Plain China

River Mammals

by Zachary Frank · Boston College · Fiction Prize Winner
Trees in Darkness, Taylor Clock · State University of New York at Oswego

We get back before dusk. I’d laid down a sheet of plywood in the front yard when I woke and now we head over to it. Cheyenne’s fur catches and holds the sun while we tramp through burnt grass and wilted sedges. Horseflies swarm overhead and shade my face. They’ve taken a liking to me since I’ve started growing antlers. When we reach the plywood, Cheyenne gets to a long end and I stand across from him.

“Ready, boy?” He looks to me and pants twice. I nod back, then reach to his side, get my fingers under the wood, and haul it up. Cheyenne barks like an alpha and I roar too and a dozen snakes come shooting out of the shade. Cheyenne looks them over in a snap and snatches the biggest one in his jaws, right behind its flat head, like Sweet Pa taught him. It’s a patchnose, all three feet of her writhing like an exorcism, trying to turn her head around to fang Cheyenne’s muzzle.

We head into the smokehouse. I lay the snake on the carving block and cleave her at the neck. I put a glass jar over her severed head and watch it tongue the glass and unhinge. For a second it looks like it’s gonna turn inside out, then it yawns to sleep. The rest of the body fidgets for a few minutes—it takes snakes a while to realize they’re dead. I clean her out and bring her inside to fry on the stove. Sweet Pa’s lying on the couch with his legs bent up. He eyes me and I hold up the pink meat and the bag of flour I brought back from the exchange.

The snake lies in its oil. I sprinkle it with salt, light the stove, and head to fetch water. I run down our two blistered hills with an old paint bucket and stop at the pond. The hand pump’s been slipping more and more and finally hissed last week. I’ve been hauling buckets since, straining them through Sweet Pa’s cleanest white shirt and boiling them.

 

A

nest of bats used to pour out of the woods every night like a cloud of smoke to catch mosquitoes and take water on the wing. Sweet Pa and I liked to sit on the porch and look down the hills to where they carved moonlit lines in the pond face. They don’t come anymore. Used to be the water came up to my waist; now it doesn’t reach my ankles. I left all our extra pots and buckets and bins outside to gather rain, but so far all they’ve caught is sunlight. Each morning, I hear the metal pop as it expands in the new day’s heat. It gets me up when I sleep too late.

Green sunfish float on their sides. I wade to a spot where I can’t smell their death and drag the plastic bucket through the water until it’s half full. On the short flat between the two hills, the scent of frying snake masks the reek of the pond. I hurry to the stove and set the water down next to it. I wait a few minutes, cooking the meat just until it’s safe to eat, and then I cut off half for Cheyenne. He downs it in two bites and barks for more. “Sorry, boy, that’s it for today.” He lies down and unfolds his tongue. We used to have a lively garden, but the drought’s burned through our crops and the root cellar’s just about empty. I ready the pond water and set in on the stove. The meat draws more water from my mouth than I knew I had in me. “Didn’t come out too well,” I tell Sweet Pa. He can hardly open his mouth enough to breathe. His lungs are full of fluid and he hasn‘t said a word in three weeks. I mix milk in a jar and ease it to his lips. He sputters it down.

Our house is falling apart, but that’s how Sweet Pa likes it. He decided to leave all the windows and doors open once he knew he was dying, said he wanted to get used to no separation. We had all kinds of critters living in here for a while. A red squirrel would sit on the couch arm by Sweet Pa’s feet, watching while I propped him to drink tea or thumb his pipe. She’d chew acorns and the crumbs would fall onto his blanket and I’d sweep them into the corners. A family of armadillos hid in the kitchen, balled under the washbasin, only coming out at twilight to lick up termites. A skunk slept in the fireplace and that’s all I ever saw him do. I wanted to name them, but Sweet Pa said that would defeat the purpose. Doesn’t matter now, they’ve all dried up or left.

I’m on my way to becoming a critter, too. I’ve been having these cracking headaches, and when I told Sweet Pa, he patted my hair and said horns grow out of girls with too much worry. I don’t think I worry too much, but I guess he’s right; I’m only twelve and they’re coming in. They’re small, still under the skin, two dots of braille on my forehead. I’ve been keeping a pair of antlers under my bed to help them grow.  I found them one day when I spotted rings of black vultures. They’re always overhead now, like smoke rings from Sweet Pa’s pipe. I tracked them to a whitetail who’d been picked apart; took his rack and boiled it. Each morning I shave off a couple flakes and use them in the day’s cooking.

