Stumpy from Bloody Little Dixie

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: September 10, 2019

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Submitted: September 10, 2019



Stumpy from Bloody Little Dixie

It’s funny how a person can grow up poor and not realize it. My family was among the poorest of the poor in our little Southeastern Oklahoma town, but I can’t recall feeling deprived or that I had missed out on things. Maybe that was because, while we had less than most, nobody really had much.

Daddy worked nights at the local sawmill, and was what people used to call a lay preacher. That just meant that he was an ordained minister without his own church, so he went around filling in for other ministers at their churches. There wasn’t much money in that, or in the sawmill either. Mama stayed at home and cared for us kids and tried to keep our fall-apart house from falling apart around us. Every spring she planted a big garden, which we worked on all summer so that we’d have vegetables through the winter. Maybe this sounds like the saga of some depression era family, but this was life in rural Oklahoma in 1984, not 1934. I was fourteen years old and the middle child of three, and the only girl.

We had come to Oklahoma from Texas, where Daddy had worked for the oil fields. He’d gotten wind that lay-offs were coming just ahead of the whole energy crisis, and moved us up to Oklahoma. He bought a piece of land that connected to my grandparent’s land, giving our family about 40 acres of hardwood forest and fields of dry, sandy soil that needed constant boosting in order to grow anything. Coming from West Texas, I thought we’d landed in paradise at first, having never seen so much lush greenery. I changed my mind about that the first summer, when the temperatures reached 115 degrees in the shade and our well ran dry. I learned fast that there are only two times of the year when Southeastern Oklahoma is tolerable, November and May. And that’s not accounting for the tornados.

Aside from the awful heat in the winter and the surprise ice storms that showed up in January, there were many things to love about living in a rural community. Everyone knew everyone else. You almost never met a stranger, which meant there was always a friendly "Hello" or "How you folks doing?" being thrown your way. Everyone knew either your first name, or your parents' first names, and knew who was your aunt and cousin and brother and so on. When people did something nice for you, you knew it came from someplace genuine. When my dad got hurt on the job and couldn't work for a month, people just showed up at the house with fresh stuff from their garden, or came to the door asking for his truck keys so they could fill the gas tank. Being as school was about to start, suddenly lots of folks had nice clothes that their children had outgrown, and all these pencils and notebooks just laying around the house that they really wanted gone, and we would be doing them a favor by taking them.

It was our fourth year living there when the sinister side of small town life reared its ugly head. Yes, everyone knew everyone else. You almost never met a stranger. Which meant that when a violent crime was committed, you probably knew the criminal. Maybe you went to church with a cold-blooded killer, or that guy who worked on your tractor raped a teenage girl, or the lady who drove your school bus...well, I can't think of one for that. The lady that drove our school bus was Miss Daley, and she was an angel straight outta heaven.  Anyway, you get the point.

We found out about the murder after my older brother, Paul, came home from a church ice cream social for the teens just about to burst with the news.

Daddy liked to sit and read the paper or watch whatever news we could get with the rabbit ears before he got ready for work each night. Since we didn't any of us have much else to do, or another place to go, we would all sit in the living room with him, usually with Mama reading a book and me and my younger brother Wesley working on a jigsaw puzzle or something. We had to be quiet, because Daddy got grumpy if we were loud.  As Paul came stomping into the room all breathless, me and Wesley both looked at him like he was crazy. He was being mighty loud and boisterous, and neither of us wanted to spend the rest of our evening with a grumpy father. As soon as he was out with it, though, all of us, even Daddy, sat up and paid attention.

"They found a body floating down Little River, and he was murdered!"

Mama let out a little "Oh my!" and put her book aside. Daddy got up and turned off the TV, which had been all snow and static anyway and hard to hear. Me and Wesley looked at each other with eyes wide, then looked back at Paul. Once everyone was focused on him, he continued.

"Joe Coleman was fishing and pulled this guy's body from the river today, and he was full o' bullets and his head and hands was cut off, so they can't identify him. No fingerprints, no dental records. " He paused for a moment. Paul wasn't one for saying a lot, so this was a whole bunch of words coming out of him all at once.

"Billy says the OSBI came down and took the body back to Oklahoma City." Billy Mathews was Paul's best buddy, the son of the county sheriff, and just as troublesome as Paul, who wore the title "Preacher's kid" like a badge of dishonor.

