Read Etta and Otto and Russell and James Online

Authors: Emma Hooper

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Retail

Etta and Otto and Russell and James

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For C & T

always and always

on and on

1

Otto,

The letter began, in blue ink,

I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.

Yours (always),

Etta.

Underneath the letter she had left a pile of recipe cards. All the things she had always made. Also in blue ink. So he would know what and how to eat while she was away. Otto sat down at the table and arranged them so no two were overlapping. Columns and rows. He thought about putting on his coat and shoes and going out to try and find her, maybe asking neighbors if they had seen which way she
went, but he didn’t. He just sat at the table with the letter and the cards. His hands trembled. He laid one on top of the other to calm them.

After a while Otto stood and went to get their globe. It had a light in the middle, on the inside, that shone through the latitude and longitude lines. He turned it on and turned off the regular kitchen lights. He put it on the far side of the table, away from the letter and cards, and traced a path with his finger. Halifax. If she went east, Etta would have three thousand, two hundred and thirty-two kilometers to cross. If west, to Vancouver, twelve hundred and one kilometers. But she would go east, Otto knew. He could feel the tightness in the skin across his chest pulling that way. He noticed his rifle was missing from the front closet. It would still be an hour or so until the sun rose.

G
rowing up, Otto had fourteen brothers and sisters. Fifteen altogether, including him. This was when the flu came and wouldn’t go, and the soil was even dryer than usual, and the banks had all turned inside out, and all the farmers’ wives were losing more children than they were keeping. So families were trying and trying, for every five pregnancies, three babies, and for every three babies, one child. Most of the farmers’ wives were pregnant most of the time. The silhouette of a beautiful woman, then, was a silhouette rounded with potential. Otto’s mother was no different. Beautiful. Always round.

Still, the other farmers and their wives were wary of her. She was cursed, or blessed;
supernatural,
they said to one another across postboxes. Because Otto’s mother, Grace, lost none of her children. Not One. Every robust pregnancy running smoothly into a ruddy infant and every infant to a barrel-eared child, lined up between siblings in gray and off-gray nightclothes, some holding babies, some holding hands, leaning into the door to their parents’ room, listening fixedly to the moaning from within.

E
tta, on the other hand, had only one sister. Alma with the pitch-black hair. They lived in town.

Let’s play nuns, said Etta, once, after school but before dinner.

Why nuns? said Alma. She was braiding Etta’s hair. Etta’s just-normal like a cowpat hair.

Etta thought about the nuns they saw, sometimes, on the edges of town, moving ghostly-holy between the shops and church. Sometimes by the hospital. Always clean in black and white. She looked down at her own red shoes. Blue buckles. Undone. Because they’re beautiful, she said.

No, Etta, said Alma, nuns don’t get to be beautiful. Or have adventures. Everybody forgets nuns.

I don’t, said Etta.

Anyway, said Alma, I might get married. And you might too.

No, said Etta.

Maybe, said Alma. She leaned down and did up her sister’s shoe. And, she said, what about adventures?

You have those before you become a nun.

And then you have to stop? asked Alma.

And then you get to stop.

2

T
he first field Etta walked across the morning she left was theirs. Hers and Otto’s. If there was ever dew here, there would still have been dew on the wheat stalks. But only dust brushed off onto her legs. Warm, dry, dust. It took no time at all to cross their fields, her feet not even at home in the boots yet. Two kilometers down, already. Russell Palmer’s field was next.

Etta didn’t want Otto to see her leaving, which is why she left so early, so quietly. But she didn’t mind about Russell. She knew he couldn’t keep up with her even if he wanted to.

His land was five hundred acres bigger than theirs, and his house was taller, even though he lived alone, and even though he was almost never in it. This morning he was standing halfway between his house and the end of his land, in the middle of the early grain. Standing, looking. It took fifteen minutes of walking before Etta reached him.

A good morning for looking, Russell?

Just normal. Nothing yet.

Nothing?

Nothing worth noting.

Russell was looking for deer. He was too old, now, to work his own land, the hired crew did that, so instead he looked for deer, from right before sunrise until an hour or so after and then again from an hour or so before sunset until right after. Sometimes he saw one. Mostly he didn’t.

Well, nothing except you, I suppose. Maybe you scared them away.

Maybe. I’m sorry.

