by Joseph Garcia

I can hear the teeth of the comb scrape against my scalp. I tightly clench my jaw without a sound to prove my grit to my father. His hair is curly like mine. He used to comb my hair every Sunday before church. It was the last of our rituals. I would stand on a box in front of the mirror in my navy-blue blazer with the gold buttons while my father’s huge mahogany hand scraped my hair into the desired state.

“There ya go Bubbah Louie” my father said before he let out a satisfied chuckle and douse himself in aftershave. I don’t think I ever let him know that it felt like I was being scalped with a hot knife every single time.

Mother liked to take us to Episcopal church on Sundays. We would all climb in the sedan; my father in the passenger seat and I in the back swinging penny-loafers and smacking bubblegum under wheat-blonde curls. Every Sunday of the Spring it was sunhats and classical music. My mother matched her favorite arias in verbose mezzo-soprano while we drove through our small Southern town, passing the ancient shacks that once housed slaves. Barely old enough to see out through the window, I remember my young eyes catching those of a girl my age standing hand-on-hip in her yard. She watched me pass through the chain link fence.

During service, the rigid form of Anglican tradition reflected off the faces of our congregation to the priest who in turn echoed their collective hopes skyward when decorum so prescribed: My mother elated her full-voiced agreement; my father tucked his chin obediently to his chest with his face awash in the light from the stained glass windows and recited the verses in baritone; the attorneys, with their gold-rimmed glasses hung low on their noses, put their ruddy faces up for review; the sunhat chorus beamed their perfumed melodies through porcelain teeth and painted faces toward the eaves and rafters; our Sunday-school governess never dropped her gaze from the pulpit to keep an eye on us, her charges. I’m beneath the front pew with my face to the floor crafting magic wands of pipe cleaners with the children of Old Southern Money.

There was a murder on the front lawn that day after church. There was usually a murder on the front lawn every Sunday. The other children and I loved to grab tea cakes greedily from the coffee cart and dispense them in the grass for crows. This was permitted by our parents who distractedly tussled our hair whenever we hugged their legs. Usually they were too busy extending invitations and congratulations, or pressing a gloved hand to their chest in laughter to take any notice of our unsightly taste in company. Over time the crows had grown bold and mingled among the crowd of the Sunday lawn, pecking at the crumbs we left for them. Everyone came to the church for coffee and tea cakes in the grass.

The coffee cart was wheeled out on to the lawn by the maintenance crew. I had never seen nor heard of the maintenance crew. They did not attend our services. It just follows logically that someone put the cart there while we were all in church singing to the eaves and the rafters.
Sunday afternoons were spent in the woods and on the banks of the pond beside our house. My only brother, our chocolate lab, would trot along beside me everywhere I went. Once he saved me from a water moccasin who lay in ambush along the banks of the pond. He grabbed it by the head and whirled it like a lasso till it flew off in an arch and landed with a splash back in the water. “Oh! Oh!” screamed my aunt as I ran off to tell the epic news to anyone and everyone. Mother didn’t believe me until my aunt came in and confirmed what I said. Jepps was the dog’s name. He was my hero.

Our pond had bass and perch. Usually, they never so much as rippled the surface. Only when I stole bread from the cabinet to sprinkle on the water did they make their appearance. They flew from their hiding spots to devour my offerings with incredible speed. It seemed they must have spent their whole lives watching the surface. First I came to think of them as pets, then as friends. I often went to war with the boys next door on their behalf. The boys liked to fish for them as food. Once, the oldest boy pushed Jepps off the dock into the pond. It didn’t phase the dog; he was bred for the water. Later on, I shot that boy with my air-gun for breaking into our house.

We even had our own egret, or she had us. Her saintly apparition would light upon our little pond to rest her wings. Through the kitchen window, I would spy her picking among the reeds in the shallows. I never saw the moccasins or snapping turtles give her any trouble. Somehow she was above all that; she was the Lord of that pond. As a mere terrestrial creature, she never let me near her. Her pure white wings would beat the air in retreat at the slightest sound of my approach, taking her off to where I couldn’t go. Craning my neck, I used to follow her flight with reverence until the trees blocked her from view.

Our little plot of land was deep enough in the woods for us to play at seclusion. At night the chorus of tree frogs drowned out the song of tires screeching down the interstate through our little town. We had a nice house. It had once been a hunting camp for the rich who came all the way from New Orleans by boat before they put in a bridge that crossed the lake. We learned this when our handy man tore off the siding of the house to repair our broken stove, exposing a patch of gray unfinished wood.

