A Remedy Sovereign

Erik Berg

The Mawr home was a small, shaded place at the base of the foothills. It was a place you could not see from the road, as it was hidden by the hillside to the north, and by the large oaks and vines to the south, east and west, and a place you were sure did not exist unless you grew up there, as Andrew had. It was a place that did not age. It grew like the trees around it, subtle and unnoticed, and only when the old pictures were studied was it noted the change in size and the dings and bruises of long life. To the land, the home was tenured more than its people; it knew the world around it much better than the oak roots and their starlings. It witnessed generations. It knew children, and knew the dead. It can be noted that when a home is lost, it is loved almost more than its people because of this. A home is something that outlives the families who built it, but without them is nothing. A home is not a home without its people; there is no dispute in the matter.

Andrew turned off the highway, toward the foothills that lined the yellow valley. Instinctively, he knew the turns; he knew the shortcuts and the speeds at which to take them, though he had not been home in some time. He knew the air by heart, as it was a warm air, the way it had been the day he left, and he noted the breeze that shifted the oak trees, and all the subtleties that only belong to a native, and the truck drove slow because of this. Bryn sat beside him. Her eyes traced the lines along the foothills, but she could see nothing but the grape groves that spanned the basin.

“Why do they tie the ribbons to the trellises?” she asked. “The birds don’t seem to mind them. Look, there’s one right now.”

“They won’t eat though. I’ve watched them. They only fly by waiting for the ribbons to stop blowing, but the reflections scare them. They don’t eat when they’re scared.”

“So the grapes go uneaten?”

“No,” Andrew said. “They wait till nighttime. Sometimes it’s cloudy, or the moon isn’t out, and the fields are dark enough that they’ll eat as much as they can until morning. But if a full moon is out, they starve waiting. Birds are funny like that. Whenever they die, they usually die all together. Not like us.”

The truck grew quiet. Bryn watched the birds fly passed the groves, to the cover of the foothills, and she tried hard to see the home, but it was not there. She had visited with Andrew before and every time the home surprised her. She couldn’t see it in the way she couldn’t see just one tree at a time, or just one stone, or just one shade of the field. The foothills and the valley were one picture, and the home was as much a part of it as the dirt or the dead. It frightened her in a way, too, in a way she explained as nerves, though it was the nerves of an alien. She checked herself in the mirror. She wore a nice light blue summer dress, something bought for the occasion, and something she intended to look nice in.

“How bad do you think he is?” she asked; she did not like the quiet. “Do you think he’s really going to die?”

“They told me he was dieing and that was all. I wouldn’t think people would lie about that. Grandpa wouldn’t let them if they tried.”

“I’ve never seen a dieing man before. I don’t think I want to either.”

“You don’t have to.”

“But will they want me to?”

“They’ll want you to. But you don’t have to.”

“Should I be there? I feel awkward being there. I hardly knew him. He said hello to me once, but I didn’t know him. I don’t think I should be there.”

“You’re fine. They want you there or they wouldn’t have invited you over. And none of that matters anyway. I want you there. Just don’t look at him if you don’t want to. They told me he doesn’t look good. I’m sure they mean it.”

“Are you going to tell them?” she asked.

Andrew grew calm. The truck slowed along the road. He took a left at a pass, and now they were driving east again, on a service road of dirt toward the foothills. They were close enough to the vines now to smell the tannins in the air, and he knew where they were without knowing it.

“I have to,” he said.

“I know, but it makes me nervous. Just let me know when you’re going to tell them. I don’t want to be nervous. How do you think they’ll act?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe they’ll be occupied enough not to notice.”

“Maybe. But I don’t think so. I hope so, but I don’t think so.”

The truck rose suddenly with the foothills, moving lateral, and circumventing the rise until the groves and the basin became bright below them. They could see the highway over the green rows, and the dried gorges of the river off in the distance. And somewhere to the west, the valley opened to a turquoise sky of the oceanside. The road steadied and they rose no more. Large pikes of Eucalyptus grew from below, and the air smelled of dirt and mint along the avenue, and they could see the basin only through glimpses between the passing leaves and the shade.

“I feel nervous,” she said.

“You’re always nervous.”

“Don’t be mean. This is serious, and…”

“We’re here.”

The home was set in a steady clearing of the Eucalyptus, beneath the shade of an overgrown oak in the front yard. Because it was afternoon, the sun was high, and the day hot, and the parts of the home in the shade of the tree looked inviting, and the rest looked stolid and old from the constant abuse. There were cars parked along the dirt, beside the garage, and the few children playing by the tree stopped and watched Andrew park next to them, and once they were satisfied, continued playing as they were.

“Those are my nephews,” he said.

