You are reading Fiddleblack #3
That sundown everybody remembers as being particularly fierce in color, red heather and blood orange gashed on the sky. The square and docile farmhouse sat alone in the dusk, sad eyes for windows.
Jacob scraped inside at the end of an undistinguished day, the door sweep catching on the terrycloth runner and causing it to bunch, and he picked up at once on the smell. An alien smell, warm and uneasy between the layers of chilly air. Through the front room he went, on into the kitchen where he hit the lights and looked around. Nothing. He waited for the odor to dissipate. When it didn’t, he reversed course and began to seriously hunt the source. And pulled up short halfway up the stairs, at a sound—a scratching, skittering sound that issued from the return vent in the wall at the landing. For nearly a full minute he stood stock-still, unsettled; but with each recurrence the noises sounded tinnier, more benign, and he pictured some harmless thing trapped, perhaps a stranded starling with a snagged wing, flapping around all in a panic. He went up the last few steps and bent down to take a look.
His brother Osgood was blinking back at him through the vent grille. His brother Osgood, beige eyes pitched in a white, egg-round face, fingers straining against the metal slats of the grille. Osgood the elder, older than Jacob by two years. Presumably still was, though he had been dead now for some time. “Jacob,” he said, “get me out of here.”
Jacob wrenched loose the grate from the wall. Out his brother came tumbling. Jacob watched him get to his feet, dust himself off. The two of them stood staring at one another.
“Osgood. What were you doing in my ductwork?”
The other looked about him, scratching at the back of his neck. “You know, I can’t rightly say. Got sort of turned around somehow, wound up stuck in there. Weird.”
He smelled of camphor and bitters. He was dressed in an older style than Jacob had ever seen him before, nearly antiquarian, like something their grandfather might have worn on Sunday mornings; and he looked to have thinned out considerably, the high-waisted trousers and three button vest hanging slack on his frame as a sodden flag.
“Osgood, you’re not supposed to be here. You’re dead.”
“What? Me? No no no. Where’d you hear a thing like that?”
“I heard it everywhere. The state sent us a letter. Said you’d been stabbed in the showers. I mean, Osgood, I was at your funeral.”
The brother listened to this with his head slightly bowed, brow wrinkled in concentration—he looked to be going back over the information again and again, as if trying to make it gibe. “First I’ve heard of it, Jacob. Someone stabbed me, in a shower, you say. To death?”
“That’s what we were told.”
Osgood pulled out a pocket watch, the fob run through a button hole in the vest, flipped it open and studied it. He thumped the watch face with his thumb, then held the thing close to his ear. “Huh, I’ll be damned,” he said, snapping it shut again.
The hall seeming not a suitable place for any sort of reunion, they moved things down the corridor to Jacob’s bedroom. The smallish room was tucked beneath the peak of the roof and was composed more of slanted ceiling than of walls; the men had to stoop to navigate it. Jacob went to switch on the lamp on the nightstand, his brother moving immediately to take a seat on the bed. His astonishingly real weight caused the indentation he made on the mattress to brim up with shadow, like a puddle brims with rain. Jacob went over to the room’s only chair, nestled between a wobbly chest of drawers and the window. The world outside had gone to night but for a tiny swab of pale gray in the upper left corner of the window’s upper left hand pane. He hunched forward in the chair to avoid hitting his head on the slope of the ceiling.
His brother was stroking a hand-stitched quilt that lay across the foot of the bed. “Is this one of Grandmother Verna’s?”
“I thought so. Now she really is dead.”
“Yes she is. Pleurisy.”
“Pneumonia, I thought. Oh, well, she was a good one.” They lapsed into a considerable silence.
“Osgood, I don’t understand you being here.”
“What’s not to understand? A man can’t visit his only brother?”
“But how? Where did you come from, where have you been all this time?”
The brother sighed, didn’t respond right away. “Good questions, Jacob. I’ve been doing some traveling, places you wouldn’t know anything about, places you don’t want to know anything about. Came a point when it seemed a good idea to turn back for home. Been a lot of changes since I was around, though. Hey, you remember that house I had for awhile in Shosburg, pretty blue one with the big wraparound porch? You know, they went and tore that place down. Tore it down and didn’t put anything up in its place—now it’s just a vacant lot. I could understand if they wanted to put up a store or bank or movie theater or something, but to just demolish a nice house like that and leave nothing but empty space, doesn’t make much sense to me. Wasn’t in such bad shape, just needed a little spit and polish. Made me sad, I don’t mind telling you. After seeing that, I headed for here. After all, we two are the only family we got left.
