Last night I watched a documentary about the moon. How it pulls at the oceans. How when it catches its next meteorite, at just the right size, and throws moonrocks like missiles at the upper atmosphere, it will cause a disaster. Tsunamis and hurricanes and push-pull tides that won’t let any of it go. The Eastern Seaboard, and England, will both be underwater.
My yard looks like this, like the surface of the moon. There are craters and ridges and little mountains of dirt everywhere–front and back. Some are peaked, the freshest spots, from the last time I pulled. When there was still ginseng to pull. We haven’t had enough rain to wash down the dirt, and now, with the fat moonlight everywhere on the drive and the yard and the curling roof shingles, it looks like my yard is throwing itself at the moon. Instead of the other way around, like they say on the show.
Of course, I’m in the way, getting thrown, too. Already, the disaster is peeling the paint, in places, from the siding. Ours is a modular home, not mobile–they halved it together, from two trucks. A gift from Josie’s dad.
The seam, though, could’ve used stronger bolts, and Josie’s dad’s men didn’t have them. It’s a little open, in places.
There isn’t a blade of grass in either yard, just the ripped-up dirt all across the firebreak to the paw paws and serviceberries and hemlock trees. Ropes of Virginia creeper are dead like snakes in places at the edge.
On my porch, I can smell a bit of Lake Chisolm. Sloshing, no doubt, in the big moonrays. Like they said on the show. There’s no ginseng there, either. It’s already all been pulled–by me and some others, mostly last year. Six hundred dollars a pound, to the Chinese. And they can tell the wild from the domestic. Domestic’s not worth anything. I had to transplant a few and let them set like weeds, on their own, just to get some roots from my own yard.
Josie has the last of our stash inside. She’s making ‘seng tea and pudding for Shell. Shell’s been sick a month, and there’s nothing left in our line of credit. No room on the cards. No more loans against the title and the checkbook. There’s nothing but the fever, and the runs, and the pains in her joints. She cries when I bend them.
Inside, Josie’s skin looks as gray as Shell’s. She sleeps in snatches on her folded arms, her fingers working at the peeling laminate on the kitchen table. Working. Picking and rolling. Over and over. Like she’s cleaning ‘seng. One root at a time, a nap at a time. Ten minutes, that’s all. She looks like she’s forty. Last month, we both turned twenty-four.
“She needs a clean diaper,” Josie says.
I pull one out of the half-torn plastic under the sink. A few semi-translucent slices of already-steeped ‘seng cling like slugs to the tile. When I’m finished with Shell, I’ll take them out onto the porch, where they can dry in tomorrow’s sun. I’ll re-use them, the next time me and Josie can get a quiet hour. When we’re both awake enough to put on the radio and slip into the bedroom.
“You going senging?” Josie asks.
“Nowhere to go,” I say. I inspect the contents of Shell’s used diaper before tying it in a grocery bag and sealing it in the diaper-bin.
Josie lights a cigarette at the table, waiting on the kettle. On the ‘seng. If we can just keep enough around, we can take care of Shell.
With her off-hand, Josie toys with our last whole root, running her fingers up and down its legs. They look like little, deformed men, the roots. Usually without heads.
“Nothing on Darrel’s scanner?” Josie asks. The radio spits music faintly from the counter. I realize that it’s been on the entire time. Some song about kicking ass, about American boots in Pakistani caves. It’s a stupid song, but Josie likes it.
Darrell’s scanner picks up police and ranger stations. When people are poaching, we know, and we follow a few days later. Sometimes we collect the ‘seng they couldn’t get away with.
I tap the tape-tabs into place on Shell’s little hips. A few weeks ago, she’d been jaundiced, as yellow as a sink-washed ‘seng root. Now she is only gray. I touch her lips when she puckers them at me.
I look at Josie. She needs to wash her hair.
“I’ll drive to Mason,” I say. “I’ll talk to Darrell in Mason.”
In Mason, in the bar, they’re playing that same stupid song. Kicking Arab ass. America. Electric guitars. Some line about pie. People are nodding over their light beers and smoking along.
The windows in this place are blacked against the moonlight. Outside, there are two tail pipes for every truck, growling and choking as people come and go. Trailer hitches dangling truck-sized, rubber testicles. Mason is an important place. For everybody.
