Mother and the children had never killed before. That was Father’s work. All month long the rain came down, and gray-faced Father coughed in his bed, shrinking into a yellowed quilt. Mother and the children waded in the garden leaves and plucked off the heads of squash and tomatoes, ripped hairy potatoes out of the dark. But there was no meat on the table. Brave chickens danced scaly-legged in the yard. Goats crowded into the kitchen. The deer, normally so shy, stood at the windows and sniffed the air, smelling Father’s foul breath gutter out. When he finally died, it took days for the family to move him, so afraid they were that he might sit up, might ask why they were in his room where no one, not even Mother, was supposed to go.
Mother dressed Needle Sister against the rain and told her to walk through the woods and into town. “Find Lost Sister,” Mother said. “Tell the hateful girl that her father is dead.”
The family went through Father’s smoky room to dress him for burial. Pan Sister and Spoon Sister found his favorite shirt and pulled his stiff arms into it. Shovel Brother put the heavy boots on Father’s feet and laced them tight. Mother slid a pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket. They smoothed his clothes against his chill skin, breathing deep the smell of smoke and cedar. Except for Mother, none of them had ever been this close to him before. His clothes smelled and felt so fatherly. The family put him on a ladder and carried him down the stairs to a cherry tree behind the house.
Shovel Brother, his pants dirty from tending the garden, marked out a grave and began digging. Water ran into the hole. His shovel sliced a red worm in half, and it thrashed on the clotted earth. The siblings covered their mouths.
Mother said, “Be more careful.”
Shovel Brother kept digging, his shovel-tip probing and turning the dirt. “Now that Father’s gone, someone will have to do the killing,” he said. “Someone will have to be fatherly.”
They put Father in the ground, but they had no prayers to offer. Saying prayers was fatherly, and none of them quite knew how to do it. Mother looked at her children. They waited. But in the end, she said nothing, only smiled, and at last they went in from the rain.
It was all they could talk about around the dinner table. Pan and Spoon Sisters put out boiled eggs, sour cheese, purple hull peas stewed in their husks. Axe Brother took down Father’s jug of beer from its high shelf and put it on the table. No one drank. “Who is most fatherly?” they asked one another. “What does it mean to be a father?”
“You have to be ready to twist an arm,” Spoon Sister said.
“You need a big voice for blaming,” said Pan Sister.
“You have to be hateful,” said Mother. “You have to hate even the people who love you most.”
“Killing is the most important thing,” said Shovel Brother. “Who can snap a hen’s neck? Who can slit a goat’s throat, or drown fishes on the bank, or put a bullet through a deer’s sad eye?” He leaned in, speaking quiet so his dead father buried behind the house wouldn’t hear. “Who can smother a baby when it’s born wrong?”
“I’m the oldest boy,” Axe Brother said.
No one thought he was very fatherly, though. Father had taken him hunting many times, and he had never once been able to kill, even when Father allowed him to.
“I’m loud,” Spoon Sister said. “And I’m hateful.” But they all agreed that Spoon Sister was the smallest of them, and no one was afraid of her. Making people afraid, they decided, was very fatherly.
“It’s my time,” Mother said. “I’ve waited years and years.”
They weren’t sure about this. They loved Mother, and she was kind, and they did very much want her to be fatherly. But they’d all heard Mother’s frustrated sobs at night, and none of them had ever seen Father cry.
Pan Sister went upstairs and came back with an old pair of father’s boots. The sole was still thick, and their edges were black with dried blood. They laced high up the calf, and they stank. She passed them around, and everyone marveled at their weight. “Who can wear them?” Pan Sister asked. “Who is fatherly enough to fill these boots?”
Shovel brother tried first, but his feet were small. Axe Brother put them on next, but his feet were too long and thin, even when he scrunched his toes and shoved his feet deep. Everyone tried, but the boots didn’t fit any of them. Pan Sister set them in the middle of the table, and they ate, wondering what life would be like now with father gone.
The door opened. Needle Sister came in, her clothes soaked dark with rain. Behind her came Lost Sister, fetched from town. Lost Sister wore black eye makeup, rain-smeared and running in jagged points under her eyes. Her hair was cropped short and her ears flashed with silver rings. In the time since she had run away, she’d grown tall, taller than even Mother or Axe Brother. She had the weary stare she’d always had, though, same as their father. They made a place for her at the table.
“Why are you barefoot?” Mother looked the girl over, taking in her ratty jeans, her jewelry, her hair and makeup. “It isn’t daughterly to look this way.”
Lost Sister stuck out one of her feet, legs coated in mud up to her knees. “Lost my shoes crossing the river. And I never cared about being daughterly.”
