When I was a graduate student at Vanderbilt, I went back to my hometown in Georgia to work on a remodeling crew. One of my crewmates was a boy named Jake. He was seventeen and skinny but tough as beef jerky. He was so country that the dash and bustle of Warner Robins, Georgia made him gape the way you might gape at Times Square, and any time we went to a restaurant for lunch, he had the unsettling habit of telling the town girls how pretty they were.
Most mornings Jake came to work bleary-eyed, as if he had stayed up all night. I asked him what that was about, certain there was a good story behind those red-rimmed eyes.
“I hunt wild hogs,” he said. “Me and my buddies spend most nights in the swamps, either at the Ocmulgee or the Flint.”
“Boar hunting!” I said. This was interesting. I didn’t figure it would be hard to get him going on that subject. A question or two, and he would be off. “So, what kind of gun do you use?” I asked.
“Gun?” he scoffed. “We don’t take no guns!”
“Then what do you take?”
“Dogs. Rope. A flashlight.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, not sure we were talking about the same thing. “What did you say?”
“We got these dogs,” Jake said. “Mostly bulldog. We slog through the swamp until they bay up a hog. Then a catch dog grabs holt of his ear.” He paused, basking in my fascinated attention. “And then I whirl in with the rope to tie him up.”
“Tie him up?” I asked. “Tie who up?”
“The hog! Who else?”
“You mean like calf-roping at a rodeo?”
“About like that. Except that a calf aint slinging five-inch tusks around and kicking like a roto-tiller and squealing to deafen a feller. It’s some excitement, I don’t mind telling you.”
I gaped. “So you tie him up,” I said. “What do you do then?”
“We carry him out on a pole, kicking and squirming.”
I didn’t know whether to believe him or not, but the next day he brought me pictures of the dogs, the hogs, and the hunters, both in the swamp and in the pen where they fattened up their captured hogs.
Jake came to work one morning more red-eyed than usual. Obviously he had been crying. I put a hand on his ropy shoulder. “What’s wrong, Jake?” I asked.
He gave me a doleful look, then busted out crying again. “We were hunting last night,” he sobbed. “And an alligator ate my dog.”
I thought, What a world is this? I was living this suburban, academic life, and yet there was this alternate world swirling just around the corner where men wrestled wild boars in the swamp and alligators ate their dogs. I decided that if I ever wrote a book, Jake would have to be in it. And he is. He is the original feechie.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.