Late—or early, depending on how you saw it—under the close stars, through the uncut grass, amid the pulse of crickets and drone of frogs, we led our fathers downhill to drown them.
It was not difficult. They went quietly, most of them, without struggle. We led them in pairs, each one bound by the wrists and ankles to another, each one’s legs squeezed into one half of a pair of oversized dungarees—two legs each to a pant leg—so that they had to move slowly and hop as they went down to the bog, switching turns and coordinating with each other. It was a slow progress and a clumsy one, but the stars were brilliant and the dew felt good on our calves, and though the grass was slick no one slipped or fell and we were content to take our time about it.
The shared pants business had been Anna’s idea. It was a last-minute kind of thing, maybe an extra security measure, since they were rather bigger than us, our fathers, and none of us was very confident with her knots. Also it was meant to humiliate. Of course. But mostly it was a practical matter, as the choice of the bog had been.
There had been other ideas. Nora’s, to tie them to railroad tracks. Emma’s, stoning. There was a quarry a few miles out of town and Emma’s idea was that afterward we would dump them into the small lake that sat out in the middle of it. This had actually been our first choice and it had seemed like a sensible one. Then someone brought up that it was a popular swimming hole and a good one, and we all agreed this was so, and though it was a deep quarry and unlikely the bodies would surface or anyone would dive deep enough to find one, still, it was a good spot, the water was clean, so why ruin it?
Anna had the combination to her father’s gun cabinet but this presented several problems that no one, least of all Anna, wanted to deal with. Dana claimed to know the whereabouts of a cougar’s den, but this, she said, was at least an hour’s trek through the woods, and her description was vague, and anyway none of us had ever seen a cougar nor had anyone else we knew of, and come to think of it, wasn’t it widely held—by men like our fathers, for example—that cougars had been extinct in our state for decades?
Drowning was my idea. I had seen an article some while back about a swamp in Denmark where archaeologists had uncovered the bodies of several men. They’d concluded that the men—they had lived during the Bronze Age, before the Vikings—had been sacrifices of some kind, maybe to water spirits thought to live in the swamp. They had been bound at the wrists and ankles, and the ropes used for this, which had also been fed between their teeth, had been preserved in the swamp muck, along with most of their flesh, for over a thousand years.
The idea had been as much a joke as anything until it had caught on and become the favorite and I’d grown pleased with it. I did not mention where it had come from or the possibility that, centuries from now, our fathers might be hauled out more or less as we’d left them and set up in a museum. I did not think it would sit well with the other girls, and anyway it was good to have your idea declared best, it gave you authority, so I’d said nothing more about it.
When we finally made the edge of the bog, where the water sat shallow and still and the dark muck below shown under the stars, we all stood around in the reeds, waiting. The frogs and crickets had died down so that the only sound was our shoes scraping the broken reeds and someone’s foot meeting the water and pulling back. Someone asked if we should take off their hoods and pull the tape from their mouths, and another said, Don’t be dense.
Are we doing them two at a time?
I guess we’ll have to.
It occurred to me that they were waiting for me to act. It had become my show, in a way. In any other instance, Lilith would have been first, the one calling shots, but she had backed out last minute, which had almost blown the whole thing, and since this was my idea and now my land, apparently I would have to go first.
I told Nora and Dana to each take a side. They tucked their pikes—broom handles sharpened with hatchets—under their arms and each picked up a length of rope snaking out from our fathers’ wrists. They stood out to the sides and held their ropes taut and I went around front and picked up the third length and led them all four out into the water. I did not have to go far. The bank dropped off sharply and the muck was already pulling me down.
Good enough, I said. The water came up past my calves. I went around behind and called Emma over. Her dark shape separated from the others and splashed out through the shallows. When she got close I could see her hanging head, her loose mop of hair draped around her face like a curtain.
Ready? I said. The hair bounced on her forehead but she said nothing.
The hoods served as blindfolds—for our fathers, and for us. That was the idea at least. With the hoods and the similar dark jackets—suit jackets we had picked up for cheap at a rummage sale, navy blue and black—and the dungarees, the idea was that in the dark they would be indistinguishable to us, making it easier. We did not trust each other as well as we would have liked, and maybe we did not trust ourselves, so we had come up with this.
