“You think you got it bad? You think you work harder than most people?”
He tells us that when he was growing up, in his country, an only son, he worked whatever job he could when he was just eight to support his family. And that his father was a drunk and used to tie him to a tree and beat him. And how he never had any shoes, and that he played soccer barefoot until his feet bled.
We're at the table and I'm trying hard to swallow a mouthful of slimy chicken, the only food that makes me gag. He makes it two or three times a week because he wants me to understand that somewhere children starve. He killed the rooster himself this time, the tough old bird that used to chase me out of the barn and scold me. I had nightmares about its sharp beak stabbing me in the eye.
The curry stains his white beard yellow in little tufts at the corners of his lips and his hands stain the pages of the Bible on the table in greasy thumb-shapes. I watch as he folds a corner down. He blames all the stains on cigarettes and adds more yellow powder to the pot. I agree with my father that other children starve. But I secretly wonder if other children vomit in their plates, is it still a waste to throw it away? I did that once, but nobody could tell the difference, so they made me eat it.
It wouldn't be so bad, the chicken, but the smell of it swims throughout the house like it's lost and searching, and always, the yellow stains, creeping from every crack: on the table, all ground into the knots in the wood, in puddles on the place mats, and in my father's beard the crusty strands cling. On good days, it stains Grey-dog's lips, it gets between the pages of the Sears catalogue on our table that everyone touches but no one ever opens. It blots those pink and mint cardiganed blondies into blotchy canaries with faces of meat. At best I make it to the toilet with an entire fistful, and if it doesn't flush I don't have to be scared because neither my mother nor my father seems to tell the difference anyhow.
Everyone's done but me, and he is saying something about how we are always trying to get out of stacking wood by escaping to the mall with our mother.
She is in the bathroom pretending not to hear.
But he knows she can, and he tells me: You're just like her.
He doesn't mean the good things that he reminded her of that afternoon when he kissed her and we all turned away.
Just like your mother, always trying to escape, he says. I can smell his yellow mouth and I say nothing.
My sister and brother are always finished before I am and I don't know how they do it. I'm almost 14 and the oldest, and it should be easier for me because I've been at it longer. Cora's plate isn't empty; she's left the gluier bits behind. But it's enough to pass, enough for a ticket back to her room, and her dolls. I hear her slam her door. Leo's plate is clean and I can see him from the window. He's outside drawing faces in the dirt, plucking dandelions for the eyes. A grimy black bird lands to peck at them as though they were stale bread. He shoos it away. It lands a few feet away and looks up to catch me staring.
My father patiently rolls a cigarette. My mother's doing the dishes and she coughs and sighs so I can hear her, so that I know if it were up to her I could eat something else or not eat at all. My father stands, stretches and lets Grey-dog outside.
“You have an hour, Chayla,” he says, and stares.
I stare back and see that one of his eyes is black and floats high above his face like it's searching for something that's not in the room. The lashes are long and grey, covered in dust. He blinks fast and the dust flits towards my open look. I can't stop the tears from streaming down to wet my nose. I have to blink even though I don't want to lose that hovering eye. When I open my eyes again and look through the water at his gliding gaze the lashes are as black as the eye itself and both parts shine wild in the dim kitchen. But as he's turning away, I notice that all that dust is back again, right where it started. He goes without saying a word. I've mentioned his eye to Cora but either she doesn't see what I mean or else she'd rather not. Either way, I don't blame her.
My mother does the dishes with her back turned so all I can see is her silky shirt draping lovely beneath her pale speckled neck. I blow a little of the air and dust around us to tickle her, to get her attention. I aim right and she sneezes and shakes, breaking a plate in half against the side of the sink. When she turns around I see she's cut herself and is clutching her finger tight in her nice blue skirt. I notice the color it makes there where she holds it close between her thighs: it's beautiful and purple like a bruise. My mother never could stand dust. But no matter how she cleans, there's always more.
She doesn't know it was me—she looks at me like we're both hurt. I look away, into my plate and do my best to make it vanish.
