The Two-Bear Mambo: Chapter Six
On the way to Grovetown, Leonard put a Hank Williams cassette in the player and we listened to that. I never got to play what I liked. I wanted to bring some cassettes of my own, but Leonard said it was his car, so weÕd listen to his music. He didnÕt care much for what I liked. Sixties rock and roll.
Even Hank Williams couldnÕt spoil the beauty of the day, however, and the truth of the matter was, I was really starting to like his music, though I wasnÕt willing to let Leonard know.
It was cold as an EskimoÕs ass in an igloo outhouse, but it was clear and bright and the East Texas woods were dark and soothing. The pines, cold or not, held their green, except for the occasional streaks of rust-colored needles, and the oaks, though leafless, were thick and intertwining, like the bones of some unknown species stacked into an elaborate art arrangement.
We passed a gap in the woods where the pulp wooders had been. It looked like a war zone. The trees were gone for a patch of twenty to thirty acres, and there were deep ruts in the red clay, made by truck tires. Mounds of stumps and limbs had been piled up and burned, leaving ash and lumps, and in some cases huge chunks of wood that had not burned up, but had only been kissed black by fire.
One huge oak tree stump, old enough to have dated to the beginning of the century, had taken on the shape of a knotty skull, as if it were all that was left of some prehistoric animal struck by lightning. Clear cutting, gasoline, and kitchen matches had laid the dinosaurs low. Driven by greed and the need for a satellite dish, pulp wooders had turned beauty to shit, wood to paper, which in turn served to make the bills of money that paid the pulpers who slew the gods in the first place. There was sad irony in all that. Somewhere. May saplings sprout from their graves.
Just past mid-day Hank was singing, for about the fifteenth time, ÒWhy donÕt you love me like you used to do,Ó when we reached the outskirts of Grovetown. Here the trees were thick and dark and somber. Low rain clouds had formed, turning the bright cold day gray and sad as a widowÕs thought. The charcoal-colored clouds hung over the vast forest on either side of the narrow, cracked highway as if they were puffy cotton hats, leaving only a few rays of sunlight to penetrate them like polished hat pins.
I watched the woods speed by, and thought about what was out there. We were on the edge of the Big Thicket. One of the great forests of the United States, and everything opposite of what the TV and movie viewer thinks Texas is about. The pulp wooders and the lumber companies had certainly raped a lot of it, like most of East Texas, but here there was still plenty of it left. For now.
Out there, in the Thicket, there were swampy stretches, creeks and timber so compact a squirrel couldnÕt run through it without aid of a machete. The bottoms were brutal. Freezing black slush in the winter, steamy and mosquito-swarmed in the summer, full of fat, poisonous water moccasins, about the most unpleasant snakes in creation.
When I was a child, an uncle of mine, Benny, a man wise to the ways of the woods, had gotten lost in the Thicket for four days. He lived off puddled water and edible roots. He had been one of those contradictory fellas who loved the woods and wildlife, and yet shot everything that wasnÕt already stuffed, and if the light were to have glinted off the eye of a taxidermied critter, he might have shot that too. He was such a voracious hunter my dad used him as an example of how I ought not be. It was my fatherÕs contention, and itÕs certainly mine, that hunting is not a sport. If the animals could shoot back, then it would be a sport. It is justifiable only for food, and for no other reason. After that, itÕs just killing for the sake of putting a lid on what still simmers deep in our primitive hearts.
But my Uncle Benny, a big, laughing man who I liked very much, was out late one summer night hunting coons for their pelts. He followed the sounds of his dogs deep into the Thicket, then the sounds went away, and he found that the foliage overhead was so thick he could see neither moon nor stars.
Benny wore a kind of headlamp when he hunted. I donÕt remember what the stuff was called, carbide, I think, but there were these pellets you put in the headlamp and lit, and they made a little stinky flame that danced out from the headband and made a light. Lots of hunters used them back then.
This headlamp went out and Benny dropped his flashlight while trying to turn it on, and couldnÕt find it. He spent hours crawling along the ground, but he couldnÕt locate the flashlight, and he couldnÕt re-light the lamp because heÕd gotten his matches wet by stepping waist deep into a hole full of stagnant water.
