Thicker Than Water
by Sherri H. Hoffman
Sawyer first comes to live with us when he is twelve, barely older than my oldest brother, Lenny. We spend most summer days running barefoot through our neighborhood or the swamp below the freeway. Sawyer arrives with his hair all slicked down, pressed blue shorts, white shirt, and shiny brown leather shoes.
It rains one of those hard rains where the air smells like metal and the gutters fill with brown water. We have to run fast not to hear our mother calling us to stay away from the runoff drains, what with her stories of little boys falling in and not being found until their bodies reach Puget Sound. Sawyer keeps up, even in those slick shoes.
We race stick boats down the gutters, putting them in up the block and then running down to lay above the grates to see the winners. Lenny calls the race. He also calls Sawyer “our bastard cousin.” With one hand, Sawyer reaches over and smashes Lenny’s face straight down into the cement curb. Lenny’s two front teeth break right off. What with the blood and the mud and the free-for-all that breaks out, we all get a whipping that night. All but Sawyer.
* * *
Depending on where you started in the family tree, Sawyer was either my cousin or my brother. My Great-Grandmère Godenot explained it to me once over her ritual afternoon tea. How she and Papa had come from Châteauroux in the south of France to Indiana. The baby, Sylvie, just an infant. Genevieve was 16 and barely even spoke English when she ran off and married Ernest Wildish from Kentucky. My grandfather.
Grandmère poured tea into my cup and said how the newlyweds returned before winter, shamed, penniless, and with their first son, Abraham. They lived in the big yellow farmhouse together all those years, the Godenot aunties and the growing mob of Wildish boys.
She sipped her tea. Her eyes were like clear water. Those were wild times, she said, those early years in Bloomington. Sylvie too young and foolish to settle down. Abraham and his brothers running wild like Indians with their noisy cars and raucous music. When it was discovered that Sylvie was “with child,” she was sent away. My father, Abraham, dropped out of school, got a job culling trees and married my mother, Darlene Phipps.
“Papa never forgave Sylvie.” Grandmère smoothed the linen cloth on her knee. “Or me.”
* * *
Ma loses a baby, a girl born too soon, the summer of the same year the president resigns. Lenny and Sawyer compete for best Nixon impression, wrestling and holding their “V” fingers in each other’s faces.
Ma spends most every day in her room with the curtains drawn. She never goes back to church, not for the rest of her life. But by the time school starts, she comes out of her room during the day, and for the first time, for Thanksgiving, Ma invites Aunt Sylvie.
Thanksgiving morning, the kitchen is warm with the smell of roast turkey and mincemeat. “Jude,” Ma calls. Pie dough sticks to her hands held out in front of her. “Check the front window. There’s a draft.” She bends back over the white circle of pie dough and presses the rolling pin down into it.
The window runs with rain, silver trails down the glass into the bare azalea bushes. The sky is layered with gray. Dad’s green truck with Smokey the Bear stickers is in the driveway. Lenny and Sawyer walk around from the garage. Sawyer’s hands mark shapes in the air. They stop at the porch. Sawyer waves out to the trees across the road, turns to the front window. His eyebrows press together, and he pokes Lenny.
Lenny points up at me. “You.” His mouth makes the word.
I duck back behind the curtains. The phone begins to ring like metal bells. Ma unbends, rolling pin in one hand. “I’ll get that,” she says. “It’s probably for your father.”
The front door bangs open. Lenny grabs me by the back of my t-shirt, and Sawyer grips my arm for an Indian burn. Ma glares. “Hello?” she says into the phone. Her mouth frowns. Then she lifts her chin and looks straight at Sawyer. He lets go of my arm.
“What’s that? I can barely hear you.” The roll of hair on top of Ma’s head bobs up and down. “I understand,” she says. She hangs up the phone, waves the rolling pin at us. “Abraham Leonard,” she says. “There will be no rough-housing in this house.”
She wipes her hands with a white kitchen towel. “Sawyer, your mother’s plane was delayed. She can’t make the stop now. Something about getting to Baltimore. She sends her love and says she’ll come for Christmas.” Sawyer turns his back. Ma flinches. “Honey,” she says. Her outstretched hand drops back into the towel. “Go on now,” she says, all soft. “You boys take it outside.”
Arms up, I slip down. Lenny’s fist is left with my shirt. I bust down the hallway to my room, but Lenny gets a foot in the door. He muscles it open, pins me to the floor, face down into the green shag carpet that smells like dry cardboard. His breath is harsh with cigarettes. I twist my head sideways.
“You punk,” he says. “What did you hear?” His knuckles grind into my bare chest.
“Nothing!” I say. “I swear.”
The toe of Sawyer’s sneaker nudges Lenny’s arm. “He can come,” Sawyer says.
Lenny’s grip eases, and I roll away from him. “What?” Lenny says.
Sawyer stares out the window to the back yard, to the alders in the gray light. “Sure,” he says. “He can come.” He tosses my shirt down into my face.
Lenny breathes out. He does a loud whisper. “Rock Creek.”
The bunkbed creaks. David’s head pokes up above the railing, Marc Anthony behind. “I wanna come,” he says.
“Where’s Rock Creek?” says Marc Anthony.
Lenny socks Sawyer straight in the chest. “Now you done it.”
