"Oxen at the Well" by Ted Morrissey



Where could she be? It was snowing. Hard. And his sister was somewhere in the storm. Papa went to fetch the doctor—Mama’s baby was coming—and left Bobby at a crossroads, though you couldn’t see them cross because of the snow: Bitty’s not home, go find her.

He watched the back of the wagon and its wheels, smaller and smaller until he saw only the angle-falling snow. Go find her. Bobby turned and looked across the white emptiness. Only angle-falling snow. Opposite angle.

Papa had a dead arm. It hung at his side, lifeless, immobile, useless except for filling his sleeve. Bobby was afraid it was like blight in the field, first one stalk, then a patch, then the whole field brown and broken and everyone worried how they would eat.

Go find her.

My name is Bobby Frye, like fry with an e. My parents are Robert and Roberta Frye. My sister is Elizabeth. Everybody calls her Bitty. I live in the white house three-quarters of a mile northwest of Stephenson Road looking toward Hollis Woods.

He began walking. Snow stung his face, a face that was just beginning to show the first fine signs of manhood.

Maybe she went to get Mrs. Houndstooth to help your mother, Papa said. The wagon couldn’t reach the Houndstooth farm because of the snow-drifted road, so Papa went to get Doc Higgins, though he hadn’t delivered a baby in more years than anyone could count, Papa said.

The Houndstooth farm and the Whittle farm and the Stephenson farm, they all touch here and there, and the woods—witches are in the woods and the devil and coyotes. And hunters and trappers. Plague doesn’t live in the woods, he comes at night, you hear the flapping of his wings then the children are gone. He’s black, even his beak, even his eyes. Black like the night but blacker. Then the mother and father wear black. But blacker. Like Mr. Michaels’s suit, the undertaker, and Pastor Wilson.

Pray to Jesus and to the Virgin—they will protect you. And to God and to Mary. They also will protect you.

The Hollis children didn’t say their prayers. They’re in the woods too. Their ghosts. They’re ghosts. There ghosts. Which? Witch.

White sky white ground. Bobby had to look hard into the wind to see a difference. His eyes watered. He wiped at them with the back of his glove.

He was supposed to have a twin. A brother just like him. An always friend and game-mate. But he went to Jesus when they were born. I’ll meet him someday. What will I call him? He doesn’t have a name. Will he look just like me now or when I’m old? What if he’s still a baby? Will I have to take care of him? Like Mama’s baby, the lost one that went to Jesus also, and this new baby Mama’s having. Sometimes babies smell good, like honeysuckle soap, and sometimes they smell bad, real bad, like the privy hole in summer. You can smell them five pews away. Even Pastor Wilson makes a face. It’s funny but don’t laugh.

He stopped and considered the white-on-white horizon. Something was moving, something dark against the emptiness. He waited. Should he run? Go find her. Maybe it’s Bitty.

Uncertainty froze him as he turned over again and again what to do, like cards in a game whose rules kept out of reach of his fingertips.

The dark figure approached. Not Bitty. Cautious. A man in a black coat and hat, a rifle on his shoulder, a Savage like Papa’s, a hunter, pulling an empty sled by a rope. Snowshoes affecting his gait.

Have you saw a girl?

The man was silent.

A little girl, by herself, my sister?

No, haven’t seen anyone I’m afraid. There were boot prints, small, maybe a girl’s.

Where?

The man turned and waved his arm vaguely in a direction. Maybe that way, can’t say for certain.

Bobby waited for the man to say more, to provide more helpful information. Instead,

What road is this?

Bobby didn’t realize he was next to a road. There were the ruts of wheels cut in the snow, and half-frozen dung. Maybe from him and Papa and Old Psalt (the p is like the e in Frye, p and e rhyme), when they tried to fetch Mrs. Houndstooth to help Mama and the baby.

Whittle Road, he guessed, the fork to their place is just over there. He gestured as the man had.

Go find her. Bobby set off in the hopeless snow. He tasted snot on his chapped lips and wiped his nose with the back of his glove. He squinted into the piercing white light scanning for boot prints. Prints the relentless snow had been erasing from the start.

