Of the Ground Beneath

Fiction by Steve Loschi

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The peat burn was on its third week. Thick, stagnant smoke hung over the lake. Sometimes a brief summer wind would blow through, dispersing the smoke, and pockets of the lake would reflect the light from the early morning sun, slate grey like the sides of a battleship. Two vultures swooped overhead, high above the strands of red cedar and bald cypress that lined the shallow banks of the lake. The water was still, a dense deposit of tannin and leaf rot, history hidden in its shallow depths.

The young man wiped the sweat from his brow, the oar across the gunwales of the Grumman, and looked down at his reflection in the water. It moved languidly, swished in the stillness. The smoke made his throat sore. He took a deep breath, and dipped the worn wooden paddle into the lake. He could see the reflection of the vultures in the water and he watched them circle.

The native Americans used to burn their dead here, send them off on small rafts built from the thick wood of tupelo bound together with twines of moss. Within the middle of the lake, this vast opening in the sultry, oppressive quagmire of swamp, the bodies would singe and simmer in the hot summer sun, and the smoke would drift to the sky, an offering to gods that did not exist.

The young man thought of gods and bodies floating on the lake, hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, packed so close together that all reflection was soaked up by the charred bodies of history, nameless and gone. Already, the morning sun felt as if it had settled on the back of his neck, and his shirt was soaked through.

He wondered if anyone actually ever died; that maybe all that happens is we stop breathing and we burn, ashes drifting into the sky on the backs of summer breezes. And those thousands of bodies just sink to the bottom of the lake with the tannins and leaf rot, a riverbed of souls.

With a last look up at the two circling vultures, he heaved forward, dragging the paddle into the lake and headed for shore, leaving the dead behind.

*

He had to heft the aluminum Grumman over the bank, gingerly stepping in the soft mud of the lake, an eye out for cottonmouths, their lithe bodies lazily languishing between reeds like lashes of deadly grasses. The air was already thick with no-see-ums and a horse fly buzzed by his head with tenacious fervor. He swiped at it, dropping the nose of the Grumman to the ground. The sweat stung his eyes.

He needed to drag the heavy boat the length of a football field to the feeder canal. The path was worn from his journey during the night, a winding, incongruous swath through the marsh, the cat-tails and swamp grasses pushed down, broken at violent angles, from where he bush-whacked through with the loaded canoe. At times, he would sink almost up to his knee, as if the swamp was trying to reclaim him. He thought again of the Indians, of death, of the ground on fire beneath his very feet.

Wiping the sweat from his brow, he wrapped the worn yellow rope around his wrist, gave the Grumman a quick pull, and began the trek to the canal. He could see his old footprints in the mud. The Grumman, now free of its load, moved over the crushed grass and mud much easier than the night before, a gentle swish as the beam slid over the ground. He thought briefly about his trip out, a new moon hidden in the sky, stars blacked out by smoke, the small flashlight he held between his clenched teeth, and the improbable deadened weight of the canoe- as if every single step he made in the wet, calf-sucking mud was made heavier by his own fear and guilt.

But this thought lasted only a second, the flash from a lit match, and then burnt out, hidden in ash and smoke.

*

The canal was narrow, covered in the shadows of three hundred year old bald cypress trees and black tupelos, a respite from the heat. Blackberry bushes grew on the bank, and the young man would eddy over and pick a few from the bushes and pop them in his mouth. His fingers were stained in purple juice. The sounds of katydids and locusts echoed off the trees of the forest. The smell of smoke was still rich in the air, heavy, as if he could reach out and grab it in his hands.

When he reached the off-ramp where his truck was, he dismounted the canoe and dragged it noisily up the gravel slope. The sound of the aluminum canoe on the gravel was shocking. He had to stop and grab his chest for a moment.

He laid the canoe down and walked slowly to his truck, his heart pounding against his chest.

He reached the truck and peeked over into the bed. He wasn’t sure what he expected to see. He thought again of the native Americans, pictured the swollen, dead body of a young brave lashed to a bed of live oak logs resting in the back of his truck, but all he saw was an empty bottle of motor oil and some dry-rotted bungee cords. The young man backed away gingerly, and went to retrieve the canoe and load it up.

He climbed into the driver’s seat and lit a cigarette, looking out the windshield at the thick morning sky. The smell of the ground beneath was pungent and toxic in his head. The farther away I get from that dismal swamp, he thought, the farther away I’ll get from last night. He turned the key in the ignition and left the side of the road, leaving the forest behind.

