The Moonshiner by Chris Palmer

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Narrated by Bob Eccles

The Moonshiner by Chris Palmer
The Moonshiner by Chris Palmer
Illustration by Eleanor Bennett

His father, while long gone, came alive in the slurred memories that erupted shortly before his mother passed out cradling the mason jar. They crept in slow, like a nasty head cold; she would be sad, then happy, then irate and finally reminiscent. When she started to talk about his father he usually turned off the television and helped her up the stairs. She mumbled a million unintelligible words, then a “good night.”

One night after she was tucked in her room, he went downstairs to clean things up and saw the jar was still half full. He took the drink, pinched his nose and curved the jar enough to get a gulp; it came fast and before he could stop it, it was roiling in his stomach. Just when he thought it would burn him from the inside out, he ran outside and heaved all over the back lawn.

He was sure Jason told him to do it because he had been too chicken to try some of his dad’s. The next day he told them he liked it and the other boys dared him to go see where Wolfman O’Malley made it. Tyler wasn’t afraid, he didn’t believe the stories about the crazy old man who howled at the moon and ran on all fours. But he was mindful of what the others would say if he didn’t go; and for reasons he didn’t understand, that stung more than his mother’s slaps, his father’s ghost or some bullshit wolfman.

He wobbled his mother upstairs and threw a cover over her. He shut his bedroom door, then opened his window, crawled out to the tree and dropped.  Tyler’s knees buckled when his feet hit the grass, so he rolled into the fall like a stunt man and popped up as his friends materialized from the bushes. They waited a moment then ran back into the brush and he followed.

Joseph led, and from the rear, Tyler watched as the other boys staggered throughout the black; the night air snapped at Tyler’s lungs but he would’ve run even if the forest ahead were on fire. He pushed over the twisting road, against the wind, and when he didn’t think he could take anymore, the others let up, then stopped with their heads between their legs at the orchard trail.

“It’s down there.” Joseph pointed through his gasps. But they all knew. Their sweat furrowed against the night around them. They looked at Joseph who shook his head and made a quick step down the lane, then looked over his shoulder to see if the others were coming.

“Let’s go.” They followed.

The road was eerily quiet. Tyler’s mother often complained about the slow life she found when she moved from the city, after his father’s death, to her hometown. She lamented over television and Sunday drives – “It’s so slow. So quiet.” But Tyler realized she probably never really listened to the quiet, because if she remembered such silence, she surely wouldn’t have been bored by it. It made him want to run back home and he knew the others felt the same.

They quickened their pace and darted glances back and forth while trying to look calm. The cabin came up quicker than he anticipated. He turned a bend and it sat at the bottom of the hill, nestled next to the river. They huddled atop the bluff and watched the smoke intermingle with the night, as it reached just short of the stars above.

When no one spoke, Tyler decided to go down the hill. His first step was uneven; it slid on the loose silt and propelled him a bit faster than he wanted. He didn’t look behind him, but he heard the others trailing, one after the other, across the dirt, strafing at a downward angle. They met at the bottom, out of breath, thirty yards from the house.

The home was low to the ground, intimidating; it gave Tyler the feeling that if he had to scream no one would hear him. He crept towards the sill to look inside; the window was fogged over by dust and dirt. He went to brush it away, and when he looked over his shoulder he found that none of the others were next to him. They waited at the hill’s edge, waving him back over. He put his wrist up to the glass and scrubbed away the dirt and put his face against the window. His breath misted the glass then he wiped again and got a good look inside. There was no light except from the natural darkness behind him. Inside he made out a room filled with books. They were piled against shelves that reached to the ceiling and spilled onto the floor. His heart was pounded but he wanted to see more; from his point of view he could make out another room. The boys called him back but he didn’t pay them any mind. He snuck around to the other side of the house; the others followed at a distance. Tyler found another window that looked in on the kitchen; he waved them over, but they stayed on the perimeter. Inside he saw piles of pans and wrappers flanking a smoldering wood burning stove. The embers reflected a little light on the floor. Joseph kept saying “psst,” but Tyler paid him no mind.

