A Good Medicine
by Jude Whelchel
First Place, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize
Tabor and his twin are eight years old when his father walks out the door to live forever with the family he’d spawned in Moultrie.
“Your mother’ll worry over you, Hoke, but you’ll make it fine.” The father ruffles his brother’s muss of hair.
“I’ve left you everything.” He speaks to the mother of the mercantile and their home on the second floor.
She does not look at him. Her eyes are fixed on the wide plank floor, waxed and spit-shining, it reflects their foursome as vague bodies, as ghosts.
“You got a mind going for you,” he says to Tabor.
The father opens the door, ringing the little bell at the hinge meant to alert at the arrival of customers.
“God Almighty curse you,” the mother says.
“If God cares to bother.” The father crosses the threshold, his feet quick clops across the wood porch. Tabor counts 1-2-3-4-5-6—his father’s feet down the steps to the cobbled road. The mother stretches her arm, holding the bell silent as she closes the door behind him.
Tabor goes to the window. It is a crisp, autumn day. The trees have gone to gold and crimson; the sky is clear but for a high wisp of cloud in the distance. His father is a big man; he is taking longs stride away from them. He does not look back.
“Come away from the window,” says the mother.
Tabor takes a final glimpse—his father throwing his head back, his mouth wide like he is drinking air, like he is breathing for the first time.
* * * * *
The following day, the mother burns the father’s photograph in the hearth, shoveling the ash into the chamber pot. Never again will she utter the father’s birth name.
“He’s dead to us,” she says. “Bury him over in your mind, six feet in a grave.”
* * * * *
A week passes. Two. It is evening when Tabor finds his mother studying herself in the hall mirror, her dark hair unbraided to her waist, her blouse unfastened and peeled from one shoulder, the pebble center of her breast standing at attention. Her throat is milk, her cheeks the soft pink of new apples.
“What are you looking at,” says Tabor.
She cups her breast and shovels it into her garment, buttoning her blouse like she is finishing a chore.
“Take this to the attic.” She lifts the mirror from the wall.
* * * * *
If the mother spoke it to her sons one time, she spoke it a hundred. As she renounced their husband, she vowed herself to them, turning her attention to the business of the mercantile, to making more of life for the sons than the husband ever managed, fit determined to compensate for their double cursing—the absence of a father coupled with the discrepancies of their birth—Hoke born compromised in mind, Tabor compromised in body. Each son some shadow of a man.
Hoke ripped at the mother, coming first, covered in lanugo, thick as pelt.
“Jesus on the Cross, I never seen such,” said the old midwife, wondering aloud if her mind was slipping, the infant soft-furred as a pup.
The second infant showed no interest in coming. Despite the groaning and urgings of the mother’s body, and with every effort on the part of the midwife to coax it down, the infant curled high and stubborn under her rib. The midwife, already counting the child for dead, reached inside the mother, arm to elbow, to pull Tabor, waxen and bilious, into the world. Hued like midnight, tied in umbilical, he arrived an emaciated plug of flesh.
“Jesus on the Cross,” said the midwife. She removed the cord to rest the limp infant at the foot of the bed.
“Be grateful in your heart you was given one living child,” she continued. “I seen it plenty, one thriving, one dying. It’s the way of life.”
It was only for the mother pushing herself to her elbows to catch a glimpse of the one she’d lost that she caught the jerk of the blued body and gasped so the midwife turned and saw herself the flailing arm of the infant.
“Jesus on the Cross.” The old woman took the infant’s face to her mouth, forcing breath through the pucker of lip, the mother thinking the little thing piteous, thinking what life it lived, if it lived, would surely be lived sickly and jeopardized.
* * * * *
In the months that go to a year that follow the father’s going off, Hoke, making solace for himself, folds into a cadre of boys: Harvey Rutland, Dit Mellon, Buddy Hester, and the rest of them. Like a pack of dogs, they are off, knee high in the creek beds, following no path but some shared instinct of direction into the woods, some spirit stirring between them they cannot name but celebrate in the snake coiled and rattling, the stink and disgust of a turkey buzzard died and gone to rot and maggots.
