Two blasts. Two dove dropped to the ground, crashing into the leaves. He clicked the Remington open and caught the empty shells, stuffing them into his bag. His feet crunched through the dried oak leaves, briers catching on his blue jeans, the cold fall air whipping his hair around. He heard a whippoorwill cry above him. He looked down the empty barrel and then rested the broken gun over his shoulder. The sound of the 16-gauge was still bouncing around the hills around him. He liked that sound.
Deering got to the ridge and looked across to the other hill where the house sat. It was a simple house, but he liked it. Dark red brick and a nice shingled roof. His father’s job had helped pay for that. The people were far too insistent, Deering thought, on paying him a lot. All he really ever did was talk in front of them at the church and pluck that banjo of his. But Deering didn’t mind too much for it got him a decent place to live and a gun. His gun was his favorite: 16-gauge, Remington over-under, 1980. It was a fine piece. He had received it two years ago for his twelfth birthday. It shone a dull but still pretty light off the barrel when he walked into the sun and had a smooth walnut stock that fit perfectly into his bony shoulder. The gun was his power. His dad always told him to put earplugs in, but he rarely did. They blocked the blast, the powerful ringing that stayed in his ears long after the trigger was pulled that told him he had just taken something down.
He walked in the front door and saw his mother cooking. She was wearing a nice yellow dress like something pretty young girls wear in the summer. A new apron adorned her front. Deering noticed that her dark hair was pulled up, shining brightly under the overhead lights of the kitchen.
“Got a few dove to add to whatever you’ve got cooking,” he said, walking out onto the back porch to clean them. It gave him something to keep his mind on, ripping the wings out of their joints, pulling the head off and then splitting the breast open with his bare thumbs. Hunting and cleaning were the only things he could do while not thinking about something else. She gave him a warm smile and thanked him softly as he closed the door behind him.
“Deering!” His father’s voice boomed from the back rooms. “Deering. Where are you?”
He found Deering on the back porch, sitting among a bloody mess of feathers and dove heads. “Did you practice today?”
“No. I didn’t have time.”
“Didn’t have time? Son we’ve talked about this too many times for my liking.” His voice was stern, not entirely angry but just at the point where it was clear that Deering had made a mistake.
“I wanted to hunt.”
“Hunting won’t do you anything good.”
“It’s useful. I got us some dove for tonight.”
His face got all roiled up and then he kicked the two dove breasts with the toe of his boots. They got all tangled and flew through the air into the dirt. He walked inside and then came back out shortly holding that dreaded machine. “Get you to playing it. Now.”
He grabbed it. Fitting the metal picks to each of his fingers and his thumb, he briefly noticed how they looked a little like the spurs on a gamecock. He had seen a few of those fights just outside of town when he told his parents he would be hanging out with Jimmy. They got nasty sometimes. Setting his fingers to the strings, he played a G, then a D, E minor, C. Basic chords for church songs. All the while he was plucking away with his right hand. Once he reached a short transition he fumbled over the correct notes, the metal picks scraping a little against those terrible steel strings. He could feel his father’s disapproving eyes boring into the back of his neck. The drum sat heavy on his right leg, cutting off the circulation. With loathing, he read the name printed with silver inlays on the head of the instrument. Deering. He hated the sound it made.
His father turned into the house and closed the door behind him.
Two years ago they had moved into the Valley from Raleigh. All at once he had lost all of his friends and been thrust into the middle of nowhere with a group of strange people. But he grew to like the area. Most of the people were real nice, and the woods were beautiful. That was where he went when he just needed someplace to be alone. Deering didn’t have any brothers or sisters, and his parents wore on him most times. But the woods were the place where he could do what he wanted. He could hunt, he could throw stuff, he could curse. Mostly he would just be as far away from home as he wanted.
