“Scrapie’s Trap” by Lisa Bergin

Lampyridae: Firefly.

Female Photuris fireflies will mimic the mating flashes of other subfamilies of firefly, such as Photinus, in order to draw their males as prey. The mating behavior of the male Photuris includes their mimicking the flashes of the males of the Photinus subfamily, the prey that the female Photuris attempts to capture with her own mimicry. In this way predator and “prey” may find in each other a mate.

* * *

Kuru didn’t know what had gotten hold of her. Just knew she couldn’t hold the club steady no more.

That, and her mem’ries–seemed like they was flickering.

Only ones still shining steady were the ones etched deep: those bad days, round ’bout eight years past, just after Scrapie was born, and she’d lost Prion to the beasts.

Sure she’d tried to bring her boy back alive. But even as she tracked him miles and miles through their bayous, she was knowing it deep down. Knowing it all through the heat of that afternoon, knowing it as her breasts filled, swelled up with that tight aching, and knowing it as they started in to dripping milk, till she be wet to her thighs. Whole time just knowing she couldn’t leave Scrapie much longer. If she wanted to come back to her living.

When dusk come on and them first fireflies lit, Kuru hung her head low, let what tears she had fall. And made her way back to her newborn daughter.

She chose Scrapie and gave him up. Her fourth born, Pri. To the beasts what had come stalking them bayous.

Swamp folk told her, even years on, how she’d done cast her bets right that night. Chasing after beasts were sure suicide. Following that path would of meant all three of them dyin. Pri and Kuru dead by them beasts, Scrapie left with no milk but for that bright swath of light crossing the skies. Coulda been three, stead of just one, dead. Only made sense what she done.

But Kuru knew no kind of summing up would make it right.

Mighta been the visioning over what them animals had done to her boy. Coulda been that what’d poked them holes in her brain.

* * *

Scrapie’d started hunting ’bout a half season before she’d ever found that boy what went by the name of Dog. Least ways she’d started practicing for the hunt.

Kuru’d been learning her the bow. Weren’t strong enough for any club yet. At eight she was barely even strong enough for the bow. But Kuru was insisting she work her shots anyways. Needed to protect herself, case she came on a beast alone.

Scrapie’d be out aiming at snails, her mouth watering, coz they such easy meat. Kuru’d said they couldn’t be eating none them no more. Mostly, Scrapie obeyed, excepting when the hunger’d come on too strong.

Those days, good food hard to come by, what with the Sippy and the whole of that Delta glowing red hot.

Were nasty eating, but Kuru held them Northern beasts were the safest thing going. Besides, after they took her boy, Pri, ground him down to meal in their bellies, she didn’t have no sympathy to waste on them kind.

Still, Scrapie couldn’t hardly swallow their meat down. So Kuru fed the Beast blood to the goats, and Scrapie mostly lived off of their milk.

Yeah, some while before Scrapie found that boy Dog, she’d started in to practicing with her bow, arrows streaking till she be piercing them snail’s shells more often than not. Whole time telling herself she could do it, take a beast down on her own. Let the killing arrow fly.

Telling herself over and over, for to try and make it true.

* * *

He’d been running, Dog had. Running the rails, telling himself it were good, this running toward something that might be home.

Even if it meant being killed a traitor. Swamp folk, Thority, didn’t matter. Either one, both, could rightful lay that charge on him.

But better that than having to quiet his tongue as Thority spoke on his kind. No matter that he couldn’t barely recall his folk, all them down Houma Nation what was Before Times Louisiana. Dog remembered his growing up swamps, sure–could still see the shifting light, hear the chatter of all them insects come dark and the sound of gators as they slipped into a slow current. But all his kin, his Mah, Pah, his mess of brothers? Their faces just blurred and shifted in Dog’s mind.

And yet still, he’d kept enough of how it felt living among them that Thority words cut quick and then burned icy all through his gut:

“Nothing but pestilence and scum.”

And “You cannot take the swamp out of a scummer until you get the scummer out of the swamps.”

Dog were remembering them Thority words as he ran, remembering and thinking on their whispers ’bout how there were only one kinda thing nits’ll ever grow into. Whisperings of wasted time, trying to train all them kids on being glow worms, when them weren’t never gonna morph into nothing even remote like a firefly.

Dog were running from them whispers. Running home to his swamps. Running till he drop.

* * *

Kuru’d birthed seven times, but only two’d took. Pri and Scrapie. Pri were born in the caul, ghost quiet, still wrapped in the fluid sac. Scrapie’d come out screaming and hadn’t never shut up since.

Kuru never even told Scrapie she’d an older brother. Six years and a month.

* * *

Scrapie were out milking them goats, chattering away. Her Mama not talking much no more, saving her energy, seemed like. So Scrapie’d started in to talking to whosoever might be could listen.

Of a sudden, there’s Fancy Bléz Richer come along up the tributray. Soon’s Scrapie seen him, she’s scrambling up the ladder and on into the shack she shared with Kuru.

By the time he reached the dock, she were back out, grasping onto their only cup, a small tin thing, dented and tarnished.

Bonjou, sha,” Fancy said, voice full up of tender. “Yahl’s Mah round bout?”

“Sure.”

Scrapie dunked the tin cup into her bucket and brought the milk on over to Fancy, where he sitting in his punt, his ruined legs sprawled awkward. He closed his eyes as a bit of the thick warmth slipped down his throat. Long time after that sip, he kept his head tilted back, savoring, but not drinking no more. The ribbons round the brim of his hat dancing in the salty breeze. Glimmers getting tossed into Scrapie’s eyes from them Before Times coins he’d got tied in and prettying up his long, black hair.

