by: n k henry ((Header art is by the incredibly talented Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan.))
The legend of Callum Hesh, his ill-fated horse Ballad, and the King Crow who steadily watches over it all…
Hear now. The chorus is all about. Black crickets at their strings, and sparrows flit in body and voice. The wind is in the sparse grass like some soft said word, lifting the dust with it into a pacific blue sky. When the grit drifts back down it is soundless save where it ticks against the veranda. And now a rhythm is plain heard in a rocking. The arches of a chair clip along the boards slowly and the man in the seat clicks his teeth against a hooch-filled beer bottle each time he drinks like some ancillary percussive. Callum Hesh is the man of this property and he sits as interim conductor of this subtle symphony at this or any other day’s end. Cooling under the overhang and drinking until the drink swims in every digit. He can hear the whole land he would say, and one could think, in this daily rite, to hear it is his one true pleasure, but not so. For all is naught without his wife’s good horse Ballad there to graze. And so it does, standing in the dropping sun, Ballad’s nimble lips collecting food from the barren ground.
Would-be passers-by might falter at such content. For look the land over and see the desolation. There is more dirt than stalk to be seen, and even the dirt is useless. Blown in from a thousand miles away. But none of the good sands bothering to make the trip, so too much of the harvest never bothers to grow. And what does grow is relentlessly tested by the grasshoppers and the winds. And what does survive the elements and plagues cannot survive the markets, for the cost of hauling far exceeds the poorly receipt in exchange. So there the grain sits in its too few bags in a race against rot, mice and economics.
There is of course the crab apple tree. A gothic wooden hydra, crowned recurrently with the King Crow, where he comes to eat his field mice and inspect his razed kingdom. It’s a likely pairing, bird and tree. Vulgar king, acrid throne. The tree inexplicably producing year after year a sufficient harvest. But now too, even the crab apple tree succumbs to the oblong grace of god, suffering finally, in this plodding run of droughts. So it wanes, hangs woefully sparse with its bitter fruits for Ballad to eat when the grass is shorn to the root, and when oats are low in tide.
Callum Hesh watches on, a half-full pail of crab apples by his feet. The violent brand of hooch they make has been his one true salvation, and the unequivocal evidence of his born talent. And with so many destitute souls too poor to even move, he has, by that pacifying vice, made enough in pennies and tradable goods to afford the sugar and the paprika necessary for his contraband. Even as he tends his vats each Saturday, through the week he still manages about the yard and fields, hoping by some illogical loyalty to his land that it would dole him out his due. Every day he works about a yard where both house and single barn lean slowly eastward. And without nails, Callum can only stand by and witness the buildings’ slow dilapidation. He does not know who, but someone has been slipping onto his property for the last year and a half stealing, not only the boxes of unused nails, but also those already employed. This is the one subject not to be discussed with him, for his terrible anger gets right into his teeth on the matter. For six weeks he sat up in secret with his shotgun and the two shells of bird shot he owns waiting for the Nail Thief to show face, but to no avail, for the crook is clever. And Callum can only watch the house and barn set ever eastward, less and less a nail. Callum trembles with every wicked wind, knowing not if it will be the denouement for his poorly held battlements.
Callum Hesh himself is not unmarked by the years and the droughts. His own face holds like that of his barn and house, for it seems he can never quite get the crick out of his neck. Or perhaps it’s his jaw that sits askew. Or maybe it’s his mouth so tilted. The folk in the nearby town discuss this without conclusive argument, but nevertheless, it is at least agreed upon that his face is not straight, nor his nose. His nose, for the beatings he took so many years ago, is permanently fixed left. He was an angry youth, and a poor fighter, though this fact affected neither his frequency nor his dedication to the expression. His last beating had taken place near a year prior to this telling. And after the Indian Old Blue had summarily struck him down, he also mended Callum back together. Days after the fight Callum woke in the old man’s lodge. “Smack a melon on and on, and see it keep firm,” Blue had said. “All the juice will rot right through the bruises. No more knocks to the melon. Or you might smile like a baby, and think in terms of a turnip. No more fights, now, young fella. No more fights.”
Now Callum Hesh may have sworn to peace that day, but Old Blue was the more dedicated comrade to Callum’s new peaceful standard, so when he visited the young man’s property a week later, he came with a punching bag for his shed. That day Callum officially retired from getting whipped himself, investing full-time his frustration into that bag. Every morning right after chores. Punching his limbless and slow opponent, his own wounds dwindling into distant scars and his hair in black sweaty sheets to his shoulders, no longer painting his collars in blood.
Of course, Callum has recently opted for hair cropped short, a style choice that allows him the freedom to waiver on his bathing commitments which used to be twice a week, but that was before his wife, Fay, had gone to town for eggs. He knows she is gone, but ever a prideful man, when asked, he says only that she’s gone to get eggs and that he’ll make a fry with them if you’re willing to wait, hoping of course that you’ll know she is gone and that there will be no eggs and no reason to wait either.
