Sue slit the suckling’s throat and thought about how she loved her little brother. She did. Maybe he’d come down out of the hills, signed over his part of mama’s farm, and married some uppity bitch from town, but she didn’t hold that against him. He was always reading books and wearing those fancy glasses Mama’d sold canned beans and jars of strawberry jam to pay for. An odd duck, that one. Out of place up here in the mountains. A man outside his rightful place, even when he was just a boy.
Square peg set against broad, round hills. She loved him, but she almost wished he’d died just so he’d stop haunting her thoughts and trying to give her money in the flesh and blood. Sue never saw him anyway and if he died, even Darren would have to understand why she couldn’t be home to make him dinner that night. Why she had to see her last remaining family despite his firm commandment not to.
She watched as the suckling bled its last and pulled it down from the hook in the barn. When she was done dressing him, she picked him up by his ankles and lifted the bucket of blood and guts with the other. Sue wasn’t as strong as she used to be, but she was strong enough. She threw the blood and offal over the slop in the trough on her way back up to the house. The nine sows who hadn’t been put up in the sow stalls descended like a flock of buzzards and ate noisily. “Waste not, want not, ladies,” Sue said, and took the suckling pig on home. The dogs heeled at her whistle, her raggedy old cat trotted along behind them. Sue was glad for the company.
Darren hadn’t been home for nigh on two weeks. He wasn’t missing. If Sue were still young she would walk the four miles across pastures to the big old shed behind Mack Griffith’s house and find any number of derelict husbands playing dominoes. Maybe still passed out at this hour. She’d find jars of moonshine and the stink of cigarettes. But Sue was nearly fifty six now, and she knew better. As a younger woman she’d had those good old boys help get Darren in the car. She’d driven him home and put him to bed. Some of the time it was because her bones ached for the nearness of him. Old spice and laughter all tied up with love and that damn man. Most of the time it was just because she needed to take the car down to the gas station at the intersection of Hoke Road and Highway 59 to buy milk and bread, even way back then. The farm provided almost everything else she needed, but the old cow she had back then barely produced enough cream for coffee. These days she knew she could always borrow her neighbor’s car and repay the favor with a dressed down suckling.
That arrangement had come when she was thirty nine and Trisha Yarrow had shown up to borrow the weed eater at exactly the wrong time. Darren had been barreling down the driveway in their 1985 Honda. Trisha had found Sue passed out on the porch, blood from her head mixing with the contents of the gallon of milk she’d dropped when Darren knocked her down.
When Sue came to, Trisha was cleaning her head wound with a tea towel doused in grain alcohol. It stung like a motherfucker.
“Why you let that sorry son of a bitch do this shit to you?”
Sue pulled herself up and gasped at the tightness in her chest. She cursed Darren for still wearing steel toed boots all those years after a back injury had taken him out of the factory for good. They were reminders of a time before, a time she could hardly bear to think about. When Darren was young and strong and healthy and still loved her, before the pain in his back became a seething meanness. Before it became a boot that kicked her when she was down.
She spit blood onto the milk and said, “I think he mighta broke a rib again.”
“You want me to haul you on down to the hospital?” Trisha was just ten years older than Sue, but she had a motherly tone in her voice that made Sue want to obey. She couldn’t have stood at that moment anyway, and there were consequences.
“You know I cain’t do no shit like ‘at. Last time they called the goddamn law. I about never got loose from the questions.”
“I swear, girl, you needs to leave his ass and move in with me. I got nobody around full time since my girls growed up and they daddy passed on. I ain’t seen them grandkids since Christmas last, ‘cept Ryan, Aggie’s boy. He’s in the car right now. I told him to stay,” Trisha nodded toward her car.
Sue couldn’t turn her head enough to see the car, but she looked out into the yard and admired how well the tomato plants were doing.
Trisha looked at Sue and sighed.
“You a hard worker, Sue, and I got all kindsa critters for you to do right by. You come on with me and I’ll getcha on your feet. Maybe you could win the farm in a divorce. We could take up a collection from the neighbors and hire you a right nice lawyer.”
