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County Law

by Benjamin Cruzan

Historical Accuracy

If you're looking for historically accurate information about elephant legend at Gum Tree Corner, I'm sorry to say you won't find it here. The story below uses the basic idea of that legend -- an elephant buried under a large tree -- but any other details are fictional. 

If you're interested in a more detailed fictional account of the legend of Gum Tree Corner, also check out my County Law, which is a full story based on that same kernel of a legend.

Neil began digging the hole seven days before the County Fair. Each of his sixteen brothers and sisters was busy making something to sell. Selling things at the County Fair was a tradition that began in the family one day at noon, five years ago, when Neil was only fourteen months old. On that day Neil’s father, Tobias, came in from the fields where he had been working since before dawn -- fighting off the poverty that filled in around the family -- and he tried to take a nap. But Charlie, Neil’s older brother, eleven at the time, who incessantly made strange and insane noises with his mouth, was keeping his father awake, and so Tobias sent Charlie outside and told him to make something the family could sell at the County Fair. Charlie went outside and continued to make strange and insane noises, now disturbing the mourning doves who were trying to sleep the heat away high in a cedar tree. When Tobias woke from his nap and left the house to return to the field, he walked past Charlie and said, "Did you decide what you’re going to sell?" Charlie looked up at his father and only said, "Oom. Oom. Oom." Tobias, although a patient man and generally a kind father, already had thirteen children, most of whom seemed to him unbearably stupid, and so as he walked away from Charlie, he said, "Well, if they’re going to be idiots, we might as well get something out of it."

At the fair Charlie was put on display. A dripped-paint sign made by one of Charlie’s older sisters hung over him that read, Sound Boy. Everyone in the county knew Charlie, and knew the sounds he made, and knew that he would make new and wonderful sounds for them at any time, without being paid, but that didn’t stop them from paying four cents to enter the small tent to see and hear the eleven-year-old boy create with his mouth wondrous noises that no one had ever heard before.

Neil was too young to remember any of this, but he knew the story, and he knew that it was because of his brother Charlie’s noises that his sixteen siblings, his mother and his father now sold things at the fair each year, and he knew that because he was six years old, tradition said that this was to be his first year selling at the fair. But Neil wanted to dig a hole. He was determined to dig until he struck water, determined not to give up as he had a month earlier when he had decided to dig to the other side of the planet, or a week before that when he dug to find the Kingdom of Worms his Uncle Jonathan had described to him one friendly drunken night. This time he wanted water and he would not give up.

He started on Sunday, seven days before the fair, with only his hands. By Monday evening he had a small shovel and a yardstick in the back yard, and the hole was two feet three inches below the grassy surface, through the soft black dirt filled with worms, and into the red-orange sandy clay that rested beneath. Not until Tuesday did Tobias first realized that one of his seventeen children was digging a large round hole in the yard, now over four feet deep and just as wide. Tobias went into the back yard after dinner that night and climbed into the hole, where Neil was digging with the same small shovel, filling a bucket with hard orange crust of earth, now spotted with stones. "Slow going?" Tobias asked. Neil said he was doing okay and told his father that he was digging for water. Tobias asked him if he knew what he was going to sell at the fair, and Neil said that he just wanted to dig. Tobias left the hole without stopping him.

That night in bed, Tobias told his wife, Ashley, about the hole Neil was digging. "What’s he going to do with that?" she asked, upset by the idea that Neil wouldn’t be selling anything at the fair. "What is a hole for?" Tobias told her it was for water, and Ashley rolled over in bed, away from him. He tried to console her with the memory that Charlie’s show had begun with pure idiocy as well, but Ashley said nothing, and Tobias was soon asleep. Ashley was awake for an hour, wondering how things would be if their youngest child arrived at the fair with nothing. She thought about Charlie’s show, about how it had grown from Sound Boy into a show that Charlie himself orchestrated every year, titled County Strangeness. As the sign outside the tent proclaimed, the show was a collection of "Natural Disasters in the Human Form," and it was taken entirely from within the bounds of Cumberland County. The display was such a success that in its second year, two years ago, the proceeds from the many fifty-cent tickets added up to enough money that Ashley encouraged Charlie to spend the whole next year organizing the show. He started in August, calling families known to have oddities among their children, following rumors of grandparents with missing body parts, slowly developing a friendly relationship with the county’s doctor and then tricking him into revealing miscellaneous human strangeness from all around the county.

