- Them Captives, Them Heartbroke
Sometimes one of us would drag a foot over a submerged tree limb, and the rest of us would stop in our tracks, thinking it was a dead man. Deacon Hyatt would break from his place in the human chain of church-clothed men and then down the line of interlocked arms, tromping the water until he got to whichever of us who'd hollered out. He'd first look the man in the eye—you don't want to be that poor bastard who finds him—and then reach his hands slowly into the murk, his fingers crawling down whoever's leg, feeling for the hardness at the bottom of the pond. If he found only a rock or a tree branch, he'd pry it free, lift it dripping wet over his head, and shout to everybody, "Ain't nothing but a branch. Gotta keep going."
When he'd taken his place back in line, we'd push onward, our slacks rolled to the knees, though the water in most places was high enough to make green rings on our white shirts. The pond, Mr. Garret's, stretched over a hundred yards, but we were determined to cover every inch of muddy floor and whatever miles that lay beyond. We feared the snakes that sunned on the banks and occasionally slipped into the water—cottonmouths. But we feared more being the one who'd stub a toe on a departed Reverend Lloyd.
The air was thick and unholy. Swamp air. Haze of sulfur in that damp country, emitting from slurry gathered in those lowlands. But mountain laurel, too. Wafting down from the ridge and blending sweet in with the sulfur, giving that some-kind of air an incense all its own. We could feel the passage of fish around our ankles like currents of mild electricity. A skim of emerald algae waited ahead of us, parting at the impress of our slogging legs, until behind us were trails of dark water.
I tried to take it all in, the way you do with a dream so that you'll remember enough to tell it in the morning. But I could feel my head throbbing: He was a big man, wasn't he? Bigger than life, wasn't he, Child? Don't you figure such a man would have been found already? [End Page 101] Surfaced already? See the hulk of him in your mind, Child. There he is with Sally. There they are, making one flesh in the sacristy—you can't miss him.
I looked above us to the ridge where my daddy marched, leading his mule, Mable. A mimicking shadow, come down to skitter on the ridge, lank and thin and freer than us. An old traveler who'd never laid his tired body anywhere. That doom-headed prophet.
Brother Hester didn't break arms with those flanking him, raised his chin to where my daddy walked the ridge, "There he comes now," he said. "Just that old buzzard, waiting on carrion." He knew I could hear him say it. But like most people around me, he didn't temper his words about my daddy, thinking me too feebleminded for hearing or understanding. In the heat and the stink from the pond, there were few words tempered. Grown men in the muck, minds telling them it was suicide, hearts wanting to believe Daddy had something to do with it.
And in the light of the going-down sun that eased into the clef of Sparkman's Ridge, Daddy did very well look like a buzzard. The peeled, pink-bald head, the ruffle of gray body hair I knew crept from his chest to greet his collar. The thin, angular shoulders. The mule kept right on behind him, nodding her head in cadence with his. Almost like she'd been trained that way.
If we stopped suddenly, so did he. If we took a minute to catch our breath, you could see him walk over to the mule and squat beside, catching his, too. From where he was to us, it was a good sixty yards across and...