Monday, December 28, 2009

Cartin's Brick, fiction by Jarrid Deaton


My daughter, Laney, she got pregnant not long after her sixteenth birthday.  Me and Nora were disappointed, sure, but we didn’t come  down on her with lectures or anger. We just told her that we’d help out as much as needed, but she had a whole new world of responsibilities getting ready to crack open on her way before she was old enough.  Cartin’s father bolted a week before Laney went into labor.  The first two years he mailed Christmas cards with fifty bucks in them, but then he was all the way gone.  Cartin was born premature, all shriveled and tiny.  He made it through the close calls with beeping machines sending  nurses back and forth at all hours of the day.  We thought Laney would do okay when we first saw her with him.  That didn’t last long at all.

By the time he turned one, Cartin was, for the most part, Nora's and mine.  We allowed for it because Laney made promises to go to the local community college and get a part-time job.  She kept her word on the job, holding down a waitressing gig at Reno’s Roadhouse.  Some nights she wouldn’t come by to pick Cartin up.  Some nights she  would come by to get him staggering drunk with some guy I never got to see close up at the wheel of a truck that, by the sound of it, didn’t have a muffler.  If Cartin was sleeping,  the roar of truck would send him bawling loud and red-faced out of whatever dream he was caught in and it would take half an hour to calm him down. 

Laney eventually stopped coming to get Cartin altogether.  It worried me and  Nora, but we were more than happy to have him around.  I’d watch him play in the backyard and smile when I’d catch him staring up at the hills behind the house.  I knew he probably heard a squirrel heading for one of the tall trees, or maybe a rabbit getting brave and making its way closer to the yard.

“Papaw,” he said to me one day.  “What’s alive up there?”

“Just about everything, buddy,” I told him.

The summer he turned ten, I started letting him wander around up in the hills.  I always  kept a close eye on him.  I’d been all over the area looking for mushrooms and ginseng, so I knew it was safe.  He’d spend an hour at a time roaming around before he’d make his way back to the house, dirty with scrapes from briars up and down his arms and burrs sticking all over his back and in his wild brown hair.

The next spring, I took out a loan and built us a new house the land where my father used to have a farm.  It gave Nora plenty of room to plant her little garden and I’d always wanted more dirt to call my own.  It was mine after my father died, but it didn’t feel like it belonged to me until I had a house on it.  We deeded the old house over to Laney and her live-in boyfriend, Amos, that I’d only met twice.  Nora told me he had a  good job with the railroad, but, since Laney always borrowed money off of us, I doubt it was that good.

Not long after we moved in the new house, Amos drove over with a dog box in the back of his truck.  I walked out to see what was going on.  Amos went around to the back.

“Come on over here, Olin,” he said.  “Look what I picked up for Cartin.  Got him a pal to play with.”

Amos let the truck gate down and opened the dog box.  A big mutt slinked out and took a nervous jump to the ground.  It looked like a cross between a collie and a hunting dog.  It sniffed at the ground and made a few circles around the truck.

“Name’s Winston,” Amos said.  “Got him from a guy in Lexington pretty cheap, all things considered.  Promised to do a little roofing work for him, but I don’t plan on it.”

Amos laughed and squatted down to pet the dog.  It took a couple of steps back and stared at him.

“Hell with you, then,” Amos said.  “Tell Cartin me and his mama will come back over this weekend and see how him and Winston’s getting along.  We got some business to attend to down around Frankfort tomorrow.  Take it easy, old man.”     

They always had some kind of business to take care of in Frankfort.  I never nosed around enough to find out what it was, but I can imagine it would have pissed me off enough to have whipped Amos’ ass, so I just let it go.  I didn’t want to strain things between Laney and us anymore than she already had.

It was three days later when I drove up the dusty one-lane road leading to my house and saw Cartin with a wash rag held against his nose as he walked fast in the opposite direction.

"Cartin, what are you doing?" I asked. "Where's your grandma?"

"Damn dog bit me so I killed it," he said.  "I was looking for you.  I ain't sorry.  It bit me."

The dog wasn't dead, but it was hurt.  Cartin had cracked its head with one of the bricks  laying in the yard, left over from the expansion of the house.

I looked at his nose, the bridge covered in dried blood.  The dog had closed its jaws right between Cartin's eyes.

"I just tried to pet him," he said.  "He growled and I tried to back up but he jumped on me."

"It's okay," I said.  "Go in the house and get your grandma.  You need to head down to the clinic and get that looked at.

When Nora left with Cartin, I went inside at took my .38 from the top shelf of the closet.  I walked back outside and found the dog hunched up against the back of the garage. One eye was closed and it growled at me and bared its fangs.

"Winston," I said.  "Laney.  Amos."

I pulled the trigger and turned the crack made by Cartin's brick into a cave of blood, hair  and bone.  The dog was in the ground before he got back from the clinic.






Jarrid Deaton lives in eastern Kentucky. He received his MFA in writing from Spalding University. His work has appeared in Underground Voices, Thieves Jargon, Pear Noir, decomP, Zygote in My Coffee, and elsewhere.



Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Holidays!

More content in the new year. I'm going to be busy until then, though, turning 40 and reevaluating, uh, very important things, because I'm, uh, officially at what I used to consider middle age.

Here's a song a dear, dear, friend of mine sent me today (thanks Sue!). To say I love it would be an understatement.

I hope you all are well and have family around you, if you want them there. Right now, I'm going out back of the house to piss my name in the snow. Because I can.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

That's Right--Drug the Little Fuckers!

