by Jo Withers

When my mother couldn’t give my father the son he wanted, he built a boy instead. After my mother delivered me, another girl, it is said my father disappeared for weeks. My oldest sister remembers him living in the shed, hammering and sawing night and day, only emerging to collect the stream of boxes which were constantly delivered from the abattoir in town.

Six weeks after I was born, Father emerged with his creation. Our brother had huge limbs like hocks of ham, hair like wire, and coarse, pink skin. His round face peaked in an upturned snout, and he had the largest, saddest bovine eyes. Father named him Gabriel after the strongest, most merciless angel.

Father insisted Gabriel’s needs should be prioritised above the female children in the family. Before my mother could feed and bathe us, she must oil Gabriel’s thick skin, softening the seams where Father had clumsily stitched the still-warm animal shanks together.

Mother strived to give us a normal childhood, but from an early age, Gabriel’s appearance kept us isolated. We shied away from judgmental crowds and instead played in the meadows together as toddlers. Gabriel would lumber along behind us, always painfully slow on his giant, hacked-out limbs. As I upended rocks to discover matchbox pets with my mother and sisters and worked daisies into chains with nimble fingers, Gabriel would paw the ground then run headfirst into fruit trees, shaking with delight as they exploded their wares on the ground at his feet.

When we were both five and my sisters were eight and ten, it was decided that they needed more space so I would share a bedroom with Gabriel. I would lie awake at night listening to stable snores as my brother fell asleep. He had never learnt to speak and made no sound by day, but each evening as he fell into dreaming, the most mournful whinnying would escape his throat, like the last ballad of lambs to the slaughterhouse, and his limbs would twitch like wild hares running as he tried to bolt away.

When my older sisters hit puberty, Gabriel and my father disappeared into the shed again. When we were young children, Gabriel always towered over us, but now the male of the family was barely taller than the girls. The stream of deliveries from the local abattoir began again as Father started extending Gabriel’s frame for adulthood. Huge crates of fresh flesh were rolled into the shed, as well as a giant ox heart, which was carried in on ice to power our brother’s formidable new frame.

As soon as they could, my sisters escaped. My eldest sister became a lawyer, the second eldest an accountant. They moved together to a swish apartment in the city where everything was made of glass. At first, they visited quite often, exhilarated to share details of their bright new lives. “I passed the Bar exam,” the eldest would say. Father would ignore her, draw attention to Gabriel’s bulging torso. “I’ve been given a promotion,” said the second eldest, “From three thousand applicants.” Father smirked, “Why not arm wrestle Gabriel?” he teased. “That will show you true competition.” Soon they stopped visiting altogether.

I suppose I would have found a way out too if it hadn’t been for Mother. Her health had been precarious for years and the rift with my sisters only aggravated her complaints. Father had no care for her after she’d performed her child-raising duties, so she lay untroubled in the big bed in the back bedroom all day and night. I would bring her meals and keep her company, and when he’d finished tending the fields, Gabriel would visit in the evening and bring fresh fruit or flowers from the day’s spoils. Occasionally, if Father fell asleep early in his chair, Gabriel would come back to the room and lay on the floor below the bed and Mother would soothe her fingers through his wild, coarse hair and he would tilt his head and listen as I read our mother poetry.

Even with our loving care, Mother’s health continued to deteriorate. One morning I went into her room and found her ashen and motionless beneath the dawn light, a last smile fading on her lips. The funeral day was the saddest of my life as I stood with my father and sisters on the cemetery hill waiting for Gabriel to tow the casket to the top. As they lowered her body into the ground, our always-silent brother dropped to his knees before our mother’s grave and omitted the most pitiful, baleful moan, unnatural and shrill as though his butchered lungs were breathing sorrow for the first time.

All through the night, he continued his braying torment, blotting out all other bleak nocturnal sounds.

The next morning, Father dragged a still-whinnying Gabriel to the shed and moments later, one tiny box was delivered from the abattoir marked “Rabbit Heart.” As I held my breath, the wailing stopped, and the familiar sawing sound returned. I crept up to the shed and stared in through the dirty window. Gabriel was on the table, father labouring above him, re-stitching his severed chest. But, as he turned towards the dim light, I saw my brother’s face—lips twisted, eyes narrowed and cruel, from his newly transplanted, too-small heart.

And as I left that day, never to return, I knew that Father finally had the family he’d always wanted.

Jo Withers writes short fiction from her bleak human heart. In 2021, her dark art can be found in Fractured Lit, No Contact, Ghost Parachute and Wigleaf Top 50 among other places. Jo occasionally tweets @JoWithers2018.
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