Mark Greene: Beneath The Carmine Sky

If my memory serves me right (and there really are times these days when I think an invisible sylph is suturing one recollection with another), I do believe that I was but a few weeks short of my seventh birthday, when I first happened to feel the touch of hate.

Uncle Harry – who wasn’t really my uncle, but had been a close acquaintance to my deceased Aunt May (although some folks about town would tell you that they were more than merely friends), was sitting cross-legged on the corrugated iron roof of our wooden home. Resting in his lap was a recently purchased Winchester rifle, which Uncle Harry had bought in town from Old Tom Fisher’s gun store, because he wanted to shoot the starved-mad coyotes that each night tried to plunder our besieged chicken coop.  Uncle Harry said he was going to use that gun to kill every last coyote in the state. On that red, misty evening – the sort of airless evening you can find anywhere in the South during the last shards of summer -the long, black barrels of the Winchester glistened in their crystalline blackness.

‘What you doing way up there, Uncle Harry?’

‘Just a-waiting, Jack,’ said Uncle Harry, staring out towards the solitary dust road which cut through the lifeless patchwork of corn fields. The road ransouth from our house, dissecting the arid fields, and over the distant hills, which lay some ten or fifteen kilometres away. Lining those hills was row upon row of leafless acacias, famished by two years of interminable drought. When my imagination was inclined, and if I half-closed my eyes against the burning sun, I could picture an army of skeletons heading over those scorched and powdery hills.

‘What you waiting for?’

‘Just for whatever might decide to show up,’ answered Uncle Harry. He was always giving answers that never seemed to make you any smarter than what you were before you asked him a question. ‘Has your father woken up yet?’

‘I heard Pa walking in his room just now,’ I said, turning the thinning heel of my shoe into the dry earth.

My Pa, who served in every way (and to varying degrees of success) as doctor, farmer, teacher and cook, had been asleep since taking his afternoon drink.

Looking up at that carmine sky, vast as an ocean in its emptiness, I could seethat the sun would soon be setting:a few lonesome shaft of light were piercing through the bone-carved branches of the distant acacias.

‘Well you just go and make sure he’s awake, Jack,’ said Uncle Harry. ‘And remember to tell him to make sure he splash his face with cold water before he comes onout here.’

As soon as Uncle Harry finished speaking, I went running like a hare towards the porch, but on reaching my destination I discovered that Pa was already making his way outside. Pa’s sallow skin was looking all scrunched up like mottled paper, and his eyes, perhaps owing to all the time he spent sleeping, seemed to me like nothing but two tiny blots of dried up ink.

Uncle Harry looked down from the roof at Pa. ‘You slept it all off yet?’

‘Pretty much,’ replied Pa out of the corner of his mouth, and not even offering a glance up at Uncle Harry. I got the impression from the stiff way Pa was moving  that it would have strained his neck had he been forced to tilt his head up to look at Uncle Harry. ‘Got myself a headache all the same.’

The long shadow of Uncle Harry was casting itself over Pa and me. ‘Well you should know that Stanton and that boy of his will soon be paying us a visit.’

‘And how do you figure that?’

Uncle Harry pointed his Winchester out towards the road. ‘I’ve just caught sight of them riding up the path.’

I would have betted my last dollar that Uncle Harry could have spotted a blade of grass buried beneath a bale of hay.

Pa spat on the ground. ‘You got another gun to give me?’

Uncle Harry reached into the back of his trousers and took out a revolver, which looked to me like the same revolver which Uncle Harry said had killed a whole lot of Germans during the Great War. It was a real fine looking gun. Uncle Harry threw the gun down to Pa, but Pa missed the catch and the revolver hit the dusty ground. Pa shook his head and picked it up, before using his stained shirt to wipe the dirt fromthe grip of the gun.

‘You’re lucky that I don’t keep that thing loaded,’ said Uncle Harry. ‘You got yourself any bullets?’

‘Got a few,’ said Pa, reaching into his trouser pocket and pulling out a handful of bullets. OnlyI think they must have been warmed up by the sun or something, because Pa just let them fall right through his fingers.

It was whilst I was helping pick up those loose bullets that I saw Pa’s hands trembling as if an awful fever had suddenly come over him. I was just about to ask Pa if he was feeling ok when the rumbling sound of horses stirred up behind us.

I turned and caught sight of Stanton riding his black horse through the open gate. It was perhaps only the second or third time that I had laid my eyes on Stanton, although I’d heard a great many tales from folks who all seemed to have a reason to be frightened of him. The only thing that scared me was the paleness of his skin; it looked as if his blood had decided long ago not to run through his veins.

Pa said Stanton was nothing but a common swindler, a man who would steal from himself if he could only find a way, but I remember there being a well-dressed woman who would join us occasionally in church (Pa eventually stopped taking me after Ma died), who used to say all sorts of crazy things about Stanton – things like how he’d traded in his soul to a Mexican witch-doctor in return for a pair ofsilver stirrups. The woman, who had a fondness for wearing the most extravagant hats I’d ever seen, and who I believe was also the wife of the town judge, said there had been a curse on Stanton ever since.