He put up his hand and went to the other side of the house where the stills loomed in the darkness; they didn’t look like much; wooden statues aged into disrepair. He could smell the shine over the river’s scent; it enveloped his eyes and his nose and almost made him throw up. He turned around and looped back the way he came but when he passed the kitchen something darted across the open space. His heart leapt and when he looked for his friends at the hill’s edge; they were gone. He searched the hillside and in the shadows he watched them scramble towards the rim.

He looked back inside and saw the same disheveled room as before. He turned to run after his friends but slammed right into a man’s midsection. Tyler fell on the ground and looked up, the man didn’t budge; Tyler pushed himself backwards until he met the house. The man approached and grabbed Tyler by the neck. He didn’t speak and when Tyler tried to mutter threats they came out whimpers.

The door was open and the man put Tyler on his feet when they crossed the threshold, then pushed him forward into the book room. “Sit.”

“They, they, they know I’m here.”

“And where are they?” The man got down on his haunches; Tyler was familiar with the smell on his breath, but couldn’t quite see anything other than the stubble covering his face. “Ha. Left you didn’t they?”

“No!”

“No? No! Ha.” He got up and went towards the window. He opened the jamb and looked out towards the hill. “Well they’re gone.” Tyler’s eyes darted to the door. “I’m quicker’n that.” He turned back around and walked over to Tyler, “I’m quicker’n you can imagine.” He chuckled under his breath, “Yep, those buddies of yours are long gone.”

“They went to get help.”

“Shit. They ran home, probably halfway pissin themselves. Yer tougher. You didn’t piss yerself. Smart boy.” He went into the kitchen and Tyler heard the slide of a match and watched the man come back into the room, enveloped in smoke and shadow. “The question is, what are you doin here? Boys always come round here, poking round just to see what the hell it’s about. Fucking dry county, it always got to make sure you know bouts them evils you ain’t supposed to touch.” He chuckled and took a long drag of his cigarette.

“But you ain’t like that. Didn’t come here to see that stuff, you jes came.” He took a long draw from his cigarette. “Not much is there? What you see is what you get. Old shit. Old man….” He said pointing the lit nub at Tyler.

“You don’t look that old.”

“I don’t?” The man took another puff from his cigarette then dragged a pile of books off a chair and placed them on the floor. He sat on the chair, all the while keeping his eyes on Tyler. “I bet I don’t, now that I think of it. Need a cut, and a shave, but I probably don’t look that old. But I’m old, trust me. Old isn’t just about how you look, it’s about how you feel. How old are you?”

“Twelve.”

“And your buddies?”

“Twelve.”

“But you’re older. You know why?”

Tyler shook his head. He was looking at the man in the chair; above his head was an old crucifix. “Because you’re here, and they’re there. They stayed twelve; hell even wet themselves like they was five…They’ll try to brush it off, but you can’t fake that. If you see em again, you’ll walk a little taller, a little better and they’ll know it, hate you even. But that just depends on if I let you go?”

“Wha, wh, why wouldn’t you?”

“Cause. Cause you invaded my privacy.” He leaned back into his chair. “Didn’t you learn better than that?” Tyler sat rigorously and shook his head in agreement. “Course you did. Your ma knows better. Everyone round these parts knows better, its one of those reasons I’ve stayed as long as I have.”

“You know my ma?”

His white teeth broke through the darkness, “Course I do. She comes down hare often. Parks atop that hill and makes her slow way down the road.”

“So you know me?”

“I kin smell her on you.” Tyler looked towards the window. “What?”

“It’s cold.”

“Uh huh. I guess it might be. After all that running, then sitting; it must’ve chilled you and whatnot. I think I forgot what it felt like being cold a long time ago.” He shut the window then settled back into the chair, “But that ain’t it.”

