Zin E. Rocklyn’s “The Night Sun” speaks to the darkness that manifests around us and in ourselves — but moreover, how justice can be found through the blood.
Content warning for fictional depictions of intimate partner violence, including physical assault.
The deer was long dead before my husband struck it with our car.
The fur was mottled with blood and fluids, tendons of the neck naked to the air while threads of muscle clung to mass of the deer’s body. Its head stood on high, all nineteen points of its antlers aimed toward the heavens, its pulse visible in the exposed veins. I could see the forest behind it, the rest of the deserted highway as clear as a cleaned windshield threaded with red, palpitating stratum.
I have its blood on my hands.
My husband had been occupied by proving his point with tactile flair. This was supposed to be our second chance, this trip. Our last chance, according to my lawyer. I’d seen the deer a long ways off, but couldn’t—or wouldn’t—find the voice to tell him to just stop.
He kept yelling, kept driving, the car swerving over the double-yellow, tires grinding over the caution strip when he overcompensated. A cramp blossomed deep purple in the meat of my palm as I gripped the door handle. Admittedly, I was entranced by the deer, by the sheer horror of what was clearly a dead animal that had the nerve to defy all known laws of nature by standing stock-still in the middle of this backwoods highway, its trademark stupid gaze marred by streaks of gore running from its coal black eyes.
Once my husband realized I hadn’t been listening to his opinion on my job loss, he tried to make me.
The slap of a fist against flesh isn’t the stuff of ’80s movies, and the recovery certainly isn’t from any film with a knock-down, drag-out fight. My head struck the window hard enough to dizzy me, the pane left intact. My eyes rolled shut, the muscles of my neck seizing at the point of impact, my head lolling forward.
His fingers were deep into my afro, nails scraping at my scalp, when the front of the car collapsed against the great beast. The car stopped as if my husband had slammed on the brakes. His grip tightened at impact, wrenching my head toward him, but thankfully, the center console snapped his elbow the wrong way and he released just in time for me to look up and watch the deer calmly clomp away and disappear into the trees.
We were rudely awakened by a state trooper with smelling salts some-odd hours later, late enough that our plans to reach the cabin by sunset for a romantic walk along the shore of the lake were ruined by the freezing black of night. The moon was three-quarters full and halfway through the sky when the EMT showed up.
I smiled up at the bitten glowing disc and mouthed, “Night sun,” a shiver of a memory rattling me. I hadn’t thought of my mother in months, an improvement considering it had been fourteen years since her death. But here I was, aching and withering within the grip of my abusive husband and thinking of the woman for whose death I was responsible.
The trooper’s jaw worked at the mud-brown mass tucked against his cheek, watching us suspiciously as the EMT tended to us. The EMT was a random townsperson with a medical kit in the back of his pickup. A rather extensive kit, granted, but not enough equipment to convince me I’d be fine in his care. Still, I allowed him to finger the growing grapefruit on the left side of my neck as the tight coils of my hair showered around us. He dragged the same finger along my temple and I winced, an automatic response to capillaries long burst as a shudder ran through me. My husband cleared his throat and the EMT moved on.
“And you say it was a deer?” the trooper asked. He spit a thick stream of goop that landed with a meaty slap at the toe of my husband’s Timberland boot.
My husband looked from the spit to the trooper’s wind-reddened face and back again before saying, “If my wife says it was a deer, it was a deer. Sir.”
The trooper dug his hands deeper into the pockets of his tan Carhartt and straightened his back. “Look, I mean no disrespect—”
“Then perhaps you should stop displaying it,” my husband shot back. I pulled the blanket a little tighter around my shoulders with one hand, the other still locked within my husband’s, my gaze volleying between the two white men of differing sizes battling for ground. It was this boldness that had attracted me—resentfully— to my husband in the first place: a boldness he’d wielded when a drunk in our college bar thought I was for sale. It was the same boldness that cracked me upside the head six months into our marriage, a boldness that now owned me.
The trooper grunted, jaw twisting beneath taught, naked cheeks. “And neither of y’all hit your head?” My husband squeezed my hand until a knuckle popped and we both murmured no “Welp, sounds to me like y’all don’t want a trip to the hospital, so wrap it up, Casi. Where were y’all headed?”
“The cabin at Wolf Lake,” I said, my voice strained. I breathed deep to reorient myself as the pain from the knot in my neck bloomed. The trooper raised an eyebrow at me.
“Well, all right,” he said, still watching me. “S’long as y’all are fine, I’ll give you a lift. Ain’t too far from here. We’ll have your car towed to the shop, get you a rental of some kind on Monday morning.”
“We have to be gone by Monday morning,” my husband snapped.
“Sure, sir, completely understand that, but it’s a Friday night and this is a small town. Office opens Monday morning at ten ay em. We’ll get y’all together then. Until?” He turned and gestured at his Chevy pickup, which sat running, full high beams illuminating the entire scene.
Gritting his jaw, my husband stood and shed the blanket a little too quickly, his face falling in on itself as he aggravated the damage to his arm.
“You wanna be easy with that arm, sir,” Casimiro the EMT said, the hint of a Mexican accent gently squeezing the vowels of each word. He continued with reasons why, reasons I’m sure my husband was set to ignore.
“Fine,” my husband said. He allowed Casimiro to fit him with the classic SAM splint and a gauze sling, seemed to listen as Casimiro gave some basics for doing it himself.
And with that, I slid from the tailgate and we trailed the trooper to his truck.
My husband said his goodnight with a head nod as he pulled the last of our luggage into the log cabin. I could feel the slight warmth at my back as the trooper kept my attention with two discreet fingers on my hand.
