Tag Archives: southern Gothic

Drool: A Short Story

8 May

The noonday sun shone down harshly over the rotten, decaying, landscape. Tar bubbles rose and popped on the crumbling road like molten lava drying at the foot of a volcano. Occasionally a leaf would blow across it and get stuck, becoming part of the once quaint but proud slab of one lane pavement winding haggardly between two other similarly forsaken roads. Below the seething tar dilapidated houses perched precariously on a ridge marred by the effects of erosion, straining against the pull of gravity that would one day win and wash them down into the gully.

Lee sat on the steps to the front porch of his sunken home, staring blankly into the midday heat while his barren landscape of kudzu and dust roasted around him. Incandescent tin roofs and tar shingles sizzled, and the voided surroundings reflected the heat onto the decaying boards of the houses. He thought nothing, he said nothing; he was looking in the direction of the road, idly rocking back and forth, absently grasping his prize between his palms as drool seeped from the corners of this mouth. This day was much hotter and much more exciting than any others for nearly forty years. Mechanically, he was waiting for his mother to walk slowly into sight at the top of the hill, returning from a day of housework and cooking for the rich family with the farm. Lee didn’t know their names, but he couldn’t have told you if he did.

He made little noises of communication, slight grunts of assent and purls of displeasure. His head was oddly shaped and literally a bit soft. Thick lips moved against a thin layer of foam that had formed on his tongue behind a severe under-bite. When Lee had turned five his mother had walked him down the decaying, dusty road, past the farm where she had just begun to work, to the small clapboard schoolhouse next to the Community Methodist Church. She felt defeated even before the teacher gently told her that Lee’s intelligence level would not improve with schooling. His mother had known her boy wasn’t normal from birth. Lee’s disabilities were achingly obvious. He was five years old, still in diapers, and the only word he could say was ‘Maw-Maw.’

As they walked home together, tears ran down Maw-Maw’s face while Lee burbled to himself, unconcerned. Afterwards, she left him at home; in the scrap wood fenced yard at first, until he was in his late teens and had mastered the skill of doorknobs and basic self-care; then she allowed him to roam freely in and out of the house, peeling paint off the house, poking bugs with sticks, and digging holes in the dirt.

At 12:45 every day Maw-Maw walked the four miles home to feed Lee his lunch and to choke down her own. She would watch with aggravation as Lee struggled to reach his mouth with his food still on the spoon. Each day she grew more and more bitter and desperate and finally when Lee was ten, she took to hitting him, her way of attempting to teach him the basis of right and wrong. Eventually Lee did learn, and he no longer regarded his mother as another person to love and feel affection for, but rather as a source of pain. He feared Maw-Maw. Maw-Maw had lived with a baby for nearly forty years now, her baby that had never matured more than a toddler. Maw-Maw had never had a husband; Lee was the only family she had. Maw-Maw was a fatigued and bitter woman.

Lee grew quite tall and became more awkward when he reached his teens. Throughout his twenties he continued to gain in weight and size, becoming quite a large man. By the time he was thirty, Lee would have successfully scared any child simply from his appearance, but he never left his yard; and no one ever visited his rotten house on it’s forlorn road, so Lee never met anyone but his Maw-Maw. And although he did look rather intimidating because of his size, the only person he had ever known he was afraid of, and was therefore incredibly timid and withdrawn. Having never gained control over his muscles and joints, his fingers twisted mindlessly into fumbling knots whenever he went to grip something or to hide his face from a passerby on the road. When walking aimlessly about the house and kudzu, he shuffled his feet, being that it took too much effort and attention to lift his legs. He took his time climbing the three steps to the porch, though the hill had eroded away beneath the house so that the front porch nearly sat on the ground and the three steps leading to it were nearly level with each other. Lee carefully watched his feet, attempting to calculate his steps so that he knew his porch with an unconscious familiarity.

