It was the October of 1921 when I killed my father.
I remember the rain, blowing sideways against the farmhouse like God was spitting on all of us foolish enough to be out there in so wretched a climate.
I remember the horses screaming over the wind, and how sometimes the wind sounded so like the horses themselves that I couldn’t tell the two apart.
Mostly I remember the look on my father’s face before I shot him. I’ll hold onto that, when everything else grinds down under the pestle of time. I’ll remember it for my mother, who was resting up with a broken jaw on his account, and for my sisters, who’d gone off staying with our Aunt Janet and Uncle Kenny until things righted themselves back home.
They weren’t ever to know who it was that set things right, nor how it was done.
Later, my mother and I would tell folks that Daddy had gone off to Tenesee with some lady-friend, and weren’t planning on coming back. Women were just about the only vice he didn’t have, but seeing as no one knew that aside from his own family the lie stuck, and will likely stand till Ma and I are both in our own graves.
I would have kept what I’d done from her had she not been home to hear the shotgun blast. It tore through the dark and the squall like a giant’s belch; lucky we had no neighbours close by, or I would have had a hell of a time helping them make sense of it.
Whenever it rains like it did that night I think of my mother, flat on her back in her bedchamber, seeing nothing, still knowing her husband of nearly twenty years lay dead across the porch.
I think of the bruise on my shoulder and the base of my spine where the blast knocked me back; I was sixteen then, and skinny as a rat dog, barely a finger’s pinch of fat padding the bone against the fall. Thinking on it, I ought to have used a bolt gun to do it. Cold steel behind the eyes, clean, and kinder than my father rightly deserved, the body dropping down soft in the hay of the barn.
As it was there was no planning, no nights fretting away sleep through the details of it, nor thoughts of where I’d go if I was found out—Florence, Alabama, maybe; I have cousins out there who would have put me up, and wouldn’t have squeaked a word of my being there to the law.
Thing is, I never thought of killing my father until he was stood square in front of me, the top of his head blown so surely off that there was nothing left of it but the grinning underbite of his jaw bone collecting the rain.
See, I’d always been the one to settle him down from his furies, me being the oldest child, and his particular favourite. It was ego that formed my father’s tastes in that regard, being that people were always saying that I looked just like him. He was handsome enough, square jawed, and freckled all over from working outdoors so much, but seeing as I was his daughter I never knew how to take the comparison. Soon enough I came to hate my face, the way my mouth smiled one-sided like his, even the blue of my eyes, which none of my siblings had inherited from him.
At least I didn’t have my father’s constitution, I’d tell myself, being steady, and quiet, and tough to stir up into any kind of excitement. That man would see vermillion over something as small as crumbs left on the kitchen table after breakfast, though the worst times were when he’d stew on it a good while before the rage set it and took us all by surprise.
I hated the tension the most, the humming silence of an Old West saloon, thick with the knowing that gunfire would come. Oftentimes I wished he’d just get it straight out so we could all move on with our day. It hurt to think that when it was my mother who’d suffer all of his temper.
She never did anything to bring it on herself, not that it’d be right for him to hurt her if she had. My Ma was a silent, cautious woman, keeping her thoughts and feelings stitched up tight where nobody could prise them out of her. She kept her eyes low and her back turned to just about everyone, nursing a preference for her own company, which somehow she maintained despite there being six of us in the house.
Why she drew my father’s fists I’ll never know. Could be that her stoic manner riled him up through the lack of mind paid to him and his feelings, or could be that he saw he could get away with it, being that she would never complain, nor confide her troubles in anyone that might talk.
I’d get between them as often as I could, trusting the knack I had in cooling Pa down before he’d even raised a hand. But there were days he’d watch till I’d gone off someplace else about the farm to start in on her, and I’d tell from the glint in his eyes afterwards that he knew how crafty he’d been about it.
But it weren’t for my mother’s sake I shot him, in the end, nor my sisters, who were so scared of my father by then that they shook at the sight of him coming through the front door. There wasn’t any sort of nobility in my killing that man, or else I would have done it sooner, and taken pride in the blood on my hands. As it was, I would have let it go on; I was a child, and no more made to avenge as I was to fly.
It was only through the bitterness of my father laying into me for the first time that I went, at last, to find me a gun.
