Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Dirtman

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.

Exodus 20:4

When I see the scorpion curled under a caliche rock I picked up, my first want is to smash it like Daddy would. Daddy’s always killing things—hairy tarantulas in the hall, fat diamondbacks in the field, and my hound pups when they get parvo. Our few patches of grass have the sick, but Daddy won’t treat it. He says it costs too much, that “those old dogs don’t deserve much thought.” Since the summer I turned seven, most of my pups have caught it. Two years dealing with litter after litter of all-rib dying dogs, because of Daddy.

The scorpion shifts around in the sandy hole, its stinger held up, pincers pointed at me, ready for a fight. I feel a liking for the fiery bug. It’s just the two of us out here in the dirt while Mama and Daddy yell. I can hear them through the messed up screen door. I replace the rock, give the scorpion back his cool, dark home. But then I look to the shed, where I know dirtman lies in the dark. I grab the mason jar I’d brought outside, lift the rock, and coax the scorpion in with a mesquite stick. He fights, but I win. I tighten the jar top, but the holes in it will keep him alive until I need him.

Even if you don’t like something here in this desert, you have no choice but to get used to it. When I was younger, I couldn’t stand the dirt. It’d get in my diaper, and I’d cry ’til Mama cleaned me up. Dirt gets in through the screen door, through the torn mesh, and blows in the gap at the bottom. No matter how many times Mama and I dust in a day, within the hour, a thin coating of the stuff is on every surface. Even on the sleeping dogs.

Daddy told me once after a six-pack of Coors, “Our people were born of the dirt, Lucy Ann. And to the dirt, we’ll be released. ’Til then, we scrounge around with the lowest of the low.” When he said it, an image flashed in my head of floods and lightning hitting our land, how we struggled up from the earth, flopping around like fishes trying to breathe. How we formed arms and legs and learned to crawl, learned how to protect ourselves from the heat, then grew used to the drought, able to take the pain, tough and hard. Daddy didn’t mention anything about us being tough and hard. He must have forgot that part.

I try not to listen to Mama screaming about Daddy’s drinking. I focus on the six-inch patch of dirt right in front of me until everything else fades away. Sometimes I think the dirt is my only true friend. I use the stick to turn over small rocks, to make little lines, write messages. Mostly to dirtman, since he can’t talk. At times, I swear he answers me, takes over power of the stick, scratches messages into the dirt. I can’t understand the squiggles, though. Not yet.

Bringing my face down real close to the sandy square, I squint through the magnifying glass I got out of a box of Sugar O’s. If I have a friend, I want to know them the best I can, so I try to know this dirt by looking real close. It’s made of tiny crystals, sand lions, bits of rock, shell, bone. Some of the crystals are like glass. In school, my teacher says this desert was once all water. I’m not sure I believe it, even when I see the shells. Everything is dry and crumbly as old flour. Maybe my grandpa’s grandpa’s grandpa upset God and he dried the land out. It’s not even good to grow in. Our garden never does well—the corn, beans, melon pinch up like Grandpa Lee’s face in the heat, no matter how much Mama has me water them. This dirt’s only good to house horned toads, mean-as-sin yellow jackets, hairy wolf spiders, fast lizards. And to make dirtmen.

Dirtman is dried up, but not like most folks around here are dried up. They’re like Mama’s jerky after I leave it out for a few days. Drier than dry. Daddy goes to Stafford Farm and picks out a cow to be killed, then comes back with a whole side that Mama cuts up and jerkies. She always freezes the rest. I’ve had nightmares about half a cow chasing me through the tumbleweeds and mesquite, thorny branches clawing at my clothes and skin. I’ve woken up drenched, then remembered Mama cut up that half a cow and it was cooling in the deep freeze, frosting over with a fine ice. I’d still look at the meat sidelong when Mama pulled it out. Didn’t trust it until it was in my belly.

I hear her inside, saying, “I swear to God, Jessup, if you don’t quit drinking, I’m going to leave you. You’ve already lost the oil rig job, best job you ever had, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to stick around and let you bury me, too.”

I ignore them. Our trailer walls are thin as ghosts, no matter how hard I press my hands to my ears. More than likely, I’ll be out here for hours, even after the sun’s down. I’m used to playing by myself in the yard, though. I have the bugs, the dirt. And I have dirtman. I look up, squint at the blazing sun, and I think it’s not so bad. Things could be worse. Then I see the storm clouds building at the end of the sky, remember Mama saying it’s supposed to flood tonight.

