When All the Animals Are Gone
This story first appeared in Bayou Magazine, Issue #67
It never made sense to him, how you can get food just adding water to earth. Like there’s little fairies in the ground, under the knee-high canopy of felty leaves, magicking beneath the dirt. The Good Lord made it just so, he reckoned, so all that’s got to be done is wet the ground and it just pushes food at you. Like as not, He even provides the water, long as sin ain’t giving Him reason to drought. It don’t cost nothing, anyhow.
From low on the stem, he pinched away a cucumber beetle, its yellow and black-speckled wings flaring from between his calloused thumb and forefinger with a tiny crunch, tossed it into the high grass before wiping the guts on his dungarees. Almost hidden from the farmhouse by the soft-rolling hill and a copse of chittamwood and hickory, he snapped broadleaf weeds from the base of the tomatoes, the smell of freshly tilled soil ripe in his nose. The dirt itself caked under his nails, squeezed out in wedges when he pressed his fingertips together. The crick lolled nearby, bending around the trees to meander off into the distance. He pulled a couple of potatoes and an onion for breakfast, to go along with the salt pork.
Erwin most liked to tend the garden in the late afternoon, after working since sunup flagging every last row of Baldridge’s soybeans or Holcomb’s cornfield, so them Delta boys wouldn’t miss a stalk. By the time he’d spent half a day loading the hopper and manning the flag, him and the pilot both were covered in so much rotenone that the skeeters two counties over probably smelt it and shied the other way. That was not today, though, as evidenced by the bites itching the back of his neck. He slapped at another, but might be he’s just imagining things now.
Hunched over in the early morning sun, he fingered his way up and down each row of the plot, weeding the turnips, collards, celery, butterbeans, and on down the line. Nothing fancy. Trickles of sweat dripped into the leaves when he pulled a couple of good frying tomatoes for the pile, then a handful of radishes. He stood and brushed himself off, stuffed a potato in each pocket, and gathered the other vegetables in his upturned shirt.
At the last row, he took a knee in the grass and a potato squeezed out, coming to rest against the cracked heel of his boot. He spat, wiped his lip. Cradling the bundle carefully, he thumped on the closest melon with the heel of his hand, glad to hear that pleasant hollowness. Probably the final batch he can eek out before winter. He rolled the watermelon over, using the fresh daylight to see if the underside had yet turned from white to pale yellow. The rest of the harvest tumbled from his shirt when he saw the hole.
Just above the fullest part of the belly, it hadn’t been gnawed or scraped. Wasn’t a puncture. Nothing chewed its way through, far as he could tell. No teeth marks. The edges of the hole had been rounded off, shaved away, and the underside was tacky with dried juice and seeds. He stuck two fingers inside and rimmed the walls. All smooth, like somebody’d been setting dynamite.
“Got dammit,” he said, wiping his fingers in the grass. Warblers and chickadees chirped in response. A coyote puled, high-pitched and distant.
A thought hit him.
He scurried to the next melon, scattering the radishes and half-squishing a tomato. Holding the whiskered leaves back, he rolled it over, found another hole. He scanned the horizon suspiciously, squinting against the morning sun.
Three had been bored into altogether, of the seven melons in the garden. Must have happened in the last few days, he reckoned, since he was in there on Wednesday pulling okra. Didn’t see anything suspect, but he wasn’t looking, neither. Didn’t bother to flip them since they sounded denser than a fruitcake.
Rolling each one back over so they appeared untouched, he left dinner and breakfast at the garden’s edge, and soon his angry breath and the rustling of his boots through the weeds drowned out the birds and the hush of the trees.
The boy was between the farmhouse and the empty silo, filling in a hole near the back of the wagon. Hearing the brusqueness of his father’s footsteps, he turned, eyes suddenly alert, though not fearful.
Erwin stopped, looked at him closely, like he was trying to glean the answer before asking the question.
“You been messin around in your mama’s garden?” he finally said.
“Nawsir,” the boy said, his tone matter-of-fact. He sniffed and adjusted his worn cap, waited patiently for his daddy to continue.
Erwin believed him, of course, since the boy ain’t never been known to fib, and liked that garden about as much as most people like getting a case of piles. He noted the two mounds by the silo, sticks lashed into crosses and jammed in the dirt. Several behind him, too. One near the barn. He stilled his anger for a moment, focused on the boy.
