“Yup,” Teague said, in his slow drawl. “Bound to.”
“Weak ground,” Poinsett went on. “And what with the shovels and backhoe, not to mention that storm last week...none of that helped.”
“Nope,” Teague agreed.
“And the pond, just sitting right there, minding its own business. No wonder that coffin got shit right out of wherever it was buried, and on down into the water.”
“A recipe for embarrassment, as my grandmamma was fond of saying.”
They fell silent, staring down into the dark waters. The only sound was the humming of insects, sliding through the muggy air. Somewhere, back up in the trees, a bird croaked. The pond stretched in an uncomfortable way, a narrow strip of silent water, coiling back up amid the trees, that drooped over the opposite bank. Wasn’t even a proper fishing hole. Weren’t no fish in it, as far as Poinsett could tell. Just mud and mosquitoes.
Where had the coffin come from? The question rattled around in Poinsett’s head. It was like it had burrowed its way to the water, somehow. Had the ground shifted that much? Or had it been buried on the edge of the pond? “Who buries a fucking coffin this close to water?” he said, out loud.
“Do we even know it’s a coffin?” Teague asked.
Poinsett looked at him. “You saw it, good as me when it popped out, browner and slicker than shit. What did it look like to you?”
“Not like any shit I ever done.”
“If it did, I’d suggest you go to a doctor.”
“Yeah, but – shit.” Teague shook his head. “Fucking coffin. And this day was going so well. We was almost done. I got dinner waiting on me at Stackhouse’s. Barbeque plate, extra hash, gallon of lemonade.” He sounded so wistful, Poinsett almost laughed.
“Yup,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. Something had bitten him and it itched something fierce. He itched all over, in fact. Being out in the woods did that. “Shit.”
They stood on what was soon to be a bare lot on a back road. Poinsett didn’t know what the lot was needed for, but it was his job to clear it. Him and Teague and the others. They’d been at it for a week and some change, cutting, chopping and dragging. A good job, even in the heat of a South Carolina summer. They even got to drive one of the county’s pair of big yellow backhoes. It sat forlorn nearby, abandoned for the moment. The ground around the edge of the pond looked too soft to hold its weight, and there was no way Poinsett was getting paid enough to risk the vehicle winding up stuck in the water.
Across a narrow stretch of gravel road, a corn field sprang up out of the wet ground, green and red and tall. Teague’s truck sat alone on the edge of the field, the radio loud, and the other members of the crew sitting in the back, enjoying getting paid for doing not a whole hell of a lot. Poinsett wished he was with them.
He looked at the pond again, and thought of the coffin, sluicing down into the mud. He hadn’t known what it was, at first, but it was hard to mistake that oblong shape for anything else.
He shivered, despite the heat. The lot needed clearing by month’s end, to stay on schedule. Right now, it was mostly trees as far as the eye could see. Those that hadn’t been cut and stacked in uneven rows to either side of the lot, waiting to be hauled away.
The surviving trees were ugly things, shrouded in kudzu and ivy, leaning this way and that. Some of them were already half uprooted by some storm or other, but still growing. Nothing stopped growing, in Jackapo County. The whole thing would be buried in kudzu by the time he was sixty, he figured.
The ground around him was in a state of flux – it had been dug up, flattened and dug up again, over the years. No one had ever made anything work out here. There were abandoned trailers and cinder block buildings all up and down this stretch of road. Bits of broken bottles were scattered through the dirt here and there, catching the light as it sifted down through the clouds and on past the dingy green canopy above.
Poinsett could hear birds croaking, back up in the branches, and something small moving through the underbrush. Only city folk thought the country was quiet. “I hate this place,” he said, looking back down at the pond. It didn’t have a name. Most ponds didn’t, unless they were named after whoever owned the property. No one owned this property, though. And they hadn’t in years. That was why the county had decided to take it in hand. “It feels wrong, don’t it?” he said, after a minute. More to hear himself, than because he wanted an answer.
Poinsett looked at him. “Doesn’t it feel wrong to you?”