I carve out a bite. I scrape at each piece till the greenish jelly-like fat is all off. I round up the bits I've cleaned—they're the only ones I try to eat. The rest is filled with even more green slime, binding meat to red-grey bone. Every time I try to eat that kind my whole body slackens as the fork touches my tongue. It's a synchronized outward motion of all parts of me at once: the center of my stomach jerks forward, stepping up to bat. It feels just like that, like I'm pushing something large and hard straight out. It shoots up fast and sharp through my ribcage, tears circles through my chest and spirals up to hug the inside of my throat. It feels like I'm strangling some jagged bone, or else the bone is strangling me from inside. Then it exits through my mouth—stale chicken air—but it feels like a live, squawking bird tearing its way out. Sometimes I try and time it so my father sees me when this happens.
The first bite goes down slowly and suspiciously. The next one won't, so I have some water. Suddenly, my mother's standing over me, still holding her finger, and she sighs, deep frustration. I don't have to look to know she's shaking her head.
She picks up my plate, letting her bloody knuckle breathe and asks, “Can you eat half if I get rid of the rest?”
I glance at the door to be sure we're alone. My stomach sways and I almost grab the plate back. Her uncut hand quickly swipes most of the mess into a big green bag that sags from her bloody one, and she shoots it under the sink. When she puts it back in front of me I see she's left all the worst pieces.
My mother leaves the room and I look around. I wish there was a clock in the stupid kitchen. I begin to feel afraid and I wonder if I should I let Grey-dog in—he's scratching on the door, jumping up to stare through the window, from me to my chicken, from my chicken to me.
My father comes back, puffing a pipe. He pulls up a chair and sits down beside me. He has never done this. His chair is the one at the head of the table. It's the only one with arms and when he yells he seizes them till his dark knuckles look pale. But this time he's sitting beside me in a normal chair, leaning forward on one elbow with his head turned, just looking at me real close, like I've never seen him do. Puff, puff goes the pipe. I've whittled a decent morsel, not a bad size either, and it's on my fork all ready but I can't quite bite it because of the way he's just sitting there. Puff, puff goes the pipe and then he puts it down and steals the fork, just grabs it fast out of my hand. He's looking at the piece I made and making a shape with his mouth I've never seen, and he goes to shoving it down my throat, fork and all.
“Eat,” he says.
It's surprise that makes me choke and then gurgle like a baby bird. A baby bird, I imagine. We must look real funny, my father and I: my hands in the air reaching for nothing at all, his eyes hovering black and full of dust, trying to aim that bite right.
Just when I really start to heave, my mother comes with a basket of socks and drops it loud in the middle of the floor and screams, “Stop!”
My father says “fuck” and drops what he's doing like a hot metal skewer full of slime. The socks are spattered yellow, I see, and will have to be washed again.
As my mother and father start to fight, Grey-dog suddenly knocks down the door, jumps on the table, and scarfs down the chicken; we are all powerless to stop it. I had no idea he could be so strong and I am proud of him. But I have to try and protect him for the next little while, because he has broken all the rules. My father gives up, which he never does. I can hear my mother winning all the way from my room, even with a blanket on my head.
When my mother notices a mess she gets to scrubbing it on all fours. She can't stand stains, for one thing, and before bed that night she throws her nice blue skirt into a pot of red dye when the blood won't come off. She scrapes the yellow crust from the knots in the table with a butter knife until the varnish cracks and streaks of white wood grin through. And she can't deal with dust. That night she sneezes so much that even he can't sleep and he finally moves to another room. My mother stops sneezing and my father snores up a dust storm in the book room, alone.
The next morning is Saturday and she goes for a long run in the hot sun and he lies on the living room floor in shorts. None of us are used to seeing so much of him, not even in summer. Cora and Leo both cast glances my way but I don't look back because I know he's going to see. He's decided to show off his carefree side.
“Beautiful day for stacking some wood,” he says.
“You mean watch while you do it?” says Leo.
His hands go up to block the playful cuff that my father aims at the back of his neck and he laughs so hard at his own joke that his face turns red and shiny. Cora just groans and searches me. I know because I feel her do it, she's looking for a sign of resistance. She rolls her eyes in her dark tired way when she sees I'm not about to say anything. She's been in her room since her chicken ticket the night before and has only just emerged. Her hair is matted in a thick brown clump off to the side of her face, which is red with pillow creases. She's mismatched her sweat suit, a purple top with elastic olive pants. Toothpaste from the night before has crusted her front in a neat dry stream from her chest to her belly. She's rolling those red-rimmed eyes at me to see what I'll say to this stacking of wood business.
