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The Troll of Mustard Creek Bridge

Mr. Irish Johnston kept his pocketknife close by on full moon evenings. These were the best nights for walks along the river bank. No fish to speak of, just minnows. But, his neighbor enjoyed hanging her feet off the bridge on her creek. And he liked his neighbor. Well, liked is a strong word. He more liked to whittle as he watched her dip her toes in the cool evening water.

He brought his flashlight along most evenings. It was strong, and had a nice heft to it. A watchman’s flashlight. Almost a spotlight. He also brought rope as you never knew when you might need it. Duct tape, too, as it was awfully handy. Really, he had a whole backpack he kept of supplies just in case. He kept his white cap in there as well as well as his extra shoes. And a new belt with a fine, shiny buckle. It said RODEO on it in big letters.

His great uncle had rodeoed, not him, but he liked the look of it. It said something to folks who liked the way it glinted in the light. Miss Southern, Ann Southern, was the gal who liked to dip her toes in the moonlight. A splash of water up against her ankles wasn’t bad either. Good antidote to the too long days at work and after putting the kids to bed.

She, too, had a pocketknife that she kept with her on moonlit nights. She was not proud of hers in the way Irish was, but Miss Southern knew how to use hers just as well. She also knew how to swing an axe, but liked the curve of the handle of her pocketknife and the way it fit in her hand. An axe was rather forward, she felt. She had been raised not to be forward or obvious in her attentions, to be lady-like no matter what the cost.

What this caused was a preparation on her part that was part innocent and part single woman who enjoyed sitting alone in the moonlight. She was young, though tall, with slightly buck teeth. Or, what would have been called buck teeth. People were too polite to use such a term these days. Both her children had inherited this feature. The family loved corn on the cob which was perhaps God’s little joke and perhaps just the sheer joy of using those big teeth to do what they were meant to do.

It was a Saturday night and Miss Southern had slipped down the creek for her nightly moment alone. The children were just up the hill in bed with the door locked. The mastiff snuggled up under the covers with them, as good as a mother as you might find. This was what Miss Southern needed to dip her feet in the water and lean back on her wooden bridge. That, and a cola at her hip, in a bottom heavy glass that was difficult to knock over in the dark.

She had come down here seventeen nights in a row. Her neighbor, she couldn’t help but notice, turned off his lights and edged his screen door open shortly after she made her descent. He was friendly, but awkward during the day. At night, he was more forward, and it did not become him.

She had brought a hard boiled egg in her pocket and she tapped it on the bridge. She should have brought a salt shaker, but had not considered that. The yolk was creamy and large, the way homegrown eggs were. The yellow showed up dark gray in the moon, but in the sun it would have been a yellow’s yellow. Chickens who stretched their legs and fetched their own greens from the yard as blades of grass or random weeds always made prettier eggs and hers were no exception.

Irish knew this, and helped himself to hers when she left for work each day. She would have gladly shared with him, but Irish didn’t want them to eat. He wanted them to have. He coveted things that weren’t his and asking for them would have ruined their taste in his tinny mouth. He preferred pepper to salt, and sometimes ate them with a mouthful of hot sauce. He needed things to burn or he could not enjoy them. Had always been that way since he was a boy.

The neighbor then had been an old gentleman who grew the neighborhood’s best tomatoes. He ate one during the season everyday on the way to school. He had never asked then, either, as even at that young of age, asking took all the pleasure out of it for him.

The doctors had diagnosed him about this when he was seven and then again at thirteen when he had pulled off his cat’s nails with pliers. But that doctor had moved away for better pay and few people remembered that now. Irish no longer had those pliers, he had buried them with a host of other things out behind his cabin. He kept a pile of rocks and leaves over it, tending it the way someone else might a baby. His real tools, his special tools, were close at hand but also easily hidden. Well, maybe not easily, but again that was part of Irish’s joy. The stealth of love. Or, not love. What was the word?

