Sorrow Wood by Raymond L. Atkins

ISBN: 9781934755631
Medallion Press
Hard cover

(ebook available)

Copyright © 2009-2010 by Raymond L. Atkins

Chapter One: 1985

Wendell Blackmon considered the dead dog lying before him.  He wiped his sweating brow with a white handkerchief pulled from his back pocket.  He looked a bit incongruous producing the starched hanky, like a Teamster holding up a pinky as he slurped coffee at the truck stop.  He was a tall, broad-shouldered man with thinning brown hair and a full beard gone mostly white.  He sported a nose that had profiled better before it was broken those three times.  His creased forehead was high and getting higher as his hairline receded, and there were laugh lines at the corners of his blue eyes.  The passage of the years had added a few extra pounds to his frame, and these had the effect of enhancing the sense of largeness that he projected.
The August afternoon was as humid as a rain forest and hotter than the third circle of hell. The weather report that morning had called for a near one-hundred percent chance of rain, locally heavy at times.  Miniature dark clouds with petite lightning bolts had been superimposed on the weather map, and the meteorologist had gravely advised her viewers to pack an umbrella in anticipation of the inevitability of precipitation.  Wendell looked up at the cloudless blue sky and mentally declared another triumph for modern meteorology.  He noted a mountain hawk hanging on the wind, floating effortlessly over the landscape.  Its mournful kee kee came to his ears from what seemed a thousand miles away.
The weather woman had annoyed Wendell.  In his opinion, his own mother, Eunice, had a better track record than any of the professional prognosticators, and her predictions did not rely on satellites, radar, or computers, a fact he believed may have enhanced her success rate.  Her method was simple, a venerable system of forecasting that had been refined for millennia by the arthritic masses.  If her elbow hurt, it was going to rain.  If her knee hurt, too, it was going to rain a lot.  If her elbow, knee, and hip all three hurt, then it was time to make peace with God, because the end was near. That was her system, and she was reliable eighty percent of the time, provided she stayed away from the aspirin bottle.  Still, Heather McDowell of Channel Five Weather Alive did have nicer legs than Eunice, and maybe the poor girl would be fortunate enough to develop a good case of rheumatism over time.
“If you’ve got straight teeth and can point, you are qualified,” Wendell had noted to his wife, Reva, over breakfast eggs and bacon.  He was watching the weather report while she read the paper and paid scant attention to his monologue.  His comment was an unfair generalization, anyway, since many of the practitioners of the trade also gestured with the backs of their hands, and a couple of the real old-timers used little batons, as if they were conducting an orchestra of meteorological events, a symphony of storm.  “You can be wrong every time, and you still get paid,” he continued as he pointed his fork at the television on the kitchen counter.  “You’re protected by the Act of God exemption.  You can’t lose.”  Reva poured herself a little more coffee and turned the page. They had been married for over forty years, and she had pretty much heard it all before.  Her husband’s gentle tirades against the real and imagined insults of the world were the background noise of her existence, always humming just outside the borders of her perception.
Weather people were not even really the problem, although in his later years, Wendell had come to view himself as a trace underemployed, a smidge below maximum potential, and he had a tendency to grow touchy when mulling trades he felt to be better, or at least easier, than his own.  In his opinion as a humble policeman in Sand Valley, Alabama, that category included many occupations.  Maybe not coal miner or steelworker, but certainly a large group of others.  The real issue with Wendell was a general, vague dissatisfaction with almost everything, a mildly negative outlook on the world that was coupled with a quiet, nagging yearning for something he could not identify.  This phenomenon had descended upon him later in life, and he often wondered if he were alone in this unidentified feeling of emptiness and loss.  Certainly his wife, Reva, seemed immune and took each day as it came, happy as a sailor in a liberty port to be drawing breath and seeing another sunrise.  The last time they had discussed their different points of view was on the occasion of Wendell’s fiftieth birthday, a day that dawned dark and rainy and matched his mood to a tee.
“Being fifty really sucks,” he had noted.  It was going on noon, he had been up for several hours, and these were his first words of the day.  He had contemplated on the phrase since early morning, had crafted and honed it in his mind, and it said exactly what he wanted to say.
“Why can’t you be happy?” Reva had asked.  “You used to be.”  They sat on the front porch and watched rain drip from the leaves on the sickly magnolia tree in the yard.
Wendell and the tree were not friends.  He claimed that it was the only tree in the world that shed something each and every day of the year.  Even on the only day in living memory that nothing had fallen off the tree, a bird had dropped dead from a branch, thus validating the unbroken record.  The magnolia had been planted by their neighbor, Miss Rose Lowery, when she was seven, and now she and her tree were both over ninety.  The tree was drooping and had been losing branches with increasing regularity, and its occasional few blooms were more mottled brown than white.  Miss Rose, on the other hand, was still as spry as a girl of seventy, and nothing major had fallen off of her in a long time, so it looked like she might outlast her tree.  If the current drought extended another year, it was almost a certainty.
