Erik admired the way his little brother could smile through his bloodied face.
Ozzie received a beating with all the regularity of a clock striking twelve, but this time it actually came at midnight. Ozzie crushed stalks of wheat as he fell, but he jumped up and struck back. He was no match for Jonas though. Ozzie was only eleven; Jonas was fifteen. And with four more years of hard farming labor, Jonas’s arms were twice his size and impacted his body like an axe to a tree. Jonas’ fist drove into Ozzie’s gut and he dropped to the ground again.
The skin on Erik’s face burned. His stomach clamped every time his brother got beat, mainly because it was his fault. If it wasn’t for him, they wouldn’t be there. He dug his hand in his pocket, found his rock and squeezed. There was no chance Erik could best Jonas, but Ozzie was all he had left. He released the stone and lunged at Jonas. He beat his fat stomach, but it was like hitting a gorilla. Jonas grabbed Erik’s arm and twisted. Erik shouted and dropped to his knees. Jonas kicked his stomach. The air shot out of him. He rolled into a ball on the ground and choked for air.
“You idiots want another round or you gonna get back to work? Dad won’t be happy if the harvest isn’t done before the storms come,” Jonas said.
Erik struggled to his feet. Jonas deserved a beating of his own, but Erik was just glad the fight between Ozzie and Jonas was over. It cost him a bloody lip and the air getting kicked out of him, but it was worth it, for Ozzie’s sake.
Jonas was right about one thing, though; a big rain could ruin the wheat harvest. But it would only take three or four more hours to do.
“We’ll finish just fine. You just worry about yerself, Jone-ass.” Erik staggered towards his brother. “Me ’n Ozzie work twice as hard as you anyway, and Uncle Bauer knows it.”
“A wuss and an idiot is all you are, and that’s what Dad knows.”
“Just get back to work before we all get a beating,” Erik said.
Jonas flicked his wrist and strutted off. “I already did my part. See you rats later.”
“Where d’ya think you’re going?”
“I gotta date with Lara tonight, not that it’s any of yer business.”
“A pretty girl like that…” Ozzie stammered between breaths, “ain’t gonna go for a moron like you.” But Jonas was already gone.
Erik approached his brother and shook his head when he saw Ozzie’s smile, like pearls in a stream of blood. “What’s wrong with you? Fighting him ain’t gonna do no good.” He pulled Ozzie up. “You gotta stop getting him angry.”
Ozzie brushed his pants. “I didn’t even do anything. He just wants to be a tough guy. Someone’s gotta do something about it.”
Erik patted down Ozzie’s shoulders, brushing off dirt and broken wheat stalks. “Don’t worry about that, he’s in for quite a surprise when he gets to Krause’s barn.”
Ozzie wiped his mouth with the back of his arm. “Why’s that?”
Erik laughed. “You wanna get back at Jonas? You gotta know his weak spot. Lara. I once heard him singing about her hair smelling like dandelions. It’s pathetic. You know big Frieda? I got her to write a letter pretending to be Lara. It says she’s always had a secret love for him and that he should go over to their barn tonight because she’s got something special for him.”
Ozzie chuckled and picked up his scythe. “How’d you get her to do that for ya? Did ya pay her?”
Erik followed his brother’s lead and continued harvesting. “I’ve been saving up money just to get back at Jonas, but Frieda did it for free!”
“Guess she don’t like being called ‘fatty’ all the time and having her name written on their pigs!”
“Stupid jerk! Serves him right, I think he busted my leg.”
Ozzie staggered as he cut the grain, but Erik couldn’t do anything about that. He’d defend Ozzie the only way he knew how, but he was only fifteen. What could he do against the violence of this place? Could the stars defend the night from darkness?
Beyond Ozzie was the path into Odenwald Forest. It may come to that, but not yet. Over the forest flashed a small light, like a single shining hair. The wind carried a black cool to Erik’s skin. The storm was coming early.
“We better get done fast, Ozzie.”
Erik lifted Ozzie onto his straw bed. The smell of pigs and chicken filth hung in Erik’s nostrils. The rain upon the roof and occasional thunder made him glad to be back inside the barn. It was only 2 A.M. Uncle Bauer wouldn’t be happy the harvest wasn’t finished, even if the storm did come early. Maybe he’d take it easy on Ozzie, though. He was already plenty bruised.
“We’re in for a beating, aren’t we?” Ozzie asked.
Erik spread a ragged sheet over his brother. Wings flapped in the rafters. Some kind of bird was watching them again, for the fifth day in a row. “Maybe we’ll be lucky,” he said looking down at Ozzie. “Maybe he’ll just take away our food for the day.”
“I think I’d rather get breakfast and a few lashes,” Ozzie said.
Erik shook his head and looked over Ozzie’s purple skin. “So what was this all about, Ozzie? Did Jonas say something about Mom again?”
“No. Nothing like that. I asked him about the Walter twins.”
“The ones from Fulda? The ones that got kidnapped?”
“Yeah. I wanted to know what happened to ‘em. He told me a monster got ‘em.”
