Gran stormed across the clearing, bending to pick up a stick from the ground without breaking her stride. Simple, sitting against the woodpile, was in for another of her beatings. I yelled for him to run, but he didn’t hear me. Lost in one of his daydreams I guessed.
I watched in silence as Gran repeatedly swung the stick hard against the side of her son’s head. There were no words to describe Simple’s pain or the pain of watching. He probably didn’t even know what it was for and I hated her for making me feel all the things he couldn’t say. He didn’t move or look her in the face, not until she let the stick drop from her bony fingers did he feel safe enough to close his eyes. He slowly put his hands to his battered head, blood pushing its way through the gaps in his dirty fingers.
Jack was Gran’s firstborn, a mean son of a bitch. Then came Simple who was soft in the head and lived in a dream world. Tommy, my favourite, was the youngest and nowhere near as bad as Jack. They were supposed to make sure Simple stayed away from town. Gran never could bear the thought of Simple going anywhere near there, but never let on why. The beatings came when he forgot, and somehow Gran always found out. I figured she should give up on the beatings; it wasn’t helping him to remember to stay away.
I knew why the others went to town so often. The girls there let them do whatever they had a mind to. I couldn’t figure why Simple sneaked off; not for girls, I knew that much. Tommy and Jack had teased him enough about Lizzie, the day they caught him spying on her as she washed in the river.
Watching Gran beat Simple made me think back to the day I lay by the river. I was trying to catch hold of the whispers in my head while looking at the reflection of the clouds in the water. It was something I liked to do and usually had the place to myself.
That particular day, I had company. Lizzie was taking a bath and Simple was watching from the bushes. Without warning, the boys appeared and dragged Simple out of the bushes he thought hid him from sight. Jack grabbed Simple viciously between the legs, saying it was time he knew how to use it. They called for Lizzie to come out of the water.
I hid behind a rock, too scared to run back to the cabins. It wouldn’t matter if I told Gran anyway, she’d say they needed their fun and to let them be.
Tommy helped Lizzie up onto the bank. She stood there naked, her dark hair dripping. The water running down her skinny legs made muddy pools at her feet. Jack stopped her from picking up her clothes. ‘You won’t be needin’ them just yet, Lizzie. We’re goin’ to have us a little fun. It’s Simple’s birthday.’
‘No it ain’t, and I ain’t doing what you have a mind to. Not with Simple.’
Jack took hold of her arms and roughly pulled her close to him. ‘You’re mine and you’ll do like I say, missy. You’re his birthday present.’
Simple tried to move away but Jack held him back; telling him he didn’t want to miss out on such a fine gift. He threw Lizzie to the ground like a rag doll. I watched, too afraid to move. Jack had ears like a bat if I moved an inch he would hear me. Fear and fascination swam together in my head; knitting an invisible chain that held me fast behind the rock.
Jack stood between her legs and unfastened his belt. He undid his belt, pushed his pants down and fell on Lizzie, pumping his body up and down. Tommy pulled Simple down on the ground beside them, slapping Jack’s bare behind. ‘See, Simple, this is how you please the girls.’
There was much grunting and groaning before Jack let out an even bigger groan and rolled away from Lizzie, his thing still dripping as he pulled up his pants. Tommy pushed Simple down on top of Lizzie and he lay there like a big lump. As Jack pulled him to his knees, a clump of Simple’s dark brown hair came away in his hand.
‘You see how I did it, now set to, before I tell Gran what we saw you tryin’ to do in town again.’
I wish I knew what Simple did that got Gran so mad, so fired up about him being in town. He was crying like a baby, tears and snot sliding down his face. Jack kicked him viciously and he fell forward, stopping himself from flattening Lizzie by putting his hands out, hitting the ground so hard the dry dirt sprung up between his fingers.
I wished there was something I could do to help Simple, but Tommy and Jack had been at Gran’s grog again and I knew if I showed my face, they would do the same to me. Lizzie seemed to have gotten over the idea of Simple getting at her, giggling as Tommy pulled Simple’s pants off. I couldn’t bear to watch anymore and turned my face away, but I heard every sound that escaped from Simple’s lips. I wondered what thoughts were running through his head if any.