He walked into the featureless landscape until he was no longer bothering to find the boot prints. Bobby wondered if the hunter was real, or had his brain played a dirty trick on him? It always played tricks when he still went to school. He would study hard until he knew his number tables, or the capitals, or Mr. Lincoln’s speech, or how to spell the state with all the s’s and p’s. He knew them dead, or nearly dead, until the teacher put a slate in front of him and told him to write them, then his brain played its dirty trick and all he could remember was my name is Bobby Frye, like fry with an e, my parents are Robert and Roberta Frye . . . he could feel his classmates’ eyes laughing at him and worse he could feel his little sister’s eyes feeling sorry for him wanting to tell him the answers secretly like someone talking to you in a dream.

Bobby could still think his times threes up to four, easy, but only because the teacher wasn’t telling him to write them, and the class wasn’t waiting for him not to be able to.

He stopped in the white nowhere and relieved himself writing 12 in tall yellow figures.

The sky was sour-milk gray. Dark was coming. It was cold. The 12 was already fading back to white.

The contrast of the dimming sky helped the outline of Hollis Woods to stand out on the horizon, so Bobby began trudging toward them. Normally you avoided the woods but they were at least something he knew, a point of reference that softened the feeling of being lost.

A new teacher had been coming to the farm just to teach Bobby, Mr. Folger. He and Mama were friends. At church people said Mr. Folger was teaching Mama some new lessons. Mrs. Anthony said no, Mama was teaching him. People thought that was funny. Mr. Folger gave Mama a book she liked to read. She kept it in a drawer until Papa was in the barn or the field. The book wasted a lot of paper—there was only a small block of words on each page. Mr. Folger stopped teaching Bobby at the farm. Then Mama was expecting the baby. Mrs. Anthony said it was a bone-filed miracle, Papa making her that way. Worth every Joseph, she said. At night Mama sat in the parlor by herself reading Mr. Folger’s book. After Papa was in bed, Papa and his dead arm. It didn’t matter that Mr. Folger quit teaching him. He had to help Papa more and more.

The ground slowly tilted down making walking easier, which was good. His legs were tired from the high snow. He wished he had snowshoes like the hunter was wearing.

For a moment he forgot why he was out in the storm, lost, cold, then he remembered Bitty, then Mama and the baby, then the boot prints. Then there they were—prints of some sort in the snow, dark partially frozen impressions that may have been made by small boots or shoes, or maybe they were paw prints, a dog or a coyote.

They came along the hill crosswise before turning down, on a path directly toward the woods, close enough now to see the vertical outlines of tree trunks, the vanguard before breaching the monochrome of hopeless endless white.

Go find her. Bobby wiped his nose with the back of his glove and began following the vanishing prints.

He heard things—someone calling, a girl’s voice, laughter, a girl’s, howling, a dog or a coyote—and at each sound he paused, looked through the angle-falling snow for its source, and each time found nothing. The wind, he decided, banking against the hill. Or carrying the sounds from Hollis Woods and laying them upon the snow, one by one, like the cards Mama used to show him, Mama or Bitty, to teach him words: horse and dog and moon and witch and boy and girl—he remembered the pictures clearly (he could draw them dead if they wanted) but the words jumbled their letters the second Mama or Bitty turned them facedown.

Grandpa Hab, Papa’s Papa, lived with them, and sometimes he forgot and spoke his other language, from when he was a boy. The words on the cards were kind of like that. The pieces sounded right but they were put together in ways that wouldn’t make sense. Sometimes Grandpa called Bitty a funny name, the name of a girl from his other language, when he was a boy.

horse dog moon witch boy girl

Girl, like the one from the card, was there, in the snow, before the woods, dark clothes, yellow hair wrapping itself in the wind. Not Bitty though little bitty like her. Not little young so much as little small. Bobby had stopped, studying her from a distance. He raised his hand in greeting.

The girl turned and walked into the woods. She wasn’t wearing a coat. Or a hat. Only a coarse blue dress hardly suited to the weather. The facts required time to register.

Bobby hurried after her, the girl who was quickly being obscured by the snowy woods, swallowed by them, hidden away.