I know my horns are gonna bust through soon cause Cheyenne’s been licking my forehead every night in bed. He’s a mix, with brown and white fur and a bare patch on his back leg where he got bit by a snapper. I don’t think he likes what’s happening to me—he’s been awful loud lately. I just rub his sides and say I’m gonna use my horns to look after us. Cheyenne knows a ton of tricks that most dogs probably don’t. When I was little I would tell him to lie down, then I’d lie on top of him and put my arms around his neck, and he’d spring up and carry me wherever I told him to. I know he liked it; he used to stretch out in front of me and nudge my shins until I climbed on. We can’t do that anymore; I got too big and he got too old. Now his lips are slumped and his gums are turning black and his eyes run and his knees wobble so bad it looks like the balls are gonna roll out of their sockets. So I carry him sometimes, put him on my shoulders like a fallen branch when we take longer walks to the exchange. We went today to get supplies and so Clancy could cut my hair. He’s only got one hand but he manages fine, holds the scissors with his weak hand and steadies himself with his other arm while he snips around my ears.

I wash the pan in the basin and stoke the fire. I sit on the end of the couch, roll up the legs of Sweet Pa’s pants, and rest my hand on his shin. I give it a squeeze. “Do you like my haircut?” I ruffle up the ends. “I think it’ll be nice once summer really gets going.” His eyes are always wet nowadays. He smiles without showing any teeth. His hiking stick rests by his head. He carved it himself. It’s bone white and thick as my wrist, with a big round head like a turtle’s. I’ve seen Sweet Pa swing off a band of coyotes with it. He made pictures in it, stories from his life. Him and his boys building our house. Cheyenne lying under a willow. My mom cradling me. He doesn’t have any pictures from before he came out here. Clancy told me Sweet Pa’s wife ran off and then he took his boys to the woods and they all worked themselves into a house. I never felt right asking Sweet Pa himself.

Sap cracks in the fire. Sweet Pa and I stare at the flames twisting into shapes. “Did you see the face?” He nods. “A hand. A pair of tulips.” He brings his foot forward and back to flex his shin. Till he falls asleep, we watch the fire bloom.

Cheyenne and I head into the basement to read from the old newspapers Clancy gives me. I dragged an extra mattress down for warm nights. We creak down the stairs and sit on a cord rug, looking over the Arkansas Times. I pour a little sugar water into glass jars and read by candle until enough fireflies climb in. Then I screw on the lids and poke holes. The fireflies act different now with the drought—stay low, cling to the dead lawn. I go out at night to use the outhouse and they blink galaxies in the grass. I never need to take a light. They’ve moved in the house lately and it’s like a tiny lightning storm. I’ve learned to sleep by their glow.

Me and Sweet Pa named each other. He used to call me Sweet Pea and before I can remember I was calling him Sweet Pa back. He grew me up, on account of I hardly knew my parents. Everything I know is thanks to him. Sweet Pa has so many names for me, I can’t be sure of my true name. I can’t remember my mom ever calling me anything other than Honey, and I can’t remember my dad at all. Sweet Pa told me he left while I was still learning how to stand. When Sweet Pa was mad at me, like if I was out in the woods too late or brought home ticks or ivy rash, he called me Child, which I hated.

 

The maddest I ever saw Sweet Pa was three months ago. I had to go to the exchange by myself and Clancy said he’d take me to town with him next time. I asked Sweet Pa if I could go and he put a fist mark in the wall and walked off, coughing. I don’t think Sweet Pa and Clancy like each other. Back when Sweet Pa was well enough to take on jobs, he’d come to the exchange and they’d talk in one-word sentences and grunts. Clancy’s the only one around here with a truck. He drives in to Crossett every weekend to buy stuff for people who live out here and trade it to them for a higher price. But he gives me a good deal. After Sweet Pa cooled down, he told me he came out here so I never have to see city life. I said I could handle it but he wouldn’t budge. “The day you pin me in arm wrestling is the day you go to the city.”

Sweet Pa was real strong up until he got sick. He used to sit in his chair outside and drink, then he’d make a bicep and let me hang from his arm. I always got tired before he did. Now he’s a stick, always sweating, gasping. I lay wet rags across his barreling chest, watch as he coughs up bits so black and ugly I cry because I can’t believe they were inside him.

