When I was a baby child, they put the jinx on me.
It was in my drink and food and milk. And when I ran, it heavied in my bones and when I sang, it stopped up my throat and when I loved, it let from me, hot and poisonous.
I saw it in my daddy, the hard lines of his face, that uneasy lope— how in his years he didn’t lift his feet, but slid them, soles across this gritted earth. It settled in my mama, trembled her voice and blanked her eyes. My brother, Billy, locked it inside him and it carried him low into that deep earth, silting then into the river and dew and air, in the moths and bee catchers, borne skyward and, as will be, lowed again, into earth again again.
There goes the sun.
There goes sky and cloud and light, taken into that black horizon. And I know I am bad crossed. I see its line. It reaches up, arcs. It cuts through me. It draws me on and dogs me down to that place where I am bound.
And when it is I borne down, my eyes and mouth stitched with gut, when they take my balls and brain and heart, and that deeper black claims me wholly, then let me meet that sumbitch at his eye, for I know my name’s been writ—Robert Lee Chatham—in his Book.
The rain kept on like a dust and it was the oldest boy G.D. who said it wasn’t nothing, crossing through the woods behind Old Man Crookhand’s. The wind swooped through, chattering the branches, and blew the grit against their faces. They put up their hands and trudged on, G.D. ahead of the others, cutting his switch into the bushes. Whack, whack. Come on, you babies, he said, and he whipped again, the vines and leaves opening around his blows.
They followed close, the boys wolfing on, whispering their jokes, trying to make the girls laugh and shiver. One at a time, they crushed across the underbrush, skimming spider vines and breaking off bits of sweetbark from the trunks to chew and spit.
The trail began to climb and G.D. bounded up the hill in wide strides. At the top, he stopped and waited for the others. He could see Crookhand Grove, a cleft of cleared land that dipped below the path. At the center was the Bone Tree. It had been dead for years, its leaves rotting in a carpet around the trunk.
One by one, the others crowded around him. They gazed out into the grove and fell quiet. There’d been stories about dead Injuns and their ghosts living inside the hollows. The wind came through and the naked branches clattered. The gang looked at one another, then up at G.D.
He spit a wad down into the grove.
Keep moving, he said.
The mule path broke out into a clearing where the lumbermen had already come through. G.D. chose the tallest tree stump and mounted it. He splayed out his arms, waving the switch like a sword before touching the edge against his cheek—a nub of twig snagging on his tooth. It was time. His eyes drooped into lazy buttonholes, looking the others over. They fidgeted under his gaze, shifting from side to side, holding up their hands, rubbing rain into their fingers.
G.D. sized them up. Their ragged clothes, the yellow mud caked to their shins. A girl unbraided a slip of hair. Her small fingers eased through the knots. A boy dug his toes into the soil, trying not to meet G.D.’s eye. Another stood with his arms folded across his chest, shifting his weight from knee to knee. He spotted her. She was tall and willowy compared to the other girls. Her hair was brushed back and she sloped her shoulders as she tried to hide her size.
G.D. pointed with the switch. Dora, he said. The girl furrowed her brow. Not me! He moved the switch to the sharp of his smile. Yes. That’s not fair! I done it last time, G.D.! You, Dora. Again. It’s gonna rain, she said. I don’t want to get soaked.
G.D. shrugged and grinned at the others. Best get started then.
G.D. brought the switch down against his leg. Thwack. They made a circle around her. He beat down again. Thwack. Thwack. The girl looked up but it was too late. Already the circle had tightened and they’d begun to sing.
Little Sally Water, settin’ in a saucer.
Rise Sally rise, wipe your weepin’ eyes.
The girl sighed, slumping. She hunched down on her knees and listened for the rhythm. Her backside bucked up, kicking out like a mule and swinging.
Shake it to the east, Sally.
Shake it to the west, Sally.
Shake it to the one you love the best, Sally.