“I want to go home.”

“We all want to go home. But that’s not all you want. No, you didn’t come here jes so you could go home again. And you didn’t come here to knock over my still. You came to see it, but you wasn’t going to knock it over. She gets sad when she has it, but she gets damn mean when she doesn’t.” He smiled again and Tyler shivered.

“I know that. I see it in her face and I smell it when she shakes while givin me the money. But that’s not it either. You want to know something, and I’ll tell you. It doesn’t matter. You didn’t come here for that. You came here because those idiots made you, but now you want to know. So ask.”

Tyler shook his head.

“Don’ hold back.”

Tyler breathed out and the moonshiner smiled: “Tell me how old you really are?”

He slapped his knee. “Ha. Always with that first. Everyone’s always afraid to ask what they wanna ask.” He got up and sat down in front of Tyler, cross-legged with his hands on his cheeks. “I’m almost 130 years old.”

“Bullshit”

“Ha.” He held his hand up, palm outwards.

“Prove it then.”

“Can’t.”

“Then how do I know?”

“How do I know how old you are?”

“You kin guess on how I look.”

“That’s smart, but if I say you’re twelve, jes like you already told me and I said you’re just like those other boys that ran the hell outta here who’re also twelve, would I be wrong? Would you say you’re like those boys?”

“No.”

“No you would not. So why can’t I be 130 years old?”

“Because you’d be dead, there’s no one that old to compare you with.”

“Rightly so. But there’s no twelve year old I can compare you with can I? Aren’t you, you? Didn’t you walk up to my door to see if the wolfman was real, to see if I howl at the moon?”

Tyler’s eyes got big.

“I know why people come down here and sometimes I show them just to scare them, sometimes I knock a can over to let them know I’m here, and sometimes I bring them in to talk to them. Do you know how lonely it gets?”

“Are you going to kill me?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever killed a man, or a boy for that matter. I’ve seen em gutted, shot, castrated even, but I’ve never done it myself…What is your preacher’s name?”

“You mean priest?”

“Yeah.”

“Father Grady.”

The moonshiner smiled and blew his smoke towards the ceiling. “I used to be like your Father Grady, collar and all. What does he look like?”

“Old, fat, red cheeked, and he spits when he talks.”

“So nothing like me?” Tyler shook his head. “And yet we know the same things, well relatively the same things. We went through the seminary at different times but he speaks about the same book, in the same schedule as I did before I changed professions…

“That’s what you came to hear about? When I changed professions?” Tyler shook his head, “No, but you did, you just don’t know it’s all the same story. The story of how I became the wolfman.” Tyler tightened up. “You feel as scared as a five year old now don’t you? Let me tell you; you’ll never stop being five when you’re about to find out that something you fear is real. And, hell, I’m no exception.

“Those buddy’s of yours are at home or nearly home. I bet they didn’t say a damned word about you.”

“They’ll go tell my mom.”

“They won’t. Not until they have to. Kids are cowards,” he switched his tone and lit up another cigarette, “but you’re not a coward are you?

“I used to have friends like that when I was little but then I got sent off to learn about God. My parents were poor, and if you were smart enough, the church would take you in, then raise you and make you a priest. Once the church took you though, you didn’t have a friend except for Jesus Christ and the only women you knew were those in the book that Christ used as his examples. You were alone.

“But even with friends you’re on your own aren’t you? Have to live a little different? Not jes because you got one parent and they go two, is it? Other stuff you don’ talk about.

Tyler watched him look at the ceiling and blow the smoke out of his nose.

“Yeah, people like us have to rely on ourselves. Can’t get up in the middle of the night to see if your momma will rock you back to sleep from a nightmare can you? Unt uh. Sometimes you tip toe in to see if she’s still breathin, cause if she’s gone, well then…well what are you gonna do?”

Tyler shook his head.

