Authors: Rick Bass
Copyright Â© 1995 by Rick Bass
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Bass, Rick, date.
In the Loyal Mountains / Rick Bass,
Contents: The history of RodneyâSwamp boyâFiresâThe valley
âAntlersâWejumpkaâThe legend of Pig-eyeâThe waitâDays of
heavenâIn the Loyal Mountains.
These stories first appeared, in different versions, in the following publications: “The History of Rodney” in
“Swamp Boy” in
Beloit Fiction Journal
; “Fires” in
Big Sky Journal;
“The Valley” in
American Short Fiction;
“The Legend of Pig-Eye” in
The Paris Review;
“Days of Heaven” in
“In the Loyal Mountains” in
These stories were also published in the following anthologies: “The History of Rodney” in
New Stories from the South: The Year's Best
Other Sides of Silence: New Fiction from Ploughshares;
Pocketful of Prose;
“The Valley” in
Listening to Ourselves;
In the Company of Animals,
Best of the West 4;
Prize XV and New American Short Stories 2;
“The Legend of Pig-Eye” in
Best American Short Stories 1991;
“The Wait” in
“Days of Heaven” in
Pushcart Prize XVIII
The Best American Short Stories 1992;
“In the Loyal
New Stories from the South: The Year's Best 1991.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to these publications and their editors.
Deepest thanks to Russell Chatham for the painting on the jacket, to Hilary Liftin for production assistance, to Melodie Wettelet for the book's design, and most especially to my editors, Camille Hykes and Larry Cooper. My
publisher Sam Lawrence, who passed away last year, was many things to many
people, but for everyone he was a steadfast lover of books. He is missed.
These stories are products of the imagination. The characters in them are
not intended to represent any real persons.
The History of Rodney
in Rodney in the winter. But we have history; even for Mississippi, we have that. Out front there's a sweet olive tree that grows all the way up to the third story where Elizabeth's sun porch is. Through the summer butterflies swarm in the front yard, drunk on the smell of the tree. But in the winter it rains.
The other people in the town of Rodney are the daughters, sons, and granddaughters of slaves. Sixteen thousand people lived in Rodney before and during the Civil War. Now there are a dozen of us.
This old house I rent costs fifty dollars a month. Electricity sizzles and arcs from the fuse box on the back porch and tumbles to the ground in bouncing blue sparks. The house has thirty-five rooms, some of which are rottingâone has a tree growing through the floorâand the ceilings are all high, though not as high as the trees outside.
Here in the ghost town of Rodney there is a pig, a murderer, that lives under my house, and she has killed several dogs. The pig had twenty piglets this winter, and like the bad toughs in a western, they own the town. When we hear or see them coming, we run. We could shoot them down in the middle of the dusty lane that used to be a street, but we don't: we're waiting for them to fatten up on their mothers milk.
We're also waiting for Preacher to come back. He's Daisy's boyfriend, and he's been gone for forty years.
Back in the trees, loose peafowl scream in the night. It is like the jungle out there. The river that used to run past Rodneyâthe Mississippi, almost a mile wideâshifted course exactly one hundred years ago.
It happened overnight. The earthen bulge of an oxbow, a bend upstream, was torn by the force of the water. Instead of making its taken-for-granted way through the swampâthe slow wind of northern water down from Minnesotaâthe river pressed, like sex, and broke through.
I've been reading about this in the old newspapers. And Daisy, who lives across the street, has been telling me about it. She says that the first day after it happened, the townspeople could do nothing but blink and gape at the wide sea of mud. Rodney then was the second-largest port in the South, second only to New Orleans.
Boats full of cotton were stranded in the flats. Alligators and snakes wriggled in the deep brown as the townspeople waited for a rain to come and fill the big river back up. Giant turtles crept through the mud and moved on, but the great fish could do nothing but die. Anchors and massive logs lay strewn on the river bottom. Birds gathered overhead and circled the dying fish cautiously, now and then landing in the fetid mud. When the fish began to smell bad, the people in Rodney packed what belongings they could and hiked into the bluffs and jungle above the river to escape the rot and disease.
When the mud had dried and grown over with lush tall grass, the townspeople moved back. Some of the men tracked the river, hunting it as if it were a wounded animal, and they found it seven miles away, running big and strong, as wide as it had ever been. It was flowing like a persons heart. It had only shifted.
Daisy didn't see the river leave, but her mother did. Daisy says that the pigs in Rodney are descended from Union soldiers. The townspeople marched the soldiers into the Presbyterian church one Sunday, boarded up the doors and windows, and then Daisy's mother turned them all into pigs.
The mother pig is the size of a small Volkswagen; her babies are the color and shape of footballs. They grunt and snort at night beneath Elizabeth's and my house.
