A Field in Winter

An excerpt from Gabriel Blackwell’s Babel

This story is excerpt from
Gabriel Blackwell’s Babel,
available now from Splice.

Before, in the bathroom, I’d lapped at the last of my brother, mixed in I guess with blood from the trucker. The haunting-space it would show me would be like looking through the surface of a lake: what I saw there would be displaced, and so, clumsied, I would be unable to grasp things there as I might here and vice-versa. But it wasn’t that I wanted to hold anything or bring it back; what I wanted was to avoid the visit altogether, get in and get out, and this seemed the best way to convince father to ignore me—to visit him twice. First I would go as my best self, my ghost, the one he could grab only in memory, then I’d go again later, in reality, as though still a ghost, liberating my brothers from their guardian.

In order to appear there I had to picture him as he was, bring him into focus, but the environment around me kept intruding. The arc lights and the gas pumps and the passing cars shone through my thinning perception. I had been looking in on what was elsewhere for so long that I seemed to have weakened my hold on what was in front of me, and I doubt the dilution did me any favors. They tell you to imagine a house when you want to remember something. I wanted now to remember a house and its inhabitant. You put a thing in a room and another thing in another, and through that you walk, in your mind, until you have the whole. It had never worked for me, but in my desperation I tried it again.

In the mudroom, beside the door, was a dark stain, not mine, in the shape of a brother. It might have been a brother; it might have been an oil stain in the parking lot or a stain I had once observed at that spot in the mudroom — I don’t know — but whatever it was, it would have to serve to help me rebuild the house. In the kitchen the sink had been ripped out of its cabinet and now lay on the floor. Something scurried behind me, a rat or a person or worse. When I turned around I realized I’d only intended a sink; I worried, in looking again, that the silhouette I saw might instead be the trucker, or something else. Was I overthinking things? Or underthinking them? None of the rooms were lit, as though my mind, in seeking to be faithful to my memories, was instead vetting them. Like shapes in the dark, my perception of the things in these rooms changed even when the things did not.

In the dining room was another stain, a smear, and some sort of open bag. A set of footprints led me further into the house. Through the archway of the living room I saw a blur, the only thing alive in this haunting. And by alive, I mean in motion. It was my father but sped up, moving five times quicker than he ever had in life. I went upstairs after him. In the first bedroom, the closet was open and my mother was half-inside, bleeding from somewhere near her center. She wasn’t real. Though she had been gone longer even than I, she was as essential to my memory of the place as the fanlight above the door or the knob on the banister. In the second bedroom — my room, though my father never respected the distinction — the wall had been papered in pages from some almanac. The back bedroom held only a brother, cradled in his bottle of spirits, bobbing slightly on his stiff legs. I went downstairs, into the light. In the front room a notebook lay open, with writing on the page, and in the bathroom there was a button-down shirt, soiled and draped over the lip of the sink. My father had been wherever I would be before me, and now appeared behind me in the doorway of the bathroom. I turned to face him and he hurried down into the cellar. In the cellar, there were bottles of spirits on every counter, wooden planters lining the floor, and a heap of composted brothers next to the furnace giving off their own heat. The smell was such that I retreated through the cellar door, out into the field.

I’d done it wrong, I thought. This was a method of memorizing, not one of remembering or envisioning. I’d walked through and saved that sequence of things in memory, but in doing so I’d only brought those things and myself out into the field behind the house. The last seven months, I’d pretended my father didn’t exist, and now I was undoing him even in memory.

We drove past the exit and into the sunken landscape surrounding the city. I said, We passed the exit, thinking the trucker hadn’t seen. He didn’t even slow down. Did I forget to say that this was before this story started? It was, a thing that happened that existed before this became this story. Not so far back as my exile, but back far enough. There could have been a different story, is what I’m saying. But then the trucker had drunk from my brother’s bottle, and he’d driven past the exit, and gradually this story became this story.

He’d had a look of purpose about him, the trucker, a seriousness that reminded me of my father, but maybe it was only in each case an abatement of violence.

No, I said, you don’t understand.

He’d thought the bottle held an invigorating agent, or at least so it seemed from the way he’d swigged it. He also had a knife. After, it looked like he’d swallowed a wasp. When he finally opened his mouth, it wasn’t to speak but to spray the windshield with a slime thick with blood, and to then slump over onto the steering wheel. It was clear he’d had too much. Wherever he was, he wasn’t here. Each slanting minute took us another mile. I started counting, one mississippi, two mississippi, but I only got to fifteen or twenty.

