Beautiful Ashes: C.L. Bledsoe

Presented by Jen Michalski, for PANK. For a description of this guest series, click here.

“Wrong Turn in Hard Times”

July 3

OMG you won’t believe this, diary, but Luke tied Daddy up in the shed and tried to eat his liver. Again! He waited till Daddy fell asleep (I think Luke put something in his water cause Daddy said he wouldn’t sleep again until we were back home) and dragged him out to the shed. He was sharpening his knife when Papa Gumbo came and let Daddy out. Boy was Papa Gumbo sore. He whipped Luke till his back was all bloody. (I saw it! Euw!!). The whole time, Daddy was trying to tell him to stop, and he finally did. Daddy said boys will be boys. I still think Luke is kind of weird.

July 4

Mary Bob came and let me out of the cage so I could play dollies with her. It’s weird how she doesn’t talk, but she makes these noises sometimes that sound like she’s talking. And she can talk to the dog. And I’m pretty sure squirrels. Daddy said it’s because she was locked up and never went to school, even though she’s old now. He said I shouldn’t make fun of her for being different. There but for the grace of God, whatever that means. I think it’s kind of cool how she can growl and whine and bark at the dog and it will do stuff. And the squirrels. She convinced a squirrel to bring us some nuts. They were a lot better than the food we usually eat, which I’m pretty sure is made from the dead bodies in the cemetery next door. Dad says I shouldn’t jump to conclusions like that. He said he used to live in a neighborhood where there was a Chinese restaurant and people always said there weren’t any stray animals in the neighborhood, but that was because there were really good animal control people. But I found a finger bone in my sandwich yesterday. There was a ring on it with an inscription that said, “Love Everlasting, Barbara.” I asked Daddy, and he said we don’t have a cousin Barbara.

July 5

Mom came and visited me today and said, that if I’d just marry Luke they’d let me out. She said she’s never been happier since she married Papa Gumbo. Daddy wouldn’t even look at her. She whispered that he was for the soup, whatever that means. I don’t know. Luke’s kind of cute, I guess, but I just don’t know if we have anything in common. I mean, he brings me flowers, which is soooooo sweet, and he said he’d make me a wedding ring from a filling. Mom says I won’t be young forever. I told her I needed to think about it. After she left, Daddy was crying in his cage, which was a real bring down. As she walked past his cage, Mom had said it was his idea to come to West Virginia on vacation.

July 6

I miss my Iphone. The reception out here is, like, nonexistent. I miss Twitter and Instagram and Sparkle. I miss Stephie and her cousin. We’re always getting in trouble. I was telling Luke about this one time when Stephie’s dumbass cousin convinced us to sneak into the new Twilight movie, and then the film messed up and she went and complained to a manager who asked to see her ticket and then threw her out. But we stayed and watched it. Luke said one time he convinced his cousin Earl to sneak into a bear’s cave to steal a cub cause he wanted to raise it as a pet. But the bear wasn’t gone, so it, like, totally clawed him up and tore one of his arms off. And then the bear kept him there while he almost bled to death until it fell asleep and he was able to sneak out. I told him I didn’t believe him, and he got really mad and then came back later with this other guy. It turned out, it was Earl! And he only had one arm. Luke made him tell me how he lost it, and when he did, I called him a dumbass. Earl got mad, but Luke slapped him to the ground and made Earl crawl out of the room. I apologized to Luke for not believing him. I hope he understands: that’s just how girls are sometimes. We have to make guys prove themselves.

Update: After I wrote this, I got Luke to make Earl come back and apologize to me for getting mad at me. It really made Earl mad. I let Luke hold my hand after that.

July 7

Papa Gumbo came and took us out to the cemetery. Everyone was really sad—Papa Gumbo and Luke and Earl and Mary Bob and all the other cousins. Papa Gumbo made a speech, and all his wives cried. I didn’t see Mom, and after the funeral, Daddy went up to Papa Gumbo and asked who had died. Papa Gumbo said it was Mom. He said she’d been a good wife, though, and Daddy should be happy about that. Then they took us back to our cages. Luke came in a little later, and I asked him how Mom died, but he wouldn’t tell me. “Well that’s not going to make me want to marry you,” I said, but I felt bad about it.

July 8

They didn’t feed us after the funeral and haven’t yet today. Mary Bob came in and gave Daddy a sandwich, but it turned out to be full of worms. He was only able to eat about half of it because they kept wriggling away. I think Mommy was the one getting us food. I think that’s why she married Papa Gumbo. I tried to tell Daddy, but he wouldn’t listen.

