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The Wettest County in the World: A Novel Based on a True Storyby Matt Bondurant
The brindled sow stood in the corner, glowering at the boy. Jack Bondurant hefted a bolt-action .22 rifle with a deep blue octagon barrel, the stock chewed and splintered from brush and river-stone. He chambered a round, walked over to the sow and put the end of the barrel about a foot from a pink eye and squeezed the trigger. Across the yard his father and brother were tamping damp earth in the tobacco pit under the barn.
There was a crack and a slanting spray of blood and the great bulk of the sow shivered, the rifle falling into the muck, Jack leaping over the rails of the pen as the sow charged, a smear of blood on her forehead and a patch of glistening bone. The sow trotted around the pen, then backed into the corner. Jack retrieved his rifle through the boards, scrubbing off the muck with his shirtsleeve. He spat and worked the bolt action and reentered the pen and kneeling down in front of the sow, sighted the barrel down the length of her snout. He hooked the trigger again, crack, and the sow reared up slightly on its stubby back legs. On her forehead there was another slice of chipped bone, the blood spreading darkly into the pink eye. The shoats in the next pen set up a braying squeal and horned their snouts between the boards, ears flattened. Jack chambered another round, placed the barrel against the sow's head and fired. The bullet burrowed under the skin of her skull like a tunneling rodent, pulling back rippled folds over her eye. Jack squatted, watching the old sow pick herself up and circle on unsteady legs. He gripped the hacked stock of the rifle and rocked slowly on his heels, his feet burning in his boots. He squeezed his eyes and stifled a sob that erupted from his stomach.
When Jack looked up his older brother Forrest was there in the pen. A lean teenager with a permanent smirk, his blond hair dusted with red dirt from the tobacco pit, Forrest straddled the sow and sat down on her back, pulling her snout high with his forearm. As the sow's back arched the white folded flesh of her neck stretched tight. Reaching around with the other hand Forrest brought a long boning knife across her throat in a short rip of skin and metal. The blood came in a hot gush on the muddy straw and the sow's whine bubbled, the jet of lung air spraying from the open neck. Her body quivered and then went limp in Forrest's hands, tiny front legs dangling, body bent like a dead fish.
The next moment their father was there with the heavy chain and they used the tackle to hoist the carcass up to drain, Jack's father setting a metal bucket under the swaying body. Hot blood smoked in the calcified winter air. Jack crouched on the ground like a muddy toad, cradling the rifle and watching the stream of crimson like liquid fire. He was eight years old.
That next summer the Spanish Lady Flu epidemic swept through the southeastern states, finding its way into the deepest hollows and mountain ridges of Franklin County. The county went into self-imposed quarantine. Generations of families had known the ancient periodical ravages of sweeping illness like diphtheria, influenza, smallpox, and the certain knowledge of death's deliberate visitation ground all activity to a standstill as families huddled together in their homes. Jack's father, Granville Bondurant, closed up his vacant general store, itinerant mendicants and blasted road-men his only occasional customers. Families relied on the saved stores of food stockpiled in root cellars, cool springhouses. The Brodies who lived across the broad hill stopped coming down the dirt road by the house, as did the Deshazos, a black family that lived a half mile off. The pews of Snow Creek Baptist Church stood cockeyed empty and hooded crows roosted in the crude lectern.
The Bondurant family was prepared with plenty of dry goods from the store and Jack's mother had enough canned vegetables and meat to last them through the fall and winter. The family stayed close to the farm. It was a glorious time for Jack because it meant his older sisters Belva May and Era and his brother Forrest were around all the time, hanging about the house in the mornings, spending the long afternoon and evening in the family room by the stove. In those days Jack's father was what men called a cut-up, a man who grinned brightly through his thick beard in the evenings when his children rode his bouncing knee like a bucking horse or when he stood by the hot stove with other men at the store, quick with a wisecrack, his short white apron clean and starched. He didn't drink liquor, went to church regular, and still laughed a dozen times a day.
Forrest had a secondhand bicycle and in the afternoons Jack chased his brother down the wide field in front of the house, along the crumbling banks of the creek, laughing in the golden afternoons, the fields of purple clover at sunset, a haze of velvet across the rolling hills. After dinner his sisters clustered on the coarse rug in front of the stove, knitting and talking, Belva May and Era tying Jack's hands and feet with yarn, conspiring as Jack struggled, the girls laughing and speaking their own private language. His younger sister Emmy, the closest to his own age, clung to their mother, shadowing her through the kitchen and sitting in her lap in the rocker by the window. Emmy had an innocent air, naïve and quick to bawl, and so Jack was often left to entertain himself alone in the barns, long fields, wooded stretches, and the muddy branch of Snow Creek that ran through his parents' farm. In the evening his father Granville grinning through his beard, feet on the stove, their mother rocking by the window endlessly smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, blowing long plumes of smoke and watching the road for the rare traveler and for her oldest son, Howard, who was due to return from the war in Europe.