Perhaps there is a little hope Callum will see Fay one day walking up the lane. Hope that, as he spends his evenings watching Ballad graze, she would appear as a light where the road turns to his yard. Her apron with a baseball in the pocket just as when she first approached him. An enduring and generally untouched recollection, this introduction. In the days of his preadolescence, Callum’s brief and obsessive affair with the game put him in the paths of poor choices early, being allowed to play only if he could steal a ball for the older boys he intended to impress. And so he found himself in the general store sweating and none too discreet about it. Fay watching him fool with the box that kept the ball and warned him from it with a pronouncement that broke her father from the books he was keeping. It wasn’t Callum’s first beating, far from it, but it was an extra shameful one, too full of tears for a public sphere and plus a feminine peer to see him pants down and red-bottomed. Walking back to the park and re-clipping his belt and licking the tears, Callum could only imagine the older boy’s reaction when he returned equipment-less and noticed in the woods along the road the tattler herself. When he stopped she came out to him. Callum looking distrustfully at her; and Fay with her own quantifying stare, seeing just what salt the boy contained. She pushed her thick black hair behind an ear before she spoke.
“My father was saying to the sugar he ought to have skinned that son of a bitch too,” she said.
“Your father said that?”
“Yup. To the sugar. But I never stole nothing ever at all and he skins me sometimes.” She removed her hand from the apron and held a ball out to him like a shining apple. “At least I’m gonna try to earn my licks from now on.”
In the months to follow, Fay and Callum constructed a friendship based on petty theft and chewing bubblegum. Sometimes they would sit in the low hanging limbs of the town’s old mountain ash watching the river and showing off their occasional bruises or swapping daydreams for daydreams while they separated the legs, abdomens and heads from the ants about their work. But no amount of juvenility or quasi-idyllic tree-sitting could quite forge their bond as did their carnal curiosities, and in that, they found a flourishing commerce, trading kiss for kiss, look for look and touch for touch. But soon came school and while Fay was hoisting a belt of books over her shoulder, Callum was feeding pigs or threshing wheat and their social stocks bent antithetical from each other, and Callum was reduced to watching Fay with her friends while he rode the back of the loaded wagon home.
As Fay aged her skin darkened and her features filled out so that she did not look so white as her father anymore, which became his shame. Still, Callum wasn’t the only man about to consider her a blossom in a town prone to booze, Fay became somewhat of a liquor herself. There wasn’t a man in town that didn’t quietly crave her, but none would so honestly pursue her as did Callum Hesh. While so many other men would never admit their affection for a girl with so motley a blood as Fay, a good number of them still paid her a decent wage to sample her taboo flesh while the braided heads of their wives snored upon their pillows. Herein lied the impetus for many of Callum’s brawls, trying to close up the gross mouths of dishonourable men when they boasted to their closed circuits just how thoroughly they spent their grip.
It did not take Fay long to see the connections between Callum’s bandaged head and the slighter cuts and bruises on her paying beaus. One day when Callum stopped to borrow a bag of ice from the dishwasher outside the back of the diner Fay worked at, it was she who came out instead. Callum looked shamefully to the dirt until she placed in his hand the cubes ice bandied in a dish towel. “Who’s more true than good Callum Hesh,” she wondered aloud and then kissed him on the forehead.
If only to see him so many years ago, sketching with coal a careful yet crude diamond ring onto the old hide of that same stolen sacred ball and proposing to her against the trunk of the old mountain ash. When the solicitors found out she no longer was about her former business, and was instead the fiancé of Callum, they openly rebuked him for taking a whore under god. Many in town looked coldly on Callum and Fay, and many of the folk shunned them entirely. But Callum did not care so much. He and his wife plowed the fields and swung the scythes together. Callum would hold Fay’s waist and watch the crop grow those last good years. And when he fought, which was not as often as before, Fay would sew him back up. In time he bought Fay the colt, and she named it Ballad, before the markets made them redundant, before the land made them waste.
Regardless the turmoil lingering in his history, Callum rocks away yet. The music sings on and on and the sky is so full of blue. He drinks his drink, his mind wandering like a disembodied soul. Soon he slips off into a sleep where Fay visits him like she so often does, and he holds her hand. The bottle falls from his grip, thumps warmly on the veranda and Fay shines him a demure grin. Callum is continually holding her close then pulling her away to look at her again, as if to prove such a truth could be real. He is talking about the last two years she has been gone. He is talking about how he has always loved her, how he’s not even mad that she left. He is asking her why she did leave now. He is asking her why she left him and Ballad to the music and all alone. She is answering him but he cannot hear her words. But she is answering him and when Callum asks Fay to speak louder her mouth opens impossibly wide and her face peels back and explodes into his face, throwing sand and debris about, whipping him with it and howling sick.
Callum wakes. But he wakes from chaos into chaos. The grit in his face is no transmogrified wife at all but the surrounding earth violently thrashing about in the wind. The loose boards of the house hammer away, and there is hardly any light to be seen at all. It’s as if the whole terra firma were in the wind. The black blizzard is in his lungs and on his tongue and the racket is in his ears like a harpy. He cannot see the way into the house and he struggles to make his way and when he finds himself inside he goes no further than to brace his body against the door. He licks his lips and looks around the room at the filth swirling within it. He does not curse or cry or rent or smile, laugh or shake his head. He calls on no god and curses no devil. He is too busy watching for the house with missing nails to fold down once and for all and with him inside of it.
