The Justice: An Excerpt from Devin Jacobsen’s ‘Breath like the Wind at Dawn’
Fiction by Devin Jacobsen
[Trigger Warning: violence, graphic content, animal cruelty, incest, rape]
Not until they had been married eight years did he take fire at Gruhn.
It happened that something told him to leave the fields sooner than usual. The sky breaking up and remending itself so that all looked as it was. And returning to the house, his suspicions were confirmed: for there out in the open, as unbecoming a sight as if they were desperately hidden, he found his wife fallen in Gruhn’s arms.
He was holding her against his chest in a gesture that declared it would not be long until they could steal away to some foreign land where they could forget the troubles that had worked to keep them apart.
As for his wife, he could not make out her face, though by her stance he gathered she’d acquiesced since the beginning, that or Gruhn had forced her to and she had learned to all the same.
“Hidy, Gruhn!” called Les. “What we got here underway?”
From his vantage he watched the two of them start and sunder. It was not immediate; in fact, it appeared to take them a great effort to begin to force themselves apart, such as knit stems that are disentangled and yet continue to bend toward how they grew.
As if to behold that he were real, he could feel his wife’s eyes seek him before darting back to the ground. From his vantage she appeared less a woman than an image in a pool that a raindrop or breeze comes ruffling over or dispels to something inadequate, lost, her slouch conveying that she expected at any instant that hungback drop to come.
Brother and sister waited. In the attending silence he heard the curses they wanted to scream, recognizing in that terrible quiet the same most intimate noises they had forged before he had startled them, which they now turned and aimed on him with ironic effortlessness. Gruhn held an arm propping up his wife.
“Tell me, Les,” called Gruhn. “Why is it every time I come by and see my sister, I find more and more marks up on her? Ain’t no fool so clumsy he falls as much as she.”
The sun beat in and out. At one second it was noon; at the next it could have been dusk. Then without looking at either, her gaze in mournful communion with the ground or in the manner of somnambulists who will stare and stare at nothing, the woman said, her voice scarcely a whisper:
“I done it. Picked them up by accident when I was helping Les patch stalls. Guess I didn’t mean to.”
Though Gruhn kept as he was, you could tell a drift of surprise had parted his grimace, his aspect that of seeking the air and trying to sift how Les had done it, made her to utter those words by devious telepathy.
“You don’t mean to do a lot of things, and yet somehow you manage to mean. Kind of like how I mean to put a stop to this right now.”
“Hold it, Gruhn.”
“Leslie, Annora might be your wife, but first she was my sister. And there might be no law saying a man can’t lay a hand against his wife, but so long as I’m around it’s as well there ain’t.”
“I know there’s a law against rape.”
At that the sun pulsed out. It was as if in saying it he had somehow killed the day. Neither of them wished they possessed the strength to continue from where they had been led, and yet turning back was impossible.
It came out almost a clearing the throat of phlegm.
“What rape?” said Gruhn.
The sun throbbed back with the heat of revelation; the air turned thin and bright.
“Not a, Gruhn: multiple. Deliberate violations of the law and nature.”
Gruhn swallowed. He was staring hard at something. Whether a memory he hoped to have gotten rid of that now truncated his sight or the world as it lay in pieces, which he was trying to fit back together, recall how it once had been. Trembling, she rested against his arm.
“You’ve lost your goddamn mind, Leslie. You ain’t got no proof.”
“How about the proof of my wife as witness. One word from her and you’ll be screwing the noose, old boy. You’ll make a fine offering for some mighty appreciating flies.”
“You always got exaggerated notions about things you don’t know nothing about. Your head’s a muddled mess.”
“I’ve got the law to sort that for me. And next time I catch you here I’m gonna prosecute you till you’re a handsome blue in the face. At least Simon’s learned not to cross my fence. You come between a man and his wife and there’ll be awful hell to pay. I can swear to that.”
The day yet harsh and blinding, it was Gruhn that dampened now as a part of him changed directions. He took the brace of his arm from his sister, who fell back sharply, then at the last instant was caught by some invisible prop, and ignoring Les, he turned to her, his aspect a different man’s.
“Just go see him, Ann — if you can. He doesn’t have much time.”
