The Patriarch by Carla Cummins

I was hiding in the bushes the day Daddy went mad, the day he decided to kill Brother. But nobody in the whole wide world knows that. Nobody but me, and now you.

I had taken the herd out to pasture, and when the sun had climbed high enough, I’d sought out a place to rest my legs in the shade of our sycamore trees, devouring the bologna sandwiches Mama had pressed into my hands that morning.

Daddy had been changing for a long while, so slowly that his madness had just kind of crept up on us all until, one day, we’d looked up and realized we had a maniac sitting in our living room.

Mama said it started back in our old hometown, was the reason for our move. “I don’t know, honey,” she told me, “but one day he got this fool notion in his head that God was calling him to head west, and he clung to it like a dog to a bone. We finally got tired of fighting him.”

Daddy had always been the religious sort, but he got even more that way when Brother was born. His zeal grew by the day, so much so that by the time Brother was five, Daddy spent more of his days “in the Spirit” than out of it. As Mama later put it, he was “too heavenly to be any earthly good.”

“Hurry up!”Daddy’s shout pierced through my lunch-time reverie and landed two inches below my left collarbone.

Startled, I dropped my sandwich and jumped up, stared out through the bushes and into the clearing.

He and Brother were on the farm track, coming up the hill. Daddy strode out in front, his pace quick and urgent, his gaze fixed on the opening between the trees. Brother whimpered and stumbled along behind him, lethargic clouds of red dust weakly rising and falling in the wake of his shoes. When he fell too far behind, Daddy charged back and half-pushed, half-dragged him up the hill.

Brother was in trouble, and not for the first time. He was always getting into mischief. And now it looked like he was in for a beating, right there on the other side of the sycamore trees, in the clearing where all his beatings happened.

Daddy’s steps began to slow, and so did Brother’s. Brother’s feet fell in heavy, uneven thuds.

I didn’t want to watch. Just the thought of what was coming next brought bits of sandwich back up in my throat. But my eyes were locked on the scene before me, and I knew with sickening surety they were too close for me to run off without giving myself away and falling prey to Daddy’s rage too.

As they entered the clearing, Brother edged over to “his” tree, turned his back to Daddy, wrapped his arms around its great trunk, and waited.

Daddy stood a few feet away. I could make out the side of his face, the rough whiskers on his cheeks, the wattle that caught the sweat dripping from his chin, and the set of his eyes: they were the eyes of his Sunday night visions.

My memory of what happened next is an old rusty bucket, full of holes never filled in. Mama was suddenly there, across the clearing, with Ole Bess, my favorite cow. And Ole Bess was lowing something awful. And Brother was screaming bloody murder. And Mama went charging at Daddy. And sunlight flashed again and again off of Daddy’s hunting knife.

When I finally stirred from where I lay curled beneath the sycamore tree, hours had passed. The sun had settled below the horizon and surrendered completely to the deep black night.

Brother’s limp, urine-soaked body had been carried back to the house and all the blood washed away. Ole Bess had been taken to the slaughter house. And Sarah, Brother’s mother, had finally stopped screaming in the house below. I don’t know where was Daddy.

I waited until the back porch light went dark before I crept up its steps. But the creak of her rocker stopped me.

“Ishmael, is that you?”

“Yes, Mama.”

“Ishmael, honey, we’ve got to go away.”

Mama and I left that night, walking off the back porch and out into the black with only each other, one bag of clothes a piece, and eight bologna sandwiches.

Never once did Mama ask me where I’d been.