Fiction: Justin Lawrence Daugherty’s “Whatever Don’t Drown Will Always Rise”

People hear Nebraska and they think Omaha, the big city, or they think nothing at all. They don’t think about Indians crossing over from the rez in South Dakota for a drink, falling asleep in the highways, opening flesh like exposed empty pockets, begging for wounds. My neighbor told me about seventeen dead horses found laying in the owner’s dried-up used-to-be pastures, all those horses empty and dead like so many wilted petals. This used to be the Dust Bowl, I heard dad say once. Used to be, used to be.

Dad pulls the truck, which is choking and choking on the dust, up to this trailer and it’s in the middle of a field and there’s nothing anywhere around but sky. An old man opens the door and is so happy to see us—he opens his mouth into the widest smile. There’s a boy in the door, holding something. Daddy gets out and grabs the paper sack of drugs he’s going to sell to this man. The old man and my dad disappear into the trailer. The boy stands in front of the closed door, holding that thing. He walks over and I see thing is a dead sparrow. He holds it like it’s a blessing.

I tell him my name’s Dalton and I’m here to find the chupacabra. I tell him this because if he don’t know already what his dad’s up to in there there’s no reason to tell him. I ask him his name but he just looks at the sparrow. I ask him again. He’s too young to know what he feels right now. He wants to open my head up, and I can see it, red-hot in his eyes like an on-too-long light bulb.

The nameless boy’s still clutching that sparrow when we get to the lake. I tell him if we find the chupacabra, we’ll take it to Omaha and we’ll be greeted like warriors. They’ll give us medals, I say. Girls will show us their scars, I say. Girls will cut their skin with razorblades and let us taste the iron-rich blood.

How do we find the chubcappa, he says, like an idiot that hasn’t heard of the chupacabra, hasn’t been one of the hundreds of people who’ve seen it and not been believed.

We don’t, I say.

He looks to the sparrow for answers.

It knows when it’s hunted, I tell him. I sit in the grass and open my pack and pull out a flask of whiskey and drink. My dad and the old man are getting high. The nameless boy asks about the chupacabra and I tell him it’s immune to sunlight. I tell him goatherders in Mexico once shot one full of a thousand arrows and it lived—its blood didn’t even soak the earth. The chupacabra chews on shattered glass, I say. If you shot it into space, I say, it would swallow the Sun.

The nameless boy wants to know about good things, but I can’t lie to him.

He asks about his dad, about mine. I don’t tell him about the horses or Indian ghosts hitchhiking up north.

He asks if his father will live forever and I tell him even stars will die eventually.

The nameless boy tightens his hands around the sparrow. He’s choking it but it’s dead. I don’t hear bones snapping but know they are. He squeezes—his hands and his eyes—blood running through his fingers, water from his eyes.

I tell him the chupacabra isn’t real. I tell him I made it up. He stops squeezing and looks back at me. I take off my shirt and run to the lake. I take off my shorts and shoes and socks and leave them like offerings on the shore. I jump naked into the lake. It’s hot. When I come up, the nameless boy waits for permission. Come on, come on, come on, I say.

What if I drown? he asks.

You won’t because I’ll be here, I say. Besides, I say, whatever don’t drown will always rise up out of the water.

If I jump in, he says, will you tell me more about the chuppa, but I know he means his dad, about the track marks on his arms, about the empty cupboards, about yellow fingernails, dried-up rivers, broken bones. He wants to know about all the horses that haven’t starved, about trees that have lived for hundreds of years, about animals blind without eyes in the darkest places in the earth, about how we try to kill ourselves over and over but what we really want is the rushing heartbeat of near-death, the pumping, the blood.

I tell him if he jumps I’ll tell him everything there is to know.

***

Justin Lawrence Daugherty is the author of You Are Alive (Civil Coping Mechanisms, forthcoming). He founded Sundog Lit and Jellyfish Highway Press. He also edits for New South Journal and Cartridge Lit, a lit mag of work inspired by video games. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Follow him on twitter at @JDaugherty1081.

Photo credit: ronnieb, morguefile.com

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