My hands were badly chapped that fall, the year we found Bog Dog.
At least that I remember.
The ground iced in early September, a month and a half early, and we had to dig the turnips from the earth with trowels. The soil was like pebbles of ice and the turnip tops were stiffened with freezing juice that re-froze on our hands as we sliced them off. When all the turnips were in and Surrey and I went back to stitching the Christmas Quilt, I remember how the yarns kept catching on the hardened trills of split skin that cracked my palms and fingertips. I remember how the dyed yarn would tug a crack so raw that it bled, leaving a muddy track of green or vermillion where the wetness of my blood had loosened dye from wool. Even with fair hands I hated sewing and I was no good at it (I’m still not), but Surrey could whip stitches so tight and even you’d swear she was a practiced seamstress, like the aged woman with the port-wine birthmark who’d stitched her tiny christening dress eleven years before.
I was going on fifteen that winter. A storm was coming, and it was going to be a bad one. Pop could tell because his toe with the gout was swollen up as big as a red potato. He stood in the doorway to the woodshed and rolled a cud of chew in his mouth, counting. Two cords of wood, half a box of kindling, and only eleven blocks of thin peat. Pop grunted and spat, and his eyes looked worried.
The meager stack of peat in our woodshed didn’t look like the stuff they burned in the schoolhouse or the chapel. Ours was thin and gray and full of air. When you held it in your hand, it weighed nothing at all, and instead of smoldering hot in the stove, it flamed up yellow and then dissolved into ash. Ma said we didn’t have a very good piece of land because Gran didn’t know what to look for when she bought it, so she’d gotten bamboozled on account of her being a woman and an out-of-towner. Gran had grown up near Aberdeen where they burned coal and ate eels. She didn’t know about peat or sheep or winter storms that could trap a family snowbound until they burned cribs and floorboards and frostbite took their toes.
Pops spat again and then he said to the spot of saliva-moistened dirt, “A thief’s not a thief if he steals to save himself and his own.” And then he told me and Surrey to take the barrow from the woodpile and go cut as much peat as we could carry from the Cornwalls’ property. It was almost five o’clock and sun was already low in the sky, but I buttoned up my coat and then helped tuck my little sister into her scarf and mittens. Then we took the old barrow with the wobbly wheel and pushed it along the hardscrabble path that led through the bone-white elms and into the rye.
• • • •
The O’Farrells had got two hundred pounds sterling for the bog man dug out of their property in 1954, so Surrey figured we could get at least fifty for the mummified dog we dug up while we were stealing peat from the Cornwalls’ poisoned rye field.
At first we weren’t sure if the University would be willing to buy, because we’d been out there stealing blocks of the Cornwalls’ peat. But after, Pops told us Ma said we didn’t have to feel guilty because the fields were just going to thorn anyhow. The Cornwalls were dead, and nobody would make a bid on the land because everyone knew that rye field was haunted.
So that’s why we were on the Cornwalls’ property stealing chunks of rich dark moss from their bog, peat that was going to waste anyway. By the time we’d filled our barrow, the wind whipping through the white elms had chapped our lips and cheeks as red as beets. To my back stood the blackened field, with shadows like faces and stalks like naked bones. I buttoned my coat up high on my neck, but I could still feel it watching me.
There were as many stories about the Cornwalls’ fields as boys in the schoolyard, but Patrick Freer’s rendition was the most highly regarded.
His account went like this:
Gregor Cornwall’s daughter Ella had been engaged to the son of a wealthy trader named Thomas Eadie, which was true.
Here, Patrick would lower his voice and make it husky, as if he was letting us in on a secret.
Mere weeks before the wedding, Ella had got herself into trouble with the butcher’s boy, got herself in a family way, and the child was set to be a bastard. So in the secret of night, Gregor brought Ella to a woman, a witchly woman who lived alone in the woods past Bone Bottom Creek. The woman said she could get the baby out of the child’s belly before it was alive, so it wouldn’t count as murder, which was a mortal sin and worse than birthing a bastard. The old woman charmed Gregor and spoke to him softly with sweet toothless breath and said that for the proper price it could all be done easily without a scratch or a scar. She would scrape the memory from Ella’s mind so that the girl would forget everything, including her love for the butcher’s boy. Gregor’s ears prickled red and angry as he thought of the butcher boy’s thin spotty hands between his daughter’s legs, and of the dowry that would vanish with the Eadie boy. The witch stroked Gregor’s cheek with her three-fingered hand and sold him a spell that would draw the girl tight back together. For an extra twelve shillings, she promised, he could even buy bloody sheets for his daughter’s wedding night. But for days after swallowing the witch’s draught, Ella writhed in delirium, and when at last the baby came it was a screaming thing, dark and eyeless and not yet formed. Gregor and his wife, Maddie, smothered the child to death before Ella’s senses returned, but the damage had been wrought and all three were damned. Ella buried the tiny body in the rye field and then hung herself in the butcher’s smokehouse with the rope they used to tie up hogs for scalding.
