When we first met he said it was an accident with a car. His skin, puffed out, swollen, ashen and bruised. He could barely make words from his mouth. There were cuts on his face and hands, drool on his chin. He pointed to speak. His finger did not possess a nail. The spot where the nail used to be was wet, a color lighter than the rest of his finger.
There was a plastic container with a long spout in his lap. He sat in his chair and said nothing, his eyes closed. He opened his mouth, pressed hard against the container. His neck loosened, the container dropped to the dirt, liquid spilled from its spout.
We wheeled him from one place to the next, or we dragged his body with our hands. He would lie in the grass out back, the burnt mattress in the front yard. He would lie in the rocks by the brook. If we found him we dragged him back up the hill, into the house. If we did not do this, our faces would burn. Sometimes, even if we dragged him back to where he belonged, we would still get punished. Our arms would sometimes burn.
I answered the ad in the paper.
I arrived ready to tend animals, sow crops, plow fields, slash weeds, clean pens, butcher meat, milk cattle, fix the barn.
There were no animals, no crops.
My room was in the basement.
I was alone when I got there.
I was not alone in the basement when I slept.
The one that posted the ad in the paper said it was just rabbits out back in the burn pile. There were rabbits in the yard, I remember, but the bone they found was too big to be rabbit. There was flesh still attached to bone. I didn’t see it but that’s what they said. The one that posted the ad said the rabbits were cremated. When they found the sneakers the story changed. They found little else in the basement. Other things found in the burn pile: knife handle, melted blade, tree limb clippers, chair.
One day I found his body along the shore. All around him, sticking in and out of the rocks, there were branches, scattered, broken. I had heard no storm in the night while I slept. I could see the back of his head, hair, top of scalp. His skin stretched tight against his bones, cracked and seared. The back of his body had scars raised from the skin, running from just below the shoulder blade, down through the backbone, to the other side of the ribs. I could not see legs, just rocks where legs should be. He said nothing when I said his name.
They said the hay was still burning when they got there. Pruning shears stuck out of a barrel. The one that posted the ad was covered in ash and soot.
They dumped the barrel out on a blue tarp and sifted through the pile. They found bones, teeth. The bones, off-white, brittle, not yet charred. The teeth were still sharp.
The one that posted the ad said he split his head on the tub.
She did not want a body like that to be seen they said.
She did not say his name, she called him something else.
She unbuttoned her black shirt below her breasts.
There were pieces of wood broken on the rocks around his body. The wood had nails sticking out of it. I could not tell if the nails were dull or sharp. I scraped them on a rock. I tapped them with my fist. I wrote on the rocks with rust. I traced the lines of bones in my hands. Not all the nails were rusty. I ripped the old nails out and made piles on the rocks. I picked up a piece of wood and moved his head into the light. There was no way to tell where his eyes looked.
The gate was closed but not locked. The fence did not look like the fence. Barbed wire coiled along the top. There was no burnt mattress in the front yard. The grass had grown so high where the mattress once was, I would not have been able to see it.
The house had words written across it on the siding and the words bled into each other. The windows were covered with wood. The wood was nailed into the siding. If there were someone still living in the house they would not see out.
The basement in the house did not have windows to see through. It did not have beds or blankets, so when we slept we slept on dirt.
He did not stay in the basement. When he did not stay on the burnt mattress in the front yard he stayed in the bathtub in the house. We were not allowed inside the room with the tub. We were told if we tried to go in that room we would not come out.
Below the eyes a half moon of raised flesh. The skin looked hard, as if a rock lodged beneath it and stuck. The nose, flat. The skin of the nose was not split. The bone of the nose pointed down to the mouth. The shadow shaded the upper lip. The lines on each side of the mouth turned up and in toward the nose. The mouth, pulled taut toward the cheeks, was shut. The lower lip was full. Below it were the same burns that marked the eyebrows, the upper lip. The rest of the skin was smooth. The bone of the chin curved up to the ears, the lobes of the ears shapeless and pale. Hair hung down past the cheeks but did not reach as far as the neck. The neck sunk into the rocks and sticks. I grabbed a fistful of hair.
I walked up the front steps and turned the knob on the front door of the house. The door was locked. I picked up a rock and threw it through the door and when it opened I stepped inside. I walked down into the basement. There was glass in the dirt. I cut my foot on the glass. I walked up to the room with the bathtub. I put my foot under the faucet. No water came out. The tub was black. On top of the black was dust. There were nails sticking out of the window sill. I ripped one from the wood, wet it with my tongue. I scraped the black of the tub with the tip of the nail. I wiped the black down the drain with my hands and feet. I laid down in the tub. I scratched at my skin with the nail. The tip went dull. I bit the nail between my teeth and swallowed rust. I ripped the rest of the nails from the wood. I filled the tub to the top.
In the barn, from a hook, a harness hung. I slung it on my back and went back to the rocks. I started with the collar, the crown on the head. I wrapped the throat latch tight. The buckle stuck in the skin of the neck. The slack I loosened. The breast strap looped more than once around the chest. I tied the hip strap between the legs, roped the reins round my waist. I gave a quick tug and metal dug into the cheeks. The lips pulled back to show teeth. I gripped the pole with both hands, dragged the body through the rocks up the hill to the barn. In the barn it was too dark to leave the body on the floor. I lifted it by the chain and left it from the hook hanging. Light hit the face through holes in the roof.