My father was the first woman I knew. His hands split the knots in my hair, folded me on a straw bed, spooned me soup. Belted me, caned me, hided me. He never touched me but to hit me. I was not afraid of him in any way but this. He slept by the day fire and cut sticks at night into beasts. Twisted things, not cows or lambs. Vermin. When he had enough, he’d bury them by the walnut. The dirt around it barren, poisoned by the falling leaves. Bits of his soul, he’d say. The darkness put to rest. With each one, I thought, Ah, no more pain. Buried well. Except he never stopped carving. The wood turned into rats eating their own legs, snakes split two-headed, spiders with a dozen arms. After a heavy rain, their spasmed faces peered from the walnut roots. I’d stumble on them playing, hide in the cabin till the wet leaves covered them again. They were never buried deep.
We lived in tree country, had anybody asked. Trees all over. Ice in winter, too hot in summer, bugs. Cracks in the wall so big my finger found the outside. My father sometimes there and sometimes not, though which was worse. He looked like a smudge. Like someone had run a finger down his face while the paint was wet. I only came close when he was sleeping. I’d sit long enough for certain, then crawl into him. Lift his deadweight arm over my little self, my knees tucked in. Just for warmth. A small bear pressed into its mother bear, careful for claws. I knew when he was waking because he did nothing quiet, and I was by the far wall before he could see.
‘You always up,’ he’d say.
I would never sleep if he didn’t.
Eating was him finding food, tossing the bones to me. He had a gun, all men had guns, and some days he’d be gone till dark and come back with fat birds and others he’d sit at the fence and blow holes in the post. Our posts so weak with all that wood puckering they’d come down at the tail-flick of a wild hog. But when he pointed the gun at food, he’d bring it home and pluck it or skin it and roast it and eat it and at the end he’d throw the gristle to the corner where I was always sitting, waiting, never not hungry. I was little, even for a little boy.
I don’t know when I knew I was his son, or if he ever knew.
He didn’t speak but in growls. The times he wasn’t shooting, or drinking, or asleep, he spent remembering. Or that’s what I thought. Sitting that long, staring at nothing. That’s when he’d dig into the wood with his knife. I didn’t know the words to ask him what his mind was on, what kind of blackness led to such blackness. Guilt wasn’t something I knew of. The drink loosened him up, caused him to spill himself, but his loudness then, those words, had no sense. There was a she and sometimes a knocked her head, just in anger and he was sorry, always sorry when he drank. What she he killed I didn’t care, for he was all the parent to me.
My father sometimes danced. Wild nights, men would gather, men I’d never seen, and my father, who was my mother, would jerk his heels up and slap the floor. His arms flailing above his head, his beard trembling. One man in the corner with a fiddle, the rest with whiskey mouths. The house would shake and I would watch from the walnut, never knowing what a woman was. One night I saw a black man there, elbows bent, feet shaking. I thought he was a warm wonder. There was no violence in that violence. Only noise that washed hard over me, like a belt on my back. If asked what was a woman, I would have said likely just a man I’d never seen.
What did I know that I was waiting for word of them?
There were soft apple spots in my father. He took me once in spring to where the flowers grew. So many trees, it was hard to find the space to bloom. But in the meadow they spread wide. Between eating berries he wove a crown for me, clover knotted in thistle. I wore it and saw my joy in the dirty smudge of his face, and we were boys at play in a field. I pretended to be a bird and swooped, and he pretended to be a mouse and cowered. There was a creek and we fished our toes in it. Clear blue, the sky, the creek, the blue-eyed grass. I reached for his hand, not knowing where I had learned the want, and he was still. A moment, my short fingers tucked in his. And then he was up, shaking off his watered feet, breaking the knots in his hair. Back to the meadow, where we shared a block of cheese he’d bartered. Just cheese, its skin sweaty like ours.
He carried a flask with him, was never flaskless, and he drank himself into a nap, and when I saw him sleeping I slept too, though not too close. I felt the sun suck away the wetness on my creek feet, brown my cheeks. I watched the fireflies inside my eyelids. A spine from a thistle leaf dug into my ear. I wouldn’t have taken off my crown that day, not for money. I spread-eagled into the green grass and pulled my body close again, swam out, swam in, fists full of broken leaves, me a happy fish. I didn’t dream because I had no memories.
