Wild Life by Michelle Reale
The two sisters sit like sentries on the back porch. They take refuge in the sparse shade provided by the diseased black walnut, its roots sprawled deep. Hiking their summer print dresses up to their knees, they occasionally mop their faces with the aprons that are tied around their waists, and fan each other with circulars from the mini-mart. Their brother dressed for combat, slides a rifle over his shoulder; his big white hands betraying a slight tremor. Right then left and back again. Staring into the distance, he jumps at the outdoor sounds of birds, airplanes, and children. The sisters have no language for this behavior in the new country and believe that their younger brother keeps them safe. He rallies them, tells them in their language they are survivors, even though everywhere there are enemies. When one of sisters had fallen down the back steps he stressed the importance of strength and vigilance. He tied rags to the bottom of her crutches, didn’t allow the other sister to help her. She mopped the kitchen floor, cried tears like acid, and remembered the kindness of their mother, with bitterness for their lot now. In the back yard, fat pigeons and squirrels with their eyes wide open, lay littered like fallen leaves, their bright red blood smeared and coagulated. The brother will take stock of their bodies each day until their bones will remain bleached in by the sun, with tufts of fur and feathers clinging for dear life. The rubber soles of the sister’s slippers turn red and pink, as they tiptoe amongst the bones. They will take extra care when hanging the sheets that they don’t trail in the grass.
Watch, learn, he tells the sisters. Then: what will you do when I’m gone? The midday heat turns brutal, the air shimmers around them. One sister rubs her leg like a worry stone and asks the other “remember the days?” The brother’s senses are heightened as children come out of hiding and taunt the siblings. Only the brother knows what the words mean, coming out of the small mouths as though they must work hard to form the words. He stops and stares, his breath nearly stopping. The sisters cover their ears and close their eyes. They long to flee, but are not allowed. They are weak and their brother is strong. He has things to teach them about living in the new country, trying to survive.
A child ventures too close, uttering words terrible for their inscrutability. With his eyes squeezed shut, all that the brother has known to be true occurs. The sisters hold each other with a terrifying grip. Blood flows from the bodily form lying amongst the pigeons and the squirrels. When the brother turns to the sisters, he offers his rifle up to them as a gift. They stare straight ahead, dissolving into the shimmer of the brutal afternoon, the noise of hysteria around them, sounds not foreign to them. They watch the awful indifference of the boy they used to care for. He reaches down to one of the aprons around a shuddering waist and wipes the sweat off his face. They stand and wait huddled under the tree. He tells the sisters in their native tongue: “This is what the fires of hell must feel like.” The women disenthrall themselves and begin to move, like one body, back inside the house to start making plans for the future.