SKINNED

Luke whistles low, the way his older brother Alex showed him,
breath through bottom teeth, a small wind in the last dead
leaves of the poplars. And it happens just like Alex said it would,
the fleeing rabbit stops, clenches. The frantic tremor of its
contracting muscles; Luke’s quivering heart. He wishes Alex was
beside him. Alex wouldn’t hesitate. Alex would shoot the rabbit
with Dad’s old Winchester instantly. But Alex is at the edge of
the bush, in the juneberry and willow shrubs, fifty yards off.
You can only sight a bush rabbit if it’s moving, their coats sewn
from the same dun fabric as November prairie—brome and spear
grass bleached by a killing frost; cairns of coyote shit; the silver
image

light of sun through fog. Luke’s job is to push bush—the noise
he makes breaking through the poplars in the centre should
scare the rabbits out of the underbrush and into Alex’s view.
Alex lets Luke carry the little Mossberg rifle with the peep-site
scope that their brother Len brought out on his last visit to the
farm. “You look through here,” Alex said, “up the front of the
gun. Then, when you see the rabbit in the pinhole—”
Luke tenses on the trigger. He can feel a dark bruise blooming
beneath his chest, down his ribs to his left hip. That’s where
Martin’s knee pinned him to the barn floor mud. Luke doesn’t
mind now, the taste of the day is in his mouth—rabbit,
chokecherry, sage. Alone with Alex. The only other time Luke
gets to be alone with him is at night when he is frightened by a
dream and Alex lets him crawl into his bed. Martin and Peter
snoring on the other side of the room, Mom and Dad across the
hall. Frost on the bedroom window. Half asleep, Alex rubs Luke’s
back, whispers, “It’s okay, it’s okay. Just a dream.”
A crow caws. Luke looks up. Beneath his boot a branch breaks.
A rabbit darts for the thicket. Luke whistles. Everything is just
like Alex said. The rabbit clenches as though it might squeeze
through the seam and disappear in the weave of the ground.
Disappearing its only defense. Luke raises the Mossberg to his
shoulder. He bites his lip hard to cancel the pain in his chest.
The rabbit in the pinhole. The jolt of the Mossberg’s kick. The
crack of the bullet cleaving winter air. Sweat and ice in his hair,
Luke feels the black downdraft of the crow’s wings as it lifts
overhead.
*****
“Now you smell like Vera Gershinsky,” Peter laughed as Martin
brushed the straw from his hair. Martin scooped his shovel full
and waved it at Peter who ducked behind the sleigh. Martin
chased Peter with the slurry and straw, pretended to pitch it in
Peter’s direction, “I’ll make you smell like Vera.” Peter
screamed, “Get away from me, Vera Ger-shtinky!”
“Like Vera,” shouted Luke as he scraped slurry from the gutter.
He thought of the small-boned girl, snot and tears down her face,
her gabardine trousers, wash-water grey. Their goofing around
gave name to Luke’s need. There’s hunger, but then there’s
hunger in the presence of bread you can’t reach. He had to find a
way into their game of chase, or what? He’d be no better off than
Vera in her pee-stained pants, her head against her school desk,
eyes squeezed shut. He filled his shovel with slurry from the
gutter. “Like Vera,” he shouted again, but they ignored him. “Vera
Ger-shtinky,” he cried. “Vera Ger-shtinky.”
After breakfast, Martin had driven the sleigh into the barn. While
Alex helped Dad grind chop, they shoveled the manure, tossed it
into the sleigh box. Shovels over their shoulders, they scooped
and tossed to the growl of the distant tractor motor. Peter
missed a beat; the lip of his shovel hit the box. A burst of dirty
straw, bits landed in Martin’s hair, “You smell like Vera Ger-
shtinky.” Peter and Martin laughed, and Luke ached with the
hunger to belong. So Luke let his shovel full of slurry slip, just
like Peter had. But it was too much; the slurry splashed all over
Martin’s face. Martin lunged and Luke fell backwards. His head
landed in the gutter. “How do you like that?” Martin knelt on
Luke’s chest as Peter filled his shirt with dirty straw. Luke
couldn’t twist free. Every time he moved, Martin kneeled harder.
