by Suzzanna Matthews-Amanzio
My sister Laurel and I dug four more tiny graves. She stood barefoot on wet leaves, just a few feet away from the little bodies enclosed in plastic freezer bags, holding the flashlight while I struggled with the shovel to loosen and lift the soil. Her breath was unsteady from crying, but she kept the light still. I wiped tears on the sleeve of my pajamas, pausing between shovelfuls of hard New England earth. My hands were cold and raw, but I did not stop.
From where we stood at the far end of the yard, just beyond the tree line, the farmhouse appeared slumped over, ready to tumble down the sloped hill that led to the wired chicken coop and stock pond. Around us the shadowed trees drooped, and heavy, wet knots of leaves occasionally thudded to the ground. It was early November but winter had already taken root in the soil. Sweat matted my hair to my neck and back. My hands throbbed from the cold. I began shivering as, one by one, I covered over the graves.
We’d moved onto the farm in April, just after the spring rains, when clouds of black flies swarmed in the air and all the ground was mud. I was eleven and Laurel had just turned four.
My grandfather had grown up on the farm, and it was where he and my grandmother had lived before my father was born, but no one had called it home for a very long time. The house bore the scars of many winters of neglect—standing empty, buried beneath deep snows. Shutters pulled loose from their hinges, wind-battered and broken. Windows splintered, shards of glass remaining in panes like teeth. Fractures wended their way from the outside, through the masonry and timber to the heart of the house. Come spring, winter thaw flooded the foundation and water welled in the root cellars.
Every summer for as long as I could remember, we would drive from our house in Boston, out to the farm where our father would survey the land and inspect the house for new damages. It was a stopping point on the road to Lake Winnipesauke, where we spent vacations camping. Our mother packed lunches, and on those stops we’d all eat together on a blanket spread on the backfield. Mom and Dad would talk about fixing up the place as a summer home. Dad would always tease Mom about becoming a farmer’s wife.
When the three of us moved in, our father never did bother to fix up the inside. Cobwebs were left in corners and dust remained on surfaces we couldn’t reach. He began homesteading by fixing the fencing around the empty chicken coop to the left of the yard, then moved on to repairing the squat structure that was the barn, nailing loose boards and patching holes in the badly weathered roof. My sister and I watched all of this with curiosity. When we’d left Boston, Dad had said it was because our home wasn’t the same anymore. I didn’t know if having everything different was any better.
Dad had decided that I didn’t have to go back to school, not until I felt ready, but it meant that I’d have to repeat fifth grade. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to be away from him and Laurel, to leave them alone.
While Dad worked outside, I was left to care for my sister. She rarely strayed from me, had insisted on sleeping in the same room. Even when she sat watching her favorite movies, over and over, she had to be able to see me sitting and reading in the next room at the dining table. I could hear her humming along to familiar songs, her feet kicking rhythmically against the coffee table, could see her periodically peer over the stack of old TV Guides, so she could look across the hall and make sure I was still there. From the tall windows that faced the yard, I caught glimpses of our father pacing between the chicken coop and the barn, moving tools and supplies in an unsteady wheelbarrow.
In the afternoon I would set my sister down to nap, careful to smooth the bedding around her. Still, she always woke up crying out to be untangled from the sheets, which coiled around her while she slept.
I explored the unused spaces in the house, from the cellars to the attic. In dormant rooms I discovered long forgotten shelves, swollen with books and boxes of papers and journals. I carried the heaviest books and boxes that I could manage, bringing them into the dining room where I stacked each one against the wall in the order I wanted to read them: first all the ones about farm life, then old ones with stitched leather covers like the magic books in movies. I kept an ancient volume of the Oxford English Dictionary, which was nearly as heavy as my sister, beside me while I read. I began collecting words that I found strange and beautiful, writing them down, reciting them out loud—feeling their shape, their edges, their weight.
I did what I could to keep house. I swept and made the beds, trying to recall what Mom had taught me to do, what she would have done to keep things together. I laid the dinner place settings, carefully arranging silverware, dishes, and folded napkins. Our father would come inside when it got dark. He would make us French toast or spaghetti, Laurel’s usual requests, and we would eat in silence. My sister, who couldn’t sit still for a minute, kept her wiggling to a minimum when seated at the large dining room table.