My mother comes back sweaty in track shorts and a sports bra and my father pulls her to the floor beside him, both of them flailing. She shrieks at the force of it as he jabs his wood-dense fingers into her ribs. He's playing around and doesn't notice what his hands are made of. She's laughing hysterically and begging him to stop and he won't until she's down, her back to him, and playing, playing dead right alongside. My sister and brother shoot me looks, I can see them from both sides.
“You know, your mother and I toiled day and night on this land long before you were born,” my father begins.
He draws my mother close as she slowly lets him. I think I catch her rolling her eyes so high and then low down that she even beats Cora, so low down that they might just plop right into her smile like peas into a pod.
“Look,” says my father.
He holds out his hand above my mother's face for all to see. It's huge and brown and the knuckles jut out all gnarled and stiff with earth-coloured blisters hiding yellow underneath. His thumbnail is dark and this means it's dead though I'm not sure how. None of us say anything, but Leo laughs. Then he holds up my mother's hand. It's red and rough from dishwater and from ignoring her cuts but her head is clear from a more or less dust-free sleep and she pulls the hand away but she doesn't feel like ruining it, his mood, so she scratches her red hand like it was just itchy and leans her body against his, arching her back along his big stomach. His dark thick arms circle her pale waist with room to spare. They're like a black and white Saturn tilted on its side. His hands are open wide across her skin and it looks like if he moved them there would be some kind of muddy underprint stretched straight along her ribs, a stark black bird, its feathers all spread out. A sudden draft from outside and my mother's allergic again, her body racked against his. Cora's already left the room and is slamming her door. My mother sighs.
Leo suddenly points at the thin light lines snaking from my father's armpit and asks what they are. He knows they're stretch marks from weight-lifting—he's already heard the story. He's stalling, that's all he's doing. He knows he can play and he's stalling. Innocent Leo. Baby brother.
“This?” says my father, leaning his head on his chest to point as though no one had ever asked him before. “These are scars,” he says.
“From what?” encourages Leo.
“When I was a boy, I was walking home from a friend's house after dark. But to get there I had to walk for about ten minutes on a path that went through the fiercest part of the jungle.”
He clears his throat. “Most people that had to travel through did it in the daytime, because you really had to be on guard.”
I hate when my father says “on guard.” His voice gets deeper when he says it and it always sounds like one word: ongarrrd!
“I was attacked by a tiger,” he continues. “I didn't even see him coming. I didn't have time to think, but luckily I knew my wrestling moves.” He winks at my brother as if they share some wrestling secret, father and son. “These are the scars,” he says again and motions to the stretch marks. “That's why you should learn how to wrestle.” He laughs and coughs, reaching up to cuff the back of my brother's head again.
My mother smiles and I hate it.
“Did you kill it?” Leo asks, but my father just smiles. Everyone is smiling.
I swallow hard, imagining I was the tiger. A real one.
We're a half hour into the stacking of wood and Cora hasn't even bothered to change her crusty shirt. Leo's walking way too slowly from the pile to the shed where we're stocking it all, making all of us a little edgy. My mother is in town buying things we need like tomato soup and shampoo. My father's leaning on the shed, sipping juice, watching. He tells Leo to stop working like a girl. I stop what I'm doing and think about lunging at my father log-first. But instead I watch as his eyes roll back, their glint shot to black again. He holds out his mug for me to take.
“What,” I say.
“Get me some more juice.”
“There's none left.”
“Yes there is.”
I turn to go check even though I know we're out because I finished the juice earlier, but that hard hand of his dries to cement on my shoulder, holding me in place.
“What?” I ask, gulping wet air that stings on the way down. I feel like scratching at his eyes until I can see them. They've sunk deep into his skull, and all I can see of them are the dark damp centers all wet and throbbing. My chest is humming a rapid tune and my attention wanders—Leo's standing by, his face all flushed and his eyes huge. Whenever he gets this look his eyelashes seem abnormally long. He gets the exact same look when we swim in the lake and he comes up really fast from ducking his head into the freezing water, his eyes so wide it's funny and drip, drip, dripping with the jolt of cold air.
“Say yes,” says my father.
“Yes,” I say.
I'm thinking how it feels as though cement from his hand has filled me up through a hole in my shoulder.
“Say: Yes, daddy!” He bellows the daddy part and the leaves on the trees get excited.
“I beg your pardon?” he says. “Do you have cotton balls wedged into your ears?”
