The man in the black robe stood at the end of the long driveway, across the yellowing field where the bales of hay huddled in the shrapnel stalks. The man leaned on his long-handled scythe, his face cowled in shadow. The scythe’s blade gleamed, even in the predawn murk. Billy sat upon the front porch of the farmhouse, squinting his eyes as the flash of the blade leapt out at intervals, watching the man as the man watched his older brother, Thomas. Thomas did not see the robed man as he helped his father with the tractor. Billy could not tell Thomas because his head did not work right, and so his mouth did not work right. Instead, Billy pointed at the man with one hand—the hand that did not hold the toy soldier. Even so, no one paid any mind to Billy, and so they paid no mind to the robed man. At length, the robed man continued down the road. Along the distant hills behind the robed man were trees. The trees were bare and black like charred hands stretched out in vain to protect against the coming sunrise.
Billy did not play with the toy soldier in his hand. He held it gently, reverently, as if it might break at any moment.
“Hey, Duckbill,” Thomas said, ruffling his little brother’s hair as he and his father stepped up onto the porch. “You going to help daddy with the tractor while I’m gone?”
“If he can milk Betty without being kicked he’ll be doin’ good,” their father said. He did not pat his youngest son’s head, but grumpily took hold of the rocking chair and sat down. “But maybe someday he’ll be strong. A lot of them that are weak in the head prove to be strong in the arm. Maybe then he’ll earn his keep.”
Thomas did not sit in the other rocking chair, but stood with his arms folded. “Wish you wouldn’t say that about him. It’ll hurt his feelings.”
Their father shook his head. “He don’t understand anyhow,” he said. “And the truth never hurt nobody. I’ve been tellin’ you the truth for years, Tom, and you grew up big and strong and good. No harm done, all in all.”
In reply, Thomas crouched down beside his little brother. “You’ll learn to talk eventually, Duckbill. I know you will. When I come back you’ll be here to greet me, and you’ll tell me with your own mouth how your daddy’s the sorriest son of a buck there ever was this side of Crabapple County.”
Billy continued to stare at the distant hills, the distant trees, and the coming sunrise. Their father chuckled.
“I may be the sorriest son of a buck in this county,” their father said, “but I feel sorry for the sorriest son of a buck over there. You’ve got a talent with a rifle. I’m sure whoever you’ll have in your sights will be as a clay pigeon still on the flywheel.”
The sun rose and set the trees afire with napalm bombardment. The horizon burned in an apocalyptic inferno. Billy began to sob.
“What’s wrong, Duckbill?” Thomas asked, tenderly. He put a hand on the little boy’s shoulder, but the boy just shook his head.
“That boy ain’t right,” their father said, grimacing. “What’re you cryin’ about, boy? You ain’t got nothin’ to cry about.”
“Lay off the boy,” said their mother. She stood behind the screen-door, her hands on her aproned hips. “Breakfast is ready. Come get you something to eat. All of you.”
Their father shot bolt-up from the rocking chair and went in.
“Come on, Duckbill,” Thomas said. “You’ll feel better once you’ve had something for breakfast.”
Reluctantly, Bill rose from the porch, careful not to drop the toy soldier. His eyes blurred with tears and the glare of the sun. Letting his eyes fall to the hay bales, he saw them anew. There were minced men rolled up and bound together in amongst the straw. He rubbed his eyes clear of the tears, but not the vision.
Billy followed his older brother inside the house.
Sitting at the table, the family said Grace and then began to eat. There were biscuits, sausage, eggs, and gravy on each plate. The tablecloth was checkered red and white. The grandfather clock ticked off seconds, slicing Now from Nevermore one sliver with each swing of its pendulum. The radio was on the kitchen counter, near the dirty pans. It was turned down low, but Billy listened to it intently as he held his idle fork with one hand. The other hand retained its gentle, but firm, grip on the toy soldier. The radio host spoke of the Viet Cong and deadly jungle diseases.
Still, their father spoke casually; easily. Pridefully.
“You’re doin’ a good thing, Tom,” his father said, beaming. “Stoppin’ them Commies is the most important thing right now. It’s either them or us. You’re gonna’ make sure it’s them.”
“I know, daddy,” Thomas said.
“This ain’t goin’ to be another Korea,” his father said resolutely through a mouth full of gravy-laden biscuit. “We just come off the Big War and nobody had the stomach for it. Now, though, you are goin’ to put those Commies in their place. And that place is six feet under. Or head-down in the rice paddies. To hell with ‘em. They don’t deserve a Christian burial.”
Thomas nodded, but said no more. He ate his breakfast in silence.
Billy ate nothing. He stared emptily at his full plate.
“Bill,” his mother said. “You need to eat something. You got a full day ahead of you and you aren’t going to be able to do nothing on an empty stomach.”
“You better eat that food, boy,” his father said, “or I’m takin’ its cost out of your hide.”
Billy pushed the plate toward his brother, his eyes and mouth agape with meaning they could not convey.
“It’s all right, Duckbill,” Thomas said. “I got enough to eat.”
The radio announcer spoke confidently of the military, but his words were gnawed with screaming static.
Gunpowder clouds floated in from the East, darkening the caustic white sky. The winds cut across the heartland like cold metal blades sweeping side to side.
Billy followed his brother and father out to the gate. Opening it, they went through. They said nothing of the blood and ragged skin and meat hanging along the barbed wire fence, or the bodies entangled in the coils. The herd gathered around obediently as the men went to the barn. The old barn had a gambrel roof, like a casket, and overflowed as they approached it. The hay loft brimmed with heaped corpses and entrails and dismembered limbs as they began to pitch hay down to the cows. Billy could say nothing at all. He only moaned a little.
