An hour before dawn, when he finally returned to the house, Mother had a large leather-bound book under one arm and a swollen left eye from a strong right hook, a fat lip and a chipped front tooth, a pair of bloody crosses slashed into his tattooed forearms, and a nasty bruise on the back of his neck that bore the hallmarks of busted bar stools and smashed tabletops. The children, watching from the front window for the first buzzards of the season, could hear Mother panting like a beaten dog from a block away. He lowered his broad shoulders against an icy gale and bellowed for more whiskey, more beer. On unsteady legs, he struggled through knee-deep snowdrifts left by last night’s late winter storm. Under a cold, blue beam cast by the full moon, Mother staggered up the porch steps and, with a triumphant smile, kicked open the door. Only after igniting a fresh cigarette and holding up the book like a bowling trophy snatched from the display case at the local lanes did he deem to close the door. Not that it mattered. He hadn’t paid the gas bill in months, and some of the copper pipes had burst during the hard freeze. An avid outdoorsman who boasted about his innumerable hours in the field, Mother endured extreme temperatures with indifference and expected the children to do likewise. Creature comforts, he insisted, made people weak.
“Gather round, my darlings! Gather round! I have some exciting news.”
The children, accustomed to seeing Mother in this condition, knew to keep a safe distance. Mother drunk was, of course, always preferable to Mother sober. Sobriety meant the children had to stay alert no matter the hour. It meant seeking new hiding places in the attic or burrowing under tarps and drop cloths in the tool shed. It meant crawling on hands and knees beneath the garden trellis or scurrying behind Mother’s vast collection of stuffed birds in the basement.
“Come see what I have here, my hungry little mice!” he called. “Come, my ugly ducklings, and sit at my feet so I can show you this marvellous treasure.”
Mother sank into the worn leather recliner, off-limits to everyone but himself, and kicked an ashtray from the coffee table to make room for his dripping boots. Tiny icicles clung to his bushy eyebrows and the coarse black hair bursting from between the buttons of his flannel shirt.
“But first, one of you must fill a plastic pitcher with plenty of ice. And bring me a washcloth. I need to keep this swelling down. Goodness, I must look a mess! And someone fetch more wood. Our fire is dying, and I feel a draft, don’t you?”
With frostbitten fingers, he tore the wool cap from his head. Steam rose in mad spirals from his shoulder-length mop and mingled with the heavy pall of cigarette smoke.
“This,” he said, running his jagged nails along the book’s cracked spine, “is our meal ticket. It’s an incredibly rare notebook, one of only eight in the whole world. It belonged to two famous philologists from a faraway country called Germany. I’ve told you about that place, haven’t I? Some stunning wildlife there.”
He carelessly flicked his cigarette in the corner and unclasped the small silver latch holding together the notebook’s brittle, yellow pages. He turned the book around so the children could see a detailed pencil sketch of a bird observing a little boy and girl walking hand-in-hand through a dark forest.
“In the springtime, near the pasturelands around the charming town of Steinau, long-legged honey buzzards build their roosts. Remember what I taught you? German buzzards aren’t to be confused with our American turkey vultures.”
Overcome by curiosity, the children sidled one by one from the shadows and crept toward the chair, all six or seven of them. Mother no longer kept an exact count of “the litter,” as he called them. Some had run away from home ages ago. Those who remained now sat cross-legged at his feet, their skin waxen and grey from an almost total absence of sunlight, their eyes ringed with dark circles, their cheeks sunken from chronic hunger. On a good night, when he had his wits about him and managed to wing a choice duck or goose by the lake, he’d prepare a nice roast for dinner.
“In this notebook, my pets, the German brothers recorded different versions of the ancient fables and folk tales of their beloved homeland, stories that small children the world over would one day come to know by heart. But some versions of those stories, surprisingly bawdy versions, oh, yes, quite naughty versions indeed, appear only in this notebook and can be found nowhere else. They’re what our old friend from the university would call ‘unexpurgated.’ Collectors the world over will pay handsomely for this volume. But how, you ask, did I come to possess such a rare artifact? Well, my frozen foundlings, I’ll tell you.”
Mother planted his feet on the floor and leaned forward in his chair until his knees creaked and his great sloping back cracked.
