This Ditch-Walking Love
James Braziel

Tartt First Fiction Award Winner!

Publication AUGUST 2021!


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238 pages

ISBN 978-1-60489-278-9, trade paper, $19.95

ISBN 978-1-60489-279-6, hardcover, $29.95

Also available in Kindle and e-book!

 

Synopsis:

This Ditch Walking Love tells the stories of a rural Alabama county on the Cumberland Plateau. A field row to pick through, a river bluff to jump from, or a drive out to Jick’s to see his hellfire cars might serve up enough for the people who live here, looking for what they can’t make full on their own. Money is scarce. Truth is limited. Desire is the only thing of worth.

Binding
 
Excerpt from Book:

Saplings

1.

Watersmeet

There’s a ridge I need to climb ever since Toadman died.

He loved toads. Got his nickname that way. Always hanging out with them and brushing the splotches on their backs like the splotches were grey pools of lily pad hair. Toadman and I biked and walked to every creek in the county, for we are not a county of rivers—just rills and rivulets that widen into creeks. I’d follow Toadman cause he knew where the frogs hid in summer on the cool north banks beneath mud funks and old pine logs that had tumbled down. He found a copperhead like that once. Got bit straight through his wading thumb.

See, Toadman always put his wading thumb in the water first cause the other frogs thought it was a fellow frog. He never wanted them to be afraid. Copperhead thought he’d come upon a fellow frog, too. One moment Toadman was combing the water quiet, next he was hollering louder than the coyotes beyond Zeller Hoyt’s place at four in the morning when I can’t sleep and wish I could. Toadman’s hand zipped up and the snake wiggled off. It splashed down a beautiful pipe-copper rain. I unplugged my boots from the shallows to help, but the fangs had torn through the front and come out back busting Toadman’s nail off its bed. Every time I pressed the nail down, it popped up. Blood oozed out. His thumb throbbed.

            “You my best friend,” Toadman said. First time he’d ever said that, like he better say what was on his mind quick, his face swirling in a pink fuzzy sweat.

            I told him straight out, “You ain’t dying, Brother.” He was not my real brother but a brother in that other way, truer to claim when no blood between you. We was kids then, and in that moment I meant what I said, and he meant what he said as if certain words when spoken right can become real. Ain’t so, I promise. All we hold true and forever isn’t.

            “When I die, do me one favor,” Toadman said.

“You ain’t going to die,” I said.

“Cut my thumb off, Beal.” Beal is my name. “Put it in at The Cross, so it grows into a frog.” He shoved his thumb in my face.

            “You are talking crazy,” I said. I mean, Toadman was already a magical thinker, but cutting off his thumb? A thumb turning into a frog? A thumb pretending to be a frog was one thing, but—

            “Promise,” he yelled.

            People get delusional. I knew this even then, especially with the sun burning hot like it was. I said, “All right now. All right,” to calm him. “Listen, you ain’t dying,” though I was none too sure. He had turned white like all the blood had gone out of him and his arteries were sucking the poison in deep.

We scaled the top of Hanna Ridge, zigzagged it fast, and shuffled down the other side to Bull’s Holler, which we had walked to from our homes hours ago.

“Shouldn’t you put a turnip on my arm?” He stepped in closer to me, ready, but I couldn’t figure out what he meant by turnip-on-my-arm.

“You know,” he said louder after my longish silence, “to keep the poison in my thumb.”

“Tourniquet,” I said.

“Oh, yeah, that,” Toadman said and began to count the broken yellow lines on the highway. Nothing worse than feeling you’re not smart enough. Before he said “Oh,” I thought maybe he did mean turnip, some witchy thing like his wading thumb, like his brushing the invisible hairs on the big fat lily toads, which made them bend their legs into his hand. They appreciated what he did, how he held them.

My real brother, Junius, volunteered for Snead Fire and Rescue. He had put a tourniquet on an injured man once.

“I think you got a dry bite,” I said to Toadman. This was another one of Junius’ words from one of his stories of saving others. Truth is, I didn’t know if Toadman had a dry bite or not. I just wanted him to relax. I said, “I’ll put a tourniquet on you just to be safe,” and pulled off my shirt and sweat-drenched it round his arm above his elbow.

He was still breathing hard from our up-and-over Hanna. Both of us had fallen at several junctures on brown needles and leaves wet from yesterday’s rain, and I could feel his blood pump quick under the cloth where I made the knot.

He nodded at me, thankful, and I at him like best friends and brothers do. Then we walked up Bull’s Holler, caught a ride to the hospital, a fellow out of Allgood I didn’t know. And Toadman was perfectly okay.

“You have no venom. Not a drop.”

“Are you sure?” he asked the doctor more than once.

