J. Preston Witt
A Shovel, a Chest, a Tree, a Fence, a Loon, a Heron, a Hole
I used to make mudshoes out of sticks and mud. They were the most comfortable shoes until you went and tried to leave in them. They were standing and looking shoes, not walking shoes. I did it practically every day one summer, and I remember the warm mud and the sticks and the worms curling between my toes. I remember feeling safe and happy. My toes and the earthworms, they were pals.
One morning my father decided that if I was going to play in the mud all day I should do something useful. So I was out planting trees along the back fence that bordered the neighbor woman’s house and making mudshoes every once in awhile. The woman always sunned herself in a swimsuit. Each bone from the clavicle down was visible, the whole ribcage added on like armor. She had a calm mute look, that’s the impression she gave, a woman who wouldn’t ever yell at me. I’d watch her when standing in my mudshoes and admire how her hips jutted out. Little bony handles that held up bikini bottoms. And she had these thin-skinned bird-wing arms that were good for nothing apparently because I had to shovel her driveway in the winter. When my father saw the woman, he’d say she was starving herself, that she was sick, that she was crazy, which made me feel weird because I thought she was pretty.
After I’d been digging and planting for an hour or so, the shovel struck wood. It was not a root but wood, actual wood, a thing, a wooden plank-like thing. The top of a chest? I thought. A secret door? I dug fast, forgot the small trees my father said to plant, and raced to find the dimensions.
The chest grew larger the more I uncovered. I dug to the middle of the lawn, a good twelve-feet, and didn’t care about ruining the grass because with gold coins it wouldn’t matter. With rare jewels we’d move to Disney World or Poland or Nashville near Shania Twain.
“What’d you find?” the woman said, a low tired drone. She stood on her heron legs leering over the fence at me.
“None of your business,” I said.
This made her laugh, a musical noise, a loon call, a full laugh that shouldn’t have come from such a body. I could tell she liked me, and that made me like her. I suddenly wanted to tell her about how we always went to see the herons on the lake. The herons are here! we said one season, and The loons are here! we said another. Up until this year I would get them confused. Loons sang pretty, but looked like ducks, and herons looked like my neighbor—that was how I kept them straight. But I’d learned from Mother not to talk about a woman’s looks so I didn’t tell her anything.
“I hope it’s not a coffin,” she said. I stopped digging. I hadn’t thought of that.
“No,” I said, “that’s not what they look like.”
“Maybe it’s a really old one.”
“You aren’t going to scare me,” I said, “so quit trying.”
Coffin or not, with her watching I had to continue. I got a shovel under the wood and lifted. My veins bulged from the strain. I muscled and fought and made it look harder than it was, until thwup, it came free: a mosaic of slugs and roly-polies lay underneath, nothing else. Someone had buried a board.
“Just bugs,” I said and let it fall. But I wasn’t disappointed, not like I thought I’d be. She was smiling.
“Now mudshoes,” I said, and went to get the hose.
I fascinated on things like mudshoes, and when I fascinated on things, I couldn’t help but do the thing until it was worn out. All the times I wasn’t in my mudshoes, I was contemplating them. In fact I didn’t quit contemplating mudshoes until the next thing came along, which happened to be stealing souls. I wanted to catch one and keep it, like a fish pulled from the river. I imagined the devil coming in with a specialized Soul-Sucking Vacuum™ and making a clean sweep of a whole town. Thing was, I’d made that up about the vacuum so I knew it wasn’t right. I wanted to know how it really was.
I actually got the soul stealing idea from my father. After he got back from bowling one Saturday, he sat me down—he went bowling early on Saturdays so that he could be home for dinner and some sobering up, and then head to the real bar downtown. Not for the first time, he told me to stay away from women: “A woman will steal your soul,” he said, in the same tone of voice he’d used before letting me drive his riding lawnmower. “It doesn’t matter how young or how old you are, you got to fight to keep it. Because if they get your soul. . .what do you got left?”
He waited for me to answer. I said that I didn’t know.
“Only your balls, kid. Only them.” He laughed and thwatted me between the legs. He hadn’t hit me hard, and it hadn’t hurt, but I screamed and cried and fell to the floor anyway. I seized like an epileptic, like a possessed washing machine, like a sad selfish boy with a poor sense of his place in the universe.
He stood up after a time and without speaking left for downtown. I couldn’t tell by how long he lingered, by his walk, or by how he shut the door, whether he’d been disappointed in me or sorry he’d done it. I wanted him to be sorry.
But that was later, after my last pair of mudshoes.
I had picked up worms while digging the big hole, and tossed them to the sides so they wouldn’t get cut by the shovel. I started making the woman and me mudshoes right where I’d put all the worms. They were going to be extra-wormy mudshoes, I told her, and she didn’t make a face.
I picked a long fat one up and showed her: “What do you know about the soul?”
“Not much. Look, you can see its heart,” she said, pointing, but I knew that already.
I dropped the hose into the trench. We stood there in our mudshoes on either side of the hole and watched it fill up with water.
“It’s a moat,” she said.
“Yeah, for protection.”
“Just for protection.”
“Are you afraid of me?”
“No,” I said quickly. I didn’t like her saying that—thinking I was scared of some weak lady with bird arms.
“Well, sometimes I am,” she said. It was silent for a while so I picked up another worm. Its visible little heart pulsed. “You get what I mean, I think, don’t you?”
I didn’t, but I nodded.
That evening, while my father was sobering up, we were all on the back porch eating ribs and rice. The woman came out to water her plants. My father motioned toward her and muttered to my mother: “The loons are out.” She swatted his thigh and her eyes said, You are so bad, but she wasn’t really mad.
“She’s not a loon,” I said. “Look at those legs, she’s a heron.”
This surprised my parents and set them off on an avalanche of laughter. They’d never heard me say that before, which seemed weird because I’d been thinking it all summer. They convulsed, it was torture, they said, they couldn’t stop, and so when the woman heard all the noise and, not knowing a thing, waved to us on the porch, I was the only one who saw and waved back.
J. Preston Witt finished his MFA from The Ohio State University in May. He serves as Fiction Editor at The Journal and is the founding editor of an education project called PhoneFiction. He grew up in Flushing, Michigan, and now lives in Chicago.