Cricket in a Jar

2017 Barrett Winner

2nd Place Joshua Hillary

The silhouette of trees swayed against the silver moon, the gentle breeze brushing down the hillside, along the cloudy river bed and through the pasture, blowing against the tall grass with crickets hopping—chirping—as Jim lounges on the porch—silent—bottle of moonshine in hand, painting the scene in his head before it’s all gone. The vast violet horizon sprawling across his hazel eyes.

He’s wearing the same mangy overalls, overcoat, and Trilby that he had worn before his untimely departure some years prior. And together, we watch as an orchestra of crickets leap up between the blades of grass, reciting a prayer to the night-sky as they depart on their exodus into the hazy emerald beyond.

I tap Jim on the shoulder, pointing at them “You remember Pa’s story about crickets?” Jim blinks, shaking away the head-fog and rubbing his knuckles against his sand-paper cheek. “What’s that?” He says, taking a swig from his jar.

“The crickets… Pa’s story?” “It’s been a long time…” He says, leaning further back into his chair, tipping his hat over his eyes. “He used to tell us about the china-man he met, carried crickets around in a cage for good luck.” “Pa never met no china-man…” “Well, even so, you think it’s possible?” He tilts his head up, the side of his eye peeking from under the hat’s brim “What’s possible?” “That crickets are good fortune.”

He giggles to himself, quickly erupting into a gut laugh. “I don’t believe in too much these days, Liam. But, I ‘specially don’t believe something holed up in a cage has good fortune.”

“Do you think it could bring good fortune?” “’Course not… Look, a cricket does exactly what it looks like it does, and nothing more. That goes for most things. Trying to see something that’s not right in front of you is a waste a time. It’ll get your brain all twisted up. You want a real fortune? I got some sitting right here in my grasp.” He lifts the glass to his eyes, rotating it with his fingers, watching the colors morph as the light passes through. “folks will pay a pretty penny for this… the nectar of truth—I call it.”

We sit for a moment in silence and I dangle my head between my knees. He takes his hat off, slicks back his hair and then returns it to his head, shifting his weight so that his chair angles towards mine “I know, it’s a sad fact—there’s not much mystery left in this world… but, that is why God has graced us with an over-abundance of grain alcohol—that of which we can drown our sorrows until kingdom come.” He gestures to me with the Mason jar. I grab the sweaty bottle from him, lifting it to my mouth. The fumes swirling out sending shivers up my nose. I take a drink and it burns my throat. I cough, sending the clear liquid misting into the air, stinging my lips and soaking my clothes. Jim roars with laughter.

“The truth’s difficult to swallow, isn’t it?” He grins, and for the first time I can see his jagged yellow teeth like a palisade protruding from his gums. It was rare to find Jim smiling these days, he kept his lips sealed tight like a bear trap—widening only when he meant to.

I screw the lid back onto the jar, grimacing as I hand it back. We laugh together—remembering better days—until our laughter dissolves “So, when are you taking off?”

“A few colleagues of mine coming to pick me up at dawn.”

I wilt my head again and he scrambles my hair around with his mitt “You’ll be alright.”

“Hey, Jim?” “Yeah?” “You think Pa’s still out there somewhere?”

Jim looks up past the river and trees, taking a moment before he answers “I’ll be honest with you since you’re getting older… I’m pretty sure he died out there… I know how much you miss him an’ all, but that’s the truth.” I rub the back of my hand across my wet eyes.

“They never found his body. But, if we’re being honest with ourselves, he ain’t alive. He’s been gone 6 years, he hasn’t turned up by now, may as well be dead.”

We both sit staring into the tree filled hills, listening to the song of crickets and the cries of the cicada, lain overtop the cacophony of noises rattling from the woods.

“I’m sorry.” Jim whispers. “Here, I’ll make you a bet. You finish the rest of this here ‘shine and I’ll let you keep the jar. You can catch your damn cricket too, so the least I can say is I left you with some good fortune.” A smile stretches across my face and I snatch the jar from his hand, taking a deep breath before guzzling what’s left of the liquor. My body shivers from top to bottom, and back up again, the hair follicles standing on their hind legs. I close my eyes—twitching—until the tremors are gone. Shaking it off and holding my gut so that I don’t expel it across the porch-floor-planks. Jim starts clapping wildly “Oh shit! I’ll be damned.” I laugh and choke at the same time. “You’re a man now!” He exclaims. My eyes water, growing red with veins.

