Let What Comes Natural Fly

J.D. Hibbitts

Michael saw his brother given over to cockfighting before, but this was new. Cade had a Mclean rooster tethered to an empty cable reel with 550 cord, one hand wrapped around its neck and the other working a pair of hair clippers over his bird’s tail feathers. The once familiar valley fog veiled the edges of what was now Cade’s farm and crept through the holes in the barn where boards fell to rot. Though he couldn’t see through the white, Michael could mark every chicken on the hill outside. They’d been clawing the insides of his ears since he’d been here. From the rooster crows, he made the number to be at thirty. Cade didn’t seem to mind. He just kept feeding feather to metal teeth with his head lowered in what looked like prayer.

Over the squall of roosters and comb blades Michael thought he heard a telephone ring.

But Kathy hadn’t called in weeks. Wasn’t going to either, he figured. He’d kicked out their front door barefoot in a late stretch of evening some months back. That stunt infected her with a silence he wasn’t used to; it left him with a dozen stitches and a leave of absence from a hard-earned environmental service technician job at the power plant. He came here with the ink still drying on the divorce papers and a soft limp, now ironed out by the hill slopes. And he felt more than a little foolish now because he expected any reckoning with Cade to be immediate.

“Why are you shaving that rooster’s ass?” Michael shouted above the plaintive clipper teeth.

“His name’s Valentine,” Cade yelled out, not looking up. He kept steady on the fluff and tail feathers. Cade’s shoulders were broad, though stooped too far forward from years of walking underground, and his wide framing ran down into his limbs. Flecks of quill and dander sprouted from the shabby cobalt blue shirt he wore to work in the mines.

Michael let his eyes drift down to the fresh stubble that started to pepper his unlaced loafers—the first expensive pair of shoes he owned not intended for the raw mire of farm earth. Along his right foot, puttying cracks at the edge of his pinky toe, the nearly imperceptible weight of chicken dung whitewashed the yellow sole in a damp smear. With Cade still mooning over Valentine, Michael looked for something he could scrape his foot against. Seasoned planks covered the locust frame around them, their edges bowing inward with the same knobby curve of Valentine’s toes. He was mindful to avoid the fresh droppings, and cleaned off his shoe in a slot where he could still watch Cade play barber to his rooster.

When Cade finished with the clippers, the dark tail feathers were replaced by a six-inch circle of clipped quills. Valentine spread his wings, forcefully stretched his neck, and shook away the loose down. “Keeps them cool,” Cade finally said. He unsnapped the 550 cord from Valentine’s leg and twined it around his forearm. “Don’t want them boiling over before you even get them warmed up.”

Michael asked, “What’s next?”

“Looks like the fog’s lifting some,” Cade said. “Soon be time to spar.” He blew gently on the rooster’s stubble and walked out of the barn.

Michael paused on the porch to wipe his feet again, but Cade went right on into the kitchen with Valentine. Cade ducked under the table and double looped the line to an eyebolt Michael hadn’t noticed before. The rooster scuffled for footing before it settled on a spot right in the middle. A few Hustler magazines were spread out on the end where Cade usually sat. Michael checked the answering machine. No messages. He didn’t have to cut his eyes to know that his brother would be shaking his head. Several cabinet doors rasped open behind him from Cade’s abrupt searching. Before Michael tried to call her again, he unhooked the phone and moved with it into the living room to exclude Valentine and Cade from what he hoped would finally be his private moment with Kathy. Dialing her number, his fingers took on the nervous ache they always did whenever he raised scaffolding at his job. The thought of feeling himself topple forward into oblivion because of a weak grip shamed him into a position of silence around his wife. And now, with the line on Kathy’s end looped in endless ringing, Michael could feel the same emotion extend to his brother. Well after he realized that there would be nothing for him to speak to, Michael hung up. He left the phone on the floor. Back in the kitchen, he could feel the uneasy tension between himself and the rooster. Michael edged around the table, taking extra care not to rattle Valentine, and pulled his chair a few feet away from the table before he sat down. It took the first year of his marriage to convince Kathy he knew how to use a fork. What would she say to a bald ass rooster centerpiece strapped to the kitchen table?

Cade took out a couple of Sheds Spread margarine bowls, poured them full of cereal, then set one at each end of the table before sitting down. He leaned his weight onto his elbows and traced the comb scar on Valentine’s head. “You been rutting on my phone since you been here. If your old lady ain’t called yet you best go ahead and figure she ain’t going to.” Cade’s wife Rayann had split out on him some years back and Michael worried Cade might be right. There was a difference between the short gone and the long gone. Every day added a little more length. If it were possible, he would have already left her four messages this week.