Her frilled bloomers flashed out under her dress as she spun. The world swished inside her head. When the song ended, she righted herself and turned to see who she’d chosen. If it was a girl, they would have to start again, this time even faster as G.D. lashed out mercilessly with his switch.
Slowly the world glided back into place. She righted herself and saw him. He was big cheeked and wet eyed, and he was at least a good head shorter than her. The boy looked blankly at her through his long lashes. She’d seen him before. He was always so quiet, never laughed or cussed, floating behind the others like some tattered kite tail. He fidgeted now with his hands in his pockets, looking unsure of himself until G.D. nudged him forward.
Well, don’t just stand there looking dumb.
G.D. led Dora and the boy out to Crookhand Grove where the earth was cracked and split along the roots of the Bone Tree. They were alone, the three of them, caught under the storm clouds. Thunder sounded out like split wood and they looked cautiously at the little bits of sky coming through the branches.
G.D. took both their hands and grinned. My, my, Dora. I never knew you was such a tasteful lady.
Dora slapped his arm and his eyes sparked.
I’m gonna count to a hundred. Then you come on out.
We know how it works, G.D.
G.D. winked at the boy and headed back to the clearing, arms crossed over his head. She could hear him beginning to count.
Dora smoothed down the sides of her dress. The boy was looking at a spider threaded between two branches. It sat fat and blood-filled in its web, its legs spread like fingers.
Dora could hear the other children starting in on their singing again. They had begun another round.
Well, come on then, she said.
Come on what?
Ain’t you played Sally Water before?
The boy plucked up the spider. He turned it over and watched its legs bicycle. He held it up to Dora and she made a face. Then he set it down on a trunk and watched it race up the bark.
You’re Billy Chatham’s brother, ain’t you?
The boy shrugged.
My uncle told me your brother was wild. That he loved up a white girl and he—
Dora stopped herself. The boy sat down against the trunk and started scabbing at the bark, pulling it away in chips. He put them together in a pile, counting them out in his palm.
What’s your name?, Dora asked.
Robert, he said. He seemed to think for a moment then he added, Robert Lee Chatham.
Dora looked back from where they came.
Well, let’s not take too long then. Come here, she said. Stand up against the trunk there. He dusted the bark off and pushed his sleeves up to his elbow. They drooped back down, past his knuckles. His shirt was too large. It hadn’t been sized for him.
Now shut your eyes so you can’t see nothing.
Everything was still for a moment. Just the slow breath of the magnolias and the sound of mosquitoes making the air goosebump and tremble. He thought he could hear the other children laughing in the distance— their small twinkling voices in the breeze. Then he felt the kiss—the damp spongy pressing against his mouth, something cold skimming the underside of his tongue, warm air brushing against the slope of his upper lip. Something small and hard pressed into his hand. When he opened his eyes, the sky had split open.
Robert ran. the ground sucked back on his feet as he slid on the loose mud. The rain smashed down, ruffled the trees, and beat the trails. He could hear the children scatter—screaming, giggling. He ran faster, twigs and leaves lashing against him, the warm sting rising into his cheek. Along the farm, the pebbled road bit into his feet. He wiped the slick off his face and sped faster, kicking from his toes. The cornfield was alive with chatter, the water running down into a trough along the road, billbugs crunching under his soles.
Robert cut across the pasture. The clouds streaked white and thundered a line above the hills. He could see his house in the distance, the rain hammering the roof into a silver froth. On the porch, he caught his breath, pulling the air deep into his stinging lungs. The pour came down through the ceiling slats, and he rinsed the mud off his calves and ankles before going inside.
The air was thick and sweet with the smell of char. He hung his shirt up on a nail and warmed himself over the stove, bringing his hands over the flame and feeling the cold run out from his fingers.
His daddy came in from the other room. Where you been, Robert? He sat the boy down and toweled him off with the flap of his shirt. You know your mama don’t want you out in them woods. Robert said nothing, just let his daddy’s big hands comb roughly over his hair and neck and chest. His daddy sighed. He peeled off the wet clothing from Robert’s body and sent him to the basket for a dry shirt. Robert checked it for beetles, snapping it over the fire before putting it on.