Lee had spotted the bunny from the corner of the yard and cautiously inched closer throughout the morning. He was unaware that he was doing this. Its fur was a dark and lustrous brown, which stood out noticeably against the pale grey wood of the decomposing porch. When he decided it seemed safe- a small, furry, woodland creature of some sort- he sat down next to it and they considered each other, unconcerned with their surroundings or with anything at all.

He grunted at the bunny, pleased that something new had happened. Gingerly he picked it up, sweetly cupping his palms together as best he could. The bunny trembled and he watched it twitch. Its back left paw had been injured, a rock was stuck in its foot and protruded menacingly, He sympathetically did the best he could to mend it, pulling the rock out delicately and cupping his hand over the bleeding area. He squeezed the tiny foot with an odd delight, causing the animal to jolt with pain. Then, still cradling the feeble rodent, he sat on the steps. Lee considered the feel of the fur to be comforting, and he did not put the rabbit down for the rest of the afternoon as he sat rocking back and forth and waiting for Maw-Maw.

At sunset his mother walked wearily onto the porch and stared at her son. She was nearly sixty, but her face was unlined except for the creases around her mouth. A dark and disturbed frown formed when she saw what Lee was clutching, now tightly held against his chest.

“Boy, what you got there?” He blinked at her. She decked him, and then tried again, “Maw-Maw ask you what you got there?”

Lee presented the rabbit, still cupping it firmly, and declared, “Yuh-Yuh.”

Lee had acquired the skill of randomly naming objects in his mid-thirties, and the hobby thrilled him.

At first his Maw-Maw refused the rabbit, telling Lee that after it was well they’d have to let it go. Lee threw tantrums and wailed and whined and snorted until Maw-Maw, so appalled by her weak and peaceful son’s animosity, assented to allow him to keep the baby rabbit, “At least,” she said, “Until it is big enough to cook,” which always made Lee whimper and sob. And although she did regard the pet as a nutritious meal, she never truly considered cooking it; it just soothed her to make Lee upset.

After a few months, when the leaves changed color and began to fall and the forests of kudzu which shaped and governed their scanty habitat became looming skeletons, Maw-Maw grew weary of the extra care and attention the pet rabbit drained from her, and she threatened both Lee and the rabbit daily with a skewer. Lee did not understand how his Yuh-Yuh was a food, though he has unknowingly eaten rabbit many times before, and he kept his pet out of the way as much as he could, fearing for its life.

Lee developed affection and compassion for his rabbit, and the novelty of these feelings would have intrigued him, could he have comprehended them. Every day they played in the yard, until Lee, noticing its tendency to try to burrow under the fence, developed bravery and confidence enough to go onshort brisk walks, Yuh-Yuh tucked safely in his arms. Perhaps his mother endured the rabbit so long because she appreciated Lee’s ability to relate to it, or perhaps because she simply didn’t mind its presence after all, but most likely she endured it because Lee began to burble to himself more, and peddle around the yard alone and she finally got to catch up on forty years of rest. Maw-Maw was tired.

After time, Lee’s walks with Yuh-Yuh began to stretch further and further away from home, and Lee was ignorant to the concept of the importance of following roads and paths. Quite frequently Lee had to follow wagons and people back to the road which would lead him home, if he went in the right direction. Had Maw-Maw not been as old, shrewd, and tired as she was she might’ve begun to worry when these walks began to last for entire days, but her state of mind barely allowed her to notice.

While still shuffling his feet when he walked, Lee had gotten faster; he didn’t have to look down at his steps so much. He liked to look up and register color and movement in his sight while holding comfort in his hands, feeling the soothing fur. He was entirely stunned when, one day, Yuh-Yuh kicked free of his grip and darted out across a field. At first Lee watched blankly as his comfort ran aimlessly, liberated from his gnarled grip. Realizing slowly that he could lose comfort forever, never to caress its entrancing fur again, he took off stumbling across the field after Yuh-Yuh, waiving his hands frantically and making moans of pain and sounds of sorrow.