“Y’aight?” he asked. A soft breeze cooled his neck, tickled the skeeter bites.
“Yessir,” the boy said. Eyes down, he toed the the shovel, casually scraped it around in the dust.
“Who’s at?” the man said, jutting his whiskered chin at the upturned soil by the boy’s feet.
The boy took a moment, sniffed again, pulled an overall strap up his shoulder. “El’phant man,” he said, and stepped on the dirt, putting his weight on it. The earth gave softly, left a flat footprint bisecting the mound.
“What happened?” Erwin said.
The boy looked at him, shading his eyes with his hand, spikes of oily hair jutting from beneath his hat. “Blowed up,” he said, squinting.
“Blowed up,” Erwin repeated, tepid wonder in his voice. He thought on this. “It’s quick, I reckon,” he finally said. The boy’s face didn’t change. Remembering the melons, Erwin’s grew hard and urgent again.
“You can make y’self breakfast?”
“Yessir,” the boy said.
“Aight,” said his daddy. “They’s still scrapple in there, coupla biscuits. You want some gravy, just keep stirrin the scrapple grease while you add the flour, like your mama showed you. Little milk.”
“Yessir,” the boy said. He swatted at a fly.
Erwin removed a wrinkled flap of leather from his back pocket. He unfolded it and removed the plug, bit a chaw from the corner and seated it in his cheek with a forefinger. “I’ll be back,” he said.
“Ain’t we goin to church?” the boy asked.
Erwin looked down by the garden, adjusted the chaw with his tongue. The clouds threatened the sun, shaded some hawks that circled over something likely dead or dying. “Not today,” he said. “Work to do.”
The boy looked in the garden’s direction, up at the hawks.
“Go on an finish up, now,” his daddy said. “Get in some wood for the stove while I’m out.” The clouds decided to let the sun be, so Erwin used it to judge the time as he put the pouch away. “An flatten them mounds out, aight? Looks like we keepin gophers.”
The boy didn’t smile, so neither did Erwin. He turned on his heels and spat, pushing a brown stream through his teeth.
“Daddy,” the boy said, turning him back around. “You aight?”
Erwin studied him, his cheek bulging. He smirked almost imperceptibly, thinking on how the boy and his mama used to laugh when he had that chaw in his mouth, saying he looks like Hensley’s old bull with the broken horn. Chewing his cud and looking mean as the dickens.
“I reckon,” he said, before turning again and walking on down the road. He called over his shoulder, “Fix em mounds.”
When he returned about an hour later with three large paper bags, the mounds had been flattened and a pile of wood waited next to the stove. He couldn’t tell if the boy had eaten. Through the kitchen window, he saw him out back digging another hole, searched the ground at the boy’s feet. Laying on its side in the swirling dust was the giraffe, whittled from a long piece of pine by the boy’s grandfather, whom he'd never met. His mama had a whole potato sack full of them growing up, carved by her daddy and given to her on each birthday, beginning before she was old enough to remember.
Probably shouldn’t have given them to the boy, he thought. Don’t seem to help, unless he took some odd comfort in digging.
Erwin stuck his head out the front door and called the boy’s name, pulled a knife from the drawer. Sliding some dirty utensils and coffee mugs aside, he dumped the bags over, spilling out what must have been a bushel and a half of hot peppers onto the kitchen table. When the boy came into the house, he’d already separated out the dried chilies and was chopping away on the cayennes and jalapeños.
“Get the stewin pot an put it on the stove,” he said, bent over the table.
“Yessir,” the boy said, and walked to the pantry. “Fill it up?”
“Yup,” Erwin said. He motioned to the new box of Morton’s laying on its side. “Then dump at salt in there.”
The boy opened the pantry and pulled the bags of sugar and flour out of the big steel pot, drug it across the floor. Little rascal used to take baths in there, him and his mama both giggling when she ladled the water on his head, pretended that she was cutting up carrots and onions, dropping them on in.
While he chopped, the boy hefted the pot up on the stove, opened up the salt. “All of it?” he said.
“Yup,” Erwin said without looking up.
