Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
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Signs and Wonders

The first package that arrived on Egret’s porch bore no return address. Egret found the cardboard box inside the screen door when she came home from unrolling chickenwire around a neighbor’s eggplants—the widow Ms. Lucy Warham. She flipped over the package, but no writing there either. The box’s lightness bothered her. When she turned it back over, she didn’t yet know that the scraping inside would become the sound of her own feet dragging through the mud, her search for a porch from which to fly.

Throughout the single-story house the sound of metal bonging on wood; her father, Kline, was emptying all the rooms’ rainpots. Her mother had disappeared two years ago while walking the serpentine bog road to the House of God with Signs Following—or Signs and Wonders, as every cracker called it. The walk was only three miles, but she never made it there. Her father held a deep grudge toward the Preacher, who had refused to form a search party on the grounds that the greatest hunt they could carry out was prayer. Now at fifteen, Egret wanted to leave too, only not like her mother.

She wanted to leave Drywell County’s only church like that one red fox had left behind its sick cubs in the crawl space under the porches. Motherless, the cubs had scrambled up into the insulation and died in the walls’ gaps: unable to find food yet unable to climb out. Their rotting bodies left behind brown stains along the bottom trim and a moist, musty smell that no mineral spirits could wipe away or clear the air of. She would have buried them in the yard except she couldn’t bring herself to look at their tiny skeletons. They alone kept her outdoors all year. She treasured the summer because it meant the longest days to roam the Okey. Not the mosquito swarms nor her sweaty split ends stopped her.

At the kitchen table, she pushed aside a half-empty stewpot and set the box in its place. She broke the seal with a butter knife. It was one of the few utensils left that her father had not thrown into the Okey behind their house; this was a habit he’d fallen into whenever he came home from hunting empty-handed because what good were forks and knives when you had nothing in which to stick them? Earlier that day, she’d heard him cursing the House of God while dragging his lapstrake canoe toward the water. Two, three times a week—Bog Days, he called them—he slipped on rain boots cut from the bottom of waders and clipped a sidebag of shells on his belt before hitting the old canal system with a peach pit in his mouth. He kept a butter bowl of them on the chopping stump next to their ripening tree. “Keeps the saliva flowing,” he’d reasoned. “Teeth sharp.”

From inside the package, a snake’s skin uncurled across the tabletop. Four feet, all told. She called out: “Kline!”

On the snake’s skin, someone had written a verse down the faded black diamonds: “And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. Mark 16:17–18.” Kline took one look at the skin. “No more,” he said. “That snake nest has stolen enough from us.”

She repeated, “In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues”—she liked the hope it inspired—and then said, “Signs and Wonders is no more a snake nest than the whole Okey itself. And you go in there almost every day.”

“I take a weapon,” he said. “I have the right mind on what needs shooting, what not to.”

After she showed him her arms were free of bite marks, he paced the room, thinking. His hobnailed boots clicked on the linoleum. His heels left mud streaks. She’d have to clean it up, just like she’d swept the chunks of drywall that he’d shot down from the popcorn ceiling a week ago. That was the night he drank his last drop of hooch. Thanks to one bottle of bootleg corn liquor, Egret watched him convince himself—after repeatedly firing his Remington 870 at “rats in the walls”—that Signs and Wonders ruined his aim, or ruined his arm, or left him just that impotent in his own home. His reason for sobering? “I need the clarity.” But he kept rubbing his eyes as if the off-white walls were too bright and he just wanted to close them for good. Alcohol was banned in the county—medicine and guns too. Along the bog road, hand-painted placards: “Behold, words of The Father: The Devil lives at the bottom of every barrel and bottle.”

Kline was fond of asking, “Just how many fathers does one girl need?” He said this again, now, before he yanked the utensil drawer off its track. Matchsticks sprinkled out into a puddle on the floor. When he finally burned the snake husk with the only dry one, he made her watch. Smoke rose from Mark 16’s ashes through a wide grouping of bullet holes in the ceiling.

