Just Entering Darkness, Missouri

Jeff Burt

The sign said Entering Darkness. We looked for a town but found none, thought maybe it was a joke, or perhaps the sign meant a shaded drive with a towering canopy of trees where the sun never reached the earth. There were hardly any trees off the road, and sunshine was plentiful. But there was a crowd by the side of the road looking at a dead pig.

The dead pig had its hind legs stuck in the air, its pinkish rear with the little black tail on top, and its hind legs curled up against the body. The head and shoulders were stuck in the sopping earth near a creek.

“Darndest thing I ever saw,” said the owner standing inside the fence, in blue overalls and boots, no shirt. “Never had a pig kill itself while rooting.”

“Suffocated?” asked one of the fifteen or so people who had stopped to see what the others had stopped to see. All of us looked over the fence, our cars parked on the grass shoulder of the county road, the shortcut between the Interstate and the State Highway 65 in Missouri.

The farmer shook his head. When new people stopped, he started his story over again, beginning with “darndest thing I ever saw” and finishing with the weather and a long complaint about too much rain some months and not enough in others. I was thinking that a sophisticated farmer would have said “damn” when my son Ben, twenty-six and thin, leaped over the fence and started walking toward the pig. I followed. The farmer followed me.

The pig was muddy white, with several black spots ringed with a light gray. Ben held its tail out straight to see if the curl would straighten out. It didn’t, recoiling like a spring.            

“It’s a Bethlehem Pied Pig, or a Bethlehem Black Pied, to be specific,” the farmer said. “Great out on their own. She’s a rare one. Hardly bred anymore. I’ve got thirty-one of them. Give me more grief than a thousand other pigs. Always poking at the fences. Biting ones they don’t like. Now, you see it. Ass over end in a sinkhole of mud. They say the pig is smarter than a dog, but not this pig. Bethlehem. No pigs at Bethlehem in the manger. Didn’t see the star in the sky. Didn’t hear no angels. Had their heads stuck in the mud.”

“You need help pulling her out?” I asked.

“Naw. Let her be. There's more folks coming by all the time, and my grandkids want to take pictures when they come, so just let her be. This’ll make the papers. Maybe one of the kids standing next to the sorry pig. It’s an opportunity. You’ve got to find the bright side in something like this.”

“Where’ya from?” the farmer asked. “My name’s Stutz, short for Stutzenmiller. Not the name my granddaddy was born with, but the one he acquired in the U.S. Like some pickled eggs?”

Ben laughed, and told them we were on a coast-to-coast trip, California to Florida to Montana and back to California.

“You’ve never had pickled eggs? Come on up to the house. I’ve got a bunch of pickled things. Other’n this pig upside down, I’m locally famous for pickling.”

We slogged through the soggy lowland and then up a thick rise to his driveway, and followed him to a little unpainted shed attached to the barn, which housed old farm tractors and no stanchions. The tractors, red, green, and yellow, looked brilliant, reflective.

“See here, pickled eggs, the small ones from chickens, the large ones from a goose. No one does pickled goose eggs but me. The goose eggs you can’t take down with a single swallow like a hen’s egg, though. They squish. But they taste darker, more alive, so to speak.”

I examined one large jar of goose pickles, expecting the brine to be the color of urine, but if it was urine, the dark brown belied some type of illness.

“Then over here, I've got some pig snouts, rough, but kind of fun to tear at and chomp down. Like beef jerky in vinegar, but even tougher than that. I give one to my Lab once in a while, but he gets the shits from them, and I have to keep him outside for a day or two.

Those jars have the chicken’s feet, which I can sell in town at the Chinese Restaurant for a few bucks. They aren’t good eatin’, and God knows why they fry those things. Must be for the taste of the oil and the chilies because the feet don't taste like anything.

At the back, kind of in the dark, are the pickles, and I've got some big ones in there, large enough that a horse wouldn't have to apologize if you know what I mean. You can’t eat those in a few bites, neither, you’ve got to slice them up like a tomato and then lay them on a sandwich. I've got a few that came out bigger than a burger patty if you can believe it. Imagine that, having a pickle bigger than the burger.”

I examined each pickling type, noting the filtered sunshine that started on a slant coming from the small skylight through the jars, some a pale yellow, some a pale green, one jar of chicken's feet a dark green, and then the almost impenetrable jar of goose eggs. The brine had started Ben sneezing, and I felt as aware of my surroundings as if ammonia had been stuffed up my nostrils.

I ran my hand over the tops of the several jars. No dust. Recent.

