I’ll go with you
as far as
I have a
at the carnival
there, and I
must not be
The Galilee Hitch-Hiker
The redbird fell without a sound, tumbling off the tree branch in a long crimson smear. The leaves of the tree were the desiccated, pale green of high summer, sapped by July heat.
The redbird lay songless in the sere yellow grass. Charlie could not see the wound as they ran up to it, so nearly were the feathers the color of blood. When he drew nearer, he did see tiny red spots in the gray duff beneath the straw-colored grass, and one drop streaked down a dry stalk like an exclamation point. The redbird’s head lay at an odd angle from its neck. Its legs and wings spraddled crazily. The wings were shockingly red. The B-B had cleanly broken its neck.
“What’ll you do?” Charlie asked his cousin. His cousin hung his B-B gun in the crook of his arm and dug in his pocket. He said, “Gut it.”
Charlie watched while his cousin peeled the bird. He cut off the feet, head and wings. The wings fluttered to the ground. The head lay with its beaks slightly parted, its eyes black dots. Charlie’s cousin slit the belly and spilled the guts with a crook of his finger. He slid the knife between skin and muscle and the soft, fulsome breast split apart and fell away. The bright crimson coat joined the mound of entrails in the dirt. Charlie thought of Vacation Bible School and of Joseph’s coat of many bright colors and he thought the reds of it must have been like this. He watched without speaking while his cousin’s flashing knife rent the bird into the thighs, breast and drumstick’s of a very small chicken. His cousin grinned, stuck one tiny drumstick into his mouth, and peeled flesh from bone by drawing it through his teeth. He grinned while he chewed and his teeth turned pink. The redbird was sold off into Egypt for sure, now. Charlie shook his head at the proffered thigh. His cousin flung the rest on the ground.
They went then into the trees of the wooded place that snaked across the field hugging the creekbed that now was just as dry as everything else, save the damp leafmold in its very bottom. Calvin, Charlie’s cousin, carried his B-B rifle at port arms and quivered with the expectation of using it on something. Charlie carried his diffidently in one hand. The yellow folds and mounds of the plain vanished behind them, as if someone on a sudden had dropped a heavy curtain over a window out to a sun-drenched street. Calvin peered alertly into those spaces under the intermittent brush, and into the crotched branches of trees. They came over a bank beside the long fallen trunk of a dead tree whose branches reached up, pleading for its vanished wind and sun and sky and rain. Beyond it the deep of the dry creekbed opened before them, into a place where last winter’s leaves had been blown or been washed away. The sweet sandy black soil, turgid with decay of many a winter’s leavings, was exposed.
“Look!” Calvin shouted and pointed. A snake wound like some improbably animated length of rope in the creek bottom. They both began firing at once. They pumped B-B after B-B into the bewildered snake. It coiled on itself and writhed and whipped its head back and forth seeking out its anonymous tormentors. Its thin black tongue slithered wetly in and out of its mouth and its mouth yawned open to reveal twin fangs and it rattled its rattle and it twisted and perhaps, if it had seen them, it might have known which way to go either to fight or to flee, but it did not see them, and it curled over and over on itself in fury and frustration. In the fusillade one B-B found out a glittering black eye and its whipping about became the moreso frenzied. First Calvin shakenly reloaded, then Charlie. They fired and they fired again and again and presently the rattlesnake was still.
Calvin slid down the bank with a chunk of wood in his hand. He bashed the snake’s head twice. He inspected it cautiously, then bashed it again, and it wound up on itself like a tangled mainspring. Calvin’s knife flashed once. He bore the rattle triumphantly back up the bank.
“What now?” Charlie asked him.
He shrugged. The rattle dripped blood.
“Let’s walk toward the quarry.”
The passage out of the scrub wood was as abrupt as their entrance into it. The sun had traveled across its apex and burned slantwise into their backs as they marched across the plain. A mott lay before them, a clump of trees emphatic as a thunderclap in the barrens of waving yellow grass.
“Ever go this way before?” Calvin asked.
Charlie shook his head.
“Wait’ll you see this.”
Within the space defined by the mott stood eight boulders, squared, planted in the ground as if expected to bear exotic fruit. In the midst of these was a potbellied stove standing perfectly upright gone red with rust and well along in its decades-long slough toward total dissolution. A two-by-four was sticking out of the side. Charlie could see through the open door right into the grate and the passage of the wood through the iron seemed to have been seamless. The rust climbed the wood outward from the stove like some strange mineral cancer.
“See that?” Calvin chirped, “A twister came through here. It flung that wood right into that stove and it tore down the whole house around it and left the stove plunk down here with the foundation stones, not even tumped over. Twisters is mighty strange, what they’ll do, they say. There’s more too.”
Charlie stood at the stove and wondered. Who had warmed their hands at it or cooked on it or dried their wet clothes next to it? Maybe even right up to the very day that the hand of God himself has reached from the sky to smite this place. He wondered if they were bad somehow, and if they were bad what had been bad enough for this, and the Calvin called him and he walked away from the stove to where Calvin stood beside a strange tree.
