For our fifth installment, Matthew Bryant visits the head of Asher, the narrator’s twin brother.
Next up: Susan Sheehey
Conflicted feelings of anger and gratitude shot through Asher’s veins like the heat and cold of a fever, something he was far more used to from years of suffering health. For as long as he could remember, he watched his twin run and play with the children of neighbors while Momma fussed over him, running her fingers through his hair and admiring him as one would a porcelain doll, fearing irreversible damage at the slightest force.
He pushed the wheelbarrow of grain to the animal pens, eyes staring longingly at the ax imbedded in the chopping stump. The bigger chores always went to Ezra. “Man’s work,” the elders called them. Even Elder Thomas, who had always taken a shine towards Asher.
Lacking the physique of his twin, Asher worked diligently in his studies, desperate for any piece of old-world literature his fingers could find, eyes could caress. The way his peers would stare at the budding figures of females, he would admire the written word of a world long destroyed.
Ezra still hadn’t joined him by the time the animals had been fed and the wheelbarrow returned to the shed. His eyes lingered on the forsaken ax, an irrational urge to prove himself causing his heart to beat a bit faster. Tongue flicked dryly across his lips, eyes darted left and right in search of opposition. None being found, Asher approached the ax, loving the way his fingers slid across the friction-worn wood of the handle.
Letting a long-held breath escape his lips, he pulled he ax from its resting place, tested its weight, then held it high above his head.
“Put that thing down before you hurt yourself, boy! That’s man’s work.” Elder Mitchell stood at the end of the field beside a smirking Billy Mitchell. The older boy delighted in Asher’s constant berating in the eyes of the elders and family. “Billy, go handle that for young Asher and send him to retrieve the wash.”
As if I can’t hear him for myself, Asher fumed.
Billy met him at the chopping block, set a large piece of wood on top, and took the ax from Asher. “Let a man show you how it’s done,” he leered before lifting the blade high and bringing it down in a clean slice through the block. “Just like that, kid.”
Satisfied with the show, Elder Mitchell turned and headed back into the farmhouse. Billy watched him leave, then thrust the ax forcefully at the Asher’s mid-section, knocking some wind from the smaller boy. Placing another block atop the stump, he stepped back and said, “Alright, Ash. Swing away.”
The excitement returned. Ax in hand, he raised it high and brought it down, just as he had seen Billy do. Just as he had watched Ezra do time and again, always imagining it was him. The swing ended in a hard thunk. The head of the ax was buried in the block, but hadn’t broken through. He looked questioning to Billy.
“Swing again.” He did as he was told. The blade went deeper, but still didn’t split. “One more time. Good and hard.”
Asher brought the block-weighted ax above his head and swung down with all of his might, turning his head at the last second as a splinter of wood came flying for his face. When he looked again, the block lay in two pieces on either side of the stump. “I did it,” he laughed to himself, smile plastered across his face.
“Yeah, yeah. Good for you. Don’t go getting’ a big head or nothin’,” Billy teased, taking the ax back from him. “Now run along and fetch the laundry. The sooner we get done here, the sooner I can show you some of the stuff we found in the field.”
That was enough to get him running. Excitement from more old world objects, hopefully a new book, distracted him from the stinging in his palms. It was almost enough to make him forget the girl. Almost.
He reached the clothesline and started plucking the laundry from the line, folding each article neatly before laying it in the wide wicker basket. It wasn’t the girl that bothered him so much as the scene itself. He’d had asthmatic episodes before, but not like this one. It was far too sudden to be normal. It even had a smell to it, like the scent of burning licorice intertwined with some unfamiliar but pungent herb. Worse was the darkness. Not the cold darkness of night or of restless sleep. There was heat in it. Searing fire. Choking smoke.
And then it was magically lifted. Brought back from the clutches of death by some girl. A girl using forbidden magic. A girl with a head full of dark hair, but the most vibrant green eyes he’d ever seen. A girl who just happened to be there when he was struck. A girl who had already stolen the attention of his brother.
Fire burned through his veins as he pieced events together. Looking up, he realized he’d already collected every last bit of laundry. Asher scooped the basket and darted off to where Billy would be waiting for him. The only person who would understand. The only person who would believe him. The only person who shared the dreams.
The Goddess that nearly destroyed civilization was returning despite the sacrifices. No. Not returning. Still here. Now she was seducing his brother. And Asher would bet his secret stash of books that she was looking to finish what she started.