The weather had set him off, that night, unsettling him as a storm might a dog. He went around the house grumbling and slamming doors for no other reason than he’d just walked through them, a cigarette barbed to his lip, though he’d been fixing to quit since I was born. There was a fence he’d meant to repair and couldn’t, not with the weather being what it was, and the work left undone seemed to pick at his skull so as he couldn’t let the notion alone.
“The Hell you doing sitting around?” he snapped at me. “Ain’t there something you ought to be doing?”
Having finished my share of chores I’d holed up in a corner to read a book, hoping to be left alone. Truthfully I should have known better; my father couldn’t stand anyone to be at peace when he was in one of his moods, as though offended that the household was not of one mind and temperament with him.
“Animals are fed,” I muttered. “And I cleaned up. That’s all there was to do.”
My father came over and clipped that book out of my hands so fast I barely saw him move, only hearing the thud of the novel hitting the floorboards. The spine split down the back, loose pages scattering like teeth knocked from the mouth of some drunk.
“I told you to do something,” Pa snapped. “So go do it. What’s wrong with you?”
With my mother being laid up he had no place to put that gnawing want of violence; I should have sensed it sniffing after me as I got to my feet and trudged towards the front door.
Pulling it open I was soaked through right away, my eyes gusted half shut by the rain.
“Jesus H,” I said, and half-turned to come back inside.
My father had come up behind me, and he had a look in his eyes any woman who’s been hit by a man will know: the coldness of them deciding, in that moment of abandoned fury, that you are no longer a person to them.
He hit me in the face, closed fist, knuckles to the bridge of my nose in a scum of blood and cartilage. I staggered out across the porch, my boots sliding in the wet, more shocked than hurting; the adrenaline soaked that up, anyway. The pain was a red numbness, reverberating right through my teeth to my skull, making me sick.
Twisting my head I retched against the wind, spitting blood that was immediately washed away. I turned and looked at my father, but he’d already gone back into the house and slammed the door on me.
I stood there, not thinking or feeling much of anything except the slamming pulse at the centre of my face, tasting the iron bitterness of blood. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t realised I had loved my father until suddenly I didn’t anymore.
All I did after that was like a muscle reflex, all motion with little thought behind it. While most of the guns were kept in the house I knew my father had a shotgun hidden away in an old shed. Like most violent men he was deeply paranoid, and had the idea he ought to be armed wherever he was. He’d aimed that gun at my mother once— only once, as though he’d itched to try it, just to see how it felt to have her face under the shadow of its muzzle. Afterwards he’d gone back to using his hands as lovingly as an old, favoured tool.
Still, I’d watched him load and use it around the farm enough times to know what I was doing, at least so far as I wouldn’t shoot myself by accident. There was no fear in me as I took hold of the gun, only the thought of my father’s eyes before he hit me, their blue like the blue of a vein.
I trudged back up to the house again through mud and water to my calf, thinking, keeping a dull and distant quiet. The door of the farm house swam up at me out of the rain; I banged on it a few times and stepped aside, concealing myself in the shadows of the porch.
Half a minute later my father lurched out of the doorway, his shoulders squared in a stance that said his rage was not yet spent.
“Daddy,” I said.
I doubt he heard me, for I spoke soft, the word made flat by the wind, and the bellowing animals. Still, something must have gotten his attention, for he turned around just as I shifted the shotgun on my shoulder and touched the trigger.
Did he see me through the dark, I wonder? I must have hit him half by chance, with how low the light was, though I had the benefit of the glow from the farmhouse hallway to guide me. He seemed as white as a dead lamb in the blackness, his leering mouth a black slash that would have scared me sick, had I not been so empty of everything.
Then there was only noise, and blood, and shot-through bone, and I had to think of the next thing: what to do with the body.
I picked myself up off the floor, having been thrown down by the kick— I hadn’t reckoned on the power of that weapon, taking for granted that I was too slight and unskilled to wield it as my Pa had done. His body gave me a similar trouble as I took hold of him by one leg to drag him, my shoulder joints nearly popping under the weight. In slow, heaving tugs, cursing against the rain, I pulled my father across the yard towards the pig shed.
I knew from feeding them every day that they were always hungry, and would eat just about anything you put in front of them. Worked up as they were by the weather I knew they’d have a streak of mean in them, fired up into a shrieking frenzy, quick to bite even me, who they knew by sight, and had an affection for.