“How many times did you call Rayann after she left?” The only family picture of Cade, Rayann, and their son Scotty sat hidden near the back of the fridge. Michael remembered delivering it the only time he visited Cade in the regional jail. Puzzled together squares of cigarette wrappers—the same Marlboro red of Cade’s old brand—framed the glassless photo that now wore dust like a fur coat. Since her going, Cade had eaten every meal with his back to them.

“Enough,” Cade said. He walked to the fridge and took out some cube steak, eggs, and milk. Plopped the jug down on the table near Valentine. Set the eggs and meat to frying in the same pan. This reminded Michael of his first year with Kathy. Neither one of them knowing how to cook, and living off egg sandwiches and Cheesy Mac with cans of tuna fish tossed in. He’d eaten it all. Rode that gravy train right up to being happy, in fact. But now, seeing the gaffs and spur knives spread over all the dishware just above the stove every morning on the way to help Cade feed the roosters had made going hungry easy. Small brown medicine bottles—ones that looked like something an old country doctor would use—filled the spice rack.

“Where do you keep the paper plates?”

“Ain’t got any,” Cade said. “What you need one for anyhow?”

Michael looked toward the stove.

“Eat your cereal. The steak and eggs are for Valentine.” Cade stirred the wad around the skillet and turned off the stove. Evidence from his rifling around the cabinets earlier lay spread out along the counter: a food processor and a small pastry bag. From the utensil drawer he took out a few syringes and another brown bottle. This one painted with the letter X.

Michael caught himself tilting too far forward in his chair. “You mean to tell me that bird eats better than you?” Michael asked. Valentine scratched at some of the Hustlers and flapped his wings. The chair legs skidded on the linoleum and nearly kicked out from under him when Michael jerked back in his seat.

“Win me a few grand and I’ll fry you up some meat too.” Cade poured steak and scrambled eggs into the processor and it churned a muddy texture when he flipped the switch. While he waited, Cade filled a syringe from the brown medicine bottle. He tapped the needle and squirted out a small stream of fluid before he recapped it. He then let the mixture whirr a few seconds more. Cade scooped out a few spoonfuls of the pulp at Valentine’s feet and drained the rest into the pastry bag. When the bag was full, he dumped the blender and frying pan into the sink. The milk he poured over Michael’s cereal. Finally, he sat down and started flipping through the pages of one of the magazines.

“Should check out page forty. Best one in there.” Cade slid the picture around Valentine. The bird had its beak in the mush at its feet.

“I’ll pass,” Michael said, shoving the magazine back across the table. The cereal felt too soft to chew. He swallowed it and let the spoon drop into the milk. Then he got up and drained the bowl in the trashcan before leaving the rest in the sink. The milk sluice floated at the top of his stomach like crude oil.

“If you’re done eating you can help me feed Valentine,” Cade said, stooping by the edge of the table to unhook the cord from the eyebolt. “May need a gopher.”

“Think I’ll pass on that, too.” Michael leaned against the sink and crossed his arms. He was sick of washing Cade’s dishes. With the way his brother kept kitchen, Michael figured he could smash every plate in the house.

“You got something better in mind?”

“No a good enough answer?” Michael snapped.

“Used to be a time when you’d help me with this.” Cade’s words lost some of their honed edge. “When’s the last time your old lady let you do this?”

“This isn’t about that.”

“You got to whip the sulk out of your system somehow.”

Cade always had a way of bending him. He wanted something familiar between himself and his brother again. And Cade’s interests were simple.

“Take that bird back to the barn first and I’ll do it,” Michael said.

Cade nodded and then wrapped the cord around Valentine’s legs and held him out to Michael like a baby.

“You bring him with you when you come,” Cade said. “I got another rooster to bring down.”

Michael felt his knees loosen some. “I’m not sure we’ll get there if I take him.”

“Just keep him close and he’ll know to stay calm.” Cade raised and lowered Valentine in front of him a few times to show that Valentine would behave.

Michael took Valentine into his arms, held him too tight at first, making the rooster jerk. Cade pried Valentine’s mouth open with the tip of the pastry bag and squeezed gently. Michael felt every muscle in Valentine’s body relax, save for the bird’s throat. He remembered the first rooster Cade showed him how to hold, the weight of it against him, and the almost reptilian skin around the toes. He’d quit this more for himself than for Kathy, he told himself. In their first fights, when Kathy was still hot and loose with her words, she would scold him with threats of boiling the few chickens he’d brought with them. And one night, just to test her bluff, he’d brought one into the house. She called him on it. He came out from a shower and saw his birds stacked in a neat pile on the front porch.

