New New Salem

 

This weekend, we have an excerpt from Brian Allen Carr’s novella, Edie & the Low-Hung Hands. After murdering his elder brother, Marlet must flee the broken town of Victory. With his sword, our low-hung handed hero maneuvers his way through a decrepit southern desert murdering blank-skinned men, being pursued by his illegitimate son, and deceiving those he encounters. All the while, Marlet holds on to his precious memories of Edie, the widowed wife of his brother.

♦◊♦

I don’t know how far I’d walked when I heard his first call.

“Man,” he screamed. “Man.” He was a parched-skinned fellow with burlap throws over his shoulders and he held a rifle in both hands across his chest. I drew my saber and he aimed the rifle at me.

“Don’t shoot,” I said. “It’d be too depressing to die today.”

The man nodded. “Can’t imagine a dying day that wasn’t,” he said. “But I can’t even if I wanted to.” He lowered his gun. “Out’a bullets. Thought maybe you’d have some to sell. I got these pecan trees, but the ever-blessed squirrels make murder on the crop. Used to, with this here instrument, I’d do a good bit of battling them back. It was a two-fold good. I’d lessen their pecan consumption, and I’d get to feast on felled squirrel.” He scattered his vision through the clustered branches of pecan trees that stood gimply on the hill aside him. “Ever ate squirrel?” he asked, and I had. Often. A miserable meat. You get sick at yourself for eating the stuff. I told the man I wasn’t fond of it.

“You must not be cooking it right,” he said. We walked to a nearby tree that glistened with glue, and a trapped squirrel caught in the goop battled to free his tiny paws. The man seemed excited he’d caught the thing. He danced a dab to imaginary music, and he sang a line from something I’d never heard. He smiled at me, his teeth wilted in their sockets, and he saw that his teeth were hideous to me, and then his mental music faded. “You ain’t pretty either,” he said. He stepped back to look at me. “What’s wrong with your hands?” he asked.

I shrugged. “They hang low,” I told him.

“They hang stupid,” he said, and I nodded and he seemed pleased, and then he said, “Cut the head off.” I looked down at the squirrel’s furious attempts for freedom.

It fidgeted as though electrified. Its giant black eyes leapt about frantic. I drew my sword, capped the thing’s head in my left hand, and slid the blade back so the skull came away in my grip. It was a quick cut, silent. I looked at its head. Rolled it in my hand. I looked back at the body. I dropped the head and sheathed my sword. “What’s the glue?” I asked. It was deep brown, tacky. I’d never seen it.

“Make it from mesquite sap,” the man told me. “Other secret stuff goes in. There’s sap from some trees tastes like candy. Mesquite sap taste like a thirsty man’s piss. Does good for glue. A woman taught it to me.” The man yanked the squirrel from the branch, a quick shirk, and the feet stayed smudged in the glue. Blood drained the legs where the feet had been. The man shrugged, “Can’t eat the hands anyhow.” Then, as he held the squirrel body in his left hand, he offered me his right hand to shake. “Name’s Crodge,” he told me.

“Marlet,” I told him.

Then he held the headless critter at me, “This one don’t have a name,” and Crodge seemed proud of his joke.

♦◊♦

Crodge dwelt in a crude shed made from tethered post oak. He’d salvaged barbed wire from felled fences and stringed limbs into a tumble that reminded me of beavers’ homes I’d seen in books, and this clot of house was entered through a trench he’d dug, the dirt worn smooth by his tracks so that it almost shined as stone does, and there were two stools at the center of the hut and a little hole he’d dug for cooking fires, and he had me sit while he dressed the squirrel. Once done, Crodge grabbed a narrow branch from out of the structure of the home, snapped it on his knee and used the smallest bit of stick that came away to stir the coals in the fire pit. There were some embers slunk in the ash, and he worked up a little pile of them, laid some twigs and leaves upon them for kindling, proceeded to break up the branch, and in a bit he’d built up a good cooking fire.

