The doctor hadn’t been able to save her brother. He wasn’t even able to fully explain what had made him sick. The girl’s mother felt it wasn’t anything serious – nothing that her persistent, and often unwelcome, attention couldn’t cure. The doctor, an old superstitious man who had spent more time in the local bars than practicing medicine, believed it was some kind of poison, although he knew neither which kind nor what the antidote might be. Something from deep in the woods probably. He then proceeded to scold the girl’s mother for allowing her children to spend so much time outside. They’re children, not animals, he said. The girl can still remember how the doctor had pointed to her hair, which was tangled with burrs. Usually her mother bathed her in lavender water, picking out the burrs and bits of leaves and twigs until her hair was soft and fell evenly down to her shoulders. But that night, and the night before, she hadn’t the time because of her brother. For a moment she had felt shamed by the doctor’s words, but then she felt a strange sense of pride, and she swore that if her brother lived that she would never allow herself the unnecessary pleasure of such luxurious baths.
But her wish didn’t come true: Her brother had died just a few hours after the doctor had gone home. Shortly before he passed, her brother opened his eyes, turned toward her, and spoke a few unintelligible words. These words, she guessed, were part of the made-up language she used with her brother, only he hadn’t been able to explain them to her yet. Her brother was usually the originator of the language, explaining the words to her after he had created them, sometimes making her figure them out based on how he used them. In the year since he had created the language he had renamed almost half of what grew or lived in the woods. She wondered how long it would take to forget it all or if it was worth remembering now that she had no one to share it with.
But, the girl couldn’t get his last words out of her mind. She couldn’t figure out if her brother had been trying to tell her something or if the words were only gibberish. She had the ability to forget them for short periods of time, like when she was eating or when she was talking with her mother, but the words always came back. Especially at night. She would wake from terrible dreams of walking alone through the woods, where bears and mountain lions chased after her, repeating her brother’s words. When this happened, she would get out of bed, walk down the hallway, and stand in the doorway of her mother’s room. The girl wanted to climb into her mother’s bed but couldn’t bring herself to. It wasn’t that her mother wouldn’t have allowed it. It was more that she thought sharing the bed with her mother would make her more like her mother in all the ways she did not want to be: cautious, slow to get anything done, overly affectionate.
So instead she just stood there, watching the rise and fall of her mother’s chest under the covers. The rhythm of it made her tired, quieted her brother’s voice, and usually she was able to sleep again. But one night in mid-July her mother became sick. She had never been sick before, at least not since the girl’s brother had died. The girl didn’t like it. Her mother twitched and kicked at the sheets, made high pitched noises that sounded like a balloon deflating. The girl knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep now. She worried that maybe her mother had whatever sickness had killed her brother. She was starting to think that maybe her brother’s words were a message of some kind, perhaps telling her what combination of roots and herbs could’ve saved him.
She thought about waking her mother to explain this, but instead she kept moving, urged on by the sudden fear that whatever illness her mother had would chase her now, too. Down the hallway and down the stairs she walked, not as if in a dream, but something like that. Like moving through rain or fog. The walk to the front door seemed to take hours, but once she was outside it was like she was a dog untethered: she raced through the yard, forgetting to shut the back door behind her. The closer she got to the woods, the more her brother’s voice became something she could actually hear. . .past the pond, through the blackberry thickets, careful for the roots of the pin oak. She ran even though her breath gave out; and she kept running even though she had gone past the places she knew, the boundaries of her mother’s land. She ran as if she could go back in time to before her brother had died. Finally, after cutting her leg climbing an old rusty fence, she collapsed in a field. She lay there, inhaling the dewy grass smell, waiting for more instruction.
But her brother’s voice was gone; she couldn’t even remember his last words, or even what his voice sounded like. It was as if the distance she had traveled had erased these memories, and the harder she tried to recall them, the fainter they became. It felt like part of her was missing. Slowly, she began the process of getting up: she flipped onto her back and stared up at the moon, then she sat up and inspected her leg before standing, suddenly aware of the weight of her own body as she had never been before.
She looked back at the woods and wondered how far she had traveled and how long it would take her to get back home. Although she knew it was unlikely, she wondered if her mother had already died in the time she had been gone. Or, even worse, her mother was still alive but would die soon, and the girl would have to be there as witness to another last request, more words that would haunt her. This, combined with the thought of living in an empty house, was almost too much.
She started to walk further into the field but stopped when she heard a noise. At first she thought it was coming from inside her, but gradually she recognized the repetitive high pitched noise as the call of a screech owl. The sound seemed to carry with it all the loneliness in the world. Everything about the landscape – the field lying fallow, the thin moon above – all seemed to confirm this, and when the girl tried to keep walking, she couldn’t take another step through that field.
As she made her way back, she stopped to pull up roots and herbs. At first, she tried to remember what her brother had called them and what they did, but the memories weren’t there. All she could remember was how her mother patiently chopped up herbs and boiled roots and then added all the ingredients together in the teapot. While her mother worked, she sang songs from an old hymn book a traveling minister had left in their house. Although the melody, a dark and twisting tune, never seemed to change, the words were always different, and the girl found it strange how the song could sound so bright depending on the lyrics. The girl tried to remember some of them, but nothing came to her. So she hummed the melody until she reached home.
The first thing she noticed back at the house was the back door: it was closed. She wanted to believe this meant her mother had closed it, but when she got upstairs, she found her mother still in bed. Her mother looked worse: her body no longer thrashed but her eyes fluttered beneath the lids and the pillow was drenched with her sweat.
The girl went back downstairs, left the stuff she had picked on the counter, and started boiling water. She opened every cupboard until she found the hymn book. She took it down from the cupboard and laid it on the counter. While the room filled with steam, she flipped through the pages looking for the right words as if she had nothing but time.
About the Author: John Abbott is a writer, musician, and English instructor who lives with his wife and daughter in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Potomac Review, Georgetown Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, Arcadia, Atticus Review, upstreet, Midwestern Gothic, Bitter Oleander, and many others. His poetry chapbook "There Should Be Signs Here" is forthcoming from Wormwood Chapbooks. For more information about his writing, please visit www.johnabbottauthor.com.