For days after, I couldn’t bear to look at Simple or talk to him and knew how much he missed that. I was the only one who spent the time of day with him. The others always teased him, saying words over and over before moving on to the next the way Simple did. I spent hours getting him to speak slowly, and with me, his stammer wasn’t so bad. When Simple got worked up his words stuck, stretched out like an echo rebounding around the woods before finding the end of it. Most times he gave up trying to say what was in his head.
The back of Gran’s cabin was the only place to find any shade unless you took off into the woods, which wasn’t always a good idea. Folk around here tend to look out for their own and looking out for the neighbours wasn’t their way of doing things, especially the Spiers. We’d been having trouble with them for as long as I could remember.
I sat with my back against rough, weathered timber that had been cut from the woods, grateful to be alone to hear the wind rush through the trees, whispering my name. Emily, the name my heart recognised. Not Leanne, the one they called me. I got to thinking that Gran would have renamed me, not wanting anything to do with town folk or the names they called their children. Seeing as how Uncle Jimmy had let slip that my folks had come from the town, I got to thinking how on earth Gran could be mine. I figured the only way was one of my parents must have been kin to my grandpa. That could account for the way she looked at me sometimes as if I didn’t really belong. Part outsider; which is how I felt most of the time.
This got me looking closer at Gran’s boys. They didn’t look like they come from the same seed either. Jack, mean and dark, had the best looks. Tommy was the just the opposite. Fair and plain, as if they forgot to give him character. I’d been told that Simple was soft in the head because Gran had been too old for birthing. That couldn’t be the true reason, for Tommy was all right. Didn’t matter to me though, I liked him the way he was; all soft and gentle, yet big enough to make me feel safe. Big enough to squash the rest of them flat should he take a mind to. Reckon that’s why Uncle Jimmy keeps clear of Simple. I heard him tell Jack one day that Simple would snap soon enough with all the teasing he gets.
I told Gran once that sometimes I thought I could hear my Ma calling me by another name, could feel her reaching for me and almost make out her face. Gran said I must be getting soft in the head like Simple and warned me not to talk rubbish again. I knew better than try. She would whop me like she always did when something didn’t please her. It didn’t pay to have an opinion or argue with Gran about anything.
Lizzie said it was just my imagination playing tricks on me, but I didn’t believe any of it. I felt it in my heart, not my head, and it wasn’t the summer heat frying my brains as Tommy suggested.
Gran said she would be making one of her rare trips to town soon. I would be twelve next month and according to her, a young woman needs new clothes. This meant material for Gran to make a new dress, two if I was lucky. Gran hated going to town, but she knew you couldn’t trust men folk to choose anything. I knew how hard this would be for her and my heart reached out to hug her, my body slow to follow.
Gran waved the air in front of her to keep me away. ‘No need to thank me, girl.’
I wished what I felt inside didn’t always show so quick on my face. My life would be a mite happier if it didn’t.
Lizzie had told Gran about the young’un she was expecting and Gran wasn’t best pleased. Didn’t matter who the pa was, she didn’t ask. All she said was, it had better be stronger than the last one. ‘You ain’t made for young’uns, Lizzie. Age has taken your best chances. This has to be the last one, that’s if you can keep it from falling away before its time.’
In the past, Lizzie had managed to keep one until it was three months old. It was sick from the start, Gran said. And Lizzie too foolish to give it the right kind of care. No milk to speak of and she forgot about it for days on end. Took off with Jack and left it crying. I asked Gran why she didn’t take care of it, seeing as how she knew better. It was a stupid question and I almost felt the heat from her eyes singe the hair on my arms.
‘The brat’s Lizzie’s, not mine,’ she snapped.
I couldn’t understand Gran’s way of thinking or feeling. All hard and shrivelled, weren’t any softness about her, not even around the eyes. Something bad must have happened to make her so hard. There wasn’t anything I could do, no way for me to change her. The child Lizzie lost had been buried just outside the clearing by a big old redwood. I would sit there sometimes and lay a few wildflowers on the makeshift grave. All Lizzie said was I was too soft to live in the woods. She didn’t seem to care about the loss.
‘Gran should’ve taken you to town years ago, left you outside the church.’ She often said that when feeling particularly mean.
When Gran didn’t ask who the pa might be, I wondered if she might have something to say if she knew it might be Simple. I found myself hoping this one would be strong. Having a baby around would be real nice. I could help Lizzie take care of it.