Broken with grief, Gregor returned to the witch with his payment exactly as the old woman instructed, folded into a square of linen and tied with a twist of black yarn. But instead of silver pieces the linen concealed a heavy pair of shearing scissors, and he killed the witch by putting the blade through her left eye and into her rotten heathen brain.
The unbaptized baby buried in the field brought a blight down upon the family. The elms grew scabs and the rye turned black, and by the time the sheep began to birth headless lambs Gregor and Maddie and their four sons were all stone dead, plus a handful of house servants and two Negroes and the stable man.
You can see why Patrick’s version of events was the best loved. Ma said Patrick’s father was a gambler and a drunk, so yarn spinning was in his blood. Every time he told the story he wove in another sordid detail, and so no matter how many times we’d heard we all gathered around to listen whenever a new boy wondered aloud why the manse in the elms stood empty.
Pops said the witch story was horseshit. He said God sent the scourge into the rye because only Godless Protestants ate rye. We had nothing to fear, he said, being good Catholics and potato-eaters. And I’d never seen a witch or knew anyone who’d know where to find one, least of all liver-skinned Gregor Cornwall with his stutter and faceful of moles and the widening bald spot eating up his thinning orange hair.
Cursed or not, the Cornwalls had no doubt died under terrible circumstances, and now the house stood dark.
Fat Anthony Kemp’s father was a surgeon. He was also the oldest of us, so he alone could to recall the year the Cornwalls got sick. He insisted to have witnessed a desperate call in the night, after which his surgeon Daddy had raced to the manse in the elms where he’d been forced to saw off Mother Maddie’s arms and legs after they turned black and began to fall apart. He’d sewn polishing rags tightly over all the little boys’ hands, because all else failed to stop them scratching their skin right down to their bones. According to Anthony, Gregor Cornwall had clawed his own eyes clean out of his skull before his surgeon Daddy could stab him with the needle full of sedative.
“You think an eyeball would be round and mushy, like a peeled grape,” said Anthony. He was sitting on the stone steps in front of the vestibule eating a thick ham sandwich. A yellow smear of mustard adorned his upper lip. “But Daddy says it’s not so.” Anthony paused to swallow and lick his lips. “He says once it’s popped, it just oozes out from under your eyelid like candle drippings. And he said the whole time old Gregor was digging around in his own head, he had his mouth stretched wide open like this.” Anthony stretched his jaw as far open as it would go and pulled his lips away from his teeth, eyes wide. The roll of fat beneath his chin folded against his throat and looked like a long link of sausage. “Like he was going to scream, but no sound came out. Daddy says he stayed like that till they put him in the ground.” We tried to imagine the horror of this as Anthony finished the last bite of sandwich and produced a cinnamon sticky roll from his dinner pail.
But when we found the Bog Dog nestled in the peat, my sister and me forgot all about Gregor Cornwall and Patrick Freer and Fat Anthony Kemp and thought only about bringing the dog whole out of the ground. Fifty pounds would buy coal enough to last till Surrey was married and gone. It would buy beef dinners and new shoes and oranges and walnuts and store-bought soap that didn’t burn with the sting of lye.
Fifty pounds sterling.
We had to be very careful with the Bog Dog.
