A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects. –Herman Melville
Darl Moody didn’t give two shakes off a monkey’s dick what the state considered poaching. Way he figured, anybody who’d whittle a rifle season down to two weeks and not allot for a single doe day didn’t give a damn whether a man starved to death. Meat in the freezer was meat that didn’t have to be bought and paid for, and that came to mean a lot when the work petered off each winter.
The buck Darl’d seen crossing from the Buchanan farm into Coon Coward’s woods for the past two years had a rocking chair on his head and a neck thick as a tree trunk. Coon wouldn’t let a man set foot on his land on account of the ginseng roots buried around his property like jars of money, but Coon was out of town. The old man had gone down to the piedmont to bury his sister, and wouldn’t be back for a week. Darl’s mama asked Darl to keep an eye out on things since he lived close by and so he did. He parked right there at that old man’s house, camoed up in Coon Coward’s driveway, and marched off into the woods like he owned the place.
The cove was full of sign: rubs that stripped bark off maples and birch, scrapes all over the place where button bucks scratched soil with something instinctual telling them to do so but lacking any rhyme or reason. A mature buck knew exactly what he was doing when he ripped at the ground like he was hoeing a line with his hooves, but the young ones just ran around wild. They’d scrape all over the place, trying to add to a conversation they were too inexperienced to understand.
Darl locked his stand around a blackjack oak that grew twenty feet high before the first limbs sprung off. He climbed to a strong vantage and surveyed a saddle of land where early autumn cast patches of the mountains gold in afternoon light. Some of the ridgeline was already in full color with reds and oranges afire like embers, but none of that could be seen from here. Down in the valley, there was still green in the trees, the acorns yet to drop, the nights yet to frost, and it would still be a month or more before the first few breaths of winter stripped the mountains to their gray bones.
Darl sipped a pint of whiskey he had stashed in the cargo pocket of his camouflage jeans, took off his ball cap and slicked the sweat from his forehead back through a thick mat of dark hair that was shaved down to an inch. He scratched at the stubble on his chin and listened closely for any sign of movement, though just like the past two evenings, he’d yet to see or hear a thing. Soon as the sun sank behind the western face, the woods dropped into shadow and it wouldn’t be long for nightfall. Still he would stay because there was no telling when that buck might show, and in full dark, he would find his way out by flashlight.
Somewhere up the hillside, a stick cracked beneath a footstep and that sound ran through Darl like electricity. His heart raced and his palms grew sweaty, his eyes wide and white. Dried leaves rustled underfoot and behind the scraggly limbs of a dead hemlock he could see a slight shift of movement, but from such a distance and in such little light, what moved was impossible to make out. Through the riflescope, he spotted something on four legs, something gray-bodied and low to the ground. The 3-9×50 CenterPoint couldn’t match the reach of the .30-06, but it was all Darl could afford at the time and so that was what he had to work with.
Sighting the scope out as far as it would extend, he played the shot out in his mind. At 200 yards, the animal filled a little less than a third of the sight picture, a fluke shot at best for someone who’d never been all that great a shot. He rolled the bolt and pulled back just enough to check that a round was chambered, then locked the bolt back and thumbed away the safety.
A boar hog rooted around the hillside for a meal. Each year those pigs moved further and further north out of South Carolina, first coming up out of Walhalla ten years back and now overrunning farms all over Jackson County. There was open season on hogs due to the damage they caused. A father and son out of Caswell County were hunting private land between Brevard and Toxaway just a month before when the son spooked a whole passel of hogs out of a laurel thicket, and the father drew down on a seven hundred pound boar. That was just over the ridgeline into Transylvania County. That pig weighed 580 pounds gutted, and they took home more than 150 pounds of sausage alone. Do the math on that at the grocery store.
All his life there’d been a calm that came on just before the kill. It was something hard to explain to anyone else, but that feeling was on him now as he braced his back against the trunk of the oak and tried to steady his aim. A tangle of brush obstructed his view, but he knew the Core-Lokt would tear through that just fine. He tried to get the picture to open by sliding his cheek along the buttstock, but the cheap scope offered little play. When the view was wide, he toyed with the power ring to get the picture as clear as possible, nothing ever coming fully into focus as he drew the crosshairs over the front shoulders. He centered on his pulse then. Breathe slowly. Count the breaths. Squeeze between heartbeats. On five, pull the trigger. The sight wavered as he counted down. Three. Two. Squeeze.
The rifle punched against his shoulder, and the report hammered back in waves, touching everything between here and there and returning in fragments as it bounced around the mountains. He checked down range and the animal was down.
