“Move away from it!”
Prodding my ribs with the dragon’s barrel, Pa attempted to push me aside. I hunkered over Keme’s bloody, prone body, gripped his shoulders tight, knowing if I gave Pa a clear target, he’d shoot Keme again, kill him. If he wasn’t already dead.
“Damn it, daughter, I said move!” Another jab with the dragon.
Not looking up, I shook my head. “No!”
Silence invaded the shed, broken only by Pa’s raspy breathing. I felt a light touch on my bare shoulder, then the hand jerked away as if my skin had burned it. Pa growled, “Millie, what’s going on? Where’re your clothes?”
I looked up into a face that was more shadow than substance in the lantern’s feeble light. I opened my mouth, but no words came out.
“Did it…did it force itself on you?”
I finally found my tongue. “No, Pa…I…we…” And lost it again.
His eyes raked both Keme and me, taking in our nakedness; they narrowed, hardened. “Are you telling me it didn’t…you willingly had congress with this demon?”
“He’s not a demon, he’s—”
“It has wings, daughter, it is a demon, and I’m going to finish it. Then…” A loaded pause. “Then I’ll deal with you.”
The dragon slammed against my cheek. I felt the skin lay open and the spurt of blood. And pain. Before I could do more than cry out, Pa grabbed my hair, yanked me away from Keme, and slung me aside. My head and shoulders banged against something warm and solid that gave way with a startled moo—Daisy, the milk cow.
I rolled over, saw Pa fumbling with the dragon, loading it with shot. He was going to shoot Keme again!
I scrabbled to my feet and launched myself at Pa, one hand wrapping around the dragon’s short, upturned barrel, the other slapping the bag of shot out of his hand. We wrestled for the dragon, but Pa was a big man and stout as a bull. He easily pried away my fingers, and holding the gun up out of my reach, latched onto my arm with his free hand and shook me. “Stop it, Millie!” Then, using his formidable body, he crowded me into a corner of the shed, and pushed me down on my butt. “You will pay dearly for that.”
Even though the light was poor, I saw the fury shining in his eyes, and knew he spoke true. Pa couldn’t abide disobedience and unruliness. I’d learned that the hard way early on, and so had Ma. She’d learned it one time too many.
“Don’t…” He drew back his foot.
I knew what was coming, squeezed shut my eyes and tried to steel myself.
“Move.” The toe of his boot slammed into the side of my hip.
I gritted my teeth to keep from crying out, and curled into a ball, knowing the next kick would be aimed at my ribs. And those were the worst. But the blow didn’t come, and after a moment, I slitted open my eyes to the sight of Pa standing over Keme, tamping in powder and shot into the dragon’s barrel. Movement caught my eyes, and they tracked lower, locked on the unfurling fingers of Keme’s hand.
My heart froze. No no no no no…not my angel, not my love.
My mind and heart warred, remembered punches and kicks and whippings battling the utter desolation that Keme’s death would bring down. But it was a short skirmish. A lifetime of physical pain would be a small price to pay for Keme’s life.
I slowly eased into a sitting position, while my eyes cast around the shed, searching for a weapon. Not giving myself time to reconsider my actions and the consequences if I failed, I leapt up, took two running steps, grabbed the shovel and turned. Pa lowered the dragon, rested the barrel against Keme’s forehead, then looked at me. He smirked, confident in my fear of him.
I lurched forward, swinging the shovel with all my might. I caught him high on the shoulder with the flat side. The impact jarred my teeth and almost caused me to lose my grip, but I hung on, and with satisfaction, saw the dragon fly out of his hand.
Roaring, Pa turned on me. And something inside me sprouted, wrapped black poisonous roots around my heart, and bloomed, filling my mind with its heady scent. No more! I struck out. The shovel’s edge bit into Pa’s arm. He howled like a one-eyed cyclote caught in a grazzle trap, the sound sharp and furious. No…. I yanked back the shovel, swung again. More…
I opened my eyes.
