The Ten-Century Man
by Mike Meginnis, recommended by Lazy Fascist Review
EDITOR’S NOTE BY CAMERON PIERCE AND KRISTEN ALENE
Murder is one of the oldest subjects of literature. It has been mined endlessly in plays, poetry, literary, and genre fiction. But despite infinite retellings, it’s a subject that continues to fascinate us, resonating with the reptile part of the brain that we like to believe we left behind when we entered the social contracts of civilization. “The Ten-Century Man” by Mike Meginnis is a tale of murder that feels infinitely old. And yet despite its biblical scope and savagery, Meginnis infuses the story with quixotic black humor, walking a morally ambiguous tightrope that neither condemns nor condones the acts of any of its players.
With the murder of their father, the two brothers of this story enter the ranks of “The Murderers” who facelessly wander the apocalyptic western landscape of the story, leaving behind countless victims. But the brothers were always murderers, as was their father (the titular Ten-Century Man), as is the man who saves them from the gallows. We are all potential killers.
The brothers drag their father’s body from place to place, seeking a proper burial ground, finding every potential grave already occupied. Desperate to bury their shame and guilt, they load the corpse in a cart and cover it with stones from the foundation of their former home. They will have to travel far to find clean ground, as everything within a reasonable radius of their terrible crime bears signs of The Murderers. From the creek where their father panned uselessly for gold, to the willow tree that produced the switches that he beat them with, no plot of earth can accommodate even one more body.
“The Ten-Century Man” resonates like a great track from a Nick Cave album, something cold yet perfectly composed, infused with a whiskey warmth. It’s a story that we’ll return to again and again, driven by the need to justify our decisions, no matter how poor or evil.
Cameron Pierce and Kirsten Alene
Editors, Lazy Fascist Press
The Ten-Century Man
My brother used his knife to make a cross in the dirt beneath the weeping willow tree to mark the spot where we would dig the hole to hide our father’s body. He asked me, “Do you remember this willow?”
I said I surely did.
“It is the same tree our father made us cut his switches from when we still lived in the red house,” he said. When it was my brother’s turn on our father’s knee, our father would give me his knife and point out our window, through which the weeping willow tree could be seen. I could have killed him with that knife if I was brave — he was not a strong man — but instead I cut the switch and brought it to him. When it was my turn on that knee, our father gave the same knife to my brother, and he pointed out the same window, and silently I begged my brother to kill our father with that knife, but he never did it either. He cut the switch and brought it back. With each blow I practiced my sums. What I wanted to know was the number of switches left for cutting from the tree. Even willows only have so much to give. When he was done with me I never could recall my final answer, and so I never knew how many days were left.
Now the red house was gone, burnt to the ground by horse thieves ten years past. The foundation, insofar as one could call it that, was all that was left: a loose square of found rocks one hundred paces from our selves, our mules, and the two-wheeled wooden cart in which lay our father’s body.
It was right that our father’s remainder should feed the injured tree. I put my shovel in the ground and stomped it deeper with my good foot. I tossed the dirt over my shoulder. My brother helped. Soon our best shirts were turned brown and there was a hole three feet deep. In the hole there was a small white hand. My brother said he saw it too.
“The murderers,” I said. “They got here first.”
I don’t need to tell about the murderers. This was early in their reign.
My brother asked me whose the hand was. I said I would not recognize my own hand if I found it buried there. (And this was true. Even now, turning my good hand before my eyes, and having known it for much longer, its skin is strange to me: hard, cracked, overworked, and sun-spotted.) We dug the body out, taking care to avoid piercing what was left of the flesh with our shovels. She was face-down. My brother rolled her over.
“The wheelwright’s daughter,” he said.
I recognized her face even in its current state. I did not know her Christian name.
“She was betrothed,” he said.
He clearly wanted me to ask who was her beau. I obliged him.
“The miller’s son,” he said. Then he spat in her hair.
He wanted me to ask him if he loved the girl. So I asked. My brother shook his head. He adjusted his hat so I could not see his eyes through the veil of its shadow.
