Duke has never seen a real dead body. He’s seen plenty of people faking it, of course. Every summer, the town puts on Civil War reenactments, and Duke’s father, older brothers, and Uncle Pat put on Confederate uniforms from the museum and head out for the field west of the high school. Nobody wants to be the Union soldiers, so they usually stick some hay in the uniforms like a scare-crow and just lay them face down in the grass. Duke isn’t old enough to participate, but he brings water out to the actors every so often. He wouldn’t tell Wes or Billy about this, not even if they held his head underwater in the back creek the way they do sometimes when they want to know things, but it creeps him out, picking his way through the field with all of them laid out like that.
With nobody but scarecrows to fight, the battle is always brief, but the end seems long. Duke doesn’t like it, seeing most of his teachers and neighbors and family sprawled on the field, eyes closed. Not strangers or old-timey folks in black-and-white textbook photos—people he knows. People he sees in church and the grocery store and in the stands during basketball games, all completely still. Fake-dead, sure. But in a certain light, it starts to feel real. But then Billy will scratch his arm, Wes will yawn, and their father will open his eyes, will gesture for the water bottle. The blood on their skin goes back to being just ketchup, and Duke lets out a sigh of relief.
This is halfway what he expects when he first sees the finger in the woods. Deep down, Duke expects to touch it, and for it to twitch and come back to life. He expects a person to rise from the dirt and the leaves, shuck off a costume, and maybe go for a burger. But when he touches the mud-black finger, it doesn’t stir. And when he brushes back the fallen leaves with a crunch, there is nobody there, not fake-dead or real dead or anything. There’s no body. Just a finger.
Later, he tries to tell Wes, but can’t get the right words out. Duke ends up just standing there in the driveway until his brothers notice him.
“Ma’s rule, remember?” says Wes smugly. “You can’t come.”
Duke knows. He watches Wes and Billy load the gear into their father’s beat-up truck. Despite the fact that most of his friends have been going out deer hunting for several seasons, Duke's mother has always held firm to her conviction that they have to be ten to go. He’s got two years left.
Wes is four years older than Duke, and Billy is seven years older. Duke can remember a time when he and Wes were both too young to go hunting, and it felt in more ways than one like they were on the same team, enviously looking up to their eldest brother. But it seems now like it's the two of them against Duke instead of the other way around. This is all despite Duke and Wes still sharing a bedroom. He doesn’t know how to articulate any of these thoughts out loud, but sometimes Duke stares at Wes’s sleeping face in the dark, the acne on his jaw, the slightly-flared nostrils, the sunburn on his forehead, eyelids fluttering with a dream, and has the feeling like their beds are floating farther and farther apart, and one day soon Duke will roll over and Wes won't be there at all.
“I know, not trying to come,” Duke mutters, staring down at his dingy sneakers. “I found something.”
“You’ll find my fist up your—” Wes cuts himself off when their father shuffles out the side door.
They’re only allowed to swear while hunting, never at home. It’s one of those things Duke doesn’t quite understand, but knows better than to question. The rules are the rules.
Their father, clad in camo, claps the youngest boy on the shoulder on the way past. He tosses Billy the keys, whose bored eyes suddenly light up. Billy doesn’t have his license yet, but is constantly begging to practice. It’s all he ever goes on about—that, video games, and girls. Duke doesn't mind girls. Especially Kitty Harrington, who is the only one in his third grade class who can out-run him, but he also doesn’t get what’s so special about them. Video games are cool when his older brothers let him have a controller, but nothing can beat running wild outside. Duke used to think it was just Billy being Billy. But now it’s not just him. Wes doesn’t want to play outside with Duke anymore either.
“Mama’s at the store. Be good,” farewells his father.
All the words he prepared to tell Wes turn to ash in his mouth. Duke watches them get in the truck, and has that feeling that reminds him of seasickness, like when Uncle Pat took them out sea fishing and he puked into a bucket, or when he used to accompany his mother to the laundromat after one of her cleaning jobs and watched the industrial washing machines go round and round until his head hurt. Duke curls his dirty fingers into fists and watches them pull out of the driveway.
Duke has to pass the faceless statue at least twice every day to and from school. It wasn’t always faceless, but it has been for months. What was once a Confederate general atop a horse is now a smashed-in ghostly figure in the middle of town square. Duke doesn’t get why so many people, his parents included, got all worked up about the monument being vandalized, but he does agree that there’s something wrong about it now. Like in Sleepy Hollow, or like when they look at those Greek torsos in history class. He doesn’t like the idea of a body without its proper parts. Bodies are important, he has observed. They dictate where you can go, what you can do, and they mean things beyond the physical. Much more. Even if Duke doesn’t know exactly what those things are, he knows this.
