Adrian Van Young
The frost on the windowpane is thinner. I begin to notice figures on the road again. Not in droves but one by one, coming on slow as the springtime. From where I sit above the road, in an old wicker chair at my bedroom window, the destinations of the figures, simply put, are not mine, and I don’t tend to wonder past what I can see. Country trash in battered traps, a tinker with a burlap sack full of lightning rods, occasionally my neighbor, Penderton, a cotton-man, or one of his sulking negro boys on his way to the sundry or still for provisions, not that it is any of my business.
I am mostly in the habit of watching these days.
Even the traveling medicine show, with its slim, murky vials and malformed proprietor, interests me no further than the filthy wagon tarp, the swelling clatter of the wheels, the snuffle of horses gone by me.
When I think of the lip of the world, and I do, I’m thinking of my own front yard.
Every so often, I see the boy. Not that I am watching for him. He walks with his satchel at his hip up the parallax of birches that lines the dirt road. He walks in a way that his left arm swings free, as though with a mind to be elsewhere. Sometimes he stops just in front of my gate to blow back the hair from in front of his eyes, or to pivot the weight of his satchel behind him, and having done so walks on. Once I even called his name. Benjamin, I said, it is me, Colby Marshall. But he did not seem to hear my voice, or maybe I spoke too quiet.
When I am not at the window, I tend to my plants. It is small, steady work, and belabors the nerves. These are vital hours for my crop of White Burley, if they are to make it to hogshead come summer. The leaves are yellowing in their beds, peeping hello above the edges. My hands shake a little in the gloom of the barn as inch by inch I trim them green. As for the fields, they are fallow and scentless. Sometimes in the morning, or before the sun drops, a limbo of fog from the mountains hangs over them, and lends the earth an untold depth.
In the evenings, when the traffic on the road thins out and I have done all that I can for the plants, I sit in my parlor and read the book. Don Juan, it is called, by Lord Byron. I have other books, too, nigh a whole parlor full, propped spine to spine along rude wooden shelves, some of them come from as near as Atlanta when I go there to meet with distributing agents, others as far as San Francisco, delivered by post, after weeks. Entertainments by Stevenson and Defoe, who big city readers might label as common, illumine no less my place in the world than the sublime compositions of Wordsworth or Shelley, not that I put much stock in the words of those who do not do. And unlike most who take their ease on a chilly spring night with a book, as I do, I sip PG Tips instead of spirits, which I have found augments perception. This rare leaf makes it way to my crockery across the Atlantic every month; with it come soaps, water crackers, cologne and a case of Bordeaux I will save for the harvest. Byron’s epic poem was a gift from the boy so I might better grasp his leaving; every spring for three years, I have read it afresh, so I might grasp, in turn, some comfort. But this spring I am no closer than I was the last, nor was I the last than the spring before that. And so it continues on and on.
I fear before long I will have it to memory.
In the portraits I’ve found of Lord Byron himself, I recognize particles of the boy. Byron, of course, is the boy gone to pot from the excess of his later years, but the pitiless beauty of his face suggests, in good light, a former softness. If the boy was anything, he was soft. I could have balled him in my hand. And wherever he is, be it Spain or Greece, at the mouth of the Danube or waist-coated London, I hope he has retained his softness, and yet cultivates it for me, his friend. At present, I am groping through Canto V, when Don Juan finds himself on the Turkish slave market.
The irony is not lost on me that shackles do not make the slave.
It is getting on toward April when I see the drifter coming. I know he is a drifter for he drifts, though on horseback, sloughing side to side across the withers of his mount. The horse is little better than a nag, journey-eaten. Though it feels early yet for the plague of blow-flies that descends on these parts with the first of the heat, the nag shakes its head and bares its teeth with the old agony of a darling. From my window, the rider’s face is hidden. His hat brim hangs over his face like a caul. He reigns up his horse at the gate to my house, a modest one, if that. I live alone. A galleried porch with a screen door behind it, whose keeper spring cackles as I come through, is mirrored by a second story tier right above it, better painted than the first, like a stale wedding cake.
By the time I am off the front porch, moving toward him, he has dropped from his mount and is wiping his face. He wipes it with the hat brim that formerly hid it, a long, sponging motion from brow to chin, and having achieved, then, an optimal dryness, wrings it out in the dirt, sets it back on his head. Despite the mild air, he is covered in sweat, as though he’d been riding for miles at a gallop.
Fine morning, he says, though it is noon. I’d ask if you might have some work that needs doing.
None I haven’t got a start on.
Well, says the man, as he hitches his trousers. Well, he says again. He squints.
He is powerfully built I can see now I’m nearer, in a dirty white smock unlaced to his sternum. Save for the straight line of his jaw, muzzled with a few days’ beard, there is a strange asymmetry to his features that is hard to pinpoint from the place I am standing. The face is not ugly, or even unlovely, with its leading man’s lips and denuding bright eyes, but then, drawing closer, it’s the eyes above all that I bring to account for the face’s keel, for lo one is set higher up than the other, like a portrait warped by damp.
Been riding since Macon, hang sleep or a meal. I wouldn’t tell either to shoo, if you’ll have me.
I’m not for handing out, I say.
Well, he repeats, with incantatory slowness. Folks is got their own philosophy.
I lean on the gatepost, which ventures a creak. I have kept my eyes on him a moment too long.
Macon’s not so far from here.
On this here maggot trap it is. He slaps the nag’s flank and it grumbles a pace. Ain’t that right, John Wilkes? he croons.
I run the place myself, I say. Good morning to you all the same, and I turn, but then I hear him crossing the road in my direction. Wait up, friend, he calls. Whoa there.
I turn to find him standing on the crossbeam of the gate with his elbows hunched over the top. He waves me over.
I could do other things for you too, I expect. Just a man getting on with no wife, by hisself.
No thank you, I say. You heard me the first time.
Sure, he says. You run it yourself. No pies in the windows that I can make out. But hey, he waves me closer, I’m telling you now. We could squeeze one off later on, if you like.
For a scorched, airless moment, I can only stare at him. The touch of another, no matter how light, has pummeled me once and then twice in the face. I see that his eyes are not only uneven, but different colors altogether; the right one, set higher, is pearlescent and grey, while the left, more or less where an eye should reside, has a rheumy, washed-out bluish tint, like a thimble of cheap cologne.
What’s your name? I ask him then.
V, he says.
The letter? I ask.
Twenty-second of its kind.
Though I know it matters little, I take in the road. A breeze stalks the trees, on a wag or a beckon, but other than that it is empty and still.
I nod to V’s horse: You can tie him out back.
Didn’t catch your name there, friend.
He is still hanging over the gate, staring at me.
Beg pardon, he says to my back, and comes on.
I watch over V while he hitches John Wilkes to a muscular tree in my back yard. As soon as he’s knotted the reins at the trunk—a fisherman’s knot, I note, what kind?—its shabby knees buckle and fold in the dirt and its head cradles onto its forelegs. It is a pitiful creature, befitting its rider, who seems to see it more as a friend than a horse. Though I should wonder from its carriage and the scarlands of its flanks if the friendship they share is reciprocal.
