Return to the Coondog Castle
for S.G. & D.B.
Cricket rode by where her husband is living with that Coonie girl, in that little shack house behind the black Baptist church. And she saw that girl sitting out there on the front porch and Cricket couldn’t help but feel sorry for her and hate her at the same time. The girl was spinning around in a computer chair, holding her legs out in front of her in the air. She’d put her legs down, stop herself quick and then push her feet on the porch floor, propelling herself again.
And now this is the first time Cricket’s seen her husband since she threw him out. That was eight months ago, when she found out he’d been sleeping with Coonie’s daughter. She told everybody she threw him out because of the drugs. And that was half the truth. He’d been doing good for their three years of marriage and then he started back using. But everybody knows Daniel Adam has always been getting into trouble with meth. And “drugs” is easier to say than “infidelity” or “affair.”
Last night Cricket held up her family’s old christening gown, the one she’d worn and everyone before her had worn too. She held it in front of her and thought there wasn’t a need for her to have it. And she cried not so much because her husband didn’t think of her, but because she was farther away from the family that they could have had.
Cricket’s mama always told her that respect and communication and honesty were what kept her and Cricket’s daddy together all those years. Her mama tells Cricket not to blame herself. But also, “You can do better,” and “You’ve got time.”
But her mama does not know how she feels watching Daniel Adam coming up her front steps. He’s got her Bible in his hands, the one with Cricket’s name in the corner with golden shiny letters, the first Bible she ever got, the one that she’d left in the side door of Daniel Adam’s truck, the one that she thought about before she prayed at night, hoping that girl would see it. Cricket figured if that girl had a conscience she’d feel bad looking at it and maybe it would make her stop and realize what all she was doing. That girl would stop and tell Daniel Adam to go back home.
When Honey was a newborn pup the big storm flooded everything out. That was last fall when all the chickens drowned and kept turning up in the woods and the swamp and in the ditches in town. Honey and her family were brought in the big people house because their dog house fell down when the big trees fell on it.
The house had lots of things in it, things in the way. And it felt funny under their feet. And the smells of all the chickens outside made them want to run circles around and around inside all day long. They could hear the stray dogs and cats and birds digging in their teeth and claws and talons and pulling apart what they wanted to get into so bad. That wasn’t fair to Honey and her family. But they were dogs that were trained to listen to rules. They were trained to hunt coons, and they were really good at it, so good that people from far away came to take them even farther away to places with names they’ve never heard of to hunt coons on new lands. So when the Man said in a low, strong voice, “No,” they knew “Bad” and they didn’t run around the house. Only outside for bathroom and play.
But Honey had it the best because she was the Girl’s favorite. Honey doesn’t remember, but the Girl was there to help pull her into the world when her mama was pushing her out.
Right now Honey is burrowing herself into the roots of a very old and big tree. It’s the middle-of-the-day-hot and the dirt there is cool and it feels nice. She lays down and remembers being in the Girl’s bed. How she wanted to be so close to the Girl, underneath and between her legs. The Girl’s ankles smelled extra nice sometimes before bed like sweet and Honey remembers licking them.
It was nice but crowded in the people house so it was good news when some men started making Honey and her family a new house out back. The Girl would hold Honey up in her bedroom window to look at the new dog house. The Girl pointed with her finger and Honey followed it to see one of the men, the one with the long string of hair down his back. That man told the Girl that he was building Honey a castle. The Girl said Honey could sleep in her own tower. Honey didn’t know the words “castle” or “tower” but the Girl sounded excited and happy when she said them. The Girl scratched behind Honey’s ears extra then, whenever she talked about that man.
Then one day the Man with the rules left and the men stopped building the castle and the Girl told Honey goodbye. After all that, the woman in the people house made Honey and her family stay in the castle. It was different than their house before. It was taller and there was steps inside like the big people house. The steps went up to a little room with a window. From the window Honey could see way behind the castle, to the edge of the field. Honey liked to look there in the morning when the clouds were on the ground, to see if she could see any deer, bringing their heads up to listen around them while they ate peanuts. And even though Honey liked that spot in the castle, there were other parts that were not good. Some parts had holes and rain came in and made mud on the ground and the woman yelled when they rolled in it. And some walls had sharp long teeth-like things that stuck out of them and Honey’s family got caught on them and bled. The castle was not good. Honey missed the Girl so one day she ran out the castle and towards the deer. It felt good to run as hard as she could, chasing the deer far into the woods. Since living alone in the woods behind the castle, Honey has killed three coons and seven squirrels. And she rests here in the cool dirt, between the roots of the big old tree, thinking about the Girl until she smells what it is she is going to chase after next.
