Review by Review by John MacLean
Gradually I came to realize that the process of saving the desert of the human heart and revegetating…
My cousin found a hand-grenade in a Camp Robinson stock pond that summer, pulled the pin and tossed it at me. Die, fucker, he said, then took off horseback in a cloud of Arkansas dust. The thing thudded at my feet where I froze, just shut my eyes and waited. That's how it was that summer, dry, no rain since springtime when Grandfather Harvell's Magnolias had bloomed like big white hands and Mama and Daddy had started burning each others clothes in the backyard trash drum. I got sent to live with Uncle Earl, her crazy brother who ran Diamond T Stables, weekend trail rides for a $100 a pop on Camp Robinson, this vast commune where the Guard trained and it was not uncommon to find a booby-trap behind every third bush. Somebody'd brought a dog that carried a live box turtle around in its mouth–the head and legs appearing then disappearing, here-gone, here-gone, the dog didn't seem to care two shits either way. Mama'd thought it a good idea for me to help Uncle Earl with his trail ride business, though what I mostly did was ride in the back of the pickup with Butchy, his derelict son, up to the car lot–Uncle Earl's other business--to pump up tires on all the jalopies that had gone flat overnight. For lunch we'd sit in the air-conditioned office that was cold enough to hang meat, eat cheeseburgers from the stand across the street, and Earl would drive out Asher to meet Maxie, his girlfriend. This one afternoon, three men walked into the carlot office and tried to rob us, only Butch pulled Maggie out of its hideout holster under the desk, waved the .357 magnum in their faces, so they ran out the door into the heat screaming and we didn't see them again. The trail ride business–I don't know how all that started, but that's what everybody in Saline County with a hundred bucks wanted to do that summer, pack saddle bags with hot whiskey and ride. Maybe it was the weather that made everybody crazy. Twenty some had signed on, their horse trailers all parked in the base parking lot, tents spread across a field where wild daisies bloomed right up to the algae-covered pond where Butchy'd sliced open his heel on a broken bottle before finding the grenade.
I'd seen Maxie sneak into Earl's white teepee, followed by the spotted dog with the turtle wriggling in its mouth. Mike Smith–this friend of Earl's who was training to be an Oaklawn jockey though he was way too big–saw it to, and we both heard. Mike was currying the mane and tail of the Palomino he'd broken that summer, a spirited horse who neighed at the other horses with nostrils flared, whose eyes were curious and human-like–you could see the horse figure out was coming next–it was amazing. May Day, he was called.
Somebody'd said the dog thought he owned the turtle, that it was his possession, I remember willing it to live and out came it's head. If you got close enough to see, some family or another had painted their names on the bottom of the shell, only it was from twelve years ago when I wasn't even born yet, the oddness of that. My Welsh pony was trained to lay down and hold his breath, a good trick because I could ride out ahead of everyone else and say, "Blaze, lay down and hold your breath." Up Maxie rode on her big paint. "Oh!" she cried out, the same word that she screamed inside Earl's white teepee. "Oh!" she said. "He's bloating."
The paint stamped its feet, snorted. "Be still, goddamnit," she said, hooked a heel in the stirrup and swivelled off and wrapped both perfumed arms around me, so that I could smell her dark hair, like magnolias in a bowl at the center of the dinner table while Moma prayed a too long prayer. "I'm sorry, son," she said.
I waited, breathing her in, that much I'd learned.
"Get up, Blaze," I said, and the horse straightened its front legs, hopped up and shook the dirt off, trotted to me, nuzzling my arm with a nicker.
"You," Maxie said. She frowned. "Ever heard of the boy who cried wolf?"
I wouldn't say a word, because she'd tell Earl who was likely to beat you with a buggy whip, as I'd seen happen to Butch more than once. I had no idea where the main trail ride was going, but I'd learned to let things roll out the way they rolled out. The hand-grenade lay at my feet. I was afraid to move, just like I had been when Mama screamed out for me to get help, that O.W. was killing her. The sky was sky-blue above my head. There was a lot to think about. I mean, should you pick up a hand-grenade and throw it back? Run like hell? Go pull Maxie off Uncle and tell? Do nothing? As I ever had, I chose the latter and it brought us bad luck that very day.