"They think it's drug related," he finished, almost in a whisper. Me and Wesley looked at each other, and our hearts sank. Those two words, drug-related, had been the bane of our existence since arriving in the countryside.

Having forty acres of woodland at one's disposal was only great if one could explore said woodland. From the time we arrived in the town of Morris, population 822, Mama and Daddy had been schooled by the locals about the dangers of prowling around in the woods, even your own woods. It was a common practice among unsavory types to plant marijuana on other people's land and then put up traps all around to keep their cash crop safe. The same could be said for stills. A person could be out just bird watching, or picking wild berries, and next thing you know, SNAP! A foot gets sheared off by a bear trap. 

While forty acres is enough woodland to keep three curious children from the desert of West Texas exploring for days, it surely wasn't enough land for hiding marijuana plants or stills. However, our parents erred on the side of caution. We had to sneak outside, or claim to be performing some outside chore in order to take even a few steps into our lovely forest. On occasion, our grandfather would grab his shotgun and take us all for a romp through the pines and dogwoods and post oaks behind his house, and that was the only approved means of enjoying the nature in our backyard. It was just enough to make us crave more, especially now that the air was getting cool and the leaves were turning colors. In a week or so, the rattlers and cottonmouths would go to ground, too, so the shotgun wouldn't even be necessary.

With Paul's news, we could feel our forbidden forest playground being pulled even further away. One look at his face and Wesley and I could tell, this realization had just dawned upon him as well.

"See, kids, this is exactly why we can't let you just roam around outside." Mama was quick to lay down the law...again.

"That's exactly right," chimed in Daddy, "and I'll be talking to your grandpa before I head to work, just to let him know he shouldn't be out there either."

Paul knew better than to argue, but at a rebellious 17 years of age , he sometimes just couldn't help himself. Paul could argue with Daddy without even opening his mouth and speaking. The sullen, stubborn look on his face was enough to start a war. Daddy never once let it pass without a fight.

As Daddy started in, raising his voice and pointing his finger in Paul's face, which was rigid like a piece of granite, Wesley and I quietly abandoned our puzzle and walked into the kitchen, Mama's voice joining the battle in the background. Wes and I didn't speak, just exchanged a glance that said "We'll talk later", and Wes went to the porch to call our dog, Trouble. I searched until I found my cat curled up in my closet floor. 

"Monster," I said, cuddling the huge gray tabby close to my face, "I wish I could be you sometimes. You go wherever you want, whenever you want. "

Despite my longing to have Monster's freedom, something about Paul's news truly disturbed me, and I felt all shaky in my spine and guts, like somebody was jiggling me around on the inside. At 14 years old, living in a small town with overprotective parents, I was naive in many ways. However, something inside me knew that this murder was the act of someone evil, someone cold and deadly like a rattlesnake--someone living in our midst, disguised as a normal person. I couldn't help but envision the headless, handless corpse, and my active imagination tried to put together what it would look like to cut someone's head from their body, to chop off their hands. How much blood would there be? If the guy was full of bullets, did that mean he was dead when the chopping began? I shuddered, but couldn't stop the train of thought. If he was dead, at least he wouldn't feel the knife, severing his jugular and windpipe, sawing through the vertebrae and spinal cord. If he had no head, he couldn't see the stumps at the ends of his arms where hands used to be.

"Elizabeth!" Mama's voice jerked me from my gruesome imaginings.

"What on earth are you doing sitting in your closet? Let that poor cat go, you are near strangling him!" Mama looked like she was a bit upset, and I imagined Paul had not responded to their parental guidance in a satisfactory manner.

"Yes, ma'am," I mumbled quickly, releasing the captive feline that I had been squeezing close to my chest, after first kissing his head to apologize. He didn't really seem to mind. Monster was like that with me. I could do no wrong. Everyone else in the house bore the scratches and bite marks proving that they could do no right.

"Now, wash your hands and help me with this laundry. You got more t-shirts than any sensible person should have, and I'm not foldin' all of 'em."  I complied without a word. Me and Mama sometimes went on at each other all sassy, but I knew this was not the time for it.