“May I help you?” I said gently. I was exhausted from holding my head up.
“I don’t wanna make any assumptions, and y’all won’t be my business come Monday night, but . . . being out here, real remote? I see some shit. Mostly with drunk husbands and lonely wives. Here.” He dug into the inside pocket of his jacket and I flinched, stepping back. He snorted. “We ain’t like that.” He proved it by pulling out a well-worn leather wallet, more white than green sticking out of it. He produced a flimsy card, straightened it against the breast of his coat, then handed it to me. “Call me. Anytime. I’m the only one manning this place and I’m used to very little sleep.”
I studied the card, rolled over the name with a caged tongue. Bruce Hayword. Floodgate Sheriff, Colorado State Trooper. I nodded. “Thank you, Sheriff Hayword.”
“It’s Bruce, ma’am,” he said. “Have a good night and I do hope your weekend is nice.”
I gave a tiny nod, tired of talking, tired of this day.
He dropped off the one-step wooden porch and trudged over the gravel, his gait slightly hitched. He stopped right before entering his pickup and said, “One more thing: Don’t go wandering around after dark. We’ve got some serious beasts out here.”
No shit. I frowned at him, thinking of the deer, of how impossible its neck had been, how defiant its very existence was.
I shoved the memory down, settling my tongue firmly in its cage, and waved as Bruce backed out of the drive. I watched the pickup until the taillights were two glowing red eyes warming the trees beyond.
“What took you so long?”
“Fuck you, Jonas,” I mumbled, heading toward the kitchenette.
The entire log cabin was barely four hundred square feet, with a ten-foot loft for a pallet bed. The small space took no time for the fire to warm and within fifteen minutes we were able to start shedding layers. Still, an undeniable chill had settled into my bones, so I filled a saucepan with bottled water and set it on the gas stove for some tea.
“Whatever,” Jonas groaned. “Fuck, man, my arm is killing me.”
“Yeah? So’s my fucking scalp, you prick,” I said, dragging ass toward the couch that sat in front of the fireplace. I plopped down on the opposite end from him and took a long, slow breath. I touched the left side of my neck with tentative fingers, testing out the lump that extended from my thyroid down to the clavicle. I bit back a sigh as the memory of Casimiro’s touch briefly possessed the path of my own examination.
“C’mere,” Jonas said, his voice soft, affectionate. Intrusive.
“No.” I hissed as I pressed a little too hard.
“Come. Here.” He was flirting with me the way he did after every fight. Most times it took his blood being shed before we got to this point. Maybe the close brush with the law on my side had sobered him.
I rolled my eyes, kicked off my Timberlands, and tucked my toes under his thigh, my own version of flirting and acquiescence, mostly so he’d shut the fuck up. He took my right foot and laid it in his lap, proceeding with a weak, one-handed massage that I melted into. This would normally lead to a hard fucking, angry make-up sex that would exhaust us to the point of light-headed euphoria, trapping us in something like love. But the massage was too weak and our bodies were beginning to throb from draining adrenaline. I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I jolted awake when I felt him poke at the knot in my neck—gently, but catastrophically, nonetheless. Reflexes kicked in and I flailed, catching his nose hard enough to make him stumble back.
“Fuck, Avery! I just wanted to see if you still wanted tea!”
I rolled my eyes and snorted a breath. “Don’t wake me like that.”
“Do you want it or not?”
“No. I want to shower and go to bed.”
He chortled. “You see a bathroom around here?”
I sat up and looked around. He was right; the open floor plan did not include a cubby for a shower or even a toilet. “Godfuckingdamnit.”
“Yeah, good choice, asshole,” he grumbled. “I’m going to bed. Make your own fucking tea.”
I watched his retreating back as he awkwardly climbed the ladder to the loft. “I said I didn’t want tea anymore!”
But the moment was gone and soon enough his soft snores were competing with the crackling fire.
It isn’t sleep because I don’t dream, but I can’t move and I’m naked and cold.
My neck doesn’t hurt. Nothing hurts. But I am cold.
I am standing at the expansive wall opposite the door, Jonas’s soft snores hypnotic, angering.
Something in the cabin stinks.
In front of me, against the carefully placed bodies of bark and pulp: a sculpture, stabs and slivers of ivory clustered tight, layer upon layer, expanding in a spiral, pale yellow to hospital white, all gleaming.
And at the center, in the middle of the tightest cluster with the tiniest of chips of ivory— like fingernails, yet thicker—inside of all this, a tiny speck, off-color, dark. I want to be near it; I want to know what it is.
But then there is a whisper and I return to the couch where I tuck myself in tight and let darkness take over.
I woke up to his lips on mine and the cabin aglow with a fresh fire. “Shit,” I hissed. He stepped back and I attempted to sit up. Failing that, I said, “What time is it?”
“Six fifteen, Saturday night.”
“Jesus, I slept twenty hours?”
“Just about. You scared me a little.” By the look on his face, it was more than a little. Fear was etched in his features, stiffening his back and bringing a sheen to his hazel eyes.
This fucker had the nerve to be crying.
“You were—ah, kinda moaning in your sleep.” He chortled, the sound choked and phlegmy.
I frowned at him, not for his words, but . . . his fucking face. In that moment, I hated his face so ferociously, I itched to sink my teeth deep to the cheekbone and tear away.
Disfigure the pretty face so opposite to mine.
“You know I don’t dream.”
“Yeah. Y-yeah, I know.” He dropped his gaze. Tried again. “You okay for some dinner?”
I nodded and immediately regretted it. I pulled at my turtleneck and touched the tender spot to find a pebble-sized lump squarely in the middle of the crook of my neck. “I need pain meds.”