Set tight, there, John Wilkes, says V. Dream a little while while I’m gone.
The horse grumbles.
So what all did you have in mind? he says, looking at me, framed against my empty fields.
The rows need turning, I say. Groundwork. I’ll fetch you a harrow directly.
Ain’t you got a team for all that? he says. Or is you still hitching up niggers?
No, no team, I say. Too expensive. I run the place myself, remember?
I ain’t forgot what you told me, he says. And I got elbow grease to burn.
I leave him there braced at the edge of the field while I go to the shed to retrieve him a harrow. In the gloom the farm tools have a sinister look, like the cutlery of a giant.
When I come with the harrow pitched over my shoulder, V is still beneath the tree. Aside from that tree, my lone water tower and the jumble of Penderton’s distant spread, he and his horse are the sole occupants of the gradated planes that align in my field. And I find—with the pain of a poet, perhaps, who has sought out his subject and found it in want—I can summon no sorrier pair in creation than the one bearing up at me presently. John Wilkes is still beached in his own slow ruin, mumbling in the sere March grass. V has plucked from somewhere an untimely thistle, which he gums and gives suck to in place of a smoke.
Ain’t never turned for tobacco, he says. Come up from fishing stock myself.
Principle’s same either way, I assure him. Out with the old, I tap the harrow’s thin blade, and in with the new beneath it.
Weren’t never much good with the principles neither. You might want to show me a turn, you got time.
Don’t turn yourself in knots, I say. I won’t fault you any for an honest mistake.
What other kind is there? he says, on a grin.
He is a finely calibrated sort of a creature, I decide, as I lead him through the gate between yard and field to the terminus of the western row. Here I hitch the harrow in the earth at my feet, which receives the blade as dryly as a pick upon shale.
Though the parry and thrust of our banter is light, suddenly I feel exhausted. Perhaps it’s the strain that this wretch and his horse have visited on my idle fancy, or even the season of their coming, which forever ushers with it recollections of the boy, but I find, standing there at the edge of my field with a murder of crows enervating the silence, I can no more expound on the soil’s subtleties than account for the presence of him, here, beside me. Without a word to him, I demonstrate turning, pushing the harrow across the stiff ground. He watches from a distance with the thistle in his teeth, sporadically nodding to show that he kens me. The blade of the tool, which has seen better days, pushes no more than a mound out before it.
Futile though it seems, there is something mesmerizing in the scrape of the harrow down the rows. Before long the drifter has fetched up beside me, begins to ape my push-broom motion. All my extremities seize at his nearness. He draws closer still in the beat I have missed. One of his hands clamps over mine, its rough underside bearing down on my knuckles, while the other one fastens on my waist; there, between my ribs and the arch of my hip it explores a whole winter of wallowing in, as if I were a mud-caked sow.
Soon I have ceased to move at all. His nose makes a circuit of my ear.
I’m not—not yet, I say to him, reddening despite myself.
What’s that, friend? He draws away. I were just getting the hang of things.
He stands, as if shocked, at his previous distance.
You heard what I said. I unblush. Give it time.
Hell, your call, he says. Well, hell. He picks his teeth. We got all day.
Leaving him there, I head out to my barn to check on the progress of my Burley. The leaves are no more yellow than they were the day before, nor were yesterday than the day before that, but I dote bed to bed on the plants anyway, fingering their spout-sized leaves.
May, I tell the dirt, is a capital month. We will come into our own in May.
The east and west walls of the barn are ventilated to let in light and hasten growth. I keep a different set of shears next to each of the beds to keep them from contagion. Though the impulse to name each bed is there, I fight it away every time it arises.
The line between planter and parent, I think, is one I would rather not cross.
Today, when I have made my rounds, I bide near a wall that peeks out on the field so I can watch my drifter working. It is chillier here than it was outside, and I marshal up the collar of my old brown serge. Though the ventilation slat is about where it should be, I am forced to hang over the seedbed before me to get the eyeful I deserve. Anything less than just that, I decide, would be to part ways with the risk I have taken in allowing this rube and his half-decayed horse the run of my fields and then later my house. He is crude from his hat to the brogues on his feet, with a length of old rope in between for a belt, lest the eyes founder, as mine own have done, in the trench of his laborer’s chest. But love is just as crude and common, to speak nothing at all of its shifty-eyed cousin, who is now propelling me through my drawers against the boards in front of me. I take myself out. Experimentally, I pinch. The length of me nods above the dirt, insistent on another one.
Unbidden, the boy appears before me. He is bent across the seedbed that I’m pressed against. I see the tiny freckles in between his shoulder blades. I smell the rooty sweetness, like a brace of cooked carrots, that lives in the space behind his ear. I feel, as his tailbone shifts to receive me, the slow whipstroke of his spine on my stomach. His face is in shadow. I tilt it toward me. But the face is forever retreating from mine. There is only the sameness of our flesh and the musk of the seedbeds beneath us.
Then he’s gone and it is still. The memory of him wilts in me. Shaking on the surface of the seedbed below me is the sad ectoplasm he has left me for company, and I bury it quickly, furtively, bitterly, with a deft sweeping motion of my hand.
For the rest of the day—and the day it is long—I keep watch over V from the gills of the barn. He labors inexpertly down the rows, doing work I will have to undo with still more, while the wedge of sky above him hazes over into dusk. The plants are as green as they were when I found them. John Wilkes ripens beneath the big tree. The murder of crows, called home by night, descends once again on the land.
When my stomach gets the best of me, I go check on V where he stands in the field. He has covered a third of it, give or take, which I study with displeasure on my way out to meet him, a long waste of dirt clots and sheered-away roots like the tracks of Poe’s Conqueror Worm. He is leaning on the harrow when I reach him, at ease, the same thistle wagging in his teeth.
Tipping his hat, he says, Fine evening. Now wouldn’t you say I earned my keep?
Just fine, I lie. You rest a spell. I’ll start on supper directly.
Any slops that you have—well I reckon we’ll see. John Wilkes is plumb starved to a shade of hisself.
Yes, we’ll see, I tell him slowly.
And then, for some reason, I say it again.
While I section out this and then that for a stew I can hear V singing upstairs in the bath. He sings an old Baptist song I know. He sings like a twice-murdered dog, all yelps. The song has a whiff, over the pungency of onions, of the dark, earthy bitters of the Mississippi River where it heaves against the islands of the saved.
As I went down in the river to pray,
Studying about that good old way,
And who shall wear the robe and crown?
Good lord show me the way.
Oh sinners, let’s go down, let’s go down, come on down.
Oh sinners, let’s go down, down in the river to pray.
His voice breaks up around the high notes. A heresy, I muse. Chop, chop. When he reaches the crescendo, I hear a muted thump, as if the Lord God were encircling the drain and V had been called on to save Him.
He ventures downstairs not in the clothes I left for him—a secondhand bunch, but clean, I’d thought—but rather the ones he’s been wearing all day and doubtless for many before it. His shoulder-length hair is wet and tangled. His disparate eyes are bright with work. He puts on a show of removing a chair and, hitching his trousers, he eases down in it. As I ladle him stew from behind and above, I see he is rubbing his palms together in a kind of boorish genuflection and scissoring his legs beneath the worn edge of the table.