For months after the body was found, Morris was a town with a fearful undercurrent that was almost tangible. At the time, I thought everyone was just like me, wondering who could have done such a thing. Surely not anyone I knew or cared about? I was grown before I realized the truth, that many people knew, maybe not who had actually committed this heinous act, but they knew exactly who among us was capable of it. They knew, and while they whispered about it at the post office and grocery store, and stared suspiciously at each other when they thought it would go unnoticed, they all still shook hands and greeted each other with that genuine Southern warmth. Everybody hugged everybody else after church on Sunday, and invited each other for a piece of pie at Louise's Steak House on Wednesday nights after prayer meeting. It only took about two weeks for folks to stop asking Sheriff Matthews if he'd made any progress on the case. After he'd explained a few times that the OSBI was taking the lead, and they still didn't have the poor man's identity yet, it just seemed rude to press him further. And since none among us was missing, and everyone we loved was present and accounted for, people didn't feel that urgency to see someone brought to justice. The realization that someone among us was a killer...that remained below the surface. Even when the Sheriff made the comment that OSBI suspected the killer was not from the area, people smiled and nodded politely that this was probably the case, but their eyes betrayed an uneasiness that just wouldn't go away.

I was struggling with my own fear, completely separate from what the rest of the town battled. From a very young age, I had suffered with night terrors and fits of sleepwalking. At the age of seven, my nocturnal activities had become so disturbing to my parents that a neurologist had been consulted, even though we really couldn't afford such an expense. Mama just couldn't stand much more of my screaming in the middle of the night, not able to wake myself from whatever horror my brain had created. My longest episode had lasted three hours, all the while Mama and Daddy tried to hold me and comfort me, tried to get me to wake and focus on reality, but my eyes didn't recognize their faces and my ears couldn't hear their voices, so I screamed and cried sitting straight up in my bed until I just suddenly stopped. Mama said it was like someone threw a switch, and there I was, looking at them all bewildered and not remembering any of it. The family doctor thought it sounded like seizures, so to a neurologist we went. After attaching several diodes to my scalp and looking at print outs, and asking me lots of strange questions, the neurologist concluded it was not seizures. There was nothing he could do, and hopefully I would outgrow it, and for the most part I did.

However, two nights after Paul came home with the news of the floating headless corpse, my nightmares started again. For certain, they weren't as intense as the three hour scream fest of my younger years, but they were disruptive nonetheless. At 14 years of age, I was less inclined to jump out of bed and run to my parents in tears. Instead, I lay in my dark room and shook with fear, crying silently as I tried to forget the images from my dream. If Monster had opted to grace me with his presence that night, I would grab him and cuddle him up under my chin until his neck was wet with my tears and he decided that was enough.

I went on like that for a week before Wes caught on that something was up. He had gotten up for water in the middle of the night, and since my bedroom was right off the kitchen, he heard me whimpering and came to see what I was doing. He was likely hoping to catch me reading under my covers with a flashlight, which was forbidden and would surely get me grounded. Wes and Paul seemed to be in some sort of competition for who could be in trouble the most, and if either of them ever caught me at something, you could be sure they were going to tell, if only to take the attention off of them for a minute. That night, though, when he flipped on my light switch and said, "Aha!", he found me quietly sobbing, holding poor Monster tight. His triumph turned to concern.

"Hey there, Eli, what's wrong? Are you sick? Want me to go get Mama?" He approached me slowly with his hands out in front of him, like I was some kind of injured wild animal that he had cornered. Though Wes was two years younger than me, and I did my fair share of picking on him, we were much closer to each other than we were to Paul, who often wanted nothing to do with us.  Just his presence in the room, along with the light that was now illuminating all the dark recesses, served to pull me out of my fearful misery a bit. I sat up, released the very damp cat, and wiped my face.

"I'm alright, Wes," I said shakily. "I just had another bad dream."

Now, many people won't understand this about Wes, but that boy had a seriously morbid curiosity. Whereas I couldn't stop my imagination from dwelling on gory images and often suffered as a result, Wes almost delighted in the bloody, the disgusting, the disturbing. He wasn't mean, and would never hurt a soul, but if he came upon a dead bird or a bit of road kill that was still recognizable, he wanted to look at it, poke at it, take it apart if at all possible. Of course, this was never allowed. So when he discovered I'd had some type of nightmare, knowing the bloody nature of my dreams, he wanted to hear the details. It was as close as he could get to the real thing.

