, the split of the timber, just part of the day, or so we were told. Our father was the cold creek that ran south of our home, filled with silver-backed fish with blood-orange meat, whispering every time we neared it, quenching our thirst, promises of sleepy peace if only we’d step a bit closer. Our father was the frosty moon that pasted the land with silence as our breath formed clouds of pain, feet bruised and bleeding, his laughter running over the mountain, guiding us down one ravine and up the other, wandering from hill to valley and back, some elusive destination always out of reach. Our father was time, stretched in every direction, elastic as a rubber band, as slow and anchored as a wall of granite, our eyes closing, waking up sore, grey where black had been. All lies. Everything she had ever told us was a lie. She never loved us, or it wouldn’t be like this.
In the night there is a flash of silver, our father returned, and in the morning, I stand alone at the edge of the woods. I heard them crying, I saw him approach, his hand on each one of us, muttering kind words, his voice nearly forgotten, his muscled grip soothing, then choking, then ripping, the piercing of flesh, and my kin was held down, one by one, eyes wide open, and yet, disbelieving. I too, did not move, did not understand. Perhaps she had seen us, feared us, known what we planned to do, the bloodline destined to end by our teeth and claws and squinting eyes. Father would not allow it, he had returned with thunder and lightning and vengeance—a great rain pouring down outside, washing away our sins. I alone was spared, the eldest.
Alone now, I’ve lost my way, finding it hard to leave the cave, until the stench grows so foul that I force myself to grab them, one by one, and drag their filthy bodies down the rocky path that spilled to the east, casting them over the edge of the mossy cliff, one by one, not looking down, not taking note, merely laboring on because questions still remained.
With nothing left to do but watch and wait, I would wake when the sun pushed into the cave, and stumble down to the edge of the forest, smoke rising out of the stack, the woodpile never shrinking, something he could do right, and I would stare at her as she opened the creaking door, bucket of water tossed outside, a sigh and her hands on her back, bending backwards and moaning, taking a deep breath, swelling up again, the moon reaping its harvest. I wanted to hate her, as much as I wanted her praise—anything, any gesture at all, so hungry I was for even a scrap. Back inside and then out with a basket, laundry on the line, the boy stepping gingerly behind her, walking now, his head on a swivel, this way and that, sniffing the air, his hand reaching out for her hem, taller now, a twitch in his shoulders, scanning the land for what, I do not know.
When she finally brings me the boy, I can see he is not well, this experiment she keeps trying, once again a disaster. He is naked, standing, but beginning to hunch over, his eyes a cream like spoiled milk, his lips distended, teeth pushing around his mouth in crooked horror, his hand in hers, as she stands there swelling, tears in her eyes, rubbing her mouth with the back of her hand, speaking my name. I had forgotten my name.
Her hand is on my neck, rubbing, patting, petting, as she pleads with me to take care of him, to not grow bitter, to find it in my heart to welcome my brother into the woods, while she tries once again to find a cure. I do not hate her any longer, my mother, my beacon, for the land is empty. My father continues his long walks in every direction—north into the cold, the winter and frost, fingers ruddy and numb; south into the dry heat, vultures, tumbleweeds and one false oasis after another.
She will continue to try, in this barren wasteland to be the mother that no one else can be. She will not let us expire, this last great race, she will not let it all end with a whimper and a cough, a last gasp and shuddering sickness, she will swim in the water, she will kneel in the moonlight, she will pray to the lost gods, and bleed in her solitude, my father standing with his shadow cast out, darkness ever creeping, asking for forgiveness.
Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of eight books—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), Transubstantiate, Herniated Roots, Staring Into the Abyss, Tribulations, Spontaneous Human Combustion (Turner Publishing), and The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, Thriller, and Audie awards. His over 165 stories in print include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), Cemetery Dance (twice), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Shallow Creek, The Seven Deadliest, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), PRISMS, and Shivers VI. Visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com for more information.