I tried not to think of the Mexican witch-doctor or of Stanton’s cursed soul as he and the boy hastened up the path towards our home.

Uncle Harry, who was still sitting cross-legged on our roof, was tapping his fingers against the barrel of the Winchester. ‘Strange time of day for you boys to be heading all the way out here.’

The boy, who was riding behind Stanton, and chewing on a long piece of grass, had the temerity to tip his hat at Uncle Harry.

Now there are times when a man tips his hat out of a sense of decency, and there are other times when a man tips his hat knowing all too well that he’s about as welcome as a rabid dog. I was surprised that Uncle Harry didn’t shoot the hat straight off the boy’s head there and then.

Meanwhile, Stanton was busy riding his horse right up to where Pa and I were standing.

Pa, having warned me to stay silent, was holding the revolver down by his side, pretending like it was a usual occurrence for him to be walking around in the evening with a gun in his hand.

‘Evening, Stanton.’

‘Evening, John,’

Stanton brought his horse up so close that I could have reached out and stroked it.

Although, to be honest with you,I don’t really remember much about what it felt like, being a child stood next to that heavy, sweating, breathing, horse flesh. The only thing I know is that it was the darkest horse I’d ever seen, looking like someone had cut it straight out of coal. We had a horse like that once: used it to help take Ma to hospital when she first fell sick. Never known a more faithful creature. I remember crying all night when Pa came home one day and said he’d sold it down the market. Felt like he’d just gone and given my brother or sister to an orphanage. Although thinking about where that horse ended up would always do me good: hoping that it went to some nice folks who had a big lawn of wet green grass. Because I can tell you, there’s no sadder sight than looking at a horse that’s going hungry.

‘Are them graves over yonder belonging to your wife and sister?’ said Stanton, looking back towards the road.

‘Not going to be anyone else’s graves are they now,’ replied Pa.

‘You thinking of joining them over in that spot someday?’

‘Well I ain’t expecting them to come rising up anytime soon.’

Stanton looked down at me and smiled; he had a real sugary smile that caused the back of my neck to go cold. There was a way about Stanton that made him different from men like Pa and Uncle Harry.Seemed to me like Stanton had come from a place other than this earth. ‘Now you know that wasn’t what I was implying, John.’

For the second time that evening, Pa spat on the ground. ‘Only you and Him be knowing what you meant.’

‘I wouldn’t think there’d be much sense in living if He didn’t know.’

Sometimes I think God didn’t mean anything for us expect making sure we knew He was about us every moment of the day. Uncle Harry knew. Uncle Harry would always be praying when he woke and praying when he went to bed. Used to say that folks should always remember who was watching them.Uncle Harry said my Pa was a damnable fool for thinking there was nothing in this world worth worrying over.

‘Perhaps it’s time you boys be making your way home,’ called Uncle Harry from the roof. ‘It’s a long ride back to town in the dark.’

‘Same ride in thedark or the light,’ said the boy, who had rode up to be beside Stanton. He was young but his nose was all squashed up, and I wondered whether he took to being a boxer when he wasn’t out riding on his horse. Uncle Harry had told me once that there was a real good living to be made from boxing, only a man had to be careful in making sure he was fighting on the side of all the people who were down on their luck, who didn’t have the chance to fight; otherwise it didn’t matter how hard a man could throw a punch, because he could never win.

‘We just want to collect what’s owed to us,’ said Stanton, before fixing his green marble eyes on me.

‘There ain’t nothing we owe you, Stanton,’ replied Pa; his fingers looked to be tightening around the grip of his gun.’Wouldn’t be anything to give you even if we did. Can’t you see this land out here is dead?’

Stanton, having hardly moved a limb whilst he spoke, leapt suddenly from his leather saddle. The swiftness of his movements surprised us all, most especially his black horse, which reared up in a frenzied state.

Landing on his feet, and smelling fragrantly of women’s perfume, Stanton took a step forward and placedthe palm of his cold hand onto my cheek; I was surprised at how soft it felt. ‘You’re not scared of me now are you, child?’

Without saying a word Pa lifted his arm and aimed the revolverat Stanton’s head. ‘A man should think twice before he goes placing his hand on my son.’

Only Stanton didn’t look too concerned at all; he didn’t even flinch; he just kept on staring at me with those unblinking green eyes. It was as if it wasn’t the first time a gun had been pointed at his head.

‘Now don’t you be doing anything rash, John.It’s nobody’s fault but your own that we’re out here.’

Pa moved forward and pressed the muzzle of the revolver against Stanton’s temple. ‘I think it be best that you and your friend be taking yourselves off of my land.’