Who diagnosed this three-year-old kid (referenced in the last graph) with bipolar disorder?? Can someone in the medical professions please tell me a way in which this makes sense? Three-year olds are all over the place mentally because they're, um, three-year-olds.

And it only makes the cake taste better to know poor kids get drugged at twice the rate of their richer counterparts. I imagine that happens with adults, too, but I've not seen any research to that effect. Read for yourself, in the NY Times.


New federally financed drug research reveals a stark disparity: children covered by Medicaid are given powerful antipsychotic medicines at a rate four times higher than children whose parents have private insurance. And the Medicaid children are more likely to receive the drugs for less severe conditions than their middle-class counterparts, the data shows.

Those findings, by a team from Rutgers and Columbia, are almost certain to add fuel to a long-running debate. Do too many children from poor families receive powerful psychiatric drugs not because they actually need them — but because it is deemed the most efficient and cost-effective way to control problems that may be handled much differently for middle-class children?


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cow-Tipping, fiction by Mark Staniforth

The sight of all those schoolgirls’ legs unfolding off the buses at just past four o’clock every afternoon is almost enough to shut anybody up, except for Roscoe Williams when he’s got another one of them stupid ideas of his rattling around in his thick old head.

Squinting up at all that bare chicken-flesh parading right past you, it’s all you can do just to think straight, let alone talk. But Roscoe Williams, he’s so screwed-up with thinking where his next drink’s going to come from he could talk his way through a sixth-form orgy just so long as there was a bottle of Super waiting on the other side of it.

Maybe it’s because he’s so blurry-focused on the booze and his next means of getting it that the sight of all them shiny fawn thighs doesn’t seem so much of a big deal to him as it does to me. Me, I reckon I’d happily trade in swigging Super all day long on the bus-stop bench if it meant even the smallest improvement of getting any pair of them educated limbs of theirs lolled around my neck.

This time I’m trying my best to focus on the long curve of Kelly O’Mara’s calves, smooth and sleek as a sports car bonnet and guaranteed to top-speed her out of this place just as soon as she’s old enough to get behind a wheel. Only Roscoe’s blabbing in my left lughole about this weekend being a right ripe time to pull another of his ‘famous’ cow-tip scams.

Thing is, what gets me most isn’t so much Roscoe’s blabbing as me knowing how it’s going to turn out, no matter how much I try and stop it. Ever since my dinner-time drinking got me fired from the animal feeds, I’ve been desperate enough that there isn’t a whole lot left I wouldn’t do for money. Even most of those things would be tempting if you waved a bottle of Super under my nose.

Me and Roscoe go back a long way. We met when his mother threw a party when we were ten years old, snuck under the kitchen table and drank ourselves as good as unconscious on her cooking brandy. Sometimes it seems the screwcap hasn’t been back on since. Through it all, I’ve learned the hard way that Roscoe is exactly the kind of greasy-arsed bastard I oughtn’t to be listening to when it comes to the question of making up the next bunch of beer money.

So when he starts up with the famous cow-tip shit, I blink my eyes off all those perfect bodies and dribble a spit on the concrete and say, convincing as I can, ‘bullshit, Roscoe.’

‘Wayne-oh,’ sighs Roscoe. I hate it when he sighs my name that way, like he’s some kind of big-shot who can hardly lower himself to shape the words. The sun turns to shadow and there’s no need to look up to know it’s Patty Jenkins who’s blocking it out. She’s already replaced her school jumper with a tee-shirt saying ‘Frankie Says Relax’. It pegs the end of her balloon boobs then drops straight off, makes her look like some sort of slutty sandwich-board evangelist. She’s got tight scraped-back foster-home hair and smells of wet towels and cheese and onion crisps. She sags down between us and pokes a Benson in her cake-hole. She eyes up the bottle of Super and Roscoe hands it over sweet as if he was giving Kelly O’Mara a box of Black Magics on Valentines’ Day.

‘All right?’ I say, but it’s Roscoe who’s got her attention on account of the free slurp of Super and the always-likely offer of some more fat cash.

‘You fixed for tonight?’ says Roscoe. Patty shrugs. She slurps and bends forward to itch an inner-thigh. She passes me the Super. I take one look at the fuzzed-up rim and pass it right back. She takes another slurp, passes it to Roscoe who drains the last two inches.

‘Have faith in the cow-tip!’ he proclaims, standing and tossing the empty bottle of Super towards the village green bin and stomping across the street towards the public lavs.


***

Later, we’re in the Fox and Roscoe’s tipping the shots down Patty Jenkins’s neck, wrapping her round his little finger with what’s left of his charm and his cash. Strikes me there’s no need for Roscoe to be so generous with the doubles, since Patty would good as guarantee herself to anyone for keeps once she’s dosed up on Pernod and Blacks.

Patty’s swapped her Frankie tee-shirt for her best blow-job clothes, a cheap black bra just about big enough to hold them in under a two-sizes-too-small crop-top that shows off her folds. The way she’s rubbing up against Roscoe looking up at him with those big trusting eyes of hers, it almost makes me feel sorry for her. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s coming but I swallow my morals for the thought of a pocket-full of dough.


 ***

The tap-room’s full of boys with bare arms swigging pints like they know where the next one’s coming from. They’re here to give Jackie Bell a quaint old rural send-off. Jackie Bell’s hauled them up here supposedly on some outward-bound weekend but truth is he’s been after the chance to rub our noses in it ever since he swanned off to that college of his. He’s throwing twenties at Old Roy and Old Roy’s flapping about after them like a zoo-pond penguin at feeding time. It’s just as well we’re so practised in making our own pints last all night or we’d be detoxed by the time we managed to catch Old Roy’s eye.

