Mama had been good all day, but at suppertime she went mad again and spoiled everything. It was the chicken that did it this time, the good chicken Pop had killed that afternoon by stepping on its head with his boot heel and yanking up on the talons, everything happening in slow motion under the August sun, as if the whole world wanted Jory to see exactly how it was done: the sound of the spine pulling apart, and the taffy-stretched squawk, the slow drizzle of blood on the green grass where the dead cock flapped and twitched among the hens while their heads gawked and eyes and beaks gaped as wide as they would go in the bottom of the bucket that Pop gave Jory to dump in the crick. They hadn’t gone out to kill the rooster, but it’d given Pop a few good scratches when he went in the coop for a couple-three hens, and Pop had just gone crazy himself right then and swore like hell, grabbed that cock and stepped down . . .
“I can taste it,” Mama said. “It’s in the flesh now, Henry. It’s got in their feed.”
Pop put down his fork, slowly, while Jory crumpled the napkin in his lap and wished he couldn’t remember so well what Pop’d looked like when that cock had upset him, because it was kind of the same look he had now. The cock hadn’t intended to spur him, Jory was sure of that; it had only been a dumb creature. And likewise, Mama didn’t mean any harm; she couldn’t help herself, she was always tasting the badness. But it made Pop angrier each time, and Jory more worried, and baby Tad—who didn’t know what any of it was about—closer to tears than usual.
“Now look,” Pop said, in his levelest tone of voice, “you don’t start that again. I don’t want to hear it.”
Tad was looking between the two of them while he tore at a drumstick. Jory saw Mama catch him looking, then she reached out suddenly and took the leg from his fingers.
“I don’t want you eating this now, you hear?”
“What the hell do you think you’re doing? The boy’s got to eat.”
When Tad got over looking stupid, he shut his eyes and started crying.
Pop pushed back his chair and stood up, and Mama raised the drumstick as if it were a club. He came around the table, put his hand on the back of Tad’s highchair, and then stood there scowling at Mama. She met his look with one of her own, a fiercer one, Jory thought, and he wished again he could stop thinking about the way that rooster had looked, the craze in its dumb eyes, and finally the lack of anything in them, when they were just staring out of the muddy water in the crick.
Mama moved first, but not to give in. She did her second crazy thing; threw the drumstick over Jory’s head, bang into the closed cupboard. Pop grabbed her wrist and Tad screamed, and then she was crying, “You know it’s true, Henry, God damn you for lying! Unless you’ve taken in so much of it up there spraying that you can’t taste it no more—”
“Hasn’t no more flavor than rain,” he said. “You listen—”
“Rain never made the greens in the truck garden taste like this.” She shoved at the ladle in the salad bowl, spilling lettuce and tomato wedges onto the red-and-white checkered tablecloth.
“Bitter as tin, you mean. It’s got in the tomatoes, the squash, the potatoes—living things suck it right up, even though it’s dead. And that’s what we’re going to be, Henry. You, me, your children. All of us like that stunted corn we shucked last week. They’re gonna have to come throw us all away someday soon.”
He threw down her arm. Tad reached for a tomato wedge but she slapped his hand away. “No you don’t.”
“Look at your brother,” she said. “You don’t see him eating. Jory knows better, don’t you, Jory?”
“Let the boy eat,” Pop said.
“I know,” Mama said, suddenly brightening in such a wrong way that he knew she was going to do another crazy thing. She started to get up. “We’ll go out. Jory, get you and your brother’s coats. We’ll take a drive into town and have us a nice hamburger at McDonald’s, then we’ll have some watermelon on the roadside.”
“Sit down,” Pop told her. Jory hadn’t moved. “What do you think, they don’t spray melons in this county?”
“Some fine buttered corn,” she said, not hearing him, no longer looking at anything. She stumbled a little but caught herself on the corner of the table.
“Sit down!” he yelled. “We’ve got a good supper laid out here from our own farm, and we’re going to eat it among us, with no wasting money we can’t spare in town.”
“And after that,” she said, almost whispering, “while there’s still light, we’ll go take a look at the Rockefellers’ cattle …”
With a little choke and rattle of breath, she fell. Jory winced, hunching his shoulders when her head struck the edge of the table. Tad stared down from his high chair, but Jory couldn’t see her. He wished Pop would help her; he wished they would be good to each other, so that he could remember what it had been like before last summer, and the coming of the bugs, and the new sprays meant to take care of them.
