When the father comes, we board the windows. Unlike the front door, which was outfitted with a heavy iron lock years ago, they are the house’s most vulnerable points of entry. We could have kept them covered after his last visit, but the summers are hot here, and we crave the evening breezes.
When we see the thread of black smoke rising from the forest, we scour the house for wood, chastising ourselves for not preparing earlier. The wind blowing through the windows’ open mouths becomes a cold reminder of our insecurity. We dismantle what we can, yanking the headboards off our beds and sawing off a portion of the kitchen table. We hammer the pieces into place over the windows, eliminating the sunlight with each new addition, our ears trying in vain to focus on the sound of our hammers and not the noises that reach us from between the cracks: the father’s hulking body moving closer through the wilderness, trees groaning as they fall out of his way, flocks of sparrows and magpies startled into the air.
We lock the sun outside. If the father is still far enough away, my mother lights a single candle on what remains of the kitchen table. We eat cans of black beans, candied pears, and corn beef hash. I play hide and seek with my sister in the house’s new shadows while my mother holds an old magazine close to the flame, her fingers shaking only a little as she turns the pages.
Eventually the ground trembles. My mother rushes us to the cellar, where we huddle in the dark, insects scrabbling at our feet. Even down below the house, surrounded by dirt, we can hear the father’s lumbering movements. He drags his horns along the house’s side and scratches his hairy flank against the garage door. My sister pulls me closer, stuffing my nose into her hair, filling me up with the smell of watermelons and coconuts.
Some days, the father roars, his voice a burning engine in the air. He crashes through our window barricades and tears through the house. He sniffs in long, slobbering gulps, catching our scent, and makes his way to the cellar, where we hold one another close, preparing for what’s to come.
Other days, he stays outside. His licks the shingles and sharpens his claws against the metal spine of the basketball hoop. After he’s gone, we find piles of his shit on the driveway, the air rank with urine.
But on rare occasions, the father knocks. He goes to the front door, the porch groaning beneath him, and raps his knuckles against the wood. We wait, expecting a trick. But when he knocks again, I feel my mother’s breath release, a warm breeze on the back of my neck. She leads us upstairs and turns the heavy metal lock on the door.
The father squeezes his hulking frame through the space and into the house. He leans over my mother, the back of his neck grazing the ceiling, and plants a kiss on her face, his lips the size of her jaw. He hugs my sister and I and we smell the forest on his hair, mulchy and sweet, like wet mushrooms.
Our mother brings out the nice plates, imprinted with blue lattice designs, and sets the table. She pours out whatever food we have into enamel bowls. We sit and watch as the father ladles the food onto his own plate, the spoon like a toothpick in his leathery hands. We are filled with a kind of admiration for him, one usually reserved for a child struggling to tie his shoe, as the father attempts to eat the food with our utensils, dropping streaks of sweet pear juice over his sharpened teeth and down his beard.
While he eats, the father attempts conversation, but the words come out garbled, like he is choking, with no clear meaning or syntax. Even so, our mother smiles and nods, laughs even, as he waves his hands in the air, recounting a story we could never understand. After dinner, when our mother leads the father upstairs, the rails bending around his waist, my sister takes me outside. We go to the edge of the forest, where we can’t hear the creaking of the bed, and she points to different stars, giving them fake names, and I hold her quivering hand.
These are the most confusing days. I look at my arms and chest in the mirror and see how small and fragile I’ve become, a lanky collection of bones. I begin to wonder what it would be like to stand seven feet tall, my barreled chest and veined biceps covered in lustrous fur, my footprints so wide and deep that they form their own ecosystems. I peek at the shriveled thing between my legs, curled like some dried-out sea creature, and feel small. I have never rushed naked through the trees, my parts swelled and exposed and warmed by the sun. I have never stood outside anyone’s house and eclipsed the light, my eyes bejeweled with hunger, my deep panting a warning in the air.
The father always leaves the next morning. On good days we wash the dishes, on bad ones we wash the cellar floor. We shovel the piles of shit into deep holes in the backyard and cover them in dirt, spritzing the air with sweet-smelling sprays. We spend the afternoon pulling the planks off the windows, already forgetting how me might need them again when we see the smoke gathering in the distance, how we will curse and grind our teeth and find some other part of the house to destroy while our hearts burst with panic. We focus instead on the breeze returning through the windows, settling over everything with the sunlight, and making us feel, for a moment, like we can breathe again.
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