Chapter One: The Disappearing Islands
The End of Freshman Year
Three waifs meandered through the condemned downtown, avoiding the streets of Greenfront with its old drunks and scary whores. They wandered down Jackson Boulevard, past the boarded-up storefronts to the massive, rusty iron gates, which had recently been shut, sandbagged, and locked. At the first buttress, the kids scrambled up the crumbling concrete wall and walked along the levee, looking out across the wilderness that was slowly sinking beneath the muddy waves. This was nothing new; the Mississippi usually jumped its banks in the spring. Since their last look at it, two days ago, the river had swallowed the little riverside park and was now lapping at the base of the wall. Out in the main channel, entire oak trees floated by and timbers rolled and tossed like twirling batons. Once they had seen a ’68 Cadillac Coupe De Ville drift by, spinning like a child’s toy car. Island Number Nine had disappeared. The opposite shore had vanished too; now it was just a vast dark sea with no boundary.
Jesse liked to stand up here at this time of year. Secretly he reveled in the chaos and destruction slapping at the city gates—the dark, unbridled energy. “I wonder why they never came up with a better name for those islands,” he said. “Number Nine ain’t much of a name.”
“Cause they move,” Lucinda said. “You can’t name something if it’s always disappearing and showing up somewhere else. How’d you know if it was the same island?”
Frankie shook his head in agreement.
Jesse considered this. “Yeah, that sounds right.”
Lucinda grabbed Frankie and pretended to throw him off the side of the levee. He screamed and kicked her in the shin. She laughed and hugged him close, and he hugged her around the waist.
Jesse watched this exchange. Lucinda was nearly a head taller than Frankie, long and lean, with flashing black eyes that matched the black of her army boots. A mop of sun-bleached blonde hair fell out from under her dusty cowboy hat. By contrast, Frankie was smallish and almost delicate. His shoulder-length brown hair flowed perfectly beneath his cowboy hat. Jesse loved him. He loved both of them. He was fifteen and thoroughly confused by the feelings he had for the other two.
The three walked along the wall, watching the river on one side and the nearly abandoned town on the other. They waved to Mrs. LaBella sitting on her porch, sewing. They waved at Old Man Hardy in his front yard, putting a new tire on his old dump truck.
The Corps of Engineers had declared that the old levee was too heavy, which made the low shelf of land where Old Jericho stood unstable. The Corp said they couldn’t save Old Jericho from the river and ordered it to be abandoned. But the National Trust for Historic Preservation had designated Old Jericho Below-the-Bluff a national landmark and petitioned to save it. The State of Tennessee said they had no money to save the town. The city removed the stoplights and street signs. Large sinkholes opened up in the streets. The state had ordered everyone to leave, but some were still there. “Where would we go? Above the bluff? That’s not home. That’s another country,” Old Man Hardy had said once to Jesse. Old Jericho had been here for one hundred and fifty years, and he reckoned it would be there twice as long. If not—he’d just float on downstream with the rest of the town.
The kids didn’t think about such things. They walked along the top of the levee to the mouth of the Bayou de Chien and followed the New Bayou Levee inland. They felt safe down here, where their enemies rarely ventured.
They wore the uniform of the Duds: army boots and grungy cowboy hats. The Duds were not a formal gang. They were too disorganized, and there were no meetings or initiations. The Duds were more like a motley collection of ragamuffins, country kids, poor whites and blacks who were still too young to join their older cousins and friends in the Black Mombas or Vandals and too poor or unathletic for the more polished Lettermen. The Duds had one rule and one common purpose—help each other stay alive in a violent world.
Lucinda, Frankie, and Jesse scrambled down from the levee onto the dirt backstreets of Old Jericho. The neighborhood was filled with brightly painted shotgun shacks and shiny house trailers on stilts, surrounded by flowering fruit trees, bright yellow forsythias, and purple wisteria climbing great cedars, cypresses, and oaks into the canopy. All around them the village hummed with the undulating rhythm of a million insects, buzzing in time with the birdsong and the sounds of vines growing.
The kids stopped at the Devil’s Staircase. This was the old walk from the jail in Old Jericho to the courthouse above—two hundred steps up the bluff to High Jericho, where they used to hang men with a fine view of the double horseshoe bend in the Mississippi.
“Maybe we should walk the Du Chien to the Eastside,” Frankie said. “I prefer the bayou.”
“You’re scared of those assholes. We can walk anywhere we want. Fuck them,” Lucinda said.
Jesse loved to watch her black eyes gleam when she cussed.
Frankie did not look convinced. “Okay, but we stay on the backstreets. Cool?”
“A stroll down the path, and we’ll be back with our own people in no time—easy breezy,” Jesse said.