The older girl ate with them in silence. When she was done, she wiped her face with a cloth and then used it to clean her feet. She grabbed the boots off the table and dropped them on the floor, like they were hers. While her family watched, trying to think of some prayer that would stop this, Lost Sister pulled the boots on and laced them up. When she flexed her toes, they could see that the boots fit.
“Why did you do that?” Shovel Brother asked. “Those aren’t yours.”
“I was cold,” Lost Sister said. “And now I’m tired.”
She took the jug of beer and went upstairs with it. They listened to her feet on the steps, the familiar sound of the boots thumping down the hall, the sound of their father’s door opening and closing.
They all looked at Mother, asking, “What will we do?”
“It’s been so long,” Mother said. “Haven’t I been waiting?”
They had all been waiting, for the rain to stop, for Father to sleep, for the old bad world to die and rot and for something better to come. It did no good to talk about it, so the children crept back to their small rooms heaped with laundry.
Mother stayed in the kitchen all night, bargaining with the dark.
While they waited for Lost Sister to finally get out of bed, the family tried to make a plan. She had always been an undaughterly girl, Mother reminded them. She set a bad example for her sisters. Her language was fatherly, full of swear and snarl. It didn’t belong in her mouth. She had even talked back to Father, no matter how hard he’d slapped her. She’d left home many times before, and she would probably leave them again.
“What we need,” Mother said, “is someone fatherly enough to tame her.”
“You could get married again,” Shovel Brother said. “Go find another father somewhere.”
None of them liked the idea. The sisters didn’t want someone stomping around the house and yelling at them, demanding dishes cleaned and shirts mended. Mother didn’t want another man and was done with grace and marriage and being motherly. She wanted fatherliness for herself, to sop meat in fat and leave only bones for everyone else.
Lost Sister finally came into the kitchen, shielding her eyes from the sun and holding the jug. She still wore Father’s boots.
“We’ve been waiting all morning,” Spoon Sister snapped. “What will we do now that breakfast is cold?”
Lost Sister grabbed her by the top of her head and pushed her down into a chair. “You’ll eat it cold.”
Shovel Brother started to speak up, but Lost Sister handed him the empty jug.
“Isn’t it your job to keep this full?” she asked.
“Well?” Lost Sister knocked on its side, and the jug made a hollow burp.
The goats, matted from rain, pushed the door open and tracked stars of mud onto the kitchen floor. Mother shouted at them and chased them back, but an emerald-throated rooster strutted in and cowered under the table. Pan Sister reached under and tried to shoo it out, but the rooster surged forward and struck her with its feathered spurs, tearing a gash across her arm.
Quick and mean, Lost Sister bent down and took it by the throat. She stunned it against the floor and then twisted its neck until there was a bright pop, like the sound of a heavy lock opening.
“No one is supposed to kill but Father,” Axe Brother said. And me, he meant. Even though he didn’t say this, they could all hear it in his voice.
Lost Sister dumped the dead bird across his plate. “Make dumplings,” she said. “I haven’t had them in a long time.”
Mother looked around the table, her gray eyes begging someone to do something.
Needle Sister laughed in the corner, mending a pair of Father’s old pants. “She thinks everything is for her. What could be more fatherly than that?”
Lost Sister got drunk and passed out in front of the fireplace. She took all the dark meat at dinnertime. She slaughtered a goat and left it for her brothers to clean and butcher, her sisters to fry. When Spoon Sister found a snake in the corner of the outhouse, Lost Sister came with the shovel and sheared off its pointed head. When the rain damp left snails dragging their heavy houses over the gravel, everyone was careful to step around them. But Lost Sister stared across the bruised sky and walked into the woods, snails shattering under her feet without her notice.
Axe Brother took his father’s gun and went into the forest, trying to find deer or rabbits to kill. Sometimes he shot, but he hit nothing. When he came home, Lost Sister told him to stop wasting bullets.
When Pan Sister cried that Lost Sister yelled at her, Needle Sister stroked her back and whispered, “But isn’t it good? Isn’t it better to have a father in the house?”
Mother had picked a bowl of cherries to make a pie, but Axe Brother came into the kitchen and found Lost Sister rolling them in sugar and eating them. Her lips and fingers were bloody with juice.
“Father didn’t like sugar,” Axe Brother said. “He liked salt and sour, but never sweet.”
“What’s fatherly can change,” Lost Sister said.
Axe Brother told the rest of the family. They hid behind the house and talked about what it could mean. Father didn’t change. He only became more violent, more full of blame. Once, he pinned Mother against the wall and screamed at her for ten minutes because it had rained for too many days and he was tired of being inside the house with her. What did it mean if what was fatherly could change? Would they like the changes? They searched each other’s faces. They didn’t think they would.
