By James Braun
Listen to our father. He is a screen door rattling hinges, hauling in cedar split for us brothers beside the burnt-away coals of our wood stove. Hear him bleeding in the beginnings of a kitchen, trailing November snow into this house his mind is set to build. He lifts the foot he’s cut from a drunken ax swing into the kitchen sink, letting pour the flask he keeps in the secret place in his patchwork sleeve, watering down the wound while getting the gauze from our kit, wrapping it enough to hold in all our father bleeds. Watch him step back into the snowstorm, cheesecloth tethered inside the sole of his boot, severed toes hidden, limping down the potholed road to town to fill the empty flask, leaving behind blood clumped thick in the sawdust mix, and us brothers with wood enough to keep us warm.
Brother to brother, my brother says that every day there is less and less of our father yet always more of this house for our father to come home to. I flash my brother an X-Acto blade from my coat pocket as though to say Go back to bed, and he does and I do too, falling asleep propped up against rolled-over slabs of insulation, what keeps the heat of this house inside with us, the pink of it itching our skin. What else do we wake to but gunshots snapping back behind the woods, my brother and I near-sleepwalking to the window frame to watch: a flashlight swinging over by the pond, our father tripping over a snow-buried harrow. I tell my brother, Look––do you see how at his shoulder there is another piece of him gone? See the harrow slice and wolf bites, our father’s blood a map running down the freezer-burned skin of his wrists, and already my brother is a sleepwalk away from the window getting the kit, hoping maybe for a Thank you, son, or a mangled hand to rest upon my brother’s head.
Every day and night our father builds, and when he’s out fighting wolves at night we hear from the house him calling out as he’s coming back, we hear him breaking ice, and what we see from the square cut for a window is our father chest-high clawing his way out of the pond he’s fallen in, thrashing to shore. My brother throws extra wood in the wood stove and I tell him it won’t matter, that with the frozen-off place between our father’s legs there will be no more brothers or sisters for our father to make.
Count the six days our father spends in Mercy for hypothermia, and when Doc Davis drives him back to this house, see our father legless at the thigh and weeping gently into his patchwork sleeve, the jacket from where he takes the flask from the secret place to drink, our father saying to us, Come, boys. Lend your old man a hand.
We lend him all of us, legs, feet, arms, hands, daytime building and nighttime fending off wolves with our father’s pistol. We help our father up onto the scaffold where he works, wiring switches and hanging drywall and priming paint, handing him pliers, buckets, brushes, rollers, our father’s legs hanging loose over the scaffold’s edge. Hear the bandsaw cuts, the power drill whirring, the hammer clatter that keeps us sleepless, our father holding nails in place for my brother to pound, and my brother shivering and missing, fracturing our father’s fingers again and again, making more and more, less of him.
We are clawed-up drywall-powdered ghosts of brothers in this winter, tired of China Lite takeout and fortuneless fortune cookies. Our father does not tire––he is up all night building while us brothers take turns shooting, but in these nights there is my brother saying, Fuck it, let the wolves eat us, I don’t care anymore, and there I am agreeing, bundling myself in next to the wood stove, lulled to sleep by the thrum of our father’s hammer on the scaffold above.
In the morning, we brothers wake to no sound but the goldfinches outside feeding, to the first sun of spring slanting through the window glass, finding in the middle of the living room floor our father’s jacket, the secret place inside holding a flask filled with the ashes we’ll spread over this place he made for us.
Art by Michelle Johnsen, art editor
Michelle Johnsen is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.