Up in the hills the talk was of the men all disappeared and presumed dead. I didn’t like the talk up in the hills: it was all about the men who used to be there but weren’t any more. It was talk about how maybe they fell down into the bottom of the valley, or how maybe it was that the valley rose up into the hills at night and swallowed them whole. Just the men. Gone in the cold damp of night, warm wedge of empty stink in their beds. Up in the hills the talk was never about how it was before, the way it was when Sweet Marie was a child, before I was old enough to remember, but Sweet Marie says there were gumdrop trees and lemonade rains and all the children were fat and tasty and made of gingerbread and how they lined up to climb onto the cookie sheets at lunchtime. But up in the hills the talk now was of the three hundred men all disappeared and presumed dead.
Up in the hills after the men disappeared there was nothing but rocks and sticks, a slate-gray iron nothing. We ate even our very own fingernails, with salt, and the clipped nails of our babies, for they were very soft. The dirt under their baby nails was our milk chocolate. Our teeth were always clean from eating rocks and sticks and nails but there was never anything to smoke. Sweet Marie let me smoke manure. It made my stomach feel more full, but there was no rush of wildfire. Dung won’t smoke the same, even after it’s spread out flat to dry in a stiff paste on the dog’s house. I didn’t like the talk up in the hills: it was all about the sick, the mad, and the left-behind women, and the why-how’s and the what-for’s of it all. First the valley took our loam, our dirt, our mud, our soil, our seeds, our weeds—now the valley take our men too, and leave us nothing but rocks and sticks, a slate-gray iron nothing. That’s what the sick, the mad, and the left-behind women would say. We must eat our very own fingernails, and the fingernails of our very own little babies.
Lafayette was a man who lived in a dog’s house, a man with four legs, all crooked, who barked at raccoons and gnawed bones. He licked his own asshole to get it clean, but left his hair hanging in muddy clots. Lafayette was the only man still up on the slate-gray iron hills, the only man to come down off our hills to the muck of valley and go back up again after. The only man to go down and back up. Sweet Marie asked him what he saw down below but he just licked his asshole, and barked at the raccoons. Sweet Marie asked him where the three hundred more men gone but Lafayette just laid down, he’d lay down on his own ticks and they would burst in little sacks of blood. Lafayette was this man who lived in a dog’s house.
It was Lafayette brought us down from the hills to the valley. Lafayette brought me and Sweet Marie down on his back, he plunged us down the mountains using his crooked legs and the fuel of his own funk. He used his funk for gasoline. I rode him to the bottom with Sweet Marie, me hanging on to Sweet Marie, Sweet Marie hanging on to the ticks, the ticks gripping on to Lafayette’s syrupy old veins. We couldn’t fall off; it would have been impossible. The haze of flies and polly poddies held us on. Though it was the afternoon we suffered from night-blindness. We were riding him as though blindfolded-our eyelids blinked blindly on some vicious nettled whiteness. Sometimes it seemed like we were riding bad road, other times a high bridge, or some terrible hard sulphurous riverbed strewn with rocks. Our bottoms hurt from riding the ridge of his spine and there was nothing to do but talk so I asked Sweet Marie if we could eat and drink and smoke when we got down to the valley. She said to ask Lafayette. I asked Lafayette could we eat and drink and smoke and he just barked at me to lick his asshole. So it was Lafayette brought us down from the hills to the valley.
Down in the valley everything was very different. I saw that when Sweet Marie let go of the ticks and I let go of Sweet Marie. At first we saw nobody in the valley. From up in the hills I could have looked down in the valley and seen the black devil’s birds winging through empty winter branches, foxes and bears and big cats and monkeys swiping at the devil blackbirds from branches, hoping to catch a bird to make a bird pie. I knew that I wanted one of those pies. But at first we saw nobody when we came down into the valley from the hills. In the valley all our dirt from up on the hills had run away from its cold high rocks and came laid down to rest in the valley. Now down in the valley we sunk in mud up to our knees. In the valley were was lots of tobacco, giant tobacco plants so huge that the big cats used the plants for cabins. In the valley was all our dirt from up on the hills. In the valley Sweet Marie and I saw no hats of men above the tobacco plants, nor heads of men with guns in the woods, but we saw the big boot prints of our men, following one the next all in a line. In the valley the boot prints sank into the mud. There in the boot prints the men had left behind their copper pennies, photographs, wedding rings and hatbands. A deep trough of our men’s boot prints filled with false teeth and pocket watches, potato eyes and matches, patches and pouches and shirt-buttons. Down in the valley everything was very different. I could see that when Sweet Marie let go of the ticks and I let go of Sweet Marie. In the valley all our dirt from up on the hills had run away from its cold high rocks and now we sunk down in the treasure of our men’s boot prints up to our knees.
