On a certain night of the full moon, a Southerly wind rose up in the backwater marshes off Weeks Bay a quarter mile from an abandoned fisherman’s cottage and bent the tall grasses and rippled the black water, like some unseen hand stirring through things out there.
A great blue heron paused with one long stick-skinny leg bent, lizard-like toes curled into a clawed fist and frozen a foot above the brackish water. Perhaps annoyed, the haughty bird cocked its head and blinked a citrine eye in the direction of some little racket, a footfall on a dry stick as the boy crept quietly toward Ghosthead Oak. The heron soon enough quit the distraction and went back to fishing for a crab, or a minnow, maybe a snake.
And a crow, blacker than the night that held the moon, cupped its quiet wings against the wind and descended late for her roost. The boy wondered what had kept the bird from sleep until this hour. The crow settled on a topmost branch of the lone tree that was the boy’s destination, a giant Southern live oak, and shook her satiny feathers and found her balance for sleeping.
The boy twitched and instinctively dropped into a crouch when a low feline grumble, some wildcat on a feeding prowl, raised a complaint from the nearby highground to his right. He sneaked on through the stand of grass, silently navigating the night.
The episode of anger had bloomed, as so often happened, from soil gentle enough. The boy’s father worked for Baldwin Farms and had just finished up a week of dawn-to-dusk days getting in the potato crop. Every one of those hot August nights he had dragged home a sunburned dirty neck and a sweat-sopped collar and the temper of a cornered blue crab. His best nights were those when he would sink deeply into his favorite diversion, the week’s episode of “Gunsmoke.”
James Arness, Marshal Matt Dillon, was the reason there was a color television in the room, in its solid cherry case the prettiest piece of furniture in the whole house. When, after five years, the TV show had gone from a half hour to an hour-long program, you would have thought the Lord Jesus Christ was scheduled to stop by their house for a visit Saturday nights at 10. And sometimes the boy’s uncle would come to watch, and, for the boy, it might have been a celestial visitation, so welcome was the man’s easy laughter and eyes full of grace.
Into the show’s second decade, when the black-and-white images took on living color, the whole of Heaven might have descended on the swampy landscape along the east banks of Fish River when the Sears Silvertone was angled into the corner of the front room. The boy did not know another family with a color television.
He had seen drama in Technicolor, however. A scene blazing with color the night his father let the landlord know his feelings for a raise in the rent. Watched his father douse the old house with diesel fuel when the last piece of their furniture was clear of the porch, watched him burn to a pile of black ashes the sagging four-room hovel. Watched the walls and roof disappear, his father’s eyes red from the heat, swallowing beer, and finally tossing his bottle into the blaze.
His mother had said nothing, would not take her husband to task for some bizarre act for such was the way of madmen. And this man, her husband, when the man was riled, his rage was bigger than a blue thunderhead, meaner than a coiled up moccasin. The boy had heard his father brag that there was not a thick-necked man in all of Baldwin County, Alabama, drunk or sober, who’d test battle skills with him.
Nor did the boy doubt it that night when the silence in the small living room had closed back in on his question: “Mama, did you know this scary Frankenstein book was written by a lady? It’s so spooky.”
His mother had said, “I expect so.”
She turned a page not even looking up from her magazine, and the boy knew she’d hardly heard what he said. He had not spoken loudly since his chair was near his mother’s. Only a small round mahogany table separated them, and they shared the yellow light from a tall lamp made from a varnished cypress knee that sat on a white lace doily centered on the table.
The father sat where he always did in the center of a worn and lumpy couch, and leaned forward to flick the ashes from his Chesterfield’s into an empty Budweiser bottle, leaned forward to catch every word from Miss Kitty and Doc and the marshal, leaned forward to get ahead of the life curling in behind him.
The boy had been surprised when the commercial came on and his father turned his head toward him and ordered, “Come here, boy, and let me see if I can tie that knot the marshal just used on the outlaw.”
The boy slowly closed his book, shot a nervous look at his mother, then got up and walked barefoot over to the couch. His mother watched him, folding shut the magazine, but not standing, not moving in her chair.
“Turn around and put your hands behind your back,” the father said, twirling the end of a scrap of dock line that he had been half-heartedly eye-splicing during the commercials.
The boy hadn’t much time to wonder where this was going before he felt the rope cut into his wrists, and knew his father had made fast the marshal’s knot, or some version of it. Then he felt the flat of his father’s big hand on his back. The boy grunted when the blow came from the heel of his father’s palm. The loud voice sounded poured through rusted nails and broken glass when he growled that he was not going to be found guilty of raising no such a boy as you.
“I figure if I put you out in the dark,” the father said, “run you out of the house and chase you down by the river, leave you there until the sun comes up, I reckon, by God, you’ll know that nothing in God’s world is going to bite you. Not alligators and wildcats. Not snakes. Not slobbering full-moon werewolves. Not big green men sewed together with graveyard parts. You hear me, son? Nothing in this world’s spooky but a bullet or a bare-knuckled fist.”
The boy’s mother finally pounded her fist on the chair arm, said to her husband, “Damn you!” She jumped to her feet and rushed at him. He waited until she was near and jabbed his extended finger so hard into her chest that she stumbled backwards toward her chair, and sat down hard there. Before she could rise, he had clamped his great paw around the boy’s neck and shoved him out of the living room, through the kitchen, toward the screened back door.
