- The Devil's Fingers
Eliot enjoyed the blue rasp of his brother's sleepy breathing, but then a floorboard near the bedroom door creaked, the sound cracking into the room. Eliot kept his eyes closed, though. He knew those heavy boots and didn't want the first thing he saw to be his father. Not today.
"Wake up, boys."
There was no ignoring that tone, so Eliot opened his eyes. Sherwood leaned against the doorframe, his breath ghosting into the air. Hard as an axe handle, Sherwood had an abundance of black hair on his forearms and a nose that burned red when he was into his whiskey. Leaning forward, he jabbed the butt of a rifle at Hilton's shoulder. "You too, pee wee. We got business."
Eliot's chest tightened in the cold. "What time is it?" he asked. The moon was high and bright through the black square of the window.
"Time to put a hitch in your giddy-up," Sherwood said. "Meet me in the yard. No bellyaching."
"Yes, sir." Eliot swung his bald feet to the floor and tried to keep them out of the moonlight. His toes were too long, bony. He also worried about the sharpness of his elbows, that his ears were small. Once, he'd scooped a spoonful of bacon lard from the pan and eaten it, thinking it would help thicken his chest and arms. Eliot rubbed his hands together, pulled the blanket off his brother.
"What in the Sam Hill?" Hilton sat up, anger sharpening his face. There was never irritation in Hilton's features, just anger, sometimes bold enough that bone gleamed through. The boys in Button were afraid of Hilton. He'd broken his own finger once on a dare.
"What does Pa want anyway?" Hilton asked.
"We're about to find out soon as you stop jawing and put boots on."
In the yard, Sherwood was eyeing the moon, cradling the rifle in his arm. His eyes were watery, distant. But he hadn't been drinking, his nose wasn't red. The woods edging their fallow were full of breath.
"That's a right pretty moon," Sherwood said. "Take a gander."
Eliot and Hilton looked up.
"Moons like that always remind me of your mother's knee." [End Page 48]
The cold and bodiless light of the stars turned the air blue and sheer. Sherwood lowered his face and pointed to the wagon. "You boys grab two chains and follow along."
The chains were swaying metal snakes across Hilton and Eliot's shoulders. Their legs burned with the weight. Sherwood slipped into the forest on the east side of their farm, and the boys exchanged glances. The still was through the north quarter, the weed in the hollow of Alligator Hill out west. Nothing was east but Turtle Lake. And the path through the dogwoods was rotten with sticky leaves this time of the year. Each step released a smell like bad breath.
They pushed through clots of cogon grass and loops of cow-itch. Eliot held a branch aside for his brother, watched him trudge past with a determined look, damp leaves sticking like leeches to his pants.
Sherwood moved through the woods easily, dipping a shoulder here or lifting a foot there to avoid thorn and branch. He would stop and lean his cheek against the cobbled bark of an oak or rub a dead nettle's silvered leaf between his fingers. Moonlight plunged through a canopy of leaves as if searching for them. Now and then Sherwood stopped to let the boys catch their breath, but not for long.
"What's up his ass?" Hilton whispered.
Eliot re-shouldered his chain. "Today's her birthday."
Hilton's mouth drew into a sharp line. They continued on.
The boys caught up with their father in the shadow of Kissing Rock, a granite thumb thrust from the ground. Eliot's mother had called it an error in the earth, a fault caused by the Devil reaching his fingers up. The memory of that picnic rushed up. Baloney sandwiches under an unforgiving sun, the bread mottled with finger dents. Dark seeds bobbing in...