“Can a man love a girl who never speaks to him?” he asked me. “Can a man love a girl who only knows one song? Can he love her if she will not read his letters? If he sees her walking with the miller’s fat son, hand in hand, ankles-deep in the field of little yellow flowers?”
I knew the field he meant. The grass and wildflowers were a little more than ankle deep. I have never walked there as young lovers do because I believe that snakes lie in wait.
I said I knew nothing of love. I said that she was very pretty, apart from the wound, with thin wrists and a lovely collar bone. I meant to flatter his choice.
“We will bury her again,” said my brother. “We can put our father on the other side.”
He rolled her body back into its hole, face-down as we found it. He put his foot on her to make her lie correctly, as she had lain before. If the murderers saw one of their bodies was found then it would be the end for us that found it.
I said that we should tell her father.
“If we do he will believe we did the murder.”
I suggested a letter. I suggested anonymity. He said, “The wheelwright cannot read.”
(And in my brother’s ledger there can be no greater sin.)
So we covered the girl with dirt and stomped the ground flat and agreed that we had never seen her. And while we dug the new hole on the tree’s opposite side we practiced the faces we would make — the shocked, bewildered, dumbstruck faces — when first we heard of her death.
“Would a murderer make a face like this?” I asked my brother. I crossed my eyes and puffed my cheeks out like a frog’s throat. He laughed until he doubled over.
“No,” he said, “I don’t believe he would.”
In our new hole we found a man’s hand. We sighed and searched the dirt until we found the matching face.
“The miller’s son,” said my brother. “You see? Fat.”
I kicked the willow tree and hurt my toe.
Our father’s wound was in his chest. There was another in his back where the ball had passed through. We preferred the chest wound, which was smaller, like a thumbhole in a pie crust, and so he lay face-up. My brother said the blood that stained our father’s shirt was shaped exactly like a heart. He had clearly never seen a heart.
We picked the last remaining apple from our former apple tree and I cut it down the middle. The seeds were arranged on either side of each half like the toes in a dog’s footprint. The fruit was bitter but my brother said it was sweet. We are very different people.
We agreed that we must take our father’s body elsewhere. There were too many dead things here. We agreed the body must be hidden in the cart while we traveled. My brother suggested that we fill the cart with dirt. I said that if we dug another hole here then we would surely find another body. I suggested the rocks that were our former home’s foundation. “If anybody asks, then we can say we are building a new home in the land nobody wants. We can say we want to use the rocks we lived on as boys, and no one could question that.”
So we covered our father’s body with the rocks on which the red house was once built. There were white rocks, yellow rocks, red rocks, and gray rocks, some smooth and some rough. The cart became heavy and I worried that the rocks would crush the body, that they would break the bones and make the meat a pudding. It was too late to voice my fears, however, and we were both very tired, my brother and I, from lifting all those rocks onto the cart. There was another problem, also: they did not cover him completely. There were gaps between the rocks, through which the body, if viewed from the right angle, revealed itself, like a thread of blood in bathwater. We hid these gaps by packing them with mud and blades of grass. The tomb’s final shape suggested something of the man inside. It almost had legs, shoulders, a head. My brother was afraid someone would see this and understand in one glance exactly what we’d done. I told him the resemblance was all in his head. I said it was his fevered poet’s imagination. Meanwhile I comforted myself by planning not to be seen by anyone until our work was done.
We yoked my donkey — the stronger of the two, owing to I am the elder — to the cart and I walked by its side. My brother rode. His donkey carried our water, bread, cheese, blankets, gun powder, and ammunition. (Our pistols were abandoned in a tree stump a small distance from where we’d killed our father.) It was slow going with the rocks. We had much time for contemplation and feelings of remorse, though there was nothing to be sorry for. My brother recited one of his poems. I did not hear a word of it but when he was done I told him the rhymes were all perfect.
“You’re thinking about him,” said my brother.
I said, “I am thinking of your poem.”
