Author: Blake Garlock

The Hedge Apple Is In Print!

The Hedge Apple Is In Print!

Hey, everyone! The wait is over, the Fall 2018 edition of the Hedge Apple is officially available on Amazon!

It’s been an awesome semester, and we are excited to share this amazing collection of work from a very talented group of contributors. In this edition of the Hedge Apple, you can expect to encounter top-of-line original pieces of art, fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.

For anyone who contributed to the magazine, keep an eye on your mailbox; in the next several weeks a free contributor’s copy will be headed your way. Also, for anyone else looking to enjoy the Hedge Apple, follow the link to purchase a copy of your own!

Again, we can’t thank everyone enough for all of the support we have received this semester. Without our contributors and readers the Hedge Apple would not exist. Keep writing, everyone, and we look forward to reading and reviewing all of your creative work for the Spring semester!

The Beast by Lauren Trail

The Beast by Lauren Trail

She is given a task that morning, one that is not grand or unique. She has carried it out a hundred times before, but today her thoughts get muddled and bleak.

Some days it seems she floats on a breeze, her mind at ease, no troubled sleep. She carries with her woes and strife from days gone by, pain that cut so deep its internal scars might never heal. Yet everyday she wakes and stands and moves her feet, paints on a smile with cracked teeth, and dons her armor even though it is weak. She does not allow herself to mope and weep, but pulls back her shoulders and struts down the street.

Today is the day, she always thinks. Today is the day I conquer the beast.

She surges towards her goal, determined to fulfill her task, courageous and strong and happily content. She knows where she’s going, she knows what needs done, but halfway there, there’s a bump in the path. She sees it coming and tries to avoid it, but she’s thrown off course and now everything is ruined.

That’s when she feels it, a shiver running down her spine unbidden, and though she cannot see it, she knows that the beast is coming for her. She looks down at her armor, all battered and cheap, and she thinks about fighting, but her mind is too weak. Where before she had been confident, so sure and so strong, now her plans have been altered and her whole body has gone numb.

The beast is coming fast and hard, she can hear its thundering feet. Her heart leaps into her throat, fear coiling in her chest as her lungs constrict. Her body is slow to respond, even though she is desperate to run, and the first few steps she takes are tremulous and clumsy. She grits her teeth and forces her stiff muscles to obey, and soon she is sprinting for her life, desperate to outrun the beast, desperate to escape what fate has thrust upon her, even though she knows she is too late.

The beast comes for her nearly every day with no rhyme or reason to its scheme. Its arrival is seldom anticipated or planned, but she can always sense it the second it grows near. Though it is never an early enough warning for her to truly escape, and she knows that she never will, she still tries, again and again, each time hoping for a different result. Some days, she is too tired to run, so she bargains and pleads. Some days she turns to face the beast and tries to fight back, but the beast overpowers her every time, leaving her bloody and weak. Some days she runs until she thinks that she has won, only to turn around and see that the entire day is gone and she is far from home, and the beast slinks back into the shadows with a broad smile of glee.

Today is another sort of day. It is the type of day when she knows, no matter what she decides, that the beast will capture her in its teeth before she can even think. Still, she attempts to flee, but she does not make it far when she feels the beast’s warm breath tingling on the back of her neck. She pushes herself harder, arms and legs swinging, head ducked down as if to increase her pace. Sweat forms on her flesh, races down her spine, pools between her breasts. Her knees nearly buckle, and her legs are spent. When she gasps for breath, the air gets trapped somewhere in her chest. Nausea coils in the pit of her stomach, the world spins and her head feels dizzy.

As she runs, she tries to remember a time when the beast did not chase her. It has been so long now that she cannot truly recall. She remembers fighting other beasts, beasts that still haunt her at times, but they are only nightmares now, past woes she tramples on and scrapes from the bottom of her feet.

As she runs, she sees other people passing by, and they look at her as if she has lost her mind. She covets those who do not suffer the same. She looks at them hard as she’s racing by, out of breath and full of misery, and she wonders how they can gaze upon the beast so blankly and without fright. She notices, too, that some of them have beasts of their own. She can see it in the twitch of their eye, the flinch in their shoulders, the stutter in their speech. She wishes to commiserate, to seek comfort in their comparable fates, but when she is ensnared in the claws of her own beast, she loses the ability to speak. How can she come to know theirs when she is so deeply scared?

As the beast comes nearer, she makes one last desperate leap. She outstretches her arm, in the direction of her original goal, but everything is distorted now, and she does not know where to go. It feels as though she is reaching for something she cannot grasp, always so close, yet so far. She tries to swallow, but the air is too thick. She tries to keep going, but she’s too far off her path. No amount of reaching will get her there.

Then the beast catches up to her, wraps its weighty, gargantuan palm around her waist, and she is jolted to a stop, her stomach heaving a little from the force. The beast’s claws stab through her abdomen, and her mouth opens in a silent scream. Her feet are lifted from the ground and she is suspended there, with nothing but time to think. The sharp daggers in her stomach twist and cleave. She closes her eyes tight, tries to breathe through the pain, but the more she focuses on it, the worse it seems to become.

The beast’s mouth is close to her ear, and it whispers to her softly, filling her head with more worries and fears. “What good are connections when they only bring strife? What good are your words when they have no design? There is nothing for you here, no reason to fight. You can run, and you can hide, but you’ll never defeat me, so why even try?”

In the midst of her agony, she finds her voice enough to hopelessly query, “Why? Why me?”

As per usual, the beast has no sympathy. “Our fates are intertwined,” it says simply. “We are forever linked, you and I. Come rain or shine, no matter where your life leads, there I shall always be.”

She has no fight left within her, now her thoughts are just bitter. Her task is not forgotten, but it’s too heavy a burden. She wants to sulk and complain, even though nothing will change. What is the use? She will not defeat the beast today.

The beast eventually lowers her back down to the ground, loosens its grip on her wounded middle, though not entirely, and she takes the moment to breathe, to even her breaths as she hadn’t been able to before. She takes one shaky step forward, swallows the nausea, and forces herself to push forward. The beast does not inflict further pain, but it follows close behind her, mimicking her every step, its heavy body wrapped tight around her back and chest. With no choice but to accept its frequent presence, she tries to carry on. The beast always lurks in the shadows or presses against her spine. It is always enshrouding her like a heavy cloak, always waiting to strike, always weighing heavily on her mind. Some days she makes it through with little trouble from the beast. Some days she is dragged so far from the trail that she makes it nowhere. Yet still she struggles, still she fights, even when the beast comes for her, day or night.

Each morning she wakes, to do it all over again, and each morning she thinks, Today is the day. Today is the day I conquer my beast.

 

Lauren Trail is an English major at Hagerstown Community College. She enjoys margaritas and long walks on the beach.

My Name is Laura By Laura Sweeney

My Name is Laura By Laura Sweeney

from Dr. Zhivago, or the 40’s film noir epic.

It means victorious, like laurel wreaths.  An overcomer.  Epic.

 

I could have been Holly or Angela or Christina because I was born

on Christmas Day.  The doctor was out skiing, or so the epic

 

goes.  The nurse delivered me.  Placed me on a mantle in front

of the nativity in Avera Holy Family Hospital.  The first epic

 

I knew was the Bible story, but my name isn’t in the Book.  Neither is

Laurie, which isn’t my nickname, nor Lauren, Lorraine, or the epic

 

“Laura Sweeney in a bikini,” like they teased in school.  I call myself

‘laurita gringita the hip hipporita.’ I hope they name an epic

 

constellation after me, a shimmying hippotenuese, kicking up my heels

in the night sky.  If I could choose another name it needn’t be epic,

 

just Jasmine, like the flowers Mike DeMarco pinned in my hair

in the street in Mysore to drown the epic

 

stench of urine, cow dung, incense and rotten fruit.

But, too late to change my name, whether or not epic.

 

I’m already a published writer. Here’s hoping

Irish in the Literary World is both lucky and epic.

 

 

Laura Sweeney facilitates Writers for Life in central Iowa.  She represented the Iowa Arts Council at the First International Teaching Artist’s Conference in Oslo, Norway. She is the associate editor for Eastern Iowa Review.

Searching for Him Via Facebook I Discover His Family Portrait By Laura Sweeney

Searching for Him Via Facebook I Discover His Family Portrait By Laura Sweeney

I was teaching but I went to the movie

Mamma Mia, ten times, just to get him off my mind.

 

My mind was on the porch where he said, you will be back

you are mine. But I didn’t want to be owned,

 

not like his aunt in El Paso who said

if she could do it over, she wouldn’t.

 

Or his friend in Matagalpa, she will devote

her life to service, he said, describing her love

 

for a married man. This was before

that wretched call that wretched rain when

 

he confessed he got a teen girl pregnant,

said we can still stay friends.

