In the Belly of Hell
By Timothy C. Phillips
Jonah has a hump back, and a huge mole on his brow. Jonah is not sad. He is young yet,
and dreams of marrying an ugly girl from the poor side of Motion Gulch. Ugly, yes;
ugly will do fine. Jonah owns land. He has a place on Lake Awatchee, out past Willow Bay.
He also owns a boat, and goes fishing after dark, when the world is the color of the algae
in the backwater, and strange sounds writhe around one in the marshes.
Jonah’s only friend is Theodore Roosevelt Todd, an old black man who lives on a decaying houseboat,
forever moored on the marsh. Todd, when sober, with his blood hounds, is periodically employed by
the Motion Gulch Police Department, finding drowning victims or homicides who have been dumped in
the lake, for seventy-five dollars a day. At other times, he is their guest, as he sometimes drinks
himself into a stupor, and exposes himself to some of Motion Gulch’s more jaded citizens, who are not
so jaded that they no longer take offense.
Besides a weekly trip to town, to McBurnett's Fruit Stand, Jonah had little other human interaction.
On a certain Saturday, Jonah had left his waterfront domicile and headed in the direction of
Todd’s home, having devised the plan of splitting a bottle of Yukon Jack whiskey with the old man.
He was walking southwest, toward the marshes, whiskey in hand, already dreading the eternal clouds
of mosquitoes that wreathed Todd’s boat, when he saw her.
She was wading in the shallows near the estuary where Muckle Creek ran into Lake Awatchee.
She was wearing a thin tee shirt and white shorts; both were quite wet.
She wasn’t ugly.
Not at all.
Jonah’s first instinct was, of course, to shamble away, before the girl saw him.
Instead, he stood transfixed.
Unable to move.
When the girl looked up and saw him, she did not react, except with a tiny smile.
One foot came out of the water, toyed with the air, went back down into the water; a perfect,
white foot. Everything about her was white, white like he thought an angel might look, except
her hair. That was black. Her eyebrows were two perfect little commas, one raised slightly above
the other, as she smiled at him, tiny red lips warping upwards at the corners.
A Bob White called its two sad notes from somewhere near by, close enough to raise the hackles on
his neck. Something stung him on the calf. He absently noted the smell of a snake, somewhere close by.
He did not move.
The girl was getting out of the water now, and she moving towards him, saying something, but his ears
were full of the roaring of his own blood and now mixed in with the heat that shrouded him he felt the
ice cold sweat of stark terror leap out onto his forehead his neck his belly.
A pale delicate hand was extended his way, and the tiny red lips were moving.
The girl made a gentle sound in her throat and her hand slightly wet but warm and agreeable was
touching him, touching his chest, and his head swam and he fought to clear his senses but now the
impossible was happening, and she was touching him down there, and his pecker was already as hard
as an axe handle, and she was whispering words, soft and musical, and working on his fly.
Jonah stood there, terrified, amazed, swaying slightly, and dared not to breath. The whiskey fell
from his hand, thudded and rolled forgotten away. She got his pecker out, finally, and the whole world
took a breath, stood still.
"Well I’ll be damn," she said,suddenly, "looks like I was wrong. The girls said that had a hump on it,
too." And from the trees nearby there came a raucous chorus of awful, beautiful laughter, and now he
saw that two other girls squatted, hidden in the bushes, and had been watching the whole proceedings.
It was too awful; the world was destroyed. Nothing mattered. He ran, blindly, in a random direction,
pecker out and wagging. He ran through briars, marshes, low limbs; he was scratched, struck, tripped,
cut, wet. Things stung him, poked him in the face; he did not care.
A fisherman and his son on the opposite shore saw something thrashing in the water near the marshes
just after dark, and heard terrifying cries. "A calf," The man told the boy, "has got loose and
wandered into a water moccasin bed."
It was Wednesday before the folks at McBurnett’s Fruitstand noticed that Jonah had not been around
for his weekly grocery shopping. Old Ned McBurnett mentioned it to his son, Derrick, who drove out
to the lake that evening.
Theodore Roosevelt Todd was called upon Friday morning, and by the evening, he was sober enough to
get the dogs out. They found the body not too far from Todd’s boat. The coroner said that were no
less than thirty-three moccasin bites on the body.
The sheriff, feeling sorry for the old man, made him a present of the Yukon Jack, which had escaped
That evening, as Todd weaved home, full of liquor and grief, he thought he heard laughter from the
trees around the lake. But when the moon came out, he saw only its silver reflection on the water,
harmless and beautiful.
April 7th, 2003,
rev. February 15, 2004
rev. July 23, 2004