“Caught anyting lately from down by dem rails?”

“Nah, Mama ain’t felt up tuh trappin late-like. She got dem shakes agin.” Scrapie, pulled slivers of wood from out the dock, her head down, stringy, matted hair covering up her eyes.

“Yahl give her dem bog squirrels I brought, no? And told her I caught’m young, full fur and eyes still shiny?”

Scrappie shook her head, “She say she weren’ havin none dem. Dumped’m down de shitter, fore I could git’m out she hands.”

Fancy were sorry for that. Knew Kuru just trying to keep Scrapie health like, but still, he thought: dem rib bones jutted. He handed Scrapie’s tin back to her. Were still mostly full.

“I’ll bring yahl nother milkin goat. Soon’s the newlings ween.”

“Sure. Bettin tuh have some beast what for tuh trade yah, by den.” Scrapie jutted her chin out and pounded one fist on her bare chest. “I’s learnin tuh arrow. Gettin good, too.”

“I’ll take as much as yahl’s Mah kin spare.” Fancy give her a nod and a grin as he settled his boat back into the current.

Once he’d rounded the bend, Scrapie went back to seeing if she might coax a couple more dribbles of milk outta them scrawny goats.

“I gottuh git good, Tinus,” she told the brown spotted one. “Mama need dat meat.” Tinus kicked herself way from Scrapie’s grasping hands, found herself a tree to scratch her side against. “Seein as she won’ drink none yahl’s milk no more.”

Scrapie wrapped her arms round Photuris, the bone-white goat, and hung her weight offa her, swinging. “I’s tellin yah, Turis, I’m near tuh able. Dem arrows flyin true now. And tokkin somethin powerful. Most times.”

Scrapie let the goat be and gulped down the milk in her pail.

“Right near able, sure.”

Turis either didn’t agree or weren’t paying that child no mind.

* * *

Round ’bout their fourteenth year, Thority decided to send them back out, all them kids they’d stole.

Would send them out in scummer clothing, with walking gear, and rations. One week fore they was to raft out, Tiptop summoned them hundreds out to the exercising grounds, for to gift them with words meant to prouden up their hearts for the task ahead of them.

Dog standing in his row. Fighting at keeping his breath steady, listening on them words.

“Some, even here, may show their narrowness, throwing whispered taunts. Scummer. Swamp rat. Downers. I do not have to repeat such meanness. I am sure you know such infractions occur, for such is the way of things.

“But I remind you now: where you come from need not tell your complete story.

“We have fed you on decency, on obedience. We have filled you up with the best we have to offer. And we did this only to break you of your old habits, your old speech. Yes, we have done these many things so our light should almost emanate from your now cleansed skin.

“Now our task is complete and yours must begin. You will be our beacons of hope. The youth drawing out those we had to leave behind. Drawing them out of their rotting lives. You will pull them up from the muck in which they fester and into the pure air. Into flight. Into the order and cleanliness that you, of all of us, know best. For in your very being, you show to all what is still possible. Even in these hardest of times.”

Dog standing in his row. Just one drop in that sea of gray and beige uniforms. Trying to keep his jaw loose: couldn’t let them know how much his skin be crawling, just straining to get away. Too feared they’d keep him if they glimpsed what his blood still pumping.

Home. Finding home. Finding home. Finding home. Were the very beat of his heart.

Didn’t dare look any other one of them kids in the eye – sure how his knees’d buckle if he cognized they felt the same.

One week. He only had to make it one more week fore they’d get theyselves rafted outta St. Louis and on down to the New Madrid Faultlands.

Dog telling himself how once they got to the Falls around New Madrid, he’d have his chance.

* * *

When Pri’d dropped, it were just like two of them others Kuru’d done birthed. Her first and her third.

Ghost quiet.

Reason why she’d thought sure that once she could bear looking, she’d find this one blue-gray and still as stone. Like them others.

Collected up the last of her strength and reached down tween her shaking legs, expecting to find the tiny body already starting to cool. But all’s she found were just a slippy mess.

Her mind quicking, remembering stories of babes born with the veil.

Kuru’s first sight of her son was just his eyes, peering out the rend she’d made in that sac. Wide open, watery-blue eyes. Not being able to tear her own away as she peeled that curtain back. Watching, staring at the slow blink of his eyes, as she pulled him out, letting him breathe his first.

Never did cry, that one. Not coming on into air. Not then, not never. Calm.

Kuru knew then-there it were true what folk said ’bout them born in the caul. He’d be having the second sight, a seeing beyond.

And she knew too this one were gonna live past weaning, even tho’ so many of them lil ones weren’t. Not like her second child, born live only to die weeks later, skin so thin it tore whenever that sweet thing moved. Naw, this one, she knew then-there he was gonna be alright.

Her knowing all that, right down to her bones: why she never could figure how come he got took.

* * *

Scrapie out walking the rails, explaining to the crows why for there be no scraps to fight over.

“Mama too sick for tuh come out for de trappin.

“But soon, sure, I’ll be bringin dem down wid me bow.

“Gottuh. No one-two bout it. Mama need meat, she shakin gettin real bad.

“Fancy done brought jerky, swamp deer, but Mama refusin tuh eat it, say she kin see it glowin come dark.

“Tingled my tongue up, sure. But that just mighta been the sauce Fancy be puttin on all he jerk. He claimin it be called ‘Neat Texas Pete’.

“He say it be safe. He sure dese Bayou done filter most dat poison out. Why he’ll eat dem what drink from de fresh swamp waters.

