By Jacqueline Kharouf
Young Hollow dipped his bloody hands in the river. His horse stamped in the cold, and the yellow, tarnished leaves settled. Uncurling in the current, the blood seeped away from him. He turned his hands, rubbing at the blood around the edges of his nails and knuckles.
Young Hollow’s horse was gray and spotted white, with a white mane and tail, and dark brown eyes. He flicked his ears toward sounds Young Hollow couldn’t hear.
“A man approaches,” the horse said, his voice low and humming. He backed away from the water.
A wolf hung in the tree. Young Hollow had tied her, stretched her, dug a pit below the carcass he still hadn’t dressed. He had shot her through the eye — a bright orange eye —that now would never burn again.
The water was cold. He dried his hands on his shirt.
When Winona took Young Hollow’s hands and kissed them, the sunlight made her eyes the color of honey. They rolled in the field, where they heard the drumming of her father’s sickle. Young Hollow pictured the swing of the blade, her father’s arms thrashing through the wheat, finding him with her there, and slashing him limb by limb. He pictured his fingers scattered like seeds.
“Kiss me,” she said.
He opened her shirt and tasted a wild, meaty flavor on her tongue. He felt he was falling and she was swallowing him and the thwack, thwack, thwack, of workers in the fields set the heft and tempo of his heart. He imagined her heart pounding up through her skin, a red vapor suffusing her powder white body.
The next morning, the horse waited in the barn and Young Hollow’s eyes opened to the dawn in his window. This dawn was pale blue, increasingly colder the longer he watched from his half of the bed he shared with his brother Lothar. Lothar drew a sickly breath, his sallow skin spotted and burning to the touch.
Downstairs, Young Hollow wrapped his powerful arms around his mother’s waist and rested his chin on her shoulder. “Lothar’s worse,” he said.
She was as thin as a wasp, her elbows and shoulders severe right angles nearly slicing through her leathery gray skin. She smelled sharply ashy, her pores sweating out the pinewood fires she stoked all day. “Bring the water upstairs,” she told him, her coarse hands gently loosening his grip.
“I’ll wash him,” he told her, a foot on the stairs.
His mother shook her head. “Do you know what your brother whispers in his sleep?”
Young Hollow waited. “What?”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She arrayed her thin fingers on either side of her bony waist. “I don’t know what I’ll do if…” her voice trailed off. She walked past him and upstairs.
In the field, Winona stood with her arms open like the covers of a book.
Young Hollow rode his horse toward her. The horse took prancing steps through the tall, yellow grass. “There’re going to be snakes,” the horse said in his dark voice.
Young Hollow prodded him gently with his heels and clicked his tongue.
Entwining her fingers in his white mane, Winona rubbed the horse’s neck with her small hands, and the horse crooned. Young Hollow helped Winona up to the saddle where she sat curled against his chest like a small fluttering bird.
The dark winding forest fringed the edge of the field. Her father and his workers shouted in the cold air, and through the trees, Young Hollow watched their sickles dancing on the golden blades of grass.
“There’ll be a thrashing tonight,” Winona whispered into Young Hollow’s neck.
“I’ll burn your heart in the forest,” he said. He clasped her waist so tightly she let slip a staggered exhale.
The next day, Young Hollow woke to Old Shepler, Winona’s father, pounding on the door.
“Young Hollow,” his mother called. “You’re wanted for the fields.”
He stood at the top of the stairs, his hair damp and chill, but went to the door as his mother was untying her apron. “I asked Old Shepler to hire you soon as he had the space,” his mother said. She had loosened and brushed her hair, the sleeves of her dress unrolled for once and buttoned at her wrists.
“Ever since Old Hollow died,” Old Shepler said, twisting his hat, “I’ve been thinking of what I can do for you and your boys.”
“Young Hollow’s good and strong,” his mother said, dark eyes glinting. “And not one for idleness.” She nudged him to offer the farmer his hand. Old Shepler’s hands were crusted in red earth.
Only a couple months ago, Young Hollow’s mother had followed him into the barn and told him to run back to the house. “Your brother’s crying,” his mother had told him, even though her eyes were fixed on Old Hollow. That night Young Hollow saw whole years pass between his parents. The thin glue of their marriage had at last pulled apart.
“Stay,” his father told him. Old Hollow was digging holes inside the floor of the barn. His shirt had yellowed according to the color of his sweat. His suspenders dangled against his legs.
