by Gene Hathorn E-Mail
Gene Hathorn #800
12002 FM 350 So.
Livingston, TX 77351
From Self Land Printed here by permission from
Biddle Publishing 1998
Solitary confinement. What a hellhole. One hour of recreation per
week, one five-minute shower a day, three meals hastily handed through a slot by guards
who would happily kick one's ass if given half a reason. The rest of the time spent in
So it goes for one who has killed a prison guard.
Clydell McCardle, on death row eight years, had done just that. Prison guards have been attacked and killed for many motives -- abuse, disrespect, psychological torture, even for no reason at all. But Clydell's victim was the only one ever to be killed over a rat, the long-tailed, beady-eyed variety, that is, not the kind who skulks about reporting to The Man what other convicts do.
Clydell was doing time in general population for a first attempt at aggravated robbery, was in fact planning what he would do once on parole, when the killing of Buford Florence occurred.
Buford was a guard who specialized in tyranny, knew he was good at it, and enjoyed himself while imposing his will on inmates. Buford's fetish was the shakedown, a necessary aspect of prison life wherein guards search cells for weapons or other contraband. Rather than rifle through a person's property and go about his business, Buford preferred to destroy as much as he could. Someone tried to better himself through writing? Break his typewriter. Someone had pictures of wives, girlfriends, or other family on the wall? Tear them down, throw them in the toilet or on the floor. Someone had diabetes or high blood pressure? Confiscate his medicine and force him to wait ten or twelve days before getting a new batch.
Clydell, on the other hand, was a man who, though his life had been no bed of roses, loved life. Raised in East Texas around farms, ranches, and National Forests, he possessed an obsessive affection for nature and animals and spoke with a soft drawl that earned him the nickname "Country". But Clydell's father, Jock, had had a negative impact on his life; when Buford shook down Clydell's cell one day, the memories, like the stench of rotting meat, came forth.
School was never interesting for Clydell, just
something he attended because Jock said he had to. He did not like the noise of roaring
buses, shouting children, or banging lockers, nor could he remain focused on teachers who
droned about seemingly irrelevant topics. Therefore, after the requisite pledge of
allegiance, he sat quietly, pretending to pay attention, his mind on the Shetland pony his
grandmother had given him for Christmas.
Sally. His pride and joy. A chubby equine with reddish brown hair and a white mane and tail. After finishing his daily chores, he would slip the bridle on Sally and ride bareback through the woods til dark. Then, while she ate a square of alfalfa and a bucket of aromatic horse feed, he would brush the burrs from her coat. Jock had griped a lot about the cost of feeding Sally, but Clydell paid little attention. If need be he would get a job to pay the feed bills, though jobs were not plentiful for eight-year-old boys; Jock usually mellowed out after his nightly snorts of whiskey, anyway. Because Mama had been dead three years now, Clydell thought Jock might benefit from remarriage, but, fearing one of Jock's explosions of temper, he never brought the subject up. He just wanted to be left alone with Sally.
There's something special about a boy's relationship with his horse. Clydell thought Sally precious and regal. He often envisioned himself a cavalryman and she his sturdy steed riding into battle, or he a king and she his loyal mare. Sometimes he was the ill-fated General Custer, other times Richard the Lionhearted, but always he and Sally, as she plodded through the verdure, for he seldom induced her to run, were an invincible team. She was also his psychologist, for when he felt insecure about not fitting in at school or depressed after tasting the scald of Jock's belt, she would listen, ears turned in rapt attention, as he shared his grief and pain. On occasion he would sit under a tree and Sally, the scent of grass and weeds on her breath, would, with her velvety nose, nuzzle his face, her liquid brown eyes conveying love and devotion. When he dared not go home, Clydell would often curl up in the pine straw beside the forest's winding creek and sleep, dreaming dreams wherein he and Sally, each garbed in raiment of white and purple satin, led processions down streets cobbled with gold. As he slept, Sally would stand over him, a protective sphinx to ward off any threat that might happen along.
