Wiley’s old man liked to gamble on the river boat. He also liked to drink and fight, but mostly he liked to gamble. He would gamble just about anywhere. The nature of a betting man – a tried and true, dyed-in-the-wool degenerate – requires that he or she be able or willing to place bets in any location at any time. But this particular gentleman preferred the boat and all its gracious amenities. Being able to lose his family’s money aboard a vessel floating along the Mississippi somehow gave it a sense of dignity that could not otherwise be experienced.
And, even though Wiley Devereaux, Sr. liked to gamble on the boat, he loved to accuse others of cheating. What would get back to Wiley, Jr. about his father was that the old man had picked a fight with a white man who had him whacked over the head with a pistol butt and thrown overboard. His mother had said he’d been robbed by some lowlife in a back alley in Gulfport, but Wiley knew better. He’d dreamed about his father’s death, and he’d seen exactly what had happened. He needed not his mother’s lies to be able to understand. His dreams sufficed.
His daddy had gotten drunk during a poker match and fought someone more sober and cunning than himself and was tossed overboard as a result. Since he was a black man, nobody much cared, except for the Devereaux family, but even they couldn’t get anything done for the man’s sake. The body itself never turned up, though Wiley dreamed about that as well. He dreamed about a bloated, eyeless version of his father (the fishes, he’d heard, liked to feast on the eyeballs) catching on a branch jutting out into the river.
He also dreamed of the fisherman who would find his daddy’s body. The man’s intention was to report it to the authorities. However, as the old, haggard fisherman turned to exit the woods near the river, he ran into a giant of a man, hair sprouting on every inch of space on his enormous body. The big man thwomped him on the head one good time, cracking his neck, and then dragged both the fisherman and his father off into a cave to eat them both.
Wiley, Jr. had indeed heard of the legend of the Hairy Man, but only when he was bad. When his mother wanted something out of him and his father wasn’t around (which was a lot), then his mother threatened him with the legend of the man who stayed out in the woods down by the swamp and feasted on the bones of little boys who didn’t listen to their mothers.
“Mama,” he asked one day. “Did my daddy really get mugged?”
“Why, of course,” his mama answered, chipping up some salted pork for the greens.
“You sure, mama? You sure the Hairy Man didn’t get him?”
His mama stopped with the salted pork. “Why ever would you say such a thing, boy? You know it ain’t funny to play about the Hairy Man. He come get you, if you do.”
“I saw it in a dream. I swear I did. I saw daddy get clunked across the head with a pistol butt by some jealous old white man and thrown in the river, and afterwards a fisherman came and found him, but it was too late by then. Daddy was dead and the Hairy Man had found the both of them and ate ’em up.”
The pot of water for the greens nearly boiled over, while Mrs. Devereaux peered at her son, looking for him to crack under her absolute worst stare. But he didn’t. He only stared earnestly back up at her, imploring her for some kind of answer. “Lord. Lord. Lord,” she said.
“That might’ve happened, son,” she said. “When I was a little girl, my grandmother – she come from the southern tip of Louisiana – taught me conjure magic. She didn’t teach me all she know, but she taught me a lot, and soon as I heard about your father, I put up a spell to ward off bad spirits, lord, like that Hairy Man. Long as you don’t go down past the charred black oak down by the swamp, there ain’t nothing the Hairy Man can do to you.”
“Mama, is that for real?”
“Don’t question me!” she said. Mrs. Deveraux was not one to hit her son, but she’d occasionally thump him, and that’s exactly what she did here. She was good, too. Had lots of practice. “It’s the truth.”
“How will I know?” Wiley asked, rubbing his thumped forehead.
His mama pointed exasperatedly towards the south end of the land with her big wooden spoon. “Go out past the charred oak, and he’ll be waitin’ for you, I bet. But you aren’t light enough in the head to do that, are you? Just to spite me?”
“I don’t think so.”
Wiley’s mama sighed and tossed the salted pork in the collards and swirled the mixture with her big spoon. “If you go out there, that’s it. He-”
“Him,” his mother replied. “He can follow you back to the house.”
“Be. Cause. It’s. Just. Like. That.”
“That don’t make any sense.”
“When somebody’s that mean an’ spiteful, don’t nothing make too much sense. Just know he can do it, and if you run ‘cross him, he’ll trick you into letting him eat you, unless you can trick him first. If you trick him, well, I don’t know what would happen. But something would, I can tell you that.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Me, either, son. The way that practical magic goes, I don’t get it neither. It’s the way it works. You stay on this side of the world, you be all right. He’ll leave us alone. Just don’t go testing fate. It’s what your daddy did, and look what it got him.”