 

Now, he looks matured, the wife the boy

the girl the reading glasses the tiled floor.

 

He told me I need to appreciate Nicaragua’s

beauty, and I’m trying.  You don’t know your place, he said.

 

He wanted a woman groomed for the kitchen

and the bedroom.  I wanted room to grow and to roam.

 

Laura Sweeney facilitates Writers for Life in central Iowa.  She represented the Iowa Arts Council at the First International Teaching Artist’s Conference in Oslo, Norway. She is the associate editor for Eastern Iowa Review.

Miss Laura Considers What Kind of Woman She Is By Laura Sweeney

Miss Laura Considers What Kind of Woman She Is By Laura Sweeney

I have been her kind.  – Anne Sexton

 

 

Who doesn’t trade her scholarship for cucumber facials,

herbal essences, or swap recipes and gossip.

 

Whose wrist doesn’t drip with bling and grandmother’s

wedding ring is worn on her right hand.

 

Who trades sapphires for Cape Cod

earrings she buys antiquing.

 

Who does it wrong all wrong, like clumsy freshman

fingers on a manual typewriter.

 

Who immortalizes lines like, It’s a woo-hoo day,

I don’t have time for green bananas.

 

Who knows that to write is to transgress,

which means that some artists draft on phonebooks.

 

Who doesn’t go from her father’s to her

husband’s house but makes a different bargain.

 

Whose car breaks down, a boyfriend leaves,

a miscalculation means eviction.

 

Who knows it takes a helluva good man

to be better than none.

 

Laura Sweeney facilitates Writers for Life in central Iowa.  She represented the Iowa Arts Council at the First International Teaching Artist’s Conference in Oslo, Norway. She is the associate editor for Eastern Iowa Review.

30 Yards By Bob Chikos

30 Yards By Bob Chikos

At 13, I learned that quitting is a solo act, but success is a team effort.

In 1988 I entered high school an obese, unpopular, D student. I wasn’t interested in high school for the intellectual discourse, as a route to college and career, or to explore different subject areas. I just wanted to play football.

I had been picked on throughout junior high. Boys grabbed my flabby pecs and told me I had bigger boobs than any of the girls. Bob became Blob. A teacher, exasperated with my lack of progress, told the class, “We have millions of dollars’ worth of brains in this class, except for one or two people.” She had been looking at me.

I’ll show them! I thought, Football’s going to change all of that!

Beyond my own stardom, it would make my dad proud. His parents had forbidden his playing football. I hadn’t given him much to be proud of. But that would soon change.

Twice-daily pre-season practices started in early August at the World War I-era campus where they stored freshmen. The field was bare in the middle from decades of use, and the ground was rock hard from that year’s drought, a terrible summer in which 47 of the 90 days claimed new heat records.

On the first day, we lined up on the field. Our last names had been written in marker on athletic tape, applied to the front of our helmets.

Coach walked among us, his clipboard hidden behind his back. “My goal” he yelled, “Is to turn you from boys into men.”

That’s why I’m here.

He continued. “We are not allowed to cut players. That said, we will do everything in our power to get you to quit. We only want survivors on our team.”

He stopped in front of me. “Hey Chikos, you like coffee with your roll?”

I removed my mouth guard. “What?”

He jabbed me in my gut with his clipboard. “Your roll. Your roll. Do you like coffee with your roll?”

Everyone but me laughed.

That August was the closest thing to hell I’d experienced up to that point. Each morning’s temperatures started in the 80’s and rose throughout the day. Practice consisted of calisthenics, group drills, and conditioning, over and over and over.

I remember one particular drill, which was typical:

Two tackling dummies lay on the ground, ten feet apart. I hunkered in a stance between the two dummies. Evans lined up facing me, three feet away. Wolnik cradled a football, ten feet behind Evans. When Coach blew the whistle, Wolnik was to get past me, while staying between the dummies, and I was to tackle him.

“Remember boys,” Coach said, “butt down, head up!”

Coach blew the whistle. Evans and I lunged toward each other like two bighorn sheep battling for supremacy. He threw a forearm toward my chest as I tucked my head in. His forearm landed on my facemask, which jerked my head backwards. Everything went black, except for a cucumber-shaped flash. I don’t remember hitting the ground, but when I opened my eyes, I was on my back, facing the sky.

“That’ll teach you to put your head down, Chikos!” Coach laughed.

After morning practice, we showered, but immediately began to sweat again. Those of us who couldn’t go home sat in the shade of the gym’s north side steps and ate our musty sack lunches, which had baked in our septuagenarian lockers all morning.

One day someone played a Guns N’ Roses cassette on a boom box. It was the first time I had listened to hard rock. Before then, I listened only to oldies; I had an idealization of the 1950s, that everything modern was leading society away from that perceived innocent time.

I felt sinister enjoying it, like a prude who finally allows himself to laugh at a dirty joke, many of which I also learned from those guys. I felt liberated, like I was finally becoming a part of something.

Since we were called by our last names, I became Chikos and, later, Cheeks. I stopped thinking of myself as an individual and started thinking of myself as a representative of my family. I was carrying on the tradition of people who went before me: people who survived war, depression (both economic and emotional), immigration, and working every day at rough jobs so they could support their families and offer a better life for those who came after them. Being a Chikos became something to be proud of and I needed to be worthy of the honor.

Afternoon practice was like crawling through the desert. Our oasis was a pipe, six feet long, bolted to the side of the gym. It had holes drilled in it, like a flute. During our break, when the assistant coach turned it on, water shot out. We waited our turns, throats dry, mouths encrusted with dried saliva, tasting dirt and salt.

Once, the water wouldn’t come on. The coach wasn’t unsympathetic, but wouldn’t suspend practice on account of our thirst.

“I don’t know what to tell you, boys. The best I can say is to just grin and bear it until it comes back on”.

Easy for you to say, old man. I thought, you’re not the one dying out here!

Minutes later, during drills, the water shot several feet in the air like Old Faithful. The precious water trickled all over the unappreciative sidewalk. We sighed with relief, like prisoners of war who just heard the cavalry bugle. The coach turned his head at the sound of the water splashing, shrugged, then faced back to the drills.

We thought of worse things to call him than “old man”.

Conditioning came at the end when we had nothing left in the tank. We ran sprints, strained push-ups, gutted out sit-ups, plus many others I’ve managed to block from memory, all while wearing 20 pounds of equipment. Every muscle ached and I strained to breathe. No matter how hard we tried, it wasn’t enough to satisfy the coaches. A voice in my mind asked the unthinkable, Is this worth it?

I had no true rest. Even in my sleep, I dreamt I was sweltering at practice. At home, we couldn’t afford air conditioning so I’d wake up several times throughout the night, my sheets clinging to my body. One night I woke up screaming with my first charley horse. Every morning I woke with aching muscles and new bruises replacing the old fading ones. I was never ready to go out there again, but I always did.

One day, as practice ended, I took off my helmet. I was overheated, parched, filthy, and my eyes stung. I started toward the water pipe.

“Put your helmets back on, boys!” Coach yelled. “Two of your teammates decided to come late to practice today. As a result, they will watch the rest of you bear crawl until they learn their lesson!”

What?! We have to be punished for their mistake? This doesn’t make any sense!

Coach ordered the offending players to sit on a tackling dummy.

The rest of were to bear crawl the length of the field, akin to climbing a horizontal mountain. As I started, I looked 100 yards in the distance to see the goalposts wave in the heat.

Behind the goalposts, two girls from our class, team managers, sat, fanning themselves with clipboards. I was clueless about girls, but I knew one thing about them: they talked. Beyond wanting to make the team, I wanted word to get out among their tribe.

I imagined the talk if I were to quit:

Who’s this Bob Chikos guy in my class?

He was a loser in my junior high. He still is. He quit football during preseason.

But if I survived:

Who’s this Bob Chikos guy in my class?

He was this fat guy at my junior high, but he’s changed! He made the football team. He’s actually pretty good!

My hamstrings were so tight, I couldn’t bend my knees. Since I had little upper body strength, I locked my arms to keep from falling. When I looked down, all I could see were drops of sweat landing on my filthy hands and an occasional bee threatening to sting.

After 100 yards of crawling, Coach blew his whistle.

“Get back here!” he screamed. “If you don’t make it in time, you’re all doing more!”

We sprinted across the field, toward the goal line, where Coach stood like the only girl in port.

As the last of us limped to the end, he announced, “Not everybody made it back in time. I guess our two friends haven’t learned their lesson yet. Go again.”

Again, we crawled. Because I was exhausted, I had to put in more exertion just to cover the same distance.