They were trying to get from Old Jericho, which was Black Momba territory, to East Jericho, controlled by the Vandals. To do so, they’d have to go through High Jericho, run by the Lettermen. When they traveled with adults or with a mass of Duds, this was not a challenge, but today there was just the three of them.
They climbed the bluff and quickly slipped through the backstreets of High Jericho until they came to the trailhead at Pickle’s Path.
“What do you think?” Frankie asked.
Lucinda peered down the path. “I don’t know. Looks okay to me.”
“We could scoot through the woods. We’d be fine there.” Frankie looked hopefully at Jesse.
“Naw, man, that’s a long ways around. This’ll be okay. No one’s there,” Jesse said.
Frankie stared down the path. “Okay, but if we see someone coming, we take off across the cow pasture. No fight. Deal?” He pulled his blackjack from his back pocket.
Jesse had made them three matching Code-sanctioned blackjacks, double-stitched from his uncle’s old black Vandals jacket. He had filled the leather bags with buckshot, lead fishing weights, and some of his granny’s juju beads.
“Unless there’s only a few of them. Then…” Lucinda slapped her blackjack against her leg.
“No,” Frankie said. “I hate that shit.”
“Okay.” Jesse tied back his long black curls in a pony tail. He wasn’t worried, but he wanted to be ready just in case. He knew nothing bad could happen today; it was too perfect—warm and mild with a yellow sun in a crystal blue sky.
Pickle’s Path was only four hundred yards long—a direct route between High Jericho and East Jericho. As they started down the path, Jesse wondered aloud how fifteen-year-olds lived in other places, say in Moscow or Tasmania. Lucinda liked the idea of starting Dud chapters in other cities, as the Vandals had done. Frankie said nothing.
The south side of the path was separated from Pickle’s cow pasture by a massive, nine-foot-high blackberry and locust hedgerow. On the north side loomed a steep embankment covered in a great honeysuckle and pokeweed thicket, which extended the length of the path up to the backside of the businesses on Broadway. The young locust saplings waved in the breeze, the bright afternoon sun making their new leaves glow green-gold. In the hedgerows the tiny honeysuckle flowers were in full bloom, along with bright orange birds of paradise and tons of other flowers Jesse didn’t know. To him it looked as if they were walking through the middle of a Van Gogh painting, while Lucinda chattered in her swamp patois in tune with the mockingbirds and cardinals singing in the hedgerow.
When the three reached the halfway point, a covey of quail flew up from the thicket on the north side. All along the embankment above them arose a great rustle, like a herd of wild boar in the underbrush. Voices from the thicket cursed the sticker bushes.
Lucinda yelled, “Run! Ambush!” She grabbed Frankie and shot down the path toward East Jericho and safety.
Jesse ran too, until a Letterman—Beeber, the Fullback—jumped out of the bramble. He snatched Jesse by the collar and clobbered him hard across the face with his blackjack. Then he bear-hugged Jesse and hollered, “I got him! I got Jesse, y’all!”
Beeber stood about a foot taller than Jesse; he was sweating and bleeding, with pieces of sticker branches caught in his stringy hair. Trying to subdue the thrashing Jesse, he said, “Now you calm down. We’re just going teach you a few lessons, little boy.”
He squeezed hard, so that Jesse feared his ribs would snap like small twigs. He saw up close the landscape of Beeber’s face, rivulets of sweat and blood running around the craters and hills of pimples ready to pop. He could smell Beeber’s Pizzaburger breath as the older boy tried to crush him into submission.
Jesse reared back and head-butted him in the nose. The impact made his vision go momentarily white, and pain shot through his head. Beeber hollered and dropped him. When Jesse’s feet hit the ground, he promptly cracked Beeber across the ear with his blackjack and took off running. Behind him, he heard Beeber hit the ground hard.
Up ahead, two more Lettermen were fighting with Lucinda and Frankie. The first one, Big Junior, had his back to Jesse. He was trying to assist the other Letterman, D-Luxe, as he wrestled with both Frankie and Lucinda. They were clinging onto D-Luxe like two little swamp cats, scratching, hitting, and biting.
Jesse whacked Big Junior on the head with his blackjack, and Junior collapsed. Then Jesse kicked D-Luxe in back of the knee, and he went down. Frankie was wrapped around his head, his fingers in D-Luxe’s eye as he bit an ear. Lucinda was trying to free herself from D-Luxe’s big linebacker arms by clawing his face with one hand and pummeling him with the other. As D-Luxe crashed to the ground, he lost his grip on Lucinda. The three younger kids clobbered him a few times to make sure he stayed down and then ran up the path toward safety.
