Joe R. Lansdale’s EDGE OF DARK WATER is now on its way to bookstores around the country…but we’re so excited to be publishing this amazing book, we’ve decided to share part of it with you now. Read on for more of the novel that had Dan Simmons raving: “the strongest, truest, and most pitch-perfect narration since Huck Finn’s….real genius….a masterpiece.”
Missed the first excerpt? Start reading here.
May Lynn didn’t have a mama anymore, cause her mama had drowned herself in the Sabine River. She had gone down with some laundry to soak, and instead wrapped a shirt around her head and walked in until the water went over her. When she came up, she wasn’t alive anymore, but she still had that shirt around her noggin.
May Lynn’s daddy was someone who only came home when he got tired of being any other place. We didn’t even know if he knew his daughter was missing. May Lynn used to say after her mama drowned herself her daddy was never the same. Said she figured it was because the laundry around her mother’s head had been his favorite snap-pocket shirt. That’s true love for you. Worse, her brother, Jake, who she was close to, was dead as of a short time back, and there wasn’t even a family dog to miss her.
The day after we found her, May Lynn was boxed up in a cheap coffin and buried on a warm morning in the pauper section of the Marvel Creek Cemetery next to a dried patch of weeds with seed ticks clinging to them, and I suspect some chiggers too small to see. Her mother and brother were buried in the same graveyard, but they hadn’t ended up next to one another. Up the hill was where the people with money lay. Down here was the free dirt, and even if you was kin to someone, you got scattered—you went in anyplace where there was room to dig a hole. I’d heard there was many a grave on top of another, for need of space.
There were oaks and elms to shade the rest of the graveyard, but May Lynn’s section was a hot stretch of dirt with a bunch of washed-down mounds, a few with markers. Some of the markers were little sticks. Names had once been written on them, but they had been washed white by the sun and rain.
The constable ruled on matters by saying she had been killed by a person or persons unknown, which was something I could have figured out for him. He said it was most likely a drifter or drifters who had come upon her by the river. I guess they had been carrying a sewing machine under their arm.
He didn’t make any effort to search out her murderer or find out why she was down there. For that matter, there wasn’t even a doctor or nobody that looked at her to be sure exactly how she was killed or if she had been fooled with. Nobody cared but me and Terry and Jinx.
The service was conducted by a local preacher. He said a few words that might have sounded just as insincere if they had they been spoken over the body of a distant cousin’s pet mouse that had died of old age.
When he was through talking, a couple of colored men put the plain box down in the ground using ropes, then started shoveling dirt in the hole. Outside of the colored men, and the preacher and the seed ticks, we had been the only ones at the funeral, if you could call it that.
“You’d think they was just taking out the trash, way that preacher hurried up,” Jinx said, after they left.
“Way they saw it,” I said, “that was exactly what they was doing. Taking out the trash.”
Jinx was my age. She had her hair tied in pigtails that stood out from her head like plaited ropes of wire. She had a sweet face, but her eyes seemed older, like she was someone’s ancient grandma stuffed inside a kid. She wore a dyed blue flour-sack dress that had some of the old print faintly poking through, and she was barefoot. Terry had on some new shoes, and he had gotten from somewhere a man’s black tie. It was tied in a big knot and pulled up tight to his neck, making him look like a bag that had been knotted near the top. He had enough oil in his black hair to grease a truck axle, and it still wasn’t quite enough to hold his wild mane down. His face was dark from the sun, and his blue eyes were shiny as chunks of the sky. None of us was happy with what had happened, but he was taking it especially hard; his eyes were red from crying.
“No one will make a concerted effort to discover what happened to her,” Terry said. “I think a search for the truth is out of the question.”
I loved to hear Terry talk, because he didn’t sound like no one else I knew. He hadn’t dropped out of school like me, as I was having problems with it being so far and no way to get there and I didn’t like it much anyhow. My mother, who was pretty good educated, didn’t like that I had quit, but she didn’t get out of bed to make much of a complaint against it; that might have required her putting on her shoes.
Terry liked school. Even the math part. His mother had been a schoolteacher and gave him extra learning. His father had died when he was young, and as of recent his mother had taken up with and married an oilman named Harold Webber. Terry didn’t get along with him even a little bit. Webber made Terry’s mother quit teaching school to be home with the kids, and then she started a seamstress business, but he made her kill that, too, and toss out all her goods, because he believed a husband took care of his wife and she shouldn’t work, even if she liked the work she did. In the end it was all about the same anyhow, as jobs, especially for women, had become as rare as baptized rattlesnakes.
Since that marriage, Terry had a look in his eye like a rabbit that was about to run fast and far.