“A few of us gathered at our favourite saloon to play games of chance. Just the usual crew of degenerates from the university—the philosopher, the astronomer, the mathematician, the librarian. You remember the librarian, don’t you, my fallen angels? The gentleman who wears festive bowties and keeps a floral-pattern silk handkerchief tucked into the lapel pocket of his tweed coat? The man with a fondness for fairy tales and the nonsense rhymes of Lewis Carroll? The one who occasionally stops by for visits and likes to tuck you in at night?”
Mother rested his shaggy head against the back of the chair and twirled his tangled beard. He closed his eyes, the smell of alcohol wafting from chapped lips, and for a moment he was very still. Then he had one of his prolonged coughing fits, and his eyes fluttered open.
After drumming his chest with a fist, he said, “We played an unusually high stakes game. It’s astounding what some unlucky men are willing to wager, but the librarian was convinced his luck was about to change. He was running low on cash, so he decided to ‘borrow,’ as he put it, this cherished volume from the university’s rare books collection. I admit that I, too, wagered something rather extravagant. As it happens, your dearly departed mother built up a little equity in this draughty old barn. She’d be upset with me, I know, but she never understood that life is one big gamble. Fortunately for you, I came away tonight’s big winner.”
He turned a page in the notebook, this time to a woman with hair so long it dangled from a high window of a great stone tower and brushed against the ground.
“As for our friend, well, it seems he didn’t want to relinquish the notebook. Of all the sordid things that man has done, he was worried that his position as head archivist might be in serious jeopardy if his colleagues discovered the book was missing. But we know, don’t we, that intellectuals are capable of all sorts of unseemly things. Like reading bedtime stories to little children. The provost might like to know more about that peculiar practice.”
Mother’s nostrils flared.
He touched his swollen left eye and muttered, “And yet it was poor Professor Mothersbaugh, respected ornithologist, who was sacked for having an inappropriate relationship with a troubled continuing education student. Well, my tasty morsels, academia is a ferocious ecosystem where certain people are permitted to make a living, and certain people are not. And since I now fall into the latter category, I have to be cunning, clever, devious. Tonight, however, I was just plain lucky. Lucky until that pathetic weasel struck me from behind as I tried to leave the bar. He must have done his research. Probably read a book or two on close-range combat. As you can see, he did some cosmetic damage. He had no natural ability and very little practice. Reading books can only get you so far. Always remember that, children. Fieldwork, my dears, is far superior to sitting in an armchair.”
Mother turned the page, and the children saw a dark-haired maiden lying inside a glass coffin.
“When it was all over, I collected my winnings and even managed to give our friend a few pointers on the fine art of the barroom brawl. If you want to knock a man out, you need to hit him squarely against the temple. One punch and down he goes. I’m sure at some point, the librarian will attempt to retrieve his property. But not tonight. Oh, certainly not tonight. He won’t be waking up anytime soon. In fact, he may never wake up again.”
Mother closed the book and clutched it to his chest.
“But now it’s late, children, or should I say early, and I’m exhausted. I admit it’s been a struggle to provide for you cherubs. Day and night, you nibble away like leafcutter ants at all that I own, but by this time tomorrow, we’ll be enjoying a sumptuous feast. No more of that rancid kibble we’re always scarfing down. After I make a few phone calls and meet with some old associates, I’ll treat you to a fine restaurant. We’ll order juicy sirloins prepared medium-rare. And for dessert, we’ll have all kinds of cakes and cookies and drams of single malt scotch.”
He laughed and whispered something about underground art dealers. A moment later, he began to snore, his enormous jaw hanging open, long strings of saliva collecting in the whiskers of his blue beard. The children, prepared to run at the slightest twitch, poked him in the arm and pulled his hair. When they were sure he was out cold, they scaled the recliner and searched his pockets for coins and dollar bills. They found a clump of lint in one pocket, in another a butane lighter engraved with his initial. Almost as an afterthought, they tried to pry the notebook from his fat fingers, but even when unconscious, Mother maintained a powerful grip. They gave the book another tug, and this time it sailed from his hands and landed with a solid thud on the floor.
For the next thirty minutes, the children sat shivering on the couch, paging through the notebook. They made no attempt to decipher its small, elaborate handwriting or make sense of its maps. Still, they did notice, by the light of an unusually bright March moon shining through the window and the feeble bulb burning under the red lampshade, how in many drawings the wolf bore an uncanny resemblance to Mother. Both had long, narrow faces and big pointed ears and big yellow eyes and big sharp teeth.
