Grinned the Boy, Laughed the Uncle

Between the old dresser that stood over the mousetrap and the sun-bleached railing and the rain and the night stood the boy; a dying mouse spilled over the edge of the bright softwood mousetrap, spine twitching and jackknifed to the side. Its small head rested in shadow on the gray of the damp porch wood. Rain flew down over the porch roof and pelted the hydrophobic earth. A roar of boiling water sloughed off beneath it, surging off to the desert flat, far off and invisible in the new-moon, starless black. The boy wore city jeans. Against the lukewarm chill his frame shuddered slightly where his arms crossed and shoulders hunched, like vultures, against it all. His lungs had become accustomed to the desert air over the two days he had been here; now they tried to expel the dampness, a dry, breathless cough like exhaling from an inhaler, not that he had ever used one. He stood and blinked down at the mouse.

He did not like this place: the warped planks, the paint peeling from the gaudy old dresser, the light coming from the open doorway and bathing, yellow, one side of his arm; the laughter and conversation and the smell of pie baking inside. Even the Oregon desert of bush and weeds and sand seemed especially and horribly vulnerable, now, in the late summer storm. With a glance at the doorway he squatted down to peer at the mouse. He wobbled and caught himself with both hands, and lowered his knees to the wood. His cheeks, still soft, hung from his face- untidy brown hair, gray eyes, sharp nose.

He broke the silence of the rain drizzling thickly off the roof. “My mom has a story about a mouse. There was one that got in the house once,” he said. The mouse did not reply. The boy could see the mouse’s heart shuddering in the little chest, the veins in the nude ears, shaped like a cows’, but so small. Light reflected little crescents of fear in the mouse’s beady eyes. The boy’s right hand can still recall the feel of the gun, the dull metal, the stiffness of clenched fingers haunting him. Down the pistol, fearful eyes, veined ears, body slamming against metal wall. A deep tremor runs along his spine and he shakes it off, still leaning forward on his hands.

The words rushed out. “She didn’t know what to do so she watched from the far corner of the room to see what it would do,” the boy said. She sat surrounded by the old boxy computer and all the wires, the desk covered with piles of paper and mail. It was dark out. The window was open.

“There was an old brown armchair by the windowsill. The mouse would come out from beneath the chair and climb up to the armrest, and look out the window. It would try to jump and catch the little white window pull, but each time it would fall, look at my mom where she was sitting, and try again.” His mother had held her breath each time it jumped, he knew. He had heard this story many times.

“Finally, my mom she got up and made a bridge to the windowsill with the pillow from the chair. She kind of tested the hole in the corner of the window screen, then she went back to watch. The mouse came out again. It used its claws to jump up to the armrest and went across the pillow.

“Anyway, it got across but before it left it stopped and turned on the windowsill. It stood up on its legs and looked at my mom, whiskers twitching, ears up, arms at its sides. My mom always says that it was like the mouse was thanking her. Like it understood. It was awhile before it turned and left. But mostly I think my mom was glad the mouse didn’t have to die. That’s what it always seems to me.”

 

He had never been on a plane before now. The airport was mostly empty. Large and big and empty. His mother stood with him in front of the big windows that looked out onto the planes and, far-off, a row of gray warehouses. She held him and kissed the top of his head while they waited. She wasn’t there, not really. The boy was glad his dad wasn’t there, too.

He left the plane behind rushing people, clackety-clack, rolling their suitcases up the passage. He found his way down towards the baggage claim, past coffee shops and bookshops set into the wall, selling pastel earbuds, neck pillows and fancy chocolate bars- from New Zealand, they said in gold and green. In the underbelly of the baggage claim an empty conveyor rambled around its track; a crowd of chewed people clustered around the far claim. A lady called schedules in an automated voice. A man looked at him from near the doors, looked at a hand-written letter he was holding in one hand, peered again and then started towards him.

As he came nearer the boy saw his mother’s handwriting. He recognized the old picture of him in his batman costume, leaning on one leg against the side of the house, plastic pumpkin in hand. Grinning. The picture’s edges were darker and still dusty from sitting, framed, on his mother’s desk. The man was wearing faded jeans held up by a stretched leather belt and dull beaten-gold buckle. He had the same nose as his mother, and also the same gray in his hair- but prominent, ruddy cheeks, weaker, duller eyes.

“Are you Ethan?” There was a pause, and then a nod. “I’m your uncle, John. Mae has told me all about you,” he said, lifting the hand that held the letter.

The boy stiffened slightly. “Her name is Mary. No one calls her Mae.”

