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There Is in This Dirty Night a Running Chase Off and Away by Jim Bosiljevac


We are honored to be the home for Jim Bosiljevac’s first published short story, “There Is in This Dirty Night a Running Chase Off and Away.” This piece first came to our attention as a finalist for the 2018 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize, judged by Jim Shepard. With stunning language, captivating voice, and a unique style, this story is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy and the best of classic and new Southern Gothic literature. Please dip into the Author’s Note for more on Bosiljevac’s influences.

Here we travel with our protagonist, Shin, into landscape, imagination, and memory, as he takes off running in the night after someone or something who has kidnapped his young brother. Here we have a story that demands to be read aloud—without a single comma in sight, you will find your own rhythm in the lines. Here we have a mystery; a nightmare; a journey into the unknown; a sliver of American history. “Here are shadows of what will happen to his pipsqueak brother if Shin gives up on him.” We hope you enjoy this unusual and marvelous piece of fiction as much as we do.  —CRAFT


 

There is in this dirty night a slam and a shout and there is Matthew yelling Pa Pa they got Owen Pa wake up Pa they got Owen!

And before any of this there is Shin out of his bed and out in the night and the sleep drapes from his noggin like spiderwebs and his bare feet slap at the mud and the tall wet grass whips at his long johns and all that commotion of the family banging around and Matthew and Ma screaming falls away way back into the dark. The horses are unsettled when Shin runs past the stables and he thinks he would stop there and saddle up Lightning but for he can’t spare the time and Lightning won’t take a rider bareback.

Night cold pushes into his lungs and hurts him in his chest and he hears Owen that pipsqueak of only six summers. He hears him squawking up ahead and sees branches still disturbed and Shin keeps running down the trail and out into the field and on the far side under the cold blue moon there is a man limping away with Owen slung over his back and they are galumphing along in a way that Shin thinks maybe the man is on a little horse he just can’t see not yet.

A couple of horse thieves came out once and made off with two of Pa’s horses and Pa and Shin—Shin being only ten at the time but the oldest of the bunch—saddled up and tracked the thieves out past the river then down on the other side across the valley and then up way into the hollow and caught up with the two men right then as the sky was just turning light. They were white men and when Pa and Shin rode up raised their hands in greeting like any two men along the road who hadn’t just stolen Pa’s horses.

Pa shot the first man through his raised hand then shot the other man in the face then went back to the first man who was all curled up on the ground like a pill-bug and shot him in the back of the head and they left the two men dead there with their horses in the hollow and took the stolen horses back on down and across the valley and through the river and on up to the stable where they belonged and Pa never said nothing the whole way.

Pa later told Shin you don’t never hesitate not up here not them being who they are and it being like it is. Give a think to the catamount and the timber snake and if you ever saw them hesitate before the swipe of the claw or the gnash of the teeth. And it wasn’t the cat and snake being wild animals that made them different from Pa and Shin but this place that made them all the same.

But now here’s this night and this cold and this bit of ground with the rocks ripping at Shin’s feet and Shin has no gun to shoot into nobody’s hand nor the back of nobody’s head and Pa is far off back still at the house with Ma and Matthew and James and Lilith and Samuel and Abraham and Cyrus and Nathaniel and Jude and little Jack and there is Owen on the back of that galumphing man heading into the forest on the other side of the field and Shin doesn’t know who this man is or why he’s come and taken Owen but he knows as certain as the moon that if Owen goes out of sight on the back of that man there will be no more Owen. And so Shin bears down into the dirt with all his fear and slices across the sleeping land and his ears go numb against the black sky above.

Shin cuts after them across the jackrabbit scrub and into the trees again and the dark is big and black but he knows this river trail as good as he knows the curve of his own dirty knee. He will not lose his young brother and will not and he will not.

Every year on Fair Day Pa hitches the wagon and the whole family sets off before sunlight to see what there is to see and when they arrive in town midday they draw eyes from the folk but most are polite enough mostly. They hold contests and one is all the boys see who can run up to the top of the hill and around the big rock then down the ridge to the river then back to the start the fastest and once Shin snuck into the race and whooped every boy by a stone’s throw. A woman told him that she had never seen a child run so fast and that he must be part horse and a red-faced man said Shin wasn’t allowed to run with the white kids and Pa overheard and started to have words with the woman for calling his son part horse but thought better of it and they all piled into the wagon full of bitterness and bees and ashamed but for Shin who puffed out his chest and thought that he liked the sound of being part horse.