Jonas nodded and left my sight. I slowly sat up, then placed my socked feet on the rug. I gave the world a chance to right itself before standing.
“Baby, sit, I got it.” He walked around the couch with a mug and three white pills in his hand. I took the pills first, then gulped the cool water. “More?” I gave a short nod. “Your lawyer called several times. She won’t talk to me, though, so before she calls in a missing person report, call her, yeah?” Again, a short nod, though he couldn’t see me from the sink. He came back a moment later with more water and my cell phone, the screen already unlocked.
“Find anything of interest?” I asked.
“Don’t start,” he warned. “And don’t think of changing it again. I’ll always figure you out, Avery.” The tightening of his features was no longer from fear, and I took the warning by grabbing the phone and shuffling toward the door, my stomach swimming thick with rotten memory. “Where are you going? It’s freezing outside.”
“It’s better than in here,” I grumbled back, then slammed the door behind me.
The outhouse wasn’t as bad as I’d pictured. It was heated and about half the size of the cabin, with a full bathtub, a sink with a short counter, and an energy-efficient toilet. Something about that seemed ironic to me, but my head was too foggy to figure out what. After taking the longest piss of my life, I stepped back outside in time to appreciate the bright magenta filtering through the trees. I pulled out my phone.
“So how is it?”
It broke my heart to disappoint her, but I couldn’t lie to my sister. She’d been sniffing out my fibs since I wore her favorite dress to one of my tea parties and stained it to hell. “Shitty. We fought on the way here and hit a deer.” I stopped myself from going into further detail, my imagination running wild with the thrum of the exposed veins’ pulse.
“Goddamn it, Avery,” she breathed.
“I’m pretty sure this weekend is it. Get a couple orgasms, sign those papers, look for my bachelor pad in the city, and start trolling for dudes who own sneaker stores in the heart of Denver.”
“Ooo, movin’ on up!”
“To the mountain side!”
Our shared laugh petered out into a rigid silence. She cleared her throat. “I’m worried about you, sis.”
“Don’t, Kaya,” I warned.
“I feel like you’re not going to make it home.”
“He’s going to kill you, Avery!”
I rolled my eyes. “More likely we’ll kill each other.”
“That’s not funny. This isn’t funny, Av—”
“Since when did you start giving a fuck, Kaya?”
“Since when did you stop?!”
“When everyone disappeared! When the bruises were louder than the fucking lies and I just—” My breath caught and I squeezed my eyes shut, willing this moment not to consume me. But it was like puking because the spins won’t end; once I stuck my fingers in my throat, there was no holding back the deluge of years in silence. “Because I was fucking drowning and I didn’t know how to say it. Because no one saw me from behind your shadow, Kaya. Because Jonas was there to clean the fucking wounds when y’all slammed the door in my fucking face.”
I gulped at the cold air, my mouth thick with tears. “Because I’ve never felt more alone than I have without you and Mom.”
“Fuck, Avery,” Kaya breathed after a moment. More silence, tiny sniffles my only indicator that she hadn’t hung up on me. “Is that why you think you killed her? Oh, God, I’m so . . . sorry. I’m so sorry. We had—we just didn’t know what to do. We thought you knew better, that this is what you wanted, that whole fight-fuck, hoodrat shit.”
I couldn’t help it, I guffawed. “Yeah, cuz Jonas is exemplary of hoodrat shit.” With wavy, nearly white-blonde hair, thick-for-a-white-dude lips, and a lithe swimmer’s body on a six-four frame, Jonas was the picture-perfect American boy, the kind to eternally get away with shit because he’s just a kid, no matter how many years may prematurely age his Nordic face. He was a catch while I was lucky and for years, I was grateful to be noticed by him, kissed by him, claimed by him.
“Avery, listen to me: Mom had an aneurysm. You’re a pain in the ass, but you can’t literally make someone pop a vessel.” I snort a laugh and wipe at my nose. “When you get back, want to do lunch? I . . . let’s come up with a strategy, a way to get you out of this for good.”
I held my breath and stopped kicking the rocks of the gravel drive. It hadn’t been her words or the naked emotion of the last few minutes that made me pause, it was the fucking wolf standing at the incline of the narrow road leading to the cabin. There was a distinct moment of surprise that I’d even noticed it in the shadows of the quickly darkening underbrush. I congratulated myself before remembering I knew fuck-all concerning wolves and wildlife, yet I was certain this wasn’t right. The wolf was alone, its muzzle closed, amber eyes glowing against the pitch black of its fur.
And staring dead at me.
“I know you are,” I whispered, eyes still trained on the wolf, “but I need you to—”
“He’s nearly killed you twice—” Soft and charitable Kaya fluttered away just as quickly as she’d showed. Back to older-sister-by-fourteen-minutes Kaya, perfect Kaya. The Kaya who knew how pretty she was “for a Black girl,” the one who was thinner, taller, lighter, the one who tried to teach me how to use the frame Mom gave me to disastrous results.
Because I could never be like Kaya.
“It was once, and it was two broken ribs—”
“One punctured your fucking lung—”
“What do you know about wolves?”
“And you—wait, what?”
“There’s a fucking wolf staring at me right now. How did you find this cabin again?”
“Who?!” Both of our grandfathers had died long before we were born. We were the miracle babies for our parents, the ones they’d given up trying for naturally. The ones who surprised the fuck out of them after a night of spiked hot cocoa and a lucky boner.
The Wonder Twins: the Black version, at least.
“Look, it’s kind of a long story—”
“I got time, bitch.”
“The fuck you do, get yourself back in the cabin and post something against the door.”