The woods were his sanctuary. He repeated that to himself a lot and found it funny since he spent a lot of his time in a real sanctuary, the place that was the opposite of what it was supposed to be – “rest and relief”, as his dad called it. He never did like going in there. It was old and creaky, and had a smell like whenever he walked to Mrs. Wilson’s house across the creek to bring her groceries. That was the place where the machine would reverberate the most when he had to play it, bouncing around the walls and off the oaken pews and in his ears until it would finally fade. His voice stretching, but not far enough to reach those high notes that the banjo plunked out. His dad’s face at the back of the room, always quietly observing until he was done and he could tell Deering how it could be done better.
After about half an hour of useless plucking his dad finally took the banjo back. He walked off quickly, muttering something to himself. Deering sat with his hands on the rough wood of the porch and stared at the trees. Live oaks. Black walnuts. Somewhere in the distance he heard a bobwhite sound off. The door closed shut behind him and then he heard some faint yelling. Something about wasting time maybe. He heard the bedroom door close and then the yelling was muffled so he couldn’t tell what they were saying. But they still kept shouting.
A good bit later his mom came to the back door and cracked it open a few inches.
“Come on in for dinner, honey.” Her voice was soft.
Deering slowly rose and turned around. His father was sitting in the kitchen with his nightly glass of scotch. Walking into the kitchen, Deering grabbed the soap and gave his hands and arms a good scrub, slowly pushing off the blood and feathers and watching them go down the drain.
He sat down at the table to a meal of mashed potatoes and pork, all set on nice Queen Mary plates next to bright silverware. His mother liked to keep everything spotless. Of course, the churchgoers had paid for all of it. He’s the greatest preacher to come through the Valley, they would proclaim in the streets, or talk about how moving and charming and sweet he was. What a dear, all the old ladies would hobble up and say to him, grabbing his forearm and smiling at him.
Deering looked up from his mashed potatoes to both of them, who weren’t exactly talking. His father chewed hard on his meat, as if he was facing off against some foe that he could bite to death. His face muscles were getting all twisted up and were moving faster than his fingers could pick a banjo. His mom, on the other hand, just looked down at the table mostly and ate a little bit, her face moving slowly and gently, as if she didn’t want to hurt the pig that had already been slaughtered.
Out of the quiet, a screech owl hooted loudly just outside the window and made them all nearly fall out of their seats. In that moment, his mom’s head twisted hard to the left to see what had made such a sound. Deering looked up and noticed the fresh purple marks on her right cheek and her neck. Big and a little swollen with blood, the two spots stood out on her pale skin. He tried not to say anything, but accidentally drew in a quick, shallow breath when he saw it. It was enough to turn his parents’ attention back to him. His father stared at him for a little bit, his face unmoving and unreadable, still chewing on the meat, but now slowly. His mother looked back down again.
“You alright there Deering?” His voice was flat.
“Yeah I’m doing just fine. Thanks.” Why did I say thanks? he thought. It was a bad lie. His father could tell. He could always tell what was going on. He glanced back up at her and then fixed his glare back on Deering.
“Alright. Just checking.” Nothing had happened, although Deering didn’t know why he had thought anything would. Dinner finished up, quiet as it had started.
Deering had known that these beatings happened every once in a while, but just sat quietly whenever he noticed. He wasn’t even sure if his father knew that he knew. But Deering knew just fine. Once they moved to the Valley the beatings had started. First he just heard yelling in the bedroom, but eventually the bruises started showing up and then he would get real scared. He could tell that his mother did too. They would heal after a week or two, but then he would come back from hunting or watching a cockfight and see a fresh new layer. One night in October was the worst he had ever seen it.
