The tall grass rustles like the wings of a cricket as the wind whips through it. In the far corner of the north field a huge blackberry bush shakes in the breeze. I briefly imagine I can hear the ticks hiding along the stalks whisper to one another, then grab my bag and head inside.
Everything creaks inside the house. The screen door groans, the floorboards squeak, the mattresses whine. In every room I’m watched by old lithographs of relatives who died decades before I was born.
Without my uncle here there is a pervading sense of isolation that is not altogether uncomfortable. My parents are too old to hoof it all the way out here, so with my new power of attorney it’s up to me to sign everything that needs to be signed. I have a handful of checks to cover the taxes and upkeep costs. I feel like a toddler in his dad’s clothes.
I go back to my car and hear growling. I look to the north field and see a coydog. Just one. Unafraid. It’s looking dead at me, it’s teeth huge even from this far away. It stands still as I grab the case of beer from the back seat and head inside. I bolt the door behind me, and before settling in I find the old hunting shotgun my uncle kept, tucked in a back closet. There’s a box of shells beside a pair of boots.
I’m six years old. Cicadas are singing in the trees, and the summer heat is made somewhat bearable by a billowing wind. The laughter from the grownups fades as I turn the corner behind the house. I have to pee but someone’s using the one toilet inside.
I do my business, watching little grasshoppers abandon the weeds as I water them. I look up at the clouds hanging against the deep blue sky. The hue makes me think of the ocean, even though at this time in my life, I’ve never actually seen it. Back here the world has ended. There is only me, and the weeds, the scrambling grasshoppers, and the singing cicadas.
I shake off. The humming air conditioner sagging in the frame of the bedroom window drips steadily. Sheets waft behind me, strung up on old steel wire hanging taut between two gray, rotting posts. When the floral print cloth wafts overhead I see the dog, standing in the tall grass. Its bark is an angry scream. It’s teeth are wet and white.
I run screaming back to my parents, crying so hard I’m hyperventilating. It’s ten in the morning. I don’t stop crying until afternoon.
I keep an eye out for the coydog as I clean. There isn’t really that much to sort through. Uncle Roy didn’t leave much behind, and he kept this place spotless as a shrine to his mother. I brush away cobwebs in the living room. Above the couch hang portraits of my great-grandparents. My great-grandfather died before Roy was born, when Grandma was small. His portrait is so degraded it looks almost melted. Great-Grandma stands stern, a woman her time would’ve referred to as “handsome.” The blue dress she wears is as bright as I ever remember it looking.
Beside the television is a small photograph of her as an old woman in the seventies. She’s hunched, deeply wrinkled, smiling broadly. She’s the essence of matronly affection. The picture was taken the day the house and land had finally been paid off. In the photo she is a woman triumphant. A octogenarian conquistador.
Grandma used to sit here and sing when she visited in the summer. On the night before her returning drive to Georgia, she would sit in this room until midnight, singing to this photo.
I am sixteen years old. Uncle Alvie is pulling his old Ford up the gravel driveway, expertly shifting gears as the ancient suspension throws him about. He makes me think of a stern bobble head, lips pressed tight, eyes focused behind his thick-framed glasses.
Uncle Mike and Uncle Roy wait with me by the smoke shack. When I was little it felt like a privilege to watch the old men butcher the meat for the reunion. Now at sixteen I think of it as little more than work. A hundred yards away my cousin Haley sits and leans against a post on the front porch. She kicks her legs out into a spot of sun that peeks through the clouds. I do my best to ignore the unsavory fact that she’s grown up, and that I’ve noticed.
Alvie spins the truck around and backs it up to where we stand. I drop the tailgate and the three of us grab handfuls of thick, cheap canvas. When Alvie joins us I stretch my arms so that I’m carrying most of the weight in the pig’s ass.
“Watch yourself, boy,” Alvie warns, more out of habit than worry. When I was little I’d pretend to help the men haul the animal inside. One loose grip and the four hundred pound beast could have seriously ruined my day. Now at sixteen, it’s obvious I’m doing most of the heavy lifting. We pallbearers heft the creature inside. I kick the door closed behind me, leaving Haley’s blond hair to shine in the brightening sun.