Stanton winked at me. ‘We’ll be going – it’s getting on late now anyhow. We just wanted to show our faces, that’s all.’

And no one said a single word as Stanton, having remounted his horse, and the boy rode back out through the gate.

I tugged at the sleeve of Pa’s cotton shirt. ‘You think they’ll find their way back to town in the dark?’

‘It takes more than the dark to stop men like that, Jack.’

The sun had now set behind the faraway hills, leaving us with nothing for light except the faint glimmer of the clear astral sky.Having removed the bullets and placed them back into his pocket, Pa handed me the revolver in order to give to Uncle Harry. ‘I’m going back inside to sleep,’ said Pa, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

Uncle Harry, with the help of a ladder, was halfway through climbing down from the roof. ‘You just make sure you actually be sleeping this time.’

Pa patted me gently on the back. ‘Your Uncle Harry will see you to bed. Good-night, son.’

I said good-night to Pa, but wishedthat he might decide to stay up with me a little while longer. It wasn’t too long ago that Pa would always stay up with me before I drifted off to sleep.

And Pa would tell me every night before bed that there was nothing in the dark except all the tomorrows that hadn’t yet come. He’d say that knowing tomorrow would always follow today was the best medicine for any problem – because sometimes folks don’t like to look to far ahead…and sometimes they don’t like to look too far back, either.

And if Pa everfell asleep first, much like he was now in the habit of doing, then I would close my eyes and pray to Ma, asking that she watch down on Uncle Harry and me, because Uncle Harry would often be swearing, saying words I never even heard before, and I knew that no lady in town was ever going to take him for the way he was. But then I suppose some men aren’t meant to be changing all the time. Uncle Harry just went on living the way he saw fit, like it was nobody else’s business.

But it was really for Pa that I was praying. Pa had been acting differently ever since the day Ma died; it seemed to me that someone had stolen all the laughter from his heart. I was only little but I remember that Pa used to always be laughing when Ma was still alive. Uncle Harry even said Pa had been one of the most popular men in town when they were both younger; Uncle Harry said Pa was always getting invitations to go out to dances and baseball games.  But I never knew Pa to have any friends, except Uncle Harry and me.

*

It wasn’t long after Stanton’s visit that Pa decided to stop going to market.

One day Uncle Harry, who had begun to take up more and more of Pa’s old duties, returnedhome from the market and told me to go fill Ma’s leather satchel with all the clothes I could find.I was going to be staying with Old Tom Fisher and his wife until things got better on the farm. Uncle Harry said that Tom Fisher and his wife had never had no luck with having children of their own, and that they sure were real pleased about having me come live with them for a while. Uncle Harry even promised that Tom Fisher would teach me to ride one of the ponies that he kept in the stables behind his gun store.

‘But what about Pa?’

Uncle Harry knelt down and placed his heavy hand on my shoulder. ‘Now you listen to me, Jack. Your Pa loves you very much, but sometimes men have ways of dealing with things which only they can see the sense in. So don’t you be thinking for one second that your Pa is too tired to be seeing to you. Your Pa is too tired for a lot of things these days, but he ain’t too tired for you, and that is something which ain’t ever going to change. Do you understand what I’m telling you? When you grow a bit older you’ll see that your Pa was just trying to do the best he could. That man has been trying to raise you just the way your kindMa had asked him to.’

By that same evening I was lying in bed under the roof belonging to Old Tom Fisher and his wife, and listening to the sound of the rain dancing on the gravel yard outside their house. Although it wasn’t too long before that house seemed to me like the house I had always lived in. For the first few years, Uncle Harry used to come visit me on the last Sunday of every month, telling me stories about all the strange people he had met at the weekly market, and about all the work he was doing in fixing up the farm.

But one day Uncle Harry took off with a woman he had met in town, and I never did hear from him again.A few years later, I received a letter through the post informing me that Uncle Harry had died of a bad heart. The letter, which wasneither signed nor dated, had a stamp showing that it had come all the way down from Oregon.

And I never did hear from Pa, either. Tom Fisher, who eventually let me take over the running of the gun store, said that he heard Pa had travelled up north to work as a doctor in New York, but I could never tell whether Tom really believed in what he was telling me.

The only thing that mattered to me was that Pa was happy, or at least that he had been happy again, even if it had only been for a single day. Sometimes, as the years rolled into decades, and I found myself with my own little family of sons and daughters, I would dream that Pa and Ma were sitting side by side on the steps of our old white-painted porch, which overlooked the fields of sprouting corn, and they’d be laughing about all the times when it looked like we might not make it.

And knowing that love was something you could never truly let go off, I would end my dream by sitting down next to them.

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Mark Greene, twenty-five years old, is a poet, short-story writer and novelist. He was born on the Wirral but now resides in Sheffield. Mark has previously been published in Now Then, Platform for Prose, The Cadaverine, and Ink. magazine.

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