ever since the good word left

originally published in Short Fiction Experiments, Winter 2015


Ever since the good word left there is nothing for the German to do any more, so he just sits in the corner and rubs his wrists against the wall all day long. I wish he would leave but the German is the only one with the short sweet cigars that Papa likes, so he is allowed to stay even though he keeps me up at night. The German came in with a big sack of gold coins and a whole trunk of cigars, so Papa doesn’t mind that no one new has visited in a long time.

When he first arrived I thought maybe I would learn to speak German with him and we could make fun of Helena together without her knowing what we were saying, which would get her back for when she purposely hides the small shovel because she knows using the big one hurts my wrists. But the language hurts my throat and the German doesn’t look at me when he mutters his strange words. He won’t even take biscuits from my hand when I offer them. All he does is rub at the wood and whimper when the kettle whistles.

The German also wails whenever he hears shovel hit rock, and holds his hands over his ears when the roosters cry. They’re the only times he stops rubbing and rubbing. We only wash outdoors now because at the gush of water running the German becomes nothing but scream, like he doesn’t have enough space inside for all that fear but the sound keeps coming up and out of his gut in thick ropes. I tried running the bathwater and hoping he would lose his voice, but instead he started making an even worse gurgling sound, like he was drowning on his own spit. So now I use the basin outdoors like Papa and Helena do.

Helena and I huddle on the floor at night and stuff raw cotton into our ears, but we can still hear the German groaning. We tried stuffing cotton into the German’s ears but he just pulled it back out then slobbered it into his mouth and started to choke. Papa saw and was mad and told us to stop bothering our guest. Papa is almost deaf so he says to him the German only sounds like a tiny bell ringing from far away, or a dust cloud.

I can tell that the German is starting to shrink because I measure the marks he makes when he finally sleeps. When he first started rubbing the wall they were 4 and 3 and now they are only 3 and 10. If we can’t shut him up or drive him out we have to find another way. So Helena and I make a list of reasons Papa should leave for a few days, like we are sick and need town medicine, or we’ve broken both the shovels, or there are new foreigners in the nearest city. One of them will make him go.

We’ll tie shut the roosters’ beaks, pack dirt around the door frame, seal shut the windows, keep our breathing slow and prepare our feather pillows to hold still every living sound. Then maybe the German will rub himself smaller and smaller like a pencil eraser until he is all gone. And the next visitor will not have anyone to share his room with after we sweep the sad shavings up off the floor.

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