He thinks about the finger all afternoon. Duke knows he’ll have nightmares about it, the way he has nightmares about the faceless statue. Missing pieces. He’s doing homework on his bed when Wes returns to the room, streaked with dirt and laughing at something Billy said, who continues clomping down the hall to his own room. During dinner, Duke stays quiet. The tight, upside-down feeling in his stomach doesn’t go away.
“Do you think they’ll ever put a new face on the general?” he asks Wes while they clear the table.
“Doubt it. Some folks don’t even want that statue up in the first place.”
“Why don’t they take it down then?”
It’s Billy that answers. “Some people are trying. I guess that Lee kid was sick of waiting.”
“Why do some people want the statue to stay up?”
“We want the statue to stay up,” snaps Wes. “Moron.”
When Duke’s teacher talks about art, she always insists that it means something. It isn’t there for no reason, or even just to look nice, which he thinks is confusing. Aren’t loads of things just the way they are for no reason? Or does everything carry some secret message that Duke has yet to decode? Why don’t adults ever just say what they mean instead of making you translate it?
He doesn’t know, but he parrots his teacher’s phrasing anyway. “Because it means something, right?”
“Right,” replies Wes, face getting blotchy as he works himself up. “It’s not just a statue, it's about culture. Heritage. Our heritage, getting wiped out.”
Billy yawns. “You heard Pop say that exact thing.”
“So? It’s true, ain’t it?”
“Yeah.” Billy shrugs. “Not saying it’s not.”
They deliver the dirty dishes to the kitchen. Their mother takes them. Her hands are red and raw from cleaning other peoples’ houses. In the other room, the TV turns on and Duke hears the creak of his father’s armchair. Billy goes to the fridge to get their father a beer and takes one for himself, shoving it under his shirt before their mother can see. The three boys leave the kitchen.
“Who’s the Lee kid, the one sick of waiting?” asks Duke.
“How many brainless questions you gonna ask?” Billy sighs, but then continues. “Black kid. You've probably seen him at football games. He was a grade ahead of me. He defaced the statue. And snapped off one of the fingers.”
Duke shivers. “Fingers?”
“The general has a fist now instead of a finger pointing to the sky. Lee tore it off. You haven’t noticed it missing?” Wes snickers. “You need glasses or something?”
“Why’d he do all that, anyway?”
“Because within those stony limbs, the blood of the South runs.” Wes slams Duke on the shoulder so hard it hurts. “Whoever wants to swallow us, they gonna choke!”
That night, Duke is brushing his teeth when Billy comes in to piss. To Duke’s surprise, Billy speaks to him of his own volition, almost resuming the conversation from earlier.
“Lee Sullivan. He moved schools.”
“Oh.” Duke pauses, suddenly feeling sick with the minty froth in his mouth. “Why’s that? What happened?”
Duke watches his brother closely in the mirror. Something tight comes over Billy’s face, and then a second later, the same old bored expression is back.
“He got what was coming to him.”
Duke is out in the woods again by himself, like when he first found the finger, but it’s moonlight and all the critter sounds are gone. There’s no wind through the branches or birds flapping through the leafy canopy. There’s just him and the finger laying on the ground. Something strange comes over him, and it’s like he’s an animal on all fours. He stares down at the finger like it's going to tell him something. It means something, he knows it must. But like so much else, Duke doesn’t understand.
The nail is short and blunt, unpolished, and from the size, he thinks it has to be a man’s finger. He can’t tell if it’s a black finger or a white one, if the color is from being dead and muddy or from a result of skin pigment. Why are things the color that they are? He has never thought about this. For a moment, Duke wonders if that’s why all the statues he sees around the state and even in the history books are white, because stone is white, but then he thinks maybe that's not why.
Duke touches the finger. It’s cold, but only a little bloody, severed cleanly at the root. He wants to see if it’s black or white. That way, he can return it to the owner. He spits on it, rubs at it, but nothing happens. He wonders why it’s here in the woods behind his house. A hunting accident? A bear attack? Perhaps some furry little beast has raided the cemetery for a snack. Yes, the finger would be a decent meal for a hungry creature. It’s cold enough that it’s not rotted yet, and there are no bugs. Duke saw a dead deer once with maggots crawling out of the eyes, and couldn't sleep for weeks. It’s possible that his father or brothers could have been the ones to kill it, and that makes Duke feel unsteady again, like a rocking boat.
