Twelve Arrows by: Stephen Graham Jones
My father claims to have no memory of the first one. But then, some mornings he doesn’t remember me so much either. If there were still doctors — or, if there were still doctor offices (I assume there’s still doctors scattered out there, living like we are) — the diagnosis would probably be some World War Three version of shell shock, synapses fried by the blast, pressure waves scrambling my father’s head, who knows.
Not that knowing why he doesn’t remember could in any way reclaim that arrow for us.
Like most everything else, it’s been consigned to ash. Like Mom, it was lucky enough to have gone on before all this.
At least that’s what Dad says.
The second arrow skipped past a frost-burned cow, skidded off a rotted tree, leaving a slanting-up scratch that I can still trace in the air, and then it winked out of existence. Just stopped being, like arrows do sometimes. This was four years ago. It’s still the arrow I look for the most, too. Maybe I’m sentimental.
As for that cow, we finally chased it into a breakleg trap. It didn’t even scream or bellow when we got to it, or try to clamber up, out. It just watched us. Like it knew, and accepted what was happening.
It’s a kindness nature bestows.
My father told me this.
And then he drove the rod into the cow’s head.
The third arrow was one that was already bent a little. From before. My father looked down along it in the flickering light of our fire one night, and he was looking into the past, I know.
“How did it happen?” I asked him.
He lowered it, let his eyes bounce off mine like he does. Like he’s guilty for having lived forty good years before everything broke.
He says that it used to was that Heaven was at the end.
Now it’s behind, always.
He shrugged about the bent arrow, but it was a lie, I could tell.
“I shot at a trout,” he finally admitted. “In a creek. What I thought was a trout.”
I nodded, tried to keep him here, with me, but there too. A bridge I could look across.
He smiled, thinking about it. How stupid it was. How wasteful.
“It was just sitting there,” he said, drawing down on that trout again. Or rock.
“Did you get it?”
He licked his lips, licked them again. “Your mom was glad I didn’t. She screamed when I shot.”
“Screamed?” I said, leaning forward. I had never thought of her screaming.
“More like a squeal,” he said. “And then she hit me with the side of her hand, like this.”
My father reached across the fire, his hand in a loose fist, to tap me, but I pulled my shoulder back, hated him just a little, on accident.
The fourth and fifth arrows went together. We flung them behind us like monkeys throw rocks; it was more about the idea of them than actually hitting anything. Or one. Anyone.
It was my first time to shoot at anything but a cow or a make-do target.
And it wouldn’t have even been me with the bow, but Dad was inspecting another exploded goat. We’re pretty sure that’s what they are. You can’t tell at first, after they fall, and you never see them fall either, but after you’ve picked the meat off and let the dogs lick the rest, if you can get to it before the bones are gone, sometimes you can see a skull, with the little nubs of horns.
My father’s theory is that the same way we took to the woods, others took to the sky. In zeppelins, in dirigibles, in balloons.
The goats are either their pets or their food.
This is a joke.
He’s probably right, I suppose. But still. What I don’t tell him is my idea that the clouds, now that they’re made of swirling ash, are heavier. And that goats are so light, their feet so sure.
There’s still magic in the world.
There has to be.
The sixth arrow went into a tree just when I was just practicing. I nearly cried. Instead of trying to get it out myself — it was the sixth — I hid in the woods most of the afternoon, until the grey drifted into night and I had no choice but to go back.
My father had all his clothes on, was about to come looking for me.
Because I had the bow, he had the pike he rebuilt from part of a fence, part of a bumper. It was too heavy to really throw, but you could set the butt of it in the ground if something was running at you. That was the idea, anyway, since the scavengers started riding the horses instead of eating them.
They always get to the goats first, now.
It’s become a religion to them, I think.
When I told my father about the arrow he narrowed his eyes out at the night, didn’t say anything.
The next morning we cut the tree just above where I’d shot it, then pushed it backward. When the sound of it thumping into the matted earth didn’t attract the sound of hooves pounding our way, we built a dome over it with torn-off, leafy branches, then soaked the trunk and lit it.
The dome kept most of the smoke down, but working in it, twisting the arrow while my father chiseled in the burning wood, it felt like my eyes were bleeding. I’ve never coughed like that before, or since.
We finally freed the broadhead, then doused the fire, ran from the finger of smoke pointing down to us now.
We were champions, heroes, running so fast, racing each other.
That night, too, when I wasn’t asleep but still running in my head, my father cried.
I pretended not to hear him.
I think he was happy.
The next arrow, the seventh, I have no explanation for. When I left that morning it was in the tube with the rest, and I didn’t practice any that day, and only shot at one old cow that had already been shot once, by somebody with a gun, but I got that arrow back, so I have no idea.
