There’s a place in southeast Missouri where nobody walks. It’s too far from anywhere you want to be on foot, in an overgrown mess out by the big flood channel, so it’s heaven for cottonmouths and copperheads and more than a couple rattlers, but that ain’t why.
County roads N, U, and T meet right by some of the best coon-hunting land in the state, maybe in any state. A good hunter can walk into the hollow in thick boots with a gun and two potato sacks and come home with hundreds of dollars in pelts, dinner for a month, and like as not a dozen arrowheads. If she’s smart, though, if she knows the area, she’ll go a couple miles west or a couple miles north and come home with less money and less food and less of a story, for sure, but with her mind intact.
I wasn’t a good hunter, not since I got sick and Husband Material #3 took off for “space,” but I had just about enough money for bullets and dog food and I needed a lot more. Pelts were quick cash, and the woods up by NUT Junction were carpeted in coons, squirrels, rabbits, you name it. You could even sell possum, but god knows why, and not for much. I went hunting for money, so my dogs were trained to hunt coon.
Me and the dogs went out for eleven nights in a row once but didn’t get anything, not even a rabbit. I was seriously living on tap water and oats, cheapest thing I could fill up on, nine cents a pound. I was eyeing the dog food, I ain’t lying, and if any of them got sick, or I got sicker, I was done. Twelfth night, we went right up to NUT Junction.
I didn’t give one shit about whatever people said. If I came out as messed up as the people in those stories, I wouldn’t care what happened to me anyway. I needed money, and I’d exhausted every other option. I guessed people told those stories to keep everybody away from the area, like there was moonshine or pot back there that didn’t appreciate visitors. If I made sure to watch myself, which I would, I figured anybody I came across would be all right with me picking up a coon or two, and if I hit a booby trap I’d deal with it at the time.
The dogs treed right away, about a quarter mile from where I was drinking coffee in the truck. Coffee was two dollars a pound, but I justified it as a business expense. I got my rifle and went out after them. It was tough to find anything like a path to where they were, and I couldn’t see it until I got right up to them. It was an old house, abandoned for who knows how long. Years, for sure. Broken windows and bullet holes, because everything looks like target practice to some assholes. The weeds around it were so thick, you could hardly walk up to it, but the dogs were right up on the edge of the porch, so I had to fight my way through the tough grass to get to them. Tripped a couple times.
When I got up there, Jill, the older one, jumped on me and then went up under the floorboards to flush out the coon. She was the smartest dog I think I ever owned. It wasn’t a minute before the coon came out in the light and started running, but the dogs cut off all his options, backed him up against the house. His eyes were white in my headlamp. Carbide light, because it’s cheaper than batteries and bright as fuck.
I leveled down on him, took my time to get the shot right because the dogs had him, but then I dropped my gun. This fella on the porch had said, “Don’t shoot my house.” Scared me half to pissing myself, I ain’t lying.
I dropped the rifle on Chester. Didn’t hurt him, but he jumped and the dogs lost their focus so the coon got away. I figured it would be better to leave the rifle in the weeds than pick it up and scare this guy. I picked it up anyway, when I got a look at the fella. He practically had half his face gone, like something took a big bite out of it and just ripped off the skin. He wasn’t bleeding, but he was so badly wounded he should have been. He looked pissed off, too, from what I could tell of his expression with his face so messed up.
He pointed at my gun and said, “Don’t. You couldn’t even aim it before he got you.” Nodded over to one of the broken windows, and there was a fella pointing a shotgun at me. He was bloated, gray. Really gray in that light. I set down my rifle and put up my hands. Told them, “Jesus, don’t kill me.”
I think of the first fella as “Gap Tooth,” because where his cheek was gone you could see his teeth. Gap Tooth walked right up to me, just about arm’s length. He said, “We couldn’t kill you if we wanted to.”
The shotgun fella put it down, and they both said I didn’t have to keep my hands up.
You could see behind the bloated guy there was a woman cooking bacon on a wood stove. I could have killed all three of them for bacon right then, after oats twice a day for almost a week. Lady cooking didn’t have any flesh on her arm. Gap Tooth said, “Come have some bacon?”
I swear to god I could smell the bacon. Absolutely swear. But I knew it wasn’t there. The other thing they have out by NUT Junction, after great coon-hunting ground, is wild barley. In a wet area like that, when the dead stalks rot, they get a thing called ergot. It’s a fungus that when you breathe it in causes hallucinations and makes your limbs hurt like crazy. I didn’t know all that, but I knew they weren’t real when I saw the lady with her arm bones showing. I must have kicked through some wild barley on my way up to the house.
I knew I was seeing things and needed to get to a hospital or something, but I still talked to them. It’s hard to explain, but it didn’t seem right not to. Gap Tooth said I couldn’t really have the bacon, but I should come in and have some.
I went inside the house, even though it was half collapsed already and ready to come down all the way. The wood stove didn’t stay in one place. It moved, kind of depending on how I was thinking about the woman. If I was thinking about her, she and the stove would be on my right, close enough to touch, but if I was talking to one of the others she was cooking in the other room.
We talked a minute, but it was just dumb stuff. Coons have a thick skull, so you need to shoot them in the eye or between the eyes. We talked about that. And how the dogs were good, and I didn’t mind paying more to feed them than I did to feed me. And how I probably should have asked this guy at the I.G.A. to stop following me around but I didn’t notice until I was almost leaving and it would have been rude, and I was still trying to figure out why he followed me in the first place and then I saw he had the same face as Gap Tooth except for the wound.
I don’t know if I was ever in the house really, and I can’t be sure there was a house because I’ve never been back to check. I think there was a house out there, and that everything else was a hallucination, except maybe the coon. It didn’t talk to me or anything, so I bet it was probably real. I don’t know if the fungus got to the dogs, but they followed me back to the truck, probably dreaming of coons rising from the dead and hissing at them.
When I got home, I was sore everywhere and still seeing things like bugs and stuff that I knew wasn’t real. Stayed in bed for three days, except when I went into town to sell the dogs and the rifle.
Davis Slater earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. He writes in Portland. His work has been featured in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and Revolt Daily. His Southern Gothic novel “Selling Sin at the Hoot-Possum Auction” will be released by Pink Fish Press in 2014.