THE DEVIL AND THE DRUNK
by Gregg Clark
The moon was full, so full in fact, the weaving drunk could make his way up the old logging road without lantern, flashlight or lamp, so full, the trees, stripped bare for the dying time in the southern Appalachians, glowed like lank angels, looming above the death-dark Laurel, so full, he could already see the tombstone tops softly lit upon the hilltop as if painted in warm, Autumnal hues on a gloomy nightscape canvas.
The old drunk stopped walking when he saw the tree. A giant tree had fallen across his well-worn, ritualistic path that led to the cemetery, a tree that hadn’t been there on his new moon trek just days before. Each full and new moon, the panting, toothless drunk filled himself with warm, Corn Liquor and made his way along the crooked, steep, oft-canopied logging trail that wound its way up to his family’s cemetery. By 3:00am he’d be there. Depending on the time of year, he’d ease his geriatric frame down into the tall, warm, cool, cold, soaking wet, frost or snow-covered grass beside his mother’s grave, and by 3:30am the old sot would be either weeping, a mouth-wide-open bawl, thin strings of whiskey spit hanging like spider’s webs to the grass, or he’d be laughing, laughing with such rattling-ferocity, the night sounds dissolved around him and a rainbow of stars danced dizzyingly behind his eye sockets.
The novel fallen tree didn’t send the old drunk sailing away crestfallen. It didn’t deter him in any way. In fact, it offered up a challenge. The challenge wasn’t in crossing the fallen tree. The challenge lie in not spilling a single, solitary drop of his Smoky Mountain Moonshine Whiskey while doing so. The wrinkled, old Shine sponge, eyes gleaming, rimmed in gold like a coyote shocked in the lamplight, slung one slim leg across the mammoth Oak blocking the trail he could have walked blindfolded. Holding his Mason jar high, still half-full, the drunk straddled the fallen tree. It was then that he heard the bats. Foregoing slinging his other leg across the tree, the gassed mountaineer began pawing the underside of the freshly-toppled Oak with his one free hand, the other, raised like Lady Liberty so as not to spill his White Lightning.
The old drunk laughed as he ripped two, small brown bats from beneath the fallen tree’s trunk with his long, filthy fingers, and he laughed harder as he poured, drop by precious drop, his Moonshine Whiskey down their squeaking, fang-filled throats. Tossing the furry, corn-whiskey-soaked bats off into the darkness, after having had his fun, the old drunk carried on with his pre-dawn stroll up to the boneyard. He stumbled after crossing the tree, and again, using the lit tombstone tops as his North Stars, he ambled on, mumbling and sipping and cursing and laughing and mumbling and sipping again.
A Screech Owl, warming up its chords in the nearby, low-leaning limbs, brought another sin-licked grin to the grizzled drunk’s face, just as a cold gust of wind blew up the hillside unintroduced, unannounced, a strange burst, the teetering drunkard thought to himself.
As fast as the old man’s smile was nearing completion upon hearing the blue moan of the owl and the rare wind, just as fast, it fell. It fell due to laughter, loud, raspy, high-pitched laughter ringing out from behind where he stood on the trail. Spinning around, ice cold inside with fear, the drunk saw a dark form leaning against the tree he’d just seconds before straddled and crossed. The old drunk’s eyes grew wide as goose eggs when the realization hit that the dark form was that of a tall, slim man and that the wild, cripplingly-hideous laughter was spilling from the stranger’s gaping mouth. The strange man’s laughter heightened and rose with the intrusive wind to a piercing peal, a deafening and putrid roll of noise that somehow sounded like smoke smelled. The stranger, lit wonderfully and terribly by the full mountain moon, wore a tall, stovepipe hat, and, to the old drunk’s shock, was spinning, what appeared to be a cane in his fingers like a showman, like a sideshow carny.
The old drunk turned to run upon witnessing the macabre, laughing entity on the late-night winter trail, but his knobby, old feet, crooked and awkward when sober, failed him. His Moonshine Whiskey splashed into his eyes as he attempted to save himself from a most awful fall, but he fell and he fell, and he fell and fell and fell!
Whiskey-drenched bats swooped and dove. The Screech Owl crooned low and desperate, and a mighty, wicked wind blew. The strange man stood up from the log upon which he’d been casually reclining, spun his cane one last time before bleeding into the darkness of the Great Smoky Mountains, laughing and leaving a sad scene in his wake.
When the old man’s body was discovered the following month, face down, frozen and picked apart, nobody asked questions. No one was stricken with disbelief. The hoof prints near the fallen tree were covered with a glistening, fresh winter snow, and the moon shone bright. The twittering bats entertained the forest world with their sleek acrobatics, and the same Screech Owl cooed long and lonesome amid the trees. The grass would grow high on the trail, completely effacing it, and the Mason jar would be found by a child half a century later, making a fine bank for candies and toy guns. The graves on the hilltop would be lost, taken back by the tangled, dark southern Appalachian Mountains.