Then I look down and see fire ants swarm over a dung beetle. The beetle keeps going, but the more ants that load him down, the slower he moves. His entire shell is covered, and it’s like the ants are moving his body for him, one stiff step at a time. I expect he’ll be dead soon.

I’ve been bitten and stung up so many times by ants, bees, scorpions, that I don’t care too much anymore. I figure insects and reptiles are like people—they’re going to do what they do, no matter what. No sense in complaining. Complaining is for the weak, and we don’t have time for weakness. We only have time for hard work, for family, for God. Mama says that a lot. She’s never complained about Daddy to me. Or anything. Not once. Sometimes I think Mama is the strongest person I’ve ever known. Sometimes, too, I wonder why she married Daddy. But then I remember all the times she said how nice he smells, and she looked at him like he was the most beautiful person she’d ever seen.

Daddy is handsome, it’s true. At least he was before he started drinking so much. Before, he’d bring Mama flowers from Henshaw’s, would sing to me and her while playing his guitar, his bangs falling in his eyes in a nice way. At night, he’d stroke my hair and cheek and hum to me until I’d sleep. I tell dirtman these things, not just the bad things. But, my memory gets foggy at times, it’s been so long since Daddy loved on me.

Watching the beetle as the ants topple him over, I remember times Daddy got mad. Like when I wouldn’t come to the dinner table, because I was trying to save a mama bug by picking her up with the flyswatter to set her outside. Her rear end, a long pointy thing that babies would come out, was stuck to the carpet, and no matter how gently I tried to lift her onto the swatter, she wouldn’t budge. Then Daddy yelled, “Lucy Ann, get your ass to the table!” and I was scared, so I rushed the mama bug onto the swatter. It tore her belly in two, spilled out a mess of wet white eggs. I crushed her with my shoe, to end it quick, then cried and cried at the table. Daddy didn’t care. He told me to shut up and eat my green beans. Mama told him to stop being a heathen, hugged my shoulders, then sat down, clasped her hands together, and prayed: “Lord, let Lucy Ann’s bug crawl up to you in Heaven. And please, Lord, help us release our anger, into the air, way up to you, so we can fly free.” She looked at Daddy when she prayed.

I think about these things, I hear them yelling inside, and the poor beetle waves its thin little legs as the ants tear him apart. Grandpa Lee’s big sledgehammer is within my reach, leaning against the shed. Grandpa Lee swings it so easy when he helps tear down old houses, but I can’t even pick it up. It’s too heavy. All I can do is push the handle over, bringing it down on the beetle. The crunch sounds like stepping on Daddy’s beer bottles. This time, I feel bad for the beetle, but I don’t cry. I do what I have to do.

Rubbing the bug guts off the hammer’s handle with my toe, I think about dirtman’s face, how to make it. I have two of Daddy’s empty beer bottles that I snuck outside with me, so I set to work. There are a lot of empties hidden in my closet, but right now I only need these two. Using a ball peen, I break the bottle glass, and it cracks in jagged lines. I chip off shards from the bottom, then I do the same with the other bottle. Holding up the circles of brown glass when I’m done, I gaze through them like they’re strange sunglasses. Everything looks like an alien planet, like I’m somewhere else. It’s all so much darker, creepier. The yard and trailer are blurry along the barely curved sides, but clear right in the middle is our shed. I shift the bottle bottoms away from my eyes, blink a few times, to bring the clear color back, to make sure I’m still here.

It’s like Daddy’s not really here when he drinks. And he’s meaner. I hate it. Once, he threw my porcelain ducks at the wall, and they shattered, pelting pieces all over the carpet. I’d found them buried in the yard when I was digging, had left them laying on the floor and he’d stepped on them. He almost hit me for it, but I ran to my room and locked the door before he could. He didn’t follow that time. Another afternoon, Mama called from the clothes factory where she works and asked if Daddy was home. I swallowed hard on the phone, told her no he wasn’t. Mama got quiet, said he was at the bar then, and that she wouldn’t be home that night. She told me not to tell him she’d called. Before she hung up, she said she was praying to God that Daddy wouldn’t dare touch me, or he’d have hell to pay. I don’t blame her anymore. I’m not sure I would have come home, either.

Daddy knew I was lying when I told him Mama hadn’t called. He hit me so hard, I fell to the floor. I screamed, “Daddy, don’t kill me!” He stopped then and said, “I could wring your neck like a chicken’s. You’d do best to remember. Now, get on to bed.” I was hungry and scared all that night, and the next morning no one was home to fix my breakfast.