Ashley soon told Charlie that he didn’t have to participate in the daily chores the rest of the family’s children performed. He spent his time preparing for the fair, and whatever time he did not spend on the show he spent with his mother, talking about nothing, and whenever Tobias came to the house to get Charlie to help with some work, Ashley, without raising her head from the pie crust she was putting in a pan or the chicken she was plucking, would say to her son, "Have you seen the thing your father does with his thumbs? Maybe he could be in your show." Then Tobias would go back outside and get one of his other eight sons to help. Ashley knew Charlie had found something useful and good, but she didn’t know what to do with a son who wanted to dig a hole.

The next day, Wednesday, in the middle of the morning, Ashley called Neil from the hole to the back step of the house and offered him honey, which was his favorite thing. He scooped it to his mouth with his hands, and Ashley said, "What do you think would be the best thing a boy your age could sell at the fair?" Neil shrugged, his hands in his mouth, caked with the red-orange sandy clay that speckled the honey like sapphires smeared over his teeth. She continued plucking a chicken, the feathers building up in her hand like a rust-red bouquet, small feathers floating through the tree-filtered light like dust. She began telling him what his siblings would be selling -- popcorn, paper jewelry, clothespins painted like people, corn husk dolls, coleslaw in jars, bird feeders, jam, board games, leather dog leashes, venison sausage on sticks, butter dishes, plants potted in old shoes, cross stitch, candied apples, orange halves pierced with cloves, toy tractors. Neil said, "I heard Mrs. Bender is going to sell candied apples," and he walked back into the yard, leaving a great jewel-studded, golden smear on the wooden step, and he said something about going to the fair to see the horses.

When Tobias came in from the fields at noon, he stopped to help Neil measure the hole, which was now six feet deep and five feet across. Then the two of them went inside for lunch. The whole family had chicken, except Charlie, who was visiting Mr. and Mrs. Davis, trying to convince them to have their fifteen-year-old daughter, Bethany, in this year’s County Strangeness -- Charlie had seen with is own eyes that she had six toes on her left foot and only four on her right. Ashley mentioned Charlie during the meal, but the seventeen bodies around the table didn’t have anything to say about it, and so she only said, "It will be nice to be at the fair again." She asked Megan and Julie to serve some pie. Neil got his pie first, and Ashley saw him eat it as happily as he had eaten the honey, and she knew that when lunch was done he would go right back to the digging. Ashley rose and walked into the back yard as the children fought over who would get loganberry pie and who would get boysenberry pie, and Tobias told them that anybody who argued was going to get blackbird pie, and they quieted down a little, and soon Ashley had returned. She took a slice of loganberry pie, and ate it quietly as all her children ran outside and Tobias lay down for a nap.

Before Ashley had gotten to her pie’s crust, and before Tobias had fallen asleep, Neil was back inside, and he told his mother that his shovel was gone, and his yardstick was broken. She didn’t blame it on his siblings as she thought she would. And she hadn’t expected to cry, but when Neil left the room to tell his father that someone had stolen his shovel and that his yardstick had been broken in two, she cried slightly as she ate the loganberries from her fork, one by one. Tobias and Neil went through the kitchen on their way to the yard, and when Tobias saw that Ashley’s eyes were wet as she sat eating the berries, he knew she was trying to stop the boy from digging. The father and son left the house, and she continued to weep slowly and wondered if maybe she should let her youngest child go his own way. Maybe sixteen children were as many as could be held together as one family. Maybe a seventeenth child would have to be alien. But she didn’t take back her actions, and the boy’s small shovel remained silent in the dust under the porch. Tobias didn’t speak of it to Neil or to Ashley. He simply gave Neil one of his full-sized shovels and told him they would get a new yardstick soon. And that afternoon, while Tobias should have been working in the fields and keeping his older sons on task, he instead pretended to be busy in the yard, and watched with sad pride as his six-year-old son struggled with a shovel three times his height.