The boy turned the salt box over, snuck a peek to see if his daddy was watching before daring to run his fingers under the flow.
They filled the pot with water and got it boiling before dumping all the peppers in and giving it a stir.
“What kinda stew we makin?” the boy finally asked.
“Ain’t no stew anybody’d wanna eat,” Erwin said. He scootched a chair away from the table and sat down with a grunt, motioning to the other chair. The boy sat, and Erwin began cleaning his fingernails with a fork tine. “So what happened to giraffe man?” he said.
“Mmm,” the boy said, thinking. “Poisoned.”
Rolling some excavated dirt between his fingers, the man looked at him quizzically. “Poisoned?” he said. “Now who in Sam Hill gonna poison a giraffe?”
The boy shrugged his shoulders. “Some fella,” he said.
“Well what for, I mean? He don’t like long necks?”
The boy shrugged again. His indifference quieted his father, who returned to his nails. After a moment, Erwin said, “How many you got left?”
The boy picked at a splinter in the table, pried it away. They listened to the sound of the boiling peppers, smelled the woodsmoke.
“You wanna play gin?” the boy asked. Erwin checked the time, looked at the stew pot.
“I reckon we got a few minutes,” he said. “Go on git the cards.”
They played six games total, the third and fourth of which Erwin held onto a couple sets to let the boy win. He didn’t suspect nothing, far as Erwin could tell. At the end of the sixth game, their eyes were starting to burn, so he stood up, wafted the steam away before stirring the peppers again. It had boiled down a couple inches, and he pulled out a spoonful, held it in the boy’s direction.
“You gon try it?” he said. The boy covered his mouth, shook his head real fast.
“Aight then,” said Erwin, taking a deep breath and scrunching his nose up before touching the tip of his tongue to the wooden spoon. He smacked his lips together, then his eyes widened comically and he let out a “Hoooo-WEE!” before dropping the spoon in the stew and stepping lively to the sink. He splashed his mouth with cold water while the boy covered his grin with both hands. Erwin looked at him and smiled himself until he felt the heat again, splashed it some more. “Moses on fire, that’s hot,” he said, the boy’s grin widening. “You sure you don’t wanna try? It’s right tasty…”
The boy shook his head, hands clenched down on his smile, eyes wide.
Grinning, too, Erwin looked out the window to note the sun, caught sight of the garden in the distance.
“Aight,” he said, suddenly serious. “I got to get out there while they’s still daylight.” At this, the boy’s smile faded, hands went back into his lap. “Do me a favor’n git that oil funnel,” he said. “Out in the shed.”
The boy stood, walked out back while Erwin used the pot holders to lug the stew from atop the stove, nearly tipping it over before getting it on the floor. Holding his face back, he waved the steam from his eyes with the floral mittens.
It took him damn near forever to get that thing down to the garden, lifting it just off the grass and waddling a few steps at a time till his back started to hurt, trying not to slosh hot water into his boots. He left it down there, walked back up the hill and into the kitchen, where the boy had left the funnel on the table to go finish burying giraffe man. He got the ladle and some scotch tape, set both next to the funnel before going into the boy’s room.
The potato sack was sticking out from under the bed. Set there, though, not hid. He put it on the mattress and sifted through.
Four left. The corn silk around the lion’s head had nearly all fallen out, and what little endured looked more like spiderwebs than mane. The wide, flat eagle had a leg missing and a crack running down the left wing. The snake was in pieces.
He rolled the sack up and set it back on the floor, gently shoving it under the bed with his foot. Back in the kitchen, he inspected the tip of the funnel, grabbed the ladle, put the tape in his pocket, and got the metal file before walking on down to the garden.
Starting with the melons that hadn’t been violated, he dropped his tools in the grass next to the pot and sat down cross-legged by the first plant. He filed away at the spout of the funnel, and once it had an edge on it, gently cradled the watermelon into his lap, stem up. Placing the sharpened tip next to the stalk, he pressed slowly but firmly until it just broke the skin. Holding the spout in place with one hand, he twisted it softly and used his palm and occasionally a fist to carefully pound around the lip, sinking the spout deeper and deeper into the flesh. When the cone finally touched the rind, he gave her a twist and pulled out, taking a small plug of melon with him. With a forefinger, he popped the plug out and set it in the grass before reinserting the spout into the hole he’d made. With his free hand, he dipped into the pot and removed a ladleful of stew. Careful not to burn himself nor stretch out the hole, he dumped it on in.
