When I'm good Poppa lays brick dust and salt. He pours the two in a braided line across the door to my bedroom and on my window ledges. Then It can't get in. I don't know if It has a name of Its own like Bob or Tim. Poppa says It's a Xaphan. His Momma called It to teach him lessons just like her folks did for her and so on and so forth going way back to I can't even count when. But the dust and salt keep It away. Well, keep It outside anyhow.
On nights It can't get in the Xaphan scratches at the glass.
When I'm bad Poppa sweeps up the lines. Like the other day Poppa said I's eating too loud. So he picked me up from the table, took me to my room, and swept up the lines round the windows. Then he locked me inside.
I can't use my left hand so well since then.
I'm always good afterward, though the lessons don't tend to stick. Somehow I keep making mistakes. Like I've been taught not to lie, only sometimes I still do it; I think I'm telling the truth, but Poppa says I'm being a liar, so I guess there's a right way and a wrong way to be honest. Or sometimes I don't learn enough and doing good makes me bad. Like I tried eating quieter only it made me eat so slow looked like I wasn't touching my food. Poppa says not eating someone's cooking is the same as saying it's shit. Not that I'm allowed to swear, but that's how Poppa said.
Every time I'm bad means a visit from the Xaphan.
It's like a cross between an alligator 'n' a bat. I hear Its wings before It gets to the window. The Xaphan pushes open a window -- I don't lock them anymore since It'll just smash through the glass which makes Poppa double mad -- best to just let It in. I don't even hide anymore. There's something worse about thinking, 'This time It won't find me,' and then It does. I'd rather just get things done.
I suppose it's not so bad. I mean, people have to get punished for when they do wrong. Poppa said, "You weren't born right. You have to be made proper." It's for my own good. It's for my own good.
The first time was the worst. Well, the first time I remember. See, I have this fuzzy notion even before I's five I'd seen the Xaphan, but it wasn't till after I's near six I really remember It. There used to be this cat I'd see chasing mice in the field behind our house. It took a couple of weeks, but I managed to use a saucer of milk to get the cat close enough where I could pet her. Eventually, that big old cat'd let me pick her up and carry her around, so I took her inside. When Poppa got home he saw the cat and says, "You trying to make me sick? I'm allergic to those goddamn things." He locked me and the kittie in my room that night. We curled up in my bed all peaceful. I don't know when exactly the Xaphan showed up. I remember waking up to a bumping sound. I've gotten to know that sound real well over the years. It's the sound of the Xaphan opening the window, using It's shoulder and snout to push up till It can crawl inside. I screamed for Poppa.
Grandmama says, "Children have that instinct."
Poppa didn't come running, but I suppose you can figure that part yourself.
First, It ate the cat. I was going to call her Pickles. But I wasn't suppose to have one in the first place, so the Xaphan got rid of it. Then It pulled me out from under the bed. I hid under there according to more instinct I suppose. Didn't do any good. The Xaphan dragged me out with a wing -- long strong fingers grabbing my leg. It chewed up my arm some. I was balling, tears running like a flood, and screaming to wake the dead. I thought Poppa must be dead. Why else wouldn't he've come to help me? Xaphan licked up the puddle I bled out. Then It left. Just like that. That's all of what It does: chews me up a bit then laps whatever blood comes out. All things considered, the Xaphan doesn't kill me.
Anyhow, I passed out.
Next morning, Poppa woke me. He waited to hear all of what happened. Afterwards, he said, "Now you know not to bring a cat in my house." Seven years since, and I don't even look at felines.
Sometimes It takes a little blood. Sometimes I have to go to the hospital. What's nice, in a way, is I've got a scar now so it looks like I'm always smiling. 'S good to smile, though getting that one made a serious mess. I don't really recall what I did to deserve it, but I'm sure I'll never do it again. And I cleaned up afterwards, as always, spick and span like Poppa insists.
It's my responsibility to do what's right.