There is in the far off the low howl of a steam engine and Shin calls on his horse ancestors to compel his burning legs forward into the wooded valley. A bird or a bat or some night insect slants off his head and startles him and Shin sees down by the river that the man carries Owen with splashing footsteps out into the water. The man has shoulders like a boulder and Owen hangs over one all limp bouncing side to side like a grain sack and Shin slides down the hill on his heels as fast as he can go and it’s then that he finds a thought like a splinter in his toe that maybe he is still asleep in his bed back home and maybe none of this is any realer than a cloud.

Shin stands up to his knees in the cold water and his feet disappear from memory and his chest is filled with ash and cinder. His eyes are wet and his vision is blurry and just below his ribs is a ratcheting clattering machine like the steam-powered wagon he once saw at Fair Day.

He watches the man go up onto the far bank and the man stops and turns back and looks right at Shin and in his churning vision and with the last bit of light in the world Shin sees on top of the man’s head two horns. And right then Shin knows that the stories Ma tells about the things that live in the woods are true and so are the things they shouted and yelled about at the tiny church up on the far side of the mountains where they all packed up and rode three days to bury Pawpaw and where the gnarled folk clapped and yelped and their bodies writhed like chickens or snakes after the head gets chopped and where the old preacher bellowed about a path of shadow and a horned devil and that is what Shin sees across the river with Owen. And that horned devil sees Shin. And it turns and carries Owen off into the blackness. And Shin goes in after.

Shin is across the river and into the darkness of the woods and now climbing another hill and he feels certain he will never again feel the coarse wool blanket that keeps him warm at night as he runs and runs not down toward the hollow but up toward the mountains and it is farther than he has ever been alone and he finds things up here. Here are shadows of what will happen to his pipsqueak brother if Shin gives up on him and here are memories of swimming in the river with Owen and them throwing rocks at a bobcat that wandered down for a drink and being naked with his brother under the sun and of telling Owen about their cousin Daphne who was older and part Cherokee and round like the stones that lined the river.

Shin is light as a scrub jay as he reaches the top of the hill and fire has hollowed him out inside and the night wind passes unburdened through his empty skeleton and he looks out and sees nowhere the galumphing devil. He wonders if there ever was a devil to begin with. And just as Shin decides that there is no devil carrying Owen away from home he sees off and yon a white eagle circling above the valley.

He wishes that if he is dreaming someone would just go on and wake him. He does not like not knowing and he does not like some of these things he finds in the darkness: his mother screaming from the cabin where she and Pa sleep and there being another brother and then another and another and then with Pa and all of them gathered around a hole and laying in that hole baby Jacob wrapped in a blanket and covering him with earth and the ghost men that Ma said live in the woods coming out in the night with their pointed hoods and rifles and dragging Uncle Aln away and hanging him by the neck from an elm tree and the way that terrible steam-powered driving machine popped and banged and fired and a baby wailed and Shin covered his ears and a woman on the hill fainted at the noise of it all and the way the driver smiled in his top hat and drove round and round in circles and now drove circles inside of Shin’s chest and that white ghost bird circling round and round the valley sky. Shin cannot run anymore because his legs that were hollow are now filled up with water and this is not real anyway.

But if it is. If it is.

A fool runs a horse until it collapses and dies right there and Shin knows this and his legs know this and his breathing knows this and his heart knows this too. And the thought of lying out here and being picked apart by the animals is something that hurts his bones he is so afraid of it but it is also something he reckons is likely to happen anyway him being so far out with no idea which direction is what. But that pale specter circles the valley and Shin’s heavy legs begin to churn again and even as he starts he can feel the sense leaving his head and he recalls dreams that seemed realer than this.