“I got him,” Darl said. His body tingled and his head was swimming. Adrenaline coursed through him so quickly that he was out of breath just sitting there. He was in disbelief. “I fucking got him.”
Darl sucked down the last of the whisky in one slug, slung his rifle over his shoulder, and climbed his way down with his treestand. In less than an hour, the light would be gone. He knew he had to hurry. There’d barely be enough time to field dress the pig and get it out of the woods before dark. Maybe Calvin Hooper would help him dress the hog out. Cal had a nice hoist for dressing deer, and that sure beat the hell out of the make-shift gambreling stick Darl had at the house. Whether you were scraping the hair off a hog or skinning him out, a pig was an animal that was a whole lot easier with two sets of hands working than one. Cal wouldn’t want anything for the trouble. Never had. Just as soon as Darl got that pig back to the truck, he’d head to Calvin’s. “I fucking got him,” he said.
A small branch of water ran at the bottom of the draw, and, through a thicket of laurel, the hillside steepened. Darl staggered through the copse of trees and slowly climbed until he was near the ledge where the pig had fallen. He tripped on a fishing line strung between two trees, a pair of tin cans with rocks inside clanking loud in the limbs above him. Darl froze and looked around. As his eyes focused, he saw fish hooks hung eye level from the trees, trot lines meant for poachers, and he brushed them back one by one as if he were clawing his way through spiderwebs. That’s when he saw him. Not a pig, but a man rolled onto his stomach. A brush-patterned shirt was darkened almost black with blood, his pants the same grayish camouflage as his shirt.
Darl stepped closer and kicked at the man’s boots. When there was no movement, no sound of breath, he stooped beside the body and saw where the bullet had entered the man’s ribcage. He’d been quartered away, the hollowpoint opening as it cut through him and exited just behind his right shoulder blowing the top of his arm into ragged meat. The man’s left arm hung by his side, his hand open, palm up, and Darl could see a cluster of bright red berries balanced at the tip of his fingers. He realized then that he was kneeling in a thick patch of ginseng, mostly young, two-prong plants, but some much, much older. The man had an opened book bag on the ground beside him with a tangle of thick, banded roots stuffed inside, the thin runners off the main ginseng shoots snarled like a muss of hair. Darl knew the man shouldn’t have been there just the same as him. This was Coward land, and they were both trespassing, two poachers who shouldn’t have been there, but right here they were. Here they were and this man was deader than shit, and Darl had done it. Darl had made him that way.
The man’s face was turned away and angled into the ground. His neck was sunburnt red and dotted with dark orange freckles, the back of his hair thick and curled a yellow blonde the color of hay. Darl stepped across the body being careful not to get his boots in the blood around him. The man wore a camouflage hat with hunter orange lining the edge of the bill, the words Caney Fork General Store stitched across the front. The hat was crooked on his head and Darl grabbed the bill to try and turn the man’s face out of the dirt.
As soon as he saw the dark purple birthmark covering the right side of the man’s face, Darl knew him. Carol Brewer, who everyone had always called Sissy, lay stone cold dead on the bracken-laced ground. Darl had known Carol all his miserable life, a halfwit born to a family that Jesus Christ couldn’t have saved. Some people believed Carol’s daddy, Red, might’ve been the devil himself. There was a meanness that coursed through him, a meanness that carried on in his blood that was as close to pure evil as any god-fearing man from Jackson County had ever witnessed. Carol was the baby of the family and by most accounts the only one that ever had any chance at all. Some folks thought if he’d just been able to get out from under the wing of his father and older brother, Dwayne, he might’ve turned out alright. But things didn’t work out that way, and Carol wound up being just as much trouble as the lot of them.
Darl let go of the cap bill and Carol’s head came to rest on the ground. His eyes were closed with his mouth slightly opened. A yellow jacket buzzed by Darl’s ear and landed on Carol’s lips. The bee started to crawl into Carol’s mouth but Darl swatted the bug away, his fingers brushing Carol’s face. He stood and stomped the bee where it hovered above the ground with his boot then looked to the west to gauge what remained before night. Darl knew it wouldn’t be long, but nightfall didn’t matter like it had just minutes before. His thoughts were wild with what would come, but he knew the darkness was a gift now and he welcomed it as such. His mind raced as the night closed around him like cupped hands. He had until dawn to dig a grave.
(The Line That Held Us has been sold to G.P. Putnam’s Sons. The date of publication has yet to be determined. An early version of this chapter is also included as a short story titled, “Burning Off Into Forever,” in an anthology from Bottom Dog Press titled Appalachia Now. Check the website, www.david-joy.com, periodically for updates on the novel.)