By Erin Pringle
Mother says to my brother, Go play outside.
My brother says, But there aren’t any children left.
Mother says, Stay out of the forest or you will get lost. My eyes can’t see far. Stay in the backyard.
My brother obeys, screen door banging behind him. I start to follow.
No, Mother says. Stay and help me bake a cake for your brother. My fingers are crooked from age and cannot grasp well.
Why are we baking a cake?
Tomorrow is his birthday. But he is not to eat sugar or his pancreas will die.
I am his mother. Tomorrow is his birthday. It will be a special day and so he can eat sugar. Crack those eggs. Add them to the mixture.
Check the oven to see if it is hot enough.
It is, Mother.
She slides the cake pan into the oven. She sits at the kitchen table and falls asleep because she is very old.
I run outside.
My brother calls my name.
I follow my name to him.
He stands at the edge of the forest. His face is blank, unblinking. Like one of my dolls. I do not like my dolls because they ask questions I have no answers for. Like, who carved our pretty wooden doll beds? Or, what is that booming in the distance?
A shovel leans against a tree. Beside the blade is earth and roots. The roots like Mother’s fingers. The earth is piled. Two holes. Very deep. I can’t see the bottoms.
My brother asks, What do you see?
Someone’s been digging.
Indeed, he says. My brother says indeed instead of yes. He reads many books.
Have you been digging, Brother?
No. What is our mother doing?
She is napping. A cake is baking because tomorrow is your birthday.
Tomorrow is not my birthday, he says. I will surely die if I eat that cake.
Mother said tomorrow is special so sugar is allowed.
I look into the holes. What do you bury in holes so deep? I ask.
Bodies, my brother says. He walks into the forest. Bring the shovel, he says. I do. It is tall and heavy.
We walk deeper. My brother raises his hand. He takes the shovel. He digs. He wipes his forehead with his sleeve.
That is not good manners, I say.
He climbs into the hole. He climbs back out, a dress in his arms. Do you remember our sister? he asks.
Yes. She combed my hair one hundred strokes before bed. She left for school in the city.
My brother lays her on the ground. Her dress faded pink. He digs into the other pile.
Those are very fresh, he says.
He climbs in and out.
Do you remember our brother? he asks.
He carried me on his back like a horse. He left to open a business in the city.
My brother lays our brother next to our sister in the faded dress.
We walk further. My brother digs. Do you remember our other sister?
She sewed your baby clothes. She told me fairy tales. Mother said she ran away.
My brother props her against a tree. She has two brown braids. Her eyes are large and dark.
My brother digs.
This must be Father, he says, peering into the hole. This hole is deeper than the others. He climbs in. He weeps. He hugs the bones. The bones crumble. He screams.
Why are you screaming? I ask.
Leave me, he says.
No. I ask my sister for her leg. A moth winks in her eye. Thank you, I say. Then I hold her leg over the hole.
Take this, I say to my brother.
I wave it around in case his eyes are getting bad like Mother’s. Take this and climb out, I say. He does. We give our sister back her leg.
Our mother calls our names.
My brother says, Our mother is old.
Her glasses are very thick, I say.
Tomorrow is not my birthday. She will tell you I am leaving for the city. This is not true. Do not tell her what we found.
Blankets are piled in the wheelbarrow so we drag our sister who left for school and our brother who left for business back to the house. They lose a few bones. Their hair drags. We are out of breath. We take them to our room and dress them in our clothes. They lean against each other in the closet as we sleep.
In the morning, Mother calls our names into the kitchen. We follow. Every counter is full of chocolate, gumdrops, small cakes. The biggest cake is yellow and on the table. Mother sings Happy Birthday.
Wish your brother a happy birthday, she says.
What if it isn’t his birthday?
Brother kicks me under the table.
Why would I bake a cake if today wasn’t? Mother says.
Mother slices two pieces onto our plates. Eat.
My brother says, I can’t have sugar.
This is your special day, our mother says. You have my permission.
We pretend to eat the cake. We hide each bite in our pockets.
My brother says, I wish our brother and sisters were here to celebrate. And Father.
Our mother’s shoulders shake. She says, I thought you’d forgotten. You never ask about them.
You told us where they went, my brother says. We believed you.
Our mother says, You are old enough to know now. And your sister is young enough to forget. You have heard me speak of the war.
My brother nods so I do too.
It came to the city. They died. They are buried in the forest.
But what about Father? my brother asks.
He died of sadness.
We are sleepy, Mother, my brother says. I must rest before I go to the war.
She follows us to our bedroom. She tucks us in. She shuts the door. Her footsteps go back to the kitchen. We roll out of bed and carry our brother and sister from the closet. We tuck them in. We kiss their foreheads. Then we hide in the closet. Our mother returns and leans over our bed. She clutches our wrists. She holds a mirror over our mouths. She leaves then wheels in the wheelbarrow. She picks us up. You are so light, she says. We follow her into the backyard. To the edge of the forest. She carries us into the holes with deep bottoms. Then she shovels earth over us. We do not protest. She sings Happy Birthday. We hear bombs. She apologizes for not singing a better song. She sits between us all through the night.
Originally appeared in Lake Effect, now in her collection The Floating Order (Two Ravens Press 2009)