Monday, June 15, 2009

Grunt, take 2

(Being another direction the previous story could have taken.)

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Walter brushed aside the dew-wet leaves and touched the earth underneath. He rubbed soft, moist, black dirt between his fingers. It gathered in the deep wrinkles of his old hands and under his nails. This was a good place, he thought.

Here, in the deep woods, the morning light was golden and cool. Insects danced in the shafts lancing through the high limbs and leaves. The air was still, with little sound of breezes shifting leaves. Tree frogs and crickets called, and morning birds chirped, but Walter knew who would get the worms today.

He took a flat piece of iron and a two-foot stob of wood out of the bucket he had carried into the woods with him. Using the iron, he pounded the stob of wood into the good earth until only inches protruded. Now he rested. He watched the sunlight in the trees, and he listened to the sounds of the earth. From somewhere far off, in a bog or marshy pond, came the grunting of a male alligator looking for a mate. Walter smiled to himself, rubbed his dirty fingers together, and leaned close to the ground, about to make some grunting noises of his own.

With the flat iron piece in his palm, he began to stroke the exposed end of the stob in a rhythm as old as memory, a beat his daddy had taught him, and that had been passed down from father to son for generations. Minutes passed. The birds went quiet, the crickets and frogs fell silent. Even the lonely gator stopped to listen. The wind breathed against Walter's face as the earth seemed to open itself to him.

The ground for yards around him began moving, writhing, wriggling. The dirt erupted with her burrowers, the nightcrawlers and red-rings and thick gray wrigglers. They pointed at the sky, thrashed up out of the ground in a panic, dozens of them, all around him, and Walter grabbed the bucket and moved among them, scooping them up and dropping them in, and turning to spot the next one. He had to move fast, as the worms would seek shelter again almost immediately, crawling under leaves and back into the soft earth.

But then he stopped short. He had scooped his fingers through a group of wigglers and moved to deposit them into the bucket, when he saw something among them that caught the sunlight. Though caked with black dirt, it sparkled. He stood still and watched it move as the fat worm it encircled writhed and pointed and flexed like a long gray-brown finger.

He reached into the bucket and took the sparkling thing between his own dirty, sticky fingers. He drew away the worm it encircled, threading it back out of the shining ring though it coiled and tried to keep hold of the artifact.

A gold ring. He rubbed it against the leg of his jeans. He spit on it and wiped away all the dirt. He tried it on his right ring finger, but it was too small. He tried it on his left pinky, and it fit. He held it toward the morning light, and saw what appeared to be light etching figures encircling the band.

Then he remembered why he was here. He hurried to gather the rest of the worms. He found another spot and grunted again, driving more worms to the surface. Before the morning had aged, he had a bucket full he could sell for bait. And a great story to tell the men at the bait shop.

Matt Bingham said the ring must've come off the corpse of a woman buried in the woods a hundred years ago, and her ghost was would haunt Walter until he returned it. Henry McDavid laughed at him and said how the etching was some ancient worm language, and he bet a quarter it translated to "Whosoever wears this ring shall be king of the worms."

Walter fiddled with the ring as the day wore on, and his hands sweated.

***

That night, Walter tried to remove the ring before his shower, but it wouldn't come off. He pulled at it in the shower. He swathed it in soap and worked it back and forth. Finally, he decided to try again in the morning. He set his alarm and turned out the lights, and in the darkness he dreamed, and Walter never dreamed.

He dreamt of caves and roots. Not of a dead woman seeking her lost ring, but of something else that moved in moist earth. The undersides of fallen trees, wet with rot. The smell of old leaves and beds of straw. The taste of fungus. The terrible sound of the mole burrowing, snuffling, grunting, grunting as it hunted. He dreamed of the grunting, and knew the nightmare of worms, the primal fear of creatures living and dying in the soft earth.

The alarm sounded and Walter reached for it blindly, knowing something was wrong before he came fully awake. The fingers he slapped against the alarm felt odd, and when he managed to focus on them through milky vision, we saw them wriggling, gray and brown. His deep wrinkles were rings, and the nails had gone. His mouth was sticky, the flesh gummy, and it would not part to scream. He writhed on the sheets, felt his toes moving independently, crawling in separate directions.

Walter grunted as he came up out of the bed and flopped onto the hardwood floor. He could feel parts of himself crawling away even as he crawled for the door. He didn't know what he was doing or why, but he needed help and something told him he had to get outside. He pushed up against the frame of the doorway and tried to grip the knob, but his hands were now dividing into dozens of wriggling tentacles, one of which, at the end of what had been his left arm, wore a golden ring.

His arms and legs were curling and separating, splitting into components that rained onto the floor and crawled about. He grunted and grunted.

If the door came open, Walter never knew it.

***

No one ever found the ring, or Walter's body. Some of the men in the baitshop speculated that a burglar killed Walter for the ring and buried his body in the woods, but there was no sign of anything else having been stolen in the old man's house, and the only sign of a struggle was the dried up, dead worms that must have been spilled out on the floor.

Matt Bingham told anyone who would listen that the corpse bride had come to claim her missing heirloom.

Henry McDavid kept his mouth shut, and every time he went into the deep woods to grunt out some worms, he always left a quarter in the dirt as tribute to the worm king.

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(c) 2009 by Tony Simmons

T-minus 41 (and yes, I know I skipped a day, but whatever. I'll catch it up.)

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