“It’s whatchacall circumstantial alchemy,” Teague said. “Does it feel wrong cause you hate it, or do you hate it because it feels wrong?” He spat a sunflower seed shell out over the muddy water and sniffed. “Learned that in college.” Teague was big and red and had a neck like an overcooked ham. When he slapped at a mosquito, which was often, his jowls bobbled.
“Good for you.” Poinsett, in contrast, looked like a Boykin spaniel fresh out the water, and angry about it. They had both worked for the county for almost a decade, digging ditches and filling holes. It was a good job, if you liked being out in the weather. Poinsett didn’t, particularly, but a job was a job. These days a person couldn’t be picky. He rubbed at his neck, fighting the urge to scratch.
The smell of the corn, freshly cut grass and damp earth mingled in his nose, sliding through the haze to tease and itch. The air was full of a wet heat that coiled around everything. Even the birds were more subdued than normal. Then, he supposed flying on a day like this might be like swimming in soup. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his face. “Learn anything about getting coffins out of ponds while you were at it, college boy?”
“Well, I didn’t finish, now did I?” Teague upended the bag and dumped the rest of the seeds into his mouth. He was sweating freely and fat beads of perspiration clung to his jowls and neck. Stains bloomed in the armpits of his work shirt. Poinsett was all too aware that he bore similar markings, and that his 24-hour deodorant had given up the ghost at the eight-hour mark.
“That was probably in one of them advanced classes,” Teague continued. He chewed and sucked on the seeds, before spitting shells out, one after the other. Poinsett watched them plop down into the water like raindrops.
“My granddaddy always allowed as a man who sucks on sunflower seeds is a man of low morals.” He looked up, across the pond. There had been a house back up in those trees, once upon a time. Or so it seemed to him, though he couldn’t recall where he’d heard it. Whatever had been there, now it was just weeds, shaggy trees and rotting logs. The county had more than its share of forgotten places, and he’d seen too many of them.
“Wasn’t he executed by the state?”
“So?” Poinsett said. “Don’t mean he was wrong.” He’d started looking for the house that wasn’t there, wondering what sort it had been. The foundations were probably still there, back up among the trees. Maybe even part of a wall or two, under the kudzu. But that’d be all. The trees had eaten everything else.
“I will have you know that the sunflower seed is God’s perfect food. Contains everything you need to live.” Teague spit out another shell. “Full of fiber and amino acids and all that healthy shit.” He crumpled up the bag and tossed it overhand towards the water.
Poinsett watched the bag fall. “We’re going to have to wade out into that damn pond.”
“Probably. Long as the state pays overtime, why you care?”
“Because I got better things to do than to go rooting around some mud hole, looking for a damn coffin that wasn’t even supposed to be here,” Poinsett said, more loudly than he’d intended. A crow burst out of the trees around the pond, and soared skyward, croaking out a litany of imprecations. Teague mimed firing a gun at the fleeing bird.
“Really? Because here I thought Kathy had done left you, and taken every-damn-thing you owned, up to and including that furry mop she convinced you was a dog. What you got, but this here mud hole?”
Poinsett made a rude gesture. “Better to have loved and lost, shit for brains.”
Teague was silent for a moment. Then, he said, “You talking about the dog, ain’t you?”
“It was a good dog,” Poinsett said. “Fuzzy little sumbitch.”
“It shit everywhere,” Teague said.
“Yep.” Poinsett smiled. “And now its shitting everywhere in her new house up in Asheville.” The thought gave him no end of pleasure. Katherine had been more trouble than she was worth, but for a time, he’d thought she’d been worth plenty.
Teague laughed and punched him on the shoulder. “You’re an optimist, I will give you that.” He jerked his chins towards the water. “What you think? Hip waders, some tow chain and a pickup? Wade out, hook it up, drag it out. If we quick and lucky, it won’t come apart.”
“Yup,” Poinsett said. He pushed the brim of his ball cap up and tried to gauge the depth of the pond. It was always hard, after a rain.“Have to be fast, though. We got to do it before SCIAA gets around to sending somebody down.”