“I really don’t know,” Wendell had replied with a sigh to his wife.  He was a man who began each day with the intention of being carefree and gay, but the harder he tried, the less it rang true.  “I want to be as happy as a fat pig in deep mud, but it just isn’t there.  I’m not unhappy.  I’m just not happy.  There is always a feeling in the back of my head that I’m missing something, that the party has started and my invitation got lost in the mail.”  In Wendell’s view, given the state of the postal service in recent years, this was entirely possible.  “Maybe it is the job, or maybe it is Sand Valley, or maybe it is just me.  I remember being content when we lived in Seattle.”
“There is no party, and this is not a dress rehearsal,” Reva pointed out.  She took his hand.  “It doesn’t matter where we live, as long as we are there together.  And a job is a job.  This is the real thing.  We are both on the wrong side of fifty now, and time is not going to stand still.  Eventually, it will all be over for us.  First one of us and then the other will pass on from this world.  My mama died young, so it will probably be me that goes first.  But you know what I believe, and I’ll say it again.  I am sure that I have loved you over many lifetimes, but I think that this will be my last time through this world.  I hope that we are going to be together for whatever is next, but if you don’t quit dragging around this baggage, I don’t honestly believe it is going to happen.  If you don’t find some peace in this life, you will have to come back and look for it again in the next.  And I don’t want to go on without you.”
Reva’s vivid dreams of what she believed to be her past lives with Wendell were at the core of her belief system.  She had experienced them for as long as she could remember, but she had never understood what they signified until she met her husband.  She did not know why, but she always seemed to dream of just the endings of those lives, as if the imprint of the conclusion of one existence could carry over to the next and somehow burn itself onto that new consciousness.
In one dream, she and her fellow villagers were corralled by Roman soldiers at the edge of a cliff by the sea, and there was no escape.  When awake, she believed the setting to be a rocky coast on the Irish Sea, but in her dreams she was not sure.  The women fought savagely and well beside the men, with faces painted in blues and grays, but the Romans were too numerous and well equipped.  As the end neared, the man who had battled the entire time by her side threw his axe at a Roman, cleaving the soldier’s shield and the arm that held it.  Then, he turned his back to their enemies and placed himself between her and their foes, to protect her as long as he could.  He spoke to her in a language that her modern mind did not understand, although in her dream she knew what the words meant.  Then, together, they stepped off the precipice.  Reva knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that those two ill-fated lovers were previous incarnations of Wendell and herself.  She had experienced the dream dozens of times, and each time she replayed the episode, a new fact or image was revealed.  The first time she had viewed the scene was when she was six, long before she knew what a Roman was, or where the Irish Sea was situated.  Every time she had the dream, she awoke feeling sad on one hand and deeply peaceful on the other.
There were many other dreams, as well.  Some were frequent, some were occasional, and some were one of a kind.  But they all had as their subject matter the ending of a relationship between the same two people.  The appearance of the characters differed from one recollection to the next, but she was always certain that it was the life forces of Wendell and Reva Blackmon that were bidding farewell to one another.  The adieu was the constant.  Sometimes both were passing away, while other times it was one or the other.  In one of her saddest and most vivid dreams, she was riding in a freight car.  She knew it was a prison train of some type, and in her waking hours she always assumed that her dream persona was on the way to a penal camp in the vastness of Siberia.  It was bitter cold, and she did not have sufficient clothing, so she was suffering from pneumonia while slowly freezing to death.  The odor in the car was a mixture of rotted hay and hopeless humanity.  She was an old woman who had been alone all her life, and she wanted to die and be out of her misery, but she could not.  Her heart would not stop beating, and her life force simply would not let go.  Then the train stopped, and more prisoners were punched and kicked into the car, herded by roughly dressed men with sticks and clubs.  Included in this influx was an old man who appeared to be a farmer.  He sat next to her just as she began to have a coughing fit.  Without a word, he stood, removed his greatcoat, and wrapped her in it.  Then he sat back down, encircled her frail form with his large arms, and tried to warm her as best he could.  As the thump-thump of the rails passed beneath them, he held her, quietly singing an unfamiliar tune while gently rocking her.  He continued this comfort until she died.  The dream always made her sad, because she knew that in that particular life, they had almost not found each other and had missed much happiness in their individual isolations.  But the dream also encouraged her, because they had, in fact, discovered each other before the end.
“Thanks for cheering me up,” Wendell said, back on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday.  Reva had just informed him that from a cosmic standpoint, his prospects were limited.  “You always know just what to say to make me feel better.  You’re going to die young, and I am going to come back as a barnacle.  It doesn’t get much better than that.  Excuse me while I go sit in the highway.  Maybe a chicken truck will come along and put me out of my misery.”
“I am serious,” she replied.
“I know you are serious, Babe,” he offered.  “Maybe I am in better shape than you think, and I could be your dog.”