Megan’s been waiting at the house all day thinking about Daniel Adam’s body, how he makes her feel full when he’s inside her, and what he says, “I want to make you feel good all the time.” But he’s late coming home. He said he’d be right on. He said he’d bring her Mango Smirnoff to drink because today is her birthday — she’s 17.
So she’s been thinking about Daniel Adam’s body. And she’s been thinking about how she’s gonna tell him his baby is inside her. She’s not showing yet but she knows it’s there. She feels it slosh in her belly when she spins in her computer chair. She’s afraid of what will happen.
The first time Daniel Adam touched her was when Megan’s daddy gave her some money and told her to ride with him to the Duck Thru to pick up some hotdogs for everybody working on the coon castle back at the house. When they got out of the truck, Daniel Adam took Megan’s hand and led her behind the Duck Thru till she was back against the wall. She had never been kissed and he grabbed her by the jaw and opened her mouth with his. She pushed herself up on her tip toes. She kissed him back and pulled him down to her, his body pressing herself into the wall. She bit him and she felt herself get very wet in her panties. She’d never felt that before. He bit her back. Then she opened her eyes and he was looking right at her. She bit even harder and drew his blood. He wiped his mouth and she saw the white chickens floating down behind him in the ditch, going under the road.
“Your eyes get big like an animal when you’re biting me, girl,” he said, “Who taught you that?”
And again, “Who taught you that?” when she pulled his rattail so tight between her toes that he couldn’t move his head, only put his fingers fast inside her so she saw stars spinning from far away like how God saw them during creation. And then over and over, during all this time, “I’ve been planning on leaving my wife.”
Megan’s sitting here in her computer chair, sprawling out her legs, smelling her sweat smells waiting for something to happen. Daniel Adam’s still married. He could be anywhere he wanted in that truck. He could be looking Cricket right into that one eye of hers that has the double pupil, that eye he wakes up in the middle of the night about. Scribbling in his notebook, saying “Go back to sleep, I’m just drawing a closet.” Not letting Megan see what he’s doing. Saying he’s busting bottles out front in the yard to help his hurting. Out there saying he loves his wife. Getting fucked up, coming back in to her.
One time he handed Megan a knife in the kitchen. “Cut me, I know you want to,” he said. He was on his knees then on the floor.
All the notes Daniel Adam leaves for her to find in the house when he leaves in the morning. “You’re beautiful” on the ice pops in the freezer. “Big booty smack” on the toilet. “Sexy” on the ceiling fan. Daniel Adam could have done and said all these things with Cricket before. And Megan feels dumb and stupid, and sometimes she tells herself she is dumb and stupid. But one thing Megan can do is check on her tomatoes. She gets up and goes to the garden, picks a cherry tomato and squeezes it between her thumb and pointer finger. She thinks about stripping Daniel Adam clear naked and cutting his head off with that bowie knife he keeps in his glove box. Leaving his body down that McDaniel farm path where they found that old woman in the ditch. Since that old woman’s spirit’s already spooking the place, Daniel Adam won’t be able to spook it. He don’t deserve a place to linger around on. She thinks about holding his head by the rattail like Deborah held that one man’s head in the Bible that was so awful to her. Megan could hold him just right so she could look him straight in the eyes, not have to look up to him. She’d be able to see the moon and herself in them and she could swing his head around her head until she threw him into the growing cotton. Megan wants to pick him up by his rattail from that cotton and swing his head into some pines at the edge of the field like she’s trying to beat the dirt out of a floor mat. Megan wants to put her feet on either side of the top of his head, pull up on his rattail for balance and bounce on his skull. She wants to feel her weight cracking him, his bone squishing into his brain. She won’t feel the baby moving inside her then. Maybe it will even get still. The tomato bursts between Megan’s fingers. She doesn’t want to be a bad person. She hates Daniel Adam for making her a bad person.
Since the death of her husband Mrs. Creech has been eating mostly Special K for dinner, the kind with the red berries in it and sometimes J.J.’s carries it and sometimes they don’t. But she always asks the Richards girl working the register anyways because there might be some in the back that they ain’t put out yet, because that’s happened before. So when Mrs. Creech comes in the door, that Richards girl goes to the back and today one box of Special K with the red berries is left in the whole store.
Mrs. Creech puts it on the grocery belt with milk, eggs, white bread, and baloney. When the Richards girl picks up the cereal box, Mrs. Creech tells her that the doctor show on TV said that red berries help with your memory. Also deodorant without aluminum is what you’re supposed to use and the only place to get that around here is Walgreens in Ahoskie, she’s looked all over.