“What are their names?”

“I don’t know.”

Andrew felt old beneath the oak tree. It was smaller than his memories made it out to be, but still it was much taller than the home, and its leaves still a bright green, and its roots still brusque and strong. The tree was the family sentinel, the crest and the soldier in one. Its roots grew deep into the soil, spreading into the mesa, and from any point, it looked to cradle the home, to hold it more than the land and the stone, and the home welcomed the security and the shade with open arms, as a child would. Beside it, the home was safe, and Andrew felt proud to see it still strong. He slapped the bark like and old friend.

“I’ve always known this tree,” he said. “My Grandpa planted it when he was young. He watched it live, and now it watches him too.”

Bryn smiled at the children, who gathered beneath it, and they smiled back shyly. The light fell through the grated leaves in bright freckles against their olive skin.

“What are you playing?” she asked.

The older boy looked up at Andrew, and then to the home.

“Funeral,” he said. “But don’t tell my momma. She says funeral’s aren’t anything to play.”

“I won’t tell,” Bryn said.

A faint smell of sawdust carried in the west wind, followed by a bang from the garage, then a staccato grind, much like a saw tearing at wood. The children continued their game. Andrew looked toward the noise, but ignored it. He made off toward the home across the lawn.

“What was that?” she asked.

“I don’t know. But I’d like to let them know we’re here before they get worried.”

Inside the house, the windows were shut to keep out the heat, and it was dark. Aunt Pauline sat on the sofa, beside her daughter Penny. Mary and his cousin Anthony stood in the hall, and there were more shapes in the shade, ones unrecognizable but that were always there, and they moved to greet the two at the doorway with a hug, and stepped back to their conversations and laughter. There was no mourning in the home, other than the shade. People spoke like people, and they laughed like people. And there was a thick scent of meat and oil in the kitchen, to settle any indifference.

His mother stepped into the hall, wearing an apron. She was a short woman, smaller than Bryn, and built like the old Irish women that settled the country, only without the fatigue.

“There’s food on the table,” she said. “Sit down.”

“How is he?”

“Not very good. He’s seeing things now. They say that’s a sign it’s coming close.”

“I’d like to see him. Can I see him?”

“He’s down the hall. I don’t think he’s awake.”

Bryn stepped aside. She sat with Penny on the sofa and they began a conversation about each other’s clothes. Andrew followed the hall further, and the air became calm and subtle, and he could hear the wind whistle against the old oak in the lawn. The door was open slightly, and he pushed it forward. The room was small. There were no pictures, and no decorations and the walls were white, with a faint yellow light coming from a lamp on the bed stand. The old man was asleep in the bed. It had been modified at an upward slant, so he could lie at an angle, and his face fell limp onto the sharp projection of his shoulder. The little flesh he had sagged from where it remained, and his face was hollow and pale. The room was quiet, and now the noise from the other room drifted calmly away, and all that was left was the huff from the oxygen tank beside the bed, and the tubes that connected the two. Andrew stood still and watched the man breath. It was not an easy breath. Each breath came miserably. They came hard, and they came painful, even in sleep.

“He’ll die now,” his mother said. She stood beside him at the doorway. “He’ll die soon. He’s hurting too. He moans at night. Only when he thinks we can’t hear him, but we do.”

“Why doesn’t he take anything?”

“He won’t. He has pain medicine. But he won’t take it. He’s too honorable for that, like your father. He wants people to think he’s not in pain. So he doesn’t take it and he moans all night. In the morning he’s wet from the sweat of it all. I’m not sure if he thinks we don’t know, but it makes him feel better.”

Andrew stepped closer. There was a chair by the bedside, and he sat and looked at the old man. He did not look familiar the way he was. His knees were pulled close to his chest and a fleece blanket covered his body. There were only bones left of him, and those bones weren’t enough to make a man of him.

“I won’t wake him up.”

“You can try. Sometimes he doesn’t wake up. Sometimes he will be awake and sitting up. He tells me he sees things in the closet. He says somebody is standing there watching him. I think it scares him too. It scares me a little.”

“Does he remember anything?”

“That’s the sad part of it all,” she said. “Sometimes he’ll be back. And you wouldn’t even know anything was wrong. But he hasn’t been here in a few days, as himself, anyway. And I don’t think he will be anymore. I’m sorry, I have to go get that meat before it burns.”