The pig was killed and bled on-site at the ranch Alvie bought it from, but even in the dim light of the smoke shack I can see a smear of red on the inside of the wrap when we roll the hog loose. Alvie bundles the canvas and stuffs it in the fire with a pry bar. The smoke takes on the smell of hot copper.
The work is long and tedious. We take off the head, and Alvie cleans it inside and out, placing the brain and flesh into a bowl that he’ll stuff inside the ice box. They still say ice box out here, even though the room was long ago converted into an electric fridge. We sets the skull in the wheelbarrow, to be buried beneath the animal’s offal and hooves. The ham is hung and the ribs are racked. When we’re done we are bloody, sooty, and smell of smoke. The old men go into the house for ice water and air conditioning. I take the wheelbarrow and head through the tall grass.
A blackberry bush has started growing out here. I dig beside until I reach last year’s skull. Roots have worked their way through it sockets. I dump the remains into the pit and cover them. We used to sell the skull to a Pentecostal preacher, and as weird as Pentecostals are I can’t imagine he was using the skulls for any kind of Christian service. I wonder what he did with them. We’re too far north for Hoodoo or Santeria.
Later, while I’m cleaning the wheelbarrow, I look and see Haley watching me. The hot wind makes her tank top ripple. I am sixteen, so I indulge the look before I remember I shouldn’t. I dry the wheelbarrow with a towel, and go inside to shower.
The next day I call the county about the coydog, and a little while later a guy from Fish & Wildlife comes by. He asks me a few questions, and I show him where I saw it. He drives around a while on an ATV, a rifle slung across his back. While he’s doing his thing Haley comes by with her boyfriend and their kids.
Her kids keep running into the tall grass, even though I warn them about ticks. Her boyfriend’s a handsome guy, though on the cusp of premature aging. He’s generally thin except for an impressive gut, which he nurtures by helping himself to my beer. Haley chain smokes. She’s a year younger than I am but she looks a decade older. I’m twenty-six.
We sit on the porch and Haley tells me all about the remaining old folks in the county. Alvie’s wife Ruth is in hospice in Jackson. Mike died last year near Mobile. She tells me she’s still working at the Piggly Wiggly in town. Her skin looks rough. I feel like if I touched it it’d feel dry. This part of the country chews you up pretty hard.
Haley has to work that night, and after they leave the Fish & Wildlife guy comes up to the porch. By this point I’m drinking whiskey, and he nods to the glass in my hand.
“I could sure go for a shot a’that!”
The property’s in a dry county, so unless you’re willing to hoof it twenty miles out of your way, you take your booze where you can find it. I pour him a couple fingers in an old jam jar and drop some ice inside. He takes a sip and makes a face. “Oof! You’re drinking the cheap stuff.”
“Well yeah,” I tell him. “I’m drinking with company. You want the good stuff you shoulda gone to high school with me.”
Or found that fucking coydog, I add to myself.
“I found some coy tracks, but I couldn’t locate the animal you described.” He takes of his hat and wipes at his face with his arm. “I can go to a few of these houses and let ’em know what you’ve seen, but we can’t do much far as a search goes. Practically all this around here is private land.” He gulps his whiskey and makes a face.
“So what do I do?”
“Well, call us if you see it again, that’s for sure. I’d stay inside after dark if I were you. You have a firearm in the house?”
“You know how to use ’em?”
“Alright then. I’d still advise against killing it yourself, but from what you tell me there’s a chance this one’s rogue. They’re bolder than most coys, and we found one earlier in the summer that was rabid. You’re gonna want to be careful.”
“Noted.” I nod to his glass. “Pour ya another?”
“Oh, nah. I take another I’m gonna feel it. Shouldn’t a’had this one as it was.” He sets the jelly jar down atop the AC unit by the door. “You see him again, you let us know fast as you can, alright?”
