Children of the Earth
That water would be cool despite how murky it looked, but the humidity of the day seemed to match the density of the liquid in the little pond, so it mattered little what might be floating in it, or lying dormant underneath. He eased into the cattails like every muscle in his body ached, and his haggard face lit up with the delight of the coolness as it sank into his clothes and across his skin. He froze at the frantic splashing just ahead of him and swallowed hard as he watched the dark-patterned cottonmouth thankfully glide across the water in the opposite direction, a creature so accustomed to hostility rather than flight. As he watched it go, he smiled at the power of it and how it was afraid of him, and he fed on that. He lay all the way down in the water, immersing himself in the tall grass and tried to let his body rest.
An indiscernible amount of time passed with soft breezes and rippling water, a tractor moaning in some distant field, only audible with the right wind, and he slept on and off, his body polluting the stagnant water. At times the minnows would nibble his toes but only briefly, and nothing else came near. He was a block of salt in fertile soil, a man that nature steered clear of and that’s the way he liked it. This brought him comfort as he dozed in the cool of the water, but it was not to last. Jerking a little at a sound, he kept his position, blinking the sleep from his eyes and taking in his surroundings, trying to remember where he was. He looked through the grass to the opposite side of the pond to see what stirred him from his rest.
They came down the slope on the other side of the pond, like two old folks come to catch something for dinner then finish off for breakfast, but they were boys, a ragged looking pair atop a ragged looking mule, and they looked right proud of themselves probably because at least one of them should have been at the schoolhouse on a warm Tuesday morning in late May. The one in the back carried the cane poles and a brown grocery sack crinkled and rolled closed so many times it looked as if it would disappear if set in the dirt. They were loud and happy in their speak, feeling no need to hide from anyone, and their voices carried across the water like down on a breeze. The sight of them was obscured from time to time but their voices were high-pitched and clear and there was no need to be hasty on a day like this.
“Go on and start diggin worms, Spote, while I tie Flash in da shade,” the rider in front had a straw hat so big it looked to cover half his ears, but he had strength in his voice, authority despite its pitch. “And go on in the trees and dig in the dark dirt. Don’t waste your time out here in this sun-burnt red clay. I wanna start cleanin our catch before it gets ninety degrees.”
They couldn’t be any more than ten or eleven at most, nasty prepubescent boys with the stink of the earth and foulness of sweat and grime from days without bathing no doubt. The boy with the straw hat took the skinny mule into the trees a bit and began tying it to a low limb just close enough to water for it to drink. He seemed to be pulling at the mule’s head and studying it with no small amount of curiosity. He pushed the great hat back on his head and began talking without turning around.
“Spote, how da hell do you tie a hackamore like this? I can’t get the knots like this to save my life.”
“It ain’t nuttin to it once you do it da fuhst time,” the digger responded without stopping his search. He had on a pair of overalls two sizes too big with no shirt, and his jet black arms shone with sweat across the pond even though the morning was still relatively young. “Ain’t nobody showed me how ta do it. I jus done it on my own and remembered how is all.”
“Well, you gohn have to show me how for we leave.”
Straw Hat bent down with him and together they dug for about a quarter hour before they were satisfied with what they had. Digging those worms that lay not twenty feet from the fish that lived to eat them. Funny. They kept the worms in what looked to be an old tin can with the label torn off. The pale boy held it while his companion carried the poles and paper bag down the water a ways to a spot in the morning shade and set the lines that had bottle caps for corks in the water then they both sat down without a care in the world. They sat there in silence for no more than two minutes before Straw Hat leaned back with the ridiculous brim hiding all but his chin and spoke to the world in front of him.
“I believe I could do this bout every mornin of my life, Spote, and all day Sunday, what you think?” His companion only nodded in reply, reached into his overalls and pulled out a pouch which he handed to his friend then took back. From the sounds between sentences, it could only be chewing tobacco they had stuffed in their mouths.
“I reckon them assholes is doin their grammar lessons bout now. Mrs. Hazelton in there makin em all diagram sentences and describe a imaginary piece of peppermint with a full paragraph,” he leaned forward and spit a great stream of dark brown fluid into the pond, getting a little on his sleeveless white tee shirt. He hissed something incomprehensible then pushed the hat back on his head revealing his entire face, his cheeks red from the sun and speckled in orange freckles then he sat back. “I tell you what, I don’t know what in the hootin hell I’m sposed to do with a diagrammed sentence or a paragraph of a piece of candy that ain’t there. I can’t eat it, get drunk off it or lay with it, so what the hell am I gohn do with it?”
“Dat’s fo sho and certain, you caint do nothin wit dat.”
