A Small Fire In Ephraim’s Wood

BY Zachary S. Johnson

 “But a son? Well now, that’s somebody.”  – Toni Morrison, Beloved


Lionel lay there like he’d been laying there since the trees was white at the tops, all speckled and smelling like fish that was about to turn. He had the best room in the unit, with the big window, watching out above the complex’s pool that even when hidden from the rest of the world by the towering square-cut adjacent buildings still found splinters of sunlight to reflect, cascading over the still water like shaved copper. We didn’t know what to do with Lionel, the unit, now pungent with the odor of absence, only partially relieved by a cracked window in the living room fixed to the wall where the front door was. I’d forgotten how long it’d been since Mama and Daddy were there to patch Lionel up—sick child—and the only time I’d seen them working together as if they wasn’t two orbits pushing away from one another was when they was fixing up Lionel. I felt my stomach reprimand me as I was sitting there on the living room floor, swirling around on my butt to keep my bones from caving in like his, eyes closed, dreaming of Mama and the couple of times I saw her smile. 

Daddy loved Cash so he watched after him, and Mama and Daddy had to watch after Lionel, and Cash had to watch after Lionel too, seeing that he was the youngest. I loved Mama, and there were times where she’d be walking out the door headed to “the job,” and she’d look back to say “be good, Arthur” instead of Art because my “full name was supposed to take up space,” space Daddy didn’t think they could afford. I guess that’s why Daddy called Cassius “Cash,” and Cash loved Daddy so much that he made everybody call him that. Mama told me to be good. Guessing that between all that watching everybody else had to do I was liable to not be good. She didn’t want me to forget that just because somebody ain’t watching you that’s not a reason to act a fool. 

Cash come out the back room, pinching his nose. “That’s my last time this month.” Cash was tall, taller than Mama was, and was the color of her coffee grinds, unlike me and Lionel who were the color of the coffee in her cup after she serviced it. He had Daddy’s nose, a wide one with a bridge that sloped up into his dark eyes. He had pretty teeth and spoke like Daddy just to make Mama angry. 

“Nuh uh, it’s the 15th. You got the rest of the month, and I don’t want to go in there!”

“Art.” The way the ‘t’ in my name sounded coming out of my family’s mouth made it clear that they were stuck with me. “We not going in there. That room is ripe and foul. No more.”

I looked into the caverns that braced the bridge of his wide nose that were now circling wider and wider as he crouched down, placed one hand on the floor as if to anchor himself to what was left of our little life in that pale apartment. He looked at me squarely, clutching my narrow shoulders. We stood there, in shock of what was finally happening to us both. We braced, knowing.


I be looking into Art’s eyes and I see what Daddy told me before he and Mama figured it was best if they just left us alone: “Your brother know too much. He always wanna know. Sometimes you cain’t know. All that knowing ain’t gon do him no good out here, Cash. You know that, don’t you?”

There I go like I was back some years ago takin’ out the trash with Daddy, his shoulders, broad like mine, was starting to get. Daddy had a thick neck that held up a head like the one starting to take shape on Art’s shoulders. Walking behind him, plastic sack rubbing against my shins, me feeling all the hurt inside of that bag ‘bout to bust wide open and spill all our shit out into the streets—into the neighborhood—listening to Daddy talk and talk, wondering if I’d ever know what he was talking about. “Yeah, Daddy, I know.”

“Then you got to watch him. Cause once he starts to figuring shit out, he ain’t gon’ want to listen. And that’s gon’ put all of y’all in danger. You understand me, don’t you boy?”

“Yes, Daddy.” I remember Daddy didn’t respond with yes or nuthin’ like that. He just turned back around and walked inside. Now I was back in our small-ass living room that was starting to smell like shit that’s been left out for eight months in the Arkansas heat. Art stares, looking at me with them knowing eyes, and I wish he would just quit it. But I know he cain’t. Maybe Daddy was wrong about Art knowing every damn thing being so bad. I mean, he was the one told me that he was gon’ start to hurt if we didn’t do something about him quick and fast. I wasn’t able to do what my body told me to do, like Art had done with Lionel. Like Art always did.

I remember waking up ‘bout 2 o’clock hearing something scratching on the floor on the other side of the house like a cat or something. Cats was coming in and out the house after Mama and Daddy left on account that we was getting bad about leaving food and shit out—acting like a bunch of fucking animals the way we was leaving trash out. I follow the sound to Lionel’s bedroom, and I see him there, except I don’t see all of him. Just his little body, yellow like piss-stained bedsheets. Art there, bent over him with a pillowcase full of t-shirts and drawers, holding it down on him. I saw something in Art’s eyes, something so calm even the air in the room wouldn’t give to let me move towards ‘em. Art knew.