We wanted to surprise Ma and Pops, so Surrey and me raised him out of the earth by ourselves, very carefully, with a summer sheet that was already so torn up that Ma had been using it to squeeze cracklins out of rendering lard. We lay the sheet down in the bog and with our fingers we carefully cleared the black peat from around Bog Dog’s shriveled-up body. His legs were curled up under him and kind of fused into his belly, so that he looked a little like a tanned rabbit set on its haunches. The skin felt like leather when you touched it, but he also felt hollowed-out, like bird bones. When we lifted him he was as light as a feather. We moved the dog very carefully into the barrow, both of us huddled together so our hands made a soft scoop, but even so we lost a piece of his tail and almost his whole left jowl. He looked like probably a Spaniel or a Springer, so the broken-off jowl barely changed his shape any, not like it would a Boxer or a Saint Bernard. But the tail was easier to notice. Through the hole in his hindquarters you could see right down inside to tell that Bog Dog really was hollowed out, with just a little stringy webbing where his guts should have been. It looked like the inside of a jack-o-lantern on All Hallows Eve. To fit Bog Dog safely inside the bowl of the barrow, we emptied all the peat and sticks of elm into a heap, and left the heap sitting there in the biting cold of the Cornwalls’ cursed bogland.
When we got back to the house, Pops was angry at first because we’d abandoned the peat and firewood. But when we showed him Bog Dog his anger left him and he wondered aloud how many pouches of chew it would buy and whether or not the Eadies were selling the eight-week piglets now, or if we’d have to wait till spring. We talked over the tail and jowl with Ma, whether to leave the tail off or try and stitch it back, and Ma decided the missing parts probably wouldn’t decrease Bog Dog’s value. The University people might not even notice, and if they did, we could just give them back the parts and maybe they could put them back on with some special tape or thread. Maybe there was even such a thing as special mummy glue.
We put Bog Dog in the corner between the stove and the door, where we could all see him. He almost looked like he was guarding the door. The missing jowl even gave him a kind of ferocious look even though his body was clumped together and melted-looking.
Surrey watched him over her spoon while she slurped cabbage soup. She asked Pops why Bog Dog had no insides. He said, “The peat ate it out of him, just like a worm eats the insides of a rotten log.”
Surrey looked down at her dirty fingernails and asked if the peat could do that to her, and Pops said it would take hundreds and hundreds of lifetimes buried in the peat for that to happen, so not to worry. Then he got up to spit tobacco juice in the spit bowl by the stove and Ma told him she hoped that chew was worth fifty silver pieces and ten years of frozen yearlings and pneumonia. Pops looked at her and spit again to be defiant, but he spit in the ash bucket, far away from Bog Dog.
That night the storm blew in, and it was as bad as Pop’s toe had promised. Grains of ice thwacked against the windows and cold seeped through the glass and under the doors and crept through the place in the roof where the stove pipe poked out. The next morning when Pops braved the twenty bitter steps to the woodshed, he was able to carry back everything we had in a single trip.
On the third day we ran out of peat.
On the sixth we ran out of wood.
On the eighth day we pulled the legs off our kitchen chairs and fed them into the woodstove, and Ma screamed at me and Surrey for throwing everything out of the barrow. Her voice got higher and higher, and pretty soon there weren’t any words in it. Pops slapped her cheek and she got quiet and went to sit by the stove, even though by then the heat coming off it was almost imaginary.
Surrey was so thin and so small, the cold bit into her worse than any of us. Her hands and feet turned red and she complained they ached her so she couldn’t sleep. Her arms and hands felt hot, but she couldn’t get to feeling warm no matter how many featherbeds I piled on top of her. When I tried to slip in and warm her with my own body, her eyes were foggy and her skin was gray and stayed dented where I pushed on her. She curled up like a dried-out spider and would not uncurl to eat or to wash. When all the shelves and baseboards were burned up, my little sister stopped answering the questions Ma called through her quilts. Pops scooped her up in his arms, a cold apple turnover with only the tips of yellow hair poking out. Pops bundled her down by the stove and threw Bog Dog on the fire.
Bog Dog didn’t light right away. For a few moments he just lay there in the hot ashes, his dog face suddenly seeming very sorrowful, and above Surrey’s swaddled quilts Pop’s face fell and his eyes grew moist. Then all of the sudden there was a loud popping sound, and Bog Dog burst into flames. Or rather, he burst into smoke. Thick yellowish smoke poured from the cavities of his mouth and eyes and the broken-off place where his tail should have been. It kept pouring and pouring, as thick as the banks of fog that roll across the bog when the temperature drops suddenly and the air is heavy with wetness. It billowed out of the stove and sank into a roiling blanket just above the floorboards, then came up from the ground until it filled the room and clogged my eyes and ears and made my mouth taste like rye bread and rotting things. I tried to feel my way toward the door, desperate for the relief of air, but I hadn’t taken a single step before my head began to swim and black-brown flowers bloomed behind my eyes. Then there was nothing but blackness.