Lo, The House of Callum Hesh stands yet. And when he finally opens the door the filth has drifted near three feet high against the jamb. New dunes are made in the pathetic cove his eastward home creates against such winds. He stands in the frame as the earth sifts down around him, raccoon-featured where his rubbed-white eyes gawk like a stupid owl at the aftermath of the storm. His wheelbarrow is half-buried, a shipwrecked artifact the way it looks against the fray. Overhead the sun is a sepia star. The dust hanging in its glare deciding whether to fly on or to settle back again. A new day strung in an ecru curtain. Callum squints through the haze. The shed has finally heaved over, and it beds now much as it stood: an inadequate stack of grey wood so feeble, so sorry, so dead. Much of its innards are still trapped under it, and it rises in the center a little, the punching bag the new spine. It seems only the tin of the half gallon nipple grease for the cow that died a year ago escaped the folding, and it sits up-ended in the dirt. The logo of a happy cow is literally tits up. And this image leads to the next. Callum stares blankly at the awful news as he sees it, and for a moment it seems that this listless acceptance for all his poor luck would be sufficient to this latest lot. But suddenly and quite violently, like an old engine, he jerks and gurgles and lets out a whimper. And just like an old engine false to its charge, the whimper of life is a singular event. He steps further out onto his veranda, seeing great and beautiful Ballad awkwardly spilled out on the ground, his behind bulbously rising from the earth, the blown dirt climbing up and through and around the body like a mold.
For a moment Callum disappears into his house only to return with a drink and then he walks off the veranda to Ballad. When he stops over the corpse his crooked face becomes more crooked. Maybe its confidence he gains, or a measured recognition of death here now defined, but whatever the particulars, he nods for it. A slow professional-like nod as if to suggest that of course Ballad would die this way. He stands a little straighter and he hooks a hand into his overalls and studies the dead horse’s final condition more thoroughly. Vaguely now, Callum may appear detective-like, for he peeks over the corpse with an impersonal quality. Indeed it is a worse case up close for Ballad than from the veranda. The dead horse’s front legs are splayed out like a giraffe leaning for a drink, and his jaws askance with the tongue licking out from between his teeth like a last living thing crawling for its doomed life. And Callum shakes his head with all final empathy saying, “O Ballad, you beautiful horse.”
Much as the horse’s posture is a quizzically somber display, the engine of his death should flummox no man. And Callum is neither perplexed, deducing quickly that something had knocked Ballad in the head. For a sizable gash, burgundy with blood and dust, looms large along the base of his skull. The weapon is no debatable tool either, for not ten feet from the animal Callum finds a teal blue door from the cabin of a truck, the edge of it holding a fleshy clipping from Ballad’s mane. If this slug from the heavens hadn’t done the horse in, then the choking air had sufficed to finish him off. Callum had seen it before.
Callum does not ponder long. He resolves immediately to find his shovel, and he rummages in the shed heap and by the heel of his boot he marks a grave not but a step from the deceased animal. All morning Callum digs the hole, talking kindly to Ballad like he might be talking up an old friend in town. The moonshine slips down the waist of the bottle steadily and by the afternoon’s first hour Callum is asleep in the shallow grave, the shovel over his lap, the last dregs of drink slipping out the upended bottle into his crotch. The sun is warm upon him, and the music of the fields begin their whispers as the dust clears with a new breeze.
And it is here where Callum comes upon Fay again, pushing her black hair behind her ears, her lips smiling and speaking and again he cannot hear what she says. She is lovely in wind, and so wonderfully lit in the sun, and he reaches to touch her hair and it blows down into his face. The washing sound it makes is incongruous, its touch more coarse and wiry than his sweet memory recalls. Callum awakes with his hands in the drifting tail hair of the horse and he throws it away with a start. He sits up and twists his crooked jaw around with his hand for the crook in his neck. He looks at the grave and could swear he had dug deeper. Ballad beside it, flies fussing all about him. Callum vows to allow no drink, not a drop to touch his mouth, until the grave is fit for such an honourable beast.
So Callum digs again. All evening until the sun slips off. Come morning he is just as faithful, for once he’s set his mind to something there is no diverging from the course. And the dirt piles up and in time his knees sit evenly with the lip of the grave. In a while his hips do. A while after that his ribs. And he digs on and on.
Sixteen hours total of digging and he is finished in time to settle back on the porch for the evening’s last sonnets. He retrieves a milk jar half-full of the home brew and folds into his rocking chair.
A good ways into the drink Callum announces to the clear, intoxicating liquid that he will bury Ballad the next day, that no more exposure should come to that noble animal than already has. How stone-like the horse sits in the yard. How ominous. How gruesome. He tells his bottle that tomorrow he will have a bath and lead the service. Callum seems surprised by his own proclamation, but he nods in agreement anyway. Though he has long ago sold his wedding suit to the town tailor for a hot dog, he knows he will have to look nice, and he asks the bottle where might he borrow a clean set of clothes. He drinks back the bottle that has so far never entertained his queries with an answer, and when Callum’s swimming eyes see the shape of the blue truck door laying beside his dead horse, he settles into his chair and grins a satisfied grin.
