August, sky paling. The humid Oklahoma air crowds in. The chickens have breasted their bowls of dirt; the hounds lie heat-sick beneath the porch. The smoke of Lee's cigarette does not rise but haloes around us. Only our father moves in the stillness, and the mare with him, a dance of retreat and retrieval.
"It's bad this time," Lee says.
I have come to join him at the fence, where we stand and watch our father trying to saddle the pinto mare.
We are brothers, Lee and I. Will always be. I am ten. He is seventeen. It is 1950, and our father is three days dry and angry. With the mare, who will not stand for the cinching. With our mother, who has turned him from her bed until he promises sobriety; with the two boys who have witnessed each new failure of strength and will.
His hands fist and tremble. The mare remembers punishment, cannot stop her nervous shying away, the flinching each time he elbows her gut.
I should go now, I think. Now is the time before it's too late. But like Lee, I cannot turn away. As though it is not the mare but we who are tethered to the man by bit and bridle. As though we know that it is different this time, that there will be a final telling of this story.
Behind us, the churg-churg of the wringer washer, the distant smell of bleach and bluing. The corn stands hollow, stick-brown. Our father bites the butt of his cigarette, lashes the mare with the reins-across her shoulders, her soft pied face.
Lee feels what I mean to do. He grabs my arm, says, "Don't."
Our father pulls her nose-to-neck, grabs the horn, has one foot in the stirrup when she bolts. He hops once, twice, then goes down, caught and dragging. His arms flail out, his body bounces across the rough pasture. They will not go far - it is a small farm, sufficiently fenced - but on the second round his foot comes loose of its boot. The mare finds the farthest corner, stands white-eyed and blowing.
Bastard Creek slews red and thick along the field's north margin. It has rained, but no one knows just where. I think I can smell it, silty and fresh, mixed with peachleaf, soapberry, nightsoil. I smell Lee's sweat and my own, the mare's sharp odor of fear.
Our father rises, limps his way to the barn. We hear the cough of the Ford pickup, see him coax it out in an oily fog. He's given up, I think, he'll drink now, and some part of me is glad. He revs the engine smooth, slips the clutch, but instead of turning for the road, he steers for the pasture. The truck jerks forward across hummocks and rock pockets, our father jouncing behind the wheel, head knocking the roof.
I am curious, wondering what he brings, what he means to take away, realize as the Ford picks up speed that he's gunning straight for the mare. He hits her hard, knocks her through the fence, rails splintering, raking the fenders.
"Hold," Lee says, and I do because I cannot imagine what else.
The mare is on her side, legs churning. Our father pulls rope from behind the seat, lashes her hind hooves, throws the other end over a fat limb of hickory, ties it to the bumper, backs the truck until she hangs suspended.
We watch him step out with the tire iron, hear the crack of ribs, the horse's screams. Her joints tear, lungs collapse beneath the visceral weight.
Our father exhausts himself, drops the iron, uses his fists, and I think I can hear this, too, although by now I am humming along with Lee, our voices growing together, louder and louder. No words, just the vibration at the back of my throat, deep in my chest. We are singing with our mouths closed, wildwood flower, wildwood flower, over and over as our father weakens, until he cannot lift his arms, unties the rope, backs away from the black-and-white body still heaving in its bright pool of blood. We hum a little quieter as we watch the Ford disappear toward town, quieter still as we kneel by her head, all the long while it takes her to die.
Reprinted from Finding Caruso by Kim Barnes by permission of The Putnam Publishing Group (a Marian Wood Book), a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2003, Kim Barnes. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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