“Lion ain’t cross chasin a deer.” Rye took a long, covetous draw on his cigarette, then flicked the ash down near his boots. “Thing about him—ain’t bloodthirsty, ain’t blood-guilty. That’s a rare circumstance. All the same to him. He don’t think a whole lot of himself, see, but he thinks even less of everybody else.”
“I’ve heard it told he’s a twin,” said Fozzy. “Other one March by name, owin to bein mild and quick-passin, while August is mean and takes his time.”
Rye chuckled. “I heard that one myself,” he said. “I heard that one and a whole lot of others.”
Next morning, under a sky blushed with a mustard hue, Gussie jibed his route northward, wanting more distance between himself and the rail tracks that led to Baldwin. He negotiated a parcel of meadowland suffused with eye-high fetterbush, the lithe sprigs hung with limp blossoms of ruby. Ferreted out another faint aisle slicing through the wilderness, and another. The boy felt fortified from his rest, his legs dully aching but resolute, his feet battered but resigned to their grueling office.
At another of the inert, scum-surfaced waterways snaking through the otherwise dry country, Gussie happened upon a mother and son, or so he took them, seated on a clean white log and look- ing upon a clogged brook as if upon a resplendent rolling sea. He passed a single-file line of girls in collared day-dresses, unbathed and slumping toward the coast, toward the land he’d fled. Here were the people. Boys with dogs. Old women walking with their faces in their hands. And cloistered beneath a soaring wart-trunked hardwood, a clutch of Black men reclining this way and that, heads rested on one another’s shins, arms flung along the ground like neck-broke snakes, their exhaustion seeming contagious, an illness one might contract by passing downwind. These were freed slaves. Some had stripped their shirts, and Gussie could see plainly their dark, raised scars. He guessed these men had hoofed through the night, snoozing now while the sun showed, fleeing the plantation lands. Gussie heard a thin upscaling wail and realized first it was a song, and then that it was a song he recognized from the docks.
I’m castin my sins out middle of the sea, with all the troubles of the world.
I’m castin my sins out middle of the sea, they sank to the bottom like pearls.
Yes, they sank to the bottom like pearls.
In the letter Gussie had written Madden Searle, he had urged the man not to send anyone to meet him because he knew not where his course might ramble. Now he felt an idiot for having written this. As if Searle would leap to his feet after reading Gussie’s words and dispatch an escort to ensure the safe arrival of some questionable alien dock rat. Gussie had drafted the missive twice, thrice, and again, and yet had not set it right, had not rid it of presumption. He had told Searle of the watch, explained that it had fallen down behind a bureau during his visit and only been found weeks later. His mother had chosen Searle, Gussie had written. She had chosen him for his kindness and had been pleased, despite the adverse circumstances the baby would be born into, to find herself with child. Yes, pleased. Yes, in her heart grateful. Gussie had relayed this sentiment but had kept to himself his mother’s assurances that she’d met Searle well before the war’s poverty had forced her to Rye’s, her assurances that Gussie was the product of real affection and not a base transaction. Gussie, in his letter to Searle, had made his own assurances—that he did not reckon on money, that he aspired only to put eyes to his father and return the man’s property. But any son would desire more. Who would believe otherwise? Who would look upon such as Gussie with anything but doubt and misgiving? His mother had built Searle up as a man of uncommon virtue, but how much could she have known? She’d sketched him as one whose familial woe had turned him regardful rather than bitter. A man of courtesy and a rational man. But who in Searle’s strange position, no matter how noble, could be expected to acknowledge a penniless adolescent? What reason would he have, aside from a heart soft as a saint, not to lock the gates and return to his work?
The day was warm enough, though it was but early May, and Gussie heard again that droning din in his skull. He’d ceased sweating, his skin run dry. His spit was foam. His beaten trace of a trail wound him through dandelions and daisies, a world throbbing and hectic with bees. Sorry pond apples. Out-of-place pineap- ple palms hung with yellow-green fruit like rosaries. He danced his pack around and ate another bark of dried beef, chewing and over-chewing it into a splintery meal on his parched tongue. He drew forth a poke sack of raisins and shook out little palmfuls and tossed them back until the sack was empty. He kept on. The soft, monotonous cadence of his bootsoles. The shluff of his pack with each step. Above, birds so high in the sky they appeared fixed in place. Below, the rustling weeds.
