#5amWritersClub Virtual Retreat—Weekly Writing Prompt—‘Brush With Death’
Every character has had some brush with death in their history. Perhaps they were a witness to an accident, maybe they saved someone, or they almost died. Whatever it was, these moments often shape a character’s point of view. Write a scene where your character either experiences a brush with death, or recounts it to someone else.
Three scenes written quickly in response to the prompt, based on events in my novel and featuring my main character, Jack Finney, at three different ages. Warning: harm to animals; addiction; suicidal ideation; grief.
He doesn’t want anyone else to be sad, so Jack doesn’t tell Thaddeus about the barn kitten. Really, Thad would be okay. Life’s griefs don’t collect like stones in his pockets. But Jack holds the story to himself, cries alone, tries to get over it, as he has with every animal on the farm his whole life; vows to make himself stronger, make himself into a farmer, like his dad, who does hard things with a broken heart every day.
It is the tiniest of the litter, the kitten who yells so loudly and staggers when it walks, and it is lying between its two siblings in the dark corner beside the milk room, on the blanket where their mother stores them while she hunts. But while the two others mewl and paw toward Jack, the little one in the middle lies still, its head tucked under.
No. The head is not tucked under. Jack lifts the tiny cat with the gentlest touch, in case it is awake, alive, injured, in pain. It is definitely dead. The limp body hugs his palm with its flat, bloodless weight. And the head is gone.
There is no blood, there is no sign of violence, just flesh, torn cleanly, and no head.
The puzzle bangs at him. None of the clues make sense. Who had come? What animal had done this in the night? The raccoon? A fisher? A human, with an axe? That is unlikely, and would make it horrid, cruel. A fisher, could be. Then it’s not cruel, it’s just life, carrying on. But why take only the head? Why leave the other kittens? Why did they cuddle against their dead sibling through the night? Jack strokes the wet of his tears into the white fur and his brain pulses with confusion and sadness.
Kitten in one hand, shovel in the other—no one can see him, so he cries—Jack tours the barnyard looking for a burial spot. The ground is dry and hard from lack of rain. It would be soft enough to dig under the manure pile, but that is undignified. Finally, in long grass, under jumbled rocks at the corner of the building, is a narrow, soft-enough place. He digs, places the white body down. Sitting on his heels, he gives it his full attention, then covers it with earth and rock, bows his head, wipes his face, and goes to muck out the horse stalls.
Pieces of time, sounds, smells slam together. The creases of his body are scored by the fabric of his clothes, and soaked with sweat. He’s freezing, shivering, lying on something hard and cold. Something wet. His clothes are wet. His head pounds, his eyes blur, his tongue is fat and glued to the inside of his mouth. He’s exhausted and he’s parched and he’s angry and he’s starving and his muscles ache as if he’s spent 12 hours pitching hay into the loft alone.
He remembers the heat mirages shimmering ahead as he walked the highway. He remembers the dust, and cars whizzing past, spraying him with salty gravel. He remembers two rides. He remembers relieving the pain of his blister by walking in his socks. He remembers the cold fury slamming from him into the dark weeds when he tripped into a water-filled ditch. Crawling around the edge of an underpass, wanting a safe place to sleep. He remembers yelling. Maybe at someone. Maybe at himself. He remembers being so hot he thought he was dying. He remembers dying. Did he die?
Maybe he would like to die. So simple. It would be so simple. He wouldn’t have to keep going. Falling to pieces. Burning. Freezing. Craving the drug. Reaching for home. Imagining the shame of asking … people … some people … that person … to forgive things that can’t be forgiven.
He’s not even there. He can’t believe she left when he wasn’t there. He was on his way. How could she have left? He was on his way. Thad was there. Charlie. Dad. All four kids. Catherine and Al. Everyone else was there, but he’d done the chores, someone had to do the chores, so he wasn’t there. Thad was going to do them, the horses and the cows, but Jack said no, I’ll do the horses now, at least I’ll feed them, it’ll do me good to get outside, I feel crazy, tied up in my head, I can’t breathe, it won’t be long, I’ll be right back, wait for me, Mom. Nothing had changed, for hours, since yesterday. Almost a day, with no change. He kissed her, her forehead and her cheek, her mouth and her hands. I’ll be right back, wait for me, Mom. And she didn’t wait. When he walked in, brushing wet grain from his arm, picking straw from his sleeve, he saw Thad, his eyes, huge and barren, his jaw slack, his tears. Thad rushed, held Jack, held him tight, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, in his ear, I’m sorry, I told her you were coming back, I told her you love her, she knows, honey, she knows, you know she knows, she just had to go I guess, I’m sorry, honey, I don’t know why she had to go, she was just here and then she was gone, it was too fast. He is suddenly hollow, fists clamped at his sides. I was feeding the horses, he said. I was coming right back.