Ten yards before the end of the path, Clay Collins stepped out of a locust thicket and threw an elbow into Frankie’s face, breaking his glasses and knocking him to the ground. Clay’s lieutenant, Maynard Goodworth, jumped out beside him and grabbed Lucinda around the waist. Jesse came to a panicked halt, staring up at the two big Lettermen blocking his path.
Clay smiled down at his little brother. “Well, well, Jesse, fancy finding you here with these two white-trash reprobates. I’ve been telling you you’ve got to start hanging out with a better class of—”
“Fuck you, Clay! We ain’t done nothing to you,” Jesse screamed. “Let her go!”
Clay Collins was his older brother by a year, but there was no resemblance. Clay towered over Jesse; he was huge, like most of the Collins men, made of solid muscle, big bones, and pure meanness. He was the Grand Poobah of the JLL, or Jericho League of Lettermen, or Jellies, and the starting player for every sport in Jericho High School, including golf. In contrast, Jesse had his mother’s features. He was small, soft-spoken, and bookish, and he walked around with his head in the clouds. People in the county couldn’t believe they were related, much less brothers.
Jesse looked at Frankie sitting in the dirt, bleeding, trying to put his mangled glasses back on. Then he looked at Lucinda as she squirmed and thrashed in Maynard’s arms. “Let her go, goddammit!” he shouted.
“Whoa, whoa, little brother. You best watch your mouth, taking our Lord’s name in vain. Why, I reckon I might have to tell Momma about that one.” Clay smiled down at him with the stupid cottonmouth grin Jesse hated. “Whatever the case, we’ll need to hang onto this wildcat a while. I don’t expect they’ll miss her down in the swamp, or anywheres, for that matter. We’ll just keep her hostage till you little shits apologize for crossing our territory and come up with fifty dollars ransom. What do you say, Maynard? You suppose we might take her back to the clubhouse and see if we can’t break this little mustang?”
“Sure thing. I’ve had my eye on this one since we was in Biology class. I bet she fucks like a banshee.”
Lucinda screamed and thrashed in Maynard’s big arms.
Maynard grinned and raised her up a bit, sniffing her hair, squeezing her tighter. “Yeah, Clay, she smells nice. The boys are going to love her.”
Clay leaned in close to Lucinda and spoke in a low voice. “You won’t mind learning some manners from some real men, will you? I expect these girly boys can’t do much for the likes of you. Huh, little cutie?”
Lucinda spat at him. “Kiss my ass, you fucking warthog!”
Maynard jerked her away from Clay, and she drove a kick into his kneecap.
Maynard crumpled to the ground, screaming. “My good knee!”
She wriggled loose and spun on him, clawed him across the face, and jumped for the hedgerow.
Clay yelled down at Maynard, “Go get her, you sorry ass!” But Maynard was curled up on the ground, whining in pain.
Then Mr. Griswold, from the Sunoco on the top of the embankment, hollered down, “What the hell are you kids doing!”
Clay looked up the hill and yelled back a symphony of swear words: fuck off, grease-monkey, bobble-headed half-breed, ass-wipe…
Jesse and Frankie dove into the hedgerow as Griswold screamed that he had called the sheriff.
Clay kicked Maynard. “Go get ’em, you fucking needle-dick. They’re getting away!”
The three Duds clawed their way deeper and deeper into the hedgerow, climbing through the tick- and snake-infested briar patch. They could hear Maynard crawling after them. He got a hand around Frankie’s leg, but down here Maynard’s size worked against him. He’d become wedged between two small tree trunks that little Frankie had easily slipped between. Frankie fought to free himself, but Maynard pulled him back, growling, “I got you, little weasel.”
Jesse looked back through the thick green hell of brambles. He saw Frankie’s bloody face, his hand still clutching his broken glasses as he reached out to Jesse. Maynard had wrapped both big hands around one of Frankie’s legs, pulling him away.
Jesse reached back and grabbed Frankie’s hand. He felt a snap as the glasses broke again in Frankie’s fingers. The blood and sweat made his hand hard to hold onto. Jesse could feel Maynard’s strength through Frankie, like a tractor pulling out a stump with a log chain.
Frankie was slipping through his grip.
“Kick him, Frankie, kick!”
Frankie kicked with his free leg, directing hard jabs into Maynard’s face and arms.
One more kick, and Jesse felt the release. Frankie shot forward, crawling over Jesse toward Lucinda. Jesse stayed right behind him, struggling along the path Lucinda had made. He could hear Maynard right behind them, cursing and grunting.
