John Mara began writing fiction this summer beside a serene New Hampshire lake after years writing business articles inside a stale New York cubicle. He writes with the creative input of his wife Holly. They never fail to attract mortified glances when they discuss ideas and plot structure in restaurants. John’s short stories are published or forthcoming in eight markets, including Scarlet Leaf Review.
“His hands and arms are comin’ with me,” Zack says. “You bury the rest of ‘im good before dark.” “In which grave, son? The one I dug today or the one I dug last night?” “Brother died today. Who’d you dig a grave for last night, Maw?” “I dug it for myself,” she says. “But what’s it matter? Now you can choose. Bury ‘im right side of Pa, or left?” “Bury ‘im left. Left’s good.” “You gonna help me bury ‘im, Zack? I’ve been up on this hill diggin’ since last night, and I’m feelin’ cold dead myself.” “I’m done with buryin’, Maw. I buried hundreds during the war, both Union and Confederate. The killin’ got too easy. Bury ‘im yerself.” Zack lumbers down the hill to their farmhouse below, carrying the two prosthetic limbs he took from Brother. The prosthetics are carved of solid oak, with hinged elbows and wrists, and fingers painted to look real. Just two weeks ago, a Union Army surgeon fit them to Brother’s stubs after the Rebs blew off his real arms at the battle ending the Civil War – Appomattox. The matching oak arms were pulled from a dead Union captain who valued their fine craftsmanship. “They’ll fetch a pretty penny, these arms will,” Zack says. “Besides, Brother won’t be a needing ‘em no more.” Up on the hill, Maw drags what’s left of Brother’s corpse into his grave. She kneels and whispers a mother’s eulogy to him, and she talks to Brother before putting her shovel to work. But Maw doesn’t fill the grave as she had planned. Instead, she learns from Brother about a sibling dispute that needs her maternal resolution before he’s put completely to rest. She perches the shovel on her shoulder and traces Zack’s steps to the farmhouse below.
### “Murderer!” Maw brandishes the shovel over Zack as he sits at the kitchen table admiring the oak arms. “You killed your own brother!” “Murder? Hah!” Zack says. Let’s say for a minute I did – and I didn’t, you skinny old goat. How would you know?” “Brother just told me, that’s how I know. He told me all you done,” Maw says. “There was no murderin’, Maw. Brother died of the terrible fever he got when his real arms were blown off. We was paroled after the Rebs surrendered at Appomattox, and I dragged him back to Pennsylvania, new oak arms and all. We got home this mornin’, and that fever finished ‘im off good by noon.” “You was tellin’ it straight there, son, right up to the very end.” Maw paces around the kitchen. “But when you got home today, you saw how the Rebs killed Pa, slaughtered the animals and ruined the fields while you and Brother was gone fightin’. That’s when you decided to finish Brother off good before noon. There was no fever. You smothered ‘im with his own pillow!” “You’ve been up that hill diggin’ graves since last night,” Zack says. “You wouldn’t know about any pillow killin’ down here from way up there.” “Why’d you kill Brother today over what the Rebs done marchin’ through here two whole years ago?” Maw says. “We’ve got to work to survive, Maw, and he’d drag us down!” Zack says. “You ain’t done nothin’ on this here farm in two years. Ever since that Reb regiment destroyed it! I’ll plant us a garden at least, and we’ll buy us a cow once we sell these pretty oak arms.” “Brother could’ve helped on the farm some, so he says.” “What could Brother do, with nothin’ but oak arms? Can you see ‘im milkin’ a cow with these wooden hands? How ‘bout swingin’ a shovel in the fields?” “Even so, couldn’t you let ‘im live out his days in peace?” “Be practical, Maw! He’d contribute nothin’, he’d need nursin’, and he’d be another mouth to feed. At least you can work that shovel real good!” “I’ve a right mind to tell the sheriff what you done,” Maw says. “What’s just is just.” “Tell the governor if you want! But who’d fix what the Rebs done to this farm with me rottin’ in the county jail?” “Then maybe I’ll show you some justice myself!” Maw circles the kitchen table, threatening Zack with the shovel. Zack lifts the oak arms to shield his skull. “I’m the judge and jury here now! With Pa gone, I own this farm!” “Brother says you won’t be gettin’ away with it. Not this time. He can’t change being dead, that he knows. But he says he’ll be a wantin’ them arms of yours, to be buried complete.” “Well he can’t be a havin’ no arms!” Zack says. “We’ll turn