Lord. Almighty. God, he says, when I am sitting down across. Ain’t had a spot of grub like this in I don’t know how long.
I start: I haven’t had a hand…
But then I’m exhausted again. I hush up.
V ravens. I peck. Cicadas buzz. I pour him a cup of mulled wine, which he downs, and taps out his thirst for another.
How long you been out here? he asks, between spoonfuls.
Long enough, I say.
I said long enough.
That I gather too long.
To this last thing, I have no answer.
Out on the road for a year most myself. Times is got hard, where I’m from, down in Calvert.
Maryland, then? I say.
That’s right. Grandpappy and me—V senior, we’ll call him—had a crawdaddy gig on the Chesapeake summers. But hell. The country like it is, folks is more inclined to step on them than eat them?
Misfortune casts an ample shadow, I say despite myself.
V nods. Pappy lost a leg in Sharpsburg. Hobbles his ass from port to stern. After all that he did for his country… A pause. At least the better half, I reckon. He looks down cockeyed at his soup. Well, V senior reckons he’s due a sight more than just some Yankee feeb’s New Deal.
I say: I suppose.
Can’t blame the man much. We got crosses on crosses to bear us, us Rebs.
I try to change the subject. What brings you to Georgia?
It was mainly the next place to be in, I guess. Ask a wandering man why he’d come to a place it doesn’t much figure he’d know, do it now?
I don’t pretend to know you. Not hardly, I say. I only ask because I’m curious.
Well how long you been queer? he says. Now there’s a question begs an answer.
Beg pardon, I say.
You heard me. How long?
I been queer, I intone, since I first kissed a girl.
He tilts back in his chair and laughs. The bowls and the cutlery vibrate, then still.
Well I’ll be damned, he says. That’s fresh. That there’s something else.
Your point? I ask.
None such, he says. You tickled me some is the point that I meant.
We focus on the stew in silence—him more than me. I am no longer hungry. He lets his spoon clatter down into the bowl by way of entreating me: seconds. When I come with the pot he has hauled up the wine jug, which he swigs from wholesale, as if it were mash. He eyes me around the rushing neck, his throat spasming with the force of his gulps, and I cannot but wonder, somewhat inopportunely, if his talents at table can be matched in bed.
He lowers the jug and sets it down. I thank you, he says as I refill his bowl.
With wine threading down from the sides of his mouth and his strange eyes clouding with digestion, he puts me in mind of some fiend incubus at the bleary bright end of a tear.
He wipes his mouth and smiles. Goddamn. You sure don’t eat much for the chub you got on you.
I figured you needed it more than I did.
You may be right at that, he says. Now what can you do for John Wilkes?
While I clear the table and see to the dishes, V heads outside to attend to his horse. He carries the pail that I use to mop floors, into which I have bailed the stew’s remainder, and by the nimbus of gaslight enclosing his passage, he sets it down before John Wilkes. The horse trembles into a standing position and begins to slowly dip its muzzle. V lights a shag cigarette with the lantern and leans against the hitching tree, blowing phantoms of smoke across the yard to the window where I stand, looking out. I can see him and he me, though he better. The tip of his cigarette jewels and dims. With my forearms submerged in the rusty dishwater, cleaning first a spoon, then a bowl, then a knife, the smooth repetition of my task spins a trance that seems to engender, the harder I stare, from the levitant fire of the cherry.
The boy had left me on a night like this. He had lived with me a week, maybe less. Yes, a week. We had just finished supper and there I was, washing dishes at the sink, when he appeared behind me in the kitchen, in the glass, and announced that he was going for a walk. To take the air, he said, behind, with nothing in him but the air he would take, and I nodded, or did I? Perhaps I said something. Go ahead, or Don’t be long, or I’ll join you directly. He must’ve had his satchel, but at the time I did not see it. So I continued to wash, to stare, to expect him. And even when I had finished washing and still the boy had not returned, I thought nothing of it beyond what it was. A jaunt down the road with a cigarette burning while a lover waits inside. And I waited. But the dishes dried, the clock chimed ten, the fire stretched its spine in the grate, and no boy. Eventually, I went outside and spoke his name into the dark. I said it once and said it softly, rigid underneath the stars. And when I said it softly, or because I said it softly, it was then, in that instant of saying, I knew.
I never did yell out to him. I did not even try to follow. And were I to have found him what could I have said, breathless and weakened with pain in the dark, a man gone after a boy half his age down a road filling up, even then, with hot ghosts? He was a student from Atlanta, skipped out mid-term, though I doubt he returned there to take up the pen.
Don Juan I found at the foot of my bed.
This I swept to the floor and sat down in its place.
Tonight, however, he returns. He’s standing behind me, slightly warped in the glass, with his hair hanging over his eyes. He is waiting. And I’m ready to notice his satchel this time, the timbre of leaving in his voice, all manner of thing that I failed once to do and have driven myself half to ruin in search of. But when I turn from the sink, now empty of dishes—how terribly empty it is and has been—I find not the boy, but this V, grinning at me.
He pats his lank stomach and stretches his arms. I’m fit to be cooked on a spit, he says. What say that we go on upstairs and get thinner?
After you, I say, and stall, and throttle myself for my weakness. I cough.
He senses this, and eyes me strangely, but turns and begins to ascend anyway.
Unlike myself, he appears in no hurry. Or maybe hurry, I consider, is not the right word but that I want this to be done with, somehow, without doing. His backside shifts before my face. I smell his smoke, his sweat, his dinner. At the landing the drifter makes straight for my room with an uncanny sense for the door that conceals it, and the moment—no more—leaves me deathly afraid that he’s been in the room between bath-time and supper, or else has been dogging my prospects for weeks, making note of my hours, predilections and habits, bivouacked in the dark of the liminal fields as I move through the half-lighted rooms in my robe. He goes through the door and he leaves it drawn open. I peer behind me down the stairs, through a veil of liquid shadow, to the foyer. I follow in dread of not only what waits—V nude, V clothed, V swaddled in furs, V’s body with Benjamin’s face or vice-versa—but also of whether that half-part of me that is still hesitating in the dark of the landing will be able to cleave, when the business is done, to the half that has gone on ahead. But they’ve already tussled, the latter won out. I am inside the room, at the foot of the bed. Curiously, V has shucked one shoe and one trouser leg, but is otherwise clothed. He is contending with the half that remains when I enter, sitting there on the bed with his feet on the floor. Such a weird and impractical mode of undressing, I note to myself, standing speechless in front of him.
In the event of a fire, or some other calamity—which seems rather likely under present circumstances—he would have to go fumbling down the stairs, one-shoed and half-trousered, to save his skin.
Come on and get comfortable, friend. He pats the bed. Remake yourself like the Good Lord intended.