In my room, with the door shut tight, is when I get back at Daddy. I rip out my dolls’ hair, drive nails through his empty beer cans with the ball peen, tear up his old t-shirts. When I do mad things, I feel bad after. I made dirtman so I can stop doing mad things, and I hope to God he can help me.

I get up, brush the dirt from my shorts and knees, pick up the two bottle bottoms and the mason jar with the scorpion, and go into the shed. At least in here I can’t hear Daddy and Mama anymore. I stop and watch the dust float around with lazy magic, circle-eighting in the air. Late-day sun slanting into chinks between the weathered wood gives the air a warmth. It feels like Mama’s blue robe, when she wears it after a bath. I sniff deep and smell the rain coming. It’ll come soon and some may get through the gaps and sprinkle the floor.

I curve around months of heaped, brittle magazines, the red rusted tiller, bags of stale dog feed with mice nested in them, half-used dented cans of oil. It all smells like Grandpa Lee’s storm cellar, old and moldy. I pass these tall stacks of Daddy’s things and, in the deepest back corner, I kneel down by dirtman.

When we’re so close I can smell his pressed sandy skin, like the shore we visited one summer, I tell dirtman that Daddy makes me real mad. I can sense him listening, and I pretend the wind whistling around the shed door is him talking to me. I haven’t finished his face, so he can’t really say nothing. And he doesn’t have arms and legs. I’ve gathered up some things, though. I reach over and place the bottle bottoms and the mason jar in the pile of things to help me finish him.

I tell dirtman that Mama talked to me before bed last night. My black and tan hound, Lady, got off her chain and tried to run out the yard. I chased her down and whipped her good while Daddy watched. I took everything out on her while he watched. Daddy looked proud of me. After, I snuck Lady into my room. I cried, and hugged her. She looked so sad, as if she knew it would happen one day, and long ago had accepted it. I didn’t know Mama had seen everything from the kitchen window.

She sat on the edge of my bed, and all I could see of her was her outline by the weak closet light. She said, “Lucy Ann, sometimes you are just like your Daddy, and that scares me so. I don’t want you to end up angry and unhinged.”

I shook my head hard, back and forth.

“Please promise me right now you’ll let love flow into your heart like an ocean. Of forgiveness, joy, and hope. Let’s pray to God for this, okay baby?”

“Yes, Mama.” And at that moment, when we clasped hands and bowed our heads and prayed, I felt that ocean coming into my heart, flowing fast and flowing straight. Straight from Mama.

When I tell these things to dirtman, something loosens inside me. It’s like talking to God, telling Him my sins and asking for forgiveness. Somehow, I know dirtman forgives me.

I hear Mama screaming from the house. I lurch up, run past the piled things, out the shed, and bang in through the screen door.

In the living room, Daddy’s standing over Mama. She’s on the floor, has red coming off her. I don’t know what the red is or where it’s coming from. She isn’t moving. Then I realize it’s blood. I run over to Daddy and kick his shins. I shout, “What’d you do to my Mama!”

He grabs my kicking leg, makes me fall on my tailbone, says, “Go to the field and don’t come back ‘til I yell. Your Mama and me gonna talk things through. I’ll beat your ass if you come back afore I call. Go now.”

I nod fast. Mama’s hurt, but she’s just asleep. Daddy’ll wake her.

I go outside. The clouds gathered together are black as Grandpa Lee’s bad toenail. They are ready to pour. My tailbone hurts, so I rub it as I hustle to the shed.

Fumbling in the dark until my eyes adjust, I make my way to the back. I know exactly where he is—he says nothing, but I can tell he’s mad. It pulls me like an ant to a sand lion. This doesn’t make me uneasy, it seems right. I find the little oil lamp and make a flame. Then I see dirtman’s body. He looks larger in the pool of oily light. I need him to talk to me, to tell me what to do. My hand is shaking, but I lift the jar and jostle the scorpion out and into the chest cave I made with my fist. The scorpion will be dirtman’s heart. I watch it crawl in, then plug the entrance with our moldy bathtub stopper. I take the bottoms of the bottles and press them in for eyes. The milky brown deepens, and I know he sees me, even if all the color is gone. For his mouth, I make a gash with a stick and jut in my dead dogs’ teeth. Far down into his throat I push a small, creased piece of paper. I’d scrawled the words “Help me make Daddy stop” onto it.

“Can you talk to me? Please?” My whispered voice sounds like someone else’s.

I hear the scrape of a shovel outside the shed. I don’t understand what Daddy’s doing out there. I rock to calm myself.

I tell dirtman I don’t know what to do, that I need a sign from him, a word, that I’ll do anything he wants if he’ll just help me. His body is heavy beside mine. I wipe tears off my cheeks.