I looked around. “You mentioned a woman,” I said. “A what?” asked Crodge. He had powders and salts, things he kept in little jars strewn haphazardly, that he grabbed while barely glancing, sniffing to decipher their contents, and he sprinkled these on the cleaned squirrel, a nude little thing of reds and yellows.

He pierced the squirrel with a skinny branch, and, with the other end, propped the squirrel in the dirt so it stood splayed above the fire. “Yeah,” said Crodge. “The glue,” he said. “She was a healer, now dead. Used to live here with me. You’re sitting in her chair.” I looked down at the chair and felt I’d some way intruded on her memory, but Crodge shook his head. “Years ago,” he said. “She wouldn’t mind none.”

As the squirrel cooked I asked Crodge how he’d come to this place.

He smiled his grayness at me. “The land,” he said, “I inherited it.”

♦◊♦

In history Crodge’s family did well with oil. Crodge owned as much land as you could see in any direction, though he was aware that his ownership existed merely in theory as passersby seemed free to roam it.

“Look at me,” he said and motioned to himself, his fire, the squirrel that roasted above the coals, “who could I keep away?”

He’d hunkered down to this tiny patch of trees, to this little cove of branches he’d lashed together and called home. All of his line died. He couldn’t have children. He’d tried with the healer woman, but that didn’t work, and he was happy it hadn’t. He said he imagined another mouth, a younger mouth, would be a burden he couldn’t take, but he’d been lonely since the woman died, and he said often he’d wake in the middle of the night with a terrible sad about him, and he’d walk through the fields of grass hoping to be snake bit, but that, luckily, in those times of ill thoughts, he’d never come across a serpent, had never been struck by its poisonous bite, and that he’d usually feel angry at himself the next day for chancing something so stupid.

Crodge said travelers were seldom, but when someone chanced by, as I had now, it filled him with hope. I asked him what he thought he’d do in the future, but he didn’t have much in mind. He knew of my town, but thought it to be crazy, and he knew of a few other towns northeast, but he’d only been to one, and it appeared empty when he entered it.

“Odd,” he told me. “There were buildings with lights on, and music came from somewhere, but the town was vacant. I walked around the daytime streets calling out howdies, but nothing. A small place. Twelve houses and a little stocked store, but the doors were locked on everything, and I was afraid to trespass. It felt like a trap.”

He said the squirrel was ready, and he pulled it from the fire.

There wasn’t much between the two of us, and while it was the best squirrel I’d ever eaten, I still wouldn’t call it good, though when he asked me what I thought of it, I just smiled and nodded and said, “Must be I wasn’t cooking it right.”

♦◊♦

I slept the night at Crodge’s on a small patch of dirt. He hummed as he slumbered, and the humming woke me. I didn’t mind. I had fidgety dreams.

I dreamt of the town that Crodge told me of. I dreamt it like memory. Spare streets and shuttered windows and locked doors and emptiness all around. I dreamt of the store. I dreamt of what it housed. Salt. Candy. Things wrapped in plastic I hadn’t tasted since childhood. When I woke the next morning I wanted badly to go there, so I asked Crodge to point the way.

“One more thing,” I said just before I left. “You ever seen a blank-skinned man? A man you could kinda see the blood in?” Crodge scratched his head. “He’s dead,” I told him. “Had a mother. Kinda pretty.”

He shook his head no and apologized for not knowing, so I thanked him for is hospitality and walked toward the vacant town with the memory of Crodge’s hummed tune filling my mind. I had been a great fan of music as a child, and I’d often sit in my room alone learning lyrics to songs I liked, but as I aged music became just a thing that filled the emptiness out of a room or got stuck in your head as you walked, and I wondered what it was that made it so. There were foods I loved as a child that I grew weary of, and there were things that, as a child, I hated and grew to appreciate. I would never appreciate squirrel, that I was certain of. And I would never forget the sight of Edie the first day I saw her. And, if I couldn’t find the blank-skinned man’s mother, or if she didn’t want part of me, or if I didn’t want part of her, I decided I’d go back to Victory, slay Edie’s suitor, and take her by force if I had to.