“Y’all do that kinda stuff in your schoolhouse, Spote?”
“Naw, we jus get thew da letters and learn da words. We learn how ta add and take away numbers, but I quit goin two years ago on account of I had to help Pa work da fields.”
“You know why that is?” Straw Hat took a moment to look over at him. “That’s cause you ain’t white.”
“What you talkin bout? They’s white folks work in dem fields too.”
“No dummy, I mean the sentences and the paragraphs, not the workin. Only white folks got to do them diagrams and things.”
“I swear and be damned, I’d probly come off better talkin to myself.”
“Well, you talk enough fo both us,” Spote smiled with gleaming white teeth. Straw Hat looked over at him and pulled the brim back over his face.
“Swear and be damned,” he mumbled.
They sat in silence then. The black one pulled in two decent sized bass while his friend cussed and replaced his bait several times without bringing in anything. The sun positioned itself to retreat their shade, and they grabbed their belongings and stood looking around the pond. Straw Hat swiped his tobacco out of his mouth, but Spote appeared to have already gotten rid of his though as far as could be seen, he had never spit it out.
“It’s too hot for the boat now, for sure,” Straw Hat said. “Not that I’d trust it to float noway. Let’s follow the shade on round.”
“And what the hell’d you do to my line anyway? I can’t catch a cold with this thing? You musta pissed on it.”
Spote just shook his head and grabbed the worm can and brown bag. They moved around the pond now, their sweat showing in their clothes, their voices louder and their expressions clear. They moved around the narrow end of the pond, finding what shade they could as the morning grew older. A snake jerked away from the bank where they walked and it glided across the water as if pulled by a string. They both jumped away from the water and gasped. It didn’t look to be the same one he saw before but could have been.
“I’m glad that es-oh-be went that way. They’d just as soon come after ya. They ain’t like rattlers that way. Mean bastards.”
They stopped there just on this side of the narrow end of the pond. They set their belongings down and stamped around the grass before they sat, fearing a snake lying in waiting. The two settled themselves again leaning back with their legs outstretched holding the poles between them over the brown water. An easy breeze came through for a spell and the atmosphere relaxed even further. Whatever course the Earth took, whatever path it followed in monotony for the six billionth rotation was imperceptible to those in attendance. This moment stopped, and there was no universe of spreading infinity or infinite universes that sparked the randomness of this moment. Those organic lumps of soft matter sat in and around this puddle of mixed elements and they knew that nothing else existed save for them. So egocentric that they were the world in which the environment existed for, a stage built for their individual performances.
“You wanna clean what we catch here, or you wanna take em back to your house?” Straw Hat kept his head down as he spoke.
“We needs to do it heah. Pa gohn knock me round as it is not comin to da field.”
“Well, we may as well eat em here too, I reckon. Your pa might take em for hisself otherwise. What you think?”
“Good, we sure ain’t got to be in no hurry now.”
The gnats were buzzing his ears in the heat, but the water made the day tolerable. He risked a quick look up at the scream of a hawk that came in from the other side of the pond. Something splashed near the bank not far off, perhaps the moccasin at the sound of something more dangerous than himself, but the hawk kept his course and lit in a tree at the narrow end of the pond. Straw Hat and Spote looked back at it then went about doing nothing. The hawk paid them the same respect. It flicked its head this way and that, watching the water for several minutes, more motionless than the world around it.
The day was lazy and slow, and sleep was easy to find lying in cool water while getting warmed by the sun. Frogs began to sing on the dark, branch-side of the pond, the side inaccessible for fishing, and their cacophony might as well have been a lullaby in the breeze. Little mattered at the time. In the distance, cows could scarcely be heard calling to one another. The diesel engine of the tractor was still faint when the wind blew right or not at all. He looked up at the sound of wings flapping, but the hawk was just situating himself better on his perch. The sun went his own way and the shadows crept out of hiding in response. Nothing to worry about now. Everything was taking care of itself.
“Say, Spote,” he waited to see if his buddy was sleeping, and the dark boy slowly rocked his head over toward him to listen. “Y’all heard anything bout that man? The one that jumped the fence at Reidsville?”
“I heard somethin bout it from one uh da folks I pull weeds wit, but I ain’t thought nothin of it. Folks get ta tellin things and fo you know it they’s one fella got out then they’s two and they used to be bank robbers and they used to be killuhs and they used to be baby killuhs. You know how it is. I don’t give it much time.”