He liked his tools the way others might love their morning coffee. Something he could not function without, even if it was not fit conversation for polite company. He kept them at the ready for the right moment as others might a tray of creamer, sweetener and spare coffee cups for unplanned visitors. He kept his for unplanned moments which could never properly present themselves unless one planned beforehand to the extent that Irish was known for. Or, not known for, except for by his long gone cat. And the doctor. Who had moved away.

Miss Southern was still missing the taste of salt when the hairs on her arm, just under the cuff of her summer shirt, noticed Irish’s approach. Her ears didn’t recognize him. They often did. He would purposefully make a little cough. Sometimes to let her know he was there politely, and sometimes to test to see if she recognized his presence. He had a different smile prepared for each situation.

Not hearing his cough, nor seeing his favorite belt buckle glint, she knew he was there with a different sort of mission that night. It was when she could not hear him that she was most aware of his presence. His need for control was so focused that he sometimes forgot that even those under observation could observe as well. Sometimes your chicken dinner on your plate wakes up and looks back up at you. Not often, and sometimes only in drunken dreams, but it does happen on occasion.

Irish, to his credit, was not drunk that night. Nor had he smoked any of his nephew’s funny cigarettes. His mind was clean and clear. The night air seeped into this lungs a bit at a time as he did his best to breathe as quietly as possible. He could hear the cicadas and hoped that their noise would cover any of his own.

Miss Southern had by now finished her egg and washed it down with her soda. It was not a good flavor combination but it wold do to get the dry out of her mouth. She set her no-spill cup down three inches to her left, which happened to be just where Irish’s foot had come to rest as a cloud passed over the moon. The cup, unbalanced, fell over backwards. Irish, who had wanted to make a good first impression, accidentally stepped backwards out of instinct so as not to lose his balance himself.

Miss Southern pulled for his ankle but got his boot. The leather was just old enough, with enough to give to allow her the tiniest finger hold. She jerked with all her might and to both their surprises, Irish found himself hanging over the bridge. It was not a steep drop by any means and not one that would actually be scary, if it were not that it had happened to him by surprise and in the pitch dark of night as the cloud passed in front of his normally friendly moon.

His hand grabbed for her, or anything really, that would settle his feet back on dry ground. He found her hair and then his claw scraped her face. She made use of her God given talents and Irish, who had always liked burning sensations, for once found one he didn’t like. Even in the not light, he knew that his hand was now dripping bright, hot red.

Miss Southern hopped back out of instinct and left Irish twirling, trying to find his way back up on the bridge. She chewed for a moment on the appendage the way one might a toothpick. It was rubbery, and not tasty, but satisfying the way a zucchini you had grown yourself over a long hot summer might be.

She reached down to pick up his flashlight that galumphed to her side. The fingernail was clean, for a man’s, and the knuckle bony from arthritis and hard work. She stood up to walk back, then on second thought, ran back home. She had separated her neighbor from one of his favorite parts and it was possible he might want it back.

The noise in the yard had woken the mastiff. There was a satisfying crunch as he sat for his snack and a pat on his head, good boy. The mastiff was used to the large beef bones from the extra freezer where Miss Southern stored her meat. A man’s knuckle bone was not much a treat, but it was fresh and from his mistress, so the animal was appreciative as always.

A sleepy voice called from the landing, Mama what was the noise? Oh, sweetie, that was just Jonesy wanting a midnight snack. The child, sleepy, went back in and rolled back over. The moon came back out from behind the clouds and shone on his face through the window. His blue eyes were not their true blue this time of the night but when Miss Southern stepped into his room from the hallway, she recognized them as her own. She cracked the window for a little night air, the first time she’d felt able to since they’d moved in. She wasn’t quite ready to take the bars off, but this was a start.

Tomorrow they would have corn for dinner as a treat. She could taste the butter and the ice tea. Maybe a picnic on the bridge. With potato salad. All sides and no main dish. She was not hungry for meat and the children preferred their starches anyway. Maybe even a blanket for a tablecloth. And, a big, beef bone for Jonesy. Tonight was just the hors derves.


Meriwether O’Connor is a farmer, short story writer and columnist.

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