Darrell is sitting at the bar, the heels of his boots hooked onto the stool’s cross-bars.
There’s a football game on three different TVs overhead.
I sit beside him.
He exaggerates a smile. “Hey, Troy.”
The bartender sets a beer down in front of me–the same kind as always. Darrell watches, his eyes behind the lines of her overtight tank top.
I take my time lighting a cigarette, waiting for her to walk away.
“Anything on the scanner?”
Darrell looks back at the game. “No.”
Someone cheers himself at the pool table. Screaming. A dickhead like the rest.
“Anybody saying anything?” I ask.
Darrell drinks. He’s single. No kids. Works at a silo outside Cascade. To him, ‘senging means new guns, a better blind, an ounce of weed, maybe. To him, it’s just machismo in the woods, playing army. Sneaking around the sinkholes and inside the caves, pulling ‘seng when he can. Looking for something to beat up or shoot at or even just run from.
He’s rough with the ‘seng. Gouging it out of the soil, and cramming it into his fists. He always calls them little fuckers, the roots, and stares at them like they’re little, brown people.
I watch the game with him.
“How’s Shell?” he asks.
I pick at the label on the beer. “Can’t take her.”
After a while, he stares at his bottle. Finally, some Williams on the stereo. Something decent.
“You might could poach with Evan,” Darrell says.
I look at him. “Yeah? When?”
We drink with Evan sometimes, but we don’t ‘seng with him. Not normally. Never wanted to. He pulls like an idiot, at Mammoth Cave, running right around the rangers and the photoreactive dyes–even the tourists camping around the caves. Sometimes, I think he even lives in one.
I don’t have much choice.
“I’ll tell him,” Darrell said. “Bring that .38.”
“Pawned it,” I said.
I’ve been caught before. Not at Mammoth Cave, but on a reserve. It wasn’t hunting season, and there hadn’t been anybody for weeks. It was good there, but, at the end of a ranger’s winking gun barrel, I emptied my pockets, surrendered my rifle, and went along. I sold Josie’s Olds to pay the fine. Only three months in jail. Then probation.
And never a job again. Not at the plant, not at the silos, not even at the drive-through.
I move to the left a little, reel in the jig, and recast. I could care less if there are any crappie beneath the fallen cypress alongside this pier, but it needs to look like I’m doing something. Like I have a good reason for being around the park so late. Here, and around Chisolm, you can do anything, so long’s you’re fishing.
Moths and may flys swarm dumbly around the goose-necked pier lights. The yellowed insect bulbs make rows of artificial moons on the water. The real one is behind the clouds tonight.
Further down the pier, some people are talking in the fishing house. I stare at it. Not going in. In Texas, around Possum Kingdom Lake, Josie’s grandfather stumbled into one drunk. He hit his head against the bar, then went out cold. Then into the fishing hole. He died face down in a four-foot square of lakewater, a copy of Aristotle in his plumber’s-shirt pocket. Those others, in there now, don’t even know books can sometimes fit in pockets. I don’t know why they fish in there. There’s plenty of the same water out here, where people like me can help if something happens.
But those houses are for doing things alone in public places. Like reading books on a fishing pier. Like drowning for it.
Evan finally shows up, his footsteps hammering onto the pier. I reel the jig out of the water and run my fingers across its chenille torso, across the goggled lead eyes. Really, it’s too dark for the lure to make any sort of difference.
Evan spits over the rail as he steps up, his bottom lip puffed with tobacco. He waves at a man on the other end and settles his forearms beside mine.
“Troy,” he says. He arranges his tobacco with his tongue. The lights along the pier can’t find his eyes under the rim of his hat. He fiddles absently with the knife on his belt.
“How’s fish?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I say. “Fine. Got a reel?”
He spits again. “At home.”
We stand silently for a time. Everywhere around us, tree frogs and crickets saw at the night air. A few Silver-haired bats flutter past the big lights over our heads. The trees are nothing but stippled, dark places. At night, they never have names–not unless the moon’s out, splashing all everything.
But one day, it could be chunks of screaming hot meteorites, and not slow, Kentucky moon beams. One day, there’ll be a disaster.
“How well you know the park?” Evan asks.
“Been around a few times.”
“You get your guns back?”
I look at him. “Can I borrow one of yours?”
He pulls the brim of his hat lower over his eyes. Pushes it back up. Settles it back again at the beginning.