But Sally could not protect herself.
On a sunny fall day Clydell, ready to bridle Sally and go for a ride, rounded the curve of the lane that led to his house, and saw Sally's corpse lying near the woods. Feeling his stomach constrict as if crushed between slabs, he stood still and tried to convince himself that his mind was deceiving him, that Sally was not dead, just sleeping. Clydell slowly approached his friend. It seemed that knowing the cause of her demise would be important, though he felt in a corner of his mind that perhaps he did not wish to know. Coming to her back end he was sickened by the sight of slimy yellow liquid leaking from her vagina.
He hugged himself at the thought that before she died she had suffered. Death was ugly and made her so still, so stiff, so ... gone. Making his way to her head he saw one eye, the other being against the ground, and it was open, glassy and cloudy, the effervescent glow with which it had once regarded him now gone. Clydell's chest hitched, he uttered a barely audible "No", as tears ran crooked rivulets down his face. Then he saw the reason Sally had died. In her neck was a jagged hole from which had exited a bullet from Jock's deer rifle. Clydell bent and circled the hole with his finger, the sight of blood that had drained from it and congealed making him nauseous. He spent thirty minutes stroking Sally's cold, now rubbery, nose. Numb from shock, having depleted his stores of emotion, he later confronted Jock and was told that Sally had been too "mean," hence, because Clydell's safety was at issue, had to be killed. Jock then commented that she was costing too much to feed, anyway, though afterward Clydell noticed that things were not so tight as to warrant removing money for whiskey from the family budget .
It was nine years before Clydell allowed himself to
love another animal, though in the meantime he and Jock owned a hodgepodge of dogs and
cats. Most of them at one time or another, because Jock could not tolerate something whose
mouth he fed being impudent and not "minding" him, felt the toe of Jock's boot
or a hurled chunk of fire wood. As years passed, his bouts of venom increased by degrees,
throwing the animals and his son into a vortex of dread, for they knew not the calibration
of his cycles of anger.
The new object of Clydell's affection was an abandoned dog he found while walking one day on a forestry road. The air was sweet with honeysuckle, and dogwood trees speckled the woods with lucent dabbles of white. All manner of butterfly flitted and danced above the spring blooms, and one of these was trying to escape a snow-white ball of fur. The puppy was frolicking as if it hadn't a care, as if it knew that a friend would happen along. Clydell smiled as the puppy chased and nipped at the butterfly, not really wanting to catch it, rather, luxuriating in the joy of the game. Then the puppy spied Clydell. Through fathomless, black, small, shiny eyes, the puppy regarded him for several seconds, tail wagging, not sure how to proceed. Then it yipped a greeting and in a flash sped to Clydell, leaping into his arms and, as if they had known each other all their lives, licking his face.
"Hey! Hey there boy!" Clydell said, petting the twisting, turning, excited puff of fur. "Whatcha doin' out here all by yourself?"
The question was answered with more licks and a cold-nosed kiss, and Clydell felt an animated sprinkle of urine on his arm. While the puppy wriggled about, Clydell discovered that it was not a boy after all.
"Come on little girl. Let's go get you cleaned up." The puppy settled into Clydell's arms and, like a spoiled princess, regarded their surroundings as they walked home. Every few minutes she would look at Clydell and, when he looked back would yip a greeting, lunging upward to lick his chin. Later, after he bathed her, her fur dried to cottony fluff, soft to touch and so bright it almost hurt the eyes.
"I know what I'm gonna call you," he said. "Snow." Snow yipped twice and licked his hand, indicating the name suited her just fine.
