Monday, October 15, 2007

Make Your Bed Downriver

By Jens Rushing

Louisa Dokes, that's Bill Dokes's little girl, comes on down from Long Branch way, and stands twisting her toes in the sand, blushing and stumbling over her words like she's never seen a grown man naked before. But each pretty pink blush is a fresh flow of blood pumped to her skin. Just like an old hand-crank pump. Put your foot to it, and the water comes in gouts. I can see that pump, her beautiful beating heart opening and closing like a fist, as lively and lovely as an unbeheaded chicken. When I was young, the old folks say – when I was young –

"Mister Sam," she says, "you seen Gabe around?" Gabe's her beau. "He come fishin out here two weeks ago." She's talking nonsense. Her words are like hornets digging out of her throat, and whenever she speaks, a hornet tears loose to wreak ruination on the world. It's a wonder she can't see it. I were her, I'd sew my lips up good and tight.

She says something else – something about the sheriff – but I can't hear her because Sabine's talking. Sabine runs from the first steps of heaven down to the Gulf of Mexico, carrying with it stumps of old oaks, boughs of old pines, car tires, washing machines, diapers, skeleton cows, skeleton boats, bridge trusses, the after-images of bygone steamers, stern and sidewheelers both, cotton in long billows that choke and tickle the throat like armies of ants, and the hells-legion of water moccasins, brown and white, and copperheads, and rattlers in rafts three hundred feet end to end, swarming with ants. Always ants.

Sabine talks with all these voices, all together to make her own rumbling voice, and, for a while, like every time, I pretend I don't hear. But it's no good. Sabine speaks with the wisdom of ants.
Once right before my eyes ants took an old hound dog from skin to bone in under three days. He had little bones.

And that's what sets me apart from the multitude of unregenerates. I see the bones of this world. You can't know the shape of a thing without knowing the bones of it.

But Sabine knows I know. I see her, so she sees me too. And that gives her a right to talk to me. I built my house on the sandy soil beside her, where she chews at the shore and gnaws chunks of mud away and sweeps them on downstream. I hear her all day and all night, always talking, always telling me what to do like I don't have desires of my own. It makes a fellow kind of mad after a while.

Angie. Angie went to Sabine. We were trotlining for cats upriver, canoe resting easy on Sabine's broad back. I don't rightly recall what happened, but next thing Angie was in the water, and I was on the shore, and the current took her away, round the bend to where the shallow sandbar lies just under the water. Some nights it catches the sun and glistens golden. That's where Angie should've washed up, but she never did – she tumbled to sand before she ever made it that far. Sabine's a sight faster than the ants.

And that night Sabine started talking to me. Just like she's talking to me now. I can't make her shut up.

"Hide nor hair, Louisa Dokes," I say. I have to shout, Sabine's so loud. But suddenly Sabine's changed her tune. She's not saying "more" like usual. Now she says "Come."

"Well, maybe," I say. "You wait here one second." And I take off for the Catfish King. I caught him that next day after Sabine took Angie. He weighed a good eight hundred pounds out of the river, and the head's maybe six feet across, with whiskers four more feet on both sides of that. I hung the head on a tree, and called him the Catfish King. A little joke. Some days I'd bow to him, as another joke, maybe say, "How fare ye, my liege?"

Then a nest of hornets took up residence behind his left eyeball, and soon filled the whole carcass end to end. That's when I stopped the jokes. I know an omen when I see one. So it was no surprise when I first heard his voice.

"Sabine expects more from you," he said. "She's very disappointed." Hornets crawled from his dried-up lips and eyes and along his whiskers.

I remembered what the apostles did in the Bible when they saw Jesus in all his glory. I fell flat on my face. "I recognize your homage," he said. "It does you service."

"Glory be," I said."

"Glory be to God and all the miracle of his creation," the Catfish King said. "All the birds of the field, all creatures great and small, bright and beautiful, scaled and slithery, winged and waxy, many-eyed and many-legged, sun-bright and full of goodness and kindness and beauty, the Lord God made them all."

"Amen!" I shouted.

Ever since, I ask the Catfish King for his guidance. A really wise man recognizes the greater wisdom of others.

I ask him what I must do. I don't like his answer. But I can barely hear him, for Sabine shouting in my ear.

"The Lord hates lovers apart," the King says. "Nothing pains him more than a sighing bride, trembling and white and loveless on her nuptial day. Let no fruit wither on the vine. That is an offense greater than all others before him."

I run back. "Louisa Dokes," I say, "I recollect now where Gabe might be."

She sees it coming. She screams something terrible.

Sabine is loveless. I send her a bride. The catfish might have their way with her. I catch just a glimpse of little, little bones before the brown water grinds them to sand. Sand is so fine. It weighs practically nothing, so it has no trouble floating on up to heaven, flowing up that great highway called Sabine, catching every sparkling sunbeam as it goes. Some sand might be called Angie, some Gabe, some Louisa. But all are one before the eyes of our Lord.

And, now, Sabine is quelled, and gives me peace. I can hear the mockingbirds and the whippoorwills singing their songs; I can hear the ants singing theirs. The Catfish King gives me a satisfied nod, the sun sinks behind the dark wall of oaks and pines, and all is sun-bright and peace and goodness again. For a while.

Jens Rushing, one of the 11 authors featured in Southern Fried Weirdness 2007: An Annual Anthology of Southern Speculative Fiction, hails from North Texas. He writes all manner of fiction. He plays the concertina. Visit his webpage at


Matt Mitchell said...

Good one! I like it.

Justin Sherman said...

Hey Jens,
Very entertaining story! You have a good way with description, like with the wasps coming from her throat. I read The Vicksburg Dead from the Anthology last night - an excellent read. Especially liked how the General was the Surgeon's last cure.