Russell had been looking all around while he spoke, at Etta, around her, above her, at her again. But now he stopped. He just looked at her.

Are you sorry?

About the deer, Russell, only about the deer.

You’re sure?

I’m sure.

Oh, okay.

I’m going to walk on now, Russell, good luck with the deer.

Okay, have a good walk. Hello and love to Otto. And to any deer if you see them.

Of course, have a good day, Russell.

You too, Etta. He took her hand, veined, old, lifted it and kissed it. Holding it to his lips for one, two seconds. I’ll be here if you need me, he said.

I know, said Etta.

Okay. Goodbye then.

He didn’t ask, where are you going, or why are you going. He turned back around to face where the deer might be. She walked on, east. In her bag, pockets, and hands were:

Four pairs of underwear.

One warm sweater.

Some money.

Some paper, mostly blank, but one page with addresses on it and one page with names.

One pencil and one pen.

Four pairs of socks.

Stamps.

Cookies.

A small loaf of bread.

Six apples.

Ten carrots.

Some chocolate.

Some water.

A map, in a plastic bag.

Otto’s rifle, with bullets.

One small fish skull.

S
ix-year-old Otto was checking the chicken wire for fox-sized holes. A fox could fit through anything bigger than his balled fist, even underground, even up quite high. He would find an opening and press his hand gently against it, pretending to be a fox. The chickens would run away. Unless Wiley, whose job it was to throw grain at the birds, was with him. But this time Wiley wasn’t there, and, so, the chickens were afraid of Otto’s fist. I am a fox. Otto wrapped his thumb around the front of his balled fingers and moved it like a mouth. I am a fox, let me in, pressing gently, but as hard as a fox, as a fox’s mouth. I am hungry, I will eat you. Otto was hungry. He almost always was. Sometimes he ate little bits of the chicken grain. Good to chew on. If Wiley wasn’t there.

He had checked three and a half sides of the wiring when three-and-a-half-year-old Winnie walked up in overalls with no shirt. Otto had put a shirt on her that morning, but it was hot, so she had taken it off. Dinner, she said. Close enough that he could hear, but not too close; chickens scared her. Otto, she said. Dinnertime. Then she left to find Gus and tell him the same. This was her job.

A
s well as a name, each child in Otto’s family had a number, so they were easier to keep track of. Marie-1, Clara-2, Amos-3, Harriet-4, Walter-5, Wiley-6, Otto-7, and so on. Marie-1 was the eldest. The numeration was her idea.

1?

Yes.

2?

Yes.

3?

Hello.

4?

Yes, hello.

5?

Yes, yes, hello, hello.

6?

Present.

7?

Yes, please.

8?

Present.

9?

Hello!

Everyone was always present. Nobody ever missed dinner, or supper.

So, said Otto’s mother, everyone is here. Everyone is clean?

Otto nodded vehemently. He was clean. He was starving. Everyone else nodded too. Winnie’s hands were filthy and everyone knew it, but everyone nodded, including Winnie.

Okay then, said their mother, ladle propped against her round belly, soup!

Everyone rushed to the table, each to their own chair. Except today there was no chair for Otto. Or, rather, there was, but there was someone else in it. A boy. Not a brother. Otto looked at him, then reached across, in front, and took the spoon from him.

That’s mine, he said.

Okay, said the boy.

Otto grabbed the knife. That’s mine too, he said. And this, he said, grabbing the still-empty bowl.

Okay, said the boy.

The boy said nothing else and Otto didn’t know what else to say, or do. He stood behind his chair, trying not to drop all his things, trying not to cry. He knew the rules. You didn’t bother parents with child-problems unless there was blood or it involved an animal. Otto’s mother was coming around, child by child, with the pot and ladle, so Otto, standing with his things, crying quietly, would have to wait for her to get to them. The other boy just looked straight ahead.

Otto’s mother was spooning exactly one ladle of soup into each child’s bowl. One for each, exactly, until, a pause, and,

I don’t think you’re Otto.

No, neither do I.

I’m Otto, right here.

Then who is this?

I don’t know.

I’m from next door. I’m starving. I’m Russell.

But the Palmers don’t have any children.

They have a nephew. One nephew. Me.

Otto’s mother paused. Clara-2, she said, get another bowl from the cupboard, please.

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