Yuh-Yuh led him to the frame of an old farmhouse, where Lee became bewildered in the midst of angles and lines. He gurgled deep inside his throat and began to cry until he spotted Yuh-Yuh. Across the deserted yard lay a pile of bricks with an old ply board neglectfully strewn across the top. Yuh-Yuh sat nibbling on some grass next to the bricks. Lee had become excellent at recognizing Yuh-Yuh’s rich brown color in contrast to the monotonous yellow, brown, green, and red, all of which were the same hue, that made up his despondent environment of dead kudzu. He stiffly scuffed towards the rabbit, slowly, and then pounced on it, throwing his entire sloppy weight and wiggling like a beached whale as he tried to capture it in his fumbling, mindless fingers. It hopped desperately onto the ancient wooden plank, clawing as the warped wood, but never escaped Lee’s frantic grasp. As he concentrated on getting up, Lee made throaty wailing noises that echoed off the crumbling bricks and into the devastated autumn landscape, and upon hearing his own sounds reverberate through the hills, he only wailed harder in disbelief and confusion. Lee and Yuh-Yuh struggled clumsily with each other as Lee got to his feet, and having given up hope in gripping the rabbit in his twisted fingers, Lee lunged once more, refusing to let the rabbit slip from his grip, and squeezing the little rodent into the crook of his arm, held firmly against his body.

The cracking of the board made a sound as loud as Lee’s wordless yelling, which ended abruptly as man and rabbit landed at the muddy bottom of the abandoned well. Reflexes found Lee gasping vainly for the air that had been knocked from him, but to no avail. As his eyes adjusted to the murky darkness and the surprise faded he felt fluffy comfort pinned underneath one of his hands, and he slipped peacefully into unconsciousness.

Lee didn’t realize at first that he had woken up, because it was so dark outside and Lee wasn’t accustomed to being outside at night. Slight mewing sounds escaped his foam covered mouth as he slowly slid his arms about in the muck, clueless. With no explanation available to him at the bottom of the well, he drifted in and out of sleep, half-paralyzed by fear and hunger and shock and sore with bruises. Birds and light and crickets and owls occasionally woke him, as well as the vacant awareness of lying in his own waste, but he did his best to burrow down into the muck so as to muffle his senses. Finally, with the sun directly above him and weighing down its heat, Lee woke up with enough awareness of the situation to be worried. He sat up and glanced numbly about himself, only seeing mud and dirt. Roots penetrated the walls of his cell in places and light fell on muddy puddles in the floor ina nearly perfect circle. Lee looked at this circle contentedly until he noticed the heap of fur in a dark corner, next to a shallow pool of stagnant dirty water. A crooked smile formed on is lips as he snuggled back to sleep with Yuh-Yuh tucked in closely by his side.

The echo of a monstrous growl awoke Lee next, scaring him, because he did not understand that it had come from his own stomach. He recognized the pain, though, deep in his chest, more so than he had ever felt before. “Maw-Maw!” he screamed, fear being recognizable to him now. He wanted to cry but found it hurt his belly too much, so he laid moaning and drooling, staring at comfort in the light. Yuh-Yuh lay stiff and motionless, the faint light making millions of colors in the rabbit’s fur. Lee stared at Yuh-Yuh indifferently.

Lee’s stomach growled some more.

Perhaps he knew, in the back of his mind, that rabbits were animals and animals were meat and meat was food. Perhaps Maw-Maw’s treatment of Yuh-Yuh as an opportune feast taught him. Perhaps, while laying abandoned and ensnared at the bottom of the well, he became frustrated and angry and Yuh-Yuh was available to for him to lash out at. Perhaps he instinctively wanted to kill him.

Lee reached out a hand and picked up the rabbit’s limp body: Lee didn’t understand that it was already dead. He dangled Yuh-Yuh in front of his eyes for a moment- in front of his face that showed no expression- then with a swift hurl he flung its body against the wall, knocking dirt down into his eyes and nose. This upset him.