I don’t think I thought my brother had taken me somewhere, I only knew I was there and then I wasn’t. I was in a field behind my father’s house, a different one, one like the surface of the moon. I used to dig holes there, I remember, and my brother was with me in my memory or my dream or whatever this was I was in, in that field, whole, unfettered, even on two feet and, one supposed, ambulatory.

I remembered I had gone to this field every day after school until father caught me and asked me to quit. He didn’t like me using his tools. I’d ruined some of them, it seemed, because of how I was made. Our mother had been barren, hadn’t she? People said I was a miracle, but they didn’t know a thing. Sometimes I found bones when I dug in the field, but usually they were small bones, easily mistaken for almost any tuber. They would always be soaking in small reservoirs of ruddy liquid; sometimes the liquid would shoot out of the ground when I cracked the clay around them, imparting a tingling sensation on the skin not to be confused with the burning that accompanied any imbibing. Once I had come home gory, and father had cried a little and said, Your brothers. Don’t disturb them. He didn’t talk much, so I’d learned to heed his words. This time, though, in my dream, my brother and I disobeyed. We were pelted. The field around us, I saw, was cratered with unhealed holes. I guess, in the dream, we’d been looking for a while.

When I realized where I really was, I was in the ditch next to the truck stop. There was blood on my shirt and in my hair, just a bit, and my brother was missing, as was the trucker.

My father kept a journal: yet another thing, I remembered, that my mother had been suspicious of. It was, as far as I can recall, just a lot of nonsense about growing things out of season, and proper watering, and the reproductive properties of certain soils, even the right breed of dog, mixed in with bits of conversations he’d had months after the fact. I couldn’t understand a word. I don’t know how he kept track of what was what, but he was good at pretending it all mattered. I remember it had required quiet. So much of father had revolved around silence.

I thought about this journal the way one rehearses what one will say before one says it. I was readying myself. I didn’t yet know I would find what was left of my brother but still fail to haunt our father as I’d known it to be done, suffering this present confusion. Since he’d mostly lost his hearing, father had refused to communicate with people, though he always went through the motions just to be rid of company. He’d nod or shake his head, depending on the facial expression of the person talking, and would even sometimes add a Yeah or a Huh when he saw the other person had stopped speaking. None of what was said made any difference to him; he went on as though it hadn’t happened. There weren’t any visitors since the screaming started. The few people in town he had to see on his errands got his book, and conversation, such as it was, happened on the page when it had to happen. But this was an uncomfortable method for conversing, and it led to certain awkwardnesses, and people didn’t like it. When it came to emotion or deeper understanding, everything had to be inferred:

Isaac is gone and these this year all unripe. The sound of the last drew attention from the crows.

A little less faded, and in a different hand:

A black whelp? Why? What happened to yr dogs, Abraham? No, they wouldn’t. What of?

My father replied often enough aloud. He couldn’t hear well, but he could still speak. I assume he did so on this occasion, closing the book. The rest is in his hand, in other ink:

Maidenhair, ginseng, damiana, rhodiola: effects now limited. Too old for seeding? None thrive. Wednesday—evening sun, humid soil. West wind. Waning crescent. Will it ever again be right?

This was the page I had seen in my haunting.

The attendant said the man had been in the bathroom for an age. He’d looked rough and smelled, she said, and she’d sensed something wasn’t right. She didn’t intend to disturb the occupant is what she meant. I had an idea it was the trucker — blood on the pavement outside and in the attendant’s description — so I angled the Allen wrench I’d found in a parking spot next to the ice machine in through the doorframe and carefully lifted the latch, scooting it left. The man lay on the ground in the ruins of the trashcan, bloodied napkins soaking up the mess. He was broken, his head cracked open by the sink. My brother had already mostly dissipated, his vessel smashed. I squeezed several napkins out into my mouth, about as much as I thought I would need. I don’t know. It failed. I’ve been over that.

I stumbled away from the parking lot across the country separating me from my father and my brothers, and every few steps, something would come up at me out of the past. Aftereffects, I thought, made strange by the crash or the contamination. The smell of copper and rot that had lived in my father’s cellar rose from the untrampled ground in front of me. The moon, slinking out from behind the clouds, was replaced by the memory of my mother’s insulted face on the day my father brought home the seedling that was to be the first of my brothers. The black dogs always thronging the house, made nervous by any sound, swerved around me like a school of fish around a rock, and the snapping from beneath my feet became the sound of roots being torn out of soil by dogs straining to reach the meat my father, off in the distance in his protective headgear, held out to them to entice them to pull. My heart responded to the shrieks my memory reminded me were coming. And then there they were, making me cover my ears, and something newly leaking from me, a distant ringing and a change in the atmosphere around my temples like water entering or exiting my head. I fell down from the pain of it.