Wiley rested his chin on his dirt-encrusted hands and stared solemnly at his mama’s dress. She caught his eyes, saw the way they were moistening up, and said, “I loved him too. I did. Now go wash up. Dinner’s almost ready.”
“Yes, mama.” After that, Wiley just watched the greens cook.
The temptation to disobey his mother rattled around in Wiley’s head like the first coins in a piggy bank, and for the most part he just let it rattle. But, being a young man – and being the quite impetuous young man he happened to be – the rattling became so loud even he couldn’t ignore it, and the urge got to be so strong that he could be seen visibly shaking some days, just in an effort to restrain himself.
He didn’t quite know what fate was, but if it got his daddy smacked across the head and thrown in a river, he certainly didn’t want to test it. He figured it had something to do with the natural order of things, like if Jesus said it was time for you to come home, then it was just time for you to come home to the flock.
He didn’t dare ask his mama about it, because she’d shut down to the topic entirely. When she scrunched her eyes together and stiffened her lip, Wiley knew better than to broach the topic, so he spent most of his time trying to figure out what he would do on his own. Traditional logic told him to stay the hell away from the charred black oak down by the river, but it wasn’t that simple. This curse, whatever, wouldn’t go away until he did something about it. Or so he thought.
Once, very soon after his mother told him not to, Wiley followed the small dirt footpath through a copse of trees to where the charred remains of a tree lay off in the distance. He didn’t get so close that he could touch it, but he traveled as far as his trembling legs would carry him, which was to say within viewing distance of the tree.
The tree loomed ominously over the surrounding dirt, leaning in such a way that suggested it had been dead a long time. A shudder ran wild down Wiley’s spine, and he tried to amble forward, to move in the direction of the burnt tree. His mother had once told him the site of the tree was where the devil appeared when he rode up outta Hell, and for the longest time, Wiley believed her. He wanted to believe her. If you could not believe your mama, who could you believe?
But how could a tree protect him from that awful-looking man? What good would it do against somebody who would eat a man whole? Would even the strongest magic stop that?
With every question, he found himself wandering closer and closer to the edge of their land, where it intersected with the path leading down to the river, over miles and miles. The dirt warmed his feet, warmed his entire body, and he relished in the feel of it in summer. It was enticing and wondrous and it drew him forward. All the while his mind kept saying, Turn back, Wiley. Turn on back toward the house. It ain’t worth taking the chance.
But he didn’t listen. To his mother, to himself. He listened, instead to the wheedling, mellifluous voice in the back of his head, beyond the reaches of his conscience, gnawing at him persistently. One foot in front of the other, it said. Don’t listen to her, don’t you mind your mother.
The phrase repeated itself over and over in his mind, and even though he realized he was doing it, moving forward, he could not stop himself. He consciously moseyed toward doom. The voice was like stones rattling against metal in his mind, but it was persuasive. One foot in front of the other. Don’t listen to her, don’t you mind your mother. If it ain’t real, there’s no need to worry. Walk toward the tree; go on and hurry. And Wiley did. He hurried.
But as he got closer, he felt a change come over him. The feeling of curiosity turned sour in his stomach. The voice in his head changed, became more familiar. It wasn’t the gruff, guttural whisper he had grown somewhat accustomed to, but a voice that was becoming more remote by the day.
Wiley stopped walking. “Father,” he said, staring at the tree. The voice certainly sounded like his father’s, or what he had remembered it to be. A wind blew through then, tilting the crooked and burnt tree in the opposite direction. It tilted, seeming to groan, and waved ever-so-slightly. When the tree returned to its original position, there was a figure leaning against its trunk, a very tall man, with a burly mop of hair on his head, and ragged, tattered clothes on his chest and legs. His feet were bare and yet hairy as the top of his head. Now that Wiley was really looking, he saw hair on the man’s hands and neck and face.
“Father, help me,” Wiley said, whispering to himself (or, rather, to the voice inside himself). But there was no reply from his daddy. There was nothing.
The tall man picked at his mouth with one coarse finger, sucking as if trying to release something lodged between his teeth. “Hello, little boy,” he said, smiling. His voice was like thunder, even on this cloudless afternoon.
