“If the slayer thinks he slays,If the slain
thinks he is slain,Both these do not understand:
He slays not, is not slain.
– Katha Upanishad, 2:19
Jerry Egge looked up from tying the laces of his high-top sneakers, then sat back hard on the front step of his house, a stabbing pain wrenching his gut. There, scrawled in four-foot-high, blood-red lettering on the newly-painted water tower across the way, were the words, "Fuck You, Egge."
Damn kids. Why couldn't they be satisfied with overpasses, stop signs and bathroom stalls? He swore some of them saw their high school principal as a two hundred pound, balding lab rat. He could hear them now, bragging over Cokes and hamburgers at Andy's Diner: “How much can the pinhead take before he locks the door to his private washroom and slashes his wrists on his sharpened Wayne Newton belt buckle?”
Jerry thought about going back to bed and burying his head under the covers. Instead, he stood, inhaled deeply, and let it out, his breath visible in the early morning air. What a job. A coal miner had a greater sense of ease. He rolled his neck, hearing it crick once, twice, then trotted on down the steps, tiptoed around the stacks of lumber on his front walk, and set off for the woods on the outskirts of Soldier, where every day he ran a little deeper into the pines. Maybe this would be the day he'd keep on going, run right into Fertile and catch a bus to Chicago. He could get a job selling textbooks or something.
He shuffled along, dodging the refuse left behind when the tons of snow had melted. Dead leaves, dormant sod. It was that depressing time of year, when the green tint of the lawns reminded him of bile and the melting snow looked like dirty laundry.
Through the early morning haze, he could see a group of runners approaching at a rapid rate, blue uniforms bouncing up and down, the flap, flap, flap of their sneakers arriving before he could make out their faces. The Commando track team, out for a morning workout. As the lead runners passed, some of them snickered. For a moment, he thought they'd seen the graffiti on the water tower, but from this vantage point, the tower was blocked by the trees. It must just be him. Stoop-shouldered, gangly, long legs with a short torso-he looked weird enough in his principal's coat and tie. In sweats and a Minnesota Gopher baseball cap, he must look like a damn cartoon.
Jerry plodded on down Wheat Field Lane, ignoring the good mornings of the trailing runners, chewing over what he'd do to the kid who'd painted that obscenity on the tower.
He slowed somewhat as he approached Veteran's Park, where the statue of Colonel Colvill, leader of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg, held court, waving his sabre menacingly. Colvill and his infantry troops had saved the Union's butt on the second day of the battle, filling in the breach when General Sickles disobeyed orders and attacked rather than hold his position.
Eighty-three percent fatality rate. At least they'd died repelling foreign invaders. What Jerry wouldn't give to have been there among the 262 men staring death in the face in a bayonet charge against Longstreet's 1600 Alabamans. Jerry was so absorbed he could hear a volley of the muzzle-loaders the troops had used at Gettysburg. No, just hammering coming from the holy roller church at the end of Wheat Field Lane.
Jerry saluted. There seemed to be a hint of a smile on the Colonel's greenish-bronze face. Never noticed that before.
He pounded on, panting, feeling as though he were running in place. Glancing to his left, he noticed flashing lights, one of those rental signs in front of Audette's Monuments. Plan ahead! Special discount for you and your spouse.
Grave stones. Jerry had a donor card in his wallet. What would the doctors do with the rest of him after they'd mined his organs? Cremation? Sue would flush him down the bowl. They weren't exactly a poster couple for nuptial bliss. If he stayed with her, it wouldn't be long before the knives came out of the drawer.
Last night he'd talked to Sue for the first time about divorce.
"Do you know what sort of man your lover is?" he'd said. "How can you expect me to hand over my paycheck every two weeks when you're sleeping with him?"
"Say you love me," she said. She always knew how to burst his bubble.
As he approached the holy roller church, the hammering and the crying noise nails make when yanked from wood caused his teeth to clench. Twenty or thirty men were roofing the church, which, until a couple of months ago, had resided in Fertile and had blocked traffic for hours as it made its way, on a flatbed truck, to Soldier. Over, under, and through the hammering, he could hear music: "Shall We Gather at the River?"
Jerry'd heard that attendance was down at Immaculate Conception. Father Mischke's polka masses couldn't compete with the unbridled abandon a parishioner could experience in the holy roller church. Since the fundamentalists had arrived, their Sunday morning service-and Sunday evening and Wednesday evening-made such a racket that the neighbors had petitioned Sheriff Kline to invoke the noise ordinance.
Some of the men stopped hammering and looked down at him running past. He waved. None of them waved back.
Jerry tramped over the bridge crossing Plum Creek, a tributary of the north-flowing Red River. Only a block or so and he'd be clear of houses and headed into the country. He could already smell the manure in the outlying fields.
He scooped up some slush, formed an iceball, and whipped it at a signpost, trying to visualize the homely face of Sue's lover. He missed badly. He slapped the snow off his hands, wiped his hands on his pant legs, and ran on.
The houses disappeared and he was in the woods, which, for some reason, made him feel disoriented. When he came to a fork in the trail, he was unsure of which of the two paths to take. He chose the one on the right. Back in town, a train whistle blasted the air. A morning freight, clattering along over the trestle crossing Plum Creek. The engineer, frustrated jazzman that he was, played variations on the usual jarring toot. A long, a languid short, followed by a blare of grand proportion. Sounded like Nooo, don't gooowww to Jerry.
But he kept on going, needed to sweat the poison out of his system. He came to a stretch where the path wound slightly downhill through a canopy of trees, his feet making an echoing sound as he galloped along. A gust of wind whistled in the pines, roiled last autumn's fallen leaves, and swiped his Minnesota Gopher hat. It blew into the woods and snagged on a tree branch; then, just as he was about to grab it, an updraft took it and tossed it higher into the trees, out of reach. He finally managed to retrieve it with the aid of a fallen branch, tightened the one-size-fits-all band in the back, and got moving again.
