She said kill Clay if you love me and he did love her, loved her more than he’d ever loved a thing or an animal or a person before, loved her so much that sometimes her face came to him in dreams that began before he could even fall asleep. Some nights when the hot wind blew into his open window he’d smell her. From out across the prairie, way out where the wind sheared the corn all night long, he’d smell her. Not the animals, not the shit in the fields, but her—earthy, yes, a grainy smell, but with a sweet, hollow pit that he hadn’t ever smelled until he met her. He said he would do it. In the morning he’d trek out to Clay’s cabin with his deer rifle and shoot him through the heart.
“Through the heart,” she said. “That’s nice. I like that. Through the heart.”
She touched his chest when she said it, a rusty upturned nail of a touch, one finger upon which he hung his existence.
“Bring me something. Something of his,” she said.
“You mean like his hat?”
“I want his tongue.”
“Okay,” he said, “his tongue.”
In the morning, prone behind an oak stump, he watched Clay step out the cabin’s front door and scratch his crotch and stick a cigarette in his mouth. The little puffs of smoke drifted up and into the morning fog, the wet air that spread itself as dew on the grass that soaked his legs and the front of his t-shirt as he lay there. The crack leapt from the chamber, bounding across the fields and rolling back. Clay, struck in the guts, tumbled off the porch and inched in the grass like a caterpillar, moaning his own name.
“Oh Clay, son of a bitch, Clay.”
He was upon him, flipping him on his back, straddling him where the bullet had busted into his intestines. He yanked the Buck knife from its sheath on his belt, stuck it deep into Clay’s mouth and worked the blade around and around and eventually out came the tongue, a swollen thick thing with two white, stubby fibers poking out from the back. He felt stupid suddenly, standing over Clay, holding the man’s own tongue. Clay wasn’t dead, not yet. He blubbered and spat and flapped his arms, but the red spot on the front of his tank-top grew and soon the grass and dew were a slime of blood and he quit moving altogether.
When he gave her the tongue, at the back table at Ray’s, she took it and wrapped it in a napkin and dropped it into her purse.
“Even if you were still alive,” she said, “you can’t lie to me without a tongue.”
“I love you,” he said. “I really do. I just love you.”
“You fucking fuck,” she said into her purse.
“I never said that to a woman before.”
“Do you know,” she said, “he’d tell me, all the time he’d tell me, ‘I’m going to get a newspaper,’ ‘I’m going to get some cigarettes,’ and he’d be gone for days, weeks.”
“Did you hear me, baby?” he said.
“Sure, baby. I hear you. All the way I hear you.”
Paul Luikart's collection Animal Heart comes out May 3rd, 2016. Order it now from our online bookstore! www.hyperboreapub.com/bookstore