This Lighted Dark
Chris Kmotorka

Mama Tippet calls all this a sign, another thing coming as sure as the Lord has risen. All I know is it's a thing that's driving the world crazy. Animals round here don't seem to know day from night no more and things as never seen another since God done put 'em on the planet is passing each other and scaring each and each alike. Two moons, two daytimes, and ain't nothin knowing what to make of it.

The hounds is having a hell of a good time with it all. Running possum and coon half blind with the light, not a shadow of darkness unexplained. Their path both clear and free. Seems me and these dogs is the only things not drove crazy by all this strange going on. But I'll be damned of the rest of 'em ain't just about tossed it all in the creek.

I went to see Mama Tippett to ask if she could help me locate something of mine that done run off. Blame it all on this here astronomical aberration is what I do. But Mama Tippett is looped these days, too. Giving me the hellfire and brimstone rap afore I even get a chance to explain it all to her. Telling me the meek shall inherit the Earth, but they have to escape that what's holding 'em back first. Telling me this here is the time when all that will happen. When all the meek and mild'ns will be seeking their vengeance. The hand of the Lord comes quietly she says. I simply thanked her and backed on out and got the dogs running again. Somewhere on this mountain I'm going to find what it is I'm looking for. And when I do.... Let's just say it had better be alone. And it better smell alone, too.

I hear Blue. She's not on a scent. Not yet. But I can hear her, keeping tabs on the others, rounding them up, keeping things in order. A real-take charge gal, that bitch. Finest dog I ever had. Probably never find another like her. Keenest nose on this mountain. I could probably make a decent price on her if I ever decided to sell her off. Should probably get a litter out of her before long. Just hate to have her down for any length of time. Hell of a lead dog. Absolute music to the ears to hear her work.

Every year it's harder to think why I want to keep things the way they are. And now, waiting for a sign from the dogs that they've found she's out here, I wonder how long I'll be able to keep my life steady and sure.

I know she's been thinking on this for a long time now. Known it a long, long time. Could see it in her eyes. Hear it in her voice, in the way she moans at night. Taste it in the things she cooks. I don't know what it is she expected. Maybe if I knew what she was thinking when I brought her up here I'd have some idea of why she was so dissatisfied with it all. Maybe I'd be able to see it from her view. But as it is, all I know is what I am, the way I always been, and that's just what she got, just what she should have expected to get. No more, no less. I never once presented myself in any way but the truth. The essence of my being. The straight perfume. If that ain't what she was looking to be smelling till death do us part, then she shouldn't have latched on to the bottle, so to speak.

I suppose I can't help but think of her as a liar, now what with all that's happening. Said I do, and here she is operating on a definite I don't basis. Took off for who knows what. Straight through the woods as if she'd have a chance out there alone, as if I wouldn't find her just as easy as if she had headed off down the road with her hip cocked, her thumb strutting, and her suitcase by her side. Me, I almost prefer it this way. Give the dogs a chance to get a run. Work 'em up. Like to keep an edge on 'em. Nothing worse than a dog that lost its edge.

She couldn't have picked a more foolish time to be running. I guess she was figuring she'd have time while I was out, take advantage of this lighted dark. No sense being alone in the woods in the real dark. She'd never get nowhere then. Simply find her huddled up, staving off the creeping crawlies. Course, she had no way of knowing hunting would be a bust. Everything run crazy, no challenge, not knowing whether the dogs is running coon or deer. Ain't no sense in taking deer now, not with it so light out. No way of sneaking something that big around in the broad night light.

Come home and she's gone. Not in the smokehouse. Not in the outhouse. Sure as hell not in the main house. Drawers pulled out, clothes hanging down. And of all things, the cloth missing right off the kitchen table. Who knows what that's all about.

The dogs was all razzed up, just itching. Had to run 'em on something. No way of knowin' how long she was gone. Day or two. Probably one. Would have taken her a while to get her nerve up. I can see her now, nails all chewed up on those red and roughed-up hands of hers. Sitting there all flustered, leaning forward, rocking back and forth, knocking her knees together, weighing it all out best she can. Finally getting up the nerve and rushing around like a wounded pig, knocking into every which thing. Pulling out underwear, stuffing it all on the table, finally wrapping it all up in the oilcloth, not knowing how else to carry it all.

It ain't gonna be a problem. It's just taking longer than I expected. Expected her to have lit out on the road. Lost a bit of time on that one. Brung the dogs back and they finally picked her up back by the spring. Probably shouldn't have taken so much time before heading out. Eating and all. Just never expected her to get so far. Never would've guessed she moved like this.

