Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

SHAYNE LAUGHTER


"EMMONSBURG ROAD"
 

 

            1. Parklett Household Visit. Spoke With Two Parklett Men, Father and Son.

 

            This is the time of sin against Earth and the Law, Papaw said. A man in an overcoat, buttoned-up vest, collar, tie and hat had come from the courthouse in Hinton to the Parklett place with a paper that said they had to remove.

            This is the Tribulation, Papaw said when the Hinton man had gone.

            Cross Parklett had been born of sin, so he listened. His Mam, Daddy's wife, had lain with a dark angel and made Cross, so Cross paid special attention to talk of sin. Always, when sin was the subject, he gave heed to Papaw and Daddy, lest they turn their blazing eyes towards him, and let their big hands fly out at him or at Mam. He was nine years old.

            The Hinton man visited all the houses of Emmonsburg with his paper but not all of Emmonsburg had to remove. The bottom lands were small and tight here along Lick Creek, and the timbered hills were steep. Emmonsburg was spread out, up and down. The Baptist Church would be spared, and the store, and the cemetery, and the houses that were close to them, because their ground was high. But twenty or so other families with acres of timber and hunting and plowed land, all of whom considered themselves living in a town called Emmonsburg, had to remove and live somewhere else. The houses and outbuildings, the man said, would be destroyed and then covered by water. This was all Cross could hear from the back porch room where he slept with Mam. Mam sat on the edge of the bed, tight with listening, one hand laid on Cross' foot. Cross pretended to sleep but he, too, strained to hear.


The houses and outbuildings, the man said, would be destroyed and then covered by water.


            Work had already begun, the Hinton man said, to stop Lick Creek from flowing. It would back up, turn around, flow over the bottomlands and rise high enough to drown the timber. The parts of Emmonsburg near Lick Creek would soon be at the bottom of a lake.

            Who says so, Daddy asked.

            The Hinton man replied with a word Cross didn't understand. Daddy swore loud, over and over. Cross heard the creak of wood that meant Papaw had raised himself from his chair. Papaw used his church voice, and the Hinton man left hastily. He shouted back through the door over Daddy's swearing, the date when the Parklett household had to be removed. The structures would be destroyed three days after that, and in another three days their property would be covered by water.

            Mam's hand tightened on Cross' foot so that Cross gasped. Mam patted his foot and Cross simply shifted, as if going back to sleep.

            Daddy chased out the door after the Hinton man and spoke violence to the thing Cross didn't understand. When he slammed back into the house with more swearing, Papaw pronounced sin and Tribulation. They fell to passing the jug between them, and Cross drifted off into troubled dreams.

 

            2. Elder Parklett Man and Grandson Observed Leaving Parklett Homestead.

 

            Cross crept up to Papaw and crouched in his shadow a while the next day, while Papaw cleaned the mule's hooves.

            Papaw, Cross whispered, What is – and he said the word he didn't understand.

            Papaw set the mule's hoof down and stared straight ahead. The hoof pick stayed in his hand and Cross kept his eye on it just in case. Then Papaw shook his head so his white hair and yellowish gray beard trembled. I'll show ye, he said, without looking at Cross. You might as well see. And he slowly rose up, straightening and extending his full length like a snow-topped tree. He walked away and Cross followed, relieved and mystified and happy.

            Papaw got his rifle, a precious repeater, his most treasured possession, that went with him whenever he left his property. He bridled the mule and pulled Cross up to ride behind him. Cross was beside himself with excitement. He couldn't help smiling, looking up and up at the shaggy, greasy back of Papaw's head, the broad wall of his back and the rifle extending out beyond him as it balanced on his lap. Cross was careful not to cling too tightly to Papaw's overalls as the mule plodded patiently along Emmonsburg Road, following Lick Creek through Emmonsburg Hollow. Cross did not want to make Papaw look around at him and maybe smack him off the mule, for it would be a long and cold walk back.

            They took a trail leading up the ridge above Lick Creek. Rumblings and roarings came through the air to Cross' ears. Presently the trail came out into the open, where the trees were scarce and the trail widened onto a shelf of rock. There, Papaw pulled the mule to a stop.

            He swept his hand across the scene below them – what was happening at this end of Lick Creek.