“None.” The doctor smiled. “You’ve been lucky today, young man. A dry bite.” The doctor wore a long milky coat. All the walls and nurses and equipment and lights gave off the same unyielding milkiness. Toadman’s parents hadn’t shown up yet when we were told this. No one could locate them. But even without the reassurances of parents, we were relieved.

I inhaled my first full breath since the copperhead waggled off Toadman’s thumb, and I started on a hiccup jag that lasted well over an hour. Those walls were so white. It hurt to take it all in, as if we’d gone to the sun and peeled the orange back to the center and let spill out hot blinding seeds.

 

*

 

The ridge I need to climb is Osanippa. You have to come to it from Bull’s Holler. Go up-and-over Hanna to Middle Mountain, which isn’t much of a mountain—everything in our county has been carved out of the Cumberland Plateau. Middle takes you on to Osanippa. Follow its crest to a sheer rock drop. Below is the place we call The Cross, which is where all our creeks come together—Foot, Peggy Grace, Big, Pike, and Luna—to make the start of the Locust Fork River.
            The waterways lay out like a compass you can see from atop Osanippa. For a long time, I wanted to take a girl up there. No one in particular, but I like brown hair, and for hips to sway like loose brown curls, and for her to want me coming in close without hesitation.

Between Peggy Grace and Foot the water spits out a sand beach every spring. Most people come in that way to smooch or have a beer party. Some have perished jumping off Osanippa, slammed their heads into the rock slick bottom, and broke their necks just like that. My brother Junius said just like that with the snap of his fingers whenever telling stories of the drunk bodies he’d pulled out. Boon Chastain—“His lips got torn off by catfish.” Chester Rounds—“No ears after we trawled him out from under the rapids. Funeral parlor broke his bones to set him in his casket right.” And the one girl—“Maya Maya.” My brother never gave anything away about her, but double names are rare and easy for me to remember. Whenever he spoke of Maya Maya, he shook his head and drew his breath in like he wanted her back.

            Some people have jumped off Osanippa and lived. When the water’s rushing high—this is key they say. If you’re not too tall, this helps, too. Most important is to know how to float like a feather, not fall like a rock. Make the air hold you up, so by the time you’re down to cutting through the wet, you won’t go far in. “Water,” Tanya Preston, who supposedly made the jump and who isn’t tall, explained to a group of us at Saterfield’s once, “is just heavy air, ribbons of heavy air. Think of it,” she said, “that way.

I’ve dreamed it that way—how my body might float through the fall, how a strong crosswind might lift my elbows and ankles. Once in the cool wet, my fat legs and arms would bubble me up to the surface quick, and I’d be okay. There was one dream I was a bird, and I split the water easy. All from the tallest place in the county, where you can see this earth farther than from anywhere else.

 

*

 

After the hospital visit, for the rest of that summer, Toadman and I went to the north banks of creeks for frogs. He used his other thumb but without much success. Turns out, it wasn’t born a frog. We started school in August and found other best friends, other brothers to be around.

I call those days The Before Time. Same as in the Bible. Only Junius is the marker in my story. The Before Time happened before he rushed into a trailer thinking someone was stuck inside. He shouldered the door down, and with just that little extra push of air, the fire caught huge and hot. He ran in a furious train, but it was his ashes, no one else’s found, when things cooled.

            I have looked after my mother ever since. This is The After Time. Her thoughts stay tangled and cannot untangle. Most days, she digs her nails into her palms until they bleed and she says Junius’ name or my father’s name. My father passed not long after I was born. I didn’t know him except he was called Fleet, and some mornings she says, “Good morning, Fleet,” to me.

“I’m not him,” I have to tell her. “Sorry I can’t be your man today.” Sometimes I do tell her yes to give comfort. She pats my shoulders. But my bones and skin are all wrong. She knows I’m lying.

“Well, when Fleet gets here, he’ll know what.” Or she says, “I wish June would come for dinner,” and trails off cause she can’t place either man outside herself into the small length of room she wanders. By lunch she’s doing the nervous digging, again. I can’t pry her nails loose until she naps. Then, I cup her hands, pour peroxide over the wounds. They froth a brown, scabby blood. She flinches but doesn’t wake when I dab the puss-froth clean.

Lots of people have died I don’t care about. Live long enough and you’ll close yourself from others, too, I promise. I didn’t care about my brother as much as I should’ve. There was a big difference in our ages and he only let me into his world when he wanted, keeping back what it was of him I could have. But when Toadman passed, that was different. Maybe it was the way it happened, shot by his own father, or maybe it was because we had the one summer together catching frogs—which I enjoyed doing more than anything else I’ve done—or maybe it was cause I saved his life once, which turned out not to be enough, which turned out to be at the time a mere dry bite and not as big a deal. I’d made a promise to him though. And a promise to a dead brother is one you keep.