What I'm getting at... Mrs. Fletcher who runs the grocery saw my leg last week. I didn't mean for her to notice, but I had to scratch around the teeth marks. They itch like crazy when they're healing. So she noticed and asked Poppa, "What happened to your boy's leg?"
He told her a stray dog bit me. Now, that's a lie, flat out plain and simple. What's more he knows it's a lie. Xaphan gnarled my leg for not doing my chores right. And lying is wrong.
If I've learned anything from my father it's that when people do wrong they have to be punished. Otherwise they might just keep on getting worse. I sometimes wonder how bad a person I might have become if not for my lessons, harsh as they are.
Whenever Poppa sweeps up the lines he always leaves the one across my door. I think the Xaphan comes to my room because of a symbol I found painted on the floor under my bed. This used to be my Poppa's room when he was my age and Grandmama taught him proper. I figure the Xapahan goes to the symbol first, but once It's in the house It can go wherever It wants.
So tonight I moved real careful, swept the line off a window ledge onto a sheet of paper. I kept the line whole then lay it in front of the closet door. After Poppa went to bed I got down on the floor. Blowing under my bedroom door, I cleared the line on the other side. Then I hid in the closet, safe behind the brick dust and salt. I even left the bedroom door ajar so the Xaphan could open it easily.
...I can hear them. Poppa is screaming. I don't think he's seen the Xaphan for a long time, isn't used to the lessons. And it sounds like the Xaphan is hungry, like water balloons are being thrown around the room. Pop splat. Pop, pop splat. Poppa will thank me. Like he's told me, "This is for your own good." That's why I did this. That's the only reason. I hope he learns his lesson.
I've got to raise this boy right. Out there is a world -- he doesn't even know how hard it gets. But he will. Too soon. I'm doing the right thing.
I don't want to bring him up the way his Grandma done with me. My Mama taught me proper. That's how she puts it. I'd say she raised a Mack truck with all the tires flat. Sure, it can get around, but it isn't going far. She broke me then built me back up just enough to be useful. Sometimes I feel a chain I know isn't there. But she had her reasons, though knowing about them doesn't make me care for them. That is to say, I get why she did what she did, I just get the feeling things could've gone different.
"It's our duty," she'd say, "We keep what's living in the deep dark from coming too close."
I suspect she took no pleasure in the way I's brought up. Although, maybe that's just me hoping. She always says she's proud of how I turned out, prouder still how I'm raising my boy. If she knew...
Ever since I's little my Mama taught me 'bout the things in the swamp. We'd hear 'em at night, creeping round and making all kindsa strange noises. Some sang real sweet like bird calls that stiffen a man, if you know what I'm saying. Others put ice chips in my blood. On occasion, my Mama and I'd sit on the porch to watch the shadows move through the trees. She knew 'em all by even dim shape. I suppose I've gotten to know 'em just as well.
They're horrible things. Some are just slithering masses of teeth like a chainsaw made out of jelly. The rest are like the Xaphan. They seem familiar at a distance, but up close they're blends of different critters no one'd mistake for natural. Like there's these snakes with scaly chicken bodies. Those bastard always look you right in the eye as if they could kill you with a blink if they wanted to. I've seen 'em all. I've fed 'em all. And I don't want my son to have to.
Mama said my responsibility is to go out, put blood on the totems all around the swamp. That's most important. Blood's the fuel for whatever magic keeps these nightmares where they are. Every few years though... I earn a living picking up dead animals around the city. Every day I drive around to scoop up road kill, cart off dead pets, and sometimes, if no one is looking, I use my rifle to pop off a few if needs be. Nothing serious, just nutria, big ol' rats -- I'd never pop someone's pet. After draining what blood I can, I take every last carcass into the swamps. Dinner time as it were. Those nightmares never leave anything behind. Sure, sometimes I find a little like doll made of bones and fur, but most every last bit gets ate. The thing is animal stuff only works for so long.