We called her Mae.”

The ride to the porch and the house was long and empty. The sky was darkening and the sun threw long shadows from nothing onto the landscape. The boy had expected trees in Oregon, but here was pasture, here was a lone farmhouse, its lights twinkling in the dirty windshield; here were scraps of dry scrubland, the tips of the bushes painted pale mints and lavenders by the dying sun. The boy’s uncle at first tried to talk but he does not know what to talk about. He doesn’t have any kids. “Your mom says that you like playing baseball,” he said.

“Yah,” the boy shrugged. They made a wide turn onto a dirt road, the last of the gravel crunching under the old Ford pickup’s tires, lights from the farmhouse ahead.

There was a small bedroom that his aunt showed him, with a small bed that was made tightly with old red sheets. He slept badly and was woken by his uncle shaking his shoulder: “Your aunt has breakfast for you,” he growled, close enough to the boy’s ear so that he smelt his morning breath. Then he left, feet thudding on the stairs.

Downstairs, a boy a little older than him sat at the table, round and with creaky legs.

“Your cousin, Chris. He’s going to college next year to study Bio Engineering. What is it that your father studied? Books?” said the boy’s uncle, gesticulating wildly with his toast.

“Literature. He wrote a lot about Thoreau,” said the boy into his plate.

The uncle shook his head. “Books! What does a degree in books get you? Your mother, now, marrying-“

“John, can you help me with this jar, it’s stuck,” interrupted the boy’s aunt suddenly from the kitchen. John eyed the boy, and then shoved off the table to leave.

Chris spent the rest of the morning showing his cousin around. “I want to major in writing,” Chris said, almost apologetically, as they entered the barn. It was musty, and smelled like hay and gasoline and earth. Golden flecks of dust moved in the light coming from the doorway behind them, and the spidery window set above. The far end of the barn was crammed with equipment, some of it rusting but most of it newer and gleaming dully. The rest of the barn was lined with stalls of rough, golden wood. Chris stopped at a stall halfway down and swung up to sit on the rim. A cow stood in the straw, eyelids partway closed and crusted with flies. An open gash, half swollen and purple, ran down her back haunch. Her tail swiveled slowly and she moaned.

“What happened?” said the boy.

“Coyotes got to her. We brought her in. If the antibiotics don’t start working we’ll have to put her down,” said Chris.

The boy watched the cow for a few moments. “That’s sad,” he said. He scuffed his tennis shoes on the rough concrete, clearing a circle of dried mud and straw. He stepped back and glanced at his cousin. In the light his hair showed gold, and he was much taller and lankier than him. He could have been his brother, maybe. “I don’t think John likes me.”

Chris laughed, then sucked his lip in before talking, words coming slow and careful. “I don’t think our uncle likes too many people,” he said. “He’s kinda crazy. He’s like a narcissist. Just look at what happened with him and your mom.”

“She never told me about him really.”

“Exactly,” said Chris. “He’s crazy.”

 

“I’m sorry,” said the boy to the mouse. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry; I can’t kill you.” He rolled backwards from his knees and sank cross-legged on the porch. The movement betrayed the sudden frown and shining eyes. He swiped at his face angrily with one arm. His body rocked back and forth. The mouse’s breaths were coming harder now, swift and shuddering. Its little gray frame seemed to have sunken further into the wood.

The mouse, if she could have, would tell him of her great-uncle the Fire-Leaper, who had made his nest one summer in the bonfire pile. As the people and children stood and danced around the new, roaring fire, he fled; out over the coals and snapping, licking flames, between the peoples’ legs to escape into the darkness.

Or, her many-times great grandmother, Velma, who hitched a ride in the grey pickup truck when it was shining and new. Nestled safely under the driver’s seat she gave birth. When the truck stopped again she fled, leaving her children to be, when discovered, drowned in the orange bucket that stood by the barn. She would tell the boy as he peered down at her about her brother, Crow-eye, one eye scarred and empty. She would tell him about the old tom cat that used to live in the barn. He ate five of her uncles and innumerable grandparents, and her mother too. She would tell him of the warmth of the nest in the compost pile, in winter when she was born. The walls were lined with warm fur and she and her brothers squirmed, blind and naked and pink and hungry, mewling for their mother.

But she did not tell him any of these things. She could feel the pain coursing like dull liquid fire through her body, up her front legs and down her chest, stopping midway down her back. She felt the heaviness of her breath. There was the curious, comforting angle of the dresser and the light falling, far off, onto the doorframe. There was the rain. There was the boy.