Teague made a face. Poinsett knew how he felt. It was hard to get anything done when you had archaeologists poking around, finding potsherds and what not. A bone in the wrong place could put them off schedule by months. “Who told them?”
“You know how it is. Somebody on the work crew will have mouthed off by now. It’ll get back to the bone folks, and sure as shit they’ll be down here, hollering about indigenous peoples and what not.”
“Shit.” Teague took off his hat and ran his palm over his sweaty scalp. “We going to need Cobb and Pickens.” Cobb and Pickens were the other two members of the crew. They’d left them back with the truck, and a cooler full of soft drinks. Cobb had probably drunk them all, by now. He had a sweet tooth, and liked to complain about his blood sugar.
“I’ll get them. And my truck.” Teague put his cap back on. “We get this shit done, go get dinner. I want some lemonade and some barbeque.”
“Yup.” Poinsett took off his cap and ran his hand through his hair. “Still can’t figure where the hell that coffin come from.” He looked at the ground. It looked like moles had been at it. Big ones. There had been roots all over, and that meant digging. It had resembled a bird’s nest when they’d scraped off that first layer of topsoil. The trees had been stretching out through this patch for years and years, wrapping roots around roots, strangling each other for a bit of space. Nothing here otherwise but bones and broken bottles.
Or so they’d thought. “Guess we thought wrong,” Poinsett murmured, watching the light play over the water. It looked sort of greasy from here.
Poinsett cleared his throat. “There wasn’t no church here or nothing.”
Teague snorted. “Like anybody would know. There is some shit back up in these woods, I tell you what. This was probably a damn family plot, only everybody is dead so nobody remembers. Only they will, if we stand around with our dicks in our hands, and let SCIAA get a sniff of this. And then, we are royally fucked.” He poked Poinsett in the chest. “I don’t know about you, but I am not a fan of being fucked.”
Poinsett looked at him. Teague shrugged. “You know what I mean.”
Poinsett laughed. “Yeah. I do. Go get your truck. I’ll see about finding a way down.”
“Don’t fall in now. We ain’t got time to fish your narrow ass out, as well.”
As Teague ambled off, Poinsett sank to his haunches, studying the shallow slope of mud and weeds that led down into the pond. Thanks to the rain, it was hard to tell where the water stopped and solid ground began. It was more in the way of gradual subsidence, than a proper bank. He picked up a stick, and took a tentative poke. The stick sunk to more than half its length, and came up fat with brown, oozing mud.
“Looks like shit,” he murmured. Smelled like it too. He hoped some forgotten septic tank hadn’t decided to start leaking into the local groundwater. That was all they needed.
A warm breeze rustled the branches, and stirred the water. As the murk cleared, he caught sight of it. Something oblong, sitting where the bottom of the pond dropped off and away. He saw it just for a moment, and then the brown murk thickened and hid it from sight. He felt strangely grateful, and slightly queasy at the thought of having to wade in after it.
They could just leave it. Pretend that they hadn’t found it. Who’d know? Next storm, it’d be gone. He grunted and stood, stick still in his hand. Only it wouldn’t be gone, he knew. There was nowhere for it to go. It’d sit, and wait, and someone would find it eventually. And then him and Teague and the others would get fired. He sucked on his teeth for a moment.
As the wind pushed wrinkles into the surface of the water, he thought he saw the reflection of something, passing overhead. Feeling suddenly exposed, he looked up. Blackbirds watched him from the threadbare trees. Every so often, a newcomer joined the audience, with only a quiet croak to announce its presence.
Poinsett watched them, watching him, for long moments. “What are you waiting for?” he said. They didn’t reply. He let his gaze fall back to the water, which had gone still again. Smooth as a mirror, not even any bugs. He wondered about that. The edge, where the grass was thick, should have been loud with the hum of mosquitoes. Instead, it was quiet.
It was a soft kind of quiet. Anticipatory. Like it wasn’t just the birds who were waiting, but something – someone – else. Just out of sight. He swallowed and looked, really looked, at the kudzu, trying to imagine what was hidden back up in the trees. It had been a house; he was sure of it. Maybe one of them little clapboard churches.