“That’s what Uncle Bauer said, but why’d he wanna fight about it?”
Ozzie smirked. “I told ‘im if I’d been there, I woulda beat the monster off with my bare hands.”
Erik chuckled. He didn’t doubt it either. “Sometimes I can’t tell if you’re really brave or just stupid. Do you even know what kind of monster that thing was?”
Ozzie shook his head. “Jonas didn’t say. But he was eager to fight about it.”
Erik sat down and waved his hands in front of their eyes like he was opening a window. “Imagine a giant black bear, only instead of a bear’s head it has two wolf heads stitched on top. And running down the spine are the dead heads of deer with no eyes and long antlers. Each paw was stitched over with snake-skin and each claw replaced with snake fangs.”
Ozzie’s face whitened.
“But, I’m sure you could handle it with your bare hands,” Erik said.
“That’s what took the Walter twins?” Ozzie asked.
Erik nodded. “Two heads for two children.”
Ozzie murmured, “I still woulda tried.”
Erik glanced again at the eavesdropping bird. He knew Ozzie meant it too, and that’s what scared him the most. How could he protect someone braver than he was?
Erik stood alone. Trees surrounded him like a crowd of strangers around a lost child. Fragments of moonlight escaped between branches overhead, their shadows dancing in the wind. Or were they? Erik swore the trees themselves were crawling closer. But one tree never moved. It was the same pale blue as his eyes. It glowed against the dark night. Its roots traveled far into the ground, and reached Erik’s feet.
Erik shoved his hand into his pocket. There was nothing there. He shook his hand around but it was completely empty. He searched his other pocket. Again, nothing. A trickle of cool sweat ran down the side of his chest. His face went hot against the cold wind. His nose tingled. He dropped to the ground and cast out his hands for his rock. Where was it? There was nothing there. He beat the ground. His fists felt red with heat. He tasted dirt as it flew in the air. The sound of stretching rope filled his mind.
Erik woke to a knocking on the barn door. He shook his head to break his daze. He felt the outside of his pocket; his rock was there. He let out a sigh. That dream again. The rapping came harder. Ozzie didn’t stir; he just kept snoring like one of the pigs he slept next to.
Erik cracked the door and saw Jonas hunched over, arms crossed over his chest. His hair was unruly and his clothing unchanged from last night. Behind him it was still dark and the morning sun had not yet colored the trees of Odenwald with its orange and red light.
“Are you still gonna do it?” Jonas asked.
Erik eyed him. “What’re you talking about?”
“Don’t play dumb. I see you staring into Odenwald day and night. You don’t think I forgot, do ya?”
Erik shook his head. He’d been foolish to trust him. “I thought I was doing you a favor, you filth.” Who wouldn’t want to run away from Jonas’s father? A violent drunk with patience the size of a gnat’s pinky toe. “Thanks to you those dreams are gone.”
Jonas scoffed. “I did you a favor! You get food here, shelter, and ‘good, honest work,’ as my father says. Besides, d’ya really think you’d have survived out there alone? Odenwald is dangerous.”
Uncle Bauer had told stories of fighting bears with nothing but his cutlass. Every time he went on a hunting trip, he’d come home with some new story of him or Krause killing some wild animal. Erik wouldn’t have believed any of it if it weren’t for all the animal heads he brought home. “How would you know? It’s not like Uncle Bauer ever took you out there.”
Jonas’ face went red. “Like I give a shit. I don’t have to go hunting to know you and dumbass wouldn’t last a night out there, not without someone who knew how to fight.”
“You mean someone like you?”
Erik’s nose tingled and his fingers and toes tightened. He was right; the forest was dangerous, but Steinau was a dangerous place too. Ozzie’s eye was proof enough of that. Four years ago he told Uncle Bauer to go to Hell. He’d been drinking and was pissed. He smashed poor Ozzie with a broken dresser leg. The stupid brute nearly killed him. His face was damaged and he lost most his vision in his left eye. Erik was helpless to protect Ozzie then, so he ran, hid under the hay, and cried. He’d plotted to run away from that moment on. He thought Jonas would be excited to be in on the plan. He received just as many bruises as anyone, after all. But like a dog returning to eat its own vomit, he’d told his father of the plan.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Erik said. “Those were childish plans anyway. Never woulda worked.”
“Don’t lie to me. I saw someone outside the barn last night. My father kn—”
“Are you crazy? Ozzie and I were dead tired from doing all the work last night, no thanks to you. We certainly weren’t outside the barn in the storm.”
Jonas’s eyes narrowed. “I saw something. Don’t think we’re not watching you.”
“You talk like you two’re a team or something. He doesn’t give a shit about you.”
Jonas shook his head. “Yer as stupid as yer brother. I know yer planning on running away. You two won’t last a minute out there without someone babysitting ya.”
Erik clenched his fists and looked beyond Jonas. The forest looked still, peaceful; could it really be that dangerous? The mist between the trees seemed to whisper to his mind: come and hide. Escape your life of fear. It won’t be forever. It’s a road, a path to a new life. Erik had learned his lesson, though. Don’t tell Jonas anything.