Tabor wills himself to keep pace, chin to chest, tracking the boys though he is ten paces behind, twenty paces, struggling for breath, and when he no longer has sight of them listening for the direction they have turned, straining to hear over his own breath, which comes tight, sounding a high-pitched whistle in his chest. It is more days than not he loses the boys—though one afternoon he is sure he hears them in the understory. He moves through trees and thicket toward the sound of voices.
“I am here! Hoke? Boys?”
The voices go silent.
He hears a cough.
“Hoke?” Tabor calls again. Another cough. Or a snicker? A stifled laugh as the understanding flashes hot: they want rid of me, the thought is blocked off and sent away as fast as it forms, leaving a shadowy residue of misery that has Tabor fleeing, running as if he is chased by something that would strike him down, suffocate him to a final stale exhale. He stumbles, runs a few paces, stumbles again, headed for safety which is the window seat in the sitting room where his chest is a storm of wheezing and he is watching the road through the pane glass, and though he knows in some corner of his mind there is nothing coming for him he puts aside reason for his delusional monster, preferable to the hard truth that his twin wouldn’t be coming down the road to find him.
2 + 2 makes 4.
4 + 4 makes 8. The simplest equations come first.
8 + 8 for 16.
16 with 16 for 32. His breathing slows. He feels his back pressing the wall, the sharp bones of his hips into the seat cushion. Fear, in one costume or another, will chase Tabor Rawls for the entirety of his life. He is decades from the day he will turn to it, the day he will look fear in the eye and not once blink, but for now he molds brick from numbers, he masons a wall of security from equations.
“I can figure 64 times itself. 4096,” he tells the mother.
“I figure you don’t need to be inside, nice a day as it is.”
“Name any figure, I’ll divide!”
She shakes her head—she won’t have it. She shoos him from the seat.
“4096 by 72 and you got 56 with 8 remaining.”
“Out the door with you!”
“I’ve been out already.” He raises his arms in attempt to slow her, unaware until his hands are before his face that he is trembling. He tightens to still himself.
“Not long enough.” She pushes Tabor out the backdoor—the door closes behind him with a harsh clap, the bolt scrapes into the catch.
“4096 times 8 gives you 32768.” He knocks at the door. “Please!”
The door does not open and he knows it will not open for however long he knocks. He sinks to the plank step that is tucked beneath the doorframe. Laundry lines string the alley, stained bed sheets and work shirts fight for air and sun. Cans of garbage and slop buckets. Strewn scrap and wood crates, an ironing board and shit pan gone to rust. It is a mudway of stench. Against their house, a carriage bed, stripped of wheels, is turned on its side, a moth-eaten rug thrown over it, a rag mop upturned beside it. He takes the mop stick and crawls behind the carriage, curling into a corner. It smells of cats and piss, but it is better that walking the alley. There are too many shadows.
* * * * *
Hoke, the son with no interest in learning, is the son the mother wants turning numbers. Reading books.
“Figure 8 and 8,” she insists.
He counts on his fingers—she pops his head.
“God gave you a mind.”
He looks at the ceiling. He counts dips in the bead board. “15.”
“No. No. No. You’re ten-years-old! Your brother knows his facts.”
He will write equations and keep writing until they are fixed in his mind. The mother starts a single column on the slateboard.
2 + 2 =
2 + 3 =
2 + 4 =
And Hoke will read the blessing at supper. He turns pages in the Penny Whistles book, back and forth, until he comes to the one he chooses every time:
It is very nice to think
The world is full of meat and drink,
With little children saying grace
In every Christian kind of place.
“Amen, “ says the mother. Her lips stretch across the bridge of her teeth in satisfaction. This is the only smile she has, a hard-earned, grimacing cut across her face.
“I expect manners.” She stands to plate the meal.
“You’ll eat every bite,” she says to Tabor.
Tabor twirls a fork through his meatstew, dipping it into a mash of potato that sits on his tongue thick as sap. He rearranges carrots to make a boat, buttered peas into mast and sail.
“Eat like a girl and you’ll have no get-up to you,” the mother instructs.
Taber pierces peas with a fork prong. He nibbles at a cut of bread while Hoke laps up the last of his stew with an edge of crust, taking a second helping of potato, asking for pie.
The mother watches the wall clock. Ten minutes to the second—Tabor’s dish is nothing but a stir of portions. She is up from the table to collect the beltstrap she keeps coiled in the drawer of the sideboard.