“This is not funny,” she had told him.  It was Reva’s belief that the soul went through many incarnations before purifying itself enough to pass to a higher state of existence.  The concepts were called the samsara, the continuing cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth, which formed the core of many Hindu beliefs, and the moksha, the release from the earthly plane for those souls that were ready for oneness with the universe.  Reva had believed in these concepts long before she knew their names or realized their Hindu origins.  Hers was admittedly an unusual belief system to be held by a good, solid Methodist who sang in the choir on Wednesdays and Sundays, but she did not consider the two views to be mutually exclusive.  The Methodist pastor, Dr. Stephen Rideout, was not as liberal as his parishioner, however, as was indicated by the Hinduism or Heaven? sermon that he dusted off from time to time, whenever Reva became too vocal with her arcane philosophies.
But Dr. Rideout’s narrow-mindedness did not bother her in the least.  She knew what she knew, and she believed what she believed.  It was a certainty in her heart that this current life with Wendell represented her final trip through the earthly plane, and her great apprehension was that her husband was not yet ready for bigger and better things, cosmologically speaking.  As with a child who could not learn his sums, her husband would flunk the great cosmic test and be held back at promotion time.  Wendell was aware of his wife’s views on the state of his inner light, and he really could not mount an argument.  She was happy, he wasn’t, and her explanation was at least as good as any of the others he had heard.  It made as much sense as the fire and brimstone Christianity that he had been raised upon, and it was a more hopeful and forgiving system, given the fallible tendencies of the human race.  While Wendell didn’t buy into Reva’s convictions, he believed that she believed every word.  And he wished that he did, too, because then he would believe in something definite, and more importantly, he would believe in something that he wanted with all of his heart to be true.
As for Wendell’s discontent, which Reva took as the major sign that his spirit needed seasoning, the matter had grown acute as he entered his fifties, as if he could hear the individual sands trickling through the hourglass, each one booming like cannon fire as it landed in the pile of time past.  By the time he eclipsed fifty-five, he found himself in the doldrums more often than not.  He felt he was squandering his allotment of eternity, that he was spending his days on substandard merchandise.  But he could see no cure for the dilemma.  He had long ago learned to spot a lie, but he did not know how to discern the truth.  He had spent his entire life attempting to decipher what he desired to be and do, but the only progress he had managed so far was to develop an ever-expanding list of what he did not want.  Right now, for example, he knew with certainty that he did not want to be the individual who had to ferret the facts surrounding the apparently radical departure of the cur on the ground at his feet.
The deceased canine was in shabby condition, but that was not entirely his fault.  He was a German Shepherd, and he had come up on the short end of a dog fight, a sporting contest much like the proverbial cock fight, with the primary difference being that the loser wasn’t quite as tasty when served up with dumplings.  Wendell looked at the dog’s owner, Deadhand Riley.  He leaned up against his patrol car and watched as Deadhand fidgeted and scratched at his grizzled chest hair.  It was coarse, tangled, and matted, like white steel wool.  One of his overall straps came undone, and his nimble fingers re-buttoned it without any conscious assistance from their owner, who was busy at that moment attempting to look innocent.
“I’m getting too old for this kind of shit,” Wendell noted to Deadhand.  He spoke in a conversational tone.  He would be sixty in the fall, had been a policeman since he and Reva had relocated from Seattle to Sand Valley during the first year of John Kennedy’s reign, and was indeed getting too old for that kind of shit.  Deadhand was caught short and didn’t quite know what to say, so he compromised by nodding in agreement.
Opposite Deadhand stood Otter Price, the owner of the winner of the recent festivities. Otter looked as nervous as an apprentice fire-walker and appeared to be contemplating the wisdom of becoming sullen, an avenue that represented one of his two favorite responses to authority.  Historically, it had not been a particularly effective reaction, but it beat high speed flight in his old Chevrolet, which was the other trick in his bag.  He noticed the shadowy look on Wendell’s face and decided against trying either.  Wendell usually sailed on a fairly even keel, but today he looked testy, and the Chevy needed a tune-up and two front tires before any swift roadwork could be seriously considered.
Wendell slapped a mosquito. They were bad this year, bantam striped demons that he called tiger mosquitoes.  There were few things in the world that he hated worse, but the species as a whole did not take his dislike personally and attempted to drain him at every opportunity.  He did not know what it was about his personal chemistry that drew them in, but he was like a living, breathing mosquito magnet and had been ever since before he could remember.  Indeed, his mother had once told him that he was bitten when he was three hours old.  Another time, he had been nailed while on a destroyer in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a thousand miles in every direction from anything even resembling dry land.  It was a curse, but Wendell had grown accustomed to it, and he supposed it could have been worse.  What if he had attracted cotton mouths all of his life, or vampire bats?  At least he could swat mosquitoes with the newspaper.
Wendell wasn’t surprised that he had encountered mischief at the Riley homestead.  He had actually come looking for it, and Deadhand was not one to disappoint.  Wendell was a good policeman and had the knack of knowing where to direct his gaze.  Deadhand Riley was one of his best customers, a frequent flyer in a manner of speaking, and he had been too long quiet.  Thus, Wendell had decided early that morning that an unscheduled visit was in order. This tactic resembled gunboat diplomacy in the old style, just a trip through the neighborhood to fly the colors and see what trouble popped up.  The silent mutt before him indicated that his intuition had been correct.  The dog’s paw was flopped up over a lifeless left eye, a salute in tribute to Wendell’s hunch.