I kick off my shoes and my socks, drop my trousers and lever my shirt above my head but resolve to abide in my drawers for the moment, which to my dismay have decided to tent. I am twice dismayed to realize that I have undressed in advance of my guest, who although trouser-less still wears his shirt in observance of some rule of the house—my house—that I’ve failed to heed altogether. He leans half-clothed against the headboard, flipping through the very book, which I must’ve neglected to hide before supper. In a brisk, awkward shuffle, with my fingers picking air, I come around to where he sits.
Please, I tell him. Put it back. A costly book you’re holding there.
Is it now? he says, delighted. And to think I been wasting my time with crawdaddy’s.
First edition of its kind. Please, I say. No disrespect…
He eyes me levelly for a time with Don Juan spread in his hands. Then shuts it.
Exhausted again, I sit on the bed. My eyes dart from V’s bottom half to the book, which is safe, at least for now, in its place on the side-table.
Enough with books. A lengthy pause. Unless you was planning on reading it to me.
It dawns on me that he is right. Desire, like a freak of hot wind, blows me to him, and before I can fully apprehend the feel of his lips beneath my own I am kissing his mouth, kissing through it and past it, toward a mouth that’s unreachable, hidden within. V gives a grunt of surprise. The mouth moves. I grope up his leg, and find him flaccid. But then, as I kiss, something starts to grow there. Finally I get a purchase. His body heaves beneath my own, trying to buck me off or over, so I pinion him there with the force of my lips but cannot hold for long. He flips me. I can feel myself falling, first up, then down, until I’m at staring height with the paisleys that leer from the stitch of the covers.
I can see that you’re given to leading, says V, holding me still above the bed. We got a different way of waltzing where I’m from, friend. Let’s see if you can keep up.
He levers my drawers to my feet, slaps my backside. I feel his handprint blooming there.
I’m not ready yet, I say in a whisper, but the pressure is mounting against my spine.
With a few ragged thrusts, he is finished. He shudders. Already I feel him growing softer; he slips, by degrees, from inside me.
How long has it been, tenderloin? he says hoarsely.
Clearing his throat, he withdraws and dismounts. He fly swats my backside by way of farewell.
I hear him padding round the bed until he appears on the opposite side. At a glance I can see that the locus between us has shifted irretrievably into his camp. His eyes are fixed on me with chilly appraisal, as if I were an apple within thieving distance whose ripeness he is measuring.
Hunkered there, I cannot move. I feel only dampness, the torque of my muscles. In my ears is a rushing that ebbs and flows according to the angle of my head above the covers.
I might take a bath, I tell him then.
Why tenderloin, I’m hurt, he says. And all of this time I had thought we was peas.
I rise wordlessly and head off to bathroom. Before I shut the door, out of the corner of my eye, I see V reaching for the book on the side-table, but the effort it takes to warn him off is not within my power.
So I don’t.
In the bathroom I run the taps to hot and consider the man who stands there in the mirror. He has a limp and impoverished head of hair, like the leavings of some jungle spider. His eyes are impacted in his face, and banked with charcoal-colored circles. His lips are full, but also thin, perhaps on account of the frown that he wears, and his sudden, sharp chin, with its bit of grey stubble, sets off the wattles of his neck. Below he is stocky in curious places—in the chest, at the hips and high up on the arms. His drawers are bunched around his ankles, like a puddle he is standing in.
I look at this man and blink him gone, but when I open my eyes he is still there before me. So I turn altogether from the mirror, toward the tub, which appears, in the steam, to be filling itself. Before getting in, I give the man a parting glance. The backs of his thighs are trickling blood. The bathwater pinkens with blood when he’s in it and I look for the man, but he’s nowhere. He’s gone. The water ascends to the lip and then over. I watch it melt across the tiles. The tap is still roaring around my bulk, so I twist the water off and sit. I have been sitting for a minute, or maybe an hour, when I hear a faint knock on the door of the bathroom. Like a mesmerist’s bell, it brings me back and I sit up more still and more straight in the tub.
Tenderloin, I hear.
A chill runs through me.
I try to stand but sit back down still clutching, both-handed, the rim of the tub.
Tenderloin. Now don’t be shy. I just want to parlay with you.
Just a minute, I say, with concern in my voice, as if the man at the door is a guest I’m neglecting.
Open up, says the voice. It’s dull out here. Ain’t nothing but me and a old empty bed.
Just a minute, I repeat, and find my arms and legs are shaking.
The water, hard water, so slightly discolored, is dullest gray shot through with pink. It makes me think of many things. It makes me think of sundown, winter.
The voice at the door clears its throat and is silent. I know I cannot face its owner. But neither remain in the place where I am with that voice and the throat that compels it abroad, crooning their filth throughout my house with an eye for my rarer editions, my silver.
But after all, what is our pre-sent state? the voice begins behind the door. Tis’ bad and may be better, all men’s lot. Most men are slaves, no more so than the great, to their own…wu-hims and pashuns…and what not. So-city itself, which should create kineness, destroys what little we had got. To feel for none is the true…is the true…soshul art of the world’s…sto…stoics…men without a heart.
Though shorn of their music, I cotton the words. I must’ve read the passage, thought it lovely, underlined it; I struggle to recall the stanza. They are likely from Canto V, I think, given the mention of slaves and society, and uttered by him of English look to whom our hero, Don Juan, has been chained on the galley.
The situation has escaped me. I cannot say what I will do.
Just now a black old…nutrel…person-age…, the voice continues, reading on.
But I cannot brook another word and call out, Come in. The door’s open. Come in.
The door swings in and there stands V. He is bare as the day, with the book in his hands. The hair he wears upon his chest and down the funnel, headed south, is patterned not unlike the grass that has come up these past couple weeks in the thaw—isolate patches of brown, here and there, with skin swirled in among them. His genitals hang between his legs like the innards of an unswung bell.
What took you so long, tenderloin? I’s about to give up hope. Now where was I? he says, drawing closer, adjusting a pair of phantom glasses, pointing to the center of the gorgeous, foolish book with a brutal stabbing motion in the crease of it, the heart.
I’m suddenly wrathful: Put it down.
Who are you to say who can read and who can’t?
It’s my book, I tell him. And you’re not one.
Is that how it is? He ruffles the pages. It is your house, at that, he says. Though I don’t reckon you pulled rank when I had you bent over the bed a sight back.
Give it here, I tell V, sitting up in the bath.
What’s that, tenderloin? He readjusts the phantom glasses.
I stand up dripping and lunge for the book, but he capers around me out of reach.
Don’t be a fool, I say. My foot slips. So I grab at the shower rod to steady myself.
Peering over the…capt-ives…he seemed to mark their look and age…he continues to read from the book while evading.
I bring a leg over the lip of the tub, still holding onto the shower rod. He slips a little, too, as he maneuvers with the book, but steadies himself on the thick window mold that juts above the bathtub’s foot and having done so pushes off, which brings him back within my reach. Getting hold of the book, I yank back. He resists. A page tears away in my hand. I cry out.
Goddamn you, I tell him. Stop your clowning.