Uncle had decided we'd swim the river that afternoon, cross the particular bend he'd chosen the week before when he'd driven out and camped overnight, probably with Maxie and her big paint. Horse people were funny–what class you were from kind of disappeared–shoveling shit was shoveling shit. This was Arkansas in July, and let me say two things about that. One: July is maybe not hot as August, but ungodly hot all the same–even the witchdoctors riding each other's backs seemed dazed, drunk with heat and there was zilch for breeze–the only relief, water. Two: when you're twelve, you haven't thought of some things yet, like the fine line between the truth and a lie, and that gap in-between that breathes in and out with a mystery all its own. You've sensed it, maybe even believe you can control it, but you haven't thought it out and understood the repercussions. What I'm saying is that, if you tell a lie, like your horse has lain down and died up the trail, then, when they ride up on it, yell at the thing to get up and it does. You see them shake their heads in disbelief, and its possible that you could start to believe that you actually did have miraculous powers. I mean, you could start to believe your own bullshit about raising the dead. Well, it's possible, at least it was for me that summer. Who could blame me–my people were really fucked up–I had it in my blood by osmosis.
So Uncle Earl decided to swim horses across the Saline River on Camp Joseph T. Robinson Military, just like he'd seen in John Wayne westerns where a bunch of cowboys swam equines and cattle across some western river, which I've since learned is a crock, the west is dry, three rivers maybe, max. Despite the heat and drought, the trees were green that day, and the riparian shade was pleasing. Earl led us right up riverside on Chico–a thick-necked stud that was unstoppable once he took off, so Uncle'd replaced the chin strap with a strand of barbed-wire that bloodied the white whiskers. Butchy followed his daddy on Sugarfoot, right up to the water's edge, where Uncle climbed down out of the saddle, picked up a stick and sat cross-legged in the dirt.
"Swimming a horse is not complicated," he said, and drew a sweeping S into the dirt with the stick, marking the appointed spot in the river bend, where a low-swung tree had some moss hanging off. "Set your ferry angle against the current, lay out on his back and hang onto the saddle horn. Mike will follow me, then Maxie."
Maxie's paint nickered and May Day snorted–the stock knew something was up.
"We'll take out here," he said, marking an X lower in the bend. "Any questions?"
A cowboy wearing new shiny boots with gleaming spurs and a felt Stetson sipped from an army canteen and I saw Butch off to the side, poking a stick into a crawdad hole on the bank.
"What about life jackets?" the cowboy asked. "Don't we need life jackets?"
Uncle looked at me for some reason. He had a soft spot in his heart, because Moma was his only sister, and they'd been through the ringer growing up Stepwells, and now it was happening all over again to me. "Naw," Earl said. "Just hang onto your hoss. Okay?"
He swigged at his canteen, the fake cowboy.
The water was brown, chestnut color, the hue of Blaze's mane and tail, that's what I remember, that and how personal floatation devices seemed like great, good sense. This all happened in the days before release forms and such, so a good lawyer would lick his lips at a moment like this–people who'd paid money for a trailride getting swum across an unfamiliar river on a military commune by a man who'd never thought to purchase insurance against accidental drownings or water poisoning or whatever such danger could be ferreted out of such a situation. Maxie wore a yellow bikini top, one of the straps falling off her shoulder. I'd seen a cottonmouth riding the current downstream. It wasn't swift or anything like that, just a wrist-thick snake slipping down the current mid-river, just before all the grownups in our party rode over the marked S, passing from dirt into water, so the air was strong with fly dope and saddle leather, and the snakey smell of the mindless river itself, coiling through that summer afternoon that severed me from my childhood.
Earl swam first, big white Chico launching into the cool eddy, so you could see his forestocks glow, even through the murk, read the bloody mist beneath the open mouth. Then Mike Smith on May Day, Maxie on the paint, and a couple other adults in new cowboy hats and boots, the fear and thrill of what they did, how one feels, I'd later learn, when entering white water that has taken a life, the water has personality, you can feel it. Butch rode the quarter horse named Sugarfoot, a small horse, but stocky and real spirited, a strong swimmer. Blaze would do anything I asked, so we followed last–I was sweeper. A crow caw-cawed over the creek then, so its shadow fell across our path, and that's when it happened, mid-river, Uncle Earl screaming for us to turn back now, turn around and swim back. Turn around, he said. Don't follow. I'd just lay full out on Blaze's back, both his front hooves pawing water, thinking how uncannily cool this was, how easy and sweet to swim horseback. And neck reining a horse around in full swim is easier demanded than done, I've never seen it happen in any John Wayne western, not once. But Blaze obeyed and we climbed up the undercut bank, onto a table-rock that offered a full-view of the scene that still plays out before me on nights when the house gets quiet and I can hear my wife and daughter breathing.
