There was an old man who lived beyond the village past the last line of pine trees near an oak and sycamore bog. He’d show up at the village every now and then to trade bones and feathers for provisions like toothpaste, salt, and canned food. There was a time when no one really knew where he lived. His name was Mr. John, and all anyone ever said about him was that Mr. John was the old man who lived beyond the Pine Tree Tundra.
One day, when I was fourteen years old or so, I was hunting fox squirrel and stumbled across Mr. John’s hut. It was built with grooved wooden planks and covered over on its top and sides with sloppily nailed Visqueen. He had all the accoutrements of a bum; dozens of empty bottles lines up outside his hut, a circle of broken bricks where he built his fires, a banged up paint can for a pot. When I walked up to him he didn’t look surprised at all to see me and said, Hey, Luke, kill anything yet?
He was boiling something in the paint can. Blue feathers were scattered everywhere and two long curving feathers were stuck behind both of his ears. Mr. John looked behind him like someone might be listening and whispered, I finally got that blasted thief John-John! I said, Who’s John-John? He responded, John-John was that Great Blue Heron that’s been eating up what little fish is left swimming around in the bog. I survive mostly by eating whatever shad and carp I can catch with my hands. John-John just about starved me to death because he was a greater fisherman than I, but I’ve been watching his moves for some time now and finally just a little while ago he made the wrong move and he walked right up to my pot here and started to eat away at my fish stew. Well! That was the last straw and I lurched out of my hut here and tackled John-John to the very ground. Then I put both my hands around his neck and that was the end of John-John. Now, I’m not saying he went out easily, no sir, he put up a hell of a fight and he damned near plucked my eyeballs out, but I was stronger and smarter than he. I cut his stomach open with this here piece of broken Pepsi bottle and I swear to my own personal God that a pound of carp and shad tumbled out of his purple guts—John-John smelled more like a fish than a bird and I don’t think anyone would disagree that I was in the right for killing John-John. A man’s gotta eat regardless what the law might say about me killing this long neck troublemaker of a shorebird. Survival before the law I always say.
Ah! A man boiling the meat of a Great Blue Heron—Mr. John never did die, he just disappeared.
Louis Bourgeois is the Executive Director of VOX PRESS. He lives, writes, and edits in Oxford, Mississippi.