“Will do, trust me.”
“Alright then. You have a good night, sir.”
He rolls the ATV back into his truck and drives away. After a minute I get too nervous to sit outside by myself. I take the whiskey inside and drink in Roy’s old easy chair. I watch a televangelist preach against the evil of not hating yourself. The photo of my great-grandmother looks like it’s frowning at me in the waning light. She never did approve of liquor, from what I hear.
I’m sixteen, and when the Thanksgiving dishes are cleaned and the old folks have gone to the porch, Haley and I sneak off to smoke cigarettes and drink the scotch she sneaked away from her folks. It’s cool, but cool by southern standards. Haley wears denim shorts and cowgirl boots. I’ve thrown off my sweater and sit in my undershirt, my knees red through the worn holes in my jeans. As we get drunker we lean against each other for support. She’s playing with a little penknife.
“You sure your dad won’t see you took this?” I ask her.
“Oh, fuck that old man.” The venom in her words almost startles me. She lights another cigarette and takes a drink from the bottle. “Coydogs!” she yells, pointing at the treeline.
A pack of coyotes runs by, putting on an extra burst of speed once they hear her voice. It always strikes me as funny, how skittish they are, even when they outnumber us twenty to one. Occasionally one will pass with markings like a German shepherd. Coydogs are smaller than full-blooded coyotes, but they’re every bit as untamed.
I feel her put the tip of the penknife against my bare knee, not enough to cut but enough to feel. Haley hunkers down against the wall, wraps one leg around mine, and takes another swig. I grab the bottle and take a couple drinks, and when I hand it back to her it dawns on me how close her face is to mine. My vision’s getting blurry but I think she’s looking at me.
She reaches over, and pricks my other knee with the knife. I feel the the tip drag across my goose bumped skin. She’s leaning so close now her nose is touching my cheek. I can feel her heavy breathing against my face.
I sit like that, too nervous to move, before taking the bottle back and drinking three long slugs. I drop my cigarette when the embers reach my fingers. I feel her move her nose against my ear. My stomach lurches, rejecting the alcohol, and I run off to throw up in the grass. I sit there by my sick, spitting and smoking another cigarette, and when I finally turn around she’s gone. She left the bottle behind.
When I wake up the clothes I’ve boxed up are scattered, the boxes ripped into curling ribbons. I feel cold panic as it occurs to me the coydog could still be inside, and quietly I make my way to the back bedroom to grab the shotgun. I keep an eye on the door as I load it, pulling the bolt to cycle a shell into the breach. I load a sixth shell in the stock in its place.
The shotgun’s an automatic, so if the coy’s inside I can pump six rounds into it as fast as I can pull the trigger. I click off the safety and step into the hall.
The side door is still bolted shut, and I make my way to each window. None of them are open. I don’t find any broken glass of shredded screens. The front door is still latched. After checking every room and closet I walk around, yelling and banging on the walls. Nothing stirs. The coydog didn’t get in.
So who or what did?
I’m not the only one with keys to the place, but the chains are still set on both doors. It isn’t until I’ve laid the clothes out on the bed and swept away the remains of the boxes that it occurs to me to check the attic.
There are footsteps above me.
I am seventeen years old. The summertime reunion brings heavy southern accents and swarms of insects. I sit by myself as much as possible, hating the heat and wishing I could smoke. The smoke house chokes us with the scent of slow-cooked pork. The flies swarmed me two days ago as I buried the offal. The blackberry bush is huge now, and bends under the weight of its fruit.
Haley sits on the outskirts with her boyfriend. The two of them stay close, holding hands. They’re thinking about marrying, from what I hear. She’s in a tank top. Her mother told my folks and I that her stomach won’t show for another few months. Whenever we make eye contact she immediately looks away, embarrassed.
Later, I take a six-pack I lifted from a gas station the next county over, and brave the tall grass to sit behind the blackberry bush. While the voices of relatives die on the wind, I pick ticks from my ankles and get drunk. Coyotes run by at some point, putting haste in their step when they catch wind of me. Among them I count more coydogs than the year before.
