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Happy Camp

Seth Seppala

Bronson’s dying. He’s got a stump where his leg used to be all pus’d-over and green and smelling like molded cheese. “Forget it son,” he wheezes in a half-whisper so big Bill won’t hear, “I’m a gonner, just make sure you get some of me for dinner when my time finally comes.” And then I’m whipped to the main house by Bill.

The kid looks down at the desk he’s sat at in the little alcove off Old Horse’s reception hall. He’s working on a way to contact nuclear subs in the Pacific so they’ll shoot Polaris missiles into what’s left of Houston because I’ve told him my mother lived there. It’s dark and humid as a mouth as my heels crack on poor Ricky’s bones, waiting for the shrimp to finish his scribbling, ready to be handed a crumpled sheet of notebook paper then whipped back across the yard to carry out the ‘plan’.

He leans over the paper putting the final touches to the design in purple crayon, his tongue poking out the side of his mouth like he’s seven years old (which he is). “There!” he says, stamping a dramatic period just after he signs his name (which he misspells DWYAYN) to the masterpiece, “If you don’t have Hooston blow’d-up by tomorrow I’ll have Bill saw off your leg.” And then Bill whips me across the yard.

Back in the shack Bill ties me up and walks off like he has feces in his underwear (for there are stains on his pants the color of his yellow eyes). I marvel that just two days ago they sawed off Brons’ leg and here I am sitting beside him looking down at the kid’s latest design. “Give me two days and a jaw-full of ‘bac and I’d have it all up and runnin’ again,” Old Horse used to nourish with a breezy flash of his fresh blue peepers; but for poor Bronson in the here and now, two days just got him gangrene.

We’re starving; if nothing is done we are all sure to die and the only ones who know it are tied to the wall and sane. Ever since Old Horse left us to make that desperate race for Oklahoma (looking for survivors) things had been the worst in the world. That very first day out back of the tractor we’d come across this Bill changing clothes with the kid Dwayne strapped to his back. They acted dismayed that they’d been disrupted and Bill thrust his leathery rag back into a tote that seemed already full up with pale animal hides. After one look at us (for in the beginning we were more than just myself and Bronson and poor Ricky’s bones) they’d raised their noses and shaken their heads. Then Bill turned Dwayne so he could see to the corn in the fields shooting up out of the ground as green and lush as the spring. So Bronson and Ricky and Jarge and I just stood there scratching our scalps---shaking our own heads on the inside for these people’s backwardness (for they carried no water and stared at the sun) ---but we gave them food and we gave them water because that the way strong Old hunchback Horse would have wanted it.

“You are incompetent men who do not know the first thing about cotton,” said the kid once he’d eaten a plate of last year’s corn and drank a quart of cold water. He looked more worthless than a dog that can’t tell jokes up there on big Bill’s back, and we laughed on the inside because the child thought the corn was cotton. “I will show you how it’s done; now get to your quarter’s slaves!” and then big Bill whipped us to the shed and lashed us to its boards with rope (that’s how it all began).

In the morning Bronson’s skin is gray and sunken like a tent that has collapsed under swamp-water (just like the dream I’m shaking off of Old Horse) and his chest rattles when he breathes and he can barely open his eyes.

“Bronson,” I say to wake the man from his fever, “I’m getting out of here; I’m taking a bag of fertilizer and heading over the hills to start a new farm.” But I don’t tell him I saw Old Horse’s flesh hanging from a meat-hook in my dream because I don’t know how he will take it.

At the sound of my voice his eyes open so wide and bright that I am surprised at their strength; but no sooner do they recognize their surroundings than their light goes out, leaving sharp wretched lines besieging Brons’ lids. He is no longer listening, but shutting me out and trying to die.

I have done no work to contact nuclear warships in the Pacific Ocean; and, most likely, Bill will saw off my leg. Even he is losing much weight and I can see his ribs through his skin when old rancid-eye finally comes (for he wears no shirt).

“Some small amount of admiration is stirred within me,” the kid says once he sees I’ve done no work on his plan (whose paper merely contained the signed likeness of a naked, purple, stick-woman on it). The weather is hot in the house like the mouth has a fever, and Dwayne has his shirt off too. All the fans are stalled and hanging limp from the ceiling. “We need brave men for our survival, men with guts like you.” He swivels himself out from behind his little desk and sets his foot down on oak planks that used to be clean, “Resources are scarce and the crops are dead, thieves roam the countryside and will be at our supplies to slit our throats.” A wire hanger sticks out of a scorched electrical socket through the doorway into the next room (that is why there is no power). “It is time for drastic measures to ensure our survival, what say you?”

I nod absolutely for fear of retribution. And then Bill rips off my shirt and saws off my leg.

