Fallowed Fields of Deceit
Amber lights drifted into view. Voices and piano music emanated from bay windows on either side of a porch bedecked with two wooden rocking chairs glistening in the rain. Swollen and warped, an enormous wooden door outsized the house itself, a behemoth reigning over the modest Mercy home.
“They didn’t even notice it’s raining,” Virgil said, looking at the house. “Upstairs window is open.”
“We better go in,” CC said, rubbing her face as a thick braid fell forward over her shoulder.
Virgil put his hand on her arm. “Hold on. No matter what, you can’t tell anyone what happened today. You hear me?”
CC nodded. “Didn’t need to tell me that.” She was resolved to silence, easier to move past it. She drew her arm away and opened the door, splashing into a puddle. Sleet stung her eyes. Virgil was already at the door.
“Well, cast my fears to heaven. You two finally showed up!" Abigail set down a tray of meats and rushed over to them. “Where have you been? I've been worried sick.” She wrapped her arms around CC.
“Ma, I’m sorry. I lost track of time.”
Abigail shot an irritated glance at Virgil. “You the reason she’s so late?”
“Don’t blame Virgil,” CC added quickly, “I asked him to pick me up.” She kissed her mother’s cheek. “Where’s Papa?”
“Who knows? He comes and goes while I do all the work." Abigail sighed, brushed her hair off her face, grinning at CC. “No changing him now.” She laughed a high-pitched screech and nudged CC toward the kitchen, then looked back at Virgil. “How’d you get so wet?” Before he answered, she poked him in the arm. “Well, never mind. Change out of those wet clothes and get some dinner.”
The living room was a carnival of color. Every lamp was lit, stained glass, tiffany, calf-skin, twine, and lace shades atop stems of antique brass, wrought iron, and ceramic. Wooden tables of all sizes littered the room. A run-down grand piano with a floor lamp illuminating the keyboard was squeezed into the corner. Harpe was playing, fingers tumbling over the keys forcefully and his eyes darting about the room to see who was paying attention. No one was. A cake with Happy Birthday candles was perched vicariously on a side table. Aunt BabyToes and Uncle Mose were laughing and drinking from the same glass of wine. Leon was stretched out on a couch, staring out the window. Rhett and Virgil were circling the trays of food. Out of nowhere, Montana Mercy appeared at the entrance. Standing over 6’4”, built like a telephone booth, he spotted CC at the kitchen door. “You’re late,” he boomed.
CC, unfazed by the brusque greeting, called across the room to him. “I know, Papa. I was drawing ant hills.”
“Anthills?” He shook his head. “Where were you?”
“The old slaughterhouse on Miller Road.” She glanced at Virgil.
“Can’t you find anthills around here?”
“Not really. They get gigantic out there because the carpenter ants …”.
“I don’t want to hear any more about ants. Were you there by yourself again?
Leon broke in. “Who else would go there except stupid CC?” His grin morphed into a sneer.
Montana ignored him. “Good thing it's your birthday, or you'd be in your room for the night.” He sauntered over to Abigail, half his height, and bent over to kiss her. “It’s all your doing, Abby. Spoiling these kids rotten.”
“Nonsense.” Abigail brushed her apron with hasty swipes and marched over to the piano. A cloud of flour dust trailed behind her. Harpe stopped playing, slouched on the piano bench, and rested his elbows on the keyboard. Abigail jerked his shoulders back, lifting him nearly off the bench. "Sit up straight, young man, and take your elbows off those keys. Show the instrument respect.” Another screech, then her expression softened. She whispered something to him, smoothed his hair, and kissed the top of his head. She waved at Rhett. “Get your guitar. Harpe’s the birthday boy, so he isn’t playing tonight.”
“Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday CC and Harpe, Happy Birthday to you.” A katzenjammer of blaring, out-of-tune voices. Leon plugged his ears and stomped upstairs. Virgil inched toward the back of the room, shaking his head.
"Again," yelled Abigail. The discordant chorus resumed. BabyToes belt out the song with brassy gusto, arms flapping, drowning out the others. They finished with a round of kisses and hugs, cake and ice cream.
CC broke away from the group and sat next to Virgil on the couch. “Wonder how soon I can go to my room,” she whispered to him, “I’m tired all of a sudden.” The image of the dead man floated across her mind, hovering inches above the cheer in the room.
Virgil was watching BabyToes cut another piece of cake. He frowned, the wrinkles around his mouth and eyes pinching together. “Wouldn’t leave just yet.” Virgil nodded toward the kitchen.
Leon was leaning against the kitchen door, staring at them. CC sighed. “What’s his problem?”
“Who knows? He’s an idiot,” Virgil shook his head.
“Oh great,” she said, he’s heading over here.”
Leon plopped down on a small table in front of them. “What ‘s up?”
“Nothing,” CC snapped.
“Don’t seem very happy for a birthday girl,” he mumbled.
“Shut up, Leon. Don’t ruin my party.”
"Looks like someone already has. You're white as a ghost," he drawled.
Virgil’s lifted his fork slowly to his mouth and swallowed a piece of cake. “Icing’s great,” he said to CC.
She nodded. Neither looked at Leon.
Leon leaned toward them. “You were mighty late for your big party, CC. Musta been havin’ a good time at the slaughterhouse.”
