News & Features » Cover Story

3rd Place: Inside Everything the Light Stirs


I will never cry over Granville's corpse, or over his father's corpse, either. Luke Ashcake raised his son to believe God was made to baptize him in a river of money, to give him anything he wanted and to allow Granville anything he damn well pleased. It's how Luke Ashcake was when he was being brought up — that's what my father used to tell me. Both my father and Luke ran together as children, despite us being poor and the Ashcakes being one of the wealthiest families in town. I loved my father, but I knew how he could be a son of a bitch, and I bet Luke Ashcake put a thorn in my father's side all those years ago and had twisted it ever since. How could a man go to work for his best friend only to be accused of stealing from his best friend's pocket? How could my father not desire revenge when Luke Ashcake put my father out of a job when there were no other jobs to be had?

I do not believe that my father killed Luke Ashcake the way they say he did, and I did not turn around and go kill his son the way they say I did.

But I do know that Granville believed my father killed his father, as I do know that it was Granville that shot my father.

It is in this knowledge, and in all this time alone, which has brought me this light, the light I seek to give away.

You can hear the trains at night, like old dying cows, the way the train whistle blows. I have never seen the trains from my window — the pines hide the cars beyond the prison yard, where the brick wall and barbed wire begin. Every year someone comes in thinking he's going to cut the wire, to go off running at midnight, to hop the train to freedom. It's like the whistle makes them crazier than they were when they showed up here. It's like the whistle is the perfume of a beautiful woman, or a stack of hundred dollar bills, or a full fifth of bourbon, a promise, just out of reach. I try to tell them to walk the yard, to ignore the wall, to put your hands up to the sky, to feel the sunlight, even in winter, just feel the sun. That's freedom. But you can't tell anybody anything if he already knows everything. It was like that with Granville the night he came looking to avenge his father's death.

Granville damn near drove his daddy's truck through our house, shouting for my father. He had the double-gauge in his hand; I could smell the whiskey from the window.

My father was playing cards with his buddies from the machine shop at Samuel Godwin's house. Even though Granville's father had accused my father of theft and fired him, his friends knew my father was an innocent man, and they made sure he kept coming to their Tuesday night card game, even anteing up for my father when he didn't have any cash to bring to the table.

Granville took aim at my heart with his shotgun, demanding me to tell him where he could find my father. I told him where he could go: to Hell. (I didn't care — I was angry at Luke Ashcake — dead or not.) Granville pulled his daddy's truck out of our yard, fishtailing the whole time, shotgun waving out the window. I really didn't think he'd do it; I thought he'd just stand off with my father, and my father would talk him down, maybe even sing some hymns with Granville. That was how my father was. He could be a son of a bitch, but he could also be so still that you couldn't help but be still, too. Luke Ashcake had many enemies in this town — plenty of people ready to line up and shoot old Luke in the back when he was leaving the bank deposit drop box that night. In this town, everyone has guns, and everyone's a trick shot. I know my father had plenty of reasons to kill Luke Ashcake, but shooting a man in the back was not like my father. It was cowardly, and my father was no coward.

Sheriff Stanton found my father lying in his own blood about a half mile from our house. His truck was parked along Jackson Bridge, and he was hanging over the guardrail, as if he was about to jump off the bridge when he died. The hole was so large in my daddy's chest you could see right through him.

That was the first night I heard my mother weep, so softly, like a light rain. She never raised her voice, never shrieked, never moaned, just sobbed continuously, saturating the ground beneath our feet. I try not to — it doesn't do any damn good — but sometimes I wonder what my mother was thinking behind that veil of tears.

She and I watched Granville stand trial, answer the questions, nod and say, "Yes, sir, no sir," like a gentleman, not like the killer we knew he was. It was a crime of passion, not premeditated — not the way they claimed my killing of Granville later on was. Granville's mother cried and cried and cried herself, thinking about her dead husband, I'm sure, and watching her son just about ready to be put away forever like they eventually did to me. I think now about all those tears both my mother and Granville's mother cried, how a human body could cry all those tears, how wet we all must be inside, little oceans of salty tears ready to run out of us, little rivers down our cheeks. But on the day of the verdict, Granville's mother cried tears of joy. There was not enough evidence for Granville to be put away. The judge made him promise not to go "'round with a shotgun anymore," the way he did the night he first pointed it at me, demanding for me to tell him where my daddy was — and later, when I know he stopped my daddy on Jackson Bridge and blew him away. The eye of God is all-seeing, and I could see as well as I can see my hand in front of me, telling you this story now, exactly what Granville did. But my mother and me were the only ones, it seemed, who could see through the eye of God. Everyone else turned away.