Without touching her or bidding farewell, he marched off down the plain, his good leg leading like a laborious priapus, back to his cabin a half mile yonder on land he had refused to concede to Les in spite of that Les had offered him a sum threefold its value.
His presence continued. Even when he was gone from sight and night had come, the words and man continued seething in his chest like the dark burning of the stovelight, and in that stovelight he plied her for the intimates, but she refused to bare even the slenderest account of what had passed between them or between them and others, would admit neither coercion nor brute malignity nor curious acquiescence, and so he hit her across the chin using the back of his hand, hoping it would serve the midwife to the particulars he feared but needed to hear.
When she insisted on raving, he hoped by hitting her again it would sharpen her muddled tongue. The struck sides of her face where the marks had blossomed looked the rouge suggestions of a slattern.
“He didn’t do. Didn’t do, didn’t. He came to tell me bout Pa.”
“‘Tell me, tell me’ — what about Pa? Then why were you letting him touch you after all you’ve said and done? I walked up and there you were like Romeo and Juliet. Explain to me that if you dare.”
Her underlip quivering, afraid to say the wrong answer.
“I don’t know” was all she said.
He hit her again. A blow that spun her backward in a whirling dance that would have been graceful had she not ended crashing into the table.
Once she recovered she said, “Please stop hitting me.”
“I don’t want to, Ann. Just tell me how come you told me those things and now say they didn’t happen? That or can’t or won’t or don’t remember. That doesn’t make any sense.”
She, having crouched under the table in trust it might swallow her in disguise, fell on herself, cowering.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what!”
“Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know. Oh God!”
He sighed, the blood in his fingers from the shocks going softly vibratory as if they formed a stranger’s hand.
“I didn’t mean for it to happen this way,” said Les. He spoke calmly. “It’s just that — you’re the only one that can rile me up this way, going on and saying his name. Then you say nothing happened. I promise you once I know for sure I’ll never do this again, I swear. Then I can be solid knowing how the bastard lays.”
On the other side of the wall Edward held the twins, who were crying and wanting to go to her.
“This is all Gruhn’s fault,” he told them. “Gruhn is at the root of this.”
The next morning he was gone. They found his bed empty and no sign of him outside. Not in the barn or in the fields. They found he had taken his horse.
As a gray sun tunneled over plains stooped with dew, they decided to take on his chores since they dreaded more his upset if they did not than his anger at doing them wrong.
Racing from one task to the next, they were to finish his chores before turning to their own. They brought the horses to the paddock, and prior to that they cleaned their hooves. They freshed the stalls and carried water and filled the woodbox to Les’s notch. An emerging lightness intrinsic to a festival day. Annora and Irv against Eddie and Quinn. Not that they did not still absolutely fear him, but it soon became apparent he really was not there, not just out of sight: he had vanished entire! His presence sunk to a voice, a loud echo igniting their work and fanning them to hurry, who bent their thoughts to constant attentive care to ensure they were exacting his rigorous standards of futility, but those standards soon constituting the very rules for the games they were rushing to win. Whether a competition as to who could carry the most fodder without spilling or come out first of a row after checking the nubbins for rot, all rendered a sort of game, a reason to hurry and finish, an enactment of his gestures transformed into a happy if blasphemous pageant, the theme of which became the ridiculous confession of how fiercely each of them had watched him throughout the years. Which quickly did escalate. Hurrying in Les’s lanky gait, in Les’s stiff akimbo. A Les that waddled like a constipated duck. Who then became a blind duck. Who then offered his outsized wings that threatened to topple him, who then did topple.
By late morning they had finished. Light-headed from racing and laughing, they did not know if he was ever returning. (He had never just left like that, had never woke without setting upon his chores, without probing for infractions and ways of preventing those that might creep in, his vigilance evoking the code of a lone warrior determined to please his lord, for even the days it rained he seemed to study the dreary weather, not to be disturbed, as though calculating its strategy or comparing its martial theory yet searching for some point of failure by which he might persevere.) And it was this fierce discipline that they continued to mock and stage when they returned to work after breakfast.
At once they heard the jogging of his horse. They saw Les bumping upon his mare.