Roscoe’s got his eye on a couple of likely lads. Reckons he’s like a lion picking out the weakest wildebeest from the herd. Calls it his sixth sense and I have to hand it to him, it hasn’t done us too far wrong in the past, save the time he didn’t account for a scrawny-arsed runt being a champion flyweight. They’re well-dressed townie types and it’s easy to see who shits it the most when the pissed-up farm boys barge past on their way to the lavs. Roscoe flicks his head and heads off, pulls up a stool. I follow him. Patty stays back by the jukebox, swivels her clack-shoes so her tits are spilling in their direction.

Roscoe nods at a pair of lads and asks if they can spare him a fag. The fatter one offers up a pack of poncey menthols and I know that at that moment Roscoe’s gone and struck gold again. Roscoe leans in for a light. He nods his head at Jackie Bell lording it up at the end of the bar and says, ‘known him for years. Couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke.’

You can tell the pair’s nervous what with the proximity of Roscoe’s fucked-up face. Roscoe lifts his dregs and makes them clink glasses. He clocks one of them’s wearing a United pin-badge. When it comes to clocking stuff like that, Roscoe never misses a trick. A few minutes later, we’ve got fresh pints lined up courtesy of the townies, and they’re embroiled in a red-faced three-way over who’s better down the Old Trafford wing, Jesper Olsen or some other cunt I’ve never heard of. I’m looking over at Patty waiting for the signal, and I’ve half a mind to pull Roscoe aside and tell him a night on the beer’s enough for me without having to go through with all the famous cow-tip crap.

Roscoe flashes me the wink which says I’ll never see the end of it. He nods over at Patty and draws their heads in and says, ‘see that bird over there with the tits? Best blow-jobs north of Watford.’ He reaches for another menthol, sparks up. ‘Fact.’

They’re looking over giving her the ogle. She gives them the cutesy wave. ‘You’re in there.’ Roscoe says it so they both them he means them. Truth be told, they’re not the types it looks like pussy comes easy for. The fat one looks down, embarrassed. The other meets her stare.

Just then, Jackie Bell flits past and Roscoe pulls him over and steers his pint to the table and says, ‘good on you, Jacko!’

‘Hey-hey!’ says Jackie Bell, slaps Roscoe’s back. Roscoe used to be Jackie’s pussy-catching mate till too many nights on the glue turned him into an ugly sniff-faced bastard. Used to bore me senseless with stories of double-teaming sluts behind the Kwik Save. Now Jackie just treats him like another piece of shit ought to be stuck down the bottom of a brown paper bag.

Jackie says, ‘you’ve found yourself a right fucking pair here, lads,’ and I can’t work out who it is he’s talking to, us or the stag-do dickheads, but either way knowing we know Jackie seems to put the two stag-do dickheads at ease.

Jackie gone, Roscoe’s back to drawling on like a Match Of The Day pundit. Out of the corner of his eye he tips Patty the wink and she wobbles over.


 ***

Long past closing time we’re out in a field in the middle of nowhere and I hate to admit it but Roscoe’s plan has worked like a charm. Getting the pair of them out of the pub didn’t present much of a problem once Roscoe started gabbing on about quaint local activities, and Patty piped up about the cow-tipping right on cue.

It’s fair to say the fat one was a bit more reluctant to give up his seat in the thick warm pub for a spot of gallivanting round pitch-black fields getting his box-fresh Filas all fucked up with animal shit, but it’s nothing a well-placed hand on a thigh from Patty couldn’t sort out quick-sharp. We pile in the back of Roscoe’s Cortina Estate. It’s had the back down so long now the seats wouldn’t sit up if you tried. Roscoe uses it as a mobile bed most nights given as he’s pretty much permanent estranged from his folks these days. Colder it gets, the more litres he gets through for insulation. It smells of old fags and stale piss and the bearings squeal like a yard of pigs as Roscoe bathes the pub car park in full beam. ‘Jesper fucking Olsen,’ he says as he backs out, shakes his head in the best fake awe you’ve ever seen.

Soon we’re bouncing up the pitch-black back-tracks so much it’s giving me a stiffy and I’m hating myself for it taking just a few stupid pot-holes to get me horny about Patty Jenkins of all people again. She’s squeezed in between the college cunts in the back and if everything’s going according to Roscoe’s well-laid plans she’ll have each of her hands down their respective boxers by now and be twiddling their no-doubt tiny nobs towards the point of splurge.

After more bumping and grinding than you get on the dancefloor of the Pickering Ritzy on your average Friday night, Roscoe pulls up and half-turns and his teethy smirk is lit up by moonlight.

‘Cow-tip time!’ Roscoe says, and we all lamp out the car and feel our feet sink in pools of warm shit. The fat lad stops to light up another menthol and by the look of his face in the match-glow he’s not all that thrilled with where we’ve took him. The other one’s more perving at the gigantic bouncing balls Patty’s got stuffed up her tee-shirt and they’re looking even bigger in the moonlight glow. Patty’s looped an arm round both the boys and she’s steering them off to the darkness as planned.

Roscoe hisses open a couple of cans of Special and we clank them together and glug them down. After giving them ten minutes we creak out after catching one or both of them in the act. Sure enough there’s the flabby lad silhouetted in the open field with his arms sticking out like a scarecrow and he’s mumbling to no-one in particular: ‘I knew it. I fucking knew it.’