We followed the boot prints through the stolen dirt. They led to an enormous house, bigger than a tobacco plant. Our pockets were filled with our men’s gold teeth and silver dollars, trouser zippers, whittle knives and banjo picks, heel taps and spurs and spit-curls. The house was made of dull white wooden boards and broken windows. In the windows were hanging curtains with a pattern of red roses with no thorns. From the house came the smell of sassafras and tobacco smoke. The house was slanted, so big that it was built on the bottom of our hill so everything was in danger of running out the front door, which we saw was swinging open. We followed the boot prints through our stolen dirt. They led into the enormous whiteboard house and through the front door, which we saw was swinging open.
We had never been inside the house before but the house was filled with beautiful girls who fucked for free. Some girls were rich and plummy, and some were stringy and taut, beautiful violins. Their pussies smelled like sassafras. They couldn’t sing, not a one of them, but they knew how to dance. They took their clothes off and danced, and when they began to sing their dogs went to hide in the smokehouse. In the smokehouse the dogs took off their fur and danced naked, and when they began to sing the rats and mice would crawl out of the hams hanging there in the smokehouse and the rats and mice would run hide in the outhouse and take off their hides and dance, and when they began to sing their fleas would crawl out of the bellies and ears and run hide in the house, where they would jump out of their shells and commence to dance and sing in the hairs between the legs of the beautiful fat naked dancing girls who fucked for free.
Watching them dance made me hungry to eat and drink and smoke. After the rich and plummy, stringy taut girls finished dancing they gave me and Sweet Marie eleven blackbird pies. The beautiful naked dancing girls were not good cooks. The birds still had their feet and wings, their oily feathers filled with tiny mites that ran under the crust making little creeks and roads among the rotten birds. The beak had fallen off into the pokeberries. It was the end of an evil pair of scissors. The pokeberries were not pokeberries, they were buckshot. The beautiful naked dancing girls made pies of dead birds, mites, and buckshot. It tasted like tar. Graveyard tar. Like the sludge that drains out of a coffin. Watching them dance made me hungry to eat and drink and smoke.
I don’t think that’s for smoking, I think that’s meant to wrap the bodies of the dead, Sweet Marie said, looking at the giant bundles of tobacco leaves tied up and hanging, swaying from giant meat hooks, dangling from the rafters of the porch, swinging from the ceiling of the parlor of the house. We were hungry to eat and drink and smoke and fuck. Sweet Marie and I unwrapped one of the bundles on the porch and inside it was a tremendous nugget of ham, but yellow and stiff, with dull brackish orange patches from the nicotine on the dried, hairy skin. It looked to be my Grandpa Charlie. Twenty-six yellow teeth rattled out onto the floor. The eyes had dehydrated and rolled out of the sockets, little raisins held on only by a thread of wasted tendon. I reached for them; I thought of eating them with milk. I don’t think that’s for eating, I think those were his eyes, Sweet Marie said, looking at the mummified body in its tobacco-leaf shroud, which had crumbled to reveal the fat tobacco bugs who had dug little canals through the beef-jerky musculature of the old man. I wanted to eat the tobacco bugs. I don’t think you should eat them, Sweet Marie said, I think those tobacco bugs are fat because they’ve been eating the bodies of our dead, wrapped in tobacco leaves. Sweet Marie is the voice of reason. The fat tobacco bugs lifted up their blind heads from the yellow mucus when they heard Sweet Marie speak with her voice of reason. They paused and would have blinked at her, if they could have blinked at her, but the fat tobacco bugs instead lifted up their heads and licked their slimy feet out of respect. Sweet Marie brings that out. It always pays to listen to Sweet Marie and her voice of reason. I don’t think that’s for eating. I think that’s our dead. We watched the three hundred giant bundles of tobacco leaves tied up and gently hanging, slowly swaying from giant heavy thick steel meat hooks, the three hundred tobacco bundles suspended from the rafters of the porch and the trusses of the smokehouse and from the ceiling of the parlor of the house, swaying, hanging at a slant with the slope of the hills.The girls placed the bodies of the men in stacks on the back porch to drain before they wrapped them in the giant leaves of the tobacco trees and hung them on iron hooks in the smokehouse. The girls’ pussies tasted of sassafras. The house was slanted, it was built on the hill so everything would run out the front door, which was propped closed with the bodies of our men from the hills. The beautiful naked dancing girls who fucked for free placed the bodies of the men in stacks on the back porch to drain before they wrapped them in leaves from the tobacco trees and hung them in the smokehouse. The slope of the porch bothered them, the way it poured downhill a little more each year as the front yard sank.