The next day Callum digs free his wheelbarrow from the dune encasing it. Cracked grey handles, rusted belly half full of silt, and no better when emptied and loaded with the door, for its wheel kneels down to the hub when the new weight is hefted in. No amount of sifting through the shed rubble could produce the wheel pump either, and Callum complains lightly about how life is like that, smiling while he says so, and then he comes away from the pile with a potato sack and a rope instead. He wraps what he can of the door in the sack and fashions the rope into two parallel loops, weaving the cordage through both burlap and the truck door. Sticking his arms through the loops, the whole unit sits on his back. And to account for possible errant weather, he fits a rag around his neck for his mouth, and straps a set of goggles to his forehead. And finally, by a wire he hangs a bottle full of hooch from his pack. With a few adjustments he is satisfied with the travelable state of his effects, and even admires himself in the cracked and cloudy looking-glass standing on his small veranda.
It is five miles for the King Crow to town, and five miles for Callum Hesh too, for he takes no road and respects no property lines. Most of the adjacent landowners are gone, and foreclosure signs picket at the mouths of nearly half the yards of ghosted or ruined homes. Callum moves on, sweating hard under the sun, and bearing a burden on his back that seems to gain exponential weight with every quarter mile. Nonetheless, he does not break. He thinks only of his dead horse subject to the flies and the crows and the sun.
In a few hours Callum is at the edge town and he finds the local mechanic, a man willing enough to buy the teal truck door if only Callum can prove that he indeed owns the truck it came from. He nods his crooked head and frowns his crooked mouth. He tells the mechanic that he never said he owned a truck, but that he only owns a door. The mechanic grimaces too. No fool in desperate times, he is neither beyond conniving himself, for he knows just how to sell a man an item he owns. “Tell you what,” he tells Callum, “if I didn’t know the truck this door belonged to, I’d go along with you. But I’ll not sap a man of his means all the way either; I know you walk light. So how ‘bout I keep the door and buy that hooch of yours as a way of keeping quiet? And the mechanic holds out a dollar and ten cents as bait.”
Callum nods his head. He passes over the drink and swings down the teal door from his back. He retrieves the rope and gunny and snaps up the hush fee, and he complains to no one in particular about this enterprising world. “Fingers in pockets or guns, everybody’s a crook,” he says.
To the tailor he goes with a grip considerably lighter in his pocket than he anticipated. Callum calculates over and over the estimated cost of a suit, a bath and a shave, and a proper hot meal, and finds his new means short. He walks on dispirited, an old heat building on his brow, crushing in his jaws. But when he looks out across the block, trying to locate the tailor, he beholds instead, a fattened calf. Across the street from him sits Big Ben upon his stool; a stoic and fat communist, a corner fixture, this hotdog vendor is. Big Ben’s plotting eyes scan out from under his paperboy cap like the way snipers survey the land.
When Callum enters the tailor’s shop he stays fixed in the door jamb waiting for his eyes to adjust to the light. The wobbling sounds of a gramophone lob out Beethoven. The symphony sounds as if it must suffer the gravitational force of a roller coaster on every loop, bending notes like a blacksmith crooks iron. Bending while the subtle aroma of roasting coffee climbs in and around Callum like a spider. When his vision clears there are Persian rugs hanging on every wall between the floor-to-ceiling windows, and these are hung with the thinnest linen curtains. Plush textures, coarse textures, walls to touch. Walls to behold. Grand depictions of gods stitched there, ornate designs in their threads of gold, blue and dark wine red. The tailor stands as the focal point of it all, a fresh coffee in hand. A warm smile, and every bit a gentleman in his eccentric suit. His garish magenta silk shirt frilling out from his plush and floral patterned orange suit coat. Callum’s eyes drift from the errant lines of the man before him to his own hands: each upheld with a hot dog piled with mustard. The tailor’s grin, not slipping but tightening.
“Afternoon, sir. I’ve come to re-buy my old suit,” Callum begins most officially. He holds the two hot dogs up like an offering. “And I was hoping we could work out some sort of trade.”
The tailor’s smile twitches, his gaze stays transfixed on the hot dogs, coffee cup trembling upon the tray.
Do not be deceived by the lavish showroom, nor the extravagance of fresh roasted coffee, for all these props decorating the walls were obtained in better days. The coffee that warmly intones the room would not be possible without a common goods thief to purchase it from, for the tailor has been no less affected by the economic and natural calamities, and in his own most desperate turn took to religion to solve for him the general want and fear. But having found his particular hope among the teachings of Mohammed, there would be no more room for the hot dogs, or any other pork-based trade.
And now the tailor tries to explain just why pork abstinence is so important. Callum’s eyes grow hollow, his face sags. Cool mustard is running onto his fingers. The tailor’s testimony carries on and on more muddy, more mute, lost in some cosmic distance between them, soon only pulsing as blurred transmissions. He, enlightened, bites a dog, chews it bovine-like, the mustard from his palm, dripping onto a plush rug. He does not see the tailor cross the room to intervene. He does not hear his genteel admonitions to leave. He only feels a guiding hand touch him on the shoulder. Now all that infinite wonder slaps down so atomic. Both dogs in his hands are mashing into the tailor’s face, the mustard slathering into his eyes, the wieners crushing against his cheeks. There is silence in the shock, a temporal vacuum—even Beethoven seems to hold all notes. The tailor reaches to wipe his eyes, gape-mouthed and hunched. Then a singular thread, one clear, horrified voice unravels from his throat. A screaming lady hawk scream, and he thrashes and twists away, mustard flinging about like yellow blood. Callum stares on dumbly angry for a moment, not even knowing what he did. He watches the tailor crash, hears new melismata in the fracas. It’s too loud, too conspicuous and so he leaps onto the tailor, brings him to the floor and lands two heavy punches that turn the frantic man silent. Callum stands heaving with breath, mustard and a squirt of blood splashed upon him. Bits of dog and bun still in his hands. He looks down on the broken, sleeping tailor and feels a thrill of victory over him. In all his days fighting he’d never known the god-power to put a man to rest like that and he licks mustard from his lips and nods in agreement to his own authority.
