I walked into our shack holding a dead seagull. I’d come all the way from the beach with hunger stabbing my stomach, clutching that bird in my fist and refusing to eat it because Amos needed it more.
My younger brother’s dark head jerked up from where he was whittling at the kitchen-table. I grinned and showed him my feathered trophy.
He recoiled. The knife clattered from his hand. “How’d you kill it?”
My smile died. “I—I found it dead.”
Amos gazed at me. I looked away from his kelp-green eyes, towards my pipe, which I’d given him to carve onto.
“Thayen,” he insisted.
My cheeks seared. If only I had just found the bird.
“Threw a rock at it,” I muttered. “Then choked it to death.”
I made myself look at him. He was staring at the mass of feathers in my blood-slicked fingers. I couldn’t tell what was in his feverish eyes, and that worried me, since usually, I could.
Then he shook his head. “You’re becoming a monster.”
A monster. My gut twisted. I’d never expected him to call me that, not Amos. “I only did it because you’re starving,” I said. “When Mother gets out of jail I won’t have to anymore. I promise.”
Amos bowed his head and fingered my pipe. I breathed in the awful smell of brine and blood and tried not to vomit.
“Do you believe me when I say I had no choice but to kill the seagull?” I asked.
I thought he’d never respond, he stared at that rotting wood table for so long. Then he nodded. “I do. It just takes me a while.”
I let out my breath. “Alright.” As long as he understood.
He looked up again. “But sometimes, when you get into fights or make like you want to steal things…well, how could someone like that be my brother?”
“I am your brother!”
He flinched, then looked at the door to the rest of our shack. “Don’t yell. You’ll wake Father.”
I glanced at the knife near Amos’s fist. “Did he—”
“No, he came home sober.”
If the bastard was sober, maybe he’d negotiate. “Does he know you’re starving?”
Amos didn’t answer.
I stepped past him. “He needs to know.”
Some panic in his voice made me turn towards him. He was trembling. God, I would’ve stayed just to make him stop, but he was so thin and there was an exhaustion in his eyes that bordered on delirium. I seized the doorknob. He rose and tried grabbing my arm, but he couldn’t.
His grip was too weak.
The man sat on a stool in the room’s corner, holding a bottle. “What’s that?”
He squinted at the bird-corpse through rum-fogged eyes. I searched for my father through that fog. Bad habit. He wasn’t human. But he looked it, damnit, even had the same dark eyes as me, and I felt a choking in my chest. It swelled with his silence. It suffocated me.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“Not when you let Amos starve.”
“So you slayed a gull for him.” He drank. “What’d the villagers say if they saw you?”
I stared at the seagull’s broken body. The villagers didn’t care about me, no matter how bloody my fist got knocking on their doors.
“Well?” His breath reeked.
“They’d feel proud—” my goddamn voice trembled “—that Thayen Bystromis cares enough to feed his brother on the night of his mother’s trial.”
Father massaged his temple. “No. They’d think you’re depraved.”
My jaw clenched. Depraved.
He saw he had me, and leaned forward. “They’d be right, too. Smoking that pipe so much you’ll die. Slaughtering a beautiful bird. What’ll you do next? Murder?”
Never. I scowled and shook my head.
Father leaned back and finished the bottle. “Why couldn’t you just feed him seaweed or fish or something?”
“Seaweed tastes like crap and you sold Mother’s boat after the arrest, or did you forget that—”
“Her trial.” Father ran a hand through his greasy hair. “I want to talk to you about it.”
For a moment, he looked almost sober.
“Stop changing the subject,” I said.
His fingers tightened around the empty bottle-neck. “Shut up before I lose my temper.”
I remembered Amos’ moans of hunger from last night, so soft I’d barely heard them. Why the hell should I shut up about that?
“The trial,” Father muttered again, then furrowed his brow and trailed off.
He used to reach for Mother’s fingers at breakfast whenever he got the chance. He loved her too much, right, and he wouldn’t dare starve us after she was freed, and the sooner we saw her….
“I heard they free the innocent afterwards,” I said. “Would you take us?”
Father looked away. “We can’t afford it.”
Like he didn’t hoard all our goddamn money, and rage flared through me. “Fuck you!”
The fog cleared from his eyes, leaving behind pain, and horror at the son he’d raised.
Suffocation. “What would Mother say when she sees her youngest boy starving and her husband a drunken shithead?”
The bottle shattered against my head, pain pierced my cheek, blood dribbled down my chin, and I screamed and grabbed my face.
Father rushed at me. I reeled backward. I slammed the door. I yanked Amos outside.