• • • •
When I woke up, Ma and Pops were both dead. They lay on the floor, shoulders touching, as if they had kept each other from going alone into the dark. One of Ma’s arms was bent behind her back, and the shoulder was a lump of unnatural knobs. Pops had wet himself. But I didn’t have time to think about them because of what happened to Surrey.
When I was little, I suffocated a moth by keeping it in a jar. Not on purpose: I was a kid and didn’t know any better. The moth was so weirdly docile at first. It just let me scoop it right into the jar. After a day or two I realized why the moth had been so sluggish; it was plump with eggs, and now it was squeezing them from its body into the smooth glass of the jar’s floor. Every day there were more eggs. The moth’s body pulsated almost imperceptibly with the effort, not moving or eating. I only knew it was alive because of the way the legs clung to the blade of grass I’d dropped down inside. When it died the legs curled under and the moth fell over to one side, bending one wing and one antenna beneath the tiny head.
But the thing was, the eggs kept coming out. For another two days the dead moth’s body continued to push out the eggs, a pile of malformed translucent orbs that would never hatch. It turned my stomach and for some reason the whole thing disturbed me terribly. I had witnessed the dark face of nature, the one that puts maggots into a dead cat’s eyes and sends babies into the world with their insides spilling out their bellies.
I still dream about that moth sometimes.
In the ten years since, I had seen nothing so grotesque until I awoke from my smoke-induced blackout to find Surrey’s head sewn onto the body of a mummified dog with crooked stitches of green and vermillion quilting yarn. And with the same crude stitches, fastened to the pale, slender neck of my little sister, was the shriveled and eyeless head of Bog Dog.
The creature with Bog Dog’s head and the body of my sister was the lesser monstrosity. As horrifying as it looked—and no matter how much I wanted to, I could not stop looking—it just sat in one place and quaked. I could hear its organs clicking and squelching inside as my sister’s heart and lungs and intestines tried to decipher commands from a dead brain like a dried and shriveled pecan. It urinated on itself, unable to make a sound.
So I turned my attention to the other, the creature with my sister’s fair-haired head and sprinkle of freckles and the pink-red mouth that wouldn’t stop screaming. I pulled the thing from the hot ashes, touching it with my hands, and slapped away the sparks and embers because I thought that would make Surrey stop making the noises she was making, shrieking and gulping and broken, screaming sob-noises that would have made me believe I had gone mad, if I did not already believe that. But the screaming continued even after the last red flake of fire was snuffed. She never moved her gaze from me, her large, moist eyes rolling and imploring me to help her. I did not know how. She would try to speak and remind herself that only gurgling sounds could be coaxed from the ragged stumps of her vocal cords. The reminder would start her screaming again, either with pain or fear or because above me loomed the face of Death, which could not be far from us now. The red lips of tissue around her eyes began to purple over and her gurgles became wheezes. The rivulets of blood that trickled at first from between the green and vermillion yarns slowed, then stopped. Her eyes glassed. I felt myself heaving but could not know whether I wanted to sob or vomit. I knew I should hold her. She was dying. So I carefully scooped the little thing up, ignoring how the body crumbed away from my fingers, how Surrey’s head flopped to the side and then caught against the stitches, choking off her screams as the vocal cords pinched against those green and vermillion yarns.
I carried her out the door and past the woodshed and down the hardscrabble path, my stocking feet making tracks in the snow like a yoked ox. I carried her screaming all the way to the patch of bone-white elms, because she’d always thought them beautiful, and laid her gently down in the cleanest of the snowbanks. I stayed with her until the screaming stopped and I was certain she’d frozen to death, and then I used Pop’s pocketknife to slit the yarn stitches and pull her head away from the stump-neck of Bog Dog.
It’s odd to think of how seldom you look at your hands. The palms, I mean. I suppose you do look at the backs of your hands an awful lot, but they rarely do anything wicked.
I didn’t notice the tracks of green and vermillion that crisscrossed my own until the morning after I buried my little sister’s head in the frozen earth of the Cornwall’s haunted rye field, while the elms watched me with trunks like naked bones.