At midfield, I looked to my left. Someone had taken off his helmet and was on his hands and knees, vomiting. Twenty yards later, I looked to my right. Four others were walking toward the locker room.

Not me – football is all I’ve got!

Ten yards from reaching the end, Coach’s whistle blew. I scrambled to my feet. My ankles locked. Unable to push off the ball of my foot, I ran off my heels. At the worst possible moment, I had forgotten how to run.

Through my facemask, I saw everyone finish ahead of me. Everyone will have to go again because of me. 

I was the last one in, but I made it. Coach looked at his watch in mock surprise. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t start my stopwatch so I don’t know if you made it back in time or not. Looks like you’ll have to go again.”

Worse than the abuse in junior high, worse than the physical treatment in practice, worse than the incinerating heat, now my spirit had been broken.

I crouched back into my stance. This time, tears, not sweat, dripped onto my hands.

Forty yards down the field, I muttered, “You’re a bastard! I hate you, you bastard!”

I heard an assistant coach behind me, “You can go home any time, Chikos. Take a nice cool shower, sit in the air conditioning. Mama will feed you cookies.”

How long will this go on?! I thought. Even if I make it through this round, how many more will there be?

Twenty yards from the end, I accepted that I’d probably have to quit. I didn’t have what it took and I was dragging everyone else down. I wasn’t sure how I could live with the humiliation at school, being both a loser and a quitter, but I mostly dreaded having to tell my dad.

I heard the echo of the distant whistle. I fell to my knees, then climbed to my feet. Running, I inhaled wheezes as I saw people who had started behind me pass me up.

Forty yards from the end, I slowed to a walk. After 10 more yards, I stopped and doubled over.

I looked at everyone who was already at the end, just 30 yards away.

It was no longer a matter of will. I couldn’t do it. Those 30 remaining yards might as well have been 30 miles.

I felt someone grab my jersey. It was Casey, a fellow lineman.

I hadn’t known Casey before football. We had gone to different feeder schools. As someone who played the same position as I did, had I quit, he’d have less competition. He had nothing to gain if I stayed on the team.

I violated the most grievous sin among adolescent boys: I publicly cried. “I can’t do it!”

“Yes, you can, brother! I’m not doing any more bear crawling and neither are you!” He barked through his mouth guard. He dragged me as my legs moved from habit.

“Let me go! I’m quitting!” I begged.

“No, you’re not!”

Wheezing, we sounded like two bagpipes running down the field. His hand slipped from my jersey but he grabbed my wrist and continued to pull.

Hand in hand, we crossed the goal line.

Coach took off his hat and wiped his forehead with his forearm. “Ok, that’s enough, boys. Take a knee.”

I unsnapped my chinstrap and pried my helmet. Now that it was off, everybody could see me cry.

“I’m quitting.” I said to Casey, as I sniffed my runny nose.

“Dude, you’re not quitting.” He said, gasping between words.

“I just can’t take it anymore.” I said, in a high-pitched squeal. “And I hate Coach.”

“It’s over. We made it.”

“I can’t do another day like this.”

“It’ll get easier, brother.” He said. “Just don’t quit.”

I didn’t quit. I’d like to say this was the breakthrough of a stellar football career, but I didn’t have any game day success. It didn’t matter – no victory could have been as meaningful as finishing that day of practice. And Casey was right, it did get easier. Or, rather, we got stronger.

After two seasons, I stopped playing due to waning interest. As I learned more about my dad, I realized that playing football wasn’t the issue. What made him proud was that his son had the opportunity to do what he couldn’t.

I had learned my most important lesson from high school: football doesn’t make you a winner, but being a good teammate does.

But the story doesn’t end on the football field.

Twenty-six years later, Casey and I reconnected via the miracle of Facebook. He told me about a stomach issue that baffled his doctors. He had already undergone several surgeries, none of which worked. They scheduled one last major surgery as a Hail Mary.

Then, one of the toughest guys I’d ever met, said he was scared.

I said, “Casey, you might not remember this,” and proceeded to remind him in detail about that day. How, even though he was drained, he wouldn’t let me quit. I ended with, “And that’s the tough bastard who’s going to make it through surgery.” After 26 years, it was finally my turn to pull Casey 30 yards.

After the surgery, I saw pictures of a mummified Casey in the hospital. I replied, “Yeah, but you should have seen the train that he took on!” He recovered and, within a few weeks, he was back on the football field – coaching his son. His legend grew.

In 1988, Coach had said he wanted to turn us from boys into men. He did. Being a man has nothing to do with being muscular and fearsome – it has everything to do with helping each other.

All around us, so many are trying to make it through adversity, thinking they’ll never make it through. They need to go just 30 more yards, but they can’t do it themselves.

Will you be their Casey?

 

Bob is a 22-year veteran of working with people with special needs. In his third stage of life, he has finally reflected on his life lessons in order to advocate for change. Bob lives in Cary, Illinois with his wife Aileen and son Martin.

Deadfall By Paul Lamb

Deadfall By Paul Lamb

 

How could it have been worse? Not only the three-hour drive, mostly into the setting sun, and their wooden conversation, mostly about nothing, but in the last half mile of forest, just before they finally got to the cabin, a tree lay fallen across their road.

David had watched the tree for a few years, a hackberry. He watched it die limb by limb and drop branches slowly, watched it shed bark in sheets, watched new pileated woodpecker holes appear in the bare white trunk, watched the tree and wondered if it might do exactly what it had finally done.

Had watched and done nothing because this was the natural course. A snag like this served its own purposes in the forest. After it had dropped its leaves for the last time, it became a home to furred and feathered cavity nesters taking their turn. It allowed sunlight to return to the forest floor. And then finally, when it came down, it began to merge with the ground again, returning its decades of enrichment to the soil. To David, a fallen tree wasn’t bad it was just, well, next.

Curt saw none of this however. To his green eyes the fallen tree was a roadblock, a new chore to hijack their weekend, a bad start to a difficult visit that needed to be a good one or else everything would be wrong for all time.

David shut off the truck’s engine, and both of them stepped out at the same time. The tree was a blowdown, its withered roots heaved from the ground and coated with the rocky Ozark soil the trunk had risen from, the hole it left behind still holding water from the storm that had toppled it. His father had once said – had he said it, Curt wondered, or was it just a story he liked to believe? – that it would be among the roots of such a fallen tree that he could ever hope to find an arrowhead, and Curt scrutinized the rocks there, looking for a worked stone lost by a hunter centuries before and then entwined in the roots of a sapling begun as an acorn or nut that had fallen beside it. He wasn’t sure what kind of tree it had been, but his father would know.

“A snag like this could have stood for another twenty years or fallen in a day,” David said. “Our tough luck that it came down now and across the road.”

“Must have made a lot of noise when it fell.” Curt paused, waiting for a response that didn’t come. Then, “I guess we need to walk the rest of the way to the cabin and bring back the chainsaws.”

“Maybe not.” David broke off a branch as thick as Curt’s arm and tossed it aside. “C’mon.” He returned to the truck, and Curt followed. David shifted the truck into four-wheel drive and steered into the trees, picking his way, pushing down or pushing aside the scrub and saplings, bumping over rocks hidden in the damp leaf litter, finding a path through all of it that would fit his truck and get the two of them past the problem and back on the gravel road that lead to the family cabin. Branches scraped the side of the truck, stuttered across the roof of the cab, slapped the windshield and plucked the antenna. But David did not relent, and as they crept, Curt watched in silence as his father found a way that was invisible to him. When they bumped onto the road once again, David didn’t pause to relish his success but stepped on the gas and continued to the cabin.

The cabin waited, waited to welcome them, waited as it had for decades past and would, they all hoped, for decades more, its own roots sunk deep in the Ozark hardpan. For David the cabin was the most evocative memory he had of his father, who had built it; for Curt the feeling was more diffuse. It was family and memory and stories and a sanctuary that would always be ready, both safe and sacred. As it needed to be most of all for him, for them, this weekend. All that was wrong could seem right, seem fixable, when he was at the cabin.

The fallen snag, they both knew unspoken, would wait for the next day. They would return rested, with the tools they needed and when the day was fresh. An hour or two of harsh noise and heavy lifting, then the road would be clear again, showing remnants of the fall and their clean up, but all of that would soon be absorbed by the living forest that would keep to its eternal cycles. Before them now, though, was the work of getting settled in the cabin and a fire built before the summer sun had set. Chores practiced through the years, both together and alone, that were simple to Curt. Simple and clear compared to his real, his dreaded task for their weekend. This complicated and conflicted son of a good but possibly not good enough father. He would soon know.