The thought brought no comfort. Made things worse, in a way. He wasn’t the church going sort, but like any good Baptist, he wasn’t a fan of digging up graveyards. Even ones nobody had known about. He probed the water again, stirring the mud.
Whole towns had gone missing out here. There’d been a rail line once, coming up from Charleston, and heading westward. But that had stopped and all the little railway towns that had sprouted along its length had died off, one by one, down through the years. Like they’d just dried up one day, and blown away. Or maybe flown away, like the birds.
Poinsett was used to that sort of thing, out here. One thing working for the county taught you was how goddamn fragile it all was. Houses didn’t last for shit, unless somebody took care of them. They rotted down to the foundations in a decade or two, and then you’d never be able to tell there’d ever been a house there at all. And what time didn’t take, the kudzu sure as hell would, and twice as fast. He’d seen it take water towers and silos, crumpling them like soda cans season by season.
But nothing stayed buried forever. Eventually someone came along, and dug it all up.
He watched the trees, and thought of stories he’d heard as a boy. Ghost stories, like the kind you paid to hear on walking tours of Charleston and Columbia. Only out here, you started thinking, maybe they weren’t just stories. Maybe there was some truth to some of them. And that wasn’t a thought as he liked thinking at all.
Behind him, a limb cracked. He spun, stick raised. There were feral hogs out here, and they’d come up on a man as quick as anything. That’s what he told himself, as he turned. That was a thing a man ought to be scared of, not birds and stories.
Cobb stepped back, hands raised. “Whoa there,” he said, a half smile on his dark face.
Poinsett lowered his stick. “Shit, brother. Say something next time.”
“Feeling jumpy?” Cobb came to stand beside him. “Don’t blame you. This some shit here, I tell you what.” Cobb was the oldest man on the crew, with hair like soft cotton. Age had worn deep lines into his face and hands, and in bad light, he resembled a cigar store Indian. He hunched forward and lit a cigarette. He offered the pack to Poinsett, who waved it off. As he stuffed the pack back into his shirt pocket, he said, “You know where we are, right?”
“Fuck yes.” Cobb looked around. “Some bad shit went down here, back in the day. See them fuck-ugly trees?” He gestured with his cigarette. “Whole passel of poor motherfuckers got themselves hung back up in there. Like a got-damned orchard. Some damn church or cult or other. Like Quakers, maybe.”
“I never heard of no Quakers being hung,” Poinsett said, noncommittally. He’d heard that one before, too. If you believed some folks, someone had been murdered on every patch of dry ground in the county.
“Ghosts, too, motherfucker. All up in them trees. That’s what they say.”
Cobb shrugged. “Who you think? Folks.”
“Who hung them?” Poinsett asked.
Cobb frowned. “Don’t recollect.”
“When they get hung?”
Cobb puffed on his cigarette. “Not recently.”
“Who told you about it?”
A truck horn interrupted Cobb before he could reply. Teague’s battered pickup eased its way onto the lot, Pickens leaning over the cab. The truck was more rust than metal, and its paint job had faded to a muted sand color. It matched Pickens, who looked like a man who’d been out in the sun too long, and been bleached pallid.
He climbed down at the back, a tow chain over one narrow shoulder, and a roll of nylon tow strap in his hand. “Seen it?” he asked.
Poinsett gestured. “Out there a-piece. Muddy as shit, though.”
“What else is new?” Teague said, climbing out of the truck. As he slammed the door behind him, the birds began making a racket. They all looked up, except Poinsett, who looked at the trees. If the birds were making noise, something was bound to be creeping around. But he didn’t see anything. Maybe there wasn’t anything to see.
“We should go back to the office, get some hip-waders or something,” Cobb said.
“And have folks asking what we doing?” Teague said. “Nah, fuck that. Get ready, and get wet. Quicker we do this shit, quicker I can get some barbeque in me.”
“I just washed these goddamn jeans,” Cobb said, looking at the pond.
“Ain’t supposed to wash jeans,” Pickens said.