My people are crazy. Good-crazy, Mama'd say, though I've never understood what evolutionary advantage there is to having such a predicament in your bloodline. Moma's daddy cut his own leg off with a chainsaw while on a firewood expedition up on Danville Mountain, then hemorrhaged all the way to St. Mary's where an emergency surgery saved him, but only by the skin of his teeth. At seventeen, Moma eloped with an Air Force man who claimed his that father was the governor of Arizona, only it turned out his daddy was a dwarf and they lived in a screenless trailer next to a Tucson plasma center, which means my own children could be dwarves–my children's children. After I was born, she left him, but they followed her back to Arkansas and tried to kidnap me outright, only my grandmother somehow got him thrown into Tucker Prison Farm where he picked peas for one whole summer. Then Mama married O.W., who'd been drafted as an outfielder for the New York Yankees, a flattop he-man that nobody fucked with, not even Uncle Earl, who was maybe craziest of all. Once, during spring run-off, he'd strapped one of those cheap-shit orange life jackets onto me and Butchy, thrown us into Mulberry River--Arkansas's premier white water--for the sixteen mile float through overhangs and strainers, amongst the most awful floatsam imaginable. We crawled out at the river bridge outside Opelo, half-drowned, caught a ride in whatever car lot jalopy he'd had driven out for the occasion, drove back and did it again–three times in all over the course of the weekend flood. Other times he'd have us jump off high things, cliffs and trees, a roof or two, and once he'd tied a Labrador Retriever to Butchy's foot, then slung them off a tree swing into Hurricane Creek. He wasn't right in the head, Uncle wasn't, but he owned a business, which made him respectable in Mama's eyes, enough so to keep me while her and O.W. killed each other. So it's no surprise what was about to happen, Mike Smith screaming May Day, May Day, the big Palomino neck-hooked on a fisherman's trotline, run straight down the middle of the S-bend in the river
Witchdoctors rode each other over the flat rock to the bank where a king snake had shed blue skin. The rest of the trail riders were off their horses on the shore, some crying out and some just staring, the way you look at a house on fire. Butch had unslung his lariat, stood knee-deep in the current with it dangling. Out there were Uncle and Mike Smith, both swimming circles with Chico now, whose bloody chin shown in the watery glare. May Day's eyes, even from where I sat, flashed in their sockets and the neighing began, a pleading sound cadenced to the rhythmic slosh of hooves. The horse pawed water in a frenzy of muscle so the whole trotline was visible, silver hooks gleaming at measured intervals to unseen tie-offs on the far banks. I'd set this sort of line myself, those summers down on Lake Ouachita, when I'd go out with Si, my mother's one-legged father, with a roll of hundred-weight nylon line and a sackful of treble hooks. Rocking in his flat bottom, we'd tie one end to the trunk of an overhanging Cyprus, stretch line across the entirety of a deep water cove, then tie three-foot lengths of cord every six feet or so, and from these loop-knot fresh-sharpened hooks. We'd fish bream beds all afternoon until we'd scrored a bucketful of bluegill, shoulder hook each and sink the whole thing with forty pound rocks on either end. After midnight, we'd run the lines in the dark, careful, because Si'd known a man who'd drowned this way. "Hello? Are you listening?" the old man would say, then guide my hand to the quivering line, where it felt like we'd hooked a Volkswagen somewhere out there underneath us, and hand-by-hand he'd haul us toward what swirled in the dark. That was the kind of line May Day had swum into that afternoon in July when I was twelve when my mother and stepfather we're trying to kill each other and I'd begun to believe that I possessed special powers.