“Well, they talkin like he’s gonna burn the world to the ground just by walkin through it. That’s all the old folks has been talkin about the past few days,” he motioned to his friend, and Spote brought out the tobacco pouch and handed it to him. Straw Hat helped himself to a ludicrous wad of the leaf then continued with distorted voice. “Well, I tell you what, I got somethin for his ass if I see em. I’d fillet him right there on the spot. Cut him from Adam’s apple to appetite is what I’d do. Shoot, I ain’t got time for somebody like that.”
The water carried his threats in his natural falsetto just as easily as everything else he had said, the jumping of a nearby bass distorting only part of his boasts. The frogs picked up their song a bit as if in laughter. Some ripples spread through the water like a fresh told lie, but the boys paid no mind to the movement from wherever it came and from whatever caused it. They just went on with their conversation as if they could solve the problems of their immediate world, as if they could answer a single question that troubled their lack of understanding, and who was to say they couldn’t any better than some doctor determining the physical laws of the universe or claiming to be able to do so. Maybe they could even determine the definition of right in this world that saw little of it.
“Say, Spote, I wanted to ask ya somethin,” he leaned forward and spit another great stream of dark fluid and wiped his chin. The colored boy seemed to give his attention. “You ever get scared, you know? Scared you gohn end up in hell cause you ain’t lived the way you’re supposed to? You ever think about stuff like that?”
“Well, I spect so. I think about it sometime when da preachuh holla bout it, and lawd he sho love to holla bout it too.”
“That’s what I’m talkin bout, Spote. You ever think about how’d it be? You know, in hell forever? Dat’s a long time, Spote, for somethin you did a little bit of here. You’d have to go down there and burn for all time cause you didn’t do right while you was here. Don’t you think about that? I tell you sometimes I think about it so much, I don’t know whether to laugh or what. My preacher says the same thing. Says we gohn all burn if we don’t live by the word.”
The discussion halted when Spote pulled in a two-pound catfish and unhooked him.
“You ain’t gonna put him on the string with the bass, are ya?” Straw Hat asked the boy, but Spote just looked at him as if he were joking. “I don’t want that nasty cat.”
“Dat’s good cause you ain’t got to et him. He make a good meal right by hisself.” Spote answered as he pulled the bass he’d caught up with the string he had in the water and ran it though the mouth and gills of the cat. He put them back in the water and tied the string off. “Y’all white folks always thankin you too good fo somethin, tell you what. You ain’t got ta et him and colored folks is glad fo da fact too.” Straw Hat waved him off and leaned back then he sat back up a little when he remembered what he’d been talking about.
“Anyways, all I’m sayin is I don’t wanna go to hell is all, but how am I supposed to know exactly what’ll take me there? Linus Meeks told me his daddy don’t even believe in God, says he don’t neither since he ain’t got to go to church and his daddy don’t believe no way.”
“What bout his ma?” Spote finished putting a fresh worm on his line and threw it back out in the water.
“I don’t know, she stays drunk most days. Least that’s what my mama says, but she says not to say, you know, since it ain’t Christian to gossip. Anyway, ol’ Linus says his daddy does right by folks, and he ain’t never hurt nobody, ain’t never laid a hand on his mama, you know Linus’s mama, so he ain’t gohn go to hell cause he does right. Now how come that is? Does it matter if you don’t believe in God and do right? I reckon that means you can believe in God and ask forgiveness for the things you do wrong even though you knew they was wrong to begin with and you gohn just end up doin em again anyway. What you think, Spote? I just don’t know.”
“You gots to believe in God and you gots to do right. Utterwise, you gohn burn.”
“How the hell you know that?”
“Cause it’s writ. It’s writ in da word and you can’t get around da word so they ain’t no need in trying to get around it.”
“Well you sho don’t leave much room for speculation.”
“So even if I do right but I don’t follow the word, I’m gohn burn?” Straw Hat shook his head but the hat staid in one place. “Don’t that mean the devil ain’t got me if I do right? Lady at the church tells me that when you do wrong it’s cause the devil makin you do it. If I ain’t doing wrong, what does it matter?”
“It’s writ that you got to follow God. If you don’t, you gohn burn,” Spote said again in the same monotone voice, not turning his head, just addressing the water in front of them.
“Shit, I can’t talk to you bout nothing.”
Straw Hat sat back and chewed his tobacco in silence, spitting so much it was a wonder how he got anything out of it. The hawk remained perched as still as the wind had grown, and it watched the water with an inhuman patience. It waited for the first and only mistake to be made by whatever it knew to be there. Perhaps, it waited for the cottonmouth that lay watching him in return from the grass. Whoever had the most patience won the game, but perhaps that was too simple. The rest of the pond had grown silent with the warmth of the sun. It was now past noon, and the relaxation of the day waned, and it began to be replaced by hunger and a desire to do something rather than sit or pass the time. The boys were almost out of shade now, so they picked up their belongings and made their way toward the next spot down the pond. Their scent practically introduced them as they approached. Straw Hat began talking again as they walked.