these fancy oak arms into a milkin’ cow to help make the farm complete! Brother’s worth more to us dead than alive.” “You had somethin’ to do with him losin’ his real arms in the first place,” Maw says. “Let’s suppose I did – and I didn’t, you skinny old goat. Who told you?” “Brother told me,” Maw says. “First the pillow, now his arms? He talks plenty for a dead man.” “I know your ways, son. When you was kids, you sent ‘im down the well for the cat, and you sent ‘im into the burning barn for the calf. I know you sent him through that rigged door in Appomattox, too.” Zack eyes get big, and he jumps up from the kitchen table. “How would you know about any rigged door in Appomattox?” Brother and Zack were securing buildings near the Appomattox Court House, so General Lee could surrender his army to General Grant. Zack sent Brother into the buildings first, because the Rebs booby trapped a few of the doors. Brother eventually pushed open the wrong door. He lost his real arms the very morning the South lost the war. “After what you done at Appomattox, he’ll be a wanting them arms of yours,” Maw says. “To be buried proper for the judgment day, so he says.” “You still got that mother’s intuition, Maw, with your pillows, arms, rigged doors and what not. I’ll give you that much. But you’re doggone crazy now, too.” “My head’s been swimmin’ since three of them Rebs did what they done to me – after they killed Pa for tryin’ to stop ‘em,” Maw says. ”I keep seein’ their evil faces, and I ain’t slept in my own bed since. I ask the Virgin Mother every night to forgive what I done.” “I’m just tryin’ to fix what’s broke on the farm and what’s broke in you, Maw, that’s all. With Brother out of the way, the fixin’s easier, don’t you see?” “It’s past dark. Time to get back up to the graves for the night,” Maw says. She takes her shovel into Zack’s bedroom and slides it under his bed. “One more thing before I go, son,” Maw says when she returns to the kitchen. “Reach inside that oak arm there – the left one. Brother says you’ll find the paper you was lookin’ for when you killed ‘im.” Zack pulls a folded document from the hollow of the oak arm. “So that’s where he hid it! It’s Pa’s will, Maw,” he says. “Brother wanted to steal the farm out from under me. That’s why he put it where I’d never look.” “You forced Pa to change this here will two years ago,” Maw points out. “See there? Your name only, Brother’s name gone. Stamped official, June 1863. He found it the day before the two of you left to defend Gettysburg from the invading Rebs.” “So what? I’m oldest. The farm’s mine,” Zack says. “I’m aimin’ to find a girl and start me a family.” “You knew Brother was aimin’ to contest the will when he got home and found Pa dead.” She lays the will on the table next to the oak arms. “Brother’s awful curious what got ‘im killed. Was it the arms he lost or the will he found? Or some of both?” “What is it you want, Maw?” “I only want what’s just all around before I’m back up on the hill buried for good,” she says. Zack walks Maw to the door. He starts her up the hill and away from the town sheriff. “She knows all of what I done,” he mutters. “Why not sleep here tonight in Brother’s bed?” he calls up to her. “’Cause Pa says all he wants now is me near.” Zack closes the farmhouse door. “Fixin’ the farm’ll be hard, Maw, but fixin’ you is easy,” he says. “You’ll be sleepin’ on the wrong side of a pillow before long, too.” # The town doctor rides up to the farmhouse at sunrise to conduct his weekly check on Maw. Or Maw’s head, that is. Doc knew her before the war started, when she managed her farm and family, practiced her faith, and turned any man’s eye. She deteriorated gradually during the course of the war, but Doc watched her plummet into an abyss after the Rebs murdered Pa and ruined the farm – and her – on their march to Gettysburg. She hit rock bottom the day Doc delivered the stillborn baby of the Rebs that raped her. “It was the devil’s seed,” Maw told him. She seems better on some days, but on other days she sinks back into her abyss. Doc heard in town that her two boys got home yesterday from the war. That should raise her spirits! Let’s hope today is one of her better days. Doc finds her in the bedroom smiling tranquilly over Zack as he sleeps. “Morning, Ma’am. Let’s bring in some sunshine.” Doc opens the curtain, and Maw lifts Zack’s pillow from his face. Doc rushes to the bed. Zack’s face is ashen, and his skin is clammy. He’s delirious, barely conscious, and his panicked eyes stare fixed ahead. Doc pulls back the covers to take Zack’s pulse. The sheets are sodden with blood. Off to the side, Maw hears