The three Duds wriggled around a small stand of stickered locusts, through the tangles of a rusting barbed-wire fence, past a momma groundhog, and out to daylight on the other side. Jesse looked back: Maynard was hopelessly twisted in the locust and barbed wire. The Duds fell out of the hedgerow into Pickle’s cow pasture. Jesse heard the jeers of the Lettermen behind them as they ran through the meandering cows to the distant tree-line.
They kept running through the woods to the bayou, scrambling down the small embankment to a sand bar. And there they sat, panting, waiting, listening for pursuing footsteps. They heard nothing.
Lucinda jumped up and began pacing, cursing the Lettermen. Frankie’s left eye and cheek were a mass of blood and new bruises. His lip quivered. He clutched what remained of his glasses in his bloody little hand. Jesse scooted over and put an arm around him, and Frankie clung to Jesse and broke down in tears.
Lucinda was still ranting. “Those sorry, cowardly, shitfaced…”
Jesse looked up at her. “Where did they get you?”
Lucinda’s cheek was cut and bleeding. “Me? No fucking where. I took three of the motherfucking Jellies. Your fucking bastard brother…I swear I’ll kill that asshat someday.” She reached into the breast pocket of her flannel shirt and pulled out a crushed pack of Camels. “Bastards hit my cigs. Who hits a girl in the tits? I mean that’s some pathetic loser fuckwad that hits a chick in the tit.” She pulled one cigarette out, straightened it, popped it between her lips, and flipped out her Zippo in one smooth motion. “Want one?”
Jesse took a lit cigarette and looked down at Frankie, curled up in his arms.
“Frankie, dude, you okay? Where’d they get you?” Lucinda asked, taking a deep drag.
Frankie said nothing. He was trembling all over.
“It’s okay, just an eye,” Jesse said. “Nothing broken…besides your glasses. Other than that we came out okay. And I think we got a shot or two in.”
“No, man,” Frankie sobbed, “I ripped my new Roebucks. Mom’s going to kill me. I hate this. I hate it.”
“Me too, Frankster, me too.” Lucinda gazed up the murky bayou. “Look, the Duds are probably still hanging at Doover’s. I’m going for help. Y’all stay here—I’ll be right back.”
She didn’t wait for an answer. Jesse watched her bony figure as she scrambled up the embankment and galloped off into the forest.
The two boys sat silent for a moment.
“Are you okay?” said Jesse.
Frankie buried his face in Jesse’s shirt and wept. Jesse held him tight, feeling tears soak through his T-shirt into his skin. He considered the day, and what had just happened. He thought of how wrong they had been to travel down the path. The choice had been too predictable. And Frankie had tried to warn them.
Jesse had never thought about the way Frankie made him feel or how much he wanted to protect him. He thought nothing now of pushing the hair out of Frankie’s eyes and wiping off his bloody eye with a handkerchief dipped in the creek. He didn’t think about the way he felt when Frankie placed his head on his shoulder and they held each other. They were always affectionate, in the woods or in their rooms.
But as Frankie cried in his arms, Jesse vowed to kill his brother.
A HISTORY OF STARLIGHT is a literary novel about trying to live and thrive in a hostile, divided land.
Jesse Collins is a sensitive, headstrong artist growing up in the violent, hyper-religious backwoods of West Tennessee in the 1970s. He is in love with his two best friends, Lucinda and Frankie. He’s not quite sure what the word bisexual means, but he’s pretty sure it won’t go over well in his hometown.
Jericho County is a tumultuous, remote land divided by a river bluff into two separate worlds. Since 1825, the Scots-Irish frontiersmen of the Uplands have fought a sputtering war with the French-Creole river people for control of the Lowland swamp-forests below the bluff. In 1950, a marriage between the two sides caused the people of Jericho to believe peace had come at last. However, by the time the novel opens, everyone has realized that the only two sons of the marriage, Clay and Jesse, are the embodiments of two separate worlds.
The younger brother, Jesse, is completely different from the rest of the men in the Collins clan—a slender, dark, irreverent art student who refuses to conform to rules of the Uplands as imposed by the Collins men. Clay, by contrast, is a blond tank of a football player, self-righteous and totally intolerant. He is also the leader of the Jericho Lettermen League, a group of like-minded athletes bent on returning Jericho to Christian family values.
Jesse eventually moves to Memphis to attend art college, where he moves in with an eccentric group of fashion designers. However, he and his new friends are inevitably pulled back to Jericho County and their nasty little war.
William F. Polsgrove lives in Cooperstown, NY. He graduated from the Memphis College of Art with a BFA in Painting, and from Fairfield University with an MFA in Creative Writing. He received the 42nd Annual New Millennium Award for Flash Fiction in 2016 for his story “Highway 61.”
Embark, Issue 13, October 2020