Once he finished, he stood up and turned to me. By the time his face reached the side of mine my fist was already flying towards his nostrils. It wasn’t no reason Art had to do that—we knew Mama and Daddy was lying about saying they was gon’ be back. But Art just kept thinking, and thinking about what we was gon’ do with lil’ Lionel. I told him not to worry about it, and that it was gon’ sort itself out. That’s the way things go, like when Daddy take us fishing and the fish plop around in the bucket. They writhe and struggle around in that bucket for a while, but everything sorts itself out, and we eat good. Lionel was our fish, but Art—always knowing, always thinking—had to take it into his own hands. “You ALWAYS moving too fast! Damnit, Art. You don’t think!”

He looked at me. He looked back at Lionel, all scrunched up with half his blue-lipped mouth open, the other side closed, lips resting on top of each other like two baits fucking. “It was gon’ happen Cash. He needed help—he wasn’t gon’ make it over on his own.” 

“What you mean make it over?”

“You know, like Granny say. Like Granny say about Pawpaw, the reason why she ain’t cry out there in Alexander when they lowered him was because she was fine with the way he crossed over. Said he went over with all his strength.” He was breathing all hard, but he slowed it down and got control of his breath.

“Granny just be talking.”

“And YOU should be listening.” He cut the fuck out of me with his eyes. Golden, deep like Mama’s—turn red like burning coal when he get mad. We used to make fun of him for it, me, DJ, Lil Trey. But then he slimmed down, started playing ball and reading, reading all the damn time. Now when he got mad, I just be looking at him looking at me.

“That ain’t give you no permission to just step in and do some shit like that.” 

“I’m his older brother too, you know. I don’t need permission to save my little brother.” 

Quit fucking cutting me with those eyes.

“That’s what the fuck you call saving, Art?” He got quiet, still, and started thinking.

“We can leave him here. Keep the window open so it won’t stink as bad.”

It wasn’t no going back. Art made a choice that we was all gon’ live with whether Mama and Daddy came back or not. And I knew they wasn’t gon’ come back, but I wish Art hadn’t done something that was gon’ stay with us this long. That wasn’t ever gon’ leave. We couldn’t go back from that and ain’t nobody we could’ve told. Granny? Hearing ‘bout this? And it’s definitely ‘we,’ and not ‘he,’ because whenever ‘he’ do something, ‘we’ pay for it. 

“So you doing all this thinking, what we gon’ do ‘bout keepin’ him? He just gon’ lie here? What you think for that?”

“We gon’ rotate, change turns washing him down. He gon’ turn anyways, but we can slow it down. Until we can’t take it anymore.”

He sealed our fate. He ain’t have no intention of running away from it. I guess he just wanted to give us a little bit more time. Just a little bit more time. 

We looked at each other one more time for who we were that night—my little brothers, and God’s sake, I couldn’t recognize either of them. I headed back out of that room, head looking down at my feet tracing the floor, heels dragging on the carpet. I got in Mama and Daddy’s bed to go to sleep. It took me all night to finally fall asleep, so I did what I usually did to ease myself, to wind down. I always wear basketball shorts to sleep in because my waist is small like Mama’s, and Art can’t fit em’, and they too big for Lionel. The only thing that I knew wasn’t nobody gon’ touch when I had practice or a game. I reached into my pants, felt the drawstring wrap around the back of my hand and held onto myself like I did on most nights. Moving it up and down until I felt it all in my body. Then I’d be fast asleep, dreaming of the end of the road.


I stood outside in the cold and watched them fold me into a black bag. I thought Daddy was standing next to Cash the way he stood so straight but looking closer I see that’s Arthur looking in my direction. I know he can’t see me and he can’t hear me. I been shouting outside in the cold for months. Ain’t been inside the house in a long time. I remember when I first started going inside and out, being in both places at the same time. It was almost like I was at the edge of water, like looking over the Broadway bridge, scared to jump in but so excited by the thought. I saw all of us: me, Arthur, Cash, Mama and Daddy, all at the bottom of the water floating and holding each other. We wa’n’t looking like ourselves down in that river. Arthur was wrapped in a cloud of fire it look like. Cash made of Stone. Mama and Daddy looked like they was joined at the hip—the same person, with angel wings around them, one wing coming out of Mama’s right side and another coming out of Daddy’s left. Then me, just me in a white shirt like the ones Mama put me in before I went to bed.