one thump and then another, as the two oak arms drop to the floor. Doc will ask questions later; right now he wants to save Zack’s life. He examines the jagged stumps of Zack’s arms. “He’s lost most of his blood, Ma’am. He’s in shock. I don’t know how, but something kept him alive until I got here.” “Maybe someone was careful to keep ‘im alive. That way he can think over all he done,” Maw says contentedly. “I told him Brother would be a wanting them arms of his.” Doc stays at work tightening the two tourniquets. He served a stint in the war, and he knows how to treat Zack’s traumatic wounds. Maw’s head and solving what happened to Zack will have to wait. Maw collects a carpetbag and her shovel from under Zack’s bed. “Now where do you think you’re going, Ma’am?” Doc says. ”I’m just getting started here.” He injects Zack with morphine. “I’m goin’ to stay with some kinfolk – nice and peaceful up on a hill.” “But what about this kin here? Zack will need plenty of nursing, starting right now.” “This farm’s his now to do with as he likes, so says Pa’s last will.” Maw tosses the will guilelessly onto Zack’s bed. “I think he’ll survive in the end,” Doc says. “But he’ll never redeem this farm with arms made of oak.” “Ain’t no matter. Zack swindled his brother outta the farm, and then he swindled him outta his oak arms. He wanted both, and now he’s got both.” Doc cuts Zack’s hair to examine a crack in his skull. He takes a careful look at Maw’s shovel. “Zack survived the war without a scratch, Ma’am. How did someone get close enough to cut him to pieces like this? And where were you and his brother last night when it happened?” He sees blood caked on the black mourning dress Maw has worn for the last two years. “Will you be wantin’ your coffee before I go?” Maw says. “We’ve got a lot to talk about over our coffee, Ma’am. But I have a lot more to do to stabilize Zack first. Don’t be running off too far until then.” “Just goin’ up the hill there, Doc, that’s all.” Maw leaves the farmhouse with her carpetbag and shovel, pleased about the extra measure of blood vengeance she apportioned on behalf of Pa and herself. “You’re in for a surprise, Doc, when you find Zack’s privates went missin’, too,” Maw says unaffectedly over her shoulder. “If Brother can’t carry on the family name for Pa then neither should a son like Zack,” she decrees. After Maw cracked Zack’s skull and severed his arms, she adjudicated three additional hacks of her shovel to his genitals. On each stroke, she flashed back to the faces of the three Rebs that despoiled her two years ago and gave her the devil’s child. Zack stayed responsive long enough to mumble pleas for mercy, but it was no use. With her latest troubles added to her former ones, Maw had retreated deeper than ever into her dark abyss. ### Maw trudges up the hill. She kneels over Brother where she left him waiting last night in his grave. She pulls Zack’s two mutilated arms out of the carpetbag and positions them on Brother with solemn ceremony. “Now you got them arms of his you wanted, son, to face Saint Peter proper at his gate,” Maw says. “Good and fresh.” With Brother’s cold justice complete, she shovels dirt with calm finality into his grave. Maw shuffles over to the grave she dug for herself, on Pa’s right. Two nights ago, before her boys arrived home, she knelt in her grave. She pulled up the sleeves of her black mourning dress and slashed her wrists with Pa’s razor to escape her shattered world. The blood pumped slowly and completely out of her. She could feel her soul, her life being, leave her, and she joined Pa among the dead. But she didn’t pull the dirt down over herself as she had planned. When she prayed for her soul’s redemption to the Mother Mary, a mother’s intuition rose in Maw that sustained her – bodily at least – among the living. Although Maw was newly dead, the Mother Mary resolved to leave her corporeal being behind in this world as a vessel to work one last maternal intervention. She waited in her grave and, when Zack delivered Brother’s corpse to her up on the hill, Brother told her exactly what she could do to allot some maternal justice. And now with that justice fully administered, Maw adjourns into her grave to resume the bodily part of her escape. This time, she pulls dirt down onto herself with her shovel, and the Mother Mary releases her corporeal being from this world. She enters the cold darkness of her final passage, not with the anguish she felt two nights ago, but with a warm maternal contentment. In the end, Maw knows she has conferred on Brother, Zack, Pa and herself precisely what each wanted. “What’s just is just.”