“That snake nest will be the death of this county,” Kline said before he went inside. It was a strange thing to say, considering the land. The Okefenokee was as much dead as it was alive. Drop a body in the sweet-tea-colored water and pull it up a year later? Still fresh, looking more asleep than lifeless. Bald cypress knees thrust up like skinless hands climbing from the pocosin muck. At night, will-o’-the-wisps sparked white in crepe myrtle knotholes, daring you in. No wonder Drywell’s mood rose and fell with the water levels. The past spring and summer had seen little rain, high temps. Now the cypresses’ bare knees extended to whole legs. Trout baked in puddles. And the lagoons, whose still waters Egret stared into daily, vanished, taking her reflection along with them.


The last time Egret and her mother attended Signs and Wonders together—before every service revolved around snake handling—they walked there barefoot, the same as every Sunday. They sang the hymns well and loud and made sure the Preacher could hear their “Amens.” Kline never came along; Sundays were Bog Days: “If the Lord can’t hear me praying for a big sow, then He wasn’t listening in the first place.” That was when Signs and Wonders was a flock of quieter, more respectful members. Everyone made sure to shake everyone else’s hand during the Offering. No one spoke out of turn. The Preacher tried his darnedest to demonstrate the indubitable Word of God. All the while, the two of them held hands behind the pew and liked to pass a cool stone between their fingers until it turned hot. In a shin-long, thin cotton dress that used to be a bright yellow and blue jeans underneath, Egret let her hair run twig-filled. Ms. Warham said it looked like a squirrel had slept on her head.

In the shape of an octagon and pure white, the church stood out. It remained pristine thanks to silver ore that some said made the paint sparkle. The structure had stood there for ninety years: first Methodist, then abandoned, then Pentecostal. The spiders in the eaves went back generations. Egret thought it fit well beneath the branches of high-rising birches and poplars and the one oak from which Spanish moss hung down like sheared wool. The rumor that the oak was dying and would one day collapse on the steeple kept the congregation loyal; everyone flocked to this image of a beautiful sinking ship in the sea of serpents that was the Okefenokee.

The week that her mother vanished, the Preacher returned from visiting congregations in Kentucky and Virginia with plans to give snake handling its first roots in Drywell. He immediately ordered the snakebarn built behind the sanctuary. He spent less time there and much more in that pressed timber shed out back. He banned all copies of the Book but for the ones he stored with corn vipers in the barn. “Mere vessels,” he called the Bibles. “No more likely to inspire acts of absolute repentance than waking from a too-long nap.”

But even two years after the Preacher held up the first rattlesnake with calls for it to bind his wrists, the snake’s tail popping like sap in high heat and the congregation’s chants for penance and the old routine of attending services with her mother still drew Egret back every Sunday with a venomous desire to see how much deeper this place could sink.


A month after the first package, Egret met the church’s new undertaker. He was a white man named Grant Cherry who walked fifteen miles each way every day to work, with a wheelbarrow of tools in tow. But he did not attend services. Rumor had it he was afraid of snakes. Even so, Drywell’s members felt better about dying since the old undertaker—a man who’d let coffins rot aboveground for days before burying them shallowly—took sick from digging into a pox grave. Grant, Egret thought as she pushed through the graveyard’s iron gate, looked like a man with molasses for blood: sweet, slow, and quiet in all practices. Four seasons he wore shin-high boots with wooden heels and a burlap coat over denim overalls; at thirty-two, he whistled Leadbelly rhythms and mashed down the whining brakes in his stepside pickup whenever snapping turtles crossed the bog road. He’d never mishandled a body. She hoped this calm consistency extended to other parts of him.

On Sundays, while the Preacher washed members’ feet by the pulpit, through the windows she’d watch Grant leave the graveyard during the hottest part of the day. And today, a Monday, with that package spurring her to some brighter edge, she’d decided to finally talk to him and bring him a peach because cherry trees didn’t grow in Georgia.

He was standing in a hole with his back to her. Only his head poked aboveground. His bare arms made for a sight, each the width of good swamp knees. They flung shovelfuls of red dirt onto a mound beside the plot.

“Somebody die?” she asked.

He turned slowly around. “Not yet.” His face was as calm and flat as lagoon water. “But I like to have one already dug.”

“Don’t know if I should call that being prepared or just plain lazy.”

