Fugitives of the Heart
William Gay

Publication June 2021!

William Gay's last posthumous novel, with a foreword by Sonny Brewer and an afterword by J.M. White.

 
Binding

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252 pages  

ISBN 978-1-60489-273-4 (hardcover, $28.95) Sale $20

Also available in Kindle and e-book!

 

Excerpt from Book:

 

Yatesís fatherís sole claim to immortality was that he used to cause good car wrecks. On Allenís Creek, thereísa steep curve overlooked by a red clay bank and on the other side a precipitous cliff attended by an illusory bor- der of delicate alders. If you donít negotiate the curve you go down through the alders to the tables of lime- stone, who knows how far, farther than youíd want to go. Yatesís father had a long blonde frightwig heíd come by somewhere and a short red dress and he used to paint his mouth gaudily with fire red lipstick, mascara his eyes and whiten his cheeks with rice powder and go sit atop the clay bank overlooking the road. Skirt hiked and awaiting the unwary, shaven legs spread lasciviously. An ungod- ly sight, nightmarish, perhaps from hell, some displaced flapper from another time, another place. It is told by some old-timers that he wore womenís underwear when he did this, black some say, or red. Others debate it, fact as well as color. A sense of humor is a sense of humor, but pulling on a pair of womenís drawers is another thing altogether. His best day was early in the summer of 1941 when he sent a rattletrap Plymouth loaded with drunks end over end to their doom. Three were killed outright and two more died in the hospital. Afterwards a survivor said, That was either a man wearing a dress or the ugliest white woman I have ever seen.

Other than his sense of humor he had no saving grac- es, he was a drunk and he was lazy. He was a drunk only when he could get whiskey but he was lazy all the time. He had a job breaking ore in the mine, but a fifty-pound sledgehammer grows ever heavier when the morrow is as bleak as today, and ultimately he turned to stealing and that was his undoing.

The boy was awakened in the winterís night by the creak of a wagon, the rattling of traces, iron wheels turn- ing in frozen snow, the wind at the eaves tinkling the loose windowpanes in their sashes like chimes. He was instant- ly awake. Sany Claus?, he thought. He was up, bare feet on the cold floor. He crossed silent to the nearest window. There was a wagon and a team of mules, their steaming breath pluming palely. There were voices. He went out.

There was moonlight, a few ragged skiffs of snow, white against the black of the frozen night. It was very cold.

What is it? his mother asked. There was an under- current of terror in her voice. She had an old overcoat clutched about her.

Fresh meat, by God, the man in the wagon said. His voice was muffled by effort. He leant and straightened and rolled over the sideboards a manís body that fell slackly and moved once when it struck the frozen earth then no more.

The woman knelt over it there on the frozen snow. Her breath made a kind of keening whistling sound. The woman straightened and turned. Her face was ravaged and broken. The blood covering her hands and face looked black in the moonlight. She turned toward the boy but she didnít seem to see him. She approached the wagon.

I told him three times is just two too many, the man said. I aimed to fire over his head but heís a purty tall fell- er and a little taller than I took him to be.

From the high wagonseat he looked as big as God. I told it around, whoeverís been hittin my smokehouse would be toted off when I caught em. Well here he is. I caught him.

You son of a bitch, the woman said. You lowlife son of a bitch.

Itís hard times, the man said, just stating a fact, and it takes hard people to get through em. I got mouths of my own to feed. You donít have to go to no law. Iím goin to the high sheriff myself and tell him what I done. But I wouldnít expect much if I were you. Thieves was never thought much of in this part of the county.

The boy felt this was not to be borne. It ainít real, he thought, none of it. Iím dreamin it. It ainít real because nobody could stand this. If it was real Iíd die in a heart- beat till I was deader than him, Iíd disappear like smoke and be just as gone. I canít stand this.

The man snapped the lines and the wagon wheeled about in the dirty snow then he abruptly halted the mules. He picked up something else and rolled it over the side- boards. It looked like a side of meat. Iím a fair man, the man said. His face was grizzled with thin gray whiskers, he turned his head to spit amber onto the yard. If he want- ed it bad enough to trade his life for it then itís hisn. I am fair and you welcome to it. I figure itís paid for. He turned to acknowledge the boy. Beneath the moonlit shadow of the slouch hat his face appeared masked. A likely boy should learn somethin from this, he said.

She swore theyíd not touch a bite of the meat but like he said times was hard and in the end they did. A secret fear nagged at him. He wondered had there been blood on the meat but he didnít dare ask. He wondered if there was had she cut it off, but he didnít ask that either.

 

 Winter that year was short and mild. Then a false spring came in late February and overnight the world softly al-

tered. First the softwoods then the oak and hickory bud- ded and sprouted tiny leaves like archetypes of emerald grandeur and the fruit trees bloomed in a riot of white and pink and on Crying Woman Ridge the petals of the wild plum trees from an abandoned orchard were banked like windblown snowdrifts. The new growth of leaves and mayapple softened the abrupt harsh angularity of the ridges and a warm wind looping up from the south set everything astir and gave the world the illusory quality of a mirage. Everything was blurred green motion.

