Joe R. Lansdale’s EDGE OF DARK WATER will be in bookstores later this month…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 one of the best first sentences you’ll ever read, the beginning of the novel that had Dan Simmons raving: “the strongest, truest, and most pitch-perfect narration since Huck Finn’s….real genius….a masterpiece.”
Of Ash and Dreams
That summer, Daddy went from telephoning and dynamiting fish to poisoning them with green walnuts. The dynamite was messy, and a couple years before he’d somehow got two fingers blown off, and the side of his face had a burn spot that at first glance looked like a lipstick kiss and at second glance looked like some kind of rash.
Telephoning for fish worked all right, though not as good as dynamite, but Daddy didn’t like cranking that telephone to hot up the wire that went into the water to ’lectrocute the fish. He said he was always afraid one of the little colored boys that lived up from us might be out there swimming and get a dose of ’lectricity that would kill him deader than a cypress stump, or at best do something to his brain and make him retarded as his cousin Ronnie, who didn’t have enough sense to get in out of the rain and might hesitate in a hailstorm.
My grandma, the nasty old bag, who, fortunately, is dead now, claimed Daddy has what she called the Sight. She said he was gifted and could see the future some. I reckon if that was so, he’d have thought ahead enough not to get drunk when he was handling explosives and got his fingers blown off.
And I hadn’t ever seen that much sympathy from him concerning colored folk, so I didn’t buy his excuse for not cranking the phone. He didn’t like my friend Jinx Smith, who was colored, and he tried to make out we was better than her and her family, even though they had a small but clean house, and we had a large dirty house with a sagging porch and the chimney propped up on one side with a two-by-four and there were a couple of hogs wallowing out holes in the yard. As for his cousin Ronnie, I don’t think Daddy cared for him one way or the other, and often made fun of him and imitated him by pretending to bang into walls and slobber about. Of course, when he was good and drunk, this wasn’t an imitation, just a similarity.
Then again, maybe Daddy could see the future, but was just too stupid to do anything about it.
Anyway, Daddy had these tow sacks—about ten of them—and he and Uncle Gene had them full of green walnuts and some rocks to heavy them up, and they had them fastened on ropes and thrown out in the water, the ropes tied off to roots and trees on the shore.
Me and my friend Terry Thomas had gone down there to watch and help, because we didn’t have nothing else we wanted to do. Terry didn’t want to go when I told him what I wanted to do and where we were going and that I wanted him there with me, but he broke down finally and went and helped me toss bags and pull up fish. He was real nervous about the whole thing because he didn’t like either my daddy or my uncle. I didn’t like them, either, but I liked being outside and doing things that men do, though I think I would have been more happy with a line and a hook than bags of walnut poison. Still, I liked the river and the outdoors better than I liked being at the house with a mop in my hand.
My grandma on Daddy’s side always said I didn’t act like a girl at all, and I ought to stay home learning how to keep a garden and shell peas and do women’s work. Grandma would lean forward in her rocker, look at me with no love in her gooey eyes, and say, “Sue Ellen, how you gonna get a husband you can’t cook or clean worth a flip and don’t never do your hair up?”
Course, she wasn’t being fair. I’d already been doing woman’s work for long as I could remember. I just wasn’t no good at it. And if you’ve ever done any of it, you know it ain’t any fun at all. I liked doing what the boys and men did. What my daddy did. Which, when you got right down to it, didn’t seem like all that much, just fishing and trapping for skins to sell, shooting squirrels out of trees, and bragging about it like he’d done killed tigers. Most of that bragging took place after he got liquored up good. I’d had me a taste of liquor once, and I didn’t like it. I can say the same for chewing tobacco and cigarettes and anything that’s got lettuce in it.
As for putting my hair up, she was really talking about certain religious ways, and I couldn’t figure that God, with all he had to worry about, would be all that concerned with hairdos.
This day I’m telling you about, Daddy and Uncle Gene was drinking a little and tossing those sacks, and the water was turning dark brown where the walnuts went in. After a while, sure enough, a bunch of brim and sun perch come floating belly up.