Though the sky had been overcast, something about the day went dark, the air thin and sterile as it must be in thawless tundra.
They saw he was nursing a bulge on his shirt, which he kept fighting to hold still.
“Why are you out here working?” he told them from his saddle. “Today is supposed to be a holiday.”
“What’s that moving on your belly, Pa?”
“What? You must mean this.” And fishing it forth from his stomach, he produced for them a bright black dog — a blinking puppy who vacillated between worship for its carrier and yearning for the strangers below.
“Is he for me?” screamed Quinn.
“Can I pet him, Pa?” said Irving.
“No, I saw him first! I get to pet him!”
Les fought his horse, which was attempting to turn him around. He called down on them, “The dog is not for either of you. It’s a special present for an acquaintance that we are going to go visit today. Help me hitch the wagon.”
“Yes, sir,” said Edward.
“Pa,” said Irving once he saw him eye to eye, “can I…I want to hold him. Can I, sir?”
“No.” He spoke the word like the chop of a knife. “Only I am getting to hold him. He’s a special present for Simon, and only Simon is getting to hold him. Is that understood?”
But already their faces had ripened with tears. Which caused the puppy to clamor, and it fought Les’s grip in an attempt to leap off the horse, into their arms.
Even after they braced the team and were some miles out, they continued crying, no matter how much Les promised he’d switch them and heap on the punishments, spates of tears that, whenever the little thing would peak back its head and yap in dismay, burst themselves anew.
In the manner of Les, Edward feigned ignoring them. He watched a hawk overhead go drifting like a message at sea. He wondered about the places the hawk had seen, how and if it remembered them all, if as a dumb beast it held any sense of the past, the mother and siblings whom it had known as a fledgling, or if a bird’s memory were as free as it appeared. He thought he should be terrified to persist at such heights beyond the voice of the world, where it was only yourself to keep yourself afloat, and being but a reasonless creature you could not even count on thought for help to flap your wings and suspend you but on the instinct you did not even know you had. With his eyes tracing the lines, he perceived a series of linking Os.
It took a few hours for them to reach Beckenham, where Annora’s father had lived from the day he moved there with wife, son, and daughter. He and a small group of thinkers had come west to establish a simple township, the laws that anchored it meant to reinstate the values of the Anglo-Saxon destiny, each an earl to his home. They had built each other’s estates and ploughed each other’s fields, and often they had gathered to practice the ancient tongue and would mourn their losses whenever Death made His frequent rounds.
That first year his own wife had died during a blizzard.
Upon waking from a nap and needing her aid, he rose and drifted to the bed and discovered she had passed without disruption. The way her head leaned on the pillow and her mouth gaped at him suggested she might return at any moment.
Mutely he went and peered through the ice-lacquered pane. Everywhere snow impearled the fields; the world had become a frozen void, the earth too cold to welcome the stabs of a shovel.
He waited until the twins were fast asleep. Then he took her up, gathering his oldest rope, and left to confront the snow.
He trudged beyond his fields. Too cold to mourn, too cold to think. His brain sorely ached and then seemed empty. In that manner he walked several miles.
Again and again, having held the body so long his arms not only went numb and it seemed she hung before him suspended, hovering before him by trick, but her corpse was beginning to bow, the length of her curling as if to shield him from the razorous winds and lend him what final warmth she possessed, as if even in death she were proving her better love that continued to vex and chide him for his cruelty in leading her hence from her family of pedigree and that was now offering her temple to the elements, he dropped her into the snow. After fishing around a spell, fearing he would never be able to locate her until the extinction of history, was relieved to strike a part — a leg, a bit of waist, a nose — and hefted her up, emerging from the depths an erased figure to bear her through the ice.
When finally he reached the glade, his head was spinning and he doubted his fingers would work his will. Using his wrists and teeth, he managed to tie the knot, hurled it across the sturdiest-looking branch of a nodose, snow-covered beech tree. Up he raised her, strove, her spindly feet dangling just beyond his stretch, not quite the height from which she had deigned to judge yet high enough to outlast the season, and he sped back through the pale dark, his mouth too chittering to upbraid the frostbite that was abusing his being to the soul, back to the warmth of his home.