“Five pounds,” he says. “That’s all is good right now.”
I remember to cast the line again, watching as the new ripples in the still water slam the artificial moons into each other.
“Yeah. All right.”
Shell is sleeping tonight. Josie looks at her occasionally, in her padded crib, under the built-in desk where we keep the dvds. Shell hasn’t filled as many diapers today. Her stool is firming. When I squat down and look at her through the daisy-printed mesh, her pallor looks purple, splashed by the TV light. She doesn’t look as blue as she does in her room because the window is on the other side of the living room. The moonlight is on the other side.
Josie has the TV turned down. She’s watching the celebrity news channel, her arms folded across her chest.
Back in the kitchen, I have the first new root in my hand. It’s heavy, at least a quarter of a pound, even after we steeped and mashed one of its legs for Shell.
Josie and I haven’t had sex in weeks. I don’t even think either of us has showered in two days. It doesn’t matter. I cut a coin of ‘seng from the root with my buck knife and eat it. I cut three more, peel back the knotty, brown skin, and drop them into a glass with two cubes of ice. I fill it with Wabash Corn Whiskey.
Josie sees it in my hand when I join her on the couch. For a long time, we make a game of not being too forward. We stare at, chuckle with, and ridicule the celebrity news quietly. Eventually, I finish the whiskey, swallow the ‘seng, and move in on Josie. We paw and tickle and fuss for half an hour. Even now, Josie still looks tired.
But there’s no erection. I eat more ‘seng, chewing it harder and swallowing it slower. But Josie takes Shell into her room and sleeps. Outside, I stare at the moonlight and the sweetgum trees.
Evan meets me outside the cave. It’s near a smaller sinkhole far enough away from the named and toured entrances in the proper part of the park. I look past him, looking for a stove, or a sleeping bag, or a door made from trees, but it’s too dark to see anything. When I was a Boy Scout, the troop would hike through some of these, before any of us had heard of ‘seng. Before any went to jail, got married, went to college. Some went to college.
One time, we had spent hours scraping at our flints-and-steel, creating piles of filed magnesium and lighting them with our waterproof matches. The flames had been pink, and they hissed while we stared. We told the scoutmaster that we were burning potato chips, and he left us alone. Terry called Tommy gay, ’cause he liked the pink fires. There was a fight after Tommy pissed on him. Tommy quit after that.
Evan hands me a .22 pistol. He’s bored down the barrel and made a silencer by stuffing washers into a new casing.
He pulls his brim over his eyes. Looking around, he lifts it back up, and settles it again at the beginning. He has an ultraviolet flashlight in his hand.
“Anything on the scanner?” he asks.
The scanner is Darrell’s. I have no idea.
“Good. How’s the rangers?”
I shrug. “Quiet.”
He starts hiking, red LED flashlight in one hand, ultraviolet in the other. We’ll use the gun if we scare up any bobcats.
I have to drive to Louisville to make a sale–up 31 past Fork Knox and through West Point. Things are very clean just before Louisville.
I park the Ford near a loading dock behind Broadway, between the Chickasaw and Shawnee Parks. My guy, Randy, runs a head shop and apothecary from an upstairs front. He’s in the alley beneath the fire escape, spray painting glass mirrors black. Inside, he sells them as dark mirrors to the New Agers.
He looks up briefly, a cloud of black paint wafting through the braids in his beard.
I’ve got my hands in my pockets. “Hey, Randy. Business?”
He frog-waddles over to another mirror without standing up. “Same. Been ‘senging?”
I look around. At the far end of the alley, between two refurbished brick facades, day shoppers pass in and out of view, plastic-handled shopping bags between them.
“Seven hundred a pound,” Randy says, picking a Sassafrass twig off the newly wet mirror. A few of them blow in sometimes from Shawnee Park. The alley is scabbed with their leaves.
I watch him for a minute. Offering seven hundred means he’s hoping I haven’t heard how good the market is this month. He knows I don’t really sell much place else.
It’s enough, though.
“That much?” I play along. “Let’s go upstairs.”
In his workroom, I can only half-hear the bagpipes and synthesizers he’s playing through his stereo. Wafts of Nag Champa curl through the bead curtain on the opposite wall. He zeros out his scales and takes the roots when I hand them to him. Only a pound. Me and Josie and Shell need the rest.