I slept too long. He was already awake. The flask was empty when he threw it at my head. He told me to get up, but he was pulling at my feet, which made it hard. He took my hand – his fingers finding mine! – and dragged me to the creek. I was in the creek, and he was scrubbing at me, angry, yelling about dirt, about how no one looked after me. I saw this was true. Who would have looked after me? He kept scrubbing. ‘Not mine,’ he said, though I was his, and he left me floating while he went to puke into the bushes, and when he came back, wiping the yellow foam off his mouth, he grabbed the back of my neck and I was under, the whole water was my world. I thought he was cleaning me, setting me to rights, but he wasn’t moving. I didn’t move. I didn’t move until I couldn’t breathe, and then my arms and legs flew out, frog-like, kicking, kicking. This made the water dusky so I couldn’t see the minnows or the green muck. Just the shadows of my arms. And then the fireflies came back into my eyes, and it was black and gold in flashes. My father’s fingers locked into my neck, not moving, still. I breathed again, and it was water this time, and my lungs filled up heavy, sinking me. My skin was dirty, and he wanted to make me clean.
On the bank, I gave it all back, clear creek water. He was slapping me hard, and I felt like an ocean was pulling itself out of me. Like the boy was being pulled out of me. My insides flipped. He hauled me standing and since my legs too were full of water, he lifted me and held me like a baby and like that carried me home. Made a fire, dried me, gave me his quilt. There was no food, but if there had been, he would’ve fed it to me. He sat with me while I grew sleepy, and when he saw I couldn’t sleep with him sitting there, he patted my head with an open palm and went out into the new night, and as soon as he was gone I didn’t think at all, not about whether he loved me or wanted me dead, and I slept, no dreams.
I was happiest with my father then. He beat me frequent for little things, but I could’ve been a poor-trained dog and gotten the same. Only his son would he hold below water with such a furious hand. Only someone you loved would you want to kill. If that’s what it was. Not mine. If I wasn’t his, surely I was my mother’s. And who was my mother but my father? He was it, the all of my world, whether he was good to me or whether his eyes turned dark and strange. He could drown me and I’d still be his. As I grew up, grew stronger, I’d be more use. Could help him with his work.
My father made rye whiskey when he wasn’t haunted. The still was past our clearing and the next, tucked in a blackberry dip. He drank half and sold half, and sometimes half was stolen. I once dug the leaves away from the copper pots, dulled with use, and swallowed some. Burning pepper. Mostly I’d hunch in a shrub and watch him stir until the stinging smell jellied my legs. I’d fall asleep. I’d wake in dew and crawl home. Barely tall enough to reach the latch. My father would be stretched by the fire, his brown hair lank against his shoulders. His grease shone in the firelight, his hat still on. He stank. I put my white child’s hand against his cheek and smoothed the dirt. I tried to match my breaths to his, and when our chests rose and fell and rose, perfect, I slept.
The men who came to fetch the drink were tall. I was smaller than I should have been, and they seemed giants. The room crowded with them, even when it was just one and my father. Most were dressed well in clean coats with buttons. I hid under blankets, beneath the table, thin by the broom in the corner, outside. Safer outside. No one said much, because the drink was the language. They came with coins, or fresh rye, and walked away with jugs. I wondered what roads they took to bring them here. Roads we never saw. In all those trees, with seldom flowers and one blackberry dip, there were no other homes. Just one man and one boy, who never moved past a mile, who never saw the innards of other people’s houses. I guessed these other men lived in cabins of the same size, but they could’ve lived in trees or underwater or in rooms papered with steel. I didn’t know what a family was, and no surprise. If I could have made myself a fly to slip inside the stone bottles and be carried to any elsewhere, I would’ve, though it made my life but three days long. But I could never get smaller than I was. Never brave enough to wander. The leash that kept me tied to my father was my only belonging. Just one invisible strap between us, keeping me out of some black hole. I stayed quiet and quieter as the men came and took their poison and my father his coins, and when he was hungry he’d shoot something and I’d eat it, chewing softly so as not to bite down on lead, and I never left, not till they took me away.