Deering had just been over to a cockfight in the hollow right across the bridge. He snuck over there with Jimmy after telling his mom they were out to climb some trees. His dad was out of town on some trip he hadn’t said much about, and his mom didn’t care too much what Deering did. He didn’t even like the fights too much, but Anna usually came to them. She was a real cute young girl with long brown hair that Deering liked to imagine shone with a halo sometimes. At this fight a big white gamecock had been knocked down too many times to count and was looking more red than white. The brown cock had come out quick and fast and didn’t even have a whole lot of wounds. It was mercilessly clawing away, blood and feathers flying from the poor bird that looked next to defenseless. That is until one of Mr. Tom’s huge birds somehow loosed itself from its cage. It came flying down into the pit with a screech and a flurry of wings. For a second it stood still, the two other cocks just staring at it with some sort of confusion. Then it brought up a powerful leg and slashed the brown bird straight across its throat. Deering still couldn’t figure out why. The bird crumpled into a lifeless heap in the dirt and twitched a few times.
He came home after that with a fistful of extra dollars in his pocket, testosterone running through his body due to the exciting and violent finish of that fight. Deering didn’t like to bet much because he knew his dad would hate it, so he played it safe. It was still fun. As he walked up to the top of the first hill he noticed his dad’s truck out in the front. He had thought he was going to be out for the rest of the weekend, but apparently not. He walked up the porch slowly, as if there was something to be feared inside. It turned out there was.
When he opened the door, all he could see was the white back of his dad’s dress shirt that was drenched in sweat. Then his father’s shoulder pulled his arm back and his fist swung down through the air. Deering saw his mom drop to the ground like that bird, her neck and face covered in purple and black. His father stood over her, heaving big breaths. Deering could see his wide-set jaw working, clenching and unclenching. A minute passed before he moved, turning around to see Deering. His face jumped at the sight of him standing there motionless. His expression looked all twisted – angry and sad at the same time, but it was hard to tell. Minutes passed between them, both the man and the boy just standing and looking at each other. Deering was actually looking at the floor mostly because he didn’t want to gaze into his dad’s blue eyes.
His father finally turned around to his wife and looked at her. He slowly bent down, picked her up gently, and carried her to the back bedroom. Right as he reached the door he stopped and turned to Deering who was still standing motionless right inside the front screen. His father’s face looked flat and emotionless. Then for a second it changed to something else. In that moment he did not look anything other than confused, or perhaps lost. It changed back to his normal face quickly, and he opened the door and disappeared behind it.
That had been the worst it had been. Of course she was beat half to death then.
The next morning the sunlight awoke Deering through his window. He pulled the half open blind all the way and saw the light filtering through all the trees and leaves. A light blue surrounded the big glowing orb. As far as he could tell it was going to be a beautiful day.
He pulled the sheets off his body and the cold that had gathered in his room hit his bare chest. It was Sunday, so he ran a comb through his greasy hair and pulled out a dove feather from the day before. He threw on his nice slacks and a green dress shirt that had some dirt stains still on it. Sunday afternoons were ripe for football playing, especially ones like today. He just had to get through church first.
When the family pulled up in the parking lot several of the church members stopped what they were doing and stared at the hunter-green truck. Deering’s father stuck a foot out of the truck and they immediately brightened up and waved at him.
“Hey there!” he shouted across the lot. His voice was bright and full of energy. Even if you hadn’t been looking at him you would’ve known he was smiling. He pulled the banjo out of the front passenger seat, and Deering and his mom climbed out of the back of the cab.
The church was simple, just like Deering used to see in old photographs. Whitewashed on the outside with only one room inside, a steeple, and a big cross over the door. The room was a little dim, but he didn’t think anyone minded that too much. The Church of the Joyous, his father called it, although there was nothing around that said that. Deering and his mother walked up to the front pew where they always sat and passed a few good friends along the way.
“Susan, isn’t it just a fine Sunday morning?” Mr. Wilson asked his mom.
“Why yes it is!” She forced that one out through the globs of makeup she had put on the side of her face. Her neck was still slightly dark looking, but she had covered her cheek fairly well. Mr. Wilson didn’t notice but just smiled back at her a big smile that made Deering remember that there were real joyful people here.
They sat just as his father moved up towards the front. He didn’t use a pulpit because he wanted to make everyone feel closer. Deering wished there was a pulpit between him and his dad.
