Two chapters from the novel

JOE CONSONANTS, REVISED

Apology to my handful of readers. A friend wrote alerting me the recent Joe Consonants chapter had some editing glitches. I’d tried to shorten the chapters some, to leave out extraneous novel asides. Must have been half-asleep. So I deleted the abortive edit and hereby replace it with the full two chapters. Too long a read by Medium standards but a few seem to like the narrative…

I had to wait until Saturday when my wife was off work to go talk to Joe Consonants about skooks coming toward our house in broad daylight. She and one of her sisters planned to take the kids to some kind of children’s activities in Seattle, so I didn’t have to worry about leaving my son at home.

After they headed for the city, I headed for Joe’s cave. Even midday, the Gorge was shadowed from the sun and it was cooler than the lowlands. Joe wasn’t answering his cave door, so Harry and I walked back toward the county road. I heard a vehicle stop and a door open and close, a mumbled exchange, and the car went away. Harry wagged his tail and woofed that little woof with a question mark on the end, and I knew Joe must have bummed a ride from somebody. Harry and Joe had reached a rapprochement of sorts on previous visits, cemented with grilled bits of rabbit from Joe’s snare line.

The big man came soft-footing from the highway with an open-top pasteboard box under each arm. He was wearing an old hickory logging shirt with sleeves scissored off above his impressive biceps and faded black logger’s jeans supported by bright red suspenders. The britches were stagged off at his shins to accommodate a rigger’s high boots. His feet were bare, of course; no logging boots for Joe.

I took one of the boxes, full of a stack of old newspapers, and followed him back. The other box held a big blue can of Maxwell House coffee and assorted canned goods. He unsnapped a leather flap on the cave door, exposed a long-shank bicycle lock and spun the combination one-handed.

“I didn’t even know your door locked,” I said.

“Yep.” He pulled open the door and picked up a length of steel rebar with a center-drilled hole for the padlock. A steel bracket with a corresponding hole was bolted on the center of the door, other brackets on each side of the frame.

“Pretty tricky,” I said.

“Too complicated for a teenager to bother with anyway.”

He put his supplies on his kitchen counter; a slab of warped Formica somebody had discarded doing a remodel. He struck a big kitchen match on his thumbnail and lit his kerosene lamp, then took the box of newspapers.

“How come you’re collecting old newspapers, Joe?”

“Good fire-starters.” He reached for one of his handmade pipes. “Plus, I like to let my news of the world age a little. Less stressful that way. Then I burn it. A little ritual, like. See?”

“It’s one way to do it.”

He touched off a bowl of his personal kinnikinnik. The word meant smoking weed in the Jargon and stood for bear-berry, a shrub with reddish bark, evergreen leaves and bright red berries. Indians cured the leaves for smoking and ate the berries. Joe blended the leaves with inexpensive Carter Hall drug-store tobacco. He expelled a cloud of smoke, sat and stretched his long legs toward the cold stove.

Elip kloshe.” He rolled up a handful of newspaper. “Means ‘better’. Take a load off.” He struck another match and pushed the newspaper in the stove with some cedar kindling. “Be ready to brew coffee in no time,” he said. “Coffee aids talkin’. What brings you up to see me?”

I sat and leaned forward. Harry curled up beside me. “Skooks came into the pasture behind mine,” I said. “Just a couple day ago. In broad daylight!”

He squinted at me. “You saw ‘em?”

“No. But I heard one scream.”

“A-huh! Wind off the bottoms?”

“Just like you warned me,” I said.

He moved a handful of newspapers to reveal a paperback book and laid it aside: Jaws, by Peter Benchley, published to a lot of fanfare right after the New Year. I was surprised it already was out in paperback.

“Summertime reading, Joe?”

“Waitress at the Shovel said she’s not gonna surf the Oregon coast anymore after the nightmares she got.”

“You need more nightmares?”

He chuckled. “Well, I ain’t no surfer. Great White Sharks hold no terror for me.” He scanned headlines as he twisted more sheets of newsprint into tight spirals.

“Lookahere. Another Jap soldier came out of the brush in the Philippines, been hiding for twenty-nine years. They been finding those guys off’n on since the war got over. Like that Ishii guy in California I tol’ you about. If injins and Jap soldiers can hide from us, I don’t see why a person is so surprised skooks can.”

“Joe, they came in broad daylight!”

“But you didn’t see ’em. Did anybody?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Why do you think one yelled?”

“Those bear dogs on Ryan Road went crazy when the skooks got upwind of them.”

“A-huh! They’re afraid of those packs. I suppose they ran when the dogs winded ‘em.”

“They did. But dammit Joe, my son sneaked out his bedroom window and was almost through the back fence when I caught him. It was like he was going to meet them!”

He nodded solemnly. “To be expected.”

++++

I leaned back. “What the hell do you mean, it was to be expected?”

He added small splits of alder as the kindling began to crackle. “Tol’ you he was marked by ‘em,” he said calmly. “He’ll always know when they’re around. Just like me.” He went on reading. “Huh. Some things don’t never change.” He read aloud: “United Mine Workers president found guilty of first-degree murder for ordering assassination of union reformer, his wife and daughter.”

I felt like strangling him — if I could have got my hands around his thick neck.

“Joe…”

He looked up. “I did read your coal-mine story. You left out the big UMW strike in 1919. Some blamed the union for the fire that destroyed Melmont, after a miner was tried in Tacoma for plantin’ dynamite under his foreman’s bed in a Melmont boarding house.”

I had missed all that; primitive fragging in the coal fields before anybody ever heard of Vietnam. Another time I would have been bothered about missing it, but not now. I felt like yelling at him. He was still reading.

“They find Patty Hearst yet?” he said.

“What the hell does that have to do with skooks in my pasture?”

“Nary thing. Says here the cops and FBI burned up them SLA terrorists in a fire. But Citizen Kane’s progeny didn’t get cooked,” he added thoughtfully.

“Joe, are you going to talk to me about these skooks or not?”

He consigned the SLA news to the flames, got down his old enamel coffee pot and primed the pump on his recycled sink; he’d shown me the Rube Goldberg plumbing he devised to bring creek water indoors on my first visit. With the pot on the stove he relit his pipe and studied me.

“Death in your voice again,” he said. “Reminds me of me, back when I took to killin’ skooks. I wasn’t any more ready to think about anything else than you are now.” He turned back to his newspapers. “My, my — India testing an atom bomb? Bet my old friends in Nepal don’t like that!”

I controlled my building anger by a sheer act of will. Joe was acting no differently than ever, though it was the first time he had admitted to killing skooks; it was me that had changed, because the damn skooks were back.

“Muster your patience,” he said as if reading my thoughts. “Way they operate it coulda been a dozen years before they showed up.”

“But it wasn’t,” I said.

“Tell me what happened,” he said.

So I went through it for him while the coffee perked. When I was done, he poured two cups. I accepted one automatically. He settled back unhurriedly.

“Young feller made it all the way to the back fence, huh? Strong young’un. Determined, too.”

“If Harry hadn’t grabbed the seat of his britches…”

He smiled down at Harry. “But Harry did. That’s some dog you got there.” Harry’s tail thumped slowly. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll get you some rabbit in a minute,” Joe said. “After your boss gets it all off his chest. You had your big old pistol with you, I expect,” he said to me.

“You’re damned right.”

He nodded gravely. “They won’t be back, not for a long time. They know you, don’t think they don’t. They’re afraid of you. And you surprised ’em by reacting so quick. Believe me, they got the message: your place is off-limits for visits.”

Visits?”

“A-huh. Just to get a glimpse of the boy, see. He’s special to them now, since he spent time with that female.”

“You need to tell me about this marking business,” I said. “Sooner rather than later.”

He gazed into the shadowy ceiling of his cave for what seemed a long time before he answered.

“I was six years old in nineteen and ought eight, the year I was marked,” he said. “I’m two years younger than this century. I’ve done put sinamokst tahlum behind me.”

“Joe,” I said, “No jargon please.”

“What?” He looked at me. “Oh. Seventy. I’m already past seventy ikt cole. Years.” He paused. “’Ought-eight was the year the skooks came for me.”

“What? Skooks kidnapped you when you were six years old?”

“Not perzactly. They found me. I was lost in the woods.”

“At six years old?”

“There was lots more people in the Gorge then remember, when coal was king,” he said. ”Thousands, prob’ly. Lots of kids like me. And boys like to do stuff. Hoyt and me went huntin’ mushrooms. Had some, too. Kept goin’ deeper in the woods and got turned around.” He sipped coffee. “Hard to remember now I didn’t always know every wrinkle in these hills.”

“What do you mean they marked you? And marked my son?”

He gazed at me levelly. “You know damn good and well your boy nursed from that ‘un before you caught ’em. How you think he came up with an unknown parasite?”

“We were scared to death, he was so sick,” I said. “Another score for me to settle with these damn monsters.”

He flinched. “Such cold rage,” he said softly. “It hurts me to hear it. Mostly because I was the same way for a long time, after I got away from ’em. It pains to admit it, but I shot more than one to death as a young man. They were too easy for me to find, see — because just like your boy, I always sensed when they were around.”

“Did you shoot that one in Ape Canyon in 1924?”

“You never turn loose a question, do you? I was twenty-two that year,” he said slowly. “A man full-growed. Or so I thought. That ‘un wasn’t my first either. I’ve got a lot on my conscience. I’m glad you scared ’em this time. They’ll stay gone now for a long time. Maybe I can help you avoid gettin’ too much on your conscience, too.”

“You claim you were grabbed by skooks, you hated them for it, and you hunted them. But now you’re an apologist?” I was getting angry. “Let me worry about my own damn conscience.”

He wagged his big head and drank coffee. “I swear, you remind me of me back then. Almost the same thing I tol’ ol’ Ronnie Satiacum when he tried to put me straight about skooks. He said I wasn’t all that great shakes as a stalker, they let me find ’em see, because they kind of trusted me at first.”

“Who the hell is Ronnie Satiacum?”

“A real-old injin who lived up here in the Gorge. Older than I am now back when this happened. Half Nez Pierce and half Puyallup, talk about your unlikely marriages. He didn’t like river fishin’ for salmon like his daddy’s people, wanted to be a horse injin like his mama’s kin. Best hand with horses I ever saw. He opened a livery stable in Fairfax for coal folks who might want to rent a horse or a buggy, and he trained saddle horses for a lot of people.”

“Okay. What did this ancient horseman know about skooks?”

He got up and offered more coffee. I hadn’t touched mine. He refilled his mug and sat cradling it and his gaze got lost in the cave shadows again.

“About all there was to know,” he said slowly. “Ronnie’s the one who got me back. Shot the big’ un carryin’ me right through the brain with that old .45–90 o’ mine. Left it to me when he passed at age ninety-eight.”

“So he was a local hero. But how did he know that the skooks kind of trusted you, as you put it?”

He gave me an embarrassed look. “Besides him, I ain’t ever told another living soul this: before Satiacum got me back, one o’ the lactatin’ females fed me. Only way she could. Just like that ‘un was tryin’ to feed your son even as she died.”

Something I had been trying to forget. Now I said, “Joe, you were six years old!”

“Sounds kinda perverted, don’t it?” He ducked his head. “You wonder I never told nobody?”

“It sounds…Never mind how it sounds.” I had been going to say it sounded crazy but that was a given, talking to Joe. “Did you get sick?”

“Damn near died. Parasites in my shit? Don’t know. The local sawbones for the mine company wrote it off to exposure, being wet and lost all night in the woods. Same reason he gave for cause of death when the hounds found Hoyt’s body.”

“Wait. Your friend died?”

“A huh. I was too sick to go to his funeral. But I knew it wasn’t exposure, see. We got separated that night. I knew the skooks scared him to death. Like they almost did me.”

“They scared your childhood chum to death,” I said.

“My best friend.” He nodded. ”I spent a lot of years tryin’ to get even, before I finally understood ol’ Satiacum was right, I was marked by them. Picked out for a special bond.”

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.