DADAW STORIES: Moonlit Sulpher (1923)

Watchin’ a feller’s daddy go crazy is more than anybody oughta have to do.

Charlie shoveled the soggy black soil over his shoulder.  Joe was huffing at the same task beside him.  On the next gouge Joe’s boot slipped off the lip of the spade.  He swore, then sighed and stood up straight with the shovel angled out in one hand like a rifle at ease.  The round midnight moon, high over the pines at the top of its arc, coated the ground and trees and the sweating brothers with a bluish white patina.

Joe pulled out his sopping handkerchief and wiped his face for the umpteenth time since they’d started digging.

“How long we gonna keep at this, Bub?”

“Long as he’s a mind to, I reckon,” said Charlie.  He spoke without stopping the steady crunch, scoop, heave of his digging.

“Well, he might be a mind to all night,” snapped Joe.  “Then what?”

Charlie stopped and faced his brother.  “He’ll tucker out soon.  He always does.  Look, the sooner we get this hole dug the sooner we’ll be headin’ back to the house.”

Joe drove his shovel back into the damp peat.

“All right.  But this is the last time I’m comin’ out in this swamp.  The last time, Charlie.  From now on if you want to, it’s your call.  But this ‘un here…”  He stopped long enough to jab his thumb into his sweaty shirt.  “This ‘un here ain’t comin’ back.  I mean it, Charlie.  This is the last time.  You think we’re doin’ him any good comin’ out here on these wild goose chases?  We ain’t doin’ him no good.  No good at all.  I reckon it’s more harm than good if the truth was knowed.”

Joe was still griping and digging when their father appeared at the edge of the two-foot deep trench. 

“How’s it goin’, boys?” he called.

The lantern he held above his dirt and sweat-streaked face swung in his unsteady hand, causing the shadows from his brow and nose to jump from one cheek to the other and back again.  His white hair stuck out wispy and wild in the flame’s yellow light.  When he lowered his arm his blue eyes—faded by sixty years—leapt out of the gloomy sockets, wary and manic.  The bib overalls hung from his skinny frame.  He’d been too obsessed with thoughts of buried treasure to bother with food or rest.  The old man was crawling with madness.

“It’s going good, Daddy,” rasped Charlie.

“We’ll get this dug out all around.”  His father motioned with a broad sweep of his hand that took in the entire sulfur ring in which his sons worked.  Laying out the sulfur was as religious an enterprise as anything the Catholics devised.  The sons, now husbands and fathers themselves, stood watching in solemn silence while the old man paced off the distance from whatever tree or stump or log had been most recently revealed to him.  They watched as he used his Old Timer to slit one corner of a ten-pound bag of sulfur to mark an “X” over the treasure.  He then poured a perfect, unbroken circle on a five-foot radius from the “X”.  Just before he closed the circle, he paused for his sons to step inside with their shovels, where they were to remain until a trench was dug around the treasure.  They had to go at it sideways.  That was part of the way the thing worked.

The old man made a scooping arc like a softball pitcher.  “We can go under.  Them guardin’ spirits, they don’t git under the gold.  They just guard the top part, cause they’s always thinkin’ that’s the way a feller’s gonna go at it.  That sulfur’ll take care of the rest of ‘em.”

“They ain’t no gold, Daddy.”

“What’s that, Joe?”

Joe slammed his shovel to the ground and climbed out of the hole.  He was a head taller than the stooped old man.

“There ain’t no buried treasure, Daddy.  Cain’t you see it’s all in your head?”  Joe poked at his own temple with an index finger.

“What are you talkin’ about, son?  A’ course they’s gold.  If it ain’t right here, it’s near here.”  The pleading in his father’s voice sickened Charlie.

“No, Daddy.  It ain’t here.  It ain’t there.  There ain’t no treasure.  There just ain’t.”

“Knock it off, Joe,” Charlie said softly.