Finally Pop bent and saw to her, lifted her in his arms and carried her like a doll out of the kitchen. Jory helped Tad down from the high chair, wiped his brother’s face with a rag, then went through the back porch into the yard, no longer hungry.
He could see his parents’ bedroom window, the shades drawn halfway, but his eyes got no farther than the sill. It was covered with dead bugs: flies and spiders, cicadas, grasshoppers, a few wicked-looking mayflies.
He had planned to climb up in the old apple tree where he usually went to think and be alone, but something happened before he got very far. In the crotch of the tree, where three thick branches split out from the gnarly trunk, he put his hand in something that crunched like cellophane and clung to his fingers. It was dry as paper, bluish-grey in color, and it had big bug eyes. It looked like the husk of a housefly, split open down the back, except that it was as big as his foot.
Backing out of the tree, he wondered where it had come from. He didn’t need an answer, though. There had been a buzzing in the eaves last night, as if a hornets’ nest were flying around by itself. A fly that big might have made the sound.
Mama would blame it on the poison. The vegetables, she said, were shrinking—like the dwarf corn they’d picked recently—but the bugs were getting bigger every year. Each time Pop came home from the county office with another canister of the latest spray and a leaflet marked with the skull and crossbones, she talked crazier and crazier about stuff like that. Pop’s truck was right now parked out front with a couple of the silver tanks in the bed. New poison, stronger, for stronger bugs. He’d be up in the plane spraying it tomorrow.
Jory heard the screen door slam, and Tad came around the side of the house, heading toward the truck garden. Jory yelled at him but Tad didn’t seem to hear. Mama was worried that he might be a little deaf. She blamed that on the poison, as well as the fact that he was growing so fast; four years younger than Jory, he was already almost as big, but then Jory was small for his age. “It’s like that with boys,” Pop had said. “First one’s always the runt, brainy type, like Jory here; and the second one shoots up and fills out to make up for the both of them.”
Jory caught Tad by the shoulder at the edge of the truck garden. Evening was on them, and the first of the fireflies came flitting over the fields.
“Where you going, Tad? You’re not supposed to leave the house this close to dark. Mama will get mad.”
Tad pointed at a dwarf huge tomato that looked purple and nasty as a deadly nightshade berry in the dimming light. Sitting on it was a big winged bug, a lightning bug the size of a praying mantis, and Jory could tell that it was feeding. There was already a dark gnawed place in the fruit. Did lightning bugs eat vegetables? They’d never been a problem before.
Jory reached out to flick it off the tomato, but as he did it stuck up its tail and glared in such a way that he instantly felt a little dizzy, sick to his stomach. It was the way the flickering strip lights in the town library made him feel. It wasn’t a greenish-white lightning bug light, either: it had some of the same purplish tint as the tomato. It only stopped glowing when he pulled his hand away.
Tad was laughing.
“Tad,” Jory said, “did you see that? That’s no regular lightning bug.”
Suddenly the younger boy reached for the bug. Jory panicked, but there was no flash this time. The lightning bug lifted from the plant, circled twice, and settled on his brother’s hand. Tad held the bug up to his eyes until he went cross-eyed looking at it. The light in its tail throbbed, but it stayed dim.
“Da-da-da-da,” Tad sang. “Da-da-da-da-da.”
That was when Jory felt scared for the first time. It was not the way Tad sang, because babies always did that, and Tad was a regular songbird; it was the way the firefly’s tail light went on and off exactly in time with his singing. Silently, it went da-da-da-da.
“Stop it!” Jory said, and he struck Tad’s hand. The bug flew off a few feet, circled around, and came back toward them. Jory screamed and batted at it, keeping it away from his brother, as if it were a hornet and not a harmless little lightning bug. “Leave us alone!”
Jory spun around, his hand on Tad’s shoulder, and saw Pop leaning out the back porch door.
“Get in here and clean this kitchen,” Pop said. “Your Mama ain’t feeling up to it tonight.”