“But Mama won’ take no chances no more.

“Makin me promise some twelve time a day I ain’t be eatin no ting but goaty milk.

“Never fess tuh her it ain’t nough. How I be eatin what Fancy kin slip me, and slugs and snails and de cray. Sure, might get raydi sick, but don’ see how dat could be any worse’n dat hunger when it go deep.

“And now Mama startin in tuh murmurin on how maybe I shouldn’ even drink we goat’s milk no more. Sayin she don know iff’n we kin trust it, wid dem grazin in the bayou.

“When all long she be agreein partway wid Fancy. Swamp veg be good nuff. When I’s still careful Tinus and Turis only drinkin de rain. No river water for dem, nah.

“But now she say’n praps everythin gottuh come from dose beasts. All de meat for she belly, blood meal and hides tuh feed dem goats so’s dey milk be clean. Bein as how my throat keeps closin gainst eatin dem beasts.

“Why I’s gottuh get ready for de hunt. Iff’n she not gon eat noway else.”

* * *

Out on that raft, finally heading toward his growning-up swamps again, Dog still couldn’t let his true mind shine. But what he could do: ponder on if any them other kids was bluffing.

Ten kids and one Minder to a raft. Thirty-odd rafts bumping up next to one another all the way down that river. And it seemed all any of them could talk ’bout was how proud Thority gonna be, seeing them bringing their folk outta the gutters, the hollers, and the swamps.

From up St. Louis on down to New Madrid. They rode them rafts till them waters did fall, and that whole way, all of them kids just glowing on ’bout their mission.

It’d been years since any boat had crossed through what was one time Cairo. Not a one since them quakes’d come and shook that land all to pieces. Created what come to be called the New Madrid Chasm. Round them parts the rails along the Mighty River had gotten all busted up too. No equipment for to rebuild, so North-going folk, South-going folk, they all had to cross on bridges of rope.

Were bad news for anyone living south of the break: rope weren’t strong enough to move big-time supplies, could only carry folk and whatsoever all they could carry on their backs. Meant what food them dirt farmers up North could coax, couldn’t get south of Cahokia land neither railwise nor raftwise.

So it were too bad that Chasm, specially after Riverbend Nuclear done melted, leaving folk down the Delta with nothing safe for eating. Them folk were Dog’s folk. Thority claimed still some living deep in the Bayous, claiming the worst evil ’bout them, too. But Dog be knowing not to trust Thority none.

But what ’bout all them other kids? Even after letting them off long the Illinois, were still hundreds on them rafts as they approached the Faultlands. And all them just jabbering away ’bout saving their folk from their miseries.

But Dog got to cognizing: thought he hearing a frantic note in all that enthusiasm. Them words mighta been a hair too loud. Could all them kids be pumping their words up mayhaps and edge too strong, so’s not to get found out?

Dog near ’bout driving himself crazy with questioning. Biting his tongue for to not fess up, wanting to know so bad if they thinking his thoughts right alongside.

Trapped like some larva ready to molt, new skin all beetled up, but somehow not able to slough the old away.

* * *

From the swampers in the bayous to the dirt farmers up round Bemidji, none of them anywhere up-down that Mighty river what was Before Times known as the Mississippi, not one of them knew why Thority did it: just dropped, ’bout 45 paces from them rails. Only knew it kept the trains running.

Not like years past when Scrapie was but to her Mama’s knee. Them days, trains just refused to move anytime Thority made to ride the rails.

Course everyone’d been knowing long time that Thority didn’t control the trains no more. But funny thing was, no one could say who or what was keeping them Greeny Maglevs running.

The not knowing: why some folk took to calling them Ghost Trains. For ages, Thority’d tried to make like they was still in charge. Being as how them trains had give them all the power they’d ever done had.

Till the ghosts put a stop to that. Round ’bout the time them troubles come down round St. Paul. Thority got anywhere near them rails, and in a wink, they was on the ground, dead.

Seemed like someone, somewhere, watching. And not liking what they seen, Thority-wise.

* * *

As her sickness dug deep, Kuru couldn’t abide being outside under the sun.

Even in the filtering sun of their bayou.

So she were sleeping days and setting out nights with the fireflies. Thinking on maybe they the spirit of her lost boy, she started in to talking.

“I been livin wid dat choice. Wid de knowin how you’d of ended. What happened to yah weren’ de bad part. All gottuh die, de young, de old alike. It were dat you had to live trough dat kinda dyin and bein old nough tuh know what be comin.”

Seemed to Kuru, them fireflies be listening. Kindled up her thoughts.

“I weren’ dere. On yah last day, yahl out trappin wid Fancy. Me spectin yah to be back widda brace of muskrat, meat tuh help keep my milk up. But it were only Fancy come draggin to tell me the trut of it, legs mangled from tryin tuh fight dem beasts.

“I weren’ wid yah, de day de beasts came. But I swear on dese swamps, I kin see yah face as dey dragged yah away.

“Sure to be askin yah scared self: why I weren’ comin for yah? And de pain as dey rippin yah body ‘part. Lots of ways to die nowdays, but dat way ain’t no right way. Alone and livin out yah worst nightmares.”

That cold light from the bellies of them bugs cast Kuru’s slacked face in green. Matching up the chill what had settled in her arms, legs, deep down in her gut so sour she couldn’t cognize sweet no more.

“Nightmares.

“From de time yahl were two, I’d told yah tuh stay clear from dem. Scared yah with tales of what dey’d do if dey’d ever caught yah. Nothin but the trut, but my whole life been spent wishin I’d held dem words down.

