Beyond the Piney Woods
I'd killed a man in a piney wood at just about dusk. The sky the color of blue porcelain pitchers of milk—and the wind-whipped frost flying up the cuff of my coat—and it snowing white in the yellow moon. What I remembered most after the sound and scent of the shot was the sound of soft and then brittle needles beneath my boots—and the smell of the trees and the blood and his horse—and wood smoke. I'd turned my back on something or another—like kindly, finally forgetting to sit facing the door when stakes are high and me holding dead man's hand just like Wild Bill in Deadwood. And so I lit out and did not look back. Raise the black flag! Turn my face against one and all.
Can't say as anybody did miss me—I did not, no did not hear no bitter cries of remorse nor sorrow when spurs hit terrified stolen horse all a sudden and flecks from her foam hit my face and I dashed into darkness beyond the piney wood. Ain't got no wife nor kid—and me mother never shed no tear, no not one sniffle from first day hence—leastaways on my account.
Don't even know if she's still living.
This lady, my Mama, nothing but small-poxed whore who would not hesitate to go with anyone if there were greenback and liquor involved—even Injuns who came stinking of Government bonded and tobacco and old blankets. And Daddy, well he never had no name himself as near as I can tell—poor boy blown out from some Buckeye farm to places where we had better not talk about in just this light from the campfire, my friends, and so let's just say he "gone to Texas" (or just "GTT" like the old signs use to say on doors back east where there'd been a bit of trouble and some cussed mother's son gone down that outlaw trail). I never knew him—just one more blind fuck on a corn cob mattress—and ain't no love-loss between Mama and me neither.
And so as I'd lived just about everywhere in these United States. These stars of my republic now hanging brutal and pious over plantation grounds across which my people never sauntered, nor to which were even invited once to luncheon, and yet for which I flung my poor Confederate carcass down in seas of mud and blood and useless dying, because I happened to be in Missouri and not Kansas when the raiders came and signed me up.
(Got to laugh at these congruities, my fellow watchmen of the night—you who drive the cattle and sometimes do not return home) . . .
And so as I've lived just about everywhere. Followed troops with Mama to one or other scattered minor Indian skirmish when just a pup, even once down into Texas, 'cause with soldiers there's gotta be some action and a woman's gotta eat—and I, myself at tender years, use to pimp her in trading posts which nobody could remember ever having set up, and last chance mining camps, and once even at a spavined Dakota farm everybody'd thought abandoned, until word got out that the father'd only gone crazy and shot the mother and kids and was crazy lonesome out there for gooseberry preserves from Massachusetts, and maybe a need to procreate to replace what he'd taken, or just struck with sorrow of this horniness all alone out there on the impassive prairie. And so we trekked out there, me and Mama, across unspeakable wastes and went begging on the off chance of some money and maybe a marriage, and did not get shot or killed, but survived to move on. Always moving on—even now—out here on this range so big you'd think there must be no end to moving on, just gradual refinement of movement until it ain't no different from lying down out here in such meadow grass and becoming something the land recognizes and accepts as her own—and you rot beneath the stars.
And so, like I've been saying, since I have never known home, this lighting out. After my assignation in the piney woods, gunpowder in my nose and moon in my eyes—after this it was no big thing for me to move on move on—and I lit out and did not look back. Raise the black flag! Turn my face against one and all.
I was there, you know, when Quantrill took Lawrence, Kansas and 142 mother's sons died, and the town gutted and thick with greasy flames and womanish shrieks and grown abolitionists hiding 'neath the wooden seats of stinking privies in fear and wild-eyed exaltation—and Cole Younger and Frank James rode with us.
We rode in at dawn after more than two-day march and some of the boys strapped to their horses to keep from falling off 'cause they been on the road for so long, never stopping here nor there and sleeping in caves—and we were wearing our red flannels and hats pulled down over eyes, and we were full of bile-throated need for vengeance—'cause you know of the outrages and the perfidy of those Red Legs and Jayhawkers, dontcha? Not least of whom was that no-account savage Jim Lane who later got ole General Thomas Ewing to issue damnable Order No. 11 which dispossessed families from land and kin and cut off kids from homes all across Jackson, Cass, Bates, and even parts of Vernon County in Missouri—and Jim Lane, that Red Leg traitor to no less than manhood did not spare the women or children in his own raids, but slaughtered and raped and pillaged with impunity the occupied towns across the border—and so was number one man on Quantrill's list to capture and bring back to Missouri for public hanging in Jackson County.