He sticks the tip of the finger in his mouth. The grit of Earth and soft flesh. He just wants to clean it off. But thinking about his father and Billy and Wes has made his stomach hurt, and Duke himself it’s just hunger pangs until he really does feel hungry. He runs his tongue over the dirty nail and the knobby crease of the knuckle. It smells rank, suddenly, but Duke doesn't stop. He bites down lightly with his front teeth, chews once, twice, starts to feel something dark and horrid ooze into his mouth like tar and slip down his throat.
Duke jolts awake when Wes throws a boot at him.
“Stop yelling,” comes the grumble from across the room.
“I found something,” Duke gasps out into the dim. “In the woods. You gotta see.”
Wes squints at him. “What kinda something?”
“The faceless statue. I found its finger.”
They get Billy. He’s still up, music blaring even through his headphones, and lifting weights on the homemade bench he crafted last summer. His room is small and cramped. It’s always messy— dirty clothes everywhere, band posters peeling on the walls, beer cans spilling out from under the bed. Duke wonders if Wes would rather live in here than with him, and feels a lump form in his throat.
“Go get Ma if y’all had a nightmare. Babies.”
“It wasn’t me!” Wes is overeager to assure. He points at Duke. “It was him!”
“Not a nightmare. I found the missing statue finger.”
“Stupid, right?” demands the middle brother, but Billy doesn’t say anything for a time. He runs a hand through his too-long, sweaty hair. His ratty t-shirt is sleeveless and his arms look bulky the way Duke has seen in magazines. Billy is almost as tall as their father now. Soon Wes will be too, and they’ll both have completely left Duke behind on his own. He feels like an astronaut floating through space, untethered and alone.
Duke holds his breath, looks down at his toes, but Billy doesn’t call him a bad name or shove them out of his room.
He just looks at Duke and says, “Show me.”
So Duke does. He marked the spot with a twig standing up in the mud, and besides, he knows these woods like the veins in his wrist. But in the dark with flashlights everything looks different, and it takes Duke a long time to find the telltale twig. Wes is stomping through the leaves, complaining loudly, and saying rude things. All the while, Billy is looking around, sort of anxiously, sort of sadly, like something is going to jump out of the dark and eat them.
When Duke does find the twig marker, there is no finger nearby. He drops to his knees in his Star Wars pajamas and digs around nervously, unearthing worms and crawlers underneath damp patches of leaves. Muck, rocks, roots. But no finger. His eyes sting.
“I swear it was here…”
Duke remembers the taste of dirt on his tongue, chewing. His throat closes like a fist. It was just a dream, he tells himself, it was just a dream. The finger is here. He left it right here yesterday. It has to be here somewhere. He begins to dig furiously with clawed hands.
“Dukie,” Billy says from nearby, sounding relieved. “There’s nothing here, bud.”
“Course there isn’t,” Wes kicks a brittle stick. “Why would the statue finger be here? Hey, speaking of. I wonder what they did with Lee’s finger? Wish I would’ve been there.”
Billy looks up at the sky, endlessly black and filled with a scattering of stars, then closes his eyes. Duke pauses to watch the expression on his face, but finds it indecipherable.
“They probably gave it to someone to get rid of.”
Wes whirls around, excited. “Oh, yeah? Like who?”
Billy’s eyes remain closed. “I don’t know.”
“Yeah, right. I mean, you were there. You got to watch—”
“Shut the fuck up, Wes,” Billy mumbles, but it’s soft, not the way he usually says it. “You don't know anything.”
“Well, neither do you!”
“Yeah. You’re right.”
Wes kicks at another stick angrily. Duke flinches at the snap, shivering on the cold ground. At any other time, he would relish seeing his brothers fight, if only for a glimpse that they aren't as chummy as his mind has cast them to be. But there is something awful happening now, something he doesn’t get but can feel, like when that deer meat went bad in an unplugged basement freezer at Uncle Pat’s and the smell rose through the floorboards.
Billy gives Duke a piggyback ride on the way home through the woods. The half-mile feels longer than it did on the outward trek, and Duke wonders if the three of them are lost among the trees. Wes is getting tired, eyelids drooping and walking slower, and Billy has to take Wes's hand to make sure he stays with them. Duke clings to Billy’s back, and the three of them, linked together, stumble home. Hot tears slide silently down his face. At one point, he feels the tang of mud at the back of his throat and wants to vomit, but is unwilling to let go of his brothers. Duke swallows it back. Up ahead, the house materializes out of the gloom.
Calais Mustoe is a Vermont native. She is currently working on her first novel.