            It was a vision that Cross could not have imagined. His mouth opened to receive it.

            Beings moved as if alive but without natural feeling. They extended arms and jaws and necks across the wide, flat mouth of Lick Creek. This had been the Sipes place, Cross remembered Daddy saying. But place no longer meant home here. There was nothing homelike about it. The Sipes house and barn and corn crib were gone. Dirt and timber and rock had been stripped away. Cross had witnessed trees felled for firewood and quartered for lumber in the ripping power of the saw mill, but it was vanishing weakness compared to this. At the saw mill, men stood over the dangerous moving thing in a kind of dance with it and with the changing wood. Here, the not-creatures bit and lifted and rolled Earth in chunks bigger than a man. A new hill was being built on top of the moving water. From where the mule stood, the men involved were small. Some ran among the roaring not-creatures, and one sat in a kind of saddle, moving rods. It took Cross a moment to observe that the sitting man guided the not-beast as it lifted Earth and heaved it yonder. In his short life Cross had seen wonderful horses like laughing mountains drawing wagons and plows, but they had joy and sovereignty to toss their heads and switch their tails. These work-things had no such freedom, and finally Cross found the word machine. It unfolded to fit the scene and the horror of what was being done to Lick Creek.

            No wonder the creek would stop flowing, back up and change its nature. Anything to get away from this.

            This, said Papaw, is your government. He added the mystery word to the scene. It clicked together neatly with machine in Cross' mind.

            See all those men, Papaw commanded. Each man has a boss he's got to mind. Got to give up his own sense and do what the boss says. And that boss, he's got a boss, he's got to mind. And that next boss the same. On and on. A chain of bosses, look ye, and not one his own man. Chains, look ye, waitin' to shackle us all, lessen we keep movin' and keep our own minds. Bosses decide to dam up a creek and raise a lake – never mind how many of us got to remove and leave all behind. You wonder what is government, boy?

            Papaw nodded his bottomless contempt at the scene below him.

            That's it, right there.

 

            3. Parklett Household Removal Is Incomplete.

 

            Come the date the courthouse paper spoke of, the Parklett family had removed all they could to the barn behind Emmonsburg Baptist Church. There they slept and cooked until Daddy could find work and a place in Hinton to keep them.

            Papaw wouldn't stay removed. Every day he set off down the road back into Emmonsburg Hollow with his repeater rifle under his arm. He'd return with a few squirrels for supper, plus a pot or something from the old place, to prove he had only been retrieving what couldn't fit on the wagon.


Two days after the date the removal paper had spoken, Papaw went down Emmonsburg Road as usual but did not return. Not that night, nor the next.


            Two days after the date the removal paper had spoken, Papaw went down Emmonsburg Road as usual but did not return. Not that night, nor the next.

            Daddy was in Hinton at the time and came back cheerful because he had found work driving teams for freight wagons, and he had put his pay down to rent a small house. Mam's frantic gestures and mewling noises shut out his news until he struck her mouth. He looked fire at Cross, and Cross told him Papaw hadn't come back from the old place for three days now.

            Why can't you just say that, Daddy shouted at Mam. She only crawled into the barn straw and rubbed her face.

            It would be years yet before Cross learned that while Mam had never been wordy, laying with the dark angel had shut her up for good. Daddy thought she was just being stubborn, and her silence meant she really did love the son of a bitch.

            Son of a Bitch was the dark angel's other name. Cross perked up when it was spoken, as much as when sin was discussed. Daddy said son of a bitch son of a bitch, over and over, as he struck out down Emmonsburg Road that day, and Cross followed. Daddy didn't see him tagging behind, and that was fine with Cross.

            What drew Cross was not just the possibility of learning more about the dark angel but, more so, learning about the Bitch the angel was Son of. Cross was fairly certain that this Bitch, his true Mamaw, was an enormous black dog. Cross pictured Her with slavering jaws, hundreds of sharp yellow teeth, red eyes and gums, a purple dripping tongue, and bulbous dugs swinging on her belly. She had been much on Cross' mind since Papaw declared the time of sin and Tribulation. Cross had not yet worked out where his Mamaw stood on the matter of Lick Creek. She had not reared up against the government, except in a dream that had wakened Cross one dawn. In another dream, Mamaw held out an iron chain looped for Cross to wear around his neck. He woke before the dream showed him what his hand would do.