That night Tobias waited an hour for Ashley to fall asleep, and when he stopped hearing her intermittent waking sighs of exasperated motherhood, he rose from bed and quietly left the house, crossed the yard, and lowered himself into the hole that was not much deeper now than it had been at noon. In the hole, Tobias found Neil curled in a ball, and he looked like a gem-studded effigy of innocence, covered in red soil and small stones that glistened in the cool slick dew. He picked up his son, out from the dirt, and laid him upon the grass next the hole. And as Tobias began digging, Neil woke to the sound of the shovel and wanted to help, and so Tobias dug into the hard, now thoroughly rocky ground, as his son carried the larger stones from the hole and stacked them near the shed. The two spoke very little, except when Neil asked why this rock looked like a lot of little rocks put together, or why the ground down here wasn’t black like it was at the surface, or asked if the horses would be at the fair again this year. Mostly they worked quietly all night, until the whippoorwill, which through the night had been punctuating the shovel’s chime against the earth, eventually slowed, quieted, and stopped. Then Tobias sent Neil inside, told him to get undressed and get in bed without waking any of his brothers. Neil agreed, thrilled and wide-awake at the secret of the nighttime operation, but as soon as he lay between the warm bodies of his older brothers, he slept. And hours later, after the rest of the family had risen and gone off to do work, Ashley found that Neil was still in bed, and now she was sure that she had done the right thing -- sure that the digging in the yard had made him sick. But then she realized that all morning she had been hearing the muffled chink chink chink of a shovel against stone, and so she left Neil undisturbed in bed and went to the back yard and found her husband in the hole, which was now at least ten feet deep and eight feet wide -- a gaping opening in the surface of the world.

She had never cursed at her husband during the twenty years of their marriage -- not after the tenth child, not after the fifteenth, and not when she found that she was pregnant with Neil, the seventeenth, but she was ready to curse at him now as he did this insane work, digging into the crumbly gray stone ten feet below her. Hair crazed, rolling pin in fist, she opened her mouth, but she was stopped by a woman’s voice calling, "yoo-hoo!" from behind her. It was Mrs. Bender. She was a middle aged woman who was always polite, but whom everyone in the county knew had become terribly bitter and angry with men since her husband left four years earlier with a woman contortionist -- a traveling member of the group that brought the County Fair’s more exotic attractions to them each year. Although Mrs. Bender always appeared jovial and polite in public, she had been caught at her home crying to herself several times over the past few years, sometimes drunk, and once pelting the village idiot, Joshua, with a barrage of fruit as he tried to repair her roof. Men did not go near her house after that.

"I’ve heard that Ruthann is planning to sell candy apples at the fair," she said, very cheerful, apparently unaware of the great opening in the ground behind Ashley or the man it contained. "I just wanted to let you know that I’m going to be selling them too, but it’s fine with me if we both sell them. We can take different ends of the fair." Ashley said that was very kind of her, and walked toward the house, trying to lure Mrs. Bender away from the pit. But Mrs. Bender asked what that large hole was for, and peered gingerly over the edge. Ashley didn’t have a chance to say anything before Mrs. Bender saw Tobias in the bottom of the hole, shirt off, shovel in hand. And Ashley had no chance to say anything before Mrs. Bender was leaving the yard, calling over her shoulder that if Ruthann wanted any help with her candy apples, all she had to do was come to her house. Ashley shouted a thank you, and Mrs. Bender looked back at her, looked at the rolling pin in her hand, and nodded reassuringly before hurrying away. Ashley returned to the hole, looked down, said nothing, and once again entered the house, slamming the door louder than the chink chink chink that floated across the yard to her.

Neil and his father spent all of Thursday digging, and by Friday morning -- the hole fifteen feet deep and ten feet across -- it was obvious that the entire county had heard about the project. Men came by to borrow tools or to repay owed money. The chicken plucking party at Ashley’s house had more women in attendance than any chicken plucking party in any week, hosted by any woman in the county. The men asked what the hole was for, and Tobias didn’t answer, and they assumed it was because his son was there with them. The women did not ask, but commented that there was quite a large pile of soil and stone in the yard, and Ashley said, fistful of feathers, "Neil is digging a hole," and one woman said, "Oh. I thought I saw Tobias out there," and Ashley changed the subject, began alluding illusively to the additions Charlie had found for this year’s County Strangeness.