Jack's oldest brother Howard spent most of 1919 on an army troop ship, first crossing the Atlantic from England and then anchored in Norfolk harbor in quarantine. Influenza was rampant on the ship, nearly half the men consumed with it on the voyage across, the deck littered with gaunt men in stretchers hacking and moaning into the scraps of cloth laid over their faces. At night Howard slept on a high stack of onion crates in an attempt to get space on the crowded ship and away from the red-eyed coughing devils, weary officers wading through the crowds with flailing canes, the reeling sick that clung to the rails. As he tried to sleep, struggling through the massive stink of onions, Howard tried to think of the hills and valleys of home, the smell of deep clay, the foaming loam of a freshly plowed field, the hollyhocks and honeysuckle along Snow Creek. But in his dreams the black sickness spread through his body and across the water and across the hills and into everyone he knew, and when he opened his eyes in the morning there was the horror of men dying in their own filth.
A third of the men in his company died in the six weeks they sat floating there in the harbor in a line with dozens of other ships. Every night the harbor blazed with the ghostly fires made of the clothing and belongings of the deceased.
When finally released Howard wandered through the city like a blind man. He quickly got blistering drunk on rotgut liquor and the next morning burned his service uniform and papers in a trash-strewn lot behind a boardinghouse.
A few days later Howard came off the train in Roanoke like a specter, the flesh curved into the hollows of bone. Howard was a giant man, broadly built and more than six and a half feet tall and his massive frame was wrapped tight like a ghoulish nightbreed. Granville came by the depot to pick him up in early November, the first frost wilting the creeper along the roadside and Howard never spoke of what happened to him in France or aboard the ship, and no one ever asked. For Jack, his oldest brother Howard was a stranger, just some older boy he happened to be related to, a bulky shape he remembered from early mornings as a young child, now a man stomping through the house, an angular shadow that crouched at the table and quietly inhaled his food. Howard kept away from the house most of the time, staying out through the night, and when he returned he reeked of corn liquor and collapsed into his bed like a dead man.
One night in December, toward the end of the epidemic, George Brodie hammered on the Bondurants' front door in the middle of the night. Jack was tucked under his heavy quilt, swaying lightly on the rope bed he shared with Forrest, and when the noise started his brother shot up and was out the bedroom door before Jack pried his eyes open. Brodie kept pounding away on the door until Granville jerked it open and Jack heard his father curse Goddammit, Brodie! Jack slipped out of the warm bed, the air sharp with cold, and stepping into the hall he saw George Brodie on his knees, the moonlight shining over his shaking shoulders, hands covering his face.
Jack had never seen a grown man cry before, and for a moment it struck his sleep-addled mind that Brodie was sleepwalking like Forrest sometimes did. The Brodies lived a mile away if you came through the narrow wood trail, more than three if you took the road. Had Brodie gone mad? Brodie raised his head and said something Jack couldn't make out, but he saw the tear streaks on the man's dirty face; he heard the crack in his voice that was unmistakable to a child. Granville turned and said something to Forrest and Jack watched his brother turn and come back down the hall, shirtless, his skin milky in the hazy light. Forrest shoved Jack inside and told him to go back to bed and shut the door.
For the next few minutes there was a hurried discussion in the front room. Jack heard his mother in the kitchen, the bitter scent of brewing chicory coffee. He lay there, staring into the dark, listening as hard as he could. Then Forrest saying something and his mother's voice raising a bit, an edge to it: I won't have it, Gran, I won't have it. The sound of his sister Era crying out. The sound of more weeping that made Jack shudder in the swinging bed. The front door shut, the gleam of an oil lamp under the door winked out, and footsteps padded down the hall. Then silence.
Jack lay there for nearly an hour before he understood that Forrest wasn't coming back, that Brodie had borne him off into the night and his parents had let him do it, and he gripped his blankets and grimly fought tears until morning.
Granville and Forrest returned late the next afternoon. Jack rushed the door as they walked up the slope but his mother swept him back with her arm. She had set out a supper on a small end table out by the toolshed, chicken, biscuits, and greens covered with cloth napkins, a pitcher of water, along with buckets of water, towels, and soap. Jack watched from the window as Granville and Forrest ate their supper out in the cold, their breath steaming in the yard. After they ate they built a large fire and filled the hog-scalding trough with water and began to strip down. His mother kept his sisters in their room but let Jack stand there as his father and brother washed themselves with the hot water, dumping buckets of it over their heads, pouring it over their reddening skin. Jack was astonished at his father's hairy body, a large swatch covering his chest, the thickness of his middle, his narrow legs and knobby knees, how he tottered when he walked. His face was set like granite as he tossed their clothes into the fire. Next to his father, Forrest looked small and frail, hugging himself against the cold, but he turned and spying Jack gave him a grin that lit the young boy's heart on fire.
