“Lila, you have to hold my hand.” Michael is using his Big Voice, the one to remind me he is five years older and this, in his mind, makes him the boss of me. I don’t like my brother’s Big Voice. My right foot is on the bridge, my left still on the path. I put my hands behind my back and twine my fingers together.
“De. Li. Lah.” Michael holds out his hand. “Gimme your hand.”
I feel like spinning around to run back home. If I do, Michael will have to follow me because it is the last week of summer and Mama said he has to take me with him to the creek while she gets her classroom stuff ready.
“Okay,” I say, “but only across the bridge.”
I hold my hand out but he doesn’t take it.
“And the road,” he says.
I grab his hand, but it’s like grabbing old Play-doh.
“Say it,” he says. “You’ll hold my hand across the bridge and the road.”
“Okay!” I cry. “The bridge and the road!”
He smiles. I don’t want to smile back, but I do anyway.
On the other side of the bridge is the road. Michael stops and looks—left, right, left—and says, “All clear.”
At the woods, I forget to let go of his hand and we walk together, bending where a stand of bamboo hangs over the path, past a clump of rotting trees somebody cut down but never cleared. Bugs crawl all over the logs and some on the path. I raise my foot to stomp on one, but Michael yanks me back.
“Don’t, Lila. The bugs eat the wood so it can decompose and feed the earth. It’s the cycle of nature.”
Now he’s using his Smart Voice, the one that reminds me he gets straight A’s and wins the 6th Grade Science Fair while my first grade teacher tells us about cocoons and butterflies, which I already know because Michael read a book about it to me one night when thunder cracked all around, and I went to his room to make sure he wasn’t scared.
“Bugs are gross,” I say, but I don’t try to stomp any of them.
We leave the path past a tree with a piece of twine wrapped around the trunk. Michael says that won’t hurt the bark the way a nail does when the county puts up signs about trespassing on city property and beware of controlled deer hunts. Michael won’t put a nail in a tree because he says all things, even trees, have feelings.
“If that’s true,” I asked the first time he said it, at dinner when he refused to eat Mama’s meatloaf and only ate mashed potatoes and broccoli, “Why aren’t your potatoes crying?”
Daddy had sputtered out his drink and Mama had bitten down hard on her lip. Michael’s face got stiff and he didn’t talk for all the rest of dinner. At bedtime, I went into his room to make sure he wasn’t worried he had hurt the mashed potatoes’ feelings. He told me to go away, but I didn’t, and after a while, he clicked on his reading light. He read me a book about someone named Boo Duh until Mama came in and said it was time to sleep.
She tucked me back into my bed. I said, “Won’t Michael ever eat meatloaf again?”
She answered in her Smiling Voice. “Oh, I think your brother will get past this when he gets hungry enough.” But Mama was wrong. Michael never ate meatloaf, or chicken, or even fish sticks ever again. At Thanksgiving, though, Daddy said Michael could believe whatever nonsense he wanted about trees and bugs, but Grandma’s human feelings would be hurt if he refused to eat her turkey. Michael said okay, but I swiped the slice of turkey from his plate and ate it for him, and for Boo Duh.
The twine around the tree marks where we go off path. There’s a spot where the trees block out the sun and the ground is covered with moss. We cross over the moss on the rocks. It’s dark, and I was scared the first time, but Michael explained the leaves make a canopy just like the one that hangs over my bed that used to belong to Mama’s grandma. It’s called a sleigh bed, and it is draped with a sheet of what Mama calls eyelet. Sometimes I look up at the white eyelet overhead and pretend I am in a real sleigh, and the canopy is a sky full of snow.
Other times, I imagine the sky is backwards and the dark eyelet holes are the stars and the white fabric is the night sky. Or I think about the King Tut story and I pretend my canopy is all that’s between me and the top of a pyramid. Or maybe it’s a magic carpet.
One time, when I had chicken pox, Michael came into the bed with me and I told him all the things my canopy could be, and it made me forget to scratch. He said my canopy stories were stupendous, a big word I liked. I felt Big when I told him my canopy stories. If not Big, the same size as him, anyway.
Tonight, maybe, I’ll make the canopy over my bed a layer of moss. I daydream about that until we reach the creek.
Michael stops in front of it. The bank is supposed to come right up to the carpet of fallen leaves and grass, but there is drying mud there now. “Why is it so low?” he says, but not to me. He’s using a Faraway Voice.
He crouches and scoops a handful of water. I would tell him, “Don’t drink that!” but I know he already knows. He smells it and dribbles the water out of his palm.