After Cade finished with the food bag, he began massaging Valentine’s throat with his thumb and knuckles. Valentine let loose a few soft trills that sounded like purrs to Michael.

“Going to help me spar?” Cade asked.

“So long as you remember that I’ve got some rust to knock off.”

“You’ve got more than some,” Cade said. “Take a whole tube of grease to work you loose again.” He took down a coffee tin, opened it, and started rifling.

Something soft thudded against tin. Cade held what looked like a rubber thimble up to the light in front of him—a set of sparring gloves. Soft padded things that went over their heel spurs to keep the roosters from drawing blood. He and Cade fought their roosters with these when they were younger. In some corner drawer in Kathy’s kitchen, he thought, would be his own set of gloves. Gone now to dry rot.

Michael cupped his hands under Valentine’s breastbone, following the way he’d seen Cade handle Valentine before, watching his brother for any slight nod of approval. Every bird had its pocket, the place it felt safe enough to let its instinct cool. Michael found Valentine’s just under the right wing and the bird softened into what felt like silk reeds.

“Don’t get too settled,” Cade said.

“I haven’t forgotten as much as you think.”

Cade stuffed a handful of sparring gloves down Michael’s back pocket. “You can brag about what you have hanging once you show me you can still handle.” Slowly, he made footing for himself by digging into the soft earth and climbed toward the hillside chickens.

“You want to pit in the barn?” Michael asked. He felt pleased for remembering the word. But it felt clunky in his mouth.

“Got a spot for them up on the knoll,” Cade said. He pointed to a thin stripe of trees. A narrow path of worn grass disappeared just before a laurel thicket began.

“Don’t fall in the stream crossing before you get there neither,” Cade said.

Michael left the kitchen with Valentine under his arm and watched Cade disappear into the cloud of roosters on the hill. Past the barn, he found the trail. Michael stopped on a slab of limestone that was no wider than a scaffolding plank deep-set into the embankment over the stream. The water ran off from an old strip mine and cut a gorge ten feet deep. At its base, where the runoff fed a larger river, Michael saw a few sawed-up pieces from the blue plastic barrels Cade used to house his roosters. If left with other chickens, gamecocks would claw and peck each other crippled. And they would keep at everything else until they knew all life had gone out around them. Cade had taught him once that instinct was something a person couldn’t aim, but it was something you could hone. When they were younger, Cade had made this clear by making Michael hold a mother hen while a peep of chicks wandered into a corner of their yard one of Cade’s old roosters frequently scratched. Rattled at the hen’s clucking, Michael dropped her, thinking the rooster would back away from an angry mother. He even took a flogging from both of the birds when he stepped between them. It was one of those whippings that follow you well into the years after the event. Eventually, Michael gave up, and the old rooster cut the hen off from everyone, chased her off into the woods, before coming back to kill the rest of her chicks.

“See that,” Cade had said. “There ain’t much on that bird you can strap a leash to. Sometimes you just let what comes natural fly.”

Now, even with Valentine calm in his arms, Michael felt like he held the uneasy weight of his history. He held the rooster out over the water and thought that if he let the bird fall, Valentine might pull something out of him, too.

Cade came up behind them. “You want to play space cadet, go find you a window to look out of. Let go of my bird and I’ll kick your ass in right after.” Another rooster hung upside down from his hand, like a bat. Unlike Valentine, this bird’s tail feathers and comb were intact.

“I wasn’t going to drop him.”

Cade raised the other bird above his head, nodded at Valentine. “You won’t have to hang on to him much longer. Keep moving.”

Camouflage drapes walled the clearing. Cade had cut up some old tarps, used them to keep the woods from getting in. Square straw bales looped a bed of damp sawdust where the roosters would fight. Michael took the sparring gloves out of his pocket and squatted on a stump near a loose piece of tarp.

“Reach me one of them,” Cade said. He held out the upside-down rooster.

“What’s his name?” Michael asked. He gave Cade the gloves and Valentine before he took the other rooster.

“He don’t need one,” Cade said. “Use him for practice. If he lives long enough, I’ll name him.” Gently, he turned Valentine over to unlatch the bird’s tether. Cade pulled out the loaded syringe and a small roll of medical tape. He placed the syringe on a square bale and wrapped Valentine’s ankle spur. Then he covered the tape with a glove, pulled the loop over, and fastened it. When he finished, he fitted Valentine’s other spur and then did the same for the other rooster. He didn’t speak while he worked. Only said, “OK,” once he finished.