Maybe five minutes passed and I don't think anyone knew what to do–it's like that, watching a drowning. People scream for you to help them, the beg and plead and cuss and pray, but finally there's not a whole lot that can be done, and you can't turn away even. Butch was crying, the lariat swinging at his knees. His daddy was out there in the water–and it dawned on me that he loved his old man as much as he hated him. May Day was full-fight now, bleating, so that the sound got inside of you and caught fire like listening to Jethro Tull's flute playing on acid. Black hooves with silver shoes made ruckus in the water, lifting the white line again and again so it showed its silver stringer of hooks for twenty feet in either direction, a nice channel cat on one down the line. Mike Smith and Uncle Earl, they clung to Chico who was fighting water too now, close enough for one of the hooks to catch any of the three. Earl was white-faced, his saddle bags spun in an eddy. I could see the resemblance between him and my mother, the widow's peak and earthy eyes, the countenance with which they both faced death, and that's when I thought of my knife. Cold water is heavier than warm, so there was a layer about four feet down that chilled my toes and then my foot, and then a hole where the current undercut the bank and I could feel the current, the power in the water. This as I slipped down, the unfolded Old Henry in my right hand. From this level, my eyes were even with the surface plane of the water and I could feel the horse screaming, a terrible sound to hear from there, a strong horse drowning. May Day'd disappear entirely, then fight his way up again, the screech constant now, the mush in his breathing, a plume of blood in the violent water. The line must be cut, I'd have to dive down, take it in my hand and saw with the other, then coax May Day to swim toward the other end, that's what I was thinking, dog-paddling at twelve, scared, my heart beating in my throat, picturing what must be done.
May Day was real, beautiful flesh and blood, tiring, about to give. Ten feet in front of me, the water swished in his lung. His eyes flashed, and we looked into each others eyes there at the same level for a moment, long enough. I could read his mind and him mine in that second. It's okay, he was thinking, here where I am now, not so bad, it's okay son. This too will pass. The knife escaped my hand. And there in front of me, close enough to touch, the horse sank beneath the brown water and was still.
For a long time and maybe by mistake, my mother tried to contact me from the grave. It would happen in the middle of the night, me asleep beside my good and patient wife, and the phone would ring out three or four times off-kilter. When I picked up (which is real hard to do when you're scared shitless) no one was there, not even a breath. Then I'd crawl back in bed and hear her call my name–just like that, say my name right through the walls. It was creepy. It scared the Jesus out of me, though you must know that we were close. With me never meeting my father, she was like my sister almost, and after she was drowned, I delivered her elegy with a true joy in my heart for her life, despite the evil Baptist preachers who wanted to turn the moment into a guilt-fest and rub everybody's face in it. But then I'd hear her voice in the night, over and over and over, it was no dream.
Buddhists believe the body goes on a forty-nine day journey after death–they call it bardo, the time before the soul reaches the other side. But the soul has to be willing. If somebody's a victim of foul play, for instance, well that soul might not be cool with going on bardo, they might be pissed off and have some talking to do. I don't know about all that, but I know for certain, without a glimmer of doubt, that Mama tried to talk to me from the grave, and it got so that I couldn't stand it, even though I missed her with my whole heart. Finally, in a way that unsettled my wife until her own mother died and she did the same, I yelled out in the dark. Leave me alone, I screamed. Leave me the hell alone and die. Around that time, her voice went away, and she has not spoken to me now for a long, long time.
Blaze swam up behind my back. I heard the soft nicker, turned, grabbed a hank of mane and let him swim me to the shore where Mike Smith lay on his face weeping, inconsolable for an hour or more there until the shade came on and the cicadas kicked in and he finally climbed up behind Uncle on Chico and was ridden back to camp. He wanted to be an Oaklawn jockey, but he'd gotten too big. May Day, the golden Palomino with knowing eyes, had been his solace–he loved the horse, and had finally had to retreat and let it drown. One of the fake cowboys had prayed out loud, then produced a pistol that looked like a toy compared to Maggie. Mike had thrown it in the water, where it lay loaded, probably, to this day. Back at camp, as dark came on and all those lightning bugs stung the bitterweed, Mike sat shaking his head. He set on a five-gallon bucket and shook his head.
