n a t b a l d w i n
The Red Barn
I scrape the taste out with my fist. The kids huddle close in the dark. We will soon get to work. But now no one can talk. I lock the latch. Drop my pack to the dirt. Take out the new tools. I tell the kids that today we will work all day. I point to the door bolted shut. They turn in unison, nod their heads yes. I point to windows, boarded up and black. I say how will we know when today's day is done? Their blank faces stare. I say when we are done with the work is how we will know. I say it may be a long day. Or maybe many days. But first thing's first. We need to clean the new tools thick with dust from the town. I say to the kids form a straight line. They hold their little hands out. They open their empty mouths. They take in their hands the tools that I hand them. They lick the dust from the tools with the wet of their tongues. Then they pass the tools back to my hand. I examine their work. Most miss spots. Only one passes. The good kid again. So I set him aside. Hand him a new tool. I advise him to aim for the backs of their heads. I whisper in his ear so no one can hear. I say only one strike. I say much work lies ahead. But do not take it easy on them. When the good kid is done I lead him into the shed. I wipe him off. Adjust all his angles. Strip his clothes from his skin. He knows to keep quiet. I say you have done good. I whisper more words. He closes his eyes. The good kid listens.
He calls the mud dust. We call him Master. He wipes the mud stuck to his skin. We wipe it up from the floor. The floor is caked with dirt. The mud turns to dirt when it dries. Our skin dries out in the dark. The barn is dark all day. We do not know our names. Or where we were before. Or how we came to be. But we cannot ask. He slaps us in the face. He knees us in the teeth. Our mouths fill up with blood. The blood drips from our lips. He smears it back to our mouths. He makes us choke it down. He makes us say his name. He calls our new names numbers. But they always seem to change. Or we do not recall their shape. Or just mishear the pitch. Today we clean the tools. New tools slicked thick with mud. He dragged them back from town. The town we've never seen. One day one tried to escape. He did not make it far. Now he hangs by a beam above. We nailed right through his hands. In the morning I open my eyes. He's the first sight I see. Body calm and still. Light drained from skin. Darker shades each day. I rise when Master calls.
We stand still in a circle. In the center of the circle is an animal. Its fur is darkened in spots. It is unclear if the spots are its natural coat, or the blood and mud of its tracks. The animal bleeds from its throat. We are lucky to be locked in the barn. The woods are not safe for kids. My parents were not parents to me. They left me there alone. Master told me everything. I remember nothing. That is all I need to know. As Master enters the barn, the animal in the center collapses to the dirt. The animal spreads away from itself, shapeless but for its unblinking eyes. We freeze. Master barks orders. We follow his words. We grab the tools. We sweep the animal up. Some of us do not work fast enough. When we slow or slack we are slapped in the back with a branch. Master knows what we need. The last crack hits me hard in the center of the spine. I will work harder next time are the words in my mind as I fall face first. I am not certain if the feeling of splitting is in my skin or bones or both. A sharp light flickers through my eyes as they close. The last thing I see atop the remains piled neatly in the dirt are the two eyes of the animal bulging. I do not feel the impact of the ground.
He leaves every night right in the middle of it when we are some of us sleeping but others tossing and shifting in our beds spiked with feathers and bones and scraps of furs found in the grounds on the animals that died or were not yet alive ripped from their skins or insides of their guts and dried on the lines that hang from the beams next to the boy to remind us that we are not to escape and we will not survive and that the world does not want us in its outside light and that this is our world here in this barn and it's where we belong and he taught us this so that's how we know and what else to believe but the man who saved us from our slight lives and how do we know if we deserve it or not and who else to owe though I cannot recall how we were found or where we were before the barn door shut and was it worse back there back then and we just buried it down deep or washed it out clean and have now come to believe that this is the place where we need to begin and that this is the man that we need to lead us so I lie here and wonder where he has gone as he does each night and what will I do if he does not return and I cannot find sleep or stop all the shaking but then steps up the hill and the door slowly creaking and before the hot feeling of skin soft and sinking I exhale a deep breath and thank god and dream blank and thank god.