You could still tell who everyone was, though, by his height and how he filled or did not fill his jacket and by how he held himself, and if you were pretty sure who the others were, you knew exactly who your father was. But we acted as though we did not and like it would not have mattered if we did.
I stood close behind our fathers and told them to get onto their knees. Nora and Dana paid out their ropes, but the two fathers just stood there with their heads bowed and their shoulders rolled.
You had to be ruthless.
Give me your pike, I said, and Nora slid hers from under her arm and handed it to me. I spun it slowly in my hands. It was a long thin handle from an old push broom. The wood was slightly fractured near the end where the blows from the hatchet had weakened it.
I put myself at forty-five degrees behind them, drew my arms back as though I were up to bat, and brought the handle against the backs of their legs, just above the knees. The whump cut through the air and went out over the water and into the low trees. The handle caught them both at once and set them to coughing under their tape, and the coughing turned to what sounded like choking.
I nodded to Emma. She slogged over, looking doubtful. C’mon, I said, and when she just stood there I set my hand on her shoulder and lifted my foot from the water and gave one of the fathers a firm kick behind his knees. He went down like a door had opened under him. The other father fell with him. Water bubbled around them, gases churned up out of the muck, and their gym-built torsos dragged them forward and pitched them under.
I grabbed Emma’s elbow and pulled her along and then we were on them. It was not a fair fight, I knew, but we had not meant it to be. When had it ever been before?
We went about it as planned—knees between their shoulder blades, hands on the backs of their heads. It did not take long. When we knew it was done, we sloshed back to the bank and switched out. I passed the pike back to Nora and stood aside and watched her lead out the next troop.
We went another two rounds like this. I stood with three others and we guarded our fathers and kept them from trying to run off. Not that they would have made it far if they had. But we kept the rope taut anyway and held the points of our pikes to their throats, just to be sure. I swapped out once more, this time for a side rope, and it was a quick thing that went off smoothly and required nothing of me but to stand aside and watch. I went back to the bank feeling deflated.
When I stood up on the bank and stomped the muck from my feet and looked up, I knew my father right away. Just as he seemed to know me when he passed and turned his hooded face to mine. As though our eyes could meet and he could really see me. It was a brief moment and then Anna pressed him on.
He did not go easily, like the others. My father fought. When Emma brought the handle against his legs for the third time, it shattered and pieces of it came whipping back at where we stood on the bank, so that we had to duck and shield ourselves, and a big piece—the sharp, hatcheted end—sailed out deep into the water and made a long splash.
I had not noticed before if the frogs and crickets had started up again once they were used to us, but if they had, this silenced them, so that I could hear my father breathing where he stood, could see his hard shoulders rise and fall. He had not cried out. You could see how the other father was sagging where he stood, trying to drag my father down with him. He would go easily, almost willing it, as though we were doing him a favor. But my father would not give an inch. He was holding the other man up along with himself. His legs were strong, stronger than I had known, as his back too must be.
My father was not like the other fathers. He had come from privilege, as they had, but he had chosen a different life for himself. He had cleared much of this land alone and had made a life here for himself and for his family. He had insisted on living harder than was necessary for his generation and had pushed this hardness onto us, and though he had been wrong about many things I knew that this had not been one of them. If the way you had lived made it so that you met your end like this, you could not have been wrong about everything.
It took three more of us to finally bring him down—two hanging on the other father’s shoulder for the extra weight, two on the ropes pulling hard, four of us on my father. We knelt on his back, which had crested the water like the dark back of a whale, as he tried to shake us from himself, but we balled his jacket into our fists and held on and pushed.
We were still pushing long after the other father had gone still; he had cried out the moment his face had met the water, and through the tape and the hood and the first inch of water his voice had sounded like an old door swung slowly closed.
My father went down silently, saving his breath for the fight. The other girls cursed him as he thrashed below us and there was fear in their voices, and when at last he was still and a pocket of air rode up to the surface and broke, they seemed relieved, but for a time we all stayed where we were, breathing very hard.
When the crickets and frogs broke out their applause, and we got up and surveyed our work, I felt proud of my father as I had not felt proud of him before, and I moved very large then among the girls there while I took up a rope and led the last of our fathers into the water.
Aaron Hull grew up near the 45th parallel just left of Lake Michigan. He earned an MFA in Fiction, on a teaching stipend, from the University of Colorado Boulder. Some recent work appears in Gone Lawn. He writes from Denver.