Yates took heart. Since his daddy was killed, he was much in the woods, avoiding any place that the kill- er might be, sleeping wherever night fell on him, and he welcomed this moderation of the temperature. He saw this early spring as a gift from the fates. A balancing of some cosmic scale. The scent of wildflower rode the winds and he moved through this Edenic world with a newfound confidence. He began to think he might make it after all.

 

 Later that year his mother told him she was going to die. She waxed and waned like a fever. Sheíd cough and cough by spells and chills would come on her and make her thin shoulders shake even when she was covered with quilts. Sheíd cough and spit bright bits of bloody spittle and the TB would burn in her cheeks in a dread illusion of health. She was going to die she said but he already knew everybody was going to die. She said heíd be sorry then and he guessed he would.

He was on the shady end of the porch waiting for cool dark to fall so he could be off when she pushed the screen door open.

Iím about out of that Chill Tonic, she said. I ainít got none, he told her.

It was some kind of patent medicine she took. Some dark foulsmelling tonic. Even Yates knew it was worth- less but he didnít begrudge her. He figured if you were dying you had coming most anything you wanted.

I know you ainít but Dow Cookís got a storeful. You go fetch me a bottle and tell him I said put it down on a ticket.

He wonít.

Ask him anyhow, she said. Tell him Iíll pay for it somehow.

Yeah, he said. Somehow is the way everything gets done around here.

Donít smartmouth me. Just do what I told you. It eas- es me.

All right, he said. Iíll go directly.

I reckon youíre restin, she said. She went back in and the door slapped to.

He sat on the porch awhile doing nothing and think- ing no thoughts at all. Low in the west the sun flared red over a bright underpinning of goldlike latticework ham- mered from brass. Up Owl Hollow the crusher hammered like a foundry. He went in once and she was asleep in the rocker with her mouth open and he leant to see was she breathing.

It was far afterdark and whippoorwills calling when he came in. She was still asleep. It was very hot in the house and the air stale with doom as if death napped on the cot across the room. He got up and opened a window to the cries of nightbirds and the rich smell of honeysuck- le. He lay back down and tried to sleep but it was still too hot.

For no reason he could name he thought of his father. His father came in drunk one day with a baby goat.

He never said where he got it or if he did Yates didnít re- member. He figured heíd stolen it. Only his father would steal something as useless as a goat.

The baby goat was coal black with markings of white stockings and the boy named it Blackie. It grew to think of him as its master and it followed him as a dog might. It would come when he called it and nuzzle its soft hornless head against his face. Nights he kept the kid tied on a rope to keep dogs from killing it. He went out one morning and it had choked to death. It was wound up in the rope with its pink tongue distended, and unwinding the rope didnít help but when he released it, it toppled sideways and fell. He stood it up on the limber legs but it fell and he began to cry nor could he stop. He cried bitterly and brokenly as if awaiting someone to come console him but no one did. At length he knew he had to bury it. There was no shovel. They did not even possess a shovel to bury the

dead.

He was stubborn and sin came easily and early to him. He stole a shovel leant against the wall of the com- pany store and when he came back into the glade his fa- ther was skinning the goat. His hands were bloody and he seemed to be flaying it. The boy knelt down, the shovel across his knees. He didnít say anything. Across the bloody kid his fatherís face was at once shamefaced and defiant. Then he looked away and wiped the bloody knife- blade on his pants and pocketed it. He threw aside the skin and arose, took up the kid by its legs and walked off.

After a time, Yates arose and shouldered the shovel and followed along behind. Yatesís father turned up Owl Hollow and Yates had to hurry to keep up but after a time he decided he was going to Old Granny Stovallís and he didnít have to run so much.

When he came in sight of the bootleggerís, his father and the old woman were in the front yard talking. They seemed to be arguing about something. His father kept gesturing and pointing toward the goat, placating, and she kept shaking her head. Rows of old men in folding chairs on the porch watched like parishioners at some curious camp meeting. After a few minutes she seemed either to change her mind or become weary of the whole discus- sion. She threw up her arms disgustedly and then took a halfpint bottle from the back of her voluminous apron and gave it to him and he handed her the goat. She car- ried it at armís length by one leg up the stairs then disap- peared around back where the wraparound gave onto the rear porch. She came back into view without the goat and seated herself before the old men like some grotesque old queen preening before her court of degenerates.

The first thing his father did was uncork the whis-

key and drink. The boy watched his Adamís apple work pumping the whiskey down. He wiped a sleeve across his mouth and put the bottle in the bib pocket of his over- alls and straightened his shoulders, strolling off already staggering and listing like a sailor trodding an unsteady deck. The hangdog look was gone. In its place a subtle arrogance, an air of defiance, a man of the world who took nothing off of nobody as he was wont to say.

The boy watched from the brush. A sort of contempt touched him. Goin to go hang around the store till some- body kicks the livin shit out of you, he thought.