And, I call it the seventh arrow, but it could have been the ninth or tenth, really.
It was the seventh to go, anyway. To become gone.
And I didn’t even realize it until I brought my father back, to flesh out the old cow, and we found the dogs already into it.
I unscrewed the tube, limbered up an arrow without looking down, but my father put his hand on my shoulder. It meant no.
“We’re just going to let them have it?” I said, looking down to the tube now, to confirm what my fingers were already telling me.
“They follow the dogs sometimes,” my father said, already scanning the trees. “You know that.”
But it was a whole cow.
That was weeks, if we buried it down below the frozen line.
He was right, though.
After the dogs fed and snapped at each other — we called them dogs, but they were a mix of everything, by now — they napped, got up to feed again, and then the horses and scavengers were at the other side of the clearing.
They scattered the dogs, and those assigned to do it boned out what was left of the cow, for others to bundle up. The one doing the skin, though, he found where my arrow had sliced through.
It made him look at the trees differently.
We were very still.
The eighth arrow we tried to marry to the sixth, when we couldn’t get the sixth straight, not even after carving a straightening place in a tree, then hammering pegs in, using narrow river rocks as shims.
What had happened to the eighth was I had hit the shoulder bone of a horse. It was one of the horses the scavengers left out in the high clearing, tied and hobbled and bleeding, an offering.
I wouldn’t have done it, Dad had told me and told me not to, but he was coughing and forgetting me more and more and the last cow was just hide that we’d been boiling and chewing already for days.
I walked right up to the horse, then all around it, the eighth arrow nocked, and explained what I was going to do. That I was the god the scavengers were praying to. That I appreciated this.
It was only a horse, I mean.
When I’d finished talking, I stepped back a step, drew, counted to three like I’d been taught and let the arrow slip.
Almost immediately, I knew that horses and cows weren’t built on the same pattern.
The arrow thunked into the shoulder bone and the horse started screaming, finally flopped over onto the arrow, snapping it off just below the fletching but driving the rest in, too. Deep enough that the horse bled out while I laid on its nose and mouth, eye to eye with it as it died.
It was worth the arrow.
That was the real sacrifice.
The ninth arrow, somebody else has to have it by now. The last time I saw it, it was deep in the side of a cow that was so healthy I think I maybe shot it just to show it that it could be shot. Because we already had one in the ground that season.
I don’t know what grass it had been eating, or what line it had been spawned from in the wayback, but it was good grass, and a good breeding line.
After I shot it it looked directly across the clearing at me, and then it charged.
My father hadn’t prepared me for this.
Because the seventh arrow still haunted me, lying under whatever perfect configuration of leaves and tree trash it was lying under, I clutched the tube to my chest and fell backwards, into a bush, then fought out of it, scrambled towards the creek. One of our emergency dugouts was there.
I crashed into it, sliding through the mud on my belly, leading with the tube, and the shot cow worried all around me, splashing through the shallows, for most of the afternoon, but finally lowed its anger up into the grey sky and faded off.
It took me an hour to start breathing normal.
Finally I stood, took a reading of the trees — nobody, nothing — then counted the arrows I had left — we had left: three.
To last forever.
Not that it mattered anymore.
On the ground where I’d dropped it, where I’d forgotten about it, the bow, the one my father had built in the shop he used to have. It was in two pieces. The cow had stepped on it.
I don’t know how long I stared at it.
Forever, I guess.
The tenth arrow we scavenged. Just for the broadhead. It was the point of our new spear, or the one we were going to use until my father knitted the bow.
Everyday while I hunted, he stayed at the tent, working on the bow.
When I’d get back, I didn’t ask him if it was together yet, and he didn’t ask me if I’d got anything with the ridiculous spear that was taller than either of us were.
The next cow we got was in a pit we kept slick with water.
We had to carry the meat up handful by handful, as there were no branches above to anchor a hoist to. It was something to think about next time, my father said. Everything had been a lesson lately. Like he was getting me ready.
I wasn’t, though.
“There are places where the goats fall from the sky every day,” I told him, our game. “Like raindrops, sometimes.”
“It’s raining goats,” he said, his fingers spread over the fire.
“Some of them even land on each other, and don’t explode.”
“Pets,” he said, smiling.
“A herd,” I said back.
It would be so easy to mess it up, what we were each seeing, that we didn’t say anything else, just wrapped ourselves around it, slept.
The eleventh arrow splintered on the new bow. Broke trying to get around the new riser my father had finally made work. What it was was the the old riser, just wrapped in the sinew we’d peeled from the shins of the horse. My father drilled little dowels in the riser, carved the perfect sized pegs then set them in, wet them so they’d swell into place, and pushed the riser together.