“Deadhand,” Wendell said, “tell me about the dog.”  He knew it would take a minute for Deadhand to get started, that he would need time to hone his story to its sharpest edge before presentation, so he let his mind momentarily wander.  He wished he had a cold drink, an ice cold Coke served up Sixties-style in a nickel-deposit green glass bottle, slushy and crisp with a handful of peanuts dropped in so that every mouthful was cold, crunchy, salty, and sweet, all at the same time.  Then he wished that he did not have a dog evisceration to examine, a reasonable enough desire even when the heat index wasn’t over one-hundred degrees.  Finally, he wished that both Otter and Deadhand had been sold to Yankees at birth on a buy one, get one free arrangement, thus providing better value for the shopping dollar. Then it would be some poor unsuspecting Northern lawman and not Wendell who would have to deal with the pair.
“Rusty,” Deadhand finally said.  “His name was Rusty.”  Deadhand smelled like a distillery fire and looked about as bad, sort of burned out and fallen in on himself.  Wendell couldn’t believe that he had been there ten minutes and all he had was the dog’s name, and he didn’t even need the dog’s name.
“I don’t care what you called him,” he said.  “What happened to him?  Why is he dead?  Why did Otter’s dog kill him?”  Deadhand shrugged, as if to say that it beat the living hell out of him.
“Harley,” Otter Price interjected in the name of clarity.  “My dog’s name is Harley.  Like the motorcycle.”  The hound looked like he might have mostly bulldog ancestry, with a little of one breed and another thrown in for variety.
Otter could be a cooperative man when the drop was on him.  Arthur was his given name, and most people believed that his nickname resulted from his uncanny resemblance to the sleek mammal of the same name.  Actually, his mama was afflicted with a lifelong speech impediment but had, in spite of this malady, named her bonny baby boy with a combination of syllables that she could not quite get her lips around.  Otter had been the result.
“Harley,” Wendell said.  “Like the motorcycle.”  Now he had two dog names that he did not need, and the sad part was, he felt like he was making progress.  He continued.  “So Harley jumped on Rusty for no apparent reason and did that to him?  That’s the story?”  He pointed at the remains, silent testimony to Harley’s mean streak and Rusty’s bad day.
“That’s what happened,” Deadhand said, nodding.  He was honesty personified, a choirboy in the rough. The sincerity in his voice was as absolute as the atomic weight of lead.
“Swear to God,” Otter added, placing his right hand over his heart while holding his left hand in the air.  He looked like a poorly dressed Boy Scout with a hangover who was in bad need of a shave, a haircut, and several thousand dollar’s worth of dental work.  Wendell wasn’t impressed, solemn vow notwithstanding.
He scanned the area of the lawbreaking.  Deadhand’s trailer was in the background, a structure long past its prime that would never achieve the status of mobile home.  It was twenty feet in length and had two fins on one end—presumably the back, since there were tail lights below them—and between the fins was attached the insignia Fleetwood, a name long associated with style and grace, even if it was hanging down at a forty-five degree angle.  The moveable structure was propped on a variety of objects, ranging from standard fare such as bricks and concrete blocks to the less-traditional Pontiac engine that supported the southwest corner.  Pieces of the aluminum siding were missing along the sides of Deadhand’s home and had been replaced by irregularly shaped squares of plywood and tin, nailed in haphazard fashion.  One of the patches was a license plate, another a stop sign.  One window was completely gone, and a sheet of opaque plastic was permanently duct-taped over the hole.  There was no air conditioning, and the door hung open like a slack jaw.  Wendell shuddered when he thought of how hot it must be inside, like an oven that was equipped with Naugahide furniture and shag carpeting, and he figured that Deadhand was probably the way he was at least partially because his brain had been baked.
The dirt yard was littered with an impressive assortment of beer cans and liquor bottles, thousands of cigarette butts, four defunct vehicles in various stages of decomposition, a dog pen, and an old John boat with a hole in the bottom, courtesy of a shotgun blast.  Plus Rusty, of course, now gone to that great fire plug in the sky, just another chewed-up dog in search of a better deal who had almost certainly found one.  Wendell wondered what assumptions some future archaeologist would make about the culture of twentieth-century America if he happened to dig up Deadhand’s yard.
“Harley is kind of skittish, isn’t he?” he asked of no one in particular as he nudged Rusty with his toe.  In his line of work, he heard the occasional broad story, and he was a little disappointed that the boys hadn’t come up with something more creative.  Given their past history as tellers of epic tales, and considering the sheer amount of practice that both of them had acquired at adjusting reality in their favor, he had expected a better effort from the pair.
