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The Orams
The Oram brothers live up the mountain. Head east on the main road until it crosses the river and forks. Take the fork leading into the woods. Take the road less traveled. Don’t pat yourself on the back for your poet jokes. That is a false poem, and that poet knew it. For a time, he lived on the mountain too, and when he was grieving the loss of his wife, he would eat cigarettes. Eat them. When he got jealous of another famous writer, he set fire in a trashcan and yelled “fire” so no one would hear the other famous writer read his work. Suffice to say, he knew all roads are not equally fair. The lesser traveled one—the one you take to get to the Orams—is in ruinous shape, filled with ruts and eaten at its edges by the woods.

     When that rough dirt road branches again, a brown-and-white sign will say you’re on a Green Mountain National Forest Road. You are not. Or you are, but that is also false, and once you take this path—tire tracks, really—you’ll see another sign saying Bertram Oram Road. This is correct. The Orams go back further than Bertram, but some assertion of self got Bertram the road. This was about one hundred years ago.

     Bertram had been a logger and Bertram Jr. had been too. Bertram Jr.’s two sons, Jasper and Wyatt, work for the inn and act as a night watchman at the college down the mountain, respectively. The boys live on Bertram Oram Road. They are neighbors, and both their homes overlook Oram Brook, which is shallow and meandering and bad for fishing. They claim this brook is named for them. When they say this, we wonder if their wits are still intact, since clearly we know otherwise. We believe this is one of their jokes.

     Jasper and Wyatt go in for jokes, which mainly constitute the meanness they wish to inflict on you. Agnes Billings, who runs the inn, which was established one hundred years before Bertram got his road, says she once asked Jasper if he’d cover the front desk while she had lunch with Eustace, her sister down the street. And Jasper said, “Agnes and Eustace: those are names for cows if ever I’ve heard one.” He was wearing a tool belt and had just examined some faulty wiring and wished, Agnes said, to have taken lunch for himself just then. She said, “You no longer wish to work here, Jasper?” He only had the job because she’d been fond of his father, Bertram Jr., who used to play the fiddle for her patrons. Bertram Jr. died of a heart attack when he was just shy of forty-five. His boys have been on their own since they were teenagers.

     Jasper has flat gray eyes that only get flatter when you inspect them. He scratched his neck and said, “Agnes, I was joking.” He gave a chortle—Agnes’s word. Even his laugh was deliberately ugly. But she remembered Bertram Jr. playing quadrilles, even if none of her guests knew how to dance to them. We know how to dance to them, so many of us with French Canadian roots. At summer barn dances Marty Tremblay played mandolin, George Weathers played guitar, Bertram Jr. played fiddle. The barn was full of light and the sweet heady ferment of hard cider and beer. These nights: they helped Jasper keep his job.

     No history, the boys claim, and yet history is their only preservation up here.

     Likely the Oram brothers got their taste for insularity from their mother, Helena. Hollow-eyed and fretful, she came from a town on the other side of the mountain and then left her boys when they were still little enough to cling to her. We were never fond of her but don’t think she left because of the town, per se. We think in general she found life too burdensome. Which is an infectious attitude. Bertram Jr. was dead a decade later. And the boys are bachelors who care only for one another. Except even that care has proven fragile.

     The poet once complained we took a long time to welcome him. What did he expect? He could write all the poems he wanted about rock walls and snowy woods: noticing well doesn’t make you from a place. Yet we think of him fondly. We liked him better once we understood he wasn’t just a dignified man of letters playing at rusticity, but a man who battled for what happiness he could grasp and who, upon occasion, found the world too much with him. (We’ve read other poets.) Once he muttered to us he sometimes regarded himself as a joke. This notion of a joke isn’t one the Oram brothers would understand.

     The poet was a great fan of Agnes and Eustace’s mother, Dorothea, who used to run the post office out of her house in a converted room off the kitchen. Back then the US Postal Service insisted post offices display most-wanted posters—pictures of terrible men and women who’d been active in lawlessness and destruction. The poet, who liked to sit at Dorothea’s kitchen table, said she should put the posters on the back of the door leading to her back porch. Which is to say: where no one would ever have to see them. We thought this sensible and good. Now we wonder about looking away from ugliness, if there are ramifications for pretending in a kind of constant, essential decency. We will admit: this makes us happier. Also it might make us nitwits.

