Where Dangerous Things Moved
The boys had been gathering swollen, flesh-colored butternut squash since noon. The vegetables dotted the lower field as if dropped carelessly from heaven by God himself. Between each row, the migrant workers had been kneeling with box cutters, slicing the squash from the vines, chatting in Spanish. Among the cowboy hats and worn leather boots, the two boys moved with the workers, kneeling, grabbing, and cutting, before moving again. The green tractor crawled along the gentle hillside, spitting black smoke from its upright exhaust pipe in angry plumes. The wagon followed behind it like a defeated animal.
Colton stood and wiped the back of his hand across his forehead, leaving a dark smear. “Look, Jesse! An arrow head!”
Jesse severed a squash from the vine, before taking the stone from his brother’s hand. “It’s just a rock, Colt. Keep moving, the Cadi’s on its way back down.”
The machine was bending the far end of the field, giant tires planted carefully between the rows carved in May, when the earth was still soft with memories of winter.
“Jesse, just look at it again, it’s a real one. It’s just like Uncle Ren’s.”
“Start moving the fucking squash, Colt—”
The growl of the tractor drowned Jesse’s voice. Together, the boys sprinted back toward it, moving alongside, as they piled squash into the bed. The driver bounced with the grooves of the field, the ash from his cigar falling into the air and blending with the dust.
When the row was finished and the tractor had begun down the other side, Colton sat on the ground, panting.
“It was real, Jesse. You made me drop it.”
Jesse crossed his arms over his chest, squinting through the sun at Mariana who was working next to her mother. Colton looked up at Jesse. He wondered why his brother stared at her the way he did. Jesse always looked away before their eyes met. It was like she came from somewhere else, someplace where dangerous things moved among the trees in the mountains. Colton wondered what it might be like where they came from, a different sun striking her face.
“You’ll find another one, Colt,” he said, looking down. “Let’s get back out before Uncle Ren sees you sitting.”
Once the August sun had begun tucking itself away under the hills, the boys walked with the tractor driver and his wife along the dirt road toward the farmhouse, which looked down over the fields.
The migrants had arrived in April to get the planting started. Each year they arrived in their white 15-passenger van with a new group of workers. When school ended, the boys’ mother would drop them off, their skin still pale from long days inside, and they’d watch her pickup bounce down the driveway, going wherever she went for the summer. Colton listened to the workers’ tongues flick Spanish words, which to him always sounded one of two ways—dispute or desire. He wondered why the men wearing loincloths and eagle feathers in the pictures he’d seen at school were so finely chiseled and why they never had facial hair or round stomachs like the Guatemalan men.
When they reached the top of the hill, they found Uncle Ren sitting on the sagging front porch of the farmhouse, crossing his swollen forearms over his red flannel shirt. His elbows stood out, bony, dirt-stained from mornings after the farm-stand didn’t sell, or afternoons when produce buyers backed out. Those days he’d show up at the migrants’ camp with a pot and a wooden spoon, and work alongside them with a cruelty that humiliated even the most skilled field hands.
“A’right, Papi, what got done today,” he said, pulling a stack of bills from the blue banking pouch.
Jesse pulled Colton toward the oak, which stood off the east-facing corner of the house, and sat at its tangled base, looking out over the fields. He ran his fingers over the raised red marks the chickens had left on his forearms; he’d slaughtered fourteen that morning. Colton had watched reverently while his older brother twisted their heads over his knuckle, waiting to catch the limp birds and slip their legs into the metal hangers where they’d be eviscerated.
“When do you think mom’s coming back?” Colton asked.
“Don’t say that, Jesse. She always comes back.”
Jesse picked a piece of grey bark from the tree and broke it into small pieces, tossing them into the grass between his legs. He stared down over the field to the migrants’ camp below, toying with the idea of taking over the farm someday.
“Maybe she’ll bring back something nice this year,” Colton continued.
The fire had been awakened in the camp, just within the woods beyond the lower field. Shadows passed briskly through the glow.
“I can’t believe I lost that arrowhead,” Colton said, looking up at his older brother. The fading daylight filled the contours of Jesse’s face with dark pools that scattered as he lit a cigarette.
“It wasn’t an arrowhead,” Jesse said, glancing back out over the field. “And even if it was, it’s a good thing you lost that thing, ya’ know that, Colt?” He took a long pull on his cigarette, trying to look stern. “Those arrowheads were used for killing. Indians killed one of the little girls who lived here on the farm. She was about your age.”
“How do you know?”
“Uncle Ren told me,” Jesse said, pausing to look hard into Colton’s eyes. “Happened right over there in that field.”
He pointed, cigarette glowing between his fingers. “Her ghost still haunts the farm, just looking for the savage that killed her—plus, I heard her crying one night I was outside locking the pens. I wouldn’t want to have an arrowhead that took a life, would you?”