As an example, Wendell had once found both of the men standing naked, at four o’clock in the morning, next to a burning GMC pickup truck parked in the middle of U.S. highway 11, just down the road from Whitehead Baptist Church.  The truck had been reported missing the previous day by Deadhand’s brother-in-law, Larry Franklin, or as Deadhand liked to call him, that-no-good-son-of-a bitch-who-stole-my-baby-sister-right-off-of-Mama’s-tit.  This moniker was admittedly long for a nickname, but Deadhand liked the way it scooted across his palate and declined to discontinue its use.  It was about twenty degrees that night, and the clouds were spitting the occasional flake but looked as if they might decide to find some gumption and produce a real storm at any moment.  Under questioning in the eerie light of the pickup truck bonfire, both Otter and Deadhand swore on their mama’s heads to have been abducted by “little green midget-looking fuckers” who had taken them up in a space ship for observation before releasing them on the highway.  Wendell thought that the cold west wind had likely frozen the men’s synapses, thus causing stupidity to tumble from their mouths, so he wrapped them both in blankets and placed them in the back of the police cruiser with the heater turned on high.  From the odor that soon permeated the close confines of the car’s interior, it became apparent that the green midgets had forced Deadhand and Otter to drink large quantities of bourbon while stealing their pants and burning the truck.
“Tell me more about your abductors,” Wendell began.
“Who?” Deadhand asked.
“The little green midget-looking fuckers,” Wendell replied.
“Well, they were these little green fuckers,” Otter offered.
“Like midgets,” Deadhand added.
“Thanks,” Wendell said.  “Why did they take your pants?”
“Oh, shit, our pants are gone!” they both cried when they looked down.
“Why did they burn that truck?”  Wendell probed.
“Oh, shit, they burned Larry’s truck!” Otter wailed while Deadhand sat silently, looking distraught, as if he might be in the early stages of post-abduction stress syndrome, or of a hangover of mammoth proportions.  Since neither of the abductees could produce an abductor to corroborate the story, Wendell was forced to look for earthly solutions to the mystery, although he was more than fair with Deadhand and Otter during the evidence- gathering phase of the investigation.
“It’s not that I don’t want to believe you, but I need to see an alien,” he explained.  “Any size, any color.  Otherwise, I’m going to charge you with public drunkenness, public indecency, and someone has to pay for Larry’s truck.”  Larry Franklin had decided to forego pressing charges after Bonnie, his wife and Deadhand’s baby sister, explained to him how difficult it would be for her to keep her mind on sex for the next five-to-ten years if her big brother ended up serving a prison sentence for truck theft.  The pantless truck-burners were fined two-hundred dollars apiece and had to split the cost of the vehicle, but it had been a world class lie worthy of fond remembrance, not the uninspired little fib that Wendell was currently being handed.  He shook his head and yearned for the old times.  They just didn’t make scoundrels like they used to.
“Well, I guess it makes sense,” he said, referring to Harley killing Rusty for no particular reason, and not to the little green midget-looking fuckers flying in for a truck-burning.  Deadhand and Otter relaxed.  The relief was visible on their faces.  The matter was cleared up, and their good names were restored.  Deadhand felt that the occasion called for a drink, so he took a generous sip from the pint bottle he had sequestered in the bib pocket of his overalls, tucked in next to a can of snuff and a thirteen-year-old condom.  He was an optimistic man.
“Except for one thing,” Wendell continued, and the boys tensed right back up.  “Why were you here with Harley in the first place?”  He directed this inquiry to Otter.  It was sort of the inevitable question, the keystone that held the entire lie structure aloft, but for some reason, it threw Otter.  Perhaps he had thought that it wouldn’t occur to Wendell to ask.
“Uh,” Otter said, and Wendell could almost hear the gears grinding as they attempted to mesh.  “Uh,” he repeated.  Then his clutch engaged, and he was able to move forward.  “I brought him over here to play with Rusty,” he blurted.  Both he and Deadhand nodded earnestly.  Harley growled from his cage on the back of Otter’s truck and lunged playfully at Wendell, as if he were agreeing with the story.  The cage scooted a few inches as the dog hit the chain link. He cast a baleful eye in Wendell’s direction.
“I think he wants to play some more,” Wendell noted.  “How much gunpowder have you been feeding him?” he asked, referring to the practice of serving gunpowder to a dog to drive it insane and make it savage.
“I don’t feed him gunpowder.” Otter said defensively.  He was sliced to the quick at the implication that he was capable of cruelty of that magnitude.  Besides, he used turpentine.  It was cheaper, easier to get, and the dog was much less likely to explode if someone smoked in his vicinity.  Wendell needed a break from dealing with Otter, so he turned his glance upon Deadhand, sportsman extraordinaire and bereaved dog-owner, who seemed to be bearing up well after his recent loss.
Deadhand Riley appeared to be a well-preserved seventy, which was a problem for him, since he was forty.  But they had been forty hard years, dog years, as it were, and the toll had been taken.  His downward slide had begun early, due to poor judgment regarding his first choice of professions, which had been to be the guy who opened up the barrels of Agent Orange before that substance was sprayed over a variety of Asian people who were trying for the most part to mind their own business and stay out of the way.  Admittedly, he had not had an entirely free hand in his selection of occupation, but fate has always been more oriented towards outcome than process.