The Galvin Cemetery, out past the elementary school and near where Oram Brook runs into the river, is a green field spotted with the decaying gray beauty of old headstones. This is where the first Oram, Rollins Oram, rests. He was born 1787 and lived to be fifty-eight. What the cemeteries tell us: there are six generations of Orams. How it feels: the woods have always contained them. But nature’s indifference is also its great patience. It will reclaim itself. At the very least, it will claim the Orams. That’s what seems to be happening now.

     When did the trouble start with those boys? Maybe when Helena disappeared. But we think earlier. And earlier still. For instance, their grandfather Bertram—who got his name on that road—was the last in a line of smugglers.

     Down the mountain and due west is a large lake with waterways leading to Canada. And in Rollin’s era, smuggling wood became a profitable activity for those with a certain amount of grit and a certain paucity of character. Rollins would, when the weather was fair, travel north with the logs on rafts. When the weather turned bitter and cold, he traveled the lake by sleigh. And down the generations it went until Bertram. By the outset of the twentieth century, smuggling had to have been all but untenable. We think waging a losing fight gave focus to Bertram’s life, that it got him the road. Then Bertram Jr., that aberrant, decent Oram man, rejected the practice outright.

     And now Jasper and Wyatt can’t exercise their ill humors the way their forebearers did, transgressing and profiting all at once. Instead, they have their pranks, which they claim are jokes.

     Once when he was a teenager, Wyatt got caught stuffing ketchup packets in his pockets while in the McDonalds down the mountain. The manager, George LaCharite—cousin to Nancy LaCharite, who teaches second grade at the elementary school—said he couldn’t figure the point. Go steal a bottle of ketchup from the grocery store, he’d suggested to Wyatt. Or buy a bottle? It costs about two bucks. Wyatt, standing by the counter with the plastic forks and napkins, flung to the floor the packets he’d been clutching. He walked out. “Don’t come back!” George shouted after him, but felt as if he’d been forced to act in some bad play.

     Wyatt eventually admitted Jasper had dared him to steal as many ketchup packets as he could. That absence of subterfuge, though: this doesn’t sound like someone trying to successfully navigate a dare. (And can you really imagine such a mind trying to negotiate smuggling?)

Oram Brook intersects a small road that winds in a large loop and has at least three names depending where you are on it. As the road circles closer to the inn, its name is Country Cross Road, because apparently our forbearers were, at points, without imagination or smugglers to spur them to greater specificity. And off Country Cross lives Beth Kirby. She works for the state’s electricity company. Once she’d lived down the mountain and had gone into an office, but she finagled her way into a telecommuting position and moved back up here. She couldn’t bear anywhere with sidewalks: it was all too noisy and loud. She lives in a gussied-up log cabin and goes in for wind chimes and window boxes used to house lavender. She grows shitake mushrooms on a log and then dries them for the winter months, claiming they are medicinal and will let her lead a long and terrific life. She has bright white hair, the envy of all those saddled with a rougher gray. She has a terrier—a tiny white thing named Gretel—who we secretly think of as matching her hair. Beth’s house faces Country Cross, a narrow dirt road that, in the drier months, kicks up a lot of dust.

     Beth’s house is also one Jasper and Wyatt pass every day on their way to work. Jasper and Wyatt who live in constant tree shade in run-down places with private-property signs tacked to trees, presumably to keep people from the junk in their front yards. As if anyone were considering stealing an empty chicken coop or two old snow tires or some mildewed vinyl siding stacked against a house, a garden gnome with a broken cap one or the other must’ve thought funny once.

