Excerpt from “Coventry,” by Joseph Bathanti

Editor’s Note:  Italics appear in the original. 

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From Chapter 51 in Coventry

            One afternoon, Papa and Frank and I were out fetching a convict named Tombs. He’d been gone the better part of three hours before we got started after him. Papa was never in a hurry. It was his theory that a run convict wanted catching. All Papa had to do was let him know he was out there in the free world after him and he would be certain to come to Papa. Like the Prodigal. Home is home. If Papa had any religion, it was the belief that there was a single plan. Call it divine. Papa never said it wasn’t. But Papa never said. And that all of everything is swept along, however confusedly, toward the fulfillment of that plan. Convicts were just part of the plan and, as such, necessary, as they necessitated prison and hence prison guards and hence Papa and so on. No different from disease and doctors, drought and well diggers. The holes in the handcuffs were meant for hands, bars for people to stand behind. It wasn’t so much a hierarchy as a principle, like gravity or combustion.

            So Papa needn’t feel bad about what he was doing: his job. It was simply his part in the plan’s fulfillment. Therefore, the notion of pitying the convict, the notion of mercy, never entered his head. It was upon this principle that Papa chain-ganged: that inevitably the keeper ended with the kept; and the kept ended with the keeper. Part of the plan. So he never hurried, yet he never tarried.

            Tombs was one of the ones back then they called a switch-blade. Tall and lanky with a long rat face and the usual facial scars which in his pedigree were almost cosmetic. Thick black hair, Dixie-peached into a swirling do, a duck’s ass and a ringlet on his forehead. He tailor-made himself, rolling up the cuffs of his pants and shirt to show off the vernacular tattoos and his weightlifter’s veins. A cigarette in his mouth, one behind his ear, a leer rising out of his smoke, he would rather cut a man than shoot him, but this only after he had violated him.

            So we’re walking. Not fast. Buzzards cutting figure-eights a ways off. Frank, sniffing and twitching like a bird-dog, at the point as usual. A little further, we came onto a terrible smell.  Something big rotting. Buzzards keening not far. The smell just unbearable. Papa and I need handkerchiefs. But not Frank. By the time we get to it, we’re nauseated sick. A dead angus cow in the middle of a pasture. Bloated obscenity, its legs upspraddled like tent poles and the belly a gaping maw that had been eaten out by vermin and insects and whatnot. The buzzards held aloft by their own updraft. Black garments wafting up and up, but getting lower.

            As we got closer I heard the buzz like a 220 current of flies swarming, and under them the kinesis of putrefaction. The cow’s eyes were gone, pecked out by crows, which is the order of things. We stood there a little ways off, just looking, before cutting a wide swath around that cow. The buzzards were huge, hellish, to see up close. Papa brought up his shotgun and fired both barrels into them. He had loaded rock salt that day and it did not kill a one. But it sent them out of there, black feathers floating down over that black cow, a black billowing sheet of flies going up and then redraping.

            At the shot, a possum scurried out of that carcass and made fast across the pasture. I didn’t know a possum could go so fast, since they seem to take their sweet time even with headlights a foot from their snouts. It turned my stomach: seeing that possum shin out of there. I had eaten possum before. Around the fire with Frank and Papa. On other escapes. There is something almost forbidden about meat and the fire and the woods when you are chasing a man you’ll kill if you have to. Possum is stringy and nothing greasier. Skinned out, it’s lumpy and yellow-tallowed. But I had eaten it and never thought a thing of it. But after that pasture I never ate possum again, and it took me a sight before I could go back to cow. But, more than all that, it might’ve been the worst thing I’ve ever seen. That possum lighting out of there, more embarrassed than anything to have been caught at it.

            We were all startled. How unlikely that one creature would emerge full-blown from another. Horrible, really. Like a matinee in the darkened, crumbling Victorian theatre when you are too young to be there, egged in by the older boys. And something so hideous and unimaginable gouges out from a hidden place and it’s your nightmare forevermore. That possum. That cow and its open belly.

            And then. Out of it crawled Tombs. The three of us just dazed.  Even Papa who could stand to see anything. And Frank who had been set fire to. Tombs crawled with the offal of that carrion, dripping like he had been remanded to the sea slime from whence humans first issued. Papa’s first reflex was to shoot him – he brought the shotgun up and we wouldn’t have been surprised – just so we could be shed of him.

            He said: “I ought to put you out of your misery, boy. I don’t know to who it’s the biggest desecration. You, the cow, or the possum. But you sure aren’t riding back to the camp in my truck.”

            Then we all fell out laughing. Laughing and laughing. Frank with that high-pitched yip of his. And my father. The first and last time I can remember him flat letting go like he was really enjoying himself. Tombs laughed loudest and longest. Like if he stopped, everybody else would too and he’d go back to being a convict and we’d be who we were. I imagined that possum was off somewhere grinning. Even the buzzards kited back from the edge of the woods where they’d been roosting in a stand of dead sweetgums.

            I laughed with the rest of them, laughed because they laughed. I didn’t think it was funny, but I wanted it to be and not what I knew it was when I first saw that possum come out of that putrefied cow. And then a man. I pitied him. I half-liked Tombs – and he was the type to strangle his own mother for a cigarette – standing there, the cow behind him, as if he had been turned inside out, literally, laughing until he finally made himself sick.

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