“Yep” said the Cajun handy man, wiping off the sweat from his brow with his wrist. “This a deer camp. People used to come here from New Orleans just to set and drink, maybe shoot some deer.” He let out a laugh and derided the long-dead huntsman, “maybe somebody never tol’ him… not much deer this part the woods.” A distant peal of thunder urged him to finish re-siding the house before we were both soaked through. His eyes flashed back to me; he spoke half to himself as I watched him work. He gave a wave of his dirty glove:“Too wet.”
Once every summer the parishioners of our church would don hard-hats and work-boots to work their hands at charity. Their tool belts sagged with the weight of their tools. One year we built houses for a neighborhood in need. It’s not as if it were all for show; there was real improvement happening. A whole block of houses was raised on both sides of the street in a matter of months.

At first, my attempts to help were encouraged; though I was never allowed to work. My mother pretended to need a screw-driver from another site and the holder of the screw-driver would say he needed a hammer from the foreman who then asked me to carry a load of insulation to my mother. This went on through the morning into the hottest part of the day when at last, covered in sweat, dirt, and insulation my mother lost her patience with my games and shouted: “Would you leave me alone? Let me do some God-damned work here, son!” So, I was left to find other uses for my time.

The ever present Southern woods called to me and I answered them. Fighting through the brambles and the vines which make much of the woods in that area totally impassible, I stumbled on a creek bed with water so low it was mostly mud. My mother’s son was not spared a boy’s love for dirt; I immediately marched down the path blazed for me by the mud of the creek bed, heading deeper into unfamiliar woods. Humming to myself and waving a stick in the air ahead of me to ward off spider webs, I lost my sense of time. The only thing that halted my advance was my coming upon a graveyard.

Where I was the creek must have been deep when it was full. The banks, lined thickly with cypress, rose high above my head on either side. Peeking out from the mud between the thick roots of the surrounding trees were human teeth and jawbones. My young mind instantly thought: aha! Ancient native burial ground. Some members of a proud and ancient race had long ago deposited their departed loved ones in the soil there. In time the place had been forgotten. Only now the running water of the stream had exposed their remains and I was the one who discovered them. Now I think more likely that they discovered me. I laid aside my spider stick and bent my face down for a closer inspection.

“Yep,” I said to myself aloud “…natives. There’s a whole tribe in here.” Though I had no way of knowing for certain, I began at once to dance and shout like I was sure the natives had done before me. I clapped my hand over my open mouth.“Aah-Oo-Oo” Smearing my face with thick lines of warpaint I fashioned from the black silt of the banks, I gathered sticks, branches, leaves, and mud to build an altar to the natives. My construction was hastened by the rhythm of drums ringing through the trees – ringing in my ears. I swore to myself then and there that I’d never forget where this site was; that I’d always return to sing and dance in the mud to the teeth and bones of the natives that lay in the bottom of the creek bed.

Lost in the task at hand, I hadn’t noticed the advancing twilight till a change in the sound of the bugs alerted me:- I was bound to be in trouble. One last look back to the altar at the bottom of the creek bed and I tore off through the vines, bushes, patches of mud, and branches to find my way back.

The thick Southern woods have a way of turning anyone around, making them lose all sense of direction. Each tree melted into the next and panic soon set in. The chorus of insects sang their songs to the coming night unconcerned. In silent desperation, I fought my way through the woods til I burst out into an unfamiliar street covered from head to toe in mud.

My soggy boots and I squished along the side of the road until we came upon some old shacks with screened porches where I spotted through the chain link fence the same girl I had seen before. She was having a tea party with her dolls in the yard. Her eyes grew wide when they met mine.

“Gramma! Gramma! There’s a white boy in the road outside. Gramma!” Her feet pounded up the three steps to the porch and the screen door slapped shut after her. I stood soggily in the road trying my best to put on a brave face. I didn’t want them to see that I had been crying.

I could hear the old house creaking with the weight of someone’s slow, heavy approach and in a little while an older woman appeared on the porch. She looked at me severely through the screen. “Boy, now what you doin’ all dirty out they in the road?”

“I’m lost, Ma’am.” I sniffed dejectedly. A loose pebble I kicked with my boot protected my eyes from hers.

“You tellin’ me. Where yo mama at?” It felt like I was being scalded for being young, lost, and out-of-place. The old woman still hadn’t ventured out in the yard or invited me in. The little girl peeked at me through the screen from behind the folds of her grandmother’s dress.

“Well” she cast a doubtful look both ways down the road “it’s gettin’ dark, boy.” She shook her head resignedly. “Now… now come on inside the yard off the road. Let me go and see ‘bout yo people.” Waving me into the yard as she disappeared back into the house, she sent her granddaughter out to greet me.

