Graveyard Hills and Stillborn Grass


Years and specifics blurred together for him. It was a symptom of location, the flat scrubland punctuated only by oil pumps and their entourage of rangy cattle. Grass that grew up dead and yellow, snapped like matchsticks under the boots of the people who lived here. Why any sane human being, let along a few thousand of ‘em, would ever settle here had sometimes boggled his mind. Before the oil, what the hell was there? What sort of subsistence could you suck from gray dust and bushes that sprouted already dead and brittle?

Eventually, the question and its never-coming answer fell from his mind. For something to take his mind off the rolling graveyard hills, the scattered pumps, the bony cows, he took up the bottle. It smeared an already vague existence into something timeless. He was growing and the sun was moving, but every single day smudged into the next, identical. Like the hills. Up the windward, to the crest, down the leeward, and onto an identical bluff.

Around twenty, maybe nineteen, maybe twenty-four, the howling began.

It came out of his mouth every time he didn’t have the residue of beer on his teeth. Too sharp to be mournful, too agonized to be shrill. Everyone else in their sheet metal and sand town was as worn down as he was, so nobody seemed much to care about it. But it was deafening to him, and he couldn’t get a word in edgewise over the noise that shared a throat with his voice. Drinking became more than a matter of distraction; he needed it or he’d never be able to get anything done.

That was a balancing act he should have known he didn’t have the talent for. The oil man fired him when it became apparent he could not be trusted with million dollar infrastructure. Booze had taken his livelihood, and now it was even more necessary for his survival. If he couldn’t talk himself into temp jobs, couldn’t talk the rest of the town into favors, how the fuck was he supposed to live? That howling noise would see him dry up and blow to Hell. Another summer dust storm.

Depression started setting in. Meth was the most reasonable next step. To his shock, meth shut the howling up, too.

Meth made him a party animal. And, sooner or later, every party animal finds himself with some party offspring. As much as he was able, he cleaned up. Bit by bit. By the time his child was born, tiny and red and alive like nothing he’d ever seen in the graveyard hills, he’d kicked the meth and cut down the booze to just enough to silence the howl.

His ma always had told him that he was what helped her pull her life together. He thought maybe she’d been right after all. Everyone was so proud of him, even the old meth hounds he was no longer supporting.

He and his wife-to-be (he supposed) took the kid back to his house. And the next morning, when he’d slept in past his usual booze time due to the sheer exhaustion of new fatherhood, there was no howl. Even when he opened his mouth to say ‘good morning’ to the child. Nothing but his own hoarse voice, as brittle as the stillborn grass.

The little child he’d changed everything for looked up at him. When it peeled back its lips to reveal its toothless mouth, the howling came, louder than ever, from its lungs. Too sharp to be mournful. Too agonized to be shrill.

What the fuck was he supposed to do? A child couldn’t drink. A child couldn’t smoke meth. A lifetime of that horrible noise, that rattling scream, drowning out all its words. Echoing in its brain. What the fuck was he supposed to do?!

He bided his time until the mother fell asleep that evening. Then, he took the child out to the field he’d once worked in. Past the oil pumps sticking from the ground like needles, the skittish, half-crazy cattle. Down into one of the canyons gouged into the dust by the occasional flash floods. Further and further until the lights of the city were all but smothered by arid darkness, until he knelt at the base of one of the sandblasted mountains. A rock tower with no life on it.

The whole time, the child cried, and instead of a baby’s little wails there was that awful howling.

What the fuck was he supposed to do? Consign this little life that had done so much for him before it was even born to years of torment? A less-than-half life, drowned out by the curse its father had passed to him? Consign his precious child to the howl? What the fuck was he supposed to do?!

He did the only thing he thought he could do, and that was supposed to be that.

But as he was sobbing and puking and screaming, choking as those three reactions battled in his throat, he realized. The howling. It hadn’t stopped. He opened and closed his mouth, and found it had no bearing on the sound at all. The howl scraped the horror away chunk by oozing chunk, exposing the numbness that was all he could possibly have left. Followed him back across the field. To the house where his never-to-be wife still slept, and the liquor cabinet was waiting.

It followed him down from the hills, whistled through the cracks in the sheet metal and sand town, the windows, the doors. Howled over the graveyard hills and down the rocky, lifeless mountains. Picked up summer’s dust and whipped it into devils to torment the oil pumps and rangy cattle.

My recent week-and-a-half roadtrip from Texas to Washington State took me through some lovely country. It also took me through some fucking dismal places.

What does the wind sound like where you come from? Is it too sharp to be mournful? Too agonized to be shrill? You can tell me below.

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