            And yet, going down Emmonsburg Road, Cross divined that Daddy's singsong son of a bitch meant Papaw, and not the dark angel. This was new, and Cross pushed himself to a trot, to stay within earshot of Daddy's voice, in case more information was forthcoming.

            Son of a bitch old man, son of a bitch, what'm I gone to do with you, you damned old son of a bitch, Daddy said.

            Just before the road dipped sharp down into the Hollow, Daddy turned at a wide and well-used crossroad that let into the yard of Emmonsburg Store. He still had not seen Cross, and the boy found no reason to break the magic distance. Cross ducked into the brush at the side of the road to go catty-corner, and by the time he got where he could see the store's front, Daddy was on the porch, stepping inside the shadowed door.

 

            4. Parklett Heritage Is Redefined. Accuracy Remains Doubtful.

 

            Cross dropped into a crouch, made himself small, and considered. Daddy had spoken the other name of the dark angel, as a name for Papaw. What did this signify about Daddy's father, Papaw, and Cross' own true father?

            As soon as he asked himself the question, Cross had it: The dark angel was Papaw’s brother. They were both Sons of a Bitch.

            Knowledge thrilled his body. Cross felt his bloodline glow. Small as he was now, the fearsomeness that gave Papaw command over animals and trees and tools and people was within reach, within Cross' rights. And these rights and power-that-would-be came from Mamaw.

            The dirt and scrub trees and brush around Cross sighed and swayed with Cross' revelation. Mamaw the Bitch was as close as the dirt that enclosed the tree roots around him and entwined the cloth of Cross' overalls and even his very skin. In his mind She had changed form: she no longer went on all fours like a dog, like Mam crawling through barn straw. That picture of Mam, with her breasts swaying loose under her apron and blood welling from her lip, caused excitement deep in Cross' most secret belly and so it curled up there to stay. No, Mamaw left crawling behind and showed Cross She could stand tall as Papaw with legs and arms like strong folk. Her face remained a grinning dog's and Her many tits hung all down Her front, which was how She liked it.

            Cross' reverie was broken when Daddy and the Store Man came out, talking, and went down off the porch and around the side of the building. Cross wondered what the business was. But Mamaw wasn't done with Cross. She drew his mind to the dark rectangle that led into the Store. Cross felt Mamaw's hunger. It was Her command to him. Especially to him. He stood and slipped through the brush, into the yard and up onto the porch, swift and silent. There was a milky light inside the Store, through high windows, and Cross entered.


Mamaw the Bitch was as close as the dirt that enclosed the tree roots around him and entwined the cloth of Cross' overalls and even his very skin.


            Cross had been here before, perhaps a year ago, and though the crates and bags and barrels had shifted somewhat, all was more or less the same as he remembered from that first impressive visit. Bulging burlap, sanded wood, oiled steel, pine-treated hemp rope, skin-warm leather, sawdust, cut straw, the smells made Cross reel. It was a stronghold of unimaginable wealth. So much of it was food. Dried greens, cornmeal, bottled vinegar, cans of lard. Other mysteries that Cross could not name. What was it Mamaw wanted?

            A glint of sunlight on glass told him. He had seen this before, too, and wondered then, and pointed, and had been dragged away. It was a fat jar on a shelf behind the long counter that divided the room into front and back. It contained red and gold jewels, fiery in the tiny bolt of sun. The jar wore a glass lid with a wooden ball on top.

            By the time Daddy and the Store Man came back around the corner of the building, Cross was back in the brush near the store, hidden, shaking with excitement and pride at the speed with which he had fulfilled Mamaw's command. Two smooth red jewels were in his overalls pocket, and two more were in his mouth. The burning sweetness was an ecstasy so violent that Cross almost missed what Daddy was doing and what the Store Man was saying.

            Daddy carried a canoe on his shoulders, struggling to balance it and walk at the same time. It hid his head and his footsteps wavered.