The sinew he wrapped around and around the seam, heating each layer over the fire but not too much, because it would melt and run off, down onto the limbs.
And then we let the whole thing dry for a full week.
On a perfect day, we took it out to a clearing the scavengers didn’t know about — we hadn’t seen them for nearly a month, so maybe they’d moved on, even — and my dad twanged the string.
“Ready?” he said.
“Do you remember the first time you did this?” I asked. I don’t know why.
“In the store,” he said, nodding, holding the bow down by his thigh now. “Your mom was trying on clothes. I was supposed to be telling her if I liked them or not.”
“Trying on clothes?”
“For this . . . for a party, I think. The Robinsons, maybe.”
“Was it good?”
He nodded that it probably was, and I saved my questions about it — each thing he told me, I could interrogate it, live it, for days, if he’d let me — looked out to the mat we’d set up to take the arrow.
“It’s going to work,” he said, pulling the string back a little more, to warm the limbs.
“I know,” I said, though I was already wondering if Mom had felt betrayed, not having him there to say this dress was good, that shirt was better.
Did she enjoy the party?
And then my dad drew the bow. It arced back into a crescent perfectly, no creak even, no shudder, and he let the arrow go.
When it didn’t slap into the mat, I turned back to my father.
My first concern was the bow, but it was still whole.
My father, though: no.
The arrow had splintered, and one of the splinters had gone through his hand sideways, so that there was bone involved.
It was seeping blood all down the bow, which he still hadn’t let go of, and wouldn’t, until he handed it across to me, his eyes trying not to show me what this meant for us.
“Find the broadhead,” he said, and then, walking back, passed out from loss of blood.
I pulled him home on a sledge, like the forequarters of a cow.
The twelfth arrow of the dozen my father bought back before time stopped, I keep it nocked at all times. This winter I’ve taken three cows with it, and could have had a fourth, but the meat lasts longer now.
The last time my father was awake, I chewed a bite for him, guided it into his mouth but then had to pick it out later, throw it up into the tree for the birds.
When his eyes are open I’ll sometimes nod to him like he did good, that I’m ready, that this is no problem.
It’s like what he told me about the shirt my mom settled on that day he bought the bow. Like what he told me about the fish and the bent arrow, probably.
But I prefer it.
The new scavengers know I’m alone now, too. It’s just a matter of time before the pigs they keep on leashes find my tent, and, though I imagine it this way, I don’t think they’re going to come single file, so I can run one arrow through all of them. And I doubt I could draw the bow that deep anyway.
Last night, either while I slept or some other way, I saw, shimmery and far away, one of the zeppelins in the sky.
There were goats walking along its top ridges, collecting like barnacles.
In the gondola slung under, in a window, Mom, her hands holding each other in her lap.
She’s waiting for me, I know. To take me back to before, and stay there this time. Just live there over and over.
And maybe because I saw her like that last night, my ears are tuned differently when I wake.
There’s a thump in the ground, like a heartbeat, just twice, fast, then nothing. But it’s enough.
I drag my father into the safe hole, cover him, then follow the sound to the high clearing.
Goats from the sky.
The first has exploded, but the second, like I always told my father, it’s bounced. The goat’s broken in the grass, but still kicking and heaving.
I go to it, place my hand over its eyes, and see that it’s mid-birth: there’s a kid nosing through a tear in her smooth stomach.
I scratch that skin with my broadhead, pull the kid out, cut it free and then feel a coolness wash over me. A moldy dampness. From above.
It’s foundering in the sky, still spilling goats. Instead of touching the ground it lowers an anchor, hooks a tree, then just wavers there, me holding the kid to my chest, the bow in my other fist, my mouth set.
“What?” I call up to it, and then the one doorway in that gondola, a shape steps into it. A person. Hair spilling down around the shoulders, never staying still.
“Mom?” I whisper, not sure if I want it to be her or not, and the newborn in my arms — Theodore, I call him now — he bleats, starts pulling for the whispering thrum of the ship, which he must remember. But the tree they’re tied to is creaking, the ash above pulling, swirling, waiting.
I say it again, Mom, and then the tree rips and the anchor’s trailing up into the sky, and I run after, screaming No, I think, or Please, or Wait, or trying to explain about Dad, that he’s going to get better, and then finally, to stop her from leaving me here again I fling my last arrow up at the foil skin of the zeppelin, and the gas roiling beneath that skin.
And what I’d like to say is that the clouds, when they settle on the mountains, the ash they’re made from now is dense enough to support my weight. That I’ve stepped up into it, into the sky, and that I never look back, and I never die. Or if I do die, it’s in the before, like that first arrow my father shot, he doesn’t know where.
What I’d like to say is that I go after that arrow, reaching.
But it’s really the twelfth I want back more than anything.