The Richards girl doesn’t say much back, just bags the groceries. She’s mighty shy and seems like she’s in her own world and Mrs. Creech doesn’t understand why J.J. would hire a girl like that to run the register. She don’t even greet people when they come in the door. And that’s important not only when running a business but in life. Mrs. Creech’s mama raised her and her brothers and sisters to be able to talk to anybody, no matter what. “Nobody is ever so good or bad that you can’t talk to them,” she said.
Coonie’s daughter pushes the door too hard and it flies open. She looks sweaty but still very pretty like she always has. She walks fast into the aisles. The whole town knows the story, how Daniel Adam’s keeping her in that shack house behind the Black church. He’s probably got her on drugs. Mrs. Creech has seen her out there tending the tomatoes. But here’s the part only Mrs. Creech knows: Coonie’s daughter coulda been with Daniel Adam the night he broke into her house, picking out all the jewelry she wanted from her jewelry box. The pieces her husband gave her over all the years: the bracelet with rubies on their first Christmas together in 1962, the ruby ring from the next Christmas to match it. It looked like a red little pinecone.
The Richards girl hands Mrs. Creech her change and asks her what kind of stone is in her ring. And Mrs. Creech felt herself falling into wanting to tell the girl all about it, how it keeps coming up. The love of her life is dead. She won’t open his closet. She won’t sleep in their room. How she still wakes up in the middle of the night on the couch in the living room where his hospice bed was. She wakes up to check on him, to make sure he’s still breathing, to drop water in his mouth with a straw. To lightly scratch his back. But he’s not there when she wakes. And this is heavy.
And she also wants to tell how during her husband’s final hours when he had to be taken to die in the hospital, their home was broken into by Daniel Adam. Her husband had always gotten him to do their carpentry work, no matter how often Daniel Adam found himself on the wrong side of the tracks. And it was Daniel Adam, the one her husband always gave a second chance to that broke in when he knew her husband was dying, walked right past the living room where he’d been to see her husband down in his deathbed, telling him goodbye. Daniel Adam went straight to the secret jewelry cabinet that he’d built for her in the dress closet. He took all the jewelry. He strew all the family photos on all the bedroom floors, clothes were thrown everywhere in the side yard. He took all the guns. He tried to take out the air conditioners.
And Mrs. Creech took her husband’s hand and told him that the family home he so wanted to die in, where he’d been born upstairs, where he’s been talking to his dead sisters in the walls in and out of consciousness, was just fine, was just like he’d left it. Mrs. Creech lied to her husband because he was the best man she ever knew.
Daniel Adam’s daddy was even a pallbearer for her husband. And this is a heaviness that also breaks Mrs. Creech in two. The detective couldn’t find fingerprints. And nothing’s turning up in the pawn shops around. Living in the country, the law isn’t paid enough to really care for everyone. And now their oldest son, who was already fragile is in the middle of a nervous breakdown, has already tried to swallow rat poisoning. He won’t leave his trailer except to ride to the Duck Thru for a drink.
And Mrs. Creech can’t talk to her best friend, her husband, about any of it. He can’t give her one guiding word. One of the last things he said to her was, “I’m glad it’s me going before you because I know you can keep on living and I can’t say the same for me.”
So Mrs. Creech just holds herself back now in the J.J.’s checkout line. She does not want to worry the Richards girl with anything like this. So she tells the Richards girl she can’t remember the name of the stone in her ring, “But my sister gave it to me. I don’t really have any jewelry left, you know, from where they broke into my house.”
She puts her change in her purse and hears the Richards girl says she’s sorry. But how pretty the ring is, how she’s never seen a stone like that before. Mrs. Creech thanks her and slowly grabs her bag.
Coonie’s daughter comes up behind her in line with a box of macaroni and milk. She puts them down and starts to tighten her ponytail.
“I’m sorry,” the Richards girl tells Coonie’s daughter, “but Daniel Adam ain’t paid his credit yet and you ain’t supposed to get nothing till he pays.”
“Well I got $2 right here,” Coonie’s daughter says handing her the money, “Please can you just let me get this today? I’m telling ya, Amy, this is what I want for supper— it’s my birthday.”
Mrs. Creech can tell by looking at her that Coonie’s daughter walked here. Mrs. Creech can tell that girl is hungry for lots of things. Mrs. Creech wants to hug the girl, tell her happy birthday.
“Look here,” Mrs. Creech turns to Coonie’s daughter, “now you keep your money and let me pay for it.”
