by Cody Goodfellow
On a moonless, fog-swaddled Indian summer night, Daddy Huntoon took his best dog and his worst boy into the vast brackish swamp south of Mergatroyd County, hunting for the Squonk.
The sucking black muck rose up to his shoulders, yet Daddy cut through it under full steam without breathing hard, for he sat astride the mighty shoulders of his youngest and dumbest son, Jupiter. Slow but unstoppable, Jupiter trudged across the slimy bottom and paddled with hands like snowshovels, breathing, whenever it occurred to him, through a long, hollow reed.
Daddy Huntoon cut a dashing figure in the misty, mosquito-mad moonlight, with night-vision goggles and a bug-zapper hat perched atop his shrewdly pointed skull. He cradled his blunderbuss up tight under his ingrown chin-whiskers and towed Skillet, a mangy, toothless tick-hound with a jury-rigged two-stroke motor for a brain, by a rusty choke-chain.
When a broad, open channel yawned out of the mangrove trees, Daddy steered Jupiter to shore and alighted on a stump. Skillet limped out of the water and settled down for a nap.
They left the family skimmer in the shallows at the end of the Tarnation County turnpike at sunset, and hoofed it into the deeps. Boats only stirred up trouble at the height of gator mating season, and they hunted skittish prey.
Jupiter loped along in Daddy’s wake, a pinheaded avalanche on telephone pole-legs, lugging a harpoon gun and an electrified butterfly net. Every pocket of his overalls was stuffed with loose vittles when they set out, but Jupiter had run through them, and was still hungry enough to eat his own mouth.
Daddy tamped a resinous wad of moonweed into his corncob pipe and crouched to survey the myriad of spoor in the treacherous mud. No man alive could track like Daddy––unless you counted Stookeys, whose kinship with the family of man was a perennial topic of heated local debate––but the uppity swamp kept its own counsel, tonight.
Daddy’s hat zapped a wingworm bigger than a fruit bat. Ashes and cremated bits of legs sprinkled into his glowing bowl, but at least the sparking kept Jupiter’s attention. Times like this, Daddy could almost picture the critter he suspected was Jupiter’s real sire. Whatever it looked like, it was laughing, tonight.
Jupiter’s stomach growled fit to fetch a lovestruck she-bear.
“Pussel-gutted bastard!” Daddy cuffed his dearest mistake across the buttocks with the shocky crown of his hat and struck off along the bank.
There had to be an easier way, even out of a boy as dumb and double-ugly as Jupiter, to make a man.
Once a common enough story to find in paper books, folks in Mergatroyd County mislike talk of the Squonk, since the Second War of Northern Aggression brought such dubious wonders to life. Some men stalk it for dreams of wealth and fame, while others have more immediate satisfaction on their minds.
“Wait up, Daddy!” hollered Jupiter. “I’s winded!”
“Shut it, Jupe. Tonight, we make a man of you, or eat a bowl of dicks!” Daddy powered up his goggles and swept the tumbling banks of fog, the curtains of moss and vampire vines waving from mangrove trees like castles of melted wax. The branching canals of bubbling murk narrowed and deepened and gnarled into a maze unfit for man or beast. The shore they stood on was a mound of pulverized gator bones, marking the outer boundary of the Stookeys’ domain.
Jupiter hustled his nuts and picked his nose with the harpoon. Gibbering a tune about going to meet the finest gal in the hills, he came up short at the verse where he was supposed to describe her. “What she look like, Daddy?”
Daddy puffed his bowl into a white-hot dwarf star. “Nobody knows for certain, boy, but I hear tell she’s the most beautiful gal ol’ God-daddy ever saw fit to make.”
Only smarts the boy ever got were all wasted on his mouth. “If’n nobody know, how you know she pretty? An’ if she so pretty, how come she always cry, an’ run away?”
Daddy punched Jupiter as high as he could reach, which was yet a mite south of his navel. “I done tol’ you all the tales, sang you all the damned songs, an’ you still go on, callin’ your Daddy a liar?”