I came back from the water and was outside the house, looking inside the house and looking outside of it. Like the feeling in a dream when you know you asleep but you not all the way there yet. Our apartment was up in flames too, but nobody was running out the building, and everybody was sitting in they living rooms like it wasn’t no fire at they front door. That’s when I opened my throat and started screaming. I started yelling right at that moment, but I knew wasn’t nobody hearing me because I wasn’t hearing myself. I heard my voice inside my head but I couldn’t hear nothing else. I felt the cords in my throat get all tight like they do whenever I scream from Daddy whooping me, so I know I was using them. 

This was the first time I seen everybody from the apartment complex outside together, whole bunch of folks coming to watch me be rolled up and stuffed into the back of a truck like a pile of firewood. Christmas was only a couple of months away. I didn’t know when Mama and Daddy was gon’ come back but I figured they’d make it back by the holiday. Summers get long in Arkansas so I figured they’d at least be gone until September but now it’s October and they for sure ain’t gon’ be coming back now.

Arthur and Cash used to come in my room to help me eat and use the bathroom, but that was before I got too sick. Before I got the cough that wasn’t gon’ go away. That’s what Arthur call it: a cough that just don’t go away no matter how hard you try because the folks that’s supposed to figure out how to make folks feel better ain’t even figured it out yet. They would put me to sleep and close the door. I always heard them arguing about what they had to do with me, and it made my stomach turn like when Daddy cooks all that food because Mama has to work late. All the food Daddy cook made our stomachs hurt, even if it taste good. Mama didn’t eat it, always complaining about how it was never no greens on the plate: “Mack, you ain’t cook no vegetables. We gon’ be sick.” Sometimes after Daddy went out or wasn’t around for them times he would be gone, she’d take me and Arthur to a little shop with a green roof that had a lot of vegetables. I mean almost a whole garden full of ‘em. And she would pick out all kinds of pretty fruits and put them in a basket for us to eat while she sat in the corner by a big ol’ window where the sunlight would come through really bright-like and read books. Arthur always liked to watch Mama read—he’d ask her questions about the stories she like and she would tell him:

“This one’s good, Arthur. You’d like it. It’s about a boy like you, loves to read and real smart. Except everybody want him to be what they want him to be. Lord, the boy ain’t even got a name for the whole book!”

“Arthur this one is real”—I remember Mama would stretch the word wide, real wide like the basketball court at MacArthur Park—“good. Scary story…’ts bout a ghost and a family. But the ghost is a baby, Arthur. She always shaking shit up around the house, scaring everyone.” 

Now I wasn’t nothing but memories. A bunch of dreams all hollow and cold, watching myself be folded up and put into a black paper sack. Look like a trash bag. Arthur not crying and Cash not looking at me, either one of me. I wonder why they can’t look me in my eyes and tell me why—if they’d just think it I could hear it. I can hear what folks don’t want they mouths to say now. I’d been traveling inside and outside of myself for months before Arthur come in my room that night. Arthur felt it, felt me leaving and coming back. I always made sure to come back before he checked on me though, just in case he’d come looking for me and I wasn’t there. In case he come in my bedroom and instead of being still in my little bed, wound up under my covers, I was out by the Broadway Bridge.

I spent a lot of time by the bridge the past coup’la months. Only place I can go where I don’t hear nobody dreaming up words they don’t want to come out of they mouths or see nobody house on fire while they sit in they living rooms and eat dinner with the TV on or feel my teeth being pushed in by the rough pillowcase Arthur used to get me to stop leaving and coming back or smell the pissy drawers pressed against the walls of that pillowcase doing something it wasn’t made to do but was really good at anyway. Only place I could go where I wasn’t just a head of empty eyes. 

I wonder if Mama know what I am now. I wonder if she can feel me, wandering all up and down the banks on the river, listening to folks dream. I wonder if she thinking about Arthur. Maybe she reading a good book and waiting on me to come visit so I can tell Arthur all about it. I wonder if she sitting in the sun. 

Zachary S. Johnson is a graduate of the University of Arkansas. A native of Little Rock, he’s a writer, poet, and author of “A Small Fire in Ephraim’s Wood.” He is an incoming student at Duke University School of Law. He currently lives in Dallas, Texas with his partner and attack dog, Seiko the Yorkie.

Image Credit: “AI Will Replace Writers” by Christopher Woods

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