Our father lied to us most of all about numbers. Though I turned one and two years old according to the usual calendar, at which point my brother was born, after that it was always two years at least before I had another birthday, so that I was called three when other men are called four, four when other men are called six, five when other men are called nine, and so on, according to my father’s system. My brother, whose birth may have been the impetus for this new way of counting, was advanced according to a similar but not identical schedule. He was one when I was called three, and two when I was called three, and three when I was called four, and three when I was called five. Of course these memories are not precise, and our father himself often got the years confused — there was one day he insisted that I was the younger.
When I asked about the other children in the church who seemed to be my age, those who were my size and — if anything — my mental inferiors, and how it was that they were all so much older than I, and many blessed with double (even treble) birthdays, what our father said was that their parents could not count, or counted carelessly. And what was there for me but to accept his answer?
The day we shot our father dead he would have said, if asked, that I was twelve and my brother ten years old.
There are many reasons our father did what he did and I can’t pretend to know them all. It kept us close. It kept us dizzy. Perhaps most important, it kept us working his land much longer than we would have ever done by choice. We believed we were still children. We were only doing chores.
The way that I know my true age is I keep one U.S. penny minted in each year I’ve lived. When I am uncertain I can always count the pennies, though of late, and not for the first time, I’ve had to spend a few. One of these was my oldest; it will be hard to replace.
We never lived in gold country, but there was a creek where our father used to pan for nuggets when he was feeling lucky. He liked to kneel at a particular spot, in its most shallow shallows, where it was more mud than water. We took the long way there to avoid neighborly eyes. It was dusk when we found Father’s favored mud. It was my brother’s thought that we should bury the body beneath it, repairing (perhaps even improving) the creek bed’s shape when the hole was made and filled again; I reminded him that any unexpected flood would swell this stream and probably unearth the body. (I didn’t have to tell him what the corpse would be like after, and I didn’t need to mention the bloat of the murderers’ first known victim, the boy they drowned or discarded in the well.) Neither could we bury our father at either bank, for the same reason: little creeks are where rivers come from.
We agreed two dozen paces would be far enough. There was, at that distance, a rusted horseshoe. I made a cross in the dirt beside the shoe with my knife. My brother put his shovel in and I put mine beside it. The dirt was moist even this far from the water, and seemed to want a body in it.
(On those days our father panned for gold, he returned with three to five socks full of mud. The socks were divided evenly between we brothers if they were an even number. If they were odd I got the extra. We hung them by their toes and coaxed the muck out with our fingers. Then there was mud on the floor and there was supposed to be gold in the mud. We got down on our bellies to search it. Our father was sure it was there. He reasoned the hard part was done when he gathered the mud. All we had to do was harvest the dust. He said, “Only harvest the dust.”)
We were four hands deep into our father’s grave when we found the missing barber’s body. I knew him by his mustache. His throat was opened like a book — that is, it was opened by hand; this tear was packed with earth, and the rest of him with worms, which worried his flesh and slowly drew back the veil on his bones.
“The murderers,” we said, and filled the hole again.
Our tracks would be more difficult to cover. There were one thousand overlapping footprints in the mud around the hole. My brother said that it was dimpled like the surface of the moon and I promised I would look to see if this was true when next the moon waxed full. I said there was no time for a poem. We smoothed the ground as best we could with the backs of our shovels, which left in it a subtle swirling grain, an etching of a knot. Good enough. We walked both mules and the cart across the grave to demonstrate to any future passing murderers that we had never seen it. We forded Father’s creek if you can call three footsteps fording. We walked until we could not hear the water’s burble.
The moon was full that night, as I should have known it would be. Big, and bright. My brother pointed to it. He said, “You see? It’s like we were just walking there.”
We slept beneath the cart, where its shadow would have fallen were there light. We had no blankets. Our mules lay against the wheels. My bad hand was my pillow. My good hand was in my pocket, warming my annual pennies, counting the years.
