Duskin

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Doc Blades, a Sheriff's deputy, received the call of an apparent hit and run on the Loyd Star road outside the city limits of Brookhaven. When he reached the scene, the victim was barely clinging to life. The injured man tightly gripped a dripping wet gunny sack, the smell of formaldahyde was unmistakeable.
My cousin Forest, Jr. and I were attracted to strange things and strange people. No one was as strange as Duskin, a tramp that walked the roads around Loyd Star. During a summer visit with my cousin, our curiousity and this bizarre wanderer brought us face to face with the unthinkable.
During the late 1940's and early 1950's, caravans of gypsies would pass through Loyd Star. They rode in big, black, cars with northern license plates. Arriving just before dark, they would drive past the Jackson Creek Bridge, pull into an opening in the woods, park their cars in a circle, and build a campfire. At daybreak they would continue their journey to New Orleans.
After one of these caravans passed, a strange skeleton of a man appeared, carrying a gunny sack over his back. We came to know him as "Duskin." Some people in the community thought he was harmless, others considered his presence menacing. My cousin and I were intrigued by his strangeness, but mostly we speculated about what could be in the gunny sack he carried everywhere he went. When he came into the store at Loyd Star we studied him. Duskin resembled a fresh corpse wrapped up in layers of shirts and coats. His two pair of britches were baggy and filthy. A layer of powdered dust from the gravel road covered his shoes and part of his pants leg. His skin was the color of copper, and his hair was matted and dirty underneath the rag around his head. The rag covered his ears and was tied under his chin, barely revealing his eyes, black as a raven's. His toothless mouth was small and shriveled, and tobacco juice oozed from the corners and streaked down his chin when he spoke. His speech was a childlike babble followed by shrieking laughter. The stench that enshrouded him was almost unbearable, but the mystery of Duskin attracted us like a magnet.
When Duskin came into the store at Loyd Star he always asked for the same thing-a plug of Brown Mule chewing tobacco, a sack of small nails and an extra brown bag. He filled this extra bag with pop bottle caps that were scattered on the store floor and littered around the store's front steps. When he picked up the bottle caps he would wipe them on his pants leg and hold them up, examining them as if they were priceless jewels. On those visits he never turned loose of the tied gunny sack. We followed him with our eyes until he disappeared down the road. We spent hours that summer talking about Duskin, speculating about who he was and where he came from, but above all, we wanted to know what was inside that gunny sack.
The term "off limits" was not yet engraved in our south Mississippi vocabulary. That summer Forest Jr. and I were plagued with "do nots." The "do nots" came in two parts; the thing we were forbidden to do, followed by the consequences. Do not climb the three story school water tower across the road, you'll break your neck. Do not go inside the school when it's closed, you will get in trouble. Do not step on a rusty nail, you will get lock jaw. We climbed the water tower. On Saturdays, using Forest Jr.'s secret key, we snuck into the school, walked the empty halls, always ending up in the girl's restroom. We'd read the grafiti of real or imagined loves, and count the lipstick kisses. We stepped on at least one rusty nail each summer, but thanks to kerosene, we never caught lockjaw.
This summer a new "do not" was announced. Do not go under the Jackson Creek Bridge. Before the consequence could be spoken, Forest Jr. interrupted his Dad, "Why not?"
"Because you will get snake bit," was the answer.
"Snake bit?" my cousin repeated.
"Just don't go, Forest, Jr. Snakes!"
Forest, Jr. shrugged his shoulders and muttered under his breath, "Snakes, I don't believe a word of it." And as we walked away Forest, Jr. announced, "We're going under that bridge."
"Now?" I asked.
"No, somebody will see us and tell. We're going tonight."
Late that afternoon Forest, Jr. found two long, sturdy sticks, just in case there were snakes, and, in the store, he lifted a brand new flashlight.
That night while the rest of the family slept, Forest, Jr. and I slipped out of the house and headed for the Jackson Creek Bridge. White circles of light danced in front of us, and the gravel crunched under our feet. I gripped my stick firmly and thought of nothing but snakes, big snakes.
When we reached the bridge, we slid down a steep, kudzu laced bank. Forest, Jr. pointed his flashlight under the bridge and we jumped back, startled. In the glare of the flashlight we could see wooden pilings completely covered with colorful bottle caps. They had been carefully placed and nailed there. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Then our light found a ledge in the clay bank. On the ledge were two flickering candles, some bottle caps scattered around, and the familiar gunny sack tied at the top. "Duskin!", we both exclaimed at once. Forest, Jr. searched the area with his light but there was no sign of the tramp. We listened for any sound of movement, but heard nothing. "He's not here," Forest Jr. said with confidence as he reached for the gunny sack. Before he could untie the string, Duskin pounced out of the darkness, quick as a panther. We were caught. He was waving a knife in our faces.
"Who's witch ya?" he mumbled.
"No one," Forest, Jr. whispered.
Duskin snatched his sack from Forest, Jr.'s hands, glared at us for a long time and then folded up his knife and put it in his pocket. He grabbed Forest, Jr. by the shirt collar and pulled him right up to his face. "Ya wanna see what's inside the sack, ain't that it?"
Terrified, my cousin didn't say a word. Duskin released his grip and his mood changed. He started laughing that screeching laugh, mumbled, and slapped his thigh.
"I'll show ya. I'll show ya."
Duskin untied the string and reached inside the sack. He brought out a large glass, wide-mouthed jar and shoved it in our faces. Two small, milky eyes stared back at us. It was a tiny baby floating in liquid.
"That's my baby brother," he screamed and started laughing again. When he turned away to put the jar on the clay ledge, we ran. We ran up the clay bank and all the way back to the store.
We never told anyone what happened under the bridge, and we never saw Duskin again. Duskin was hit by a car and killed near Brookhaven, or at least that's what we were told. Forest, Jr. swore that for years he could hear Duskin laughing outside his bedroom window at night.
In 1968 a new concrete bridge was built over Jackson Creek. You can still find part of a wooden piling covered with bottle caps.

For Alan and Chris
Post script: Last week I found the Duskin accident report. Although he was badly injured, he lived. After the fetus of an unborn baby was discovered, Duskin was committed to Whitfield, the State Insane Asylum. Research revealed that Duskin died as a patient of that institution in 1969.