On Saturdays it became our routine to drive to the Agway store off Route Three. We sat alongside Dad, buckled into the large bench seat of the black pick-up he’d bought. We waited in the truck while he went inside, then turned in our seats to watch him load his purchases into the bed.
One Saturday, he emerged from Agway with heavy wooden boxes, large burlap bags, tools with various sharp edges, and strange lamps like the kind you’d see overhead a dentist’s chair. Most days, my sister and I watched dad working outside until he would disappear into the barn and we’d be left on our own. So it was a surprise, the morning after he’d made those purchases, when he called out to us through the screen of the open kitchen door to come out to the barn. Just beyond the barn door, Dad had positioned the strange lamps above large wood crates. He had my sister and I fill them with pine shavings while he went back for one more thing at Agway. My sister didn’t stick to the task long. She stood by the burlap sack throwing handfuls of the shavings into the air, pieces snowing down around her, catching in her hair.
“Laurel, stop!” I said. “We’re supposed to be filling the crates.”
She turned to look at me, rocking back and forth on her heels. “Why?”
I didn’t have an answer.
She began to stomp footprints into the dust she’d spread over the floor.
When Dad returned he brought us out to the truck. We couldn’t see into the truck bed, but we could hear something: frenzied chirping.
Dad looked down at us. “Abby, Laurel, close your eyes and hold out your hands.”
Laurel was bouncing. “I want to see, I want to see.”
“You have to stay still.” Dad lay a hand on her head to stop her jumping. “And no peaking.” He tousled her hair.
In each of our palms, he placed soft little lives. Baby chicks. Dad lowered the back of the truck bed so we could see: dozens of them cried out from a small crate. He carried the crate to the barn and we placed each little chick in the wooden boxes—their home until they were big enough to move into the backyard coop.
We hovered over the chicks in the barn. Dad had moved on to repairing the coop. After dinner he sat at the dining room table and read the Agway Quick Guide to Raising Poultry. Mornings we followed him out into the barn. We watched him and learned how to test the heat lamps to ensure they weren’t too hot or cold. Beneath the strange red glow of the lamplight, the chicks’ soft gold color looked russet. We fed the chicks and brought them water. I read the Agway guides when Dad was outside. I wanted to be ready to care for them as they grew.
But all the guides and almanacs, nothing I read, could have prepared my sister or I for the raw corporeity of farm life. We could not have imagined anything as gruesome as debeaking. The glossy Agway guide explained that debeaking is “the partial removal of the beak, which reduces the incidence of cannibalism and feather pecking.” We were in the barn when it happened. We spent much of our days there, playing with the chicks, watching dad fixing the lights and repairing the feed shelves that lined the wall. We followed as he approached the chicks, told us they needed to be debeaked. Laurel scrunched up her nose. “What’s that?”
Dad reached down, lifted a chick from its box. “It’s something you have to do to keep them from pecking at each other.”
I couldn’t decide which was more horrible, chicks brutalizing each other or the torture of cutting away their small pink beaks. My sister and I watched as my father held a white chick in his grip and filed down the tiny, almost translucent beak with a cold metal file.
“Doesn’t it hurt them?” I asked.
“No,” said Dad. “It’s just like cutting your nails.”
My sister bit down on her fingernails to test it out. I was about to do the same when there was an eruption of blood across the chick’s soft down. He had filed too far.
That was the first grave we dug.
* * *
Dad gave us a shoebox that we lined with tissues. I covered the body with one of my T-shirts, which my sister covered with a drawing of furious yellow scribbles—a portrait of the chick. Dad put the lid on the box and we mumbled apologies as we interred the tear-soaked shoebox in the damp spring earth. No more beaks were filed in our presence.
My sister and I tended to the baby chicks vigilantly. We fed them and kept their boxes clean with fresh pine shavings. When their down darkened and their feathers grew in, Dad moved them from boxes into the coop. Each chick grew with unique markings and patterns on their feathers, and we gave them names. They trusted us, milling up against the coop’s fencing when we approached.