We hustle through the living room, and David hollers over his shoulder. “Be right back!” The door bangs over Ma’s voice. Lenny and Sawyer sprint ahead to the line of trees, David close behind. Marc Anthony stops in the driveway. His jacket splits open above the zipper pull. “Hey,” he says. “Someone zip me.”
I drag him across the street. “They’ll leave us.”
The screen door slams, and Sammy’s thin wail reaches us across the road. “Wait for me.”
Vine maples and white-bark alders group together in a hollow below the ridge and thin out over the top. The ground and hillside of curled brown ferns are covered over with yellow and red leaves. The sound of Ranger barking from our backyard fence gradually fades. Our feet through the leaves make the sound of running water.
We cross a narrow creek and an open meadow, turn down a game trail that cuts along the top of a gully thick with dark firs. Across another clearing, Sawyer’s blue jacket flashes between the trees, his blond hair the color of bark. Lenny’s sing-song voice bounces down to us. “Hurry up, girls.”
The game trail thins across a flat of gravel. The edge of dried leaves flutters in the slight breeze. “We lost ’em,” Marc Anthony is saying, and then there they are, Sawyer hunched over a fallen log up against a split rock as big as a truck. David up on top of the rock. “Did you see the coyote?”
Lenny strikes a match from a paper book and lights a cigarette. He leans up against a tree, blows a stream of blue smoke straight into my face. “We thought you got scared and went home,” he says.
Sammy’s skinny elbows point out like triangles. “Scared. Scared,” he says. “You’re scared.”
“Who brought the midget?” Sawyer says.
David jumps down from the split rock. “Did you see the coyote?”
“It was big,” he says.
Marc Anthony shoves him. “Lying is a sin.”
David shoves him back. “I ain’t lying. It was big as Ranger.”
Sammy looks back at the trees. “I’m not scared,” he says.
“We’re not scared,” Saywer says. He holds his arm straight out. The black barrel of a pistol extends from his hand.
Sammy’s eyes widen.
“Where’d you get the gun?” I say.
Sawyer shoots. A sharp crack rebounds in the air, and a red star bursts onto the white tree trunk across the meadow. Sawyer holds out his other hand, red balls like marbles in his palm. “It shoots paint,” he says. “To mark trees. Check it out.”
The metal plate bolted to the black plastic hand grip says U.S. Forest Service. The red paint balls are soft and rubbery. Sawyer loads another red ball into the wide chamber. Marc Anthony whoops. “Do it again!”
Sawyer shoots another tree. Sammy cheers. “Again! Again!”
David chews on his bottom lip. “Dad’s gonna whip us all.”
“Whose dad?” Sawyer says.
Lenny’s fingers flick the back of David’s head. “Shut up. You numbskull.”
We take turns shooting paint balls at the trees, all but Sammy, who hops around behind us and cheers. And Sammy sees the coyote.
“Stop screaming!” Lenny clamps his hand over Sammy’s mouth.
“What’s wrong with it,” David asks. The coyote is large, and its yellow fur is matted into clumps. It charges out, stiff-legged, and then staggers back to the curve of shadow under a stand of fir trees.
Sawyer’s eyebrows are scrunched together. “Weird,” he says. Lenny stamps out his cigarette. He snatches the gun from Sawyer. “Give me that.”
“Wait!” David says.
Lenny waves the gun over his head. “Come on, you mangy beast. Come on.” He fires. A red star of paint bursts open on the coyote’s hindquarters. The animal lurches with the impact. It bounds forward, teeth bared, flecks of slobber on its lips.
Sawyer bends forward, eyes squinting. “Jude,” he says. “Lenny.” He grabs Marc Anthony’s shoulder, pulls him back a step. “Time to go.”
The coyote’s black lips stretch back over yellow teeth. Lenny fires another paint ball. It explodes across the coyote’s chest, knocking it back a step. Sammy screams. David yells, “Everyone go!”
There are moments when you know all is lost before anything even happens. As sure as the sun rises. We burst out of the forest hollow like a covey of flushed quail, the rabid coyote after us, and it is a sure thing.
Lenny fires paint balls over his shoulder at the coyote. David sprints ahead over the ridge. Sawyer sweeps up rocks as he runs and hurls them backwards in between Lenny’s shots.
“Out of ammo!” Lenny yells.
Marc Anthony trips, arms flailing. I grab one of his hands. “I gotcha.”
Sawyer swings Sammy up on his back, hikes up his weight. “Cut through the alders.” He points. “Go.”
The sound of pursuit down the last ridge is like thunder. Marc Anthony’s breath is a barking cough. We break through the final perimeter of alders across from our house. David and Ma are on the front porch. Dad is standing in the driveway, feet braced, the long barrel of his rifle leveled straight at us.
It is a breach of air and sound and breath that freezes everything into pictures. Like how from my own tilted fall to earth I can see back over my shoulder. Sawyer is in mid-leap, Sammy clinging to his back. The coyote closes in on Sawyer’s heels, and instead, explodes into flesh and fur and dark blood, accompanied by the sharp crack of the rifle that splits the air like a snapped tree branch.
That night, Pa wears leather gloves to incinerate the coyote, its hide dotted with red paint. He hangs the paint gun on the garage wall up above the old Packard, his first car, he tells us. Back when he was so young, he says. How could he have known.
And then he whips us all.
Copyright © 2007 by Sherri H. Hoffman