“You’ll find I’m a fan of contradictions. Going one way down other-way roads.”


“How it looks doesn’t say a thing about how it is.” He took in the dimensions of the hole. “But I typically have good news for people who like bad news.”

“I didn’t think there was any other kind.” She handed down the peach. “Here.” She made sure not to fall in.

“Suppose I don’t have to worry about poisoning. I’m already two feet in the grave as is.” Instead of taking a bite, he slipped the peach into his overalls’ chest pocket. “Save this for later,” his head tilted back, one hand shading his eyes, “when it’s the only sweet thing around.”

Egret felt her cheeks heat up. “For a gravedigger, you’re kind.”

“I like to think we’re a deep profession even more deeply misunderstood.” He talked coolly, straightforward, as if he’d never started a fight, but never backed down from one either.

He hoisted himself out of the plot. He, unexpectedly, hugged her. Her chin came up to his front pocket. “I should have said thank you,” he said into her ear. Then she felt a hand on the thigh of her jeans. She froze. He froze too. “Then again, we’re probably all a little misunderstood.” At once bold and tentative, he acted as if pressing her to him hurt. But he continued to all the same. Peach juice stuck to her cheeks as she muffled a warning about his smashed snack. She wanted to let go, but not be let go of.

Somewhere above, a bird hooted. Probably a rain dove; she often confused them for larger owls, which she’d heard had all fled the drought. Good for them, she thought. Use the wings God gave you.Glad for the sudden distraction, she allowed space in between the two of them. From the looks of the juice mixing with the red dirt, he’d been shot square in the chest.

“You look like you been kissed,” he said, wincing for some reason. “Lipstick all over.” He went so far as to touch her lip. His fingertip had a fuzziness to it, like peachskin. Egret reached up to wipe off her face, but Grant caught her hand. “Let it stay.” She could feel his molasses coursing from his hand into hers, inside her own chest, between her legs. “I know a better way to clean that up.”

Not five minutes away, a crick snaked its way between kudzu-layered banks that Egret and Grant negotiated with high careful steps. She clung to his digging arm until they both stood in the knee-high current. Her jeans soaked up the cold water but it did not cool her down.

“Those bodies leak things into the soil. Good for cleaning. Acids in your stomach and fluid in your head,” he said. “Antimony and salt.” He undid the overalls’ straps, stripped off his long-sleeved shirt. “When it hits a hundred, I come here.” On his arms and chest, several angry-looking welts the size and color of young peaches. He noticed her staring: “Risin’s,” he said. “Nothing you can do about them till they come to a head. Just keep them clean.” He helped with her dress, rolling it over her head. His overalls slid down easily, leaving him in his unwhite underwear and her in her jeans and her mother’s bra, one size too large but so soft with wear. He threw these into the kudzu where their clothes disappeared beneath the heart-shaped leaves.

The crick sluiced them spotless, and they lay finished beside each other. The water ran over them with the sensation of shedding skin. He’d made her bleed but that too washed away. Whoever was watching or whatever this place was beneath its surface, it didn’t matter then.

She wished she’d seen her face, the juice stain like a birthmark, the birthmark like the big splotchy one her mother had on the bottom of her foot—“Some clays you can’t get rid of without cutting off your own two feet. Best let it be.” In the running water, her reflection showed nothing but the grass and clay beneath. She washed not just her chin and cheeks, but every part, as if the fluids that flowed here would turn her older, or mirror its coming.


The following Sunday, Egret was late.

With no clouds in the way, the sky glowed the blue of mosquito zappers. Nine thirty was hot. On the walk to church, she’d stopped by too many dried-up lagoons with a sick expectation. She’d spent the past two years wondering about their depths. Now part of her hoped that with the Okey’s waters receding so much, she might find her mother at the bottom of one, as barefoot and clean as the day she’d disappeared.

Upon slipping into the back of the sanctuary, she found the sermon slowed by the heat as well. Most of the congregation waved their palm fans. Her dress stuck wetly to her underarms. Her bra felt like two clammy hands grabbing her. She sat up straight like everyone else.