Daisy has a TV antenna rising a hundred and fifty feet into the air, above the trees. Daisy can cure thrash, tuberculosis, snakebite, ulcers, anything as long as it does not affect someone she loves. She's powerless then; she told me so. She cooks sometimes for Elizabeth and me. We buy the food and give her some money and she cooks: fried eggs, chicken, okra. Sometimes Elizabeth isn't hungryâshe'll be lying on the bed up in the sun room, wearing just her underpants and sunglasses, reading a bookâso I'll go over to Daisy's by myself.
We live so far from civilization. The mail comes only once a week, from Natchez. The mailman is frightened of the pigs. Sometimes they chase his jeep up the steep hill, up the gravel road that leads out of town. Their squeals of rage are a high, mad sound, and they run out of breath easily.
Daisy never gets mail. We let her come over and read ours.
“This used to be a big town,” she said when she came over to introduce herself. She gestured out to the cotton field behind her house. “A port town. The river used to lay right out there.”
“Why did it leave?” Elizabeth asked.
Daisy shook her head and wouldn't answer.
“Will you take us to the river?” I asked. “Will you show it to us?”
Daisy shook her head again. “Nope,” she said, drawing circles in the dust with her toe. “You got to be in
to see the river,” she said, looking at me and then at Elizabeth.
“Oh, but we are,” Elizabeth cried, taking my arm. “That's why we're here!”
“Well,” Daisy said. “Maybe.”
Daisy likes to tell us about Preacher; she talks about him all the time. He was twenty, she was nineteen. Once there was a Confederate gunboat in the cotton field. The boat has since rusted away to nothing, but it was still in fair shape when Preacher and Daisy lived on it, out in the middle of the field, still rich and growing green with cotton, the color of which is heat-hazy in the fall. They slept in the captains quarters on a striped mattress with no sheets. They rubbed vanilla on their bodies to keep the bugs from biting.
There were skeletons in the boat and in the field, skeletons of sailors who had drowned when the ship burned and sank from cannon fire to the bow. But these were old bones and no more harmful than, say, a cow's skull, or a horse's.
She and Preacher made love on the tilted deck, Daisy said, through the blazing afternoons. Small breezes cooled them. They made love at night, too, with coal-oil lamps burning around the gunwales. Their cries were so loud, she said, that birds roosting in the swamp took flight into the darkness and circled overhead.
“All we were going to do was live out on that boat and make love mostly all day,” she said. “Preacher wasn't hurtin' anybody. We had a garden, and we went fishing. We skimmed the river in our wood canoe. One day he caught a porpoise. It had come all the way up from the gulf after a rainstorm and was confused by the fresh water. It pulled us all over the river for a whole afternoon.”
A whole afternoon. I could see the porpoise leaping, and I could see Daisy as she was then, with a straw hat low around her brow. I could see Preacher leaning forward, battling the big fish.
“It got away,” Daisy said. “It broke the line.” She was sitting on the porch, shelling peas from her garden, remembering. “Oh, we both cried,” she said. “Oh, we wanted that fish.”
Elizabeth and I live here quietly, smoothing things over, making the country tame again; but it is like walking on ice. Sometimes I imagine I can hear echoes, noises and sounds from a long, long time ago.
“This place isn't on the map, right?” Elizabeth will ask. Its a game we play. We're frightened of cities, of other people.
“It might as well not even exist,” I'll tell her.
She seems reassured.
The seasons mix and swirl. Except for the winter rains and the hard, stifling brutality of August, it's easy to confuse one season with the next. Sometimes wild turkeys gobble and fen in the dust of the road, courting. Their lusty gobbles awaken us at daylightâa watery, rushing sound. That means it is April, and the floodwaters will not be coming back. Every sight, every small scent and sound, lies still, its own thing, as if there are no seasons. As if there is only one season.
I'm glad Elizabeth and I have found this place. We have not done well in other places. Citiesâwe can't understand them. In a city everything seems as though it is over so fast: minutes, hours, days, lives.
Daisy keeps her yard very neat; she cuts it with the push mower weekly. Tulips and roses line the edges of it. She's got two little beagle pups, and they roll and wrestle in the front yard and on her porch. Daisy conducts church services in the abandoned Mount Zion Baptist Church, and sometimes we go. Daisy's a good preacher. The church used to be on the river bank, but now it looks out on a cotton field.
Daisy's sister, Maggie, lives in Rodney too. She used to have a crush on Preacher when he was a little boy. She says he used to sleep, curled up in a blanket, in a big empty cardboard box at the top of a long playground slide in front of the church. The slide is still there, beneath some pecan trees. Its a magnificent slide, the kind you find in big city parks. Mostly wood, it's tall and steep, rubbed shiny and smooth. It's got a little cabin or booth at the top, and that's where Preacher used to sleep, Maggie says. He didn't have any parents.
The cabin kept the rain off. Sometimes the two girls sat up there with him and played cards. They'd take turns sliding down in the cardboard box, and they'd watch as white chickens walked past, pecking at the dust and clucking.