HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition


Barken watchin her. Watchin the way she moves from one table to the next, giftin smiles to old men sat in wood chairs with half empty glasses and dirt on their graspin hands. Movin like she was dancin, and every man there reachin for her, one thing on their minds. Her name was Sand, just a girl still in Barkenís eyes, but somethin more in the dream of every jack there in Martyís bar. Barken, outside lookin in, seein Sand through spit-smeared glass where heís wiped the dust from the window with the torn tail of his shirt. Barken always outside, always somethin between him and her these days. Though once it was different, he remembers, carries that memory wrapped in cloth tucked next to his heart. Sometimes, when Sand catches him watchin, always watchin, he knows she remembers, too. Times, he sees her touchin fingers to her lips, just the tips, barely touchin, hair fallin across her face, and he knows for sure she still remembers.
Tonight, Barken throwin hate at every man there in Martyís bar, throwin it like it was a sharp knife that held a balance in his hand, and he cusses em, every one, laughs sometimes, laughin through the cussin, cause he knows what they donít; Barkenís been where they wonít never go. Sand laughin some, too, at the men in Martyís bar. Laughin at em like they was old fools, men made stupid with drink, brave, a little, their heads all turned her way, and all sheís offerin em is smiles. But Barken on the other side of the window, reason enough to be smilin for the rest of his days.
Itís just that Barkenís smile made of glass, some days, like it could shatter, easy, like that Ė all the broke pieces sharp and cuttin the air, like bullets was flyin, and the cur catchin one, in the side again, goin down, sudden, no howlin. No use cryin, he says to himself, but the smile broke when he remembers.
And Barken has other memories, for makin the smile whole again.
ĎAinít no one taught me, Barken. I just knows, like itís in the blood.í Sandís words, a gun in her hand, fingers grippin the muzzle, her two curs called to heel. ĎReckon Iís always knowed.í Sand holdin it steady, no shakin, her crouched curs snarlin through gritted teeth. The hammer cocked, an her child-fingers pressin the trigger, slow, the knuckles whitenin some. ĎSee, I feels safe with it in ma hands,í she says. The hammer fallin and a shot-can spinnin cartwheels in the air like it was carnival. ĎSafe like I never done with no one ceptin you, Barken.í Thatís what she said, and thereís a thread pulled tight between them, a thread other men feel in their thighs, weakenin, lustin, not darin to go near for fear of the curs and the guns and Sandís finger tight on the trigger Ė and her never taught to shoot, like itís in the blood.
Now, Barken where no one sees, squat in the shadows, a shadow himself, too, legs brittle like sticks, wrists so you can see the knotted bones under the skin. Barken in the gagged dark, kneelin like he was prayin, kneelin in a place where the sun donít fall, not ever. Spiderwebs hangin like thin-worn cloth, thin as breath almost, last breaths, the breath of ghosts. Barken kneelin in the dirt, where dust-mice play in a draft, runnin in the same circles, never leavin. And Barkin never leavin, though thereís some as would later wish him gone.
Barken, a hand reachin into his shirt, reachin for the thing hid there, folded into a tear of cotton, frayed and fingered, a sweat-stained rag smellin of Sand no more, ceptin in memory. Barken holdin it in the flat of his palm, like it was an offerin, like pennies dropped in his tin cup outside church, droppin from the fingers of women doin good deeds so as they might after win entry to a better place, the pennies makin cheap music. Barken smilin thanks, his mouth sayin so, too, but words thick as molasses, comin out all sticky and black. The women not ever lookin in his eyes, faces turned from him and hurryin away and not seein him. The thing in Barkenís hand jus like an offerin.
Barken peelin back the folds of cloth, the nip of finger and thumb, a soft bone-pinch, shape of an imperfect Ďoí, shape of Sandís mouth if she knew. Barken peelin it slow, and every time a surprise it is still there, seein it real, like her smile when she was alone with him once, smilin different then from how it is now in Martyís bar with stupid brave men catchin at her skirts. In Barkenís hand somethin revealed, a kind of proof, maybe, so as Barken believin the time he spent with Sand more than somethin dreamed.