“Well, how you know da word is right? How you know it’s da only word there is?” Spote stopped in his tracks and turned around toward him.
“What da world does dat even mean?”
“It means just what I said. How you even know it’s right?”
“You remember when da word was writ?” Straw Hat shook his head no. “Yo daddy or granddaddy remember when?” he mimicked his first reply and Spote continued. “Dat’s cause it’s always been. It’s always been and dey ain’t nothin nobody can say any different. It’s been since da beginning, and you a fool fo even tryin to figure utterwise.” He was facing the boy, but Straw Hat was looking past him, over his shoulder at what had risen from the tall grass at the edge of the water. He watched the man come from the patch of cattails like some corpse emerging from the next world, and from his appearance, that’s exactly what he was. Spote turned around to see him then stepped back beside his friend.
“Hi-dee, boys,” his voice was rough and raspy as if it could produce no echo in even the most hollow places in the world. He looked himself to be a hollow man. “I say, hi-dee. Ain’t y’all got nothin to say in return?” They just stood there looking at him.
“That’s mighty strange seein as how ye ain’t shut yer yappin since ye got down offin that ass over yonder.” He motioned to the mule with a jerk of his chin and continued to look down at the boys and they at him. Doubtless he looked like nothing better than a liquor store beggar in his white shorts, frayed at the ends where he’d cut off his pants legs and his sleeveless white buttondown shirt with the shoulder seams equally frayed though still stained slightly yellow beneath the armpits. He was narrow and hunched over, looking twice the age he actually was, and his mousy thin hair was matted and stuck to his head. He hocked and spit then held out his hand to Spote.
“I don’t spose you’d mind sharin some leaf with a feller, would ye boy?” He waited but no one moved. “Your chaw, boy, gimme a pinch.”
“Hell naw, mister, you can offer to pay em for some,” it was Straw Hat who spoke, his hat now far back on his head revealing his face. There was fear in the back of his eyes, but he could barely see it for the amount of pissed off that concealed it. This boy was a leader. If he was allowed to become a man, he’d have men under him some day or he’d be nothing but a spiteful know-it-all who couldn’t buy a friend with his last dime. The man tended to think he’d be the former.
“I whatn’t askin ye, ye little shit. Mind ye business now and shut yer fly hole.”
“It’s ah-ite,” Spote replied before his buddy could say anything else. He reached into the front of his overalls and handed the man his pouch. “I gots plenty mo anyway.”
“There’s a smart boy,” he replied, and he leaned down into the pouch and took a large pinch of the moist tobacco in his cheek. He looked the boys over for a minute then he looked past them at the tree on the other side of the pond. The hawk was flapping again to reposition himself on the branch, but he didn’t leave.
“Say, what time y’all gohn clean them fish?”
“Bout the time you get a watch,” Straw Hat said then leaned to the side and spit.
“I’m bout sick a yer smart ass mouth, son.”
“I’m bout sick a this whole conversation. And I sure as hell ain’t yer son.”
The man went to step forward then stopped himself. He could see the fear in the boy’s eyes. He wasn’t as scared as a boy should be, but it was there. No reason to jump on him right here before there was any fun had. He reached in his front pocket and pulled out a piece of metal about eight inches long, the size of a pencil. It was from the frame of an industrial fan, pried off after days of bending, and the end was filed down to a tip as fine as a needle. He pulled it all the way out and tapped it against the side of his leg, watching their eyes as he did.
“Yer that feller broke outta Reidsville,” Straw Hat said. He took his eyes off the shank and met the man’s gaze.
“I’m just a passerby,” he replied and looked back into the boy’s eyes. He glanced over at the other to see him still looking at the shank. “I just wanted to git somethin to eat and maybe afterwards enjoy y’all’s fine company. Maybe we could all stay out here tonight and build a fire. Tell stories.”
The boys just continued to watch, Straw Hat looking in his eyes and Spote staring, mouth open, at the metal in his hand. A gust of wind came out of nowhere and headed to the same place, pulling ripples across the pond as it went. There were no calls of cows anymore in the distance and no tractor engine, the man noticed. There was only the three of them, standing there like children of the earth waiting for their next instruction or next punishment. Minutes passed by without a word from any of them.
“I heard about that feller broke outta the pen though,” the man parted his lips to show his yellow teeth in a twisted smile. One of his teeth was black with rot and there were several empty spaces where others had gone before it. He kept tapping the metal against his leg. “That’s all folks been talkin about. Mean sumbitch from what I hear. Wouldn’t throw his mama a cup of water if she was on fire.”