From behind the oil drum pulpit, sweating yet unfazed, the Preacher brought out a long coral snake. Egret remembered the rhyme: “Red and yellow: kill a fellow. Red and black: friend of Jack.” Words from her father when he’d caught one under an apple barrel in the backyard. He knew not to grab it by the tail. So while he clasped the back of its head, he let her stroke it. It’d squeezed with the same pressure as her mother’s fingers wrapping around her own.

At the hall’s front, the Preacher stretched out the colorful snake in clothesline fashion and said that no one should avoid holding sin in his hands, daring its bite, else he should fall swiftly down to the Devil’s den and be there, unchanged, forever. Like in the Okey, she realized. If that was what had happened to her mother, then damn the Devil too! A metallic taste swelled in her mouth, like biting down on a fork. Her lip was bleeding. She’d bitten it. By the time the Preacher called members to the front, her lip was so swollen she couldn’t even whisper amen.

Her neighbor Ms. Warham was the first to step up. Her short gingham sheath featured a row of blue ivy leaves around the waist. At this distance, they looked no different from the rattler’s diamonds her father’d burned. Some men pointed at her back (that’s the one, the one who’ll sleep with any cracker that wants it), some women whispered to each other (“If anyone needs saving, it’s her”). Once she stood before the Preacher, he draped the coral around her neck. They both spoke to the air in a gobbler’s tongue. And down Ms. Warham went. Whether from snakebite or heat or the Lord’s touch, Egret couldn’t see. Others immediately took her place and started singing nonsense.

While the Preacher went to the barn for more snakes to pass around, Egret left early. Grant wasn’t in the graveyard. Some thick treadmarks in the road’s clay could have been snake tracks. She wondered what she’d do if a coral crossed her path. At home, Kline napped on the front porch swing. The shotgun rested against his elbow. Ready to wake up and shoot—no questions asked. She climbed the far left of the steps where the boards didn’t creak, bent down, slurred through swollen lip, “Red and yellow: lonesome fellow. Red and black: don’t look back.”

She was in the middle of building a small box for the cicadas. The checkered plywood siding by the boarded-up crawl space provided more than enough strips. She stole nails from the back porch’s railing posts that Kline complained were getting rickety. The plywood usually took only a few strikes of the butter knife’s handle to nail down. But she had to steady her hand with the other, overcome as she was with the Preacher’s babble, Ms. Warham’s collapse, and the coming swarms. The thirteen-year locusts had descended when she was two. By the time she was six, she planned for their return. She’d collect their bodies from all across the county and pile them in her box, and one night those husks would be replaced with dimes or bottle caps or alligator teeth.

“You’re home.” She hadn’t heard him come out, but there he stood, sober and squinting.

She didn’t nod, she didn’t shake her head.

“Blood on your lip.” He didn’t make a move to wipe it off. “Not sure whether I want it to be yours or someone else’s. Either way, you know that snake nest is nothing but a burglar in prettied-up muckboots—yet you go.”

The sound of someone out front stole from her any reply.

Propped inside the screen door, she found another small cardboard box. Someone had cut slits in the sides. She picked it up—heavier this time—and shook it twice. The rattle, the strike against the side, the box jerking out of her hands—it happened as one. She turned toward the road but no footprints showed in the gravel and no engine turned over in the distance. From inside the box, again the rattle. Kline responded the way he did to most intrusions.

With a bar of fat-rendered soap, Egret washed the snake blood off the floorboards. She wished she could have been the one to hold up the Remington and pull on the trigger like bending a fang backward to milk the venom.

Her father sat and drank a bottle of root beer. “People have died,” he said. “Good people have been lost on account of that house. Your mother included. It doesn’t take a physicist to put two and two together.” This was all true. “I don’t want you leaving the house anymore, not without my permission.” In these past two years, over twenty people had been bit while handling; half never recovered. “If the same were to happen to you, I don’t know what—” Across his lap, the shotgun’s black barrel pointed at her head. Its muzzle opened before her like a hole she felt the urge to climb into. Before he’d stopped drinking, never once did he let the business end of his weapon draw a bead on her; now, without the hooch, he’d turned less confused, more obsessive. Both of them were honing in on what exactly they wanted.

