The Wooden Headdress

Fiction by Theodora Bishop

We can always detect trouble before it happens in the condo. It never takes much to set Pop off, and usually PJ is the reason for whatever makes him blow his top.

It takes some searching to find her, and when we do PJ is splaying the La-Z-Boy recliner. It crushes us to see her like that: smack on her belly, red hair fanning her back.

She is a pouch of heat when we nudge her. Wake up, the eldest of us whispers.

We are seven brothers, aged twelve through twenty, and we will do anything to protect our sister.

It is unclear whether she goes to sleep because she wants time to march on without her or because PJ is genuinely tired of life hurting her. When she wakes, she seems even deader to the world than when asleep. Sleeping is a coping mechanism, we think, for the headaches.

PJ rolls over, rubs her eyes with her fists, blinks.

Wake up. We shake PJ, starting at the engine crunching the driveway. The damp clomps of boots up to the porch. We can sense the smack of BO tinged with rude perfume before he’s even appeared in the door.

What the fuck? Pop shouts.

PJ reaches for our arms.
 

*

 
 
Usually when Pop gets angry he dumps Cheerios into the peanut butter, squirts Cheez Whiz toupees onto crackers. He washes it all down with Old Milwaukee. One is never enough; cans snap and fizz.

Afterward, he’s on to spritzing disinfectant bottles. Pop wiping the countertops, forehead slimed in the effort: it is pathetic.
 

*

 
 
Boys! Pop shouts.

Take cover. We toss a blanket over our sister.

The door wings open, and Pop fills the frame.

What the fuck!

We form a wall in front of the recliner. Pop, what’s up?

You know the fuck. The shitty deer are on the porch again.

What deer? We look out the window past Pop’s shoulder. One of the Ryersons’ kids is smacking his G.I. Joe against the neighboring condo. The field behind our development is a chocolate cake, and the clouds promise rain.

What we know is that PJ tempts into the garden the deer that chew up Ma’s flowers. Think crushed daffodils, monkshood, lilies.

What we know is that one morning Ma walked into the field behind our condo and left without so much as looking over her shoulder. The last thing we saw was her nightdress dragging behind her.

Where is she? Pop wipes his mouth.

We think she went out.

Pop is bleary-eyed, his puffy face the color of an Easter ham.

Liars, he snarls.

Dad! PJ springs from the La-Z-Boy.

Pop squints from us to PJ, crumples both hands into fists, then loosens the fingers. What we see are worms as he wiggles them.
 

*

 
 
Listen: there is a story among those who live in our development.

Once there was a woman who woke wearing a headdress. At first the headdress made the woman unbalanced. Then one day she realized she need only get down on her hands and feet, run to make her heart beat.

By the way: Pop used to shout at Ma’s face. Now PJ is the one with the headaches.
 

*

 
 
Down the steps, past the pileup of deer and into the garden, PJ trails Pop, and we follow.

The sky smells like a leaking battery as Pop spins around and seizes PJ.
 

*

 
 
Sometimes in dreams Pop appears to us seven with a sponge and a squeegee. One time we dreamed hard that he was trying to wash the sloppy Joe-colored mud from our condo, that he was scrubbing the skin off PJ.

Under the skin was a pelt, and under the pelt was a crown where the heart ought to be.

When we wake from these dreams, PJ is still asleep.
 

*

 
 
So we follow Pop and PJ past the Ryerson kids, to the very space in the trees where we once saw Ma leave.

It is a shock to us when PJ peels past Pop, vanishing into the green before Pop can catch her. In his hand: red strands of hair, in a fistful.

And we all know this means that we must return to the condo and forget her.
 

*

 
 
Still, you are wondering: why the deer? Why did Ma and PJ disappear?

PJ used to say that she adored the soft of the deer’s brown coats. That she loved the fat coins of their eyes, the floral heat of their bodies. How their antlers reminded her of tree branches, and how when she brushed her hands across them they felt the way branches do, spidering from a tree.
 

*

 
 
That night, we seven drown our sorrow in Cheerios and canned cheese. Add the peanut butter and our supper is entirely tan, biscuit, beige.

After Pop hits the hay, we brush our teeth with his Old Milwaukee. We do this until the cans are empty.

We cannot forget about PJ.
 

***

 
 
We do not forget about PJ. It has been ten years since PJ went missing.

We seven brothers have headaches. We seven brothers grow beards, get hairy.

Our condo is a rust box, and there is not nearly enough room for us.

Every day, at the edge of the field, we leave flowers.

Meanwhile, Pop’s liver makes him sicker. He can’t stop cleaning the condo.

Until we brothers see the deer—a beautiful pair. Until we hoof the crowns out of our chests and set them on top of our heads.

Then across the porch we brothers gallop. We tramp through the garden, charge across the field, and turn into men.

Theodora Bishop is the author of the novella On the Rocks (Texas Review Press), winner of a 2018 Next Generation Indie Book Award. Her short story chapbook Mother Tongues won The Cupboard’s 2015 contest, and her poetry and short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Prairie Schooner, Arts & Letters, and Short Fiction (England), among other journals, anthologies, and exhibits. She serves as Poetry Editor for Gulf Coast and Fiction Editor for Big Fiction. Find her at theodorabishop.com.