Ha. Cotton balls, I think. Like when you open a bottle of aspirin, and you have to get rid of that soft white fluff before getting to the pills. But I read the side effects once and don't think I'll be fishing for that cotton ball any time soon, unless I'm really in pain.
Cora drops her log and hunches against the shed. Leo drops his too and stands all wide—at ease, like it's not fair damnit, and like he's gonna do something about this silly ol' matter we have going on here.
“This instant!” he hollers, and Grey-dog sprints from his nook by the oak like a bad dream is chasing him all the way to the road.
“Yes daddy!” I summon it. I know then that I must have powers.
My teeth are working so hard there's a pasty froth at the corners of my mouth—I can taste it, sticky white like flour and water. A cold grit installs circles in my temples, they whir and whir and pound at the back of my neck, begging to be let in. On my way to the kitchen I drop the mug and the handle breaks off. I cut my thumb on its sharp white smirk but it doesn't hurt. I'm about to open the door to the house when I trip. I've stepped on something. I'm not sure what it is at first, but it scares me anyway. It's hard and soft, and something inside of it moves under my shoe; I can feel it roll under the sole of my foot.
I look down and see that it's black, and wet: a tattered old dusty bird thought the window was still sky.
I thought it was dead and I stared but when I moved my foot off it it flew away—which scared me more than when it had been dead just a second before.
My mother comes home later than she said she would. We are, all of us, off to our own business by then. Leo's scratching faces in the driveway and coloring them in with Grey-dog's shit. He uses rocks for the eyes. Cora's up a tree, pretending she's a bird that would rather just sit still than fly or do anything. My father is cooking. I'm reading on the balcony when I hear my mother enter.
“I'm sorry supper's not ready yet, I've been a busy little slave for you all day.” He says it fast, before she's in the door. I can hear him.
She doesn't know until then how we've ruined his happy mood. She stops dead with the groceries swaying.
“Go find yourself another slave to please you,” he says.
She doesn't say anything and then she does.
“Yeah?” she drops the bags; I can hear the cans of tomato soup as they bash and roll. “Why don't you go and find yourself a job and stop making up stories?” She lowers her voice then, but I can still hear. “The children can hear every word you're saying.”
“Who do you think is going to hire me?” He stresses the “who” like he's asking for a miracle, like he's asking God. He means: I have dark skin and a long beard and why should I cut it and people are afraid of me, people fear the great and powerful unknown. “Who in the hell,” he repeats, banking on the “who” again. “Who do you imagine in that tiny skull of yours, woman, is going to cook the meals and gather wood while you're out doing God-knows-what all fucking day?”
I don't usually notice my father's accent but when he gets really angry and starts saying “fuck” or “fucking” a lot, I do. It comes out more like faacking and you can tell then all he wants is a fight. All he wants, a faacking fight.
“While I'm doing God-knows-what,” says my mother. “God-knows-what,” she says again and I don't hear the rest of it because she's drifting off, she's losing her thought, she sounds like she's thinking real hard.
My father is chopping carrots. He stops, flings the knife into the sink, one of those very heavy ones, and breaks something. We never seem to have enough dishes. We're always out of something— plates, or mugs—and my mother has to go all the way to town, and waste a perfectly good Saturday away from home to buy more.
They continue to yell downstairs where we can still hear them. After a while my mother climbs the stairs and when we look at her she mouths the words “it's okay.” She tells us that we can eat sandwiches, there are cold cuts in the fridge, she just bought them, and there's cheese too if we want, and she goes back down. Later, watching sitcoms, we don't hear them anymore. I wonder if the laugh track is just distracting me from hearing.
Before bed I'm brushing my teeth in the bathroom, which is right above my father's room, the study, recently transformed into a separate bedroom because of my mother's dust allergy. But she is visiting—I can hear her making sounds. I imagine her mouth taking shapes I've never thought of, I can see her legs wrapped all around. I know what it looks like, like Saturn with too small a hoop. I brush faster and hum loudly. The next night it's the same and so I convince Cora that it's fun to brush our teeth together. When she catches on and tries to escape, I block the door, cackling. But then I feel bad and let her push past me. I think that maybe I'm supposed to protect her.
One night they're loud again, and the sounds are swimming through the house with that same old chicken smell, so none of us can sleep. Lou gets up. I wouldn't normally describe him as fearless—he's usually pretty scared, actually. But he is half-asleep, only one foot in the waking world, and he marches downstairs in his pyjamas, not even slowing down to stop the creaking. He walks straight in. I am reading on the sofa, and am shocked as I watch him march past. I follow him on tip-toe to the top of the stairs and watch him go down. I can hear it all from there because he's not all there and when he doesn't care he can yell.