The next day his children inquired what had become of her. He told them, “God has taken her,” and they seemed content sorting this out.
That spring, once the last heaps of snow had finished leaking and the dirt could withstand the stick of a thumb, he resolved that it was time.
He was not a drinking man, but asking his Maker’s forgiveness, he bought the cheapest bottle of brandy and downed as much of it as he could stand. Then, taking a blouse that had been his wife’s and recalling he needed the shovel, he trudged back to where he’d hanged her.
A nervous haste to his rapid though muddled steps. The burgeoning land, its millions of tiny green tongues, a chorus thrashing at him and chiding: he had already waited too long; he had wasted the best of the season; he must hurry and set to working his fields.
A good ways yonder he tied her blouse around his nose, figuring an unbecoming bandit of strange compulsions, and preparing himself to be frightened, he crept into the glade.
Since he had last seen it, the glade had flowered with the chatter of sparrows and the odor of earth in thaw. Petite leaves sheltered their branches like embarrassed matrons’ fingers covering their nudity. But when he got to the beech tree, no rope or wife hung waiting for him. It was as though she had tired of waiting.
He stared up blankly at the tree. In his staring the primal desire that he might render the job done without lifting a finger. Neither was she higher than he remembered nor lower, nor had she skipped to another branch nearby.
He knew that he was drunk, yet not so drunk to claim he had missed the tree and not so addled to ignore the certain gushing of his wife’s fire, that welter as had bellowed by the scandal of the minister having been caught stark naked in the chancel with three upright young choristers or had fed on the unfortunate occasion when he had forgotten Annora at the fair, returning home instead with a carved nose whistle and a sack of popped corn under his arm, thinking he had done well for himself, her remonstrative shrill making plain his faulty list of idiocies — her death, the day of her death, her trapped inside months of freezing, for not burying his solemnly sworn wife but stringing her up like an inn sign or flag of a heathen country — scourging him to his knees in an attempt to find some remnant, some clue, some crude assuagement, if only a meager knucklebone, something he might commit to hopeful ground that should cast out the terrible fussing, make her hush and still.
Long past what felt an entire day spent in desperate confusion, his trousers stained with proof he had tried and come up wanting, as he peered into the stream (the slight thought nudging him he should drown himself if only to offer amends), not at his unsorted visage but at the water he lapped down his throat, in the shadows of the setting sun, there in the depths he spotted it: his rope. Curled up and reclining against the silt like a coiled snake he dared not rouse, it had the look of a thing she had done herself. One of those chores he had always planned on finishing but kept forgetting about getting round to that she had finally gone and managed herself, having wearied of his excuse.
So she had buried herself. To his relief she had gotten her aim. He agreed his job was done.
They reached the crossing place for Beckenham, their stomachs in dialogue. Under the spell of the afternoon Annora had slept for much of the journey as had the puppy, which Les was cradling to his chest while with his right hand he worked the reins. Its little legs dangling over his palm swayed and wavered to the rhythm of the wagon.
He lived about a mile east of the village, and turning on the tracks to his home, they saw him sat amid a field, his company a lusk cow, himself bereft of a shirt and his squat chest sagging like the breasts of a nursing ape.
On coming near they saw he was rummaging a fallow field in quest of four-leaf clovers and humming a tune of a single note. At first he failed to sight them until one of the horses blew. Startled, he glared back over his shoulder as if interrupted in important business, yet his manner wafted to joy when he noticed they’d brought horses.
“Hello!” he sang, exalting.
They lifted a travelweary hello.
“Tie the horses and water them.”
“Do you want me to use his fodder?”
“If he has some, use it.”
Les, leveling it before his gaze, stroked the flabby being to life.
“Rise and shine, my little love compan,” he whispered, kneading its black skull. “We must shake the blanket of these sleepies.”
He did not think to offer them anything, and foraging through the cupboard, she found no trace he had eaten in weeks. She had not been back since before her children were born, and now as she went about two smells vied for her concern: the scent of childhood — of winter fires at odds with snow, dark shadows caressing her knitting, and of the sugar cookies Simon loved, mordant in the wood — against the odor of fleshy decay, the sweet, putrid stink of the body loosening from its fixity.
“What you been eating, Pa?”
