The Stonekings, fiction by Willi Goehring

Once, when I was naked, run­ning around in the woods, I could have sworn I saw an old friend I used to play fid­dle with. He'd been out there for months, the way I saw him, and had only the small­est notion that he'd been any­where at all; cov­ered in mud, naked too, and play­ing an instru­ment made out of sticks and half a log he'd gnawed into a bow of his own long hair. He ground his teeth at me and hissed like a snake, and I spent the next few min­utes try­ing to con­vince him to play me a tune we used to pick called "Who Shit in Grandpa's Hat." "I'll dance," I kept telling him, laugh­ing, but he respond­ed by hiss­ing and jerk­ing his hair across the thing, bat­ting it like that was a small curse budg­ing me away, lift­ing his foot to do a big stomp like at the end of a dead­ly con­tra. Our encounter was pro­longed but even­tu­al­ly I backed away, cau­tious that he might come at me with his long fin­gers or begin to play a whirl­wind dance.

This was Old Pete, hus­band to Old Melin­da, who played in the Ozarks' big expanse maybe two hun­dred tunes by ear and by mem­o­ry, some said three hun­dred. They learned from the Stonek­ings, Lee and Buck and Whirly, down near Osage Coun­ty, and used to put their big rafts into the White Riv­er for god knows what rea­son and just float in the sun­shine. They grew car­rots that came out pur­ple instead of orange and knew the kinds of mush­rooms that you could eat and which ones were mag­ic. They had a chick­en with three eyes they named Coot­er who they shot instead of wring­ing its neck when the time came. Melin­da wasn't quite blind, but used to tell us that when she looked at peo­ple their eyes were big black pits and their mouths looked like gap­ing ass­holes. "Pur­ty close," Pete would say.

When I got back to my camp I put on some clothes and Noël was sit­ting there, still naked, long penis dan­gling obtru­sive­ly close to the only warm part of our tiny fire. I'd used my keys as a rat­tle and we'd done some danc­ing, and then found a few sticks that we admired. When I ran off, Pete emerged as if from the grave, but why did he refuse over and over? It was a fight, but what the hell he was doing, what tunes he was play­ing, where are they from, where did he learn them? In this thought I recalled I'd brought my own vio­lin, and took care to play as sor­row­ful of an air as I knew at the fire, but then the fire went out, and I had no way to see my fin­gers, so it was as if I had no fin­gers at all. Noël and his knife-like penis dis­ap­peared, prob­a­bly in disgust.

Melin­da died while we were play­ing once on Old Pete's porch, the sum­mer of 1995. We'd just come from the caves near­by on a back­pack­ing trip, and were sore and all worn out. Melin­da had been drink­ing moon­shine and fell flat down on her own still, and I guess the pres­sure from all of her weight caused the still to rup­ture and blow. A bit of glass got lodged in her throat and she went into the bed­room and fell down with the cord­less phone in her hand and bled out before we'd fin­ished play­ing "Four and Twen­ty Black­birds", a tune that Pete beat out so fast and with so much slid­ing and embell­ish­ment we sat on the roots and tried hard to fol­low. Some­where there was an extra mea­sure, a float­ing note, out of time, a swag­ger or a hold he made up or fucked his way through, but we could nev­er find it. When we heard the tiny explo­sion faint­ly on our stumps, we fig­ured it was just Melin­da let­ting the pres­sure out of the still to speed up the binge, but when we came to shine our­selves, we saw a trail of blood lead­ing to their pull-out bed, bare­ly big enough for her. She'd shat­tered some things in either des­per­a­tion or frus­tra­tion. Her hair was tan­gled. 9−1−1 was on the line say­ing "Is some­one there?" and "is some­one there?" and "your number's not reg­is­tered. Where are you located?"

At the funer­al, if you can call it that, Pete lit her on fire with ethanol after a real preach­er had come over to do some protes­tant things with the body, talk at it and talk to Pete. He left us the hell alone but we tried to lis­ten. A bunch of rel­a­tives had come up from Spring­field but we didn't know them and they didn't know us, and they had big belt buck­les and very combed hair. The state was sup­posed to han­dle the body and she was sup­posed to get a death cer­tifi­cate, but if Pete kept her alive we fig­ured he'd keep get­ting her wel­fare for at least a lit­tle. Before night fell we chopped a bunch of wood for him and left a bot­tle of whiskey under the moon­light by the well. He'd see it when he'd come-to and went to take a piss in the morning.