“Does your wife,” I asked, “do the pickling?”

“Good heavens, no. Those jars get pretty heavy, and the sight of a pickled snout or pig’s ear, all sold out of those, or the chicken’s feet, would have sent her into a hissy fit. No, I pickle all by myself. Knocks me out for days afterward. Smell vinegar coming through every pore. My neighbor Wendell says it’s worse than the Agent Orange he’d smell in Viet Nam.”

He chuckled at the thought, put two hands on the broad wooden table in front of him, and shook his head side to side like a horse might, showing his pleasure.

“Besides, the misses passed a year after I started pickling, so I’ve ramped it up all by myself. Fun hobby. Heavy one, too. Taking those jars in and out of my pickup wears my back worse than pulling a pig out of the mud.

Pickling’s more of an art than an effort, though,” the farmer went on. "Doing a salt brine is pretty easy, but vinegar's a whole different animal if you know what a mean. An apple cider vinegar, even with the sugar, I throw at common eggs if I know the eggs’ll be eaten in a month or so. Plain old ordinary white vinegar’s the best for almost anything, but throw in a little white wine vinegar in something with a short shelf life,” he smacked his lips, “and you’ve got a pig’s ear that’s as good as any German potato salad.

I like to throw in a little clove and cinnamon, too, and I’ll toss a bit of mustard seed into about everything I pickle. It's kind of like being a bakery chef, not knowing exactly how the flour's gonna rise and putting in a little bit here and there to help the process along, and voila! you've got a tasty bread.

Pickling started as a preservative, you know. Ancient India. Standard cucumbers thrown into brine. Then a little vinegar. Now it’s more the taste. People like the sour. Kind of wakes them up, and if you're eatin' a pig's ear, you kind of want to know you're all woked up, you know. Wide-eyes and ready. And vinegar will open your eyes, boys.”

Ben looked out the door and laughed. “You’ve got goats, too, and merino sheep. You’ve got the whole farm, cows, horses, goats, sheep, chickens, geese, and pigs. Do you have rabbits hidden somewhere?”

Stutz's eyes brightened and seem to raise the corners of his lips like you might raise a child’s arms to pull him skyward.

“I’ve got rabbits at the back of the barn. Californian, New Zealand. You start with two and end up with a dozen, the dozen goes to a gross, and then you harvest every month. Sell it for dog food. Beagles love it.

And I’ve got three llamas over the side of that hill stuck all by their lonesome because they don't get along with anything. They’ve got this strange habit, too, of always having their face towards the sun. In the morning, they face east. In the evening, they face west. Like a sunflower.”

“Do you need all of these to make a go of the farm?” I asked.

“No. Not at all. The land’s paid for. The buildings are paid for. I make most of my money buying and fixing up old farm equipment and selling them. I’ve got some old tractors that I get paid to show. County fairs, a couple of auctions. But I make good money selling a few here and there to Hollywood for movies. Period pieces. Anywhere from the late 1800s up to about World War II. They’ll pay up to ten thousand dollars to rent a tractor that won’t be on film for more than a few minutes. I’ve sold one tractor and combine I bought for scratch money for over fifty thousand dollars so they could send it over a cliff. Real Hollywood, that one. No farmer would drive a combine near a cliff, you know. Makes you wonder who’s smarter, those Hollywood computer graphics geniuses or a real farmer.”

He opened a jar of pickles and pulled out two as wide and as long and rounder than my forearm. He thunked them with his middle finger, put them back in the jar, then handed the jar to Ben.

“Take those for the road. Keep them cold. Cops will arrest you if you’ve got an open pickle in your car, make you walk the line, so be careful,” he tittered. “I’ve got to get back to my pig.”

Stutz led us out and closed the shed door behind him, then zigged back toward the lowland, while Ben and I walked the gravel driveway to the road, amazed at the people standing at the fence taking pictures of the fallen pig.

***

Ben, the ardent mapper, felt you learned less about people and places by sticking to the highlights and learned more about commerce, so if you wanted to know the actual feel of geography, the terrain of culture, you had to go off-map. That night we avoided the Lake of the Ozarks as highlighted on the guided tour, with the big bass marking the fishing place where no one can catch a bass.

At four in the morning, we found a level place at a park in a small town. The park had one cannon, one huge oak, and a plaque to the dead veterans in the middle. Dead tired, we put our sleeping bags down and slept.