“Oh, a little of this, a little of that.”
“They any chickens?”
“I don’t see why there should be.” He said this apparently indignant she should ask.
“Gruhn’s been bringing him food,” Les called from the other room. “He must be stuffing him full when he can. Doing it every couple of days.”
“Who’d you say you were?”
He looked at her, but in his beholding he seemed to be looking at nobody.
“It’s me, Pa.”
“Say, you must be my wife. Say, this lion’s a mighty mean thorn in need of pulling. You up to giving her a tug?”
Edward returned from the stable. He watched the ineffable agony with which the twins were studying the puppy and its attempts to rid itself from Les’s grip. It yelped and scrambled, fought to be set down.
“Take them outside,” Les told him, his stare sharp like metal. “And keep out until I call.”
“Yes, sir,” said Edward. “Looks like it’s out for us.”
Wrangling them through the frame, out into the loomwork of gray cloud. Young voices sank among vast space.
“I’m hungry,” said Irving.
“Yeah, when the hell do we eat?”
A wind rose up and took them, and there was silence except for light incessant whining. It was then the old man noticed the dog.
“Say, what you got there?” he ventured, pointing. “That some kind of baby raccoon?”
Les set it down on the ground, and the animal darted for the old man’s feet.
“He’s for you, Simon. A gift.”
Instantly the puppy set about licking the crevices between his toes — his nails were bestial talons — in a bid for some affection. The old man laughed from the pit of his belly as if all the world were so carefree.
“You can pick him up, you know. Just be forewarned he’ll nip. That’s his way of doting.”
Les sat down in the chair. He and Annora watched him confide his tenders, poking and jabbing the creature, these mismatched fondles small tortures meant to be little kindnesses.
“Yes, sir,” the old man cooed. “You’re a good raccoon, ain’t you, boy. You like that, don’t you, raccoon.”
Already they were inseparable, the pet the very embodiment of his lithe heart, for he nuzzled it to his breast in the guise of one nursing or hoping he would accomplish it to his own stuff, the two of them even resembling each other like chicks befuddled by their first rain.
Suddenly he peered up, his interest in the puppy made vacuous.
“Who’d you say you were?”
Annora rested against the wall (she would not sit), Les looking on in disgust.
“Who did you think we were?” said Les.
Now the pup was gnawing his beard, fighting the hair in its mouth, and the old man lit up with wonder. This entity conceived for his pleasure. Then backing out, the puppy upturned his head. Each time it peered up at him Simon burst into raucous laughter, simple intenerate joy.
So long had it been Les forgot he had not answered. Then from his delighted oblivion the old man managed to cast out, “I don’t know. Just some fella. And my wife’s the one over there buttering her bread.”
His answer hit like a taunt.
“Simon, why don’t you come sit down.”
The old man did as told, the puppy falling over itself to be let go. When he set it on the ground it bounded straight for Annora. Having surfeited of her smell, it soon ran to Les to lick his boots. Les gathered the puppy up and began fondling it, just enough so it would not go.
“Who’d you say you were?” the old man muttered.
“Simon, I want to ask you something. I know it’s hard to remember, but I need you to try.”
“Did you and Gruhn…did you and Gruhn ever rape Annora, Simon?”
With that the poor woman gasped. As if deflated on herself, she hid in a ball.
“Rape?” The old man spoke, his voice a less certain echo. He smacked a pale lip while he drew the word for an aftertaste, something that might help him comprehend the flavor.
“Rape,” he said the word again. “Who raped whom?”
“Annora,” said Les. “Right there. And she is not your wife. Annora is your daughter. Tell me why you raped her.”
“Well, ain’t the gal my wife? Ain’t there a certain business goes on between a man and his husband?”
“She is not your wife: she’s your daughter, Simon.”
“Something wrong these days when a man can’t rape his own wife.”
“Did you or Gruhn ever rape her, Simon? Was this something you approved?”
In hiding she made not a defensive ball but a ruin, a remnant to a structure whose groundwork has given out.
“I tell you it’s the whole durn country’s fault. Land’s too wide. People too much a number. And those Italians — you know what they are — they get to humping like a den of June rabbits come up to spawn, and before you know it you’re part Italian yourself.”