He eased around the hillside through a grove of scrub pine, the ground carpeted with old worn copper col- ored pine needles, the air heady with the astringency of the trees. No one seemed to know he was in the world. If they did, they didnít care. When the back porch came into view he could see the kid dangling from a short length of rope or wire. Halfway to the summit of the hill he stopped and began to dig. The ground was stony and full of roots but he worked steadily, using the shovel as a pry bar to free the stones, as a dull axe to cut through the roots. When he finally had what he figured was about goatsize he stopped and squatted to get his breath back. He was wet with sweat.

He dreaded this part. This part couldnít be done from the bushes. He watched the house. Fear that was almost terror knotted his stomach. Well, he said, somebodyís got to do it and I guess itís me.

Heíd thought the old woman still on the porch and he was surprised to see her coming around the corner of the house and into the edge of the pines as if she divined his presence or smelled his blood as childhood giants were told to do and he was holding his breath and making ready to flee when she looked all about and turned her back to him and hoisted her skirts. She squatted on the pine nee- dles with her enormous pale hams turned nakedly up to him while she urinated and out of propriety or distaste he looked away until she was done.

An ugly child patterned on the fat woman came into the yard where a cluster of worn-out pans and broken dishes lay, a motley of broken and castoff appliances. She selected a pan and filled it with alternating layers of dirt and buckeye leaves and set it on a makeshift stove to cook, all the while singing tunelessly to herself. An ugly girlchild curiously unchildlike. Some dread troll or dwarf in parodic and listless semblance of play.

Get away, you little slut, Yates thought. Iíve got a funeral to run here.

The troll went on humming and washing broken dishes in a pan of water and every once in a while sheíd check the mess sheíd concocted as if to see was it done, then she appeared to lose interest and wandered off trying to sneak up on a blueblack fighting cock that had wan- dered up out of the brush.

Yates was up and about the moment she was out of sight. He was soundless across the yard and fast up the wooden stairway and his hands were quick at the wire se- curing the kid. He had it up in his arms and was down the stairs and halfway to the pine thicket when the troll began to shriek. Mama, mama, it cried.

The woman was there instantly as if sheíd been lying in wait for someone to steal her goat. You stop you god- damned little sneakthief, the woman cried.

Yates had no inclination toward stopping. There was something in the old womanís voice and something else in the trollís gleeful jumping up and down and shrieking that redoubled his efforts. He pumped his thin legs and tightened his spindly arms about the bloody thing and dove into the dwarf pines like a crazed but determined apprentice necromancer caught with what he had stolen flopping and slipping slickly away from his grip. He was running on adrenaline and stubbornness and sheer nerve.

He paused at the grave. He dropped the kid into it and took up the shovel as if heíd bury it and be damned in the very face of this firestorm of invective. But before heíd thrown the first shovelful of dirt the woman was lumbering toward him up through the brush. You turn aloose of my property, she was yelling, her fierce and diminutive familiar bringing up the rear. The old woman, a great shambling she-bear with slovening razorous teeth, set upon him with such murderous intent, a hot volatile smell of musk and anger and outrage. Coming through the brush she looked absolutely remorseless, the old she-bear with a cub in peril, or a territorial imperative.

Itís mine anyway goddamn it, Yates cried, but the old red faced woman was laboring up the embankment breathing hard and hanging onto saplings to haul herself up. Her irongray hair had sprung out in disarray and her blue eyes were fierce and protuberant.

He hurled the shovel at her. Heíd meant to behead her with its blade but the shovel turned in midair and only the handle slammed into the side of her head. The blow of the handle was relatively harmless but it was sufficient to make her release her grip on the sapling and when she did she plummeted downward like something caught in an instantaneous and horrific onset of gravity. She rolled on the troll, muffling momentarily the outraged shrieks as the two of them fell gracelessly end over end down the hillside. Yates scooped up the kid and was leaving with it when the two of them rolled to a halt in the pines. He could hear the crush of breaking branches and the whim- pering of the troll and almost instantly the womanís voice.

Iíll skin you, she shrieked. Iíll skin you and hang you up, you little son of a bitch.

He didnít even answer. He was struggling down the summit with the goat and after a while he was on the old railroad bed going further than heíd ever been into the Harrikin and he couldnít hear her anymore.

Deep in the Harrikin before full dark fell on him he came upon an enormous pile of steel rails wrecked out of the bed for scrapiron and beyond, a stack of halfrotten crossties. He began to pile brush about the tie pile and dead cedar stumps and all such tinder as he could find and, when heíd arranged it to his satisfaction, he laid the kid atop his makeshift pyre and set it afire.

It was the next afternoon when he got back home. Filthy and bloody and dazedlooking from wandering the Harrikin. First thing his father fell upon him with a strap but he didnít care. Heíd been strapped before and would be again but such things pass.

What didnít pass was the look on his fatherís face when they faced each other across the bloody goat.

Trying to sleep in the whippoorwill dark he tried to call to mind something of comfort, something in all this darkness, some word of kindness, the weight of a gentle hand.

But his mind kept returning again and again to the same image. It was some wild animal, crouched above the wired goat like a predator interrupted at a meal halfeaten, its eyes bright with malice and its whiskers tinged with blood.