by Joseph Alan Hasinger
We used to take the bones that Aldan Jr. found and haul them back through the woods and up the hills to our house in paper sacks. We lived pretty close to the river, and at night I’d sit on my bed with my back against the wall, cleaning my rifle, maybe, or reading a comic book, and watch him glue things back together, the breeze and the smell of the mud coming off the water and through the open window.
He’d sit on our bedroom floor with the bones scattered before him like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, staring and thinking and scratching his head. Most times he’d make things just the way God had; a bird was a bird, a squirrel, a squirrel. But some nights, if he was in a mood, or either missing enough parts, he’d start in on his own kind of creation, putting bones of one thing with bones of another, or two others, or three, till he had something altogether new. Something all his own: a blue jay with two skulls and the long skeleton-tail of a river rat.
These nights seemed to please him most.
I kept waiting for Mama or Daddy to object, for Mama to demand that these filthy animals’ bones be exhumed from her clean carpet — no matter, of course, how unclean the pre-bones carpet, in fact, probably was — but they did not, she did not, and they instead actually encouraged it. Mama saying “What a little scientist!” and Daddy saying “A hot-shit doctor!” and they allowed Aldan Jr.’s artistry to continue.
And I think that’s how Aldan Jr. saw it — he was an artist.
He cleaned out Daddy’s old work shed, which Daddy didn’t use or need since his back had gone bad and he and Mama had taken to sitting most days on the couch and drinking beer and watching old TV programs and not working and living instead off the check that came once per month on account of Daddy having originally hurt his back on the job.
A streak of luck, Daddy called that.
And Aldan Jr. set up in the newly empty shed a kind of museum for his art — the animals he’d resurrected, created — and over time the museum got plum-full of the little beasts and word got out and people from around and up in town, mostly cousins but others as well, heard about Aldan Jr.’s work and would drop by and ask to have a look inside the shed. When most anyone walked in that shed and saw what Aldan Jr. had been up to, they were completely thrilled with it all, tickled pink, and for the life of me I at times just could not understand it. I mean, as much as anyone I held a soft spot for my brother, the time and skill that he’d put into his work, and I was often amazed by the absolute, uncanny knowledge of skeletal anatomy that he seemed to have simply earned with birth. But to me, with all those bones, that old shed was just like a graveyard turned inside-out and I could not for my own life fathom why anyone would want to spend a second in there, let alone Aldan Jr., four years younger than I.
Over time, as Aldan Jr.’s collection kept on growing, all the attention it stirred started, I believe, to go to my little brother’s head. The sculptures — he’d learned that word at school and that’s what he called them now — became both more frequently constructed and, more often than not, larger in their undertaking. One of his most-proud moments, I remember, was the unveiling of his six-legged coyote — he claimed coyote, but I was fairly certain it was just a regular old dog — to our family. Us all standing in the open doorway of the shed with the evening sun coming down and spilling over us, the coyote was almost aglow as if the bones had been heated by fire or, more likely, the thing had just crawled out from the burning depths of hell.
But Mama covered her mouth with her hand, not as if she was scared like I was but more like she was touched by it. “Oh, Aldan,” is all she said and then she started to twitch a little like she was about to start to cry or something. And Daddy put his arm around Mama and pulled her in close to him, and he took a swig from his beer can and shook his head, and said, proud as could be, “Junior, you’ve outdone yourself.” Then Daddy grinned down at me and he asked, “How fast you think a coyote runs with six legs?” and I just stared at him like he was an insane person and I did not say a word.
A few days after the coyote, me and Aldan Jr. were out in the woods again, me hunting squirrels with my .22 and him, as usual, searching out materials for his next big project. Since Aldan Jr. had been so busy as of late he’d more or less picked the woods clean around our house as far as carrion’s concerned, and so he convinced me to do my squirreling a few miles on up river, farther north than we’d ever gone on our own.
We stayed close to the water, figuring that was the clearest bet to keep from getting lost. The river was different up there, the shores a little rockier and the water running quick against the stones, and the river itself widened up a bit. The day was nice as ever, still warm for November, the wind and the birds in the tops of the pine trees, and after a while I told Aldan Jr., who was following along the water’s edge with his eyes set on the earth and his hands in his pockets, that I would stay close, and he nodded, and I wandered into the thick of the woods to hunt.
I walked the woods for a half-hour or so, and no sooner had I come upon a pair of gray squirrels playing chase around a pine trunk, had raised and sighted my rifle, than Aldan Jr.’s footsteps crunched up behind us and startled them away. And no sooner had I turned to glare my anger toward him than he turned with a waving of his hand and said, “Come on, come see,” and took off back the way he came, crunching loud through the twigs and leaves of the forest floor, scaring off every damn squirrel, I was sure, for miles around.
I followed him, having to nearly run to keep up, to the bank of the river, maybe a quarter-mile north of where I’d left him shortly ago. When I arrived he stood already at the crest of the slight hill that ran to the water. He was looking down, a hand on either hip.
“What is it?” I said. I edged beside him, catching my breath. “What’s dead now?”
And then I saw.
Down the riverbank, a body — a woman’s body, and without a stitch of clothes — lay a good while dead, her bottom half in the water and the other tangled up in the wire and weeds of the brush. Her skin blue and fish-belly white. Cheeks all puffed out.
I started to back away, naturally, fearing I might get sick. But Aldan Jr. squatted low, peered down at the body in the river. I reached out blindly for his shoulder but he didn’t seem to notice. His eyes were fixed, studying her. He did not turn away.
JOSEPH ALAN HASINGER lives and teaches and writes in Charleston, South Carolina. He holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Hollins University, and his stories appear or are forthcoming in The Citron Review and Stanley the Whale.