Fitted with its gloves, the young rooster squirmed against Michael, dug right into his belly button. A hard green pull of untrained temper rose in him. He got a few fingers wrapped around the heels, bent them back. The bird craned its neck around and beaked him. Hard.

“If you got some piss and vinegar to get out of your system,” Cade said. “Then you best hop in your car and tail it back to your ole lady.”

“Let that alone.”

“I ain’t the one sulking around the house all day.”

“I’m not either,” Michael said. “You’ve been where I’m at.”

“We may of come from the same place, but I won’t ever be where you’re at.”

“Where’d you go then after Rayann took Scotty and left?”

Cade disregarded him. Some of the thin feathers under Valentine’s beak wisped out and Cade thumbed them flat again. He uncapped the needle, let the plunger dangle from his lips like a cigarette while he searched the bird’s neck for a spot to shoot. Valentine struggled. Michael stepped forward to help, but Cade waved him off. He sank the point through the fatty tissue, pumped in the plunger, and then pulled it out slightly—just enough to draw in blood—before he shot the cocktail into Valentine. When he finished, he bent the needle against his thigh and tossed the syringe into some brambles outside the entryway.

“You giving him steroids?”

“Never mind that mess now,” Cade said, flicking the puncture wound in Valentine’s neck. “Hold up your stag and let them kiss.”

Michael knew this put some heat between the birds before they flogged. The two roosters cocked their heads to the side and back when Cade and Michael brought them together. Valentine shot out the feathers around his neck and pecked the young rooster just under its left eye, pulling a small piece of flesh from its face. Blood ran out from the cut when Cade pulled Valentine away. He looked up at Michael and stepped into the sawdust ring. Michael straddled a bale, waited.

Slowly, Cade said, “When I say handle, pick up your rooster. Don’t let them peck you neither.” He lowered Valentine to the ground, nodded for Michael to do the same.

“If Kathy could—”

“Drop your bird,” Cade shouted. He let go of Valentine.

The roosters flew at each other when their toes touched ground, wing beats blending into a single movement. Michael watched their yellow sparring mitts flash—a brief pounding of hollow bone as both roosters tried to drive his glove into the other’s chest.

“Handle,” Cade yelled. “Pull back!” Valentine had to be torn off the other rooster. Both clucked loudly after Cade and Michael parted them. Michael caught the other rooster and clamped his hands over its wings to keep them from flapping. Valentine composed himself and let his feathers loosen as Cade blew on his shaved area. The young rooster was not regaining his breath as fast as he should have—even with the handicap of his feathers.

“That’s a damn popcorn chicken,” Cade said. He blew against Valentine again.

“What do you mean by popcorn chicken?” Michael asked.

“Comes out hard but goes soft when the heat gets high.”

In the next match, Michael saw what Cade meant. The popcorn rooster pecked at Valentine once, then made the mistake Michael knew one of Cade’s birds should never make.

It ran. And would have kept running if Michael hadn’t plucked it up.

At first, Cade seemed content watching Valentine chase the other chicken. A look of malice soon snuck into his mouth though, colored it a few shades darker when Cade tightened his lips. He fished down into his pocket again, came up with a set of iron spurs. They went straight to the lungs and heart. This fight would end soon. While the young rooster coughed for air, Cade sat on a bale and stuck the spurs into the hay. Without an opponent, Valentine gravitated to his handler. He unsnapped the rubber bands around Valentine’s sparring gloves and wrapped another layer of medical tape around Valentine’s leg before he covered the binding with a spur. He was nearly finished with the second leg before Michael felt the rooster in his arms regain its wind. Cade let Valentine fall to the ground. The sharp tip of the shanks ticked against each other as Valentine strode around. Cade stepped outside of the circle.

“Drop the stag and back off,” Cade said.

Michael hesitated, looking at the sharpened gaffs around Valentine’s legs. Cade narrowed his eyes. He walked to Michael and clamped his hand down on Michael’s shoulder. His head lowered a few inches.

“You got no reason to hang on. This been in you longer than everything else you been dragging.” Cade narrowed his eyes. “Drop the bird.”

“This won’t prove what you’ve got it in your mind to say.”

“Have it then,” Cade said. He lifted Valentine and walked close enough for the birds to kiss again.

Then he threw Valentine in Michael’s face.