Here was the wolf stalking a young girl as she skipped with a basket in hand along a lonely trail. Here was the wolf bursting through a cabin door to devour an old woman cowering in her bed. Here was the wolf attacking a huntsman, eviscerating a lamb, tricking seven little goats into coming outside their house. In another series of drawings, an elderly sorceress, with the wave of her magic wand, transformed a handsome prince into a slavering wolf. The librarian had read them a story like this once, and he used a low, raspy voice when it came time for the wolf to speak. They remembered how the librarian’s breath was warm against their soft skin and smelled like cherry medicine.
The children studied these drawings with great interest and began to wonder if, under all of that unsightly hair, Mother might actually be a handsome prince. They’d never seen him clean-shaven. Maybe, they thought, their mom had fallen in love with a charming prince who was now under a terrible spell. After discussing this possibility, they decided there was only one way to find out for sure.
They formed a line and marched down the stairs to Mother’s basement workshop. Before gathering the necessary tools, they took a moment to admire their mom’s artwork. Mother, who detested her impressionistic paintings of robins and blue jays, banished the canvases to the dusty closet beneath the stairs. Amateurish, he called them, but the children felt there was more life in her erratic brushstrokes and bright splashes of colour than in any of Mother’s stuffed birds.
“Enrolled in my class,” he told them, “because she wanted to get the ‘physiognomy’ just right. That’s the word she used. Thought I could help her capture facial expressions. Can you imagine? A bit cuckoo, that birdbrained mommy of yours. Tormented artist? Hardly. Just another townie with a fondness for bad boys and fentanyl. I doubt very much, after her overdose, that the heavenly gates opened for that ferocious hellcat.”
The children did not argue the point. They never doubted for a moment where she’d gone. Like Mother, their mom had been capable of extraordinary cruelty. The main difference between them was that, when doling out punishments, she preferred to use a broom or a large wooden spoon rather than a leather belt.
Now, the children approached the table and workbench where Mother kept his own birds. Dozens were hanging by fishing wire or mounted to artificial wood perches drilled into the damp cinderblock walls. He was proud of his subterranean aviary and quizzed the children daily. They could not read or write, but they could identify almost every bird native to these hills and valleys—yellow warblers, green herons, blue-headed vireos, black-capped chickadees. But it was the buzzards that fascinated them most of all. From Mother, they knew the scavengers had no voice box and bullied their way through life with unsettling grunts and hisses. Every March 15, like clockwork, they returned after a long winter absence to the meadows around the house to clean up the carcasses in the nearby woods. Nothing remained when they were finished but heaps of bones. Mystified by this curious behaviour, the children speculated that some kind of magic was involved, like in the fairy tales where birds often served as the guardians of long-lost boys and girls.
Mother scoffed at their theory.
“This cursed planet,” he said, “is just a big, mindless machine. Everything that walks and crawls and flies upon it is fully automated. But who, or what, set the machinery in motion? Ah, now that’s what we’d all like to know. Personally, I think the whole shebang is under the control of an advanced race of scientists and mathematicians who possess godlike knowledge. Also, you ignorant hicks, it’s inconceivable that buzzards can make logical deductions.”
To prove his theory, Mother sliced open a fresh specimen on his table and showed them the works.
“You see, my hayseed philosophers, magic has nothing to do with it. On the inside, we’re nothing but bloody machinery.”
Now, standing at his stainless-steel taxidermy table, the children pushed aside Mother’s dyes and waxes and jars of glass eyes until they found a pair of sharpened sheers, a scalpel, and a tube of degreaser. In the nearby cabinet, where he kept his traps and cages, they found a length of double-braided rope.
Back in the living room, the children poked Mother in the ribs and, just for good measure, stomped on his feet. When he didn’t kick his legs or take an angry swing at them, they knew it was time to get to work. First, they used the sheers to snip his laces and yanked the boots off his feet. Next, they lifted each foot from the floor and snipped off his stinking wool socks. Then they snipped the buttons of his flannel shirt and cut the seams of his jeans, still stiff from his long walk home. After removing his clothes, they wound the rope several times around his bare body, binding him tightly to the recliner. Only then did they start trimming his hair, cutting it as close to his scalp as possible. They sliced away his beard and moustache, too, removing entire handfuls of hair from his face. Once they completed these steps, they lathered him from head to toe in degreaser. Using the scalpel, they shaved the heaving mountain of flesh. They shaved his chest, arms and legs. They even shaved his eyebrows and the white follicles growing inside his ears. To mop up the blood from the nicks and scratches, they used his shredded shirt sleeves.
