“I don’t like winter,” Alice said from where she sat, eating her stew by the edge of the bonfire.
Darkness had fallen over an hour before, but the days were short in the winter, and they both knew that it would be hours still until Abby came home. They may be asleep. Xaxac had heard his sister, but he found it difficult to focus on her, to form any kind of response. He had been leaning back, staring up at the sky, and wondering why his eyes were crossing.
Xaxac often stared at the night sky now. He knew that his curse had something to do with the moons, and he watched them, trying to figure them out, trying to see if there was some sort of pattern. Both of them, one white and one silver, appeared in roughly the same place, right next to each other, and followed roughly the same path. If you watched for weeks and weeks, they would slowly change from an almost round ball to tiny, crescent slivers of light. Xaxac had never seen the moons when they were completely full, but there was a pattern. It happened in a cycle, and he was beginning to figure out what it was. Right now they were getting smaller, day by day, and that meant he had more time to be human, to live without the curse.
“I’m sorry,” he admitted, “I wasn’t paying attention.” His vision was blurry and there was far more spit in his mouth that he was used to.
“You ok, XacXac?” she asked in concern, “You look weird.”
“I’m fine,” Xac assured her, “What’d you say?”
He looked back to the bonfire and tried to force his eyes to focus so that he could see the outline of his father there, where he sat with the others. It wasn’t snowing, but it could, so the night should be cold; it had been cold a moment ago. So why was he burning up? Why did the wind feel hot on his face?
“Xac?” Alice asked again, then leaned in and whispered to him, “Is it the curse? Are you gonna be a bunny? You can’t right now! We’re not supposed to tell anybody. You can’t do it right now.”
Xaxac wanted to tell her that he was fine, that she was wrong, because she was. He had shifted enough that he knew what it felt like, and this wasn’t it. Besides, the sky was all wrong for it. But something was wrong. Something was very wrong, but it was a new kind of wrong, and he didn’t understand it, wasn’t able to identify it.
He didn’t know why he had so much spit, but he couldn’t swallow it fast enough, so he gathered it all in his mouth, and spit it onto the ground beside where they sat.
“It should be cold,” he said as if it was some sort of explanation.
“It is cold,” Alice said, watching him with her eyebrows pressed together on her tiny forehead, “XacXac?” She screamed, high pitched and shrill, in that way that only little girls can because she had decided that something was wrong, and she needed an adult to fix it.
“Daddy!” She shrieked, and Abe turned just in time to watch Xaxac double over in pain and empty the contents of his stomach onto the cold ground.
“Xac?” He shouted as he darted from his seat and scooped the boy up, but Xaxac tried to push him away. He knew he wasn’t finished, and he didn’t know what was wrong with him. He tried to tell him, but his body spasmed, and every convulsion sent more bile up his throat and out his mouth. His muscles twitched, contorted against his will, over and over, while tears leaked from his eyes and clouded his vision, and somewhere far away he felt his father rubbing his back.
“Ah shit,” One of the other men, those still by the fire spoke, “What’s in this? What’d y’all do? We all gonna die?”
“The youngun ain’t dying,” Hattie May stepped forward, and Xac looked up at her, trying to make out her form through the tears in his eyes. He tried to draw a breath, but found that they came in great, heaving things, too much for his small lungs, and he broke into sobs.
“I don’t feel good!” he lamented, because he could not identify what was happening to him. He wished he knew what it was, but even now, when there was nothing left to throw up, his body fought him, pressed around him, and the effort of fighting it made him tired.
“It had to be your goddamn stew!” Abe shouted, but Xaxac could not see who he was directing his anger toward, “You tryin to fuckin kill us? What the hell is in that?”
“Nobody else is sick!” A male voice said defensively.
“Nobody else is that little!” Another voice accused, “It hits the younguns faster.”
“Nobody else is sick!” The defensive voice said again.
“Get him to my house,” Hattie May told Abe, clucked her tongue and said, “Boy needs his mama. She ought not be in that house workin eighteen hour days.”
“I got him,” Abe said, sounding as if she had just gravely insulted him, “I got him just fine. The hell was she gonna do that I can’t?”
Xaxac clung to his father’s workshirt and sobbed, trying to figure out what was wrong with him. The truth was that he missed Abby too, and he suspected Alice did as well, but he was glad to be where he was, in his father’s arms. He didn’t want to be alone. He was scared and confused; he didn’t know why he felt so bad, or how to fix it. He still felt hot all over, so he didn’t feel the temperature change as they entered Hattie May’s house and the solid wood of her walls blocked most of the cold winds from the outside.
“You ok, XacXac?” Alice asked.
“He’s sick as a dog,” Abe told her, “but he’ll be alright. Hattie May’ll get him patched up.”
“Miss Hattie?” Alice asked as Xac felt himself settling more heavily into his father’s chest, as if he had just sat down, “Are you a witch?”
“You ain’t the kinda youngun to be tellin tales, now are you?” Hattie May asked, and Xac screamed again, and tried to find words to articulate what he meant.
“Daddy,” He pushed himself off his chest and stared up at him, “I haveta go poop! Now!”
“Great,” Abe said, “Both ends. Hold on, Xac. God above, your sister got sick like this one time, before you come to stay with us.”
Xac tried to wipe the tears out of his eyes on his father’s shirt. He felt them moving, and hoped that they were going outside. His hope was confirmed when he felt his father undressing him, then holding him to keep him on his feet.
“I can do it myself,” Xac whispered, “I’m a big boy.”
“You can barely stand up,” Abe argued, “Don’t sass me. You’re sick. I can’t figure out what caused it… When Alice got real sick like this somebody had snuck a deer but had been left for too long to cook it so it turned. But ain’t nobody else fell sick like that so I can’t figure why it ain’t hit the rest of us.”
“I don’t feel good!” Xac tried to explain, and wished he could figure out how to tell his father what was actually wrong with him.
“When did you get sick?” Abe asked, “Right after you ate?”
Xac nodded, but he was in so much pain again as every muscle in his torso cramped that he couldn’t properly form words.
“Abe,” Hattie May called from her doorway.
“Busy!” He called back.
“Here’s some rags!” She called, and Xac would have thought the way they hit him in the side of the head was funny, if he had the capacity to feel joy, if all of his emotional space was not occupied with frustration.
“It’s food poisioning,” Hattie May said matter-of-factly as she came out of her house, “I done set up a washtub, give that boy a bath. He’s gonna need it.”
“It can’t be the food,” Abe reasoned, “Nobody else got sick.”
“You ever give him any kind of meat before?” Hattie May asked, and she watched the realization come over Abe’s face as he put two and two together.
“No,” He said, and elaborated, quite sensibly, “Rabbit food. We have to feed him like a rabbit. Greens… lord how are we gonna make it through the winter?”
“Bring him in, give him a bath, and I’ll make him some tea, clean all that out of him.” Hattie May laid a hand on Abe’s head, then turned to walk back inside her house.