The young rooster fluttered in his arms, unable to climb over the wall of Michael’s chest. Michael turned his head away, but it was not enough. Beaks and claws ripped at his neck and at the loose skin under his chin. Stray hacks from Valentine’s spurs opened his knuckles and he felt the young rooster slip away. Valentine took the rest. Despite outweighing the younger gamecock, Valentine’s mass was no hindrance. His wings cut a vertical plane between himself and his opponent so that the young bird couldn’t open a pocket to drive its spurs where they needed to land. Conditioning and Cade’s mystery injections had swollen Valentine’s drumsticks into taught pistons. They flurried, shuffled inside the short jabs from the popcorn rooster, and opened up the breastbone for Valentine’s gaffs to do their work. The young rooster was finished before they even landed on the ground. Blood ran from its beak, choking it inert. It rose to meet Valentine but its legs folded; it tried to shield its throat from the flurry of Valentine’s blows but couldn’t. Having his fill of this spectacle, Michael stepped between the birds and shooed Valentine towards Cade.

Cade’s lips warmed into a smile. “You held on longer than I figured.” He stepped back, squatted. Set his elbows between his knees. Coughed and spat.

“Would you let that rooster kill me to prove you right?” Michael wiped his bloodied knuckles against the seams of his jeans.

“No fault of his,” Cade said. He took the medicine bottles out of his pocket and sat them on the ground in front of him. He lobbed one up for Michael to catch. Michael held it high enough for what little sunlight there was left to filter through.

“It’s my own mix of B12 and strychnine,” Cade said, “Makes the birds fight better. Makes them meaner. They go blind if you don’t get the mix right though.”

“Were those the bottles in the fridge?” Michael asked.

“Yeah. Be careful around the marked ones. That’s pure strychnine. Will kill a man if he’s not careful.”

Michael threw the bottle against the tarp wall and kneeled by the rooster. Its neck twisted around to the back of its body where its head seemed to point toward the corner it never returned to after the round. One eye peered up at him. The tips of his shoes steeped in bloody lumps of sawdust. Michael picked the rooster up by its legs and watched all the blood in its body river out the beak. Holding on to it for Valentine the way he had only killed it sooner, he thought.

Cade was watching him. “I figured you had enough wild still left in you to keep Valentine off.”

“And if I didn’t?”

Cade picked a blade of straw from one of the bales beside him and scribbled in the dust between his feet. He made no effort to look up until he’d finished. “Leave the bird,” he said finally, standing up.

“Think I’ll not.”

“Suit yourself,” said Cade.

After the scuffle, Valentine wasn’t calming down. The rooster paced between him and Cade with a surreptitious bend in its gait. Valentine’s skull no longer jerked, but smoothed into calm form, one full of stoic bearing.

“Strychnine’s set into him now,” Cade said. “Won’t be long before he’s ready for another tournament.” Cade crept up behind Valentine on his haunches. He snatched the rooster’s legs above the gaff. Valentine was not calming to his touch. When it was clear the rooster would keep fighting him, Cade clamped his free hand around Valentine’s neck to keep the bird from beaking him.

Michael stepped over a straw bale. “I’m going to try Kathy again when I get back.”

“Won’t do you no good.”

“I’m done with what’s good,” Michael said. He pointed to the popcorn chicken. “What’s that ever brought you?”

Cade raised Valentine to his lips again, blew hard. Valentine jolted. Cade tightened his grip around Valentine’s neck and delicately traced the injection site. Valentine jammed Cade in the wrist with the loose gaff and its beak closed on the patch of skin between Cade’s thumb and forefinger. Cade let loose with one hand and Valentine sunk the same gaff into Cade’s bicep all the way up to the leather leg straps. In a single movement, Cade yanked free the gaff, whipped the bird over his head by its toes, then slammed it down sideways against a rock. Valentine still lashed toward Cade, though only with quick, sporadic stabs. Michael watched as Cade knelt in the sawdust beside his rooster, clamped the bird’s head. Standing up, Cade spun Valentine’s body like a lasso for a few seconds. When he finally let go, Valentine’s wing feathers fanned out in an inert flight of escape. Cade clutched the puncture wound. Michael hesitated, thinking Cade was done. But Cade had more of this to use. With the heel of his boot, Cade dug at Valentine’s body until it was a smeared mass of feathers.

“Let off,” Michael yelled. He wrapped Cade around the waist, threw him against the tarp wall.

“He forgot who he belongs to,” Cade whispered, squeezing his injury. “They do that sometimes. Don’t know how to listen.” He felt behind him for a tree to lean against.