Deadhand’s given name was Huford Riley, but he became Deadhand due to another questionable decision concerning employment.  After being the Agent Orange man for eleven months, three weeks, and four days, Huford came home to Sand Valley, Alabama, with a chronic cough and an understandable dislike for fifty-five gallon drums.  He got a job in the joist factory, and over the next few years, he worked hard at his trade and smoked a lot of dope on the side.  He was attempting to forget, and while his selected method was not as traditional as joining the Foreign Legion, it at least had the advantage of not involving firearms, French people with curtains on the backs of their hats, or stone forts in sandy locales.
He worked diligently, and he eventually rose to the coveted machine-shop foreman’s position, which was the top of the pile in his selected venue.  His job was to machine the steel to a precision fit, and it was while checking a lathe bit for sharpness one day that he began the journey from Huford to Deadhand.  The testing of a bit for a honed edge was a routine task and should not have produced mishap, but performing this function while the lathe was still turning at eight-hundred rpm’s added an element of risk that Huford had not foreseen, due to the large quantity of high-quality cannabis he had smoked throughout the day.  His right hand was mangled almost beyond recognition, and he was still looking with interest at the affected paw when his co-workers dragged him to safety while gagging at the gore.
During the hand-rebuilding process, several grafts from his back and buttocks were taken, but the process went awry, and the resulting extremity had no feeling in it, whatsoever.  It also exhibited a pronounced mound of flesh on the back of the hand that resembled a mallet.  These new features proved to be advantageous to Deadhand during fist fights, towards which he was prone, and it was widely held by his many opponents that his right fist had an impact velocity similar to that of a runaway Mack truck.  One of them, Art Duarte, had actually been hit by a runaway Mack truck, so he was in a position to know.  But all of that was long ago and far away, and none of it would bring back poor Rusty.
“Let me tell you what I think,” Wendell said, looking at Otter and Deadhand in turn. “I think you had a dog fight here.”  The miscreants made as if to protest, but Wendell held up his hand.  “I’ve told you before that I don’t like this kind of business.  It makes me think that you are not classy people.  It makes me want to forget that I am a nice guy.  It makes me want to send you away until your dicks dry up and fall off.”  Penile desiccation had probably already occurred in Deadhand’s case, but Otter considered himself to be a swordsman, and the threat seemed to impress him a great deal.  He winced, and his left hand drifted of its own accord down to his genital area to make a quick check for missing or dried-up pieces.
“Wendell,” Deadhand protested, “you have never said a damn word about dog fighting.”  He had Wendell on a technicality on this matter, but the lawman was not fazed.  It was not the first time that a rogue had tried to argue the finer points of the law.
“No,” Wendell agreed, “we didn’t talk about dogs.  We talked about roosters.”  Otter and Deadhand nodded, vindicated, and Wendell continued.  “As I recall, Deadhand brought his rooster over to your house to play with your rooster, Otter, and your bird ended up like this dog.”  Otter looked morose, as if the memory brought him great sadness.  Satan—Otter’s rooster, not the cloven-hoofed evil Prince of Darkness—had been a fine yard bird, a chicken among chickens, and he was missed by all who had known him.  Harley whined in his cage out of sympathy for a fallen comrade, or maybe because he had wanted to eat the deceased.  Deadhand shooed some blue flies from Rusty and said nothing.  He seemed to sense that it was his best course.
“I like you boys, so I’m going to cover this one last time,” Wendell said.  He actually didn’t like the boys that much, but he had always believed that it was a good idea to give something before taking something away.  “And you both need to listen, because it is important.  I don’t like dog fighting, cock fighting, or rat fighting.  I don’t like cat fighting, coon fighting, or snake fighting.  If you two ever decide to get married, I don’t like wife fighting.”  Wendell tried to imagine a tussle between two women who would actually marry Deadhand and Otter, and he had to concede that it would probably be a fairly interesting contest, at that.  Deadhand did not currently have a romantic attachment, but Otter’s girlfriend, Rita Hearst, was a woman who looked like she might kill someone for their shoes.  “Basically, if it involves two living things fighting and a bet from either one of you on the outcome, then you are not allowed to do it.  The next time I catch you, I’m throwing both of you under the Rock Castle.”
The Rock Castle was Sand Valley’s jail.  Deadhand and Otter had sampled its hospitality on many previous occasions, and they did not wish to partake of it again.  It was a solid edifice constructed of mountain rock, the Alcatraz of rural Alabama, complete with two turrets and a moat.  It had been built during the Thirties by a group of unemployed mill workers from Dogtown who had nothing to fear but hunger, itself.  They were willing to do nearly anything for some pinto beans, corn bread, and a little fat meat, and their government in its wisdom had put them to work building a jail.  Admittedly, it was a humble project when compared to the great public works of the time, such as Hoover Dam, but it was impressive by local standards and had the added advantage of not containing the entombed remains of any of its builders.  FDR himself had viewed the completed project while on a long weekend furlough from Warm Springs and had named it the Rock Castle on the spot.  He had commended the workers and ordered extra corn bread and fat meat plus a day off for each of them.