The sweet, peppery aroma was surprisingly pleasant. Pausing occasionally to breathe it in, he spooned the pepper water into the melon until it crept up the funnel, at which point he pulled out again, trying not to spill. He rolled the melon around to make sure it was good and soaked through, then found his handkerchief and the scotch tape. Reseating the plug, he wiped the juice from around the hole until it was dry and stuck the tape on there, keeping it in place. Flipping her over gently, he set the melon back to rest.
He did this three more times to the remaining unsullied fruit, and poured the rest of the liquid directly into the holes of those that had already been defiled. Dumping his tools into the stew pot, he drug it back up the hill and into the kitchen.
Done burying, the boy was down near the crick with his frog gigger held high, standing poised in the shadow of the trees where the stream doglegs west, in the cool shade where the frogs take solace from the sun. The boy jammed the spear into the reeds at the edge of the water.
Erwin went to the phone and lifted the bell to his ear, clicking the cradle arm several times.
“Operator,” a voice said.
“Hey Louise, connect me to Doc Anders, will you,” he said, scratching at a patch of rust on the mouthpiece. He looked over his shoulder and out the window, but couldn’t see the boy.
“Erwin?” Louise said. There was a long pause. “You okay to be callin?”
“I ain’t drunk, Louise, put me on through,” he said, peeking again over his shoulder. “Ain’t mad, neither.” He allowed her a moment to consider.
“Alright, Erwin…,” she said. “Don’t you get me in trouble with the doctor, now. You be nice.”
“Ain’t been drinkin, I said.”
After several clicks and two rings, the doctor picked up. “Doc. Erwin Shifflett.”
“Ain’t callin to curse you,” Erwin said. “I know you done all you could.” He sniffed, cleared the phlegm from his throat. “You hear that, Louise? Ain’t callin to curse him no more.” There was a soft click.
“Erwin,” the doctor said, both relief and caution in his voice. “How’s things? How’s your boy?”
“Ain’t nobody sick or nothin,” Erwin said. “He’s hangin in there, I reckon. Little quieter’n normal.”
“Need a favor,” Erwin said.
“I’ve been known to do favors,” the doctor said.
“Look here,” Erwin said, his voice sharpening. “If you get a call from anybody with—”
The door creaked when the boy came in. He leaned the gigger against the wall and walked over to the sink, where he removed four small river frogs from his overall pocket and placed them on the counter.
“Erwin?” Doc said. “Who’s gonna call me?”
Erwin hunched over the phone, putting his lips close to the receiver and rubbing his cheek so as to cover his mouth. He spoke in a near-whisper.
“I said,” he said, “I just want to let you know that anybody calls you complainin about a burnt pecker, you just tell em to stay the hell outta Erwin Shifflett’s garden. That’s what.”
The line was silent for a long moment.
“Erwin?” Doc said.
“You tell em,” he said, stern faced. He looked over his shoulder again. “I gotta git, the boy got a mess of dead frogs on the counter.”
“Thanks Doc,” he said, and set the earpiece back into the cradle.
Walking over to the boy, he noted the fading sunlight before looking down at the frogs, legs splayed dramatically among the droplets of blood.
“Whatcha got there?”
“Figured we could have us some frog legs for dinner,” the boy said.
“Looks like you figured right.” Erwin fingered the legs, straightening them, none any thicker than a pinky. “Maybe they fry up bigger.”
“Ain’t gotta get full on em,” the boy said. “They’s just for the taste.”
They skinned and cut up the frogs, dipping the little V’s of mostly tendon into a small plate of cornmeal before placing them into the pan next to the salt pork normally reserved for Sunday mornings. Skipping service today probably didn’t do nothing for their standing with the Almighty, Erwin told him, checking out the window again, but it sure let them eat good tonight. They made more biscuits and some watercress with radishes and green onions. Erwin set out some vinegar for the greens. The boy made a little more gravy.