The room became lonely and dense, and the man struggled on, with the placid frailty of a child. The air was heavy with anxiety, as each breath was as strong as the last, and as useless and subtle as the next, but still they came regardless of a purpose. He felt light watching the man, not sick or sorrowful, as those would be moods. He did not have moods then, only that he was glad Bryn was not there to see it. Death seemed to make company in the room, and good company, as the breaths only made things worse than they needed to be. The walls were thin, and Andrew could hear the laughter once more. Over the talk came the banging from the garage, loud and distant all at once, and the people kept talking, though he wondered about it. He stood and walked slowly into the hall. The smell of oil and meat was very strong now, and people were happy, and talking to each other all at once.

“I saw my grandmother dead once,” Penny said. “Her eyes were all black. Like her pupils exploded. Her face sagged like a demon’s face too.”

“I’ve never seen anyone dead,” Bryn said.

“How much is everything going to cost?” Uncle Calvin called into the kitchen where Andrew’s mother worked the meat in the oil.

“Cheaper than I thought. He has good insurance.”

“Oh, but we can help,” Pauline said.

“She’s right,” Penny perked up. The women in the room became enthusiastic about the concept of an occasion. “I’ll coordinate the food. There’s no need to pay out for something like that. I can do it just as good. It will be a nice day. Everyone can chip in.”

“I could do the flowers,” Bryn said. “If you’d like.”

“What should I wear? I’ll have to buy something.”

They did not notice Andrew slip away into the lawn. By now, the shadow from the oak had fallen from the home, and with it the lawn had a serene blush from the beginning of an evening in the west. The children were at play beneath the tree, with one of the younger nephews lying limp in the grass, while the others held poppies to their chests to signify their grief. But Andrew was drawn to the banging that continued from the garage. He followed the smell of sawdust as it rose and drifted with the redness in the wind.

He found his father alone there. Around the workbench were scattered piles of lumber, all the pieces split and broken, sawed off in error, and salvaged till they weren’t usable. He did not notice Andrew enter through the sound of his own sawing. He worked the saw as one runs a lawn mower, without worry or care, and the echo reverberated through the hollow garage into a choke. The piece of wood cracked and split, and he threw it with the others on the floor.

“I’ve never seen you work with wood,” Andrew said.

His father didn’t startle. “That’s because I can’t,” he said. “There’s not much of anything I can do. People can’t do anything nowadays. In fact, we’re useless. I don’t know how we get along.”

“What are you building?”

He pointed to a hollow box off in the corner. The shape was defined, but there was no symmetry, like a child’s work, and it was too small to fit what it was intended. Andrew looked at his father. He looked at him the way a boy does, the way he learns strength and action, only he could not find any feeling there. His father’s face was bare, and wet with sweat.

“You see what I mean,” he said. “We don’t know how things work nowadays. We know a lot of things, but not the basics. We don’t know how it works. My father built his father’s casket with his own hands. And his father did the same, and his father, and his father too. Most of them couldn’t even read, but they knew the basics. They were useful people. And now look at me. I got all this wood and all these tools and I wouldn’t know how to use them.”

“But we know how to do other things.”

“Yes, but not the things that matter. This matters.”

The two sat quiet for a moment. Without the banging, the air was calm, and they could hear a faint laughter from the children in the yard.

“The state’s making him get buried in town. It’s not sanitary to have him here, too many permits and things to stop it. I don’t get it though. I just don’t get why he has to go away. This was his home anyway. Its more his land than it is theirs. This is where the family is. He should be here with us. A family shouldn’t separate.”
His father took up another piece of wood and began fitting it to the workbench. He handled it like a ball of lead. He did not care about the production, only the end, and he was breathing heavy now with the diligence.

“We bought a home up north,” Andrew said.

His father let the wood drop. He became still, looking down at the hollow box, and the room became soft and the air low.

“Did you? How far away?”

“It’s in Washington. It’s a good place though. It’s not like here, but the money is good. We’re happy about it.”

“Does your mother know?”


“Don’t tell her today. Save it for later. Spare her.”

A loud scream sounded from the home. It grew loud above the breeze, in a horrifying echo, and died quickly as it came. The children became silent in the yard. Andrew looked first to his father, but there was no departure from the bench, only the sweat and defeat of a broken man. Andrew ran from the garage, toward the home, hearing the choke of the saw pick up once more as he did.

There was a commotion in the hall when he entered, and he pushed by Uncle Calvin and Penny enough to see Bryn lying on the floor. His mother knelt beside her, and her face was dead pale, and her eyes just beginning to resettle into consciousness.

“What happened?”

“I just wanted her to see him,” Penny said, startled and confused. “She didn’t want to but I told her it would be okay, but she couldn’t take it. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

Andrew helped Bryn to her knees. Her skin was warm, and her balance hadn’t yet regained. She held on to him tight, frightened like a child.

“Get her some water, Penny,” he said. “She just needs some water. She’ll be fine.”