“Talk to your father,” Kathy told him. She had watched her boy in the days and weeks following his graduation from medical school, saw how the completion of this one great thing had now meant that another, greater thing took its turn and lay before him, no longer to be shunted and put off. “Say what you need to say to him,” she said as the two of them sat at the kitchen table and picked at the threads of Curt’s next life. Kathy knowing, without having been told, what her son needed to tell his father, and also knowing, better than her son could, what his father would say in response.

“Do you think maybe you underestimate him?” Kelly had said, his turn to press counsel on Curt, unasked but not, he knew, unwelcome. “Has he ever given you any sign that he is not broad-minded? Or at least incapable of being so?” Kelly knew, guessed, with an objectivity Curt did not have, that the picture Curt had painted of his father was incomplete, even unfair, and further, suspected that this most important conversation of their two lives would finally breach that false barrier, and Curt could begin to see the depth in his father that he hadn’t allowed himself to across most of his life.

And so here he was, in the place that was refuge for both of them. Where, Curt knew, he had always felt most clearly the love of his father, a man who was not so good with words but who had an eloquence of both action and stillness that better expressed his heart. But if his love was unspoken it was also, Curt believed, unguarded. As natural and boundless as the blue summer sky above them. All that remained was for Curt to say three small words. But his life would not be the same after he spoke them. Nor would his father’s. And he cared deeply about both. So, Curt asked himself as he built the fire he would certainly light with a single match, should he upend their entire weekend at the cabin, or wait for the last possible moment so he, they, could relish most of this time they had together just as they had countless weekends of their past?

Yet if Kelly was right, then so many of those uncounted visits – most of Curt’s life as a son really – had been incomplete, not as fully or as deeply lived as they should have been. If Kelly was right, then Curt had cheated his father and had cheated himself. And if his mother was right – there was no question of this to Curt – then he shouldn’t wait a moment longer.

Still, nothing would be the same afterward. Who would think that it could? Each moment of each day for the rest of their lives would be filtered through this new knowledge. And it was this aftermath that Curt feared the most. Even the best outcome would mean a subtle but permanent difference in how they saw one another.

Curt’s fire burned brightly, pushing back the falling darkness, and he readied the larger pieces of wood to add so they would have flickering flames and coals for conversation and quiet musing. He wondered how many of these fires he had built in his life and wished he had kept some record of it, some record beyond the deep build up of mute ash in the ring. David came from the cabin with two beers in hand, giving one to Curt, and they both popped them open. The night sounds of the forest were beginning. A barred owl had been calling across the lake below them, and they hoped, as they always did, to hear a whippoorwill, their totem sound and one David had commented that he’d seemed to hear less frequently than he had in his boyhood memories. Even with the regular cycles of the forest, some things changed. This simple, even pure delight of theirs might go missing some day, and he was glad Curt had known of it, had experienced it.

Doctor Clark! It’s easy to be proud of you, Curt.”

Stop, Curt thought. You’re making this harder. He dropped a chunk of split oak onto his fire. Orange sparks spiraled into the air and winked out.

“Maybe so,” Curt said. “But maybe med school was the easy part. Being a doctor, a resident in the real world might not be so easy.”

David pulled a chair closer to the fire; its feet ground through the gravel. He sat, and in a moment, Curt did the same, across the fire from his father. Once on an evening much like this, a screech owl had pierced the forest with its call. Sudden silence had followed; every other creature had ceased its noise in awe or terror. Curt remembered that.

On this night they were instead gifted with the three notes of a whippoorwill, somewhere in a tree beyond the firelight. Both men sat in silence, savoring the sound, and Curt recalled another now long-ago time when he had tried to count the repetitions of the bird’s call, giving up somewhere in the thirties.

The whippoorwill had spoken. Curt would as well.

“Dad,” Curt said, not lifting his eyes from the orange glow of the consuming flames between them, and David knew from Curt’s use of that word, this less formal name for him he rarely used, that important words were about to come, words he thought he could guess.

He tried again. “Dad, I’m gay.”

And now the aftermath.

Curt did not know how long his father had been waiting to hear these three small and so hugely complex words from his boy. Curt had always been a clever boy. The depth of his compassion had led him down the path to becoming a doctor. But for all of the range in his heart and mind, Curt had never seemed able, or perhaps willing, to grant sufficient humanity to his own father. Early on he had formed a concept of who the man was, what his essential nature was, and he had been so busy hiding his own essential nature, that he missed all of the evidence that David Clark was the one person on the whole planet who loved him most of all.

David hadn’t understood, at first, why his son had cultivated an uncrossable distance between them. They could joke and laugh and discuss most things and even skinny dip in the lake together without hesitation, but he knew there was always something in the way. As his realization of what this must be slowly came to him, and he stopped joking about girlfriends and stopped speaking about grandchildren, he understood that if it ever were to be broached, it would have to be on Curt’s terms. His boy grew, never giving him a single moment of rebellion or cause for grief that he could remember. He finished high school well. He went to college and came back a man of insight and achievement. Then he went to medical school and came back a doctor. And yet during all of this, Curt had not found the opportunity – or was it maybe the desire? – to be fully open with him.

David never knew why, just as he didn’t know why this time, this visit to their cabin, was when it had finally happened. What about the universe had changed?

And then it struck him. He pulled on his beer then cleared his throat, wanting to say the right thing and not realizing how even the short time the took for this reflection was rending Curt’s heart, filling him with a certain fear of an outcome that he had been equally certain wouldn’t come.

“So is there someone special?” David asked, not yet ready to meet his son’s eyes. He would follow Curt’s lead in the moments ahead.

Curt slumped into the most immense relief he had felt in his life. David’s question told him that his father, whose opinion most counted in all the world, had jumped past objection or rejection or confusion or whatever wrong might have been, had even jumped past immediate acceptance, and had effortlessly moved on to opening his heart to Curt’s fuller life. Someone special! Someone his father would greet and hug and welcome as a second son and bring to the cabin and their forest because this was his way of expressing love.

The part of Curt that had known this all along pushed aside his unfounded fears, sidestepped the more obvious subject for discussion, and joined his father on the other side.

“Yes, actually. His name is Kelly.” Then a moment later, “I met him on the running trail.”

“A runner like you! That’s great.”

“Yeah,” he said, barely able to suppress a chuckle of giddiness.

David was about to ask when he would get to meet this Kelly person, this person who loved his son, but another thought pressed itself ahead.

“I don’t suppose you even need to tell Mom.”

“She can see right through me, Dad!”

“I know. Me too.” And he’d heard that word “Dad” again. “Still, you should tell her anyway. Just to get it in the open.”

Maybe they were exhausted by their achievement because they let a comfortable silence fall between then, filled, mercifully, by the chirring forest around them. Each man had been unprepared for the other’s words but each man had been relieved and released by them. David finally attempted.

“Curt.” He scuffed the toe of his boot in the gravel. “I’m not very good with these things. With speaking my mind. I don’t know the right things to say, the right way to say them. All I can say is that I love you. I always have. I always will. You’re my perfect boy and I’ve always been proud of you.” He paused and set his beer on the gravel then clasped his hands. “I don’t know what else to say, son.”

In a husky voice Curt said, “You don’t have to say anything else. What you said is perfect.” And then, “Thanks, Dad.”

And so for a while neither of them said anything. The fire between them snapped and sizzled. The insects and frogs sang in the trees. Faraway owls hooted. A breeze came from the other side of the cabin and blew smoke into Curt’s face. He closed his eyes for a moment, but when he opened them again, the smoke was still coming at him.

“Well, if that’s they way it’s going to be,” he said, rising from his chair and dragging it through the gravel to the other side of the fire beside his father. His dad. Dad.

In the orange of the firelight David reached across and rested his hand on Curt’s bare forearm.

“You know what I don’t see a lot of out here?”

Curt, not expecting to be confronted with such an odd question and unable to imagine where it might lead said simply, “What’s that?”

“Mosquitos. I guess the dragonflies and the bats take care of that for us.”

What could he say in response to that? Curt wondered. Was any response necessary? His father had eased right back into common cabin conversation, into the mundane they shared as though Curt’s monumental words were now well behind them and maybe even not so monumental at all. More importantly though, when, beyond a perfunctory handshake or a clap on the shoulder, was the last time his father had touched him, touched his skin? When had he let him? His arm tingled.

They both knew, each at his own level, that what had passed between them at this campfire would need more thought, more slow absorption into their lives. That their few words to each other would eventually be followed by other words, mostly good words surely, but words that would pick and poke at their changed relationship, furthering it, deepening it, and discovering what it would mean going forward.