She plugged up the barrel with one finger.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”


“You think I won’t. You think this one father doesn’t have the guts. That he can’t protect you from everything that bites and stings in this hellhole.” He pushed her back onto her elbows. “Word to the wise: snakes don’t always come in neat little boxes.”

While she continued to scrub the porch, he stepped inside. She could hear him, muffled, through the cracked bathroom window. He was still saying to her, “Don’t go back,” or he was telling himself the same among other sounds. He was probably jerking off into the mirror. On the worst days, she’d heard him bite his tongue almost clean off in climactic defeat—in his eyes, most days conspired to foil him: hunting, sleeping, living without a wife, living on the edge of Signs and Wonders.

When she looked away to try and ignore his groans, the stairs, the lines of gravel, the long fetterbush leaves pointing down the path—they invited her to go, and to go now.

Without finishing the porch, Egret grabbed the wasted package. She marched inside, flung open the bathroom door, and threw the box at her turning, half-naked father. The box’s corner struck his groin and the snake’s shredded body flew up at him, fangs first.

The cicada year began that very day in Drywell.


The next day came and stayed. Late afternoon, on the back porch, Egret screwed a lid hinge onto her box. Kline had left early on a hunt. All day she’d dreaded another luckless return from the bog.

Out front, the grating of someone dragging a full wheelbarrow. “Grant!” She jumped up. Who else hauled his life around? Who else would come see her at the shank of the day?

In the front doorway, she met Kline. Soaked in clay and mud up to a clean line across his chest, he shouldered her aside. The disappointment that it wasn’t Grant didn’t overshadow the fact that Kline was dragging something very heavy. By a hoof over one shoulder, he hauled this huge wild hog through the house, out the back door. A blood trail and mosquito cloud followed.

“Bastard’s tusks sank my boat.” But he grinned all the same. “All the missing water must have chased him out of his hidey-hole.” Onto the chopping stump he flopped the hog, crushing the peach pit bowl. The bloody tusks curved up toward the ripening sky. How many years, Egret wondered, had it taken to grow those once-white weapons?

Kline practically hugged the thing with both arms before he slit it down the belly from anus to throat. He pulled back the new belly flap like a curtain and stood with his chin high, waiting for waves of admiration. She squatted down and just stared in. Purplish innards slid out into a pile. Their heat and color weakened her in the knees.

“Know what this means, right?”

“You’re going to church again.”

“Hell no!” he said. “Means I’ve got my aim back! That preacher can ask God to keep me hungry until pigs fly; I don’t care if the whole Okey goes belly up, I’m still here—I’ll shoot pork out of the sky if I have to.” Now he was liable to carry the gun everywhere, barrel notched on the cleat of his boot toes, ready to fire at anything that moved in a way he didn’t care for.

Mosquitoes stuck to her lips. Another wash would do her well, in the crick, with Grant.

When her father began to butcher the body, starting with the head and legs and then the rib cage, the stomach came spilling out. The porker must have swallowed everything it found. Half a Kentucky license plate, the broken bow of a fiddle, some bird shells cracked in half—the baby birds still unwilling to leave their broken homes. Their claws curled up by their heads like horns. “Everything can fit inside something else’s belly,” Kline said. And she imagined him eating her: jeans, soap, and all.

“This one’s big enough to eat a person,” she said. “Shoes or no shoes.”

She expected that would set him off; instead, it elevated his mood that much more. “Your mother knew better than to let a hog get the best of her. Would take a much craftier animal to corner that woman, no two ways about it.” Of two years’ time, he was in highest spirits right then: sober, trigger-happy, hands on ham steaks, singing an old slave spiritual they’d never sung in church but which she knew all the same. “Deep river, my home is Jordan, deep river. Lord, I want to cross over ground. Lord, I can cross my ground. Oh don’t you go to the gospel feast, that promised land, that land where all is peace. Walk into heaven, and take a seat, and cast my crown.” He’d changed some words. The last line should have ended with “at Jesus’ feet.”

While he sang and butchered, she stole a fatty hunk of meat, ran the kitchen sponge once over the trail, and left for Signs and Wonders as the sun turned blood orange at eight o’clock. Another package lay inside the screen door, but she did not stop to open it.