Erwin eyed the garden more frequently as the sun crept lower and the shadows elongated. The boy was aware of his father’s distraction, but he didn’t say nothing, least not at first. Neither one said much at all while they ate, though each got a kick out of watching the other peck between the little joints at the frogmeat—which just tasted like the fatback, anyhow—before tossing the legs back onto the plate, still splayed.
Only later did the boy begin to fret. Erwin had been staring out the window all through Father Coughlin’s radio show, which they listened to every Sunday night whether they’d gone to church or not. Like most Sunday evenings, he sat on the floor playing marbles while his father smoked in the rocking chair. As both sermon and sun waned, his father stood up, the sooty briarwood pipe clenched between his teeth, and settled himself at the window with his palms on the sill, stalking the garden with the last bits of dying light.
“Daddy?” the boy said. Erwin stirred, but didn’t answer, just returned to the rocking chair and sat back down. He stuffed a thumb in the bowl and puffed until the smoke bloomed.
“You can change it,” Erwin said, trying to appear calm as an anxiousness stirred in his belly. A distrust in his method, maybe. Or maybe he just didn’t have the patience to wait out the darkness. Either way, the boy splashed his taw into the middle of the ducks and went over to the radio.
Slipping past the static, he stopped at each clear interval to listen, since he could never recollect what station Charlie McCarthy was on, nor was he ever inclined to ask.
“You know what Mr. Ridge told me at the market today,” Erwin said, trying to occupy his mind, quelling the urge to check the garden again. The boy stopped on some tango music, turned to look at his daddy but kept his fingers on the dial.
“Nawsir,” he said. A newsman interrupted the tango for a bulletin.
“Said Garland Morris and his boy went huntin last week,” Erwin said. “Said they’s out there bout ready to pack it in when the boy spotted a buck a ways off and his daddy told him go on take the shot.”
The newsman said something about Mars before cutting back to the music, but neither paid much attention.
“Uh huh,” the boy said, waited politely for his daddy to continue.
“Anyhow the Morris boy gutshot him, low, and his insides come out a little bit.”
The boy’s eyes widened.
“Deer took off acrosst that field,” Erwin said, “Went an leapt over a chickenwire fence on other side, snagged his guts on top. Pulled em right on out. Clean.”
The boy thought on this.
“All of em?” he said.
His father nodded without looking at him. “Said he jus kep on runnin, too. Til his brain realized what happened to his belly.” The pipe had extinguished, though that didn’t stop him from puffing on it. “Two hunnerd yards, Mr. Ridge said.”
The newsman came back on again, talking to some scientist or other about somebody saw an explosion on Mars. Neither man sounded too excitable, talking in those grandiloquent radio voices. But it was getting harder for the boy to give his daddy the whole of his focus, now that Mars was in the picture.
“He kep on runnin with no innards?” the boy finally said.
Erwin set his pipe on the end table, snuck a glance at the window. “Will to live,” he said, though he did not elaborate.
The radio show had stopped cutting to and away from the music, and was just going back and forth between newsmen and scientists now, who all sounded a little more frantic talking about how far away Mars is and some meteorite causing a ruckus in New Jersey.
“You ever go huntin?” the boy said.
His daddy looked over at him, judging his level of curiosity. “Most deers ain’t gonna do all the work for you,” he said, sniffing. “An I ain’t no big fan of guts.”
The boy smirked.
They might have talked on it further but both were startled by the sirens and crowd hysteria on the radio.
“What’s this racket you got us listenin to?” Erwin said.
The boy turned his attention back. He’d taken hands off the dial. “It was just dancin music a minute ago,” he said.
“Uh huh.” Erwin paused, his eyes drifted toward the window again. “You can listen to what you want to.”
The boy hesitated a second, fingered the other dial, turning it up. Another newsman was interviewing some old farmer with a hole in his backyard, talking about it ain’t no kind of meteorite neither of them had ever seen. While the boy was rapt and staring at the radio, Erwin couldn’t help but get up and approach the window again, trying to make out any hint of movement beyond the hill. He thought about when it happened once before, when he found the hole one afternoon last August or thereabouts. Before his wife took ill, anyhow.
“Somebody been fuckin the melons,” he declared as he stomped through the door, slamming it behind him and plopping an unripened and bored-into watermelon on the counter. She spit out the cantaloupe she was eating into a napkin, quick and polite as she could.