It had fallen to me and Butch to unsaddle all the horses, feed and water and stow gear while an officer from Camp Robinson questioned Uncle Earl and some of the other adults. We loaded the horses into trailers, and it was dark-thirty when we rolled out. By the time we made it back to Diamond T Stables, it was after midnight. I was conked out in the truck seat beside Butch when Uncle backed the trailer to the front gate, loosed the horses in a side pasture. Blaze stood out there, staring at me in the rearview. He'd suffered himself to play dead at my bidding, then leap to life upon command. Could a horse fathom irony? I allowed myself the vision of the three of us–me, Mama and O.W.--gone to see a movie on a February night. It was Jungle Book, and they held hands as big talking apes danced across the super-wide screen. We walked out and were hit in the face with an unpredicted snow, big flakes, silver dollars, our Pontiac covered already. "Ho, ho," O.W. sang out, skidding on his bootheels. Face to the sky, Mama seemed stunned. "Pixie dust," she said, and threw big wonderful handfuls up into the frosty air that was cleansed, that night, of the stench from paper mill further south.
Earl left us in the truck cab, walked into the house and a light came on in the kitchen. I'd once seen him shoot a dog with a bow and arrow right out the front door. It was a neighbor's dog, a barker, and he'd just pulled back and shot the thing, just like that. I imagined him inside at the kitchen table, thinking how he'd marked our passage into the dirt, how he would always be the man who'd scribed the perfect entry into the S-bend.
I was twelve that year and the world looks a whole lot different from this side. I have a child now, a girl who's twelve, big beautiful eyes like her mother and her mother's mother. She plays piano, and sometimes when I cook late in the afternoon, I weigh the notes falling and rising and falling like this shimmering waterfall. The horse and I had looked each other in the eye right there at the end. I'd swum out from the world of guilt and sorrow, with an unfolded knife and trembling heart. I'd been too late, sure, but I can live with that. Those afternoons while I mash garlic into the skillet, throw tomatoes and parsley into the sizzle, I listen to my daughter play the notes and wish Mama could hear this song, that she would forgive me and speak to me and not be dead.
She drove us to the family cemetery once, a road that paralleled the Trail of Tears, Choctaw land that the Cherokee had once been forced to walk, out past Lanty, Arkansas into the family bottoms where every barbed wire fence was blown over with honeysuckle and blackberry. There, on a hillside that overlooked a lightning struck tree, our people were laid to rest at the feet of their fathers for the generations since they'd walked down from Henry County, Tennessee. We found their stones high on the hill, and I remember how the black-eyed Susan swayed and bloomed that morning. A hard rain had fallen and someone'd turned loose dogs. Off in the hollow we could hear them bay. Mama yanked weeds from the white pea gravel that covered her daddy, then lay a fistful of fresh picked flowers beneath his name. "Looky here," she said, and stepped off to the old man's feet. "This is my spot. And you'll be there, Mike." She pointed, "right beside me."
I looked at it.
Then Mama stood on her spot, and I on mine. She reached out a hand and I took it. She swayed one way and then the other and there, with no one watching, we danced, just shook ourselves on that piece of earth, the dogs howling in pursuit now, about to tree. The sun came out and the land below us seemed to shake itself off and be new. My mother laughed, her voice high and silvery like a girl's. We fell down laughing, I don't know why.
* * *
Review by Review by John MacLean
Gradually I came to realize that the process of saving the desert of the human heart and revegetating…
Review by Review by John MacLean
"Sooner or later, we must learn to live in the same world as our colons" -Gene Logsdon
By William Hastings, Editor, Industrial Worker Book Review
JJ Grey is a musician from North Florida. …
By Steve Davenport
Once I had a sorrow/ Long as a rainbow/ Crooked…
By Ron Cooper
Like most people, I do not answer the telephone when it rings at suppertime,…
By Michael Gills
My cousin found a hand-grenade in a Camp Robinson stock pond that summer,…
By Patrick Michael Finn
My older cousin Irene—we called her Reenie for short—got married six months…
By Michael Gills
Summer Faye arrived like a freight train from…
By Eric Miles Williamson
Let Your Children Be Taught by Idiots
I read a statistic nearly 30 years ago, when I was in college in California, that shocked me so…
By Eric Miles Williamson
What I've been hearing from literary types is a lot of whining. Literary authors published by small presses piss and moan about being underpublished (and we know who they are), victims of some vast…