The young girl ran up to open the chain-link gate. As I entered, her big brown eyes looked me up and down. “You stupid” was the salutation I received. Of course she was right and I felt stupid standing there in a strange place covered in mud; but refused to let her know it.
“Nuh-Uh! And you have to be nice to me; I’m your guest.” I insisted with a nod of my chin. I was in shock that my mother’s rules of hospitality were not at play. The strangeness of my predicament dawned on me and filled me with more anxiety than I had felt when I was lost in the woods.

The young hostess sassed back: “I don’t have to do a thing.” She gave me the whites of her eyes and crossed her arms in indignation. We sat there awkwardly on the grass for what felt like a long time. Both of us did our best not to look at each other. Undoubtedly we would have remained in that state forever had we not been acted upon by an outside force.

“Little man!” I heard a man’s voice approaching from the back behind the house. “Little man! Come own back hy’uh to the back uh the hos. Let me speak at yo face.” A kindly old man in overalls shuffled up to me around side of the house and beckoned me to follow him with a wave of his hand.

He whispered to himself as I followed him: “little man come out the woods so dirty you can’t even see his face.” Every few feet he stopped walking to take another look at me as if he didn’t believe what his memory told him he had just seen. With his memory refreshed, he would clap his hands, do a little jig and laugh heartily at me. I could hear the little girl behind me had caught the giggles. It infuriated me.

My eyes must have given away my indignation; the man’s expression softened grew more serious. The wrinkles under his dark eyes grew long. “Now, what you did back there made you so dirty, little man?”

“The graveyard. I found a graveyard! There’s an Indian graveyard back there in the creek bed and I found it!” I more shouted than spoke my story about the teeth, the bones, my war dance, and the altar. He crouched down to my eye-level and nodded his reverent attention to my story with the utmost sincerity, adding ‘uh-huh’ and ‘mm-hmm’ punctually to urge me on. At the story’s conclusion he rocked back on his ankles and shot a glance over my shoulder to the little girl standing behind me. There was a brief moment of silence.

His eyes and cheeks bulged as he exploded with laughter. Surprisingly nimble for an old man he hopped up to his full height and skipped around laughing and clapping. “Little Man, o Little Man! Got to tell me some mo o that today! He say Indian bones!” He removed his cap to hide his face on the unpainted wood siding of the house. “Oo-Oo-Oo!” He clapped his hand over his mouth. The little girl succumbed to her giggling and fell on the grass. I was beyond indignant.

I kept repeating to them that it was true while their laughter subsided. Finally, the old man put a finger under my chin and met my fiery gaze. “I know you seen them bones, little man. Come own see ova h’ya.” He started off again, waving his hand. “Come own.” I followed him down through the back yard passed the back porch where I could smell their grandmother’s cooking through the smoke of a wood burning stove. He took me to the edge of the woods and pointed at a pile of discarded fish bones and oyster shells. Any trace of mockery left his voice as he said “you never seen a sheepshead befo?” He tossed me one of the blanched skulls to examine. “Sheepshead” he repeated. “They got teeth just like people. Small ones not so good for eating, huh.” He discarded the bones from his hand back into the pile and stepped passed me. “Too many bones.”

He sauntered off and left me to ponder the skull in my hand. I wondered if all I had seen were the skulls of dead fish. I struggled to accept my altar was for nothing. I couldn’t accept it. My thoughts ran back to war dances in the mud, to the sounds of drums through the trees, to the natives watching me through the roots of the trees with their hollow eyes. Too soon, my reverie was shattered by a cracking sound from just behind me.

Shoving the skull in my pocket, I whirled around to discover the old man splitting wood. I hadn’t ever seen anyone outside of a television split wood before. The old man could tell I was fascinated so he waved me over with a smile. “Come on nah and hep me.”

I took up my position between the old man and the chopping block. He handed me the full weight of the maul. It instantly fell to the ground with a thud. Crouching down around me, the old man wrapped me in the sweet, unfamiliar smell of twenty five cent cigars. His course hands gently pressed my soft hands into place on the shaft of the maul. “Bend yo knees now, little man. Got to lif up like this h’yuh.” I lifted the maul high over both our heads and with his help I brought it crashing down to split the wood in two.

“Aright nah little man, aright.” He made his lanky gait to collect the pieces of wood. I beamed triumphantly at him. My first real work accomplished. “That’s it, little man. Now Gramma can cook cornbread.” He set about stacking wood. I wrestled feebly to lift the maul from the ground for a second go. The door of the back porch slapped open and the little girl poked her head out.

She pointed her finger right at me, Judas. “Gramma say that boy mama went all the way to the po-lice lookin’ fo him.” My stomach dropped. My head swam. The serenity of the scene blurred with coming tears. “She comin’ nah.”