An expanse of blue stretched out before me.
Snow-white camrays glided above its surface. Coo-la…coo-la…coo-la, echoed off the mountains on the far side. Coo-la…coo-la…. My eyes drifted closed.
A soft touch on my cheek. “Millie.”
A stroking of my hair. “Millie.” Then more insistent. “Millie!”
Reluctantly, I opened my eyes to a white, upturned collar. My gaze traveled up to eyes so deep a blue they were almost black. “Uncle Silas…what are you doing here?”
“I…uh…Mrs. Deats made foxberry jam, and I thought…” He glanced down, then back up into my eyes. Beads of sweat popped out on his forehead. “Can I have the shovel?”
I followed his gaze as it tracked back down, saw the blood-smeared shovel laying over my crossed legs. What was it doing there? And what was I doing here, sitting in the mud next to the Celeste River? And naked as a plucked bird? And blood on me?
I started shaking.
Uncle Silas pried my fingers from the shovel handle and laid it aside, then took my cold hands in his warm ones. “What happened, Millie?”
My mind was as white and cloudy as a fog bank. “Happened? I don’t know what you mean.”
“Child, there are two dead cyclotes behind you. And your milk cow…dead too.”
I pulled my hands from his grasp, twisted around. A gory mass of blood and hair stained the mud a short distance away. “Daisy?”
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
I cast around inside the fog bank, found nothing. “I don’t know.” And the not knowing was scarier than the knowing.
“There’s something else.” Uncle Silas looked out over the river, sighed. “Your pa’s dead too.”
The fear deepened.
“He’s in the milking shed, cut to pieces.” His eyes turned back to me. “Did you kill him, Millie?”
The world bled. Everything vanished behind a curtain of red, the sky, the river, Uncle Silas. And I heard screams, high-pitched, scared, and angry. Saw movement in the red, peered closer. Shapes flowed and shifted. Closer…closer…wings, many wings. A shadow person fighting angels, and at their feet, a fallen angel. And something else there—flesh, bones, and blood.
No! I won’t look at that.
The angels pushed the shadow person back, scooped up the fallen one, and—
A jumble of images flooded my mind: the angels taking Keme away, running out over the mud flats, the cyclotes on a bellowing Daisy, beating them off with the shovel. The shovel? Blood? Pa?
No! I couldn’t go there, refused to go there.
“It’s a man’s place to discipline his family,” Uncle Silas said. “But my brother could be too harsh a master.” He paused. “Did he beat you, Millie? Is that why you killed him?”
I won’t I won’t I won’t! I shook my head.
“Why are you unclothed?”
I shook harder, burst into tears.
He pulled me into his arms. “Oh, Millie…”
After I stopped crying, Uncle Silas led me to the house and bade me to wash and dress, then left me alone, saying he’d be back after he’d seen to Pa. Woodenly, I did as he instructed, then sat at the kitchen table, my hands folded together on top. And every time my thoughts attempted to turn inward, I sang the song Ma had taught me when I was a kiddie. It wasn’t a God song, but Pa wasn’t in the house to hear me singing it and hit me. “Down in the valley, valley so low, hang your head over, hear the wind blow…” Ma’s sweet voice joined mine. “Hear the wind blow, dear, hear the wind blow, hang your head over, hear the wind blow. Pink bells love sunshine, violets love—”
The door squeaked open. My lips clamped together.
Uncle Silas pulled out a chair and sat opposite me. “I buried your pa in the shed, and spread fresh hay over the floor.”
“No one need know what happened here, and if someone comes around looking for him, tell ‘em you don’t know where he is.”
“I don’t…” I swallowed, stared at my hands. “…know where he is.” I don’t I don’t.
