By Mitch James
Why don’t you come to your senses
You’ve been out riding fences for so long now
Oh, you’re a hard one
But I know that you’ve got your reasons
These things that are pleasing you will hurt you somehow”
“Every group needs an other. I don’t know how a society can exist without classifying another as the other.”
“It is not possible to extricate yourself from the questions in which your age is involved.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
After fourteen years and a child, Eno couldn’t see the fence line like he used to. Once the flesh was picked clean, it was just a long run of skeleton and rebar. Proof that at his core, he was just like them.
On the other side of his fence line was the Coopers’ property, which sat empty for decades until recently and was now undergoing fertilization. Having not seen it done but once when he was a child, Eno had forgotten how many bodies it took to fertilize sterile land. The Coopers’ men dragged them from the hills by the truck load. When Eno was little, he remembered how they wailed and fought the chains of his grandfather’s men. Now, they were drugged. The Coopers’ men lined them up and, with just a hand on a shoulder, laid them down. It was done humanly, unlike in his grandfather’s day. Now, it was a single bolt through the brain stem. When done like that, they fell like dropped cloth.
The workers had spread the bodies over the Coopers’ land and now scrambled at what to do. Eno would’ve have told them had they asked, but the Coopers swooped in and got to work without as much as an introduction, it evident to Eno that the Coopers were an enterprise used to buying up land. But they didn’t know the white-rumped vulture, local to the area, was nearly extinct, that there were far too few to clean that many corpses before they rotted. That old way of doing things didn’t work anymore. That’s why it was outlawed. But when you have a county that’ll overturn a law to make money, then Eno guessed this is what you get. Now, for the past three days, the Coopers’ men have been shooting dogs who come from ten miles in all directions to feast. Just the day before, Eno had to tell Beth to keep Hannah in the house while he put a .22 shell through the head of husky dragging himself across the yard, it’s back legs bloomed and useless.
Botulism attacks the hindlegs of a dog first on its way to its lungs.
After he killed it, Eno drove the dog to the pasture and pitched it over his fence, onto the Coopers’ land, where it fell limp atop a bloated body he identified as female because of the breasts. As he studied the corpses and then the skeletons upright on rebar, he cinched the bandana tighter around his mouth, certain of only three things: he didn’t feel the same about it, he was raising a daughter, and he didn’t know what to do.
Back home, Eno kissed Beth’s head and touched her hip on his way to shower, then joined her and Hannah at the dinner table.
“It’s getting hard to even enjoy a simple meal,” Beth said of the stench that followed Eno into the house and clung to their lives.
The Coopers’ pasture was a mile from the home, but the smell made it to them now, the bodies had sat so long. “If they were going to repeal the law, I just wish they would have taken all else into account, not just overturning something from a different time to make money now. Times have changed. The process needed to as well” replied Eno.
“Should’ve never been a way of doing things in the first place.”
Eno peered at Beth and thought, you knew what you were getting into when you married me. Sure, you never liked it, but you approved of it more then. He thought, We can’t just uproot our lives and change everything because times have changed. He thought, What would we have then? But he knew not to say it angry or at dinner or with Hannah there.
“How was school,” Eno asked Hanna, changing the subject.
“What’d you do today?”
“Math and reading. And we looked at maps.”
“Oh yeah?” asked Eno, wiping his teeth clean with a roll of his tongue. “What about maps? Daddy has maps of all the land around here.”
“Maps of where the hill people used to live. They lived in the hills, but they also lived everywhere else. They probably lived right here, where we are.”
Eno glared at Beth.
“They’ve got to learn history and geography, Eno. Glad somebody’s speaking the truth,” she grumbled under her breath.
“You’re teacher’s right, Hannah. They were here first,” Enno confirmed.
“I know,” she said. “Mr. Tikeman said when our ancestors got here, they killed a lot of the hill people, even children, to force them to be like us.”
The nonchalant way Hanna discussed the death of children shook him. Looking at Beth, he asked, “Why are they teaching kids this stuff so young?”
“Because it’s the truth,” she said.
“Lot’s of things are truth. It doesn’t mean a child needs to know. Honey,” Eno said to Hannah, “there are a lot of ways to tell the same story. Our ancestors,” he paused, “who are not us,” he assured, glaring across the table at Beth, then back to his daughter, “came over here and did bad things, but that’s how things were then, so it didn’t seem so bad. Good and bad change over time.”
“Why would it ever seem good to kill a baby?” Hannah asked, with a push that made it clear to Eno that she didn’t realize that if his ancestors hadn’t proceeded the way they did, her comfortable and safe life would be very different.
After a moment, Eno said, “It’s never right to kill children. It never has been. But sometimes certain things look one way one time and a different way another. Now, let’s talk about what you read in class. That’s enough about maps.”
“Jesus,” Eno said to Beth as they got into bed later that night, “they need to teach this stuff in context.”