Both the old man and I jumped at the news. “She say the po-lice” he said to himself. With his hand scratching under the cap on his head he cast a worried look down at me. “Nuh-uh, little man. Yo mama gon’ whoop you. Talkin’ bout Indians in the creek brought the po-lice. Can’t do nothin’ fuh yuh.” He sauntered up into the house and abandoned me to sit on the chopping block with the full weight of my predicament resting on my shoulders.

Fighting off hot tears, I sat in the waning light of the twilit yard till I heard the creak of the screen door. “Yo mama not gon’ like you all dirty, boy.” The old woman stepped out from the light of her house onto the steps of the back porch. “Come on, nah. We can wash yo face befo she comes. Ought to try n do something.

“Yes ma’am” I sniffed, rising to my feet.

I was dirty so she wouldn’t let me in the house. She pointed out an old tin washing basin tucked just under the back porch. Her slow shuffle led us around the side of the house where the rusty pipe of an old well stuck out of the grass. I followed her instructions to drop the basin under the spout and she began pumping water to fill it. The water beat against the bottom of the basin with the rhythm of heavy rain on a tin roof.

“Yea…” she began “my mama used to whoop me for runnin’ round in them woods.” She let out a laugh. “Never stopped me, though. Seemed like the only place to go round here they wasn’t nobody triflin’ could get at me.” She beckoned me to kneel in the grass beside the basin which was now full. She cupped the cool water in her hands and splashed it against my hot face. It mingled with the dry mud and ran down my nose, my neck, my back; cooling me wherever it touched.

“The thing about it is, people from the city come all the way out here for the woods, but they don’t go up in em. They cain’t; it’s too thick to walk around in.” She produced an old rag from somewhere and began scrubbing in that rough, almost punitive way mothers often do. My scramble through the thick woods had left my face with scratches which I only then realized I had. I didn’t let her know it; but it felt like she was sanding off my skin.

“Mm-hmm” she continued, “everybody always lookin’ out where they cain’t go, like it’s someplace special. Bet you that’s why you thought them fish was people; because you don’t know ‘bout them. Thing is, they don’t know ‘bout us neither. How they don’t know we not just big fish lookin’ down at em? Shoot.. You wouldn’t a known they was fish if nobody told you. Now would you?”

“No, ma’am. But they could still be Indians.”
“Well…” the old woman chuckled to herself as she pushed my head forward with her hands to work at the mud in my hair, at the mud behind my ears. I kept my eyes shut tight. In the distance I the thunder from an approaching storm. “Them people from New Orleans come tear down the trees and build theysef a nice house in the country so they can watch out through they windows; but they don’t even go up in them woods. That prolly ruin it fo ‘em anyhow. Sometimes it’s better not knowin. They can just put all they hopes across that window pane out where they cain’t go.” She sucked her teeth “It’s almost like they prayin’.”

I thought about our egret. I wanted to ask the old woman if she knew that our egret was sacred; that I often craned my neck to watch her fly across the top of the pond to where she can see the whole of the world in perfect silent miniature where all the tinkering people and plotting fish drift away quietly as one. Distant and removed.

Before I could speak, I heard the sound of a car engine coming up the road and I saw headlights flash across the side of the house. My time had come. “Go on to yo mama now, boy. Ya heard me?” She kicked over the basin and headed off to the back yard. Through the screen of the front porch I could see the shapes of the old man and the little girl watching me cross the front yard. Stepping through the chain-link gate to greet my mother’s ashen face, I felt the first smatterings of a heavy rain.
That night after the shouting and crying had stopped and all my desperate explanations had been exhausted, I lay in the vast atrium that was half our house to listen to the heavy rain beat against the glass. Water collected on the transparent roof till it fell down the sides as a waterfall which threw rippling shadows across my face and body with every strike of lightening, distorting all sense of proportion. Strewn across the floor were pots and pans that collected the water which dripped through the gaps between the panes of the ceiling. The rhythm of the drops against the bottom of the pans became the metronome that marched me off to sleep that night, and for many nights after. Just before I fell asleep, the wind picked up and I could hear what sounded like branches scratching at the windows, trying to get in. Taking the bleached skull which I had managed to hide from my mother in hand, I dreamed the whole night through of that egret, snapping at the fish in the shallows.

About the Author:

Joseph Garcia

J. Evan Garcia is a native of New Orleans Louisiana who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina and finished ‘growing up’ in Texas. After graduating from The University of Texas at San Antonio, he traveled the Continental United States hitch-hiking for years. He currently teaches English in Asia.