“Beavers?” he says. He stands and walks so fast along the creek, I can hardly keep up, but then he stops and I run right into his back.
I peek around him. Ahead, at the bend, the creek is blocked with sticks, logs, leaves, rocks, mud. A funny looking branch pokes up from one side, near the bank. Whatever he smelled before, I smell now, too.
“Is it beavers?” I ask. Miss Manning read to us about beaver dams and had us draw a picture. Maybe one of the beavers died and that’s the smell.
Michael stands on tiptoe. He lets go of my hand and turns around. “Stay here, Delilah. Right here, understand? Don’t. Move. I mean it.” His voice is a new one. It sounds…mean? Mad? Not mean. Not mad. Something else, worse than mean or mad.
I give him a head start, five or six or seven steps, until he’s on the other side of the dam and I rush to his side.
“I told you not to move,” he says, but his voice is funny. Maybe from the smell, which is so bad on the other side of the dam that my stomach flips over.
He grabs my shoulder and tries to turn me away, but I fight him. I’m not some little kid who can’t see a dead beaver.
I kick his shin. He bends over and I spin away and climb over the rock.
Behind the creek is a deer. The funny branch was not a branch. It was antlers. The deer’s body is fat and flies hover around it, but it eyes are open and its face rests on a rock above the water. Except for a small bloody mark on its neck, its looks normal, like it could get up and eat the honeysuckles growing in a tangle right behind us. Behind the dam, the creek is high and the water moves up and down, slowly. The deer bobs with it.
“It’s out of season,” Michael says. He is beside me now. He kicks at the rock, hard, and says a word he is not supposed to ever say. “It’s not deer hunting season.”
I don’t know what that means, but I don’t notice the smell anymore. I am too sad that the deer is in the water, all alone.
Michael pulls on my arm. “Let’s go. We have to call animal control.”
“Animal control. They’ll come and get him. Like the time at Grandma’s?”
I nod, remembering the dead deer we saw on the side of the road near Grandma’s driveway. Daddy made a phone call and a white truck came and two men lifted the deer into the bed. When I asked where they were going, Daddy said they were going to give the deer a proper burial.
I curl my toes in my shoes, as if that could keep me here. “We shouldn’t leave it here alone.”
Michael says, “Lila, it has to be removed. It’ll rot and poison the water.”
I don’t understand this. If the bugs can eat the logs and return it to nature, why can’t the deer stay in the water and go back to nature too? It is too confusing, but the smell tells me Michael is right. And the deer needs a proper burial.
I jump off the rock. We go a few steps down the path and I am glad to smell the honeysuckle again. Another step and I turn back.
“Wait,” I say. I reach into the tangle, careful not to touch any poison ivy, and I grab a honeysuckle vine. I pull and pull while Michael asks what I’m doing, but I yank until the vine snaps and I almost fall backward into my brother.
“Lila, we have to go,” but I’m already scrambling back up the path and over the rock.
I hold my breath and lean over to wind the vine of honeysuckle through the deer’s antlers. When I’m finished, I remember the men who tossed the other deer into the bed of the white truck.
I say, “We should say a prayer.”
I don’t know if Boo Duh says prayers, but I put my hands together and Michael does too. I close my eyes and say, “Rest in peace, deer. I hope you go to heaven.”
Michael says, “Amen.”
I hold his hand back through the woods, down the path. At the road, he looks left-right-left, and we cross. When we get to the bridge, halfway across, he lets go and turns, leaning over the edge. He is breathing hard, as if he’s been running. I think maybe he’s going to be sick.
I peek over the railing. The water is so clear, you can see all the way to the rocks in the stream bed and the minnows swimming around. There’s a clean smell here, of water and trees and bright sunlight. Maybe a tiny scent of honeysuckle, too.
My brother makes a strange sound. He’s crying.
I’m not sure what to do, but I take his hand as if I am the one who is bigger and smarter and braver. His body shakes. I hold on until the shaking stops and he sniffles a few times.
Finally, I tell him, in my best Little Sister voice, “Let’s go home, Michael.” I tug on his hand and he follows.
Ramona DeFelice Long writes fiction, creative non-fiction, memoir, and personal essays about women, family and culture, and the foibles and quirks of personal dynamics. Her work has appeared in numerous literary publications, and she provided a flash piece inspired by Dorothy P. Miller to PS Books’ EXTRAORDINARY GIFTS: Remarkable Women of the Delaware Valley. She is a transplanted Southerner living in Delaware.