During this process, Mother drifted in and out of his booze-induced coma. At one point, he cracked open his small, yellow eyes and rasped, “What’s this? Cut me loose. Cut these ropes so we can have a friendly chat.” When he realised this wasn’t going to happen, he tried to speak in measured tones as a man of learning. “Careful now, my lovelies. Watch what you’re doing down there. Oh, my, that’s valuable real estate.”
When they were finished shaving him, the children took a few steps back. Still, they were disappointed to find that, rather than a handsome prince, Mother looked vaguely reptilian, prehistoric, Mesozoic, a plucked bird in need of basting. They considered pushing the recliner close to the fire and roasting him alive, but then they recalled a story the librarian told them about how certain men, when exposed to the full moon, underwent a startling transformation.
For a few minutes, the children sat on the couch and patiently waited for Mother to turn back into a wolf, but by then, the horizon had already started turning grey with first light, and the moon was fading fast above the distant hills. There was no time to spare.
“Now, what are you doing?” Mother said. “Shut that door. It’s freezing out there. Listen, my badly behaved barbers, this is no way to treat the man who has taken good care of you. I didn’t abandon you, did I, after your mommy died? I didn’t send you off to some horrible orphanage like so many stepfathers would.”
Ignoring Mother’s hysterical protestations, they somehow managed to shove the recliner across the living room, out the door, and onto the porch. By then, the moon had all but vanished, and a bright band of pink light was touching the treetops. The children wondered what to do next when, as if by magic, another possibility presented itself.
“Come back!” he shouted. “Don’t leave me out here with these things!”
The children, giggling with delight, hurried to the kitchen. In the empty cupboards and drawers, they found, scattered among the usual mouse droppings, packets of ketchup and yellow mustard. But behind a row of empty beer bottles neatly arranged on a shelf, they spotted a loaf of white bread sealed in a plastic bag. The bread had been aggressively colonised by a forest-like canopy of blue-green mould, but the children knew the buzzards would enjoy it anyway. Buzzards were not finicky eaters, so Mother had taught them, and after a five-hundred-mile journey from their winter home, they must have been famished.
Outside, Mother was thrashing in the recliner, but this only served to tighten the ropes.
“Okay, my pathetic pranksters, fun is fun, but now it’s time to bring me back in the house. I’m feeling a bit feverish and would like to sleep off this nasty bug. Children, please, listen to Mother when he’s speaking to you. Oh, what mischief are you up to now?”
The children sang their favourite songs as they scattered slices of bread around the recliner. In Mother’s lap, they dumped a pile of stale crumbs from the bag. Across the road, on the snow-covered limb of an old sycamore, the first buzzard appeared. It hissed and groaned with and buried its hooked beak in its black feathers.
Mother shouted, “So! This is how your generation treats its elders, eh? You repay evil with evil. Fine, children, fine. But one day, yes, one day soon, you’ll discover that devils only beget more devils. And society has a way of dealing with devils. Indeed, it does. You’ll see, you’ll see!”
The children stepped inside and shut the door. At the front window, they watched as another buzzard swept down from the sky. From the drawings in the notebook and from the stories the librarian told them late at night when the winter wind was howling around the corners of the house, the children understood that birds were magical helpers that guided the righteous back to the true path and punished the wicked by plucking out their eyes.
The children retrieved Mother’s lighter from the coffee table and ripped several pages from the notebook. The winter had been an uncommonly cruel one, the house constantly freezing, but within a few minutes, the brittle pages crackled in the fireplace. By then, three more buzzards had roosted on the porch railing. The children huddled together around the comforting flames and waited for Mother’s pitiable screams to die away.
This post is brought to you by
How to Stop the Burning
by Zubaida Bello
In How to Stop the Burning, Zubaida Bello’s poetry focuses on themes of womanhood and inheritance, offering the audience an intimate portrait of herself through her words.
About The Author
After working as a boilermaker in the steel mills of Ohio, Kevin P. Keating became a professor of English and began teaching at Baldwin Wallace University and John Carroll University. His essays, stories and reviews have appeared in over fifty literary journals, including Salon, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Blue Lake Review, The Red Rock Review, Whiskey Island, Juked, Inertia, Identity Theory, Exquisite Corpse, Wordriver, and others. The Natural Order of Things, his first full-length novel, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes/First Fiction Award, and his second, The Captive Condition, was featured at the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con International. He currently resides in Cleveland, Ohio.
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