“I was kinda like you after the church took me in. I had one parent. That fat old drunk Father Grady sort, telling me what to do every day until he thought I was good enough to go tell other people what to do. I don’t think I tasted freedom until everything I’d been raised to believe crashed to the ground.” Tyler twitched and looked around. “Am I boring you?!” He slammed his fist on a pile of books on the side of his chair. “Listen!”

“See boy, what you have to understand is that to comprehend one man’s truth you have to understand the man. People, like your friends, your friend’s older brother, and your mother, well they always think it’s as simple as getting a glimpse of the idea that makes something true, but nothing is true until it has a say. They talk about moonshinin like it’s a sin, but they all drink it. They talk about me bein eccentric like I’m a crazy but they hit you and abandon you and then they talk about me being some sort of demon…

“But I want you to know that I wasn’t born this way. The church didn’t try to change me, the church did what it thought was right and I did what I thought was right and then I met a man who I thought was good, he was in his own way, and a man who wasn’t. The bad man chased the good man to my church and I had to choose; because God, or so I thought, made sure I chose. I chose to follow the good man, abandoning all that I had and all that I believed and even when I saw what he was, something I couldn’t understand.”

Tyler noticed his eyes had changed. They glowed against the dust. The moonshiner hadn’t looked at Tyler in the longest time. He stared out the window.

“But I followed him. We went to the war, I fought, and for what side I don’t even know and I was almost killed. But that’s not right, I was killed, like your daddy. I was left to die in a house on the side of the road. Then he came back to save me, but it wasn’t him; it was what I swore I’d never see again after he mutilated the man who trapped him; but he came to the house anyway….”

Tyler watched him in the chair, his hands were dug into the arms and Tyler saw white stuffing come from under the moonshiner’s fingers, which were much more elongated and sharper than he remembered.

“He looked at me, and usually when he was like that I couldn’t see the human in him, but this time I could.” The man smiled down at Tyler and Tyler noticed fangs protruding underneath his lips. “I couldn’t move, being that I was wounded and he just came up over me and bit into my chest. Ripped it clean open.” He stood up and lifted his shirt. “Never healed.” He pointed to the scar on his chest but Tyler couldn’t take his eyes from the claws at the end of his arms and how his clothes that fit so loose were nearly tearing from off of his body.

“What’s wrong? You came to see me. To see this.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“Because you need to see the darkness before you can see the light.” The man hunched over and nearly fell to the floor as his nose became a snout. Tyler got up from the ground and ran towards the door, but the man met him. He took the boy’s shoulder, and dug in through the shirt. The man snarled and said in a guttural voice: “Don’t forget this.” He let go and Tyler ran out of the house.

He choked on the air as he left the house and stumbled towards the hill. He looked behind him to see the beast inch out of the front door and watch him ascend the embankment. Tyler clawed up the hill and tumbled over the edge to the road. He looked back down and didn’t see anything in the doorjamb. There were no shadows or movements.

He ran through the footprints his friends made and didn’t slow down until he came to the tree by his window. He looked behind him, wiped the sweat from his brow and climbed back through to his bedroom.

His eyes couldn’t see the room; it was darker than dark. He rubbed and blinked until the darkness receded and his room took shape. Everything inside looked different; his toys on the floor and books on the shelf seemed to be out of place. He took his clothes off and threw them in the side of the room; he looked at the pajamas across his bed and discarded them with the rest of his clothes. He got in bed in just his underwear. He was tired, too tired to think, and just before he fell asleep he heard a loud howl from outside. It sounded so close, as if it came from underneath his window and knew that he was on his own.

 

AUTHOR BIO: Chris Palmer is a high school teacher looking to break into the publishing world. He keeps busy with training for marathons and hiking and reads everything from Thomas Pynchon to Steven King to Peter Matthiesson.

ILLUSTRATOR BIO: Eleanor Leonne Bennett is a 16 year old internationally award winning artist. Her photography has  been published in the Telegraph , The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. See more of her photography at www.eleanorleonnebennett.zenfolio.com