We woke to the startled braying of a kicked mule. My brother hit his head on the cart sitting up. While he cursed I crawled out into the sun. The sheriff stood beside the cart, biting off his fingernails. It is a filthy habit but he approached it with such care and patience it appeared almost necessary. He kicked my mule again. My brother stumbled upright.
“Here I am,” he said.
“Is this your family’s land?” said the sheriff.
I said I did not think it was.
“No,” said the sheriff, “it is not. Your plot is several miles west. You would know it if you saw it by the house that stands at its center. You would know that house because it would be yours.”
“We are looking for the land nobody wants,” I said. “We have split from our father, who anyway has not spoken to us in days, and we wish to establish our own home, building on the foundation of our former home, the red house that stood on the land horse thieves ruined.” I motioned demonstratively at the cart and its pile of rocks.
“This is not the land nobody wants,” said the sheriff. “That land is not like this land at all.” We were standing in a vastness of clover, dandelions, red pebbles, and dust. He said, “That land is much worse.”
My brother said that we would go if he told us the way. The sheriff swallowed his thumbnail and pointed.
Then he looked me in the eye, showed his teeth, and kicked my mule a third time. It was one too many. The animal lurched up and kicked the air, which upset the cart, which dumped most of its rocks and all that was left of our father.
“Sir,” said my brother, “we are innocent.”
What he should have said, were he being honest, was that one of us was innocent but he did not know which.
Most things that people introduce to you as little-known facts are in truth very commonly known. Here is one of those: in a firing line, not every gun is loaded. None of the men in the line knows if he’s got a murder bullet or a lucky empty rifle. So afterward, none of the men knows if there’s blood on his hands or he’s clean.
When we agreed to kill our father, I told my brother this “little-known fact.” Given that we owned matching pistols, he drew the logical conclusion. We should load one gun but not the other, put both in a sack with several bricks and spoons, stir the sack’s contents with a sturdy branch, and leave it in our secret tree stump for a day. When we returned we could not possibly know which was which. Then we would find our father in his fields, brain him, though not hard enough to kill, bind his hands and gag him, wait for him to wake, and when he woke make him kneel, and when he knelt recite our grievances. We would offer to remove the gag if he wanted to repent. And when he did not repent, we would use the guns, and he would be dead, and both our guns would shake from the powder, but only one would spit a bullet, and neither brother would know who was a killer and who was still a man.
And in this way we would both benefit from our father’s death, but we would also know that one of us was blameless in it, and so even if we still felt guilty, the guilt would be limited, and if we were sleepless some nights from the thought it was us, then half our remaining nights we would sleep like the dead, because we were each half innocent, mathematically speaking, poised on the knife’s edge between Heaven and Hell, though I believe in neither, being first a man of numbers.
But in fact there was a better outcome: one of us could believe (wrongly) that he might be an innocent, and the other could know that he was. My brother would imagine himself half-blameless, and I would know that I was wholly, and that would mean we made one and a half good men and half a murderer between us. So while the pistol was loaded — I volunteered my own — I quickly marked the other by surreptitiously thumbing a wad of cotton down the barrel. When we returned for the weapons I found the one I wanted by slipping my finger inside it. As it happens, the first my hand found in that sack was the right gun, which means my brother would have been the genuine triggerman regardless. But this way I knew, and he was no worse off than he would have been, and I was much better.
The sheriff said, “If you did not kill your father, hide his body in these rocks, and lie to me about your father and your purpose and the meaning of the rocks, who did?”
“We did the other things,” said my brother, “but we did not do the murder.”
“That was the murderers,” I said. “Those that got the miller, the Carter family, the floozy, those others, and the wheelwright’s daughter.”
My brother cuffed my ear for mentioning the gone daughter, which I ought not have done, because I shouldn’t know she was dead. But the sheriff did not notice. The body in our cart was damning enough, and he had probably — like most of us — already begun to lose count of the victims.
“Boys,” he said, “you know I’ve got to bring you to my house on this one.” He meant his office, which was also the jail, and which was also where he slept most nights, in a cell of his own, because his wife would not let him in their marriage bed until the murderers were caught and hanged. I had not seen the cell myself but the rumor was he kept an unusual number of pillows and a cross-stitch portrait of our putative savior was hung on the wall.
