A sour wind raked over the Harkness farm. Zelda Harkness, a moody sixteen-year-old, nosed at the autumnal scent. There was something missing here, she thought, surveying the landscape and gray hills. But she didn’t know what.
“I heard Grandpa tried to off himself,” Zelda’s younger brother Dennis whispered, coming up. Dennis was fourteen.
“Shhh,” she said, listening to the wind. “Ok,” she said. “I was thinking. Now talk.”
“I said Grandpa tried to bite the big one.”
“No. Grandma just found him catatonic again. Grandma got back from work and had to take him back to the clinic. Mom said he’s depressed because his brother Carl sued him. Back when Grandpa still owned this farm, before he lost it I mean, Carl helped with loans. Now he has sued Grandpa for nonpayment.” The farm had long lain dormant until they moved in a few months ago.
“How can you sue your own brother,” Dennis mumbled. “I mean, I hate you sometimes sis, but.”
“Yeah. I hate you sometimes too. But I like you as well.”
“What I really don’t get is why we have to live on this stupid farm. Why Mom brought us here. There’s nothing to do and it’s far from town. Grandma and Grandpa get to live in town!”
“That’s not why your friends don’t come, because we’re far. They don’t come because you’re annoying,” she laughed. “Just kidding,” she said. Dennis frowned. His pale blue eyes radiated dismay. Zelda admitted to herself that clownish Dennis was, at times, more thoughtful than she expected. “There is something missing here, though,” she agreed.
When worries gnawed at them, their mother told them to believe in God. Zelda’s youngest brothers—Jonathan, Drew and Ryan—still obediently said their prayers. But Zelda hesitated. Her lack of belief frightened her. She feared that, after death, there waited only a black void of loneliness, like the musty darkness she poked her nose into whenever she opened the cellar door.
Under the cloudy sky, Dennis shot hoops on their gravel court. Zelda watched. Dennis planned to move away and become a banker one day, like great-uncle Carl.
Meanwhile, Zelda noticed the tenant farmer, Emil, as he roamed about near the shed and silo. Emil used the land and paid rent. He’d moved his cows into Grandpa’s old barn and fields. Zelda glanced into the red, dilapidated barn. The pens and straw smelled awful even from where she stood. Grandfather’s old milking parlor sat rusting in the dark. The new farmer didn’t even fix the lights. He did things the old-fashioned away, and milked by hand.
“There’s Emil,” Dennis said, pausing. “Doesn’t he live there? Up on the hill?” He pointed at the high hill behind the farmhouse.
Zelda nodded. “He still lives with his parents. His dad’s an old farmer who used to farm in Grandpa’s days.”
Emil walked about with his curly flaming-red hair and white tee-shirt. He looked unkempt. He was 28, supposedly, but acted like an old grump—he never once said hello or treated them as real people, only obstacles.
“Maybe if he pays enough rent, we can have air conditioning like Mom promised,” Zelda continued. “And it makes my hair frizzy, fogs my glasses, this humidity,” she complained.
“Mom says Emil’s mom is a fire and brimstone type,” Dennis said. “It sounds like she’s a real witch. Those strict Lutherans hate us Catholics.”
“I just know Emil’s mom doesn’t share her recipes. She brings her dishes to the town festival, but won’t say how she makes them. She only shares that with friends. I think she never liked our grandparents.”
Zelda’s younger brothers spotted him first. First, they saw his pink rear rounding the shed. They didn’t know what he was. They chased after him. He was so fast that, for three days, when they were heading up to the shed and barn to look for him, they couldn’t catch him in plain sight. Zelda hadn’t been paying much attention to the excitement at first. On the day they “captured” him, she chased Ryan and Jonathan as they closed in on the ricocheting movements of a pink, flabby figure.
Near the radiant vegetable garden, standing stock still, on four legs and in resplendent size, the giant pig squealed and oinked. “What a big fat pig,” Zelda remarked. “That pig is huge. How come we haven’t heard a noise from him till now?”
“Let’s call him Nemo,” said Ryan, who was eight.
Dennis, winded, caught up. “Who does he belong to?”
Zelda shrugged. “Don’t know.”
“Then he’s ours!” Ryan grinned.
Each day that week they pursued Nemo’s tiny tail after the school bus brought them home. Monday was balmy. Zelda’s brothers ran about, grins pasted on their faces. Jonathan wasn’t burning GI Joes for a change, but chasing Nemo under the clothesline. Ryan and Dennis took breaks and ran to the fish pond. Also to entertain them, in the large front yard, they had a tire swing that hung from the old oak, and the apple tree boughs to play tag under.