     Six months ago, as best we understand it, Jasper and Wyatt were gearing up for deer season—rifle, not bow and arrow, because they have no patience for such things. And they were squabbling because Jasper—two years older—wanted to go higher into the mountain range while Wyatt wanted to go down the mountain and into some woods south of the college town. One of the other night watchman’s uncles owned land with some old orchards on it, which meant herds were likely to be nearby. Jasper went on, though, about the ridgeline where—ten years earlier—he’d bagged a twelve-point buck. He wanted to return there. But he always wanted to return there, was Wyatt’s point. Somehow it did not occur to them they could hunt separately.

     Jasper pointed to the deer head mounted on the wall near his wood-burning stove. It was set on a wooden plaque and was glossy eyed and tan, with white fur at its ears and throat. It had ample horns—the graceful twist up as if presenting the outline of a chalice. This was the best deer he’d ever shot. He’d named it Blue Barrow, because he’d shot it near Blue Barrow Brook. It stirred in him a sense of a rugged and capable self.

     Wyatt acquiesced and that weekend they went up to the ridgeline with a thermos of whiskey and a thermos of coffee, and they watched the sky go from pewter to a foggy white-pink. They shivered and tromped for hours and heard nothing but the rush and scurry of chipmunks. A bust by their standards.

     Early Monday morning, Beth came out to her front lawn with Gretel. She dropped the dog’s leash and covered her mouth with her hand. There, as the dew was not yet off the grass, and the birch trees in the back fields were gray-white and late-fall ethereal, was, facing her, an animal head seeming to rise from the grass. Gretel ran to it, flattening her back and barking at its glazed eyes. She then looked to Beth and wagged her tail hopefully. Beth, coming closer, could now see the deer head was propped with two old bricks. Then she knew this was one of the Orams, because she knew their trash. A pile of crumbling bricks stood at the side of Wyatt’s home.

     Gretel lifted her tiny back leg and her urine steamed in the cold November air as it ran down the wooden plaque. Blue Barrow’s antlers were pearled with dew. “Good dog,” Beth said. “Damn straight.”

     She returned inside to give Gretel her breakfast, asking the dog to wait just a bit before they went on their walk. She came back out wearing her gardening gloves and carrying a black trash bag. She got into her truck, still wearing the gloves, the trash bag covering her lap, the deer head on the trash bag. It was an uncomfortable drive around to Bertram Oram Road, one antler continuing to scratch at her neck. She idled in between the two houses, laying the flat of her palm on her horn until the brothers stumbled out of their houses, still scummy with sleep. Beth opened her truck’s door and held out Blue Barrow. “You foolish boys don’t scare me!” And as Jasper ran at her shouting obscenities, she tossed the deer head in the plastic bag and slammed the truck door and drove to the town shed where people throw away their trash and recyclables. She left the truck running and flung the plastic bag in one of the big metal dumpsters. Then she drove home taking the long way around. She was fretful that during this interlude they’d done something to her dog but Gretel was safe, tail a frenzy and on two legs to watch through the window as Beth pulled in. They walked to the elementary school and back. Gretel has a bright-blue leash Beth loves because it reminds her of September sky. And this soothed her, as did the walk and the earthen smell of decaying maple leaves, and she let her heart calm into more decent rhythms. “They will not mess with us again,” she told Gretel. “Those goddamn Orams.” She waved to the school bus as it passed.

     Jasper, after he returned from the shed stinking of trash and holding up urine-scented Blue Barrow as if a boxer victorious, started shouting he would punt that old woman’s dog into the treeline, and Wyatt, who had waited on his lawn, laughed.

     Jasper lowered Blue Barrow, each fist gripping the base of the antlers. “You did this,” he said.

     “Your face,” Wyatt said. Jasper had scarlet streaks up his cheeks as if he were a blushing drunkard. “I’m sorry, Jasper. I put it in her front yard to scare her. A prank. I didn’t think she’d take it to the shed.” Wyatt put his hands in his pockets and glanced up at the pine tree they were standing under. Both brothers knew he was lying. He’d just wanted to punish his brother for not letting him choose where to hunt. That Beth had arrived here radiant with indignance—that she’d thrown Blue Barrow in the trash? That was the best outcome Wyatt could’ve hoped for. That and the dog pee.

     “A prank,” Jasper said.

     “A prank on old lady Kirby with her yappy dog,” Wyatt said.