He swept those rocks that remained on our cart onto the ground. He helped us lift the body back on — my brother took one arm, and I the other, while the sheriff got the legs. We all grunted in the same way, with the same effort, and for a moment I felt I had a second brother, but I doubt the sheriff felt the same. He climbed up on his horse, a mottled thing more like a cow in dignity and posture, and led us toward what passed then for a town square. We left the foundation of our former home scattered on a stranger’s claim.
Though he believed we had conspired to kill our father, the fool rode ahead of us: he showed us his back. No wonder some find taking life so easy.
Fourteen people saw us pull the cart that held our father’s body to and through the square. I should know; I counted. Such “walks of infamy” are a common practice among small-town lickspittle sheriffs who resent the judge’s role in justice. The fact of our providing the body made his work too easy. It looked a lot like evidence.
I pled our case until the sheriff told me he would shoot me if I could not let him have a little peace. And so I did not speak, until we passed a certain home, and it was far back from the road we traveled, but I could clearly see through both its windows, one on either side of the front door. In the window on the right, the shadow of a man pulled a rope’s shadow taut and leaned with all his weight against it, so that the rope made a straight diagonal line toward the window’s top-left corner. In the window on the left side, there was a man’s shadow dangling. His legs kicked and thrashed while a third man’s shadow stood beside, looking on. I begged the sheriff to look through those windows, but he would not, and when I promised him that if he only looked then he would see the scourge of our community, he fingered his holster till I mended my silence.
We came to the tall house. That is what we call the inn and saloon, because it has no other name, and because it is the only thing within a hundred miles that stands two stories high. The first floor is where the liquor’s kept. The second floor is where the drunks sleep it off. It used to be a place for using prostitutes, but the murderers made them all go away, one way or another; some became bodies, some fled, and many were forgotten, because we confused them with each other anyway, because they mostly wore the same clothes, and many of them even shared, with just one real dress between them — and it was a fine dress, with fine embellishments, but if one in any pair of girls was clothed, then the other was working. The sheriff tied his horse and our mules to a post outside. My brother hesitated to leave our father alone in the sun. He said, “Someone might make off with the body.”
“He would be doing you a favor,” said the sheriff, and ushered us inside.
There was a pair of dirty men playing checkers at a corner table. The owner was not in. The checkers players had full cups anyway. Either the owner had been here recently or they had served themselves. They were in conspicuous good spirits.
The sheriff went behind the bar. He rolled up his sleeves and asked what we were drinking.
“It would be a crime,” I said. I was showing him how law-abiding I could be.
The sheriff glared at me. I said I would have water. My brother asked for whiskey. The sheriff filled each cup from its proper source but they both came back the same brown. I should have been thirsty but each sip was a struggle. The law served himself last and best. More whiskey. He emptied the bottle.
He said, “You say it was the murderers who killed your father.”
We nodded emphatically.
“Did you see them?”
We shook our heads.
“Well do you know who they are?”
“No sir,” said my brother.
“Then how can you know it was them that did it in the first place?”
My brother said, “Who else would?”
The sheriff asked us how we found the body. I spoke before my brother had a chance, knowing he could never tell a lie without some unnecessary patina of literary embellishment. I said we found our father in the field. For the past week, I said, he had been planting corn. He was bleeding in the seed holes. He was covered in his own crimson, I said. The reason that he wasn’t covered in it anymore was we had washed him clean, I said. We asked him who it was. He said, “It was Them,” and that was all he would say, I said. Then the blood poured out his mouth and off his chin onto his chest. (Here one of the checkers players interrupted my story by asking the sheriff to fill his glass, which the sheriff promptly did, opening another whiskey bottle for that purpose.) His last words, I said, were that we had to make a promise. “When this corn grows,” he said, meaning the corn that would grow from the seeds that he had watered with his blood, “you boys have to eat it.” Then we forgave him his sins against us, one-by-one, naming each, and he closed his eyes and exhaled. It was only then we saw the murderers’ crimson footprints leading into the field. (It looked like they were wearing boots.) We gave pursuit but their trail faded quickly as their shoes were made clean of his blood by the dirt. When we came back to say goodbye our father was already done.