Me and Terry stood on the shore and watched while Daddy and Uncle Gene got in the rowboat and pushed off and went out there with nets and gathered them fish like pecans that had fell on the ground. There was so many I knew we’d be eating fried fish not only tonight, but tomorrow night, and after that we’d be eating dried fish, which is another thing I forgot to put on my list of stuff I don’t like. Jinx says dried fish tastes like stained shorts smell, and she won’t get an argument from me. If they were smoked proper, that was all right, but dried fish are a lot like trying to chew on a dead dog’s tit.
Walnuts didn’t really poison the fish to death, but it stunned them up a mite and made them float to the surface, white bellies showing, working their gills. Daddy and Gene gathered them up with nets on a stick and put them in a wet tow sack for gutting and cleaning.
The sacks was tied to the shore with ropes, and me and Terry went down there to start pulling them in. The walnuts still had enough green in them they could be used downriver to stun more fish, so we was supposed to save them. We got hold of a rope and started pulling, but it was real heavy and we couldn’t do it.
“We’ll be there d’rectly to help out,” Daddy called from the boat.
“I think we should cut this one loose,” Terry said to me. “No use straining our guts out.”
“I don’t quit that easy,” I said, and looked up to see what was going on with the boat. It had a hole in the bottom, so Daddy and Uncle Gene couldn’t stay out long. Uncle Gene had to bail it out with a coffee can while Daddy paddled the boat back to the bank. When they had it pulled out of the water, they came over to help us.
“Damn,” Daddy said, “either them walnuts has got heavy as a Ford or I’ve gotten weak.”
“You’ve gotten weak,” Uncle Gene said. “You ain’t the man you once was. You ain’t the strapping example of prime manhood I am.”
Daddy grinned at him. “Hell, you’re older than me.”
“Yeah,” said Uncle Gene, “but I’ve took care of myself.”
Daddy let out with a hooting sound, said, “Ha!”
Uncle Gene was fat as a hog, but without the personality. Still, he was a big man in height and had broad shoulders and arms about the size of a horse’s neck. Daddy didn’t even look kin to him. He was a skinny peckerwood with a potbelly, and if you ever saw him without a cap it was cause it had rotted off his head. He and Uncle Gene had about eighteen teeth between them, and Daddy had most of them. Mama said it was because they didn’t brush their teeth enough and they chewed tobacco. There were times when I looked at their sunken faces and was reminded of an old pumpkin rotting in the field. I know it’s a sad thing to be so repulsed by your own kin, but there you have it, straight out and in the open.
We all pulled on the rope, and finally, just about the time I thought I was going to strain my guts out, up come that bag. Only it wasn’t just the bag. There was something caught up in it, all swole up and white, and dangling long strands of wet grass.
“Now, wait a minute here,” Daddy said, and kept pulling.
Then I seen it wasn’t grass at all. It was hair. And under that hair was a face big around as the moon and white as a sheet and puffy-looking as a feather pillow. I didn’t know who it was right off, till I seen the dress. It was the only dress I’d ever seen May Lynn Baxter wear. A dress spotted with blue flowers and so faded you could barely tell what color the flowers had been in the first place, and it had gone a might short on her as she had grown tall.
Only time I’d seen her not wearing it that I could remember was when me and her and Terry and Jinx slipped out one night and went to the swimming hole for a dip. I had thought she was so pretty there in the moonlight. Not a stitch on, well formed, with moon-blond hair to her waist, and that dress hanging on a limb next to the river. She moved like she was hearing music we couldn’t. I knew then she was gonna be the kind of girl that made single men turn their heads and take a deep breath and married men wish their wives would catch on fire. Fact was, she already was that kind of girl.