     Jasper nodded and brought his stinking prize inside.

Wyatt and Jasper have a history of doing rotten things to one another—firecrackers set off in the kitchen, bear scat left on the front steps, trading out good light bulbs for dead ones. Jasper once put a plate of worms in Wyatt’s refrigerator. Wyatt once let the air out of Jasper’s back tires. They each, once a year, decide it’s delightful to capture a woodchuck and put it in the other brother’s garage. Or they take rocks from the brook and fill up the other’s bathtub. But Wyatt—out of boredom, out of malice, out of a thwarted need to do something bigger-boned in his nefariousness—raised the stakes too high, too fast.

     Just over a month later, on Christmas Eve, Jasper came into Wyatt’s home after his younger brother had gone to bed. Wyatt went in for Christmas trees, always decorating them with the old ornaments he and his brother had made in elementary school: paper snowflakes and pinecones dusted in glitter, pipe-cleaner red-and-white candy canes. Little bells cut from cardboard and tied with ribbon to adorn the tree. Wyatt had his and Jasper’s decorations both, since Jasper always said he could go two feet out of his home and stare at pines anytime he damn wanted.

     Crowning Wyatt’s tree was a construction-paper star six-year-old Wyatt had decorated with a large smiley face in red crayon. Jasper, in the dark cluttered house, dragged the tree until it was under the fire alarm. He then delicately scraped a match against a match book’s striking surface, lighting a bit of orange flame he set to the star. Before slipping back next door, he set fire to several top branches as well.

     When Wyatt—awakened by the wailing fire alarm—stumbled into his living room, he suspected he was in a terrible waking dream. His tree was billowing brown smoke and its pine needles were turning to ash and flaking to the floor. The air smelled of burning pipe cleaners, acrid and poisonous, along with the sweetness of pine sap. Wyatt, running to get a bucket of water to douse the tree, which in portions glowed dark orange, thought how he’d done nothing to deserve this, then remembered he had, then decided they were not at all equal because Jasper could always bag another deer if he were such a hot-shot hunter, but Wyatt could never replace the glittered and crayoned decorations of his youth—their youth. He threw the water, then covered his ears because of the fire alarm’s cries. The treetop turned to wet char—its own bad smell—and he dragged it to his snowy backyard, a few steps from the brook, which was crusted over in delicate ice. The tree in the snow hissed and gave off ugly fumes, which wafted up in the starlight. Wyatt noticed Jasper’s bedroom light, a pane of sulphered yellow in the dark.

     Christmas day he hauled the tree to the shed. He’d managed to save a few ornaments—those not charred, nor melted, nor ruined by snow—and had put them at the top of his closet. Rather than return home, he went to the inn’s taproom, which was open for those who liked some company holiday day—who enjoyed a roaring fire while having a few slow pints. Wyatt sat at the tavern all afternoon, drunkenly talking to anyone who would listen about that jackass, Jasper.

     Along the tavern wall farthest from the fireplace is an old church pew with red velvet cushions. When the sun fell around 4:00 p.m., Wyatt went and passed out on it, the fire’s crackling not drowning out his snores. Agnes, deft, got his truck keys from his pocket and handed them off to her husband, Bruce. The two managed to get him up and Bruce drove Wyatt home while Agnes followed. Leaving the bar unmanned was not a problem. Everyone was sleepy and calm from rich Christmas meals and local beer and the occasional fortifying shot of whiskey. Even if it hadn’t been a holiday, Bruce and Agnes could’ve trusted the patrons. We go back. And we are decent. Or, we believe we are, which—in most circumstances—is enough. And, My God, Agnes said. No one wanted to hear one whit more about the smell of melted glitter and Elmer’s glue nor watch Wyatt, his eyes red with old smoke and fresh drunkenness, look as if he were about to cry huddled over his pints.

     This was Wyatt’s version of eating cigarettes. Maybe if he’d written some poems we would’ve lauded him.