That night, with my little brother sitting next to me on my bed and my cat cleaning the tears off his fur, I recounted the nightmare in as much detail as I could stand, with Wes stopping me at times to ask questions. I finished with a tremor in my voice and looked at Wes expectantly.

"So, the headless corpse with no hands just shows up here in your bedroom and drips blood all over you?" Wes couldn't keep the disappointment out of his voice as he summed up my nightmare in one sentence. It hardly did justice to the horror I'd experienced.

"No, it's not just that. It's...well, he's dead and he's not supposed to be up and walking around." I was feeling a little put upon that he didn't get how awful this was. Wes just gave me that look, so I felt the need to go on.

"He's a dead guy, with a drippy, gross stump of a neck and drippy, gross stumps of arms and he's in my room, and he comes over real close to me and I can smell him, and then his gross disgusting bloodiness drips all over me!" I glared at Wes.

"It's horrible," I finished, feeling a little silly.

Wes considered for a moment, then managed, at the ripe age of 12, to say exactly what I needed to hear in order to stop being afraid.

"So he's got no head. And he's got no hands. What's he gonna do to you?"

I thought about it, but was determined that this dream was still the worst thing ever, so I said,

"He drips his gross blood on me!" I looked at Wes, daring him to say that wasn't terrible.

"Well," said Wes, "they found him in the river. He'd been in there a while, they said. He didn't have no blood left." Wes looked at me.

"He just dripped water on you. River water. And we swim in Little River, so you already had that same water all over you some time or other."

I was speechless. I stared dumbly at Wes, then at poor Monster, who was still trying to get all my soppy tears off his fur.

"You know, Eli," Wes continued, "in the books I read, the ones Daddy don't want me to read, when dead folks visit you, they're always tryin' to tell you something. Usually something real important, like who killed 'em, or that somebody is trying to hurt you or steal your fortune, or that there's gonna be a big bomb dropped on your city or something like that. This poor guy, I think you should call him Stumpy, he ain't got no mouth. He can't tell you what he needs to say. He can't even write it on a piece of paper."  Wes held up his hands and wiggled his fingers to illustrate that Stumpy was inadequate for the task of writing.  He then got up from my bed and looked at me with a sympathy that I thought was a bit misplaced, being as I was obviously the victim in the situation.

"I feel bad for Stumpy. That's sad, he can't tell you what he needs to say." And he unceremoniously walked out of my room and back to bed, flipping off my light switch as he left. To him, the matter was settled.

After that, my nightmares ceased. That's not to say the headless, handless corpse never visited me again. On the contrary, "Stumpy" came to see me many times in my dreams. But after some careful consideration, I realized that Wes was right. Stumpy couldn't hurt me, and he was there trying to tell me something. The dead are always trying to tell us something, and since they've crossed into a place we can't go, we should try to listen to them. So I started listening to Stumpy, even though he had no voice.

Over time, my nocturnal encounters with Stumpy became almost comforting. After a few years, he began emerging in the middle of random dreams wearing one of those 2-sided signs, and as I asked him questions, words would appear on the signs to answer me. He became like a muse to me, a counselor of sorts. At one point, I completely forgot his origin, though I was later jarringly reminded of his gruesome ending, which for me was his beginning.

The town of Morris appeared to forget about Stumpy as well, the nameless corpse found floating down Little River in the fall of 1984. His murder was never solved, but became  one of many cold cases down in our rural paradise, affectionately known as Little Dixie. It was as though the trees and streams and rolling foothills, so lovely to the eye, lulled us into a false sense of our own safety. There was nothing to fear here, nothing but rattlesnakes and cotton mouths and an occasional case of tick fever or heat exhaustion. There was certainly nothing to fear from the kind, upstanding folks of Southeastern Oklahoma.

But Mama and Daddy still wouldn't let us wander through our own little patch of woods without a shotgun, which Daddy taught each of us to shoot that winter as a compromise to not being allowed to wander.  Grandpa was getting old and the ground was uneven, so he couldn't go with us much. We got strict instructions to always have the railroad tracks or the house in sight, follow our stream if we got lost, and look out for poison ivy, which will even break out your skin when it's dead and dry. The shotgun, well it was for the snakes.

Just the snakes.

© Copyright 2019 A.M. Johnson. All rights reserved.

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