♦◊♦

I walked for hours in the heat. My clothes soaked through quickly. I rested beneath a sprawled mesquite. A breeze swept across me in the shade, and my clothes dried, and a ring of salt stained my chest. When I stood to walk again I felt dizzy, and for a moment I thought I’d go crazy walking that way in the sun, but after a few hours I saw in the distance a bit of road, and I could just make out a tiny town in the distance.

A large-skulled boy sat in a wooden chair in the middle of the road on the outskirts of the town Crodge told me was deserted. At first I guessed he didn’t know language. Each of his hands clenched the back legs of his chair. His knuckles glared white and shook under the strain. He stared toward where the road would lead, if it went on forever, and he nodded steadily, his eyes wide and dark. He didn’t move as I neared him. I tried to discern what held his attention. The earth ahead of us showed ashy beneath the sun, maroon with the mixture of dead grass and bare-limbed trees. I waved my hand in front of the boy’s eyes and he laughed a hideous empty laughter, a lunging breathy expression, as though all his air escaped with some sense of satisfaction.

“What are you doing, boy?” I asked, and he gasped his laugh again.

“Watching,” he said, his voice toneless, just a fluttery sound against his teeth, “the road,” he said and continued to nod, “for strangers.”

It seemed a joke, his being there. I looked in every direction. “Well,” I said, “I’m a stranger. You’ve seen me. Now what?”

He had a second laughter that he now displayed, a cackling, wobbling heckle that seemed made by some awkward organ that most folks don’t have, and it came from him in some queer flapping way, and he blinked big as he chuckled. “Hard to say,” he told me.

He wore a white shirt with black suspenders, black khakis and black boots. There seemed an order to him.

“Is there a town up the road?” I asked.

“There is,” he told me.

“Does it have a name?” I asked.

“I don’t know it,” he said.

“You from there?”

“Indeed.”

“Is it nice?”

“Is anything?”

He did not make eye contact with me as he spoke. His eyes stayed in the distance.

“I’m looking for someone,” I told him.

“As am I,” he said. “Strangers,” he said again. “On the road.” He launched into some third laugh that seemed less laugh than scream, a piercing wailing bending obnoxious thing pouring from his chest and throat, and his face went red in the noise of it, and it hurt my ears so much I drew my saber.

“Esau Cotton,” I told him. “Heard of him?”

He cackled on. He leaned forward in his chair. “Which one?” he screamed. “There are dozens.”

It then occurred to me that the boy lacked some key components, so I decided to leave him and head toward the town, but he laughed so loudly I grew angry, walked behind him, and ran him through several times with my sword so blood came pouring from the back of his neck, staining his shirt and silencing his laughter.

For some reason I couldn’t stab him enough. Maybe I was stabbing lots of things. I was stabbing my mother and Welder and Edie’s fetus and my son. And then I started hacking at his neck while pulling at his hair, until the boy’s cumbersome skull came away in my grip, and I kicked it into the bushes where it tumbled facing back at me, an ugly smile on its ugly face, so I ran into the bushes and booted it again. I turned back and the boy’s hands still clutched the chair legs, and that furthered my rage, so I drove my saber a few dozen times into the heart of his corpse, and I only stopped stabbing when I realized that there was nothing I could do to kill the boy enough, so I left him bloody, headless, and pierced where he sat.

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About Brian Allen Carr

Brian Allen Carr lives on the Texas/Mexico border. His work has appeared in McSweeney's Small Chair, Hobart, Boulevard and other publications. Edie & the Low-Hung Hands is his third book.

Comments

  1. I am absolutely loving this book right now. The language is simple and raw but it grabs a hold of the reader and won’t let go.

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