Holding on to Tad, Jory ran back to the house. He thought he could see the lightning bug flicker once more, but it had taken off. His stomach didn’t calm down until he was in the bright kitchen, but even then he was nervous about looking out the window. He went about his chores slowly, carefully, while Tad sat in front of the TV in the other room. All the time he was thinking that the bug had been acting strange. Maybe the county was right about the sprays. If bugs could do stuff like that—blink on and off in time to singing, and eat tomatoes so hungrily—maybe they should be killed before they could get any stranger. That might be why Pop seemed so anxious to be up and spraying early the next morning. Maybe he’d seen the bugs doing funny things, too.
Mama was seated in front of the TV with Tad when Jory finished in the kitchen. She looked better, laughing at the comedies, but Tad wasn’t really looking at the TV. He didn’t seem to be looking at anything.
Jory went out front, and found Pop hauling the canisters out of the truck.
“Don’t know if this spray is gonna be strong enough,” he said. “County man was trying to sell me a poison one-stronger. Now I’m thinking I should have taken him up on it.”
“Pop, what kind of bugs are you spraying for?”
“The bad kind, Jory.”
“Is there any other kind?”
“Sure, some bugs eat other bugs and protect the crops. Some bugs like mayflies don’t even have mouths. This year we’re seeing a new strain, some kind of firefly that came up from the Gulf.”
“I think I’ve seen it. Pop. It’s really bright. Tad was—”
He stopped, wondering what he was seeing. Pop wasn’t listening to him. A kind of glow was coming from the woods, through the buckeye hedge, and out of the air wherever he looked.
Fireflies. They were swarming over the sky, rushing over the house from the fields, bright as flying lightbulbs. Jory had to shade his eyes. It wasn’t until they lit in the trees that he could calm down enough to really look at them, and by then Pop was running toward the house.
Standing by the truck, Jory stared out at the woods.
The trees were dark now, all the lights extinguished. He waited.
In an instant the whole farm came alight. The purplish glow coursed through the trees, through the hedges and the deep woods, trails of fire following the tangles of branch and leaf. He was reminded of a model of the human nervous system he’d seen in a library book; it had shown trails of light, just like this, but in different colors. The trees above the buckeyes looked like big brains.
He felt like his feet were trapped in thick mud and he couldn’t run. The lightning bugs began to blink on and off in unison, the whole forest and all the hedges blazing like a wild neon sign, then going dark so that he was blinded, dazzled.
Pop struck him from his daze. “Get in the house.” He was already throwing the canisters back in the truck. “I’m gonna spray.”
“Get in, I said. Seal the windows as fast as you can. I might have to spray over the house.”
“Get in there!”
Inside, the TV was off. Tad was crying and Mama sat holding him, staring at the drawn blinds that kept getting dark and bright, dark and bright. Jory crawled up beside them on the sofa.
“It’s all right, Mama,” he said, “they’re just lightning bugs. Lightning bugs don’t hurt anything.”
But she was whispering prayers, stroking Tad’s hair, and Tad was whimpering: “Da-da-da-da.”
Jory felt his skin crinkle.
He looked at the window.
The shades lit up.
They lit up again.
Oh, please, Jory thought. Please, God, let it be all right. Don’t let this happen. Don’t let anything happen to my brother or my Mama or Pop or me. Make those bugs go away.
But all that happened was that he heard the truck tearing away. Everything else went on as before.
It was a little while before he remembered what Pop had said about sealing the house. Hoping he still had enough time, he ran around checking the doors and windows. When he was at the back door, he heard the plane starting at the far side of the field. He slammed the door and hoped he had done enough.
“Jory?” It was Mama calling him. He ran into the living room.
She looked sick. “Jory, where is your father?”
Hadn’t he told her?
“He went out, Mama,” he said in a small voice.
“Has he gone into town?”
“I don’t think so. I think he plans to spray the crops tonight.”
“Don’t be foolish, Jory. How could he do that at night? There’s no moon tonight.”
“I guess I’m wrong,” Jory said.
“I guess you are. You take care of your brother for a minute. I’m going to take a peek outside and see where he’s gone. You think he’s in the barn?”
Jory grabbed her hand as he stood. “You can’t go outside, Mama!”
