Beside the Still Waters He Was Found

by Hannah Bruner
His granny has a clean linen sheet spread over the kitchen table and is methodically removing layers of thin cake from hot pans. Cole and Abby, on a top-priority cake-sampling mission, lie in wait beneath the table. When the coast is clear, Cole sneaks a grubby hand over the edge and picks off a small piece of crust clinging precariously to the side of the cake, but bony fingers clench around his still soft upper arm before he can duck beneath the cool safety of the tablecloth.
“You, Cole, stop that! How am I supposed to take this cake to church if there’s holes all in it? Out with you, the both of you! Out of my kitchen! Get!”

Abby sits with her knees to her chest on the brick steps leading up the house. She rocks from side to side, holding her head up with both hands. It pushes her cheeks up, and Cole thinks it makes her look like one of the squirrels he shoots with his slingshot. She blows at a piece of her bangs that has fallen into her eyes.
“We can go down to the barn. Granny said there’s kittens hid in there,” she pipes up.
Cole is hunting lizards by the power box. He grabs one by the tail, but before he can shove it into his pocket, the tail is wriggling in his fingers, and the lizard it belonged to is scurrying up the brick wall and beneath the storm pipe.
“You go. I’m goin’ down to the pond. There’s a monster bass in there, and I’m gonna catch him.” Cole pockets the tail and turns toward the dusty road.
“You can’t catch him,” Abby calls after him
“Can too. You just wait.”
“Chris and Timothy couldn’t catch him. What makes you think you can?” Abby snaps back, proud little fists on slender hips.
They squabble, until Cole remembers his older cousins talking at Sunday supper. One of his uncle’s calves, while drinking out of Wolf Creek, had strayed too far in. Stranded in the thick bog-like bed of the creek, it drowned, slowly. That was months ago. Now, the calf rises from its black depths each sunset.
 “We’re gonna get in trouble, Cole. I just know it.”
 But, Cole is already walking along the ditch. He doesn’t wait for his older cousin because she’ll follow. She always does because, though she’d never admit it, she’s just as curious as him. 
“Abs, hurry up. We’re gonna miss it.”
“No we’re not. I heard ‘em too. They said it doesn’t happen ‘till afternoon late.”
“It is afternoon.”
“But it ain’t late.”
They reach the lane that turns down their uncle’s property. Two large, rusting metal gates, which span the width of the dirt road, mark the entrance. A thick chain wraps around a bar from each gate, and a large padlock binds them together. Abby and Cole crawl through the wide spaces in the gate and inspect the grounds for anyone who might ask what the two are doing, but the only creatures taking any interest in them are the mosquitoes. Cole swats one biting his arm. Its belly bursts into a tiny pool of red.
The two walk down the dirt path, Cole trying to walk in the center of a large tire track, probably from his uncle’s John Deere, which he never lets him drive, and Abby wandering absent mindedly just behind, probably admiring the huge oak trees covered in moss, the squirrel that just scurried up one, and the hogs lazing in the mud beneath a fig tree. Soon, they have passed the hogs, the new barn where the hay will be stored next fall, the old farm equipment rusting in the dirt, the dusty road that leads up to their uncle’s house, and the old hay barn.
They reach the pasture, where several horses and several dozen head of cattle graze languidly in the thick September heat. They walk along the electric fence until they find a good place to squeeze under and then continue along the forest line. Cole gathers sticks and clumps of clay to throw at the heifers grazing nearby. Abby yells at him to stop.
“You’re gonna make ‘em mad!”
“So I said stop.”
“So, I’m older. You have to do what I say.”
“Do not. Anyways, I’m the oldest.”
Cole knows he’s not, but he likes watching the flustered pink beginning to splotch Abby’s cheeks and neck, the way her voice raises half an octave, and the changing shapes her eyebrows make.
“Are not,” Abby insists.
The corners of Cole’s mouth twitch up, and he throws a pinecone at a heifer lowing nearby.
“Are too.”
Abby’s frustration grows at Cole’s calm amusement, until as prophesied, a bull charges them.
“Told you!” she hollers.
“Just shut up, and run!”
Cole follows closely at Abby’s heels. She heads straight for their favorite climbing tree. They scamper up its deformed trunk, which grows diagonally away from the forest. All of their scrapes and sound whippings for all of Cole’s torn britches and all of Abby’s snagged Sunday dresses and stockings have prepared them for this moment, which they execute efficiently. Panting, they look down on the group of cows and the massive black bull gathering near the tree.
“Look what you did!”
“What I did?” Cole asks too-innocently.
“Yes, you.”
He only allows a moment of silence to settle uncomfortably between them before abruptly dislodging it to yell at the cows below:
“Get, you hairy, stinkin’ heifers! Get!”
He tears a limb off the branch he’s straddling to throw at the small herd. It hits the bull.
“Stop that,” Abby hisses.
He rips off one more branch before pausing to turn placid features on Abby.
“Why? I’m gonna scare ‘em away.”
“No you won’t. You’re gonna get us killed is what you’re gonna do.”
Cole, bored with her arguing, throws the last stick in his hand.
“Now what?” he asks.
“We wait until they leave.”
“That could take forever! We’re gonna miss it!”
But, the cattle lose interest after a while, so Abby and Cole climb down and resume their journey. Cole leads the way, anxious that they won’t make it in time, while Abby lags behind, picking up a leaf or rock that catches her attention and then running to close the growing gap between them.
They near the back corner of their uncle’s field and turn down a narrow path in the woods just before they reach the fallen pecan tree, leaves still green to counterfeit the vital energy already spent.
Above the trees casting looming shadows across the two small figures winding around the ancient trunks and above the banana spider web the two are crawling under, the sky is changing, as blue deepens to purple. It looks like one of Cole’s bruises.
Abby stops.
“Cole, we should be gettin’ back. Granny’ll be missin’ us.”
Cole keeps walking, though slower. The thick layer of long-dried leaves crunch beneath his feet. He likes the sound.
            “But Abs, we’re almost there. Just a few more minutes.”
            The ground here is softer and the trees less dense. They see the creek snaking through the woods and follow it to its head. The air, thick and wet, smells of damp ground and cow manure. Fading light trickles down between holes in the ceiling of foliage. Cole and Abby squint in the almost darkness, while their eyes adjust to the changing light. Their faces are dirty, covered in a thin film of dust turned mud by oil and sweat. Their hair is tangled, knotted around leaves and small twigs, and glued to their foreheads.
            They are close now.
            Abby stops and crosses her arms.
            “Cole, I think we should go home.”
            “Not now, Abs. Come on. Don’t be a baby.”
            She takes a few small steps closer to Cole, and together, they continue, but their steps are smaller, more careful in the damp earth, which cakes the hem of their britches and coats their shoes. They smell it, that sickening sweet of putrid flesh. The buzzing of flies accompanies the buzzing in their heads, and even Cole considers turning back, but his feet won’t let him. A crow calls overhead. They jump—startled by the sudden disturbance of the colloidal atmosphere holding them both in suspension—and clasp hands.
They step over a tree root, and Cole tugs at the curtain of kudzu.
They’ve made it in time.
Frozen, he lets the vines whip back on their faces.
Abby takes a step backwards and tugs on Cole’s hand.
“Cole. Cole, come on.”
But, he’s caught, held perfectly still, like an insect in amber.
“Come on, Cole!”
He wants to look away, to run, and never come back to this place, but he’s held by the wide black eyes staring back at him. It’s no longer just the vacant stare of a dead calf. Abby tugs harder, finally pulling Cole away. His eyes are wild, as if something has been transmitted from the black eyes to his own. He runs blindly, tripping over a root, and falling. He lands on his hands and knees and retches into the leaves beneath him. Abby hauls him up, towing him behind her, trying to make his legs move, but Cole cannot shake the eyes. They stare at him still, speaking what cannot be spoken.