“Probably for the best you don’t. If anybody was to find out…I couldn’t save you if…if…” He raked his fingers through his hair, combing sweat-soaked, black strands off his forehead. His fingernails were dirty, which was unusual; being a preacherman, he rarely did manual labor. “I love you like my own sweet baby girls, Millie. I won’t let anything happen to you, you know that, don’t you?”
“I know,” I said, even though I didn’t know what he was talking about.
He reached across the table and took my hands. “Remember—look at me, Millie.”
I raised my eyes, met those of the man who’d always treated me with kindness. Not like—Don’t. Go. There.
All the blue had drained from his eyes, leaving them a fierce black. “You don’t know where he is, ain’t seen him for a couple of days. Remember, if anybody asks after your pa, you don’t know where he is. Say he rode off on his horse a few days ago, and you ain’t seen him since.”
“But I don’t think he did…I don’t remember.” But I did remember seeing his horse. “June Bug’s in the lot in back, Uncle. I saw him. Didn’t you?”
“I’m fixing to leave and I’m gonna take June Bug with me. Remember—you ain’t seen either one.” He squeezed my hands. “It’s important, Millie. If anyone asks, you ain’t seen either one.”
I went about my chores, cleaned the house, tended the garden, and would have milked too but Daisy had disappeared. Maybe I hadn’t latched the door right after shutting her up for the night, and she’d gotten out and wandered out into the flat lands. Pa would beat the fire out of me if I’d let his cow get eaten by a pack of cyclotes—when he came back.
But it was Uncle Silas who showed up a few days later and helped me eat the supper I’d cooked for Pa, and he kept coming back a couple of times a week. Sometimes he brought little Loi and Maira with him. Even though they were almost three, they were just now learning to walk. When a body was joined up like they were, shoulder to hip and sharing an arm, I reckon getting everything to move together was a hard thing.
I was sitting on the front steps, watching them chasing after the barn cats, them hissing and the girls laughing, when Uncle Silas sat down beside me. He was all sweaty from busting up some firewood for the cook stove—I’d told him I could do it myself, had been for years, but he’d insisted. He tipped a quart jar of water to his lips, took a long drink, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I need to ask you something.”
I glanced his way. “What?”
His eyes were on the boards between his feet. “Do you know…do you have any idea that…” He took a deep breath, blew it out. “Do you know you’re with child?”
His words struck me like a slap across the face. I couldn’t be—I hadn’t. There was no way! He was funning me. I grinned at him, laughed. “Don’t talk silly, Uncle.”
He raised his eyes to mine. “Look at your belly, Millie.”
Okay, I’d go along with it. Still laughing, I glanced down. The buttons on my dress looked about to pop. “Reckon I’ve been eating too much.”
“No, you ain’t. You’re skin and bones ‘cept for your belly.”
He was talking crazy. There was no way…
“He did it to you, didn’t he?”
“Lester…your pa…he made you with child, didn’t he? There’s no other way…all alone here…no one else…my own brother…sinner…”
Daylight drained away; darkness pulled down over my eyes. A rumbling roar drowned out Uncle Silas’ words. And out of the roar, other noises rose up. Screaming voices, a gunshot, snarling cyclotes, a bellowing cow, meaty thuds, and blood, so much blood. Pa’s face rose out of the darkness, twisted in anger. Then another, swimming into focus as his faded away. Black eyes that held no white, pale, downy cheeks, a warm, loving smile.
And I remembered.
Farther back…darkness…Pa’s hands on me.
My mind couldn’t contain all the images and thoughts and feelings. It shrieked, pounded, felt as if it were going to explode. I grabbed my head, pushed, tried to hold it together, but couldn’t. It broke apart, fractured pieces sliding down my cheeks, my neck, my shoulders, my arms, their sharp edges slicing my skin, leaving blood trails in their wake.
Laying open gashes on my hands, I slapped off the bloody shards, and with red rivers running down my fingers, I ran. Wailing, I ran and ran, out into The Flatlands.
An overview of The Kingdom here
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