I read through the comics I like but get tired fast; it’s a day’s sun to the exchange and back. I stand up and walk to the mirror on the far wall. There’s a chair next to it with my mom‘s brush on it. It’s got a ball of bristles and is supposed to look like a hedgehog, but one of its eyes has worn off from my rubbing thumb. I don’t know if she left it for me or forgot it. Most times I remember my mom, it’s like I’m looking at a picture. She’s on the couch. The window above her is filled with sunlight, but she’s sleeping. I’m at her feet, my cold hand on her bare calf, trying to wake her up. Sweet Pa said you wouldn’t have known she was my mother by our looks. My skin’s shades darker and I have my dad’s eyes and mouth, Sweet Pa says, but my mom and I have the same color hair and we’re both good at making him worry. I remember she’d spend most of the day sleeping, then haunt the downstairs at night, creaking through cupboards, flipping pages in books, washing her hair two or three times in the basin, all the while whistling songs that could make a mourning dove cry. I’d lie in bed upstairs, afraid of her sounds, feeling her right below me.

I comb my hair and walk to the mattress. Cheyenne lifts himself from the floor and trembles over. He lies at my feet and nudges my shins. He opens his mouth just enough to whine. I lift him onto the bed and pull him close, holding him tight so he can’t get loose and lick my forehead. His fur warms my bare arms. Two fireflies land on my forehead and I fall asleep hoping they’ll spend the night there, lighting up, blinking their way into my dreams.

 

Me and Sweet Pa have this thing we do when he’s sleeping and I want to wake him. Ever since I was little, I hold my eyes wide and put my face in his face, and when our noses touch and his eyes open to meet mine, it’s like the sun finding a lake to float on. “Why, hello there, stranger,” he used to say, grinning. “What can I do for you?”

When my nose presses against his this morning, he startles like he’s coming out of a bad dream. He coughs forward and his legs jackhammer. I start sobbing and put my head on his chest. It takes him a minute to figure out who I am. I can hear the rattle and burn in his chest, like his lungs are lined with embers that glow every time he inhales. He rubs my back, then taps my head and points to his hiking stick. I bring it to him and he uses it along with my shoulder to manage his way out of the house.

“Sweet Pa, you’re walking again! Does that mean you’re getting better?” He looks at me with a faraway smile and I don’t say another word. We walk into our woods in a way we’ve never had any reason to go. I can tell Sweet Pa’s trying not to put too much weight on me, so I press down on his hand and he gives in more. Sweet Pa’s too weak to hide his pain; I spend the whole time looking at his stick, thinking about the stories he’s never told me, the bottom half that’ll never get carved.

I drip buckets but Sweet Pa’s not sweating anymore. For some reason, I take it as a sign that after he dies it’ll rain for days and days until nothing’s thirsty. When we reach a clearing, Sweet Pa labors to the ground and leans against a tree. I sit there next to him, his stick at my side, crying cause I don’t know any better. It feels like my heart’s slipped through my ribs and is beating in my stomach. I suck in my gut so it can’t fall any farther, and twine our hands as tight as I can. His eyes are half-open, and when I finally turn to look up into them he lowers his brows and makes this sour face he makes when he catches me watching him. But it doesn’t mean he’s mad, he does it cause it makes me laugh. A sound comes out of me that has too many emotions to describe. As soon as it leaves me I know it’s a sound I’ll never make again. I rest my head on the slope of his shoulder and fidget until I can’t see the sun through the trees.

There’s only one memory of my mom in motion. It’s early on; maybe I’m three. She holds my hand out to the swing, the one Sweet Pa made after rolling a giant tire all the way back from the exchange. She lifts me into place and puts my hands on the rubber lips to hold. She spins the tire around until the three ropes that hold it up are braided. I throw my head back and look up to her, pale and smiling, her face sleek and her brown hair close, like a river mammal’s. She moves her hands to my shoulders, gives a little squeeze, and lets go.

Sweet Pa taps on my shoulder and I come to. His right arm is propped on his thigh. He opens and closes his hand and it feels like filling a hole inside a crater. I move forward and turn around, facing him. I prop my right arm on his leg, put my hand in his. He wraps his long fingers around mine and right as they close, he lets his arm fall to me. Ever since Sweet Pa opened the windows and doors, it’s felt like I was sinking, like my stomach was filling with stones. But now it feels like rising, like something’s burst. I move back to his shoulder. When Sweet Pa’s head dips forward and he spills over himself, I stand up and lay him down straight and proper. I cross his hands over his chest, see the four lines of blood from my gripping nails. They shine in the sunlight.

About the Author

Zachary Frank · Boston College

Recent graduate Zach Frank studied English at Boston College; his story first appeared in BC’s literary journal, Stylus.

About the Artist

Taylor Clock · State University of New York at Oswego

Taylor Clock is a graphic design major at the State University of New York at Oswego. His concentration is in photography; he draws inspiration from the beauty of nature and the processes required to capture such beauty. His artwork first appeared in SUNY Oswego’s journal, Great Lake Review.