He looks at me with something approaching recognition, but it just as soon thins in the width of his grin. In the pause that ensues, I lunge again, reaching not for the book but for his arm and with a sudden and bewildering access of strength, I start to pull him toward the bath. Abandoning horseplay, he tries to resist me, but I have got the upper hand. We saw back and forth, interlocked, across the water, while the shower rod rattles above us. The tiles are wet, the bath is full; we skid toward the water, then back, then toward. Ours is a comical struggle, I think, in yet another moment of panicked omniscience. The shower rod starts to unmoor from the wall in a thin dusting of plaster.
When the rod finally gives, it is me that goes yelping, as if I were about to fall, but when the echo of it fades I find that I am still upright. V lies humped across the bath. His head must’ve knocked going down, for it bleeds. The water where I stand, which has near absorbed my own blood, is rapidly blushing again with my guest’s. For a time, watching him, I cannot think. His feet stir a bit on the tile. He moans. At first it relieves me to see him returning, but then I look down and catch sight of the book. It lies submerged beneath the water, bits of pulp that were its pages drifting up to the surface.
I lift him up beneath the arms. I haul him in the brimming tub. Then I hold his face against the bottom, near the drain, where a chaos of bubbles starts to fume. But with each go at breathing he swallows more water until his legs and back are seizing. He is trying to move his limbs, I realize, trying to buck me, to make me submit, but the weight of the water invading his lungs and depriving his brain of the air that it needs has rendered his movement pathetic and slurred, like a swamp-trammeled horse with a case of distemper. He surges for the nearby drain, attempting to pull it with his teeth. For a moment I fear he will succeed and I move to restrain him with still greater violence, grinding his nose against the tub while he snaps at the pull-chain, his hair in his face, this new path of action availing him little apart from the water that now floods his mouth, his strivings becoming subaqueous screams that the water might only unleash if it could. A huge gout of water erupts to the surface, heaves against my clutching hands.
When he’s finished I rise and watch him, still. The waters about his head are peaceful. A tiny wave fleeing the things that it’s seen unrolls to the foot of the tub, and breaks there.
I’m secure in my skin as I’ve not been in months. I am perfectly aware of the measures I take. The shower curtain tears from the rod with a shriek. I lay it out across the tiles. V is lead-heavy in death, a behemoth. I lever him over the lip of the tub and onto the curtained tile. He smacks. Rolling him in is a tricky maneuver given the narrowness of the bathroom, but by and by I manage, manipulating his limbs, until, at the door, I have him wound. I open the door, and step over his body. Once in the hall, I drag him out. The stairs are a whole other matter completely. With an eye for efficiency, I shuttle him down. His trip to the bottom is anxious and fitful. For a moment I fear he will catch on the banister. But my fears are allayed by a final corkscrew that tumbles him into the foyer.
I go out to the shed and take down an undertaker, the shotgun I use for rare bird-sits. I move through the darkness between shed and house, the undertaker’s hardware creaking. I am hunting up John Wilkes, still roped to the tree in the yard where V left him. When I come round the side of the house, he is standing. He spooks under weight of the buckles and winches.
There, I tell him. Easy now.
One huge, liquid eye regards me.
I tether V fast just in front of the pommel. The horse snorts and stamps, but I soothe him, V-style. With the shotgun riding in my boot and V’s shrouded body seesawing out before me, I get the horse’s engine running with a couple anonymous kicks to its ribs. The birches drift past me like stygian sentries with the moon moving hungrily in between, and the night into which I foray with my payload is as fey and unreal as a vaudeville curtain. Mile by mile, the birches dwindle. The land begins to open out. I turn due east down a little-traveled road, and John Wilkes high-steps through the brush. Night birds call from out the dark, the bramble yields beneath my mount and V’s murdered body whispers murder in its tether like a voice telling me to turn back. But I don’t. Before long Powmahatta Lake glitters through gaps in the trees north of me, and I hector John Wilkes straight ahead, to its bank. I tie the horse fast, then contend with the body. It slips through my hands with residual bathwater. I cradle it down from the loosened undertaker, and lay it in the mud.
As I drag the body lakeward by a corner of the curtain, my socks ride low about my ankles. The moon is unnaturally bright overhead, and through the membrane of the curtain I can just make out V’s face. By and by, I reach the bank. I orient the mass and push. The body takes to water and glides from the bank. For a moment I fear, as I did on the stairs and before that the killing tub, that my calculations will not serve, but the body compasses in an arc across the lake, dips its prow and starts to sink. When its legs are slant above the surface, I find I can no longer look. And as the rest goes under, gurgling, a stale rooty scent reaches me on the shore.
I rise with the shotgun and climb the wet bank to where the dead man’s horse is reined. He warns me off with twitching ears, an anxious four-step where he stands, but I come on while breaching the shotgun for business. I press it just beneath his ear. An eruption of bone-meal and moon-blackened blood leaps over the trail and makes rain in the brush. He wavers above the dirt, then sits. The shot resounds across the lake. I lever the shell, untie the undertaker and make my way home through the dark.
Spring storms come. I watch the road. Dust rises and wafts between the rains, climbing my clapboard fence, my trellises, until faintly it tickles my nose, and I sneeze. There are figures on the road again, more with every passing day. And these pilgrims are weirder still than those who came a month before, as though the spring carries some sinister spoor, some airborne kudzu on it, drifting. Man-children in cheap black suits; wretched and toothless Methuselahs, shuffling; ethereal girls touting baskets of laundry who embroider the birdsong with low, meek laments. Where can they be headed, now? Perhaps there is a carnival detraining in Eatonton. Or perhaps they are headed nowhere in particular, a place I am already in, without walking.
I have ceased to see the boy at all. It is the first spring in three years that he hasn’t come calling. I see figures like him, sure enough, with the same slight build and dreamy gait, but they become what they are within a few yards of the window, and I lean back in my chair, benumbed. Even in the curing barn, where the ghost of our congress haunts the beds, I am alone with my plants as I have not been in years. Enterprising breezes affirm through the slats. It is the plants alone that stand to gain from quiet fecundity of the season, and they yellow at rates that supersede my ability or willingness to trim them up healthy. Sowing days are fast approaching. I turn and re-turn the waiting soil. Mornings the wind-brought fog is thicker, and I do not venture out until well after noon, afraid that I will lose my way like a child in a fairy tale labyrinth.
My reading habits have devolved. I now read exclusively novels, no verse; and not by the authors that trammel the mind when one talks of ‘novels’ with a capital N, but rather the maudlin fever-dreams of Stoker, Lewis and Walpole, whose carnivorous worms, libertine monks and castles filled with vengeful spirits allow me to drift outside myself where the past is only that. I tried for a while to take in The Prelude to supplement the book I’d lost, but the nostalgia of the poem depressed me, and I made it no more than a quarter way through. As I read in my parlor, by candlelight now, for the nights are lukewarm and dismissive of fires, I sometimes lace my chamomile with a bit of long-neglected Scotch. Yet I always add a dash of cinnamon and clove to keep the moment festive. As for the book I can no longer read, I have fashioned it a shroud out of silk handkerchiefs. It lies in a shoebox in my closet, consoled by the whisper of coats, I imagine, whenever I come to retrieve one. I no longer bathe in the washroom upstairs and seldom use its sink or toilet. I have constructed a bathing shed out back to which I siphon heated water. And though I flirt with whooping cough in the twenty-yard dash between bath-shed and house, the discomfort of this is a small price to pay when I think on its alternative.