“I want to go home,” he whispered aloud, but he was not really sure if he did.

His mom had pulled him aside one evening. “Hey. Your dad and I have been talking about some things,” she said.

The boy knew that they had been arguing, but they never did it in front of him. They did it after he left for school or in their room when he was trying to sleep. He felt their voices through the coolness of the wall where he lay against it, his father’s voice rich and deep, and his mother’s, quieter. He would listen to the rises and falls in the dark, eyes flicking back and forth, his eyelashes brushing his skin. He tried not to think about it.

“We need to figure some things out and we want to send you to visit your uncle for a few days. His name is John, and he lives in Oregon. Just for a few days, and then you can come back.”

He squinted at the picture she handed him. “I’ve never heard of him before,” he frowned, and looked up at her.

She frowned too, and was quiet. “He’s my big brother. I haven’t talked to him for years, we got into a big fight about me marrying Dad.” She tried to smile. “But he can be a really, really good guy.”

 

The boy, finally alone in the heat of the afternoon, was drawn to the barn. Making sure that no one else was present, he entered the doors like entering a cathedral; as if the doors, flung wide, were beaten gold and not wood and nail and scabby paint; as if the rafters contained soaring arches, not only pigeons cooing and shuffling on their perches. He passed the cow as a tourist would pass the marble tomb of a saint, or perhaps Ruben Dario, wrapped in lions and roses- in disgust and fear of it, and any other reminder of death. He passed his hands over the machines as he walked, tractors and ancient trucks and things meant for turning earth, hands cradling each curve as if a holy statue.

By the far door, on the right, a ladder was set against the wall leading up towards a gap in the rafters. The first time, he stood, looking behind him and back, unsure. But the choice was between the hostile, the sun streaming from the doorway making him blink and squint and sweat above his lip, and the inviting, the mystery of the ladder and where it led. So, he had no choice, and with a last wary glance he put his hand on a rung and began to climb. He emerged into the hayloft, scrambling onto his side to surer ground.

Hay and mouse droppings were strewn loose across the plywood floor and the little windows were smothered with dust and cobwebs. He felt at once safer here, like under the covers in darkness in his bed at home, where he was hidden and unsearched for by dark monsters. He was bitter with himself for his uncle not liking him, and even more so for his aunt’s quick defenses. The people here were alien to him, even Chris, who had been kind. They were afraid of him somehow, as if he were a wound that represented the mysterious rift between mother and uncle. He spent the afternoon looking and watching and listening from his perch; sitting cross legged on the floor, and finally sprawling on it, drowsy from the comfortable heat that radiated from the corrugated aluminum roof.

That was how he found himself on the second day in the loft again, when he heard his uncle’s voice below. He was released from his heat-induced stupor and arched up off the floor where he lay, on an old horse blanket he had carried up. He crawled, drunken, to the ladder. As he peered down the opening a half-relief filled him. Thankfully oblivious to the spy above, his uncle led two jeaned men through the doorway. The boy sat and listened to their conversation, coming from below and now out of sight. It really was hot up where he was. The eavesdropper’s steady unease flooded him. Slowly and with cheeks hazy from sleep he lowered himself down onto the ladder. At the bottom he turned and looked shyly at his uncle and the two men. One was older and stooped, a red handkerchief stubbornly tied around his wrinkled neck, arms deep in his pockets. The second, younger and fatter, with dark jeans and blue shirt rolled up to his elbows. He was the one who noticed the boy when his uncle glanced at him. “Now, who is this? You haven’t told me about him,” he boomed.

John flicked his eyes, annoyed, at the boy. He had made a point of avoiding the boy during the day, and now he could not ignore him. “He’s my sister’s son, my nephew. Ethan. He’s visiting while she sorts out her marriage. She shouldn’t have married him. That’s what I told her before her wedding. He’s a college boy. He wouldn’t even know a steer from a bull,” he said, derisively, his gaze locked onto the boy.

The boy glared back at him from his place near the door. One foot strayed sideways, then he clamped it down underneath him.

The younger man gestured at him to join them. He leaned forward to shake the boy’s hand, his stubble and breath carrying the smell of beer. “My name is Jeb and this is Erik. We’re the neighbors. Nice to meet you,” he said, pumping the boy’s arm. The boy stood uncomfortably behind the three as they talked. They slowly began walking towards the stall with the cow. They stopped. The boy could not turn away, enraptured by the sight of the sickened animal. Flies swarmed on its hide and over the wound. The animal’s body and head were lowered. Her fore shoulder trembled. The boy noticed with a jolt the handgun hanging on a hook from the wall.