Don't know where she's headed. Doubt she does. Only thing this way is mountain and forest and Kincaid's place. Damn well better not be heading for Kincaid's. Ain't no reason for her to be 'round that son of a bitch.

Kincaid's been eyeing her for a long time. Ain't no secret in that. Seen her looking at him one time in the grocery. All I could do to keep from taking her out right there and then. As it was, I slapped the dope from her hands, watched it spill all over, puddle up at her shoes while she just stood there wide-eyed and about to wet herself. Kincaid stiffened, started to step forward. I just turned around and faced him and smiled pretty as could be. He backed right off. Just dropped his eyes to the floor and walked out. Left his groceries right on the counter. Ended up doing most of my shopping right from his stuff there. Said to her, you like looking at that? Some little polecat too scared to say a thing when he sees something he don't like? She didn't say nothing either. Kindred spirits, I said. Drug her on out to the pickup and back home.

Through the woods I trail the dogs. Faint thrill of anticipation. Of finding what I never wish to find. Night has fallen. Two moons in the sky, east and west, replace the sun. There is no darkness to speak of. I have not slept in two days, but I feel no exhaustion. So many hours in the day. Time enough to sleep when darkness finally comes.

Into a clearing. I halt. There in the midst of the field a buck stands alert. Listening to the hounds. Glad for their increasing distance. I take the rifle up from the crook of my arm and hold the deer in my sights. The tawny coat bristles in the slight chill of the evening breeze. A muscle twitch runs from shoulder to knee and nostrils flare. A snort like horse's coughing breaks the silence and he lowers his head to graze once more. I slide the safety catch into place and I lower the rifle. A slight smile and I half yell hup-deer and in one sleek moment he breaks to his left, nearly dropping himself to the ground, and disappears into the wood in a blur of white tail flash and crashing vegetation. I laugh and walk on. There is no hurry. There is no secret where the dogs will lead now.

I brought her to the mountain a bride of sixteen. A blush still on her. Skin still soft with baby fat. For three years she has sullenly gone about her duties as I see them. Not once a whisper of thanks for providing for her. For saving her from spending her life with a crazy mama and a drunked-up daddy. Three years and nary a child to show for it. A woman can't be too much good to a man if she can't do what she's called to do, whether it be tending a house or bringing up a son or two. I barely get one, and damn near nothing of the other. One malformed bloody mess of a miscarriage nearly two years ago and not a hint of nothing since. Meanwhile, she's just going about her business and biding her time for God knows what to come. For a sign, I suppose. Two moons to light the way. As good a sign as any.

The baying of the hounds rises to a fever pitch. They strangle on their voices. The hunt is on and they have their prey. What the hell holds them back, I wonder. But I know: years of training, generations of dogs bred to withstand the temptation to tear it all apart. To seek and find, but not destroy. To stand at the ready, their whole bodies, their entire beings aquiver with it all. The stench of bloodlust driving them mad, waiting for the master to come along and dispatch it all with a bullet. The sudden explosion of the report the climax of a heated onslaught. Over. An instant.

I walk over the rise and look down over the black geometry that is Kincaid's field and feel that rush in my belly again. That wicked half sense of fear and anticipation. Blue leads. She swings the dogs in a wide, perfect arc down the slope of the hill around to the house. Seven shapes, black against the grasses, moldy green in the odd night light. The rising pitch of baying hounds. The intensity increases. I see her come running from around the back of the house, hand holding up the hem of her dress. Blue is nearly on her as I walk down slow, easing my way down to claim what's rightfully mine.

About a hundred yards out, she makes it to the door and slips in. Blue nearly knocking herself senseless crashing into it. A half scream above the rising howl of dogs. I yell up to the house, "You'd best come out here Sher-lynn," and the front window slides up about six inches. Kincaid.

"What you want, Harris?" he yells out. Too much of a chicken-shit to come out and face what he's got coming.

"I want what's mine, Kincaid, and I aim to have it. Now send her on out here so as we can talk."

I'm trying to yell over the hounds all this time and it's making things edgy. Too much tension. More than we could want anyhow. All I want is to have her come out. Talk some sense to her and get on with it all. The damn gun's getting heavy and my hands is getting nervous. All this waiting.

"Send her out, Kincaid. So as we can talk. We need to talk this over."

"Ain't no harm gonna come to her, is there, Harris?" I'm surprised how sure of himself he sounds.