Lost Sister left that afternoon, walking through the flooded woods and back into town. Her boots left deep furrows in the mud. The family waited. Axe Brother said that he might just go hunting, that someone had to take care of them, but Needle Sister told him to be quiet.
“Don’t expect her to come back,” Mother said. “It wouldn’t be the first time she left us.”
The rain fell. The sky was heavy and dark. Behind the house, Father’s pale coffin floated up and up, sloughing off its mound of dirt and rising to bare its face. After three days, Lost Sister came walking back through the woods, smiling, a girl in her arms.
Lost Sister carried her across the swollen river and brought her laughing to the house. The family watched her come, not knowing what to do. Father had never taken company before.
The girl was summer-haired and open-faced, eager to look them in the eye like no one had ever hurt her. She hugged them all with the softest hands.
“I’ve waited a long time to meet all of you,” the girl said.
“Who are you?” Mother asked, staring at the girl’s fingers knit so tightly with Lost Sister’s.
“She’s mine,” Lost Sister said.
Lost Sister took the girl upstairs and into Father’s old room. Maybe it was her room now. Maybe it was her house. No one was sure. Everything was different.
“I like her,” Needle Sister said. “I want her to stay.”
“Shhh,” said Axe Brother. “Listen.”
Under the sound of rain throwing itself against the roof, they heard it. Soft talk and play. Laughter. The sounds of joy.
“Father was a lot of things,” Axe Brother said, “but he was never happy. There’s nothing fatherly about happiness.”
“She said what’s fatherly could change,” said Shovel Brother.
“Nothing changes that much,” said Axe Brother. “Not without dying.”
Father had taught them how to hurt one another quietly, so as not to draw attention. He’d taught them to hit with whispers and glances. How to lie like a burn. Lost Sister’s honey-love girl was earnest and kind. She hadn’t grown up in a family like theirs. She was vulnerable as a baby bird.
“If she loves you, why does she take the best meat for herself?” Spoon Sister asked her.
“Is she ashamed of you, hiding you away in the forest?” Axe Brother asked.
“Sure, she loves you now,” Mother said. “When it’s been raining for months, it can feel like forever. But the weather always changes.”
The girl clung to Lost Sister, cornered her alone in her room, asked her question after question. Is everything okay? Are you angry? Do you want me here?
After a few days, their smiles had died. Brothers and sisters found small ways to irritate Lost Sister, throwing her into a vicious mood that she took out on her love. Lost Sister didn’t want to break the girl’s heart. She didn’t want to be cruel. But there was something mean at the center of her, something fanged and muscular and fatherly. Her family knew right where it slept, knew exactly how to wake it.
There was a bad fight. To the brothers and sisters listening in the kitchen, it sounded like Father had come back to yell at Mother again. They heard the girl ask, at the top of the stairs, if she should go. And then, silence. After a while, she came quietly down.
“Give Lost Sister a few days,” Mother told the girl. “She’ll come back to you. She isn’t happy here.”
The girl wrapped her arms around herself, looking at the floor. “She wasn’t happy there either. There’s something in her I can’t soothe. I’m done trying.”
Needle Sister and Pan Sister walked the girl down the river and showed her where to cross. They stood on the bank and watched her vanish into the woods, wondering if they hadn’t killed something after all, something alive and beautiful and one of a kind.
When they got home, Lost Sister had come down from Father’s room to punish the family.
“You’ll know what fatherly feels like,” Lost Sister told them. “And oh, it hurts worse than a belt buckle.”
Lost Sister went into the chicken coop and smashed all the eggs. She took her brother’s shovel into the garden and destroyed the plants, crushing tomatoes and squash under her boots. She threw the flour box into the yard where it shattered and flushed a river of white. She cut down the cherry tree, full-breasted with flower and fruit and leaf, and flattened its blooms beneath her heels. The chickens, phoenix-colored and quick, came behind her and ate what she destroyed.
“What will we eat?” Spoon Sister asked.
“Nothing until I say so,” Lost Sister said.
Mother and the two brothers went outside to find Lost Sister, to tell her that they were sorry, but she stood over Father’s grave and shouted at the sky. Lightning flashed down to paint her face with its glow. Her words were fury, were stones splitting and bones breaking. At her feet, the coffin bobbed in its flooded grave.
“She’s praying,” Mother said. “Your father prayed just like that when Song Brother died.”
For the next few days, Lost Sister would kill only the smallest of animals. She snared a rabbit, or picked up a fluffy chick and threw it against the wall. She cleaned them herself, fried them herself, and ate them over the stove. She drank beer and swallowed eggs. She left nothing for her family.
