Thicker Than a Sliver

The two brothers had been holed-up in the cabin for a couple of weeks when it began to snow. It snowed and snowed, thick wet snow that crusted overnight like a hard shell protecting something precious. At first the brothers weren’t concerned, they were hiding anyway, and had no plans to leave the mountainous area unless someone came looking for them. But the snow continued at such a pace that soon the door was blocked, and they couldn’t have left even if they had wanted to.

            The older brother enjoyed it for the first couple of days; it meant that the folks who might come searching for them would be slowed to a stop. He read some books lying around, he slept, and after fleeing for as long as they had, the older brother found it a nice respite.

            The younger brother looked sullen. He had always shaken with anticipation for the next thing. With nothing to do, he quickly became irritable. He pulled out his hunting knife, a long blade hooked at the tip for cutting away hides, and began to carve whatever he could find in the cabin.

            He carved and whittled, slicing slivers from any bit of wood in the cabin, from the coffee table, to the floors, to the mantle. He carved the wooden spoons, the table, an ancient hand-powered coffee grinder, cinnamon-scented Christmas pinecones that no longer smelled of cinnamon. He twirled the tip of the knife, leaving divots and concave indentations in the walls, in the clock. Soon the inside of the cabin looked as pocked as his face when shaven. Then he went back over and whittled down the walls until they were so smooth as to be slick. The older brother loved this, as it kept the younger brother distracted and less volatile. If anything he seemed calmer than he had in years, or maybe calmer wasn’t right, but zero-ed in, focused like never before.

            And that was good because the snow kept coming. They could barely see out of the tops of the windows, like eyelids growing heavier and heavier. What had first seemed like a boon now threatened and smothered. They didn’t have much food left, and the older brother could swear that the flakes were getting larger like perfect crystallized quilts. He began to think he could feel the flakes hit with force, a steady thud on the roof above.

            That night they slept fitfully, the younger brother in a pile of wood shavings. When they woke, it was as the older brother feared. They were snowed in completely, the windows sealed shut. There was no way to tell how high the snow had piled, but the older brother imagined them at the bottom of a great sea of snow. He had once watched a submarine movie, where the pressure had increased too much, the submarine had dived too low, and the bolts holding together the metal casing had shot in like bullets propelled by streams of water. He looked for that now, except with chunks of wood and splinters and snow. He moved cautiously, and never touched the walls. It wasn’t all bad though. His fear distracted him from the growling deep in his belly.

            The younger brother wasn’t disturbed by the snow, or if he was, he didn’t show it. He kept whittling away at whatever bits of wood he could find. He scraped and scraped, and the shavings filled the floor of the little cabin. He took down a wooden cross attached to the wall, and as the older brother watched, he whittled and whittled and whittled until it disappeared.

            The older brother couldn’t stand the sound of the knife on wood anymore and he kicked at the piles of wood shavings. What are you doing whittling all of that down to nothing? asked the older brother. The younger brother didn’t stop. Making the sharpest thing, he said.

            He’s lost it, thought the older brother. He must not have just thought it though, because the younger brother said, I haven’t lost it. The smallest things are the sharpest. They glide and slide into places anything larger couldn’t.

            We’ve got to get out of here, said the older brother, but maybe he just thought it because the younger brother responded by continuing to whittle. All the while hunger dug deeper, cut harder.

            A few days later, the floor was buried beneath wood shavings so fine they might have been downy hair like that of a newborn, and the younger brother was nearly out of wood to whittle. They both moved through the shavings like a bog past their knees. You’ve got to stop, said the older brother. The walls bowed in, barely bearing the weight of the snow. The older brother had taken to passing along any bits of wood he could find to the younger brother to keep him away from the walls, splinters the size of toothpicks still could be whittled smaller. He felt that the walls of his stomach now mirrored those of the cabin and threatened to cave in at any moment.

            The older brother might have opened the front door if he wasn’t so afraid of a flood of snow. He might have broken a window and dug a tunnel up and up if he wasn’t so afraid of being swallowed by a maw of snow and ice, for what is a tunnel but a throat? He might have taken the knife from the younger brother too. Or tried. Instead, he searched the fine shavings for anything thicker than a sliver that his brother might slice.

            He was digging through on his hands and knees when he saw his brother stand. There was no more wood in the cabin to whittle. Only hunger remained. The older brother then agreed that the nothing that the younger brother held in his hands was indeed the sharpest thing he’d ever seen.

Evan James Sheldon's work has appeared in CHEAP POP, Ghost City Review, Pithead Chapel, and Roanoke Review, among others. He is an Assistant Editor for F(r)iction and an Outreach Assistant for Brink Literary Project.