“Things sure don’t look much different here. Smaller is all. They say that happens, with childhood places. You see them again all grown up and can’t believe how tiny they’ve become.” The light fell in such a way that only one half of his face was illuminated, and on this half it was clear that he was smiling, a crooked smile in which Jacob detected all manner of mischief, while the other side of the face was completely obscured, veiled by shadow. All at once Osgood started to laugh—he had always had a very distinctive laugh, a parched cackle with something wet and slippery embedded in it—it was like a mollusk peeking out of its shell. “Remember the little twin beds, Jacob? Mine was right here, yours underneath the window there. Remember how I’d come up of a night and,” Osgood slapping at his knee, “and shriek in your ear, and you’d jump up and smack your head on the sill? Every time, son, worked every single time.”
“I remember. Eventually I just stopped sleeping.”
“Good times. And you, still living here. You never married, did you Jacob?”
“I didn’t, no.”
“I had a wife once,” said Osgood.
“You had a couple of them.”
He dismissed this with a wave of his hand. “Oh, I don’t count what’s-her-name. Just one of those stupid things you do when you’re young. My life started with Rachel. I don’t suppose you ever hear from her these days.”
“No,” Jacob repeated, as his eyes wandered to the nightstand. There, easily within the other man’s reach, was a small keepsakes box, lacquered cherry wood spangled with gold-foil designs, a hooped key that was purely decorative sticking out of the dummy latch of the lid. “Not for a long time now.”
“Okay,” said Osgood, the corner of his smile showing teeth.
“Didn’t realize how much I’d missed this place, Jacob. Can’t help but to think how it could have been mine. I am the elder son, after all.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have robbed those people. Shouldn’t have killed that boy.”
Osgood had turned his head, and now his face was entirely consumed by the overhang of darkness. The tone in his voice remained mild, almost fawning. “Oh, I don’t begrudge you, you understand. Not a bit. You deserve it. You always were the dependable one, so steadfast. It’s fitting she became yours.”
The particular wording made Jacob’s ears prick up, but he averted his eyes, not wanting to get pinned in Osgood’s gaze. Instead he looked down, at the other man’s shoes. They were brown patent leather brogues, like the rest of his getup seeming to belong to a different era, and probably had once been a nice pair; but now the heels were ground down and the shoes had collapsed at the toes, the leather crisscrossed with chalky white creases. Red clay or mud was smeared on the sides with a darker mud caked over the lip of the soles, as if they had tramped through a marsh or bog to arrive here. What could a man be after, what could he be seeking, to make a journey like the one Osgood had made?
He realized his brother was speaking again. “What’s that?” asked Jacob.
“I was asking again after Rachel. Asking if maybe you might know where I could find her.”
“I don’t know, Osgood.”
“Listen to me, I’m telling you I don’t know—”
“Don’t, Jacob. Don’t do it. You don’t want to mess with me on this. I need to see Rachel. You’re going to tell me where she is. Tell me, Jacob.”
Jacob jerked down in his chair, swearing—he had banged the crown of his head on the ceiling. When he looked up, rubbing at the smarting place, his brother was looking right at him, face jutting outwards and fully exposed by the light, all hints of a smile having vanished. For a creeper’s minute it was a stare down , then Jacob heard himself talking: “It feel cold in here to you, Osgood? Feels cold to me. Damn furnace is a thousand years old, always on the fritz. I have to fiddle with the thermostat to get it to click on. Feels cold in here to me. Let me go down and check on it. Maybe put on some coffee. You want a cup of coffee, Osgood? I’ll bring it up. We can talk awhile, catch up, figure things out.”
For a long moment the other man didn’t blink. Then an odd, somewhat sad expression came over his face, and he sighed and turned his face back to its veiled profile. “Sure, Jacob. Go ahead. Go check your thermostats and make your coffee. I’ll be right here.”