They toweled off, wrapped in blankets and sat by the fire, Forrest every once in a while glancing toward the house where Jack and his mother stood in the window. The afternoon began to fade into evening, sparks from the fire swirling in the wind. Jack's mother tensed up, raising her shoulders and rapped sharply on the window with her knuckles. His mother and father exchanged a long look from across the yard and Jack knew that some essential transaction was occurring. She nodded imperceptibly and Granville got up and came toward the house, Forrest following. His mother fumbled with the door, ran across the porch, and threw herself onto Granville, clutching at his back with both hands as the blanket slipped from his shoulders. Granville put his arms around her and rested his cheek on the top of her head, his beard frosted with breath.
Forrest walked by his clinched parents and stepping up on the porch, gave Jack a grin and a solid punch in the chest before striding back into the bedroom with the blankets trailing behind him, his pink shoulders shining.
That night when they lay in bed Jack asked him what had happened but Forrest said Jack was too young and that he'd tell him later when he was older. Jack persisted and Forrest told him that George Brodie panicked when his youngest daughter began to convulse in her bed, her pillow a smear of bloody spew. His wife was already comatose and near death. Granville said he would come, and would bring his oldest daughter Belva May to help. Jack's mother protested. Era was inconsolable; she threw herself around her sister's neck. Granville was going to insist until Forrest spoke up, sayingthat he would go instead of Belva May, and with the smoky oil lantern in hand the two men and the boy walked back through the woods and over the ridge to the farm, where Brodie's family lay dying.
Then Jack asked if Forrest had the Spanish Lady Flu and Forrest chuckled and said nothing.
Are we going to get sick too? Jack asked. Are we going to die?
Forrest was quiet for a moment before turning to Jack in the dark. The windows were tacked over with quilts for the cold and there was no light but Jack could tell he was looking at him.
You think anything can kill the old man? Forrest said.
Of course not, Jack thought, but didn't say anything. Their father? The world would stop turning first. He blinked in the darkness. Forrest's eyes glimmered like fading coals.
That's right, Forrest said, as if he heard his thoughts.
Nothing can kill us, Forrest said. We'll never die.
The next morning Howard returned to the house, rumpled and surly. He had spent the night sprawled under a pile of burlap sacks behind a filling station in Boone's Mill, sleeping off a half liter of white mule. He gulped a cold breakfast of biscuits and ham on the front porch, wiping his hands on his greasy overalls, Jack sitting quietly beside him, drinking in the sour smell of his older brother. Howard stood and gave Jack a good pop on the back of the neck before lumbering off to the barn to help Granville with feeding.
A few days later Jack's mother, Forrest, Belva May, and Era were all stricken with the flu. The following days passed quickly. Jack felt like he was still in the twilight between sleep and wakefulness. Emmy knelt by the water pump, wringing the laundry between her red fingers as she rocked back and forth. Granville stood quietly for hours in the dim hallway like a ghost. Howard sitting awkwardly on the front step, long legs angled in front of him, hat in his hands, his slablike face blank.
On the morning his mother died, Jack stood by his father's chair and Granville put his hand on his son's shoulder as he gazed out the window toward the long road. Howard leaned against the stove, arms crossed over his broad chest, frowning at the floor.
Oh boys, Granville said. It's all gone.
Howard raised his head and stared at his father.
All the goodness has gone out of the world, Granville said.
There were tears on his father's face and Jack's heart squeezed like a fist. Though he tried hard not to, he broke down and sobbed on his father's shoulder.
Jack's mother died first, then a day later Belva May, followed immediately by Era. Forrest lay in bed like a stone for a week, his face impassive and leaden, refusing to eat anything. His skin puckered and turned an impossible shade of blue for a few days, soft and hazy like a robin's egg. Then one morning he rose from his bed. Afterward Forrest always retained the knobby aspect of illness, and in certain types of light his skin still had a blue cast to it. When he emerged after that week, his body gaunt and wasted, his eyes sunken, to join Granville, Emmy, Howard, and Jack at the breakfast table, it was as if his strength had withered and focused itself like a leather strap. Jack remembers taking a biscuit from the plate, his shaking hand.
His mother and sisters laid out on the floor, covered with a quilt.
Nobody said anything.
Copyright © 2008 by Matt Bondurant
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