Coonie’s daughter looks at Mrs. Creech then with hurt animal eyes. She quickly grabs the box of macaroni and milk and says, “Thank you so much, thank you so much,” as she runs out the door.
And Mrs. Creech will wait. She’ll call her oldest son over from his trailer across the road and make him a baloney sandwich. She won’t let him leave until she sees him swallow his anti-depressants. She’ll pat him on the back and tell him good night. She’ll wipe down the dinner table and then she’ll finally sit. And that is where she’ll cry.
On the way to church the sisters pass the little patch of woods where Annie Pearl’s too-early babies are buried. Annie Pearl always looks their way, sometimes says how sweet they were to hold but that’s it. Hildy’s never talked about it with her sister, but she knows that being a mama would have been the greatest joy of Annie Pearl’s life. Hildy doesn’t understand why God didn’t let her sister be a mama.
When the sisters pull up at church they see that white girl upset and throwing bottles. She’s busting them on the front steps of the shack house. She’s crying, wiping her face and nose with the back of her hand. They sit in the car a minute and watch her.
“Drugs,” Hildy says, “I’m telling you, that boy is in them drugs bad.”
“Look at her though, something’s going on. She ain’t even seen we’ve pulled up,” Annie Pearl shakes her head.
“Sister, we ain’t gonna mess with it,” Hildy pulls down her visor and straightens her hair piece.
“He coulda hurt her, beat on her. He looks mean as a snake every time I’ve seen him.”
“Now what you gonna do? You go over there and he’s gonna beat on you too? Look, you do what you want, I’m going to decorate. I don’t want nothing to do with it. We signed up to decorate for revival tonight and you know me, if I’ve got anything to do with it I’m gonna make sure it’s perfect and I spent all week looking this flower chain to drape over the pulpit with them purple flowers like I want…”
Annie Pearl squints to look at the girl harder.
“I’m sure that girl is fine, Sister, maybe they’re just in a spat,” Hildy opens her car door, “Let’s just wait and see if she’s still out there after revival. And if she is, we’ll go see about it.”
Hildy leaves Annie Pearl sitting there pushing her glasses up on her face. She opens the boot and pulls out the flower chain. She hears the car door slam and looks and sees Annie Pearl making her way across the yard. The girl is really slinging a fit now.
Hildy can’t hear what her sister is saying to the girl but she figures it’s something like:
“You all right, Baby?” or “What’s the matter, Sugar?”
The girl’s moving her hands in the air, telling her sister something.
Annie Pearl is shaking her head in a gentle way.
It takes a minute but the closer Annie Pearl gets to the girl, the more the girl starts to calm down. She drops the bottles in her hands, she stops pacing. Annie Pearl puts her arms around the girl and pats the back of her head. Hildy watches them, she thinks of the doll babies lined up on her sister’s couch in new pink dresses.
Hildy looks back at the church, no one’s showing up yet but the automatic lights in the flower beds have already come on. She looks back to Annie Pearl and the girl. The girl is much taller than Annie Pearl and she’s got her arm over Annie Pearl’s shoulder. The girl leans and puts her head on top of Annie Pearl’s. Then Annie Pearl hollers across the yard for Hildy to call Erma to come and decorate, that they’ve got to help this girl.
Hildy glances in her rearview mirror and sees her sister wiping the girl’s face with one hand and patting the girl’s leg with the other. The girl is still crying but not as much.
“Does she need to go to the hospital, Sister?” Hildy asks.
“No,” the girl says, “I just want to go home.” And the girl sobs into Annie Pearl’s chest.
“She’s OK, Sister,” Annie Pearl says stroking the girl’s wild hair, “Let’s just get her to her mama. She needs her mama now.”
“Take me to the coon dog castle,” the girl says, “Please.”
“They didn’t ever finish that did they?” Hildy says as she pulls out the drive.
“No,” the girl looks into her lap.
“That’s a shame,” Hildy went on, “That coulda been an attraction for the area. I bet folks woulda drove down from Virginia to see that.”
“I know,” the girl tilts her head, “Too bad my daddy had to screw everything up.”
Annie Pearl hands the girl some tissue from her purse.
The girl blows her nose and gets quiet then she says, “Look you can just go on and tell her everything. I know she wants to know what’s going on.” The girl turns to Annie Pearl, “I don’t care, tell her everything. I can feel her looking at me and thinking I’m crazy, but I’m not crazy! I’m just feeling like I,” The girl lifts her head like she’s looking out beyond the top of the car, “I don’t have no control over nothing. No control.” “I, I, I,” she brings her head back down and starts to twist her hands in front of her, “I found her Bible in the truck door. Made me sick. I told him I didn’t want to see it no more. And then he didn’t come home. He don’t love me. He don’t love me! And I ain’t got nothing! I ain’t got …”
Annie Pearl pulls the girl closer and tells her it’s alright.