We sprinted into the sand-dunes. Amos stumbled, and I worried he’d collapse, but he didn’t. We finally crouched, panting, in the shadow of a dune. The sun was setting through the clouds. Beautiful.
Amos was mumbling. I didn’t know what. My head ached too much.
Father emerged, roaring for us to come back. I could hear him fine. I’m your father. No. He was too crooked for that. Come back. No. He always knocked us around and was too drunk to care it wasn’t right.
But then he wept, and I drew in a shaky breath and exchanged looks with Amos. Father called our names into the dying sky. Come back, he said, because we were the only two people he could still love. Heat blazed behind my eyes. Come back, he said, because we were his boys.
His boys. I bit my tongue. I tasted blood. Amos trembled. Amos… I wrapped my arms around his skeletal frame and gazed at a row of distant boats tied to the docks.
Father howled. Mother would be freed, things would be good, please come back.
My cheeks grew wet. Father had been promising us that for four years now, since I was twelve. I lived for the day of Mother’s release, and Father knew it. When Mother walked free, life would become more than bleeding cheeks and moans of hunger. When Mother walked free, we wouldn’t have to survive off the driftwood carvings Amos sold and the seagulls I slayed.
I rose on shaky legs. Mother would walk free tonight. How could I not believe in something like that?
We sat at the kitchen-table. Father had left to buy us food.
“What do you bet when he sees the market’s closed, he’ll get more rum?” I asked.
Amos looked ready to cry.
“Sorry,” I said.
He glanced down and nodded.
But it was true. Summer storm-season had just begun, and the market wouldn’t reopen for months.
Amos watched my bloody cheek. I’d been through worse than having a bottle thrown at me, but he could never get used to me being hurt. Like that first time when I’d explained what Father’d done to my arm. Amos couldn’t talk for days afterwards. Everything was awful when he was like that.
I couldn’t tell him about the bottle. I rose and washed my cheek in the rusty water-basin. My wound stung. I did not cry. I bandaged it then prepared the seagull-corpse for Amos.
“Eat,” I said.
“But Father’s getting food.”
No he wasn’t. “Only the tavern’s open, and it’s out of food.”
“He’ll find some. You saw him when he promised.”
Maybe he would, and maybe he wouldn’t. “Eat the seagull while we wait,” I said.
He hesitated. “People can’t be bastards all the time, can they?”
“I hope not.” I sat across from him. “Now eat. Please.”
He looked at me, then at the seagull. He ate.
The most beautiful thing I ever saw wasn’t the sunset. It was watching the delirium go out of my brother’s eyes.
My pipe still rested on the table. We’d agreed Amos would carve something on its bowl and we’d give it back to Mother, since it was really her pipe. She’d had a whole collection, but after her arrest, Father hurled them into the ocean. Kept screaming she was gone forever, but Amos pressed that pipe into my palm and it felt like she wasn’t.
“Thayen.” Amos was still squinting at my cheek-wound.
I jerked a finger towards the pipe before he asked questions. “What’d you carve on it?”
He looked at it. “A boat.”
I picked it up and tried to ignore its crooked prow. “It’s fantastic.”
Amos gave a feeble grin. “Thanks.”
God. He was too proud of his carvings to slip up out of laziness.
Well, he had reason to be proud, right? The villagers bought from him at the market. Maybe it was also that they now earned enough to forget some of their old anger. Maybe it was both, because sometimes, they complimented him. Of course, he then let them get away with giving him practically nothing for the carvings, no matter how much I tried to convince him not to. Must’ve been hard to resist their flattery, though.
“Do you want any?” Amos pointed at the seagull.
I shook my head. “You eat.”
He swallowed the last of it. My stomach rioted. I hadn’t eaten in five days.
In our room, I slung our tattered blanket over Amos. Then I lay with my shoulder against the door so Father wouldn’t be able to come in and knock Amos’s jaw apart like he’d once done. I tried not to think of Mother’s trial, tried to ignore the ache in my head and the pain in my stomach. I listened to rain leak through the roof. I gritted my teeth to keep from moaning. I waited for Father to return with the food.
An hour passed. His footsteps entered the kitchen. He called our names in a plaintive voice.
In the silence of feigned sleep, I heard the tinkling of bottles.
I woke early. Amos had slung the blanket over me while I’d slept. I smiled. What a brother I had.
I threw the blanket back over him and rose. The house was silent, save the distant whisper of waves and the nearby noise of Father’s snoring. I wondered what would happen if I dumped all his rum into the ocean. Nothing, I knew. He’d just buy more.
