Colby Swift

Out of Farragut

The night my father was killed, I was fourteen-years-old, and my family and I had attended a homily given by the venerable Brother Pike.  Brother Pike was a special man, from the north, from Philadelphia.  He’d written various books, all of which my father had purchased and read and recited aloud to us, my mother and sister and brother and myself.

My father was a tinker.  That day, early morning, we all squeezed onto his cart and drove our two mules into Farragut.  Many of the churches in Farragut had suffered damage from a windstorm weeks before, so the people had to meet in a little amphitheater of wooden benches hastily thrown together on the banks of the Tennessee.

The crowd waited and waited for Brother Pike to arrive.  Eliza and I tumbled playfully in the grass while Joshua watched and clapped his hands and giggled.  My father sucked thoughtfully on a pipe and my mother completed a needlepoint of petals on a branch.  The waters of the river rushed ceaselessly by.  Night fell and someone went around lighting lanterns.

Finally, Brother Pike arrived.  He cut a figure I did not imagine or expect.  He was clean-shaven, bald-headed, and as pale as a cloistered monk.  He wore a long dark coat over his vestments.

I remember the Brother’s words as though I myself was the one who’d composed them, as though I myself was the one who had mounted the little wooden dais that evening and delivered them to the people.

“There once was a man,” Brother Pike began, “an aviculturist.  He owned many types of birds, of all breeds, of all colors.  His favorite of these birds was a single white dove.  Doves are known to have large appetites, and the man had once heard that they could even be trained to eat out of the palm of a hand.

“One day, the man placed seeds in his palm, and he called the dove.  It flew over and, seeing the seeds in the man’s hand, slowly began to eat.  The man closed his hand, and the dove returned to its cage.  He called the dove to him again, and the dove returned to his open hand and did eat.  But he closed his hand to the dove once more, and once more it flew to its cage.  The man continued to do this a number of times, calling the bird back, then closing his hand to it, until finally he closed his hand and the dove did not return to its cage but flew away.  The man never saw the dove again.”

After Brother Pike’s sermon was finished, it was late evening, and it was dark, and my family and I took the long road home.  We were all of us riding atop that tinker cart of my father’s, those decrepit mules drawing us.

We had not gotten far when we rode upon a trio of men.  They’d been hiding behind a privet lining the path, and they mounted the road upon our approach.  They each wore a hood of sackcloth with eyeholes gouged out of them.  Two of them carried rifles; the third held a hurricane lantern.  One of the riflemen held up an open hand and said, “Hold up there, man.  Rein ’em in.”  My father halted the mules.

It was silent for a moment.  The night around us was a sightless netherworld.  Only that which was illuminated by the third man’s lanternglow seemed to exist.

Finally, the rifleman tucked the stock of his carbine under his arm, said, “I’m goin’ to take a look through your wares.  My friend back there”—he angled his head toward the other rifleman behind him—“asks that you all be real still-like.” 

The man promptly set about raiding the cabinets and drawers of our cart while the second man kept his riflebarrel on us.  The man pocketed various bits of jewelry, spoons of silver, a gold watch.  Everything else that did not hold immediate value to him — boxes of lye, bars of lardsoap, plush curtains, a colander — he dashed along the road.  We upon the cart were helpless.  We could do nothing but play stone.  Joshua, the youngest of us, was crying, and I had to clasp my hand over his mouth.  He bit me and I bled profusely, but still I held my hand there upon his lips.

At one point the lanternman removed his hood and shook out his matted hair.  I studied him: a pudgy face with two-day stubble, short-cropped boyish hair, round wide ears like handles on a jug.

After the first man finished ransacking the cart, the second rifleman moved toward us and ordered my father to come down from the cart.  My father obliged.  He and the two riflemen stepped aside, along the berm of the road.  They held a congress that was mostly indiscernible to me.  My father nodded gently, and I did hear one of the riflemen say “Yes sir” to him.

My father turned back to us.  He raised an arm. 

“I have made a deal,” he said.