“Not that one,” he said, rolling his eyes. He couldn’t help but grin. “Why you think I’d cut up and feed you a melon got a pecker hole in it?”
“I don’t know!” she said playfully. “Just instinct, is all. Ain’t hungry now, anyway. And watch that cursin, your son’s runnin round here somewhere.” She couldn’t grin back at him because she was swishing a gulp of water around in her mouth.
“I’ma go find Woodbine, tell him to keep that heathen boy of his off our property,” Erwin said, angry again. “Hell, might be Woodbine hisself.”
“Erwin Shifflett,” she said, “You just calm down. Just cause he’s a little dim don’t make him an animal. The boy, I mean. Woodbine and the rest of you grown men is all animals.” She was sure smirking now. Erwin knew how much she enjoyed getting him riled up.
“You sure doin a lot of laughin for someone got a hillbilly in her garden with his trousers round his ankles. Why don’t you eat some more a that cantaloupe.” That just made her laugh harder.
“I swear. Just go head and pick em,” she said. “They’ll ripen some off the vine before the market. Ain’t no sense worrying over fruit.”
It never did set right with Erwin, though, that somebody else’s lusty predilections forced him to harvest the watermelons early, nor that he was the one inclined to anger over it, since it was her that wanted a garden in the first place. Hell, whoever it was would probably just get to poking the eggplants next.
It won’t two months later that she got sick, and when she was finally bedridden Erwin stopped tending it altogether. Never did find out if the culprit got around to violating anything else before it all rotted on the vines. Took her about six months to pass, and it won’t until he decided to lay her to rest by the garden that he vowed to get it up and producing again. He liked the idea that she was still part of it, that she’d help it grow. In her own sweet way, of course. He liked being near her, too, although for a long time the boy refused to eat anything that come out of there. Still don’t set foot any closer than top of the hill.
Fire alarms and a scream startled him. He looked over at the boy who was still agog, and realized that he’d been thinking on her for longer than he usually allowed. And while he’s up here recollecting and thumb-twiddling, that heathen ape, whoever he is, could be down there right now by her feet, just grunting and rutting away. Even if he does singe his pecker, he’s still got to hump another melon to poke it in the juice. And not ten feet from where she lay. The proximity is what just burnt Erwin right up.
Aw, to hell with it.
Pulling himself away from the window, he stormed past the boy into the bedroom, shuffled around while the man on the radio was yelling about heat rays and what looks to him like tentacles. He came out a minute later with a flashlight, a scratchy old camp blanket, and his Winchester carbine, which finally pulled the boy’s attention from the radio.
He watched as his daddy leaned the rifle against the stove, rolled the flashlight in the blanket and set it on the table. Removing a biscuit from the bread basket, he pushed a hole in the crust with his thumb, then dripped in a big spoonful of molasses to soak, like he liked to do after dinner but hadn’t gotten around to yet. Placing the biscuit between his teeth, he screwed the cap back on and grabbed the blanket, shoved it up under his arm and snatched the rifle again before opening the door.
“Daddy?” the boy said, trying to hide the concern in his voice.
Erwin stopped and removed the biscuit with his free hand, licked the crust from his lips as the sirens and panic got louder. He could tell the boy was trying to judge by his demeanor how scared to be, watching him close. Eyeballing that rifle. A man yelled “Fire!” and a cannon boomed, other men recalibrated the aim.
“Ain’t no Martians,” Erwin finally said.
“Fire!” Another cannon roared, regaining the boy’s attention, and Erwin prowled out into the night.
He was past the silo and halfway down the hill before the moon slicked out from behind a patch of clouds to help his eyes adjust. The night was fairly placid other than some scattered bugs and an occasional hoot-owl, as if the world had finally listened to the wind in the trees all day long and hushed, settled down.
Laying the folded blanket at the base of the hickory down by the crick, he sat on it and leaned back against the trunk, letting his eyes get about as acclimated to the night as they were going to get. The sky was splotchy, and the crickets and katydids seemed joyfully alarmed every time the moon emerged. He sat the biscuit on the blanket next to him, laid the rifle across his lap, and picked up the flashlight. Flattening his palm against the lens so as not to ruin his adjusted vision, he slid the switch up and saw the bright outline, pink and curved against his flesh. He switched it off again and rested it on his knee, pointed at the long patch of garden which had revealed itself in the moonlight. Erwin scooted back, aiming to disappear into the thicket.