“Ah, Pri, all dese toughts be just like mem’ries, no matter I weren’ dere to see. And it be like evry one dem mem’ries folded itself up in dis skull, so tight till dem cells makin a dead space, tryin tuh protect me gainst thinkin more. Gainst seein, gainst mem’rin. Against hearin yah ghost cry.

“Dem took yah away and left in yah place a bonfire of hate. ‘Cided den: I’d take to eatin dem beasts fore dey could do de same tuh us. Scrapie’n me. Couldn’ bring yah back. But dat? Dat at least I could do.”

* * *

Were getting on toward afternoon when Dog’s raft made for the shore upriver from the Chasm. They’d cross in batches, ten raft-loads at a time. Dog’s group were the last to go.

That whole time waiting for his turn, Dog feeling himself rabid. Wanting so bad to be away from all their glory talk. Just needed a train, a train setting on the other side’a the Chasm. A train, waiting for to take him home. Braved Dog up, being so close to them rails what Thority couldn’t get near.

All Dog could think on as he finally got to make his way off the raft, back loaded with provisions, trudging up the muddy banks and over on toward the ropes. Just one train. Just one train. Just one train.

Couldn’t make out the other side, but his heart bumped when he come up off the banks and seen a greeny train setting off in the distance where the rails still ran true. Stood to reason there’d be another one on the other side the chasm.

Couple’a Thority watched either end’a the rope bridge. Keeping well away from the rails and training binocks on all them kids as they made for to cross that deep.

Dog got himself on up near the front so’s not to feel so trapped by the slow line’a kids needing to make their way cross.

Careful not to look Thority ways. Careful not to look down that crevice where the world just split apart. Chanting to himself for to get his feet to take another step. Their way is not the only way. Just one train and I will find my way home on my own.

Winds swaying the bridge, catching awkward at the pack on his back. Dog’s stomach fluttered.

Their way’s not the only way. Just one train and I’ll find my own way home.

Ropes creaking. Words and steps. Steps and words.

Their way’s not de only way. Just one train an I kin find my own way home.

Dog was thinking on how he wouldn’t have to make it through another leaving off, watching Thority slap the shoulders’a whosoever be gonna find their folk. Sending them on their righteous way.

“Dem way’s not de only way. Jus one train an I kin fin my own way home.”

Too late, Dog realizing his words had gone from moving silent cross his lips to bare whispers and then on over to something close to a full-on proclamation.

Back’a his neck crawling with all them eyes he thinking be turned toward him. Kids. Thority. Sure someone’d heard.

But weren’t no-one yelling traitor.

So Dog clamped his lips, and kept his pace quiet. But seemed like the wind done twisted his speaking round, so’s it sounded like a whole mess’a folk all calling his words back to him: Please Train. Please Train Please Train Please Train Please.

Soon’s he could, Dog quick scrambled onto land. Once his feet were on the rough ground, he made his way up the cresting hill, keeping his eyes steady down and letting the horde’a them kids coming off the ropes behind him flow around and ahead. Dog walked a snail’s pace, preparing to make his move, preparing for the sprint. Just knowing soon’s he made his way up top, he’d be looking down a valley at one’a them Green Ghost Trains. One’a them trains what be bringing safe passage all up and down the Mighty for whosoever wanted, and just for the price’a hopping on.

As the ground leveled up under Dog’s walking feet, he lifted his eyes for to see.

From off one side, the sun was halfdown, baking the land in golden light. And from off the other, the Mighty were busy crashing the falls. Straight ahead, the busted rails were near buried in shadows. But Dog not noticing none’a that. All Dog were seeing was the plain and simple truth that there weren’t no train in that there valley. Weren’t no train anywhere, far as Dog’s eyes could see.

He fell on down to his knees, heart near to be as broke as the land laying all round him. No train. No train. No train.

Wanted nothing but to lay down then-there and never get up no more. Cognizing he’d have to keep on with Thority and the rafts. Keep on for to make it home. He’d just have to keep on keeping his wanting wrapped up tight. He could do it. He could. Told himself over and again, he could.

Didn’t have no other choice: weren’t no way he could walk that whole way home. So he steeled himself, hardening back up that thick crust of shell what he’d been scurrying within, what he’d been using to bury his true self ever since he got took.

Sun set on Dog choosing to make do with whatsoever could be done, it set on him rising and getting himself on back to the river and that new batch of waiting rafts. He could see some half dozen rafts already making their way on the water, full up of kids, and all them looking off down-river.

He didn’t get very far before the ruckus started.

“Stop that kid!”

Thority were yelling to each other: “That goddamn kid’s trying to get to the rails!”

And with them shouts, Dog’s shell broke all to pieces. Shattered so Dog knew he’d never again get it pulled on right. And his newborn skin sang into the deepening twilight: I’m shining true from now on. Better dead than hiding in plain sight. His blood beat out a new pulse, better to starve, better to drop trying to make for home, anything, anything, anything better than keeping on Thority-wise.

Two seconds of holding breath while Thority started in to chasing that one kid making her breakaway. Two holding breaths, and then it were like the earth quaked anew. Feet pounding the broken ground and kids howling all round.

Dog didn’t have to think, he just bolted. Following all them other kids making for the rails. Some of their shouting turned to screams and dropping bodies. But seemed to Dog that not a one of them kids stopped ‘less they got stopped by them bullets. All of them ran like their life depended on their getting free.

Sprinting down that darkening valley, he seen the fireflies come blinking on, lighting theyselves a’fire.