“Daddy, I never said––” Jupiter protested, but dutifully stooped so Daddy could box his ears.
Daddy had, indeed, boned his youngest up on all the lore and hunter’s lies about the Squonk, but if you poured a jug of shine into a thimble, most of it was apt to spill.
There was only ever one immortal Squonk, and men spied her only when they got lost in the deep bogs. They heard the creature’s pitiable sobbing, but try as they might, even the best trackers seldom bagged her. When they did, the forlorn monster always dissolved in a shower of tears. Some who heard her cry, it was said, fell under the spell of the Squonk, forsaking hearth and home to haunt the swamp, never to return.
Jupiter had showed more sense than was entirely sensible, asking how they could catch the Squonk without melting it, or falling under its spell. Daddy had the stepladder at home, and had administered all kinds of discipline. When he was through, Jupiter asked no more questions. He got born-again committed to the hunt.
As well he should be, since it was on his account, wasn’t it? Folks in Mergatroyd had begun to speculate about Jupiter’s manhood. Why, even the acephalic warbaby orphan ‘Bama, who was nothing but thin air above his goonish smile, had sired three litters of babies among the trashier clans in Trailertown, and God only knew how many more, among the hapless animal kingdom.
Doc Caulweather, Widow Cooney and the veterinary mech had all examined him, and judged Jupiter’s tackle was adequate to the task; but to Daddy Huntoon’s undying shame, Jupiter proved too dense an idiot manchild to hear Nature’s call, so it had come to this.
Daddy wanted more for his youngest son than just a roll with a boxhead whore at the roadhouse, the Cockatrices the Stookeys ran with in the Hollows, or arranged marriage to a dumpy Dry County sow, like his Daddy did for him. Although the best part of Jupiter was, sad to say, a heart-shaped stain on the seat of the truck in which he was conceived and birthed, he was still a Huntoon.
Daddy flipped a switch on his big silver belt buckle. Skillet twitched and jolted on invisible strings until he locked on a scent, then galloped off, baying at the moon, to the limit of his chain. Sparks and curls of blue smoke popped from his brainbox.
“Ol’ Skillet’s got the scent,” crowed Daddy. “Don’t you, boy? Her witchy-mone trail goes through there like a skunk sign, boy. We ain’t far off.”
It took Jupiter a spell to decipher, but finally, he clapped his hubcap hands and did a jig. “You smart, Daddy.”
Like fire eating a trail of gunpowder, Skillet ran down the perverse spoor of the Squonk, spooking goony birds and bog-trotting octopi with his fretful bark. Deeper they plunged into the swamp, slogging and battling through orgies of amorous gators; skirting stagnant, bottomless pools hiding giant snapping turtles with whole human skulls in their shit; skulking, with ears and noses stopped up tight against witchery, past the stilt-walking shack of the Mergatroyd Hag.
Soon enough, they were truly and totally lost. Daddy waded up onto a sandbar to take account of the stars when he blundered into a lively mess of crafty black tentacles. They whipped him up like a hare in a rope snare, then sucked him under so fast Jupiter saw only the splash, and Daddy’s bug-zapper hat spinning in the air.
Strings of bubbles stuffed with cussing breached the pudding-skin surface, but presently, the bog burst asunder from Daddy firing his blunderbuss deep down in the slime.
Petrified between dueling Gorgons of fear––the unknown and Daddy––Jupiter could only gawk, bellowing, “Where Daddy?” and eating the mosquitoes that alit in his gaping mouth. It fell to Skillet to tow Daddy to safety.
No sooner was Daddy shut of the last flechette-peppered tentacle, when Jupiter trampled him, running in panicked circles on a taut, sticky tether, flattening Daddy twice more before Daddy puzzled it out.
One of Jupiter’s huge, hammy arms was wrapped up in the tongue of a granddaddy hellbender. He chased himself round the misbegotten giant newt, just like Skillet did, whenever his battery backup died.