Sue made a face at the idea of that kind of charity, but only said, “You know I cain’t leave them hogs. And what the cow gonna do? You know I done sold off the calf last month. She get her titty all tight and die of infection.”
Trisha stood up from her squatted position and looked at the milk on her shoes and knees like she was seeing it for the first time. “Well, girl, you prolley got a concussion and them ribs need some mending. Let’s get you in and bind and ice what you got needs bound and iced.”
Sue felt like the trip to the kitchen chair was at least five miles long, even if it was just across the porch and through the living room. Trisha was making an ice pack when they heard the storm door ring out like a gunshot. Trisha picked up the shotgun leaning near the back door without looking behind her. When she turned, Sue saw intent in her face. If it were Darren, there was no doubt that Trisha would shoot him. Probably she’d shoot to kill, too. Before Sue could tell her no, when she was still thinking about whether or not she wanted to stop her friend, Trisha was on her way to the living room with the gun cocked. Sue held her breath.
“Goddammit, son. I told you to stay in the car.”
“Sorry, Granny. I needed to pee.”
“Son, this is the country. You piss out in the bushes next time.”
“The bathroom’s on your left. Second door.”
Sue was surprised the boy knew which was his left. He couldn’t be more than three or four years old.
Trisha disappeared into Sue’s bedroom to find the big ace bandage that Sue had gotten from her last visit to the hospital. The boy stood in front of Sue and stared at her with big green eyes. He was still as towheaded as he’d been at birth.
“What happened to you, Miss Sue? You got hurt.”
Sue nodded, felt her head throb.
“Boy, you leave Miss Sue alone. She ain’t got time for your questions,” Trisha commanded as she knelt to bandage Sue’s ribs, careful not to pull her shirt up too high in front of the boy.
Ryan stood in silence and watched the process. When Trisha finished, she considered the boy for a moment.
“Ryan, you a big boy now, right? You remember how you had to clean up the milk you spilled last night?”
The boy nodded proudly.
“I need you to go into Miss Sue’s bathroom and find every towel in her hamper. Don’t you leave that hamper no mess, now. You put everything back in once you get the towels out. Then you take them towels out to the porch and clean up the milk, okay? I got to mend Miss Sue a bit more and help her change her clothes.”
“They’s blood in that milk. You want me to clean the blood too?”
“Now listen, son, blood ain’t nothing but red water. You ain’t afraid of water, is you?”
“Alright, you get the porch all cleaned up and I’ll give you some ice cream when we get home. Pile them towels up so we can take ‘em with us and wash ‘em.”
The boy nodded and ran to his task.
“That boy sure talk good,” Sue slurred. She could feel her jaw now that the ribs weren’t killing her.
“You don’t tell nobody I said nothing about this, but that baby’s a genius. Ain’t nothing he cain’t understand. Sometime I wonder who his mama tangled with on the bender that made that one.”
Sue nodded. Trisha produced a button down dress that Sue hadn’t seen her bring in from the bedroom.
“Now, girl, I gotta get you outta that outfit and into something what ain’t got your blood and some cow’s milk all over it. Imma hafta cut that shirt off you if you cain’t raise your arms up. I don’t reckon you’d want to try that right this minute. You want me to cut it with them kitchen shears? ”
Sue nodded again.
“When you reckon that sorry man gonna come back?” Trisha asked.
“Government check don’t come for three weeks. He be back for that. Prolley not till then.”
“You coming with us. You rest up in my spare room and I’ll get Cliff Stuart and his boys to stop by and take care o’ your critters. That’s final. You ain’t gonna open up that mouth and argue with me or I’ll roll you up in the rug and drag your ass to that car my damn self.”
Sue spent two and a half weeks with Trisha and Ryan. On her last morning there she woke at dawn to find Ryan standing at her bedside.
“Miss Sue, I want you to know that if I was big enough I’d find that asshole and beat him bloody.”
Sue nodded, ruffled his hair, and rose to dress for home.