Something inside Lee’s fragile consciousness ruptured and collapsed.

Bellowing and yelping he wildly tore his teeth into Yuh-Yuh, spitting out chunks of flesh and fur. Gouging madly at Yuh-Yuh’s eyes, poking with curled fingers and knuckles, Lee sobbed and mutilated.

Lee awoke sometime later to the salty smell of blood. He was drenched in it and in his own excretion. All that was in sight were bits of regurgitated skin and the desecrated carcass of what was once his only comfort. He tried to bury his face in the murky mud he lay in, but succumbed to reality for the only time in his life.

Shrieking and sniveling, he awkwardly rolled forward, fighting his lack of dexterity and brains, and thrust his head into the small pool of stagnant water in the dark corner. The water smelled and was pitch-black, but it soothed Lee’s squeals as it filled his mouth and nose and throat and lungs…

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Who Do You Need When You Come Undone?

30 Nov

“but when a southern anthem rings 
she will buckle to that sound 
when that southern anthem sings 
it will lay her burdens down”                                – Southern Anthem, Iron and Wine

When I am sad I go home.

All my life I have known who I am and where I come from. I’m a Southerner. An Oxonian. Sometimes a place can define you, make you who you are.  Not in any sense of fatalistic determination, I simply mean that when your environment is as all encompassing and (arcane) as Oxford, Mississippi the in late 80s and early 90s, it’s hard to not be a product of the southern gothic. At least for me. Move as I may, however far, I have that place so deeply ingrained in me it’s in the very core of my thoughts and actions, in the substance of my tears, and when I slip up, it’s in the slow drawl of my speech. We Oxonians have a sense of place- or of history- of a collective past so contradictory we spend our entire lives contemplating it.

When I am sad, I go home. It is my admission to vulnerability. I go to Mississippi. When my heart aches, I visit the red clay hills and steamy green deltas that both broke and healed me when I was young. The river. My river. My lake. And my town and my place. And I become part of a colletive we. Our place. I melt back into the clay from which I come.

The sights of magnolias and giant oak trees, of weeping willow and Spanish moss, of kudzu forests in the shape of dinosaurs, and the sounds of crickets and birds, and the smells that hang in the humidity like a thick blanket comprised entirely of a watery air. It’s all so familiar. It embraces me.

But It’s not the same. I grew up in a small town that was just beginning to be known for the miraculous nest of culture that it is. Now that we’re caught on, alumnus and other out-of-towners buy up the real estate and bulldoze our history in order to install chain restaurants, condominiums, and shopping centers. High end wine and cheese bars and private clubs are everywhere. They have torn down the older, crumbling buildings that I knew so well and erected newer, flashier, and higher city blocks than I ever dreamed of as a child. The woods have been replaced by high rise apartments. The population has more than doubled. My town is underneath, buried beneath progress.

Sadness frightens me- triggers the stress response- fight or flight- and I RUN. I run to something, though I don’t know exactly what it is- I simply run to the future. I run to move the ground beneath my feet. I run because I don’t want to answer for it, I don’t want to explain to them what it is.

And I am not quite certain as to who the ‘them’ I am referring to is.

Maybe ‘them’ is everyone who doesn’t get it, and those who don’t let it go, and those who don’t know, those who know too much.

Terrible Knowledge

-the kind that has a weight; the kind that leaves a scar.

I run back to where it originates, where everything originates in my world.

There is hope and beauty and peace in the absurd.

I have this memory from when I was very very young. So young that when I recall my memories they are just blips and blurs. My brother and I are playing in the backyard, up the hill by the blackberry patch at the edge if the woods. I remember the oak trees and the shape of the hill. The crunch of leaves beneath my feet. I remember the neighbors and their small farm. The old green truck that sat in the garden for so many decades it became part of the plant life. I hear the sound of the call of the wild turkey hens. I can smell the dirt and leaves. The memory is as alive as the little green grass snakes that hang from the trees. And I remember the blackberries. Our game is simply to push each other into the thorns. Our parents scold us. We both win, and neither of us ever win.