That evening Egret was relieved to find Grant in the graveyard. This time she had no peach, but the meat was for his risin’s. Ms. Warham once had a case of them; she said that binding raw pork fat over the bumps brought them to a head. “I could put it on for you,” Egret offered, knowing he’d have to undress. The cicadas were out in full force, so she had to speak right into his ear. He flung away the hunk with his shovel. “That kind of news I don’t believe in.”

He then said he’d been thinking a lot. He’d been thinking that if somehow her body came under his caretaking, he could promise her a smooth descent into the earth and a polished pink marble headstone. “Marble doesn’t last forever; weather gets to it. Changes. But it starts out prettier than any other stone.” For this, she hugged him. It was one of those moments where someone says a thing you’ve not yet realized you’ve been waiting years to hear. The Preacher would have called it the serpent’s tongue wagging in her ear, but she knew better. Grant’s promise also marked the first time she ever regretted leaving the house. Her father had brought home the hog to show her that he could still hunt and butcher and cook and eat like family beside her, and now where was she?

Grant told her he had a special job tonight. He pointed over at a brass bell that hung from an irrigation pipe two feet out of the ground. Earlier in the day, Ms. Warham had succumbed to her snakebite; superstition, not honor, said bury the body before sunset. But there was a slight chance she’d only slipped unconscious and could wake up, convinced she was already dead. Hence, the bell. Above the cicadas’ blare he’d have to keep an ear cocked. Ms. Warham wouldn’t exactly be missed; when Egret had first come over to deer proof her eggplants, she caught sight of Ms. Warham in her den straddling a married swamper—that woman had the snake by the tail for a long time, but buried alive? Is that what happened when your willpower caved in, or grew wings?

Grant said, “Life in a box better than no life at all.”

“I want to stay here,” she said. “I want to listen with you.”

He made her promise to bring peaches next time.

The sun went down like a bobber on a taken hook and the world got dark without the moon. She circled the plot. She inspected the blank headstone. The more she imagined Ms. Warham down there, the more she disagreed with Grant about what life was best. If she stayed in Drywell any longer, she might very well end up in this same spot with the same neverness to her name. A too-soon burial made her want to climb the moss, perch in the oak, and leap off.

Grant patted the earth beside him. His root-ish arms wrapped around her waist and squeezed. He kissed her neck, bit her ear. She felt this other tongue—his—moving in her mouth. Soon enough they were working hands over each other, the way he worked the ground to loosen the soil before digging, arm over arm, dirt under the fingernails. She kissed him because she could and because she liked how she couldn’t hear anything over the cicadas’ burning hum.

Grant rolled her dress over her head. He tugged her jeans halfway down. He whispered that he thought he could hear the snakes rattling in the barn. She unhooked her bra and draped it over the headstone. Here they were—a man among bitten bodies on top of a girl wanting to fly.

Was that the bell?

Over the drone, she thought she heard it ring once. Then it did, again, this time over and over without stopping. She broke from Grant, covered her ears. It sounded like the clapper would shatter. She wanted to throw it in the Okey and crawl right back under him.

On his hands and knees he scrambled over to the pipe and opened his mouth to yell down the open end, but whatever words he had meant to say vanished when a flash lit up the corner of his eye as the first shotgun blast roared through the graveyard.

The land trembled: the weapon’s thunder or the bog’s protests or the banging on the coffin’s lid. Kline walked along the yard’s edge, looking dire-spirited and too swollen with rage to maneuver down the narrow lanes between the headstones. It was like a perverse dinner, the way the three of them came together with a bell ringing. Even the sick neighbor below appeared at the table, begging for some generosity beneath it all.

“Raising the dead, huh?” Kline called out. “More like raising something else.” He was, no doubt, reloading. Grant had already slipped on his overalls and started shoveling. She did her best to try and find where he’d tossed her dress.

By the time Grant was three feet down, Kline stood over him with the stink of hog’s blood on his pants and a twitch to his forearm that said he still hadn’t decided on whether to shoot Grant in the belly or the heart. Silently, he watched him finish digging the last few feet.

Grant lit his bull’s eye lantern, illuminating the top third of the coffin. They all waited, listening. Each quiet moment begged for a knock from below.