At the end of May, neighboring farmers arrived on tractors to help till the meadows that lay just beyond the birch trees alongside the right of the house. Through the silver and white trees, we watched the men interact with Dad—pacing and pointing to places in the distance, Dad nodding in agreement to things we could not understand.
Dad spent long days planting in the freshly tilled fields: green beans, tomatoes, and acres of corn. As usual, my sister watched her movies on repeat. I had made my way through the first pile of books to the boxes that had belonged to my grandfather. Within them lay yellowing copies of the Old Farmer’s Almanac. I read and reread them, trying to understand the predictions they made. I learned about foreseeing the best times to plant by following the waning and waxing of the moon, and I wondered how something so far away could determine what surfaced from what was buried beneath our feet. The descriptions of the moon’s cycles fascinated me. Each moon, reborn and full, was a different being with a different name and purpose. May’s moon was the Planting Moon. I read about it too late and missed watching it grow full. I could only trace the shapes of its remaining phases, looking out my bedroom window at night until I fell asleep.
I waited for June’s Strawberry Moon, for what the Old Farmers’ Almanac imparted as the peak time for finding wild strawberries. I imagined the moon blooming, roseate in a Cimmerian sky. Our Aunti Maureen arrived just after June’s moon went full. She was nineteen, odd to us in cut-off shorts and flip-flops, her toe nails painted bright pink. Her hair looked crisp to the touch. My sister and I would watch her from behind the screen at the kitchen doorway when she went outside to smoke. She kept her eyes closed as she leaned against the barn at the far end of the yard, slouching down occasionally to scratch at mosquito bites on her tanned legs. We would press our noses up against the screen, the scent of her cigarettes coming through to us. It was a foreign smell, like the chemical cloud of hair spray that hung in the bathroom after she got herself ready in the morning.
My sister and I were surprised that Auntie Mo came to stay. She had never been at our grandparents’, where the family convened for holidays. The last time I remember seeing her there was before our grandfather’s wake. She had shown up at the house with bright crimson-streaked hair and jeans that were shredded like the rock stars in the music videos I got in trouble for watching. Our grandmother had been upset. Dad began an exasperated speech. “Maureen, you absolutely cannot go to the funeral parlor like that.” He told her it was disrespectful. They fought, and Auntie Mo walked out into the cold, slamming the front door behind her. We drove to the wake and left her sitting on the front step, hunched up into her leather jacket.
The whole thing had confused me. Why was she so angry? Wasn’t she as sad as the rest of us? Dad drove on in silence, but Mom had turned around in the passenger seat to face us. She told us Auntie Mo was figuring things out. “She’s having a hard time now,” she’d said. “She and grandma are alone without Grandpa.” I had kept silent then.
Now that I was a little older, now that Auntie Mo had come to live with us at the farm, I wanted to ask her if she had figured things out. I wanted to ask if the echoing ache in my chest would ever lull. If I would ever wake up without the need to suffocate the angry screams that threatened to break through to the surface. But she spent most of her time with her headphones on, rereading sunscreen blotted magazines filled with shimmery photos of lip-glossed smiles and used-up perfume samples.
Like the almanac had promised, June filled the forests with wild berries. My sister and I gathered tiny strawberries from the tangle of vines in the woods just beyond the cornfields, filling our cupped palms and eating them in handfuls, staining our hands and lips red. We would return to a still house: Dad asleep from the afternoon heat, the static buzz from Auntie Mo’s headphones faint but audible from behind her closed bedroom door.
On the Fourth of July, we drove down to spend the day at the lake and see the fireworks. It was the first time we’d been there without Mom. Dad busied himself at one of the lakeside grills. My sister and I ran to the water. Auntie Mo followed languidly behind us. We reached the water splashing and shivering our way deeper into the dark ripples. Auntie Mo remained on the beach and slowly dipped in a brightly painted toe, slipped off her cut-offs, and threw them up the beach where our towels lay anchored down by tennis shoes. She waded in up to her knees.