“You’re being foolish, child. There’s nothing wrong outside, the county man told your father and he assured me, everything is fine. The county man said so.” She was opening the front door, and as it opened the sound of the plane became as loud as the fly that had buzzed outside his window last night. It was coming closer.
“Mama, please don’t.”
He tugged at her, but she was too strong. She got onto the front porch and stood there looking at the forest, the blinking trees, the sky full of moving fire, and then she said, “What a beautiful evening. I do love the fireflies.” She stepped down to the earth.
The plane was getting closer, and suddenly Jory heard a sound that made him turn back toward the house. All against the rear, along the porch and the kitchen, he heard something like hail or pebbles being thrown against the walls and windows. The storm swept over them, a river of shooting stars pouring toward the forest, and after them—streaking over the roof, over Mama—went the plane, a black bat with glittering mist sifting from its wings.
Two things happened at the same time. The forest light shook and lifted in a single cloud, rising in front of the plane. And Jory’s eyes began to sting, his throat to burn, so that he could not see anything more: it looked like the world was dissolving. But he could hear the plane’s engine die in mid-air, and seconds later he clearly heard the crashing, crunching, and snapping of branches, as if a hundred trees were being trimmed all at once, until the impossible clippers snarled in the wood and were thrown down with a distant, hopeless scream.
Then his mother began to cough. He walked out into a hot mist and stumbled over her. All he could see of her was a white struggle of blurred arms and legs; her brown dress made her one with the earth, and her hair covered her face. She made no more noise when he knelt beside her, but who was that laughing?
Sniffing, he wiped his eyes and looked back at the house. Tad was standing out on the porch steps, his arms open to the sky, head thrown back, his tongue stuck out to catch the last faint falling of mist as if it were snowflakes.
“Stop it, Tad!” he shouted.
The little boy cocked his head toward the woods, tilting it from side to side like a curious dog, then he ran past Jory down the road.
Jory looked at his mother, but she wasn’t moving, and even though he wished he could stay with her, he knew that she would want him to go after the little one. Feeling torn apart inside, he got to his feet.
He couldn’t believe how fast Tad ran. It seemed like it hadn’t been that long ago that he was only learning to walk; now Jory felt like the clumsy one. He kept tripping in the ruts of the road.
The woods were glowing as if a campfire burned in their depths. Against that light, Tad’s shadow practically flew over the road. Then his baby brother turned aside and headed through the trees.
Jory’s lungs burned, and one of his eyes hardly saw at all, but he followed as best he could.
It was harder going between the trees. He lost sight of Tad, and only the light guided him, but when he finally came to the bright place, there was no sign of his brother. The trees were full of clustered purple glare. In the middle of broken trunks and branches, a clearing, the wreckage of the plane lay smoking.
They’re only lightning bugs, Jory told himself.
“Pop?” he called.
The light seemed to vibrate to his cry, and that made him want to keep quiet.
He walked through the broken trees until he came to a twisted wing of the plane. He could see the cockpit, and the top of his father’s head down inside. He climbed onto the wing, hopeful.
“Pop?” he whispered.
His father’s head hung funny. Jory swallowed. Broken neck. He backed down, not wanting to look too long at the wide eyes.
He heard a new sound, like singing, and looked to the edge of the clearing. An arm reached out along the ground from the roots of a toppled tree. The small hand settled to the leaves.
He climbed to the fallen trunk, peered over it, and saw his brother lying naked among the roots and branches, curled on his side. His eyes were wide, and so was his mouth.
“Tad,” Jory said. “Whatever happened to your clothes?”
He jumped over the trunk, but his foot snagged on a bit of broken branch and he half fell sideways. Twigs broke as he caught himself, and there was another, softer crackling. He came up thinking that he had barely missed landing on his brother, but he was wrong.
He screamed and stepped back, tearing Tad to shreds as he tried to get out of his body. The husk, still wet, stuck to his shoes.
Jory cried up at the trees where the light looked almost merciful, except that it lit what lay below.
But in time with his scream, the brilliant forest went black. There were no stars, no moon, nothing to light up the thing that came buzzing and laughing toward him, sounding too big by far to be his baby brother.
* * *
“Shuck Brother” copyright 1986 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in Night Cry, Winter 1986.