            I'm telling you, Parklett, that there canoe's a two-man portage and you ain't going to get it down the hill, the Store Man yelled. And I sure ain't coming with you to help. I ain't going to leave my business to the dogs fer no one.

            Do what you please, Daddy yelled back from under the canoe. Pap'll help me bring this blasted thing up the hill and you'll have it back clean.

            Then Daddy lost his balance and stumbled, and the canoe crashed to the ground.

            Goldarn, Parklett, you mean to buy yourself a stove-in canoe? the Store Man laughed.

            Daddy sat defeated by the canoe. He beat on it with his hat and then stood up.

            All right, to hell with it, he said. The two men hoisted the thing onto their shoulders and disappeared back around the corner of the Store. Cross was content to wait, and let the tide of sweetness in his mouth subside.

            Daddy returned alone to Emmonsburg Road and Cross trailed him again, sometimes in the road and sometimes beside it. The red jewels' sweetness gave him spring and daring. He had to catch himself up and crouch small a couple of times when Daddy looked around to see what was making noise in the brush. It wasn't long before Daddy, too, stepped up into the brush, because just as the Hinton man had said, the road was covered with water. Lick Creek was on the rise.

 

            5. Unauthorized Return to Former Parklett Homestead (Eminent Domain Established).

 

            Lick Creek, which had flowed steady and deep on the other side of Emmonsburg Road across from the Parklett place, could no longer be called a creek. Its waters now completely hid the road and what had been the deep-rutted lane into the Parklett yard. The bottomland acreage Papaw had plowed and planted and harvested since before Daddy was born had gone silver, flooded, a rippling mirror for the day's perfect blue sky.

            But it had not yet taken all of the property under its embrace, because the house and barn and privy had been on higher ground that led to the foot of a timbered ridge. Daddy stopped when that ground was in sight, and Cross stopped, too. They both marveled.

            The structures and the two old apple trees were gone – nothing but heaps of smashed wood and tin roofing, a couple of twisted window sashes and tree roots obscenely raised to claw the air. Foundation stones were knocked about and the root cellar door tilted up at an angle on its hinges.

            In the middle of the wreckage was Papaw. Somehow the destruction had left a kitchen chair intact. Papaw sat enthroned beside the stubby remains of the chimney, straight-backed and fiery-eyed as ever, white hair shining in the afternoon sun, with his repeater rifle set on his lap. It was plain he meant to stay right where he was while Lick Creek swallowed up everything that had been his.

            Daddy swore and found a stout branch fallen among the brushwood. He waded into the water, using the branch to steady himself. He sloshed towards his father through the flood. Cross noted that the water reached nearly to Daddy's waist. How would he make the crossing himself?

            It took some doing to stay hidden, but Cross made his way around to the back of the high ground where he could reach the house yard unnoticed, near the privy. Cross could hear Daddy yelling at Papaw, You got to come on, and Papaw yelling back, Ain't no place for me outside this Hollow, I'm a-staying right here.

            It occurred to Cross that soon there would be no air and no sky where he was walking – and he shivered to think of Papaw meaning to stay.

            Cross approached the men from behind, shielded by the remains of the house, splintered pieces of walls whose paint he still recognized. The Earth was spongy underfoot, in the throes of its change. So intent was he on moving quietly and staying hidden, while keeping the scene in view, he did not spot another watcher in a high-ground hiding place, a watcher who made careful notes on paper of what the two men were shouting.

 

6. Altercation at the Former Parklett Homestead (Eminent Domain Established) Between Two Adult Males Conclu – – –

 

            Daddy spoke no more. It was just Papaw's voice now. He faced away from Cross and Cross could not make out his words, but it was the same low summer thunder that spoke to Lord and Father at Sunday dinner and led prayer and Scripture at church, when they went. Daddy stood with his chest sunk and his head to one side, mourning. His shoulders shook and a high-pitched whine escaped him. Cross stopped. Was Daddy crying? He was shaking his head. No, Cross could hear him say. No.

            Papaw handed Daddy his rifle. Didn't look at his son, just grasped the stock in one enormous hand and turned his arm so it was in the air between them. The barrel pointed up tall and shone in the sun.


Daddy didn't make any more sound. He just grabbed the rifle out of the air and stepped around directly behind Papaw.