And the boy had been booted in the small of his back, so that he fell headlong into the doorjamb, twisted and caught the screen door with his shoulder. The screen door banged open, rasping back on rusty hinges and slamming against unpainted clapboards warped and loosened by seasons of hurricanes. He pitched forward through the open door onto the porch, his hands tied behind his back with the frayed scrap of dock line, so he could not break his fall with his arms. The boy thudded onto the cypress-planked floor, turning his head so he would not smash his nose, but he somehow did anyway, and it ran blood and mucous, and the noise of his falling and his father’s cursing throbbed past Ghosthead Oak, finally fading to silence somewhere way off downriver. He had on no shirt and was barefoot.
His father followed and snatched him up from the boards with a handful of blond hair, thick and curly, a red knot ballooning beneath an abrasion there on the boy’s right cheek. A raised nail head had snagged his left shoulder and blood poured down the boy’s brown-skinned arm.
Now he was on his feet and licking at the blood running onto his upper lip. He quickly turned to face his father, glancing past him to where his mother stood weeping behind the screen door, her hands in fists at her mouth.
“If your head was not stuck so deep in some book or the other,” the father told his son, “you’d know what’s to be scared of and what’s in the addled brain of some hysterical woman writer. This little recon mission ought to do you a world of good.”
He adjusted his stance to brace for another shove, widened his feet, lowered his head and shoulders and bunched the muscles in his legs and torso. His father had only raised his arm, pointed his finger into the night, and said, “Get out of here. Get away from this house, boy.”
He heard his mother say, but softly, “Son.”
His father told her to shut up.
“You stay gone until morning, boy. Keep off the highway. Stay in the woods. And when you come home, leave your panties in the swamp. I’ll hang some men’s drawers on your bedpost. You’ll be surprised how easy they wear. Hell, you might even grow up to be somebody the Army’ll let in.”
On a thousand other nights, at least that many, it seemed, he had gone to the tree. Sometimes under a sky that was black and lay upon the land so heavy that all sound was vexed to silence, and sometimes under a sky filigreed with nameless stars, and sometimes under a sky brushed with the moon’s soft silver patina, he had gone to the tree. His books were a delight to him, but the tree was his brother. He could climb onto one of its low-curving massive branches, or lean bareback against its rough hide, and a whole night could go by like a run of good sentences by Mr. William Faulkner. The air and the sounds and the thin scent of fish on the wind would cloak him like a blanket.
That night, as the boy limped toward Ghosthead Oak, the moon was round as some ancient Mayan pendant, a hard-edged disc of dirty white, scribbled upon with gray shadows that really did make a face, and it frowned on Micah’s going through the Spartina marsh, the cord grass getting shorter as the soft ground rose toward the tree.
A cool dew fell on him and his naked arms and shoulders and back were shiny with it. His bare feet, too, felt the wet chill of the ground and it was a comfort to him, tempting his thoughts out of his head and into the nerve endings in his skin. But only briefly.
He knew his mother would not follow. He thought that she would not sleep at all tonight, that she would breathe shallow breaths lying open-eyed with her back to his father. In the darkness of their bedroom she would hate her fear, but would not dare to follow her son, because her husband’s derangement would find in her its target for discharge, the way low summer lightning finds a tall pine for ripping its way to ground.
The boy’s arm and face burned with pain and the bloody flow over his lip could only be spat away, and he wished for the use of his hands all the more. But the rope was tied good and tight. Marshal Dillon might have been proud of his father’s skill, though the good lawman surely would have drawn his gun against such meanness.
There were sharply drawn moonshadows all about the ground, fallen darkly there like soot from the scrub bushes, and an occasional slim pine. The wind turned from the south, moving around more to the east, then whipped quickly back before taking an easterly hold. It brushed through the grass, a loud shishhh in the gusts. The boy walked with more determination, anxious to bring the oak into view. The breeze laid down and in the lull he heard an alligator, a small quick one, splashing through the Juncus toward the open water of the river.
The narrow and winding path to the tree was the same pathway the boy had always used, a looping, lazy arc down toward the river bank and along it for a way until a break in the waving run of tall cattails allowed a view inland of the great live oak shouldering up the sky from a grassy hummock.
After the water’s edge, back of a broad savannah of needlerush with its five-foot tall, grayish green stem-like blades, the live oak stood in silhouette above the treeline of the high ground. Pines and tupelo gums and magnolias, maples and bayberries grew together thickly and made a billowing perimeter behind the tree that was set back a good half mile in the manner, perhaps, of respectful subjects.
Now the boy had come abreast of the cattails and knew he did not have far to go. The moonlight, when he would center his awareness on the odd silver cast illuminating this dead-of-night sojourn, eased the pain in his jaw and shoulder, the throb in his head, like a granny’s poultice.
The moon in its loop around the earth did not equivocate in its rhythm, keeping its promise to mark off another year in months. Tonight it was at the top of its cycle, waxing as round and bright as its August turn would allow. Like the moon, the boy knew for sure and certain where he was bound, that he would spend the night cradled in a bough of Ghosthead Oak, that nothing bumping about in the night, then, would unhinge his ease.