I entered the kitchen and took my pipe from the table. Maybe it would make my head feel less wrecked.
Pain tore through my stomach, and I clenched my teeth and stumbled outside to the seashore. Seaweed. I thrust a wad into my mouth and chewed. It made me gag, but I ate until salt scraped my throat raw. Then I sat a little ways off from the shoreline, gasping from the brine.
The sun heaved itself out of the darkness. The mainland was just visible, glowing in the morning fog. We’d once gone there. I remembered the gentle sea-breeze and how people smiled at us for no reason. Amos loved seeing the professional carvers whittle at massive chunks of wood. He told me he’d like to do that someday. Thought if he did, he’d make someone’s life better. Definitely, I replied.
Now, I thought, that was all that mattered. As long as Amos turned out decent, all this would be worth it.
And maybe Mother would sail home soon. Then Father might also become human. I tried not to remember what he’d been like the day before Mother’s arrest, when he took me out on her boat. How he held my hand level as I reeled in white-finned fish. How he sang me to sleep in the starlight. And his smile. I hated remembering his smile. Drunken men didn’t smile at their sons like he’d once smiled at me.
My head hurt. I took out my pipe—Mother’s old pipe—and examined Amos’s carving. A boat with a crooked prow like that would be condemned to the harbor.
I stuffed some dried seaweed into the bowl and lit the pipe with the flint and steel I carried in my pocket. I put it to my mouth and inhaled.
My head still hurt.
The day after Mother’d been arrested, after the villagers tried to stone Father to death and he got drunk and twisted my arm so hard it broke and made Amos mute, I went around begging for shelter. I didn’t give a damn that the villagers hurt Father as long as they took us in.
No, they said. I’d become a murderer and drive the trade away, just like my mother. I could hang for all they cared.
I told them no, Mother wasn’t a murderer, she’d killed in self-defense.
How could I know, the villagers asked.
I was there. I’d gone to the tavern to fetch her for our boat-ride. Instead, I saw the drunken trader attack her, and then I saw her run a knife through him.
My voice broke after that, and I watched the villagers’ faces and waited for their answer.
Nobody else had seen the man attack first, they said.
But how could she be a murderer when she found me stowed away on one of her voyages, and instead of getting angry, laughed, tousled my hair, and promoted me to co-captain? How could she be a murderer when—
The villagers didn’t care. Look at how your father turned out.
But I’m still human, I said. Please, take us in.
But they slammed the door, leaving me to be suffocated by their silence.
I drew Mother’s pipe from between my lips. My mouth tasted bitter. She still hadn’t returned.
Footsteps on the sand. “Thayen!”
Amos appeared, his eyes fierce and terrified, the carving-knife clutched in his fingers.
The weapon looked wrong in his grip, so I reached out and pocketed it. “What happened?”
“You and Father were gone. I thought he’d done something to you.”
“If he touches me, I’ll kill him,” I said.
Amos stared at me. “You don’t mean that!”
I rested my head in my hands, so I wouldn’t see the look on my brother’s face. His eyes would be wide, and a deep furrow would be gouged between his brows. Probably unable to believe I could be so twisted.
Amos sat beside me and touched the bandage on my cheek.
I gazed at him wonderingly. His brow wasn’t furrowed.
I found myself smiling. I didn’t know why.
“Thayen, what happened?”
My smile vanished. “Father won’t take us to Mother’s trial and now we have to wait—”
“I meant to your face.”
I glared at the sand. “He chucked a bottle at me.”
I dropped my head back into my hands and tried to forget how stricken Amos’s voice sounded. My vision blurred, because I couldn’t.
“Don’t worry about me,” I said, just to have something to say.
“I’m fine.” Amos even sounded fine. But maybe he was pretending for my sake.
My head throbbed. I put the pipe back in my mouth. And maybe he really thought I was crooked and was just pretending otherwise. He’d called me a monster, after all. And the other day I’d almost stolen a trader’s food, but Amos’d seemed so horrified that I’d stopped myself. But then I’d killed that seagull, and this morning I’d left him behind with Father, and—
I blinked, and caught myself shaking.
Amos’s eyes widened. It was the first time I’d ever trembled in front of him.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“What if Father killed you this morning because I was so damn hungry I couldn’t think straight and left you—”
“I’m okay, Thayen.”
God, but what if he hadn’t been?
A shout. We started to our feet. Father stumbled into view through the fog, dragging something behind him.
There was a dangerous look on his face. I took the pipe out of my mouth and moved in front of Amos.
Father was raving, something about how she didn’t know the law and had no damn chance, not when she had to represent herself.