My sister started thrashing about, holding onto my arms. “I’m swimming. Look at me—I’m swimming!” She bobbed up and down and was smiling, and I found that I was smiling, too. Her grip lessened, and she was floating alone, then paddling, hiccupping with exuberance as she doggie paddled a semi-circle around me before standing up and shouting out to Dad and Auntie Mo, “Dad! Mom! I’m swimming!” I stood frozen. I wanted to run fast, but the water held me. Auntie Mo sucked in her lips, and my father looked away.
“She’s not Mom!” I shouted, “She’s not Mom!” My ears stung with silence. The diverting sounds of laughter and soused celebrating sharply halted as people stopped to stare at me screaming and sobbing. Auntie Mo broke into the water, came to where I stood, scooped me up, and hugged me. I cried into her warm t-shirt. She carried me up to the towels, and we sat in the sun like that. I cried until limp exhaustion took over.
That night we only heard the sound of fireworks in the distance. I sat with my Aunti on lawn chairs in the backyard, the radio softly playing. She painted my toenails bright pink and we sipped hot cocoa. My sister stayed inside watching The Little Mermaid for the one-hundredth time, while Dad read in his room.
* * *
In July the moon orbits nearest to the earth, and its auroral glow brought Luna moths, pale moonlit shades of green and lemon, hovering in the night sky. Dad captured one in an old pickle jar. It moved slowly, its fair wings brushing against the glass.
Mom had beautiful, long lashes that framed her almond eyes. When the chemo began she slowly lost them. I felt their absence on my face when she would brush her cheek up against mine to kiss me goodnight. Everything happened so slowly, but our world changed instantly, and all we could do was watch. Her hands got too weak to stitch and quilt, our hair grew tangled, then knotted, when she could no longer hold a brush. She spent less and less time at home and more time in cold hospital rooms, lying thin under ghostly sheets. Why didn’t Dad tell us we could lose her?
He held the pickle jar low for us to see and started telling us the things he knew about moths, about the eye-shaped patterns on the backs of their wings to fool predators, and how adult Luna moths had no mouths.
“Let it go, please,” I whispered. Dad kept talking, telling us about how long they lived from larva to adult. “Please let it go.” I spoke a little louder.
“Let it go,” my sister echoed.
The moth’s feelers moved slowly, brushing against the lid—it stopped moving its wings.
“It’s dying!” I shouted. “We’re killing it. Let it go! Let it go!”
Auntie Mo opened the lid and the moth slowly crawled out of the jar. Dad stood silent looking up at the stars.
* * *
By the beginning of August, the New England humidity descended upon us, and night after night we trembled through thunderstorms. Dad taught us to count the seconds between the thunder and the lightning to determine a storm’s distance.
“See, it’s miles off. Don’t worry.” And he would continue to read to us from a book of fairy tales I was getting too old for.
At night in our beds, we counted the miles under our breath like some sort of spell that would keep us safe.
* * *
August brought the Sturgeon Moon. The Old Farmers’ Almanac told the story of how Native American lake tribes had named the moon for the time of the year that sturgeon are bountiful and readily caught. To catch them, the tribesmen would set small fires in hearths that they brought aboard their canoes. The flames would send light scattering across the black water, attracting the fish to the surface. The thought of being ensnared in a net and pierced by spears after glimpsing something beautiful in the dark left me with a tightness in my throat.
* * *
Auntie Mo left us to go back to college in the city. A few weeks later, I started school myself.
The first day, I picked a seat on the bus directly behind the driver to avoid being singled out as new by the rowdier kids that claimed the backs of buses. The route to school cut through open farmland and wound past the clusters of homes nestled between copses of trees that grew denser the closer we got to town. The homes’ yards had grown wild over summer and were shielded from the road by the deep greens and rusts of ferns and wakerobins.
The front of school faced the town’s center. There was no green-lawned square, just a clearing of woods along the main road flanked on either side by civic buildings. The school, the two-room library, and the bank were on one side, while the sheriff’s office and the converted barn that was both post office and general store were on the other.
It made me anxious to be away from the house, to be separated from Laurel. And I knew she hated being left at the neighbors’ all day. I couldn’t focus in class. I would stare out the window at the road. I watched the cars come through town and tried to predict which direction they would go when they reached the fork.