            Daddy didn't make any more sound. He just grabbed the rifle out of the air and stepped around directly behind Papaw. Cross moved quickly to get a better view. He saw Daddy raise the gun, and fire.

            The blast made Papaw's white head splash red and black and he dove forward off the chair and hit the ground hard, face-first in the rubble.

            Cross opened his mouth and eyes and a scream tore out of his chest; Daddy spun around, cocked a new shell into the chamber ready and then a second scream ripped open behind Cross and a great black flapping winged thing exploded up out of the scrub, chasing some large creature before it. The rifle's barrel shifted just beyond Cross as Daddy fired.

            It was the Hinton man that jerked backwards – a notebook flew out of one hand and a pencil out of the other, and his body landed with a sopping thud.

 

            7. – – –

 

            Daddy lowered the rifle by inches, as if he didn't want to continue on to the next moment. He stared at the dead Hinton man as if straining to understand. Then, by inches, he turned and looked at Cross, who had been the first scream. Daddy's face was pale and had no emotion. He turned and looked at Papaw, just as slowly, just as uncomprehending. Another brief look back to Cross, and he walked to the Hinton man.

            Cross followed and closed up the gap. He stood beside Daddy and they both stared down at the dead man in his coat and vest. His hat had blown to one side. His white shirt and tie were spoiled with shot burn and blood.

            Some decision put life back into Daddy. He stepped over to a pile of smashed house wood and settled the rifle snugly in a way that would keep it up off of the saturated ground. As he moved, sound and smells came back to Cross' senses. The wind rustled in the trees' upper branches, as if they now gossiped together about the sight. Cicada song returned, insistent and oblivious. The moving creek water trilled in its silvery voice.

            Daddy squatted beside the Hinton man and went through his pockets. He removed a handful of coins and a folded leather wallet, and a sheaf of bills from that. He stuffed the money into the upper, dry pockets of his overalls and returned the wallet to the man's inner coat pocket.

            There were other items that Daddy looked at, but didn't disturb, like cufflinks and a wedding ring, like the notebook lying open in the moist dirt. The pocket watch, now that was a temptation. Freed of its vest pocket, it dangled and spun from Daddy's hand. Cross stared at it as hard as Daddy, for it was beautiful – a round brass body polished as bright as gold, with a crystal face, long chain and a loud ticking. A marvelous thing, a wondrous thing. Cross had only seen one other pocket watch in his life, and it was not as large and bright as this. It did not tick like this one. To Cross the tick-tock seemed equal to the water voice of Lick Creek.

            However, there were words engraved on the back. Daddy shook his head and put it back into the Hinton man's vest pocket. Anything folks would know is his by sight, it's got to stay here, Daddy muttered.

            Daddy never would know how much that spoken wisdom thrilled Cross, whether he had meant to share it with the boy or not. Cross felt his bloodline glow again, as it now joined him and Daddy, through Papaw, the brother of Cross' true father, both of them Sons of a Bitch.

            Something in motion caught the edge of Cross' vision. The Hinton man's hat was floating away. It passed the old root cellar – where a hulking black turkey vulture perched, watching them.

            The turkey vulture's naked, scabrous head tilted to look Cross in the eye. This was the creature that had flushed the Hinton man out of his hiding place. Once again Cross felt Mamaw's hunger. Of course Her hand was in this, Cross reasoned. His tongue still felt the faint tickle of the red jewel. She had meant that for him. Now she needed her own. The vulture opened its wide, scraggly wings and flapped away to a tree.

            Cross reached out and patted Daddy's sleeve, to turn his head.

            He won't float away if he's in there, Cross whispered, and pointed at the root cellar.

            Daddy looked, and moved his mouth, thinking. He stood, and took up the Hinton man under his shoulders.

            See if'n you can get his feet up, Daddy said to Cross. Cross was proud to hoist an ankle under each arm and together they hauled the body across the littered yard.

            The root cellar was already mostly full of water. They slid the Hinton man in and Daddy retrieved the notebook to toss in after him. They blocked the opening with broken slats of wood and chimney brick. Cross wondered briefly whether this would stand against Mamaw's hunger, but the tall dog-faced Bitch in Cross' mind only laughed to make her tits shake. Cross felt relief.  