David was already beginning to sense this. Now that he had his son back – and he was back, wasn’t he? After more than a decade of holding himself at his distance Curt had finally spoken his truth and together they had pushed aside or left behind what had been between them, right? – David realized that he was also losing him. Soon he would no longer have Curt to himself, at least as wholly to himself as he might have before and now could only for the rest of their weekend while they were together in this place. Because Curt was going to give himself to another. To Kelly. David would have to learn to share him, to accept – once again, ironically – whatever bits of Curt were allowed to him. He held this bittersweet tension in his heart, feeling it but not understanding it.

Curt, in turn, tried to find his own new equilibrium. It wasn’t so much that his father’s automatic acceptance of his son’s life had been unexpected. He realized how he should have seen this, should have seen it years before. No, it was that so much time had been wasted, so much love had been tempered, so much chill had been cultivated and then endured. So much needless waste! Why had he allowed himself to create such a mess? To let it last for so long? His diagnosis: he hadn’t been a very good son to a very good father. No, he had not been very good; merely good enough. Never mind that the cure had come easily or that they could both now be healthy again. That the affliction had existed at all was his real shame.

The whippoorwill had ceased its call. David thought he had heard one across the lake, up on the far ridge, but it was too distant to hear clearly. The air had stilled. A thread of smoke rose unmolested from the few coals still glowing in the ring. Time to spread them so they could burn out. Maybe quench them with whatever liquids the two men had at hand. And then to the cabin for the night. The usual routines before going to sleep.

David screwed his half empty beer can into the gravel and pushed up from his chair. He prodded the coals with a stick and considered whether they needed further attention or could burn themselves out overnight. The recent rain meant the forest was wet, so he wasn’t too worried, but he also knew he would rise in the night, more than once likely, and he could check on the coals then.

Curt had watched in silence, thinking much of the same thoughts as his father, the result of having shared countless campfires with him in this place.

David said, “I’m turning in.”

“Be right there,” Curt said, rising from his chair and stepping closer to the coals. “One thing first.”

As David walked the familiar path to the cabin he heard Curt quenching the coals.

When Curt reached the cabin, David had already turned on the lantern that hung from a hook in the ceiling. The light was dazzling to his dark-adapted eyes and he looked to the floor at first as David opened the windows to ensure that whatever breeze passed before the cabin would also pass through it and keep them cool as they slept.

And it was in this moment that Curt was overcome with the realization of how fully his three words had changed his life.

Before him his father was undressing, getting ready for falling into bed. He would strip to his briefs, unabashedly before his son and move about the room nearly naked. Curt would do them same, peeling down to his boxers with nothing left but to say a few words and then get into bed himself.

Together, the summer before, they had added a second bedroom to the cabin, which was his dad’s big indulgence. His grandfather had built the cabin, and Curt saw that putting on that second bedroom was important to David, a way of leaving his own mark. More than anything, David wanted the little cabin and their hundred acres to be a part of the family forever. He was preparing it for further life that he wanted to be lived there, for further perfect moments.

Yet Curt feared that the second bedroom would soon be witness to a different kind of moment. One that would forever evoke its own memories. This sudden realization tainted his outlook for the whole weekend ahead. On the face of it, a perfectly sensible, even inevitable consequence of his three words, yet harrowing because nothing could speak more clearly of a new and irreparable sunder with his father. It was this: that no longer could they share the old bed in the old cabin. No longer could these two men in nothing more than their underwear curl under the single quilt as they had hundreds of times and fall asleep side by side. For despite the love he knew his father felt for him, Curt was certain that the man could never again sleep beside his son, his son who was now an openly gay man. It tainted his whole life ahead.

Curt stood beside the bed, hesitating. He was waiting. Waiting for a word from his father or the will in himself. Waiting for direction.

“It will be good to get some sleep before we tackle that fallen tree tomorrow,” Curt offered as innocuously as he could, trying to fill the empty air between them and maybe prod the right words – or even the wrong ones – from his father.

“I’d completely forgotten about that!” David chuckled at his own forgetfulness. “Yeah, that will be quick work for the two of us.”

Left with nothing, Curt paused for a hopeless moment then grabbed the second pillow from the bed and turned to march off to the other bedroom.

“Hey, where are you going?”

Curt stopped but didn’t turn.

“Aren’t you going to sleep here with me?”

Curt spun around did not try to hide his smile as he threw the pillow at his father. He shook off his clothes and hurried under the quilt with his dad.

David in his briefs and Curt in his boxers. Two grown men, nearly naked, happily in bed together. And would they slip into the lake fully naked the next day, to wash off the grit and grime of their work on the deadfall, just as they had so many times before.

 

Paul Lamb lives near Kansas City but escapes to his little cabin in the Missouri Ozarks whenever he gets the chance. He keeps a blog of his writing and other oddments at Lucky Rabbit’s Foot. He rarely strays far from his laptop.

The Collection By Danielle Davis

The Collection By Danielle Davis

“I’m not too sure about this,” Suzanne said. She stood just inside the threshold of the front door, shifting her weight from one foot to the other and glancing around like she was expecting something bad to happen. The hallway smelled like old people and boiled eggs, and just faintly underneath it all, a hint of bleach. It was like someone woke up, made breakfast, and set about cleaning right away.

“Oh, come on. It’ll be ok. Besides, we’re coming right out again in a minute.” This was from Mark, who was already out of sight around the corner into the living room. It was his house, but his parents weren’t home yet, and this was the first time Suzanne had gone to a friend’s house when their parents weren’t there. She was pretty sure she’d be grounded if her dad found out, so she was anxious to get back to the safety of the street and get home.

A tabby cat poked its head from underneath a love seat in the entrance way and meowed at her. She stepped forward to pet it, glancing around again as her fingers rubbed the soft fur at the back of its ears. It leaned into her touch and closed its eyes in bliss, purring like a small motor. “If my parents find out that I’m over here…” She didn’t quite want to admit that she wasn’t supposed to be there. The Brewster twins, Mary and Mark, had only been at her school for a week, but she’d already developed a crush on Mark that her parents probably wouldn’t approve of. They told her sister, Marianne, that she was too young to be interested in boys and she was a year and a half older. Suzanne was still a little thrilled that Mark had invited her to his house at all—the last thing she wanted to do was act like she was scared of breaking the rules. That wasn’t how cool kids acted at all.

“What, they don’t let you visit friends’ houses?” Mark’s head popped out from behind the corner, frowning. The cat gave a venomous hiss and darted back under the love seat, startling Suzanne. Mark rolled his eyes. “That cat hates people. I’m surprised she let you touch her. You coming?”

She followed him into the living room and down a long hallway. The house looked ordinary, with a few boxes stacked neatly against the wall in the hallway. “We’re still unpacking,” he tossed back over his shoulder. It was eerie to be in someone else’s house without their parents being home. He stopped in front of a bedroom door that had a poster of Spiderman clumsily taped on it. Inside, the room was mostly boxes, with the rumpled sheets of a bed against one wall and a lonely chest of drawers across from it. There were bumper stickers stuck to the fronts of the drawers, but the print was too small for her to make them out without staring.

He darted around the bed, snagged something from the ground and held it out to her. “Isn’t this cool? My dad bought it for me when we moved here. Said it might help me make friends.” It was a remote-controlled helicopter with blades that sounded like a hive of bees buzzing when it hovered. He demonstrated how lights on the side flashed when it made machine gun noises, and she tried to pretend she was interested. But she was acutely aware of the time shown on the digital clock next to his bed. Her own skin started to feel itchy with the sense that every minute that she stayed put her one minute closer to being grounded.

“Can we hurry? I’m supposed to be home in ten minutes.” It embarrassed her to admit she had a curfew, but she decided nothing was worth risking getting grounded for, not even a visit to Mark Brewster’s room.

“Do you always have to go straight home?”

“Not usually. Just since…” She glanced at the doorway and lowered her voice. “Just since the murders. My Dad said it’s not safe to dawdle after school until they catch whoever did it.”

“Oh, yeah. I kinda heard about that.”

“You kinda heard? Wasn’t Terrence Latrell in your English class?” She was surprised—she thought everyone was taking the murders as seriously as her Dad was.

“Wait, that’s why he’s been out this week? He got killed?” Mark’s eyes were very wide, and his mouth hung open as he stared at the carpet. “Oh man. I just thought, well, that he’d been sick or something. But killed?”

Suzanne unconsciously straightened a little, pleased to be able to show off her knowledge on a subject he obviously didn’t know much about. “There’ve been three so far,” she confided. “All kids.” She cocked her head. “Well,” she amended, “the first was a high school kid. But the last two were from our school.” Her voice dropped even lower and when she leaned toward him, he leaned forward, too, to hear her better. “My Dad says there’s a serial killer on the loose.” She allowed a gloating smile when Mark’s eyes got even wider. “My mom got real mad when he said that, because it was at the dinner table. But I heard them talking later that night about it, and she thinks it’s one, too.”