“She could be dead,” Grant said. “Could have just been the wind.”

Covering herself with just her arms, Egret teetered on the hole’s edge between the two men. Pulled in all directions—this was how Ms. Warham must have felt before she blacked out at the Preacher’s feet. Her body dropping out of sight behind the first pews. Like she’d been dragged down. The image flashed in her head of a tiny skeleton, stuck, curling in on itself. Egret felt her own feet pulled into the hole.

Kline dropped his gun and climbed down. “Could have been You Know Who, too.” Grant followed his cue. The two men lifted the coffin’s exposed panel before leaping back out.

This one bony hand snaked forth. It gripped the coffin’s rim. It pushed up the lid. From the opening first crawled this head, then the upper body of a woman in gingham striped with ivy. Ms. Warham opened her cloudy eyes. She reached her white arms skyward, grasping, grasping.

The moment seized Egret. But in no paralyzing fashion. She was surprised to not feel her legs buckle or arms freeze as she seized the gun from the ground: something needed killing, needed freeing. Shooting her father or Grant wouldn’t solve a thing, but the gun still glowed in her hands as the hook upon which her world hung, the answer in the form of a shell, and this craving to pull the trigger had deepened every time Kline stormed around the house and threatened her with the Remington. She would not be cradled by anyone’s arms. She could still fly from this early grave where, at the edge of it all, Ms. Warham’s sunken face and hoarse breath said this is what it comes to. Fifteen years and this is what it comes to.

Egret took aim at the plot and fired.

In the muzzle flash, her chest marred with shot, Ms. Warham folded inside the hole. The recoil knocked Egret off her feet. The shotgun went reeling into the night. Both Grant and Kline had ducked down at the gun’s blast and now they rubbed the spray of blood from their eyes. The cicadas all but shut up. Overhead, sleeping birds awakened and flew and some settled on the arms of the steeple’s cross. Egret moaned on the ground and tried to recover into a sitting position, but the throbbing pain in her arm kept her from even struggling to her knees.

With the gun collected, Kline stood over her. His half-open mouth and big eyes expressed a surprising degree of pride, yet the twitch in his arm had become an all-over shiver. With the Remington’s stock pressed down on her shoulder, he pulled her elbow hard. She cried out. The bones snapped back into place. Eyes averted, he handed her the bra from off the headstone.

Egret sat up, cradling her arm, doing her best to put on the bra one-handed. She had taken the shotgun like taking sin in her hands and had done it on the footsteps of His very home.

Yet she felt, ultimately, orphaned.

Grant said, “I used to say I was a fan of contradictions. Now I’m thinking it might be time to retire.” He’d slumped against a different headstone, still sweating bullets.

“Speak for yourself, digger.”

“We need to tell someone. Clear the air. My conscience is no less fragile than rotwood.”

“Then we should go ahead and start digging our own graves right now.”

Egret said, “She’s dead.”

“This didn’t happen,” Kline said. “And if you’re worried about your head, I can relieve you of that burden.” He loaded a shell into the magazine.

“She’s dead.”

“She’s lucky, what she is.”

“If she’s lucky,” Grant added, “I don’t want to be the luckiest.”

“All depends, Mr. Undertaker”—Kline enunciated this slowly—“do your undertaking.”

The mockingbirds on the cross let out a series of short, calling bursts that mimicked the gun’s report. The building’s white siding loomed pearlescent in the darkness. Kline paced beside the grave while Grant pushed in loose soil and broken roots. The undertaker’s big arms trembled each time Kline’s boots knocked together. Egret joined the effort. The cicadas steadily resumed their buzzing.

Once they’d filled the plot, all three patted the ground until it resembled a dry swamp bed. Grant promised to lay new sod tomorrow.

“Promise also that you’ll never come near my daughter again.” He let the muzzle drift in Grant’s direction.

“I wouldn’t think of it.”

“That’s the first step,” he said. “But I’m telling you not to do it either.”

“I won’t, believe me. Not after tonight. I’m just a gravedigger. I’m just misunderstood.”

Egret stomped one last time on the plot. “Some aren’t meant to be misunderstood.” She could never look at that grave again.