After clearing dinner plates, Mother asked them to sit around the table. She handed out a stack of sticky notes. “Write one note complementing, another criticizing each of you. It’s good to get all your feelings on the table,” she said. Then Dad reminded them that little Drew had been picked on on the bus, and they were supposed to stick up for each other. They groaned “Yes Dad.”
Dennis’s note to Zelda said: “All she cares about is books.” Zelda shut herself in her bedroom. Instead of reading, she listened through her window to the twang of country music from Emil’s motorbike radio. She felt homesick for the Louis Armstrong records Grandfather used to play downstairs.
One dusty afternoon, Dennis eyed Emil’s motorbike. Zelda saw the wheels turning in Dennis’s noggin. “I wonder if the keys are in it,” he grinned.
They heard a shout. Up near the tractor shed, Emil began gesticulating and uttering loud curses. “What…” Zelda muttered. Emil kicked the shed and peered in the shed window. Dennis squeezed shut his eyes. “Dennis…” she gasped. The shed had two broken windows. “Dennis! The new BB gun Dad bought you…you…” The shed contained Emil’s hay, which was supposed to be kept dry. The air was humid and sometimes it rained, so broken windows were a disaster if not repaired soon.
Emil marched down the driveway, uttering a curse about a cow’s diarrhea and what several brat children had coming to them. His face was red and furious. “Shittin kids did it again,” he barked.
“Again?” Zelda said.
“I shot at the cows last week. I didn’t hurt them, but they broke the fence and got in the road,” Dennis said. He pulled her behind the barn. They hid. Their hearts pumped. Zelda waited for Emil’s molten vengeance to descend upon them. Perhaps he’d whip them with his belt; that was the way kids were punished in the country, she’d heard. “Our asses are grass,” Dennis moaned.
Slowly, Dennis stuck his head out. Emil was getting on his motorbike. “Saved,” Dennis whispered.
Emil returned late Wednesday and banged open the farmhouse door. He yelled at Zelda’s mother about the high cost of rent. And the broken windows he had to replace. Zelda heard her mother softly whisper that she would cover the windows, but she insisted Emil pay the rent. Emil stalked out and slammed the door.
But later that evening, Zelda got in trouble, not Dennis. Zelda roamed the valley, sometimes even after dark, and had walked that evening. Mrs. Murphy, the distant neighbor, called and said she couldn’t see Zelda, just a black shape, and had nearly crashed her car. Zelda spent the rest of the evening in her room.
A blue afternoon surprised them; the air hummed bright and warm. Nemo roamed the front yard. He nibbled grape vines growing near the giant old oak. Their tire swing wavered. Nemo kept bumping it as he ate grapes. They watched Nemo in delirious anxiety. He stopped nibbling. Suddenly Nemo wobbled toward them. “Come on piggy piggy!” Drew screamed. Nemo oinked. They screamed and scattered. Nemo made to follow Drew—then Jonathan—then stopped and began to wander. Then Nemo went toward the tire swing and stuck his head through the hole. His head got stuck.
His tail wiggled. He shook his rump, in vain.
Nemo squealed and shook. The tire began to turn, moving him with it. Nemo’s desolate face flashed at them on the way around. He went around all the way, and came back. His black beady eyes a lament. His snout disappeared again and his full rump showed.
“Let him out, Zelda!” Drew screamed.
“Yeah, you’re oldest,” Dennis said lazily, from the porch.
She went slowly up. He began to pull furiously. “What are you doing in there?” she whispered. She reached for the rope—thinking, do pigs bite?
After yanking, she darted back. The portly creature emerged and began to run—straight at them. “Attack!” Drew yelled. They were laughing and screaming in terror.
Mom came out. Dennis shouted, “He’s only playing! He’s not serious!”
“Kids!” Mom said. “Come in. I baked apple pie.” As they sat down to pie, Mom explained that she and Emil had come to an agreement. Any land aside from the front yard was his zone—they had to keep off the driveway and away from the buildings. “That means play in the front or by the garden,” she said, “and stay out of Emil’s way. Also, you can play on the basketball court.” The basketball court was half on the driveway, but Emil had agreed, she said.
“Yes, Mom,” they muttered.
Legend was it a big bear lived in the woods. “I’m not afraid of legends,” Drew said as they stared up at solemn-looking black walnut and elm trees. Such trees spanned the hills; it was dizzying.
“Did you hear about the farmer’s festival? It’s coming,” Dennis said. “I’m going to go have sausages and beer. I’ll sneak in.”