Wiley wanted to take one step back, to turn on his heels and run, but he could not. He could only stand there and gape at the man leaning against the tree. He recognized the man as the same one who had taken his daddy from the river, taken him and eaten him. But for the time being the man stood on the far side of the tree and had not crossed over, so he felt momentarily safe. He hoped his mother was right.
“I said hello to you, little boy,” he continued, not fazed. “Don’t you know it’s not polite to stare at a man, ‘specially any man big as me?”
Wiley shook his head no and kept on staring.
The man laughed. “No? You didn’t know it was bad manners? Does that mean somebody ought to teach you them manners, then?”
This time, Wiley shook his head even more emphatically. The big man’s eyes tightened into thin little slits in his enormous head, almost to the point of disappearing. Wiley became even more frightened.
“Tell you what, little boy: you go on and invite me over to your land, and I’ll be sure to forget this thing here ever happened. You okay with that, Wiley?”
Wiley didn’t ask him how he knew his name. It wasn’t important at the moment. He shook his head again. He made sure he shook it well, since it was all he could do.
The tall man feigned incredulity. “You won’t invite me over, not even after I made a promise to you?”
No, Wiley repeated with a shake of his head. The man’s eyes grew wide this time, perhaps with a bit of genuine incredulity. But then they returned to their normal size, and the man continued. He seemed unflappable.
“Don’t you know who I am? Don’t you know me?”
Wiley longed to shake his head again, to deny the man’s name (and thus deny his existence), but he simply could not, and he could not quite explain why it was he could not. He nodded in agreement but did not say a word.
The tall man – in his mind Wiley had already begun calling him by his right name, The Hairy Man – took his long, hairy finger from his mouth and spat on the ground. He said, “Why don’t you go ahead and call me by my name then, so’s we can saddle up and be friends? Huh? I already know your name. I called you Wiley. Why can’t you just utter my name and let’s get on being friends? It’d be rude not to. Friend.”
Wiley resisted. He sniffled, clearing his throat, and spoke for the first time: “If you know my name, and I ain’t called yours, does that mean I can step foot on your land but you can’t put one of your hairy feet on mine? Is that how them rules work?”
The hair on the man’s body parted with the oncoming wind like tall grass just before a storm. “You got a tiny little voice, tiny little boy,” he said. “But you say some pretty big words. Sounds like somebody else I once knew.”
With that, the Hairy Man stepped away from the tree and ran one grubby hand on his protruding belly, which was as hairy as the rest of him. Wiley was coming to realize that the hair was as coarse as the bristles on a wild hog, and he shivered when he imagined them running over the back of his neck or down his arms. If that man was to run up and grab him, he thought he might scream the life right out of himself.
The Hairy Man seemed to be aware of this, because he scratched the backs of his hands, and he said, “Your daddy sure did taste good. But he was a bit long in the tooth. Gamey, you know? Like he’d been sitting in a brine of cheap women and bad whiskey. I’m sure he wasn’t near as tender as you gon’ be.”
The paralysis broke in Wiley, and he managed two shuddering steps backward. His feet couldn’t manage a full-on sprint, at least not yet, and besides he imagined the Hairy Man catching up with him sooner or later anyway, so running was just not an option. “My father is a-working on a railroad somewhere out west. He ain’t dead. You mistaken.”
“Oh, I ain’t mistaken, little boy. Little Wiley. Every time I open up my mouth, I can hear your daddy’s voice down in my belly, along with all the other people I went and ate up. Soon – very soon – it’ll be your voice I hear, and I just can’t wait ’til that moment.”
“But if I don’t invite you over, and I never leave my land, you can’t get to me, can you? Can you?” He tried to be confident, but confidence like the kind his father had possessed failed him. He took another few steps backwards, watching the Hairy Man. Waiting for him to notice Wiley getting farther away, if he hadn’t already.
“I can do just about anything I put my mind to, Little Wiley. From what your daddy tells me, your mama ain’t the best conjure woman. An’ even if she was, I’m the best conjure man, and I’d be better by half. Can’t nobody fool me.”
The Hairy Man grinned as he stepped across the boundary into the land that was not his, but Wiley’s family’s land. A sizzling plume of smoke arose from around the shaggy feet, but he kept on walking. Wiley, in his desperation, gasped. But he could not run, not yet.
The Hairy man said, “There’s enough of your daddy left in me for me to step across the boundary line. His blood is still running through my veins, so as long as that’s true, I can do whatever I please.”