The sharp pain in his ribs set off bursts of a light behind his
closed eyes. Luke gave up, the ammonia reek of piss and shit in
his hair.
*****
On his way in, carrying the pail of water he’d wash with, the yard
became quiet; Dad must’ve turned the tractor off. “Luke,” Dad
called. “Wait.” He jogged over, took the pail of water. He didn’t
say anything as they walked to the house.
In the porch, Dad set the water down and unbuttoned Luke’s
coat. He found a rag and chunk of soap on the counter. Dad
helped him step out of his overalls, carefully lifted Luke’s
sweater so that it hung around his neck. Then he lowered Luke’s
long underwear to his waist. Down on one knee, Dad slowly
wiped away the crease of dirt at his collarbone, then ran the rag
through Luke’s muddy hair. Luke tried to stand still despite ice-
cold water. He didn’t want to break the spell.
Half naked and shivering in the porch, Luke felt raw, as if he’d
been skinned, like the bush rabbit he’ll shoot later with Alex, his
first kill. At dusk, before supper chores, Alex will slice the rabbit
open, up its hind legs and down the centre of its belly to its front
paws. The ripping sound when Alex tears the rabbit’s coat from
its flesh will surprise him. Its fur will hang inside out and over its
head, like his sweater bunched up at his neck so Dad can wash
his chest. Alex will cut at the rabbit’s jaw, and, with a final tug,
he’ll pull its coat right off. Before Alex severs its neck bone and
splits its ribs to scoop out its guts, Luke will be struck by how
defenseless the rabbit looks. With its coat torn away, the rabbit’s
flesh seems fragile, almost translucent, like that of a creature
born into the world too soon.
After Dad finished washing away the mud, he pulled a tin of
horse liniment out of his trouser pocket and delicately smeared it
on Luke’s chest. “Your ribs are bruised. This should ease the
swelling.” The liniment smelled of camphor. At first it burned, but
then felt like a cool breeze. Losing himself to the feel of the
camphor and Dad’s calloused hands, Luke burrowed his face into
the crook of Dad’s neck.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Dad said. “We’re all done,” he stood up.
“It’s cold. You better get inside. Tell your mother we’ll be in for
lunch soon.”
Dad’s exit made Luke feel how he did at school when he misread
a word aloud to the other kids’ twittering laughter. And so at
lunch, when Dad announced that he and Alex were to have the
afternoon off—that Peter would help Mom in the house, and
Martin could haul water by himself—more than anything, Luke
was confused. He didn’t want to read that moment wrong, too.
*****
Alex lays out the guts and the leftover scraps on the ground. “For
the coyotes,” he says. From the small fire they crouch beside,
Luke can see the lights from their farmyard come on, the lights
from the Vogel’s and the Madinsky’s, too. The constellation of
yard lights reveals their fate as much as any arranged in sky.
Soon he and Alex will walk back to the yard to help out with the
supper chores. After they milk the cows in the dark barn, they’ll
return to the house, the familiar smell of fried onions and
potatoes. Before bed, they’ll kneel in the kitchen and say the
rosary. Dad will lead them in the Five Sorrowful Mysteries. At the
end of each decade they’ll pray to Mary for true contrition, for
purity, moral courage, patience and perseverance. The routine of
their day so mapped out that you only get noticed if you fall out
of pace. If, like the rabbit, you move too quickly, or not quickly
enough.
Pierced on the tip of his jackknife, Alex offers him a taste of the
cooked meat. There’s a jab in his ribs when he reaches for
Alex’s knife, but the ripe pain is now something he takes a sort
of pleasure in. “So?” Alex asks. He thinks of Father Matthias at
communion. I am not worthy to receive you , they chant when
Father holds the host over his head. But only say the word and I
shall be healed. Spiced with willow smoke, ash, the iron of blood
and dirt. “Tastes good,” he says, even though this isn’t true.

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