Brother Gil died of fever. His last view was from the bedroom window, looking over the hills. He was twelve. He burnt up and cooled off in one evening. He didn't make a sound. Our mother gathered him in her arms in the morning when the cock crowed. We buried him on a Sunday. The mound of fresh dirt looked like a promise. I helped our father dig the grave. We took special care to make it just so. Brother Gil had a nice box in which to lay; he liked right angles.
Our mother’s face sunk onto her teeth. She blessed the Sunday meal with a flat voice and went to bed after one piece of cornbread. Our father kept silent except for the clicking of his chewing teeth. Afterwards, he lit a pipe and kept the fire stoked. He stayed rocking in the glider and made the floorboards creak.
I wiped the table down, watching the crumbs travel in the grooves of the wood. I shook my foot this way and that. Dust shot out from around the legs of the table. It didn’t seem right that Brother Gil was dead and dust could do whatever it pleased. I let loose a tear but sucked my lip over my bottom teeth. I sucked my lip so hard it bled a little.
In town, people nodded to us knowingly. Most of them looked hungry. Some of the women wore clothes that draped their bony arms. Winter came hard and fast. Two of our cows wandered into a blizzard. We didn’t find them for two weeks. When we did, they were slick and bloated. Our father said it was a blessing we could not smell them--the cold air kept the flesh from stinking. John from the next farmstead came and helped our father drag the carcasses into the wood. The ground was frozen.
In the middle of winter, four farmhouses were set on fire. John said one of them was likely an accident. The other three were the work of incendiaries. I felt sorry for people who were so cold they would set their house on fire. But our father said it wasn’t to stay warm, but to get a new start.
Our mother kept mostly silent that winter. She said a blessing every night. Her eyes wandered toward the horizon during the day.
In January, John came down and sat with our father in front of the fire. He drank whiskey straight from a glinting flash. He sang a few songs. His voice was like rustling wheat. John had walked from Canada to set a farm up in the territory. He told our father the land was worse than what he had heard in Calgary. He told our father it was too damned much to farm it. He also told our father he was thinking about a mail order bride from Germany. Our father said it was a bad idea. Then, John looked at me for a long time. I felt ashamed but curious.
My hands shook the rest of the winter.