Straw Hat just looked at him, not taking his eyes from his. The boy didn’t seem to contemplate the situation. He wasn’t questioning how he ended up at this moment. He simply seemed to accept it. He took it in and waited for it to play itself out as if he were not yet a participant. Spote stopped looking at the piece of metal and now concentrated on the ground. The brown paper bag lay at his feet, so wrinkled from use that it appeared to be held together with some unknown force, some volition of the world around it.
“Whatcha got in that sack there?” the man gazed at the grocery sack now behind the boys, brown juice slithering through the stubble on his chin as he spoke. “What y’all got, candy in there or somethin? I ain’t had no candy in a long time.”
“What’s in that sack need not concern you, mister,” Straw Hat chanced a glance at the sack on the ground behind him then looked back up. He opened his mouth to speak again, but Spote didn’t give him the chance.
“Nawsuh, ain’t nothin in dat sack fo da likes a you.”
“I reckon if I want that sack, I’ll take it.”
“You gohn need a heap a reckonin, mister” Straw Hat just stared straight into his eyes without blinking.
He cocked his head at them to this reply. Considering the position they were in, he didn’t expect such a response from the boys. He dismissed it for now, expecting to get back to it in due time, and focused back on them, allowing that awkward smile to distort his face.
“Ye know why yer scared of hell, son?” the man tapped the spike against his temple to emphasize his understanding. “Ye know why yer scared? Cuz ye don’t wanna die. That’s a natural feelin ta have, boy, and ye feel it too,” he motioned to Spote. “Ye feel it jest as bad if not worse, and ye know why that is? Cuz ye don’t know what comes after. Ye’ve had people tell ye this and that and the good book says and this is how it is, but ye don’t know. Don’t nobody know. And, I’ll tell ye right now, the one thing that’s fer sure and certain in this whole godforsaken world is that yer gonna find out, one way or another. Everybody, from the richest man who wipes his ass with silk to the poorest sapsucker who’ll sell his children fer a swill o whiskey, they’re all gonna find out what happens after we vacate the flesh. Some of us jest git to find out a little sooner than others. Me personally, I don’t think nothin happens, but I ain’t the kind for hopin.” He stepped forward and the boys both stepped back. Straw Hat shot his hand to his back pocket and brought it back in the blink of an eye, holding a filleting knife. Don’t reckon they were gonna clean them fish with their fingers. He held it in both hands, the point toward the man. Spote took a step back behind him.
“I reckon that’s bout all that needs to be said tween us, feller,” Straw Hat didn’t move as he spoke. His voice trembling only a little, keeping it remarkably steady, “You got you a nice chunk of tobacco, and we’ll give you two o these fish off the line, but that’s just outta kindness. You ain’t takin what’s ours without our givin it to ya. Now you can take that and be on your way, and we’ll be on ours. There ain’t nothin else to say on the matter.”
The man stood there for a moment while the arteries in his eyes seemed to rupture all at once. They must have turned blood red. It had been a long time since anyone had talked to him in such a way, and this boy had done it better than most men he’d come across, some of the hardest men to walk the earth. He clenched his jaws and ground what teeth he had then he smiled with an uncontrollable desire, and found himself laughing, a genuine laugh that he didn’t even realize he could still produce.
“Boy, ye beat all I ever seen. Yes, we will gather at the riiiii—ver. The beautiful, beautiful riiiii—ver,” he began singing loudly, and Spote could be heard whimpering behind his friend. The mule gave a yell as if creating a chorus for his song. “Gather with the Saints at the Riiiii—ver. Before the throne of—” He stopped and looked at them laughing. “Boy, yer gohn find out about hell, and the scary thing is ye ain’t gohn know the difference. For all ye know, I could be the devil. There’s many a one who’d tell ye I am.” He came forward with the spike clutched tight at his hip. He took the first step then glanced up at the hawk as it dropped from the tree like a bullet toward the water.
“I don’t give a damn,” the boy threw the hat off the back of his head and came forward with him. “The devil don’t look like shit to me.”
The hawk spread its wings just before impact to slow itself then it hit the edge of the water as if angry at the world. It took off nearly as quickly as it landed with the snake wriggling in its grasp, fighting for its life. Not halfway across the pond, the hawk let out another scream and the black line of the serpant dropped into the water. It balled up and convulsed violently before it floated across the water, cutting a path on the surface with its desperation, its distorted movement revealing its mortality. It reached the grass at the edge of the pond just as the hawk lit on the other side, shaking its feathers out and perching itself to watch again. To watch and to wait until its next struggle for existence came into play.
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