“Jesus, boy,” his father growled. “You ain’t even doin’ nothin’! We’re the ones throwing this hay out.”
They worked at the heaps of hay while the herd eagerly gathered around to eat. Billy watched the dumb beasts chew, their heedless lips splattered with blood. Billy’s eyes itched and brimmed as they always did when he was near hay. The world was blurry, but he could see more than most.
“Daddy, I’ve been thinkin’,” Thomas said as he pitched the hay. “You need to teach Bill how to shoot. Who knows how long this war might last.”
“The boy doesn’t understand nothin’,” his father said. “You honestly think they’d accept him? He’s…half-finished. Course, it’s our fault. We waited too long to have him. And now…well, he’ll be lucky if he can look at a gun without runnin’ off in terror.”
“Daddy, you’re being mean,” Thomas said, halting his pitchfork.
His father halted, too. He stabbed his pitchfork’s teeth into the floor of the barn like a bayonet into bowels, leaning on it and rubbing his lower back with one hand. He affixed his youngest son with a shrewd, merciless stare. “I ain’t bein’ mean. I am bein’ honest.” He turned toward his eldest son. “Don’t you remember how he reacted when I tried to get him to shoot that little ol’ .22? He ran as if the Devil was after him! He’s scared shitless of guns now. I can’t even clean a gun in my own living room without him becoming a blubbering mess.”
“That’s not his fault, daddy,” Thomas said, looking to his little brother with a mixture of sadness and pity.
“I know it,” his father said gruffly. “That’s why I said we should never have tried at our age. And now look at him! Playing with dolls and cryin’ when a gun goes off. It’s not…manly.”
“He’s still a boy,” Thomas said. “He has some growing to do.”
“At his age you were shootin’ ducks, Tom,” his father said. “All on your own with no say-so from me or nobody else.” He smiled with pride. “I remember back then. You were so proud when you brought those ducks in for supper. Your momma already had made some soup, but when I saw what you’d done, I said, ‘To hell with the soup! Let’s have some roasted duck!’” His wrinkles smoothed with youthful joy. “And I’ll be damned if that wasn’t some of the best meat I’ve ever had. And you never ruined anything you shot with a bad aim. You got the Eye for shootin’. I’d wager to say your enemies will call it the Evil Eye before long. Or the Eye of God. Where you aim, Death follows. Those slant-eyes will be like fish in a barrel. They won’t know what hit ‘em.”
They continued pitching the hay as the clouds rolled in.
Billy wandered away, unnoticed. He looked out across the yellowing fields that undulated heavenward, the bales silent amongst the splintered stalks. He was startled at the roar of the tractor engine. The tractor rolled out of the shed, his father a shadowy outline atop it. Billy watched the bold, black tires of the machine deploying forward to the day’s work, its ridged tires cutting trenches in the fallow earth.
Billy walked farther away. He came to the tobacco barn where the stalks hung from the crossbeams. Bodies hung there, too. He walked inside and saw the man in the black robe, sharpening his sickle. Billy stared at him. He could not see the man’s face beneath his hood. The whetstone slid slickly across the cold white crescent blade in a pendulous motion. The sibilance struck something primal in Billy’s spine, begging flight. But he did not flee. He stood and stared at the man. The man looked up, but his hand never stopped swiping the whetstone across the long blade. Its curvature reminded Billy of a raven’s beak. Bill began to cry.
‘Silence,’ the man said, his voice sharper than the blade he whetted. ‘You have chores to do. As do I.’
Bill ran away from the tobacco barn, catching up to Thomas in the field. He hugged him around his leg.
“Whoa, Duckbill,” Thomas said, almost falling over. He looked down at the trembling boy that clutched at his thigh. “Come on, now. You don’t need to get upset over it. I’ll miss you, too, but I’ll be coming back. Don’t you worry none.”
Billy continued to weep, shaking his head as the tears came.
They drove the shaky, sputtering old truck to the bus stop and waited with the other families for the military bus to come to pick up the young men assembled there. There were lots of kisses and handshakes, hugs and shoulder pats. There was bravado, and not just from the young men. Fathers and brothers and uncles spoke with grinning complacency.
“Give ‘em hell, boys.”
“Shoot to kill.”
“Kick their asses so hard you knock their slant-eyes straight!”
While the others talked and boasted and bragged on their sons, Billy stared at Thomas through tears. Thomas was tall, like his father, only Time had not whittled him thin yet, and his shoulders were broad, his chest burley, his arms muscled from tools and chores. His smile was easy and kind. He had the loudest laugh, spreading seeds of laughter all around him. He was the gentlest and the strongest young man among all those gathered from every end of the county.
But Billy knew that none of that mattered to the man in the black robe as he, too, waited by the bus stop, leaning patiently on his scythe.
“Be good while I’m gone, Duckbill,” Thomas said. “Grow bigger and stronger than me, okay? Momma and daddy are going to need your help.”
Billy tried to speak, but, as always, the words did not come.
When Billy and his mother and father arrived home, without Thomas, Billy stared out toward the East where the dark clouds flashed here and there with lightning.
“Get on inside, boy,” his father said. “And go to bed early. Don’t stay up all night playin’ with toys. Tomorrow I’m goin’ to have to show you how to milk the cows. You’re goin’ to be busy for the Winter.”
Billy went upstairs, but did not go into his own room. Instead, he carried the toy soldier into Thomas’s room. The little boy sat on Thomas’s bed, looking out through Thomas’s window. Beyond the distant fields, toward the East, a storm was readying its front-line offensive. Billy opened the window and a warm breeze blew in, as if from some other part of the world that was warmer and moister. It felt like a monsoon was coming to the heartland of America.