“I was only letting my portion cool!” Tabor forces a towering spoon into his mouth.
She won’t have excuses and he knows better than resist. His knees surrender, coming together in a pinch as the mother wraps the belt once, twice around his thighs, beneath the chair seat, pulling the strap through the buckle until his chin thrusts forward, his lips purse.
“Hurry yourself and you’ll be out of it,” she says.
“And you.” Her voice stops Hoke who is making his way to the door. “You’ll not run off this afternoon.” She exchanges his plate for the Penny Whistles book.
“Take your seat.”
Hoke’s shoulders sink, he returns, dejected, collapsing into his chair. She pops his head. “Knock the poor attitude from yourself—one day you’ll thank me that you read decent.”
When the mother is gone to the kitchen house, Hoke leans to Tabor and takes spoons from his brother’s plate into his own mouth. He swallows down Tabor’s milk.
“Read, Hoke,” Tabor whispers. “She’ll be back.”
Hoke opens the book to the thick illustration page where there is a round, shoeless child arching the sky in a rope-tied tree swing. Hoke begins:
How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!
Tabor covers the words with his hand. Hoke continues:
Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
River and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside—
“You’re not reading,” says Tabor. He covers the next stanza.
Hoke smiles and continues:
Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown–
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!
“I read by heart.”
“Mother won’t count your heart,” says Tabor.
The mother is back to the table with a slate and chalk. She eyes Tabor’s plate. She looks at Hoke.
“You’ll have a whiplashing if I catch you eating for your brother.” She snaps chalk on the table, breaking it into two pieces.
“The Lord’s Prayer. Start to finish.” She takes Tabor’s milk glass and the breadbasket to the kitchen.
Hoke furrows his brow. The fine muscles in his hands gripping the chalk, he makes slow, deliberate marks on the tablet, his fingertips going white, magnifying the dirt arches under his nails:
Ur fatder hoo art in hiven
Tabor shakes his head. “O.” He makes a circle of his fingers.
Hoke eyes the door for the mother’s return. He sighs and rubs off the slate with his shirt cuff.
“I’ll write for you, Hoke,” Tabor says. He pulls the slate across the table.
“You won’t tell?” says Hoke.
“I won’t tell ever.” Tabor writes quickly, in a script messier than his own.
“You want me to eat the rest?” Hoke’s fingers pick at the cane seat of his chair.
“Eat or don’t eat. I won’t tell.”
Hoke takes Taber’s plate into his lap. He makes a spoon of stew.
“I know I am a stupid boy,” he says, his mouth churning.
“Don’t feel bad, Hoke. At least you run good.”
* * * * *
Tabor takes steps two, three at a time. He belts canned goods to his ankles to make muscles in his legs. Left, right. Ten repetitions. Ten more. He suffers meals matching his brother, portion to portion, also bowing, no complaint, to whatever and all treatments the mother concocts. Ablutions of iced water, vapor fumigations, camphor amulets, poultice of garlic to the ear. There are scalding towels followed by rubdowns with remedies and elixirs that tout the benefits of brawn and vigor, reeking potions derived from Eucalyptus, cayenne, turpentine. Once a brown, translucent paste claiming genuine snake oil derived from Chinese water moccasins. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, fever or no fever, he strips bare and rests atop his bed, his face into a pillow.
He ignores the rag the mother offers. He sucks the fat of his lip between his teeth, bearing down until he tastes blood like a wheat penny on his tongue. She grinds menthol into his flanks, twisting, digging. He bites hard and harder and he can do this because in his mind the familiar recessed door opens and leads him to the river:
2 x 2 makes 4.
4 x 4 makes 16.
16 x 16 makes 256.
256 x 256 makes 65,536.
He multiplies himself from his body. He floats on his back, eyes to the infinity of sky.
65536 times itself… Numbers hang in the trees like leaves and he reaches for solutions. 4, 2, 9…
“Your blood’s stubborn,” the mother says. She goes to fetch a scalding towel from the kitchen—it will feel like fire, like skin coming from his bones.
“Scalding gets to circulation like nothing else,” says the mother.