“Wait, wait, Kaya, what the f—?”
But I choked. The wolf had advanced while I was distracted, and now stood within ten feet of me instead of the fifty safe yards at which I’d initially seen it. Its mouth hung open, pink tongue wagging, yo-yo threads of drool dipping, retracting, dipping, and then pattering below as its eyes stayed on mine.
Somewhere in the distance, Kaya was calling my name, but I couldn’t hear her. I couldn’t hear anything, not the birds, not the wind rustling through the trees, only the thrum of blood in my ears.
And the steady breathing of the wolf in front of me.
“Shut up, Kaya, just shut the fuck up for a second.”
I could feel the heft of her pause in that moment and I knew I’d fucked up. “You know what, Avery? I’mma leave you to your new canine friend and I hope Jonas keeps fucking you into oblivion so at least you’ll go out cumming.” The line went dead.
I didn’t bother locking the screen. Hell, I didn’t even want to move the phone from my ear. But habit kicked in and I was sliding it into my jeans’ back pocket where it met some resistance. Pulling the phone back out, I fingered around in the pocket, eyes still on the wolf, and pulled out the sheriff’s card. I glanced at the number, crumpled the card, and dialed.
The wolf leapt before the line connected.
I want to see it. I want to go to it.
But I can’t.
My neck didn’t hurt.
First thought was I’d transitioned to the other side, as my family would call it. I thought I’d fucking died.
But then murmurs of a restrained, heated exchange filtered through and all of the pain came crashing in. Parts I hadn’t even realized I’d hurt were throbbing with an intensity that made me cry out. I tried to shift but was met with a resistance I couldn’t quite place.
I couldn’t open my eyes. One flutter and I realized they were swollen shut. I was lying on the couch, wrapped tight under a sheet that was tucked under the cushions. I groaned again and wiggled my arms, but the flannel sheet wouldn’t budge. I swallowed air, my tongue coated in paste, the skin of my lips cracked and reedy.
The argument grew louder.
“I’m simply responding to a call that came from this area, sir, and I don’t know if you noticed, but you ain’t got many neighbors around here.”
“And I’m telling you that’s impossible. My wife went outside to call her sister and she must’ve just . . . passed out or something.” My husband was riled, uncomfortable. I was surprised he let the sarcastic address go.
He’s nervous. I can taste it.
“Passed out butt-nekkid with blood on her neck, so you dragged her in here?”
“What else was I supposed to do?” my husband shouted.
“Call 9-1-1, maybe?”
I could feel it, the shift just before the strike. The static current of anger that could only be expelled with fists and feet meeting supple, tender body parts. The result would be us stranded in this town longer than necessary and, unlike me, my husband had a job to return to, so I groaned a little louder and wiggled again, setting off jabs of pain throughout my entire body so sharp, so livid, I screamed.
“Avery,” my husband breathed. He sounded scared, but it was the sheriff who rounded the couch first.
I smelled him. He was bleeding whisky and sweat. Animal sweat, pungent and heavy in the back of my throat. Not entirely unpleasant. I stirred as they both neared, the reek off my husband making my lip curl. It was hard to place, but it sat square in the middle of my mouth, crawling its way up my nostrils.
Cowardice. Chew it. Let it fuel you.
I resisted the urge to snort the sensation and odor out within a mass of mucus and focused on where I thought the sheriff to be situated.
“You did this?” the sheriff asked, but he didn’t wait for an answer. He prodded at my neck where the knot had been, the sensation dulled. “Can you feel that, ma’am? Does it hurt when I touch you?”
“No,” I wheezed. My throat was dry, shredded as if I’d swallowed a cactus whole. I tried again, my eyes allowing a sliver’s worth of sight. “But everything else does.”
The sheriff watched me, jaw ticking. Without the trucker hat, he was not a handsome man, but I could see him landing some housewife ass in that wind-burned, Midwestern way. His incisive navy blue eyes, obscured by a shock of long, more-salt-than-pepper hair, were set a bit too far apart under a thick brow ridge. Judging by the smoothness of his skin, the pigment change was premature.
I felt flayed under his stare, like he was reading for much more than a battered damsel in psychological distress.
“Water,” I croaked. Footsteps moved toward the kitchenette and the sheriff closed in.
“Did he do this to you?” he whispered, rushed.
“No.” I swallowed. “Wolf.”
The sheriff’s eyes widened and he ticked back, away from me. Then the oddest thing: He smirked, slow and relaxed and warm. Welcoming. He nodded at me and stood up just as my husband appeared over his shoulder with a mug and more pills in the palm of his hand. The sheriff said, “Plenty of water, limit the pain medication, and plenty of rest.” He turned to my husband. “I’ll be checking in tomorrow evening.”
“That’s not necessary, Sheriff, we—”
“Unless you want to be arrested on suspicion of assault and battery, I suggest you think it necessary,” Bruce snapped.
I didn’t bother looking at my husband; I knew the hitch in his breathing, the pop of that fucked-up knuckle in his middle finger, the low strain of his exhale.
I was in for it once Sheriff Hayword was out of the area.
“Walk with me, Jonas,” he said, taking the water and the pills from him. Jonas stood there blinking stupidly at the sheriff until Bruce gave a slight head nod. “Go on.”
Jonas jittered a bit before finally stepping away from the couch. Bruce crouched again, carefully tipping the mug against my bottom lip. I took two small sips. Bruce offered the pills and I nodded. He placed them on my outstretched tongue, then tipped the mug again until I finished the contents of the mug.