“You are part of the dynasty now,” the kid says as I lie clenching my teeth in white agony as Bill cauterizes my wound with fire (unable to use the electric hanger since it shorted the main days before) “And your fabric will helped meld the Royal flag.” But the kid still has some skepticism in his eye as he examines my performance and purses his lips like he is not fully convinced.

The fertilizer was locked in the basement and its use strictly forbidden. “Too many treacherous villains afoot,” the kid said, “and that will never grow you any cotton.” The ‘broad-board’ had been his next invention; and it was these things that killed all the food:

“March your left foot!” the kid would shout over the field, “Now your right foot!” and he would get very mad when we dallied or fell. “Now your left foot! Now your right foot! Now your left foot! Now your right foot!” ---but with a fence-post chained across four men’s necks and another across their knees, they fall very often and frequently almost die.

“You!” he once said to me after a particularly gruesome spill in which Jarge was nearly lost. “Where is your mother from!” and that is how he learned of my mother.

“We can’t work no fields when we’re all pilloried like that and marchin’ in unison with chains slippin’ down around our ankles,” Ricky said one night when food ran short. “The cotton (we had begun to call the corn ‘cotton’ to appease little Dwayne) is dyin’ out there ‘cause we can’t work the sprinklers in those things! Please give us the fertilizer! Please let us just grow the food!”

That’s when the King dispersed us with punishment---when he sent Jarge out over the hills in a broad-board to look for uranium (we expect that he has since expired). The kid knew the ammonia was only for the bombs of a rebellion; “You can have as much fertilizer as you can eat,” he said to Ricky, and then Ricky died and we ate him for food. Then Dwayne took Bronson’s leg and hashed out his plan for my mother.

It’s a horrible mess, I think; but my ideas are suffocating like they’re trapped in broad-boards. Old Horse floats above me again with his bent broke back swaying in a yellow vapor, smiling his crooked smile. His flesh slips off and floats merrily in the air, a zip up the crotch with room enough for two wizened men. They sing and dance and drink hollow wine that pours into their mouths and disappears. “And your left foot! And your right foot! And your left foot---hey!” they shout, circling in a great merry-go-round and flying off to slip into Old Horse’s skin. “Up and running!” Horsey says with a gungy wink once they’re all zipped up inside, and he grows smaller and smaller; and smaller and smaller; until he shrinks down so much that he snaps into nothing at all.

I explode up on one leg as far as I can before the ropes strangle my wrists. “Revolution!” I shout, “The Man’s come from inside to fly the flag high!” and I dart my head down an inch to peek through the cracks to the undergarment-banner waving proudly over the happy camp. “Eureka! Hark! Hark-hail! Hail-hark!” And there are already flies upon Bronson’s eyes. “This is the land of heroes! Hark! Hark-hail!”

Billy brings me to the kid again quickly. “It’s genius envisioned!” I say.

“Yes, my good man,” his eyes light up, “you see? It’s almost up and running again---oh happy day!” He gives close instruction to Bill, “Now; now is the time to throw the ammonia down the well---go; go bring up the ammonia.” But I’m too excited, “No!” I burst, “I’ll get the ammonia! I’ll get the ammonia and bring it up faster than a man who gave three legs for the plan!” and tears are streaming down the leader’s cheeks. “Hark!” I sing as I hop to the stairs, “Hail-hark!”

To think of our marvelous flag up their fluttering in the wind, made of stale underclothes and ring-around-the-collar! Just like Old Horse’s old hunchback skin I see hanging from a hook in the cellar! Bronson is dead and we’ll have his rotted meat for the whole of next week! “Ammonia! Ammonia! Ammonia for the masses!” I say thrusting my hand in a bag and eating the stuff, “And your one foot! And your one foot! And your one foot---hey!”

The tote lies at their feet and they are both again in shirts as I bring up his majesty’s old skin, the ammonia and myself in a wonderful ecstasy. “Burn the skin,” Dwayne orders.

“Burn the skin!”

“Poison the well,” Dwayne orders.

“Poison the well!”

“Bury the meat,” Dwayne orders.

“Bury the meat!”

And he is so pleased with my enthusiasm that the he has set a loaded revolver on a handkerchief on his desk. “You,” he says solemnly, “have shown very great faith.”

“Hail the House and the buried meat!”

“There is no time,” Dwayne says, and in the distance the faint sound of an engine approaches (but there is no time). He spins the weapon as we three huddle around the desk and by chance of great fortune the barrel comes to rest pointing at me!

“You will lead us into victory,” says Dwayne while Bill pops blue eyeballs into his sockets in favor over the yellow.

The scream of the engine closing-in sounds as if it were in a desperate race; but Dwayne and Bill must be moving-on (and we have no time to waste). I lift the revolver to my temple as a smile stretches across the lord master’s lips.

“Hail the House of the gangrened meat and god speed the heavenly plan!”

And they are out the back door as the car screams in, pulling hides from their tote.