Hildy stops looking at the girl. It’s dark now. She takes a left at the light on Main Street. Most everything is abandoned and no one is out. Folks are home, some windows shine but it’s so dark.
“Well baby, you didn’t tell my sister the GOOD news,” Annie Pearl says from behind.
Hildy sees Annie Pearl put her hand under the girl’s chin, she lifts the girl’s head. Hildy can see the girl’s face is sad.
“Hildy, we’ve got a real miracle back here,” Annie Pearl pauses and puts both her hands on the girl’s shoulders, “Megan is going to have a baby. Isn’t that a blessing?”
Megan bends over trying to catch her breath, she starts shaking.
“Oh child, my darling child,” Annie Pearl says leaning over her.
“Well congratulations,” Hildy says. She does not look back anymore, just watches the road as they drive on to the edge of town.
Hildy hears that Megan has almost stopped crying. She listens to Annie Pearl talk to her so calmly. It’s so low she can’t make anything out. And Hildy remembers something their mama’d say every time Annie Pearl was newly pregnant, “Eating summer corn brings sunshine to a baby in the belly.”
“You know, I’ve got some fresh corn I’ve just blanched and canned in the boot,” Hildy says.
“Yes baby, we’ll give you some. It’ll be good for you and that baby. It’ll make y’all strong,” Annie Pearl says.
Hildy looks and sees her sister smiling and she smiles back at her. Hildy hears her sister talking quietly again, she thinks she’s talking to the baby. She’s telling it a prayer.
What would you have done when your husband, the biggest Bluetick coonhound breeder this side of the river, was busted in Big Bay Odom’s dope ring out of Arrowhead trailer park when you never even knew he had anything to do with it and he was thrown in prison and left you with all those dogs to care for that no one wants to buy anymore because your husband’s a criminal and then you found your only child, your sixteen year old daughter, out in the dog house naked on top of a full grown married man who everybody knows steals when he owes drug money?
You’d carry on and do the best you could and try to get your daughter to stop messing with that man. That’s what Janet wants everyone around here to know. She didn’t throw Megan out. She didn’t want her to end up dropping out of school, hanging on the porch of that shack house for everyone to ride by and see. She tried her best. Janet tried to tell Megan that Daniel Adam didn’t really love her. But Megan wouldn’t listen. And Megan ran away and refused to come back. She said she needed to be where she felt loved and that wasn’t with her mama.
Now everyone looks at Janet, asks how she’s doing, has put her on their prayer lists. She is living in a broken home. With a damn half built giant dog house that Coonie always dreamed of, driving two hours on weekends to see him for a few minutes. And when he asks if Megan’s doing ok, if she’s still catching for the softball team, Janet says, “Yes.”
Right now she is looking at their marriage photo that Megan loved so much. When Megan found it in the attic she made a big deal about it. How could her mama and daddy ever looked that young and happy before? Megan made a special frame for it, spray painted some sticks and wove them together. She hung it above her dresser, showed it to her friends when they came over for sleepovers. “Look at mama’s hair!” she’d say and they’d all laugh.
Janet pulls it from the wall. She’s done all she needed to do for the day. Fed the dogs, gave medicine to the ones that needed it, she forgot to take the clothes off the line but that could wait till tomorrow. She’s tired and it’s dark out. She lays down in Megan’s bed with her wedding picture. She looks at it again before putting it on the nightstand. She wishes that for her daughter’s birthday today, that wherever Megan is, she will not be afraid. That is all she can hope for. And Janet goes to sleep to the sound of the dogs barking outside. It’s nothing. Those dogs bark all the time now that everyone is gone.
The baby can hear. Mama is calling. She says, “Honey.” There is nothing coming back to Mama except barks. She calls louder. The baby feels Mama running fast for a long time, and Mama keeps calling, and the barks turn to howls that get quieter and quieter and the baby can remember too, hearing someone say that it was a blessing.
Ashleigh Bryant Phillips is from Woodland, North Carolina. Her work appears in The Tusk, Bull, Show Your Skin Journal, Instantprose, and drDOCTOR. It’s also been featured on NPR’s affiliate WHQR. Her mini short story collection Buck Snort Season & Other Notes is included in The Travelin’ Appalachians Revue’s 100 Stories Under 50 Words Vol 1. Zine. Find her on instagram/twitter @woodlandraised.