2024 Reading Challenge

2024 Reading Challenge
Jill Elizabeth has read 1 book toward her goal of 285 books.

2023 Reading Challenge

2023 Reading Challenge
Jill Elizabeth has read 5 books toward her goal of 265 books.

Mr. Withersby (Fiction)

So on this Wednesday morning, I offer the following little bit of fiction for your reading pleasure. It owes its life to an idea from The Fiancee (teehee – I love how pretentious that word sounds!) – someone who has wild and intense story ideas but occasionally needs someone to translate them for him… 🙂 Enjoy!

Why is it always so cold on these mornings? Does it always have to happen in the damp dark hours just before dawn? I know some things can’t stand the full light of day, don’t belong in the world of crisp, clear colors. That part I can understand. But why must it always be so cold?

Every memory I have is grey; grey with a fine mist skulking about in the background, waiting to catch me alone and unguarded, waiting for a moment of weakness. Just like Mr. Withersby.

On this particular morning, I am kneeling down on a frost-covered trail. Which one is irrelevant; they all led to the same place in the end. I am standing a little to the side – I always stood as far to the side as he would let me. The woods are still, patient as death, watching and waiting. The mist has a presence all its own. The quiet is almost palpable, as though the mist has silenced everything. The only sound for miles is the beating of three hearts – one slow and measured, one frantic and fearful, and mine.

Three breaths emanate through the still morning air. I never can understand how all those breaths look the same, why the heartbeats are so different but the breathing never is.

There is no motion beyond the rise and fall of the chest. No twitch or shudder ever escapes, no eye ever rolls. I never can understand that either, how anything that afraid can keep that still. And I always know that they are afraid – I can sense it, their fear reflecting mine, my fear reflecting theirs, in a back-and-forth cycle until the end.

As I said, there is no movement at all. There is only warmth and blood. And my father. And Mr. Withersby.

Mr. Withersby was given to my father by his father, on the day before he died. I never knew my grandfather. My mother said he was a bastard and that the only things he ever gave my father were Mr. Withersby and his temper. Laying in wait, Mr. Withersby was exactly eight inches long; encased in the hand-me-down worn leather sheath, attached to my father’s belt, he hung to the middle of my father’s thigh. He was made of galvanized steel, with a hardwood handle worn smooth by my grandfather’s hand. “A gift to remember me by,” my grandfather told him, “a legacy you will pass on to your boy one day, if you’re ever man enough to have one.” My father was nine years old that year. He had been spending his own cold grey mornings with his father and Mr. Withersby in these very woods for three years. He knew exactly what Mr. Withersby was. And he had his own ideas about what Mr. Withersby could be.

My father turns his head slowly toward me, gazing down on me with that leaden look of his, that look that always seems to me to be as cold and grey as the very morning itself. He tells me I have to finish it, and soon, before anybody else comes along.

I can’t stand to the side any longer.

I move in close, stumbling on a loose stone. He catches me by the scruff of my neck, pulling me up to stand tall and straight. Like a man. He can smell my reluctance, feel my hesitation. He tells me we don’t have time for tomfoolery and that we need to get this over with so we can go home.

I step up, get my bearings, and close my eyes. I put my brand new shiny blue size seven duck boot across the neck like I was taught and lean in, all ninety-five pounds of me pressing against the spinal column. Finally, a few twitches. And more blood. And more warmth, as another breath is forced out of the lungs to hang, suspended, in the mist. But it is not enough. It never is. Not when I do it.

He pushes me aside, rolling his eyes, a smirk on his face. The same smirk he always gave me when I failed. The same smirk I had grown to love because it meant that it was not my fault. I was not the one. I didn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. And that meant I was not like him.

He puts his boot, the same old worn beaten boot he always wears on these mornings, against the neck, lining his size twelve foot up to obliterate any sign of my smaller, weaker, useless boot-print. He looks me in the eye – he always looks me in the eye, forces me to acknowledge what he can do that I cannot – and shifts his weight. The sharp snap cracks the cover of the mist. To me that sound is the loudest thing in the world. I can never understand how no one hears it or comes running. But no one ever does.

A trail of freezing vapor hangs in the air. It is over. Again. And my father smirks down at me. Again.

I start to turn back, toward home; he never makes me watch the rest, always lets me leave before Mr. Withersby comes out to play. Mr. Withersby is his and his alone. Well, not entirely his alone – not on these mornings. On these mornings Mr. Withersby finds a new playmate – just not for very long.

But today he has other ideas. Today, Mr. Withersby will make a new friend.

The smirk never leaving his face, he reaches under his coat for his belt, the home of Mr. Withersby. With a smooth shushing sound he slides Mr. Withersby out of the worn leather sheath, and, instead of kneeling down like he has on every other cold grey morning, his smirk stretches into a thin-lipped smile and he hands the knife to me.

I don’t understand – why is he doing this, why today? He knows I hate this, hate all of it, want no part in it. He has watched me try and fail, time and again, to bring the release of death; knows I cannot even put them out of their misery, end their fear, with my duck boot. If I cannot even do that, how on earth does he think I do the rest?

He looks into my eyes and tells me that it is my turn, that it is my heritage. He tells me that his father taught him to work with Mr. Withersby, and now it is his turn to teach me.

I am shaking, colder than the greyest of these grey mornings. Everything slows around me, my father’s last words hanging in the air, drawn out as though time itself is grinding to a halt slowed in recognition of what is about to happen. I clasp Mr. Withersby in my clammy boy-hand, my fingers barely closing around the handle, terrified he is going to slip right out of my grim fist. I kneel down, use my empty hand to gently, carefully close the eyes – I can’t do this if he is looking at me, even with dead eyes, I know I can’t. I place one shaking hand against the still-warm skin of his throat and look up. My father tells me to start at the bottom and work my way up, quickly. And to remember to push hard, because skin is tougher than it looks.

I know nothing will ever be the same for me again after this. But I also know there is no way out, no way to avoid this. Maybe there never was. Maybe my father is right and this is who we are, the Stevens men. Maybe we are Mr. Withersby’s keepers – or maybe he is ours.

With one last glance into my father’s cold grey eyes I slide Mr. Withersby in, as far as he will go. And with all ninety pounds of me dripping with sweat in the chill morning air, I yank the blade up and rip as far as I can. When I hit the ribcage and stumble, my no-longer-young arm shaking with strain, I hear him laugh – snicker, almost, if my father can be imagined to make such a sound. I can barely see what I am doing anymore. The tears are falling hot and fast and I am crying for me, my father, and the poor dead carcass beneath me – but not for Mr. Withersby. This is what he was made for, why he exists.

I hate what I have done, simply because he told me to. But at least I’m done for now, my part in this nightmare over. Until the next time, of course – the next time the urge strikes and we have to make our way into another cold grey morning. The next time we go deer hunting.

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