Mid-month I go to lay my crop and find an unpleasant surprise waiting for me. In the field’s northwest corner, beneath the shadow of the water tower, a bulge is forming in the soil. It is not visible, or not yet anyway, to the probings of the naked eye, but responds to the weight of my steps thereupon it; it is not quite a softness but neither a hardness—a viscous plumpness in the earth. I set my seedbed on the ground and trace its limits with my toe. It has a circumference of five feet or so. Its seam describes a sloppy oval. I stand at its center and adjust my spring weight, leaning foot to foot in an exploratory two-step. An outgoing ripple traverses the mound and dies where the dirt flattens out at its edges. I wonder if it can be popped with the harrow, but decide not to risk it when I picture its contents flooding the otherwise healthy rows. So perhaps when I venture out tomorrow, the bulge will have magically drained itself. The earth has witching in her ways. I have never pretended to know her completely. So I pick up my seedbed, head back to the barn and occupy the rest of my day with trimming.
But when I come the next day, the bulge has increased—a quarter in size, give or take, overnight. I see it now a yard away by the depth of the shadow it casts in full sun, the soil on its surface a shade or two darker than the biscuit-colored flats around it. I walk to the center this time, and bounce. My stomach responds with a lurch to the ripple, which glugs audibly to the edges this time. And it might be the sun or the turn things have taken or the pint of Scotch I drank last night, but I am suddenly as dizzy as a sparrow in a gale and find I must sit down. There’s nowhere to sit but where I stand. The guts of the bulge redistribute beneath me. Sitting cross-legged with my chin in my hand a foot or so above the field I watch the crows strafing the furrows for worms with sharp, incoming cries. I sit there, say, an hour or more. And I’ve carried, while sitting, to calm, clockless regions where there’s only the sky, and the field, and these birds. But then I return and animate; my field does the same, breaking free of its tableau. Standing up tensed for the shudder beneath me, I make my way back to the house.
The next day I go out to Penderton’s place to pick his mind about the bulge. He is a thin, grizzled man with red-rimmed eyes and the handshake of a public statue; I have wondered at times if Stonewall Jackson, commanding the traffic on Eatonton Square, isn’t somehow a descendant of his, whatever his bellum allegiances. He’s especially stony today as we walk, irritated, perhaps, by what he perceives to be hasty incompetence on my part in tending to my own five acres. He walks a beeline down the road, his gaze dragging sullenly past the birches, responding to my cluck with, Well…, or Yep, or Reckon that’s the case. But when we arrive in my field he stops short and appraises the bulge with a hand in his whiskers. I wait in the water tower’s shade while he circles it up close. Even from several yards away, I can see it has doubled in size overnight; it retards my neighbor’s pokes and prods with a volley of liquid shrugs.
Penderton comes to stand beside me.
What do you think it could be? I ask.
Irrigation block? he posits.
I’ve checked for that, I tell him.
And I have—good and well. All the ducts were unobstructed.
Well, he says, and rubs his chin. His eyes go thin, as if to will an explanation.
What? I say, and turn to face him. Whatever it is you can tell me. I’ll weather.
Soil’s loose enough, rainwater jams up. Call it hard water because it’s hard-headed. Refuses to mosey along, like a squatter.
But can’t it be drained? I say, with a quaver. Can’t it be flushed, or ironed out?
He shakes his head. Nothing for it but to wait. So late in spring—he sucks his gums—your tract won’t brook that kind of meddling.
But I’m due to start planting this week, I say. I don’t have that kind of time.
Patience is as patience does. Looks like you’ll have to make time, he says.
I stare at him in disbelief and slowly shake my head. You’re the expert.
I don’t pretend to be, he says. I just tend to tell the truth.
I wait as Penderton advised, but the bulge continues to grow exponentially. I begin to suspect it was eavesdropping on us, and hastens its growth as a tactical measure. Its circumference was just five feet at first, then eight the next day, then fourteen on the following, and has stretched to nearly one-hundred-and-thirty by the end of the factory week. Despite having roots in my field’s northwest corner—if whatever gives it succor can be called roots—it refuses to follow northwesterly ways, but pours itself, instead, due south. This might be due largely, or so I concede, to the thing’s oval shape, since tapered to a teardrop; it has the silent momentum of candlewax as it creeps through the strata of my field. But this is not to say I’ll let it. I have already taken a studied defensive. I scribble its measurements in a daybook, not just its circumference, but also its height, which reaches my ankle at its highest, only to leaven a bit, further south. I liken it to household goods, or whatever resemblance I have, then, to mind—molasses at first, then a gelatin mold, in the following days, hardened grease, salt taffy, the putty I use as a stopgap for leaks. It is hardest in the driving phallic shadow of the tower, and softens the closer you get to its hem; it could be compared to a sunny-side egg were it only half as round as one, yet it squares with no symmetry known or imagined apart from the constancy of its growth, spilling down across my rows like pork-fat on a griddle.
But all my comparisons seem inadequate. What have I, really, to liken it to?
It is congealing from the inside out, or maybe the outside in—I am uncertain. Charting its growth, my attitude shifts between clinical interest and loathe fascination, borne on the same undercurrent of fear. I have felt, on my hikes from end to end, stopping betimes to notate in my book, not unlike some manner of naturalist poet on the verge of a new topographic discovery; but then, as my data accumulates and its dread implications disorder the page, I come back to myself and freeze mid-step. All the exultance drains out of me.
One day as I stand at the edge of the bulge, drawing my daily diagram, I see that the crows have restricted their hunt to the healthy land beyond its borders. Every so often one veers down toward it, tensing its feet to make good on a worm, but the others recant it just short of its meal in a riot of brotherly squawks.
It is on this day I start to sense a sort of pall above my field.
For a while I’d ascribed it to nothing so much as the dread that the bulge provoked in me—a dread which, I reasoned, any man would’ve felt on finding himself the caretaker of land cultivating itself against his wishes—but today, as I watch the crows divert and find myself more muddle-headed by the minute, I suspect that my dread is more than dread, at least in the standardest sense of the word; even palpable dread is too polished and pat to get at what I’m driving toward. It is a physical phenomenon that cloaks itself as an aberration of the mind, so near to imperceptible that any who sense it must question themselves as to how they do. It is a pale emanation, without sound or smell, but no less immediate for its blandness. It covers the bulge from end to end, is strongest in the northwest corner and tickles my sense like the film of a bubble, or a veil of scentless gas. This bad air compounds my panic, for how am I to drain the air? And if it can repair itself, as Penderton seems to have faith my field will, then how should I venture to judge a renewal of the medium through which I move?
Nights my dysphoria steadily worsens. I do not read a word or try. I’ve abandoned the pretense of lacing my tea with a couple restorative splashes of Scotch but instead fill my mug to brimming over with the stuff and swallow it down like a honky-tonk brawler.