“Did you rape Annora, Simon? Did you? Did Gruhn, Simon? Did Gruhn?”
You could see him searching, his narrowed semblance a parody of plumbing a depth, which was actually a skimming of surface.
“Because the sausage fits the bread, and the monkey sneaks to bed.”
“I want you to watch this, Simon,” said Les. “I have a trick I want to show you.”
And elevating it before the old man’s stare, he took the tiny being that enlivened the moment he set it to ground, only he would not let it go.
“Are you watching me, Simon?” called Les.
And lifting up his bootheel he came down fast upon its skull. An incongruous crunch seemed to stick fast in the room.
“No,” she murmured from her huddle.
“Holy hell!” cried the old man, stupefied. “What’d you go and do that for? Why — the baby raccoon, he weren’t hurting nobody!”
Forthwith the old man jumped to his feet and commenced a furious pacing of the length of the room. Back and forth he went, muttering nonsense while he rankled his bald crown.
After hardly a minute had gone by he halted near the stove. Having walked himself into dumbness, he appealed to the sense of his onlooker.
“Did I say I was gonna do something?”
“Come and sit down, Simon.”
“All right, I think I will.”
He dithered there a spell, then some new resolution wafted him back to his seat before the fireplace where he spotted the movements under his boot.
“Say, what you got there under your boot, mister? That look like something to you?” He pointed, almost casual.
“Simon, did Gruhn ever rape Annora?”
“Rape.” The old man tasted the word as though he waited to behold the very definition form solid across the air.
“He might of raped Polk’s wife yonder ago. Probably raped the whole durn country, Gruhn done. And I tell you what: he’s got a lot of rape left in him.”
Les removed his bootheel, uncovered the animal merged with the ground. The dead dog’s eyes leered up at them, the teeth in a broken grin as if its brains had burst in negotiating a prurient joke.
“Holy hell!” the old man screamed. “What the — what the hell is that?” The demented sight a kind of alarm for him to sharpen himself, raise from where he slouched. Tears were slinking down and getting lost in his beard and also forming a glaze over his destroyed face. “Why’d you go do that for?”
“I didn’t do that, Simon. You did that.”
“I did that?”
“What, don’t you remember? Shame on you for stomping my puppy. It’s not right what you did. Don’t you agree?”
But the old man continued to cower. He was fanning away the declaration. Yet for all his revulsion he could not quit looking.
“You did this, Simon. You killed my poor little puppy.”
“But why? Why on earth would I do such a thing?”
“Because that’s just the way you are.”
Again he jumped up and set to pacing the room. Les watched him talk his frantic gibberish while he ruffled the scabs on his head, the path he walked tangled and distracted (perhaps it attested that he hoped to arrive that somewhere physically, however distant it lay in his mind). Again he flagged, then altogether stopped.
“Was I — did I say I was gonna do something?”
“Come sit down, Simon,” Les told him.
“Sigh-man. Sigh-man, sit down. A man’s got to sit down some day.” And he clucked his tongue.
He sat as he had, before the hearth. His posture revealing he was bored but willing to comply, like an eight-year-old in the pews. Soon he noticed the boot.
“Say, you got something on your leg? You step in a mighty big cow pad, mister.”
Les withdrew his foot.
“Lord amighty!” the old man belted. “That’s a dead dog on the floor! How the hell’d that happen?”
“You did that, Simon.”
“Me?” he said. “I did that?”
“I brought my puppy over to play, but you didn’t like him, did you? So when he went sniffing round your pizzle, do you know what you did then? Then you — ”
He stomped and stomped it and the whole cabin shook; the dead thing’s guts ejaculated a bloody juice.
“Because you’re a crazy, child-raping, selfish old man, and the only companion you deserve is a mashed-up puppy on the floor!”
Grabbing Annora, who fought him to remain in her ball, he dragged her from the cabin and summoned his sons. As they prepared to drive home they could hear the old man’s yells cleave the air now and then.
A few days later around dusk Gruhn rode up, a punishing gait heard from a distance, but when Les fired at him point blank, aiming to rid himself of him for good, Gruhn pulled to and instantly turned back, and that was the last time Les caught him about.