And all of it is gone now.

I remember the nightmare I had about Sardis Lake, full of faceless bodies missing their limbs and I remember not wanting to go water skiing because of it.

We played a game we called ‘scientist.’ We would poke at algae with sticks and fling it at the ducks. We roamed the woods in search of the tree with the initials carved into it. It had a mark, a wound left by lovers years before. Scarred. We found the spring that fed the lake- we named it. We saw the cannonball, left there from the war that raged and destroyed deep in the dark cervices of the county, and that still rages to this day. We stumbled upon a very old tombstone, picked it up, and brought it home us.

My best friend and I roamed wild in a forest that to us had no end. We lost our boundaries. We shot a squirrel. As it jumped from branch to branch we chased the poor bastard with a bombardment of .22 bullets. Finally one struck it- right through the head- and it fell 20 or so feet down to us. We killed it. The devil made us do it. We cried. Smeared the blood on our faces. Tied it to a brick and threw the body in the lake.

I remember the home movies we would make at the creepy old ice house. And how we would dare each other enter Faulkner’s woods or walk around Rowan Oak on the darkest, moonless nights.

How Ole Miss was nearly indistinguishable from the town itself.

“Meet me on the Square” 

Ice cream on the Square Books balcony and wasting time at As Seen on TV. Even the old Purvis’ pool hall, where children weren’t really allowed but we dared to go anyhow.

Living in a tornado alley and the familiarity of climbing into the tub and leaning an old mattress against the tiles, listening to the rain and thunder outside. And the the sight of the pottery manufacturing factory that Floyd and the other cats came from after it was leveled by a storm.

“We’ll be at the Grove”

I visit the plot of earth, next to my father’s, where I will spend my physical eternity when the time comes.  I will share my rest with many great men- my father, William Faulkner, the yellow fever deaths, past classmates, accomplished professors, and lauded statesmen. All gone now.

A comfort in the insanity. Acceptance in the inevitable.

And time slows down. A year happens each day I am at home- my Southern home- and when I return to my reality time has skipped ahead and things are different. It is my time machine. My reality check.

I’m lucky to come from such a place, to know the deep sadness and heavy air that hangs optimistically over the deep south. And it puts my own sadness into perspective because no matter how many times I see someone off to St. Peter’s, my sorrow is minuscule compared to the suffering and pain and loneliness that Oxford- that Mississippi- has known. I am insignificant in the story of the South.

And it is not a defeat to be sad. Just an observation. And it is not cured by these visits. Simply acknowledged. A celebration of the macabre.

A habit I cannot shake.

Perhaps when I am sad I go to the place that I associate with sadness. Sometimes I am too tired- and that underlying southern sadness is just all that I have left. And I think I want that more than nothing. Because to let my southern sadness go, to forget the great albatross that has anchored me thus far, would be to belittle it’s value to me all those years. To let it go and move on and forget about the place underneath the kitsch and development would be saying that there was nothing there worth remembering. And the nothing is scary and empty and sad. It is a cycle that cannot be broken. And to leave it and let it go entirely feels like a betrayal of how much I once felt for my woods and lakes, and how those places enveloped me, and what my kudzu covered jungle meant to me as I formed the shape I take now.

But sadness is not all. It can’t be. There has to be a balance.

If we loved once then we can love again.

The joy and thrill of beginning life still exists there alongside it. It is found on Bramlett hill. The innocence and awe of the world. The kind that wears off as we learn to weather the storm. With every break and every hurt is the reminder that I am still alive, that the deepest cuts heal and the gnarliest wounds mend up. Our scars are our maps.

I see the town as I remember it- I get lost now with the new roads and the new place- but the old Oxford is still there, underneath, lurking. You cannot kill a ghost.

And I am not sad I left. But there is always a sense of longing that I feel when I am away. I guess it is easier for me to preserve the memory from a distance.

But when I am sad I return to my home.

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