My father’s hair is a tuft of wolf fur; his clothes and body a grimy rag wrapped around a charred bone; his arms, a stick tied crosswise to the bone with sinew. My mother is a dirt-stuffed sock topped with a tangle of red string, in a dress cut from an old skirt. My younger sister Edna is a shard of bark with a face drawn on it, in charcoal. My older sister Joy is an empty doll’s smock, because she is dead.
Edna hums to herself as she pieces together the last figurine from twigs and twine, packing the head with muddy cotton for a scraggly beard: me. The likeness is striking. We are too thin and dry and knobby, my effigy and I, and neither of us can move our legs.
I almost order Edna to throw her playmates in the fire and find us some food. But if I open my mouth, the words might snap the weak thread that holds her mind to the living world, and I will lose her forever. So I sit on the dirt floor of the cabin, in my stiff cocoon of blankets, and watch as she transforms our family stories into a puppet-play, voicing each of us in turn.
Our parents settled in this valley long before we were born, and built a cabin beside the wide, cold creek at its bottom. My father collected berries and shot animals with an old revolver. My mother tended the garden and three children, once we came along. Their earthly possessions amounted to a cast-iron skillet and a kettle, a skinning knife, two knitting needles, and an onionskin Bible. My mother taught us how to read from the book, and to write words on a board with bits of chalk. Eventually my father ran out of bullets for the pistol, but we still used the grip to beat rabbits and marmots to death, after we snared their legs in traps. Every few weeks my father carved a spear from a long branch and disappeared into the woods above the cabin, returning with armfuls of bloody venison. He made a fire by the creek and pushed the burning coals into a shallow pit, skewered the flesh on the spear and let it sizzle in the heat. We sat on boulders by the water and tore into that crackling feast, joking and laughing as the juices dripped down our chins. My mother used to tell us that everything outside our valley was poison, and how lucky we were to live here alone.
Then my father broke his ankle.
For the rest of his life, he walked with a slow limp. He told me to hunt, but I lacked his stealth in the woods: deer heard my footsteps from a distance, and ran. So we lived off animals caught in the traps, and whatever we grew in the garden. Our bodies thinned, our muscles like rope on bone. Winter arrived too early that year, the ice choking our peppers and beans in their beds. We chewed on boiled roots to kill our hunger. When the kettle rusted apart, and the skinning knife broke at the handle, my mother cried out that the Lord had abandoned us. That was before Joy curled on the floor of the cabin, moaning whenever one of us touched her. By the next morning she was dead and stiff, and my mother never spoke another word again.
We used too much of our dwindling strength to bury Joy in the garden, chopping at the frozen ground with shards from the kettle. My father disappeared into a grove of pines near the house, where we could see his fire at night, and hear him yelling at ghosts, blaming them for something called Nam. In the cabin we were too weak to move much. I found myself sucking at the flap of skin beneath my thumb, imagining how it would taste if I bit down and chewed. By then I could no longer stand upright. Edna dug up some acorns in the dooryard, smashed them to pieces with the revolver, and chewed them to a warm pulp she shoved in our mouths, massaging our throats so we swallowed the hard bits of shell. Every night I bent my head to a chink in the cabin wall, watching for the gray flicker of wolves at the edge of the woods, and drooled at the thought of sinking my teeth into their meat. My father went silent. Edna tore apart his doll and tossed the pieces into the fireplace, saying the beasts had eaten his flesh. If I could walk, I might have fought them for a scrap of him. The hunger had swallowed my revulsion, along with my hope, but I swear I never thought of attacking Edna or my mother. I swear. We were maybe a day away from death when your helicopter descended from the sky.
Nick Kolakowski’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Evergreen Review, Satellite Magazine, Carrier Pigeon and Shotgun Honey, among other publications. Nick Kolakowski is also the author of How to Become an Intellectual, a book of comedic nonfiction that covers (and sometimes, lovingly skewers) everything from ancient Greek tragedies to Albert Einstein. He lives and writes in New York City.
Image credit: New Old Stock
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #10.