“There ain’t no ghost, Jesse.”
“I heard her with my own two ears. You don’t have to believe it if you don’t want to, I don’t give a shit, just be glad you dropped that damn thing.”
“Well, what about Uncle Ren’s arrowhead?”
“Why do ‘ya think Uncle Ren is tapped the way he is?”
“Exactly,” Jesse said.
Once the crickets had begun sighing, relieved of the harsh August sun, the driver and his wife crunched past the boys down the dirt road. He was flipping through a stack of bills, while she looked down at the dirt road, humming quietly to herself.
“C’mon boys,” Uncle Ren yelled, before standing from his old rocker and walking into the house.
In the living room, Colton sat hard on the couch while Jesse made his way around the room, staring into the framed photographs which pieced together a rough history of the farm. The oldest sepia shots hung proudly over the fieldstone fireplace, showing the ancestry, worn and dirty with weathered New England faces.
“These Mexicans will be the death of me,” Uncle Ren said, walking through the door and shoving a beer into Jesse’s hand. He poured half a glass of whiskey from the bottle and tilted it back.
“Squash came in good this year,” Jesse said.
“You get the field cleared today?”
“Almost,” Jesse replied, tipping the beer back awkwardly, wincing as he took it down.
“Corn tomorrow,” Ren said. He took a sip from the glass. “I got a phone call from your mother today.”
“Yeah?” Colton said, moving forward on the couch.
“Said she’s heading north next week. She’ll pick you up just before school starts.”
“She’s gonna bring us home somethin’ nice this year,” Colton said.
“How old are you boys now?”
“Eight,” Colton said.
“Well ain’t you special,” Uncle Ren replied, tipping his glass back.
“Sixteen,” Jesse followed.
Colton pushed himself back on the couch, legs stuck straight out in front of him. Jesse tipped his beer back again.
“Next year I want to put you in charge of some things, Jesse. I’m getting too old to be chasing these farmhands around.”
Jesse tipped his beer back again, repressing a smile. “Alright,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
“And that means you’ll have to start looking after yourself here on the farm, Colt. Understand?”
“Uncle Ren?” Colton said quickly. “Jesse says there’s a ghost here on the farm, and I told him it’s a bunch of crap, but he said you told him so.”
Putting the rest of the whiskey into his mouth, he looked over at Jesse, holding the sip there for a moment before letting it down. Jesse leaned back and smiled.
“Plenty of ghosts around here, Colt,” Uncle Ren said. “Don’t pay’em any attention.”
“Told ya’,” Jesse said.
“Well, Jesse said your arrowhead is cursed, and I don’t believe it.”
“Go on,” Uncle Ren said, pointed to the mantle above the fireplace. “Grab it.”
Colton moved forward on the couch as he watched Jesse walk to the oak mantle and grab the small shard of flint. After looking down at it, he walked over and placed it into Uncle Ren’s palm.
“You want it?” Uncle Ren asked, holding it out to Colton.
“It isn’t cursed?”
“I never said that. I asked if you wanted it.”
Jesse smiled, looking at his little brother.
“Tell ya’ what. I’ll leave it right here on the mantle, and if you want it, you just come on in and grab it. You boys go take yourselves a nice shower, then get down to camp. It’s some kind of Mexican holiday. They’ll be making your dinner tonight.”
Having scrubbed their bodies with washcloths and bar soap, the boys climbed back into their clothes, and snuck through the house, avoiding Uncle Ren, who by this time would’ve drank enough whiskey to slur the ends of his words. Outside, the darkness had unveiled the campfire, swaying feverish in the clearing, casting bent shadows among the low hanging trees. Like a neighboring star, beyond the fields and past the river, the center of town was carved into the woods, burning with an orange electric light.
The forest separating them from the town made the farm feel like the only place on earth. In June, Colton had missed his mother. Knowing one of the orange lights in town was attached to the side of their apartment, he would wonder if she was there without them. No matter how many times she left them at the farm, something gripped Colton’s chest when the night got quiet or the snarl of the tractor left him alone with his thoughts. But by the end of the summer, he had rebuilt himself.
“I could stay out here all year,” Colton said as they neared the bottom of the hill.
Jesse looked down at him and chuckled. “That’s why I hear you crying for mom at night when you think I’m sleeping. You ain’t cut out for farming, Colton.”
“I am too cut out for it. And you’re a shitty brother—you ain’t cut out for that.”
“Just wait until the ghosts come out and try to take you down to the river. You’ll be begging me to save you then. And you know what I’ll say—I’ll tell ‘em to take you off.”
The camp was busy when they arrived, the women shuffling from table to fire, stirring, chopping vegetables, and patting tortillas, which they slapped on the backside of an oil drum with a fire below it. The men were bringing wood from the pile to the pit and clearing space for the celebration.