Deadhand and Otter hung their heads, overcome with humiliation.  Even Harley looked a bit shamefaced, as if he wished the killing of his opponent had not been a necessity.
“Speaking of bets,” Wendell asked, “how much was riding on this fight?”  There was no sound, and neither of the men met his eye. They had the Constitutional right to remain silent and were doing just that.  Wendell continued.  “It looks like a one-hundred dollar fight to me, so I’m going to make your fines one-hundred dollars apiece.”  Technically, Wendell did not have the authority to levy fines or mete out justice, but he and the judge were of like minds most times and made an effective team when it came to crime and punishment.  He knew that she would back him up.
Wendell had decided that a deterrent was in order, a penalty with some bite so they would remember to behave next time.  He settled on a fine, because if he ran them in, he would be stuck with them for the duration of their sentences.  No one was likely to bail either man out of trouble, and Wendell didn’t want to have to feed, clothe, and talk to them for thirty days.  It would be a poor fiscal move for the town and hard on his nerves, as well.  Plus, he lived upstairs at the Rock Castle with Reva, and he really didn’t want Deadhand and Otter in his house.  It was bad enough to have them in his community.
“A hundred dollars?” Otter asked.  “Where the hell am I going to get that?”  Otter’s portfolio was not particularly liquid since having to pay for half of Larry Franklin’s truck when the aliens burned it.  Deadhand could find no voice at all to express his dismay.  His mouth moved, but no words escaped.  He reminded Wendell of a ventriloquist’s dummy whose owner had a touch of laryngitis.
“Why don’t you sell Harley to Deadhand?” Wendell suggested.  “It looks like he needs a dog to me.  If you throw in the truck and the cage, the package should be worth close to one-hundred dollars.”  Harley growled low, as if he objected to the idea of being Deadhand’s dog.  Wendell could understand his point.
“This ain’t fair!” Otter said.  Deadhand nodded.
“I’ll tell you what’s not fair,” Wendell replied, pointing to the defunct hound.  “That’s not fair.  But if you think I have been too harsh, you can always throw yourself on the judge’s mercy.”  He knew what was coming next, and he loved it every time.  It was often the high point of his day.
“But your wife’s the judge!” Deadhand said, finding speech at last.  “She’ll put us on the chain gang!”  Considering Deadhand’s and Otter’s checkered pasts and Judge Reva’s legendary dislike for anything even resembling cruelty to animals, it was a definite possibility.
Reva had been the temporary probate judge for close to ten years, ever since Miss Effie Beecham had gone to that big courtroom in the sky.  She had been handed the job the day after Miss Effie’s funeral, just until a more permanent arrangement could be made, and she had been trying to hand it back ever since.  The townsfolk were happy with her work, however, and would not let her quit.  Even her regular clientele, such as Otter and Deadhand, had to admit that she was better than Miss Effie, who was the only probate judge in Alabama history to ever attempt to impose the death penalty.  So Reva was re-elected every two years by write-in vote, even though her name was never officially on the ballot.
“I don’t care if they do elect me again,” she had said the last time the polling place was open.  “I’m not going to do it!”  The exit polls were looking ominous, however.  Nearly every voter who stepped out from behind the curtain smiled and waved at the unwilling incumbent.  Some winked at her and flashed the V for victory, while others gave her thumbs up or clasped their hands and shook them over each shoulder, like boxers on the way to the ring.
“I’ve gotten kind of used to sleeping with the judge,” Wendell observed conversationally.  “I would hate to have to start bunking in with Ralph.”
Wendell was a creature of habit, and there could be trouble if Reva declined to serve and the town’s only official candidate, Ralph Harp, was elected by default.  Ralph was not a regular bather, which is a bigger issue for chicken farmers than it is for the practitioners of a large number of other trades.  Thus, Ralph was not a popular man, but he was a tenacious one.  He had run unopposed for the probate judge’s position once every two years for the last ten, and in that time, he had received a total of five votes.  His own mother did not even vote for him, although she told him routinely that he needed a shower, and her voting record and bathing advice were a constant source of trouble between them.  Reva was re-elected by a vote of three-hundred and six to one, and as usual, she agreed to take the job.
“I guess it beats working at the sock mill,” she said in her informal remarks in front of the Rock Castle.  The people cheered.  Reva’s way with an acceptance speech was always a crowd pleaser.
“And you get to meet such interesting people,” Wendell noted helpfully.
“Boy, howdy,” Reva replied as she once more strapped on the yoke of responsibility thrust upon her by the townsfolk.  At the back of the small crowd, she could see Ralph Harp shaking hands and giving out cards in preparation for the upcoming election, two years hence.