In late September the days began to cool. The full Corn Moon signaled that it was time to harvest. The pumpkins that had been planted in the spring pushed above the earth, small and strangled by their own vines. I spent afternoons in the fields helping Dad pick the last of the summer’s tomatoes and beans, until the rains came fighting what remained to the ground.
October’s full moon arrived with its many names: the Hunter’s Moon, the Dying Grass Moon, the Travel Moon. It was a moon of impending bleakness, of passing, of leaving things behind. It was a warning moon, a time to ready for shorter, colder days ahead.
Just after my birthday in the second week of October, there was to be a lunar eclipse. Dad bundled my sister and I in our thickest sweaters, and the three of us sat on blankets in the backyard. We watched the brightness of the moon turn black, masked by shadow. In that cold moment of silent darkness my heart pumped faster.
* * *
Then November broke through, colder than expected. Frost spread across the windowpanes in veiny trails, obscuring the morning sun from our bedroom. We woke up every day to the roil and hiss of the boiler breaking the silence in the house—staying in bed until the furnace’s warmth worked its way up the pipes and reached our room.
We didn’t know what to make of it the morning we were woken up, not by the familiar purl and clang of heat coming on in the house, but to the battering of pots and voices rising over water on the boil. There were voices in the yard, too. I opened our window to the cold. Dad was in the corner of the yard by the chicken coop with four men we recognized from the nearby farms. They stood around in a circle, gesturing with their arms. They seemed to agree on something with a simultaneous adjustment of their caps. Dad moved slowly toward the coop.
We threw sweaters on over our pajamas and ran down the stairs. My sister paused in the kitchen where the farmers’ wives stood wild-haired in a cloud of steam over several large bubbling soup pots. I ran out into the yard, my heart beating fast.
I heard the guttural sound of a scared chicken. I heard someone shout my father’s name. As I pushed through the circle of men, someone caught me by the waist and held me. I saw the axe go up and up into the air and I watched it swing down, severing the head from a small, feathered body. I saw the feet curl. I saw the spurt of blood. I saw all of this, but I could not believe it was my father who had swung the axe.
Anger came up through me with the force of an ocean, my body shaking. The arm that held me back became two, then four. I screamed. I screamed until there was nothing left of my voice. Then I kicked until I was weak. The farmer’s wives came out from the kitchen to carry me to bed. Then I cried. My sister sat by my bedside the whole day. Several of our trusting friends lost their lives that day. In the evening I refused to eat. I didn’t want to look at Dad, I didn’t want to talk to him when he tried to calm me down, to explain. I did not fall asleep. I was sure there would be nightmares. So, I waited.
When I was certain that Dad was asleep, I shook my sister awake. We snuck down into the kitchen. I opened the freezer and saw the chicken corpses—white, covered in goose bumps, inside plastic freezer bags. I scooped them into my arms and held them against my chest, carrying them into the dark. Cold rippled through me. My sister dragged the shovel from where it leaned by the barn wall and we made our way out to where we had dug our very first grave.
After we’d laid each body to rest, we said our bedtime prayer, the only prayer that we knew: “Now I lay me down to sleep… If I should die before I wake…”
I couldn’t stop wondering why our father never told us the chickens’ fate. Why had we lived an entire summer unaware? What else did we not know?
I patted down the earth and we walked back to the house. Dad was standing at the kitchen door, his eyes straining to see us in the dark. When we reached him, he carried us to the couch and tucked us in under Mom’s quilts. They still smelled faintly of her. He stood over us, taking uneasy breaths between suffocated sobs. We had never heard him cry before. My eyes softened and closed. I put my arm around my little sister. She was already lost in sleep.
Suzzanna Matthews-Amanzio is a graduate of Mills College in Oakland California. While she considers California home, she grew up in New England and has lived, studied, and traveled abroad: from Latin America to Spain, the Caribbean to the Pacific, Newfoundland to Japan. Along the way, she picked up a few languages, lots of life experience, and wrote a collection of stories. Her work has appeared in Entropy Magazine and Heavy Feather Review. She is currently a first-year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. It is her first time living in the South.