In Springfield, later that morning, we passed up going to a famous battlefield recommended to us in favor of a bowling alley, off Highway 65, once owned by Sherm Lollar, an old catcher for the Chicago White Sox, at one time considered the homeliest man in baseball. But his bowling alley looked very hip, full of neon lights and flashing lights.

As we cut over another country road to go straight north to hitch up to the caravan of trucks on the Interstate, we saw a small truck with sideboards labeled “Stutz” and a canvas cover lodged diagonally into a small creek bed. The radiator was hissing.

We pulled off, and Ben jumped out and ran over to the truck. Two men lay across the dash unconscious, a little blood, wedged against the seat by the steering wheel and the dash. The bridge they had been aiming to cross had lost the right-side barrier and the buttress support beneath it, with the metal twisted and the wood in spindles below in the creek as if a tornado had blown through. The cab reeked of pickling juice. Three large jars of pickled eggs lay weeping their juice on the floor. Cinnamon and cloves made the pickling more piercing.

The man on the passenger side came to with little prodding, and I helped him to the ground. He only spoke Spanish, so I yelled for Ben to come and care for him. We switched places, arcing around the rear of the truck.

I feared taking out the other man behind the steering wheel, not knowing the extent of his injuries, but he steadily roused and then wanted out. I pushed against the wheel in the opposite direction, and he squeezed through. I tried to have him sit, but he wanted to stand. He had a handgun in his pants, which he took out very slowly, and rather nonchalantly waved at me to move away from the truck. He was a young man, Caucasian, bearded.

Ben came around with the other man, holding him up as he walked.

“What we’ve got here,” the young man said, “is a simple accident. We’re both okay and can take it from here. And you two didn’t see a thing. Get my point?”

Ben shook his head from side to side. “Your friend is hurt. He should go to the hospital.”

“No hospital. You guys get in your car and leave. Now.”

“He’s hurt,” Ben said. “He needs a doctor. You do, too.”

“All we care about is that you get help,” I said. “It’s none of our business if you’re running from something.”

"Running?" the young man laughed and translated into Spanish, and then both men laughed. The Spanish speaker said something, and then Ben and the two men laughed. I was left out.

“He said they don’t run from anyone. They came from Darkness. They never see anyone, and no one sees them.”

“I don’t get it.”

Ben smiled at me as if I were now the son, the little boy. “Smell the vinegar. That’s nasal camouflage. They have a load of weed. They’re taking it somewhere.”

I nodded yes, but an obvious look of panic overtook my face.

“See,” the young man said, “that’s what I’m fuckin’ afraid of.” He waved the gun in front of my face. "The young guy here," he said, waving the weapon like a pointer at Ben, "he understands what's going on here, and he ain't shocked. He can roll with it. But you, your face, all judgmental and like, oh my God, what are they doing here, and I don’t like that look, see?”

Ben then spoke Spanish again, and the guys laughed, all three of them holding their noses. He talked a little more, and they laughed more. The guy with the gun asked Ben some questions, and Ben answered. Then Ben said one more sentence that included "Stutzenmiller," and both guys laughed very hard.

“We can go, Dad,” Ben said, and placed his hands on my shoulders and pushed me forward toward the car.

“Let me drive,” he said, and I gave him the keys.

He backed out, drove away slowly, then picked up speed, and we were gone.

“What did you tell them?” I asked.

“I told them you weren’t afraid of a gun, been in the service. You’d already died once, so death wasn’t a big thing. I told them you wouldn’t know marijuana from hay and would prefer smoking hay.” He laughed at himself. "I told them you were the kind of guy who ate pickled eggs. A mean hombre.”

“What did you say at the end that they laughed at so hard?”

Ben smiled, said nothing. “A lot of farmers grow marijuana here. It’s a big cash crop. Keeps a lot of farmers going. Do you really think Stutz kept his farm going on pickles and dead pigs? He sells marijuana. The farmers keep their farms that way. They call it hemp,” he said, making quotation marks in the air.

We drove for about ten minutes without a word between us.

“What I told them,” Ben said, a smirk of success broadening his smile, “is that we knew Stutz, had spent an afternoon with him, all the pickling and the rabbits. I said we knew the business of Darkness, and now that you knew they were drug runners, I'd have to stop at the first bathroom, or you'd be peeing your pants.”


About the Author

Jeff Burt lives on the Central Coast of California, practicing evacuation variations from floods, fires, pandemics, and earthquakes. He has work in Per Contra, EcoTheo Review, Willawaw Journal, and forthcoming in Gold Man Review. He won the 2016 Consequence Magazine Fiction Prize.