t night, my daddy used to whittle with his knife out on the porch, whistling an old song and carving a little bear or a horse with his knife out of a piece of scrap wood. When the weather was decent, my mother and I would sit with my father on the porch and watch him whittle and listen to him whistling those old time songs. When he died, I tried to finish his last whittling project, a little lamb with ruffled fur. But I cut my finger on the knife, which my father kept as sharp as curse words with the stone in the basement. I put the knife and the half-carved lamb in my father's tool kit in the basement and tried whistling on the porch all the songs I knew from my father. My mother would not come outside with me, though; she sobbed in the kitchen, cooking dinner, washing dishes, folding laundry. There was an emptiness even larger than the hole Granville blew through my father inside our hearts. See, when Granville killed my father he also murdered me and my mother, too. I didn't want revenge. I didn't want to punish Granville. I just wanted to die. And I waited on the sign for me to go and do myself in. But I couldn't do it around my mother. A few weeks after Granville was set free, my mom up and decided to go for a walk. She kissed me goodbye. I offered to walk with her, but she said she wanted to be alone. She stuffed her hands in the pockets of my father's old red raincoat and walked off the porch. I listened to her sobbing until the rain masked her and she disappeared under the raindrops. I walked back inside the house and found my father's hunting rifle and decided to go to Jackson Bridge and do myself in, right in the same spot where my father died. But the bridge was two miles away — there was no way for me to walk two miles carrying a loaded rifle without someone stopping me, or calling Sheriff Godwin. People already expected me to go and kill Granville anyway.

So I watched the rain clouds come and listened to the rain falling around me for an hour, and then two hours, and then after three hours, I decided to delay killing myself to go look for my mother. But just as I walked off the porch, I ran right into her. My mother pushed past me in my daddy's red raincoat, sobbing away, and I followed her inside. Then my mother did something that surprised me: she began screaming at me. "Leave me alone!" she cried. "Just leave me alone!" I sat on the porch until after midnight, feeling more and more certain that I was ready to do myself in, and then I understood exactly how I would die.

I went down to the basement and got my father's whittling knife and stuffed it in the pocket of my father's old red raincoat. It was still wet from my mom wearing it earlier, although for a moment, with my head not on straight, I thought it was my daddy's tears I could feel on the wet slicker.

I marched to Jackson Bridge with as much conviction as I ever had. It was like I was marching into battle, and in some ways, I was. I could hear my father's voice in my left ear, crying in pain, and my mother's sobbing in my right. All that sound only made me want to fall away even more.

When I was on trial, I told them all the truth: that when I saw Granville's dead body on the bridge, I had every intention of taking my daddy's whittling knife, plunge it into my heart, and fall dead right beside Granville. Seeing his dead body didn't stir anything in me: not relief, not even anger that I couldn't have been the one to kill him myself. I was surprised, of course, to see him dead — wouldn't you have been? But it's like when you don't eat for a long, long time, and you get so hungry that you stop being hungry — that's what I was like when I saw dead Granville Ashcake. Even the blood leaking from his stomach did not move me. I was in so much pain that I didn't feel any pain — or anything at all — until I looked into Granville's eyes.

I had never seen a dead man's eyes before. Sheriff Godwin had shut my father's eyes by the time I saw his body. It wasn't that Granville didn't blink that was so unnerving — that his eyes stayed wide open for all those minutes I stared at him, my hand in the raincoat pocket, holding my daddy's whittling knife. It was the invisible current that runs behind our eyes, our connection to God, which dead Granville didn't have anymore. This is what made me drop the knife and run. His eyes were still pools.

I have seen a lot of men here who, just looking in their eyes, you can see their connection to God was severed. They walk and talk and smoke and curse and fight and scream, but they never weep, they don't put their hands up to the light in the afternoon sun and feel the light that is inside everything and stirs. Instead, they go crazy for the invisible trains, making their escape plans, always planning their great and futile running away, just as I almost ran away permanently that night on Jackson Bridge.

On Sept. 20, it will be 30 years since I came here. I am 50 years old now. I have never slept with a woman, and I suppose when I am 70 and they let me go I will probably be too old and too tired to even care to sleep with a woman. I have no children, and no family left. My mother died five years after I went away, and despite my requests, and my own tears, they would not see fit to let me attend her funeral. The only time she visited me, she brought the half-carved wooden lamb, my daddy's last whittling project. I keep the lamb in my cell, I stroke its ruffled fur. Like water on a stone, my fingers rub against the wood, patiently each day, finishing my father's project.

People ask me if I ever get angry, being sent away for a crime I did not commit. I tell them no, and I mean it. I wanted to kill Granville Ashcake. In God's book, wanting to kill and actually killing are the same thing. And I think I was meant to happen upon Granville's body and to stare into those blank eyes. How else was I ever going to keep on living?

I do not ask God for anything but to open the door of Heaven to my mother. I have prayed the same prayer of thanks and mercy for 30 years. I shall pray another 30 years, and another 30 more after that, as long as it takes for my mother's light to return. S

About the Writer

Stephen Moegling has the literary version of the seven-year itch. Moving here seven years ago from Ohio, Moegling, 30, is nearing completion of a novel that has taken him seven years to write. He has always been into writing, he says, from publishing poetry in college to his work in advertising.

When he became an account manager at Franklin Street Marketing, he confesses, "I had to give up my dream of being a great copywriter." With that same humor, he kindled a new dream, and with no formal training, entered this contest. Whether he approaches writing in work or play, his attitude is plain. "I love language," he says. — Brandon Reynolds

The Fiction Contest winners...

Add a comment