“Good.” He stood up again and rummaged in his pockets, finally coming up with a whittled hunk of dark ivory. Intricate carvings worked in tandem, dancing around each other until they intersected only to separate again. It hardly registered that I could observe this much detail through mere slits of my swollen eyelids, especially on an object no bigger than four inches across, but I was drawn to it, my breathing increasing, eyes aching to focus on it.
Bruce carefully worked at the sheet until it came away to free my right arm. “Here.” He pressed the ivory into my palm. It was warm, disconcertingly so, and heavier than hell, as if he’d placed a block of lead in my hand. “From your grandfather.” He stood before I could react, his footfalls surprisingly soft as he neared my husband, Jonas’s breathing heavy and fast for different reasons.
The men stepped outside.
I wept softly as the ivory warmed even more in my hand, preparing myself for Jonas’s return.
I am here again, my arm outstretched, my fingertip pressing gently against the tiniest sliver, the smallest of the teeth, the one most stained and—fuck, it’s sharp.
I bring the stain to my face. Smear it under my nose. Suck it from the prick.
It is blood. In the very center of the spiral, at the bottom of the staircase, at the back of the basement, at the end of the gravel, pavement, loose dirt, grass—
It is blood. And it is fresh.
It took longer than expected.
I’d grown tired of sitting with my back straight, so I leaned into the couch cushions. By the time the door opened, I was fading into another nap.
“What took you so long?” My voice was stronger, remarkably so considering the wrecked state it had been in last time I used it. The carved ivory felt lighter in my hand, the grooves becoming familiar with the whorls of my palm and fingerprints.
“What did he say to you?” Jonas asked instead of answering me. He stomped around the cabin, no intention other than to make the space thick with his anger. I slowly released a breath, not convinced.
“Nothing that concerns you,” I said, testing my eyelids. The swelling had gone down; the pain was subsiding. I peeled them back with the tips of my fingers and immediately hissed at the brightness. “Take off the fucking lights!”
A moment. A tick, really. But solid enough to poke at the base of my belly, followed by the instinct to press my thighs together.
“The fuck did you just say?”
And then it was over. My whole body drooped, my breathing slowing, my hands at my sides, one open, the other closed in a fist around the curve of ivory. I closed my eyes again, electric whispers ghosting over my skin, the hairs standing on end.
He took a step; I took a breath.
“What did you just say to me, Avery?”
All bluster, no might. I chuckled.
Like a wound-up clown, Jonas stomped over to the couch, then swung around, body swollen with ego. He leaned forward, grabbing my wrists and squeezing.
“What. Did. You. Say?”
The pressure increased with each word, the ivory deeply embedded within the fat of my palm, still warming, warming, warming until it became unbearable. I hissed and I saw him clear as day. I saw his smile . . .
And I twisted my left wrist, flesh burning as it rubbed away within his grip, my fingers clawing for purchase, beginning to squeeze back as one digit, two, three dug deep and hard into the tender, thin thew of his own left wrist, nails piercing, growing as I pulled down with all my might. Jonas screamed, yanking his left hand away, strips of flesh dangling in its wake. The move was so fast, he barely had time to bleed before I struck his nose with my forehead. He mewled and stumbled back, the hands cradling the center of his face barely hiding the shock of the hit.
I smiled and stood, my eyes still closed. I could feel him in front of me, smell the reek of something frail, something grown by fear, fostered by anger, delivered by a need for shallow control deep within him. I wanted to taste it. I wanted to rip it from his chest and show him in his last moments just how . . . small he’d become to me, the man who’d been my world for fourteen years, the man who’d taken my fourteen years.
But he swung on me, connected a wild throw of a side fist with my temple, dazing me, and I swung back and, shit, I didn’t mean to, I promise, I’m just—I’m a righty and the ivory, the ivory was still in the palm of my hand and I’d completely forgotten until that thick whiplash of plasmal wet slashes my—
I open my eyes to the taste of blood.
I lick my lips of the spray and they heal, my mouth no longer dry, my eyelids no longer swollen.
I don’t look at him, I can’t. So I turn away and head toward the door, leaving it open as I step out into the freezing night.
The headlights have been illuminating my path for the last six miles. Pinpricks highlighting the road ahead of me, really, but everything is so fucking sensitive, it almost hurts. It does hurt. Like new skin to a freezing wind. As if I’d skinned myself alive and left the shell of me lying on the floor of my grandfather’s cabin.
Whichever grandfather he may have been.
Ahead of me, I hear the relaxed clomp of a deer stepping onto the asphalt just as the headlights dip below a man-made hill. I hear several more and when the headlights finally return, I stop in my tracks.
Five deer, their necks stripped of fur and skin and fat and flesh, leaving tendons and palpitating stratum, the thumping, thumping, thumping in time with the heaviness in my heart. They stand watching me just as I watch them. One snorts, shaking the horror that is its head. It is then that I notice the membrane swinging loose from the tip of an antler. A new point, bringing it to twenty. All them are in this stage, all with twenty points, all still miraculously breathing.
The truck slows, its brakes squealing in protest. The door opens and work boots stomp the pavement, but I don’t panic.
“There are more of them, but the antler points are for each of us.”
I feel the itch of wool before the warmth of his arm around my shoulders and I realize I’m naked.
“There’s something we have to show you.”
I tear my gaze away from the deer and eye Casimiro carefully. I nod. “Okay.”
He doesn’t speak and I’m too bewildered, too tired to ask questions. We double back to the cabin, pass it, then pull into a short, paved driveway some ten miles out.
“C’mon,” he says, then unfolds himself from of the truck. I don’t move until he opens the door for me. I slide out and shiver and Casimiro slips a thick arm around my shoulders. I didn’t notice how tall he is until now, a full head taller than I am, with thick black hair pulled into a loose ponytail at the base of his stocky neck. Long hair must be the trend around here.