His daddy lifted the lid off the kettle; the steam rose up over his face. He peered in and dragged his fingers down the gray stipple of his beard. Dinner’ll be ready soon. Go on and get your mama.
Robert watched her from the doorway. She was in her chair, her quilt drawn up over her shoulders, staring out into the rain. Outside, the mule was ducking under the shed, twitching its ears and blinking. Robert went in and touched her limp hand. She looked at him, her eyes traveling along the edge of his face—then his eyes, nose, mouth. Then she pulled Robert into her and started raking her hands across his hair, making sounds that were almost words. He could feel her strong fingers pressing into him, her body a volcano. She kissed the top of his head, his cheeks—her thumb rubbing at the ridges of his ears.
It’s time to eat, Mama, he said.
He slipped his small hand inside of hers and, slowly, he helped her to her feet. He could hear the breath shift inside of her, her body clenching and then letting go.
This way, he said, walking her into the other room.
His daddy had already set out the bowls and was scooping up hominy mush with a flat stick. Robert sat his mother down and settled into the seat beside her. Then when his daddy started the grace, Robert bent his head into his hands and shut his eyes. The rain crashed above him, and he pictured a field of birds thumping their black wings. His daddy finished and Robert took a spoonful and worked the mush around in his mouth.
How is it, Robert?
It was bland and rubbery but he didn’t complain.
I know it ain’t nothing like your own cooking, Etta.
His mama stared into the steam. Her lips were drawn back on her round face, the edges of her eyes puckered.
His daddy shook his head and picked up his spoon.
Me and the boy, we do miss your cooking. Ain’t that right, Robert?
Robert said nothing. He lifted his gaze up from his bowl, then let it drop back down.
I remember when you used to cook up those ribs. Could smell them coming a mile down the road. And Skinny, he’d be saying, Ellis, what you smiling at, and I wouldn’t say nothing, just walk back here with that big grin on my face. Robert, you too small to remember but your mama used to cook them ribs so good, even that damn mule would try to get itself inside. You imagine? A mule eating ribs. If that ain’t something else. He’d stay out there by the window, making a fuss like it was his day of judgment, you remember that, Etta?
His daddy reached across the table and touched her arm. She didn’t move. He sighed and dug his spoon into the meal.
Ain’t no mule at the window now is there?
The fire had gone dead in the night, but the smell of scorched wood stayed in the air. Robert opened his eyes. His mama was still asleep, her arms crossed over his small body. He listened to her breathing, low and ragged, as her breasts pushed into his back. Under the pillow he found the cold smooth stone Dora had put into his hand. He rolled it around in his fingers and conjured her up in the dark ceiling—her eyes, her lips, the weak taste of her mouth. There was something about her skin, damp and sticky—he could feel it spreading across his hands.
The urge to piss swelled inside him. He climbed out of bed. He could hear the rain dripping from the ceiling into the rain pots. He took his brother’s coat from the wall, slung it around him. Out back, he unbuttoned his pajamas and pissed a hot stream into the darkness.
When he went back inside, the chair where his daddy slept was empty. A light crept up behind the front window and splashed out onto the floor. It burned in a circle through the fogged glass. He watched it, pulling the sag of the coat around him, thinking about his mama’s ghost stories— the way the Devil can come in through a keyhole.
Ellis stood on his porch, listening to the rain against the overhang. It spilled through the slats, the floorboards, his feet. An uneasy feeling had rousted him out of his sleep and now he could see it on the road: a soft orb of lantern light coming toward him. He lifted up his rifle and trained it. Droplets splashed and beaded on the long barrel. He could hear the hollow of the chamber tinkling. The light paused at the gate, then slowly made its way up the path to the porch.
Ho there!, he called out. Come any closer and I’ll pay you with lead.