The boys walked past the fire where the makeshift table stood—a piece of plywood resting across two stacks of old tires. On its surface, dishes collected from the thrift store in Aster cradled chopped vegetables, soups, tortillas, salsas, and roasted chicken. On the right side, bottles of amber alcohol stood lustrous, swallowing the firelight.
Colton picked up one of the flowers that had been strewn between the dishes and the bottles, smelling it before placing it on the back edge among a pile of roses footing a statue of the Virgin Mother. Unscrewing the cap of one of the bottles, Jesse took a swig. He tossed the cap into the woods before putting the bottle back.
“Let me have some of that,” Colton said.
“Just a sip,” he said, handing the bottle to his little brother.
Colton hadn’t tasted liquor before June, this being the second time, but he had always known it was coveted, that it changed people in mysterious ways. He smelled the opening before tipping it back.
Jesse laughed. “Ya’ like it?” he asked.
Colton winced. “Think we’ll dance tonight?” he asked, wiping his mouth.
“They’ll probably dance.”
The workers began to gather around the fire, and Colton watched as Jesse searched casually for Mariana among the group. Once everyone had found a place, the tractor driver spoke, smiling and moving his hands out to his sides. In unison, the workers crossed themselves and hung their heads. Jesse stepped back, spitting on the ground before lighting a cigarette.
The driver delivered a rapid prayer, almost poetic in its rhythm, as if it were a single word, and while he spoke, Colton plucked Mariana’s name from the otherwise mysterious stream of sound. He thought maybe it was her birthday.
When the driver finished, the entire congregation said, “Amen,” and their voices broke into conversation.
The boys ate on paper plates, sitting on a fallen tree by the table. “I wish mom cooked like this,” Jesse said, biting into a chicken leg, twisting it as he attempted to free the meat.
“Mom cooks alright,” Colton replied.
“Yeah if you like to eat boxed shit. She couldn’t cook like this if our lives depended on it.”
“Yes she could,” Colton replied.
“Why don’t she then? If she could cook, why don’t she ever cook for us, huh? I’m going to marry a girl who cooks,” he said, lifting his chin in the direction of Mariana, standing by the fire, “She’s gonna’ be my wife.”
“I’m gonna’ marry a girl like mom,” Colton said.
Jesse laughed, spitting the food in his mouth out onto the ground, throwing the bone down next to it.
“You don’t know shit about mom.”
Before he could reply, the work radio, powered by four D batteries, released Spanish guitars and drums from the speakers. Gradually, bottles of alcohol were opened and mixed in a variety of glasses and coffee mugs.
As the music carried the night forward, the camp seemed to take on a single voice. Colton danced among the workers, occasionally taking a sip of whatever glass he could find. Everything took on a paper quality, not just the trees and the tents, but his thoughts, his movements. The workers laughed with him as he moved around the fire, and as he danced the women grabbed his hands and spun him, leading him through the numbers. Before Jesse disappeared, two of the workers danced alone in the center of the group, the woman leading the man around, looking uninterested as he tried to wrap his arms about her. Colton knew everything happening before him was beautifully sacred, strictly forbidden outside the forest, and kept hidden from people with pale skin—people who lived in the orange glow of the town below them, where they could never love the farm the way he did.
Somewhere between dinner and dancing, Colton began to understand the meaning of their words. He laughed when they laughed, moved between them. Mariana grabbed him by the shoulders and danced with him by the fire, kissing his cheek when the song ended. He remembered Jesse watching them from beside the bottles on the table, smoking cigarettes, his face standing out pale beneath the shadows painting the edge of the camp. Then he remembered the suddenness of Jesse’s absence.
As Colton walked toward the house, hanging on to the thought that maybe Jesse was there with Uncle Ren, the murky night air molded itself into shapes. As he walked up the driveway, he hummed the song his mother used to sing to him. Every so often the earth shifted left, then fell back to its original position before falling left again. Behind him, the celebration carried on as if inside a paper bag, an occasional roar of laughter tearing through the opening into the woods, and behind it the center of town shimmered, a reflection on a muddy pond.
Colton whispered Jesse’s name in front of the house, listening for movement, a voice, and when nothing came he said it again. In that moment, nimble as a field mouse, the thought of Uncle Ren’s arrowhead came to him. It made his heart contract and his feet move toward the house.
The screen door moaned only after enough space had been created for Colton to slip through. The inside of the house was cool; it always seemed hungry to him, hollow. From the living room door, he saw Uncle Ren’s hair outlined in the moonlight over the back of his chair. He slept deeply after drinking whiskey. Colton had learned this after making a habit of creeping into the kitchen to drink his milk at night while Uncle Ren and Jesse slept. Carefully, he walked into the room, arms out for balance, and stepping on the metal rack, which held the fire poker, brush, and small bronze shovel, he found the arrowhead where Jesse had left it for him.