See, magic isn't too far from mechanical things. The parts wear down, fuel runs out, and someone, preferably who knows what he's doing, has to replace the lot. So every few years I go into town, and I make people disappear. I only need four. That's usually enough to replace what's not working. Skulls are the most important. I do what I can to be kind. No sense making some all terrified. It's bad enough they're dying. Practice made perfect as it were, I know how to slip a knife right through the chest, cut the heart in two so a person goes real quick. Blink of an eye. Anyhow, then I put up a fresh totem. The trickiest part is removing the tendons to use them like string. I've gotten real good at it all which makes for a strange kind of pride: I'm good at what I do, though I don't like what I do.
My Mama says this isn't wrong because it's what's gotta be done. That's why she'd sic the Xaphan on me. She told me it likes the taste of guilt. So all the times it's lapping up my blood Mama says the Xaphan is "licking at your guilty conscience. It loves the flavor, but you don't have to season a damn thing. No, no. If you don't feel guilty, you'll have no flavor."
I think that's all bullshit. A person can tell a nine year old a lot of things that aren't true, and it should be no surprise the child buys every word. She was making me what she needed, and I did my best to be what she wanted. She said there were things I needed to get okay with doing, and how to practice so as I could be high quality when it came time. We used to get a lot of critters come through our backyard. I'd trap 'em, kill 'em, and show my Mama so she could be proud. And eventually it didn't bother me. Still doesn't. Except ya see, the funny thing is that's exactly what bothers me. I know I shouldn't be able to do what I do without feeling bad. That makes me worried what I've lost. Maybe in a way that's feeling bad, but it don't hurt the way I think it should; and I want to tell that to Mama only she's got so old now all she can do is lie in bed staring at the ceiling, all withered up she looks like that cling wrap stretched over a skeleton.
It might kill her to hear me say, "I hate what you've made me. I hate you for making me this way."
It'd kill her, I'm sure, and I don't want her to just snap out of life like that. Boom -- gone. No, sir. I want to watch her die bit by bit. Like watching a candle burn itself out. Although, hell, who am I kidding? Part of me is still afraid of her.
I once heard that if an elephant gets staked to the ground when it's real little it gets so used to the chain and not being able to move alls a fella has to do is plant a stake in front of that elephant, even after it's gotten big enough to flip a car, and that big fucker won't be able to move like it's still chained.
Anyhow, that's what I'm getting at: why I don't just pick up and leave. I mean, my wife wanted us to run.
She used to say things like, "Let's take our son and go. We can go anywhere, be anybody. We don't have to stay here." Poor Alice. She really loved me.
I met her one day when I's running errands. She was the new girl at the hardware store -- prettiest cashier the world's ever seen, far as I'm concerned. We got to chatting. I tended to come around once a week for stuff. Living out near a swamp folks need to be handy. Natural world is always trying to creep its way back in. I left a t-shirt outside once when I's thirteen, and the next morning moss'd eat the whole thing, left nothing but a big mossy t-shirt shape. And then we got the nightmares to worry about. They're always chewing something, breeding rot and what not. All the metal keeps rusting to useless -- it's like living to prove a point, though what point I'm sure is different person to person. But anyhow, I tended to have to hit up the hardware store regular. Then I found myself making up excuses to go just to see Alice.
Alice used to say, "It wasn't love at first sight, but I knew I could love you given the chance."
Well, she got the chance, and she fell in love.
Mama didn't approve. She thought we should do like she done. Her Daddy snatched some fella off the road, and they kept him tied to a bed in the cellar till my Mama got full up with me. Then they fed that guy to the swamp. End of story. The family goes on.
Mama said, "You can't have your cake and eat it too. That girl will not understand what we do, what we have to do."
So I showed Alice what lived in the swamp behind my home. I thought she was gonna have a heart attack. She went whiter than milk, shaking all over, and she even pissed herself. It took about four hours to calm her down then I told her how I kept them back, that it was my family's responsibility. Of course, I only told her about using animals. I left off the stuff about having to use people from time to time.
She looked me right in the eye when I finished, and I'll never forget this, she said, "You go out there every day so those things don't come to hunt in town, and nobody knows about this? That's... heroic."