Could of sworn them flies be brightening up a path, for all them kids pelting pell-mell and whooping joy.

Brightening up a path, showing the way, for all them kids making for the rails.

* * *

Scrapie come calling from the yard. “Found a beast what got itself killed railwise. A youngun, not havin de colors, but it be carryin so much weight, jus gottuh be one dem. I’ma takin de pirogue for tuh bring it back, Mama.”

She unwound the rope looping the yard cypress, hauled a slab of battered sheet metal to her boat.

“Ain’t too big, too far off of de river dat I cain’t drag it. Try not tuh be too long.”

The goats bleated as Scrapie eased the pirogue down the bank, but Kuru didn’t answer none, being sick as she was.

Later, as Scrapie poled her scavenge back through the bayou, she explained herself to the beast what she’d dumped into her boat and covered up under a pile of rotten burlap sacks.

“Sorry for yah dat yahl had tuh die by dem rails. Still, I’s tankin yah. Mersi, mersi, mersi.

“What wid dem Before Times petrochems leakin out de casements. What wid dat Riverbend plant goin intuh meltdown up by Baton. Deer and coons and all dem drinkin outta de Sippy. Now dem ain’t right for eatin no more.

“And ain’t no more shrimpin like family did Before Times. Mama say we need safer meat. Where yahl come in.

“Sorry for yah, but eaters gottuh eat. Know it?

“Jus be thankful yah went quick. And not by dis arrow. Mighta been messy dat ways, mmm? Yah, railwise be better. Nice and quicklike.”

Scrapie’s metal sled were propped up alongside her, glaring back at the setting sun. Flaring on and off as she made her way in and outta the hanging moss.

“I sho be tankin yah. Yessir. See how scrawny I be? Well, Mama be even worse off. Gottuh get yah skinned, sliced, and on into she belly.

“She got dat hunger sickness make yah shake, scramble up yah brains. She be starvin. Not like yahl, eh, Mister Cochon?”

Scrapie poled close to the banks, where some swamp milkweed were busy taking in the last of them sunrays.

“I’sa gonna call yah Mister Fatty.

“Make Mama right agin, in a one two, yahl will. Sure. In a one two.”

Scrapie were talking away so’s not to look at her cargo. A running patter to calm her flighty stomach, on a count of being jammed up together in that there boat, and without Kuru to boot. Didn’t matter Scrapie’d hidden them lolling eyes behind burlap. Didn’t even matter it were dead.

No two ways ’bout it for Scrapie: were foul business, them beasts.

* * *

Kuru hurt. Deep down hurt. Weren’t enough that there were nothing for to ease it: seemed like the world just trying to press that pain further in. Skeeters swarming. Goats making a ruckus, wanting their water, and Scrapie gone scavenging.

Only spark were the luck of Scrapie finding a beast what’d been taken by the rails. Kuru hoped it were fresh. Thinking on how it’d keep Scrapie. For a while.

See, by then Kuru’d fessed up to herself.

She were dying.

Only thing left was finding a way to keep Scrapie live. Live and healthful. Had to think her way to that. Had to. Even tho she couldn’t hardly hold more’n two words a time. What with them bleating goats, and all them bugs she weren’t quick enough for to slap no more. Thoughts just quavered.

Took to winding colored string round her fingers, making knots for tying them thoughts down. Giving each of them knobs an image. Counting them out over and again, for to see if a solution would drop.

One. Sippy running hot.

Two. No-good deer babies what drop from their mamas early, limbs twisted or gone.

Three. Fancy offering Scrapie jerk, marbled thru with raydi.

Four. Scrapie running off out away from them rails whenever they’d set a good trap. Running, so’s not to witness Kuru skinning them beasts.

Five. Goats scratching their own selves raw, smacking their lips, and weaving ’bout the yard. Someways got Kuru’s sickness, too.

Six. Slabs of deer, gator, beast. Flesh just be flesh once the creature done died.

And them six knots only adding up to one thing: beast only safe meat round, them coming down from way off North like they did.

Only way Kuru seeing was for Scrapie to find the heart for shooting them beasts dead. For her to find the stomach for the butchering. Needed to make her see it be no-ways different: drawing the beast to the trap, or drawing the killing arrow.

But no matter how she tried to keep them knots to six, another image kept flaring outta the holes in Kuru’s mind: Scrapie, no matter how deep her hunger ran, not never once being able to swallow that meat.

* * *

Dog’d run himself to ground.

Been running the rails through over half a month. Found his stride early, boots slapping every other tie, kept them moon-glinting bands in the corners of his eyes.

Kept up a steady pace, till his provisions give out. Thority sent them with two weeks eating, figured on that’d be enough for to search out their families. Dog’d been eating them faster tho, needing the energy for running.

After the food were gone, he took to sucking pine sap and grinding needles between his teeth.

Couple days of that and he started in to stumbling. Forgetting to be mindful of Thority spying from out beyond the rails.

He had the luck tho, coz by then, didn’t matter much. Had already passed into the dead zone round what one time’d been Riverbend, fore all them plants blew when all that Before Times plastic had giving out. After the coating on all their wires and such dissolved, didn’t take but a bitty spark and got a fire where no fire oughta be.

Next to the rails, them raydi zones were the best places to be, if what you were most worrying on were Thority finding you.

Some miles out on the other side’s where Dog finally dropped like the dead. Every muscle in his body gone slack. His last thoughts as he done fall to ground were worrying thoughts. He’d been so long under Thority, would his family recognize him? Cast him off on ‘count of his new talking ways? Would they think him Thority through and through? And worse, what if they’d be right?