“Old fool,” Young Hollow’s mother said. Her lip trembled. “There’s nothing we can do for Lothar except to care for him and keep him comfortable.”
Old Hollow took up his shovel and told Young Hollow to help with the bucket. He plunged the shovel in the ground, pushed it deeper with his boot and then deposited the scoop on the pile he’d already made. “This bit of soil here,” Old Hollow said in between motions, “is a bit soggier than the rest of those holes.”
Young Hollow held the bucket and stood at the other side of the hole.
“Stop.” She crossed her arms and spoke again a little louder. “That witch doctor sold you a lie.” She moved closer to Old Hollow and he almost stepped into her, but dropped his shovel and held out his hand to keep her back.
“There’s no magic water!” she screamed. The wisps of her hair stood out straight from her head. Young Hollow leaned against the horse gate, where his father’s old gray horse stood eating his hay.
Old Hollow threw his shovel down and turned around. “Living water!” he said. “He said the barn’s right over a spring of living water and if we give it to Lothar he’s going to get better.”
Young Hollow looked down. His cheeks felt hot and he wanted to cry, but then he saw a clear liquid — unclouded by dirt — fill the shallow hole. The water shone with a white, clear glow.
“Look,” he said and pointed. Both his parents stood silently over the puddle.
Old Hollow stooped and skimmed his hands across the water.
“You’re not giving that to my son,” she said, most of the bite in her voice lost in awe at the crystalline liquid.
Old Hollow’s hands were full to the brim and not a drop spilled from between his fingers. He looked up at the horse and told Young Hollow to open the gate. The horse tossed his head, but then bent to lap up the water. When the horse had finished Old Hollow’s hands were dry. They watched the horse expectantly, but he just whinnied and turned back to his hay.
Old Hollow scooped more from the hole and took a drink, but he didn’t get more than half of it drunk before he collapsed.
Young Hollow met Old Shepler in the field. He’d taken his father’s sickle from where it stood rusting inside the barn.
Old Shepler spat in the grass, his blue cotton shirt stained with dirt. “You know how to thrash wheat?” he asked.
Young Hollow nodded. “If you’ve got a whetstone, I can sharpen the blade.”
The farmer said he did and led him around the back of the house. Winona sat on the back stoop, combing her wet hair in the sun, but Old Shepler didn’t stop to introduce them. He showed Young Hollow the whetstone and stood beside him, watching, until he’d sharpened the blade sufficiently. Young Hollow never looked up from his work, not even when he heard the back door open and slap shut.
“How old are you, son?” Old Shepler asked.
“Eighteen,” Young Hollow said.
“You got a girl?”
Young Hollow shook his head.
Old Shepler spat in the grass. “I’m warning you.” He pointed his finger into Young Hollow’s face. “You get any ideas about my girl, I’ll put that sickle right through your chest.”
Young Hollow nodded. “Sir,” he said.
“Get going,” Old Shepler told him.
After they’d buried Old Hollow and marked his grave, Young Hollow’s mother told him to fix up the holes in the barn. Young Hollow took up the shovel from where his father had last set it and stood a moment watching the living water glow palely in the quiet morning light.
That was the day he first heard the horse speak. At first he thought someone had followed him into the barn, but finding no one behind him, Young Hollow whistled and the horse said, “Hello.” He’d nearly jumped out of his skin.
Young Hollow leaned across the horse’s gate. “After my father gave you the water, what happened? Do you remember?”
“I felt a deep warmth — as if I had just returned from a long run — but I wasn’t at all tired.” The horse chewed his hay slowly and dipped to his water trough. He flicked his ears toward the door, then back toward Young Hollow. “Do you hear that?” the horse said, lifting his head. “The water. There’s a murmur on the water.”
Young Hollow bent close to the hole and tried to listen but heard nothing. He stood slowly, careful not to lose his balance and touch the water accidentally.
Young Hollow held out his hand to the horse, who asked, “Are you Old Hollow now?”
“No,” he said. “I’m not old.”
“You’re in love,” the horse said.
“You love that girl, and she loves you. She told me. People tell me things, and I listen.”
Young Hollow smiled. “Now that you can speak, you have to be careful how much you say.”
“Yes.” The horse shook out his mane. “Are you going to cover up the water?” The horse flicked his ears toward the door. “Wolves,” he said.
In the dark before they drifted to sleep, Young Hollow and Lothar told each other stories.