I should really invest in a couple of tumblers to civilize my excess.
I do not drink, per se, to dream, but to rout the bad air from invading my house. The liquor kills my keenness to it, lulls me in a pleasing way, whereas the bad air, with its own lulling properties, does this most unpleasantly. And so drunken and joyless on Scotch and bad air—for in spite of my efforts the bad air abides—I wander the rooms of my house without object, picking up items at random, strange items, items I no longer recognize, and having made a study of each curio while turning it over in my hands, I put it down in a place it was not meant to go, only to find it again in the morning, a refugee of meaning or purpose.
Sometimes I end up in parts of the house that I have no business being in or look down to find something clutched in my hands that I would prefer not to see there. I once found myself in the washroom upstairs, peering into the vacancy of the tub, as if the bare rod had begotten a curtain that I was attempting to see through. Once I came to in the dark of the pantry with Byron’s poem in my hands, trying to decipher in all earnestness the warped hieroglyphs on the page.
I promptly dropped it.
And then, on a Sunday, surveying my field while tallying my speculations, I see someone come round the side of my house with a bedroll yoked across its back. I shut my daybook and I go out to meet it at a pace that concerns me as cagily brisk, so I slow walking over the hem of the bulge, which has by now reached the field’s midpoint. Seeing me approach, the figure slows, too. It stops at the edge of the field, behind the fence. Drawing closer, I see through the old wattle-boards that there is something familiar in its stance; a studiously lazy slouch with one arm crooked upon its waist, the other one massaging the back of its neck. It is a boy of fifteen years or so who bears an uneasy resemblance to a man I once knew. He has shoulder-length hair and a sinewy build and his clothes tell the story of his travels, and his poverty. Up close I can see that his eyes, though aligned, have the same pale blue cologne all through them.
Fine afternoon, says the boy.
His voice echoes.
Startled, I stop short. Hi there.
Don’t mean to put you out, he says, eyeing the daybook beneath my arm. But if you’ll oblige me a spell, I’d be mighty.
I’m just in the middle of something, I say.
He nods and he grins. It won’t take but a minute. Come down around these parts from Calvert.
I watch him for a moment through the slats of the fence. He’s a snake not got its bite, a gardener.
Well, I feed him slowly, breathing. What can I do for you, son?
I thank you, he says. Much obliged to you, sir. I’m hunting my big brother Virgil? Virgil Stokes? He come round this way too, in winter. He were looking for work and what goes. Might you seen him?
After a pause, I say, What’s he look like?
Well, says the boy, with another shy grin. He looks a lot like me, I guess. We’re brothers through and through, us Stokes, though I guess he’d have told you his name were just V.
You’re the one person like you I’ve seen.
The boy’s eyes thin; they study mine.
You sure you ain’t seen him? He were coming this way. Likely as not, he’d have ridden right past you. Got an old straw horse he calls John Wilkes. Your neighbor to the south—Penderton is his name—turned V away hisself he says.
I keep to myself out here, I say. Widower, I volunteer. Country like it is, I say, who can you trust these days but that?
Amen. The boy chuckles. Now there’s the truth of it. But my brother Virgil, he’s one you can trust. We’s reared to be trusted, us Stokes. He nods gravely. But I guess you ain’t seen him and that is all right.
I’m afraid that I haven’t, I say. I’ve been busy. I permit myself a genuine smile.
Grandpappy, he says. He passed in March. I reckon that Virgil ought to know.
Well, I’m sorry to hear that, I tell him. I am.
Pnuemonier took him, rest his soul.
He giveth and taketh and giveth, I say.
I wince at the sound of my words, but they fit.
The boy adjusts his bedroll, puts a hand through the fence. I take it in mine, shake it weakly and drop it. And it might be the suddenness of my greeting or something the boy has been turning in mind, but I’ve only just let go his hand when he freezes and looks out on the field behind me.
Pleased to meet you, he says, a bit stiff, half-distracted.
Likewise, I say.
We are shooting the breeze.
But then he says: Field’s got a funny pitch to it. Won’t do well to plant in that.
I cannot slow my heartbeat down. My eyes raise a little, then drop to my feet.
Thing is, he begins, I’m in fishes myself, but I just might could help you some.
I bought the land cheap, I say. Years ago. On account of the pitch, as you say. But I’ve managed.
You sure about that? he says, staring harder. Cause it’s some folks manage better with a second set of eyes. If you got a plow and some horses, a level, I could help you shave that pitch right out. Or on second thought, Mister—
No thank you, I say. I’ve earned my keep here five years running.
What you got going out there? Some tobacco?
But I’ve already turned from the fence with a nod, and what he says next is inaudible. And so I keep walking without looking back, but I can sense him there, behind me. I walk on the skirt of the bulge, then its nexus, beginning to feel as I walk like Lot’s wife, and the quiver beneath my flexing feet is a welcome distraction from turning around when all of a sudden I’m nigh a mile distant and practically stepping on Penderton’s spores and now close enough to my neighbor’s outbuildings that I swear I can make out the eyes of his Negroes observing me, too, from behind the smeared windows, the squinted blue eyes and the big staring brown ones drawing, between them, a cross-hairs on me. Then I stop and turn around. The figure of Young Stokes is gone. There is only the pitch of my malformed field, and the coffinmaker’s angles of my house.
When I am done taking stock of the bulge for the day, I return to the house and do not leave. My hands have been shaking something awful, a tremor that dies, to my dismay, when I have had a drink. And when I’ve had another, more stiff than the first, my mind begins to circle the encounter with Stokes, pouncing on fears that I’ve had all long, but refused until now to acknowledge. So I take to the stairs, mounting two at time, until I am in the bathroom. There, I turn the tub up hot and I shake out a thick coat of lye in its basin. I scour the porcelain overlong. A clay-colored stratum begins to bleed through. And when I relent, the rag tight on my knuckles—a readymade bandage if they, too, are bleeding—the tub is less clean than it was at the outset and porcelain shavings clog the drain. Ignoring the damage, I hunt up a mop, and I do to the floor as I did to the tub. The tile does not flake as the porcelain did, but the mop snaps in two midway through the job. I toss away the splintered halves. I stand at the sink, staring into the mirror. The whites of my eyes are infested with red. I stare until bad air clouds the glass. Then I go into the bedroom.
There I strip the paisley covers, carry them down to the unheated parlor. I lay a bed of kindling in the cold fireplace, bundle the covers and chase with a match. The goose-feather takes with a vacuous whoosh. The flames burns high and hale; they raven. Renegade feathers escape the fire, some of them charred and some still burning, so I unfold the gate from the compromised hearth and stomp them into smudges. But feathers continue to blow from the flames on an updraft of smoke curling into the parlor. The bad air fills with small red sparks that I swat like a bear in an immolate forest. The flue must be jammed, or roaring with backdraft, for my eyes start to sting and the room grows vague. I run to the kitchen and fill up a bucket, which I see, running back, has a rime of old stew; I cripple the flames with a great, slow splash, which releases a sour charnel smell and more smoke. I drop the bucket, fan the air. Through a topcoat of ash, my knuckles bleed. I am filthy from head to toe. Night has fallen.