The drop eased those worries from outta him. Dreampt his Mama were rocking him to sleep while the bull frogs sang. Dreampt of warm, wet nights hammocked up together, Mama spooking him for to make him mind.

Dreaming he hearing her voice. Explaining how them gators would do you.

“Git snatched and yahl die by dem beasts. Don’ matter how scrawny yah be, eaters gottuh eat. So I be tankin yah tuh mind. Mersi, mersi, mersi.”

Dog shivered as the vision quavered, dream sky shifting green and black by turns.

“And dem jus be itchin for tuh skin yah live, slice ya like it weren’ nothin but a one two. End up in dey belly. Yah stay close. Yah stay watchful. Don’ yahl let yah Mama lose yah dat way, hear?”
Dreaming quieted then, Dog sensing his Mama’s strong arms round him. Keeping him safe. Rocking gentle as a boat out on the bayou.

Too quick and that dream night turned back to cold. Mama, her arms done melted away. Her face shifted, going soft and taking on a trembling.

Her eyes. They done lost their gleam. Nothing in them but blank.

They had that same look Dog’d been running from.

Thority stare.

* * *

Scrapie gathered up a right pretty bouquet as she poled her way back with her scavenge.

Bog lily, and rose mallow. That one lobelia, and whatever swamp milkweed she could find. Glowing white and blue and orange. Petals just shimmering in the falling light.

When dusk come full, she set them out on the prow and let the pirogue float. Waited on them fireflies what would come for to feed.

Steeling herself up for what was coming. Promising herself that this time she’d stay. Mama needed her to learn. Beast were dead. Brave as she be, she could stand to watch the work. See how it be done. Swearing to it, with every firefly that came sniffing round her trap of blooms. Swearing to the beat of their luminaires.

Jarred them on up and then started polin her way on home.

Butchering time.

* * *

Were full on dark and Kuru still worrying her knots when she heard Scrapie dragging that pirogue up the ramp to their butchering table. Calling out for Kuru to bring the knives.

“I’ll git de lightning jars set, Mama.”

Kuru, stumbling to the door, near falling down the rungs.

Scrapie’d already dumped the body and were hanging glowing jars over the table. Casting a hazy, green light over that pile of dead beast. “Yahl gonna feel better Mama, once we git some dis meat in yah. Yahl see. Git strong den, sure.”

Kuru was only standing beside the table, but sweat was beading up on her pale lip. Working hard just to stay upright. Waited for Scrapie’s high-tailing it away like she always done. But Scrapie stood rigid just a ways away, biting on her lower lip, a grim but steady look flaming up her eyes.

“I’ll stay dis time, Mama. After yah done yah work, den I’ll go on down Fancy’s. Tell’m we got de tradin meat.”

Kuru sizing her daughter up, hoping some of that force keeping Scrapie there would flit on over her way.

She grunted and turned back to her task, trying with all her might to hold the knife steady for to skin that beast. Pulled up on the burlap for to bare the scruff of its neck. Had but pricked the hide, when her knife dropped, bounced off the table.

Beast’s neck were warm and pulsing.

She tried for the knife, but her hands couldn’t seem to grab it.

“Scrapie! Pick up dat knife. Do it now, girl.” Words seemed clear enough in her mind, but they come out thick and blunted. Kuru kicked at the blade till it lay against Scrapie’s feet.

But Scrapie, she only blanched a paler white. Eyes big like them swamp dragonflies. Shaking her head no.

“Scrapie, listen tuh me. Yah’s brought a live one here.” Still Scrapie not seeming to understand.

Kuru, frantic, thinking on what mighta been, if that beast had come to, out there alone with Scrapie. Just the two them on that boat.

Thinking on what still might happen.

Just then, beast grunted. Half raised itself, tipped the table, and went sprawling in the mud.

Scrapie let a scream to pierce your heart; Kuru scrambled herself back, quick as her not-minding limbs would let her.

Scrapie, scared, saying over and over through tears, “Swear Mama, found it long the rails. Cain’t be live no more.”

Kuru fought to quiet the shaking in her tongue, to get just one sharp word out. She said it slow’s she could:

“Club.”

* * *

Dog jerked awake, darkness all round and his arm caught awkward beneath him. Musta run till he fell. Aching all over his body. Something scratching up his face.

When he pulled at it, rotting strands done come apart. Peering up into a night sky, branches hung with moss, and a streak of light behind. Smells, damp smells. Peat, leaf mold, and tannin. Like he were finally home.

And then his heart like to stop as a dark and a hovering shape rose over him, panting. Some animal come for him.

Flailed at it with his arms, legs. Beast backed off, grunting.

Eyes getting customed, searching out a rock for to throw, a tree to climb, anything to stop this happening. Couldn’t be this way, just couldn’t, getting this close and ending up in some croc’s belly.

Of a sudden, Dog be stunned. A green, glowing orb of light floating in front of his face, drawing all his attention.

The outline of a hand against that glow, shaking, tossing them fireflies in that jar.

Then the face. Leaning in close, peering despite them drooping eyelids. Looking like a woman been laboring thru three nights and just finally getting to meet the wondering gaze of her chile. Like that first catching sight.

Like getting introduced to someone out in the open air, someone you already been knowing deep in your gut, the rhythm of whose heart been thumping all along each and every one of your bones since way on before your start of days.

* * *

Scrappie’d scurried the ladder, running for Kuru’s club. Not wanting to leave her Mama with any live beast, even one but half-grown. Kuru being so weak and all.

Scrapie’s whole body just feeling as tho it were like to melt away, muscles shaking off the bone.

