It was like something from one of the stories Mother used to tell me at bedtime, but in reverse. My mother stayed alive; it was my father, a hunter and mushroom gatherer, who coughed until blood trickled down his chin. Not long after we buried him, Mother welcomed Mr. Perce to our home on the edge of the forest and to her bed. I did not blame her for marrying again, because a woman alone is a fragile thing; instead I blamed Mr. Perce for pressing his case so energetically in her time of weakness. He may have filled an emptiness in our life and our little house, but he filled it with a stinking cancer that smelled of dead fish.
My older sister Lydia had an escape; when she saw that Mr. Perce was a cruel serpent of a man, she half-corralled Jim Olandt into marrying her just so she could escape the shadow which now filled our home on the edge of the wood. I would have liked to escape with her, but the tiny new house Jim made for her had no room in it for me, and anyway, Mr. Perce wouldn’t have let me go. He liked having gotten a son old enough to do chores without waiting through the years of squalling infancy, even though I was barely big enough to wrestle the bucket back from the well. In that chore, as in all others, he waited for me to make any mistake he could punish me for; a slop of water just inside the doorjamb was enough for him to remove his belt with relish. After the first time, when Mother got her own black eye for getting in the way, she never tried to defend me again.
Mr. Perce was a fisherman. He left every morning before the sun rose and was back stinking of fish before supper, or sometimes of fish and liquor after supper. Every time I saw a dark cloud on the ocean horizon at daybreak, I prayed that this would be the one that swept him overboard and sent him to his darling fishes. At first I confessed the sin of such dark thoughts regularly, until I realized that I couldn’t repent to the priest of prayers I which made in all sincerity and which I had no intention of ceasing. So instead I stopped confessing them.
I had thought myself too old for bedtime stories until Father died, but afterward, with Mother and myself stuck alone in that home which now reeked of the invader, I longed for them. Of course, solely because they were a comfort to me, Mr. Perce forbade them. But sometimes, when he decided that the lure of strong drink was worth more than the lure of my mother’s bed until late at night, there was time for her to sit on the edge of my pallet and tell me tales as she had told years before. I never asked her to change the wicked stepmothers in the stories into stepfathers, but maybe she knew I was silently making that substitution…