“The twister did this?”
Calvin nodded solemnly.
The tree was twisted fantastically, as if it had been soft rubber in playful but somehow cruel hands, and it still yet lived. It grew out of its warpage a stunted and spindly thing. Looking at it Charlie twisted somehow, too, and he asked quickly, “How long ago?”
Calvin shrugged, “Long time. Twenties, thirties. Forty years.”
“Forty years.” His father was that old. His mother was not. Charlie was not. He wanted to think about other things.
“What else is there?”
There was a lot of lumber weathered to a shiny, translucent grey, some of it in piles like toothpicks or tinkertoys and some scattered. A kitchen stove as red with rust as the potbelly lay on its top. Its intricately wrought feet pawed at the air like an overturned turtle. The coiled handles of its many doors were tarnished to a blackish green. Scattered about it were red iron disks that almost seemed to crumble to the touch. A visitation. Did people shun this place? Cursed soil.
“This was your Aunt Ola’s house, my grandma. They say when the twister came, it peeled the top right off the storm shelter.” Calvin pointed to a depression in the ground near the foundation stones. Limestone blocks were littered around it. It was mostly buried, but you could see remnant walls of the same limestone edging away from the earthen sides of the hole that had very nearly ceased to be a hole, filled with the wash of many rains, scar tissue. Grown up, too, with weeds that were almost as yellow as the grass. But only almost. Weeds are tough. They outlive grass, after all.
“They say it blew Grandma and Grandpa, that’s your uncle Ray, right out of the cellar. They say when Grandpa came to a stop, one of his eyeballs was hanging out by the nerve. They say ‘ol Grandpa just popped her right back in. He always was a mite cross-eyed,” Calvin laughed.
Charlie wished suddenly he could be like Calvin. The wish twisted in him and he dangled from it, as by a rope. Calvin was privy to so many of the world’s secrets--- he knew birth in the squealing travail of his Daddy’s sows. He knew death---dispensed it, sometimes. A smiling, laughing, hooting boy-god.
Charlie had gone with him once to get two chickens. They’d chased them down and caught them. Calvin had taken his and spun it by its head like a noise-maker and had snapped his wrist suddenly, popping the chicken like a whip, and the head stayed in Calvin’s hand while the body hit the ground in a shower of feathers and blood and danced around the yard like a mad thing. Charlie had stared at the head in Calvin’s hand while the beak, opened and shut, opened and shut, and the tiny, pointed tongue slathered in and out and the eyes fluttered this way and then that and then the other way again. Charlie’s chicken struggled, knowing somehow it was soon to follow. Charlie tried to do as Calvin had done. But the body and head didn’t separate: he had not applied enough force. It clawed him ferociously, dancing a dance on air, its neck broken and bleeding and its beak quivering while it died by inches in his hand.
It would be nice to be like Calvin, to know all of these things as one born to them, to live with Calvin on the small farm, with Calvin’s placid mother, with the cordial silences of Calvin’s father. That would be nice. That would be nice.
Charlie looked at Calvin. Calvin gestured nervously.
“Let’s go on to the quarry.”
Now the sun was at their backs. They moved across the plains. The quarry came to them suddenly, a crater with a flat floor that could not be seen until you stood almost at its edge. This quarry had supplied the region roundabout with limestone as far back as anyone could remember, Calvin said. The limestone of Aunt Ola’s vanished house has been quarried there. They moved around the edge. When they came to the place of the smell, it hit them very suddenly, and they both backed up quickly and stood for a moment eyeing one another. Calvin hawked and spat and spat again. Charlie’s throat felt clotted.
“What is it?” he asked.
Calvin shook his head, “Something dead.”
They cautiously advanced.
They found the ram where he had fallen from the edge. One of his legs bent at an odd angle. The rest spraddled crazily. The great horns curved gracefully over the head. The eyes were empty black pits. The skin of the side was parchment-like, taut across a blackened ruin within. Charlie stared down at it for a long time. When he sat slowly as if someone lowered him from above and his hair hung in his face and it was full of dust and his mouth with the taste of ash.
The sun low in the sky now, Charlie sat with his arms wrapped around his knees and his knees tucked to his chest and his face turned downward into the pocket he had made of himself. He heard Calvin speak his name but he did not answer. Something he knew now that he had not known before kept him mute, but the knowing of it was no pleasure and he did not know, not really. He did not know if he could ever be anyone, because he knew finally who he was not. And it dangled before him like a thing of weight from a rope and he wanted to think of something. Something. Anything. Calvin spoke his name and it was not his name nor did he know whose name it might be and still he did not answer because there was nothing really to say.
Calvin stood before him and for the second time that day gestured uncertainly, awkwardly, uncharacteristically unsure. He said, “We got to get back. It’ll be dark before we get back. Momma’s gonna have supper.”Charlie nodded. It didn’t matter so much to him. But he arose anyway, from his place in the dust, and dutifully followed Calvin west, to Calvin’s home.