     The apparent détente ended during the sugaring season. The boys have a small sugar shack on family land, which goes back at least to Bertram’s time. A tiny operation, but also a ritual of work both take pleasure in. When winter days warm but the nights stay cool: that’s when the sap starts to run. One Saturday afternoon Jasper had gone to get the equipment to tap the trees—the buckets and spouts—when he took the padlock off the door and found Jasper had taken an axe to the evaporator. A wood stove with old metal vats attached was now dented and gnarled into disuse. Wyatt with his lack of forethought, Jasper thought. The evaporator was an antique, but had still worked for their purposes. A new one would set them back well over $1,000, which neither had. His kid brother couldn’t even come up with something clever enough not to hurt them both.

     As kids they’d come out here with their father and had watched him take stock of the sap boiling down, watched him feed the stove with logs. The evaporator has a long stove pipe, which lets off sweet-scented steam, and the scent is as delicate and as spring-like as either could imagine. They’d stand out in the snow with their dad—and even their mom a few times, too—stamping their feet to ward off the cold, the snow crunchy and crystalline, the light streaming through the bare branches, and they would have bowls of snow upon which their father would pour still-warm syrup. The syrup would cool into sugared glass they’d eat with pickles. When they were really young, they’d worn mittens, which had made grasping the spoons with which they ate cumbersome. The thinnest strands of syrup spun into amber filaments.

            Wyatt had ruined the sweet quiet and fragrant air of the woods in March.

            Then one night in April, Wyatt driving home—the light getting long again in the evenings—had to stop short before he could turn into his house. There in the dirt road, the pines throwing longs arms of shade across it, was all his fishing equipment. Or what had been his fishing equipment. The poles were snapped, the lures and bobbers all smashed, it appeared, with a hammer. His net had been ripped. The tackle box looked as if his brother had run over it with his truck, collapsing his middle. His waders were scorched with lighter burns—Jasper with his pyro instincts again. Wyatt hauled the mess into the back of his truck then parked in his driveway. He sat with his forearms folded over the wheel, his forehead resting at his knuckles.

            Inspiration came as the feral cat Jasper took semi-care of slunk around the side of Wyatt’s house. Never named, a brown-and-gray cat with yellow eyes: especially during the winter months it stayed close in its prowling. Jasper always left his shed open and had filled an old plastic laundry basket with straw. The cat slept there and ate the dry food Jasper put out for it in a shallow bowl.

            Wyatt opened the truck door slowly. The cat gave him a sharp glance and then sat, using one front paw to scratch its ears. Wyatt went inside and then returned outdoors with a plate of tuna, which he set on his front steps next to an old metal chair. The cat darted for the tuna and hunkered down to eat it. Wyatt watched its sharp teeth as it took small bites. He let the cat clean the plate before reaching out to grab it by the scruff of its neck, and he brought it yowling to his truck. As he slammed the truck door, Jasper came tearing out into his yard, but Wyatt was already off, taking the sharp twists as quickly as he could down the mountain. The cat didn’t stop hissing, its tail raised, its back against the passenger’s seat door, until Wyatt stopped at the mountain’s base, six miles down. Some quiet houses, some tidy mowed lawns, some sidewalks. He sprung from the truck and the cat leapt after him, crying, still hissing, yellow eyes like lanterns. Wyatt jumped, literally, over the cat to get back into the truck.

            As he returned home, he thought how some soft neighborhood type would put food out, maybe build the cat a nest of hay. Even as he also thought he’d just doomed the animal. But if Jasper was going to keep destroying what Wyatt deemed valuable, Wyatt would do the same right back. Never mind that Wyatt had started it. He’d argue he didn’t start it. If Jasper hadn’t spent decades bullying him about where to hunt—and bullying him about other things too—he wouldn’t have done what he’d done to Blue Barrow.

This circular logic, this dragon eating its tail, this uroboros of ugliness. It doesn’t make more sense as we study it. We did our best tracing the brothers back to Rollins Oram and only feel foolish for our efforts. We cast back too far and also not far enough. We neglected a thousand details both large and small. We never told you about the time Jasper, as a child, convinced a very young Wyatt to swallow a spotted salamander he’d found in a vernal pool.