“There was once a man who told a woman that he loved her, but she was already married,” Lothar began the night after Young Hollow had started thrashing wheat for Old Shepler. “The man and the woman’s husband were friends, but the man was jealous that the woman would not leave her husband or her children. The man often came to visit the woman, especially during the day when the woman’s husband was away tending his fields. One day an old beggar passing along the road in front of the woman’s house asked her for some food and shelter. In exchange, he said he would read her fortune. The woman told him to go away because her husband was not at home, but the beggar stood to his full height and told the woman he knew she had committed adultery. The more the woman tried to deny it, the angrier the beggar became. ‘Because you are selfish and have broken your marriage vows,’ the beggar said, ‘I curse your youngest child. He will sicken and die unless you confess your betrayal.’” Lothar yawned, his chest rising feebly.
Young Hollow scratched his head. “What happened to the woman?”
He heard Lothar’s bed clothes shift and slide.
“The beggar went away, but the woman did not tell her husband. She was afraid that her husband would kill the man she truly loved.”
“Who told you this story?”
“When I first got sick, Momma watched over me all night. She’d doze off and talk about the beggar in her sleep. And sometimes, when she thought I was asleep, I’d hear her with him.” He coughed then and sat up gulping for air. Young Hollow poured his brother a glass of water. He rubbed Lothar’s back as he helped him drink it. “She’d cry out his name.”
At lunch Young Hollow met Winona inside the forest at the far edge of her father’s fields.
“I wish you would tell me what’s wrong,” she said.
Standing, she leaned back against a tree. She wore a yellow dress. Her long hair trickled against the bark.
Young Hollow folded his hands in his pockets, and though he moved to stand very close to her, he did not touch her. Winona wrapped her arms around his neck. She was younger, maybe sixteen, he guessed. What was she like when she wasn’t with him? He had never seen her room, never once stepped inside her house. He knew, without even asking, that he never would.
She lowered her gaze. She wouldn’t cry — he knew she wasn’t like that. “Daddy’s awfully sorry about what happened,” she said. “He doesn’t show it well, but he feels responsible.”
Young Hollow touched her cheek, and she looked up into his face. “Aren’t you ever afraid?” he asked. “Of what he might do if he knew?”
Their faces were close, but still she shuddered. “I’m always afraid.”
Old Hollow and Old Shepler had been friends. Old Shepler told Old Hollow he knew a witch doctor who’d think of something they hadn’t to help Lothar.
“His sickness is peculiar,” Old Shepler had said.
Young Hollow remembered the smoke. The witch doctor slapped his hands on his knees and shuffled toward Lothar, who stood wrapped in a quilt leaning into Old Hollow. His mother stared at the ground, and Young Hollow stood at the far edge of the fire watching the old man, his skin dark like rust, his eyes gray, sightless. In a language Young Hollow could not understand, the witch doctor sang low, his hands ruminating Lothar’s face. His headdress of feathers and small bones twitched in an unfelt wind.
“Have dreams,” the witch doctor said. His eyelids were painted black. Black bands striped his thumbs and index fingers.
The witch doctor whispered to Lothar, “It will open with a miracle heavy on the eyes.” He sang again in his language and sat on the ground turning over stones.
Young Hollow knelt beside him and held up his hand to wave it in front of the witch doctor’s face, but the witch doctor caught him and pinched his hand sharply.
“This is a gift,” the witch doctor said, his face focused not on Young Hollow or his hand, but on Lothar. “An action. Shovel, sickle, bucket, house, barn. A voice where none existed before.”
Jumping to his feet, the witch doctor pressed Young Hollow’s hand to his bare, tattooed chest. “On your hands there will be blood that is not your own.”
Young Hollow drew his hand away, but the witch doctor seemed not to notice. He knelt again beside his fire and wafted the smoke around Lothar with feathers. He placed a hand on Lothar’s thin chest, but even in all the smoke, Lothar did not cough. Lothar closed his eyes and seemed to sleep, and when the witch doctor lifted his hand, Lothar opened his eyes. “He told me about a spring,” Lothar said. He looked up at Old Hollow. “Dig under the barn for a spring of water, and give it to me to drink.”
Lothar went back to the house, and his mother followed him, her eyes wide.
Young Hollow looked back at the witch doctor, who raised a hand to him and said, “Living water too cold to drink.”
Young Hollow stood in the shadows. The wolf still hung from the overhanging limbs of the cottonwood tree and the river water reflected the fledgling morning light.
Muffled by the thickly fallen leaves, footsteps filtered through the underbrush. Young Hollow held his breath. The sky was only just growing pink, but he could make out the gray shape of a man’s shadow against the ground.
