By Abigail Oswald
We gather in the living room of my grandmother’s house and count ourselves. The last uncle is dead and now all that’s left is us: the women. Our layers of bloodstained fleece. We stand in a broken circle and take in each other’s bodies, what remains. The angular jut of hipbones poking through ratty sweatpants. My sister’s ribcage like harp strings, the delicate whole of her pushed against me for warmth or comfort like a lost baby sparrow.
Before we boarded the windows we could see a collection of small white crosses where my grandmother’s garden used to be. Sometimes when I walked by one would catch my eye unexpectedly, like an errant ghost wanting to be remembered. A wave of nausea would hit me, without fail. Loss makes me sick.
My oldest aunt takes stock of our resources aloud. Her knotted brown hair is tucked up in a forgotten ponytail. When something like this happens, physical appearance is generally the first thing people forget. I catch my sister still with lip gloss every now and then: furtively slipping her finger into a small shiny pink tub and running its tip over the outline of her mouth. Beauty as a way of fighting trauma—I wouldn’t know. There’s only one mirror left and I don’t look into it anymore.
In a flat voice my aunt reports the number of cattle still living—only female, of course. We had to shoot the males early on, when the first symptoms appeared. I can still call up the recoil of the gun when I fired—louder than I expected, too, my ears ringing in its aftermath. Three times before he went down, just two feet from my sister. Her tiny body hurtling into mine, her small chest quivering with sobs—fear, sadness? We felt attached to these animals, once. The steer’s legs twitched horribly on the floor of the barn, scarlet staining his mottled skin. Huge eyes still open and shining, channeling an anger we didn’t understand.
I’d never seen an animal die before. I’d never killed anything.
My aunt says we’ll probably last the winter if we aren’t found. If we’re found, all bets are off. My mother speaks up, says we have more ammunition—the stockpile in the basement—we can hold our own, if we need to. They’ll have ammunition too, spits my aunt. Maybe more than that. Back when the radio was still working, we heard rumors about the military bases being raided. My aunt wants to know if I’ve ever seen a bomb go off. Years back, she got caught up with one of those radical environmentalist groups. She remembers.
My mother’s lips press to a tight line. It’s been months and I can’t get used to her shorn hair—wispy golden down that shines in rare sunlight. I can see veins beneath her skin. I think of the blood moving through her. Through all of us, still.
She cut it all off the day we buried my father. Went at it with an electric razor, back when we still had electricity. I watched her through a crack in the bathroom door, left ajar as if she wanted the action witnessed. The fading sunlight—darkness came so early, even in those days—cast her movements in shadow as those long yellow curls fell to the floor. Lighter than I thought they’d be, no noise when they dropped.
Dad was one of the last to show symptoms. Stops and starts at the beginning, before it came all at once. How else to describe it but a great, curdled rage? Mild annoyance that carries into a severe and unrelenting anger that quickly turns deadly—this was how we lost my grandmother.
First, breakfast wasn’t ready on time. Then, the coffee wasn’t hot enough. The doors closed too loudly. The sun was too bright. We were sitting down. We were standing. We existed.
Eventually, the afflicted descend into a primal, all-consuming rage. They don’t come back. We have confirmed they can’t come back. If we were to leave this house, we would see a trail of bodies, frozen in various states of decomposition, all with crushed windpipes. Purple fingerprints pearling their necks.
My mother promised my father she could relieve the pervasive unhappiness that possessed him. She opened the door and they walked outside together. My sister cried when she heard the sound, a soft boom like a bomb going off far away—I pretended it was far.
When I killed the animal to save my sister’s life, I imagined my father’s eyes as the life had drained from them—imagined, because I couldn’t remember, because I hadn’t seen.
My mother never speaks of it, but she shaves any hair that grows back so her head shines, unblemished in the gray light of every new morning.
Abigail Oswald is a writer whose work predominantly examines themes of celebrity, crime, and girlhood. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and currently resides in Connecticut. Her writing has appeared in Anomaly, Fugue, Hobart, Necessary Fiction, Split Lip, Sundog, and elsewhere. You can find her online at abigailwashere.com.
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