While they dug, Neil occasionally mentioned the water they were digging for, and each time he did, Tobias was briefly confused, until he remembered that water was what they were digging for, that it was something so simple, and the two would continue to dig, pulling up stones, putting them in the bucket, and pulling them to the surface with the rope. And on Saturday evening, when they both ascended the seventeen-foot ladder to the surface to go the kitchen for supper, Neil said, "I can’t wait to see what Charlie found this year, and I can’t wait to see the horses," and he brushed his knees with his hands. The soil at his knees did not puff into dust. He looked at his knees and said to his father, "Water." Tobias looked at his hands, a thin coating of red mud dried into the cracks of his skin, and the two of them returned to the hole and looked down. Without their noticing, the ground they had been working in had slowly become faintly damp, with only enough water to scarcely dampen their hands and the fabric at their knees. When they entered the house and sat at the table, Ashley saw the slight mud at the hands of the forty-year-old man, and the dark circles at the knees of the six-year-old boy, and she said nothing.

After supper Neil and Tobias did not go back to the yard, but instead helped the family prepare for the next day, Sunday, the day of the fair. The family spent the evening placing wheels on small wooden tractors, putting cross stitch in canvas bags, cutting oranges into halves, and heating brown sugar on the stove for candy apples. And when the last of the children had gone to bed, Ashley said to Tobias, "Don’t go to the fair. Stay here and work at the hole. Neil doesn’t have anything to sell." She didn’t raise her eyes from the doll pillow she was stuffing with chicken feathers. Tobias told her that Neil wanted to go to the fair to see Charlie’s show and to see the horses, and as Ashley pulled the last stitch through the last pillow, she murmured, "Seventeen is too many," and she placed the small pillow on the kitchen table and walked to the bedroom, listening to the house breathing the sleepy breath of seventeen bodies.

The fair opened at nine o’clock, and began with the sound of grown men imitating roosters and swine -- a competition inspired by Charlie’s own noises just five years earlier. The sound prompted a choral response from the donkeys, then from the peacocks, and then from the great elephant. Tobias and Ashley walked around the fairgrounds together, Tobias in his everyday clothing, and Ashley in her best summer Sunday dress, which is how all the women dressed for the fair since regular Sunday church services were cancelled to allow everyone to be here. The husband and wife held hands as they walked, distanced from the memory of the hole, but never distanced from the memory of their many children -- every few feet they came upon one of their offspring selling goods to county folk. Neil spent the day with the horses, as he had every year before, before he was supposed to have something to sell. And he was excited, as he always had been when the horses swatted flies with their long coarse tails. And as he did every year, when the horses’ owners cleaned and combed the horses’ tails and tied them in buns in preparation for the noon judging, Neil ran through the stalls, helping the horses by slapping at flies on their flanks and eyes. But this year the horse owners didn’t chuckle at Neil as they used too, because they had heard that the hole in Tobias’ yard was his.

It was three o’clock when Charlie’s sixteen-year-old voice, already more gruff and bass than any of his older brothers’, sounded above the crowd and announced that County Strangeness would be open in an hour. Immediately crowds began to shrink away from the many wondrous attractions that traveled with the fair company. The County Fair was a chance for people to see things from outside, from beyond the bounds of Cumberland County, and yet County Strangeness -- the only show taken solely from within the county -- always drew more crowds than the traveling shows. More than The Spinning Swings, which could bring a vomit from the most stalwart man; more than The Human Bust -- a woman with a chest so large that she needed crutches to support it; more than The Singing Swami -- a dirty-faced, turban-clad man who broke chicken eggs over women’s scalps and then sang them their fortunes, derived from the trails the eggs made over their brows, cheeks, chins.

