‘Gurge’, Jason Baltazar

Illustrations © 2017 Jason Baltazar



 [ Buzzard, © 2017 Jason Baltazar ] I huffed through the high grass, crouched down in case the Derne lady looked out my way from one of the many windows of her overgrown house. Nearing end of the month, nine days still from getting our stamps and I had an ugly churn in my belly. I knew Mom did, too; only she tried to wear it light, like a hangnail or a paper cut. Guess I should’ve seen something in that, some lesson on grace or dignity, but what I got from it was permission to take what we needed.

I’d seen the trees a week earlier, cutting a shortcut across the farm on the way to swim and smoke and read at the C&O trestle instead of sleeping through class. Rows of them, grown full and tall with pears hanging heavy, unpicked. Just falling from the branch to wither in the dirt, swarmed with ants and beetles. Smelling sweet, even then. More and more I’d been noticing the things people left idle that we could get good use out of.

So that’s how I found the well: sneaking low as I could through the choke of weeds, zippers on my empty bookbag tinkling, looking to feed the two of us a few days on fruit old Derne clearly gave no shits about. I came to a sun-bleached post laying across the ground. Remnant of some fence, I figured. Having to rise up a little to step over, I worried the farmhouse with my eye. A few steps past the ruined fence stretches of tiny yellow flowers broke up the growth of the grasses, which turned brown and dead. After a few steps more they replaced the grass completely, and in the middle of that patch sat the smooth half-buried stones enclosing the well.

I felt yanked from my thoughts when I locked eyes with the first of the dead buzzards. They lay in a ragged black halo around the murky green disc of water, shining like oil slicks in the sunlight. They’d come to their rest in strange contortions, the arrangements of their bodies almost resembling an alphabet of beak and wing and body. One of the birds lingered, barely, and throated out a long call. The voice grated deeper, slower than in fullness of life, as though falling from one second into the next.

I’d seen death before. Helped process poultry at the Rasmussen place when they offered pay, also when the Wilkins boy had wandered onto Route 40 during a school trip. Also the slow fade of my father a couple years back. This buzzard was worst of it for the sound. The movements too, the pulsations of its throat at work, the staccato twisting of its body into a feathered glyph. When silence fell I became aware of the ache in my teeth from grinding my jaw.

I sat dumb outside the dead circle. Sure as shit wanted to run, but that water acted on me, had a gravity to it. Not sure how long I sat there on my knees. The rifle crack from down by the house is what brought me to my mind again.

I went prone, tried my best to melt into the field, be still. Brittle stems poked against my neck, lips, eyelids. I braced for a second shot that never came, a clench of sickness in my gut.

My instincts said to go searching for better cover. Bellycrawling away, the well tugged at my back, asking me to please linger on. Must have got directions mixed up in my panic, because I came to see through the growth a downward slope in the land, the house dead ahead of me. Scanned for open windows and rifle barrels, saw none. Then Derne came around the corner.

A groundhog swung limp from her one hand, the other gripped the stock of the rifle slung over her shoulder. The forward lean of her walk put me in mind of a plow. She wore a patched sleeveless dress and a broad sun hat. My passing knowledge put her somewhere in her sixties and it surprised me when, even at a distance, I saw her arms were ropey and taut with strength. She tossed the groundhog onto a compost pile, rubbed that palm against the dress, then went back inside the house, screen door smacking shut.

I eased backward, same way I’d come. My sense of direction restored by sighting the house, I turned myself around by degrees and decided to just beeline for the main road, fuck the pears. We’d gone longer on less.

Eyes closed against the effort of movement, I’d travelled maybe thirty feet before I heard the one, two, three of a bolt action chambering a round ahead of me.

“Care to tell why you’re crawling like a half-breed snake on my land?”

My body went electric, froze. Truly don’t know how I didn’t piss all over myself. No way she could have gotten there from the house in that amount of time. I craned my neck and saw her planted firm five feet in front of me, dress billowing in the breeze, those sinewy arms introducing me to the business end of the gun. She wore a sneer, which maybe came fair enough, given the circumstances.

She stepped closer.

“I saw by your flinch you can hear fine. Speak. Now.” Her smoker’s rasp put me too much in mind of the buzzard.

“Passing through. Ma’am. To go swimming?” Voice came out like a whine.

“You didn’t pass through on your belly a week back,” she said. Unpleasant surprises seemed to be her thing.

“The gunshot, I just dropped. Thought you were…”

She hissed out a laugh. Her eyes narrowed on my backpack. “Maybe I was. I recommend cutting the bullshit about what you’re doing here. Go on, confess. Always good to get that ugliness out,” she said.