“I will, too,” said Jonathan, who was eleven. Zelda rolled her eyes at her brothers. There was no talking to them sometimes.
And so their days went—quietly in play and fantasy. Nemo often joined them, and seemed less afraid now.
When Dennis received a new set of rounds for his BB gun, he shot out another shed window. The cows had also gotten on the road again, causing a townsperson’s car to stall, but that wasn’t Dennis’ fault. Dad left a voice mail apologizing to Emil, mentioning that he was installing a new window and had bought extras. Except for wrangling cows, Emil was strangely not seen or heard from.
On Sunday morning, they went for Nemo.
“Hey piggy piggy,” they called, “Hey Nemo.”
But Zelda stopped short. Extending her arms, to block her brothers, she scrutinized the basketball court. A fleshy mound lay on the court. It was blood-splattered. A hoof poked out. It was Nemo. His skin. Her heart and guts buckled. She had her arm over Drew and Ryan’s eyes. “Get out of here,” she screamed. They ran. All except Zelda and Jonathan. Jonathan, bug-eyed, stood with a confused look. His eyes fixated on the hoof.
“Zelda, come inside,” Mother yelled.
“He was ours,” Drew cried. Drew had seen.
Mother cleaned the bathroom. Drew had thrown up. “I’m calling your father,” she said. As plant supervisor Dad worked many Sundays, but could leave early for an emergency. She went to the kitchen and dialed. “Dennis. Emil has slaughtered his pig for his holiday roast. For some insensible reason he left the pig’s remains on the children’s play area. Can you please have this hauled off?” She hung up.
“He didn’t answer. I left a voicemail,” she told Zelda. Then she called Emil, confronting him directly. “I know about Dennis junior, Emil. We’re working on him. But what you did is wrong. I know our families haven’t been close over the years, but…” Zelda watched a puzzled look appear on her mother’s face. “He hung up,” she said.
Zelda pressed into the foliage. The forest’s canopy sang. A stream trickled. Soon, Emil’s chimney poked through leaves. The sight of his back door thrummed her heart.
She had decided to tell Emil off herself.
But his back door frightened her. It wasn’t as if she was invited; she was breaking in. She grasped the door handle. Her hand gushed sweat. She walked into the back kitchen of Emil’s parents’ little old cottage-house and panicked. What was she doing here? Who did she think she was? Mustering her courage, she lifted her shoulders. She continued into the hall. Gentle warm light filled the blinds. Emil and his parents were saying the Lord’s Prayer. She smelled dinner. Her heart pounded so violently she thought she might die.
Her palms exuding oily sweat, she entered the dining room. There, at the elegant dinner table, a well-dressed Emil sat, along with Emil’s elderly mother and father. The prayer ended. Emil set down his fork with a scrape. His elderly mother gaped. “Huh?” said Emil’s half-deaf father. Zelda studied the old woman. So this was the witch Zelda’s mother feared? The tiny woman wore an orange shawl and squinted back at Zelda with bird-like eyes. “Who is this, son?” she crowed. “Why is this young lass here?”
Emil, wearing a pressed white shirt and tan slacks, stood. His cheeks deeply flushed. “What are you—what are you—” he stuttered at Zelda. Zelda’s cheeks burned. No one said anything. “My brothers—” she started, then fell silent. A gasp came from Emil’s mother. Did she know what, in a fit of rage, Emil had done? Would Emil apologize? She couldn’t say whether Emil knew Nemo had been their pet, but his leaving Nemo’s remains on the ball-court was heartless and had scarred her brothers. Zelda’s eyebrows raised. Three faces stared back at her. Light filtered quietly into the room. A clock ticked.
“Tomorrow, my brothers and I will play together under the apple trees,” Zelda said simply.
She turned and left.
They had a burial. Father told them to choose Nemo’s place of rest. They put him by the grapevines and the old oak. “He loved grapevines,” Jonathan said. They read prayers. Father promised them a dog, but said they would all miss Nemo. They wanted a dog, but not just yet. The thing was, Nemo had brought them closer together. His spirit lingered about the farm. The apple trees and oak tree and pond felt familiar to them now. Over the coming months, Emil let them play in peace. He occasionally gave them a cross look, but didn’t step past his bounds. As Zelda and her brothers raced under the warm shadows of the green apple trees, on a warm and green afternoon, Zelda felt that her brothers were safe with her. And, occasionally, when they turned a corner or streaked past the tire swing, they could swear they heard Nemo’s oink.
Heather Sager is an author of short fiction and poetry. Her stories appear (or soon will) in Little Patuxent Review, 45th Parallel, Vestal Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. She lives in northern Illinois.