I never thought of myself as a hero, though I'm sure she wouldn't've either if I'd told her about hanging a person's lungs from their jaw bone. It felt nice to hear even though I don't suppose it was entirely true. Still, Alice understood.
For three years we were married. I've never been happier. Alice didn't have much family. That is to say, she didn't have much family she cared to see. So it didn't bother her much disappearing to our backwoods.
Mama acted polite the best she could, but I knew the two would never really get close. Alice tended to ask questions Mama hated. Like, "Why do you keep them penned in? If they're so dangerous why not kill the creatures?" Mama'd tell Alice, "Gators can be dangerous. Should we kill all of them just to be safe?" I always found that odd though. See, Mama once told me how her granddad used to let the nightmares out from time to time, and how that's why we get a check once a month from the city nearby, and if that check ever stops coming I'm supposed to take down a totem, maybe not feed the beasts for a night or two; but like I said there's some things Alice just didn't need to know.
Anyhow, it got to be one of those unavoidable situations. Long story short, I went into town, wrangled four people, and one got loose. He ran from the shed out back to the house. I thought I got to him before he woke anyone, but fuck-all if I wasn't just in time to kill him in front of Alice. She watched me stab that boy. I remember her and me staring at each other, and me looking more upset than the boy I just killed. His blood ran right up to her feet. Alice left little red prints when she ran to our room. I spent all night trying to talk to her through the door. All night she never said one word back. I talked soft as I could, explaining why over and over, why I got to do what I did and saying sorry, sorry you had to see that, and never once really caring about any of the reasons I offered if it meant she wouldn't love me anymore. Then finally, in the morning she unlocked the door. She looked at me with these eyes I never seen her have -- empty, hollow.
She said to me, "I'm pregnant."
That's when we started whispering about leaving.
No one, far as I know, can see the future. Still, there are certain times it gets real clear how things are probably going to turn out; and I knew any child of ours was going to be expected to turn out just like me. I don't even want to be me. So naturally, I didn't want my kid turning out the same.
I was scared, but Alice made it all seem possible. Hell yeah! we could go anywhere, be anything else, leave the nightmares behind. More importantly, we were going to. We were set and ready. Then I came home one day to find Alice missing.
I asked Mama, "Where's Alice?"
Mama said, not once taking her eyes off her knitting, "You best put that girl out of your mind."
Mama said, "She's in the cellar, for the time being. You can see for yourself, though I don't know what good it'll do."
I went down there... Mama told me later she drugged Alice then used her knitting needles to stab her brain, slipped them right in through the tear ducts. We just needed the baby, Mama said. She put Alice on a cot in the basement, tied her down with old belts, and told me, "Once the baby's born you can fed her to the swamp. No sense having so many mouths to feed."
And I did what I was told.
That's why I gotta raise this boy right. He needs to grow up hard. Maybe I should've left a long time ago, just taken the boy and run. But I'm scared. I keep having the fear if I even think about leaving, so much as reach for my keys, Mama is going to know. How she knew what Alice and I were planning -- we were so secret I didn't even know half of what we were doing. And when Mama knows she'll just sic that Xaphan on me or worse, and that'll leave her to raise my boy the ways she wants. The way she calls proper.
I'm being hard on him. I know I am. That's the plan. See, I figure the way I'm raising him can only come out one of two ways. One way, he grows up to hate that Xaphan so much he'll want to kill it, and when he learns there's more like it, kill 'em all. With his Grandma stuck in bed, the simplest way is for him to just walk out past the totem line, leave 'em to starve. Hell, I won't stop him. Even if that means they come here looking for food. The other way, well, I figure he might just get so fed up with the way things are, he'll run away. He'll be gone from here and never want to come back and that's just as well. Fine with me. My Mama won't be able to twist him like she did me, make him too scared to do anything other than what he's told.
But either way I got to play along, pretend like I'm raising him proper. Otherwise, she'll feed me to the swamp, and that'll just leave her alone with my boy.
...there's something at the door...