Even with the gun barrel I felt resistance to the command, my mouth fighting against good sense. Looking right at a person and saying you meant to take from them? Don’t know if shame or fear locked me up, but it held firm.

The shot broke like a stormcloud around me. A tiny spray of dirt pelted my face, thrown from the bullet drilling into the earth a few inches from the tip of my nose.

“You think anyone around this way’d bat an eye if I shot your brown ass in my own backyard? Move those lips.”

“Pears,” was all I managed. Whole body shook, the way I’d seen anxious ankle-high dogs do.

“Ah, we come to it. Truth, at last. Figure it’ll set you free?”

“Don’t know. Ma’am.” Pushed each word out with a lungful of air, more expulsion than speaking.

“That’s two thieves in one day, then. Well. I figure you owe me, in spirit, if not in fact of deed. Up on hands and knees, now. I peg you as more of a mutt than snake.”

Oh, she knew the right buttons. I felt an old anger rear up at her words and worked to keep it from showing. Had practice keeping that particular feeling clamped down, especially after the last time Mom picked me up at the principal’s office with a busted lip and bruised knuckles. Her saying on the bus home ‘Don’t let them make you into something you’re not.’ Her going on about how my father never raised a fist when someone called him wetback instead of Ramon. I just nodded and kept a lot of things bottled up, things like reminding her I’m not my father.

But right there in the field I knew this hillbilly crone meant to kill me and I had to cooperate, stall until I had an opening.

I stared at the frayed hem of her dress and her painted toenails, waiting.

“So, you want what I’ve got? You have little idea what that—”

She turned and fixed on a spot behind me, like someone had just interrupted her and she listened to their say. I counted the slow steady thump in the cables of her neck. Eleven before she gave a slight nod and a smile hitched up the wrinkles around her mouth. Turning back to me she said, “All right, let’s go find out how generous my land is. We’ll see how you fare when tested, mutt. Move.”

She clicked her tongue at me, indicated a direction with a dip of the barrel.

Adrenaline heightened my sense of touch and I felt every bladed leaf, every pebble. For a second, just a second, I thought about the stains I probably had on my clothes now and how Mom was going to be pissed. I felt the surge that comes before tears and pushed the thought out. I heard soft steps fall in behind me.

“You got a name, thief?”

“Renato,” I spat back.

“Guess that solves the mystery surrounding what shade of dark you are, huh?”

That old anger flared again. Kept hold of the reins, but loosely, letting my own sneer bloom since I now faced away. I was all too accustomed to the local views in this stretch of mountain Maryland. Born into them, sixteen years experience wading through this town’s bullshit as the only Latino kid in the zip code. But being accustomed to and tolerating were worlds apart. If the gun weren’t a factor, I’d’ve been a lot less friendly by then.

“Well, listen, Ren-a-to, you might as well get a history lesson on our short march. Most places have it, but none like here. My kin have kept it for eleven generations. You get what I’m saying, thief? I’m tied to this land. My inheritance, but I guess you wouldn’t know nothing of inheritance.”

“I inherited plenty.” Couldn’t stop myself.

The butt of the rifle landed bright against my ribcage.

“Fucking mouth on you. The mutt likes to snarl, huh? Well, you should know my land’ll eat you right up, precious snarl and all. My land’ll remind you of your place.”

“Look, I’m sorry, okay? I’m hungry, is all. We barely—”

“We? Do tell.”

I regretted opening my mouth, as usual. Bringing Mom into this, even the mention of her, felt like betrayal. And the shame of getting caught. Plus wondering if I’d be seeing her again.

One, two, three of the bolt action. “Spit it out.”

“Mom and me. Just wanted to grab enough to last a few days,” I said.

“Oh, so you’re the conscientious type? Santo Renato?”

Breathing through my teeth.

 [ Well, © 2017 Jason Baltazar ] “Might interest you there used to be a church stood in these fields then. Built by the first settlers here, my line. Course, there’s nothing left of it now except the well.”

Hadn’t thought of the well since the first gunshot. I realized then the direction she had me crawling.

“Put it factually, the well was here before the church. Long before. My folk built around it. Used it for baptism. Matter of fact, I was the last to be reborn in that water,” she said. “Last to feel that spirit inside set free.”

As she spoke I saw again the dark shapes of the broken buzzards in the grass as we neared the well. With my mind turned back to it I felt the earlier pull, aided by the push of Derne’s footsteps behind me. Palm over palm, I closed the distance, little yellow flowers beginning to appear between my fingers. The water came shining into view, as a white sliver slowly dilating, dulling, growing green.