He finally fell asleep resting against the base of a tree, and was awakened in the night by something huge crashing through the brush. Benny climbed the tree by feel, damn near putting out his eye on a thorn that was part of a wrist-thick crawling vine that was trying to choke the tree out.
In the morning, after a night of squatting on a limb, he came down and found bear tracks. This was before the black bear had been nearly exterminated from the Thicket. In fact, there were still plenty of them in those days, and wild hogs too.
The tracks circled the tree and there were scratch marks where the bear had risen up on its hind legs, perhaps hoping to bring down a treat from overhead. The bear had missed reaching Uncle Benny by less than a foot.
Benny found his flashlight, but it was useless. He had stepped on it in the night, busting out the bulb. Even though it was morning, he found there was no way to truly see the sun because the limbs tangled together overhead and the leaves and pine needles spread out like camouflaging, tinting the daylight brown and green.
All day, as he trekked blindly about, the mosquitoes rose up and over him in black kamikaze squadrons so compact they looked as if they were sheets of close-weave netting. They feasted so often on the thorn scratch over his eye, that eye eventually closed. His lips swelled up thick and tight and his face ballooned. Everywhere he went he wore those mosquitoes like a coat of chain mail.
As the day slogged on, he discovered he had also gotten into poison ivy, and it was spreading over his body, popping up pustules on his feet and hands and face, and the more he scratched, the more it spread, until even his nuts were covered in the stuff. He used to say: ÒPoison ivy bumps were so thick, it pushed the hair out of my balls.Ó
He told me he hurt so bad, was so lost, so scared, so hungry and thirsty, he actually considered putting the rifle in his mouth and ending it. Later, that wasnÕt an option. Crossing through a low-lying area, he discovered what appeared to be a thick covering of leaves was nothing more than slushy swamp, and in the process of grabbing on to the exposed roots of a great willow tree to save himself from drowning, he lost his rifle in the muck.
Eventually he found his way out, but not by true woodcraft. By accident. Or in his words, ÒBy miracle.Ó Benny came upon a gaunt steer, a Hereford/Long Horn mix. It was staggering and its great head hung almost to the ground. It was covered in crusted mud from its hoofs to its massive horns. It had obviously been mired up somewhere, perhaps trying to escape the mosquitoes.
Uncle Benny watched it, and finally it began to move, slow but steady, and he followed the thorn-torn steer through the thicket, sometimes clinging to its mud- and shit-coated tail. He clung and followed until it arrived at the pasture it had escaped from, through a gap in the barbed wire. Uncle Benny said when that steer finally broke through the briars and limbs and the light came through the trees and showed him the bright green of the pasture, it was like the door to heaven had been opened.
When the steer reached the emerald pasture, it bellowed joyfully, staggered, fell, and never rose. Its back legs and hindquarters were swollen up as if they were made of soaked sponge, and there were wounds that gurgled pus the color of primeval sin and thick as shaving foam.
Uncle Benny figured the steer had gotten into a whole nest of moccasins, or timber rattlers, and theyÕd struck it repeatedly. Steer might have been out there in the Thicket for a week. The fact that it had survived as long as it had was evidence of the heartiness of the Long Horn strain that ran through it. It died where it fell.
From there Benny made his way to the highway and found his car. His hunting dogs never showed up. He went there for a week and called their names where they had gone in with him, and he drove the back roads searching, but never a sign. To the best of my knowledge, though he continued to hunt from time to time, Benny never went into the deep woods again, and the infected eye gave him trouble all his life, until at the age of sixty-five he had to have it removed and replaced with a cheap glass one.
You donÕt fuck with the Big Thicket.
ÒThe Two-Bear Mambo: Chapter SixÓ was originally published in 1995 in ThunderÕs Shadow. It later appeared in A Fist Full of Stories (and Articles), a collection of LansdaleÕs short stories (and articles) published by CD Publications. And, of course, it later appeared in The Two-Bear Mambo, a novel by Joe R. Lansdale, available in paperback from Vintage/Black Lizard. ÒThe Two-Bear Mambo: Chapter SixÓ © 1995 Joe R. Lansdale.
WeÕll be lookinÕ for you on Thursday, July 09. YÕall come back now, yÕhear?