“I shouldn’t have looked,” Bryn whispered into his ear. “I don’t think I should know these things, Andy. It wasn’t for me to see.”

“You’re okay. Just come with me into the kitchen. You need to cool down.”

When her feet resettled, the crowd dispersed back to their places in the living room. Andrew led her into the kitchen, and Penny handed her a cup of water, and she drank and looked off into the red horizon through the window. Something came over the valley in the evening, things that could not be known and weren’t for knowing, but could be felt and seen if tried too were all in that sunset. Then came a loud crack from outside, sequenced in rhythm like the ticking of a clock.

Andrew’s mother stood at the entrance to the kitchen. Each time the noise came she looked down the hall and grimaced at the open door.

“What’s that noise?” he asked.

“Your father I bet,” she said. “Ever since the old man’s turned for the worse he’s been working on things to clean up around here. The other day he painted the back of the house, and he worked the gutters. Before that he planted new grass in the lawn, and trimmed up those hedges. Your grandpa didn’t like him touching those things while he felt they were still his. But now your father says they need to be done. I don’t like it though. I wish he’d wait till the old man was gone first. Something about it doesn’t seem right.”

The front door opened and slammed and through it came the children, running and screaming into the dark. The oldest one stopped at the kitchen entrance, huffing and panting from the run.

“What’s the matter with you all?”

“It’s Uncle Tom!” the boy said. “He’s gone crazy! He’s out there with an axe right now, hitting that tree with it and he scared us all half to death. He told us to quit playing or it’d fall right on our heads!”

Andrew jumped toward the hall.

“That’s not cleaning up!” he said to his mother. “That’s something different. You keep an eye on Bryn for me.”

He ran through the doorway as quick as the children had. The chopping grew loud as he entered the lawn, like sharp bouts of thunder, and he saw his father wielding the axe above his shoulder for another blow. He had the face of a madman. His cheeks were red, and his eyes enflamed with an over glazed darkness that sometimes wins a man in hardship. The red light of the evening spilled over his shoulders as he swung, and the axe dug deeper, and the gash grew heavy into the oak.

“What are you doing?” Andrew said. He felt a notion to impede the blow like a man taking a bullet, but the eyes and the fervor spared him the thought. A man with those eyes would not quit. The blows would reach regardless.
“Destroying,” he said. “People aren’t very good at creating things. We’re not much good for anything but one thing, and we do that better than anything else. Sometimes I think we’re just as good as God. Step aside son. We won’t need this anymore. ”

Another blow tore into the bark, and the tree wilted in pain. Its shade became nimble, and its leaves lost the green life that made them rustle with the breeze. Andrew watched it suffer, because there was nothing he could do to stop it, and he felt every slash with the axe, and every scream from the roots, and felt somehow the home shared them too, and the valley as a whole. The tree became stiff and the ground beneath it hollow. Finally there was an electric crack, like the crack of bone, and the tree tumbled beneath the weight of its own girth away from the home. His father stood above the corpse, godlike, with no repose.

Andrew walked slowly back across the lawn. The home was loud with laughter once more, though he could not see the shapes that made it in the darkness, and he did not care either. He found Bryn in the kitchen. Her face was still pale, and she looked off at the redness through the window the way he left her. His mother sat at the table across the way. She looked down at the floor with no expression. She did not even look up at Andrew as he walked into the room and took Bryn by the arm.

“We’re leaving,” he said.

He helped Bryn walk through the hall, through the laughter. Nobody noticed their exit. The conversations continued without any sign of stopping.

“I shouldn’t have looked,” she said.

“You’ll be okay. Close your eyes,” he said. “Don’t look at anything until I tell you.”

They found the car parked beside the garage, and as he started it, he could make out faintly his father’s silhouette moving above the outline of the fallen tree. There was a calmness in the air now, and the breeze no longer carried but kept still and cold. The shades from the evening passed into darkness, a darkness that grew serene and violent all the same, and as they drove back through the Eucalyptus they felt it chasing them too.

“Those things,” Bryn said. “I shouldn’t have seen them.”

“Why did you look?”

“I don’t know. Something made me. But I’m not sure why.”

“I told my father,” Andrew said. “I told him we were leaving. I didn’t tell my mother though. She doesn’t need to know.”

“I told her,” Bryn said. “When we were together in the kitchen. I couldn’t stop myself. I had to.”

The car became still and silent as they rode back up the road. The grape vines spread into an even sheath over the valley, and Bryn looked out onto the fields, toward the outline of the hillside beneath the sky. She could not see the home any more. All she could make out were the silver streaks that glistened above the trellises. The moon was full, and the ribbons shone a bright reflection. There were no birds, and now she knew why.


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