A burst of wind cooled Wiley’s neck. He turned, prepared to run, and saw a figure standing before him, a smoky, wispy figure much taller than himself and yet much shorter than the Hairy Man. It was his father, or a ghostly approximation of him.
His father flickered in the afternoon sunshine. A pale shade of gray, like the ashes from the center of a bonfire, his father was translucent and yet held a presence. He was fully clothed, dressed in the suit in which he died, and tipped his hat. “Watch out, boy,” he said. “This won’t be something you need to see.”
“But daddy,” Wiley began. His mind was racing. He flicked his head around and saw that the Hairy Man had crossed the threshold and was now approaching with characteristic slowness.
“Go on,” his father said. “I can keep him busy ’til you get home to your mama. She’ll know what to do. She always does.”
A loud pop cracked in the sky, and Wiley’s father disappeared. Behind the dissipating wisp of smoke, the Hairy Man cackled as he walked, taunting Wiley by rubbing his enormous belly.
He was close now. Wiley could smell his putrid stink. Wiley wondered how the man could ever sneak up on anyone, even a fisherman who doesn’t wash. “Come ‘ere, boy. I can make it quick and painless.”
Wiley finally turned and ran.
Twenty paces back down the path, a thundering blast shook the earth under Wiley’s feet. It felt like what he imagined Armageddon would feel like, when Jesus Himself would come down from heaven and rescue all the ungrateful sinners. He lost his feet and tumbled headlong into a group of high weeds and swallowed a dandelion flower. There was a great, inhuman roar behind him.
Wiley scrambled behind a chest-high bush and peered through it. The Hairy Man lay sprawled on the ground, his ugly face wrenched into a pained expression, a gray blur swirling around him. The swirl, he saw, was Wiley’s father, doing what he hadn’t done so well back on the boat. Fighting. He was fighting, and not for himself for once. Not for a gambling debt, but for his son.
The Hairy Man tried to stand, but the great whoosh of air that was Wiley’s father rushed high into the air and came down with tremendous force, walloping the brute like a natural disaster. Another beastly growl rose from him, and the two commenced fighting again, but Wiley didn’t stick around for that. He took his father’s advice, and he ran all the way home, his feet beating a hard, regular rhythm on the Mississippi clay.
By the time he reached home, he was limping a little and his neck ached from looking over his shoulder. His mama must have sensed something, because she met him out in the yard. The screen door slapping against the frame knocked him out of his daze, and as he pressed his face against her breast, he broke into a fit of convulsive sobs.
“Go on and get in the house, son,” his mother said. He heard the strained impatience in her voice. “Put some cold water on your neck to stop them hitches and then go out behind the house. Pat yourself with dirt and wait for me to call you back in the house. You hear me?”
“Then go on. And don’t make a sound.”
And that is exactly what he did. He draped a damp shirt across his neck and went out behind the house and patted down his underarms and nether regions with dirt to mask the scent and sat there, knees drawn against his chest.
There was a healthy, slightly-frightened squeal from somewhere in the front part of the land as Wiley’s mother wrangled a piglet inside. What his mama did with it after getting it inside Wiley didn’t know, but given the commotion, he suspected it wasn’t pleasant for her or the pig.
Not long after, the ground began to quake again. Above that, he heard the ragged in-out of the Hairy Man’s breath, which sounded like a steam engine building up speed.
The sound was met by a screech as loud as anything Wiley had ever heard, and that included the one time he’d heard a riverboat explode. It was a great, high scream, the sound of metal clanging together in a single, dissonant note. This sound resembled that, only human. Since it was too high-pitched for the Hairy Man, Wiley went ahead and assumed it to be his mother’s voice. He had to cover his ears to keep from going deaf.
To combat it, there was a great clamorous roar. The sound of the shrill voice subsided, leaving only the Hairy Man’s great wail in its wake.
“My God woman,” he growled. “Ain’t you the worst haint I ever laid my eyes on? Lookit you, like death left out in the sunlight for days. Your boy know about you?”
“Must be the worst you ever laid your ears on, you old smelly brute. Get on outta here and leave my boy alone. You done enough to hurt this family, and I ain’t gonna kill you today, because I know your belly’s gone get you in more trouble than my mouth ever could.”
“‘Less I knock it offa you, old witch-woman. Them spells as weak as your old fella’s card game, and look at what that got him. Back on off and this’ll only take me a peep.”