Mark frowned and fidgeted with the edge of his shirt. “Yeah, my mom and dad mentioned that earlier, too.” Suzanne’s shoulders slumped a bit–she’d thought her parents were pretty smart to have come up with that–but Mark didn’t notice. “They were worried about my sister.”

“They were worried she’d be killed?”

“No, not that. Worried that…” He looked up at her, and she was surprised to see that he looked uncertain, as if he were struggling to decide what to tell her. “Do you know why we came to Woodbury?” She shook her head. “My sister kept getting into… She had some trouble at our last school.” He looked at his shirt again. “It got so bad that we had to move.”

Suzanne stared at him, unsure how to respond. “That’s…terrible.”

Mark gave an angry glance to the side. “It wasn’t fair!” he burst out. “One day stuff started happening and everyone thought it was her. People all over town kept harassing us. The teachers whispered things behind our backs. Folks tried to pretend they weren’t staring at us when we went to the grocery store. The neighborhood kids, kids at school—they started with the names. Calling her ‘Bloody Mary’ and ‘Mary the Maniac.’ It was awful! She’d come home crying every day. It wasn’t even her fault.” He glared at his shirt. Suzanne thought she saw a shine of tears collecting along his lower eyelid. “This is our chance to start over.”

“What kind of stuff happened?” Suzanne asked in a soft voice.

He blinked quickly and frowned at her. “What?”

“You said stuff started happening. What kind of stuff? Was it the same kind of stuff as here?” Goosebumps rose along her arms and she felt her scalp tighten. The room felt colder, though she knew it probably wasn’t. It was her that was getting colder as she listened.

Mark opened his mouth, but before he could answer, a door slammed shut somewhere back the way they’d come. Suzanne jumped and whirled to face the hallway beyond the door. “Hello!” a woman’s voice called out. “Hello? Anybody home yet?”

Mark stepped quickly past her to the door and leaned his head out of the room. “I’m here, Mom!” he yelled down the hall. “And I’ve got a friend, Suzanne.” It seemed so strange for him to be calling down the hall instead of going to meet his mother to talk. Suzanne’s mom always got on to her for yelling in the house, when she could just as easily walk down the hall and talk in a normal voice like a civilized young lady.

“Oh lovely!” the voice shrilled back. But even though his mother sounded cheerful, Suzanne thought it felt wrong, somehow. She supposed it was just because of what she and Mark had been talking about. “From school?”

Mark glanced back at Suzanne and gave a theatrical roll of his eyes. She giggled. “Of course, from school, Mom! I was just showing her my pets.”

“Well, don’t get too messy, love. You don’t want to ruin your school clothes.”

Suzanne moved forward to touch Mark’s arm. “No, wait. I can’t. I need to get home, remember?”

“It won’t take very long,” he assured her. He smiled. “They’re just in the closet. Don’t you want to see?”

“But…” She glanced between Mark and the doorway, torn. “If my Dad finds out, I’ll be grounded for li—”

“Relax.” He smiled at her, the same cute smile that he’d given her the first time she saw him in class and pointed at the door. “One quick glance and we’re gone. Besides, it’s probably best if you’re not here when Mary gets home. She doesn’t like it when I have friends over.” As he moved toward the closet door, she realized there was no trace of the tears he’d been close to shedding moments before. In fact, his eyes were clear and alert, and he grinned like her sister did when she rode her bike down a very steep hill.

He put one hand on the doorknob to his closet and then paused. With a glance over his shoulder at her, he said, “I only show this to my friends. But we are friends now…aren’t we?”

She couldn’t help but nod, though the way the sunlight slanted through the curtains in his room told her it was way too late for her to be out.

“On second thought,” Mark said, stepping back. “You open it. It’ll be even cooler that way.”

He straightened in a motion that made his shoes click together at the heels, the way a doorman might stand at attention for a rich lady in a movie. She moved forward, feeling like some other girl in a dream, and put her hand on the knob. Though she expected it to be cold, the brass was warm from Mark’s hand. She pulled it open.

Inside were small glass aquariums, the kind she’d seen in pet stores for lizards or snakes. Three were side-by-side on a shelf, with another three perched on top of those. Each one held a head, in various stages of decomposition, floating gently in a clear liquid that looked too thick to be water. She stared at the heads that stared back at her, feeling empty as her brain struggled to make sense of what she saw. The three on the bottom row were obviously the farthest gone, with milky orbs for eyes and small bits of flesh like sediment floating around the faces. But the ones on top were the freshest. She registered Terrence’s head bobbing, frozen in an expression of surprise.

Suzanne opened her mouth to scream, but only a low huh huh huh noise came out. She turned, slowly, to look at Mark. He stood where she’d last seen him with the same feral grin as before. But now he held an empty aquarium. She hadn’t even heard him move to get it.

He held it out to her and said, “We’re going to need this.” She took it like a robot, unable to keep from looking down into the bottom with a glassy-eyed gaze that didn’t really see anything. Don’t get too messy, his mother had said.

“Now the fun part begins.”

Billy Bagbones: A Folk Tale By Dan Fields

Billy Bagbones: A Folk Tale By Dan Fields

There’s an old song about Billy Bagbones. I bet most of you know it, but it’s only a little bit of the story. I’ve got cousins way out in the country whose people were neighbors with his folks. When I was little my great-aunt Winnie told me all of it, the way she heard it when she was just a little older than me.

A long time ago in the foothills thick with trees, a few miles south of where we are tonight, a little boy lived in a falling-down cabin. His name was Billy Boggs. His daddy brewed moonshine from corn and dogwood bark and pine cones to sell in town, but kept too much for himself to make much money. His mama took in sewing and laundry even though she couldn’t keep herself clean to begin with. Billy’s granny lived there too, and bought tobacco to chew with money that could have fed the family better.

Billy was seven years old and there was nothing much special about him, good or bad. He liked fishing and tree climbing like any boy, even though he could never find another kid to play with. Parents told their children to steer shy of Billy Boggs because he belonged to bad folks. His mama and daddy hadn’t started out bad, but they came from bad folks and were sad and mean and rotted from hard living.

Instead of teaching his son to shoot and fight and brew, Billy’s daddy taught him just enough wood chopping to keep the fire burning, then left him alone except to beat him.

“You’re a dumb dirty kid,” Billy’s old man told him, “and that’s all you’ll ever be.”

The old man had fine ears like a hound dog. He could hear the revenue man’s truck coming five miles away, and he could track hogs and deer through brush without having to wound them first. He could hear anytime the boy came in easy swatting range, no matter how quiet Billy tried to be. He could have a been a hunting guide or plenty other useful things, but he drank too much for steady work, so he wasted and grumbled his life away, hearing the world go on around him and blaming his son for it.

Billy’s mama wasn’t much for washing, but she had fine fingers and a gift for sewing. She worked long hours in the house, never so much as going to the porch to watch the sun set. She muttered under her breath what sounded like prayers, but they were full of cuss words, and when Billy came to help her she kicked his legs or poked him with pins.

“You’re a nasty child of sin,” she told him, “and you’ll never be anything else.”

She’d had an old banjo, but Billy only remembered her picking it once when he was just a baby. She’d sold it off to spring Billy’s daddy from jail for fighting. If she hadn’t married Daddy she could have picked the banjo for real money, maybe even played gospel meetings on the radio. But she’d had to marry, she said, and gave Billy another kick or a hard poke in the ribs when she thought of it. Billy tried to be good, fetched and carried for her and did everything she thought up for him to do. He reckoned if he could figure out how to be a good boy, things would ease up on him.

Billy’s mama never went to the porch because his granny practically lived there, and she was the flat worst. She’d stare at the boy like a chicken hawk as he came and went, spitting her chaw into the weeds unless Billy stopped to speak to her or even look at her. Then she’d hock brown slime right in his eye and pinch him with her birdy claws.

“You’re a filthy little twerp,” she’d screech at him, “and you’ll never be good for a thing.”

Then he’d always get a slap and a kick at supper from his daddy and mama both, for what they called provokin’ his granny. Billy was never sure whether his granny was his daddy’s mama or his mama’s mama. They all went together so natural it hardly mattered. He was not about to ask fool questions just to get beat up. Most of his time he spent thinking of ways he could try harder to be good. He wasn’t all that dirty, and he certainly was not dumb, but he’d been called it so many times he believed it. It was why he never thought of running away.

One day the sun came out with no clouds to hide it. The air was warm with a soft breeze that made the trees whisper sweet things. Daddy had passed out drunk, Granny was in bed with hay fever, and Mama was deep in a basketful of sheets to mend, muttering her dirty prayers to the ugly gods in her heart.