It does not take Callum long to tie and hide the tailor in the back of the shop. He takes no time to find his old suit, either. And when he cannot find suitable footwear he returns to the sleeping man. In the taking of the tailor’s shoes, Callum finds three moist dollars flat against the heel, and he pockets these too. He leaves out the back door and drops his old stained wares down a hole in the alleyway then walks on, dangerous and debonair.
Out the back of the aging, decrepit town hotel is an old tub and there for fifty cents a man can get a warm bath. For a shave with it, it cost’s him a dollar and Callum pays the fee for this deluxe package. He is a long time in that tub, seeing his smooth face, rubbing his jaw for all the good ideas freshly shorn scruff contains.
After the bath and shave Callum quickly gobbles a roast dinner, potatoes and gravy included, and leaves town for home well fed. He pulls his bandana and the goggles from his pocket and puts them on, looking up at a sky he does not trust. The tailor’s shoes glow in the sun with their highly buffed toes. His old suit starched and tire black, fits a little more snug on his older, slightly thicker frame. Callum is careful not to walk too fast for the sweat such effort might produce. But he is home a couple hours before sundown, leaving plenty of time for a pre-service drink of his most rancorous spirits.
And with the sun close and collapsing, Callum Hesh begins his service. A service composed primarily of mumbled starts and long intervals of guzzled moonshine. He looks at Ballad, the beast slightly bloated with trapped gases. “I don’t know why,” he begins, “I don’t know why Fay would leave you to die this way. Maybe you would’ve died with a door to the back of the head all the same. I don’t know. Maybe. But Fay should have been here to cry over you.” Callum pauses. “To Ballad,” he says loudly, holding up the bottle to toast the dead horse. “To the best of what my money could buy and to its fucking end.” Callum nods his crooked head and sips from his crooked mouth. And he stands there swaying in the dusk drinking like this.
Callum wakes in the black, lying head first inside the enormous grave, his stolen suit torn from the fall and his lip fattened from the crash. He tastes blood and he licks it again and again. At length he clambers out of the hole, and he realizes in his cloudy state that he has rushed the service. “The horse ought to be in the ground before you send him off,” he tells himself. “A rubber pickle in a nun’s mouth would make more sense than you, he adds like a second character.”
To rectify this oversight Callum tries to pull the horse into the hole, but to no avail. He pushes the horse next, tries to move body parts one at a time. A vain effort. He hap hazards a pulley system, looping the rope around the crab apple tree with a noose over the neck of Ballad, but no amount of rudimentary science is equal to the task. Callum laughs a little. A sharp dagger of anti-joy, into the music of the night, and for a moment all around goes quiet. He stands in a good-sized moon, hands on his hips, assessing the situation. “Wedges,” he says, “I need wedges is what.”
All manner of wedges or would-be wedges are collected, rake, hoe, axe, salvageable boards and his shovel all in time stick under the weight of Ballad. Callum heaves, heaves against each one, and at last he tries the shovel. All of his pride, all of his remaining strength into it now and he feels a momentary give. Hope spikes in his eyes and then the shovel breaks through the middle of the handle, pitching Callum forward onto the corpse of his horse. He is as fast to his feet again as he was to fall and he holds the shovel into the moonlight. He looks at Ballad. His open mouth, his lolling tongue. His stuck up arse. He looks again at the shovel.
Exploding into a fit, he is swinging the tool around thumping and lashing open the horse in swipes. The skin breaking with lazy, dark blood. The shovel thuds wickedly into the flesh of the dead horse. Over and over he hammers away and the blows sock and the beast absorbs every belt and Callum swings until he can’t swing anymore.
The next morning Callum is blurry-eyed and his head aches with drink and his shoulder is too sore to lift his arm beyond his head. He stands in the frame of his door, leaning against the jamb and looks out at Ballad. Lacerations lay across its back like the threshing of a field. Crosswise and exes decorate Ballad’s spine, his neck, and his rump. A legion of flies are at the wounds, and the King Crow protects a half-eaten eye socket from his kin of competitors. Callum broils with contempt and yells across the yard his hatred for the horse. “Rot yourself to Satan,” he says, “for I am finished with you.” And for two whole days he is, walking wide paths around the festering flesh while he does what paltry chores can be done. He tends to his vats. Collects the sparse amounts of crab apples for new batches, and spits on the horse anytime he is near enough to do it. He insults him constantly. In the evenings he throws rocks at him. And when the paws of coyotes in the night mark rings around the corpse and the divots of their jaws leave new shapes in the once beautiful neck of the horse, Callum only berates the scavengers for not engorging themselves until the end.