“Goooooooooood morning!” he bellowed. The congregation answered with an even heartier “Good morning!” and then fell silently back into their smiles. “We are here this morning, people of the great Church of the Joyous, to do one thing, and one thing only. Discover joy. This is not some simple-minded joy that you can get through your favorite activity, or by being with a brother or sister in Christ – no, no. This is the joy of the Lord!” That last word was extra loud. “And why is that? Why should the God Almighty, King of Kings, give us joy? Well, it’s because he loves us! Did you know that? I sure hope you did. That God – the same one who made everything you see around you and controls the whole universe – he loves you. In fact, he even died for you. And wants to be your very own father.” That was one of things Deering liked about God. A lot of the church talk was pretty boring to him though. Sometimes he found it annoying having to do all this stuff that he was told to do.
Everyone had heard this all before, but his dad’s smile and bright voice was infectious. He finished his opening talk and then stood smiling for a few seconds. Then he whipped around and picked up the Deering from its stand, pulling the strap over his head and plucking a few strings. “Ladies and gentlemen, one day, whether we’re all dead or whether we’re all sitting around singing the praise of God, we’re all gonna get whooshed on up to the heavenly realms! So let’s sing about it.” Bum bum bum. Three ascending intro notes, and then the whole group immediately started on “I’ll Fly Away”. Deering and his mother did too, but they always sang fairly quietly. The banjo was too loud for his dad to notice this anyway. Deering knew all the lyrics but never really knew what he was singing. It was just a big bunch of words that had been branded into his brain.
Deering began to drift off into his own thoughts. He looked up at his father as he began his sermon and saw his bright blue eyes. His bright blue eyes and that smile of his, so endearing as to enrapture an entire sanctuary. But all Deering could see were the bruises on his mother’s face, her downtrodden stares at the table during dinner, the fist raising up and coming down hard. He could feel his face start to heat up. His father kept his broad grin on his face. Deering’s own brown eyes staring at it, fixed on it, but not for the same reason as the other people. Muscles in his arms trembled as he gripped the edge of the pew. The black and purple marks. Those colors clouded his vision until it was all he could see anymore.
After the service was over, Deering waited out in the truck with his mother. She stared straight through the front window at the walls of the church. They watched as his dad slowly made his way down the front steps while he was somewhat assaulted by his congregation.
“Pastor Waits! We loved your sermon today.” A young couple eager to be good friends with him.
“That was brilliant, son.” One of the older men who generally disapproved of everything but his sermons.
“Are you coming to the brunch?” A group of old widows who usually got all excited around Deering’s father.
He smiled and answered to everything, still beaming when he got into the car. He placed the banjo across the other seat and buckled it in. As they pulled out of the drive he began to talk.
“Well darn it all if that wasn’t just the greatest time. I just can’t get enough of Jesus. Don’t think I ever will be able to.”
“Did you enjoy yourself honey?”
“Of course! I needed that this week. Sometimes we just need some heavenly inspiring.” She was good at faking it, but Deering knew when she was. Of course, when the conversation turned to him he did the same.
“Well good. I sure am glad to spend some time with God and my family. And my banjo of course!” He chuckled, but after that the conversation was dead.
Deering sat staring at the banjo for a minute. He decided to do it tonight.
Later, after he got back from the weekly football game, Deering walked into his room exhausted and lay on the floor for a good while. The wood was cold on his face. Then he remembered what he was going to do and his heart started beating fast. He could feel it pushing out against the wood with every thump. It felt like it was going to burst straight out of his chest into a million pieces. His black lab jumped off his bed and nestled up next to him.
All of a sudden his dad kicked the door open with the toe of his boot and it made such a loud noise Deering thought he had been shot. Edgar jumped up back onto the bed with a yelp. Deering turned around quickly and saw his father’s face staring at him, no longer smiling like earlier, his hand holding on to the neck, the drum swinging slowly. The drum seemed to be filled with even more dread than before, almost ready to burst. But then he smiled and bent down and put his hand on Deering’s knee.