“What she said wasn’t wrong.”
“I know it wasn’t wrong, Beth, but it wasn’t the full truth. Nearly every nation in this world was built by the bodies of slaves. We’ve always exploited each other. It’s just a bad truth about us being human, but what I wish that history teacher would remind the students is that you and I never did any of those things. And we never raised Hannah to do those things.”
“Their bodies still mark our property line,” said Beth. “That teaches Hannah something.”
“My grandfather did that. What am I supposed to do?”
“Take them down, Eno. Put up a wooden fence like they do in other parts of the country.”
Eno thought about the land. It was done a certain way for hundreds of miles in all directions. “What would people think? If we took down the property line and put up fencing?”
“That you’re not your grandfather. That they’re not your wife or daughter, so you don’t care what they think.”
“It’s more symbolic now than anything. It’s more about tradition.”
“Does it smell symbolic?” asked Beth. “Does it look symbolic when you’re walking the fence line? Did you symbolically kill a dog the other day?”
“It’s not supposed to be done that way anymore, but that land hadn’t been broken for over thirty years. Hell, it’s been damn near salt flat since before dad died.”
“Not supposed to be done that way?” Beth mocked. “What a waste of your words.”
“Fine. But what about the other part of it. Breaking new ground is expensive. How’s the county supposed to pay for it? We can’t fertilize all that land by taxes alone. It’d bankrupt us.”
“If you can’t afford to do something the right way, you don’t do it,” Beth growled. “You see us with a huge house? No. Bunch of cars? No. You can’t afford it, you don’t do it. Government needs to live that way too, and if they are gonna splurge, it shouldn’t be at the cost of life. Always about money. What’s the cheapest way to accomplish something.”
“It’s better than cheap, Beth. It’s free.”
“Oh, Christ crucified,” she snapped.
“I’m not defending it,” Eno growled, “I’m just speaking logic. We make the land prosperous for the community at no cost.”
“You think it doesn’t cost them everything?” Beth asked of the people from the hills. She rolled away from him.
Eno was quiet a long time. When he wasn’t certain she was still awake, he asked, “When did you know? That you didn’t feel okay about it anymore?”
“The first time I felt Hannah kick.”
He thought, I’ll never feel that, something that can make me so certain about anything. Though Beth lie next to him, he suddenly felt alone.
“I just hope that the teacher’s teaching Hannah none of it’s her fault, that she didn’t do any of it.”
Beth said, “I think he’s doing his best to make sure it never happens again.”
Eno rode early the next morning, the sky bruise before dawn. Bill O’ Conner had called the night before. Eno listened to the message over coffee and thought of it now as he walked the line and stared at the Coopers’ land over the curve of a parietal bone that looked just like his beneath the flesh. Bill said it had come during the city council meeting, the idea that they could burn the bodies. He said the city council voted it down, but Bill didn’t confirm how he felt one way or the other, though Eno knew Bill had two boys, one a teen, like Hannah. As Eno stared at the sunrise crawling over the bodies, bloat flies settling in like dew, he wondered if Bill could put both on the same page, the killing of the hill people and his own boys.
Eno slipped from the horse and approached a skeleton, the bone white with sun bleach and fissured where the heat had split it. The fence line was simple construction, really, easier to install, even, than a wooden fence. You simply sink number four rebar into a footer and slide the structure over it through the foraman. Though he’d never done it himself, Eno knew that sometimes a drill was needed for the lower back, but that was it. You just slide it over. Then you link one structure by the hand to the other down the line. When finished, your boundary is marked. They stand like that forever.
“It takes a long time to weather bone,” Eno mumbled, words his grandfather said decades before, as he held smooth metatarsals to his own. He did the same with Hanna’s pink hand the day she was born and recalled it then.
Eno returned home at noon to find no one there and was surprised. Though Beth’s car was gone, Eno still called her name once in the house, then checked his phone to find a missed call. It was Beth, trying to control the emotion in her voice as she told him Hannah never made it to school. She said not to panic, said a number of kids were missing that day and that the sheriff suspected they had simply skipped and taken a couple of quads out on the range. She said she was grocery shopping and would be home by two and not to worry, though it sounded more like she was telling herself and not Eno.
As promised, Beth barreled through the door, grocery bags in hand, at two, the only new update being a call from Sheriff Banks to inform them that both Harold Jackson’s quads were gone, as where his boys Terence and Spencer, and that of all the kids who never showed to school, only Pete McKibben’s pickup was missing. Banks’ detective work instilled a kind of confidence in what he said, more or less proving, he assured, that the kids were skipping school, nothing more, and that they’d be home by dusk. “If not,” said the sheriff, “they’ll need fire to stay warm, and we’ll spot it.”
Eno thanked the sheriff and updated Beth as she shelved groceries.
“What do you think she’s up to?” Beth asked, slotting canned soup onto a lazy Susan.