My brother touched my arm to still it. I had been audibly handling my annual pennies for the full duration of my speaking. I withdrew my hand — the bad one — and smelled the fingertips, which reeked of bitter copper.
“I have two sons,” said the sheriff. “Quiet boys, like you two used to be before you learned to read. If they grew up and killed me I would never forgive myself for it.”
Another fingernail, one I hadn’t even seen him bite, was floating in his whiskey. He saw it there and saw me looking at it. He tossed the whiskey back and when he set the glass down it was empty. He filled it up again.
“I don’t think it’s plausible that you’re behind the other deaths and disappearances,” he said. “But if we hang you and they stop we’ll know for sure, and if we hang you and they don’t we’ll know you were only damned once.”
“I am not damned at all,” I said. My bad hand wanted to dive for my pennies again but I made it hold my water.
At some point the checkers players’ game must have taken a bad turn; now they were shouting at each other.
“Kings can’t do that!” said one, the younger.
“Kings can do anything!” said the other, the elder. He was building a tower of black game pieces at the board’s center. It was clearly impossible for any red piece to jump, and therefore invulnerable, and therefore immortal.
One of my first memories is playing checkers with my father. I knew two rules: diagonal movement and jumping. I didn’t know you could jump more than one piece. I didn’t know kings could jump in both directions. He taught me both of these rules in one cruel turn, jumping all my men excepting those that crowded the board’s edges. I said it wasn’t allowed and he said that it certainly was. By his count I was four that year, as I had been the last. When I cried he said it was my turn and opportunity. I had no other move than to nudge a checker off the wall. He took that too. (And then he smiled in the way he always did when he thought he had one over on you — not cruel, but relieved, which was somehow worse, implying as it did that he could only relax when he had some unfair advantage over everyone in the room.)
Now the checkers player who did not believe in the divine right of kings revealed a knife. He stabbed through the black checker tower, aiming for his opponent and coming up just short, cutting the shirt but not the skin.
The sheriff said, “Attempted murder!”
The aggressor ran out the door and the sheriff gave chase. I took the opportunity to get myself a better drink.
“Do you think that he will really hang us?” said my brother.
The remaining checkers player whistled to get our attention. He was smirking. He was missing several teeth. He produced a little cube of yellow powder. He approached us, crushed the cube between his fingers, and dropped its crumbles in the sheriff’s glass. He handed me a spoon from the bar and winked twice — once for each eye. I stirred the powder in till it vanished. The checkers player shushed my brother, who was not speaking, and returned to his table. He put all the game pieces in their beginning positions.
I counted to three hundred fifty-seven in the time it took the sheriff to come back. He was sweating like a man condemned. His breaths were desperate and insufficient. He stumbled to the bar and took his seat.
“Why didn’t we run?” said my brother.
I said, “We would’ve had to leave Dad’s body.” It was one of two reasons.
The sheriff drank his whiskey. The remaining checkers player made no secret of his interest.
“Even the reach of the law’s long arm has its limits,” said the sheriff. He wiped his mouth. His left eye was going crossed, turning sharply inward toward his nose. He hit his own forehead to right it but the eye would not correct. “I should never have taken this job,” he said. “I thought it would be nothing but chases on horseback.” Now the other eye was crossing too. He hit his head again, and hard — I suspect he could not feel the blows. “But the truth is, when the chance comes, there’s never enough time to untie your horse.”
He fell down in convulsions; a yellow foam bubbled up and out his mouth. He was still.
“Wingo!” shouted the checkers player. “It worked!” He tried and failed to make his hat spin on his head. Then he remembered he was not alone and put on a serious face more befitting the occasion.
My brother asked him was he one of the murderers. I asked him was the other checkers player also.