All of it, everything I thought laying there in the cold furrow, was predicated on my father’s fear of being a failure. My birth he celebrated, but my life he had only resented. Where now was his heir? He could not console himself upon my mother enough. The groaning had never stopped until mother scraped herself out with some implement. Then he brought home the seedling. Then mother disappeared. Though no-one thought it distinguished him, my father believed that to be a father would make him something more. To raise crops made him a farmer; to raise men would make him a man above others. But then there was only me. Was it possible we were, all of us, wrong about him? My brothers hadn’t lived, no matter what else father did, and they were not really men, as much as they might have looked like them in miniature. The best he could do was bottle them in spirits, keep them preserved until something crept in. Myself, I suppose.

These pickled men, my siblings, appeared to me at school and again while playing at a neighbor’s. I tried to introduce them to my playmates, to be polite, but my playmates only ran off shrieking. Their screams startled my brothers, whom I could not reach out to comfort because they were only ghosts, but I remembered I’d wondered why, why these sounds would worry them, sound being central to their nature. I had no answers, for myself or my brothers. In any case, these apparitions had somehow given me the idea of drinking their medium, and that in turn had led to father casting me out when he discovered the trick. I had appeared to him in the field — I have a meager imagination, I admit — and he’d had to cover himself before threatening me. I remembered, too, that I had been afraid until I realized he couldn’t reach me, and then, where I lay on the cellar floor, I vomited, hard, and almost choked, and all of it — father, the field — disappeared. He didn’t believe in it for some time, and then he did.

And now he hung in the air before me like my brothers once had, swinging just slightly as if to taunt me. I couldn’t see too well in the darkness, but his silhouette made him appear almost naked. Because he wasn’t touching the ground, I felt sure he couldn’t be real, but he looked as though he’d aged, was now different than the man I’d imagined, the man I’d lived with so recently. I went around him, well out of his reach. He didn’t lunge at me or make a noise, but I would swear his eyes were open. I don’t know; it was still dark, but there had been that flash. When I searched the house, it was as empty as it had been in my vision, and I couldn’t now be sure whether I wasn’t in fact just haunting it. Was I seeing something already over? Was I still at the truck stop, in the truck, on the road, in Mr. Strick’s pavilion? I wandered through the rooms. No furniture, just soil in piles and swells like sand dunes, or, at certain moments, nothing at all. I quickly grew confused, since the things of my vision weren’t really there, or, rather, I wasn’t there to touch them. There were things there, I just couldn’t see them properly.

When I turned the corner into the living room, father slipped into the hall. In order to avoid him, I went upstairs, but he had preceded me and was coming down. The sight of him in that darkened house made me cry out. He couldn’t hear me, so it didn’t matter, but I had my pride. I scuttled out of sight into the cellar. He had preceded me there, too, and hung from a rafter by his belt, over the planters, in the altogether. Because his weight had twisted him around, he’d managed to miss the planter — his seed, I could see, had dried on the hardpack floor — and the brother underneath him had withered and died. I had the presence of mind to grab the only brother left, open and mostly consumed, before I fled.

My father’s only legacy, and I planned to down it.

And though I am sure I made haste away from the house, and though it was a journey of several days, my father is still before me. It’s not much consolation that my presence seems to make him as uncomfortable as his does me.

I have returned to my exile in Mr. Strick’s pavilion, as far as I’ve ever traveled. My father is here in the pavilion, too. How can I sleep here now? There’s barely any room. It was never meant to house me and all these brothers, and they haven’t gone anywhere: they’re still here, rattling in their empty jars in rows all around me, and now my father is with us, too, twisting over me, and other brothers are out there in the fields around us, and soon something dark will rise up out of Mr. Strick’s pond. Not the moon, not the dawn, but a black dog, one big enough to pull me completely out of my cradle. My father will hitch a line to my hair, and then he will put on his headgear and walk all the way to the limits of his leash and beyond. There is a sound one cannot make except at the moment one is born into this deaf and mute world, a vegetal sound I didn’t know I’d wanted to make but which my body has nevertheless been straining at for I don’t know how long. I know no-one will answer it — it will fall on deaf ears — but I suspect that, like an echo, the sound is itself its answer, a kind of caring, a way of bringing hush.

About Gabriel Blackwell

Gabriel Blackwell is the author of the short story collection Babel, available now from Splice. His other books include Madeleine E. (Outpost19, 2016), The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men: The Last Letter of H. P. Lovecraft (CCM, 2013), Critique of Pure Reason (Noemi, 2013), and Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer (CCM, 2012).