I still don't know what he was reaching for. None of us do. This was before he tried to escape. Before we had to hammer nails through his hands. The boy had been acting strange for some time. His mind seemed shot. Color drained from his eyes. He was often sent to the shed. He was speaking in odd intervals. The sounds his mouth made muddled into drone, or took large tonal leaps, discomfiting and dissonant, with quick shifts in volume to match. He would always fall from his trance into catatonic silence. I've never seen such vacancy in a face, a body. I stumbled upon him many days and thought he was dead, kicked him in his ribs and head till he twitched. Maybe that's what he wanted when he reached into the flames. He grabbed a handful he couldn't hold, left his arm there hanging. His skin smoked and popped like liquid hitting a hot pan. He bubbled up and blackened. A rotten smell filled the barn. His eyes widened but still looked empty. His mouth loosened up but no sound came out. We did not know how to react so we didn't.
A trail drips from a dog's mouth bright blood. Its mouth is filled with feathers stuck to the body of a bird. The bird's body is enmeshed in the dog's jagged teeth. I can see hot breath puff like smoke through the gaps. A haze swells around the dog's head and the bleeding dead bird. But the dog is bleeding, too. There's a gash on its neck. It does not spill out like the bird but just shines wet and still. It looks sticky. The dog starts to circle. The dog does not know where to go. He drags the blood across more and more of our floor. The dog is drooling. The dirt darkens, clots to the consistency of mud. The bird's shape deflates. In the dog's mouth the emptying space fills with froth. Thick spit mixes its white with the red blood of the dead bird. The colors do not blend. They swirl and snake up against and all around each other never quite congealing. The dog's wide, spasmodic circles turn tight and focused, nearly spinning itself in place. The blood does not drip so much now as it does spray. I do not take my eyes off the dog or the bird or the arch of the blood.
Skin goes numb, limbs act without thought. I get stopped by a wall, a fist, a fire, a branch. My jaw unhinges, slacks toward my throat. Drool pools down my chin. Sound fizzles out. I wake up blacked out. They circle me. They tie me up my hands my feet. They drag me in dirt. The dirt soaks me up. Dogs lick most of my skin. They lather parts made thick by the dirt. Everything becomes mud. Their teeth feel hot. Birds peck my cheeks. I hold still. I hold on to the heat. A feeling I can name. I see hands holding tools. I see eyes unblinking. The sound of teeth gnawing. A slow grinding of meat. Then no heat left. The ground below blurs. I rise slow to the roof. My hands spread out. Arms outstretch. Head droops loose. I see a nail on my hand. The nail disappears. It takes more than one strike. Shoots through the other side. All my feeling rushes back.
I uncoil the rope from my pack. The rope is unused and stiff. I lay it straight on the dirt. The kids line up in a row. They take care to step clear of the rope. Their weight will cause it to weaken. One day a rope split in half on a back. Sometimes they do not listen. They stepped down on the strands, left dead-spots in the core. I leave nails now spiked from the floor. I leave the old rope tied to a beam. It's still soaked with the blood from the back. I can't recall which kid took the hit. They carve the same shape in my eyes over time. I have since been using a branch. But some break in my hands upon impact. Some land the wrong way on a bone. A rope gets even returns. I grab the new one at their feet. I get a feel for its weight. Run my fingers over the braids. Rub my face along the bristles. I start between shins and ankles. They know to not look down. Or make any sound with their mouths. When I am done I stand to my feet. I stare in the blanks of their eyes. I say to them take a step. I unlatch the lock on the door.
We stare away from the light down at the dirt and listen to the pulse of his voice and of all of its counting while we dig dirt loose and place the loosened up dirt in fresh new piles just to push it back later back into the absence hollowed out by our hands and the tools that they grip without the good sense of what could lie below or if there is any breath left and there is no way to know and no we will not ask 'cause we know that he knows and that he knows best and yes we know that and skin burns as it splits the sun beats at our backs dripping puddles at our feet soaking into the mud and the caking at ankles from openings in shins blending in to the dogs crying out from their throats and sticking on teeth that dull life into death while we pray without words for new ways to be found and we smooth the last patch of dirt with our mouths.
NAT BALDWIN is a writer and musician living in Maine. He has been writing fiction for almost two years. This is his debut publication under his own name, with previous work published pseudonymously. As a musician, he has recorded numerous solo albums, and is a member of the band Dirty Projectors. He is currently pursuing a BA in English at the University of Southern Maine.
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