“No,” he said. “We only hated him, and he’s the only one we’ll kill. Two victims make a murderer. One victim makes a man.”
Now that we had been witnessed walking with the sheriff and our father’s body, and now that the sheriff was dead, leaving only his handsome deputy to enforce the law books, there was no point in hiding the body, and in fact it would look more suspicious to do so than not. Instead we settled on the church graveyard. (My brother said the bastard did not deserve it, and I said there was nothing special about that graveyard, that it was only dirt with lofty pretensions.) We would put him in a hole that we would dig beside our mother’s grave, which was marked by a wooden cross our father made. His plot was not marked, though it was reserved, and we did not plan to plant a cross for him.
Our mother was a mute. There are words learned people can make with their hands but she didn’t know any. Sometimes she improvised her own. The way she said she felt ill was she rubbed her belly and frowned. The way she told my brother to sing for her was she made a mouth of her hand and opened it wide. The way she begged my father to be kinder to his boys was she put her hands together like a prayer. The way she said she regretted her life choices was she looked out a window till someone asked what was wrong. The way she said “I love you” is she stroked my hair.
She was not killed by a man, but by the bad winter that followed the year of the horse thieves. It was our father found her body. He would not let us see her again until they put her in the grave, but he did describe her body. (I will not repeat it here.)
I put my shovel in the dirt and turned it over. We worked until the sun was low. We wanted all six feet. We found there was a body there already, at the bottom of our hole, in the plot that was our father’s.
I did not know the man.
My brother said, “Me neither.”
He was an older man, recently dead, with gray in his hair and mustache. He did not die before his time. He wore a vest and garters on his sleeves. His nose showed a mark where spectacles once rested, but those were lost or stolen. His eyes were still covered with dirt, as were his hands and legs. There was a red line on his throat where the skin was badly abraded. He kept a lavender square in his pocket. I wanted a lavender square of my own, but my brother climbed down in the grave and took the dead man’s, which made me think, though I no longer know my reason, that he must know what I had done to ensure he got the loaded gun.
We laid our father’s body on the stranger’s, arranging his head so that it hid that other, and likewise the shoulders, arms, and legs. We put the dirt back in. When we were done the sun was red and resting on the mountains. We saw there were two shadows watching us at the far edge of the graveyard — two slouching men in hats one size too large. I said that we should leave. My brother was not afraid; he went to them, and he became a matching shadow. I could not hear what anyone was saying. I counted to one hundred before he came back to me.
I asked him what the shadows said. I couldn’t see his face through the shadow of his hat’s brim, except for his nose’s red tip.
“They are sorry for our loss,” said my brother. “Tomorrow one of them will be dead. They are suitors to the same girl, and she cannot choose between them, so they are going to have a duel. All their friends are either disappeared or recent murder victims, so I am going to be the younger’s second. I told them you might do the same for the elder.”
The shadows waved to us across the graveyard. We brothers waved back.
My brother said, “I think it will make a good poem.”
Once I asked my father how old he was. He said, “One thousand years.” I asked him was it true. He said that if he was a liar then I had much bigger problems than I didn’t know his age. I said one thousand years seemed like forever. He said that if I could count to one thousand that same day without cheating then I could understand one thousand years. I said that I would do it. There were three distractions, however, that interrupted my count and made me forget where I was in the numbers. The first was a butterfly with yellow wings. The second was a spider on a window. The third was my father. I was somewhere in the nine hundreds. He shouted over me, “ONE THOUSAND!”
I said my number again.
I tried again.
“ONE THOUSAND ONE THOUSAND ONE THOUSAND!” he screamed, and knelt to be closer, and held my shoulders. “I AM THE TEN-CENTURY MAN. I HAVE SEEN IT ALL. I HAVE SEEN EVERYTHING THERE IS IN ALL CREATION.”
I covered my eyes and ears as best I could with clutching hands and hunched shoulders and counted to one thousand in a whisper in my dark.
I promised myself I would die by five hundred.