There’s a slurpy sound coming from a block of black on our right which we take correctly to be a hedge, and closer inspection reveals Patty Jenkins down in her most convenient pose gobbling the other lad’s sweaty knob with his boxers tangling his knees. Patty’s still got her mega-baps well strapped in which I can’t help feeling is a mighty waste on the lad’s part, though they do say some are inclined to save a little mystery for their lovemaking.

The routine is for Roscoe to step out out and politely inform the chap that in order to keep such a sorry and perhaps illegal activity under wraps there may have to be a small session of financial transacting. But somehow the sight of Patty summoning up such enthusiasm for the one-thousand-and-forty-third nob she’s ever had in her gob seems to rub Roscoe up the wrong way. So while the flabby lad’s still stomping around the field moaning about fucking knowing it, Roscoe bellyflops over the top of the hedge and slaps the lad out of his fantasy and calls him a paedo.

Patty slops his nob out of her gob and wipes herself on the hem of her upturned top and gets to her feet and giggles at her mucky whore knees.

The lad’s staring big-eyed at Roscoe going, ‘I don’t want no trouble, like,’ but Roscoe slaps him round the chops and sinks him in the mud. He goes, ‘she might be a dirty slut but she’s only fifteen, like.’

The lad’s got his arms in the air and he’s starting to panic. He starts to yammer about not knowing, and it would look well funny if it wasn’t so serious because he’s plain forgot he’s still got his boxers round his knees and his danglies dangling. Then while he tries to get up Roscoe slaps him back in the mud and he plants his bare arse in the soil with a slop.

The fat lad comes over with all the commotion and Roscoe calms a little and gives it the, ‘your mate’s been knobbing my sister and she’s only fifteen,’ bit, and for good measure, ‘what with her mental what-nots, I’m afraid it don’t look good.’

The fat lad squints through the gloom at Patty like he’s checking if she’s dribbling enough to pass for a spaccer. Patty leers right back at him and licks her lips.

The fat lad starts cursing under his breath again and he reaches out his wallet and Roscoe’s most peturbed when he finds the two lads between them can only summon the paltry sum of thirty-five quid between them and their cash cards are stuffed safe behind Old Roy’s bar running up a fine tab.

Faced with the prospect of having a pocket-full of  short change once he’s deducted travelling expenses and the cost of a couple of four-packs of Special Brew and Patty’s considerable pre-event bar bill, it doesn’t take Roscoe too long to get his radge back on. First he orders the thin one to kick off his air-bubble Nikes and the Levis from round his ankles and the boxers from his knees, then he’s after his dress-shirt and the lad’s left clasping himself white and blubbery in the nude. The fat lad’s got wind of what’s happening and he’s legging it away over the field stumbling as he goes, happy to spend the night tramping out on the moors if he means he’ll avoid having to get his own pair of floppy norps out in front of a lass. Roscoe gives the thin lad a boot in the ribs and the lad’s proper crying now. ‘Fucking hell Roscoe,’ I say, thinking the lad’ll most likely freeze to death just lying like that, and on second thoughts Roscoe chucks him his shirt back, and I might say it’s one of the touching things I’ve seen him do, only he spoils the effect by pulling out his car keys and chucking them and his trainers into the blackness for the spite of it.

Roscoe’s fair raging and we sit in the car in silence and neither me nor Patty has the courage to ask Roscoe for our cut. The car stinks of mud-shit and Roscoe’s got the Stone Roses on blasting which is totally wrong for the mood we’re in.

Roscoe swigs another Special while his lights search the road and I feel Patty sobbing in my armpit and I say, ‘you didn’t need to call her no dirty slut.’

Roscoe slams on his brakes and almost sends us arrowing through the windscreen. He turns and slurs, ‘get the fuck out of my car.’

Well the mood he’s in we don’t need no second invite, and I help Patty out and he zooms off with the door still flapping, and Patty sobs more till his red back-lights turn out of sight.

It takes us a fair few hours to make it back and those hours present plenty of time for thinking. Instead of risking waking her old man at her place we head in the site static with the broken window catch that those of us of a certain age been using for extra curricular activities for years. Patty sprawls out over the stinky couch and starts talking her fanciful notions about getting a one-way ticket out of here. They’re tempting enough notions all right and what with all that thinking time I find myself swept up with thought that it’s not too late to make a go of it somewhere else. Then I look into those eager-to-please blowjob eyes of hers and suddenly I hate myself even more. Truth is I know how tonight’s going to end up, just like I know how things’ll end up next time Roscoe cools off and comes back round spouting another of them stupid ideas of his.






Mark Staniforth lives in a small village in North Yorkshire, England. His fiction has been published in Night Train, Eclectica, The Dublin Quarterly and Suss, among others. He has a blog at markstaniforth.blogspot.com.






Tuesday, December 8, 2009

New Content Coming Soon

Just letting you all know.


 I think it's a sign my family's getting older and older, or just not hunting, or something. No one got a deer on the first or second day, or at all that I've heard of. And I know the PA deer population is exploding and has been for some time. I never got one. I had a chance a couple times. My brother and I were right down behind the house at joining of our feeder crick with Seeley Creek. I didn't have my mind in the hunt--I often didn't--so my brother tapped me on the shoulder and pointed across the water to the steep sidehill covered in pine. A buck was skittering his way down among the pine needles and rocks, a couple doe close behind. I can't remember what I was hunting with--probably my brother's 12-gauge-- but I remember drawing the bead down behind the front leg and waiting for the buck to stop at the bottom before he took off again. I waited and waited, in the way time turns like molasses before the shot, and realized I couldn't do it. I didn't want to do it. I liked venison, a great deal, but not enough to shoot and kill to get it. So I didn't shoot. My brother winked at me when I brought the barrel down, but didn't say anything. He didn't shoot either, but he has his own reasons for that. I don't know them.