            Bruce told Agnes he’d discovered Jasper by the inn’s back shed hurling old wood-varnish tins at trees. Seeing Bruce, Jasper had crouched, back to a maple, hands gripping his knees, mumbling into his chest how Wyatt had deliberately set out to hurt his cat.

            Studying is no good. Or, studying is of no help. But what should we have done, gone hunting for that cat down the mountain?

            We went hunting for that cat down the mountain. Parked at the tiny community library and walked up and down the sidewalks, not so surreptitiously looking into backyards, glancing at the river and considering all the woods, which—though less assertive in their presence—are still everywhere. We listened to birdcall and thought maybe the cat would learn to hack it in these strange surroundings. We smiled at a few people out for walks, listening to their iPhones, walking their Labradors, pushing their strollers. They smiled back but were unsure: we were not familiar. We returned home cat-less.

Perhaps it’s important to say Wyatt and Jasper have beautiful singing voices. As kids in church, they were both sweet boy sopranos. At Christmas, Jasper sang “All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray.” And Wyatt, one year later, his bangs too low and getting in his eyes, sang “Unto Us a Son Is Born.” (Hilda Tremblay, our church choir director, has a soft spot for Handel.) They each settled into tenors. Not that they continued going to church. We don’t think anyone has seen them in church since Bertram Jr. died. But around town, we hear them. Agnes says Jasper is always humming when he’s focused on a task: that’s how she knows he’s focused. And when Wyatt goes into the general store for smokes, for milk and bread and peanut butter, he always sings along to whatever’s on the radio. Has a mind for it is what Clive Cushman, the store’s proprietor, says. Clive is in the church choir and wishes he could entice one—or both—of the brothers back into the fold. A good tenor is rare indeed and even more rare up here in our tiny old town.

            We are fretful we’ve said nothing good of them. They have some good in them. This is true. At least, it’s not false. They’ve gone long stretches of their lives without doing anything overtly bad. They contain multitudes. (Poets! There are so many of them.)

            Then there are days when we remember they claim the brook is named for them. And there are days like the day before our community house.

            Our downtown, if you could call it that, has a country store, the inn, the town clerk’s office, the new church (new in 1864), and the old church, which is what we call our community house. The building is narrow and white with a gabled roof. It is, according to our historical society, a fine example of Greek Revival. Sometimes we have local musicians put on small shows. Hilda Tremblay plays mandolin just as her father did. And sometimes we have French Canadian groups travel here and perform for us, which lets us feel nostalgic for times we never knew.

            The historical society also hosts talks in the community house. The poet is a popular topic, but these official stories, as we think of them, only make the poet sound genteel, which is false. For instance: once a young writer came up here. He worked for a fancy magazine but had the flu and so—as the poet was giving a reading—the writer got up to leave, as he was feeling woozy. Our poet threw the book he’d been reading from at the writer’s head. Then he called the fancy magazine and got the writer fired. The young writer himself became famous years later, and he gave an interview in which he said our poet was the meanest man who ever drew a breath—an old fake.

            Should the historical society discuss this? We don’t know. The poet loved horses. He loved dinner parties. He chopped his own wood. He gossiped at Dorothea’s kitchen table and advised us about most-wanted posters. We draw from the best of his poems solace. And we’ve heard that other famous writer wasn’t very nice either.

            As you enter the community house, you’ll find bookshelves built into the austere white walls. They are sparsely filled with dark-red and dark-green volumes, delicate gold lettering adorning their spines. Local works, old almanacs, some volumes of maps. Poetry collections. A framed photo of the poet in a tweed suit jacket and a thin black tie, his face craggy, his hair a thick mess. We think of the space as a temple and the bookshelves as an altar to our old best selves.

            A Saturday morning in May when beauty was thick upon us after months of harder weather, and the crabapple trees were explosions of mauve and rose petals, Homer Cushman was going in to the community house. He manages the space, and a concert had been planned for that evening. He was getting the money box and some music stands from his back seat when he saw in spray paint across the building’s side “WYATT ORAM IS AN ASSWIPE.” This in a jagged lizard green garish against the pine-dark shutters. Paint thinner, he thought. Maybe the country store across the street would have paint thinner so he could clean this ugliness away. He felt a great weight between his shoulder blades. Those Orams. They could at least have the decency to keep their misdeeds to the woods.