Terry didn’t pay her no mind, and I think it’s because he might be a sissy. There’s a rumor he is, and part of the rumor has to do with a boy from the far end of the river that come up one summer to visit relatives. I don’t know if it’s true, but I don’t care one way or the other. I’ve known Terry since we was babies, and from what I’ve seen of man-and-woman love, it mostly has to do with Daddy lying around and not doing much, getting drunk, and hitting Mama in the eye. One time, after he’d beat her up pretty good and went out fishing, a rainstorm come up, and I lay on my bed hoping a bolt of lightning would shoot out of the sky and hit him in the top of the head, knock them few teeth out of his skull and kill him, leaving nothing behind but his cap. I know that’s mean, but that’s how I was thinking.
I didn’t like that Mama thought she deserved that ass-whipping. She thought a man was the one ran things and had the say. She said it was in the Bible. That put me off reading it right away.
So there lay May Lynn, partway on the shore, that dress having grown smaller on her over the years, and smaller yet on account of how she had puffed up.
“Her eyes is swole shut,” Uncle Gene said. “She’s been in the water a bit.”
“It don’t take no time at all to look like that,” Daddy said. “You get drowned and don’t float up overnight, that’s how you get.”
All of a sudden May Lynn started to flutter and leak. Gas coming out of her, and it smelled real bad, like a giant fart. Her hands was tied behind her, twisted up in rusty wire, and so were her feet, which was pulled up to meet her hands. Her skin had swelled around the wire—the wire that had gotten tangled up in our bag.
When we pulled her completely up and laid her out, we seen there was a Singer sewing machine fastened around her feet with more wire, several pieces of it twisted together to make it strong. The wire had gone deep into her wet flesh, all the way to the bone. The weight of that Singer was why all four of us was needed to pull her up.
“Ain’t that May Lynn Baxter?” Daddy said.
He had just figured who it was, his ability to see into the future dragging its feet until the future had arrived. He turned to me for an answer.
I could hardly get the words out of my mouth. “I reckon that’s her.”
“She was only a girl,” Terry said. “She was our age.”
“Age ain’t got nothing to do with living or dying,” Uncle Gene said. “But no doubt about it, she’s twisted her hips for the last time.”
“I reckon we ought to do something,” Daddy said.
“I think we ought to cut our rope free and push her back in,” Uncle Gene said. “She ain’t gonna get no deader if she ain’t found, and her daddy won’t have to know she’s dead. He can think she run off to Hollywood or something. Wasn’t that what she was always saying she was gonna do? I mean, it’s like a dog dies and you don’t tell the kid, and they think the dog is living with someone else, or something like that.”
“She doesn’t have any real family,” Terry said, not looking at her, but looking out at the river. “We were her only friends, me and Sue Ellen and Jinx. She isn’t a dog.”
Daddy and Uncle Gene didn’t look at him. It was like he hadn’t said a thing.
“We could do that,” Daddy said. “We could push her back. She wasn’t known to be of much account anyhow. And they’re right. She ain’t got no real family, with her mama and brother dead, and her daddy in love with the bottle. It wouldn’t do no harm to just let her sink. Hell, he didn’t miss her much when she was alive, and with her dead, he still won’t miss her.”
“You ain’t pushing her back,” I said.
Daddy took note of that. He turned and looked at me. “Who you talking to, little girl? You ain’t talking to your elders like that, are you?”
I knew it might mean I was going to get a thrashing, but I stood by my guns.
“You ain’t pushing her back in.”
“She was our friend,” Terry said, and I saw tears in his eyes.
Daddy reached out and slapped me on top of the head with the palm of his hand. It hurt. It made me a little dizzy.
“I’ll make the decisions around here,” Daddy said, and leaned his face close to me. I could smell the tobacco and onions on his breath.
“You didn’t have any reason to strike her,” Terry said.
Daddy glared at Terry. “Don’t be talking above your raising.”
“You aren’t my daddy,” Terry said, stepping out of range, “and if you push May Lynn back in the water, I’ll tell about it.”
Daddy studied Terry for a moment. Probably judging distance, wondering how fast he could reach him. It would have required too much work, I reckon, because the tension drained out of him. Daddy Don Wilson wasn’t one for expending energy if he didn’t have to, and sometimes even if he had to.
Daddy twisted his withered mouth a little, said, “We was just funning. We ain’t going put her back, are we, Gene?”