I do not fit in.
I’m studying the curve of his lips as he walks me up the trampled path leading to another log cabin. “Yours?” I say, still staring.
He nods. “We all have one.”
“We.” I don’t question.
“Yeah. Just a warning: My dad is here and he’s a bit of a pendejo, so—”
I chuckle. “As long as he doesn’t try to whoop my ass, I think I can handle him.”
Casimiro smirks and I suddenly long to see his full smile. I want to see his tiny eyes squint further. I want to hear his laugh from that barrel chest or from the solid belly below. But instead he unlocks the door and gently tugs me inside.
His cabin is the same as the one my sister supposedly rented, except there’s more furniture and all of it is well worn.
The first thing I notice with sharp interest is on the far wall: a spiral of teeth. This one is much smaller than the one I dreamt of, but the same principle applies: smallest to largest from the base on, the same varying colors of ivory, the same stain on the very tiniest one at the center. I’ve taken all of three steps into the identical cabin before I stop, completely mesmerized.
“We all have them,” Casimiro says to my left. He’s quiet for such a big dude. “Each generation fills in what we’ve lost, what has been taken from us.” He looks at me, at the side of my face because I’m still staring at the spiral, transfixed not by hypnotism, but by something else, something deep in base of my belly. “Some of us have lost more than others. But we stick together, no matter what. One loss for me is a loss to us all.”
“Mijo, ¿qué hace una negra en nuestra casa?”
We both turn to the loft stairs where the voice is coming from, and making feeble progress down the ladder is a man who has aged in body much more than mind. Something ugly is eating at him, gnawing into his bones and festering his lungs. My nose wrinkles. Casimiro must have noticed because he says way too close to the shell of my ear, “Told you he’s an ass.”
“Not the worst, trust me,” I mutter back.
Casimiro moves around me and I breathe deep. “Vuelve a la cama, Papá, esto no es tu asunto.” I watch Casimiro’s shoulders flex as he takes hold of his father’s withered shoulders.
“Ella está en mi casa, es mi asunto!” his father shouts back.
I watch as Casimiro leans toward his father. I find myself straining to hear as Casimiro whispers to the old man and with a pop of a balloon, my ears prick at the words, “. . . déjala en paz.” His father sags, then lets himself be guided back up the stairs. Casimiro returns a moment later and says, “I heard you like tea.”
I’m on my second cup of Earl Grey when I ask, “What in the entire fuck is actually going on?”
Casimiro stops mid-sip of his coffee and stares at me, eyes wider than I thought possible with those heavy lids, his lips curling up around the lip of the mug. “I’m surprised it took you this long.”
I roll my eyes and study the milky tea. “Yeah, well, been a wild-ass weekend and it’s hardly over. I’m pretty sure my husband punched me hard enough for a goddamn embolism, I just saw a bunch of deer with no fucking necks, and I’m naked, yet unbothered, in front of a very attractive stranger.” He clears his throat and I look up in time to see Casimiro’s cheeks redden. It was like he hadn’t noticed my nakedness until I mention it in terms outside of rescue, in terms of our bodies’ proximity and the fact that I find him attractive. The apples of his cheeks threaten to burst, so I look away, yet I don’t feel shame. I clutch the blanket tighter but only out of habitual propriety. Part of me feels stifled within the wool, but I’m still a married woman. At least I think so. “It’s taking a lot for me not to start snot-bubble crying in front of you and this is first time I feel like I can breathe in . . .” I smirk, look up from my mug, and lift one shoulder. “Fourteen years.” I snort. “Fourteen fucking years.”
Casimiro shifts, the wooden chair groaning, and there’s something like sympathy on his face. “Honestly, there’s only so much I can tell you. We have to show you.”
“There’s that ‘we’ again.” Casimiro doesn’t react, doesn’t appear to even try to respond. “Is this what you’re meant to show me?” I say, gesturing to the cabin, then the spiral of teeth.
“No.” He clears his throat but says nothing more.
“Ooookay, let’s start with this: Who is Bruce Hayword?”
At this, Casimiro livens up, his back straightening, his black eyes sparking. “To put it plainly, he’s the white face who lets us live.” I lift an eyebrow, intrigued, and sit forward, my chin in the palm of my hand. Casimiro points at my mug. “More tea? You’re shaking.”
I hesitate, thinking he’s buying time, but I sense, no, I smell something warmer to the question. “Sure,” I say, sliding the chipped white mug back to him. He grabs it and stands, heading toward the two-burner stove. I watch the twin globes of his impressive ass as they take on the solid weight of him. Those jeans were made for him.
“Story is, his family settled here back in the late eighteen hundreds, claiming to be Native.”
“Exactly. To add insult to injury, the Haywords were pretending to be abolitionists and kidnapping slaves who were making their way to Canada. They kept some for their own property, raped others, killed a few, and sent plenty back for the monetary reward. They grew pretty rich off it until they took the wrong family of slaves.”
He stops fiddling with the kettle and turns to me. “Your family.”
I swallow. This is most I’ve ever heard about any of our family. Mom and Dad always shrugged our questions off, saying we’d find out in due time. I briefly wonder if Kaya’s time has come already. Good ol’ Kaya, always ahead of the game. Or at least ahead of me. I nod to Casimiro and he turns back to spooning the loose tea into a silken pouch. I smile bashfully at the care he’s showing for the third time in a row—nothing rushed, all delicate.
“It happened when Bruce turned twenty and was by all rights considered a property-owning man. He was getting ready to marry when he thought to prove himself to his father by managing a group of slaves on his own, your grandfather among them.”