“Tell your Dad we’ll be feeding his pigs when he’s ready to give us our beating.”
Jonas looked down and scratched his chest. That was a familiar gesture. Uncle Bauer did that when he was sober and didn’t wanna be. Jonas stood on his toes as if trying to peer beyond Erik. “How’s, uh…how’s Ozzie doing? I didn’t break anything, did I?”
Erik shook his head. “It’d be a shame if Uncle Bauer thought your fight with Ozzie delayed your work,” Erik said and closed the door.
Looks like Erik and Ozzie weren’t the only ones worried about getting a beating.
Uncle Bauer hadn’t smiled in years.
He also hadn’t hunted in years. Erik and Ozzie followed Jonas into Uncle Bauer’s trophy room, the only place you’d ever find him at home. The place creeped Erik out. The dead eyes of swine and deer on their hollow mounted heads seemed to observe their entrance as if some bloody liturgy were about to take place.
Uncle Bauer sat with one leg propped on his other upholding a smooth cutlass. Sharpened to hunting perfection, its polish glimmered in the candlelight. Erik knew each animal hanging on the wall knew that blade internally. But why was he polishing it now? He hadn’t used it in years. Uncle Bauer’s unkempt hair darkened his eyes and his beard made his whole face unreadable. His only movement was the rhythmic sliding of a cloth over the cutlass.
“Jonas, come here,” he said. His words came slow, but without any slur. He sounded sober. Jonas slumped to his father, his usual swagger replaced with the cowering of a begging dog. Uncle Bauer’s hands moved swiftly down the sword. Jonas was now in striking distance. The cloth glided down the blade, then into the air, returning again to the metal. Jonas’s head was down, his hands clutching his legs.
“I was out in the shed earlier today,” Uncle Bauer said. “Do you know what I found?”
Jonas was silent. He shook his head. “The storm, sir. It…it came—”
“Damnit, I know. The storm came earlier than I told ya. But that wasn’t my question.”
Jonas spoke again. His words were almost inaudible. “no, sir.”
Uncle Bauer straightened his legs and sat forward. He gripped the hilt of the cutlass and in one motion rested the blade over his shoulder, his left hand hanging between his legs. “I found some blood in the wheat stalks,” he said.
Jonas’s legs shook and he edged his head towards Ozzie. Uncle Bauer’s head tilted up, his eyebrows furrowed as he looked his son up and down. Erik imagined Jonas’ head on the wall over Uncle Bauer’s chair. A chill shivered down his arms. Jonas needed a lesson, but not that. Still, it was nice to watch him squirm.
“That was an accident, sir. I…uh, me and Ozzie—”
“You two were fighting instead of working?” he asked. His hanging hand clenched around the rag.
Jonas turned his head to the side, anticipating a backhand from his father’s fist. It came with a crack. Jonas crumbled to the ground, holding his face. Ozzie turned away.
“Get up,” Uncle Bauer said.
He did. “Yes s–s–sir.”
“So you didn’t see anything unusual in the forest then?” he asked.
Jonas looked up at him. “I…uh, no sir.”
“Lots a strange talk ‘round town,” he said relaxing his fist. “Folks talking about monsters called ‘Stitches.’ They say they been coming out of the forest, taking kids.”
Uncle Bauer resumed wiping his sword again. “Krause saw one himself. He said it had wings like an eagle but an unnatural body. He reckoned it had more eyes than he ‘imself knew how to count.”
That wouldn’t be too hard. Krause would have trouble counting his own fingers. “Do you believe him?” Erik interposed. “I mean, he’s got that reputation.”
Uncle Bauer’s hands stopped and he glared at Erik. “Don’t take me for a fool, you dumb bastard. I thought as much myself, but he wasn’t drunk. ‘Sides, even if he was it wouldn’t explain his wounds. Something fierce came upon him.”
Jonas’ rubbed his chin.
Uncle Bauer continued, “I told ‘im if I were ‘im I’d a—”
“Did he see it take any children away?” Ozzie asked.
What was he doing? You never interrupt Uncle Bauer, drunk or sober. Erik elbowed his brother. Ozzie’s eyes grew wide.
“Where’s yer manners ya puny dog. No yes sir, no no sir from either the two a ya. What can be expected from a couple ingrate orphans?”
“I’m sorry, s—” Ozzie began.
“Fer all I care he coulda been coming to take you two. Two less mouths to feed as far as I can see.”
Uncle Bauer’s face was red. He threw his towel to the side and scratched his chest as if some great itch came over him.
“I’m gonna be in town tonight on business. Lots a work to be done here tonight, though. I need all the wheat threshed and winnowed by the time I get home.”
Erik shook his head. There’d be no way they could get all that done in one night. What was he talking about?
“And stay away from the forest; nothing good ever came out a there. Damn shame about the harvest. Shoulda never left man’s work to a bunch a useless rats.” He stood up, put his cutlass in his scabbard and left it on the chair. “It’s gonna be one damned hard year.”
A hard year for Uncle Bauer meant hell for Erik and Ozzie.
It was now or never