I recall having bloodshot eyes the day Jim returned at the train-station six years ago. He was waiting in a neatly ironed uniform—stiff. The train smoke pouring over him—enshrouding him in a billow of fog. His eyes peeking through, unmoved, as if he could see straight through. Momma dropped my hand and ran ahead. His expression never faltered. Despite the pain behind his eyes, I envied what he had. ‘You’re a man.’ Those immortal words. Pa had always said that war made men out of boys—and thus Jim became a man—even though Pa was dead long before he could tell him so.

Hugh’s porch-chair creaks as he leans back into it “I’d wash that bottle out before you catch anything if I was you. Poke some holes in the lid.” Jim says, as he pulls out a little blade, holding out his other hand. I hand him the lid and he begins twisting the blade tip over it. “Remember, don’t tell Momma I let you drink.”

“She won’t find out anyways, she never leaves her room anymore since Pa—and since you took off… She goes to work, comes home and just locks herself in her room. It gets pretty quiet around here.” I huff.

I could still recall the aroma. Momma used to cook the four of us breakfast: eggs, sausage, bacon, and beans. It used to wake me up, lulling me from my slumber. Pa would be holding a pipe in his mustachioed mouth, sitting at the table, stuffing crushed tobacco in the chamber with his index finger.

We didn’t say much—heck, we didn’t need to. Our silence was alive and thumping. Silence can sound so different at times. One moment it’s the gap between the high notes, and other times it’s the sound of nothing left worth singing. “Are you going to talk to her before you take off?” I ask, Jim.

“Don’t make no difference whether I want to or not.” He says, leaning forward in his chair. He grabs a strand of hair with his two fingers and shoves it back beneath his hat.

“I wish you’d stay.” “If I sit still, I’ll never start moving again…”

After pouring out the mason jar, I roll up my pant-legs and stumble barefoot into the weeds, dipping the jar into the dirt to catch crickets, but they’ve stopped singing. I sit completely still, attempting to lull them into a false sense of safety before I pounce.

I close my eyes while I wait and the world starts to spin like a carousel. I stifle my gag reflex and listen close—the grass rustles. I open my eyes and swing the jar wild, dirt kicking up into the air. I lose my balance and toss my jar, bashing my head against the sod. As I lay—back to the grass—I take a moment to wipe the sweat from my brow, watching the tattered midnight clouds pass overhead.

I can hear Jim, clapping as I lift myself up. I sit with my arms propped back like kickstands, and I eye my bottle—a nymph hops inside. I slam the lid down and lift the jar to have a gander, my mouth wide in shock. His antenna twitches like he’s tuning into a fuzzy radio station, his five eyes staring back.

A loud—boom—echoes from across the hills, the sound ricocheting off the barn, the trees, and the river, making it difficult to decipher its location. Jim stands up from his seat and a flock of birds flee from distant tree-tops, cooing as they sail out into the darkness.

I hobble inside and set my cricket down on the table. I grab my rifle from the shed and sling it over my shoulder and when I return to the porch, Jim’s still staring out into the woods.

“That was close. The heck was that?” I ask. “Gunshot.” “I’m going to check it out. You coming?” “I’ll miss my ride… It’s probably just some hunter got lost.” I check the rifle chamber for ammunition “Shit, I need bullets.” “I don’t think you should go by yourself, Liam.” “I’ve done everything myself for the last six years.” Jim has a look of guilt in his eyes. He shakes his head “Try and get back before your Momma wakes up.”

“She’s your Momma too.”

I run inside the house, rummaging through drawers, cabinets, shelves, closets and I can’t find a damn thing. I storm the kitchen—and Momma is leaning against the door frame—dead silent with a cigarette between her lips. Her eyes are wrinkled and yellow, dried out from years of staring at the smolder. The smoke obscures them, twirling out of her mouth and into the cracked window above the sink. I can’t see her eyes anymore, but I know she’s staring at me, I can feel it, her infernal gaze setting fire to my eyes until I can do nothing but avert them. Jim walks in right behind me, “You find th—,” stopping dead in his tracks at the sight of Momma. She doesn’t say a word.

“Hi, Ma.” Jim says, stepping one foot inside the door-way, the other on the crease.

Momma, looks at Jim, then looks back at me. “Come here, boy.” I walk over to Momma, with my head hanging between my shoulders. “Give it here.” I hand her the rifle. She takes it and leans it against the table beside her. She takes one final drag of her cigarette and drills it into the ashtray until it folds up like a snake, exhaling one last time before its heart goes black and gray.