Ellis leaned his cheek against the sight. The man slid the lantern hood and let a ray cast across his face. It was Ellis’s partner, Skinny. The rain had matted his hair against his forehead. Ellis eased off his grip.
Damn it, Skinny. Haven’t you any sense coming around this hour?
Give me harbor.
Ellis leaned his gun against the wall and took Skinny’s hand as he came up on the porch. Skinny shivered in his oilskin coat. He hung his lantern by the window and looked at the leaks spilling through the roof.
I just come from Wilkin’s farm, he said. Talking with Dave Eaton’s boy. Said he saw dynamiters coming through Mayersville.
Dynamiters, Ellis said.
He scratched the rough hairs on his neck and tried take the measure of his friend.
They actually going to do it.
Me and Eaton are going around, telling everyone what we know.
The two men stood and listened to the rain. It was filling up the countryside, and if there were dynamiters, it meant that the levee at Mayersville wouldn’t hold much longer. They’d blast it to ease the pressure but the force would bust every tributary south-river of Mayersville. Issaquena County and every township along the lowlands would be buried under a swell of rain and angry river.
How long you reckon? Ellis asked.
Skinny took off his hat and squeezed the wet out. He shook his head.
Not long, I don’t think. I’m off tonight. I ain’t taking no chances. Going out to Winona—my boy’s family is out there.
I ain’t got nobody in no Winona.
Skinny sucked something out of his teeth. He fit his hat back on his head and took his lantern from its hook.
You can’t stay here, Skinny said. He looked out back toward the night. I’m just telling you ’cause I known you a long ways back and I know your people’s been through hard times.
Ellis looked back at the house.
Skinny, he said.
It’s just a place, Ellis. Wood and nails. A house ain’t like a person. You got to look after yours.
Ellis put his lips together into a knot and nodded slow.
In the rain the men crowded the river edge. They’d worked through the night, sandbags at their shoulders, the numbness set heavy in their chests and arms. They sunk waist deep into the soft mud, hefting their bodies forward and up. When the lantern went, they stopped in their places and listened to each other breathe. Rain flickered white in the darkness. Somewhere beyond them was the river. It groaned and roiled, eating the banks, crisping against the rocks. After a moment, someone cut the wet from the wick and relit the lantern.
The men shifted under a cake of rain and mud and sweat. Come dawn a wound of light bellied through the clouds. In the light, they could see what they couldn’t before. Piece by piece, the embankment was falling away into the current, their sandbags shooting up downriver.
There was a pop, and a jet of gray water gushed through the embankment. Shouts rose up and a wave of men raced toward the break. They shored it up with their bodies, crying more men, more men. The air cracked and the ground trembled. The water ripped through them like paper, sending them into the air, into the mud. The river burst forward and the levee crumbled under it, tearing through the camp, through forest, rising up in a great yellow wall, driving close, fast, screaming like a train, its roar sucking up the sky, a voice crowning open like the Almighty, through Fitler and Cary and Nitta Yuma, acre by acre, through cornfields and cotton rows; through plantation houses and dogtrots, wood and brick and mortar, through the depots and churches and rail yards, through forest and valley, snapping boulders through the air. Houses rose up, bobbed, then smashed together like eggshells. Homes bled out their insides—bureaus, bathtubs, drawers, gramophones— before folding into themselves. The people scrambled up on their roofs, up trees, clinging to one another. The water blew them from their perches, swept them into the drift, smashed them against the debris. They bubbled up swollen and drowned, rag-dolling in the current, moving deeper and deeper inland, toward Issaquena.
When the floodwaters came, Ellis lay sprawled in his chair, smothered down in sleep. In his dream he could hear his boy call for him—Daddy, Daddy—up through the depths, his voice crashing, warm at first then a jolt of panic. Each call came brighter, sharper— Daddy, please Daddy—hoisting him up through miles of dreaming. His eyes opened into the bright noise of the world. The floorboards were dark and swollen at his feet. Water bubbled up through the planks. Daddy. Wake up, Daddy, he heard, and he saw Little Robert beside him tugging hard on his flannel shirt.