Every step on the staircase seemed to Jacob to creak on his descent; every floorboard in the front room croaked at his passage across them, traitors transmitting signals of his exact whereabouts to the intruder above. In the kitchen, he intentionally clattered the cups and saucers, turned the sink faucet on high to loudly let the water run. Off the rear of the kitchen, through a red-checked curtain, was the old pantry, formerly the place where his mother kept her canned fruits and pickle jars, now converted into a laundry room. The back door to the house was here. Set on pegs above the door was a double-barrel Remington .410 he’d had since he was twelve, a pouch of shells hanging on a string from one of the pegs. He pulled the shotgun down and cracked open the action. He slid a shell into each breech and levered the action shut, trying to do it quietly, stuffing the pouch inside his shirt pocket. With the tip of the muzzle he nosed open the curtain, and was actually half-surprised not to find Osgood standing there, a knowing, mocking look on his face at having sussed out the play. As if for extra confirmation, the voice drifted down from the room above, directly on the other side of the kitchen ceiling. “Everything alright, Jacob? You need a hand with anything you let me know.”
“I got it. Be just another minute,” his own voice in reply sounding pinched and quavering in his ears. Water continued to erupt from the faucet—he had turned it on hot and the window was steaming up; he caught sight of his miniaturized reflection, toting the puny shotgun, and the sweat of condensation on the glass made it appear as if he were melting.
He could not go back up there. He was too afraid. Osgood might be laying for him, hiding in corner or behind a door, coiled to spring out from the dark and do God knows what. Besides, it is no easy thing to murder a brother face to face, especially one who’s already dead. “Jacob,” came his voice again, “what you up to, son? Sounds like you’re washing dishes or something. Quit fooling around, I don’t have all night. Don’t make me come down there.” This last part was appended with his trademark cackle. Jacob approximated the spot from where the voice issued, just above the top of the pie-safe. There was a discolored patch in the plaster there, a makeshift target. He brought the stock to his shoulder and lifted the barrels, the muzzle not twelve inches from the ceiling. A pause to steady himself, his finger wrapped over the front trigger.
He let loose with both barrels at once. The room exploded in thunder and everything went an obliterating white. Recoil reverberated through him, shoulder bone down to bowels, as pulverized plaster and shards of splintered lath pelted his face and neck. When his vision returned he saw motes of plaster dust floating around in the powder-tinged air; the ceiling gaped open like a wound, but no clear view was afforded into the room above—just decimated floors joists and a meager light barely wiggling through.
The worst of the buzzing in his ears died gradually away. “You’re right, Jacob. That furnace don’t seem to be working right. Don’t feel any warmer to me yet.” Osgood’s words seemed to descend from just a slightly different location than before, and, even in the muffled aftermath of the shotgun blast and the water hammering the sink’s iron basin, was bell-clear. “Tell you what, how ‘bout I come down and sort things out?” And Jacob thought he detected the creak of footsteps on the stairs.
Breaking open the barrels, plucking out the spent shells, he fumbled fast for two fresh rounds. Snapping the gun closed, he ducked to the side of the kitchen doorway. Then he wheeled into the dark of the front room and fired blindly, towards the opposite wall where the staircase was located, first one barrel then the other. The dim split open in a streak of lightning and for a split-second everything flared bright—the grandfather clock, the photographs of unsmiling ancestors in oval frames on the walls, the ladder-backed rocker, the porcelain Jesus figurine on the mantle—as shot careened about the room, crashed among the assorted objects and furnishings, and smashed the balustrade to smithereens.
He whipped back around and dropped to a crouch, shotgun cradled in his arms. Tried to breathe.
“Calm down, calm down,” came his brother’s voice, couched inside that same phlegmy laugh. “I’m almost there.” He sounded considerably closer this time.
Jacob out the back door, tearing down the back wooden stairs. Under the stairs, along with a length of garden hose and a couple of bags of potting soil, he kept a can of lawnmower gas. Tossing the shotgun onto the ground, he snatched up the can, moving sideways as he thumbed the cap from the nozzle. Dousing the clapboard shingles in the gasoline. When the can was emptied he flung it aside and backpedaled from the house, pulling at his pockets. His father had always told him that certain things a man should never be without. Into the grass beside the gun fell a pocket knife, a handkerchief, a cigarette lighter.