As penance of a sort, I haven't eaten venison much since then. Though I do love the memory of seeing the deer hang from the apple tree overnight, and then butchering the cold carcass on the metal dining room table, seeing my dad or my mother slide the knife into the meat on either side of the spine, and how the backstrap would go straight into the frying pan with some butter, maybe some flour--I don't remember exactly--and then out on a communal plate, even while our hands were still bloody, and even though the carcass wasn't nearly done.

I have bad memories too, like trying to force the shot-meat and the gristle into something identifiable as hamburger, which meant through the hand-grinder attached temporarily to the kitchen counter,and often coming close to breaking the thing. That was my job, to grind.And grind. And grind some more.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Books



I owe a whole shit-ton of you (meaning contribs) books. I've been so busy for the last two months I'd forgotten about that, uh, very important part of the deal for publishing here. Please remind me in comments if I haven't sent you a book and indicate your preference for fiction or poetry. Also send your snail-mail address to rusty.barnes@gmail.com.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dark Hole, fiction by Rosanne Griffeth

If you misstep just six inches to your right, you will fall right into it. It swirls brightly and is fit only for trout to live in. If you do misstep, you will plunge up to your neck in the freezing water. Of all the swimming holes along Big Creek, those deep pockets of cold water children play in all summer; the Dark Hole is the loneliest one. No one wants to swim there.

She was pretty and delicate in a Melungeon way, lighter of skin than most of her relatives and shy like a white calf. Her eyes were large and sloe and dark. The light would glint off them in the darkness of the forest like the flick of a trout tail in the deepness of the creek.

Her black hair was long, wavy and hung down her back, when he first saw her.

When she first saw him.

Her Pa had beaten her that day, as he was wont to do. Her Ma died from the fever six months ago and there no longer was the comforting buffer of another woman in the house. Ferby sure did miss her Ma. Mostly, she missed her just being there.

She had risen before the men to fetch wood, stoke the stove and complete the rest of her chores she was expected to do before the farm stirred to life. Before heading to the barn with the milk bucket, she ran down to the springhouse for water, milk and butter. She put the water to boil on the stove then headed out to the milk parlor.

Tulla, the jersey cow, greeted her with her usual vacant stare. She already stood at the stanchion, waiting. Ferby hunkered down on the milk stool; her head leaning against Tulla's warm flank as she rhythmically pulled the milk down. Tulla's tail would whack her on the back of the head every so often. Ferby would slap Tulla's flank in response and both cow and girl breathed out clouds of mist. Milking time was a quiet time, a right nice time.

Ferby poured Tulla's offering into the churn and placed it behind the stove to clabber just as the men stirred around upstairs.

She made a pan of cathead biscuits and put the coffee on. Sure and swift, her hands flew as she checked the pot of hominy and sizzling ham in the skillet. She put some boiled eggs in a bowl and opened one of her Ma's cans of pickled beets from last summer.

Shade, her oldest brother, came up behind her. He placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed.

"What'cher got there, lil' Ferby?" he said, breathing into her ear.

She stiffened and shrugged his hand from her shoulder. "Get!" she hissed at him between clenched teeth. "I'm busy."

Shade was tall and squint-eyed. He snaked his brown, calloused hand down to her waist. Ferby turned and poked him with a hot spatula.

Shade drew back and shook his hand out where a droplet of boiling hominy had fallen. He sucked on the burnt spot and shook it out again.

"Get! I said!" She slapped him away and he grinned, but his squinty eyes were cold.

Her Pa came in with her other three brothers and stared at them.

The mountains themselves had carved Ransom Gorvins into a dark, hard man. Brown like gnarled walnut wood; Gorvins' eyes were dead black. He was a man of few words and he did not speak now.

He stepped forward, backhanded Ferby against the hot stove then calmly sat down at the table.

That was the day they met.

When the men went off to the fields and forests after breakfast, Ferby finally had a bit of time to herself. She ran, barelegged and barefoot, through the woods like a young doe to her special spot, the place where the rhododendron bushes bent, gnarled and twisted, down to the swirling water.

There she could be herself, a child—a wild mountain child. She lay on her stomach on a big slab of rock and trailed her fingers into the coldness. Sometimes if you looked at the water long enough, you could forget yourself and all your troubles. Sometimes, if you listened closely, God whispered. This was why she came here and how she remembered her mother.

He came through the forest trail on a snow-white mule. A mule as white as he was black and when Ferby looked up and saw him, she was afraid. Afraid, but fascinated at the same time. She had never seen such a man though she had heard of them talked about in angry tones by the men.

She stayed still like a fawn in tall grass, frozen on the rock, her hand in the water. She watched him loosen the reins to allow the mule to drink. When he saw her he startled.

"Oh—Hello," he said. "I didn't see you there."

His kind eyes belonged with his kind voice. Ferby pulled herself up from the rock to look at him. He was tall and spare. His chin was covered with a close-cropped beard. She looked curiously at his full lips and nose, so different from hers. The darkness of his complexion was different from the darkness of hers, and different again from any of the people she knew.

He dismounted and dropped to his haunches to fill his canteen up.

"Reginald Hooper, Miss," he said. "I'm in these parts doing a survey for Black's Mining. I'd appreciate it if you let your folks know I'm not going to be here long and should be moving through right soon. Don't mean no harm, just be taking some samples."

