The following story received First Place in our Scary Short Story Contest.
Punty DuBois – widest man in Texas – lights out for the territories. He of Opal Hatch, son of a dead mother. (“And what of the father?” The kinfolk would ask and ask.) He is wobbly and prone to drink. There was, once, a great future for him, stretched and spread out over the cloth-cut prairie – that quilt of promise and remorse stitched with blood, but, now, it is dim in his memory – covered over, like a grave, with the indignities of late. Yet, with blue-bright eyes, greasy palms, and an empty head, he rides. An ass by the name of Syd (equus africanus asinus) – bred, Punty was told, from the same stock as that of the lately worm-eaten Founder: Gen. George Washington himself – carries him across the southern reaches of the American steppe. And Punty’s mind on this day is clear and pure as that of the ass. Syd chomps on some stray tuft and the whole sky is the blue of Punty’s eyes. They are cloudless, this trio – Punty, Syd, and sky. It feels something like a beginning, and those are getting harder and harder to come by these days. This vacant reverie is broken by a groan up ahead.
Out here, it is dangerous to go it alone. Such a case was this; a demonstration of the unforgiving West. For, when Punty dismounted Syd – a duet of heaving sighs – he spied, stretched thin and lithe in the tall grass, a man, not corpulent like Punty himself, but nearly a corpse. Legs broke and twisted, bone exposed and jutting – begging in the language of the desert undead for the only savior they believe in: “Water.” Well, Punty could not stand idly by, but he had no water and the creek toward which the carcass crawled was dry. So, bending down in front of the doomed man, Punty, in his kindness, sought to administer last rites.
Blackened trees claw out of the dead ground and reach toward the sky, here. The grass is brown. The hills abutting the creek kick dust into the warm air and send it funneling toward the parched bed where the stranger’s hand reaches for Punty’s face – dewy and sallow as if his skin were losing its form from the heat – in much the same way as the trees reach for the sky in expectance of rain. Sweat drips into Punty’s eyes. It has been said to death that the eyes are the window to the soul and the stranger’s eyes, at that moment, did open, bright – one last time – with hope. This notion – the eyes revealing the inner light of a man – is not incorrect, only incomplete. For, you see, friend, the eyes are the soul’s very seat.
Punty then says something like – “Hush now” – or – “Quiet” – but not in so many words; he implores the stranger to look at him and, as he says this, pulls from weather-beaten gloves two hands pink and soft, possessed of ten pudgy fingers. Staring the stranger down, Punty places thumbs over eyes, as he has done before, and slots two trigger fingers behind the pupils – wide, now, as the sky – and flicks his wrists. There follows a quiet, wet sound; the stranger’s mouth falls open in a soundless scream. Punty plants the two newly-acquired pearls in his mouth, popping them like ripe cherry tomatoes. And swallows.
Ian Maxton is a communist writer and critic. He is an associate editor at Passages North and a contributor at Spectrum Culture. His work has appeared in Brevity, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and Permafrost.
Lead image: “Crack Me Up” (via Flickr user Dwayne Madden)