“No, Bub.  I’m tired a eggin’ this on.  Daddy, there ain’t never been no French pirates nor Spanish pirates nor English pirates in this swamp.  This here’s Stockman’s Cove, and we was the first humans, ‘cept maybe some poor ol’ Cajuns, who ever come on this land.  They ain’t no buried treasure here lessn’ it’s some old somethin’ you or Mama lost.”

His father shook his head slowly.  In the lamplight, his eyes darkened with doubt and his shoulders stooped a little more under the weight of that doubt.

“No, boy,” he whispered.  “They told me.  They knew!

Who told you, Daddy?  Somethin’ that wasn’t even there.  Somethin’ you cooked up in your own head.”

“Leave it, Joe,” warned Charlie.

“I ain’t leavin’ it, Charlie.  Not anymore.  We spent too many nights out in this swamp drawin’ sulfur circles and diggin’ trenches and findin’ nothin’ and comin’ back the next weekend to do the whole drill all over again.  It ain’t doin’ nobody no good!”

“Now you listen to me!”  The old man’s voice was suddenly strong as when he was forty.  “You ain’t talkin’ to your daddy that way.  Not while I’m a still kickin’.  I kin teach you a lesson you’ll carry with you.”

“No, Daddy.  There ain’t gonna be no more lessons.  Them days is gone.”

“You’re too late, Joe,” Charlie said softly.

Joe looked at his brother, puzzled.

“What you gonna do with this?” asked Charlie.  “You gonna make it right now when he don’t even know what’s real and what ain’t?  Look at him.”

Joe did look.  Charlie saw him study the sorry shell of their father.  Saw him study the drying, worn-out skin the years had emptied of brutality.

“What’s it gonna be, Joe?  You gonna let go of it, or ain’t ya?  He cain’t help what he done back then.  Shoot—”  Charlie threw down his shovel and climbed up level with his brother.  “He ain’t never gonna make it right, ‘specially not now.  You gotta get rid of that poison for yourself, big brother.”

Their father looked from one of his sons to the other.  In that space of waiting for Joe to decide which way it was going to be Charlie saw the old man hesitate, not even sure of what had happened last.  Then Joe turned and walked away.  Walked out of the circle of sulfur that kept away what the old man called the natterin’ spirits.  Charlie watched Joe cross the clearing, his shirt glowing white, then watched him disappear into the shadows of the trees.  He watched a while longer too, but never saw more than the fuzzy glow of a swamp light playing on a rotted log back in the thicket.

“Where’s Joe goin’?”

Charlie clasped his father’s shoulder.  “He’ll be back, Daddy.  Don’t worry.  Now, let’s get this finished.”

He dropped into the trench and bent to pick up the shovel, catching a nose full of rotten egg stench from the sulfur.  He snorted and wiped at his face with his sleeve, fighting down a geyser of frustration.  Now I feel what Joe’s feelin’.

Joe’d work through it though, no doubt about that.  Charlie figured he was preaching himself a sermon as good as he did on any Sunday, alone out in those woods.  Nothing to do but keep digging and listening to Daddy’s nutty rantings about the spirits that put him onto the treasure.  Nothing to do but wait for Joe to come around.

Charlie was still digging when he heard Joe land heavy in the trench.  Neither spoke.

They finished at a quarter past two.  It looked like a giant had lifted a ten-foot donut out of the earth, leaving traces of yellow sugar around the edges.  They dug into the center column, under the sulfur “X”, with a shovel-full of dirt caving in for every one they tossed out.  They found nothing.

“Looks like this ain’t the place, Daddy,” said Charlie.

“Could be they moved it.”  Their father surveyed the sulfur ring.  “There’s a scuffed-up place here.  They coulda got in that way.”

Charlie nodded.

“C’mon, Daddy, let’s go home,” said Joe.

“All right, Son.”  All the pleading hope had drained from the old man’s voice.  He looked as shrunken and hollow as a dried pepper.

The three men tromped back to the house through the bog.  Charlie wondered what someone coming along after them would think of all those big sulfur rings with messed up holes dug inside them.  It looked like there’d been some kind of crazy war out there.

© 1996 Melissa Kay Simonds

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