Hello! He could hardly hear himself in the howling whipping swirling wind and the crunching dampening deepening snow.

Bobby paused before entering the woods and thought again of the card images horse dog moon witch boy girl. He thought of the Virgin in his Sunday picture book, only a girl cloaked in blue, her blond hair against a yellow disk, a girl with a baby white as snow.

He looked back at the sour-milk sky above the pure white rise. Maybe the moon was there, hidden, risen as it can before earnest nightfall. Hidden like the girl now.

Go find her.

He wiped his nose and stepped into the forest.

Instantly the wind was cut. Snow instead fell gently from the forest canopy—like the snow during the Nativity play on Christmas Eve. One Christmas, the Christmas Mama lost the baby, during the play Mama’s tears fell slowly like the snow when Baby Jesus was placed in the manger—not the real Baby Jesus, the Mesmores’ baby but too big for Baby Jesus.

Light too fell lightly from the forest’s invisible ceiling. The girl had entered the woods at a place where there was a rough but discernible path, a narrow but consistent space between trees. Bobby saw no prints in the snow, yet she must’ve come this way. He started following the crude path. He remembered the witch’s hooked nose and her single overlarge eye that watched you no matter where you moved in the room. Until Mama or Bitty put the stack in the drawer. Even then you knew the witch was in there, and her staring eye was staring in the dark.

In the forest’s half-light the jutting trunks and crossing limbs, all brushed with shadow, seemed to form any number of unlikely shapes. Bobby’s snow-weary eyes worked to make them out. There was a sow with her shoats in the almost-dark, and a bear rearing up on his hind legs, and, most improbably of all, an elephant whose trunk was crook-shaped like the witch’s nose. They appeared one after another just off the wandering path. They were not real, Bobby knew. Yet their presence in the woods unsettled him. Each vanished as easily as it appeared, a trick of his trouble-causing brain.

The girl he saw, she must have been a trick too, one that fooled him into entering the woods. Bobby turned to undo his mistake, to right his wrong—and she was on the path, facing him, her hair aglow in the waning light. Her eyes a luminous blue, staring at him. In fact not blinking at all.

Bobby spoke the only words that came to him:

Have you saw my sister, Bitty, little like you?

Then he said,

Are you lost too?

Then,

Where’s your baby, the baby white as snow?

He watched for the yellow disk to rise behind her like the moon. Maybe it was there, in the sky, but concealed by the trees and the storm.

She opened her mouth and spoke. The pieces of her words were jumbled, perhaps half of them not reaching him at all, falling to the snow-covered ground between them. Bobby had an impulse to gather them and try to fit them back together like pieces of a broken bowl. On the floor mixed among wax beans still steaming in the cold kitchen. Or the bits of a ripped letter, like the one Mr. Folger gave Mama—Bobby recognized the oblong loops and slanted sticks of his teacher’s writing. Mama tore it up damp with her tears and threw the pieces at the fire. She hurried away crying and didn’t see some of the biggest pieces missed the fire and were scattered on the parlor rug. Papa and his dead arm were in the barn.

Bobby picked up the pieces and wished he didn’t have such a bad brain—but he knew Papa’s good brain didn’t need to read them. So he put them in the fire for Mama. And for Papa. And Bitty. And the new baby.

Bobby was staring at the ground, at the pieces of the girl’s words that were not there, and knew she wasn’t either even before looking up.

He felt the witch’s eye staring at him. Maybe then she wasn’t watching Bitty, wherever she was, or Mama and the baby, or Papa, for surely it was her evil eye that had blighted Papa’s arm. Her eye was overlarge and powerful, yes, and grim, but still only singular.

Out there, beyond the edge of the woods, some daylight remained.

Bobby wiped his nose and began again.



"Oxen at the Well" is part of a work in progress. Other pieces have appeared or are forthcoming in/at North American Review (two pieces), Sequestrum, Belle Ombre, Pangyrus, and The Bookends Review; in anthologies/collections from Wordrunner e-Chapbooks, Adelaide Books, Something or Other Publishing, and Indie It Press; as podcasts from 9th Story Studios; and dramatic video readings from NY Web Publishing. See tedmorrissey.com for way too much information.