“Wait, when exactly are we talking about?”
Casimiro lifts a shoulder as he seals the tea container. “Early nineteen hundreds?”
I roll my eyes. “So illegal. Disappointing, yet not surprising. And Bruce was twenty?”
“Yep. He’s a whole-ass hundred and thirteen years old.”
It happens before I can help it; I pop a laugh so loud Casimiro’s father snores himself awake for a moment. We both freeze until the muttering stops and his soft breathing is recognized as slumber. Casimiro grins and I feel a tingle traipse across my chest. His smile is radiant, small teeth tobacco-stained and adorably uneven, the crinkle of crow’s feet leading to nearly swallowed eyes. I want to kiss him.
I clear my throat nervously and ask, “How was he convinced to cover for y’all?” The question doesn’t taste right. I try again. “For us. How did my grandfather convince him?”
Casimiro’s grin had fallen, but now the corner of his mouth ticks back up. “He bit the living shit out of Bruce’s hip after killing the whole rest of his family.”
“Yeah. Told him his white God doesn’t live here and neither will he, should he not take this offer.”
“How come he didn’t opt for death?”
“Oh, he tried. But that bite brought him back every time, aging him just enough to feel a little worse, you know? You should’ve heard the wailing. The last time, your grandfather told him the truth: There ain’t shit waiting for him and his people in the afterlife. Plus, your grandfather promised protection from the other things going bump in the night around here.”
“So there has always been weird shit around here, huh?”
Casimiro nods as he grabs the kettle before it can scream. “Yeah. The Haywords weren’t exactly immune to the threats, either. A couple of Bruce’s older and younger siblings, cousins—those who dared to walk at night—had been snatched and never seen again. The Haywords had the land blessed by their white God, but the forest laughed at them. I think that may have informed Bruce’s choice as well.”
I snort. “I’d imagine.”
Casimiro returns to the table with my tea perfectly milky and sweet and I hide my content smile with a face full of mug. When I finish, he covers my fisted hand with his and I melt under the calluses, not daring a look at just how large his mitts are, how the veins bulge from strength, how teeth-trimmed and small his nail beds are.
I notice nothing but the growing heaviness between my legs.
But I realize he’s waiting for eye contact, waiting for me to be truly ready for whatever lies ahead. So, as he runs his thumb over my skin, I look up at him.
He is beautiful.
“It’s time,” he says.
I nod and we stand.
The ride is quiet and like a child I want to cry, but Casimiro has my other hand in his and I try to revel in that fact alone. It works until he stops at the top of a wooded ridge, where Sheriff Bruce Hayword is standing ramrod straight with his hands deep in his jacket pockets. Casimiro gently lays my hand in my lap and exits the truck. I’m still staring at the sheriff when Casimiro comes back into view, making a grand gesture of opening the door and guiding me out.
After he sets me in front of the sheriff, they nod to one another. I turn to Casimiro and he lends me a sweet smile. “I’ll see you soon. Promise.” He rubs my shoulder, then gets back into the truck and takes off before either one of us speaks.
“Here comes the rough part,” Bruce says, then winks at me. He’s already walking toward the trees before I can gather my thoughts.
My belly growls as I hurry to follow his lead.
We’ve been taking the ridge one zigzag after another. My feet are getting used to the grit of the disused road, blood trailing behind me until it stops, until the dirt clogs my wounds or my soles callus at a miraculous rate, I don’t know. I just keep walking. And thinking of Casimiro’s hand in my mine as he delivered me to the sheriff.
“Awful quiet back there,” Bruce says and I flinch, surprising myself. I don’t know why it seems so wrong to speak with such beautiful moonlight casting everything in a mercurial glow, but it feels like a violation.
I shudder at the sound of my mother’s voice at the shell of my right ear. I can hear her smile, feel her arms wrapped around me from behind as she rocked me toward something like sleep. I was always stubborn—or nosy, if you were to believe my mom. Sleep is a luxury I could never afford, no matter how rich with time I am.
Bruce’s voice snatches my attention. “I’m sorry?” I say.
He chuckles. “I’m sure Casimiro told you.”
I clear my throat. “Oh, right, yeah, he did.”
“Hmph. Good. Shit is embarrassing enough.”
It’s then that I notice the hitch in his left leg has worsened. He’s limping at this point, and I can smell the grimace on his face. I smirk. Good.
I shrug. “Gotta say, you’re certainly aging better than most of your brethren.”
“Ha! Kaya did tell me you’re a smart-ass.” Before I can ask, he winks at me, then turns toward an even steeper pathway. “C’mon, not that much farther to go.”
The lake is smaller than I thought it would be, the water still, deep, clear. The moonlight shines right to the bottom, the rocks littered on shore matching those of the lake’s belly. It smells crisp, nearly seductive in its soft scent after the stab of cold.
The larger rocks dig into my feet, but I’m no longer being cut and I don’t feel as cold, though I’d dropped the blanket some hundred feet back, so the sheriff’s got my attention for now.
But not for long.
I smell something familiar in the distance. A stench, strong and distasteful. It was the rot back in the cabin, the licorice linger of pride at the back of my tongue. I hear the tickle of footsteps over the dirt, then over pebbles, but there is also dragging, heavy and ungainly, the sting of copper accenting the air every few steps or so. I sniff deeply at those spikes of flavor, find more than a few notes disgusting, and snort them out, threads of mucus slapping my lips and chin. I wipe at my mouth with the back of my hand, then lick it.