Update: Luke came and asked me to marry him again. I said I still wasn’t sure, and he said I only had three days to decide, because after that, Daddy and I would die of thirst. I said it wouldn’t be much fun kissing me if I was dead. Luke shrugged and said he wasn’t sure he minded. That hurt my feelings, so I turned my back to him. He brought me some water after that, but I wouldn’t take it until he gave some to Daddy.

Mary Bob came back and apologized for the worm sandwich and let me out to play with her. I bet her she couldn’t get any more squirrels to bring her nuts or berries, and whenever she did, I would bet her again and again, and make the bet harder and harder. Finally, I bet her she couldn’t get a squirrel to bring me a ham sandwich, and she couldn’t, so I won. When I got back to the cage, I shared the nuts and berries with Daddy. He said he always knew I was a genius child. I said then why wouldn’t he get me a car? He laughed a long time over that.

July 9

OMG, Diary! Papa Gumbo came and said he wants me to be his new wife since Mom is gone. He said he’d give me till sundown to think about it. I’m honored, but I like Luke a lot better. I kept waiting for Luke to come so I could tell him that, because I thought he probably would be mad, but he was gone most of the day. Finally, Mary Bob came to play and said that Luke found out about it and challenged Papa Gumbo, but Papa Gumbo won and cut Luke all up and threw him in the Pit, so Luke’s been down there crying and fighting off the snakes. Daddy said he would support whatever I wanted because it’s a big decision. When Papa Gumbo came back, I asked him if me and Daddy could get out of the cage and have beds and if I could have a car, and he said yes to everything but the car. But he said he could work something out. So I said give me some food and I’ll think about it, and he said nobody knows how to make food, which is why he wants to marry me. I felt sorry for him, then, so I said I’d do it! I’m so excited to plan the wedding with Mary Bob!

July 10

Papa Gumbo sure is strange in certain ways. First, he had me put on this ratty dress that he said his first wife was buried in. I was a little disappointed because I wanted to wear my grandmother’s dress, but Papa Gumbo said my mother was married in this, to him, so that made me feel better. The ceremony was nice, though. Mary Bob picked flowers and arranged them all over, which helped a lot with the smell, too, because Papa Gumbo wanted all his previous wives and a bunch of dead relatives in attendance, and they sure did stink! It was nice seeing Mom again, though.

The ceremony was sweet. Papa Gumbo said a bunch of stuff in some language I didn’t understand. I don’t think it was French, cause I took some French in junior high and I didn’t recognize any of the words. Then everybody howled or hooted or whatever. They’d found this hitchhiker, and they dressed him up like Luke, since Luke was still in the Pit, and made him give me away. He was crying the whole time, which I thought was really sweet.

After it was over, Papa Gumbo took me to the kitchen and I made food for everybody. It was tough, but after that wedding, I think I can handle any smell. I tried to throw out a bunch of stuff, and Papa Gumbo got mad. He said he likes his meat to have flavor. I asked him if he’d ever heard of garlic and he got mad. But then he laughed and said it was pretty funny. I haven’t seen Daddy all day. I hope he’s okay in the cage by himself. I’ll try to sneak out and take him some food later and show him my dress. He’ll be so proud of me! I wish Mom could’ve been here, but then I guess I wouldn’t be in her dress.

July 11

I wasn’t able to see Daddy last night or this morning. I’ve been so busy with cleaning out the sores on the pigs and Papa Gumbo’s stomach! He has this genetic condition which makes his intestines be exposed and gives him a really touchy stomach. (I think that’s why he’s so cranky sometimes.) Even though it’s genetic, Luke doesn’t have it, which is nice. It makes me feel sorry for Papa Gumbo, though. Anyway, what I was saying was every time I start to go see Daddy, something happens—like Mary Bob shows up and wants to teach me how to talk ‘possum, or Earl needs help tying his shoes. I haven’t seen Luke for a couple days. When I asked Mary Bob, she wouldn’t answer. She wouldn’t tell me about Daddy, either. She’s so weird sometimes!

Update: I snuck down to the Pit and talked to Luke. He killed all the snakes. (He’s so brave!) I gave him a raccoon sandwich cause it’s his favorite. He’s still pretty mad about Papa Gumbo and me, but he doesn’t blame me. I’m really torn about the whole thing.

