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excerpt > Micah Perks > What Becomes Us

She’s in a smoky log cabin trying to breathe.

Smoke stings her eyes into slits and pinches her throat closed. She is pressed everywhere by people and dogs and smoke and the smell of urine and sweat. Everyone else is coughing and gagging too, arguing about whether they should make a run for it, arguing whether ‘tis better to die by an Indian club or from smoke or immolation. Mother’s sister is crying out to herself or to God. The seven long-legged dogs pace and cower and whine, ears flattened, tails down.

Mother thinks, Fuck it.

She lifts her blue skirt to move over to where her thirteen-year-old son Joseph crouches with a gun before a tiny window. Do you have anything in there? she asks him. He shakes his head. She goes to a cupboard, reaches way in the back where she keeps her dessert forks in a wooden box covered with a cloth, the ones her mother brought from England. She and Joseph crush them in their fists and tamp them down the barrel of the gun.

She pulls the thin rug up, heaves open the root cellar door underneath. The faces of the five children inside look up at her, round and white as china plates. It smells putrid, of rotting potatoes. Mother reaches down, and her daughter Sarah climbs up the wooden ladder. All will be well, Mother says to her. Mind me. Then she heaves Sarah onto her hip. Sarah buries her face into Mother’s neck, rests her lips there. Sarah is solid, and as soon as Mother picks her up she can feel the burden of her like a sack of corn meal, how she has grown almost too big to carry. Mother begins to untie her pocket, an embroidered apron that holds her sewing things inside, but then she changes her mind.

Her chest is thrumming with anxiety, but she tells her son calmly, We will make a run for it. She puts him in the lead with the gun, pushes him in front of her as if he is already a man, to give him courage. The low door opens up into the chaos of grey February sky, no walls anywhere. She stands before the doorway in the rush of cold air, thinking, Perhaps not, but Abraham, her sister’s boy, desperate for clean air, pushes from behind, and they stumble out into the open. Abraham runs, bent over, heading down hill towards the stream. He is shot. They’d been teasing him lately, because since he’d turned fourteen a sparse moustache had come in, and without realizing it he is always worrying it, smoothing it like a beaver pelt. He falls. He screams out, My leg. One of them jogs over and clubs him on the head, twice, passionless, like splitting wood. Mother’s son, Joseph, just in front of her, stares at where his cousin lies. She grabs him behind the neck, it’s wet there. Joseph, towards the bridge, she says.

Then an Indian stands in front of them. Joseph raises his gun, but it won’t fire. Joseph begins to cry and fiddle with the flintlock. The Indian holds his hand out for the gun. Joseph gives it to him. They watch the Indian check the barrel, empty out the forks onto the dirty snow, fluidly reload with a lead ball. Then he aims at Mother.

Joseph knocks the gun with the side of his arm as it goes off.

Sarah screams. She screams, Mama, it burns! and like an echo, Mother feels burning in her own side. No, Mother says sharply, and instinctively puts her hand over Sarah’s hand, which is over Sarah’s stomach. Mother’s legs begin to shake, but she doesn’t drop her baby. The screaming and smoke and noise move into the distance. Up close there is only an intense heat, boiling between herself and her little girl. Sarah pulls her hand away from Mother’s side. The plump hand cups blood, and there is blood spreading through Sarah’s apron, over her round stomach, blood wet and warm between them. Mother thinks, Please, Lord, mend this. Mother turns to go back inside the house. Her sister blocks the door, smoke roiling out of the garrison and around her as if it were coming out of her head. She stares at Mother. Mother says to her, or thinks to say to her, Sister, He can mend this, let’s go back inside. But Mother’s sister doesn’t hear, or doesn’t agree—perhaps because her son lies shot and beaten to death on the ground.

Mother thinks to say to her sister: The hem of the world has ripped open. The seam has broken and things I cannot fathom have fallen through. But with His help, we can still sew it back up, please Sister, please help me, we can fix this together. I have my needle and thread in my pocket. It’s not too late.

Her sister says, Lord, let me die too. As if in answer, a lead ball enters her sister’s head just above the ear, the force banging her head against the doorjamb. She slides to the ground and sits there, not moving.

One of the painted ones grabs Mother’s arm. His face all red but not with blood, with a cape fashioned from raccoon pelts around his neck, their ringed tails swaying when he moves, and black tattoos all over his naked chest and things hanging from his neck, little bags and animal teeth, and smelling of rancid animal grease, and shiny from the grease, and carrying a club rounded and polished, the size of a baby’s head at the top, smeared with blood and blond hair, and with one half of his head shaved and one half long and loose, as if he didn’t understand simple symmetry, everything about him seems to tell her that he is closer to an animal, a bear, a lion, than to her, this monster has his fingers around her forearm. Now, she thinks, her throat squeezing and squeezing. She turns Sarah’s wet face into her armpit. Now.

Parlez-vous francais? he says, and when she doesn’t answer, he tries again in hesitant English, his voice so low and reasonable it could have been her own: Come, go along with us. I am Quinnipin. I am yours.

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Micah Perks grew up in a log cabin on a commune in the Adirondack wilderness. She is the author of a novel, We Are Gathered Here, a memoir, Pagan Time, and a long personal essay, Alone In The Woods: Cheryl Strayed, My Daughter and Me. Her short stories and essays have won five Pushcart Prize nominations and appeared in Epoch, Zyzzyva, Tin House, The Toast, OZY and The Rumpus, amongst many journals and anthologies. Excerpts of What Becomes Us won a National Endowment for the Arts grant and The New Guard Machigonne 2014 Fiction Prize. She received her BA and MFA from Cornell University and now lives with her family in Santa Cruz where she co-directs the creative writing program at UCSC. More info and work at micahperks.com. Learn more about What Becomes Us.

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