Uncle Gene looked Terry over, then me.
“I suppose not,” he said, but the words sounded to me as if they had been burned real good and were mostly charred.
Daddy sent Terry into town to get the constable, but didn’t let him take the truck. He made him walk. It would have been easy enough to have loaded the body in the back of the truck and driven us all into town, but that would have been too damn convenient, and that wasn’t Daddy’s way. And he didn’t like Terry on account of he figured he wasn’t the way he thought a man ought to be. Uncle Gene had a truck, too, but he didn’t offer it, either. I think he just didn’t want a dead gal in the back of it.
I sat on the shore and looked at May Lynn’s body. It was gathering flies and starting to smell and all I could think of was how she was always clean and pretty, and this wasn’t a thing that should have happened to her. It wasn’t like in the books I had read, and the times I had been to the picture show and people died. They always looked pretty much like they were when they were alive, except sleepy. I saw now that’s not how things were. It wasn’t any different for a dead person than a shot-dead squirrel or a hog with a cut throat hanging over the scalding pot.
Shadows came tumbling through the trees and over the water and you could see a bit of the moon shining on the river; it looked like a huge face floating up from the bottom. The crickets had started to saw at their legs pretty seriously, and there was a louder gathering of frogs that came with the dark. If I hadn’t been staring mostly at a dead body, it would have been kind of pleasant. As it was, I felt numb, the way your arm will get if you sleep on it, but I felt like that all over.
Daddy built a fire a ways from the body to sit by while we waited on Terry and the law, and Uncle Gene gathered up the fish and carried them up to his truck. He took them to be split up with us, and to take the rest over to his house and his wife. Since he and Daddy had gone to pulling at a jug before he left, he was lit up good, and I figured if he didn’t wrap the pickup around a tree in the dark, when he got home he’d make his wife, Evy, clean the fish, and then he’d give her a beating. Uncle Gene said he liked to give her one a day when he could, and one a week when he was busy, just to let her know her place. He had even offered to give me one a couple of times, and Daddy thought it might be a good idea. But either Mama was there stop it, and ended up getting beat on by Daddy instead of him beating on me, or he eventually played out on the idea because it got in the way of his drinking.
Anyway, Uncle Gene decided it was best to go home, and left Daddy to his business.
Daddy tried to get me to come over and sit by him near the fire, but I stayed where I was. In dark places he liked to touch, and it made me feel strange and uncomfortable. He said it was a thing fathers did with daughters. Jinx told me that wasn’t true, but I didn’t need her to explain it to me, because I could tell inside of me it wasn’t good. I sat away from the fire, and though it was a warm enough night, the fire did look inviting. But all I could think about was how Daddy was. How his breath smelled of whiskey and tobacco most of the time. How when he was really drunk, the whites of his eyes would roll up from the bottom like a frightened horse. How if he tried to touch me he’d start breathing faster, so I just kept my place in the shadows, even when the mosquitoes started to show up.
“You and that sissy boy going to stir things up don’t need stirring,” Daddy said. “We’d pushed her back in the water, we’d be home by now. Most things you decide to deal with you could skip.”
I didn’t say anything to that.
“We should have kept a fish or two to fry on the fire,” he said, like maybe it was my fault Uncle Gene had packed them all up and toted them off. There were still a few that had washed up to the bank, but he wasn’t willing to leave the fire and go get one to clean and cook. And I wasn’t about to do it. All I could do was think about May Lynn and feel sick, and I had to keep my eye on Daddy cause the drunker he got the bolder he got, and the harder he talked. You never knew when he might do something stupid or scary. That’s how he was. He could be laughing and having a good time, and the next thing you knew he’d pull a pocketknife and threaten to cut you. He didn’t look like much, but he was a known hothead and knife fighter, and was supposed to be good with his fist, and not just when he was hitting women and children. He was also known to tire out quick and start looking for a place to nest.
“You think you got it hard, don’t you, baby girl?”
“Hard enough,” I said.