"I'm Ferby. Samples?"

"I'm with a mining company. I'm just going through taking rock samples."

"Oh." She understood about mines but was not sure what taking samples were.

He cut his eyes at her, warily. "I must be the first colored person you ever saw, the way you are looking at me."

"Yes," she whispered.

"Well, Miss Ferby, I'll just be getting some water here and be movin' on."

He fastened the water to the mule's pack and started to mount.

"Wait!"

He paused and turned, leaving a hand on the pommel of his saddle.

"Where did you come from? I want to know about where you come from."

He adjusted the stirrup leather on the mule's saddle and said, "I come from Kingsport, Miss."

"Where is that?"

"Oh, about sixty miles north of here. It's a city."

"A city? Do they have tall buildings and all?"

"Yes, Miss. It's a fair sized city."

"Do you live there?

He pulled himself up on his mule. "Yes, Miss, I do."

He reached back into one of his packs, pulled something out of it and reached down to hand it to her.

"Here you go. Here's something from the big city for you to keep."

Ferby took the object from his hand and stepped back as though his touch might burn her.

She looked at what he had given her. It was a cylinder about the size of a can of peas, covered in paper with a picture of a cow.

She frowned at it and asked, "What is it?"

The edges of his eyes crinkled. "Turn it over."

Ferby upended the little round box and almost dropped it when it made a sound like a cow mooing. She laughed up at him.

"It sounds just like Tulla when I'm late for milking!"

"Been nice talkin' to you. I'll be going along now."

He wheeled the white mule and headed off through the forest trail, like a ghost into the woods.

Ferby stumbled after him and as he faded into the deep cover of the forest, she called, "Mayhap I'll see you again!"

Her voice faded into the cricket song, floating off like a thistle seed in the wind.

Ferby took the little moocow box home, wrapped it securely and hid it under her pillow. This was her secret and she did not want to share the wonderful meeting with the strange city man with anyone. One day, mayhap, she would go to the big city. Mayhap, one day, she would see the strange man again and be able to ask him more about the world outside the mountain.

She hardly noticed the burn on her shoulder where she hit the stove that morning. No, hardly at all.

For the next few weeks, after the men left, she darted through the woods like a wild thing on bare feet as tough as wolf pads over the rocks and shale. She searched out the dark man on the white mule, and when she found him, she sat quietly watching from the cover of the rhododendrons.

He drilled into the rock and pulled plugs of stone and soil, then placed them in tubes, carefully labeling them before putting them in his pack. Ferby guessed this was "taking samples".

After a while, he would stand up, stretch, take some sandwiches out of his pack and sit on a rock, and say, "I wish I had somebody to eat these sandwiches with."

Ferby would giggle, shyly emerging from the mountain laurel and he would share his lunch with her. Mr. Hooper's life in Kingsport sounded exotic and exciting. A brassy photograph of his sweetheart, smiling with Reginald in a photo booth, entranced Ferby. She held it carefully from the edges and looked from it to Mr. Hooper, comparing him now and then. They looked happy in a way Ferby could not relate to--in a way foreign to the hardscrabble life on the mountain.

"What's her name?"

Reginald took the photo from Ferby and tucked it back in his wallet. "Her name is Evaline, but I call her Evy. We get married as soon as I have money for a house saved up."

So much of what Mr. Hooper described to Ferby about the city made her want to leave the mountain and experience this life for herself. He told the stories so well that she could see herself walking down the wide paved streets wearing a store-bought dress and white gloves. Her hands were smooth, white and soft, and a man brought milk to her back door in the mornings. Ferby imagined having a job where she worked indoors and had her own money to spend at the movies or to go to restaurants.

"When I come there I'll wear a hat all covered in lace and we'll go eat at one of them eating places."

Hooper looked down. "That's not likely to happen, Ferby."

"Why not? Don't you want to go to a fancy restaurant with me?" Ferby dug a bare toe into the dirt, flicking it up.

"No, Miss—that's not it at all. They don't let people like me in the front door of such places. We have to go to the back door. To tell the truth, you might have a hard time getting in yourself. You are a bit darker than most white folks, you know."
Ferby frowned. This hadn't occurred to her.

She broke off a leaf-covered twig of a sassafras tree, stuck it in her hair and twirled around, laughing.

"See my hat?"

Hooper laughed, then stood and dusted the seat of his pants off, putting his hat on. "Well, Ferby—you know I have to leave tomorrow. I'll be riding out early to catch the train back to Kingsport."

Ferby just stared at him for a moment.

"Will you be back?"

"I don't know."

Ferby didn't know what to say. And since she didn't know what to say, she ripped off her crown of sassafras and threw it on the ground. Then she just ran away, disappearing into the rhododendron grove. She ran all the way to her special spot and once she was there, she felt the tears on her cheeks.

Ferby washed her face, staring into the swirling water. Her reflection showed her face and wavy black hair in refractions of light and dark. Then she shouldered her sadness like a yoke and went back home.

The cook stove fire smoldered when Ferby popped open the firebox so she raked the coals from the ash and placed another log on the fire. She knew it was time to get supper started, but first she wanted to go up to her room and look at the moocow box, her one treasure and keepsake from her time with her friend, the mineral surveyor. As she climbed the narrow stair, she thought, mayhap she would go to Kingsport herself. She would leave this place and find a better life, an easier life. She felt, for the first time in her life, that her life could be her own one day.

Shade was sitting on her bed holding the moocow box when she pushed the door open. He squinted narrowly at her, and then turned the moocow box over so it made the mwah-ah-ah noise that sounded just like a cow. The cow cry hung in the silence of the room like the dust motes drifting in the sunlight.