Abby and Cole cut across the hay field that separates their uncle’s farm from their granny’s house, instead of taking the road. Cole’s face is hot, and his throat aches. He feels the tears threatening and, unable to hold them back any longer, sprints for the forgotten, rotting chicken barn. Abby calls after him, but he ignores her, knowing she won’t follow him this time, knowing she’ll go straight to Granny’s, knowing she’ll accept her punishment without protest. He also knows he has a few hours before his granny will finally come looking for him.
As he crouches in a corner, hidden in the relative safety of darkness, the hot, furious little boy tears streak his dirty face. His chest burns with an emotion he cannot yet identify and with one he can. One with which he is so familiar. It pounds within his head and speeds the beat of his heart and presses against his chest until he’s gasping for breath. He feels anger at everything, at his inability to control his emotions, at Abby for not making them turn back, at his granny for making them go outside, and at the wide-eyed calf, that though dead, though held in that mud, though unable to do him any physical harm, had incited fear and some other emotion that he can not yet identify and, then, fear too at that. A cricket chirps beside him, and enraged at that as well, at the cricket finding him here, like this, he stamps his feet and pounds the dirt around him with clenched fists. Silence is restored.

Minutes later, maybe seconds, perhaps an hour, he hears a crinkle in the leaves beside him. Looking down, he sees a small ball of black fur just six inches from his left hand, a hand still clenched tight on the dirt floor. The kitten looks up at him with its little head tilted side-ways, as if it knows the darkness boiling inside. It nudges his hand with a wet nose. It got to live, when the calf did not, and he is furious, most of all, at his inability to control any of the circumstances around him, any of the lives or deaths occurring. And so, before the thought has even had time to enter his mind, his hand is already moving, already picking the purring kitten up, already squeezing. His head is already spinning with the exhilaration of control, finally, control over a life, however puny, and his throat, through the tears, already laughing.

Though HANNAH BRUNER resides and works in Cambridge, MA, she was born and raised in Alabama. In her free time, she writes about the land and the people of the South. When not working with a policy group at Harvard or writing fiction, she enjoys playing folk music, baking pies, watching television dramas, and petting dogs. 


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Belle Rêve Literary Journal is a southern literary experience. Our mission is to capture everything that makes the South and its residents unique through the best contemporary literature we can find. We publish new works weekly.