On the third day his hatred shifts from the bile spewing sort of expression to a simmering brand, for Callum no longer has it in him to actively destroy the dead horse, only to see its passive destruction. So he sits on his veranda stone-faced and nursing the bottles of his pet toxin. All day he watches. He watches Ballad as if he could see the decay, and if not the decay itself, the myriad agents of it. The maggots so full in spots that Ballad looks alive where they boil. But after this day of drink and absurd entertainment, not even the hardened heart of Callum can truly find satisfaction in Ballad’s wasting. And he lays awake a long time filled with disgrace.
The day has almost arrived and Callum has not yet slept. At length he lights a lamp and walks out to Ballad under the radial cast of the glass. He bends to the maggots and begins to pick them off one after another. This wound that wound, he picks maggots until the feel of them no longer sends shivers through his back. He picks them as peas. His hands harvest them in swipes.
After a while, Callum resorts to dousing them with moonshine. The maggots writhe and protest, but mostly go on as if rain had fallen on them. He pours another gulp down on the maggots and lights them afire. They shrivel and burn and crawl over themselves to escape and not a one dies unblackened. Callum smiles, a sidewinder in his lips. He nods and leaves. When he returns he bears an axe. “I’ll cut you up Ballad,” he says. “But just to move you. Just the parts I need to cut, though. It ain’t mean to do it this way.”
Callum commences with a rear leg, and it’s a messy beginning and every swing awakens some fermenting mercy in him. He hacks and hacks again. Blood like syrup, sprays all up the front of his wedding suit. Little shards of bloody bone catch the late light of the moon. They sit against his pant legs and glue themselves to the axe head. And in this graphic undoing Callum Hesh gives way himself. Sickly sobs come wobbling out of his throat. Snot bulbs in his nostrils, tears run down his dirty, shaven face. But soon enough the first leg is free and he throws it into the grave. He leans against the horse’s rump and exhales a poorly spirit. “Sorry, about that,” he says.
Callum eyes the next leg he means to hack, and even half stands to do it. And now he’s leaning over that enormous rump, and through the years of the dulled intimations of his own soul comes a foul urge. It moves through his blood fast and before he can think about the profanity he is pulling his erect self out of his pants and trying to sodomize poor Ballad. And while he struggles on he sees the tits up container of petroleum jelly in the dirt, and he’s frenetic about its application both to himself and horse. As if he must do all of this before a rightful mind rebukes him for this denigration.
He weeps in the act now, already his rational mind horrifies at this shocking articulation of all the years spent numb. But besides the released passions long distorted in his moot heart, there is a far more immediate vulgar dimension brought out into the open. Whatever hideous odors were locked up behind Ballad’s anus strike out now at Callum’s nostrils and he nearly faints for it. But this near asphyxiation only proceeds to spur him to finish more madly. And he yells aloud once for himself to stop, but he can’t seem to resign. And so, through tears, and his slaved gyrations, he apologizes over and over to Ballad until the act is history.
Though a shame as thick as mud clings to his brain, it can’t keep Callum from the rest such a rare and total expression demands. But his sleep is tumultuous and it recounts his horrific act over and over but in metaphors and ridiculousness. In the last act he does not fornicate with the dead horse now, but the teal truck door, and of course the ethereal Fay visits him here and now. Her face drops and her eyes well, and she with a broken voice asks if he ever loved her, and was he ever faithful, and oh poor Ballad, she says, but Ballad in the dream is the teal truck door. And Callum with his wedding suit at his ankles and holding the teal truck door in his naked and shit-covered lap, tries to explain that this is the first time he ever fucked a teal truck door. But Fay will hear none of it and she leaves calling his name.
Callum wakes with the echo of her last call and then to shock him entirely awake he hears the voice of a man calling him just the same. Callum stumbles around in the shadows of his shack and plunges out into the daylight fixing his coat onto his shoulder as he does. A customer stands there hat in hand, a sweat about his face. He is looking at the dead horse, the half-fresh grim specter it is. He glances at Callum with embarrassment. Callum tries not to flush. “What the hell do you want,” he asks.
“Why else am I here, Hesh?”
Callum straightens. He spits. “I’m kind of busy.”
“I know, I uh.” The customer looks back at Ballad, the macabre state of him. “How long Ballad been that way?”
The customer studies the mutilated body of the horse, the severed leg, the burned flesh. The horse’s greasy arse.
“You know, you ought to bury that creature. All the filth it’ll bring.”
“What do you think the grave is for?”
The customer nods with trouble on his face and tries not to make eye contact at all. “You know,” he begins uncertainly, “my truck door got blowed away in that big wind the other day. And you know what that miser Mack down at the shop did? Well somehow he got hold of it and charged me near top dollar for that damn door. And I said, ‘But it’s mine already’, and he said, ‘Well I don’t know that’. The nerve of that no-gooder.”
Callum leans on a pillar, hooks a thumb into his waistline. He looks long and suspiciously toward the customer.
The customer clears his throat and sings out with forced nonchalance: “Well, I guess I’ll just collect on that apple piss, if you don’t mind, Callum.”