And that wasn't all neither. I don't know what you know, but they got our women—all women who may or may not have been lovers, wives or sisters of Quantrill's boys—and put 'em in a brick building under arrest until the Kansas wind came and blew down the crumbly old building and killed our fair maidens from our hearths and our beds and our hearts—and even Bloody Bill Anderson lost his two sisters. And because it was in Lawrence that this had happened, and because it was in Lawrence that they kept the booty stolen from Missouri farms, and because it was in Lawrence that we could see the shape so clearly of such boiling hate and humiliation—(and boys think on all the things in this damned life that just never shoulda happened)—and because it was Lawrence we set upon them at dawn like an army of locusts in our red flannels, and in places the melee got out of hand, and liquor stores were broken into and fueled the fighting, and shots were fired madly into burning buildings, and I can say at least this—not one woman was murdered, raped nor handled unchivalrously—nor child neither—but I saw an old man cut with a carving knife before the eyes of his own family until he slowly bled to death, and his stomach lay steaming in the dust, and the blank expression on his woman's face was just like how the clouds hanging over this land don't reveal nothing 'bout what they truly think about what's going on here below. And I myself shot and took my pleasure in the killing—and was a warrior—and a hero. And though they would not give our Quantrill a commission, I was a patriot in the Glorious Cause.
But no, my fellow rangers of the cattle drive night, this was not exactly how it was at all.
There was no Glorious Cause and I had no fight nor feud with the people of Kansas—nor was it Union nor Confederate cause. The raiders approached me when I lay huddled in a barn hiding out from all and sundry, 'cause I killed a man in a piney wood—just looking for a place to sleep—and they said to me, are you a damned Jayhawker or Red Leg?—and me I says back, no sir, I'm nothing—and they said, well what you doing in this place at this time? And I said I'm just here is all, and they made like to kill me right then because I could have been a spy, and so I told them that the bluecoats got my brother, and I went out looking for an eye for an eye, and please don't tell no one because my Mama would surely skin me alive for lighting out like that. And then they laughed and took me with them and gave me a horse and a gun—and after awhile it just gets to be your life.
And so I do not know if I was a warrior and a hero—but for a while anyway I was—'cause that's what we all were—and there were a whole lot of people back then that wanted to shake my hand.
And oh yes, I drifted and joined up here and there and then, when it was all over, rode the rails—was one of them hoboes—hoe boys—one of those proud veterans you all's Mamas honored in your city squares—if they still had them, or ever had. I was one of the boys who'd taken their tools of the Cain-trade to find work upon coming home and finding all lost and destroyed and burnt with no compassion nor tears—just a business proposition—you understand—and with malice toward none.
And so, yes, I took off then too—and sometimes had to ride a-top them old boxcars 'cause there was no room in the inn—no room for one more laborer on the inside—and the coal smoke black and thick on my face until all us coal-Cain sumbitches laughed at one another. And it was just like being in one genuine Stephen Foster of a minstrel show—and we sang "Hard Times" and "O Susanna" and "Camptown Ladies"—doo-dah doo-dah—and we were laughing 'cause it was really truly something to be set free like this again—unmoored and unbounded.It was like the war all over again, and the free-fall never stopped, and it was not all that different from crying with great big gasps and chokes and snot running down your face. And I saw many a man step to the door to get his fair share of fresh air and another man push him out into great open nothing of this our republic for the sheer meanness of it.
And from my moving throne I saw things you can't begin to imagine or tell because such destruction and devastation does not have a name, and in the end it's about the taking away of names anyway—until there's nothing left but just brutal sounds and gestures. And it tears a man up inside to have to wordlessly claw at such spectacles as these with neither sentences nor paragraphs nor inclination to hide his face no more. They took the eyelids off this nation, boys, and you can't never shut your eyes again.
I saw belles in bustles filling their blushed cheeks with clods and dirt. I saw broken fiddles and men dancing without a beat. I saw hunger walking on two legs like a man, and churches where the pews were still bloody, and old-style Presbyterian Puritan Pastors weeping into hands that no longer remembered how bravely they had once waved and pounded the pulpit. And nowhere did I find work or sustenance that I did not steal from families and farms that already could not support their dazed occupants. And, yes, I lit out then as well—and kept moving in this reconstructed southern Union, and could not find a place to stop where I did not see the skeleton of a chimney of some burnt home in some naked bald dark hollow.
And oh, my boys, do not stop me now—I am singing, I am singing—and do not, no don't give me no more shit about burying me in my boots in my dying time 'cause I don't want to lie out here so lonesome and drear. No, boys, take me home when I go. Bring me back to some place where I can rest—or I swear I will haunt you forever—until you see me always a-walking, always a-coming and never arriving—and you waiting always and forever for something that never comes. I will haunt you because that's what haunting is—never letting go of what is never there.
You think that's funny? The next one of you fucks who so much as cracks a smile at me, I will kill.
Oh, I'm a fucked up drunk now—don't you think I know that? But I tell you, me and the boys, we had us some fun. Been shot fourteen times—and got the stiffness on cold mornings to prove it. Wouldn't know it to look at me now, but I was a fine buck in me day. Oh and the refinement! That was part of it too. We were well-dressed and well-groomed. Trimmed our beards even to hit a train. Beyond the piney woods lie whole continents of glamour. We were brave and daring. Once even read in a newspaper how a man at one of the banks said that we were courteous, and it was an honor to be robbed by men such as we. Makes me proud—even now. Fruit of the Union.
