Joseph Koehl – "Our man who walks in the night"

Marcus loved the pre-dawn blue when there were only occasional headlights on the river road, when there were still grackles in all the trees.  He found the snapping turtles by feeling with his feet, determining where their heads were.  Then he’d snatch them up from the sulphurous mud by the tails and they’d swing about mouth agape, sometimes striking like vipers.  When he threw the turtles on the shore they’d attack one another, alternately lunging and drawing their heads in. The majority of his captures wore coats of algae and many were leech-infested.  Some of the turtles lacked eyes or limbs and Marcus, himself missing most of his teeth and one ear, did not stick out among them.

The turtles paid two dollars a head, which was good money for Marcus, but inconsequential given the risk (though it was a myth that they could bite through broom sticks).  On the weekends he went to his friend Teddy’s house near town where two drummers played Pantera songs.  There was no guitarist or singer, and Marcus didn’t talk to anyone (and the partygoers didn’t notice him), but each time he left thoroughly entertained.

On one of his morning trips he felt something different in the muck between his toes.  He lifted a water-bleached bone stringy with algae and held it up to the yawning sun.  He looked in all directions and felt about for more.  He found a skull and what looked like part of a foot.

He put a cloak over the skull and made a body out of pillows.  When the turtles snapped and attacked one another on the kitchen floor, he told them to hush.

It was early October when the skull spoke to him.  Its voice was difficult to understand and he took one of the burlap bags he hauled the turtles in and put the skull inside.  On the drive he began to doubt whether the skull had really spoken.  Was this the case with all supernatural events, he wondered?  Was there always an uncertainty to miracles and other pauses in the science of things?

He drove down the road to a stand of pin oaks and threw the bag into Harrison Lake.

For two days he collected snapping turtles without incident.  Then he remembered what the skull had said.  He crawled about the shallows and sifted through handfuls of mud until he found the first of the doubloons.

That evening, when he returned to his trailer, the skull was sitting in the plastic chair to the side of the door.  It had antlers now and he tried to hide his fear.  It told him to take it to a place deep in the woods, where the light would be thin and granular.  He went inside and got his things, saying, “Just a second,” and did as told.

In the black woods he set the bones down and began digging through the rotten leaves and into the black ashy soil.  The deeper he dug, the more the earth reeked of death and decaying animals and he began to pull up bits of decomposed fur.  Finally, covered in an oily blood-colored substance, he found more coins.

Then he turned to the skull, which was smiling, and covered it with the kerosene he’d said “Just a second” to get, and he lit the bones on fire.  He ran but the woods did not end.  It took him over and hour to go the half mile to the road.

At home he walked up the gravel driveway panting and then he saw it, the skull sitting on the steps wearing a mesh cap.  He waved at the skull and began to approach it, then he turned back on himself.  He sprinted toward the highway.

The truck hit him first then a Camry, but he did not die.  When he went back to the porch he looked at the skull and noticed its teeth were missing; he went into the kitchen and saw that all the snapping turtles were dusty bones.  Blue mold grew from the stripped walls and there was a dead dog in the floor.

Then he remembered: two months ago he’d come back from turtling with bags of coins he’d scraped from the watery floor.  He was struck by an F-350 that did not stop.  He’d eventually come to and crawled mangled and disoriented back to the turtle pond.  Unable to right himself, he’d slowly died of thirst and hunger.  In his fever deer had come to drink in the shallows, then dogs had come to pick at his wounds.

The coins were not where he’d left them and a gentle wind blew through the shattered windows and collapsed walls.  He began to wail but he could not hear himself; he began to cry but he had no eyes.  It was then that he started laughing, quietly at first.

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