“They sank to the bottom like pearls,” Gussie said, his voice rough and strange. “All the troubles of the world.”
Gussie’s pack straps had by this time worn his shoulders raw, and by turns he hitched them up toward his neck, then spread them sideways onto his upper arms. It was one modest leather pack, the whole of his earthly grip. There was Gussie himself, the boy, his growling stomach and withering throat, his senses that seemed to grow both duller and keener by the minute, and then there was all Gussie owned jouncing in time against his back. His canteen. A flipper of matches. A folding knife that hadn’t been sharpened in an age. A goodly helping of pork skins. Madden Searle’s watch, of course. Tobacco and pipe. One fresh shirt in reserve, one pair of stockings. He kept in his pocket the money he’d appropriated from Rye, but at the bottom of his pack rested a smaller amount that he’d earned and saved for himself at the docks. Rye was right—his sweat was all he had, and how very cheap it was.
The pines began to relinquish the land, however miserly, to oak and persimmon. Soft beds of clover. And then the trail swelled and an unpainted post-and-rail fence drew up alongside Gussie. On the other side ran more untamed woods, but Gussie kept on until a house winked through and he was skirting a raked yard of dark soil. The fence was teased about with Calusa grape, tight green flowers on coiling tendrils. The vine thickened, doubled itself once and again, until in time the fence was engulfed and no trace of it could be seen.
Around a bend, Gussie came to the open gate, inside which a man was sorting the contents of an overloaded, slat-sided dray. The man turned his head toward Gussie, his brow gathering sharply as if the fact of Gussie was beyond his ken. He stood tall from his work, tapping the peen of a hammer into the soft of his palm. A dog with a corn-colored coat was casting its head about in the greenery nearby, searching out a scent worth tracking. The man wore denim overalls, the bib unclasped and hanging down about his waist. A livid wound marked his shoulder, only partly bandaged, couched in dark bruising.
Gussie introduced himself, and the man dropped the hammer into an empty scuttle near his feet.
“Awful thirsty,” Gussie said.
“I reckon so,” said the man. “Well out back. Only thing workin shape on the whole claim. Got a canteen, ain’t you?”
Gussie said he did.
“Can’t furnish much in the way of mess.” The man’s teeth had a gray, almost transparent cast. “Been gettin by with critters and onions. Run dry on onions yesterday.”
“I’m fixed for grub,” Gussie said. “Step on in. Don’t stand on ceremony.”
The man picked a few loose tools from the ground and pitched them into the dray—augers and awls, darkened about the handles with use—then started up toward the house. He gave his knee a whap, and his dog jaunted out of the foliage and fell into position. Gussie skipped ahead and caught up with the man, and the two of them strode past a column of ash trees, their blanched flowers like burst stars. They rounded the house and Gussie noticed a pair of busted windows, remnant shards of the panes sticking in little jags from the frame.
The man said this was a good enough spread when somebody was around to beat it silly. His lemon grove was intact, but the fruits were hard and juiceless. All his seed had dried. Goats stole or run off.
“I got tobacco to trade for the water,” Gussie said. “No jackpot, but more than a pinch.”
The man scoffed. “Whatever you got, you best keep.”
They proceeded into the rear yard, a space lorded by a tulip tree no less than a hundred feet tall. The well was in sight, at the far edge of the tulip’s shade.
The man swept a look around, then succumbed to a sigh. “It was fun first couple months. Slip the yoke. Kick some factory stiffs around. Plop it down at the fire and listen to the fiddler. When that fun took leave, it sure ran and hid.”