“What's that sound?” he demands to know, and suddenly my pale, naked mother gets to choking really hard on account of all the dust—she'd forgotten, she hadn't noticed in all the excitement.
She throws on a robe, leaves my father frozen there, and puts Lou back to bed. But then he comes and tells Cora and me what he did. We're impressed but we don't say so. We just laugh like hell and he knows we love it. We stay up late, the three of us, playing Go Fish on Cora's bed until we're too tired to hold our cards.
The next morning my mother opens all the windows and beats pillows hard against the side of the balcony. “Your father doesn't know how to build a house,” she says when she sees me going for the cereal. She can't live this way, this house is a goddamn haven for dust, there are too many tiny cracks in the floor and in the walls where dust collects.
“After you eat, do me a favour, will you Chayla, and clean your room,” she calls as I head for the sofa with my bowl.
“Yes,” I say.
Later she takes Cora and Leo to the dentist. I get to stay home and scour the property with my father, collecting up all the rotting planks of wood with rusty nails in them, yanking out the nails, and burning the wood in a great big mountain in our yard. A burning, towering mountain of crap that we never used but that someone always thought we would use somehow, until now. I hate collecting the useless pieces and using up my energy to drag them from one place to the next. The fire at the end is the only part I like.
We won't burn it till the night, though, because my father likes to scare Leo and Cora with his campfire tales about demons made of wood that live in the trees around our house. He tries and fails to scare me too. He tells me I'm too old to have fun.
In the very first hour I step on a nail sticking out from one of those nasty planks and it goes straight through my foot.
“You really didn't want to work, did you?” he says it like a joke.
I catch his eye as it starts to change.
He doesn't think I need a shot because the nail wasn't rusty. I think I do because a nail went through my foot. We sit on the balcony and he tells me a story to make it seem better than it is until my mother gets home with the car.
He's given me ice in a bag and I'm trying not to move my foot off it, so I don't feel like talking. I'm thinking of how none of my friends from school ever come to visit because we live too far. It's at the end of the universe full of nasty planks and rusty nails and crusty curry and Grey-dog's shit piles, and dust all over the place.
He says: “You think you got it bad?”
I groan and roll over onto my side, letting the melted ice lose contact as I try to cover my ears. I think of the rabbit cotton-tails in those little bottles of aspirin.
My father ignores me, but I think I hear him smile. “I never had shoes when I was young. I used to run around playing soccer barefoot. Then, one day, I was ten years old—a man from the neighbouring village came to visit, and when he noticed that my feet were all cut up, he said he was going to buy me shoes and bring them the next day. I got so excited,” he says and pauses to look at me.
I had turned my head but now look away.
“Sure enough,” he continues, “he came back the very next day with a brand new pair of soccer shoes, and he hands them to me, just like that.”
I want to ask how the man knew what size to get, but my foot is throbbing too hard for me to talk.
“I thank him, and my father thanks him, and they have a drink and I go off to play in the field. It was my first pair of shoes. When the man left my father called me over and told me that he knew of a family in the next village whose son could use the shoes more than I could and that I should do the right thing and give them up.” He stops here again, but not to look at me.
My foot is on fire and I imagine it is a plank of wood with a long rusty nail sticking out of it, high on top of a burning pile of crap that will never be used again.
“So I did,” he says. “With my father, you did what he asked or it was your ass on the line.”
He stops and I peer up at him. He's looking past me, through the leaves, to the road, and further still. I think that maybe he's fascinated by something he sees, a fox. But then I see it too. I have to look back at his eyes to see exactly where they are pointing before I can find it, all shabby in the dirt and the brush, across the road and a little ways into the trees. But when I'm onto his gaze, I can finally see the thing he's been talking to, the same thing he talks to whenever he remembers and forgets at the same time, and I have seen it before.
It's that wet old dusty bird. Hard and soft both at once.
Now that I know where it rests, I promise myself I'll follow that bird. I'll hop on my bike and stop whenever it does and watch it do its tricks until I learn to do them too. If it takes me any place I can't follow, I'll just wait and watch from the road. I never want to lose track of where it goes.
When I catch its eye it flies away, but my father keeps on looking.