Bugsy died in his sleep, if that was possible. The change from life to death must awaken the body for that last single breath, the last inkling of awareness, the last thought, or at least it should. Had he welcomed death, or cursed it? Annie wondered what he remembered when life was about to depart. He probably thought of people she didn’t know. She didn’t think he thought of her.
Annie walked through the pasture to the egg-shaped rock. She touched the numbers scratched in the stone, and put her cane down. She listened for the song of her brother’s voice in the rustling leaves and pictured his face as it was then: young and covered with peach fuzz.
“We should build a cabin over there.” Bugsy pointed at a corner of the pasture, and wiped the tears from his eyes.
“Why?” Annie opened her mouth to catch the snow.
“Kids need a place where they can just be kids.”
Bugsy bent down and began etching numbers into the egg-shaped rock, with a nail from his pocket.
“What are you doing?”
“Writing down the date.”
“So we’ll always know when our lives changed.”
In the spring, they marked a ten-foot by thirteen-foot rectangle on the ground, and began to dig. Annie loosened dirt with a stick, and pushed it onto the shovel with her hands. Then she dragged the shovel to the edge of the rectangle, and dumped the dirt. Her brother kicked his spade into the ground, and tossed the tuft of clay over his head to a pile at the end of the hole. They were dressed in old shirts, and dungarees patched at the knees with cloth from other dungarees.
When they were thirsty, they knelt on the moss, and drank from the stream. They rested with Annie on her belly, her feet pedaling the air, and her brother sitting with his back against the maple tree. He talked about going to college, where he would learn how to build buildings as high as the clouds.
“Why did Papa die, Bugsy?” Annie asked.
“How should I know?”
“When will we see him again?”
“We’ll see him when we get to heaven, won’t we?”
“We better go. It’s almost time for chores.”
“I hate chores. I hate the way the barn smells. “
They dug their cellar before morning chores, and in the evening, while the cows lay around them, chewing their cud.
Annie got blisters on her hands. Bugsy washed them in the stream and blew on them to ease the pain. He wrapped them in cloth, and Annie stopped crying.
Bugsy cut down a tree, and Annie clapped her hands as it crashed to the ground in a rush of cracking branches. He trimmed the branches, and cut the tree into sections. They rolled the logs over the cellar.
“We’re going to nail the floor to the logs, then build the walls and the roof,” said Bugsy.
“We’ll put curtains on the windows. “
“We’ll make a fireplace with stones from the field.”
“The logs will last a thousand years.”
“It will be the best cabin in the world.”
When they finished digging, the air was chilly, and the maple tree had shed its leaves. While the sky turned pink, they sat on the logs over their cellar, and talked about the work they would do next summer, getting wood, hammering nails, and making curtains.
“We’ll always be happy here, won’t we?” asked Annie.
When frozen dew transformed the grass into a carpet of ice, Mama told Annie she was going to live somewhere else. Mama talked about a normal life, without the sadness, the unending work, and the distance from other children.
“I don’t want to go away, Mama,” Annie said.
Bugsy stood in the doorway, looking down.
“You’ll have your cousins to play with, and you’ll be able to walk to school.”
“Can Bugsy come, too?”
“He has to stay home, and work on the farm.”
“Don’t make me go.” Annie loved her brother more than she loved anyone in the whole world, even Mama.
“You must go.”
Annie lay in the bed near school and town, in the house with cousins who thought it was silly to build a cabin. Kids can’t build a cabin, they’re just kids! Besides, they would rather go outside and play. She dreamed of sitting on the doorstep with Bugsy, watching the sunset with the cows.
In the summer, Annie went home to visit.
“When are we going to work on the cabin, Bugsy?”
“Forget about that cabin. I have work to do.”
The last time Annie saw Bugsy, she stopped the car next to an old man walking in the road. Bugsy’s beard was white. He wore a hat that came down over his ears.
Annie wanted to tell him she understood how hard those years must have been, alone with a mother who had called life drudgery, who hadn’t let him make a life of his own choosing. She wanted to tell him she loved him.
“I’ve got a lot to do before it snows,” he said. He had to bring wood inside for the stoves, and fill the troughs with water for the animals. He always had work to do.
Annie searched his face for a sign that he remembered the cabin.
“I’ve got to go,” he said. He turned and walked away.
As the sky turned pink over the egg-shaped rock, Annie squinted at the shallow indentation brimming with weeds, and the rotted logs in the corner of the pasture, where a little girl peeled apples in the glow of the fireplace made with rocks from the field. The peels fell in long curls from the knife, as Bugsy sat on the doorstep, his face pointed up at the sky.
Ursula Wong is a retired Computer Engineer who lives in Massachusetts with her husband and daughter. She has a passionate interest in stories and in the craft of story telling and has previously been published in Spinetingler Magazine.
This story is sponsored by
Clarion West Writers Workshop — Apply now through March 1 for 2014’s six-week workshop with Paul Park, Kij Johnson, Ian McDonald, Hiromi Goto, Charlie Jane Anders, and John Crowley, June 22 – August 1 in Seattle.