Wilderness

08/16/2006 12:00 AM |

We’ve been left here, without a book, and my brother Caleb doesn’t care. Sometimes I get lonesome thinking about that.

Soon he’ll be here. He’ll drive up and stomp onto the porch and I’ll ask him what the day was like. How many frozen turkeys he sold, how many pounds of beef, whether any crazies wanted tongue or liver.

I tried to make something good for our dinner but I don’t have much to work with. Things from cans, salt and pepper, the slabs of meat Caleb brings home if he doesn’t sell them. Caleb is too shy to find a woman but still wants to have a married life, so he keeps me around. Like I’m his wife except without all the nasty parts.
I’m a girl but I look like a boy. The Mormons, the government ladies, the old weirdos who live in the woods—they all think I’m a boy at first, even though my hair isn’t short. Maybe it’s ‘cause I cut it myself so it looks jagged.

It was the book that first gave me some idea about boys and girls. That was back in the old days when Ma would turn on the light and promise she’d teach us someday what the marks on the page meant. Back when she told us someday we’d meet our dad. Back when my name was still Teresa, before Caleb shortened it to Ter and then T. Before he took Ma away in the truck. When they left, the book was there on her lap like a heavy rock and after she said Goodbye, Teresa, she just stared straight ahead.

Sometimes I think about asking Caleb if we could get a book. I’d hold it in my lap and touch the pages.
But the sun’s almost down and I hear the truck in the distance and it’s time for me to sit out here on the porch waiting. When Caleb turns down Short Road I see the truck is covered with a hundred miles’ worth of dust. He must’ve gone way into the woods today.  

He parks and comes up on to the porch.

“Damn, T! Why you got to look that way?” he says.

“What way?” I say.

“Like a creep,” he says.  

He has a bag of frozen chicken hearts flung over his shoulder. Something, water or blood maybe, is leaking onto his uniform. He hates that shirt he has to wear cause it’s light blue and has a logo of a smiling pig on it. I memorized the words under the pig. “Bringing meat and smiles to the doorsteps of Maine since 1953.” Caleb says it’s a shirt for faggots. Caleb says faggots are boys who think other boys are pretty. Caleb says door-to-door meat salesmen are not faggots. Anyway, I get sick of washing all those light-blue shirts. We both wish the uniform was dark flannel.  

“Stop staring at me,” he says.

Caleb gets scared by my face a lot. And my eyes, cause they’re yellowish.

“Whadija cook?” he asks.

It’s a thing with canned tomatoes and black beans and some old sausage. Caleb doesn’t like the dinner but that’s usual.

“Can you learn to cook?” he says, but he clears his plate and has seconds.

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After dinner it’s dark. This used to be the time of day that Ma would bring out the book. When I get bored at night I try to remember it. Caleb sits at the table cleaning guns and I sit across from him like I’m watching but I’m not. What I’m doing is trying to tell the stories to myself.
Some of them are easy to remember. Like the pairs of animals going into the boat in the middle of the desert. The camels, the lions, the gazelles, the other special animals. A gazelle is like a deer. A lion is like a cat. A camel is harder. But also the moose, right? Also the loons? Also the squirrels? The animals I know. Two by two. One girl, one boy.

And there was something about a person riding a big fish or a person getting eaten by one. Or maybe a person setting up a little house inside its belly. Something like that. Was it a boy or girl who lived in that big fish? I don’t know. It was a long time ago that Ma read the book to me. Caleb says I’m about fifteen now. He remembers when I was a tiny baby. I was seventeen when you were born, he likes to say. You were too small cause Ma was too old.  

There was a boy and girl who lived in the wilderness too. I remember that. They spent all their time naked but they didn’t know it. Like that time I was sneaking to my room after taking a bath and I went by Caleb’s door and he was in there without clothes on and then he chased me all over the house with his thing, you know, swinging until we were both laughing. There was something in the book about that boy and that girl playing naked chase, I’m pretty sure. But there was a wrongness to it, I remember. Like when Caleb and I were done running around the house and I felt shy around him. He was standing on the other side of the table leaning down on it with his arms and breathing like a dog and then he said that’s enough.

“Cold?” Caleb says. He’s finished one gun and started on the next.  

“No,” I say.

I never get too hot or too cold. Caleb sometimes says, You got to be lying about not being cold. If you’re so skinny, how come you don’t get cold?     

“Get the fire going,” he tells me now.

I have it all ready. I crumpled the newspapers this afternoon and split the kindling. I made sure there were dry logs. It just needs flame.

Sometimes when I light the fire for Caleb I see a man standing in a pile of dried wood. He’s tied to a post and two guys are walking toward him with burning branches. A fat woman is crying.

This was one of the stories from the book that was sad but others were happy, maybe even funny. Like the black bull floating on a cloud toward rain the color of gold or the old man making ten rules that are impossible to follow. And then there were the three women dressed in red who sat at a table covered with apples while a man spied on them from the doorway. But maybe I’m remembering it wrong.

When the fire gets going I sit back down at the table next to Caleb.   

“Member that book Ma had?” I say to him.

“No,” he says.

“Member that story about the big boat and the flood and the guy who knew everything before anyone else and they all died but not him?”

I pick that story to help Caleb remember ‘cause it’s an easy one to keep in your mind. Not like the women in red or the floating cow in the gold rain.  

“Damn, T,” he says. “What are you talking about?”  

I go out to the back porch and grab one of the broken traps off a nail. Then I sit across from Caleb and start threading it. It’s a hard job. We both hate it but it’s easier for me ‘cause my fingers are small. When Caleb sees

I’m fixing the trap he’s glad he won’t have to do it.

“Good girl,” he says.

He’s pleased with me for the moment, so I say: “Maybe it could be nice to have a book around. Maybe next time you go down to Presque Isle—”

“T,” Caleb says. And now he’s angry again, so I don’t say: But there are strange things in my head that must have come from the book. I don’t say: I see a wolf in bed with a lacy hat. I don’t say: I see a girl leading a mama pig and a baby pig into the mountains. I don’t say: sometimes when I close my eyes I see a naked man crouching in a field of burned-out trees.