“Will it help me run faster?” Taber asks
* * * * *
In celebration of their eleventh birthday, the mother orders Sunday suits from the Sears and Roebuck, matching breech pants, double-breasted sailor coats with yellow neckties. New socks, white with grosgrain trim. She keeps their good boots polished and gives her sons centerline hair parts. She oils their cowlicks into submission. They will go to church and anywhere with their heads high. She tells them though they have no father, they have one another.
She kisses them on the forehead. She says she loves them with a fierce love that wakes her at night—what lengths she will go for them!
* * * * *
Tabor is with the boys when they come upon the injured fawn under a catch of gallberry. Half-starved and ate into at the haunch by something Hoke predicts to be raccoon.
“Or maybe bobcat, though a cat would have drug it off,” he instructs. Hoke lifts the fawn, a stench of rot so given-up its only protest is a weak snap of the chin.
Buddy covers his nose for the stink.
“I smelled ten-times worse,” says Hoke.
Hoke stands at the center of the boys. These boys follow his lead, when he steps, they step. They will follow his plan—carry the animal down the road to the river, wash the wound, giving it drink, maybe caging it with log and limb until they come back to it with an offering of milk, making a nipple, if it comes to it, from the finger off a glove pulled over a glass bottle. In his arms, the slow blink of the fawn’s eye is the only sign of life.
“What you thinking?” There is a challenge baked into Harvey’s whispered tone and it calls the magnet of some internal compass in his twin to a darker and unconsidered pole. They are walking the road to the river, when Hoke suddenly stops. Tabor considers that the road they are on branches to a thousand paths extending to a thousand possibilities. Hoke could do any number of things in this moment.
“You got a machete in your shed?” Hoke asks Dit Mellon.
The boys are like hungry dogs around Hoke. Dit points back up the road to his house in affirmation and when they are there, the boys are whoop-cheering and watching the fawn, ears back and desperate, its awkward, bent limbs pathetic, pawing at the high grass. The head is arched sharply to the sky as if reaching would ward off the blows before they come, the first one hard but off aim, hitting bone. There is quick spray of blood and spasm of limbs before the second blow of metal sends blood up Hoke’s arms, his chest. The fawn exhales a melt of blood through the soft of her nose as the blows come and come and though the head is cut away the machete is cutting earth.
“You could stop now,” says Tabor.
Hoke throws the machete to his side. For a long moment there is only the sound of the boys’ communal breath and then a raptor calling from the high pines.
They carry the body, Hoke holding the head, back into the woods, marking the place they entered from the road with a tear of fabric from Harvey’s shirt. They use the rest of the shirt to tie the carcass to an oak. They bury the skull to keep rodents from having it.
* * * * *
Something is different. The smell of his brother has turned—like the sun has blistered and burned off a layer of Hoke’s skin that was holding back something pungent and gamy.
Tabor traces the skull with his fingers. It is fragile in a way Tabor had not expected, fine as a tea cup. He dips his thumbs into the cavernous eye sockets. He presses a fingertip against a molar.
“Is there a bone for me?”
“Boys got them all.” Hoke is sitting on his hands.
The boys have gone without Tabor to claim bones.
“All the ribs taken?”
Hoke shrugs. “You weren’t there. You can hold the skull much as you want.”
Tabor turns the skull once more in his hands then reaches it to Hoke.
“You might’ve got something for me,” he says.
* * * * *
I got a mind. I got a very good mind. A quarter off a million makes 250,000. A third taken of 250,000 makes 83,333.3333…He has immunity; he is fortified. 83,333.3333. The numbers will never stop. To the end of time—that is endurance. His mind will run faster than any feet. Endure any challenge. An eighth of 83,333.3333? 10416.6666. Repeating not slowing, not stopping. Never.
10416.6666 to the second quotient? Tabor works his mind—108,513,889—until his body is all sweat, sour as a dog.
* * * * *
“It’s not fair as I’m not sick at all,” says Hoke. A fever has come over Tabor the mother has Hoke stay in with his brother.
“You’re inside not for being sick in the body but dull in the mind.” The mother brings the McGuffey from the shelf. “You need to be reading everyday! You don’t want ignorance holding you back.”
“I read good enough,” he says.
“You read remedial. Far below your brother.” The mother nods at the book to say to Hoke that he has no choice in the matter.