The reason that Reva was so popular was a simple matter of comparison with her predecessor’s legal decisions and her opposing candidate’s odor.  Miss Effie had become a little touched in her waning years, and many of her legal renderings were subject to question. The probate judge was supposed to levy and collect fines on small legal missteps, process the paperwork on civil claims, and bind all serious cases over to the county court.  Over time, however, Miss Effie began to exceed this mandate.  As a result, Wendell spent a good deal of his time cleaning up behind her.  The problem came to a head when she sentenced a speeder from New Jersey to thirty years and a day at hard labor, because he had given her sass.  The perpetrator was remanded into Wendell’s custody for immediate execution of sentence.  He aimed the scofflaw, who was a bit sassy, in a generally northeasterly direction and quietly advised him to stay out of town for a few years.  The town council met that very night to decide how to get rid of Judge Beecham without hurting her feelings, but the poor dear beat them to the punch by having the good grace to suffer a fatal stroke in her sleep. She quietly weighed anchor and set sail for Heaven’s shore, where hopefully she was not given gate duty.
“If I were you,” Wendell said to Deadhand, back out at the dogfight, “I wouldn’t give Reva any lip while I was paying my fine.  She won’t put up with it.”  Deadhand nodded, subdued.  “You, either,” he continued to Otter.  Like Miss Effie, Reva did not care for sass.  If they weren’t careful, she would land on them with both feet, in a legal manner of speaking.  He gave the rowdies one last stern look to demonstrate that he meant business before climbing into his cruiser.  Rusty was tenderizing, and the flies were beginning to gather in earnest.  It was time to vacate.  Wendell rolled down the window and leaned out for one final word.
“You had better get that dog under some dirt before he becomes a health hazard.  That would cost you another fifty dollars.  Bury him deep and pile some rocks on him.  I don’t want a coyote digging him up and dragging him out into the highway.”  Deadhand nodded.  Otter scowled, but he knew good advice when he heard it.  Wendell backed out of the yard, shifted the cruiser into drive, and headed towards town.  “Way, way too old for this kind of shit,” he muttered.
The riverbanks were steep and barren, a red clay canyon carved by a slow-moving green current.  Above the clay banks on both sides of the water course stood tall, old-growth trees: chestnuts, long-leaf pine, hickory, elm, and river oak.  Wisteria hung in curtains from the canopy of branches, a fragrant lavender barrier between wood and water, the vines as thick as a grown man’s arm.  Here and there, a fallen tree met the river and provided a handy avenue for river turtles to take the sun, and they were stacked on these makeshift platforms like flat rocks on a beach.  A brace of geese dropped in low and skimmed the river’s surface.  The splash of a catfish quickly diving sent ripples out to greet them.  A muskrat made his slow way against the current towards his den in the far bank.  It was late afternoon.  The sky was a cloudless cerulean canopy.                                                                                       The canoe glided silently into this idyllic scene.  Its construction of skins stretched and dried over a supple ash frame lent lightness and buoyancy, although the two occupants were not much of a burden for the craft to bear.  The woman rowed, and the man lay still.  They were of a brown-skinned race with long black hair, members of the Ani-Yun-wiya.  They were not children as their people reckoned age, but they still had the bloom of youth about them.  They were man and wife, and they were on the river that day trying to outrun the sickness that had come with the Spaniards, the disease that had obliterated most of the rest of their village.  The woman was covered with pustules. Her fever was high, and a deep weariness had settled over her. Her joints had ached until they were numb.  Her companion had been ill for a longer time, and all of his lesions had joined to form a single scale, like a turtle’s shell.  He had lost consciousness soon after they had climbed into the vessel.  His fever raged, yet he shivered.  His breathing was raspy and uneven.
She rowed to the bank and tucked in behind a snag.  They needed water and rest before their journey could continue.  She dipped her hand into the cool stream and drizzled water onto her husband’s parched lips.  He moaned but did not awaken.  She knew that without intervention from the Red Woman, his time was near.  She prayed to this deity until her head fell forward with fatigue.  Then she took a drink herself before collapsing from exhaustion.                                                                                                       The rain arrived in the darkness of the night.  It began as a light sprinkle, but it gained momentum as the stars retired.  The dawn was cloud-covered.  A heavy drizzle outflanked the sun and continued until mid-day.  As the river rose, it turned from green to brown, and the small canoe floated free from its snag and made its way out into the current.  The pair lay, heads touching, with her feet pointing to where they had been and his pointing towards their destination.  They were still, and her hand rested on his cheek. Their pain was gone, their fevers abated.  They, too, had floated free, and now they drifted down the river towards the wide, cool sea. ❖

Buy Raymond’s Sorrow Wood at:

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Raymond L. Atkins’ first novel—The Front Porch Prophet—was released by Medallion Press in July of 2008 and went on to win the 2009 Georgia Author of the Year Award for First Novel as well as the Independent Publishers Book Award for Best Regional Fiction.  His second novel—Sorrow Wood—was released by Medallion Press in June of 2009 to critical acclaim.




About Vicki Hinze
USA Today Bestselling and Award-Winning Author of 40+ books, short stories/novellas and hundreds of articles. Published in as many as 63 countries and recognized by Who's Who in the World as an author and an educator. Featured Columnist for Social-IN Worldwide Network and Book Fun Magazine. Sponsor/Founder of FMI visit

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