Adding a box of cereal to a cabinet, Eno said, “Oh, just being a kid. We skipped our fair share of school days.”
“You did,” she said, giving him a long stare as she climbed far enough back into her mind to see him when he was young. “I was too busy chasing that basketball.”
They paused to smile at each other before finishing the groceries.
As the light outside put itself to rest behind the hills, Eno and Beth worked around the kitchen to prevent talking about the fact that Hannah was still gone. Short of a few phone calls from other parents whose kids were missing, there hadn’t been any correspondence since the sheriff called that afternoon. When the dinner was finished, they left it covered on the stove, neither needing to say they couldn’t eat. Then there was a call, the sheriff.
“Sheriff,” Eno said, answering the phone.
Beth crossed the room and stood hip to hip with Eno, tipping her head towards the receiver.
“Hi Eno. I need you to come to the west end of your property line. We’ve got a small rebellion on our hands.”
Eno heard a deputy chuckle in the background.
“Just come on out. You’ll see what I mean.”
Eno hung up the phone and peered at Beth.
“I heard him,” she said. “Let’s go.”
They drove along the western edge of the property, the orange sunset sluicing across the still grins of skeletal faces, their frames whipping unevenly along the straight line like musical notes along a staff. The truck jerked and rattled atop the course earth until Eno saw a squad car, a pickup, and two quads. The Sheriff stood in his hat at the fence line. A dozen kids, Hannah at the head of them, had yanked the skeletons from the rebar and chained themselves in their place, then joined hands. Looming across from the children was a line of men in thick suits and masks, fuel packs on their backs and torches in their hands, small tongues of orange flame licking from every barrel.
“Hannah!” Beth exclaimed, nearly falling from the truck before it came to a stop.
Eno followed suite and looked at the skeletons, then at the children and his daughter chained in their places. He glared at the men facing them with flame throwers. Eno paced his breathing. He felt he might explode.
“What’s going on sheriff?” Eno asked.
“Well, as I said, it appears our youths are making political statements now.” The sheriff hooked his thumbs in his belt. “I’m gonna let ya’ll figure out how to discipline ‘em. They locked themselves up pretty good, though. I will say that.” He kicked a bucket of opened padlocks beside his foot. “I sent deputy Woods to the station for the bolt cutters.”
Eno looked to the children whose backs were to them, then to the men. “What about them?” he asked.
“They work for the Coopers. They’re gonna to do a controlled burn test, just to see the results.”
“The council voted against it.”
“That’s why it’s a test, to see if the council’s concerns are truly warranted.”
“That’s not how that works,” Eno snapped.
“Eno,” said the sheriff, “It’s just a test.”
“We voted against fertilizing the land with bodies too. That was a law, but you all got around it.”
“Goin’ against that wasn’t my doin’,” assured the sheriff. “That’s above my pay grade.”
Eno let out a belt of disbelief and spun in a circle.
“Just take a second,” said Sheriff Banks.
Eno looked at the sheriff, then laughed. “Unbelievable,” he said, looking again at the line of children hand-in-hand, chained to the poles, and the line of men with fire across from them. “Unbelievable,” he whispered again.
Eno walked to the fence line and faced his daughter. Beth stood behind and stared Eno in the eyes in a way he’d never seen. Then he looked at Hannah, her chubby face dirty and hair astray, her eyes fixed on his. There were tears and fire and certainty there, something he’d never break. But there, too, was something else, something that let him know more than ever that she needed him. Beth said everything changed when she felt Hannah kick. This was it, the moment, the closest to that kind of knowing a father can get. Right then, in his own way, he felt his daughter roll and turn inside him. He felt her kick.
Eno turned from Hannah and slid one body from the pole and placed it on the ground.
“What are you doin?” asked the sheriff.
Then Eno did the same with the one beside it.
“I said, what are you doin?”
Eno walked past the children, took Beth’s hand, then took two locks from the bucket.
“Now, Eno, I ain’t plannin’ on holding the kids accountable for all this, but a couple of adults go get themselves involved, well, that’s different. Ya’ll are grown.”
Eno stood beside Hannah and wrapped the chain around his waist, the pole, and his legs, then lopped it in tight and locked into place. He handed the other lock to Beth, who did the same. Hannah looked up at her father, thene took his hand, and he took Beth’s, and together they faced the line of men across from them, the sheriff’s voice, a background sound, something behind them all.
About the Author: Mitch James is a Professor of Composition and Literature at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, OH and is the Managing Editor at Great Lakes Review. You can find Mitch’s latest fiction at Flash Fiction Magazine and Scissors and Spackle, poetry at Peauxdunque Review and Southern Florida Poetry Journal, and scholarship at Journal of Creative Writing Studies. Find more of his work at mitchjamesauthor.com, and follow him on Twitter @mrjames5527 and Facebook @perhupsous