Third-place contest winner: “A Two-Penny Opera”

Read the third-place winner of our "Great Break" short story contest.
By Marie Smysor Watson | Published: July 15, 2016


The air is cold.  It bites softly at my face.  Ham walks in front of me along the frozen furrows of the cornfield.  His head is down; I can see his black curls high on his neck, where they escape from under an old wooly hat.  He is eleven and I am nine.  We are going sledding, down over the ridge.

“Don’ go near the vater,” Mama tells us, in her hard German voice.  She is broad, big in the chest and hips and shoulders.  Pa teases her, calls her mein zugpferd, which causes Mama to snort and toss her big head with her penny colored hair, looking very much like said horse.

Ham drags Porter’s sled behind him.  It had been made for Porter, our oldest brother, out of the hickory tree that used to stand in the center of the hog lot.  One windy day, before I was born, it came crashing down, killing two of Pa’s best sows who had both just birthed their second litters of the year.  Porter was given the job of bottle feeding all of those baby pigs for three months until they were old enough to wean.  He did it without complaint, or so Pa liked to tell both Ham and I when we’d grumble about our chores, so, for his reward, Pa made him a sled out of that hickory tree.  Of course, Porter had to share it with Sweeney, who was ten at the time.  Ham was only two then, so he stayed inside with Mama during that winter, but the twins, Maddy and Monroe were eight, and Porter graciously let them have a run or two on that sled of his, because, according to everyone, Porter was a kind and generous soul.  I can’t say for sure.  I wasn’t born yet.

As it happens though, it’s been Ham and I who’ve gotten the most use out of that sled.  Porter died that next spring, in late May, just before I was due to be born.  He drowned in the pond, his foot trapped hopelessly under a snarled root as he was cooling himself on the first truly hot day of the year.  Ham tells me that he remembers Porter’s face as he was brought up into yard, how it was swollen so that he was only recognizable by the port-wine stain on his left chest.  I doubt that Ham remembered much, being as he was not even three when Porter drowned.  But I didn’t argue.

Now, I trudge behind Ham gratefully, watching the sled bounce and shudder over the winter wasteland.  I know that Mama’s eyes, far-reaching, are watching us cross the field, making sure that we veer to the right and not to the left, where the pond lays.  We are to sled on the open hills that lead to the woods on the right, and leave what lay on the left to its own care.

“It is too vorm,” she says, shaking her head at us, crossing her thick arms over her chest.

It feels anything but too warm.  Our faces are bared against the February wind.  It cuts through my bobbed hair.  As we make our way to the edge of the field, Ham slows down like always, skirting the spot where Sweeney died.

This was only a few years after Porter – one would think that Sweeney might’ve been a little more careful with his mother’s heart, but in truth, he was fourteen and he wasn’t thinking of her at all as he jumped down off of the idling tractor, probably to check the tire or maybe to pick up an arrowhead that he saw glinting sharp in the dying sun.  As he bent over, the tractor slipped out of gear and he was caught between the huge tire and the unyielding ground.  When he was found, his mouth and nose were packed full of dirt, leaving everyone to speculate whether he had died of suffocation or of the weight of the tractor.  I didn’t speculate anything, because I was just three.

We pass Sweeney’s spot and without looking back, we disappear from Mama’s view, over the lip of the field as it slopes away to the woods below.  There is still plenty of snow on the ground but only Ham and I are here to enjoy it.  Because Monroe and Maddy are gone now, too.

Just this past fall, Monroe had gotten into a fight at the bar that sat just past the edge of town (it was a dry town, so the bar had been built just fifty feet south of its limits, following the rule of law and thereby making no one happy).  Maddy was with him, of course, as one never went anywhere without the other.  Monroe hit the other man, George Wilbur, so hard that Wilbur stumbled back and cracked the base of his head against the edge of the bar.  He crumpled to the floor instantly.  Maddy had enough sense to push Monroe out of the door then, to their car.  If Wilbur was dead, it would be Monroe’s fault; if Wilbur wasn’t dead, Monroe might as well be.  That’s how it came to be that Maddy and Monroe, my two brothers who were never apart, were speeding down the rutted road at twenty five or thirty miles an hour.  They were both drunk and the night was so dark and the headlights weak, so neither of them saw the cow that had wandered out into the road, not until it was sitting in Maddy’s lap.  Maddy’s left arm was curled around it in an embrace when Monroe stumbled from the vehicle.  He had hit the steering wheel with his face and his nose was broken, but he was not worried about that or much of anything as he staggered home.  He curled up in Pa’s wood shop on the pile of rags in the corner. The Sheriff found him there in the morning, in the dog’s bed, when he came to arrest him.  George Wilbur was dead and so was Maddy.  Monroe was sent to prison for one of them; the rest of us bore the pain for the other.  This death I remembered and mourned; Maddy had been my favorite brother, although I’ve never let this be known to Ham.  He is all I have left, the remainder of my brothers.

After we clear the field and are hidden by the ridge, Ham veers to the left.   Here the sled doesn’t bounce as much, just slips down the slope, forcing him to drag it awkwardly as he picks his way over the icy ground to the pond.  He doesn’t speak to me.

As always, I follow.