“Son you know I love you, right? I know you may not be real excited to play this thing right now. But when you’re older you’ll get it. Praising the Lord is one of the most fulfillin’ things you can do on this earth, and darn it all if I can think of any better instrument to do it with.” He smiled somewhat gently, looking for understanding in his son’s eyes. Deering gave a faint smile. “That’s it. Now go practice up. Before you know it you’ll be up front in our church leading those songs!”
Deering leaned forward and his father’s strong arm grabbed his son’s to help him up. He placed the strap over his head and Deering walked towards the back porch. It pulled on his neck, weighing down on him like lead and banging against his hip every step he took. He didn’t want to be a preacher. I want to be a doctor or a lawyer or something fancy like people I knew from Raleigh, he thought. He couldn’t see any other way out of it. It was a prison, one made from five steel strings that wrapped him up and held him tightly for the rest of his life.
Sitting on the back porch, he played continuously for the next half hour. It was the best he had ever plucked those strings. His fingers were twitching all over the place because of his nerves but they were somehow twitching to all the right places. The notes finally made sense to him; the movement of his fingers felt as natural as pulling the trigger on the gun. I got to do this, he thought to himself. She had suffered too much. His hand tightly gripped the neck that was smooth as his .16’s barrel. It needed to end and this would set it all right. His fingers again were transformed into the talons of a bird, ready to strike in the pit. Besides, he would be fine. I just need to make the point. It’s not like he don’t deserve it. He let out a long, deep breath.
“Hey Deering, come on in.” He heard the door close behind him as his father came out. Deering smiled.
All at once he stood up as quick as he could, holding a death grip on the neck, the strap already off his own neck, and the banjo swung around, whistling through the air towards his father, his eyes half closed and every inch of his body strained. It was heavy but he noticed that it just felt like an extension of his arm. Then his elbow was jolted nearly in half and a burning fire ran up to his shoulder. Deering couldn’t tell if the sharp crack came from his father’s head or the banjo snapping in two at the base of the neck. His father’s body crumpled to the ground in a pile, as if someone had just stolen all of his bones out from his skin. The banjo lay on the ground, the drum still ringing – but not with a good noise. Deering’s grin of triumph quickly dropped as the painful discordant vibrations reached his ears. It was resonating with a terrible sound that was driving into his ears and staying in his head for longer than he wanted it to.
His mother swung the door open in a hurry. She recoiled against the wall and clutched her arms like she had just been bitten by a rattler. She looked at the banjo, then her husband, and then Deering. He stared back with a flat gaze, his mind blank but for that discordant sound still sitting there. She looked back down at the body crumpled on the pine boards of the porch. A little bit of red was slowly being added to the dark stain of the wood.
Deering turned and jumped off the porch into the leaves and the dirt and he ran. His feet pushed him into the woods, the light slowly fading into the ground. Golden beams still creeped through the branches in front of him. He swatted aside brier and bramble madly. He ran headlong into the nothingness, his mind and his sight getting darker each step he took. It wasn’t what he thought it would be. No glorious flight away from his fears. He knew he couldn’t go far. He was still imprisoned just as he had been a few minutes ago, the banjo strings like fetters that held him in.
His breathing got heavy and the air felt thick. It wasn’t the sweet air that he was used to in the woods. It smelled of sweat and rotting things. His feet kept pounding the ground without a destination.
The noise still sounded in his head, its ringing bouncing around his ears and his blank mind. Discordant notes emanating from the hide drum, although the broken machine had since stopped making the noise. The notes were wrong. All of them were wrong, but sat unwavering in his almost empty mind.
DAVIS BATEMAN was born and raised in Dallas. He is headed for a pre-med track, perhaps with a major in religion. He enjoys playing guitar, watching movies and running. He wrote “Deering” for R. T. Smith’s Appalachian Literature class.