My mother shifted, half-stood, leaned forward.  “William?” she said.

He said, “Take the children home now.  Yes, take them home.  I have made a deal.” 

But my mother did not move, did not take up the reins.  The mules stamped.  One of the riflemen looked at us and levered his weapon.

Why did I leap across the bench?  How could I be so eager to mush the mules down the road, past the lanternman, while the riflemen each took my father by an elbow and escorted him into a grove of trees?  Eliza told me to stop, to turn around.  She beat her little fists against my back.  Still I drove the mules on.

Of what bitter stuff am I made?

A gunshot rang out and flushed a fan of birds from the roadside brush.  The report echoed and unfolded into the abysmal night.

Somehow the folks in town found out about the incident on the road.  Many offered condolences, prayers.  But prayers do not fill bellies, nor restore life to the dead.  I tried to take over my father’s cart, but few people purchased from me, and I did not possess his bent for repairwork. 

Eliza never forgave me.  She’d always asserted that something could have been done to save our father that night.  But she’d been so young.  She couldn’t remember wholly the situation as it had occurred, the impossibility of such a rescue.  When she was sixteen, she met a man twice her age, a banker, and the next week she ran off with him.  Where to, I do not know.

Two years later, mother passed.  She was working the water pump in the yard one morning at dawn when her heart failed her.  I found her sprawled in the grass, mouth agape, dead eyes pondering the sky at that unshaped hour.

Joshua stayed the longest.  After mother’s death, he helped me bury her.  He studied at the schoolhouse, aided Mr. Albrecht in his restaurant in town, and, at eighteen, left for a college in Ohio.  The evening of his departure I accompanied him to the train station, where he removed his hat and kissed my cheek.  I wept for everything.  He boarded the train and waved out the window while the locomotive slipped away.  That was five years ago.  I have not seen him since, and he has not written me.

One summer I saw a small advertisement in the paper.  Brother Pike was touring the region again, and he’d scheduled a sermon in Knoxville.  Accompanying the ad was a grainy photo of the preacher, leaning against a cane, unsmiling.  He looked ancient, terrifying, ghoulish.  He seemed perched on the edge of some abyss.  I was surprised at how his image dredged such contempt from me, of how it stole my breath.  I shut the paper and stayed home.

Recently, I ran into the lanternman in town. 

I was having dinner at Mr. Albrecht’s restaurant when I saw him come in.  I’m old now; he is even older.  But still I knew him.  Those rounded jowls, those ears like wings.  He’d grown a beard that dripped from his jaw. 

He sat at a table across the room from me.  I watched him eat and drink from dark bottles of beer.  I had already determined my course of action if he saw me, if he recognized me, if he approached me.  A dinner knife lay along my leg, nestled and hidden beneath a napkin. 

But he never noticed me.  I watched him pay his tab and go.

I ordered three shots of whiskey and drank them in quick succession, then dozed with my head on the table.

When I woke, I did not know the time.  The restaurant was mostly empty.  One waiter was sweeping the day’s sawdust from the plank floors, and another was emptying the ashtrays.  I left money on the table, stood up, and went out.

It was cold, and a mantle of snow lay upon the buildings and the roads, scintillant in the moonlight.  I wondered how long had I been asleep.

I turned north on the road, heading for home.  I trudged through the snow, my coat wrapped about me, my head down.  I passed a tractor marooned in a snow bank like a sleeping beast. 

I was tired and drunk, and with the landmark of the town far behind me I became disoriented.  I wasn’t certain where I was headed anymore, where was home. Thick feathers of snow still fell, furring my coat.

A mile ahead, the road bisected a wood of spindly trees.

I imagined my father in a separate wood somewhere, a cairn of polished bone.

I reached the wood and rested against the first tree I came to.  My lungs burned.  Sweat formed a film over my face, despite the frigid cold.  I listened to the muted world.  The silhouette of a winter bird fluttered overhead, like a piece of clothing blown from the line. 

Colby Swift‘s previous works have been featured in The New Southern Fugitives, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and The Big Click Magazine. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.