Then I hear a brittle voice coming from his packed dirt flesh, No worry. Due time. We will release.

I start, jerk my head, and bite down too hard on my lip, taste blood on my tongue. I whisper, “Was that you, dirtman?”

No answer. The only sounds are those made by the shovel outside. They continue for a long time. Then there’s a terrible silence, like the quiet that comes when coyotes prowl our field.

The squeal of the screen door and a yell from the back porch, “Lucy Ann, come inside!”

I blow out the lamp quick-like and race in. I can’t wait for Mama to wrap her arms around me, to tell me everything is okay.

When I come in, Daddy’s sitting in his EZ chair. He looks a mess, with dirt all on him. He’s cracked open a beer, takes a long pull on it.

I say, “Where’s Mama?”

“Mama’s not coming back,” Daddy says.

It takes me a minute to realize what he’s said. At first, I think he said she was in back, and I start to run outside to find her. But then it sinks in, what he actually said. A cold feeling comes over me as I watch him in his chair. His face is relaxed, as if he doesn’t have a care in the world. As if he doesn’t give a good god damn about Mama leaving. I feel like a trapdoor spider about to pounce.

I say with gritted teeth, “This is all your fault.” Then I run to him and hit his chest with my fists. I keep hitting him and yelling, “You’re no good! You drink too much, and you made Mama mad by losing your job. Mama only stayed before because she felt sorry for you. You are too damn mean and weak for her. And for me!”

He rears back and hits me across the side of my head.

I wake up on the floor. Daddy isn’t here. My left eye is closed, swollen over, and throbs real bad with pain and heat, but I get up and run as fast as I can outside, into the shed.

It’s so dark that I knock over piles of Daddy’s things, slip and fall as they hit me on my hurting head. Somehow, I make it to the back. There’s no time. I finish dirtman in the dark. My eye hurts and I can’t see, but I make dirtman’s arms and legs with knowledge that’s buried in me, crawling up from the past, from my kin, in times of need. I dump water from a pail, make the damp mud into the shape of big arms and legs. Bigger than Daddy’s. And I push Daddy’s brown belt between dirtman’s body and the floor, cinch it ‘round the middle. It’s the belt Daddy uses on me.

When I finish dirtman, the rains begin. I can hear it run across the land. There’s too much, it’s too fast to let in, this ground is so used to the dry. It’s a stubborn, unloved ground, doesn’t know what to do when it gets what it needs. I go outside and stand in front of the empty dog pen and let it wash over me. I wish there was enough rain to fill this entire basin up, to wash everything clean. But there will never be enough. Still, I wish. I wish as hard as I can, and just then there’s a deafening sound behind me. I clutch my ears and turn. The shed roof is cracked in half, and in the near-dark, I see a shape standing in front of the door. I blink my eyes a few times, then wipe the rain from them, look again, and it’s gone.

A shadow lengthens across the yard from the back door. “Lucy Ann, what the hell you doing out here when I’m yelling for you? You’re deaf as a box of goddamn nails.” I face Daddy. I want to warn him, but I don’t. Dirtman could be anywhere. He could do anything. Daddy grabs me by the neck and slings me to the ground. My face lands in mud water.

“I have told you and told you, time and again, not to be running off without telling me.” He bends down, holds me in the water, and I thrash, try to push his hands off my head. It fills my lungs. I choke, but can’t keep it out. My vision blurs and everything sounds like it’s happening from a great distance, just a low thrumming that I’m experiencing outside of me. I feel light, light enough for my legs to lift off the land, and I see myself and Daddy, from above, pulling away higher. For a second, I revel in this feeling of outsiderness. I forget that I need saving. Then, from above, I see a lurking shadow by the side of the house.

Daddy pulls my head out of the puddle and brings me crashing back into my body. I choke up water, and my lungs burn fierce. Daddy’s face is close to mine. I can smell the beer through my spluttering. He yells in my ear over the rain, “Don’t you ever do that again, Lucy Ann.”

He lets me go, stalks into the trailer, and barks, “Come in. Now.”

Before I go in, I look at the side of the house, but I see nothing. I make sure to open the screen door slow so it won’t squeak. I take a quiet bath, try to calm down. When I’m done, I cry into Mama’s soft blue robe. I rub it on my hair and down my cheek. I pretend Mama is holding me and Daddy is playing the guitar and singing.

Much later, I come out, and Daddy’s in his chair. His eyes are closed. The rain is still pounding with the rhythm of blood in my hurt eye and head.