Woodbine’s halfwit boy was a year older now, though probably horny as ever. But Erwin ain’t seen the rascal in ages. That old colored fellow Lucius, though, was always roaming all over God’s green earth with his dynamite box full of handmade, moldy cigars, who everyone in Monroe knew were poorly rolled with leaves he’d pilfered from Norville’s tobacco fields. Damn things wouldn’t stay lit in a brush fire. But that there was a man sure as hell didn’t have no qualms about traipsing onto another man’s property in the dead of night. Lord knows what all he got into when the sun went down.
Erwin rested his head against the bark, adjusted his posture, but it didn’t take long for the waxing and waning of the moonlight to become the fault of his eyelids instead of the clouds. Hoping the sweetness might wake him, he felt around for the biscuit and brushed it off before biting it in half. The last bit of unsoaked syrup dripped down his chin. He wiped it away, sucked his thumb clean, but the clack of the front door from up on the hill froze him in place, thumb midair and glistening in the moonlight in front of his mouth.
He had to lean forward to see past the low hanging branches. Though the moon was high and clear-blue behind the house, he could see the yellowed flicker of a lantern creeping across the yard. It disappeared behind the silo and came out the other side, and soon half the boy’s silhouette was glowing atop the hill, holding the lantern high to peer down into the darkness. Had his Red Ryder in the other hand.
That light wasn’t doing Erwin any favors, but he didn’t want to call out to the boy, lest anyone slinking among the shadows might hear it and spook. Surprisingly, it won’t long before the boy took a cautious first step down the hill, then another. Erwin watched him, proud in a way, even if it was only a matter of the boy’s fear trumping his grief, and waited until he was close enough to hear.
“Tssssst,” Erwin hissed, and whispered the boy’s name as loudly as he dared, which halted him so fast and stiff that the lantern swayed for a second in his frozen hand. He held it out in Erwin’s direction. “Cut that light,” his daddy said.
The boy quickly turned down the wick and the flame disappeared, flashes of it still visible in Erwin’s vision. By the time he’d blinked them away, the boy was near, stepping quieter than ever now, glancing uneasily at the sky. He set the lantern down and Erwin scootched the blanket over. The boy sat and crossed his legs, laid the Red Ryder in his lap, and accepted the hunk of sopping biscuit from his daddy’s outstretched hand. He ate the whole thing in one bite, chewed while scanning the stars. Dusting his fingers on his pants, he swallowed, wiped his mouth. “You guardin mama?” he whispered, unable to pull his eyes from the clouds.
“Shhhhhh,” Erwin said, more soothing than dismissive. He leaned over to the boy, and instinctively the boy leaned back, head down and eyes up in that universal posture for telling and hearing secrets. “Be still now,” his daddy said, putting his lips closer to the boy’s ear. He whispered softer, instructively. “We gotta make like we ain’t even here.”
They straightened and sat in silence, motionless and crepuscular, suspiciously eyeing earth and sky.
The boy’d be alright once he gets all them animals buried, Erwin figured. Might have to take up whittling if not.
He focused on the garden, able to make out individual rows now, his vision accustomed to the normal jostle of the leaves, keen and poised against any foreign motion. Briefly darkened, the garden soon flourished before him, blooming violently into all manner of color and light, the lush brilliance and curvature of ripeness overrunning the flat blandness of the earth. He had that falling feeling, but with the blossoming world beneath him, all falling down at once. Pocket full of posies, he thought. A metal clinking stirred him, though, like a belt buckle or overalls, and the earth de-bloomed, inhaled back into the garden. It darkened again, and that falling feeling became just a steady weight, a heaviness he woke up bearing, trying to wriggle himself out from under. The boy was leaned against him, snoring softly, and he thought he heard the coppery tinkle again. Steadying himself against the tree, he pointed the flashlight at the garden, thumb on the toggle, and with eyes wide and ears sharp, listened intently as a creature of the earth, primed and suddenly fearful of hearing something distinctly human.