Jinx could read and write and cipher some, same as me, but she hadn’t learned it in school. Coloreds didn’t have a school in our parts, and she had been taught by her daddy, who had gone up north to work for a while and learned to read there. He said it was better in the north for coloreds in some ways because people acted like they liked you, even if they didn’t. But he come back because he missed his family and being in the South, since he knew right off who the sons of bitches was; there wasn’t as much guesswork involved in figuring who was who.
But when times got bad, that didn’t keep him from heading north again. He hated to do it, he told Jinx, and meant it, but he had to go up there and make some money and mail it back to her and her mother.
None of us was happy in East Texas. We all wanted out, but seemed stuck to our spots like rooted trees. When I thought about getting out I couldn’t imagine much beyond the wetlands and the woods. Except for Hollywood. I could imagine that on account of May Lynn talking about it all the time. She made it sound pretty good, even though she had never been there. Still, that’s where I wished to be. But as I had learned from Jinx, shit in one hand and wish in the other and see which one fills up first. She said the same thing about prayer, but I had never taken it on myself to test the notion.
We decided to go to May Lynn’s house and see if her daddy was there so we could let him know the bad news, tell him he missed the funeral. Our guess was if he was home, he would know by now, but it was something to do, and to tell it true, if he wasn’t home, we wanted to take a look around. I can’t explain it, but I guess we didn’t want to let go of May Lynn just yet, and going where she lived seemed a way to keep her memory warm.
With her dead, a lot of hopes I had were gone. I always figured May Lynn just might go off to Hollywood and be a movie star, and then she’d come home and take us back with her. I never could figure why she would do that, or what we might do out there, but it beat thinking I was just gonna grow up and marry some fellow with tobacco in his cheek and whiskey on his breath who would beat me at least once a week and maybe make me keep my hair up.
None of this kind of thinking mattered, though, because May Lynn didn’t become a star. Truth was, as of late, we hadn’t known her very well ourselves. By the time she showed up in the water wired to that Singer sewing machine, I reckon I hadn’t seen her for a month. I figured it was similar for Terry and Jinx.
Jinx said she thought May Lynn had come of the age to think hanging with colored kids might not lead to stardom. Jinx said she didn’t hold it against her, but I had doubts about that. Jinx could hold a grudge.
As to what happened to May Lynn, I had ideas about that. Nobody loved a picture show the way she did, and she’d hitch a ride with anyone if they’d get her into town on Saturdays to catch a show. Men were always quick to pick her up. Me, I’d have had to lay down in the middle of the road and play dead to have them stop, and even then they might have run over me, same as they would a dead possum. Could be May Lynn got a ride with the wrong person; an angry Singer sewing machine salesman. It was a stretch, but I figured it was better detective work than Constable Higgins had done.
To get to May Lynn’s house from our side, you either had to walk ten miles up to the bridge and cross over and walk about ten more on the other side along the edge of the river, or you could cross by boat to the far bank and walk right up to her house. It would save you hours.
We used Daddy’s boat, the one with the little hole in the bottom, and while me and Terry rowed, Jinx used a coffee can to bail the water out. After a while, I took a turn and she rowed.
Trees leaned way out over the river and there were long vines and dangles of moss hanging near the surface of the water. There was the usual turtles and water snakes swimming about, long-legged birds diving down to take fish out of the water, and those little bugs that flittered along the water’s surface like dancers.
We had been going along for a ways when Jinx said, “You hear that?”
“Hear what?” Terry said. He was still wearing his knotted tie, but he had slid the knot down so that it was no longer tight against his neck.
“That knocking sound,” Jinx said.
We stopped rowing and listened. I faintly heard it.
“That’s trees striking and rubbing together in the wind,” Terry said. “They’ve grown up too close to one another, and that’s the sound they make. See how brisk the wind is?”
I looked at the trees, and they were blowing right smart. The water was wind–rippled, too.
“It might be the wind doing it,” Jinx said, “but that ain’t trees knocking together. Them’s bones.”
“Bones?” I said.
Jinx pointed toward the riverbank, where briars and brambles twisted tight around the trees. “Somewhere back in the thicket there is where Skunk lives. He hangs out bones on strings, and when the wind blows, they bang together. Human bones. That’s that sound you hear, them bones.”
“There isn’t any Skunk,” Terry said. “That’s an old wives’ tale. Like the goat man that’s supposed to live in the woods. It’s just a tale to scare children.”
Jinx shook her head. “Skunk is real. He’s a big old colored man that’s more red than black, with twisty red hair; he wears it wild, like it’s a bush. They say he keeps a dried-up bluebird hanging in it. He’s got dark eyes as dead and flat as coat buttons. They say he can walk softer than a breeze and can go for days without sleeping. That he can live for weeks sipping water from mud holes and eating roots and such, and that since the only baths he ever had was when he fell in the river, or when he got caught out in the rain, he stinks like a skunk and you can smell him coming a long ways off.”