When he’s finished, he puts the roots in a black-painted box, plugs the thing in, and throws its blackout skirt over his head. He studies the roots through a hole, looking for the Ag Department’s dyes. These days, they paint the ‘seng against these sorts of things. When they can find it.
I stand around dumbly, waiting. He’s polite when he pulls the roots out, flips on his metal detector, and waves them under its paddle. I’m glad there aren’t any tracking pins in these roots. I wasn’t sure.
Satisfied, Randy unlocks his counter-safe, sandalwood beads swinging around his neck. He tucks the roots inside and pulls out a stack of bills. I can see his .44 on the little safe’s top shelf.
“Put another coat on those mirrors while you’re down,” he says.
Evan is quiet while I pull. He stands against a tree, his lights turned off for now. The ultraviolet didn’t find any dyes on this plant, so I’m being careful, digging out the soil in the broken moonlight. Digging by feel. I don’t really need to see.
I cut the root out with my buck knife and jam the severed trunk back into the soil. It’ll die just the same, but just in case. In case a ranger comes along. This’ll buy another day or two.
I hand the pistol to Evan and wrap the root in a chamois. We’ve got most of five pounds now. Around us, the wind rattles things, upsetting a screech owl some fifty yards off or so. The aromas of turned earth and witchhazel are ghosting around us. The mosquitoes are bad this year, whining amongst themselves as they explore our ears.
Evan kneels suddenly, hissing in reverse as he sucks in his breath. “Don’t move.”
All the ‘seng is piled in its chamois by his heel.
“Stay where you are,” a bullhorn commands. A floodlight is painting the surrounding trees, trying to find us. It gets Evan’s hat for a second. My heart is pumping bile through my veins, and I’m not moving. I’m thinking about running, my eyes on the moon-splattered ‘seng. My eyes are on Shell, on Josie’s hair. On the gap between the two halves of our house.
Evan leans into the ‘seng and whispers, his fingers tugging on the brim of his hat. The flood throws another searching parallelogram of light across the black oaks around us.
“Step into the light!” the bullhorn barks. I can’t tell how many of them there are.
Evan spits when he’s done. When he’s done the whispering. Darrel would’ve just thrown them. He would have been angry at the roots and the caves they landed in. Not the ranger. He would have made conversation with the ranger.
The piled ‘seng roots stand up quickly, shrugging away my chamois like they’re slipping out of bed. Standing on their hairy, root-legs, they look headlessly around for a minute and then run away. They run into the dappled shadows, staying close on their needled toes to shrub-stalks and undergrowth, hiding from the night watchers like the screech owls and the bobcats.
The flood finds me before it gets Evan, and I can hear the ranger cock his shotgun.
Evan sets the brim of his hat again, lifts his doctored .22, and shoots. It hiccups quietly, and the flood looks elsewhere.
The ‘seng has run itself away. I have only the two warty, unmarketable roots in my pocket. For no good reason, I run after Evan as he jogs toward the fallen floodlight.
He hit the ranger in the chest. The shotgun is lying beside his canted legs, and he’s breathing heavily, staring, and he slaps dumbly at the wound. Me and Evan chop up my warty ‘seng on a chunk of slate and shove it into the wound. We shove and shove, but it isn’t enough. It can’t do for the ranger what it can’t do for Shell.
At home, I park the Ford and climb out stiffly. I walk mechanically across the yard, across the peaks and divots and disrupted soil. I’m going after it all with the hose and rake tomorrow. I’m going to smooth everything out.
Josie takes the money when I hand it to her on the couch.
One root is big enough, the biggest one, so I set it down and whisper. I tell it to walk.
It walks across the living room. Shell isn’t in her crib anymore, so the ‘seng climbs over the daisy-printed mesh and settles inside. It kicks its legs, moving purple freckles across its hoary skin where the TV shines through the mesh.
-originally published in PostScripts 20/21 2009-
Darin Bradley is the author of Noise, Chimpanzee, and Totem (forthcoming). He has published articles, short fiction, and poetry at a variety of journals, and he has served in editorial capacities for a number of independent presses. A founding editor of Farrago’s Wainscot, he serves as the ezine’s editor-in-chief and co-edits Bahamut, a transnational print journal of global fringe literature with his wife, Rima Abunasser. He keeps a website at www.darinbradley.com