Daddy took up Jupiter’s harpoon gun. He had to brace it on his knee, and could barely cock it, but he neatly skewered the hellbender’s huge froggy head through the roof of its mouth, pinning it to a fallen log. Monster’s tongue was so tough that Daddy polished off a pouch of shine and Skillet took a nap before Jupiter gnawed the stubborn appendage off at the root and dragged it along behind.
And deeper still…
Skillet lost the scent in a channel of putrid ooze dammed up with charred Chinese space station junk. Daddy crossed it piggyback atop Jupiter, with Skillet paddling frantically in front, his brainbox chugging like a weed-whacker cutting kudzu.
“Daddy, we there yet?” Jupiter piped, whenever he came up for air.
Daddy steered the ungrateful lummox onto an oil drum beach. Jupiter discovered the severed hellbender tongue still stuck to his arm, and happily chewed on it.
Skillet growled and pointed like a hood ornament on a banker’s fancy car.
Daddy hushed him and slipped on his goggles. The musky witchy-mones of their quarry hung so thick on the air that even Daddy could feel it, and not just with his upstairs senses.
The goggles outlined the night in bold, sun-bright lines against sweaty green shadows. Over the next rise and through a patch of nightlight fungi, the all-powerful aroma reeled them in like catfish too dumb to fight. The indigo glow of the mushrooms bedeviled his goggles, but he still picked out fading heat-spoor meandering off into a lonesome lagoon. A dappling of caustic will-o-wisp lights danced over the three-toed footprints written on the water.
Zeroed in on the trail, Daddy saw each print glow hotter than the last, hotter still, hottest…
“Judas git home,” Daddy whispered, “there she is.”
For just a second, no hunger or lust could shake Daddy’s wonder at the sight and scent of the curvy, girl-shaped slice of sunfire perched atop the vine-wreathed fuselage of an old-time chopper gunship. And the sound she made…
Skillet stood up on arthritic hind legs and danced with blood-frenzy. Daddy misliked the thought of the scrambled hound eating Jupiter’s intended. He went for the POWER switch on his belt marked DOG. Beside it, he had a switch for TRUCK, and another for WIFE, but they were long since broken.
Skillet’s brainbox shut off with a sputter and more smoke, and the old hound collapsed like a string-cut puppet. Nothing stood between the Huntoons and the mournful sobbing song of the Squonk.
Jupiter rocked beside him to the bodice-ripping harmony, monsoon raindrops of drool pattering on his belly, but the miscegenated idiot was no more nor less poleaxed then his Daddy.
All Daddy had to say was, “Now,” and Jupiter would pounce. Boy couldn’t eat without biting his own fingers, but he could run for days, and if you told him to catch the sun, he’d chase it to China. But all of a sudden, “Now” was a very long word, a boring speech in a foreign tongue.
The cries of the Squonk bewitched the whole danged swamp to lie still. It was almost a song, like a mockingbird or a jinglebug––pattern enough to beguile you into pity, chaos enough to nail you to lust. Subhuman, yet it overflowed with superhuman grief. No human or mankin could bear an hour under such a punishing sadness; they would kill themselves or keel over with their hearts cracked in twain. The Squonk wept for its ugliness, and it seemed a cruel trick for God-daddy to put such powerful sense into such a godawful face. Daddy kept the goggles’ resolution just low enough to see her fine enough outline.
The Squonk was a critter, but also, undeniably, a woman. Daddy well knew how women saw only flaws in the mirror, just as he knew how to comfort them in those short, sweet days when they were wrong.