I’m awake, Ellis said, his voice hoarse. He rose unsteadily to his feet. They watched a rocking chair slide on its legs. The water was climbing. The boy threw himself around his father’s waist and out of habit Ellis touched the back of the boy’s neck.
Go get your mama, he said.
Ellis wrapped up what food he could in newspaper and crammed their clothes into carpetbags and satchels. Quick now, he called to his son. Robert was waiting with his mother, holding her hand. She was dressed in her powder-blue church dress with a straw sun hat fit over her head.
Ellis moved toward her.
Etta, he began, but then he heard the house crack under his feet. Come on, let’s go.
He unlatched the front door and the water sluiced through, soaking his lower half. Ellis grunted, pushed through the doorway, and out onto the porch.
Beyond the steps, the floodwaters prickled moodily over the surrounding country. The dogwoods were stunted, their fluffed heads bowed over the water. Toward town, houses had broken free from their foundations and were bobbing in place.
He turned and the boy’s eyes started to glass. He sent Robert inside for a rope and made a yoke around his waist, tying one end to his wife and the other to his son.
Stay close together, he told them.
Ellis went in first. He lowered himself slowly off the porch, into the rush of water. He bit down on his yell and tried to shake the ice from his head. A piano floated by and he swung to the side and let it pass. He balanced his bundle on his head and looked up at his wife and son.
Just like a bath. That’s all it is, he said.
He motioned for Robert to come down next. Then Etta. Her dress flowered up around her, and she held her hat down against her head. Oh, she said. They shivered and hugged themselves, the slack of the rope floating up between them.
They waded against the current toward the telegraph poles in the distance, to Rolling Fork. Every now and then Ellis would cry out left, left, right, right and he could feel the tug against his waist, the knot biting into his hip as they dodged the flotsam. Pebbles churned in the yellow soup, hitting his legs and ribs and stomach.
Midday, the rain stopped and the sun broke through into the clean sky. The waters washed against them in thick moody rolls. Around them, people lay on their roofs, blankets spread out under them. The air buzzed with their crying. One man called out to them in a high ragged voice. Ellis watched him over his shoulder, jumping up and down and swinging his arms.
Boy! You there!
Robert looked over.
Don’t pay him no attention, Ellis said.
Hey! Where you going?
There was a crack and a crown of water splashed up some feet away from Robert.
I’m talking to you!
Another crack, and Robert winced. He kept his head down and they trudged forward.
They’d gone for hours through the numbing waters, their heads drooped and the space behind their eyes, deep and sonorous. Ellis felt the walls of his skull tensing. The waters stretched forever, smothering the roads and fields and district lines. Roof shingles drifted in the distance. He only dimly knew where he was, sighting out the tips of landmarks that peaked above the waterline. Robert was guiding his mama along, taking wide strides through the muck. He could hardly keep his eyes open. Ellis squeezed the bridge of his nose. The cave of his head yawned vast with air. He willed his legs forward but they refused.
Ellis shut his eyes. He did not know how much longer they could go on. He could make out a noise in the distance. It was a song, coming through warm and brown. He opened his eyes and across the water he saw a boat skimming between the rooftops, and the man in it, pulling his oars back and singing toward the sky.
I’m only going over Jordan, I’m only going over home, the man sang. I’m going there to see my Father, going there no more to roam.
Hello, Ellis called out.
The man let the oars hang loose in the water.
Hello!, the man answered.
The man paddled toward them, pulling up the water in white lashes. He was youngish—handsome with a thin sprinkling of hair on his sharp chin. How do you do? the man said. He extended out his hand. Name of Stuckey.
Ellis lifted his own hand up from the water, wiped it on his shirt, and shook it. I’m Ellis Chatham and here’s my family. We been crossing over from Issaquena County.
Looks like you Chathams are wet in a bad way.
Was wondering if you could carry us some, Ellis said.