Turned my back against one and all, raised the black flag—but, gotta admit, did not anticipate the adulation, the praise, the longing to be what I was without consequence . . . This country surely loves a killer.
I can see that you don't believe me. Just one more old fuck going on. That's alright. We tell the tall tale out here in the West. It's true enough though, and I don't give a damn about who knows it. I rode with the best of 'em. Even Jesse and Frank once—though I'm not exactly at liberty to talk about that. Frank is still living, you know, and Cole and Jim Younger gonna be free men someday. No I don't care who knows it. Always got a place to stay if I need it in Missouri . . . Arkansas . . . Kansas City . . .
I'm petering out boys. It's late. Sun'll be here before we know it. Pass that bottle. We got a long way to go 'fore the drive is done.
I didn't mean nothing earlier. Wouldn't a kilt anybody. Gun wasn't even loaded. I'm just feeling a little ornery—that's all. Feeling a little dark.
Pass that bottle, would ya?
Ah Mama . . . I'm dreaming now and it is always to you I return in my dreams. I'm dreaming and so the words just keep coming—don't dream proper no more—just keep talking to myself—never slip off into other voices, cause I just can't afford to let down my guard even now, always on the run, Mama. Been on the run for too long now. You know how when you wake up and the sun ain't there yet and you know that you got an hour or so to sleep and you want to slip back down but just can't, so you continue on somewhere in-between being who you are when other people are around and who you are in dreams when you are not really who you are? Well that's what's its like now. I'm dreaming, Mama—and I always know I'm dreaming. The words just don't stop. And it's always my own voice. Been so long now since I've dreamt and not known it. Always dreaming and always watching my back—and never waking up no more, Mama.
Twilighting, really. That's what it is. Twilighting. Life just not making up its mind to be one thing or another, nighttime or time of no shadows at noon with gun in your hand and not no time, no not no time at all, to think.
Ah Mama . . . coming back to you in my dreams that aren't even proper dreams . . .
You were not pretty nor good nor kind—but you were all that I had and you fed me too. Pox came and took your face away, but that was even before I was let in and the door opened and I popped out of you all bloody and squalling. And I don't really know what pox first set you a-reeling and adrift in this land. There must of been something else, something that come before what came. I suspect your people were Irish, and I never known a Murphy to stay at home. And Daddy, well who knows—you told me of that night and how you knew you was gonna get pregnant, but went ahead anyway and didn't even do all those deep mysteries you did to keep from finding fruit from your nightly labors. You must of just give up and let me in, let me into this world, opened the door and out I come. And so I guess I had to love you though I don't think this is what folks properly mean when they talk of love. It was just following, you my forever great rock candy mountain and me blindly dashing behind you into the dark night of your never being pretty but at least cheap, what with the pox and your face gone. And so this love seems really to be nothing more than a not being able to sit still. And I miss you now, truth be told. I miss seeing your back and me trotting behind. I miss there being someone to follow, Mama.
Ah yes, and now it's the riders coming in—always the riders riding hard and fierce. They come in at night and sweep me on until sometimes I'm among them and it is me shooting up the town—and the folks hiding behind doors knowing enough to keep out of the rain—knowing enough to keep to themselves while we swoop on into the bank and flash cold steel and six-gun—and stacks of greenbacks hefted up from drawers fairly steaming like sweet chunks of sod on a spade and whumped on into gunny sack—and shots and more metal-smoke sulfur smell as we are off and out into the day of hard riding away—and always just ahead of the posse and—at least in the early days—happy and shouting 'cause we know they just don't got it in them to chase us down and shoot holes in us like dogs when we're wounded, tired and sleepy-weary from always being on the road with a gun behind every tree.
Ah, the riders come in, Mama, and other times they be bluecoats or column behind column of Johnny Reb behind the Stars and Bars and somebody shouting out a tuneless Dixie—and there were drummer boys too sometimes. And always the riders named police and cop and law making sure you don't settle nowhere. Riders of the American apocalypse which is simply a principle of never settling down but forever moving on moving on—just like boxcars and Buffalo ghosts. Forever.
And the riders come and take me back, back always leading to you and your original back turning on all—your own original dash beyond the piney wood. Because you are no longer just Mama no more, but the land herself—the nation—the New Jerusalem of my true citizenship—you are before and beyond—and the door opening both into my own inevitable, original sin moment in the piney wood and also back into endless days of creation when God himself took the great leap beyond the piney wood and set it all a-reeling. And Mama, ah Mama, the man I shot in the piney wood—I shot him in the back and I weren't no more than fifteen, and he never did me no harm. I just shot him because it was there to be done—and that was my first act—my first deed—and it is in this original act—in this first deed—that the door is opened, and I am finally let into the world full of rage and hunger—and I learn to breathe in the piney wood—and learn to walk like a man only when I make the dash myself. Out into great dark starless night, Mama—beyond the piney wood.