Weren’t but a flash and Scrapie were back in the yard with Kuru’s club of blackened ironwood.

Telling you, weren’t but a flash, and yet she weren’t quick enough. No more sack covering its eyes, beast were sizing the scene. Making plans.

And then quick as peat bursting into flame, Kuru getting pulled down, wailing, that beast snuffling into her neck.

And Scrapie, finally finding the will she’d been needing for to kill them beasts.

Finding that will and yet not finding no place to bring that club down. Not without gitting her Mama with the self same blow.

* * *

As Kuru fell on top of Dog, as Scrapie tried to pull her off, being tween them two eased a memory’d been trapped up inside of Kuru’s head.

It were the night Scrapie’d been born, like to scream her head off, and Pri’d been right there.

When her waters had started seeping, the fireflies’d decided on blinking as one. Shack, yard, the whole of that swamp pulsed up with their greeny glow – like night lighting, showing the face of the world, only without the crash of thunder. Once Kuru matched her panting to them flashes, those tractions started coming on the rhythm, so’s Pri could count the beats of light and know when Kuru was next gonna grab hold of his hands and push.

After the birthing, Pri helped Kuru wrap the squall. Kuru’d been so worn, she kept falling off toward sleep, even through all of Scrapie’s yelling herself to the world.

Eventually Scrapie took a break from announcing herself and nuzzled in for to feed. Drifting off, Kuru were proud she kept this one alive through the birth. She called Pri to come on into the bed. When he didn’t, Kuru peered ’bout the shack to find him huddled up in a corner, head tween his knees.

“Pri, yahl need come right now.”

He looked up and Kuru caught the gleam on his cheeks.

“Yahl’s Mama be fine, Pri. All dat yellin jus be a part of it. Dat’s done now, and yah kin come on over.”

He come up to the edge of the bed, but didn’t make no move toward climbing in. Just stood glancing at the newling, swallowing Kuru’s milk like she owned not just that breast but the whole of the world.

Kuru took her son’s hand and pulled gentle. “Yah staying right here.” Kuru pulled till he were snuggled up close and cradled under her arm. “Dis lil’un don’ change nottin. Ain’t nottin could ever come tween what we got here. Yahl, and me.”

When Pri’s breathing settled, Kuru knew he’d believed her.

The three them together in that bed: their breath, their blood, their very selves pulsed together as them fireflies slowed their rhythm.

Kuru felt it that night, she felt it so deep, she spun away on into the future. In her mind’s eye, she were seeing them two grown. Seeing the three of them making it through all them tomorrows, making it safe. Together, in the end of days.

Kuru was thinking on all that with Scrapie trying to pull her off of her heavy fall into the boy’s arms. Thinking on that as she be slipping again, slipping on into her final sleep.

* * *

Dog kept his distance the whole of that night.

Scrapie wouldn’t come near him, and Dog could see she needed to be touching that woman what must be her Mama. Trying to wake her up; screaming like to wake the world.

Dog were pretty sure the Mama weren’t never gonna wake up, breathing as slow as she was, no matter how loud that girl could yell.

Round ’bout sun-up, Dog thinking she gottuh be needing sleep, but she just wild, radiating with pent energy.

“How we gonna do dis, now, Mr. Fatty?”

Dog just kept quiet, not knowing what she getting at. Sides he were shy of his talking ways round her.

“Mama need eat and we don’ got much time left. Way I figurin it, we gottuh catch us anodder beast, else it gottuh be me or yahl.”

Girl waited like she wanted him to say something.

“So I’m askin for yah help.”

Still Dog didn’t have nothing to say.

“Help me wid de catchin, and de killin, and den I’ll let yah be on yahl’s way. Dat’ll be nough to get Mama back on her feet.”

“What are you aiming to catch?”

Girl just look at him like he be speaking another language all together. “Any more of yahl out dere? Comin fer us?”

Dog nodded, grim with the understanding that swamp folk knew Thority’s plans already. “Likely. Bunch of us were being sent into these swamps.”

“Good.” Scrapie went into the shack and come back with a parcel, wrapped tight in what looked like the hide of some animal. Handed it over to Dog. Unwrapping, Dog near to drop it when he see the gray and beige, them Thority colors peeking out.

“Put dem on,” Scrapie ordered. “Guess it’ll be a lil big. Jus hafta make it do.”

Dog wanting desperate for the light of understanding to blaze, but tho he was sure he caught the rhyme and rhythm of her words, couldn’t ignite no sense from them put all together.

* * *

Scrapie explained it all to Dog on their way.

“Dis how Mah and I do it, many a time. Jus gottuh lead dem beasts to de trap. Not let’m know where dey headed. And yah’l be perfect. Ain’t gottuh pretend none. Not like Mama, havin tuh make like she be Tority.”

Dog still not cottoning on. “How’s my wearin this uniform gonna help us catch anything?”

Scrapie was not believing how dim Thority folk could be, wondering if they all like this one she was still calling Mr. Fatty in her mind. “Coz we gonna lead dem to de rails, widdout dey ever knowin it.”

“What’re you gonna be doing?”

“I’m yahl’s prey.” Scrapie pushed her Mama’s club into his chest, fixing him with a blue and steady eye. “Dat’s jus pretend, ‘stand?” She dropped the club but not her eye once he nodded. “Soon’s we see de beast, yah gon call out and make like yah chasin me down, run us right on over de rails. Den, in a one two, wid dat beast tinking it be all safe like, on account of yahl, sure, den, in a one two, dey be flat.”

