Southern Cross the Dog

Dedication

For Olga

Prologue

W
hen I was a baby child, they put the jinx on me.

IT WAS IN MY DRINK
and food and milk. And when I ran, it heavied in my bones and when I sang, it stopped up my throat and when I loved, it let from me, hot and poisonous.

I saw it in my daddy, the hard lines of his face, that uneasy lope—how in his years he didn't lift his feet, but slid them, soles across this gritted earth. It settled in my mama, trembled her voice and blanked her eyes. My brother, Billy, locked it inside him and it carried him low into that deep earth, silting then into the river and dew and air, in the moths and bee catchers, borne skyward and, as will be, lowed again, into earth again again.

It's dusking.

There goes the sun.

There goes sky and cloud and light, taken into that black horizon. And I know I am bad crossed. I see its line. It reaches up, arcs. It cuts through me. It draws me on and dogs me down to that place where I am bound.

And when it is I borne down, my eyes and mouth stitched with gut, when they take my balls and brain and heart, and that deeper black claims me wholly, then let me meet that sumbitch at his eye, for I know my name's been writ—Robert Lee Chatham—in his Book.

T
he rain kept on like a dust and it was the oldest boy G.D. who said it wasn't nothing, crossing through the woods behind Old Man Crookhand's. The wind swooped through, chattering the branches, and blew the grit against their faces. They put up their hands and trudged on, G.D. ahead of the others, cutting his switch into the bushes.
Whack, whack
. Come on, you babies, he said, and he whipped again, the vines and leaves opening around his blows.

They followed close, the boys wolfing on, whispering their jokes, trying to make the girls laugh and shiver. One at a time, they crushed across the underbrush, skimming spider vines and breaking off bits of sweetbark from the trunks to chew and spit.

The trail began to climb and G.D. bounded up the hill in wide strides. At the top, he stopped and waited for the others. He could see Crookhand Grove, a cleft of cleared land that dipped below the path. At the center was the Bone Tree. It had been dead for years, its leaves rotting in a carpet around the trunk.

One by one, the others crowded around him. They gazed out into the grove and fell quiet. There'd been stories about dead Injuns and their ghosts living inside the hollows. The wind came through and the naked branches clattered. The gang looked at one another, then up at G.D.

He spit a wad down into the grove.

Keep moving, he said.

The mule path broke out into a clearing where the lumbermen had already come through. G.D. chose the tallest tree stump and mounted it. He splayed out his arms, waving the switch like a sword before touching the edge against his cheek—a nub of twig snagging on his tooth. It was time. His eyes drooped into lazy buttonholes, looking the others over. They fidgeted under his gaze, shifting from side to side, holding up their hands, rubbing rain into their fingers.

G.D. sized them up. Their ragged clothes, the yellow mud caked to their shins. A girl unbraided a slip of hair. Her small fingers eased through the knots. A boy dug his toes into the soil, trying not to meet G.D.'s eye. Another stood with his arms folded across his chest, shifting his weight from knee to knee. He spotted her. She was tall and willowy compared to the other girls. Her hair was brushed back and she sloped her shoulders as she tried to hide her size.

G.D. pointed with the switch.

Dora, he said.

The girl furrowed her brow.

Not me!

He moved the switch to the sharp of his smile.

Yes.

That's not fair! I done it last time, G.D.!

You, Dora. Again.

It's gonna rain, she said. I don't want to get soaked.

G.D. shrugged and grinned at the others.

Best get started then.

G.D. brought the switch down against his leg.
Thwack.
They made a circle around her. He beat down again.
Thwack. Thwack.
The girl looked up but it was too late. Already the circle had tightened and they'd begun to sing.

Little Sally Water, settin' in a saucer.

Rise Sally rise, wipe your weepin' eyes.

The girl sighed, slumping. She hunched down on her knees and listened for the rhythm. Her backside bucked up, kicking out like a mule and swinging.

Shake it to the east, Sally.

Shake it to the west, Sally.

Shake it to the one you love the best, Sally.

Her frilled bloomers flashed out under her dress as she spun. The world swished inside her head. When the song ended, she righted herself and turned to see who she'd chosen. If it was a girl, they would have to start again, this time even faster as G.D. lashed out mercilessly with his switch.

Slowly the world glided back into place. She righted herself and saw him. He was big cheeked and wet eyed, and he was at least a good head shorter than her. The boy looked blankly at her through his long lashes. She'd seen him before. He was always so quiet, never laughed or cussed, floating behind the others like some tattered kite tail. He fidgeted now with his hands in his pockets, looking unsure of himself until G.D. nudged him forward.

Well, don't just stand there looking dumb.

G.D. LED DORA AND THE
boy out to Crookhand Grove where the earth was cracked and split along the roots of the Bone Tree. They were alone, the three of them, caught under the storm clouds. Thunder sounded out like split wood and they looked cautiously at the little bits of sky coming through the branches.

G.D. took both their hands and grinned.

My, my, Dora. I never knew you was such a tasteful lady.

Dora slapped his arm and his eyes sparked.

I'm gonna count to a hundred. Then you come on out.

We know how it works, G.D.

G.D. winked at the boy and headed back to the clearing, arms crossed over his head. She could hear him beginning to count.

Dora smoothed down the sides of her dress. The boy was looking at a spider threaded between two branches. It sat fat and blood-filled in its web, its legs spread like fingers.

Dora could hear the other children starting in on their singing again. They had begun another round.

Well, come on then, she said.