In the seventeen years since that morning, Ryan had grown into a well built young man with scars on his face and knuckles from beating men bloody. Sometimes she fantasized about calling him about Darren. He was still a sweet boy. Sue wondered if he was still a genius. Probably not, she decided, rumor had it he was fond of fighting and he’d probably had all that genius knocked right out of his head. Sue put the suckling pig in her biggest roasting pan. It was the second of the month and Darren would show up later to wait for the morning’s mail and the disability check it would hold. They’d eat the roasted suckling and some mashed potatoes. Maybe she’d open a jar of green beans she’d canned too.
It was ten o’ clock before Darren turned up. She’d thought that might be the case and kept his dinner warm in the oven. She heard the car door slam and retrieved Darren’s dinner. She was holding a ceramic baking dish with pork and potatoes when he came in. Sue caught the retreat of headlights through the living room window as Darren approached.
“Car break down again?” She asked.
Darren slapped the ceramic dish out of her hand and clapped her on the ear. She regretted not waiting for him to get close enough so she could smell the liquor on his breath before she spoke. It had gotten to the point that he was mean even without the drink, but he was only violent when that sick liquor feeling knotted up his stomach.
“We ain’t got no car, you dumb bitch. What we got’s a neighbor named Mack Griffith who own himself a broke down 1985 Honda. Don’t need no fucking car. You know I cain’t work no how. And you too busy with them goddamn hogs to go off the property. Clean up this mess.”
Sue cleaned up the mess. The dogs and cat were glad to help make the food disappear. Sue was grateful for them, but sorry about the baking dish. She thought back to a time when Darren had made her happy. Her in a summer dress, waiting for him on her mama’s porch. Darren arriving with handpicked wildflowers sloppily tied together with a piece of raw twine. His broad, crooked smile, back before the falling iron at the plant had stolen his power and all smiles. After the mess was gone, she brought a beer to the chair where Darren sat watching TV. He fell asleep right there and she went to bed quietly, hoping he’d stay in the recliner. She used to cry when she crawled into the cold sheets alone, but she couldn’t remember the last time she’d been disappointed.
When she walked back home after her chores the following afternoon, Darren was gone with the entirety of the month’s check. He did that sometimes. Other times they’d drive into town, cash the check, grab a burger, pay their few, small bills, and pick up a month’s worth of flour and oil and liquor. Darren would kiss her cheek when he dropped her off with her supplies and she’d say, “Have a good time” before he drove to the bar in Sebastian County or back out to Mack Griffith’s barn. It was almost like old times on days like that.
It was inconvenient when he took the whole check, but she could make it work. They owned the farmhouse and a few surrounding acres free and clear because she had inherited the place. They’d added the barn, the pig pens, and five acres when Darren’s mama died. The house that sat on the parcel was near to falling down by the time Darren’s people were dead, couldn’t even be seen from the road anymore on account of the trees and brush. Most of the property was grown wild now, Sue couldn’t afford to run a bunch of cattle. But it was hers, it had been her mama’s, and Darren’s mama’s, and maybe she’d have a good month and add a herd of goats soon. They were on well water, so the only bills Sue needed to pay were cheap, and she was careful to keep them up to date just in case Darren forgot to leave her the money to pay them.
She had three sows with litters on the teet, four good sized shoats in the big pen, and two sows about ready to farrow. She’d hate to sell the sows, but Cliff Stuart had been pretty interested in sows carrying litters lately. One pregnant sow would pay the light bill and the phone too. A shoat would cover the few groceries she needed. She didn’t have to worry about the liability insurance on the car anymore.
“There’s the sunny side,” she said to the dogs. There was no good in talking to the cat. Cat never listened for shit. That wasn’t her job. Her job was pest control, and if she didn’t work, she didn’t eat.
Sue went to the kitchen phone and called Cliff. The old man liked to haggle, but he was unusually easy on her. He offered her twice what the sow was worth and said he’d take all four shoats for the same price if she’d be willing to part with them. Sue was suspicious, but she took the deal. It was five times what she’d expected to make off him and she couldn’t pass that up.
They were about to hang up when Cliff cleared his throat.
“Listen, Sue. I was there the night Darren lost the car at poker. If you need a ride into town you just call us up. Brenda’d be glad to haul you around a bit.”