July 12

OMG you won’t believe everything that has happened! I’ve been sleeping in the kitchen because Papa Gumbo likes to eat at all hours (because he can hardly keep food down, due to his condition). He came in early this morning and kicked me awake. He was carrying a bag full of squirrels! I was so surprised. He told me to cook them, so I started washing them and trying to get their fur off, which wasn’t as hard as I’d thought it would be. (I’ve had lots of practice on road kill.) Soooo a little while later, when I had a big pot of squirrels and dumplings going, Mary Bob came in, crying inconsolably. It turns out these were her squirrels! She didn’t know they were dead, at first, just missing. I really didn’t know what to say to her. She really loved those squirrels, and I have to admit, I was fond of them. Just as she was talking, she saw the pot of food and as she was watching, a squirrel head bobbed to the surface with its eyes bugged out. (Papa Gumbo likes to suck their eyes out, so he made me keep the heads on.) She started crying and grabbed a knife and stabbed me a couple times before I was able to calm her down and tell her the whole story, or at least what I knew of it. I urged her not to do anything hasty, but she was already gone with the bloody knife. It took me a second to put some rags on my wounds to stop the blood (though Papa Gumbo doesn’t mind a little blood in his food) and then I was able to chase after her. When I found her, she was in Papa Gumbo’s bedroom. He was in there, too, sitting, looking out the window at the cemetery, talking to his dead relatives who were arranged around a table in the room like they were playing poker.

I thought she was okay. She was all sweet and nice, at first, and asked if she could come sit on his lap. He opened his arms and she climbed up, which was hard because she was a very large woman, but with a lot of grunting, she managed it. He tried to rock her, but had a hard time. I thought it was a sweet scene. He was sort of rocking her, grunting in pain, and she sat on him. I didn’t see the knife, at first, and I thought she’d dropped it somewhere (though I hadn’t seen it along the way). She had his legs pinned, and then she leaned back and pinned his chest and one of his arms. She was so big, compared to him, that she kind of flowed over him like dough. Then, suddenly, she had the knife out and stabbed him in the throat and eyes and face and chest, screaming as the blood splattered all over her. He put his giant hands around her neck and throttled her, but she kept stabbing him. His hands locked on her neck and choked her to death. At least it stopped her screaming. But she was still on top of him (it took me and Earl and Luke to get her off. We had to go get Luke out of the Pit) and he bled out and died under her. I didn’t know what to do. I froze. I feel so ashamed, but this was my best friend and my husband. When we did get them separated, I saw that Papa Gumbo and Mary Bob were being intimate, which made me feel mad and sad at the same time. We buried them in the cemetery. Luke said we’ll dig them up in a few months when the worst of the smell is gone.

July 13

Luke wanted to marry me right away, so we had a ceremony right after we buried Papa Gumbo. Luke said he’s the new Papa. Earl kept arguing and saying he saw some things he needed to tell me about, about who really killed the squirrels, but when I went to meet him at Great Grandmother Verlyn’s grave, he was lying there, crying, bleeding from his mouth because somebody had cut his tongue out. Luke said Earl was an idiot and had cut his own tongue out, which made me feel sorry for how dumb Earl is. Now, Earl won’t really go around anyone. Luke says he’s just sulking and he’ll get over it. I hope so, cause it gets lonely with nobody to talk to, though I guess Earl isn’t going to be much of a conversationalist, now. Not that he ever was.

Luke is a much nicer husband than Papa Gumbo. He doesn’t smell nearly as bad, and he doesn’t have nearly as many deformities. He’s also kind of sweet. I fell asleep, and when I woke up, he was licking me. He said he wanted to keep me clean. He learned it from a mama cat. I thought that was really special.

After the wedding, Luke let me go let Daddy out of the cage. He hadn’t eaten in a few days. I hardly recognized him. When I took him up and showed him a mirror, he just stared and stared. He’d lost so much weight! All of his clothes just hung off him like dresses or something. He couldn’t believe it. Luke was a little afraid to let him out because he thought Daddy would run away, but I think Daddy’s too weak to run. Besides, he says he’s so excited at how thin he is. He said some people pay a lot of money for that kind of treatment, which is good, because now that Papa Gumbo’s gone Luke was thinking about changing careers, and they’d need some way of making money. I asked Luke what it was Papa Gumbo did for a living, and he said something about medical research and livers and hearts and things. I guess he was a butcher. Luke said there’s no future in it, though. So now we’re going to open up a health spa. I’m so glad Luke and Daddy get along. I’ve heard horror stories about in-laws. I think I’m very lucky.

CL Bledsoe is the author of three novels including the young adult novel Sunlight, the novels Last Stand in Zombietown and $7.50/hr + Curses; four poetry collections: Riceland, _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online at Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is available at He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 10 times, had 2 stories selected as Notable Stories by Story South’s Million Writers Award and 2 others nominated, and has been nominated for Best of the Net twice. He’s also had a flash story selected for the long list of Wigleaf’s 50 Best Flash Stories award. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings, Bledsoe reviews regularly for Rain Taxi, Coal Hill Review, Prick of the Spindle, Monkey Bicycle, Book Slut, The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.