God’s Gonna Cut You Down
Daddy grew up here in Old Hundred, just like his daddy did, and just like my brother Absalom and I did. Technically, this isn’t even a town—just a community sliced in half by Highway 74. I suppose it makes sense Daddy didn’t do much but sit in that old chair—there wasn’t really much else to do. Sometimes Absalom and I used to try and convince Daddy to take us up into Rockingham, or to Laurinburg, anywhere else. We wanted Daddy to show us the world—but he remained, unmoving, in the green chair on the porch.
I hadn’t thought much of it all until recently. I’d just turned fourteen, and I’d started to pay a little more attention to the world. Mostly that just meant picking out faces from the cars flying down the highway and imagining their lives far away from here, but sometimes I tried to spy on the neighbors and listen to what they said to one another. Old Hundred is so small it doesn’t even have a town part—just a couple of streets lined with a couple acres of land split between those of us that live here. I don’t know how my great-great-granddaddy ended up here, but maybe I’m not supposed to know. That doesn’t mean that I don’t wonder, though.
It had been this way all of our childhood—Daddy, on the porch, and me and Absalom playing in the fringe woods in between our house and Ms. Nancy’s, picking berries from the bushes that dared to bend beyond her wooden fence over the creek.
✦ ✦ ✦
“Caine,” Absalom cried from just down the stream. “Caine, come get a look-see at this!”
“Gimme just a sec, Abe,” I said, ankles deep in the red clay mud of the creek bank. I pulled my feet from the mud, and the abscesses my feet created left sucker-hole lips puckering up at me. A few yards from me, Absalom was poking at something in the water with a stick. I looked back up through the trees towards our house, dirty white paneling glimmering slightly in the setting sun, and Daddy, still just sitting in his chair. He was watching us the way he always has, I knew, but recently it seemed to have started to matter a little bit less. It isn’t like he’d do anything if something happened, I thought, and though I couldn’t manage to think of what such a something might be, I still struggled to bat away the twinge of doubt now at the tip of my brain.
“Hurry up!” Absalom said, looking back at me with an exasperated expression on his face.
“I’m almost there,” I said, “a rock away.”
When I got over to where he was standing, I was shocked to see that he was toying with what appeared to be a woodpecker with a broken neck, bent grotesquely by the stream’s flow and the rocks in the bed.
“Look! Idn’it weird lookin’ all bent up like that?” Absalom said, turning his attention from the mutilated bird up to me. I couldn’t quite figure out what my brother’s eyes were saying to me, but in turning to look towards our house again, I swore saw Daddy move. Or maybe I think I was just imagining it.
“Very weird lookin’ indeed, Abe,” I said, only half-heartedly, still distracted by the way the orange-pink light of the sunset played on Daddy’s still body.
“You aren’t even listenin’ to me, Caine,” Absalom said, huffing. “Would you quit thinking about Daddy for a second? How come you’re so caught up with him all of a sudden anyway?”
For a split second, I saw white—how could my brother not be intrigued by his stillness? His silence? I fell back to Earth when I recalled my own complacency with such a reality at his age—Absalom was only ten, and he had no reason to question Daddy. Me, though, being fourteen and all, I’d started wondering some about why Daddy hardly ever moved from that rocking chair and how come we still had to tiptoe around him when he never even did anything with us. Little Abe, though, had only ever seen me doing just that. I envied his blind trust, unmarred by doubts and questions.
When I turned back to look at him, my little brother, he’d lost interest in me and returned to the broken bird. It was almost like I was seeing him in a new light then—I watched him poke and prod at the carcass, twisting his little wrist to get to its eye.
“Abe!” I said, “What are you doing? That’s disgusting.”
Without turning to look at me, he shrugged. Absalom didn’t ever think about things too hard, which I suppose is just one of those things that comes with being a kid. Still having curiosity, but not the scary kind, like the kind that I have now about things that are real. I felt another pang of jealousy for his ability to look past the more gnarled parts of our existence. There he stood before me, on the creek bank, gouging out the eye of a bird. He’d called me over to see it and he expected me to see what he saw, and I remembered for a moment the way we played when I was young too—unabashed and unashamed, completely faithful in the world around us to be as it should. Curious only to know more about it, not yet curious as to why it was how it was. I let out a breath I didn’t realize I had been holding.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s go back home.”
