The Hard Winter

by Daniel Davis

I didn’t remember all the details of Tad’s leaving; I was still in pigtails then. I did know, looking back through the lens of maturity, that it wasn’t just the one night. I even knew that back then, though I wouldn’t realize the scope until I’d mothered kids of my own.

I tried to put myself in Father’s shoes. Kids were hard work. My own children, both boys, drove my husband and me up the walls. I never once reached the level Father did with Tad, though. I forgave him when he passed on, but I would not justifying the things he did. Even if Tad were partially to blame—and as a parent myself, I could say that he was—that doesn’t condone anything. A parent should behave in a certain way; a parent should take certain things in stride to be a little more forgiving than the rest of the world. Father was many things, but he was never one to forgive.

He never struck me. Maybe he spanked me a couple of times, but he never lifted a hand to me otherwise. Father was a principled man, and a principled man never struck a woman. That was why Tad probably got the worst of it: Father wouldn’t allow himself to hit my mother and me. That left Tad.

My brother was his father’s son, just like my boys became their father’s sons, though thank God my Everett was a kindly and gracious man most of the time. Tad had an attitude; he was stubborn and strong, silent except when he felt he’d been wronged. But he had a spark of our mother in him as well. He would tease me, like brothers were supposed to; but then there would be the nights when he would reach out to my cot, take my hand in his, and whisper, “We deserve better than this, Macy.”

Truth be told, I couldn’t remember what caused Tad to snap the way he did. But I did remember being in my cot near the fire, seeking as much warmth as I could on that February night, when suddenly a plate smashed against the far wall. One of Mother’s good plates. I whipped my head around, saw Father and Tad standing just inches from each other. I knew immediately this time was different than any before; Tad didn’t have that look in his eyes, what I came to recognize as resignation. His shoulders were squared, both hands balled into fists, his feet planted shoulder-width apart. It was a fighting stance.

Father stood about three inches taller, and stared down at my brother. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he asked. The cabin trembled beneath his voice. Father, too, knew something was different.

Only then did I see that Tad was dressed in his winter coat and boots. A rucksack waited near the door, filled to bursting. Mother was in the bedroom; she never made a sound, and didn’t show herself until morning.

Tad’s leaving, I thought. He’s leaving without me.

“I’m fed up with you,” Tad said, and though he was only sixteen, the confidence in his voice was that of a man twice his age. “You ain’t gonna lay a hand on me no more.”

“Yeah?” Father raised his arm as if to prove Tad wrong.

“Don’t,” Tad said. “Don’t, or I’ll hit you back, you son of a bitch.”

I would’ve gasped, had I been capable of opening my mouth. I felt like I had wandered into an intimate situation, like the only time I ever saw Father kiss Mother. My stomach fluttered. I wanted to close my eyes and run, but it was dark out, and the snow was heavy, and there was nowhere else to go.

Father kept his arm up, but something flittered across his face. Not fear; my father was never afraid of anything. Maybe the beginnings of respect. Maybe Father was finally beginning to see that his boy had become a man.

“I’m goin’ out west,” Tad said, “and when I get enough money, I’m sending for Mother and Macy. Then you’ll be all alone, old man, and you won’t have anything to hit around but the damn hogs.”

“You ain’t leaving,” Father said. “The hell you are.”

Tad poked Father in the chest. “You can’t tell me what to do anymore. You can’t hit me no more, and you can’t tell me what to do. I don’t live here.”

“You’re my son, and you’ll do whatever the hell I tell you to.”

Tad shook his head. “I ain’t your son.”

Yes you are, I almost said. You look exactly like him. Sound like him, too, now.

Father lowered his hand. “Boy, you have a mouth on you.”

“And you have a fist, and I’m sick and tired of it.”

Father snorted. “It’s that Williamson girl, ain’t it? You’re running away with her.”

Tad flinched. That’s why, I thought.

“I’m gonna have a talk with Bill,” Father said. “Tell him to get that girl of his in check. He never wanted you around her more than I did anyways.”

“What we do ain’t none of your goddamn business,” Tad said. “We’re old enough. We can do what we want.”

“You can do what you want right here,” Father told him.

Tad shook his head. “No, we can’t. Not with you around. At least I know how to treat a woman. You just make them cry at night.”

Was he referring to me? Had he thought I cried over things Father did to me? I hoped not. I hoped Tad hadn’t left because of a misunderstanding.

Father’s shoulders swelled, like a snake rearing back. “Boy, goddamn, you wanna go, huh? Maybe you’d better, before I beat that smart talk out of your skull. You’re right, you’re goddamn right—you ain’t no son of mine! A son of mine would have some respect. You just got your lip. Nothing to back it up.”

Tad didn’t say anything, just turned smartly for the door. Father reached out, grabbed Tad’s arm, and the next instant Tad was whirling, moving quicker than I’d ever seen. His fist struck Father square in the jaw, must’ve hurt them both like hell, and Father fell back onto the table. More dishes spilled. Tad stared at Father, stared at his fist, and didn’t once look my way. Maybe didn’t even know I was there. He stalked over to the door, picked up the sack, and was gone, the wind pulling the door shut behind him.

Father slid to the floor. He glanced over at me but didn’t say anything; I looked away from him, partly in embarrassment, partly because I couldn’t concentrate. All I could think about was that Tad was gone, and he hadn’t taken me, didn’t even say goodbye.

Father went out looking for Tad that very hour. Came back and shook his head, though I hadn’t asked him anything. Then he went into the bedroom and stayed there the rest of the night. The next morning he left again after feeding the hogs. Mother read to me, made me read to her.

Father didn’t come back in an hour. Two. Three. Mother and I played cards. She cooked some. Kept glancing out the window. The snow had stopped falling, but the sun was still hidden, and the forest looked grey and dead. Nothing moved.

After some time had passed, I heard footsteps outside, packed snow crunching beneath Father’s homemade snowshoes. I had been sitting at the table, playing with my doll and eating day-old cookies. Something about Father’s approach made me put down the doll, go over to my cot, and pull my blanket up over my head. I had been thinking about that moment for nearly thirty years, the one unexplainable moment of my life.

If someone asked me about that moment when Father came back, all I would do is shake my head and say, “Sometimes, you just don’t know.”

“Mountain cat,” Father said, his voice low and raspy. They were starving, had been branching further down the mountain, looking for food. Winter was hard on everything that year.

Mother burst into tears. She cried for a week straight. I never saw Father cry, but his eyes were swollen when he told us. Maybe he got it out of his system violently and quickly. I chose to believe that. My Father was a harsh man, but he wasn’t a bad man.

I hadn’t even known that my brother and Betsy Williamson were so close; he never spoke of her. If I hadn’t known, how had Father? But I could explain after having a teenage boy of my own.

But what prompted Tad to leave that night? I asked Betsy once, when I was older, after she had married and started a family. Although my brother’s memory haunted her, she had moved on with her life, just as I had. She told me that she and Tad had talked of running away, and she would have if he’d asked her, but he hadn’t. She told me she’d had no idea he was leaving, until her father told her what’d happened.

I never mustered up the courage to ask my father, and Mother never recovered, passing just two years later. I couldn’t think of anyone else to ask. I had been wracking my brain ever since, trying to explain what happened. Even if I would have found out why, that answer wouldn’t have been good enough.

Daniel Davis is the Nonfiction Editor for The Prompt Literary Magazine. His own work has appeared in various online and print journals.  You can find him on Facebook and Twitter, or at www.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com.

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