“That’s right. Wears out the denim.” Teague turned his cap around. He’d fixed one end of the tow chain to the trailer hitch under the truck. They’d play it out, and loop the strap around it. The strap would be less likely to crush the coffin. That was the theory, anyway. “Let’s get to it. We’re burning daylight, and I’d rather not be wading around out there in the dark.”
“Shit, we got hours yet.” Cobb squinted up at the sky.
“And it’ll take us hours to pull that damn thing out, slow as we’re going to have to go.” Poinsett stepped down into the water, with Pickens’ help. As he found his footing, he pulled his work gloves out of his back pocket and slid them on. “Come on.”
The water was warm, and mud billowed with every step he took, as he waded out towards where he’d seen the coffin. He almost slipped a few times, as the bottom shifted and bubbled like loose cloth. Like something was catching at his ankles. He pushed the thought aside quick as the others waded out in his wake. Cobb and Teague played the chain out, as they came.
“Don’t like this,” Pickens said.
“Join the club.” Poinsett looked at him. “You know something I don’t?”
“Ain’t supposed to be no graveyard around here.”
“You know that don’t mean nothing.”
“Why only one, though?” Pickens looked at him. “If it were a graveyard, ought to be more. Wouldn’t just be one, shooting out like that. Like the ground didn’t want it no more. So why just the one?”
Poinsett opened his mouth to reply. Closed it. That was a good question, but one he didn’t think they were going to find an answer to. He didn’t know as he really wanted one, either. It wasn’t likely to be satisfying.
“Heard stories, though,” Pickens went on. “About a fella what supposedly got buried out this away.”
“What sort of stories?”
Pickens grimaced. “You know.”
Poinsett didn’t, but he could guess. There was only one kind, out here. “Cobb said folks were hung around here. This fella one of them?”
“Don’t know about all that. Maybe so.” Pickens seemed doubtful. “Just stories anyway.” He stopped. “This it?”
Poinsett looked down. They’d come up on it, without him realising – or it came up on you, he thought– and he nodded. The oblong shape was just visible, through the murky water. “That’s it. Got the strap?”
Pickens made his way around the opposite end, and handed the other end of the nylon strap to Poinsett. “We might have to dig it out,” he said. “Got to get the strap under it.”
“Can’t we just…lift it?” Cobb said, as he and Teague arrived.
“Won’t know until we try.” Poinsett sank down onto his haunches. The water wasn’t deep, though it licked at his chin, as fumbled around the outside of the box – the coffin. The others followed suit, Cobb cursing the entire time. There were no handles. They’d rotted off, or broken when the coffin went for its last ride. They’d have to get it from the bottom.
Overhead, the birds made a sound. Not quite a croak or a caw, but something like laughter. The water wasn’t warm anymore, if it ever had been. Like something had leeched all the heat right out of it. The sun hung low over the trees, and the light was slipping on.
He didn’t like the way the coffin felt. Weak. Sloppy, somehow. Like it was covered in that orange fungus that wood sprouted, sometimes, when it was left out in the wet too long. His skin crawled at the thought, and he was glad for the gloves.
Mud shifted and billowed like smoke, making it hard to see. The bottom was too soft, and Poinsett could feel it slipping under his boots. But he managed to wedge his fingers under it. He looked over at Teague, who mirrored him on the other side. “You got it?”
“Yup.” Teague looked at Pickens. “Us and Cobb will lift, you get that strap under it.”
“What we going to do with this damn thing anyway?” Cobb asked.
Poinsett looked at Teague, who shrugged. Neither one of them had thought of that. “Re-bury it, I suppose,” he said, hesitantly. “Somewhere proper. Then it’s somebody else’s problem.”
Cobb laughed. “On three,” Teague said.
It wasn’t as heavy as Poinsett thought it would be. Maybe there was nothing inside it. Just an empty box, stuck in the mud. But even as he had the thought, he knew how stupid it was. Of course there was something in it – someone. The top of the coffin rose up to meet him, as they hauled it up, and stood. Slick, dark wood, stained by its time in the water. “So damn light, we might not even need the chain,” Cobb said.
Teague shook his head. “We’ll strap it up anyway. Just in case.”
“Wonder who’s in it,” Poinsett said.