By four o’clock a long line had formed at Charlie’s tent, and he appeared, greasy faced, thick bodied, his black hair shining in the sun, and he opened the gate. Mr. and Mrs. Davis’ twelve-year-old twin daughters took a dollar from each person who entered, and the first strangeness the visitors saw was Bethany. Her shoes off, both feet were bare to the world, the left with an extra toe attached to the pinky side and the right missing the pinky toe altogether. Bethany’s face was hidden behind a plank of wood, and the name on the plaque of her small booth read "Catrina," and none of the people who went through could be sure which of the county girls she was. Ralph, who normally wore long pants with knots tied in the legs to cover the stubs left by a double amputation, now sat only in shorts, exposing the smooth ball of legs to full view. Ira and Darlene Lester’s midget son, who was generally only seen at special church services, sat on a short stool; behind him a door, only a few feet tall, was painted onto the wall, illustrating the irony that he had no need for full-sized doors. Sitting in a rocking chair placed atop a wooden crate was Charlie’s own grandfather, who removed and replaced his false teeth over and over, which bored the adults, but the children gathered around him and shrieked each time he drew the teeth, gums and all, from his mouth, and he laughed at them, open-mouthed, and toothless. Jeremiah, son of the Episcopal pastor, had no strange physical characteristics, other than nostrils slightly larger than average, but at twenty-three he was still a child, and was still fed by his mother and his sisters, and he sat here in a booth with a finger in his nose.

The line filed through the tent continuously. Everyone present at the fair, even The Singing Swami and the operators of the Spinning Swing went through the tent. Some families came through as groups, others allowed their older children to come through alone, single men were polite to the single ladies, letting them enter first. Toward the back of the tent there was a separate section called Secrets of the Strange, which men could enter for an extra dollar. It was mostly full of strangely maimed animals and black and white photos Charlie had gathered from around the county depicting deceased family members in varying levels of disfigurement. But as the last exhibit in Secrets of the Strange was a booth containing a man so well endowed that he shocked every man who passed by. Like Bethany’s, his face was covered with a wooded plank, but they all knew it was Joshua, the county idiot, because no other man in the county had legs so skinny.

There were only three people in the entire fairgrounds who were outside of Charlie’s tent -- The Human Bust, resting in her trailer; Neil, who had gone through his brother’s show but was anxious to return to the horses; and Mrs. Bender, who had her candy apple stand established at the back exit of Charlie’s show so that the men exiting Secrets of the Strange would pass by. The men were hesitant, but Mrs. Bender smiled at them with a friendly face, and offered apples for only fifteen cents, while the stand on the other side of the fair was charging twenty-five. Mrs. Bender had sold five candy apples when her first customer returned, vomiting as though he had just ridden The Spinning Swings, and he told the rest not to eat the apples. There was something in those apples that not only made the men who had eaten them vomit, but also made them dizzy, and caused them to have painful erections that they did not want and could not control and that they tried to cover with their hands. The other men took the apples and dumped them over the fence to the outside of the fair grounds, and Mrs. Bender cried into her hands and admitted to the mayor that she had put crushed blister beetle bodies into the candy coating.

The men who had discarded the apples rushed into the tent, where most of the people were still gathered, watching Jeremiah pick his nose and the grandfather extract and replace his teeth, and they told everyone what Mrs. Bender had done. The women mostly stood silent because they thought that a lot of the men deserved to vomit and have painful erections; Ashley was the most silent of them all. But the men rushed out of the tent, furious that she had actually done something and that their wives hadn’t told them that the stories about her were actually true. As they rushed out through the entrance of the tent, they shook its frame so soundly that the plank covering Bethany’s face fell to the ground. Her father, who had been rushing out with the rest of the men, stopped and covered her head, which let everyone know exactly whom the strange-toed Catrina really was. The men rushed onto the foot-packed dirt outside the tent, looking for Mrs. Bender. The mayor told everyone to calm down, but the men kept looking, tearing down the cloth at tents, overturning tables and carts of homemade goods to be sold.

Neil left the horses to see what the sound was, but he was quickly distracted by several candy apples lying on the opposite side of the fence, grass stuck in the shining caramelized coating that dripped part way down the stick that penetrated the bottom of each. There were seven horses, and there were seven apples, and so he carried them all back to the stalls, cradling them in both arms as they stuck to his skin and to his shirt. He laid one apple before each horse, and laughed as they all delicately parted their lips and nibbled at the apples, swatting flies from their bodies with their now-released tails, golden sun filtering horizontally through the dusty air.