Strange, but it didn’t raise Daddy’s hackles the way women’s weeping always did. He had no urge to slap it; the urge he did feel cut against his grain, but he dreamed of taking it in his arms, not as a hunted beast, but as a man takes a woman––
“God’s balls, it’s witchcraft!” Daddy primed the launcher under the barrel of his blunderbuss and discharged a milky white torrent that turned solid in midair and clothed the shamelessly cavorting critter in a rubbery net. “I got her, boy! I got––”
The Squonk bolted. Even mummied up in the silicon webbing, she dragged Daddy Huntoon like a monster truck through the muddy lagoon and off into the trees.
Jupiter doggedly plodded after them with his charged butterfly net. About a mile deeper into the swamp, he caught up close enough to snare Daddy’s head, and shocked him stupid.
Try as he might to dig in his heels, Jupiter slid, slipped, fell on his face and got dragged. The Huntoons together weighed less than an empty promise, for all they slowed the galloping Squonk.
And then, Jupiter hit a stump. It missed both his legs, but stopped him dead, and made him scream louder and higher and sadder than the sorrowful beast they’d caught. Anchored by Jupiter’s considerable groin, the chase finally ground to a halt.
Daddy woke up in quicksand up to his belly, but he still clung to the gun like grim death. At the end of its tether, the Squonk wailed like a white lightning hangover. Its struggles were at an end. It almost broke him, to hear that pitiful note of surrender, but Daddy was no mere man. He was a Huntoon.
Daddy dragged the thrashing bundle close and bashed it over the head with his blunderbuss. At last, it fell silent.
Jupiter loped up, rubbing mud into his crotch. “Now what, Daddy?”
Daddy stood with one bootless foot on the flank of his catch. “Jupiter Huntoon, this is your day. Now, it ain’t the normal way, but as no woman in Mergatroyd County, in or out of the clan, will have you, it falls to you to tame the wild Squonk, and so become a man. Are you ready, boy?”
Jupiter swatted at the flies that always came buzzing round his head when he tried to think.
Daddy stroked his boy’s back like burping a baby. “Now, what you see with the Squonk ain’t exactly what you get, y’hear? It’ll bewitch you into thinkin’ she’s powerful ugly, but at the same time…”
Jupiter picked his nose and ate the leech he found amongst his boogers. “Aw, Daddy, I don’t want no ugly gal… an’ what about the curse?”
With the deed so close to done, Daddy tried manfully to be soothing, so as not to spook the boy. “That’s old maid talk, son. Women spread that story to stop menfolk chasing the Squonk, but men of the world, like us, we know the truth…”
“What’s that, Daddy?”
“The magic is in them tears. Those tears have a powerful charm, which makes men mad with lust, and ignites fires in the blood. Only a real man can survive its burnination, but then no woman can resist him, see?”
“Why it always crying, Daddy?”
Daddy sheared the silicon net away with a wicked bowie knife, and laid the creature bare. “How the hell should I know? Now get your damned drawers off, before the damned critter melts…”
Jupiter didn’t obey, but Daddy didn’t hit him.
The Squonk––she––lay naked and helpless between them. A vile hybrid of opossum and amphibian, yet the Squonk was no more nor less than a hot eight-breasted chick from the neck down, albeit with loose, warty skin that slid lasciviously across its inviting chassis like a wet silk nightgown. Its great, veiny bat ears, feathery tufted gills, lidless bubble-eyes and tendril-festooned snout only riled Daddy all the more for their unholy fusion to such voluptuous beauty.
The trembling Squonk cringed with its forepaws over its gruesome face and wept sweet streams of black molasses tears. Daddy averted his eyes and tried to remember a prayer. Jupiter was lost in contemplation.
“No man who ever returned has been strong enough to withstand the lovin’ of the Squonk, boy! If you do this, you’ll bask in the awe of kin and strangers alike. Nobody’ll ever dare to call you stupid or beat on you ever again, son. You’ll be a man! An’ if it goes ill for you, I ain’t got no shortage of sons…”
Jupiter yawned. “I dunno, Daddy…”
Daddy tuned him up with the blunderbuss, but he had no heart for it. “You dadgum idiot! Got to strike fast, or she’ll melt in her own tears! Boy, I’ll… just have to… show you… how it’s done… Oh, my Gawd…”
Daddy looked again at the Squonk, and beheld the creature transformed wholly into a beautiful woman, a weeping preacher’s daughter crouching in the slime with her backside fetched up high to beckon him closer.