The man turned a short, squat log on its end and sat down, and the dog settled in at his feet. Gussie drank his fill, dousing away the worst thirst he’d ever felt, trying not to swamp himself, the sweet, metallic water sloshing in his belly like in a pot. He took his breaths, drank again, then filled his canteen to overflowing and had to take up a slurp before the stopper would plug back into place. He felt his hands and feet cooling, relief running down his limbs. When he turned around again, the man had a canister open and was rubbing unguent into the dog’s joints. He slathered the forelegs, then moved on to the hind, greasing the animal’s fur clear
down to the paws.
“Tell you how I came by this here companion,” the man said.
Gussie looked down at the dog’s contented face, its seemly hazel eyes. He already felt he should be off again, fear a weight in his bowels calling him atrail, but the respite was savory—the friendly company, the shade.
“Old planter up the county seat here, he owed me for pitchin in on his pe-can harvest. Owed it me three years ahead of the hostilities. Asked on it once, twice, then left it be awhile and the war set in. Suspect he thought I gave it up, or it’s liable he plum forgot, all was goin on.”
The man replaced the lid on the canister and stropped his fin- gers clean on his overalls. His own wound was oiled over with an ointment also, likely the same.
“Any case, I came home after the surrender, took a day or two ponderin. Took stock of the old farm. Came across a jar I hid from myself, got into that pretty thick. Next thing, high as a buzzard, find myself hoofin up toward that old boy’s concern. Close on an hour hike. I tromped up the porch and told who I was and pretty soon found out the mister wasn’t home. He was off somewhere for the day. So, I tell the gettin girl to get me a glass of lemonade, meanwhile install my hind parts in a rockin chair. No singled-out intent at this point, you see. Then I’m waitin for my drink and I spy this pooch here, not payin no mind and nobody payin him none. I snap my fingers and gave the porch a thump and over he trots. Happened by luck I had a lump of salt pork I brung for munchin along the road, and I gave him that and he let me love on him while he was champin it down. Next thing I said here we go boy just like that and he followed me off the porch and straight on down the walk. Mister wasn’t home but the lady was. She stormed out on the porch and gave me a tongue-strafin for the books, hollerin every oath and slander. How sorry I’s going to be. Callin the dog by name and him not so much as twitchin an ear. When she got quiet for half a blink I said to tell the old man he ain’t in debt no more to Lester out on the creek run.”
The man drew himself up from the endwise log, seeming rickety and weary now when only moments ago he’d been spry.
“About got his new name stuck,” the man said. “Ain’t that right, Doak?”
Gussie arose too, grateful he wouldn’t have to make a rude exit, and the party left the shade of the tulip and began rounding back to the front yard, the brimming dray rising into view. The man leaned over toward Gussie, brandishing a flat hand to shy his voice from the dog, one eyebrow ticked.
“Seldon,” he whispered. “‘That’s what they were callin him.” “No wonder he wasn’t answerin to it,” Gussie said.
August had passed the night in a third-fiddle bunkhouse a ways south of Jacksonville, had awakened before the sun and breakfasted on yesterday’s Scotch hash, then had burned up the whole of the morning on the fruitless hunt, trotting south through humble bluffs tufted with sea oats and backdropped to the east by the blue sound. He had made countless sallies away from the water, down one westerly spur and the next, and backtracked each having found nary a bootprint, nary a newly broken twig, nary a fruit stone. August had canvassed a coterie of rum sots, stinking and beset with sand gnats, and had yielded for his trouble only belched calls for his flask and offers to sell him sour apples for his horse. Some Blacks had instituted a shantytown and August had interrupted their late breakfast of oysters and heard from them no sir’s. No skin-and-bone white boy with a bulged pocket came by? No, none we witnessed. Plenty of boys passed, but none lone and bareheaded and makin special haste.
Thereafter the dunes dissipated and gave out onto vast tidewater flats pocked with crab holes. August encountered a very old man hauling a skiff behind him toward drier land, a single drumfish lying flat in the hull. The man told August all were lost babes to him, that August himself was but a boy.
“About yay high,” August said, holding a hand to his own shoulder and wondering if he spoke to a dullard or a sage. “Cheeks smooth like creek stones.”
But the man was already pressing on before him, drafting a line in the muck that August would cross.