At age around six, I was in a flooding rain, days of wet. The men stopped coming, their rye fields swamped, and the fire under the still went out. My father took the pieces apart to clean them and saw he needed a new coil, so he walked somewhere – a town? – and left me with the rain falling. There was a shelf in the house with apples and oats. If I stood on a stool I could reach. I sat in the rain until I was wet through, and sat in the house until I was dry. I watched the beads on my hands shrink or slip off, my dark pants grow slowly lighter. My hair as it dried moved on my scalp. No more than a few minutes to get all-the-way wet, but it was most of a day to dry out. My father wouldn’t let me keep a fire.
He was gone for two days, and I drank out of his mug and wore his extra coat. I ate all the apples. I coaxed a squirrel in the house with walnuts and trapped him. He threw himself around the walls until he knocked his head hard, and then we both slept. I was close enough to put my finger in his little clawed palm. If I was still and didn’t breathe, I could feel a pulse in his hand like a whisper, blood from a tiny heart. The fur bristles trembling, his rubbery pads warm like skin. I squeezed the little paw. When he woke, he bit me, and then I let him go.
I was asleep under my father’s quilt, still in my father’s coat, when he came back. He threw off the covers and found me in a little puddle. I hadn’t made water before bed because it was raining and my penis was scared of the weather, and because I was still just a boy it came out on its own, a bitter mess on my father’s quilt. He pulled me up in one hand and the blanket in the other and took us both outside, where finally some sun was showing though the rain still fell, and he took off my pants and threw them over a bush with the blanket and he pulled a switch off the possumhaw and thrashed my bottom. The more I wailed, the harder he hit, which was a lesson I never seemed to learn.
The world shrinks when you’re getting hit. Most of it fuzzes away. What I saw was the new coil by the back door, a squashed copper worm, picking up winks of sun. The rain slow now, like a boy weeping. He threw the switch into the woods.
‘Don’t piss in the bed.’
I wanted to tell him about the squirrel, but I guessed he would be angry. I still wanted to tell him.
He took off my shirt and turned it upside down and put my legs into the armholes, one by one. He tied the wide bottom around my waist into a knot. He patted my head again, once, and then slapped me on the bottom, but I think this was consolation. He took his coil and a jug of whiskey and walked away. The blood came through the shirt in thin streaks.
I didn’t see him the rest of the day. I made water before bed and pinched myself halfway through sleep so I could get up and do it again, my urine splashy like the last of the rain, and in the morning the bed was dry. Outside, pointy leaves still held on to water drops. The ground was spongy where I stepped. I thought I was in a new place for how new everything smelled, like clean dirt.
I climbed a hundred-year magnolia. I lay upon its thin top limbs. I rubbed my chin against its liver-spotted bark, gray and ants all over. My skin crawled. I ate a few, just to see. Their legs along my tongue. With my eyes closed, the day was patterned. Golds and greens moving in my eyes, ants walking in my belly. I heard a bird settle near. It sang like a wren and perched on my back. Its tail bobbed against my shoulder. I was its earth. I stopped breathing to hold a stillness, to hold its body. Its toes through the thin cotton clung. It pecked me once, for food. I wished I’d been a worm, to give it that. I stayed still, the earth, not moving. When it flew away, the sun gold in my eyes had grayed. When I went sleepy home, my house was empty, my earth rolled over.
My father wasn’t home, but his hat was there. He hadn’t gone away. I stood in the door and whistled into the falling light. No sound. I waited for a man to come, one with gold buttons and rye, but no one came, though I waited many minutes. I took a pail with me to gather nuts. If my father was hiding, I’d find the squirrel again and train it and it would be my father in my father’s stead and I would be its baby. No sounds on the path to the still, no nuts to be found. It was too dark for seeing. But I was looking for small things, and my father was large. I forgot how large until I saw him.
I found my father by the still. His mouth was full. What smelled of pepper now smelled like something spoiled. I pushed him on his side to let the dribble out, but he was stiff and his hands instead of flopping froze. His eyes were open and were brown and his face was brown and his neck was gray. I called his name and he didn’t answer, but he never answered. I tucked his hair behind his ears. I wiped his chin. I crossed his hands upon his chest and stole his shoes.
Excerpted from Katy Simpson Smith’s forthcoming novel, Free Men. Photograph © Andrew Moore.