She grabs the lower half of my jaw with her palm; she moves my head from side to side, peering over me. She shoves my head to let me go, and then smacks me across the cheek, turning me red and making my eye tear up. “Go to your room.” She commands.

“He can take care himself.” Jim whips back, inching his other foot in the door-way. “And who are you?” She says, laughing in awe as she holds her forehead against her hand. “You think you know something about this boy, here?” She says, leaning her head in towards Jim. “He’s my brother.” “Well, isn’t that a lovely sentiment?”

Momma turns to Liam—frozen in place. “Where do you think you’re running off to anyways with that cannon?”

“We heard a gunshot.”

Momma breathes in deep, she widens her nostrils several times like a rodent and then looks over at my mason jar and then at Jim “You got the nerve to pop up—poof—like nothing after six god damn years and corrupt the only son I got left!”

“I gave him a sip, Momma.” “Don’t call me that! Don’t you dare. I never birthed no criminal—you got no right to call me that… I need you to get out… Now.”

“I’m leaving at sun-up anyways.” “That sounds about right, stick ta what you know best.” She makes a shooing motion with her hands and then points at me “I told you to be on your way!”

I readjust myself, pouting my chest “No.”

“Look who wants to be a man.” “He’s been the man since I left.” Jim says, folding his arms across his chest. “Is that what he told you?” “He didn’t need to.” “Did he also tell you we’re going to have to give up the house and move into the city?” “What do you mean?” He asks. “There aren’t too many jobs in the mountains for women or lame-boys.” Momma says, glaring at me. Jim looks over at me, squinting his eyes.

“He can’t cook, he can’t hunt, he can’t farm, he can’t clean. Your father never taught him how to do nothing, he wasted it all on you. Now I’m left with a lame-boy. Can’t do shit besides ask questions and collect up trash like this.” She picks up my cricket jar from the table and eyes Jim.

She winds up and chucks the jar—it whizzes past Jim’s head—shattering the cabinet window and bursting into pieces against the kitchen floor.

Jim looks down at the damage and sighs. He opens the door and walks onto the porch, his boots crunching over the debris. The bottom of the jar creaks as it rocks upon the kitchen floor. The cricket hops out from underneath the lid, shifting his antenna around before bolting for the door. Momma tries to stomp it as it dashes away. Her foot becoming bloody as she steps on the glass and the shards slide into her flesh.

The cricket escapes through the swinging screen door and Momma shrinks to the ground, holding her head. She picks the pieces of glass from her heel, holding her breath before each.

“I’m leaving!” I scream, grabbing my rifle.

“Why do you want ta go out there, what’s your fixation?” Momma asks. “Because…” “Because, why?” “Because, what if it’s Pa?”

Jim walks back in and passes me another Jar, its got a new cricket inside. The edge drains from Mommas voice, her face turning dark and red, and her posture relaxing. “Is that what this is about?” Momma pauses “Harlan’s dead. Your Pa’s dead, sweetheart.” She leans in. “Going out there is useless. I’m sorry, I didn’t have the heart to tell either a you, but it seems I have to now. Search party found his body a few months after he disappeared. Dead as dixie. Gone.”

“You’re a liar.” Jim says, tightening his lips.

Their voices start to fade into a murmur and my head starts spinning, I quietly make my way to bed, meandering like a ghost with one hand against the wall, my stomach in the other. I crack the window, rest my cricket on the mantel, and collapse onto the mattress, pulling the sheets over my head.

The door creaks as Momma and Jim step outside, I can still hear the feint muffled sounds of them arguing from my bedroom. I can hear Mama start to cry, and as the grandfather clock’s pendulum swings—tick-tock—the voices start to blend together, along with the chirps of the crickets, like a bunch of ingredients mixing together to make a head-spinning gumbo, slowly becoming one singular sound as I descend into the dark fog of sleep.

The clock chimes ring and I rise to look out of my window, using my hand to shade my eyes. The sun is rising above the hills, spilling light through the cracks in the trees and turning the river pink, casting the harsh shadow of Jim’s hat against his eyes as he holds the rifle over his shoulder, marching into the woods. He looks at me out of the side of his eye, and proceeds, getting smaller and smaller as he descends into the tree filled hills, towards the sound of the mysterious gunshot. I wish I could follow him.