Kline picked up Grant’s lantern, found Egret’s dress on a low limb, took her by the hand. She knew he wanted to get out of the graveyard in case worse things appeared that could suck you through the sand or pluck you from the road. Grant put down a wolf stone before he got into his pickup and pulled away in the opposite direction. No one had said a prayer or goodbye. All her father mentioned on the walk home was that he’d cut up enough meat to feed the entire congregation and that they would keep it all for themselves.


The third package Egret brought unopened to her bedroom. She could still hear the bell; the shot, too. She’d just helped bury her very first body. There was also the constant bugbuzz, even with the window closed. She went to cut the package’s top until she realized the noise was coming from her own box on the dresser. When she lifted the top, she expected the cicada bodies to spring back to life. For the past week, she had gathered them in armfuls from cypress trunks and from beneath the porch where her father was now hiding, prepared to kill whomever made the next delivery. So she dipped her hands into the box. She cupped their bodies and tossed them high. She shoved out the windowpane as far as the hinge would go and the swarm flew out in a line of flashing greens and blacks. When she turned back to face her room, in her box, in her bed, in her hair, hundreds of empty shells.


She left that night, too. Simple as that.

Walking along the bog road, then turning off it, she crossed several razed fields and lost all idea of where she was. Signs and Wonders would find her path wrong, inexplicable, but this was how she wanted to be remembered.

She must have gone on for hours. Then headlights exposed a yellow world. Brakes whined before the vehicle stopped ahead. The outline of a top-heavy man in a loose coat stepped between the truck’s two bright bugeyes.

“Can’t sleep,” he said. “I imagine I don’t need to ask why you’re out so late.”

“I’m out here for the only good reason.”

“So that I can take you back.”

“Only if you’re going to come with me.”

She expected his silhouette to suddenly sprout wings and disappear upward; it was that kind of night.

“Bring me a peach tomorrow?” It sounded like he didn’t expect it the way his voice failed to rise at the question’s end. He headed back for the driver’s side. She could easily climb inside the stepside and find the nearest body of water to lie down in and never leave. A prickling in her feet soon overtook this urge. It said, Run. The truck made a four-point turn and sailed back the way it came, taillights red and shrinking.

She wanted to unearth a river and slip her head under the water. Breathe in minnow, pike, trout, peat and oak leaves; suck up the things that bodies dripped into the Okey to clean the deep within. From ditch to ditch, she flapped her fingers by her side, not wanting to feel any more familiar land beneath her. Perched on the pocosin’s drying banks, she’d dip her feathers and toe-claws into the last dark, acidic pools and shake them off in a display of wingspan. Her arms and neck grew longer, her skin sprouted plumes, her bones hollowed. The instinct to migrate pointed her north. She walked and ran and walked and leapt over hay bales and bounded border fences and scrambled through cedar branches and looked down to see her own shadow, the night itself, far and wide below her.

There, twisting between soy fields, the slender crick disappeared for miles in either direction. Black, it looked as deep as the River Jordan must have. The graveyard passed beneath, and she made out the still blank slate of the Ms. Warham’s headstone, then all of the gravemarkers eroded down to wordless surfaces. The marble and granite blocks marked a path toward the one oak and church that shimmered in the dark and the snakebarn where a lantern’s light sculpted the Preacher’s shadow. He held his bare arm toward a coral but the snake’s brain took no satisfaction from wasting its venom on the already poisoned. The Preacher tried to bite the snake’s tail before the barn passed out of view and the mockingbirds shot off their guns one more time. Not ten pastures over, the stump in her backyard appeared. And there, in the direct center of her old roof, a hole the size of the church’s sanctuary opened up and exposed her bedroom, the kitchen full of half-empty pots, the porch where unseen hands left packages from God, and inside the walls where skeletons hugged themselves. Kline hunkered down under the porch, fingering the Remington, sucking on a pit. The pit turned white and flashed. He spit it out. He looked completely weak and alone and wanting it that way.

Her blue jeans and cotton dress and bra fell away into the bog and slipped beneath the surface in her old shape. She tucked her bare legs to her chest, spread her arms to glide over the county line. When she opened her mouth, the bird inside cried out until the sun rose.    

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