Wiley strained his ears to listen. He wanted so bad to peek through the window above his head, across the house, and through the door on the other side, just to see the look on the Hairy Man’s face at having to deal with his mother. The Hairy Man might have been meaner than most men, but Wiley’s mother made rattlesnakes flinch when she wanted to.
The Hairy Man growled at Wiley’s mother like a charging boar and said, “Let me in that house, or else I’ll snatch you up and gobble you down, yes. Then that boy of yours won’t have nobody to see after him, ‘cept me when I come on back to claim him. When I’m hungry again.”
There was a silence then, after which Wiley’s mother spoke in the sweetest of all her sweet voices. “We both know you don’t have a taste for women. Let me make you a deal.”
“I do not have to make deals. Everything that lays in my vision is mine, and if it is not, then I take it. Like your son. Hand him over and I won’t chew off his nose in front of you.”
Wiley’s mother let out another one of those ear-splitting screams, and there was another rumble in the ground beneath Wiley’s feet. The next the Hairy Man spoke, his voice was more distant. “All right, woman. I’ll deal up with you if you stop that horrendous yelling. I hope that old man of yours never had to put up with such foolishness.”
“All right,” she said, “I’ll give you the baby under that blanket on one condition: you got to give me my husband back. I need him to plow the field and plug up the holes in the tin roof. That boy of mine ain’t old enough to take care of everything, and he just ain’t got the gumption of his father. He’s a weak boy, and I don’t want to give him up, but if I can get me a man back, then I know I can make do with that one.”
The next sound reminded Wiley of his mother’s haint wail, but the exact opposite. This was low, and Wiley took this chance to sneak around the house and see what was going on.
The Hairy Man’s back faced him, and for a moment he thought that maybe his mother had seen him. She expressed an almost imperceptible widening of the eyes. If she saw him, she didn’t respond.
Instead, her eyes had fixed on the dynamic blue cloud seeping from the Hairy Man’s mouth. He hunched over as if preparing to vomit, and the smoky-hued substance continued to encircle the man’s giant, scraggly head.
A nearly human form emerged from the jumble of smoke. Wiley’s mother reached out with both hands and snatched at it, and the Hairy Man’s body jerked as if he had been slapped. He looked smaller and older than before, and Wiley’s mother took no pity on him. She placed a foot on the bad man’s chest and kept on yanking, as if Wiley’s father’s spirit were a loose tooth.
When finally a whole man stood beside the mother, stillness fell over the four of them: The Hairy Man, Wiley, and his mom and dad. The Hairy Man’s chest was heaving but he stood stock still. “Take the baby and leave my property,” both parents said in unison, and the Hairy Man began to stumble back towards the house. “He’s under the covers.”
The Hairy Man smiled and went inside, thinking he’d gotten the better of them all.
Wiley held his breath as the covers were thrown back and the baby pig was revealed.
A great roar emerged from the house. “This isn’t your son!” he screamed.
“I never said you could have my son,” replied Wiley’s mother. “I said you could have the baby under that blanket, and it is a baby you’ve got there. A baby pig. You can have it if you like.”
“I am going to tear you both apart.”
This time, it was Wiley’s father’s turn to speak. “There will be no such thing,” he said, and pleasurably awkward tingles ran down Wiley’s spine. “You’ve got what we were willing to give up. You promised; now go.”
“It doesn’t matter that you tricked me. I will not leave until I have your son.”
“You will leave or we will cast you into the fire and be burned like dried wood,” said his mother, and Wiley could tell she meant it, too.
The Hairy Man seemed to bristle at the idea – and he screamed that horrible scream of his once more – but he said not another word. He even left the pig, jumping through the window directly over Wiley’s head and running screaming into the woods on the far side of their property.
Wiley did not wait for him to be completely gone before hurrying out to the front yard to where his mother stood, hands on her hips. “Where’s Daddy?” Wiley asked. “He ain’t here. He was just here.”
“He’ll always be here with us,” she replied. “I won’t say he’s everywhere, like some folks do, but I can say one thing: He ain’t with the Hairy Man.”
Wiley thought he might cry just then, if the baby pig hadn’t darted out of the front yard in the direction of the high grass, looking for somewhere to hide from these crazy people. That made Wiley smile. From that day forward, the Hairy Man was never seen around Gulfport, and Wiley learned to love the feeling a breezy day gave him.