In the dry patch of dust Cade had been drawing in, Michael made out the sketch of a sundress. He tried to make his voice soft for Cade. “When was the last time you heard from Rayann or your son?”

Cade stepped over the drawing in the dust to squat by Valentine. He soaped his hands and forearms with some sawdust to grit loose the blood, folded Valentine’s wings over the bird’s chest before he picked it up. He looked directly at Michael. “Since they ran out on me,” he answered.

“I’m sorry,” Michael said.

“Don’t leave your rooster there,” Cade said in a low voice. “I ain’t inviting no hawks.”

Cade waited for him to pick up the popcorn rooster before he stepped outside the circle. Michael followed the lines of blood behind his brother, but he kept a stretched distance between himself and Cade. Once they made the limestone bridge, Cade slowed long enough to drop Valentine into the stream beneath him without looking down. He nodded for Michael to do the same, and kept walking. At the place where Cade let Valentine go, Michael stopped. With the fog lifting, the culvert beneath him opened into a clearer view of the road and stream. Michael stared down a valley lost to kudzu and cedar. The wadded lump of bird rolled and washed through each rapid until the calm of deep water swallowed Valentine whole. Michael could almost see the place where the river current met the two-lane and the water shifted in an open direction. Deep echoes from passing vehicles charged the breeze. Valentine would travel further this day than he had since returning home. And Cade’s unnamed rooster wouldn’t be far behind—if he chose to release it to the stream’s drive. Michael moved his hand up into the limp safety pocket of Cade’s popcorn rooster, held it out before him, thumbed the puncture wounds. He waited for the last blood to drain from the popcorn rooster before he folded its wings and nested it between his feet. Let hawks eat their fill.

Straddling a kitchen chair, the shoulders of his work shirt draped over the backrest in front of him, Cade finished daubing the hole in his arm with a paper towel. Some of his medicine bottles were rowed out along the table behind. Cade held each one up, turned it to sift light through the dark glass. Realizing none where what he wanted, he filled his shirt pockets and stared at the floor.

“Reach me that blue box on the fridge yonder.”

“The one by the picture?”

Cade lifted his head. “The same.”

Before he obliged his brother’s request, Michael washed free the last scraps of dander and innards along his forearms, minding the soiled dishes. As he toweled himself dry, Michael stared at the picture of Cade’s busted family. While Michael couldn’t place their voices in memory anymore—their lives seemed more fleshly shadow than that of body—he knew that for Cade there would be a place set aside where nothing fell from order.

Michael slid the first aid kit and the photograph from the fridge without wiping them off. He placed both on the counter across from his brother, hoping to bring Cade closer to some gentle understanding. Gold creases in the cigarette wrapper frame caught sunlight and shone dull through the grime. Cade rose, flexed his wounded arm to shake free the hurt. He snapped loose the hinges on the first aid kit without a word. Michael felt something shift in Cade, knew what his brother had seen. Without looking up, Cade folded the photograph of his family on the countertop, faces still dusted with unspoken remembering. Flinging back the lid, Cade opened an iodine swab, his hands eaten up with soft trembling. The uneven loops he made grew larger with each pass until the solution coated the wrinkles on the inside of his elbow.

Michael took out a gauze pad and a fresh roll of medical tape. “Let me help,” he said, reaching for the coffee-stained smudge.

“You done enough helping here today,” said Cade. He drew from Michael and yanked loose his shirt, the small bottles clinking against themselves as he drove his arms through the sleeves. Doing the buttons, he said, “I ain’t got need of you.” And after he’d fastened the last one at his throat, Cade hurried out the door.

Through a window between cabinets, Michael kept an eye on his brother, saw a wedge that wouldn’t close through the thinning fog. He shut every drawer Cade left open that morning and returned the photograph to the spot where Cade wanted it to stay. Noticing the phone in the floor where he’d left it, he picked it up and took it with him to the front porch. The smooth cold of the receiver didn’t feel hard enough to chip away the distance between himself and Kathy anymore, but he dug it into his thigh. He needed the hope. With the fog burned away, every blue plastic barrel Cade used as a chicken coop surfaced into view. Long pockets of silence filled the spaces between the last crows from Cade’s hillside roosters—their voices lulled by sun. He wanted the natural force that screamed in them to bang against his veins, and he strained to hear it within himself. Michael did nothing but listen. Until the only sound that came back to him was the precise and swift hum of hair clippers rising from Cade’s barn again.

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