I decide to take a leap of faith. I must kill the bulge where it lives, now or never.
So I put on my coat and head out to the shed, where I lift down a pick from the hooks. Approaching the field, the bad air coalesces, so I slog through the darkness while oaring my arms. I can see the summit of the bulge. It rears from the mist now coating the field like Leviathan’s hump, or a dune on a beach. I climb, up and up. The mist chases thin. I crest at the top and I bounce, the pick swinging. The vitals beneath me retreat, a raw nerve. I fall a couple steps sideways.
As I steady the pick above my head, preparing to spike the thing’s nerve-center, I cannot but think on what grim melodrama, what sad penny dreadful I’ve wandered into, and then, for the first time in ages, I laugh. I laugh and I spike it. The pick follows through. My arms follow through. Or the pick. They are one. A geyser of something leaps into the air. And the part of the bulge where I’m standing deflates with a curious-smelling exhalation—a secret humid, fungal smell, like a flooded root cellar, or a log’s underside, or the water in my middle ear after a long summer swim in Powmahatta. It is what the bad air has been gesturing at, the character it’s been circling.
A slow upwelling of indistinct fluid begins to wash around the pick. It bubbles first, then trickles, flows, in a current that breaks around my feet and reforms down the slope behind me. When I wrench the pick toward me the topsoil gives way with the light ripping sound of old canvas. More fluid wells down the length of the cut, and something gelatinous winks at me between its shredded ridges.
So I make my way back to my first entry-point, reinsert the pick and drag. I scalpel the bulge across its summit; fluid cascades all which ways. I set the pick down. I no longer need it. The ground has become, of a sudden, consenting. Both-handed, I take up a loose flap of topsoil and flay it neatly from the seam. This I repeat with the opposite flap. Soon a sub-bulge, slick, translucent, has been laid bare beneath the first. But unlike the earthworks that formerly hid it, the sub-bulge resists my excavations. Trying to gouge my fingers in it is like trying to stir a pot of clay. The pick is again necessary, and I fetch it, and sink it down into that jelly. There is no upwelling this time as before—just a quiver, a sigh and the night, up above me.
The sub-bulge disinters in chunks: triangular, square, globular, trapezoidal. They shake in the sling of the pick as I lift them, and they shimmer in the watchful moon, and they glom, awkwardly, to the base of the bulge where they give up their jelly, becoming as stone. And the mass, as I hack it, is stiffening, too, due to some alchemy of the air, and each good swing demands one better, which I give and I give, until I am panting. By grades the stuff reveals its veins, an armature of bone-like roots. I dig and heave, I hack and tear, and the pick sees me on with a crackling force, and I think of the copse at the edge of my field that I will have to clear this summer, a snarl of parched and fire-prone limbs that will fall to the flat of my axe, moving outward, and yet for the present I’m not moving outward, I remind myself, no, I am traveling down, and the resonance of it, but also the strangeness, renders my progress vertiginous, endless.
The armature elaborates the further down I trim it back, while the layer of gelatin is thinning. I clear the bramble, wrenching, stabbing, plunging the pick with my foot, like a shovel, and the weave of it shatters, caving in, emitting a sort of particulate dust like bad air given solid form, and I sneeze violently, several times. I sneeze blood.
And suddenly I’m at the core.
The armature takes on a definite shape.
It is similar in concept to the ribs of a man, but instead of inverting and forming a hollow, describes a perfect, slatted orb. The orb hangs suspended, some ten feet deep, on a chandelier structure that draws its support from the earthen walls around it. It recalls, to my thinking, a trinket of bone hung from a well’s pulley system. Gently, I insert the pick between the interstices of the orb and pry. These inmost parts give way less readily, as if clinging fast to whatever they harbor, but by and by I wrench them free.
The onion has been skinned.
A globular sac which, at first glance, is two times the size of a healthy watermelon, depends from the top of the slatted orb by a thin albino membrane. It sways in a faint subterranean breeze. The membrane continues around the sac and through it I see, like cracks in a relic, a tracery of veins.
I look to the top of the hole I’ve dug, through a labyrinth of roots and clinging dirt, and just as I do, the moon passes over, and dyes the darkness brighter.
The membrane wrapped around the sac has a sturdier weave than I’d initially thought. But I manage to tear a dime-sized hole, and step back to see what will happen. The hole in the membrane widens further, the membrane retracts around the sac and an exhalation of bad air leaks into the darkness. But nothing save air is released in that darkness. Nothing goes scuttling off, newly born. Contrary to all my expectations, its insides are a total void. The sac has collapsed upon itself and it sways raggedly in the tunneling breezes. I scrub at my face, find my nose is still bleeding.
I let the pick drop and it finds something soft.
I study the ground, or what passes for ground in these bleak reaches of the earth, and discover not mud, as I’d thought, but a bulge, gestating in darkness beneath the bulge prior. But this one is balder, and softer, and smaller, a polyp striving towards the skin. It’s a sub-sub-bulge, afterbirth of its brother. It even bears the faintest sheen. I fetch up the pick. It feels heavy, gummed up. I heft it and hold it aloft, undecided.
There is nothing left to do but dig. There is nowhere left to go but down. And so dig down I do, with a mournful intensity. Gelatinous layers, bone-like roots, the chandelier structure, the slatted orb and there, at its core, the same pale sac, the same decoy of life inside it. Carefully, I part the membrane. As with the first, it retracts and hangs open. And though I am certain that I will find nothing before I sink the pick again, something keeps me digging, something hopeful and alarmed, something that insists that so much digging is bound to yield up some reward.
The water-logged body of my boarder. The headless remnants of his horse. An unborn version of the boy, coiled on himself with his thumb in his mouth and his beautiful eyes shut tight. One of many boys, so many, that I have known across the years: dustbowl boys in dusty hats; soldier boys on R & R; stable boys from three towns over who whinnied and strove as I broke them in bed; a mountebank’s boy who would wear, in my presence, one white, erotic, calfskin glove, and practiced with it, up my spine, the very magic he was versed in.
I revisit these moments, ten times, then again, but the living of them has already been done. Yet in hope or despair, I return to them always, determined to live them correctly this time, only to find, in the maze of my efforts, that I am back where I began.
The opportunity of them has fallen to ashes. The scent I’m chasing has gone cold.
A succession of caves unfolds before me, honeycombed beneath the earth, and I wonder, vaguely, how it is that the system bears up before such excavation. Surely, some crawlspace, some chamber to come, will crumble in to bury me. And I see myself now, burrowing through the strata, mute and intense, like an ant in a farm, consoled by the knowledge that where I am headed is where, at last, I’ll want to be.
The world opens up like a bud—this I know. And seem to grasp its inner workings. Though as for my own, they remain hidden from me, as they have always been.
Adrian Van Young is the author of “The Man Who Noticed Everything,” a collection of stories, which won Black Lawrence Press’s 2011 St. Lawrence Book Award. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Lumina, Electric Literature, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. He lives in New Orleans, La., with his wife Darcy, where he teaches writing at Tulane University.