"What th' hell is this, Ferby?"

Her hands clenched the flour sackcloth of her dress.

"Give me that. It's mine."

"Who gave you such a thing, Ferby?"

The little box sat precariously in Shade's big dirty hands. Ferby didn't say anything.

Shade stood up and held the moocow box out to her.

"Here—you want it—take it."

Ferby reached for the box, stepping forward.

Just as her fingertips brushed it, Shade dropped it and crushed the fragile cardboard under his heel. It made a forlorn broken noise.

Ferby flew at him in a rage, screaming and crying. Shade grabbed her by the forearms and held her there.

"You know what I heared, Ferby?" he said. "I heared you was seen with that nigger prospector. I think he gave you that there trinket. That's what I think."

Ferby struggled, spat and pounded Shade. The loss of her mother, the loss of her friend, her loneliness and all her longings, dreams and rage came shattering home with the little sound the box made. Something in her soul was lost and broken with that little noise. When Shade raped her on the hard plank boards of her bedroom, she took her mind to her special place, where the dark waters swirled and God spoke softly—where the dappled light burst through the rhododendrons and splattered the water with shadows.

After that day, nothing would be the same, and Ferby would understand what it was like to be broken beyond repair.

The days went by much as they had before. Ferby milked the cow, fed the chickens, fixed meals for her father and brothers and escaped to the place she always had run to on the creek. When she stared into the swirling water of the creek, her heart no longer heard God whispering to her. She strained to hear Him but her soul was frayed and ripped now. It was as if someone had fired a shotgun next to her soul's ear, deafening it. She went about her life, content to fade into the background like a moth on a wormy chestnut barn.

No one noticed when she started to look pale and tired. No one took into account the drab shapeless garments she wore. Ferby became a shade, hiding in the shadows of the wood and skulking behind the trees like a doe that had tasted lead yet had not died.

In truth, Ferby was not aware herself of what was happening to her. She went through the motions of life without thought. In her mind were happier memories and, occasionally, she found herself there and remembered God's whisperings. She played the happy meetings with her prospector friend in her mind, hiding from reality.

She became ill and lost her appetite. No one noticed when she would quietly slip out the back door and retch. When they did notice she was well into her eighth month.

Ransom Gorvins stood like a monument, unmoving on the back porch that morning. He had noted breakfast was late getting on the table and was impatient to get out to the fields. Spreading fertilizer was on his schedule and his brow knitted in vexation he would be late getting started. The days were still too short to cover the time he would have to spend to finish in one day. He had decided to give the daughter a talking-to since she seemed not able to shoulder her share of the farm duties.

Ferby struggled up the path from the barn with a milk pail. She would lug it a few steps, then would have to put it down and rest a moment.

Ransom watched her progress, but did not try to help. He had seen her make this walk before without such dallying.

She saw him and redoubled her efforts, but the task was too much for her. She stumbled, fell and spilled the milk all over herself. The milk drenched her baggy garments, making them cling to her body, now visibly pregnant. She struggled to her feet, darting eyes at her father.

Ransom Gorvins showed an uncharacteristic wave of emotion. His eyes widened, then narrowed, and his dark skin flushed bronze and angry. He strode over to Ferby with violence in his cold dead eyes.

She was terrified. She was sorry she had spilt the milk but she just did not seem to be able to handle it today.

"You little whore!" Gorvins' words snaked out like knives.

"I'm sorry, Daddy, I'm sorry, I'm sorry—" Ferby said. "I'm sorry ‘bout the milk—I'll get more this evening. I won't spill it again an' we still have some from yesterday. . ."

Gorvins hauled back and landed a blow with his closed fist to Ferby's cheek. She fell back, hard, and sat there holding her face and screaming in pain. The boys came out on the porch to see what the ruckus was about.

"I'm not talkin' about the milk. How dare you bring shame on this family."

Gorvins continued to darken with rage. Ferby still gasped in pain from the punch and her eye was swelling shut, making it difficult to see. She barely processed what Gorvins said.

"Who's the father, you little whore? Who you been steppin' out with?"

"N-n-nobody! What are you talkin' about?"

"Don't pretend you didn't know you was expectin'!" Gorvins stalked towards her. "Who—is—he?"

Ferby sobbed, her breath hiccupping. She felt the sticky wetness of the milk all over her body and she started to rock.
"I-I-I don't know. I don't know, Daddy, I swear I don't know! Please don't hit me again. I don't know!" A string of blood and spit dribbled from the side of her mouth.

Gorvins stood there looking at his daughter, his body trembling with rage.

Shade stepped down from the porch, keeping out of reach of his father.

"Well, I heard she was 'round that darkie, Daddy." He said. "I bet she let him have a poke at her."

Gorvins turned slowly and looked at Shade, his eyes basilisk-like, and Shade thought maybe he'd gone too far. Maybe he should have kept quiet, since the old man was just as likely to go off on him.

Ferby howled from the ground where she sat rocking, "No! No! That ain't true! H'aint true! He never touched me!"

Gorvins turned back to her.

"Shut up, you little slut! Shut your lyin' mouth! Time will tell if that be the truth. When you squirt your little bastard out into the world, time will tell."

With that, he stomped back into the house, leaving Ferby in a puddle of milk and shame.

Gorvins kept her locked in her room for the remainder of her lying in. Ferby sat in a straight-back chair looking out the small window, her gaze vacant and empty. Her mind focused not on the woods outside her window, but on the swirling pool where she had spent so much time. Her other brothers tried to intervene and get her to the local midwife, but to no avail. She heard their angry voices from below.