Young Hollow cocked his rifle and moved from behind the tree.
Old Shepler held up his hands. He smiled faintly and Young Hollow lowered the rifle.
“I’ve been looking for you,” Old Shepler said. He glanced up at the wolf.
Young Hollow stood beside the horse and retied the rifle to the saddle.
“I want to ask your mother to marry me.”
The horse stamped his foot.
“Why?” Young Hollow asked. He finished tightening the saddle and held the horse’s reins, twisting them in his hands.
“Your father thought that one day you and Winona might marry.” Old Shepler frowned. “Then we could have combined our fields and lands for you and your future family.” He sighed. “But now that your father’s dead, I’m going to keep his lands and see that you never marry my daughter.”
The horse stepped forward, flashing the whites of his eyes. “I’ve seen him with your mother,” the horse said.
Old Shepler’s mouth fell open.
“The witch doctor put a curse on your brother that would break only if your mother told your father what she did.”
“But the witch doctor told us about the living water,” Young Hollow said. “I thought he was trying to help Lothar.”
“Your mother’s curse poisoned the water. The witch doctor made me speak so that I could tell you this.”
Old Shepler drew a knife from his pocket. “He’s lying,” he said.
“Humans are the only creatures that lie,” the horse said.
Young Hollow stepped into the saddle and the horse galloped from the forest, whinnying to warn Young Hollow when to duck his head.
In the barn, Young Hollow stood beside the hole. He had covered it with a few old planks of wood — in case his mother came looking — but she hadn’t returned to the barn since the night his father died. He lifted the wood and peered into the clear brilliance.
“What are you doing?” the horse asked.
Filling the bucket, Young Hollow pictured again the last expression on his father’s face. His eyes had been wide, his tongue peaking above the edge of his teeth, a mouth frozen in preparation for drink.
“I’ll fetch you soon,” he told the horse.
Young Hollow found his mother sitting with Lothar, who tossed in his sleep. She had swaddled the sheets and pillows around him so that only his tiny, sweaty face surfaced from the musty cotton quilt.
“Quiet,” she said.
He set the bucket at her feet. “Did you know he would die if he drank the water?”
As his mother stared at the bucket, her gray skin turned pale.
“Old Shepler told me he wants to marry you.”
Taking an empty cup from Lothar’s nightstand, Young Hollow knelt beside the bucket.
His mother’s eyes followed his every move, but she didn’t look into his face. Young Hollow held his breath as he dipped the cup. Through the glass, the water felt ice cold, and he thought of the wolf’s blood on his hands and the cold river in the woods. Young Hollow placed his hand on his brother’s forehead as he tipped the glass to Lothar’s chapped lips.
“I married your father,” she said, pausing, “because, for a woman, it’s much more difficult to be alone.”
Young Hollow moved the cup away. “You didn’t love him?”
She reached for the cup, but he held it just out of her reach. She drew back. He was afraid to drop it or spill it.
“And what about us?” Young Hollow said.
His mother touched his face. “Think about what you’re doing, John. Is what I did really much different than what you’re doing with Winona?”
Young Hollow stood, holding the glass of water close to his chest.
She shook her head. “You carry her with you,” she said. “And everyone can see.”
“Are you saying Dad knew about you and Old Shepler?”
“I don’t know if he knew. I didn’t care if he knew until Lothar got sick.” She smoothed Lothar’s sweat soaked hair. “Old Shepler loves me,” she said. “Don’t I deserve to be loved?”
As she pulled him close, wrapping one of her sharp arms around his shoulders, she took the glass from him and tipped it to her lips. Before Young Hollow had even laid her on the ground, Lothar was sitting up in bed, blinking and rubbing the years of sleep and sickness from his eyes.
From the yard, the horse whinnied Young Hollow’s name just as he heard the heavy blast of a gun. Old Shepler’s boot stomped the bottommost step, and Young Hollow knew. The horse’s warning had come too late.
Jacqueline Kharouf holds an MFA in creative writing, fiction, from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. A native of Rapid City, SD, Jacqueline lives, writes, and maintains daytime employment in Denver, CO. Her work has appeared in Otis Nebula, NANO Fiction, and Numéro Cinq Magazine, where she assists as production manager. In 2011, she won third place in H.O.W. Journal’s Fiction contest (judged by Mary Gaitskill) and she has upcoming work appearing in South Dakota Review. Jacqueline blogs at: jacquelinekharouf.wordpress.com.