“Go away, Leon." CC stared at him.
“Got any drawings of your precious anthills? I’d love to see ‘em.” He snickered.
“She told you to go away, Leon.” Virgil raised his fork and pointed it at Leon’s face. “So go.”
“Shut your face, Virgil. I’m not talking to you.”
“Well, I’m talking to you. Get out of here.”
In an instant, Leon vaulted off the table and grabbed Virgil by the neck with both hands. They tumbled off the couch onto the floor. CC jumped on top of Leon as her teeth sunk into the flesh of his hand. He squealed and pushed her off, then kicked her in the stomach. Leon’s grip was tightening around Virgil's neck. "Ready to shut your mouth, Virgil?" Leon shouted. Virgil's fist hit Leon’s jaw with force. Crunching sound and a yelp. Leon let go and dropped to the floor, holding his chin and writhing. In the next few seconds, Montana was lifting them both off the floor.
“What do you think you‘re doing? He picked them up by their shirts, one in each hand, dragged them to the front door, across the porch, and threw them into the mud. "Stay there till you're ready to apologize to your mother. And stay out of my sight.” He stomped back into the house, slamming the door behind him with such force that the windows rattled, the floorboards squeaked, and the raindrops suspended in mid-air.
Montana returned to the living room and paused in the doorway. Abigail was kneeling on the floor, rocking CC in her arms. BabyToes fidgeted with her wine glass, gawking at CC. Mose and Harpe stood motionless like bodyguards. Rhett rushed out of the kitchen with a towel, shouting, “I’ll take care of her, move away.” He bent over CC and wrapped the wet, cold towel on top of her. She shivered and pushed the towel off.
“Rhett, that’s freezing. Let me be.” CC was trying to sit up, but Abigail’s bulk flattened her against the floor.
“Look, I know what I’m doing. I’m almost a doctor.” Rhett maneuvered the towel around her flailing arms.
CC rolled her eyes and threw the wet towel in Rhett’s face.
“Papa,” she said, sitting up. "It wasn't Virgil's fault. He just told Leon to leave me alone, and Leon went after him.”
"Don't want to hear. Both wrong." He put his arm around Abigail, and they walked into the kitchen.
CC stood up, hugged Harpe, and climbed the stairs to her bedroom. She shut the door quietly behind her and took a deep breath. Nausea again. She sat on the edge of the bed to wait out the wave. Digging into her knapsack, she pulled out her notebook and sketchpad and placed them in her desk drawer, then tossed her colored pencils on top of them. The gray pencil was missing. I'll go back and find it, she thought.
A knock. "Come in," CC said hoarsely. The door opened slowly. Her father’s elephantine silhouette filled the doorway.
“Did Virgil come back in yet?”
“You shouldn’t have punished him, Papa. It was my fault.”
“Mighta been your fault, but it was his fist."
She shrugged, puffed the pillows behind her head, and leaned back.
“Won’t do any good to pout, CC. He’ll be fine. And that’s not the reason I came up.” Montana’s face wrinkled into a smile. He sat on the bed next to her and folded her hand into his thick palms. “You didn’t seem right tonight, something wrong?”
“No,” she lied. “Probably staring at those ants too long.” Her eyes welled with tears. “They don’t worry about anything.”
“Well, that’s a fact.” He patted her hand. “They’re the lucky ones, doing what they need to do, and that's that." He patted her leg, relieved. “So,” he leaned toward her, “this is the full measure of your woes?” It was one of his favorite expressions.
“I guess so.” Lied again. “Sometimes, I wish I could be like them.” She feigned a smile. “I’m OK, Papa, just tired.”
“Well, a good night’s sleep will cure that. Can I bring you anything?”
She shook her head.
“One more thing.” He pulled a box from behind him and placed it in her hand. It was wrapped in silver paper with a white bow.
CC’s eyes brightened. “Oh, Papa, thank you! Can I open it now?
Montana laughed. “Seeing as you’re all grown up now, go ahead.”
CC tore off the wrapping in two quick sweeps. Inside was a thin rectangular box made of cherry wood. CC Mercy was etched on the top, surrounded by carvings of butterflies, turtles, and birds. A tiny clasp opened to a tray of pencils in a rainbow of colors. CC gasped, running her fingers up and down the neatly arranged rows. She closed her eyes and chose one of the pencils --- walnut brown --- then wrote on her palm, “I love you, Papa.”
Montana blushed. “Happy you like it. Those dots under the turtles are supposed to be ants.”
CC laughed, rubbing her finger across the smooth surface of the box. “They’re perfect … I can’t wait to use them. Mine are all worn out.” She set the pencil back in its place, closed the box, and slid it under her covers. “Just in case Leon snoops around my room again.”
Montana stood up from the bed. “I better get downstairs. Your brother’s getting a metronome. And I need another piece of cake.” He kissed her on the cheek and walked out, shutting the door behind him with a single click.
CC lay back on her bed, pulled the pencil box from under the covers, opening and closing it several times. She brushed her fingers across the etchings and the smooth wood. Still dressed in her dusty jeans and t-shirt, she turned off the lamp and looked out the window. The storm had abated. A glitter of stars pushed out behind brooding dark clouds still hovering in the night sky. She pulled her blanket over her shoulder, buried her head in the pillow, and wept.