Dog trying to fill in the spaces he knew be sitting there. “How often you catch anything that way?”

“Plenty time.”

Dog just shook his head, misbelieving. “Trains don’ run that often down this far. You have to come up on a gater? Get it chasin you? And all that just in time to drive it under a train? Too much coincidence to add up to any ‘plenty time.'”

Scrapie laughed then. Long time laugh. “Ain’t no gaters we after, Mr. Fatty. Mama sez dem’s hot. And don’ need no train for tuh take down what we after. Rails be nough for dat. Yah oughta know dat true nough. Bein Tority and all.” Scrapie stopped her walking then. “How come when dem rails took yah down, yahl survived’m? Ain’t never seen dat fore. Usual, once yahl get railed, dat’s yahl’s end of days.”

And right then, that’s when Dog be leveled by what he’s thinking is a cold beam of truth. His knees done give out with the realizing it were exactly like Thority’d been preaching all his growing up. ‘Bout Swampers. What folk he thought he come from.

Monsters.

Scrapie waited. She long time waited, whole time, pleading with him that her Mama needed good, clean meat.

But that boy, after he sunk down to the ground, he just wouldn’t get up again. Not having no place left for goin.

* * *

Kuru burned up the night, the day she died.

Fancy helped Scrapie with the pyre.

And while them moths sparked to ash, getting theyselves too close to the fire, he held her tight so’s to keep her whole, her cries like to bust herself right open.

Fancy whispering over and over. “Tried she best, sha. Had holes what she couldn’ fill, count of some bad tings what come round time yahl born. Twisted up she trust, dat did. But I swear tuh yah, she tried best she could.”

Scrapie quieted finally for to hear his whispers.

“Some tomorrow, I’ll fess all yah Mama’s secrets. Help yah understan why she curled up on sheself like she done.”

Fancy could feel Scrapie pulling on in. Worried him something fierce. He’d seen Kuru do the same all them years back. After Pri got took, Kuru’d tended his legs so’s he’d walk, tho he’d never be able to bend his knees up proper again. And she nursed Scrapie. But the brilliance what’d one time radiated out her eyes, and lit up the whole of her? Hell, lit the whole of their piece of swamp? That were gone.

So, yeah, Fancy had a wash of cold seeping steady on over him. What he said next come out sharper than he’d tended, count of that fearing: “Nah, nah girly, don’ yah do me dat way.”

But all that done was push Scrapie further on in. So Fancy took the smoky air in deep, down to his gut, and on the exhale, let his love for the child, for her Mama, quiver up his voice: “Aw, sha, right now I need yah do one ting for me. Only a lil ting for one such as kin scream dem stars from out de sky. Jus tell me dem toughts I know be trying tuh burn up yah mind.”

And Scrapie tried; sure she did. But them words was stuck, fluttering away at the base of her throat. Fault, my fault, my fault, my fault, my…

Whole of that time, Dog be watching from the shadows of the yard cypress, hearing the beat of Scrapie’s blood, hearing them thoughts strong as thunder. He fessed for her.

“She tried to kill me. To feed that woman. Tried to club me down.”

Fancy nodded, starting to git the picture of it.

“Held that club over me, aimin at my skull.” Dog looked from the pyre to Fancy and then on back to that smoldering fire. “I would’ve let her, too, but it seemed like she couldn’t bring herself to let the club swing.”

And Fancy knew then it were the same all over. Knew too he’d have to try harder this time round. Not let no more half-light truths eat away at Scrapie like they done her Mah. Had to, for to keep Scrapie whole.

Smoke burned up his lungs as he readied himself for the telling.

“Sha, weren’ yahl what let her die. Nah, yah listen up tuh me. Killin dis boy? Dat weren’ what Kuru done need tuh make her better, no.”

Fancy loosened up his grip on Scrapie, and felt her muscles slack a hair in response.

Ekouté, listen, sha, were eatin de beast what killed her. Turn yah brain tuh mush, doin dat. Before Times had de same, name of Mad Cow. Sheep, goat, cow, none dem kin eat dey own. Us de same, sha.” Fancy turned Scrapie round then, so she be lookin clear into his dark eyes. “Us be jus de same as dem.”

When Scrapie twisted to bury her head against his shirt, Fancy let her, and went on explaining. “Time I realized what yah Mah be doin, were too late, disease already takin hold of her, diggin in deep and not lettin go.”

Fancy knew likely enough that Scrapie not believing his words, mayhaps not even understanding them yet. But he’d keep trying. Him and that boy, they’d see to it she’d moult outta this here and come out flying. Come out shining almost like new.

“Weren’ yahl’s fault, petit. Were mine, sha, were Kuru’s, were Tority’s, were the Sippy goin raydi. Praps were jus de way of tings. But sure as dem cray cook red, not yahl’s, sha, not yahl’s.”

Dog’d come closer, standing off behind Fancy’s shoulder, peering down on Scrapie, still trying to find some way home.

And Scrapie? She looked up past Fancy, she looked up past Dog. She looked up for to see them clouds of fireflies, weaving through the swirling clouds of ash, weaving and sending out their light.

And on the offbeat, that splash of white comin clear, all across that sky.

All Scrapie could think on were her Mah, as she watched them stars a’flickering, too far way to shine any kinda light on her. Any kinda light what were steady and true.


black-widow-baby Lisa Bergin Lisa Bergin is a writer and community college philosophy professor based in Minneapolis. Although she has previous academic publishing credits, this marks her first fiction publication. She can be found (occasionally) blogging alongside her writing group at: thescribblerati.blogspot.com.
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