✦ ✦ ✦
I lay on my back that night in my bed, staring up at the white ceiling. I tried to make out details, little rivets in the wood, perhaps, or cracks along the seam between the wall and the paneling. Outside, the death of summer was evident in the waning scream of the cicadas, which had started to fade into more of a murmur over the past couple of weeks. It made sense, being late September, that such decay would be slowly becoming evident. I thought about rot, the black mouth of death, and the white unknown on the other side. Losing summer meant losing light, which meant less time playing outside and more time frantically preparing for the Carolina winter. It was never too awful, but it was uncomfortable if we didn’t get ready for it. Getting ready for it usually just entailed finding enough wood to burn to keep the house liveable, which filled up my and Absalom’s September and October afternoons.
I’d never thought too much of having that responsibility until I’d caught Daddy’s eye last year in the middle of cutting up pieces of a tree—he was yellow in the afternoon light, perfectly still, just like always, while me and Abe hacked away in the waning summer heat. I remember wondering how come we had to do all the work while he just watched us. He didn’t even ever say anything to us while we worked.
The darkness began to seem thicker, almost soup-like, as my eyelids got heavy. The sound of September outside faded as I surrendered to sleep.
✦ ✦ ✦
Sunrise broke into my bedroom through the bars of my blinds, melting like butter on pancakes over the quilt on my bed. I was getting ready to get Absalom, gather him so that we could start our early autumn work. I couldn’t find the overalls that I usually wore while we gathered firewood, so I had to wear regular jeans instead. Perfectly fine, really, except for the significantly smaller number of pockets I’d have.
“Absalom,” I hollered down the hallway, “Abe, we gotta get going. Work to do.”
There was a rustling of blankets down the hallway, and then my brother appeared.
“Ready?” I asked. Absalom nodded. I turned towards the foyer and walked towards the front door, my little brother’s pitter-patter footsteps close behind me. Two axes leaned against the doorframe, and I grabbed them both, handing one back to Absalom. I opened the door to the porch and was met by Daddy in his rocking chair, nearly still. His face was unreadable, his eyes seemingly scanning the shot cropped grass of our front yard. I considered saying something to him, just a flicker of a thought. I don’t know what kept me from speaking to him. Absalom and I stepped off the porch and wandered towards the woods.
“Abe,” I said, once we were out of Daddy’s earshot. “Don’t you ever wonder about Daddy? What he thinks about?”
I was met with silence. I couldn’t tell if it was contemplative or not, but then Absalom took a deep breath.
“Not really,” he said. “I don’t really think I’ve got any reason to wonder. He’s right here, idn’he?”
I thought for a moment. “You don’t wonder about why he hardly ever leaves that chair?” I asked. Absalom shook his head. We stopped next to a tree big enough to provide firewood for at least a month, and I looked at my little brother. “Really?”
Absalom looked at me with big eyes. “No, Caine,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve got any reason to.”
We continued walking in silence, my mind spinning, still trying to find reason in my brother’s complacency. Underneath our feet, a very thin layering of leaves was scattered along the ground. Sunlight poked through holepunch gaps in the green-turning-brown leaves still hanging on to their trees, and as we walked through the trees I scanned them, looking for one that stuck out in all of the color as being monochrome, because a lack of color this premature certainly meant it’d be easy to burn. It also meant the tree was probably dead, and I thought back to last night and yesterday afternoon—the death of the bird, of summer, of trees. The question of the other side plagued me.
We’d been walking for about ten minutes around the edge of our woods when Absalom pointed out the skeleton of an oak tree. We walked off the path a ways to get to it. I turned to the tree and started hacking at it, and Absalom did the same. We hit it back and forth, from the front and the back, and the morning is silent aside from the repetitive thwack-ing of the axes. I saw Daddy out of the corner of my eye—just as still as ever.
“How the hell can you be okay with the way he sits up there all silent? I feel like we don’t even know him,” I said, letting my arm swing to my side. Absalom looked at me.
“I already told you, Caine,” he said, slowly. “I have no reason not to trust him.”
“That doesn’t mean that you should,” I said, picking up my ax again, “just blindly follow him!” I swung the ax as hard as I could into the tree, which began to splinter with a sickening crack. Before I could say anything else, the tree and all of its branches came thundering down, down, down, a river of sticks from the sky, unstoppable, suffocating, crushing. When the flood finally stopped, Absalom had disappeared. I called out to him. He did not respond. I grew more frantic, moving towards the treefall, but out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the empty porch, a vacant rocking chair, a dirty white house against the burning scarlet sunrise in the sky.