Terry let out a laugh. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“He’s part Indian—Seminole or Cherokee or something—and that’s why he’s red-touched. He’s a tracker used to live in the Everglades over in Florida. He’s a stone killer. Ain’t nobody bothers Skunk unless they want someone caught, or dead is more likely. He chops off hands and takes them back to prove he’s done the business he was hired to do.”
“Even if there is a fella with a bird in his hair, and his name is Skunk,” I said, “I don’t think that’s bones from his place rattling. Terry’s right; that’s treetops knocking together. I’ve heard that sound before, and not just in this place.”
“Well,” Jinx said, “he moves his place around. And if that is trees, not bones, it don’t mean Skunk ain’t out there. I know people that have seen him. I know one man told me he hired Skunk because his wife run off and he wanted Skunk to find her. He said Skunk must have misunderstood or didn’t care. All he brought back was her hands, chopped off right at the wrist with a hatchet. Old man told me the story said he didn’t ask where the rest of her was, and he paid up, too. What Skunk wanted from him wasn’t money. He wanted all the man’s blankets and the food he canned for the winter, and his biggest, fattest hunting dog. Old man gave it to him, too. Skunk carried that stuff off in a wheelbarrow, the dog tied to a rope, walking alongside him. Old man said Skunk didn’t use no hunting dogs because he was better than any of them. He figured the dog was for dinner.”
“And he’s got a big blue ox named Babe,” Terry said. “And he can rope a tornado and ride it like a horse.”
Jinx was so mad she almost stood up in the boat.
“He ain’t like no Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill,” she said. “You’re making me mad. He ain’t no story. He’s real. And you better watch out for him.”
“It wasn’t my intention to make you angry, Jinx,” Terry said.
“Well, you done made me angry,” Jinx said. “Big angry.”
“Sorry,” Terry said.
“Go on, Jinx,” I said, soothing her ruffled feathers. “Finish telling about him.”
“He don’t talk much, unless it’s to who he’s gonna kill. They say then he can’t talk, just makes funny sounds. I know cause Daddy told me he knew a fella had got away from Skunk, just by accident. That Skunk had been hired to get him, found him, tied him to a tree, and was gonna cut his throat and chop off his hands. The tree this fella was tied to was up against the bank next to the river. It was an old tree, and though this fella wasn’t thinking about it on purpose, he was pushing with his feet to get away from Skunk. The tree was more rotten than it looked, because there was ants at the base, and they had gnawed it up. This fella told Daddy he could feel them ants on him, biting, but he didn’t hate them none, because they had made that old tree rotten, and with him pushing with his feet, pressing his back into the trunk, it broke off. He went backward into the water. When he hit, the log floated, spinning him around and around, him snapping breaths every time he was on top of the river. Finally the log come apart altogether, and that loosened the ropes and he swam out to a sandbar and rested, and then he swam across to the other side. Course, none of it done him any good. Daddy said that later, after he told him about it, he wasn’t seen no more. Daddy said it was because he didn’t have sense enough to go up north or out west, but had stuck around. He figured Skunk finally got him. Skunk ain’t no quitter, though he can wander off from a trail for a while if he gets bored. He gets interested again, he comes back. He always comes back, and there ain’t no end to it until he’s got whoever he’s after.”
“Why was Skunk supposed to be after this man?” Terry asked.
“I don’t know,” Jinx said. “Someone hired Skunk to get him, and Skunk got him. Reckon he chopped off his hands and gave them to whoever hired him, or maybe he kept them himself. I don’t know. As for what was left of the fella, I bet he rotted away in the woods somewhere, never to be seen again.”
The boat was drifting lazily toward the bank. We started paddling again.
“He’s in them woods,” Jinx said, not through with her Skunk business. “In the dark shadows. He don’t do nothing but wait till someone wants to hire him. He’s out there somewhere, in his tent made of skins, all them bones hanging around it, rattling in the breeze. He wraps all those bones in that tent and straps it to his back and moves about, sets up camp again. He’s waiting till someone wants him. They got to talk to one of his cousins to go up in there and find him, because he won’t let no one else come close, and they say even his cousins are afraid of him.”
“How did he get the way he is?” I asked her.
“They say his mama couldn’t stand him no more cause he was crazy, and so when he was ten, for his birthday, she took him out in the river and threw him out of the boat and hit him in the head with a paddle. He didn’t die. He just got knocked out good and floated up on shore. He took to living ’long the riverbank, and in the woods. Later, his mama was found with her hands chopped off and her head had been stove in with a boat paddle.”
“How perfect,” Terry said, and he laughed.
“You laugh, you want,” Jinx said. “But you better believe it. Skunk’s out there. And you run up on him, it’s the last running you gonna do.”