Half-deaf from the gunshot and struggling to breathe through my broken nose I hauled my father’s body through the door of the pig shed and up over the side of the pen. The stump of his neck had bled all the way from the porch, the rain washing its trail away; now it soaked my hands and the side of the fence, reeking of death, of metal.
The pigs rushed the fence and screamed like Hell, grabbing at my father’s sleeves with their flat, broad teeth as he slipped down. Their strength and the body’s weight nearly vaulted me over the fence with it; swearing, I let go, and my father disappeared under the heaving flesh of the herd. The frenzy of rage and hunger I saw as they tore and trampled him with hooves and teeth was not unfamiliar to me. Each of the animals had my father’s eyes, as they’d looked before he struck me.
I gripped the side of the pen and watched my father be devoured, bone snapped and ripped through gleaming lumps of meat as a person might take a cooked chicken apart. Later, when I would dream of that night, I’d always see myself crawling down there with the pigs like I was one of them, masticating lumps of yellow fat and jellied organs. In those dreams sometimes I was a pig, naked and bristling with coarse hair and cruel intelligence, not caring a bit the man I swallowed had raised me.
I know how he would have tasted. As I watched the last of my Pa fought over by swine I raised my bloody hands to my mouth and licked them clean. In that moment it felt right to do it, as though what my father and I had done to one another had made me less human, and more inclined to the rituals of beasts.
Some hours later I went back to the farmhouse to bring my mother a bowl of soup on a tray, which was just about the only thing she could eat. She was sitting up in bed, pale, and hard-eyed, her jaw in its wired up contraption like a muzzled cur. By then she’d lost so much weight I wondered that her bones didn’t up and splinter the skin.
“Momma,” I began, and she reached for the little notepad she’d been using to talk with since she got hurt.
With the stub of an old pencil my mother scrawled, in capital letters: ‘I KNOW’.
I should have been afraid, or felt some sort of guilt, but I was only tired and nauseous from the pain in my nose.
Again my mother took up her pencil.
‘DID YOU CLEAN UP?’
“Yes, Momma,” I told her.
I had. I took what was left from my father—which was mostly hair and teeth—and set it aside with my stained clothes to be burned when the rain died down. The shotgun I’d buried under the chicken coop, a place I doubted anyone would think to look, and scrubbed the last of the blood from the pig shed, and the porch, and any place in between that it had fallen. Then I’d filled a bath and washed myself until my skin stung, raw from the soap.
My mother looked at me a long time, thinking.
Then she wrote, simply, ‘GOOD.’
It was the only acknowledgement of what I’d done she’d ever make. After that she went straight into using the yarn of my Pa having run off on her, and I told the same tale without turning a hair. My three sisters were greeted with this fiction when they came home a week later, their faces pale, and serious, and believing.
For how sombre we were the house felt somehow lighter, after that, though never happy. My mother and I thought of that night and the rain almost constantly, our lives caught on it like a thorn.
The girls started acting a little strange. Though they had no clue of what had gone on in their absence they must have perceived something of our disquiet, for all three of them started up swearing the farm was haunted. There always had to be a light on in their room at night, though sometimes they claimed it flickered or went out, or that they heard screams from the yard, and banging in the walls.
Make-believe, I thought, at first, wanting attention now their Daddy had gone away.
Then, about the same time a year later my youngest sister, Lorena, woke me up hollering from an upstairs hallway. She’d been heading back from the outhouse when she’d happened to glance out of the window into the yard below.
There had been a figure standing out there— a man, she thought, only his arms were up so as she couldn’t get a look at his face. The wind was blowing wet leaves around the night, and suddenly it picked up so high that it was like a pig shrieking, or a shot horse, shaking the window pane like there were hands beating on it from the outside.
Then the man in the yard had put his arms down, and that’s when Lorena yelled out. Couldn’t stop herself, not until I seized her by the shoulders and shook her.
“What did you see?” I asked her, though I probably should have kept my trap shut.
Lorena lifted her head and as she stared at me it was with my mother’s shrewd, dark eyes.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Don’t remember. He’s gone, now.”
Then she padded away down the hallway to her room and left me standing there, shutting the blinds over the window, against the night.
Against the figure of a half-headed man, standing there in the yard like a dog that’s been shut outside, and wants to come in.