Come on what?

Ain't you played Sally Water before?

The boy plucked up the spider. He turned it over and watched its legs bicycle. He held it up to Dora and she made a face. Then he set it down on a trunk and watched it race up the bark.

You're Billy Chatham's brother, ain't you?

The boy shrugged.

My uncle told me your brother was wild. That he loved up a white girl and he—

Dora stopped herself. The boy sat down against the trunk and started scabbing at the bark, pulling it away in chips. He put them together in a pile, counting them out in his palm.

What's your name?, Dora asked.

Robert, he said. He seemed to think for a moment then he added, Robert Lee Chatham.

Dora looked back from where they came.

Well, let's not take too long then. Come here, she said. Stand up against the trunk there.

He dusted the bark off and pushed his sleeves up to his elbow. They drooped back down, past his knuckles. His shirt was too large. It hadn't been sized for him.

Now shut your eyes so you can't see nothing.

Everything was still for a moment. Just the slow breath of the magnolias and the sound of mosquitoes making the air goosebump and tremble. He thought he could hear the other children laughing in the distance—their small twinkling voices in the breeze. Then he felt the kiss—the damp spongy pressing against his mouth, something cold skimming the underside of his tongue, warm air brushing against the slope of his upper lip. Something small and hard pressed into his hand. When he opened his eyes, the sky had split open.

ROBERT RAN. THE GROUND SUCKED
back on his feet as he slid on the loose mud. The rain smashed down, ruffled the trees, and beat the trails. He could hear the children scatter—screaming, giggling. He ran faster, twigs and leaves lashing against him, the warm sting rising into his cheek. Along the farm, the pebbled road bit into his feet. He wiped the slick off his face and sped faster, kicking from his toes. The cornfield was alive with chatter, the water running down into a trough along the road, billbugs crunching under his soles.

Robert cut across the pasture. The clouds streaked white and thundered a line above the hills. He could see his house in the distance, the rain hammering the roof into a silver froth. On the porch, he caught his breath, pulling the air deep into his stinging lungs. The pour came down through the ceiling slats, and he rinsed the mud off his calves and ankles before going inside.

The air was thick and sweet with the smell of char. He hung his shirt up on a nail and warmed himself over the stove, bringing his hands over the flame and feeling the cold run out from his fingers.

His daddy came in from the other room.

Where you been, Robert?

He sat the boy down and toweled him off with the flap of his shirt.

You know your mama don't want you out in them woods.

Robert said nothing, just let his daddy's big hands comb roughly over his hair and neck and chest. His daddy sighed. He peeled off the wet clothing from Robert's body and sent him to the basket for a dry shirt. Robert checked it for beetles, snapping it over the fire before putting it on.

His daddy lifted the lid off the kettle; the steam rose up over his face. He peered in and dragged his fingers down the gray stipple of his beard.

Dinner'll be ready soon. Go on and get your mama.

ROBERT WATCHED HER FROM THE
doorway. She was in her chair, her quilt drawn up over her shoulders, staring out into the rain. Outside, the mule was ducking under the shed, twitching its ears and blinking. Robert went in and touched her limp hand. She looked at him, her eyes traveling along the edge of his face—then his eyes, nose, mouth. Then she pulled Robert into her and started raking her hands across his hair, making sounds that were almost words. He could feel her strong fingers pressing into him, her body a volcano. She kissed the top of his head, his cheeks—her thumb rubbing at the ridges of his ears.

It's time to eat, Mama, he said.

He slipped his small hand inside of hers and, slowly, he helped her to her feet. He could hear the breath shift inside of her, her body clenching and then letting go.

This way, he said, walking her into the other room.

His daddy had already set out the bowls and was scooping up hominy mush with a flat stick. Robert sat his mother down and settled into the seat beside her. Then when his daddy started the grace, Robert bent his head into his hands and shut his eyes. The rain crashed above him, and he pictured a field of birds thumping their black wings. His daddy finished and Robert took a spoonful and worked the mush around in his mouth.

How is it, Robert?

It was bland and rubbery but he didn't complain.

I know it ain't nothing like your own cooking, Etta.

His mama stared into the steam. Her lips were drawn back on her round face, the edges of her eyes puckered.

His daddy shook his head and picked up his spoon.

Me and the boy, we do miss your cooking. Ain't that right, Robert?

Robert said nothing. He lifted his gaze up from his bowl, then let it drop back down.

I remember when you used to cook up those ribs. Could smell them coming a mile down the road. And Skinny, he'd be saying, Ellis, what you smiling at, and I wouldn't say nothing, just walk back here with that big grin on my face. Robert, you too small to remember but your mama used to cook them ribs so good, even that damn mule would try to get itself inside. You imagine? A mule eating ribs. If that ain't something else. He'd stay out there by the window, making a fuss like it was his day of judgment, you remember that, Etta?

His daddy reached across the table and touched her arm. She didn't move. He sighed and dug his spoon into the meal.

Ain't no mule at the window now is there?

THE FIRE HAD GONE DEAD
in the night, but the smell of scorched wood stayed in the air. Robert opened his eyes. His mama was still asleep, her arms crossed over his small body. He listened to her breathing, low and ragged, as her breasts pushed into his back. Under the pillow he found the cold smooth stone Dora had put into his hand. He rolled it around in his fingers and conjured her up in the dark ceiling—her eyes, her lips, the weak taste of her mouth. There was something about her skin, damp and sticky—he could feel it spreading across his hands.

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