Walking back into the camp, he pressed the sharp edge of the arrowhead into the palm of his hand, wondering what it could do to a person at full speed. He had only held it one other time, but thought about it often, even during the winter when he was in their apartment trying to fall asleep while his mother stumbled around the kitchen.
Halfway to the camp, a sound crept from the woods, collapsing Colton’s thoughts to a single point inside his head. It was a girl’s voice; it sounded like something wounded. He gripped the arrowhead tighter as Jesse’s voice followed it through the trees.
As he crawled through the damp leaves toward Jesse’s voice, he heard him shushing. Then came a low moan. Colton held against a fieldstone wall, looking over the top of the mossy rocks at Jesse, almost buried under the black veil of night in the forest. His white flesh stood out, a blemish against the darkness. Propped up on his hands, he rocked strangely, lowering himself down onto his elbows. Just as he was about to say Jesse’s name, he saw Mariana below him, lying with her legs splayed to either side, maybe struggling, but without desperation—a sort of listless thresh. She was breathing heavily.
Colton watched, wanting with everything to look away. He heard Jesse shushing every so often and his body grew increasingly deformed, like a scar on the earth. As soon as their motion became something that resembled violence, Jesse threw his head back, neck extended and contoured with networks of sinew below the surface, face strained to resemble a smile. Colton thought Jesse looked straight through him.
Once he was back in the house, Colton pulled himself deep into his sleeping bag, panting, drawing the flap in under itself. He gripped the arrowhead, wishing it were back on the mantle, back with the photos of the people who gave it meaning.
When the sun rose over the hills, Colton heard Uncle Ren’s footsteps stop at the edge of his bed. He found Uncle Ren standing over him when he opened his sleeping bag, looking down and stroking his beard. Colton’s fingers gripped the arrowhead.
“Time to wake up, boys. We’re getting out to work early today.”
Jesse rolled over, pulling the blanket over his head. Before he could rest still again, Uncle Ren tore the blanket from him, throwing it on the floor. Jesse pulled himself into a fetal position, his stiff clothes dotted with brown clips of leaves.
Uncle Ren laughed, “Have yourself a good night there, chief? You boys giddy-up and get downstairs.”
After a silent breakfast, the boys followed Uncle Ren toward the camp. As they walked along the tree line, obscured by the mist drawn from the earth on summer mornings, Colton imagined it was still going on, somewhere in the fog. He thought maybe it wasn’t really Jesse at all. He wondered if a human body could even move like the thing he’d seen in the darkness.
Arriving at the camp, Uncle Ren walked to the middle where the fire had turned into a pile of ash, still sending a single pillar of smoke into the trees. He began shouting at the tents. Colton felt something watching them from the trees. Beside him the statue of the Virgin stood among withering flowers and bowls of uneaten food. He put his hand in his pocket, grasping the arrowhead as the workers crawled from their tents, rising from the beaten ground, muddy where they had danced the night before. They gathered, opposing the boys and their uncle.
Uncle Ren gave directions to the driver, who turned and translated for the others. He pointed toward the fields as Colton looked up at his brother. Jesse lit a cigarette, gazing across the camp toward Mariana who stood among her people. Her eyes, haunted, unwilling to meet his, looked toward someplace else.
“You boys are working the corn picker with Papi,” Uncle Ren said, placing his hand on Jesse’s shoulder. “Keep ‘em in line alright.”
The workers walked past the boys in a group, chatting amongst themselves. As they passed, Colton heard a different sound in their voices, a broken sound, something misplaced. He wanted them to go back where they came from. He knew they would be happier there, he knew the farm could never be their home, that it could never be a home.
As they broke the tree line, the sun burnt against Colton’s skin. They crossed the field, following the group of laborers, until Colton stopped.
“Jesse, I don’t want to come here anymore.”
Jesse stopped and turned back toward Colton.
“I want mom to come back,” Colton said. “I don’t want to come to this farm anymore.”
Together they heard the tractor roar inside the barn.
“It don’t matter,” Jesse replied, turning and beginning back toward the barn.
Colton watched Jesse, eyeing the dark mud still caked to the back of his forearms and elbows. He reached into his pocket and felt the arrowhead with his fingertips. The dead look he’d seen in Mariana’s eyes that morning came back to him as he felt its sharp edges. As Jesse disappeared into the barn where the tractor idled, waiting to be unchained, waiting to strip the land of everything, Colton wished the forest had just swallowed his brother whole. He wished the ghosts had dragged him out deeper than anyone should ever go, out to a place where dangerous things moved among the trees in the mountains, and left him there.