A couple or three villages arose, and he inquired briefly in each and moved on, the trail growing colder. He crossed McGirt’s Creek and outpaced the flats and entered a bayside scape of sea grape and flourishing wild cucumber, the setting growing pleasanter as his mood soured. The afternoon sky was white and flat as a plate, the early May heat doing its utmost to gain a hold. August slinked one arm free of its duster sleeve, shifted and freed the other, rolled the coat and wedged it secure behind him. He cuffed one sleeve of his shirt up past the elbow, then cuffed the other and undid his collar buttons, revealing on his chest an immense black brand of rising, hungry flames that always itched when the day was hot but not humid.
The shadows were long when he clopped into an abandoned boondocks that must’ve served the nearby sugar mill until the operation had closed. A corn snake crossed the way and August’s horse halted of her own volition, betraying no nerves, until the terra-cotta creature had slithered from sight. After a moment she set herself again in motion, also with no bidding. Beyond these few hovels was the quiet water of Medicine Inlet, which jutted several miles inland and would need to be flanked if August wished to keep southward.
He bowed his head under a low-swept branch. Reached and found his whiskey and tilted out a long spill. The circling wind carried both the salt of the sound and the peat of the ancient, groaning forest. When the air stilled, he heard a dry hacking from within one of the rotted dwellings. The horse turned her head. Not abandoned in full, this lean-to burg. On a notch board nailed above the door frame was painted seer of fortunes, then, beneath that, only the brave shall enter. Nothing was visible through the windows. August put away his whiskey. He guided the horse over to a locust tree that stood passably straight amongst all the spreading, knurled live oaks, dismounted, hung the reins loosely around the trunk.
He approached the place and scaled its front steps lightly. This was the end of the Southern line for him. A checkpoint. A weigh station. He knocked at the door. When no answer came, he pushed it fro and stepped into a gloomy front room—stacks of frayed books arrayed sloppily about, a rocking chair heaped with cloaks and scarves.
A striped valance hung in the doorway to the rear room, and August took off his hat and brushed under it. At the creak of a floorboard the man inside started, his head jerking alert as if he’d been wrested from a reverie. He reclined laxly on a dais of sorts, in an attitude both slovenly and gauged for presentation, his garish raiment over-topped by a quilted jacket the slick color of a tree frog. His face was flushed, and in one hand he gripped a folding fan with bellows of translucent, veined parchment. Presently he collapsed the fan with a swish and tucked it out of view.
“You wish to inquire of the gift, good fellow? Do not approach lightly, for the gift deals only in bare truth.”
“I suspect it’s good and rested,” August said. “That gift of yours.
Ain’t exactly a line out the door, couldn’t help notice.”
The man cackled mirthlessly. This was what August had heard from outside, not coughing. The man remained in his drifting posture and beckoned August closer with a fluid motion of his arm. “What intelligence do you seek, my son? Mind, speak up
August closed the distance between himself and the dais, hat held in both hands before him like a man arraigned. A jarred candle burned on the floor, and August could smell the tallow in the stuffy room. He could see, in the corners, weeds growing up through the floorboards.
“It’s of an occupational bent,” he began. “See, I’m engaged under decree of a man much grander than you or me, and this grandee in question had some money stole off him in the dark of night by—well, by a certain tender-aged reprobate who’s took to parts unknown.”
The man’s eyes were shut, his palms upturned.
“I’m lookin to make them unknown parts known,” August said. “So far makin as much headway as a hog swimmin upstream. Either he done vanished or I took a bum turn.”
August took a small step back to signal he’d finished, and the man exhaled raspingly and let his attention resettle upon the carnal realm.
“Evil or afoul of luck?” he asked. “Beg pardon.”
“This boy. This reprobate. Be he a vile sort or a mark of misfortune?”
August scratched his beard. “Ain’t for me to study,” he said.
The man frowned affably. “Nor does it concern me, but we must provide the gift all it deems vital. Is this an innocent you seek to collar and bring to pain and ruin or a barb-toothed mongrel?”
“Don’t know where you been spendin your evenins, but I don’t happen upon over-many to be named innocent. Marks for bad fortune—now them’s a penny a pound.”