But now it was com­plete­ly dark, and there was no whiskey to con­sole any­one over their loss­es. I start­ed to want to go uphill to try to find some moon­light, but I was scared because then I'd nev­er find our camp again. I checked my phone- it was all but dead, and Noël didn't have his up his ass prob­a­bly. There was always 9−1−1 if some­thing bad hap­pened, I've always told myself. Chances were noth­ing would hap­pen at all.

Of all the tunes she could've explod­ed the still dur­ing, "Four and Twen­ty Black­birds Danc­ing on a Fawn Skin" as like­ly as any, but not like­ly at all. Every tune name comes some­where out of the dark recess­es of either mem­o­ry, learnt from the Stonek­ings or the Leonards or Emmett or Pos­sum, or some cru­el­ly made-up joke. Some of the tunes go by a dozen dif­fer­ent names. Some of them are made up by the per­son who has no idea what they're play­ing in a sort of good-ol-boy joke. Pete used to do this, ges­tur­ing wild­ly with his bow over his pigeon toes. Some­times he would fuck with us for hours only to tell us he'd made a sto­ry or a tune up. Some­times a whole con­ver­sa­tion would be a big lie with a dirty joke at the end. Some­times he'd just show us where the horse bit us, smack­ing our balls.

I real­ized sud­den­ly, walk­ing up that hill, that "Who Shit in Grandpa's Hat" is more of a dit­ty than a tune, and I don't know if Pete learned it from the Stonek­ings or made it up by his lone­some. It's not that catchy, and you couldn't dance to it, and it isn't very long. "Who did it", it goes, "Who did it," and then "Who dida shit in grandpa's hat?" I wouldn't dare to sing it unless I was some­place less than alone, enter­tain­ing peo­ple or try­ing to be fun­ny. A minor provo­ca­tion for vulgarity's sake. That kind of thing. No won­der Pete was pissed I asked for it. Sud­den­ly I was wor­ried about Noël. He liked to hang him­self a bit, or choke him­self to feel high, and in the woods it was pos­si­ble I'd find him scrunched and pruny in the sogged-up morn­ing in some ditch with a vine around his neck, horny Old Melin­da mess­ing with him. That would be seri­ous among all this fool­ish­ness. That would ruin every­thing like an explod­ing still and the ground­ward march of an old house.

But I went uphill any­ways, towards the moon, not full, not even half-not dark, peek­ing through the dis­cernible ring of light it made at the edges of its pit. I breathed heav­i­ly and almost sang, but wait­ed till I reached the peak, sod­den-crotched, where maybe I could see an amenable high­way light. But this is not like any oth­er place where the high­ways are every­where, not like the corn­fields where the cell-phone tow­ers blink like ele­phant skele­tons. Here you go up one hill and you're gone for good in their mud­dle, and god isn't even look­ing for you because he knows you're already knee-deep up in it and you will either turn up some­how or you wont. "Who gives a shit," Pete would say, when we asked him almost anything.

Sud­den­ly I remem­bered a dream that I'd had a long time ago while look­ing at the over­cast sky, the hills in the dis­tance invis­i­bly black. I took my pants off and ran my ass across the grass to itch it. In the dream I was in a cave alone with no escape, and there was a mas­sive pool of water trem­bling on the floor. A great whale emerged, breach­ing the water and fill­ing the cave with such an enor­mous sound the whole place rat­tled and shook, and I had a fid­dle in my hand and was play­ing it on my chest and singing the same note with the whale. I start­ed to cry and the whale leapt up again and again in a mas­sive duet. I sobbed and sobbed. When I woke I was late to where I was going, and couldn't even shave.

When I remem­bered this I wished it had been per­fect to sing out again, as if the hills were whales, as if Pete was out there to teach me about what life is, about things that mat­ter or at least pre­tend to mat­ter. But these things weren't true. If I couldn't see, I could sing out and lis­ten for the echo to return and give me a place, but, god­damn it, I wasn't lost, and maybe I nev­er would be. I could hum a name­less tune in the dark if it would com­fort me, and the joke might be remem­bered, even writ­ten down in the light of day. I'd come down going uphill, and every piece of rev­el­ing left in me was expend­ed in being imper­fect in that moment. Will I remem­ber all the times I remem­bered a bunch of bull­shit I des­per­ate­ly want­ed to mean some­thing? I'd rather lis­ten to the air, I think, if the air could ever be like Pete's inter­minable squawk. But ah, Pete is prob­a­bly dead, in his grave with all those tunes. I think that's all right. Soon I will be too.

Willi Goehring is a mid­west­ern poet and ban­joist purs­ing an MFA at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Arkansas, where he is a Wal­ton Fel­low. He enjoys study­ing folk­lore and teach­ing Eng­lish almost as much as he enjoys home­made wine and square dances.

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