When Callum sees a ratty bill appear in the man’s hand he reluctantly nods and disappears into his shack to a hatch in the floor. When the customer feels the bottle in his hand, Callum Hesh tightly grips the money paid. Both now standing, holding their specimens into the sun.
Callum returned with an axe to finish the job of reducing poor Ballad into moveable pieces. By certain definitions, this work could even be extended and described as an act of mercy if it did not also offer the pragmatic advantage of shedding one from the evidence of some glaring, egregious affair. Nevertheless, Callum is at his work all the afternoon, and at a distance he appears to stand in his own plague, the flies being so heavy about him. Or it could seem as if the dead horse had cracked and so many of death’s vile agents had spilled forth. In no time at all, Callum’s goggles were splattered with blood, a black bandana tied round his face, his wedding suit newly soaked too in black blood and wearing the detritus of his efforts: globules of flesh and fat, bone and horse hair. With every step the ground squeezes purple mud up at the tailor’s shoes to a horde of flies who whirl a moment only to land and sup again. The King Crow lazes at the perimeter of this radial chaos, bits of Ballad hanging from his yawning beak. He watches for Callum, to dodge the man’s righteous explosions, the pieces of horse he would throw. No raptor should satisfy himself on a horse like Ballad, he would growl.
The three legs that remain are chopped, and Ballad’s head lays severed from the body. But the task has not lightened the corpse enough. So Callum takes his slaughtering blade in hand and cuts the bowels open, much of them falling out with the relief in the split belly, some parts oozing still. Various sacks of bloody white, grey and purple Callum heaves by the handful into the pit save for the liver which, as he intends to throw it, he retracts the organ. How tired of this he is. How great his redeeming efforts. How hungry do they make a man. Callum looks across the field as he sniffs the liver. He sniffs it again then turns back to the house. He rinses the slab in a small pot. In a few minutes the liver is frying away on his stove. When he sits to eat it he doesn’t think about where it came from, only that it will silence his crying stomach. And then he hears the oddest sound. Near alien it has been so long, but there nonetheless. At first faint and irregular, but a sound that slowly gathers volume and regularity. A crescendo of soft drumming now, and it claps down more assuredly on the roof awake as a timpani drum. He slides from his table, goes to the door, slowly, as if the ground beneath him be hallowed. “I hear you out there,” he whispers, refusing to name what he hears for the hex that lay in the naming of rare events. Before he is at the threshold of the door the sweet smell is on him, and when he opens the door his crooked face is lit with disbelief to the fall of rain unlimited. He steps dumbly out onto the edge of his veranda to catch the rain in his hands, and the downfall is soon so great that Ballad is defined strictly as no more than a few grey contours penciled out of the plunging sheets.
Callum finishes the remaining meal watching the glorious concerto splash down on his pathetic land. He licks his fingers clean and leans in the jamb. Puddles lay all about the yard, a hundred thousand pocks in each and every one. After a while his stomach wraps around the meal and the pain there now is gone. Now the guilt of a full man settles down on him. And the pleasure of the rain dims while he questions the very stitches god had ever stitched him with. “Eating poor Ballad was a sin,” he says sorrowfully. “Shame on me.”
Callum steps into the rain, holding out his filth-stained hands and then he wipes them down on his wedding suit. Callum somberly walks out to Ballad, practicing a small and comprehensive apology along the way. The downfall scattering off his left-set nose. A few more strides and then he stands over Ballad. Mutilated anti-horse. Ugly, profane, pathetic. At the moment when his practiced apology should have come to his tongue, there is only hate. How he hates Ballad so, this burden left to him. And he kicks at the carcass. He picks up a leg and he beats the severed head with it, and he beats the body with it. He beats most severely the rump he loved not six hours earlier with it. He exhales every molecule of resentment his body ever stored, expunging himself of all mercy, love and memory of pain. Then he angrily throws the limbs down into the grave like spears and curses each one.
And then Callum is spent. He looks heavenward to wash the heat from his face. He stands a while like this, just feeling the cold rain. He begins to shudder with the chill, and it shakes him from his small nirvana. He can’t believe his vile heart and he bends over his knees and pats the severed head of Ballad. “God will get me back,” he says. “You rest now.” And as the words exit his mouth he hears an awful creak. He turns to his shack to see it finally fold down upon itself. It bounces and settles and the rain looks as if it leans on the wreckage. Callum looks on. His crooked face, his crooked mouth, his wayward nose all beset with stupefaction. He can only stand with his hands hanging limp at his hips and his crooked face drops down his chest and he breathes. He looks at the mess. Only the porch and the chair remain. He turns back to the carcass. In a flash of rage he takes a running kick at the severed head.
See the truncated skull of Ballad twisting through rain with a near horizontal axis. The bloody neck. The dead slug of a tongue. The bloody neck. The dead slug tongue. If the point is to land Ballad’s guillotined noggin in the grave, Callum has kicked too hard. Ballad’s head lands heavily in the muck on the opposite side of his intended interment and turns one last time to show his mouth no less gaping with its comical and horrific teeth. The tongue no less lolling, in fact, maybe lolling a little more.