Before she is out of the room, she instructs Tabor. “Correct his mistakes—it is what a brother does for a brother.”
Hoke opens the reader. “It’s like a soup of letters,” he says to Taber. “If I could remember and not forget.” The intensity of Hoke’s look could implode the page. He presses his fists to his eyes. The book slides from his lap, striking the floor.
“I hate all books,” he says.
As if she has emerged from air, the mother is there, as a storm cloud through the room.
“You’ll get nowhere! Nowhere, I tell you!” She plants the book back into Hoke’s lap. “You want to be nothing but a farmer?”
A rope of snot comes from Hoke’s nose. He sniffs, wipes his shirtsleeve across his face.
“You practice in your head then you’ll read it to me.” She is across the room to tidy the bureau.
“Just say words about the pictures,” whispers Tabor.
Hoke wipes his nose again. He purses his lips to concentrate his exhale in a slow stream of breath.
“A girl and boy went walking off to the schoolhouse.” Hoke looks at Tabor. Tabor nods for him to continue.
“They was holding hands and a little old mutt dog comes on up the road after them.”
The mother slams a drawer. “Books are written in proper English!” Her feet drum the floor planks as she moves across the room. She thrusts her finger at the page.
“Come friends! We must go to the school. Do come along with me.” She dots the words with an angry finger. She points for Hoke to read the next line. He coughs back a sob.
“You read it, Tabor! Show your brother how it’s done.”
“I will lead you.”
The mother grips Hoke’s face in her hands.
“That is how it is done,” she says, leaving them in a huff of frustration.
Hoke bends to his lap and it occurs to Tabor to touch his brother’s arm, but he keeps his hands to his lap, turning to the window. The sun is soft through the glass like an invitation. He chews into his tongue to hold back a smile.
* * * * *
The day before the boys make twelve an afternoon rainstorm rolls in with dark, hard winds and thunderclaps. Lightening fires low and sharp. From the window of the mercantile the mother and sons watch as a high pine branch bursts to flame then extinguishes in the hard rain.
“This sort of storm don’t last long,” says Hoke.
“Doesn’t,” corrects the mother. “They can do a good bit of damage.”
Rain pelts the glass like marbles.
“We shouldn’t stand so close,” she says. “You’ve got chores.”
They retreat to the storeroom where there are no windows, but still they hear the storm fuming against the house walls. The mother fumbles with a lamp. Hoke will unload the crate. There are jars of goods, sugar sacks, sardine tins, and salt crackers. Tabor takes a rag to dust off and polish bulbous jars swimming pig feet, pickled cukes, peppermints. Hoke is in and out of the room stocking shelves, pouring sugar into a barrel. He drops a sack of flour that breaks open and spills the floor. They save what they can, Tabor sweeping the remnant into a dustpan. There is a low rumble of thunder. A soft flash of lightening comes through the doorway.
“Storm’s dying,” says Hoke. He lifts a pallet and moves it against the wall.
Tabor mops the traces of flour, the timbre of rain slowing its beat.
The mother points Hoke to a load of fabric bolts. “I want them displayed neatly in the front window.”
The bell at the storefront door sounds.
“It was a tornado! Hoke! You got to come!”
The twins go with the mother and meet Dit Mellon, breathless at the counter. He appears to have swum the river, clothing clinging his limbs, water pooling at his shoes. There are mud tracks across the floor.
“It was over the quarry. We seen it spit down out of the sky, spin and do its thing ‘til it was sucked back up from where it come. Hoke, you got to come with us to see the damage. All the boys are coming.”
“You’ll finish the bolts first,” the mother says to Hoke. “And you, Dit Mellon, will clean the mess you’ve made.” She takes the mop Tabor is holding.
* * * * *
The sky shows no evidence of the storm, but its footprint marks the road, thrown branches and leaf, a laundry line of clothing collapsed in a twisted knot, a roofing sheet come from some building. Tabor has left his brother and Dit inside to their choses. He steps over debris, a tree limb—this is the cleanest sort air and he breathes a long deep sack of it.