“John, it’s going to die,” said the younger neighbor.

“I haven’t found a time to do it.”

The neighbor looked at the boy, troubled. “Do you remember the first time you killed a cow?” He asked John.

The old man spoke for the first time. “I killed mine, when I was nine. My father handed me the gun and I did it. The boy here, he’s never shot a cow?” He raised a thin, wavering finger at him.

John laughed, throwing back his head. “He’s just an Eastern city boy. He’s never even seen a cow, let alone pointed a gun at it.” The boy trembled. His cheeks, cooled, now burned, and he lifted his head. “With his father in him, all education and books, he probably couldn’t do it.” He leaned and spat on the concrete to prove his point. Now he turned to the boy. “Boy, you want to shoot a cow?”

“Yes,” said the boy. No hesitation. “I want to do it.”

There was silence, then John snorted. He stepped over and lifted the gun, the handgun, from where it hung by the stall post. As he clicked the safety off his neighbor spoke. “I don’t know about this, John…”

John lifted it up to check the ammo, grinned quietly, and cocked it. “He’s not going to do it anyway, Jeb.” Jeb hiccupped softly, watched as John pressed the gun into the boy’s hand. The boy stilled as he felt its weight. “Aim. Shoot, boy. Do it,” John commanded, guffawed. The boy half-heartedly stepped forward and raised his hand to where the cow’s head hung by the gate. The gun lowered an inch.

The boy was lost, suddenly, irrevocably, in his own world. He only half-heard as his uncle began again about his sister, why would she marry someone like him… He took her away, made her move to the East Coast; how she hadn’t spoken to him, her big brother, in fourteen years. No, there was only the feel of the grip in his right hand, and the cow. He watched as a fly flew up the haired ear, inside it, flick. Big eyes. He hadn’t known that cows had eyelashes, but they did, here it was, he could see each individual eyelash lining the black and chocolate eye. He marveled at how light the gun was. His finger rested gingerly on the trigger. He hugged it tighter, infinitely tighter. He was alarmed at how easy it went in, and let his finger go. Think. How hard do you need to press, really? No. Don’t think.

His uncle and the neighbor grew belligerent and poked fun at the boy as he held the gun limply at arm’s length. His face was frozen and his cheeks hung slack from his widened eyes.

Don’t think. That’s how it works. He’s talking about your mom again. The cow is dying. Do it. Do it. His finger slowly squeezed. He watched the trigger come closer to the gun. More. More. He felt something inside the gun release. Just as suddenly, the warmth in his cheeks flooded back, the feel of his legs standing on solid ground, the voice of his uncle. Panic rushed through him, filling his legs and making his knees begin to buckle. His wrist jerked back. He blinked, once.

The bang shook him and sent him, sprawling, the rest of the way to the ground. His ears made ringing static. The cow jerked back from the sound and jumped into the side of the stall, metal juddering- hurdled back, mooing in terror. The three men, who had stood still around the boy, began to move again one by one. John had jumped at the noise, and now ran forwards, a hesitant half step, foot thudding. Stopped. He looked at the frantic cow, and then at the boy, stunned, on the floor. And started to laugh.

Jeb looked, bewildered, at the boy as he was pulled up by the laughing John. He looked at the cow, now standing calmly in the far corner, ears flicked back and tail swishing. A hesitant grin split his lips. The gun spun a last half circle on the dusty concrete. John let out another, metered laugh in an attempt to stop. “The gun,” he gasped. “…The gun,” he said again, grinning, “was unloaded.” He slapped the boy on the back and subsided again into a fit of quiet, tearful laughter.

After a while there was finally silence in the barn. The two men looked at each other. The old man wore a lopsided, wrinkled grin. The boy looked up at his uncle.

Said the boy in a quiet voice: “Do we have to tell my aunt?”

 

The boy shifted his cramping legs in vigil on the damp porch. He could not tell if the mouse was dead. His gaze strained and wandered in the shadows under the dresser. He still saw the glitter of little, reflected light in the mouse’s eyes, but the light from the loosened metal spring felt brighter, somehow. The shuddering breath had slowly become imperceptible in the small of the mouse’s back. The rain had descended into a slow pattering from the roof.

The boy did not want the mouse to be dead. He slowly bent forward to whisper something to the silent, curled form. But just then the boy’s uncle leaned out the door. He grinned at the boy. “Your aunt just pulled the cherry pie out of the oven,” he said. The boy looked at the mouse, then at the uncle. He grinned quietly, and followed his uncle inside.

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