A Man Takes a Fox, a Chicken and a Sack of Grain Across a River in a Small Boat by Jo Withers

Except I am the chicken, my brother is the fox, and the boat is my mother’s funeral car.

The sack of grain is my brother’s wife who sits between us, clinging to his arm, dabbing dramatically at her non-existent tears. The fox stares forward, eyes narrow, lips taut, the way I remember him from childhood. The only time I’ve seen him smile in the last twenty years was when he greeted me at my mother’s house to tell me she had passed before I got there, to watch in satisfaction as my face absorbed the loss.

The funeral car snakes through my mother’s village, past the dreary lane we used to take to school, past the tiny florist where I had my first Saturday job. There is an organic butcher’s there now, yesterday’s headstrong lambs in the window, hanging skinless by their feet.

Everything is wrong. He has chosen white lilies for the funeral corsage although my mother loved pansies and poppies. Her coffin will enter the church to Brahms when she was besotted by Bowie. He has taken every nuanced thing about her and flattened it neutral and staid.

The sack of grain rests her head against the fox’s shoulder and wrings her pale hands. I notice for the first time that my mother’s wedding ring is now sitting on her finger, the ring my father bought with six months wages and presented to my mother while she was bed-ridden with flu. I wonder if the grain even knows the story, whether she ever cared enough to ask.

As we reach the turn for the church, the church where my mother married my father, where we were christened, where she will bid her final farewell, I shout out to the man to stop the car. He stutters something, starts to slow down, says this has never happened in the forty years he’s been in the job. Before it’s fully stopped, I pull the handle and leap out, leaving the fox and the grain together in slack-jawed silence, one cunning, one complicit.

While the funeral procession continues to the stifling church where they will chant their biblical admonishments then drink to drown her memory, I run between the rows of old brick houses in my mourning suit and polished black shoes, run to the river where mother and I walked every weekend in my childhood. I select long, strong leaves and reeds, thread them together as my mother taught me, fashion a bluebell into a mast and set my mother’s leaf boat on the water, wish it safe journey, sit alone, ruffled chicken on the riverbank, as somewhere in the distance a solemn church bell tolls.

JO WITHERS — Jo writes short fiction from her home in South Australia. Previous work has won prizes at SmokeLong, Reflex Fiction, Molotov Cocktail and Furious Fiction. Jo occasionally tweets @JoWithers2018.

Art by CHRISTOPHER WOODS — Christopher is a writer and photographer who lives in Chappell Hill, Texas with his artist wife Linda and their Great Pyrenees, Milo. His photographs can be seen in his galleries: https://christopherwoods.zenfolio.com/f86150928; https://www.instagram.com/dreamwood77019/. His poetry chapbook, What Comes, What Goes, was published by Kelsay Books (kelsaybooks.com).