“Just me now,” she said, vulnerable, fissures in the words. The difference in her tone made me more anxious. “Had two boys, used to run these fields like jackrabbits. Been gone awhile… in the end, it wasn’t for them.”

I imagined her sons and the best I managed was a generic template, cookie cutter white boys, exactly like ones I dealt with at school. Way I pictured them, they had easy smiles. Never felt knuckles digging through the soft skin of their cheeks, looking to knock against the bone underneath. Never known the hollow impact of a sneaker playing their ribs like a drum. They lacked sensory connections between pain and a catalogue of two-syllable words, didn’t know how to wear a scar over their eye like a challenge: try to do worse than this.

I conjured them up and hated them on sight.

Closer, the yellow flowers grew thick and I started tearing them up between my fingers as I went, sweetening the air. Tried to keep my eyes above the horizon, but the magnetism of the well had them rolling.

“Stop.”

Derne walked around me and studied the lay of the buzzards. I swear she read them. Then she turned to me with a similar search in her eye, pursed lips, not seeming to like whatever she found. “All right, to the edge. You’ll be tested, but you should know I meant to put you down right where I found you.”

I begged, even as I obeyed. “Listen, I’m sorry, I mean it. Don’t do this, I should never have come here.”

“Let’s see if there’s truth to that last. Why don’t you dip a finger in, test the water?” She spoke with the same comfortable sneer, but her look was all worry.

I reached out. When my fingertip passed through the opaque surface of the water, there was a cold wrench, a feeling of being reached into and squeezed like a rag. The nausea flooded back. As I looked at my finger joined to the well a tiny silver bubble fluttered to the surface and burst. I pulled my hand back. Then two more. The surface agitated, swirled, slowly at first, but with gathering momentum.

I heard Derne spitting curses.

As the circular motion accelerated, a depression formed in the center of the well, deepening and widening. A smell hit me, put me in mind of darkness, mildew, a hint of metal. Decay, very subtle, underneath it all. As the depression dropped into darkness the smell grew stronger.

An awareness of Derne kneeling opposite took me from the hypnotic whirl. The rifle rested in the bed of flowers behind her. This might have been my chance to bail, if the grip of the well wasn’t so firm. She relayed such venom through her gaze I shifted back onto my haunches on reflex. She bowed to the water and reached into the glassy green current with cupped hands, allowing the bowl of her palms to fill. With great ceremony, she brought the water to her mouth and drank deep. Then she rested her wet palms on her thighs and resumed her stare.

She growled across to me, “My own sons not good enough and it comes to you, a little mixed blood thief? I’d rather’ve gone to my grave as the last. You’re gonna see about inheritance. Hope you choke on it, boy.”

I watched her breathing deepen, a shudder run her length. Her stomach seized, hollowing the middle of her dress, then pushing taut against it, like an enormous second heart learning to pump in her gut. Again and again. Her mouth set to chattering, but the words fell indistinct. The retching started. Raw, wet grunts that so raised those cables in her neck I thought they’d break loose. Each came in a longer interval than the last, until she croaked one out with no end.

She turned her face to the sky. The slender fluted column of her throat fluttered at double the pace of her body. There rose from just above her sternum a slow, upward pulsation that reminded me of limbs moving under a blanket, of something burrowing through a sheath of skin. Vaguely aware of piss soaking my legs as I followed the pulse. Something poked free of her upturned mouth and I first took it for her tongue, until it kept stretching skyward a foot, then two, higher and higher. Her moan underneath, all the while.

A wind picked up, the little flowers of the field trembling behind her. The stalk ascended, glistening all inside-the-mouth pink and translucent grey. It unfolded outward, billowing like a cloud of organ tissue. As the mass swelled above her, the wind whipped the field, bits of dry, dead grass tumbling around us. Tendrils sprouted from the organ cloud, twisting and curling as they branched out, forming what looked to be a writhing alphabet suspended in the air. Though its meaning remained hidden as my wide eyes scanned, I felt something stirring. There was meaning to their strange shape and they spoke to some part of me, deep inside, a part that knew to be terrified.

The thing seemed to reach its physical limit and Derne rose. Only, she didn’t raise herself. She was lifted, buoyed up by the growth until she hung limp beneath it like ribbon dangling from a balloon.

The frenzy of the wind continued to build, kicking up a wall of grit and tiny flower petals, pulling sleek feathers from the buzzards. When the tips of Derne’s toes left the stone the dozen or so tendrils of pink-grey flesh sprouting from the disgusting form overhead lashed through the air. They encircled me, pulling my body all at once toward the well. I fought. Dug in my heels, leaned back. Turned over and tried to grip the meadow which only came up in clumps as I slid. I screamed, but my voice was sucked in to join the coil of dirt and feathers and yellow flower petals.