There is a feeling in me as I look at Daddy in the chair. Like I’m shriveled inside. Like there’s no more good I can do. Nothing I can make myself be or do that isn’t already a part of me.

Right now, I decide. I decide I don’t need Daddy. I don’t need Mama. All I need is myself and my dirtman.

When lightning cracks again, I see him in the window. His beer bottle eyes glisten in the electric light. His canine teeth jut out all crooked. I know a scorpion crawls in his empty spaces and wants what it wants, doesn’t feel bad about it. I know that its stinger is certain.

I’m sorry, Mama. I don’t feel an ocean. Not one drop.

My dirtman is at the screen door now. Something is in his muddy hand.

The door squeals open, then is torn completely off its hinges. I back away, over to Daddy, who’s drunk and passed out in the EZ chair, his cigarette still burning away in the ashtray, an empty bottle of Wild Turkey and a case of crumpled Coors cans littered around him. Daddy, who slapped me so hard once for wandering in the field that I couldn’t hear for two days. Daddy, who blacked my eye when I told him he’s too weak to be with Mama. With me. Daddy, who made Mama leave in the first place.

Daddy, who kills everything.

Peering up at my dirtman towering over us, something thumps from deep in my guts, from as far back as my kin goes. Mama’s words float into my thoughts: I don’t have time for weakness. I only have time for hard work, for myself, for my dirtman.

I just need one last look at Daddy before I do my work.

I go to Daddy, and I lean way down. He’s curled in the chair with smooth, relaxed features, gentle and open. His muscles twitch like my baby niece’s do when she’s asleep. He looks handsome again, like my old Daddy. I lean down until I smell his breath, sweet with whiskey. Until I remember his songs and his smiles and his hand on my cheek. Until I see a fine sweat on his forehead, blood drumming in his neck curve like a trapdoor spider opening its lid. As if the hollow in his neck is this whole depressed desert, and we’re all stuck in it, trying to climb our way out from the danger. Maybe he’s stuck, too. Daddy sighs in his sleep, and it’s about the nicest sound I’ve heard from him in a long time.

Then I hear a low rumble and the words, Must release.

I stand straight and look at my dirtman. His glass eyes blaze. His crazy muck mouth opens wide, the dog teeth like insane fangs pointing every which way, but I know for him, there is only one way. The scorpion burrows in his muddy body, and it is ready. His huge arm reaches out, palm opening to the ceiling, to God above the blinding sun who made us all. Who made us all writhe around in the dirt. My dirtman’s slimy hand opens for me. Grandpa Lee’s hammer is in it.

But I can’t take it. It’s too heavy, and just now, seeing my dirtman, seeing my Daddy, I feel weak.

My dirtman grunts and raises the hammer. On instinct, I shove myself between him and Daddy. I hit his chest with my fists until my arms and face are coated in mud.

“Dirtman, don’t!”

His leaden hand pushes on my shoulder until I have no choice but to lie down, flat to the floor. He kneels over me and gazes, his crazy face, the face I made, alive and electric and wet. The jagged black eyes and crooked-teeth mouth don’t animate at all, as if he’s half dead, but doomed to move by someone else’s want. By my want.

I flinch and jerk my head when he lifts his arm up and brings it down. Then he rubs his heavy hand across my hair and cheek. I feel his slick, thick finger leave a trail as it slides. He hums to me, a rumbling that is deep water churning. I cry, and the tears sear my eyes. I close them and wish that everything was different, that everything was better, that we could all escape, be clean and free. I wish this as hard as I’ve ever wished anything. And I know my dirtman hears my wish.

When I open my eyes, I see the hammer hanging in the air. I shut them again, and wait. For the red to spread under my legs, then back, then head. For my dirtman to make me an ocean.

My Daddy’s ocean, all he had to give, final and glorious. Floating me up forever.

—For my mentor and friend, Pinckney Benedict, and his “Mudman.”

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H.L. Nelson

H. L. NelsonH.L. Nelson (hlnelson.com) is head of Cease, Cows literary magazine, Associate Editor for Queens University of Charlotte’s journal, Qu, and Proofreader for Literary Orphans. Her publications include Writer’s Digest, Lunch Ticket, PANK, Menacing Hedge, Hobart, Connotation Press, plus over 40 others in the last year. H. L.’s poem “Absolution” was nominated for Best of the Net 2013. Her fiction chapbook, The Sea is Only Meat, will be out this year (Sundress Publications). She is busy co-editing an anthology which includes stories by Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, Lindsay Hunter, Mary Miller, and other excellent female writers (Upper Rubber Boot Books, 2015).