            Then he noticed Jasper’s red truck not quite hidden behind the community house. With a pair of binoculars, Jasper was watching through his windshield the country store where, Homer realized with some horror, Wyatt’s dark-gray truck was parked.

            Poor Homer. His shoulders are stooped and his hair gray wisps. He studies the migration patterns of birds. His grandfather ran the farm on which our poet kept his writing cabin. When reporters or other writers or even the chattier local types wanted to talk to our poet, they’d stop first at Homer’s grandfather’s farm. His grandfather would then call our poet and ask if he were in the mood for visitors. Only if the poet were feeling sociable would Homer’s grandfather let the visitors pass. The poet was so famous toward the end of his life, and we wanted to protect him from the crass and intrusive world. Homer had admired his grandfather for not letting everyone cross the poet’s threshold. His grandfather had displayed judgment.

            Homer approached Jasper’s truck, tapping on its window. Jasper glanced sideways and brusquely shook his head before raising the binoculars once more. Homer had judgment too, it just wasn’t coming to him then in sensible form. He started to walk away, still trying to think what to do, and behind him he heard the truck’s window go down. “Get the fuck out of here,” Jasper said.

            Across the street, Wyatt emerged from the store with a paper bag on his hip. Homer became a bird at roost. Maybe if he just stayed still, Wyatt wouldn’t notice anything and would drive home, and then Homer could buy that paint thinner.

            “Hey,” Jasper called, his elbow hanging out the truck’s open window.

            Wyatt was putting his groceries in the truck. He glanced about. Homer could see them both. They couldn’t see each other.

            “Hey. Hey, Wyatt. Come here.”

            Nancy LaCharite pulled into the country store and said good morning to Wyatt, who ignored her. He put his keys in his pocket and crossed the street.

            “Hello, Wyatt!” Homer waved in broad arcs. “Good morning!”

            Wyatt squinted at him, not convinced.

            “Hey,” Jasper said, his truck covered in tree shade. “Wyatt, come see.”

            The crabapple branches were a mauve rustle near the white-washed building. Wyatt came into the dirt parking lot and studied the lizard-green scrawl, hands on his hips. Nancy LaCharite emerged from the store holding a box of pancake mix. Clive stood in the doorway chatting with her. Both looked to Wyatt and their conversation dimmed. Jasper got out of his truck and came next to his brother, also placing his hands on his hips. He scratched his neck—a tell, Agnes has said, of when he’s about to do something bad or has already done it.

             Wyatt licked his lips. He went up to the building and rubbed the flat of his hand against the lettering—to see if it would come off, maybe. Then he turned and charged his brother, head butting him as if he were a bull.

            Jasper stumbled but didn’t fall, and he reached into his back pocket for a knife, and he slashed at Wyatt’s cheek. Wyatt leapt back. His eyes were wild. Like an animal’s Homer told us later. An animal that’s been poorly shot and is going to die slow but doesn’t know it yet so still thrashes. Jasper, holding the knife low at his hip, came at Wyatt again, and Wyatt bolted across the street, almost getting tangled in some bikers out for a hilly ride. They in their fancy attire shouted, “Watch the road!” and were gone in a flash of neon and spinning wheels.

            Nancy dropped her box of pancake mix and started to cry. Clive had pulled a phone from his pocket and was tersely muttering into it. But—please remember—we have no sheriff up here, and we have no hospital. Wyatt climbed into the back of his truck and pulled out a shotgun, which by no right nor measure should he have had with him. He walked back across the street, his right elbow out, the gun leveled at his bleeding cheek. Jasper grinned. His eyes were flat and the color of rain. “Asswipe,” he said. “Asswipe, asswipe, asswipe.”

     Wyatt shot into the trees. We are all of us accustomed to gunshot but not in May and not near the community house. Agnes came out of the inn, standing before its blue door, arms clutched at her elbows. She shouted, “Homer, get back!” But Homer was a roosting bird. He could imagine a Heaven that would welcome him but he couldn’t move.