*

When he reached the trailer, his little sister was sitting on the wooden steps that lead to front door. He parked the truck and walked over to her, and sat down. She was crouched, her knees pulled up to her chest, her thin, brown hair matted and unkempt, a product of her compulsive pulling and yanking. She wore an old grey sweatshirt that had been in the trailer for as long as he could remember, despite the heat.
He sat down beside her, and lit another cigarette.

“Where’s ma?” he asked.

“She’s sleeping,” she said. She looked at him through heavy-lidded eyes. “She don’t know nothing.”

“That’s good.”

A tractor slowly moved down the road in front of the trailer. He watched as it approached, and took a drag on his cigarette. He felt like being quiet. He felt like keeping everything inside.

“What did you do with him?” his sister asked. He knew she was going to ask. He didn’t want to answer.

“It’s probably best that you don’t know,” he said. “That way you won’t get in no trouble.”

She looked at the truck, and pointed at the water dripping off the back of the Grumman to the ground. He threw the cigarette down, ground it with his boot and nodded.

“I’m going inside,” he said, rising to his feet.

“Julian,” she said, reaching up to grab his left wrist. He looked down at her hand.

“Will it be okay?” Her grip was gentle, almost thankful. Her small fingers with the faded pink nail polish, the slightly bluish vein that rose from the back of her wrist. “I just feel like I need to know.”

What could he tell her? What need could he fill?

Imagine this, he wanted to say: you see your only sister bent over the hood of a car, a guy behind her, his hand on the back of her head, pressing it down against the hood, his jeans bunched up around his ankles, hips thrusting and teeth clenched. A single word being repeated over and over again, like a plea to the Indian gods, no no no no no.

What would be going through your head?

Do you sit there and wonder if she can feel the remnant heat from the engine as her face is pressed against the hood?

Do you not drop the joint you were smoking to the ground in fear that she’ll see you through the blackened slits of her eyes?

Do you ignore the negativity, the abject screams that seem to subject every thrust of this guy’s hips into some soul-defying cleansing?

Do you ignore the pile of devil’s clubs that you see next to the burning roach you have thrown down, and refuse to grab one by the base, heavy like a baseball bat in your hand: thick one-inch thorns lining the yard of the stick?

Can you not smell the peat burn even out here, fifty miles from that vast dark swamp, the place where secrets go to die, where the Indians used to burn their dead?

No.

This is what you do:

Acknowledge and accept that fate has put you here.

Your sister is getting raped.

You approach the rapist with the devil’s club gripped between your two fists, and even though you are under the dank lid of the weed, you know the decision you are making is the only one to make.

And without a single word, you lift the club above your head, and bring it down with such force that the thorns sink into the thick muscle of that man’s neck and upper back, to the point where you must exert great force in order to extricate the club from that person’s back.

Now, however, you do have a choice.

You can stop, as the man is injured and has turned to face you with his pants around his ankles.

Or you can take that devil’s club, which is dripping with his blood, and bring it back to your side and swing it like a nine-iron across the jaw of the man. And continue doing this until his face is an unrecognizable mass of tissue, blood and hair.

Until the stench of death covers the sound of your breathing like sand heaved over a bonfire.

Until the blood flying from his face looks like the juice of blackberries, hanging over a single vein of water.

Your sister standing there, at the front of the car. Just standing, as still as the shallow waters of a hidden lake, waiting to be tied to a bed of logs and set adrift.

While these were not the only choices you had, these were the choices you made. And they are as real as the smoke that makes you want to close your eyes and hold your breath for as long as you possibly can. Or longer.

*

All of this was going through the young man’s head as he stared down at his sister’s hand. He traced the vein on the back of her hand with his finger, and looked away, out past the Grumman hanging from the back of the truck and the thin forest of red oaks and sugar maples that sheltered the small trailer from the thruway.

There were wisps of clouds in the air, faint and fragile, as if with a single, gentle breath they would blow away. And from behind a stand of trees to the east, towards the swamp, he saw a circle of vultures, black silhouettes against the baby blue sky, and again he thought of death and bodies afloat, and he wondered how long it would take for the birds, in all their avian patience for the flesh of dead prey, to find him here, his sister’s hand around his wrist and an aluminum Grumman dripping water from the back of a truck.

If the earth itself could burn from the inside, he thought, then who among us wouldn’t be caught up in its flames?


Steve Loschi currently teaches science to students at an international school in Amman, Jordan. He tells his students what he really wants to be is a rock star, but they keep reminding him that he’s not. So he’ll just stick to science. Steve took MFA classes at Old Dominion University in the ’90s with professors such as Janet Peery, Ben Marcus, Sherri Reynolds and Tim Seibles. They were all great gurus of voice.

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