Off in the woods somewhere, he could hear shouting, laughter. Damn, must be those splatballers, oddballs acting out some sort of mercenary fantasy with paint-pellet guns. Just another form of vandalism in his mind.
Turn around now, sprint back to your house, and lock all the doors, he told himself. Why did he feel so uneasy this morning? He'd set a goal, principals were good at setting goals, and if he didn't beat yesterday's distance, he'd be nagging himself all day.
His side was beginning to ache. He'd run up to that bare oak in the distance, well beyond yesterday's mark, then call it a day. The bare oak shimmered like a fairy-tale tree, the kind that would reach out and grab the hapless hero on his way by. Perhaps he'd stumbled into a parallel universe. No flying monkeys, though. He chuckled and pushed on toward the dead oak.
Jerry reached the lifeless oak. He was making a wide turn to go back the way he'd come, running out of the path, tripping over sticks and sliding on leaves, when he thought he heard a noise. He stopped. The noise stopped.
Probably only one of those splatballers.
But why did he feel as he always did before he had to give a speech to the assembly in the school gymnasium? His knees were rubbery, and he suddenly felt as though he were in the cross hairs of a rifle scope. And a little voice was telling him to run. Run while you still can.
Maybe singing would help. "Shall we gather at the river," he warbled, then stopped and listened. Was it the wind? He started moving again. "Yes, we'll gather at the river. The beautiful, the beautiful river." He stopped again, listening so hard he could hear his heart beat. "Gather...with the saints...at the river...that flows by the throne of God."
There was more, but that's all he knew. It seemed that if he could remember another verse he could ward off evil.
This time he was sure someone was running toward him. It sounded like a wild boar crashing through the underbrush.
He fled, sore feet and aching side forgotten. But he kept slipping and sliding on the wet leaves and patchy snow, as if he were in one of those dreams where a monster was chasing him and his feet were encased in cement. Behind him, somebody was wheezing and puffing. And closing. Jerry hit a dry patch and picked up speed, his legs stretching, pounding. He was pulling ahead; he had to be.
Suddenly, something hit him from behind. He tumbled headlong and rolled, got a glimpse of a bear of a man with thick, curly, black hair brandishing a baseball bat above his head. "What do you think you're doing, you son of a bi-"
And then someone was knocking, and there was pain, excruciating pain, and it was raining-sticky, sap-like rain-and someone was hammering, like one of those jackhammers you hear early in the morning when you've had trouble sleeping and it's the middle of August with the dew point in the 70s, and there was a sound, like the grunting in a pornographic film, and he saw colors-red, blue, green, yellow, swirling in a vortex, and the hammering sound changed to a buzzing.
The hammering, grunting, and buzzing stopped. All was peaceful. The only sound was the chirping of the birds.
Jerry rose up above his body, looking down on a man spraying something on his back and legs with a can of paint.
Then the man kicked him in the face, and his body flopped over onto its back.
Martha Macintosh adjusted the focus on her field glasses. A white-breasted nuthatch was nosing its way down the trunk of a birch tree, a distinguishing characteristic, she knew. Such a pretty bird with its white breast, throat and face, bluish-black coloring and cute, little upturned bill.
As she followed the bird down the tree trunk, she noticed blood. Deerhunting season? No, that was long gone. A poacher?
Adjusting her field glasses, she homed in on a form at the foot of the tree. Then she dropped the glasses. She knelt to pick them up, her hands shaking–there was no mistaking it, the form was a human body, and the body was wearing a Minnesota Gopher baseball cap. It was there, lying next to his hand. She only knew one person who wore a cap like that, her principal, Jerry Egge. The fool wore the cap to school, trying to be one of the kids. They poked fun at the fact that he didn’t curve the bill.
Martha edged closer, and as she did, the smell hit her. She breathed through her mouth–knew that from one of the mystery novels she read during down times in the special education department where she worked afternoons with EBD students.
Maybe Egge had been out here playing splatball. She wouldn’t put it past him. The kids had probably given him the slip, and he’d gotten lost and knocked himself out on an overhanging tree limb. No, too much blood.
As she got closer, she noticed his tongue, which looked like a piece of dried beef, then saw the detached eyeball, and she vomited on the body.
She screamed and screamed until her voice gave out, then ran to the nearest farm, home to an agoraphobic couple with no phone and whose car, an old Chrysler with a very sluggish battery, moaned and whimpered when the husband tried to start it. Finally the frustration of listening to the balky car got to her and she ran off on foot. She had to get help, couldn’t take the chance on another farm.
Martha tried to flag down two cars on the road, but they ignored her frantic waving. Halfway back to town, clouds burst overhead, sending rivulets of water and mascara streaming into her eyes. Abruptly the rain quit, and a cloud of gnats took its place, hectoring her all the way to town.
Dear God, was she being punished? Her grandmother, who went to mass every weekday and twice on Sundays, had tapped a chicken-like talon on the Bible when she’d heard Martha had begun doing astrological charts.
“Martha, you hear me now. The Lord says, ‘There shall not be found among you any one that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a necromancer. For all these things are an abomination unto the Lord.’ You’ll be in hell with your grandfather if you don’t pay me no mind.”
As she passed through town, eyes peeked out from behind curtains in every other household, wondering at the hysterical woman waving her arms at passing cars mouthing a soundless scream. Not much happened in Soldier, and the eyes weren’t going to miss it when something did.
SOLDIER'S GAP is available on www.Amazon.com/exec/obidos/asin/158736039x/authorsdencom at a discount. Used copies also available.