Billy ran down to the creek, happy and free. Perfect days only came a few times a year and they taught him what it means to be blessed, even know he didn’t know the word well enough to say it out loud. The frogs were out in the creek enjoying the warm sun, yet he didn’t find a single snake to bother him. He splashed and laughed in the creek, piling mud on his feet just to watch the current wash it away. If that day had not come along so nice, he might have thought all girls and boys grew up the same as him. He was fixing to learn different.

Two little children found him there, a boy and a girl. They weren’t from town or from a farm.  They said their folks were traveling north to a place called Oh-Hi-Oh, and they’d stopped the wagon for a picnic just up the hill. Billy was so glad to meet people who didn’t know him or who he belonged to that he played all sorts of games with them, pirates and hide and seek and skip-a-rock. Billy caught flies and set them on the water in front of a big old bullfrog, who’d shoot out his tongue and lasso them into his wide mouth. When it was time to go, Billy gave each of his new friends a button off his shirt to keep. They were nice buttons but nearly ready to fall off, and he wouldn’t ask his mama to sew them when she was eaten up with work. Just as he was leaving for home himself, the bullfrog hopped up to him and burped a happy song. Billy decided to keep him as a pet, to help him remember the wonderful day he’d had at the creek.

When Billy came running into the cabin, busting with excitement over the friends he’d made, he thought somehow he could keep life from going back to normal. It already had. He held the bullfrog up to his mama just as proud as could be.

“I trained him to follow me!” he said, thinking a bad sinful child could never do such a marvelous thing. His mama didn’t say a word at first. She stuck her sewing needle straight into the frog’s ear, which made it go slack. Then she grabbed the floppy thing by its big legs and slammed its head against the floor. The poor thing never made another croak, but his mama had something to say.

“Well, go and build a fire to stew it in. And how come there ain’t no fresh wood in the fireplace?” And she knocked him on the side of the head. Billy had taken every kind of licking there was, but something about the way she did with his frog made him feel different. It was just like she’d knocked those nice children, who wouldn’t hurt nobody, on the side of their heads too. What had the old bullfrog done but be hungry and friendly? It was one thing to smack a bad childlike Billy, but he had enough sense to know an innocent thing when he saw it. All at once he wondered how his mama would like to be knocked on the head herself.

What his mama didn’t know, what his daddy didn’t know, what his granny sure as hell didn’t know, was the secret Billy kept all for himself. It was the reason he kept so cheerful no matter how rough his family treated him. He knew he could be good enough to please them someday because he knew that in his heart, he was good. He knew because he had been told, and the one who told him was always with him.

Billy thought it was the Lord Almighty speaking to him, the same who looked after the poor and mistreated. He believed in the goodness of creation even when he saw his mother’s faith turn to poison in her breast. He believed in wonderful rewards he’d earn for not complaining, for doing his best, for keeping his chin up. In his sweet trusting way, he never imagined that there was another who knew the scriptures as well as the Lord, to use against the innocent. The voice that came to Billy in sleep and solitude told him, “You are good in my sight. You are loved when you suffer for my sake.” He felt the words were pushing the hurt and anger out of him. He never dreamed it could be old Scratch putting on a holy accent, packing his bad feelings down like powder in a cannon. For months and years the devil had played his trick on Billy, until he only needed to touch a spark to the charge in the boy’s belly.

“Now, my son,” said the voice in Billy’s heart. “Free yourself. Show them what they’ve made.”

There was a wooden mallet in the kitchen that his mama used for pounding hog meat tender when they had any. It was stained dark with hog blood, so Billy figured nobody would mind if he spoiled it some more. He took it right back to his mama and gave her a good knock, right in the jawbone. She slid from her chair to the floor with a kind of wet-sounding sigh. Billy figured another knock would really teach her, and once he’d done that he had a hard time thinking of reasons to stop. Before he was done he’d knocked his mama’s head with that mallet almost as many times as he’d ever been hit himself. Finally, his arm got tired and the mallet felt heavier than before, and he noticed there was hardly any head left to knock.

Billy’s daddy found him in the yard awhile later. The old man was up and around with a mighty sore head. Billy ignored him at first, kept splitting wood like his mama had sent him to do, but his daddy was looking for something to hit. He saw the dark rusty footprints Billy had made all down the porch and settled on that for a reason. He punched the back of the boy’s head, nearly knocking him forward over the splitting stump. Billy almost fell on the hatchet he used to split smaller pieces and shave off kindling. Things might have stopped there if he had. His daddy would have run off to the hills, or maybe had a change of heart and cried for the love he’d kept from his only son, or maybe kept on drinking til somebody found the four of them knocked and chopped and drunk and starved to death all around the falling-down cabin on the hill.

Instead, Billy stumbled forward a step and caught himself. He didn’t turn around right away, but he cocked his body to move quick like a little clock spring. The voice of love was talking to him again, telling him carefully every little thing he ought to do.

“What the hell you step in, boy?” growled his daddy. “You hear me, dummy?”

Billy gave his daddy the chance to calm down, to back off, just as the voice in his heart told him. That way he could never be blamed for what might happen. When his daddy’s rough hand spun him around, Billy was ready with the hatchet. He was just the right height to swing for the big man’s knee. A second later, the two halves of the knee dropped to the ground and the big broad chest was lined up for a second stroke. A second after that, the forehead of the man now roaring in pain and surprise was lined up for strike three. Billy had never swung an ax crosswise at a standing tree, but he knew how to hit a baseball. It was just about the same thing.

Billy was stoking up the fire when his granny came out of bed to complain about the noise, or maybe about the quiet, or maybe that no dinner was cooking yet. She stood above him in her shawl, screeching about the ruined floor that seemed to concern her a good deal more than Billy’s mama with her head all gone. When she saw the boy all caked in gore she cursed him, telling him she’d always known he’d bring them ruin.

“Hateful, hateful, hateful,” she spat. “Shame on the day that saw you born.”

Billy, who now knew that shame and ruin had existed long before him, had in fact brought him unwilling into the world, had nothing much to say. He had spoken his last a good while ago. The voice of love gave its next instruction. Billy rushed at the old woman but instead of striking as she cowered away, he seized a corner of her shawl in each hand and spun her with the skill of a square dancer she might have known in bygone days. He released her just so to send her tumbling across the hearth into the well-built fire. As she cried out and flailed and crackled, he held the iron poker that she had used to stir him from idleness in the past, yet he treated her with the gentleness he owed his elders. He only used a few soft jabs of the iron to keep her from crawling out, until she was quite still, and a pleasant roasting smell filled the cabin.

Billy spent the remaining daylight dividing his family into easily carried pieces with the hatchet and a butcher blade from the kitchen. He meant to rise early and dig a single hole to bury them. He was not feeling tenderhearted enough to call it a grave, but he did not mean to let the bodies fester and foul the little cabin, bitter a place as it had become to him. Had his heart been a shade colder, he might have stewed up a pot of them to sustain him in hard days to come. But he was ready to have the whole business done with. The freedom he had seized for himself was dawning on him by degrees, and he hoped to spend the following day enjoying the sun again. Something, a queer instinct that whispered softer than the voice of love, told him to set aside a few fragments from those he would bury. These he stowed for safe keeping in the woodshed.

It would be easy to think that for Billy Boggs, things came within a hair of turning out fine. If you did not know how deep the devil had his hands in that poor child from birth, you’d think it was only the one bad chance that cast him into ruin. There happened to be a wandering preacher man along one of the cart roads. He traveled with a mission of saving souls when he found them wanting. He was young and unwed, freshly minted by the bible college, young enough to be Billy’s older brother. He had made good road time that day but being in a strange place he feared losing his way. That was why he rode his mule up to the yard of the falling-down cabin. The sun was long set, but he could see a fire burning inside and a small shadow moving through the open door.

The mule shied, nearly tossing its rider, and would come no closer than two dozen yards from the house. Not until the preacher crossed the threshold did his nose pick up the sharp copper smell that had frightened the animal. It was a farm smell he knew from his own childhood, a smell of the fall slaughter. It was blood and rendered flesh. What he found in the cabin brought him to his knees. He gave a quavering cry as he searched the room for one whole, recognizable human form.

That was when Billy, startled by the intruder’s ghastly warbling, stabbed the preacher deep in the thigh with the butcher blade. It was a confused, inexpert blow but it roused the preacher to full alarm. Unmindful of his hurt leg, the man retreated into the yard and leapt on his mule. Kicking the bewildered beast to speed with his good leg, he rode it like a hellhound four miles to town, crying murder and massacre all the way.

The town folks returned to the cabin a short time later. The sight of a holy man with blood all down his leg and terror in his eyes put them in a sort of frenzy that it might not so much these days. He put up a shout about the small demon in the falling-down cabin on the hill. On they came in less time than you’d think possible. They came with shovels and shotguns and fire, and most of them carried stones.