One and quarter mile to the quarry. 120 strides per minute—each stride a yard and two yards per second. Hoke and boys will come behind him. He can see them in his mind making a line in the dirt. They get ready, they get set. But Tabor is gone before them. His mind racing fast ahead. 1760 yards to a mile. 1 second makes 1/3600 of an hour. (2/1760)/(1/3600) equals to (2/1760)*(3600/1) and come to 4.09 miles per hour. Slower than the boys, but he turns down the alleyway calculating short cuts. Past the loading docks and the hotel back entrance, across hen yards, weaving chop blocks and kitchen houses, because if he can scale the link fence at the train yard and have a straight way over the tracks, beneath cars, if a station man doesn’t catch him, he might, he could do it, get to the quarry before the fastest boy. He is at his best clip to the fence high as two stories and he scales the link fence at the train yard, ignoring the cut to his knee by a jag of wire—he could climb even higher, to the height of the high trees, but he is over and dropping to the ground and up and darting between cars, ignoring also the high whistle wanting into his throat. He pushes it down. Blocks it with his mind, gives it no power.
“Boy!” calls someone from a platform. Tabor does not slow. There is wind to his back as he slips into the woods, running like an unbridled colt, unafraid until he comes to the quarry, bending over his knees, head up, he searches for the boys.
Tabor takes in breath, breath, breath. No boys. More breath, whistling breath.
The voices of the boys come through the trees—coming fast. A tight race. Tabor strips his clothes and climbs the granite tooth that juts over the water, his body a white streak against blue sky as the boys burst through the tree line, dogging for victory, they collapse, heaving into a scuffling bonfire of limbs. They are litter of mutts and Tabor wants in the middle of them.
“I’ve won!” he calls.
They do not hear him. He calls again, punching the words from his throat.
“Look here. It’s me. Tabor Rawls! I’ve won!” He steps to the edge of the rock face, sweeping his arms above his head, pumping wide, spastic motions of victory. The boys are still, leaning over one another, looking in his direction.
“Me!” Tabor jumps from the rock and in his brief moment of falling, he sees the boys, all eyes upon him, except for Hoke, his eyes steady and fixed beyond Tabor on the solid rock face.
10-9-8. Tabor counts as he sinks. He has never felt this before—7-6-5. Victory. Belonging—4-3. And pleasure. 2-1. He pushes against the rocky bottom, propelling himself to the surface.
The boys are wading into the shallows, coming for him, Hoke at the middle. Tabor takes quick strokes in their direction, sucking and blowing water from his mouth in a little fountain of celebration. He is in waist-high water when he is close enough to touch them, and he stands, the good stink of their skin in his nose. He reaches out, both arms for the embrace he imagines, and craves, and seems he has chased to a finish line. Dit and Buddy each catch an arm, someone is behind him, hands on his shoulders. His arms are pulled into a cross, stretching him wide. Tabor waits in this short, glorious moment, to be lifted over their heads, carried back to the bank and wrestled into the dirt in some ritual of concession.
They grip tighter and he does not understand what is coming which is Hoke’s hard fist, fast and mad, clipping his front teeth, catching his nose in a spew of blood and phlegm. One punch. 2, 3 punches in his gut. There is a kick to his ass and at the back of his knees so Tabor collapses, face down, down in the water, hands and feet hold him there—1, 2, 3, no breath. 4, 5, 6. No breath and he is sucking water because there is a fire in his chest. 7. He inhales water. 8, 9. More water. 9. 9. The next number? What is the next number?
* * * * *
Tabor is vomiting water into the dirtbank, hutched over like a dog. Hoke is sitting at his side.
“Where’s the others?”
“I won.” Tabor turns and rolls to sitting. “I beat every one of you.”
The brothers are facing the quarry, the water smooth as glass.
“There’s no prize for you, Tabor,” says Hoke.
* * * * *
Tabor’s nose and bruises will heal, but his center incisors hang, broken-off and chipped away, like the entrance to a down-reaching cave. The mother makes Tabor a salt bath, takes a cloth soaked in camphor to his face.
For the first time in a long time, Tabor thinks of his father and tears come from the corner of his eyes.
“Hurt?” says the mother.
“I’m sorry it was your brother done it,” she says. “But it’s a good medicine for you.”
Tabor takes the cloth in his own hand, pressing it against the swell of his nose. The pressure makes it easier to bear what rises in his mind.
It is his father who took the prize.
by Jude Whelchel
First Place, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize