Excerpt from Matt Jones’s “The Kissy-Faced Cha Cha”
1. A Funeral for the Boys
Plemon and Truman and Goodloe got picked off by our daddy sneaking back into the darkness one night. They left normal as usual, skinny ankles climbing high over the sill, crunchy footsteps in the snow drifting back toward the wood. But then there were three shots.
Daddy wasn’t sorry, but he kept apologizing. He said, ‘It makes me sick to think what you’ve been up to with these boys.’ It was kind of like an apology, but one for us instead of to us. He said it with his head cocked to the sky as if his words were better suited to things that much higher above him.
I wanted to say a lot of my feelings as words during the service, which wasn’t really a proper service at all. Daddy dug one pit as part of his apology and we swung the bodies down in it so they were stacked messy from tall to small, Good’s chunky face at the top of the pile, Plem’s at the bottom.
Coody spoke for a long time. She babbled on and on about the eternity of love, the plot in her chest with the headstone of her heart that would always read, ‘Truman—Dearest of Gentlemen in the Ailing River Valley. The keeper of my kisses. The man of my loins—’ and Daddy jumped in to clear his throat and tossed a shovel on the ground. ‘That’ll do, Coody,’ he said. ‘Close ’em up now.’
Wavie stepped forward and tossed one handful of dirt atop the bodies. I did the same. If I had to pick one person to be like in life, it would have been our mother, but she left us and maybe became the queen of the harpies or died. So, I would be like Wavie instead because she was most like our mother. Coody was too emotional.
After we sealed up the pit, Wavie dazed off into the house. She didn’t say one word throughout the entire service. Didn’t shed one single tear. She just stared off into the trees, probably imagining what it would be like to never run away now, to be stuck where we were. I couldn’t tell whether she was just daydreaming or really seeing something. She could do that with her eyes, set them to running in the distance, veins like shaggy tracks leading from her head. Our father rested his hand on her shoulder and said, ‘Now, Wave,’ but she shook him off and walked toward the house. He knelt down in front of me so our heads were even and said, ‘Shu. You know how much a father loves his daughters, right?’
‘Enough to kill,’ I said.
He smiled and kissed my forehead. ‘That’s right.’ And our daddy loved us a great deal.
Coody didn’t come inside for days after the service and the snow chewed at the nailed bits of her feet, gnashed ’em up into ice mash. She lay flat on the dirt, six feet above a cold Truman. She cried and cried and her tears turned to ice slicks beneath her cheeks, rubbed the skin red and raw. As a sister, I wanted her tears to mean something, for the earth to spit up some dainty ripe stalk of fledgling bulb that blossomed just for her. But there was nothing, at least not yet.
Our daddy wasn’t having any of it though. After a week of Coody gone cold out there above the boys’ plot, he set to digging them back up. He drove the head of the shovel through the hard-packed and frozen dirt until the boys were visible once more. Preserved and white from the cold, dirt-smeared cheeks as if they’d just been hiding down there. He hauled each one of them back out of the earth and placed their rigid forms on sleds that he tied to the back of each of our mules. He led those mules down the mountainside and through the laurel thickets with the boys in tow, and he returned two nights later with three mules and three empty sleds.
‘What did you do with ’em?’ Coody asked.
‘They’re in hell now,’ he said. ‘Fodder for the bears.’ And he walked back to our shed behind the house to tie up the mules, calling out over his shoulder, ‘Now come on inside, Coody. It’s over.’
I found it hard to believe our father sometimes. He had lied before about what happened in the woods around where we lived. He made it sound as if all the space between the trees was too small to slip through, every branch and hanging twig a claw reaching for the skin that passed closest to it, a layer for the bark to chew up and wear as a mask glued by the sap. He told us, ‘The last thing I want to have to do is pick up my three little girls piece by piece.’ He told us the forest scraped you clean little by little as you hurdled through the trees. Hair and scalp cleaved by the branches and taken up in nests by the cockyollies. Tattered clothing cut free to spill and tumble like the leaves. Flesh and lips raked away by razor-thin leaves until bones scattered themselves lost in the darkness. ‘I couldn’t stand it,’ he said. ‘It was hard enough with your mother.’
2. Queen of the Harpies
Plemon used to sneak to us in the middle of the night, foot-whacking over beds of twinkles, his heart a frantic tapping at the wall of his chest so that when he came into our room, a pent-up peckerwood flew out of the hole in his chest. He climbed through our window while Daddy was sleeping and did the kissy-faced cha cha with Wavie until they were both sweaty and loose-lipped. He said, ‘Your momma’s not dead. She’s living down on a harpy boat docked just where the forest turns to floodplain.’
That was why we called her our dead or gone mother, because we didn’t know.
Our dead or gone mother left us when our daddy was sick, when his fever cooked his joints to goo and his skin raged tiny fires stoked to burn pustules to popping, to smoking, to signaling the smolder that was to come. She said she was going to get medicine, to pick the bloodroot from the forest floor and mash it into tea for him to drink, to rid the fever from his body. He sizzled for her but she walked out into the cold and never came back. When Daddy did get better, it had already been a week. He went out looking for her and came back empty- handed. He told us that she had perished out in the woods, that the bugs turned her flesh to meal smeared beneath his boots, but Plemon told us different.
Plemon was the oldest of the band of brothers that would make their home in the wild. When he snuck into our room, Wavie scooched over in the bed to make room for him, which pushed Coody to the edge and I fell out on the floor. That was okay though. I climbed underneath the bed and listened to their breathy flesh gasp for air, Coody’s elbows fighting for space as Plem and Wavie gathered heaps of each in other in their own arms, peeled away flesh and stuck hair strands like rinds around a fruit of salmon chard. When they were finished, Plem propped his hands up behind his head and said really coolly like we knew what he was talking about, ‘Yeah, she’s down there with the rest of the harpies where the river cuts out of the valley.’
Harpies were river whores. They shared an old sternwheeler on the water where the harperella grew up high over the railings, a steamboat with fifty human whistles aboard, screeching into pillows, roaring hollow whispers into the ears of the men stoking their silence and suffocating their flame. The harpies harvested the bitter hollow stocks of harperella and filled them with oil and flame so they burned ripe throughout the night. The harpies rented out rooms by the hour to any mountain man or outlandish alike that could make the journey to their slimy decks and rooms of sultry heat. It is hard to picture our mother there.
It’s hard to think beyond the trees, to imagine outside of them. Thoughts get lost and turned around. They get tired trudging through the snow and up the slopes. They freeze and starve trapped in the bush and die out in the cold, but then they come back to you. Their ghosts like memories fly home and haunt the space behind your eyes. I try to imagine where our dead or gone mother might have ended up. When I imagine her, I see her trudging through the snow. Down the mountainside. Tired. Exhausted. Out of breath. She stumbles and twists her ankle, shoulders up against a gum log to break the wind at her back. Huffs on the crisp for a while until her bones are frozen in place. It’s just the way my thoughts work.
But there are places in the woods where the laurel grows too thick to pass through. These thickets are called hell and I imagine her stuck in there, vines poised around her slight throat like pungent beads. I’d rather her dead than just simply gone. Dead is easier. The dead live like worms that wriggle and churn through that first damp layer of earth. Invisible. All but unreal without the digging.
Plemon said, ‘Some say that she’s the queen of the harpies even.’
Wavie sat up and the mattress above me creaked with her fine rustling. ‘And who says that?’ she asked.
Plem smiled nervously and said, ‘It’s just the truth.’ They grew silent for a few moments and Plem spoke again. ‘We could go find her, if you were still interested.’
I liked to hear them whisper about running away the most. Building a place out of the high winds of the bald that we lived on. Wavie sounded like she wanted all of it, all of Plemon, but she always responded the same way.
‘I can’t leave without them.’
‘Hell,’ he’d say, ‘We’ll all go. You and me, Tru and Coody, even Good and Shu.’ The mattress creaked and he leaned over the bed. His face came to me upside down and he said, ‘You’d like that Shula, wouldn’t you? Goodloe is a nice kid. He’d go slow with you.’
I heard Wavie swat him on the butt and Plemon winked at me before ascending back up to the world above the bed. I tried to picture Goodloe. A chunk of a boy. Red in the cheeks. Teeth that looked so slick I wanted to touch them with my tongue. Just to prod them. Feel for their soft spots.
Plemon climbed out of the window, skinny ankles hoisted into the cold night air, shirt flapping open in the breeze so I saw the bones of his ribs, the cage in his chest where he kept that pesky bird of his.
I crawled out from under the bed and snuggled up next to Coody. Her grin was pulled so tight that I felt the sheets might rip. ‘What are you so happy about?’ I asked.
Her cheeks flushed and I turned over to get some sleep. She hadn’t even so much as met Truman before, but she was in love already. I was warm. I thought that could be love.
3. The Unkindness of Boys
They came back to us as ravens first, perched upon the roof, stringing together a squawking chorus of wicked words. A group of ravens is called an unkindness because of their tendency to gather and riot with the wind, their sound carried by breezes and well, unkindness. Sometimes a group of ravens is also called a storytelling. Many of our histories are remembered in terms of unkindness.
Wavie was skeptical at first that the birds could be the boys, but Coody was sure. Coody was sure in the way that she was always sure. Sure that the snake who bit and filled her with poison, sure that the bear that clawed her tummy clean of its tender parts, sure that the bullet that bit her cheek to a thaw of runny blood, was just a strange symbol of love. The poison a kissvitation to the grave, the claws digging simply to have her heart and hold it close, the blood upon her cheeks just a rosy flush. But it was them all right, the boys.
They flew in low once night had fallen, their feathers a dim shine under the dense foliage. They called out, ‘Tuft Tamer, Doughbeater, Double Cousin!’ Our daddy took to the yard and fired shots off in the direction of their voices, but he missed every single time. When he got tired or ran out of bullets, the ravens flew into our room with their greasy feathers and avian fleas trapezing across the bed in a circus of itches and welts. When we were alone with them, they squawkspered the tune of our names, of their remembering. ‘Wavie, Coody, Shula!’ Sometimes, ‘Bastard, Murderer, Coot!’ Those were directed toward our father.
Coody had highs and lows that came too easily. She let Truman peck holes in her face that turned to scaly sores and she called it love. Wavie though, she kept Plemon at a distance. Made him perch out on the windowsill.
‘Wavie,’ I said, ‘What’s wrong? You don’t want Plemon anymore?’
‘I want him alright,’ she said, ‘I want him so bad that I can’t have him.’ She held her arm out and her hand shook and Plem climbed aboard her fingers. She stroked his feathers and the oil came off on her fingertips. She rubbed it across her lips so they shined. ‘I want him so bad that I’m afraid to have him. I want him so bad that I’d about wring his neck and break his wings if I let myself. I want him so bad that I might pluck his feathers free one by one just to see his beautiful pocked skin again.’ Plem let out a shrill sound and jumped free from her hand, fluttered out into the night. Wavie smiled and called, ‘Fly away, little birdy, but come back soon.’
By the time morning came, Coody had crushed Truman during the night. Plemon soared high into the sky and dove hard and fast through our daddy’s window. The glass sliced him eight different ways and the worms in his belly speckled our daddy’s beard and dug deep into the wiry hair before he could pluck them out. After that, Good was the only one left.
‘Make it quick,’ Wavie said. ‘You can’t do nothing fun with a bird anyway, Shu. He’ll come back better.’
Coody sniffled and said, ‘Be gentle, Shu. He’ll remember your touch in his next life.’ Wavie laughed at this and said, ‘Yank hard and quick. That’s about as gentle as you can hope for with a man.’
Good hopped around with his wings at his side and turned his head at me curiously. I picked him up and stared into his black eyes. ‘Is flying fun?’ I asked. He made a shrill gurgle that told me flying was fun, but lonely without his brothers. ‘You’ll have to tell me about it more sometime,’ I said.
I wanted to see him again already. The waiting was the hard part. I grabbed his neck in a tight grip and pulled hard away from his body.
4. The Boys
Plemon brought his brothers Truman and Goodloe through the window when they were still boys. Good stood around awkwardly until I reached out from underneath the bed and grabbed his ankle. ‘Here,’ I hissed, ‘crawl underneath.’
He looked confused and I gestured my head up to the four bodies above me. ‘There’s no room. Come on down.’ He lowered himself warily to the floor and his belly scraped softly against the wood. At first, he just lay on his back next to me and didn’t say a word. Sounds came from up above and I narrated each one as if it were a constellation or a wild animal cooing off in the distance.
‘You hear,’ I’d point my hand at the underside of the bed, ‘that right there. That kind of ky-eee ky-eee.’ I turned my head to the side and Good nodded. He must have been the same age as me, chubby like his body didn’t mean to be. ‘That’s Wavie purring. She does that when Plem takes his fingers like this,’ and I curled two of them up like a talon and tickled the underside of Good’s chin. ‘Open your mouth,’ I said, and he did so I could see those gummy teeth of his. I itched the roof of his mouth with my fingers and felt the high ridges above the valley of his throat. ‘See,’ I said, ‘Just like that. You don’t have to ram ’em back there is what Wavie says. Just hook ’em up.’
Coody and Truman talked to each other in the way that mothers talked to their newborn babies, whole lives spread out in front of them. Coody and Truman talked to each other like it was their last night on this earth, whole lives like pinpricks of errant dust balanced delicately on the tips of their noses so every new breath drew in that same fear that it could all just fall away in any moment. I don’t think they ever even so much as kissed.
‘You’re about the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen, Coody. I do swear it’s true. I want to rake my fingernails across your fine and strong back like a heelfoot does to a he-balsam. I want to burrow inside of your arms like a whistle pig when the sky goes gray and the wind picks up. I want to grow an extra beard that keeps your face warm. I want to…’
‘Geez,’ I said, ‘Does your brother want to do anything that doesn’t sound plum crazy?’
Good sighed and spoke for the first time. ‘He gets like this. Come to think of it, I think he said the very same thing to Jorjamae just the other week.’
‘Who’s Jorjamae?’ I asked.
Good turned his head to me. ‘She lives down on the harp…the holler on the bottomside of the backridge. Way back in the beyond.’
‘Oh,’ I said, wondering what he was going to say. ‘We haven’t been out that way yet.’
‘You girls haven’t been much of anywhere yet, have you?’
‘…I want to be a wind-sick bird that finds refuge in the nest of your pucker. I want to be the snowflake that lands on your tongue…’ I considered Good’s question while Truman went on crooning up above us. Wavie let out a deep and throaty ackooo ackkoooo, and I knew that Plemon had found the space inside of her that there was no map to.
‘We haven’t,’ I told Good, ‘but I hear your brother talking about leaving with Wavie all the time. Batching up on the river.’
Good turned over on his side to face me, bumped his head on the wood, rubbed his hair with his one free arm. ‘Yeah. The world is a much nicer place off the mountain.’ The mattress rustled above us and Wavie got to that high-pitched whistling.
‘Did you mean that Truman really met Jorjamae on the harpy boat? Is that what you meant to say?’
When Good’s eyes got bright, I could tell that he looked like his brothers, just more fleshy, younger, weight he had yet to shed, to leave behind in favor of less innocent things. ‘How’d you know about that?’ he asked.
I said, ‘That’s what Plem talks about running to. He said our mother lives down there.’
Good smiled, ‘If that’s her, she’s probably about the most perfect woman I’ve ever seen.’
‘You’ve seen her?’ I asked.
He got real nervous like he was sorry for having seen a ghost. ‘Yeah, just from far away. I never tried to be with her or anything.’
‘You been with people?’ I asked him.
His face got real bright again and the light cut up his cheekbones raw and gaunt so I could see a man somewhere inside the boy. ‘Women,’ he said. ‘I’ve been with women. Two of ’em. Jorjamae and Heckie. Tru set it up for me. They were real nice, a little slobbery, but sweet.’
I thought about Plemon and Wavie crawling above us, their heaving and folded yelps coming out faster and faster. ‘What about Plemon?’
Good shook his head adamantly. ‘No, Plem’s in love with your sister all right. He just comes down to the river because he likes it.’
We heard Plemon’s twistification above us, the groan that escaped the contortion of his bones and the seizing of his body and all went quiet except for the Coody crooning.
‘…I want to taste the sweet sap in your honeyhole and know that I have found home. I want to make my way through the laurel slick…
‘Check this out,’ said Good, and he buried his mouth in the skin of his elbow and blew hard so rumpled wind escaped in one fast burble. I giggled and we waited for their reaction.
‘I know you didn’t just pass gas in this bed of mine,’ we heard Wavie say. And Truman went quiet. Then two pairs of skinny ankles showed themselves dressing on the floor and Good said, ‘I think they’re all finished up there. I better go.’
Read the rest of “The Kissy-Faced Cha Cha” in apt‘s fifth print annual.
Matt Jones is a fiction candidate in The University of Alabama MFA program. His previous work can be found in Paper Darts, theNewerYork, and Phantom Drift: A Journal of New Fabulism. He also has work forthcoming in Whitefish Review and Interfictions.