They found Billy busy, burying the fragments of his people. He paid them no mind nor made them any menace, for it grieved him having harmed a stranger who meant him no ill. He had a mind to finish his chores and leave the rest of the world in peace. He was dropping the last of the dead into the hole he’d dug when the first rock struck his head. Crying in one voice of vengeance and hate, they rained their stones upon him as it’s told in the Good Book, seeking to break the monster who had made the carnage they beheld.

They mangled poor Billy, not knowing him for a simple child wronged by heaven and hell and humanity alike. The largest rock came hard enough to split his skull, and caused his brains to ooze. They might have torn his limbs one from the other had not the loudest of them cried for him to be decently hanged. They marched all the way back to town bearing the dying boy’s body, and using the good stout rope from the town well, they hauled him up on the gnarly limb of a grandfather elm that stood in the square. They hoisted him and let him swing where all his good neighbors could look upon him.

Only then did the evil one, author of all the day’s misery, take the scales from their eyes. He had appointed the lynching for his own purposes. Dumbstruck, shamed and horrified, they saw that they had seized and stoned a young boy without knowing his guilt for certain. Their madness washed away as from a drain with the plug out, yet nobody had the nerve to approach the tree and let him down. None of them spoke as they turned homeward. The only sound was Billy Boggs twisting at the end of a rope, high on the elm in the center of town.

 

Tadpole, tadpole, frogs in the sand

Billy came home with warts on his hand

“Shame!” said Mama and thumped his head

Billy took a hammer and he knocked her dead.

 

Graveyard, graveyard, digging up roots

Billy came home with mud on his boots

“Shame!” said Daddy and blacked his eyes

Billy took a knife and skinned him alive

 

Woodshed, woodshed, hide ‘em in the dirt

Billy went to church with blood on his shirt

“Shame!” said the preacher and cast him out

Billy took a hatchet and shut his mouth

 

Murder! Murder! All through town

Billy came walking when the sun went down

“Shame!” said the folks and they took his life

Hit him with a hammer and a hatchet and a knife

 

Hangman, hangman, string him up high

Let Billy be the last in town to die

“Shame!” said the devil and cut him down

Made him a body from bones in the ground

 

Rooster, rooster, crowing at the sun

Where’d Billy go to? Now he’s gone

Body sewed up and brains in a sack

Billy got away but he’s gonna come back

 

See, there’s a Bible verse telling how the devil stalks the world like a lion, looking for folks he can eat. He labors in every heart, understand, but only once in a while does he open his jaws and gobble up a soul. He’d been cooking Billy Boggs for seven years, and my oh my how Billy must have tasted. Turning the poor child loose on the kin who’d misused him was only one delicious bite. The real feast began the next midnight, when old Scratch took himself walking through the square to see how things had shaken out. Every door was shut tight, with no lights in any window. It was not the quiet of a little town asleep. It was a cemetery, each home a crypt where folks had locked themselves in. On account of what they’d visited in fear on a poor troubled child, they dared not speak or look one another in the eyes. Nobody but the youngest children had taken any supper, entombing themselves in sleep and resignation to heaven’s judgment, few expecting to live til morning.

But the punishment for their sin was not to be death. In their beds they slept soundly, and dreamed of guilty secrets til the sun shone in and they rose to see the morning newly created. After one instant of joyful promise, they looked closer and saw the world was the same old horror as ever. Never would a sunrise come again that failed to remind them. That was the reward of the murderers, not to die but to live in dreadful knowledge of the hearts.

The evil one knew this all along, smiling to count the ones who would know despair and end themselves the soonest, compounding the black marks against them in the Almighty’s account book. Standing beneath the tree where the little body hung, he thought of the many new rooms he would have to build in his own foul halls. A mottled crow roosted on the limb, but dared not peck the boy’s sweet eyes without leave from its master. The eyes were shut, the expression on the beaten face almost prayerful. The child looked only asleep, but for the rope about his throat. It would have pulled the heart from any creature except the prince of hell, who half-sang to himself as he watched the breeze turn the rope, this way and that. At two minutes after twelve, he went to work.

From his pocket he drew a long bandage of coarse linen, narrow as a ribbon. Then he took a length of thick black thread made for binding up wounds and sealing the lips of the dead. At the thread’s end was a fine needle fashioned from a bone sliver, the kind that may shear off into the blood and stab the heart from inside. The body has such ingenious ways to murder itself that for most men, enemies are a needless luxury.

At the devil’s command the hanging limb withered and died. It was a trick he had stolen from the preacher of Galilee. He sewed up the worst of the child’s wounds and bade the still heart beat again. The Billy-corpse flailed about senseless in the dirt. The devil wound the linen bandage in clever loops around the broken skull, binding in the brains and seeping matter, then fastened the ends tightly round the throat. Two eyes fluttered open, and the thing Billy had become looked in silent reverence on its deliverer. Old Scratch had no stern decree for his dear one, no brutal marching order. He had come to teach the boy secret ways of mending himself. At dawn he handed over the oily black thread as a gift and sent the Billy-thing away to walk the world.

The folks in town were reluctant to shake off sleep. It was Sunday, but no one rang the church bell. They dared not tempt holy wrath before the Lord’s altar. Instead they came in barefoot twos and threes to the town square, where they found the hanging tree fallen, the rope a frayed and snakelike ruin. As the women who found the open tomb on blessed Easter felt wonder and joy, these folks felt horror. It was a dreadful discovery, yet in their hearts many were not surprised. The devil had claimed and preserved his own. That did nothing to soothe or justify their hearts. In silent assent they gathered lamps and candles. As pilgrims they went, two by two, up the hill to the falling-down cabin. There, as the company looked on murmuring psalms, each one cast his light through the window until tongues of flame rose high above the eaves, issuing a black column of hell smoke. The congregation prayed that their penitent act be accepted as a cleansing, not as a further mockery of the commandments they had all held sacred before the madness of the previous night.

Billy wandered the nearby woods for some hours, til long after the interlopers had gone home again. From an old memory, or old it seemed after his long night of hell, he found his way back. The ruins of the house were smoking, a vile remembrance charred into the earth, but he did not come in search of shelter. In the woodshed he found the tokens he had saved, obeying the command of his false conscience. With the gory hatchet he cut his fingers free one by one. In place of them he stitched the slender fingers of his mother. The womanly digits on his chubby child’s fists were spidery and queer, but with his nimble new hands he could grasp and sew and do all manner of things much faster.

With rough strokes of the bone-blunted knife he took his father’s keen ears for his own, sewing them in place under the bandages that made his soft skull. With these he could track anything through the dark, no matter how small or fleet.

He had no use for a sharp tongue, especially since his granny’s was stained with chaw. Her lungs were tough and callused from the exercise of shrieking. Instead he took her flinty eyes which could see everything by dark and by day, sometimes things only imagined. With the devil’s art and his gift of needle and thread, Billy made himself all new.

Probing deep with his hands, he sifted fresh grave dirt for more parts to strengthen and sustain him. Some were half-rotten and had to be replaced within days. Billy began to walk the woods along wagon roads, listening for unwary travelers. From a young blacksmith he took shoulders like a bull. From a hermit he stole tough horny feet that ran silent and sure over gravel and sharp river rocks. Soon he was a much greater thing than a defenseless boy, yet not any sort of creature that you might call a man. He prowls these parts even today, adding to himself from the victims he takes. His parts are always wearing out and going dead, but there’s always new folks passing through. I reckon one day he’d like to have a good left leg like yours, and a strong young heart like yours. Be careful in case he comes close enough to hear it beating in the dark. The only thing Billy never worked out is how to switch his dirty cloth head for a whole one of flesh and bone. Keeping his body alive while he changes heads, that’s the one secret old Scratch never shared. He held it back to make sure Billy stays a monster no matter how much life he gathers to himself. That way his wandering and searching will never end, and when our little ones grow older the song will be theirs to sing.

 

Dan Fields once absconded with a film degree from Northwestern University. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and offspring.

Tarot By Brian Koester

Tarot By Brian Koester

From the beginning the deck spoke

as if we were well enough acquainted.

We had no reason to withhold.

 

Shuffled till they must have lost

all reference, all relevance,

the same cards kept coming back.

 

Merging with the language of cards

was like merging with the language of words;

It was making a kind of poetry.

 

That thing was watching me;

I couldn’t sleep deeply

or something would seize me inside

 

and I’d never belong to myself again.

It still scratches at the windows from outside

 

Brian Jerrold Koester is a Pushcart Prize nominee and a Best of the Net Anthology nominee. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts and has been a freelance cellist.