I put the safety on and carry the shotgun with me to the attic. There’s nowhere really to hide up here, and it quickly becomes obvious that I’m alone. There’re only a few sheets of plywood and a couple rotting cardboard boxes. Despite the oppressive heat I make my way over and go through the contents. Old photos inside stick together, glued by decades of slow-simmer humidity. In one photo I see my grandma with her mother, in the last few months Great-Grandma was alive. Grandma smiles beside her mother, the older woman too weak to do anything but grin. Oxygen tubes run from her nose.
Great-Grandma could have had any of her children still living in the county look after her, but still she pouted and insisted Grandma come from a state away and be with her. Grandma was gone from Dad and Grandpa for eight months. When her mother died, she left her the house and the land it sits on. Made her work for her bounty. Roy continued living here, though, a guest in his family’s home.
I hear footsteps again, and turn to see a white lace lady’s hat disappear down the ladder. The attic door creaks, and the stairs fold on their own as it slams shut.
I’m not trapped. I can easily open the hatch and lower the ladder back down. But I sit like a man at gunpoint, holding a portrait of Great-Grandma in her youth. In the old back and white, she stands in a splendid white dress, shaded from the sun by a white lace hat.
The drive to town is boring and somehow exhausting. I pay the taxes and sign forms for transference of ownership, and when I get back I now co-own the property with my parents. I can make the drives to maintain the property easier than they can.
Haley comes by to visit, knowing I’m heading out tomorrow. Her boyfriend has taken their kids to see his folks in Birmingham, so she’s brought the same cheap scotch we got shitfaced to as kids. She wears a white tank top. Seeing it makes me think of how time passes, even when everything stands still.
We chain smoke and laugh over raunchy stories. We drink too much. She drinks a lot more than me. By ten she’s asleep on the couch. I open the windows to clear the air and step outside. The bottle she brought is empty, and now I drink the same cheap brand I always enjoy.
I’ve taken two swigs on the dark porch before the coydog’s growling registers with me. I look over and it’s teeth seem to glow. Moonlight catches in its eyes and something small and instinctive tells me that monsters are real.
It’s tense, ready to spring. I haven’t yet closed the door. The shotgun still rests by the frame, and slowly I close my hand around the barrel. The coy lets me know it doesn’t like me moving with sharp barks, but it doesn’t attack. Smoothly I bring the gun up, clicking off the safety.
I wonder what I’ll do if these six shells don’t drop it. I wonder if it’ll get me before the injuries get it. What might happen to Haley, passed out on the couch.
The coydog snarls and barks, thick ropes of drool spattering the floorboards of the porch. Then its eyes widen in terror and it yelps. Before I know what’s happening, I see it turn to run.
I trace it before I pull the trigger. The slug hits it in the neck, its head turning in such a way that it’s clear I’ve severed the spine. The coy falls so suddenly it flips before lying still.
I stand there a moment, icy from adrenaline. A woman’s hand grabs my shoulder, and I see a patent leather boot work its way between my ankles. Whoever has me gives me a shove. I fall, the gun landing in the grass and going off, taking out an anthill. I turn over in time to see the figure of a woman in a white dress disappear around the side of the house.
If I’d held onto the shotgun, I would’ve blown my head off. There are no guests here, only predators fighting for territory.
Haley takes a handful of Advil and drinks some coffee before heading home. I bag up my trash and set it beside the road before loading up my car to leave. In a month I’ll have someone come by to change the locks. Till then, I will leave the old woman to enjoy her house.
I spent all night burning the coydog’s carcass in the smokehouse. By morning all that’s left are charred, brittle bones, glowing red like coals. When they cool I take them and bury them by the blackberry bush. When I shower I pick four ticks from my legs.
Before I climb into my car to leave, I take a moment to take in the quiet. I see a figure shuffle past the curtains inside. The wind whips through the tall grass. I feel small grasshoppers thump against my jeans. In the distance, the blackberry bush sags heavy with fruit.