Every time he unwraps the cloth Barken hearin again what Sand said, clear like she was sayin it over. Sand on his side of the glass, kneelin in the dark and the dirt, next to Barken same as before, cobwebs like lace in her hair. Sand sayin, ĎFer you, an only you. Cause I tells you this, Barken, you is a good man. An good men be planning their ends, not havin em planned for em, see. So, this is fer you, a gift fer when you is ready. You hear, Barken? You understands what I is telling you?í
There in the unfolded cloth, lyin in his palm, yellow light from the window so he can see, polished and loved for it is her gift to him. A bullet.
Sand sayin again, ĎFer you, when youís ready.í
Barken noddin, agreein with her there in the dark outside Martyís bar. ĎMaybe youís right,í Barken says, his lips movin over the words but no sound comin.
Sand at his ear sayin, quiet, ĎDamn sure Iís right,í her hand a small fist punchin his shoulder. Sand in his head, at least, and Barken thinkin he still feels where she was punchin, though a year turned over since she was.
Barken hears her laughin; that much is real, comin at him through the open door of Martyís bar, and the festival-clink of glass, and someone coughin, and smoke hangin yellow in the air, all mixin with Sandís laughin, and spillin out of the open door.
Barken turnin the bullet overover in his fingers, warm from where he kept it next to his skin, tastin the metal with his tongue, the blunt smoothness of it. Barken thinkin hard thoughts, like heís solvin a puzzle or doin school math. Inside, somethin hatchin, a plan, like she said, like Sand said.
Somewhere a bell starts ringin. Ainít no church bell, though it pulls the attention of the men snatchin at Sandís skirt. Barkenís face pressin to glass again, watchin her dancing between the tables, rememberin how it was before, thinkin maybe he was ready now. Barken hearin Sand laughin like she knew he was ready.
Itís this sets up echoes in Barkenís heart: him a boy, limpin on the foot clubbed before it was ever set to the ground, before it even saw the light, the leg twisted some, old women sayin the mother looked an eagle in the eye, or an owl, must have, and the mother Ė Barkenís mother Ė slow-countin the toes of her baby, endin with her face to the wall and never lookin back at what she had.
Years after, years of schoolin, and playin, and growin alongside Sand, comes a day when Barken and his cur, takes a bunch of wild flowers to Sandís back door. Barken knockin to ask what he thinks she already knows anyways.
Barken waitin a while till the door opens, lookin over his shoulder, back the way he come, thinkin maybe he dropped something, all the careful words he brought for her lost. Then, Sand there, hair all mussed, blouse buttons open so Barken can see. That Corbin Douty standin behind her, like he belonged there, wipin his mouth with the back of his hand, laughin. ĎSand wants a proper man, huh, not no pig-trotter boy.í
Barkenís cur growls. A growl in Barken too, risin up from his belly and spillin into the air despitin him. Sand reachin up to put a hand on Barkenís shoulder, sayin, ĎI dinít know, I dinít know.í And Corbin Douty swaggerin onto the back porch sayin, ĎHa! Get gone pig-boy.í
And maybe after all, watchin Sand through glass is all heíll get now.
Barken rememberin Corbin Douty that day, and days before, days after. Barken ainít fergettin, canít let it go. ĎGet gone pig-boy.í Makin him madder than a roped wild horse. So mad he donít know what he does, not then, not with Sand sayin she was sorry againagain in his head, that she dinít know Ė how could she? What he sees, what Barken sees then, is a curtain drawn, not black or red, but somethin in between. And his club foot kickin the air, tight fists punchin into the dark, punchin blind, punchin flowers, and Barkenís cur breaking the quiet into jagged shards.
After, Barken still mad, nothin makin sense, kneelin at the river, breath comin in jerks, his knuckles all broke, and blood runnin in the cold water, so cold it feels sharp, the sting like salt in his wounds. His cur watchin, fright-eyed, from a distance.
ĎI dinít know, Barken,í she keeps sayin.
ĎAinít no pig-boy,í he says.
ĎYou ought to done told me.í
Sandís hand on his cheek, soft like he dreamed, only the dream mussed up, like Sandís hair. Blood on her hands, too, and her touchin him is a hurt, the sound of Corbin Douty laughin as he walks away.
ĎIfín youíd just told me,í she says.