“I tell you what hard is, that’s when your own father sets you out the door and locks it and won’t let you come back for a night or two. And when he does, it’s just because cows needed milking and eggs needed gathering, and he wanted someone to hit.”
“Well, now,” I said. “The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, did it?”
“You ain’t never milked a cow in your life,” he said.
“We ain’t never had one.”
“I’m going to get one, and when I do, you’ll milk it. You’ll do same as I did.”
“It’s a thing to look forward to,” I said, and then I shut up. The way he twisted his head and turned the jug of hooch in his hand told me it was time to be quiet. Next thing I knew that jug would be flying through the air, and he’d be on me, his fist swinging. I just sat there and kept watch and let him suck his liquor.
The moon was high and the night was settled in heavy as stone by the time we seen a light coming over the hill on the trail that split down between the thick woods that led to the river. Along with the light came the rumble of a truck, the crackling of tires over a pocked road, and the swish of close-hanging limbs dragging alongside of it.
When the truck was down the hill and still a good ways from the water, it stopped, and I could hear Constable Sy Higgins pulling on the parking brake. He left the motor running and the lights on. He got out of the truck like a man climbing down from a tall tree with a fear he might fall. Terry got out of the other door and came down quickly. When he was close to me, he said so no one else could hear, “He’s drunk. I had to get him out of bed, and he didn’t want to come. He said it wouldn’t have hurt to just push her back in the water.”
“That’s the law for you,” I said. “Now if we could get the clergy here and the mayor, we’d have the perfect pile to smell.”
Constable Sy sauntered down the hill with a flashlight shining in front of him, even though the headlights on the truck were bright enough to see how to thread a needle. He made toward the fire, his belly bouncing before him like a dog leaping up to greet him. Daddy got to his feet, staggering a little. They were drunks together.
“Where is she?” Higgins said, pushing his fedora up on his head. When he did, I could see his hard face and the patch over his eye. Way the shadows fell, it made that eye look like a black tunnel. Rumor was he’d had it scratched out by a black woman he raped. The holster that held his gun was said to be made out of an Indian’s hide, and had been passed on to him by Indian-fighter relatives. It was probably just a story.
Constable Sy hadn’t even bothered to look around and find May Lynn. It wasn’t like she was hidden in the woods under a tarpaulin. All you needed was one good eye to find her. A blind man would have noticed her right off.
Daddy led him over to the body while me and Terry watched. Constable Sy shined the light around on her and the sewing machine lying nearby. He said, “She’s squatted to pee for the last time, but I think maybe the sewing machine can be salvaged.”
Daddy and Constable Sy snickered together.
“Wasn’t nothing wrong with her,” I said. “She’s the one murdered. She’s the one that’s had something done to her. There ain’t a thing funny about it.”
The constable shined his flashlight on my face. “Girl, you ought to know children ain’t supposed to speak unless spoken to.”
“That’s what I tell her,” Daddy said.
“I ain’t a child,” I said, dipping my head and squinting my eyes against the light. “I’m sixteen.”
“Yeah, well,” the constable said, moving the light from my head to my toes. “I can see you ain’t as much a kid as I remember.”
I don’t know how to explain it, but that light running up and down me wasn’t any different than a hot yellow tongue; it made me feel kind of sick.
“Why don’t you and your girlfriend there go sit down out of the way?” Daddy said.
That made Constable Sy snicker, and Daddy liked that. I could tell the way he stood a little straighter and his chest went out. There wasn’t nothing made him feel better than belittling somebody, unless it was hitting somebody upside the head that didn’t expect it.
Terry sighed, and me and him went over and sat down on the ground by the fire. Constable Sy went to his truck and got an old blanket out of the bed, and then he and Daddy, using the toes of their boots, sort of kicked poor May Lynn onto it, wrapped her up, carried her, and put her in the constable’s truck bed. When they dropped her back there, it sounded like someone tossing a big dead fish on a smooth flat rock.
“You could have done this yourself,” Constable Sy said. “You could have brung her in and we could have looked at her in the morning.”
“I’d rather your truck stank than mine,” Daddy said.