“There’s a gold nameplate, down at this end,” Cobb said. Pickens began working the strap under. The coffin shifted in Poinsett’s grip, and he winced. It hadn’t felt heavy at first, but now, he could feel whatever was inside sliding around. Like they was waking up. He pushed the thought aside.
“What does it say?” Teague asked. He took the strap end and passed it over to Poinsett, who guided it down. Pickens took it with a grunt, and began knotting it off.
“Give me a minute…” Cobb grunted, squinting. “Says…Hungerpillar.” He looked around. “Anyone know that name?”
No one did. It sounded vaguely familiar to Poinsett, but he couldn’t say where he’d heard it, or who from. Cobb grinned. “Think I can pop it off, before we re-bury it?”
“No,” Poinsett said. “You’d just pawn the damn thing and somebody might recognize it and wonder where it was you go it from.”
Pickens frowned. “Shit.”
Poinsett looked down. “What?”
“Caught on something.” Pickens hunched down, until the water was at his ears, feeling around in the mud.
“That better be your goddamn hand on my foot,” Cobb said.
“Quiet,” Teague said. “Listen.”
Poinsett did. The birds had gone quiet. Not like before, but utterly still. Waiting. He didn’t know why the word popped in his head, but it was there and he couldn’t shake it. The birds, the trees, the goddamn kudzu, even the water – it was all waiting. But for what?
“Hurry it up, this thing’s getting heavy,” Cobb said. And it was. Poinsett could feel the box’s contents sliding and shifting, one side to the other, but it hoped it was just his imagination. Knew it wasn’t. The water was cold now, and the sun was a line of orange over the trees.
“Hold your goddamn horses. It’s caught, and I...” Pickens trailed off. “Hunh.”
“What?” Teague demanded. His red face had gone pale. Poinsett saw the same look on Cobb’s face, and knew they were all feeling what he was. The wrongness of the moment. Like they’d opened a door a crack, and seen something they shouldn’t, or come in at the wrong end of a story. He wished the birds would make some noise.
“Feels like the bottom is buckling. Maybe y’all should put it down – gently.”
“Maybe you should finish looping the damn strap, so we can get out of this fucking water,” Cobb snarled. He shifted his weight, yelped, and fell with a splash. Poinsett lurched, as the coffin was nearly pulled out of his hands, and he felt the wood start to give.
Teague shouted wordlessly, and went down to one knee in the water. Pickens thrust himself back. The water swirled around them, moving now. Like it had just woken up. Something woke up, alright. Poinsett tried to ignore the thought, but it kept coming. He felt the coffin slip again, and bang against the bottom as bits of wood floated to the surface.
The birds were still silent. Even the breeze had gone quiet. Even the corn. All quiet but Cobb’s splashing and Teague yelling. “Cobb? Cobb! Pickens – help him!”
Pickens wasn’t moving, he was staring, just staring at flashes of something white moving under the water, all pale and soft looking through the breaks in the coffin lid. It was like no kind of thing Poinsett had ever seen, or heard tell of, and Cobb was splashing and screaming, and Poinsett knew he’d seen it too.
“My foot – it’s got my foot,” Cobb howled, clawing at the water. The coffin had fallen on him, pinned him to the mud. That had to be it. That ain’t it, though, you know it. There was red on the water. Cobb was bleeding. And something white, just under the murk. Something white shifting and stretching, amid the brown. Like a man jostled awake.
Poinsett felt something grip his wrist – iron hard and vise-like, but also flabby and cold. Too damn cold. He tried to scream, but all that came out was a rapid shudder of breath. Cobb was screaming now, with no words and Teague was cursing, and Pickens – Pickens was splashing towards shore, towards safety, only there wasn’t anywhere safe. Poinsett knew it, just as he knew now where he’d heard the name Hungerpillar. And maybe Pickens had remembered what folks had told him, about this place. Just a bit late, was all. Too late.
As something white rose out of the water, Poinsett thought, dully, bound to happen, sooner or later.
Nothing stayed buried forever.
He started screaming, as the sun slipped down below the trees, and the birds took flight.