            They went to Papaw and turned him over. The rifle shot had come out the front of his face so his nose and moustache were gone, just a red-black hole showing yellowish bone and his few lower teeth.

            Daddy seemed uncomprehending again, so Cross began gathering chimney bricks and placed them on Papaw's arms. Daddy moved to get large stones that had been in the house foundation, and laid one in each of Papaw's hands, and one on each foot. He did the same on his father's shoulders and hips, too. Between the bricks and the foundation stones, Papaw wasn't going anywhere. They left his face free, so he could watch the sky disappear behind water.

            Daddy stopped again, and Cross waited. Daddy said to Papaw's body, The Almighty knows you been a stubborn cuss. I done what you wanted. Everything else is between you and Him.

            He kept his own mind, Cross said, high and clear.

            Daddy turned, sharp, like he'd just woke up. Cross marveled at how their faces were strangers to each other – how Daddy looked at him.

            He did, Daddy said. He kept his own mind.


Daddy paused. He said to Cross, Papaw had it in his mind anyways, to shoot himself, when the water come to his knees. He tole me that.


            Then Daddy spoke to him, directly to him. What you got to understand, Cross, is that we're gone tell Mam and all the other folk that your Papaw done shot himself. You hear? You and me, we come up to the place and when Papaw saw us coming, he just turned that rifle around and shot himself. He was set to die on his own land, only he decided to use the gun instead of drownding.

            Daddy paused. He said to Cross, Papaw had it in his mind anyways, to shoot himself, when the water come to his knees. He tole me that.

            Daddy paused again, then repeated, So he shot himself. We set the stones on him just like we done. And that's all that happened. You understand that? You understand what I'm saying to you?

            His voice rose and his face had a desperation. Cross remembered something then, and he praised Mamaw in his heart.

            Cross walked up to his Daddy and took the two red jewels out of his overalls pocket. He offered one to Daddy.

            Daddy saw what it was. He glanced at Cross, understanding it. He took it. They popped the jewels into their mouths. Daddy sucked in air through his nose to cool the heat of it.

            This time Cross knew to expect the sweet violence on his senses. He closed his eyes and knew Mamaw was satisfied. She was crouched down in the root cellar now, nosing into her feast.

            Daddy retrieved the rifle and they both noticed that the higher ground had gotten smaller, and was even more of an island in the swelling flood. Daddy stooped so Cross could climb up onto his shoulders. Daddy had Cross lay the rifle across his lap and he said Hold it firm, don't let it drop into the water. They waded through the flood towards the upwards slope of Emmonsburg Road.

            Cross swayed atop his Daddy's shoulders and he surveyed the drowning land. The rifle was warm where his hands gripped it; his legs were warm where Daddy held them sure. He and Daddy were the last people to breathe this air, and see these trees, to walk Emmonsburg Road this far.

            Cross turned his face up to the sun. Already his memory placed Papaw in that chair by the chimney at the bottom of the lake, his white hair floating in the murky current; Papaw would watch his land and guard his true Mother, Mamaw, as She ate the polished ticking heart of the Hinton man.

            Tick-tock-tick. There was hot sweetness in Cross' mouth and somewhere a lone bird sang pretty, pretty, pretty.


Shayne Laughter is native to Bloomington, Indiana. Like many Hoosiers, she returned to the limestone-and- beer-can- strewn homeland after living and traveling elsewhere – including Seattle, New York City, India, and Spain. Her karmic-mystery novel, Yü: A Ross Lamos Mystery, was published by Open Books Press in 2010. Her short fiction has appeared in Bacopa Literary Review and SAND Journal. She was a 2014 Artist in Residence at Can Serrat International Arts Center in Barcelona, Spain, and a 2011 participant in the Ghost Ranch Women Writers Retreat of the A Room of Her Own Foundation. Her novel, short stories and screenplays have won honors in national literary contests. Shayne has volunteered for community radio as a local news reporter and reader for the literary radio series, "Books Unbound." She works at WFIU Public Radio in Bloomington, producing radio stories on art and literary topics for "Café Indiana." The story "Emmonsburg Road" is part of a collection, The Stronger, set mostly in Southern Indiana.