Owen! he shouts but it comes out Own! but he shouts it over and over and chases the sound down toward the white eagle and in his mind he begins to see things that are like memories but he knows he never experienced these things. He sees a man with a feather in his hair and blood smeared all about his face riding on a black horse and the man is slumped over with a spear run clear through him and he sees two bears wrestling in a muddy street and he sees a woman in a small farmhouse out in the country and she is telling a story to her child son about the young boy who was awakened in the night by a noise and runs out not knowing if he is in a dream or in real life but believing that his younger brother has been stolen by the devil. And in this story the boy chases the devil into the woods and across fields and through rivers and over mountains and he is carried forward by the rope that hitches his heart to his brother’s and because he doesn’t know if it’s real that a devil has stolen his brother in the night or if he has just been sent off by a dream.

Shin comes into a canopied grove of pine where the needles bed up soft and deep and there in the shade of the trees stands the devil with Owen on the ground.

Shin is taken breathless to be so close so much upon this thing he believed he’d never reach and he stops and he wants to summon the catamount and the timber snake but he is stricken solid as the tree and he watches watches watches that shadowy devil take one two three steps toward him and in that obsidian visage he sees first the demon then the horse thief then Pa.

And there is the twinkling chromium glint of a blade and the very tender pain and the woman tells her child son as they look out from the farmhouse window if you watch off at the distant field on the nights with a full moon you can sometimes see the shadowy ghost of this boy running across the landscape his legs still carrying him along at full gallop like a horse that has lost its mind still not knowing if the devil he is chasing is real or just a dream. And the boy will spend eternity never knowing because that is just how the devil works.

Shin sees this and tears slither across his hot face and he knows that he has come to the end of this dirty night and his breathing grows weak and his legs give out and he collapses to the ground with a bump that is swallowed by the emptiness around him like it was never made.

 


JIM BOSILJEVAC splits his time between Austin, Texas and the Bay Area. He’s an advertising creative director and copywriter by trade, spending most of his time trying to create compelling stories for products. He also teaches classes on scriptwriting, storytelling and creative thinking.

His short stories have been recognized by the University of Chicago and Glimmer Train. This is his first published story.

Author’s Note

Because most of what I write for my job is eventually read aloud—sometimes by actors or voice talent, other times just by myself in presentations—I think a lot about the rhythm and sound of the writing. I read everything out loud as I work on it. Particularly for this piece, getting the sound, pace and rhythm right was almost as important as the words themselves. Everything needed to work together to conjure the energy for a desperate chase into the unknown.

This piece came from a nightmare I can’t remember. I woke with just a sense of looming dread receding into the darkness. It was weird and primal and more terrifying because it didn’t have a face or a coherent narrative, just a sensation that something terrible had happened.

I wanted to capture that feeling. I wanted a mood that was black on black, like the dark silhouetted trees of the woods against a black sky, that post-dream state where the mind struggles to make sense of the shapes the eyes are seeing.

I love southern gothic. I love Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner, Jesmyn Ward and Tom Franklin. I’m inspired by the ability of these writers to mix beauty with despair, evoke terror or grace from the everyday grotesque. Also the way they sculpt stories out of the land, from dirt and branch and moon and the smell of winter. I wanted to turn the dark unknown of the gothic woods into a villain, and have a protagonist who has no choice but to run headlong into it.

But more than the mood and the landscape, I knew that the pace would be the most important element. I wanted the story to read like a chase. I start it with a confused commotion—a slam and some screaming—then try to keep a breathless, rabbit-heart desperation throughout. I wanted to inflict on the reader the same sense of exhaustion and confusion Shin is feeling as he chases something he can’t comprehend. The sound of bare feet slapping on mud, the whoosh of dark tree branches whipping past, the thwack of bug or bat ricocheting off his face, cold air burning his lungs; the only things he knows for sure are the things in contact with his body—everything else is a mystery.

I tried to give the whole piece the onomatopoeia of a chase by stringing these images together with random thoughts and memories, like an endless tangle of kudzu. I used the word “and” over 200 times—10% of the total word count. The run is mimicked with literal run-on sentences.

When I workshopped the story, several readers thought I overdid it. Someone said, “I think you need shorter sentences. I run out of breath reading it.” I figured I was on the right track.

 


JIM BOSILJEVAC splits his time between Austin, Texas and the Bay Area. He’s an advertising creative director and copywriter by trade, spending most of his time trying to create compelling stories for products. He also teaches classes on scriptwriting, storytelling and creative thinking.

His short stories have been recognized by the University of Chicago and Glimmer Train. This is his first published story.