“You… harlot… Jezebel… get thee behind me…”
Daddy rebuked her, and yet his bib overalls slipped off as he fell upon her. Parting the satiny pantaloon folds of her hind legs, he mounted her from behind and plowed the lagoon with the wailing face of the writhing Squonk.
“Oh, you Whore of Babylon,” he roared in glossolalian ecstasy, “you black she-goat, abgablabluhkabab, shabashothoogablahhh!”
The bodacious swamp critter wriggled like a ferret in rut, twisting double on itself and climbing the air, clawing his thighs bloody while humping Daddy as no earthly woman could be paid or charmed to do.
How long it went on, only Jupiter could tell, and he never learned to read a digital watch. At last, Daddy let fly a rebel yell from the soles of his feet, and spent his seed.
In Daddy’s moment of greatest weakness, the wily critter toppled him and drove him under the black water.
The bubbles came few and far between to the surface, but Daddy put up no fight as the Squonk tried to drown him with her tears.
“Hey!” Jupiter sprang into alertness. “Where Daddy?”
The Squonk knelt over Daddy, wracked by fatal waves of sobbing. Jupiter smacked her, and, to his shock, knocked her head clean off.
Crying out in horror, he tried to make it right. But it was too late. All at once, the Squonk dissolved into whittled water, and was no more.
Jupiter fished for Daddy. “Daddy? What you do to her? Where my gal go?”
Daddy Huntoon rose up out of the swamp, mud streaming off his shorted-out hat, the brim drooping down over his face. “HOOOOOWEEE!!! Boy, that was sweet… Hey, where’d she go? Damn, boy, did you let her get loose?”
The idiot manchild’s wounded stare and the salty taste on his tingling lips told Daddy what happened. “You stupid bastard, I tol’ you to hurry! You cain’t be no fruit of my loins, ‘cos now you ain’t never gonna be a man!”
Jupiter looked confused, but then his thick lips squirmed into a gobsmacked grin. “There you are…”
Skillet growled and whined, just behind him. Belt must’ve shorted out, too. Skillet was a damn good dog. The old hunting hound still had the scent. Green sparks spat from his brainbox.
“What the hell’re you smilin’ at, Jupe?”
Daddy Huntoon reached out to box Jupiter’s ears but good, when he took note of the daintily webbed forepaw with which he did it.
He ogled his reflection in the water and let out a mournful wail that still bewitched him, even now that it came from his own throat.
Daddy’s wiry old body had softened and filled out like a thirsty sponge, soaking up the sizzling gumbo of swampwater and Squonk tears. Bones turned to rubber and warped him onto all fours. Lean coils of swamp-rat muscle and lush mounds of sleek feminine flesh swelled under the loose, warty velveteen folds of his skin.
Worst of all, his proud Huntoon face, chiseled by generations of selective inbreeding, rotted off while something wet and raw and red pushed out through it. Seeing that tendril-whiskered possum-frog mask in the black liquid mirror, what else could he do, but howl?
Jupiter was slow as a cement enema, but he could sometimes learn to do a job, if you showed him how. His empty eyes glazed over and his tongue hung down to his Adam’s apple, ripping his overalls off as he ogled the newborn Squonk. “Daddy… you… purty!”
And Daddy learned, at last, why the Squonk cries.
About the Author
Cody Goodfellow has written two solo novelsRadiant Dawn and Ravenous Duskand oneJake's Wakewith John Skipp. A collection of his short fiction, Silent Weapons For Quiet Wars, is due out in late 2009 from Perilous Press. He lives in Los Angeles with a dog that won't fetch, a truck that won't start and a wife who doesn't know which end of the rhubarb is poisonous.
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