"Daddy, you gots to get her to Granny Wilson. We can't handle this ourselves!"

Gorvins stony voice answered back, "She brought shame down on us and I'll not have anyone else involved."

"Daddy, she ain't a cow! She don't know what to do, she ain't had a baby before."

"No. That's my last word on it."

Ferby spent those last weeks in her room. When her water broke, she barely knew what was happening. She looked beneath her chair at the spreading pool of fluid                             with surprise. The first contractions she had passed off as a stomachache.

As the contractions grew stronger, she paced the floor, breathing heavily and feeling the sweat bead on her forehead. Eventually the pain became so severe she began beating the door.

"Let me out! Let me out! I'm dreadful sick—let me out—please!" She screamed but no one came.

She wanted to bolt off running like a bloated sheep into the woods—run and leave the dreadful agony behind her. She beat on the door until her knuckles bled and after her pain was so great she could not form words, she screamed. She was not sure how long this went on. Time seemed to slow down and what took hours seemed to Ferby like years.

Finally, she collapsed on the floor, panting. When the baby came out, Ferby looked at it, small and still on the floor with its cord connecting it to her. It jerked to life with a puling wail when she picked it up and Ferby brought the little creature to her breast and sat there with it, nursing.

Her father and brothers found her in the middle of a pool of afterbirth, blood and fluid. The infant was latched onto her like a hungry leech. Gorvins came forward and tore the umbilical cord apart.

"Get some strong iodine."

The men cleaned the dreadful mess, working much as they would if a cow had calved in the barn in their absence. They took care of Ferby as best they could. She let them, and said nothing. She stared at the baby wailing on her bed where the men left it, like a growth they had removed.

"Go clean yourself up," Gorvins said.

Ferby hobbled to the door and looked back at the men cleaning off the baby. She did as she was told and went out to the springhouse and cleaned all the blood and birth fluids off. She was sick tired and hurting to the point nothing seemed to make sense.

When she made her way back to the house, Gorvins and her brothers were in the kitchen with the baby wrapped in a towel.

"Guess we know who the father is, now," Shade said.

Ferby examined the baby. He was an angry red, like most newborns and had a fuzz of coal black hair. His eyes slanted and a port wine birthmark spread over half his face and down his neck.

Her brothers were silent and grim looking.

"Look Daddy, it's the mark of Cain. That baby done been marked, it has." Shade looked from Ferby to Gorvins, his squinty eyes like a crow's.

Gorvins took the infant and pressed him into Ferby's arms. "I reckon your brother has the right of it," he said.

Ferby looked down at the baby and held him close to her. She looked at his little face and touched the mark.

"No—no—it's a stain. It's just a stain. Give me a cloth, I'll get it off." She wet her finger with saliva and started to rub the birthmark. She smiled shakily, "See, h'its coming off. Really it is!"

Two of her brothers turned away. As she continued to rub the baby's face, the infant started howling.

Gorvins reached a weathered hand over, grasped hers and drew it away from the child.

"Stop it. You can't rub that mark off. It's God's mark of your sin."

She teared up as she searched her brothers' and father's faces. She shook her head and grasped the infant tighter. She backed away from them, shaking her head.

"No. No-no-no-no-no."

She kept backing up until she was pressed against the door. The baby wailed as she held him too closely.

"You're wrong! It's just a stain. It'll wash off. God didn't mark my baby! It's not the mark of Cain! It's not."

Ferby pulled the door open and bolted with the infant out of the house. She ran blindly, ignoring her pain and tiredness. She ran with her baby as fast as she could, away from there.

She heard her father holler out the door, "Ferby! You get back here, now!"

Ferby ignored him. She ran through the woods with the child until she came to her special spot—the spot where she lost herself in the glinting water. The spot where you had to be careful not to step those six inches to the right, or you would plunge to your neck in the frigid, dark water.

Ferby took her baby and misstepped, entirely on purpose. The swirling waters where God whispered would remove the stain. For she was sure, it was a stain and not a mark. Mr. Hooper hadn't touched her, but Shade surely had. So the birthmark had to be a stain that God would remove it in this holy place.

She plunged to her neck with the babe and held him under the water, rubbing the stain, trying to erase the mark. She was not sure when the baby stopped breathing, but when she knew he was not drawing breath, she held him close, rocked his lifeless little body and sang, tunelessly, to him.

"It were just a stain. Just a little stain. God will make it right. You'll see." She kissed his tiny forehead and laid him on the big rock in the middle of the creek, like an offering.

Ferby wandered off, disappearing into the wood like a wild thing. Like the child she once was and was no longer. She faded into the mountain laurel like a ghost, humming a mournful lullaby. No one ever saw her on the mountain after that.

They say the Gorvins' buried that baby under the threshold of a cabin they built. They say, at night when the wind howls through the hollers like a red-tailed hawk stalking a rabbit, you can hear a baby crying.

No one swims at that spot on the creek. They say that deep, cold spot will suck the life from you and darkness lurks there like a panther in the woods. They say under the sound of the rushing waters you can just hear a lullaby being softly sung.

That's why they call it the Dark Hole.




Rosanne Griffeth lives on the verge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and spends her time writing, documenting Appalachian culture and raising goats. Her work has been published by Mslexia, Plain Spoke, Now and Then, Pank, Night Train, Keyhole Magazine and Smokelong Quarterly among other places. She is the blogger behind The Smokey Mountain Breakdown.