It’s automatic and I think nothing of it until I feel the string of a hair in my teeth. I look down to see the same silvery glow of the moon is irradiating my skin, but not my flesh exactly, my hair. It’s not immediately visible, it’s almost like cilia, floating, swaying in the light breeze, pulsing with the moon’s heat, beating with my own veins, with the thrum of the forest beyond—
I look up.
The deer. More of them. Surrounding the lake. With people on their backs.
One after another, they slide from the smooth hides of their deer and step forward into the night sun’s face, naked as I am. I recognize Casimiro, the same odd glow breathing from his skin. My eyes skip around, but I don’t recognize most of the people here.
Except my sister.
“Kaya?!” I holler. She smiles back, her smile benevolent, patient, yet tinged with regret.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers to me.
I want to go to her, but I can’t; I’m rooted to the spot, my belly growling ferociously, and there’s this pain in my side . . .
The copper smell gets stronger and I look up, distracted from the growing discomfort in my bones to see a man, a white man being dragged by his hair by a Black woman so beautiful, I nearly weep at the sight of her. It is not because she is attractive. In fact, most would say she was a hard woman, aggressive in the angles of her face, the pucker of big lips, the ebony of her skin.
Most would say I look just like her.
I’ve inherited her hips, her protruding belly, her southward, quarter-size areolas and jellybean nipples. She is glowing and she is smiling directly at me as if she’s missed me, as if she loves me.
As if she’s forgiven me.
The man in her grasp finds his fight and starts kicking fruitlessly at the gravel. “No! Get off of me, you crazy bitch!”
I gasp at the sound of his voice, though I should’ve known him by smell alone.
“Let me go! People know I’m out here! They’ll look for me! You won’t get away with this!”
Still, Mom keeps walking forward, his head in her palm like ripe grapefruit, his legs losing strength. And my gaze is stuck with her. I don’t care that my husband is in her grasp. I don’t care that he’s scared for his life. I don’t care that he’s pissed himself until his bladder’s wrung dry. I don’t care about anything but my mother.
She stops in front of me and it’s like looking into a mirror. Kaya was the softer of the two of us, taking on Daddy’s slight frame, high butt, and perfect sun-toasted skin, while Mom and I charmed folks with our wit, with an attraction they couldn’t quite explain.
“I’m—” I rush, but her long fingers pressing against my mouth hush me, stopping the tears building in the back of my throat.
“You didn’t kill me.” Her voice is exactly the same as I choose to remember it: light and airy and patient. “I’m here in front of you. I’ve always been in front of you. You just needed to find me.”
She cups my cheek and I nestle deep within the warmth of her hand. Again, I want to cry, but something stops me, something much more important at hand.
“I know you’re hungry,” she whispers, stroking my other cheek. I nod against her and my back breaks in half. I fall hard to my knees, but before I can cry out, my pelvis shifts and my clavicle separates. Agony wheezes past the O of my mouth and I feel every single one of my fingers and toes fracture, then snap, then dig. My back dips at my cervix, my shoulders curving. I yowl in pain, the sound raspy, deep, nearly pathetic.
Mom stoops down to me after dropping my husband and pulls me up by my armpits. “Hand me the ivory, Avery, and stand. I taught you how to stand, now stand.”
Pain flees as anger engulfs me. “You left me to fall.”
“And it was your job to find a way, but you settled instead. And maybe,” she stresses, seeing me ready to pounce, “maybe I was wrong for that. Maybe I didn’t prepare you the way I should have, the way my mother should’ve taught me. But don’t worry, you’ll have your chance to teach your own.”
I hold my breath in an attempt to stave off the pain and hand her the intricate ivory piece. She steps back, hands at her sides, as Casimiro and a young woman of color—maybe Native?— step forward with a writhing Jonas in their grip. Casimiro tosses me a wink and the pain subsides, if only for a moment.
“Shit, Avery!” Jonas gasps, interrupting that moment. My lip curls in disgust as the young woman pulls his head back. His nose is gore-streaked with black blood, his left eye swollen, a short yet deep mocking smile of gash right above his cheekbone, just missing his eye.
So I didn’t kill him.
“Avery, baby, let’s get out of here, okay? Let’s start over. We don’t even have to go home! We can just . . . drive, just go wherever you want! Please, please, baby, just—”
My mother rends his shoulder open with the ivory, shutting him up. The pale yellow fat swells forward, puckering toward the growl of my stomach. I lick my lips as the wound weeps.
“Shh,” I coo, pressing an elongated pointer finger against his whimpering mouth. The tip of a serrated nail kisses his eyelashes, a nail with intricate whorls decorating it. I smile, my gums aching, my jaws crowding then stretching, and something clicks, something deep within me, something that I thought had been missing since my mother died. I feel restored. I feel whole.
“We’re right here, Avery, and this time, family ain’t goin’ anywhere.”
It’s like a jolt to my chest, those words, the words I’d been yearning to hear for so, so long.
I smile. I step forward.
I am so, so hungry. And my husband sounds so, so pathetic.
He can no longer form complete words, shock shutting down his system, his adrenaline long abated.
I look at him good. Close. I ghost a kiss over those trembling lips and I can deny my hunger no longer.
I throw my head back, lower mandible cracking, jutting forward, incisors slicing against their distant twins. The pain is an engulfing madness, as sharp as it is wide as it is deep, so vociferous I scream for it, for me, for my mother, for us.
It is only when I hear the chorus of the Night Sun surrounding me that I face my husband one more time.
I take his head into my hands. “Figure me now. See me now.”
One tear falls and it is all the seasoning I need.
“The Night Sun” copyright © 2020 by Zin E. Rocklyn
Art copyright © by Xia Gordon