“Cliff Stuart, if you buying my hogs outta charity I’ll be glad to hold onto them. I ain’t never took no charity from y’all and ain’t never needed none neither.”
“No ma’am. I’d never try to act like you a charity case. You a good woman, Sue. You raise good, tame hogs and I been wanting a few more good ‘uns. Besides, you always been good to me in negotiations and I knowed I got the better of ya more ’n a time or two.”
“Alright then. You be up tomorrow to get the hogs?”
“Actually, I got my boys coming up here for supper this evening. Mind if I come get ‘em when they get here? Brenda’ll hold dinner while we hog wrangle.”
“You show up with that money and you can take what’s yours whenever you wants it.”
Sue was bone tired by the time she made it in from the evening chores. She showered and ate a cold pulled pork sandwich standing over the kitchen counter. In bed that night, with the dogs curled up at her feet and that ragged old cat purring on her pillow, Sue thanked God for good neighbors and good hogs. She could borrow Trisha’s car and go down to pay the bills tomorrow. But tonight, she’d sleep the sleep of the well fed bone weary.
The next morning was unseasonably cold for September and she went to check on the sucklings first. Leaned against the eastern sow stall, in the pig pen, was Darren. Serves him right, she thought, passed out like a hog in the hog pen. How the hell am I gonna get the vomit and pig shit outta that white shirt. He didn’t stir when she spoke to him though. He didn’t open his eyes when she shook him. She checked his pulse. He was warm, but dead. She didn’t know how long. Not long from the look and feel of him. She pulled his wallet out of his front pant pocket and found the government check neatly folded there. He’d already signed the back. The lady at the gas station would cash it. She put it in the pocket of her jacket and walked to the barn. The dogs and cat followed along behind, and then followed her back.
Sue bent over her dead husband with her big buck knife. She looked into the face she’d known since she was five and saw the traces of the boy she left home to marry. He was bald and had a beer belly now, but he was almost handsome without the animation of drunk meanness. She slit his throat and wrists. She cut through his jeans too, leaving gashes in the pale legs underneath. He bled like recently dead things do. Slowly. The hogs at her back squealed and gathered at her back. She opened the sow stalls of the mamas with the oldest sucklings and listened to the contented sounds they made while they ate.
“Waste not, want not, ladies,” Sue patted her favorite on the rump and turned back toward the house, feeling she deserved a nip of whiskey.
Trisha Yarrow was standing ten feet behind her.
“It’s eight o’clock. I ran into Brenda Stuart down at the corner store last night. She said you might be in need of a ride. I came to see if you wanted a lift. Maybe run down and see that brother of yours at the hospital?”
Sue stared at her.
“You do it, or find him thattaway? Naw. I don’t want to know.”
Sue looked back at the pigs.
Trisha crossed to the pen and spit on Darren’s dead face over the railing, “Serves you right, motherfucker.”
Trisha put her arm around Sue and squeezed.
“I found him thattaway. Vomit on his shirt. Jar what smells like moonshine back up towards the barn. Not a mark on him till I cut him up. I figure he tried to walk home last night, got hisself feeling sick and just climbed in the pig pen figuring on me finding him in the morning. Well I sure did find him, didn’t I?”
“You sure did,” Trisha giggled.
Sue laughed a big belly laugh. The laughter felt light in her mouth. Trisha giggled again, joining her giggle to the sounds of Sue and the hogs. Then they stood in the morning cold until the sows finished with Darren. It took an hour. The hogs left only his shoes and teeth. Those could be gathered tomorrow. The women talked about how nobody would know he was missing for nearly a full month, when the next check came. No one would care after they knew. Drunks disappeared in the hills sometimes. The law never cared much about it either.
“Let’s get you cleaned up and take you to see that brother of yours. We’ll get some breakfast in town, yeah?” Trisha asked.
JESSICA B. WEISENFELS lives in rural Arkansas, where she accumulates chronic diseases and steals language from her children. Her poetry can be found in Fence, E-ratio, Yalobusha Review, and a few other places. She has short fiction forthcoming from Fiction Southeast.