Her siblings crept out at night to paw for the leavings. They licked the dried blood from the knives. Scraped the grease from the skillet. Boiled bones and drank the broth. Sucked eggshells. When Lost Sister saw the nail marks on the skillet’s black face in the morning, she was pleased. She didn’t want them to die. She wanted them to hurt.
Axe Brother went to his father’s grave. Rain had eroded the soil, roots cupping the exposed coffin like hands. “I don’t know how to pray, Father. You tried to teach me to be fatherly, but I don’t know how.”
The coffin rose and fell, slapping against the sides of the grave like it was knocking. Axe Brother bent and lifted the lid. Dead Father was swollen, huge and strange, his edges frayed by beetles, crawfish, and minnows, glimmering with inhuman life. The rot smell made the empty sack of Axe Brother’s stomach twist.
He waited, but the dead man said nothing. Axe Brother grabbed father’s sodden boots and pulled them from his dead feet. Softened by rain, maybe they would fit his long feet. Maybe he too could learn to be cruel.
Lost Sister sat in her room and smoked the last of her father’s cigarettes. She had prayed all evening, her prayers a demand, an accusation, whips that cut open the sky.
She opened the window and pushed her face into the rain. “There was no call to run out on me,” she told the storm. “Didn’t we have tender times? Make her come back, or I’ll put my hands on you. I’ll tear you down from the sky.”
Mother, Axe Brother, Spoon Sister, and Pan Sister came into her room. Axe Brother wore a pair of father’s old boots, but they were unraveling. His heel hung out, toes protruding. The boots reeked of death. He held his father’s old hunting rifle and pointed it at her.
“You are not our father,” he said. “You will leave, or I will shoot you.”
Lost Sister stood up from the bed and shoved him. “You nugget of shit,” she said. “You dickless little boy. It can get worse for you.”
“This is your last chance,” Mother said. “He can do it. We believe in him.”
Lost Sister hit her brother hard on the side of the head.
His fingers slipped on the trigger. The hammer fell, the barrel pointed at his sister’s chest. But the gun didn’t fire. He had spent so many bullets on shaky-handed shots at rabbits and deer that there were none left.
Lost Sister threw back her head. She laughed and laughed, until she began to cry, the ache of losing her love, of knowing it was her fault as much as anyone else’s, still hot and new.
“Crying isn’t fatherly,” Spoon Sister said.
Lost Sister pulled the gun out of her brother’s hands, took a fistful of bullets from the nightstand, and reloaded it. “I don’t care what’s fatherly and what’s not. Get out of my house and never come back. If I see any of you again, I’ll crack you like a snail.”
When they left her room to gather their things, Lost Sister turned the barrel of her gun on the open window, lining it up with the broad, vulnerable belly of the sky. “Make her want me again,” she said. “Make me better than I am, or make me not ashamed. Unfuck all of this. I won’t ask you again.”
In the morning, the rain had stopped. The sun fell golden-green on the forest, and tendrils of pale grass waved from beneath the flood. The world had bent to her anger. Lost Sister went down, hoping her love had come back, that the future was a fat roll of second chances like carnival tickets.
In the kitchen, she found Needle Sister and Shovel Brother, her only remaining family, sitting down to a breakfast of small, sour apples from the woods.
“Did she come back?” Lost Sister asked. “Is she waiting outside?”
Needle Sister swallowed, afraid to speak. “You’re fatherly. She saw it, and she understands. She won’t try to change you anymore.”
“I’m the same person she loved,” Lost Sister said. “I haven’t changed. This is the family’s fault. They ran her off.”
“We didn’t make it easy for her,” Needle Sister said. “But it wasn’t us she ran away from.”
“You can’t make someone love you,” Shovel Brother said. “Not even Father could.”
Lost Sister broke the beer jug against the wall. “What did Father know about love?”
“He was a bastard,” Shovel Brother said. “But he loved you. He loved you most of all, and he couldn’t make you love him back.”
“This is a different kind of love,” Lost Sister said.
“I know,” said her brother. “But there’s just one kind of loneliness. You’re our father now, and there’s nothing more fatherly than being lonely.”
Lost Sister paced in the kitchen, wishing she hadn’t sent away her mother and other siblings, if only to have someone else to be angry with. Shovel Brother went out to rebuild the garden and cover their father’s yawning grave. Needle Sister opened the door to let the months’ long damp out of the house.
A goat stepped through the door and walked up to Lost Sister, joyous in the cool and dark of the kitchen. She reached down and put her face in its neck. Its fur was damp and smelled like grass, like sun and seed. It looked at her with a curious eye, opened its mouth to bleat its simple love for her. She balled her hands in the thick tangle around its throat. She held it like it was everything she couldn’t change.