Barken noddin, knowin, understandin what Sandís sayin there at the riverís edge. His sudden tears wet on her fingers, like silver, like salt.
ĎI tells you this, Barken. You are a good man.í Tellin him like always. But he knows good men donít catch the best fish, good men waitin with a line and a baited hook only sometimes gettin a bite. And Corbin Douty pushin the boy-Barkin to the ground, and stealin the one fish he caught. ĎIfín youíd done told me,í says Sand.
Barken, kneelin in the dark, remembers another day, later, Corbin Douty shootin the ground where he stood, pistol loose in his hands, and Barken shakin, not darin to move, ceptin his foot, the one that was wrong, slidin in the dust, the smell of piss and his pants warm against his leg. Corbin Douty laughin like he always done.
Then Barkinís cur, uncertain in the space between em, between him and Corbin Douty, teeth showin, and somewheres deep in his cur-throat a slow snarl comin. And before Barkin can call him back, the cur dead in the dirt, dead at Barkinís feet, curís blood spillin red and warm. Barken thinkin the cur dinít feel no pain Ė sufferinís for those as live with the loss.
Barkin knows Sand saw what Corbin Douty done; later Sand comin to him with a pretty speech and a bullet he carries next to his heart, all wrapped in a tear of petticoat. Sand kissin him then, cause his cur was dead. Barken not fergettin that and not fergettin what she said. Not ever.
There in the dark outside Martyís bar, his face pressin the glass, Sand dancing for old men, Barken thinks he is ready. A plan he has, and that reason enough for smilin, so Barken smiles, though it looks like somethin else when he does.
The ringin of the bell stops sudden, and the old men in Martyís bar pushin back their chairs and drainin their drinks and hitchin up their pants and wipin their mouths with the backs of their hands, like Corbin Douty does in Barkenís memory. The old men, then, filin out, and crossin the street to take their pick of the whores in tight dresses, jus like they done every Friday for as long as they was men.
Fthe waistband of his pants Barken pulls a gun, Sandís gun. Sheíd showed him where it was so he knew, so as when he was ready he would know. Under the floorboard in her bedroom, the rag-rug pulled over so no one would see. Ceptin she showed Barken. So the gun in his hand now, cold against his palm, heavier than he remembers. And he fits Sandís bullet-gift into one of the chambers, cocks the hammer with the pull of his thumb, waits for what he already knows.
Sand shuttin up the bar: wipin clean the tables, straightenin the chairs, sweepin the wood floor. Barken watchin, always watchin. Only tonight is different, Barkenís hand shakin a little as he waits, his finger restin on the trigger, and the dark to hide him. And all the difference: Sandís gun in his hand; the rest the same, for like other nights he comes, Corbin Douty, swaggerin like he always done, spittin in his hand, slickin back his hair before slippin unnoticed, he thinks, into the shadows between the houses, creepin to Sandís back porch, the lock on the door broke so he jus walks in, sure of himself.
Barken this time at his heel, silent in bare feet, past the curs sleepin out back, the gun in his two hands and Barken ready, listenin at the door before enterin. Barken climbing the stairs, sure as Corbin Douty, not touchin the third step, not settin off the groanin of wood there, knowin the turn at the top, the door that is hers, open. Barken standin, silent in the near-dark, watchin em on the bed, Corbin Doutyís hands on her and his breath comin in short grunts, like he was the pig. Barken with the gun raised, and still they donít know.
ĎIís ready,í Barken says. But so quiet they donít hear, and Corbin Douty donít stop his pig noises, not at first, not till Barken says it again, again, each time louder than the last till he is shoutin so they do hear.
And Corbin Douty rolls from her, lies there fixin Barken with his eye, mockin him with his smile an his laughin, just like before, just like always. Only tonight that ends. Sand sees the gun in Barkenís hand, calls his name, and he hears her say one more time that he is a good man. Barken knows what that means. His finger tightens on the trigger, slow-pulls it back, like he seen Sand do once, feelin the kick when the hammer falls, and the gift Sand gave him a year ago is returned, next to her heart now.
Corbin Douty not laughin any more, the cur-fright in his eyes then, and all his days after, the empty gun dropped to the floor. And Barken, smilin, his own end planned now, like Sand said.