Callum Hesh in the rain. He laughs. He laughs hysterically. “I am a stupid man,” he declares with bemused pain. Then he turns to his wrecked house, and with a new limp in his kicking foot, he hobbles to the newly coverless porch and to his chair and the bottle that takes shelter under it. He sits in the downfall and stretches out his sore leg and he drinks. He drinks and it rains and he drinks.
Fay is crying, subtle tears track down her cheeks. She is breaking bottles against the fence post. Bottle after bottle, and their contents scattering as they fall. Light skates against every edge of wet glass as they crash into the blue grama that gathers against the fence line. Over her shoulder, Callum is passed out on the deck stairs, looking poured out, lying in the way he fell with his arms thrown up and his legs awkward and twisted. When she cracks the last bottle Fay leaves under a rock on the fencepost a note about getting eggs. She then picks up a small carpet suitcase and leaves. In a while she crosses paths with a young boy riding his bike. She smiles and stops him, asks him his name. He tells her Simon and she says it herself, as if tasting it, as if trialing it. She smiles again and tells Simon it’s a good name for a boy. He nods, not knowing what else to do. Fay then digs into her coat pocket and holds out a worn baseball, asking him at the same time would he like it. The boy again shyly nods his head. “I would think so,” she tells him and she passes him the ball. Simon, in awful gratitude, studies the gift, and doesn’t see her leave. When he does notice, she is already too far to call to and so he thanks her quietly and drops the ball into his bike basket beside a hammer and an assortment of twisted nails.
Callum semi-wakes into a grey evening. His body sprawled in the chair on the deck, his neck slumping over the back of the chair as if it were the neck of a chicken on a chopping block. He watches the upside down world and it commixes with the sleep still churning in his mind. The rain is lighter now, and Callum scans the yard with only his eyes. In a moment he hears the rattle of an engine and when he looks to the lane the sheriff arrives in the county squad car. Callum watches the sheriff step from his car as if belonging to some semblance of his dreams. The sheriff puts a purple soda on the roof of the car and it’s the only color beyond the earthen hues of gray and brown that hang the farmland over. He hikes up his belt under an enormous belly. He peers around the yard as if to take inventory, and pulls lower the Canadian Stetson over his eyes, the rain soaking greedily into it. The sheriff snatches the grape soda from the roof of the car and walks lazily toward Callum on the porch. He stops at the far side of the grave to view Ballad’s carnage, the piecemeal carrion displayed like some mythic monster might produce. He nods his head, swigs the purple soda, sloshes it around, through his teeth. He does this while he sets his study to Ballad’s severed head, where the King Crow squats soaked and gape-beaked over it with Locke-like authority. The sheriff offers a low, agile kick and the bird flies off and he watches it a moment.
“Well I’ll be goddamned,” he says to the horse’s head in a booming, cheerful voice. “Would make more sense to turn you into grub, no?” Then he grips Ballad by the mane and tosses his head into the hole. Wiping his hand down his coat The sheriff refits his sagging trousers up to under his belly again then walks the distance around the grave to Callum. Callum sits up slowly, for he now knows the sheriff is no figment. But he tries to look alert not slovenly, welcoming and not surprised by the visit.
“How you doing, Callum?” says the sheriff with an exhaling, regretful breath. “How’s Ballad?”
“Been better, I guess.”
“Well I sure hope that bugger wasn’t better before you went and savaged it. It’s a crime to brutalize animals, don’t you know?”
The sheriff nods, leans on his knee and looks at Callum’s suit. “Know why I’m here?” he asks.
Callum shakes his head.
“Cause you stole that suit you got on, Callum. You stole it and you beat up that tailor fella to do it. And you stole his shoes too. I suspect those are the ones,” he says pointing to the shoes on Callum’s feet. The sheriff tips the soda bottle back, guzzles it. “Now I got to arrest and charge you. So if you could, stand up, turn around and put your hands behind your back.”
He watches Callum as he complies. Satisfied, the sheriff unclips the handcuffs from his belt and offers wondrously, “I should be thinking it’s good to see the rain but all I can think about is the goddamned muck. Now ain’t that something?”
But Callum is not listening, for he is suddenly, violently vomiting. When Callum is through he’s covered in his own filth and he coughs with the acrid burn in his throat. He looks on his ejecta with calm abstraction. It stinks like bile and crabapple hooch and the still recognizably Ballad’s liver.
The King Crow in the crab apple tree. Droplets slip from his beak. His plumes are full against the cold, and his eyes hold convex the total ruin under him. The fallen shed and the fallen house soak into their grey dilapidations, more rain and more rain turning them a deeper grey yet. Under the King Crow’s watch Callum is freed to strip his shirt but he throws the soiled article at the sheriff, some sad attempt at a screen, and he turns to run. But the muck here is something awful. His stolen shoes atrocious in the surrounding slick. Callum falls into the gravy-like earth as quickly as he begins his escape. The sheriff finishes his purple soda then strolls over to him.
It is not long before Callum is cuffed and put into the county squad car. The King Crow watches them slip away, the car retreating within the crow’s oily eye. A quietude then descends upon the land. All but the rain is silent. And it falls. It drains. It washes. The downfall is the only music, and it thrums over Ballad and all his parts dispelled, a song that might sound like fortune to those that endure yet.
loved it. dark, sad, and funny. not to beat a dead horse here, but i thought that was just a damn fun read.
Cheers for that.
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