You don’t say.
The man’s tongue worked something over between his teeth. He leaned against the gunwale and flicked something away from his hair.
What you got in them satchels?
The muzzle of his pistol rested over the lip of the boat. Come on now, let’s see them.
Just some food, Ellis said. Clothes. What little we got. We’d be happy to trade some—
The man gestured with his gun. Get in, he said.
We ain’t looking for no kind of trouble, Mr. Stuckey.
The boat, the man said.
Ellis wedged his hands under Robert’s arms and lifted him up. He set the boy down on the boat floor. Etta was next. Stuckey pulled her up by her arm, the heel of his boot anchored to the transom to keep from falling. Her dress clung to her thighs and she plucked the sticky cloth from around her legs. Her hat flipped off her head and went into the water. On board, her legs gave under her and she crawled to Robert, gathering him into her arms and cooing into his ear.
Well, well, Stuckey said. He reached for Ellis and heaved him in.
Looks like I caught me some duckies.
The rowboat was wide and long. The Chathams set themselves up at the stern-side bench. Stuckey went through their sacks, throwing their clothes and keepsakes carelessly on the puddled floor. He found the loaf of bread and tore into it, his breath squeaking through his nostrils. He snorted, swallowed, and tossed the rest to the Chathams.
Stale, he said, wiping his mouth.
Ellis stared at him.
Go on. Eat, Stuckey said, opening up another satchel. Son of man, eat thy bread with quaking and drink thy water with trembling and carefulness.
Ellis broke the loaf into pieces and handed a piece to the boy. Robert ate slowly and quietly, nestled in between his mama’s arms.
What you going to do with us?, Ellis asked.
The man stood up. Etta tightened around the boy.
Row, the man said.
Stuckey hung his hand off the side of the boat, letting his fingers slice into the water. They were in the basin, where the water had gone high-deep. Beneath, dogtrots and lean-tos hung in the water—neither floating nor sinking. Now and again, something would bubble up to the surface. A chair. A table. A blouse. He skimmed up the blue wad of cloth, then spread it open. It was small. A girl’s. He looked at it amused, then set it back in the water.
You know, friend, if there’s a heaven, I hope it’s a dry one.
Ellis had stripped off his shirt—a thin skin of sweat greased his body. With each stroke, he let out a breath. Behind him, Etta was still clutching the boy, shivering, staring back at the man.
Stuckey sat up.
You a man of God, friend?
Ellis kept on with his paddling.
That’s all right. You don’t have to tell me. Me, my daddy was a pastor outside of Tunica. Tiny little place. A flock that wasn’t more than a sheep and a half. He made me say verses and passages every night at supper. It got so’s I’d turn hungry every time someone read from Corinthians. That man used to go on and on, about the angry God and the loving God.
Stuckey leaned forward.
Now which one of those you believe in?
Ellis lifted the paddles up and let the boat drift. He stared hard at the man. The sun had started setting and was bruising pink overhead. Mosquitoes skimmed along the surface of the water, and he could hear the creaking of bust-up houses shifting beneath them.
Stuckey shook his head.
You said you from Issaquena County? You hear about that boy they hanged two months ago? Fourteen. Was off fooling with some plantation owner’s daughter. A real beauty. A real lily as they say. Well, right before they strung him up, they got the rope round his neck, they ask him why he’d done it. You know what he said?
Ellis clenched his face together. The tendons in his shoulders tightened.
Love! You believe that?
Now, I done a lot in my time. Don’t even start me to talking. But go near a white woman? Never. I’d never be that reckless. Shoot.
Stuckey opened his arms and swept them over the boat. In the distance, a train lay on its side, figures huddled on top of the boxcar. Telegraph poles had collapsed together in a nest of crucifixions, their cables willowing into the dark water.
I mean, will you look at this mess?
Excerpted from Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng. Copyright © 2013 by Bill Cheng.
First published 2013 by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York. First published in Great Britain 2013 by Picador an imprint of Pan Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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