By this time the men had caused such a disturbance that the elephant became excited and reared up, trumpeting unlike any rooster, swine, or man. The elephant trainer tried to calm the large gray animal, but its feet came down and trampled him completely. It then rushed forward, over the small wall of its walking area, and it thrust a tusk through the mayor’s shoulder as he tried to calm the men. It then thundered in a dust cloud toward a fence, broke through it without noticing, and headed for the woods. The men forgot their anger, and all but those who had eaten the apples rushed after the beast. But it ran more quickly than they ever imagined it could, and rushed across their fields, exploding their dust into rolling clouds, and it moving away from them so quickly that they knew they could not catch it, and they realized they wouldn’t know what to do if they did catch it. The county men didn’t know what to do with an elephant.

The men went to their homes to get rifles and shotguns, and by the time they returned, the women and the girls and the young boys had come outside of the tent, and were looking at the flattened body of the elephant trainer and at the mayor, skewered but alive, being treated by the doctor and by Charlie, who was doing most of the talking. Neil, now in the main yard with everyone else, heard the horses begin to whinny, but everyone was going home, and he was pulled along with the rest of his family before he was able to see why the horses were upset.

The men with guns followed the tracks of the elephant across the field and into the woods, and followed the path of broken branches and uprooted shrubs. They soon came to the elephant, who was now standing, colossal and angry, in the Cohansey River. They saw it begin to move toward them and they began firing. Several dozen wounds reduced the beast to sit in the water like a gigantic dog, fat and gray, and another dozen shots to the head finished him. They had no way to move the bleeding body, so huge and solid, and so they left it there damming their river, and they walked away.

Neil had left his house without being noticed, and had begun running toward the trumpeting he heard in the woods, toward the river. But when he heard gunshots begin, he stopped running, and when they continued for nearly a minute, he stopped walking. Then he heard nothing and knew that the great animal, on whose back some of his brothers and sisters had ridden only a few hours before, was now lying silent, hulking and still. And he sat in the field where he was, the sun lost behind the trees, and he stayed there awake and thinking for nearly an hour. And as he sat, he did not know that the horses had broken from their stalls, and were running in a mad group, like a bee swarm.

The men, walking without talking, heard the rushing of hooves, and although they didn’t know what the sound was, they ran after it. They came to Tobias’ house, and the seven horses were running about the yard, manes waving and mouth full of froth, and the men didn’t know what to do, so they watched, guns placed purposefully over their shoulders, not drawn. And soon one of the horses seized into a tonic convulsion and fell to its side, jerking slightly, its eyes open wide like a fish’s. Then another fell in the same way, white froth flinging from its mouth into the air in arcs as it jerked with great heaves and then fell into twitches. One at a time, each horse fell from fury into death, and the men looked at Tobias, and he asked them to help him put the bodies in the hole. It took fifteen men to drag the horses, one at a time, into the great opening in the earth, piling the bodies one on another. By the time they rolled the last of the seven horses into the hole, the mane of the first had become thoroughly saturated with water. They began filling in around the bodies with soil, and Ashley yelled from the house that Neil was not here. Tobias went to the fair grounds, yelling for his son, who was sleeping in the dew but woke to his father’s voice. Neil sat up in the field, looked through the blue air, saw his father’s silhouette, called out, and ran toward him. The father and son talked very little on the way back to the house, but Neil saw the dirt on his father’s hands and on his knees, and he said, "You had to bury the elephant in the hole, didn’t you?" Tobias could say nothing but, "yes, we did."

And that’s the way the story went at the next week’s chicken plucking party. That’s what the men talked about when they went to each other’s houses to borrow tools. No one talked of Joshua, the county idiot, in Secrets of the Strange, or of Mrs. Bender, or of the mad horses or where they were buried. No one looked more than once at their common vultures that gathered in a flying corkscrew over the Cohansey River. The talk was of the otherness. The outside body -- the great elephant -- that had come and died, and was buried in the soil in Ashley and Tobias’ own yard. A gum tree was planted there in their yard, where Neil’s hole had been dug clear down to water.

Many years later, Neil’s great-grandchildren charged twenty-five cents for horseback rides, from the County Fair to that tree. A small figure of an elephant, which Ashley had made from cornhusks, was hidden high in the branches of the tree. And there was a contest to see which child could climb the tree, to retrieve the elephant, and bring it down to the rest of them. And to that child went no prize at all.