I tumbled over the lip of the well.

I felt Derne release me to the cold of the water. I felt sinking, such spinning.

Mostly though, I felt that rage. I flailed against the current, deep primary instincts struggling to find air again while the other parts of my thinking, usually keeping that ugly eye-for-an-eye urge from boiling up, they were letting go. Giving in. Gateways Mom begged me to ignore burst open, worn thin by constant pressure. Thinking in her direction, I’m sorry, I really tried but they keep pushing and I want to push back. I’m not my father. The tightness in my chest built around my seized lungs. More than I feared the monstrous thing alive inside Derne now floating over the well, so much more than that, I hated her for this. There in the water my fluttering thoughts went to hate like a butterfly landing on the brightest flower and sucked it dry.

Her insults. My name on her mouth. Her petty little brain and its crooked way of thinking. The look of her.

Fuck that pale piece of shit.

I felt shame try to come creeping up for feeling this way, but the water urged me on. Derne wanted to test me, wanted to break me? Get in line. Even as I weakened, I wanted to hurt her the way I’d been hurt. Only fair she should feel some of the fear, some of the pain. I wanted more than anything to plant inside her my memories of being chased, being spit on, punched and kicked, the spill of my blood laughed at, celebrated. Selfish for me not to share when my cup runneth over.

I was feeling very generous when my lungs gave out and the stinking well water filled me up. I had a sense it deliberately sought its way through my empty spaces from somewhere deep below. My body went into a dance, a twitching rhythm of full-system panic. But, divorced from that, I imagined Derne caving in to pain long before I would have, because of her thin, less experienced skin.

I thought about Mom, trying to fill the gap my father’d left behind that cancerous winter of twenty twelve with her three part-time jobs. I thought about the singlewide we’d moved into, then about Derne sitting alone in all the bloated space of her farmhouse. I heard mom’s stomach growling while Derne let her orchards rot. Pointing a gun at me for wanting a small piece of what insects feasted on undisturbed. I wished my body could become a trigger, a barrel, a bullet.

The water spoke from inside, pleased. The feeling of my body changed, grew numb and remote. My senses compressed into the center, traveling out of my open mouth like a thread, a new body emerging from the old.

I fed the hate. The water approved. I imagined increasingly subtle variations of pain on Derne’s face, of permutations in the bend of her fingers as she braced against it. I swelled with this feeling and wanted to find her, make it real.

There was a rising, a change in temperature as the swirling water released me, then the warmth of the sunlit meadow on my still growing form. Like being born again. I saw in all directions through the pores of swelling flesh instead of the two feeble eyes hung somewhere below. I smelled and tasted and touched all around me through this churning skin. I felt expansion, like endless inhaling, my anger spreading its claim over the space around me. Now I became the center of the storm, the whip of circling wind turning around me. I saw the Derne-thing beneath me. Small.

I saw her and I was hungry.

Just the shape of her inspired a scream that sent twisting tendrils in her direction, a strange new reflex rooted to this form. I felt my thoughts traced and seared into the air as they moved this body, ensnaring her. The curling and twisting forms of these new limbs seemed perfect translations of the hate roaring through my mind. Somewhere, some tiny place underneath, my mouth watered. I thought about pain, and the tendrils wrote an action of pulling the Derne-thing to me.

I engulfed her, drew her mind and body into the membranous tissues of my appetite. I felt her rage and disgust and jealousy flood through as she dissolved inch by inch. The waterborne senses told me hers was an act of surrender, of grudging obedience to the powers at work in this place. She’d abdicated for a new heir, one more fitting than the two boys with snapped necks at the bottom of the well, one with more raw fuel burning up their guts in the form of blind rage. I knew she’d lost something more precious to her than life, and it pleased me.

Finally, when near to being nothing, came her fear, sweetest of all.

Even now I’m growing, diffusing to fill the open space around me. Derne wasn’t enough. I’ll uproot the trees in the orchard; strip them whole, fruit and leaves and even the soil sticking to the tangle of roots. I’ll pull down her house, shingle-by-shingle, board-by-board, and then I’ll scour its foundation clean.

Then this entire town.

I’m young but I have a long memory. Every name. Every face. The water is telling me I now have a reach to match my appetite. I’ll cover every inch until I’m full.

Here I am, spilling over.

Here I am, eager to share.


© 2017, Jason Baltazar

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