Just then, Jack stormed into the cabin behind me, yelling about the Spiers’ messing with his traps again, taking his kills. That I knew to be one mistake they would pay for. Gran told him to hush up and let Jimmy take care of it when he got home. Jack went on and on about the Spiers, he had a thing about them. Every time anything went wrong or the still broke, he would say they had been at it.
Gran told him he was too thick to take care of any one of them.
‘It’s no wonder you lost your kill, shouting your mouth off in town. Makin’ out like a big man, letting’ on where you left the traps.’
I heard Tommy ask how she knew.
‘It ain’t hard to figure, when she knows you couldn’t keep your mouth shut if she was to stitch it.’
Jack must have lost his temper and thrown a chair across the cabin, because something hit the side where I sat, listening. The thought of Uncle Jimmy coming made the cool spot behind the cabin too cold and I moved off into the sun.
I wondered what he wanted, what brought him down from the mountains. Jimmy was a mean one, even meaner than Jack was. Tall and quiet, he liked killing, hunting things. Animals, men, even bugs weren’t safe. He would flatten anything that crossed his path, his hands quick as lightning, grabbing winged creatures from the air. Didn’t seem to matter some of them might sting.
I saw him swallow a wasp once after teasing Simple with it. Mostly he liked pulling the heads off his kills. Said even a man ain’t nothing without it, get rid of the head, you get rid of trouble. That’s what he believed.
His visits were always too long. Tommy hated him and swore he would take off one day and never come back. Gran laughed. She’d heard him say it so often; she didn’t believe he had a mind to do it. I could see in his eyes that one day he would, he was tired of living in fear of Jimmy and being in Jack’s shadow.
I thought about taking off some days. Thing was, where to? I guess Tommy had the same trouble. Town was good for letting off steam, but the woods were home. Clarksville was growing speedily, too fast for Gran’s liking. She said it was getting closer to the woods each year. Full of outsiders thinking they can wander where they please and look down their noses at the way we live. The sheriff was up here just last week, telling Gran I should be attending school. She sent him off, saying I knew all I needed to. School didn’t have anything she couldn’t put in my head.
There were times when I wondered if she was right. Maybe I would have liked school, made friends of my own age. Throwing the idea at Gran did no good at all; she had a thing about town folk. Strange, when I’d heard Jimmy say that grandpa had been from Clarksville.
‘Your Gran liked town folk fine back then. Never did say what changed her mind.’
Jimmy said grandpa died one winter, caught by one of his own traps. Wolves ate most of his body. I could understand how this would make Gran sad, but I couldn’t make sense of the way she spoke about town and the folk that lived there. Outsiders, she called them. There had to be a reason for the way she hated them. I knew better than to ask, but by keeping my ears open, I would hear most things soon enough.
Jimmy had brought down two headless deer for Gran’s larder. I wondered what he did with the heads. Tommy said he ate them, but I figured he buried them, although I half wondered if Tommy was right.
Uncle Jimmy hadn’t been with us for more than a week, when the sheriff turned up again, warning Gran to have a word with her boys.
‘Ned Harrison’s been shooting’ his mouth off about Tommy, if he sets eyes on him again he’s gonna kill him. Says he’s been messing’ around with his wife.’
Jimmy stood there the whole time, his rifle cracked open across his arm. The sun lighting up the fact the barrel weren’t empty. It didn’t seem to worry the sheriff, he had his hand on the butt of his own gun, looking Gran in the eyes. I could see Tommy hiding behind the water barrels while the sheriff tried explaining to Gran that he couldn’t keep an eye on Ned all the time.
‘Wouldn’t want your boy to lose his head over a piece of pussy. Have a word with him, Ma’am.’ Touching the rim of his hat, he bid Gran good day.
I reckon he saw Tommy because he doffed his hat again as he passed the water barrels.
Tommy tried to get out of a beating by telling Gran the sheriff wanted to get it on with Ned’s wife himself.
‘Jealousy is all, Gran. Ned ain’t gonna shoot no one, too full of grog mostly. When he ain’t drinking’ he’s sleeping’. ‘Lizabeth’s real nice Gran, I like her and old Ned ain’t gonna last forever the way he’s carrying’ on. I figured on movin’ in when he passes.’
‘Is that so?’ Gran said. ‘Got a mind to help him on his way, bring more trouble that ain’t my doing’?’
‘No Ma.’ Tommy said, his eyes and voice pleading for her not to reach for the stick by her feet. I could see in her eyes it was no good, she needed to whop him for reasons of her own…