"Harm's already been done, Kincaid. All we can do now is hope to make less of it. You hear me?"

"You get them dogs offa there and she'll come out to the porch. You can talk from where you stand."

I called up the dogs as best I could. But they was running at fever. The whole thing was anticlimactic for them. You just don't run a dog to its prey and then not do something to satisfy 'em. It just don't work that way. But I got Blue to come down off the porch and the rest followed her. They was trotting back and forth the length of the porch. An occasional whine. A low growl. Finally, I yelled back up at the house.

"Okay, Sher-lynn. The dogs is off the porch. Now get your ass out here."

Kincaid again. "Don't try nothing, Harris. I'm watching from right here."

The door began to open slowly and Sher-lynn's hand come out first. Way slow. She slipped out, half her body showing, a wary eye shifting between me and the dogs. Finally she come right out and stood there in front of the door, not quite letting it close behind her.

"What you think you doing, girl?" I asked.

"I's leaving you, Tilton Harris. Sure as shine is clear." She wasn't anywhere near as confident as she wanted to sound.

"What makes you think you can up and leave, girl? We's married, if you ain't forgot."

"Ain't not forgetting that, Tilton. I remember that every minute of every day. I'd sure like to start forgetting it, though."

"That ain't goin to be so easy, child. Cause you're coming back with me. Sure as shine is clear. Sure as blood is red."

I started walking toward the door and I heard a rifle click in the house. Sher-lynn heard it, too, because I saw her turn her head toward the window and her eyes get real big. I hupped up the dogs and they rushed up the porch and were on her in no time. Pinned her back up against the door. No way for her to open it. All she could do was stand there, hands fluttering up about her face, and scream like it was the end of the world. Next thing I know there's a gunshot. I hit the ground, thinking Kincaid was shooting at me, but as soon as I looked back up toward the house I seen Blue laid out on the dirt patch afront the porch. Blown off the porch by the shot. The other dogs were yelping and hollering, swarming all over Blue. Crazy with the smell of blood.

I leaped up, stumbled and caught myself and lifted up my rifle. I levered off a round through the window and heard something heavy hit the floor and Kincaid's rifle discharged. But no bullet came out of the cabin. Hit a wall or the ceiling. Sher-lynn's just screaming and the dogs are yapping and I'm standing there unable to move. Somehow I know Kincaid ain't going to be firing back out that window.

After a few seconds, I move toward the door. Sher-lynn's screaming out a name--Nathan. Must be Kincaid, I'm thinking, cause it sure as hell ain't me. I push her out of the way and swing open the door and enter rifle first and ready, but there lay Kincaid, tumbled back in a chair and a hole ripped right through his throat. Blood was pooling everywhere. And then Sher-lynn's there at my elbow and her screaming gets even louder. She ain't screaming nothing that makes sense now. It's just noises. Terror and grief and who knows what. The dogs are going crazy over Blue, and Sher-lynn's screaming, and Kincaid's laying there dead--just as well dead--and I'm standing there not knowing what to do, just knowing I need some quiet. Everything was moving too loud and too fast and I couldn't much take it any longer.

I backed out of the cabin, pushing Sher-lynn along with me and she won't stop screaming. She's yelling "You kilt him, you kilt him!" Like I don't already know that. Calling me up for murder. Calling down God and the law, calling them down from wherever to take me off. Finally I turned and held the rifle out straightarmed away from me and pulled the trigger. Her head jerked back and her eyes rolled up as if she was looking for the top of her skull and she fell back slow and straight, like a felled tree. When the report from the rifle stopped echoing in my ears all that was left was the baying of the damned dogs. I pointed the gun to the sky and fired, yelling at the dogs, hup dogs, get, get, and fired again and they scattered and took off up the hill toward the wood. I walked over to where Blue lay and she was still breathing, but it wasn't a gentle breath. There was a death rattle in her breath and every lowering of her chest was followed by a coughing up of bubbling blood. I lowered the rifle just behind her ear, cocked the lever, and put out of her misery.

No sound but my labored breathing, nothing around but me and the death that surrounds me. And I stood in the silence of this lighted dark. And I walked off into it, not knowing where I was going, or for how long. Only knowing I could not stay here. Maybe Mama Tippet is right. Maybe it is a time of judgment. Maybe there is a second coming, some kind of judgment come down for us all. I don't know. I only know I will walk until I find darkness and a time for sleep has come.


InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 Chris Kmotorka.