“The Spine Falls Away”

You touch the bones, set as custard skin in the gray filth of the barn dust. Once large white cows stood in this stall, and now a small mammal, an infant possum or the curl of a fox kit. “What happened to it?” I say.

Our mother calls for us, but we don’t move. She shouldn’t see us coming out of the barn, which is off limits due to the rusty pitchforks and plow attachments. The possibility of snakes.

Our parents are adjunct professors at the college, and the farm is a rental for $100 a month, a steal even for 1983. Our mother is new at this life having come from piano lessons and state beauty pageants, a closet full of the smell of new clothes.

Our father is the real deal. He catches cages of minnows for the bait shops. He sets up spring-loaded traps painted with pheromones by the muskrat holes near the creek and sells the skins. The odor coming from the cardboard box in our living room where he cleans them is overwhelming. It hangs in the air and rests in the piano keys and in the bright leaves of the house plants.

Our curtains are blankets over the windows. Our water comes from gallon jugs purchased at the IGA because the only well on the property is full of dead birds. Our pastures are overgrown with blackberry brambles, which mother wades into on summer evenings wearing a head scarf and long sleeves.

In the barn, you lift the skull and the spine falls away into a thud of straw. Wasps bob in the eaves. Old bundles of tobacco, from the previous farmer, hang from the rafters like giant golden bats. They’ve lost their fragrance and splintered in the air.

My ear hurts deep inside where the bath water sticks. The pain is sharp, and I think of the long metal skewers that came with our grill coated in brown wax and stabbing into my ear drum. I’ve not taken my medicine all week, and the infection has returned.

Our mother keeps calling, but I keep going back to your hands—a careful cradle of bones. In that barn, in your hands I see the downed trees in our yard, the kittens disappeared by owls, all the lost things, and then I see our mother dripping wet after her swim in the creek.

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About Lydia Copleand Gwyn

Lydia Copeland Gwyn’s stories and poems have appeared in New World Writing, Elm Leaves Journal, Appalachian Heritage, Glimmer Train, The Florida Review, Hermeneutic Chaos, and others. She lives in East Tennessee with her husband, son, and daughter.