The man nodded in a reconciled way, as if to acknowledge an impasse. He drew his hand to his soft chin, squared his shoulders toward August. “Go with this, my friend, in grace and goodwill.” He paused, eyelashes fluttering, fingertips pressed gently together. “In cornering this prey, his plight and your own will entwine as the vine which catches purchase upon itself. The both of you will duly taste the dust below of your own collusive weight.”
August waited. He could hear the scratching of vermin under the floor and the tapping of his own finger on the crown of his hat. “That it?” he said.
“A bushel of counsel in a pin-tin of words,” the man told him. “Most get tangled with me, they wind up clipped. Always been that way. Don’t know why it’d be different this time, after
all these years.”
“The future is not beholden to the past,” the man said. “The past was itself once the future, don’t forget.”
“Past wasn’t never the future. Past don’t exist till we’re done makin it.”
“My dear child, the past is so hazy. Just try and look back. It’s made of smoke. It’s disappearing. The future—at least we can hear its drumming. At least it’s coming toward us, not running away.” August put his hat back on his head and then looked at his own hands, these hard allies that knew always what to do. He widened his stance. “Should’ve shared it to start, I’m a fortune-teller myself. I got a way of foreseein if a fellow’s soon to get whanged upside the ear. I don’t require communin with unseen entities, see. If a fellow tells me somethin I want to hear, they most times don’t
get whanged. Tell me somethin other, well . . .”
The man’s face lost a bit of color, a veil of worn tolerance now overspreading it.
“I won’t rough you,” August said. “Just doin your job, ain’t you? Like we every one of us bound to.”
The man was looking toward August but without catching his eyes. There was vast, unfathomable sadness in him.
“So, what’s the damage?” August asked. The man seemed not to understand.
“What I owe you for the sittin? Or the standin, as it was.”
The man now made a reluctant inventory of August, to his boots and back up. The merciless eyes. The dark tattoo licking up above his open collar. “The gift hasn’t need of man’s currency, and I myself would hardly insult its exercise by assigning an earthly value. We accept such amount each addressee deems fitting.”
August gave a laugh, but the man only took out his fan and snapped it open and fluttered it near the neckline of his vest. August went for his walking-about funds, then realized his duster was out with his horse. In the back pocket of his trousers he had some flat-folded, large-gauge Yankee bills and he slipped them out and peeled one and held it toward the man, whose fan stilled. The man looked at the bill warily—more money, likely, than he’d seen in some while—but August kept it there, and after a moment the man leaned himself forward on the dais and rose onto his knees and took the crisp tender and planted it, with forced coolness, somewhere in his bosom.
August split the seer a grin. “Ain’t see that comin, did you?”
When evening fell, Abraham made his way out to the corner of the estate nearest the citrus, where a pack of freedwomen had taken up residence just outside the four-rail fence. Each morning they decamped and stashed their effects, and each sundown they returned, like clockwork, three or four pitiful females and their collective young. There was no work for them in town, Abraham knew, and so they pilfered fruit from the trees and melons from the patch, the children relieving themselves freely along the fence line, the women whispering in anguished committee deep into the night. They’d been so bold, in fact, as to help themselves to wood from the reserves for their cooking, Abraham was sure of it. The greater problem was that as word spread of safe squatting, only more penniless pioneers would amass. And if Abraham were to alert Mr. Searle of the intru- sion, the master’s response would likely be to raise a canvas awning for the trespassers against the coming summer rains. Softheartedness was all well for Mr. Searle, but Abraham was overseeing both house and grounds single-handedly now, and it was his duty to prevent the abstracted old fellow getting fleeced fore and aft.
He eased up behind the last row of grapefruit, training his ears on the clumsy rustlings, gladdened to have caught the offenders dead to rights. Through the leaves the women appeared as hustling shadows, retiring from sight then reappearing elsewhere, hissing at the children and flouncing about importantly. They had no lanterns but dusk hung about yet, and the moon had already made its luminous arrival at the tree line.
From Ivory Shoals by John Brandon. Used with the permission of the publisher, McSweeney’s. Copyright © 2020 by John Brandon.