Andrea Rudy

Disease Lies in the Riverbed


 On warm evenings in the summer, my mother left the window in my room open

and I heard truth assembling outside. The turkeys preached to me when

everyone else was sleeping, and told me things I already knew. They were

smarter than everyone thought.  On these nights they planned their

uprising.  And yet, every fall my father got to them just before it

happened.  When he entered the yard with his table and hatchet, the dust

rose.

       He always started with the largest and loudest bird.  To set an

example, he said, but I think the noise those larger ones made got to him.

There wasn't anything evil in what he did, in killing the birds – he didn't

realize that they were the speakers of truth.

       My brother Michael wasn't supposed to make pets of the birds, but he

had secrets, too.  On nights that weren't too dark he'd sneak out into the

yard, his slippers scuffling over the rocks.  I never understood his

obsession with those ugly necks and jowls, dirty feathers, feet stained by

their own waste, and probing devil eyes.  Even after he got bit he still

liked them, and proudly showed off the bloody cut.

    Through the summers during the War, father still killed those turkeys.

They said he was short and had flat arches, so he had to stay home on the

farm.  It was my mother's greatest humiliation – a husband too defective to

fight for his country.  A year before the war ended Michael asked her why

dad hadn't gone with the other men.  "Don't ask me those questions.  Make

him tell you himself."  She tightened the apron around her waist.

        "A woman gets tired of taking pity.  Being gracious when given

offers, even if they're from short, flat-footed men," she said.  We snapped

beans at the kitchen table, and were glad it wasn't us with those troubles.

She dropped a pot of hot water in the sink and swore.  We were all mad those

days.

        Michael and I kept our heads down and went on snapping.  I didn't

hate my brother, but sometimes he had to learn, and the turkeys weren't

always the ones to do it.  The first lesson I taught him was the last.  He

loved the river behind the back forty.  A person could yell at the world

back there, and no one would hear.

        One time when the chill between our parents was too much to take,

when the grown turkeys were gone for the year, when an uneasy calm blanketed

the old farmhouse, something told me it was time.  I was playing in the

hayloft, and the silence bore down.  I decided to follow Michael, who had

gone down to the river.  The sun brought out the heat in my blood and a

stinging red crawled up my skin.

        I heard my brother yelling at June, the dog from somewhere deep in

the hay field.  His voice joined the faint sound of the river, its carved

banks, the fallen old maple trees, and the fools' gold tempting the greedy.

The few fish around were now fat and slow, and would trick anyone into

believing the water was the same.

        I was getting closer to him and I could hear his eager panting when

he reappeared at the top of the berm.  His little chest was pushing too far

forward and he plunged down onto his face.

        I squinted in the sun and lost my footing as well, and for a while

stayed where I was.  There was a growing thicket of fog around my head, but

through the tall grass I could make out his figure leaning over the bank,

watching the dog swim across. He was crouched on his haunches with his

perfect hands clasped between his perfect knees, as young and ignorant as

ever.

        Panic rose as I began to smell my father's stench on me.  I

understood then that we were all to suffer for his crimes, and that I was

who I was because of him.  How could I be any better?

        Michael wasn't surprised when I came up behind him and put my hands

on his back, stealing its warmth with my fingers.

        "Look at what a good swimmer she is," he said.  "I think she gets

too hot in the sun."

        "Did you tell mom you were coming back here?" I asked.

        "No."

        I wanted to save his little heart from the cold hook that had taken

hold of mine.  So knowing he couldn't swim, I asked the water to reach up

and take him.  I didn't have to push, not really.  There was the short gasp

he let out while plunging, and then the cold rush of the water cleansed his

skin.  Michael's body moved quickly, while the river and fish took their

time over the rocks, watching him struggle in the current.  I walked along

the bank beside him and waited until I saw the soot come clear off his

face.  His skin was white under the water.

        Tears stung my face, but I couldn't let him go free.  I ran ahead,

leaned out to grab his passing body and pulled him up the grassy bank.  I

helped him cough up the water, took off his shirt and shoes, laid him down

in the sun and warmed him with my arms.  The cold drained from his body and

I began to shake, unable to stop.

        He was too young to understand, but through his own scared tears

asked me why.

        "You slipped and fell in," I told him.  And he believed me because

there was nothing else to believe, because the alternative was unbelievable=