“I found it washed up on the beach,” he went on.
“What’re you talking about?” I asked.
“They dumped your mother’s corpse into the sea!”
Behind him, I could see a face. It was my mother’s face, with red marks around her neck.
The blood froze in my veins.
“On the mainland, they execute the guilty at the end of the trial. Aren’t you glad now I made you stay home?”
I felt the bandage on my wounded cheek.
Father’s face softened. He touched my shoulder. “No boy of mine should ever have to see his mother hanged.”
Hanged. He thought I’d forgive him for not taking us to the mainland to see it, but there was more damn rum on his breath than ever before, and I backed away.
“No!” I yelled. “You just wanted to save the money for drink!”
He shook his head. “Drink’s got nothing to do with it. Can’t you see I love you?”
No, I couldn’t, and I couldn’t see why he’d brought her corpse to us if he didn’t want us to see what our mother looked like after she’d been hanged.
“We’re a family,” Father said.
I couldn’t understand him. My head hurt too much.
“We’re going to bury her together.”
Water went down my face and into my mouth. Why did it taste like sea-salt?
Father pointed to my fist. “Give me the pipe, Thayen,” he murmured. “Better to bury her with it.”
Like hell I would. The bastard grabbed at it, and I shoved him away.
“Do you want your smoking-habits to kill you?” he shouted.
Suffocation. I dropped the pipe and smashed my fist into his face. It wasn’t about smoking-habits, it was about Mother, but not to him it wasn’t, and her coming home wouldn’t have made anything better, he would’ve banged her around, he would’ve bought more rum, he would’ve—
“You don’t care about her as long as you can puff on her pipe and make me out to be a heartless drunkard.” Father spat crimson at me. “She’d hate you!”
I tasted blood. I knocked him to the sand and drew the knife. There was no choice. Things would get worse for us the longer I waited. He loved his rum. He didn’t give a damn for me and Amos.
My brother was gasping like he was being strangled, his face whiter than a seagull’s feather, and I turned back to Father and raised the knife, and hacked his throat apart.
Someone screamed. The breath flew out of me. I shuddered, waves roiled. Red, red, red. Father’s eyes rolled backward, and his head slumped to the ground. I shoved the corpse away and stumbled upright, and Amos seized my arm and yanked me into a sprint, I didn’t know where, just away.
We stopped near the dunes. I blinked. The fog had cleared. The sea glinted cerulean. A faint breeze hissed past me and seagulls keened overhead.
I reached for my pipe. It wasn’t there. I wished it was. Maybe I should go back for it. Maybe it would help.
I felt someone tug the knife out of my hand. Amos. A while passed. I looked at him. He was sitting on the sand, arms around his knees, staring towards the horizon, looking dazed.
“I had no choice,” I muttered.
He didn’t answer.
“He would have killed us,” I said.
His face contorted. “You slashed his throat with my knife!”
His eyes scared me. “But—”
He rose and slapped me. “Fuck you, you monster!”
Fuck me. Waves writhed in the sea, and my cheek was bleeding again. “Amos.”
I swallowed hard and tried to say something else. A sob came out instead. Mother was dead. I let out another sob. Amos grabbed my shoulder and drew me close. I wept. Mother had been hanged. I remembered the crimson mark around her neck, and sunlight glittering on the knife, and Father’s blood spurting into my eyes…
“It’ll be alright, Thayen,” Amos was murmuring. “It’ll be alright.”
It wouldn’t be alright, not unless he forgave me. I was his brother. I would always be his brother until I died, I didn’t know what else I could say to prove it, if only he could know how I meant it. “Amos, just say you’ll forgive me.”
He glanced behind us. “The villagers will come soon.”
He didn’t forgive me.
The sun seared my forehead. Made it ache more. My cheeks were still wet. I wiped them dry. Seagulls were screaming above us. They could all die as far as I cared.
Amos shook my shoulders. I didn’t know what he could want from me.
“Thayen,” he said, “I don’t know where to go.”
Where to go. Who cared?
I squinted into the distance. A small boat was tied to the dock with a rope. Some mainland trader…
I pointed. We approached.
Its wooden deck shuddered as we stepped onboard, and its prow looked stunted, but that didn’t matter.
I turned to Amos. “I did it to save you,” I said, “so why can’t you forgive me?”
My brother stared at the rope. He looked ready to cry.
“Someday?” I asked. My voice hadn’t sounded that small since I’d begged the villagers for shelter.
Slowly, he met my eyes. “Someday,” he murmured.
I sighed. “Alright.”
And he raised the knife, and hacked the rope apart.