 

The crack that comes from the breaking of the ice is not startling.  It’s not a sharp report like the crack of my father’s rifle when he shoots at rats in the hog pen.  The crack that comes is soft, and the sound is swallowed into itself, folding me into the icy water almost kindly.  If I am surprised at all, it’s that it breaks during the first run I make with the sled; Ham lets me go first, to test the ice, because I am smaller and lighter.  I am surprised only because Mama is right; it has been too warm.

I don’t fight.  I just follow the sled, down, down, down below the ice.  And there my brothers are, the lost ones, down below, reaching their hands out to me, their faces wavering in the murky light.  Porter, Sweeney and Maddy.  My chest, rather than filling with air, fills with happiness.  Hi Ruthie, they all say, in chorus.   They reach out to me lovingly, their rough boy hands made soft by the water.  Ruthie, Ruthie, stay here with us, Porter says with his eyes, brighter and bluer than mine.  Porter, the brother I never knew who is still trapped below by the snarling tree roots.  Sweeney, the brother I do not remember, is to his left, and he is smiling.  There is a large gap between his front teeth that no air bubbles escape from; his eyebrows, full and dark, are caked with mud that does not come off in the water. Come, little sister, be with us.  Maddy’s face hovers between them, his beautiful face, far and away more lovely than all of us– that face, silvery and perfect, like untouched snow.  Just breathe, Ruthie, Maddy says, and since I love him the most of all, I open my mouth.  The water is soft as it slips over my lips and tongue.

The hand that yanks my hair up through the icy slash of frozen water is anything but gentle.  I am ripped from them and deposited onto the hard bank.  My head throbs and I sputter.  I open my eyes; I see nothing but broad shoulders and a copper braid that lays, dripping, like a fat snake against her chest, resting, waiting.  The edge of her old green shawl is rough and wet.  It scratches at my chin as she bends towards ­­me.

I am saved, I think miserably.  I don’t bother to cry.  It will not help me at all.

 

It is the early spring, after the great thaw.  I watch Mama trudge through the field.  She is wearing Sweeney’s old boots, the ones he was wearing when he died (or so Ham says); they cake up quickly with mud.  Their weight must become greater with each step, but her stride never falters.  She walks diagonally across the rows, towards the left.  She makes no pretense. She has nothing to hide.

(This is three weeks before we receive the letter about Monroe – he is killed in the dispute with another inmate, who buries a homemade knife between his ribs in the shower one night because Monroe fought with him over a place in chow line, which sounds so much like Monroe that Mama and Pa do not even question it. Mama stands there, her thorny arms at her sides, while Pa keens at the scarred kitchen table, ever the Irishman, brimming with nothing but jokes and tears.  A goddamn two-penny opera, this is, he says – it is the only thing that I understand between racked sobs).

I watch Mama as she disappears over the ridge.  I keep my eyes on that fixed point until she reappears, only a few spare minutes later, her shoulders straight and wide enough to block out whatever she drags behind her.

I call to Ham and he runs with me out into yard.  His breathing is light (it holds no trace of the emphysema that will kill him when he is an old man – old age being an unexpected gift for any brother of mine, I cannot be sad when the time comes); mine is heavy and full of dread.

Mama trudges into the barnyard.  When she sees us, she stops.  Her face is stony, like the big rocks that Pa turns up in the field every year when he plows.  She turns and bends to pick up what she has brought back from beyond the ridge.

“No raison to be vasteful,” she says, leaning Porter’s sled up against the wall of the Pa’s shed. Her brown eyes are cold as she stares at Ham and me, cold and so terribly dark like the spring mud at the edge of the pond must be right now.  I don’t know this for sure. I haven’t been back.

“Ja – it is a goot sled,” she says, almost to herself.  She tosses her head as she walks past us, her mouth settling into a narrow line.  I want to kiss it, that mouth, even though I know it will be hard, unyielding, like the knifing wind that blows up over the ridge before the crops have yet to be planted.

Ham squeezes my bird-thin shoulder.

“We’re fine, Ruthie,” he breathes into my ear, his voice cracking under its own unbearable weight.

 


Marie Smysor Watson is a lifelong native of central Illinois, where she lives with her husband and three sons.  She has been writing since she was six years old (she’s a little older than that now).  She is currently working on a collection of short stories that use her much loved home state as a foundation for exploring the extraordinary, and often terrifying, things that happen to us when we allow ourselves to suspend reality.

 

Marie Smysor Watson on “A Two-Penny Opera”

watsonThe inspiration for this story comes from my grandmother, Grace DeWitt Smysor.  She must have told me the story about her and her brother, Herb, at least a hundred times (according to her) when I was young, about how they defied their mother and went sledding on thin ice and the consequences thereof.  Of course, I added my own twist with the advent of her other brothers appearing under the water (although it is very true that my Gramma Grace did have five older brothers, some of whom lived abbreviated lives).  I was very particular when crafting the story to get the tone just right.  I wanted to convey the bleakness of the landscape (anyone who’s seen Illinois in late winter knows what I’m referring to!) and compare it to the hardness of Ruthie’s mother.  Also, I am lucky enough to still have Gramma with me (she’s 91).  I knew she would be reading the finished product, and I very much wanted to stay true to the essence of her original story while finding the right words to make it my own.  Sharing stories is an amazing gift for a child, and I am so grateful to Gramma for sharing hers with me.

 

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