She grew fast and matured into what looked like an all white Husky, only smaller, her nose and ears pointy and tail curled majestically over her back. She was lovable and playful -- even Jock had taken a tolerant shine to her -- and Clydell, beset by the usual problems of adolescence and the ill temper of his father, cavorted with her as if they were soul mates. Though no animal could take Sally's place, in many ways Clydell and Snow were closer. Not only would she listen to his problems as Sally had done, but would contribute to the conversation a sympathetic whine, then an affectionate lick or two, and Clydell, feeling better, would reward her with several pats between the ears. Sometimes, when he was particularly maudlin he would climb a tree and sit on a lower limb, partly to be segregated from the world, partly to tease Snow, but she, not to be shunned, would stand on her hind legs at the base of the tree, front paws scratching its trunk, and whine plaintively until Clydell gave in and came down to hug her. That's all he wanted, for someone to fight for his love, act a fool until he sloughed off the yoke of sadness and joined the party. Snow was the only one who ever went the extra mile, and he loved her for it.
Snow met her death because of a popular East Texas custom. Jock and Clydell raised chickens and allowed the fowl to forage about the home place, as it is indisputable that eggs from chickens who eat bugs, grasshoppers, worms, and frogs are much richer and better tasting than those from chickens who eat only feed and laying pellets. Now chickens are a nuisance. They shit everywhere, cackle at the drop of a hat, accost a body while he's eating, and, fornicating several times a day, display public lewdness.
Snow got into trouble when, being playful, she chased a chicken, not to catch it, but more to revel in its fascinating and comical squawks and wing beats. Jock cited the prevailing custom that once a dog chases a chicken, the dog can never be cured of its errancy. (Actually, the adage is that once a dog kills a chicken and tastes its blood, it cannot be cured, but it was Jock's habit to twist the facts to suit his own purposes). With an imperious gleam in his eye, Jock announced to Clydell that Snow must die. Clydell understood as well as anyone the law of the farm, that animals who contributed to the larder took precedence over those who did not, but he didn't want Snow killed. There were a number of families around who did not own chickens and she could be given to one of them. Her departure would tear Clydell's heart to shreds, but, considering the alternative, he could deal with that. But Jock, basalt-faced and stubborn, not wanting to oblige his pussy son, insisted.
On the day of the killing Clydell, helpless and edgy, was shooting baskets in the front yard, Snow watching from nearby. Clydell heard the back door of the house open and close, then Jock shout Snow's name. Snow, because it was near feeding time, jumped up and scampered around the house. Then silence. Stretching for two minutes, three, then five. Clydell prayed that Jock had experienced a change of heart, that he, too, was captivated by the twinkle in those loving black eyes.
There was a shot.
Clydell's heart sank and, remembering his old pal Sally and his newly dead pal Snow, fury threatened to burst out and explode him into thousands of pieces. But the horror was not over. Jock, wearing a diabolical smile, came from behind the house. In his hand was a shovel.
"Bury the dog," he commanded gruffly, and handed Clydell the shovel. Clydell, incredulous, looked at his father. The heartless sonofabitch didn't have the decency to clean up his own mess.
"Do it now, Clydell." Jock's look contained a challenge, daring Clydell to protest and face violence, or cry and face ridicule.
Walking as slowly as he would eventually walk to his execution, Clydell went to Snow's body and, as he had done with Sally, walked around her. Gone was the glow of her coat. The black eyes were empty and her tongue lolled from her mouth; it had collected dirt and other debris from the ground. In the center of her head was the bullet hole, purple-red blood and other matter splattered on her fur.
Reverently, Clydell picked up Snow's body and heard her insides squish, causing a squeamish shiver in the middle of his back; his beloved friend had been reduced to a prop in a cheap horror show.
When he buried her, the floodgates opened and the rains came. It wasn't the first time Snow had seen him cry.
When officer Buford came into Clydell's cell and
killed his pet rat, Moses, Clydell lost restraint. Buford, after dangling the rat by its
tail in front of Clydell, taunting him, heaved it like a baseball against the wall, and
Clydell charged. When Clydell hit Buford, they tumbled into a concrete window ledge,
against which Buford's head struck awkwardly, breaking his neck.
Hence Clydell's trip to the row and sojourn in solitary confinement, where his enemies, seeing inside him a murderous quality that did not exist, came with mocking smiles, eager to plunge the catheters into his arms.
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