Poachersby Tom Franklin
In ten stunning and bleak tales set in the woodlands, swamps, and chemical plants along the Alabama River, Tom Franklin stakes his claim as a fresh, original Southern voice. His lyric, deceptively simple prose conjures a world where the default setting is violence, a world of hunting and fishing, gambling and losing, drinking and poaching—a world most of us… See more details below
In ten stunning and bleak tales set in the woodlands, swamps, and chemical plants along the Alabama River, Tom Franklin stakes his claim as a fresh, original Southern voice. His lyric, deceptively simple prose conjures a world where the default setting is violence, a world of hunting and fishing, gambling and losing, drinking and poaching—a world most of us have never seen. In the chilling title novella (selected for the anthologies New Stories from the South: The Year's Best, 1999 and Best Mystery Stories of the Century), three wild boys confront a mythic game warden as mysterious and deadly as the river they haunt. And, as a weathered, hand-painted sign reads: "Jesus is not coming;" This terrain isn't pretty, isn't for the weak of heart, but in these desperate, lost people, Franklin somehow finds the moments of grace that make them what they so abundantly are: human.
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From a trestle in Dickinson, Alabama, I look down into the coffee-brown water of the Blowout, a fishing hole I loved as a boy. It's late December, cold. A stiff wind rakes the water, swirls dead leaves and nods the tall brown cattails along the bank. Farther back in the woods it's very still, cypress trees and knees, thick vines, an abandoned beaver's lair. Buzzards float overhead, black smudges against the gray sky. Once, on this trestle, armed with only fishing rods, my brother Jeff and I heard a panther scream. It's a sound I've never forgotten, like a madwoman's shriek. After that, we brought guns when we came to fish.
But today I'm unarmed, and the only noise is the groan and hiss of bulldozers and trucks on a new-cut logging road a quarter-mile away.
I left Alabama four years ago, when I was thirty, to go to graduate school in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where among transplanted Yankees and Westerners I realized how lucky I was to have been raised here in these woods among poachers and storytellers. I know, of course, that most people consider Arkansas the South, but it's not my South. My South, the one I haven't been able to get out of my blood or my imagination, is lower Alabama, lush and green and full of death, the wooded counties between the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers.
Yesterday at five a.m. I left Fayetteville and drove seven hundred miles south to my parents' new house in Mobile, and this morning I woke early and drove two more hours, past the grit factory and the chemical plants where I worked in my twenties, to Dickinson, the community where we lived until I was eighteen. It's a tiny place, one store and a post office in thesame building, a kudzu-netted graveyard, railroad tracks. I've been finishing a novella that takes place in these woods in the story, a poacher is murdered right beneath where I'm standing and I'm here looking for details, for things I might've forgotten.
To get to the Blowout, I picked through a half-mile of pine trees that twelve years ago had been one of my family's cornfields. I hardly recognized the place. I walked another half-mile along the new logging road, then climbed onto the railroad track, deep brown woods on both sides, tall patchwork walls of briar and tree, thrushes hopping along unseen like something pacing me. My father and uncles used to own this land. It was ours. When he died, my grandfather divided almost six hundred acres among his five children, expecting them to keep it in the family, but one by one they sold it for logging or to hunting clubs. Today we own nothing here.
I'm about to leave when I notice that fifty yards down the track something big is disentangling itself from the trees. For a moment I re-experience the shock I used to feel whenever I saw a deer, but this is only a hunter. I see that he's spotted me, is climbing onto the tracks and coming this way. Because I lived in these parts for eighteen years, I expect to know him, and for a moment I feel foolish: What am I doing here at the Blowout, during hunting season, without a gun?
It's a familiar sensation, this snag of guilt, because when I was growing up, a boy who didn't hunt was branded as a pussy. For some reason I never wanted to kill things, but I wasn't bold enough to say so. Instead, I did the expected: went to church on Sundays and on Wednesday nights, said ``Yes ma'am'' and ``No sir'' to my elders, and wrote my stories indoors, at night, secretly.
And I hunted. Though I hated (and still hate) to get up early, I rose at four a.m. Though I hated (and still hate) the cold, I made my way through the icy woods, climbing into one of our family's deer stands or sitting at the base of a thick live oak to still hunt, which simply means waiting for a buck to walk by so you can shoot him. And because I came to hunting for the wrong reasons, and because I worried that my father, brother, and uncles might one day see through my ruse, I became the most zealous hunter of us all.
I was the one who woke first in the mornings and shook Jeff awake. The first in the truck. The first to the railroad track where we climbed the rocky hill and crept toward the Blowout, our splitting-up point. On those mornings, the stars still out, it would be too dark to see our breath, the cross ties creaking beneath our boots, and I would walk the quietest, holding my double-barrel sixteen-gauge shotgun against my chest, my bare thumb on the safety and my left trigger finger on the first of its two triggers. When we got to the Blowout, I'd go left, without a word, and Jeff right. I'd creep down the loose rocks, every sound amplified in the still morning, and I'd step quietly over the frozen puddles below and into the dark trees. In the woods, the stars disappeared overhead as if swiped away, and I inched forward with my hand before my face to feel for briars, my eyes watering from cold. When I got to where I thought was far enough, I found a tree to sit beneath, shivering and miserable, thinking of the stories I wanted to write and hoping for something to shoot. Because at sixteen, I'd never killed a deer, which meant I was technically still a pussy.
Of course there were a lot of real hunters in my family, including my father. Though he no longer hunted, Gerald Franklin commanded the respect of the most seasoned woodsman because as a young man he'd been a legendary killer of turkeys (and we all knew that turkey hunters consider themselves the only serious sportsmen, disdaining deer or any other game the way fly fishermen look down on bait fishermen). Dad, a good a storyteller, never bragged about the toms he'd shot, but we heard everything from our uncles. According to them, my father had been the wildest of us all, getting up earlier and staying in the woods later than any man in the county. There's a story he tells where he woke on a spring Sunday to go huntinghe never used a clock, relying instead on his ``built-in'' alarm. Excited because he knew which tree a gobbler had roosted in the evening before, he dressed in the dark so he wouldn't wake my mother, pregnant with me. When he got to the woods it was pitch black, so he settled down to wait for daylight. An hour passed, and still no sign of light. Instead of going back home, though, he laid his gun aside, lit a cigarette, and continued to wait for a dawn that wouldn't arrive for three more hours. Later, laughing, he told Jeff and me he'd gotten to the woods around one a.m.
But at some point, before I started first grade, he quit hunting. I always figured it was because he'd found religion. I grew up going to the Baptist church every Sunday with a father who was a deacon, not a hunter. Ours was a Godly householdto this day I've never heard Dad curse and we said grace at every meal (even if we ate out) and prayed as a family each night, holding hands. After church on Sunday mornings, Dad sat in our living room and read his Bible, wearing his tie all day and loading us in the big white Chrysler to head back to church on Sunday evening. If we passed the three Wiggins brothers, dressed in old clothes and carrying hand-cut fishing poles, Dad shook his head and gave us all a mini-sermon on the evils of fishing on the Lord's Day. Though he nor anyone else has ever confirmed it, I've always thought that by not hunting he was paying a kind of self-imposed penance for the Saturday nights in his youth he'd spent in pool halls, and for the Sundays he'd skipped church to chase turkeys.
Copyright ) 1999 by Tom Franklin
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