     Wyatt lowered the gun. He was crying. “You are very bad!” he shouted at his brother. None of us expected something so plain. Then he raised the gun, but it was Jasper’s turn to charge, toppling Wyatt. The gun went off and Jasper thrust Wyatt’s side with his knife. Homer heard Wyatt’s shirt tear, a messy rip. The gun clattered as it hit the dirt. The air smelled of cordite.

     Eustace, who lives down the street, came out. She had on her apron and reading glasses, and she wailed but ran straight for them. She cried, “Your father would be so ashamed!” She was so fast and strong as she kicked the gun out of their reach. The boys were a twist of limbs, of heavy breath and curses. Both were moaning. Wyatt had blood seeping from his shirt, Jasper from his pants. Clive then was also across the street and slapped one brother—or both—and got the knife, too. He hugged Eustace and told her she was brave. Agnes arrived too with cries that her sister was a fool, and Nancy, shivering, stood aside with Homer. Bruce joined them and with Clive dragged one brother from the other then cordoned them off. Neither brother could stand, but both were moaning and swearing they would kill the other—kill the other—as soon as they could, so this still seemed more than precaution.

     Jasper’s thigh had been shot, and the blood seeping through his jeans looked like tar. Wyatt had had the knife go under his ribcage. They were both pale and gray and sweating. Nancy called her husband and said don’t bring the kids but please come right away. Clive phoned his wife and asked her to man the store, and he’d explain it all later. Homer found he could move again and asked Clive if he had paint thinner and Clive said maybe, go check, take whatever you want.

     Agnes had a ladder and Bruce knew where they kept the plastic cleaning buckets. They went to get cleaning materials. Vinegar, maybe, Eustace said. She was standing watch over Wyatt at that point. She kicked—hard—the flat of his boot. He called her a cunt. She pretended she didn’t hear.

     Finally the distant wail of the ambulance and the police as they traversed the steep roads. Everyone there swore it took an hour, and yet it took twenty minutes by the police-log records. And that was lucky, too, the sheriff explained. A calm morning, and they had nowhere else to be. He came upon a dozen people—and it grew to two dozen as the brothers were put in stretchers in the ambulance—attempting to clean the side of the community house. They had blue gloves and buckets of suds and baking soda and vinegar and paint thinner. Anyone who had driven by—or had heard of the violence via phone—arrived and joined in. This wasn’t cheerful work, but very quiet. The sky was blue and without clouds and crabapple blossoms were perfuming the air. But the scent turned their stomachs; it seemed a sweet poison. They felt easier breathing in paint thinner and vinegar and chemical cleaners and soap. They worked with brushes and sponges and hoped they were making things better.

     The wording remains, if blurred and paled. We will be repainting the community house this upcoming weekend.

     Both boys spent some time down the mountain at the hospital but came back up last night with the prognosis they’ll each recover. They had to take cabs (pricey and unusual) to their homes. No one would’ve volunteered to pick them up, nor did they ask. Beth Kirby says she saw their lights on. She says those goddamned Orams.

     They’ve made it impossible we look away. So now we’re all looking, waiting, worrying, trying to think what to do. We don’t know what will happen next. We know what will happen next. We wish it were over already. We wish they were posters we could put on the back door to the back porch, but we also think how fundamentally inadequate that makes us. We wish we were better.

     We wish the poet were still with us to talk to us. We would like some counsel even if his wisdom didn’t always measure up. Our poet said a poem is a momentary stay against the confusions of the world, but even if we find brief emotional or intellectual respite, those confusions: there they are, waiting for us.

     The Orams will rise from their beds and then what, then what?

Janice Obuchowski's debut story collection, The Woods, is the 2022 winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Prize in the Iowa Short Fiction Award Series and will be out this fall.  Her fiction has twice received special mention in the Pushcart Prize anthologies and has appeared in Crazyhorse, Alaska Quarterly Review, Story, Gettysburg ReviewLitHub, and elsewhere.  She earned her MFA from UC Irvine and served as a fiction editor for the New England Review