Now, the only other house in the immediate vicinity was situated directly across the road and belonged to a very infirmed, very obese old woman who rarely ventured out of doors and who had a grandson that stayed with her most of the time. The boy’s name was Dell and the yard around the lifeless house had become a dumpsite of Dell’s scraggly toys, most of which the boy had outgrown, but as no new ones were forthcoming, he made due with. At that moment he was still out in the night, his grandma’s house dark but for the occasional flashes against the drapes of blue television light, and was trying to ride on a large, semi-inflated, canary yellow rubber bouncing ball with a gripped handle like a saddle’s pommel grown out of its top. His bulk made the thing sag in the center like a mashed loaf of bread. He stopped in his listless bouncing and cocked his head to watch on noticing the neighbor man across the way, running around and acting strange. The man was at the side of his house, making wild, spastic gestures with his arms and hands, then dropped to his knees, head lowered. Soon the boy saw white wisps of smoke hatching from the grass, before a snake of yellow flame started up and raced away from the man.
Nothing seemed to happen for a moment or two, but all at once a fire proper was underway. A glow warmed the air around the house from a dank, vacant black to a throaty, Pentecostal red. Flames crawled onto the porch, scampered up the posts, over the gutters, and curled under the eaves. The roof shingles started to snap and smolder. The man in the grass was lit up clearly as if he were staring into the face of day.
An inferno is an inviting thing, and eventually the boy headed over, dragging the bouncy ball behind him, over the road, down into the man’s yard. Heat radiated outwards, crackling. The boy maintained what seemed to him a prudent distance from the blaze, just out of reach of where the sparks were popping and crusts of matter like fiery tissue paper were whirling down. He went over to the stand by the man, who did not look at him. Side by side they watched the frame of the house begin to split open in yellow and orange fissures.
“You got a dog?” the boy asked.
“What?” asked Jacob.
“If you got a dog, likely its dead by now.”
“No, no dog.”
“Me neither. My grandma’s got three cats. Used to be she had four but one ate through the toaster cord.” The house gave a big groan, and lurched inwards, the glass in the windows exploding, causing both man and boy to jump.
“You gonna call the fire department? Might want to do that, if you haven’t already. My grandma’s got a phone you can use.”
The man’s head was on a swivel, looking back and forth from flame-curtained front door to the rear of the place, the back stoop smothered in thick charcoal-colored smoke like a foundry stack spewing. The skin underneath his eyes was ringed with shining sweat, and his mouth hung open in a pant. The shotgun lay propped against one leg; the boy observed his index finger tapping on the trigger guard. “Not quite yet,” said Jacob. Then, “My brother’s in there.”
The boy nodded at this. “Your brother’s in there, probably he’s dead too.”
“Probably. Probably so.” He looked over at Dell. “You got a brother?” The boy shook his head. “You’re lucky.”
When the heat against the boy’s face grew too intense, he stepped back a few feet. The cold air felt colder than it had before. High above his head the luminous half-moon cleared a wintry blue swath in the sky, and into this emptiness smoke was rising in a sculpted majestic mass, assuming a shape like a galleon with strong tailwinds filling its sails. On the outside of the blue furrow tiny stars winked in the utter bleakness of space, bystanders begging for attention. The boy looked around him; his eyes were steeped with spots and tracers, violet holograms of flames that pulsed across his field of vision. Bars and pools of firelight wrestled with the shadows on the ground. He peered deep into the flickering, switching darkness, trying to distinguish between what were only phantoms and illusory forms, hollow impersonations of the actual, and what were things of substance, things of solidity, tangible, touchable things. A boy could be forgiven for mistaking one for the other, figments of fancy from fixtures of reality, objects in this corporeal world and those bends of light which only mimicked them, failing to decipher what might be a being of flesh and bone and blood, seeming to emerge now in front of the boy’s eyes from the roiling darkness, or might be just a mirage, a man-sized tear in the façade of this dank, dour world, exposing a florid sliver of the next.
David Manning lives with his wife in Nashville, Tennessee. His work has previously been published in anderbo.com and Bat City Review, as well as in Echo Ink Review and Constellations.