Back then, they had a way of raising children as if the Devil was in them and your foremost job as a parent was to drive him out. Not every parent took this way, but it was considered best if you minded your own business if that’s how your neighbor chose to raise his.
Even in that climate, folks were worried that John Higgins would kill his son, Pete. It was pretty common for folks to be sitting up at the Couch’s grocery store and the subject of Pete would come up. Should someone go check on him? Should someone try to get in contact with his mother’s people? Should the pastor talk with John about it?
If two or three days went by and no one had seen Pete, one of the Couch boys would be dispatched to make sure he was still alive. One time, the orneriest of the Couch boys had arrived out at the Higgins’ farm to find John whaling on Pete with a belt, while Pete was curled up on the ground. That Couch boy tried to get between them and John beat the shit out of him.
That resulted in some of the townsmen going out to the farm and having a little talk with John, but it didn’t improve Pete’s lot any.
There was some thought that, once Pete got John’s size, it would end. Pete would turn on him just once, drop the old man, and that would settle it.
That turned out to not be the case. Pete never stood up to him. He would wake up, go through his day, doing his chores, sometimes running to town, come on home, make dinner for the both of them, and whatever his dad did to him, Pete just took it.
When he was fifteen, his dad did finally kill him. And even old John Higgins knew this was a bridge too far. Folks will overlook a lot–even pounding on someone else’s kid–but they won’t overlook a murder.
And so, he waited until nightfall and carried Pete’s body down to Stone’s River, slit his throat, and dropped him in. It’d been a wet enough spring that the river was deep enough to carry that boy clear out of sight.
Old John figured that, in the morning, he would raise a fuss about the boy running off and most everyone would figure Pete had finally got fed up and that would be the end of it.
And so, he came home, kicked his boots off, and finally fell asleep. It’s said that he dreamed of his dead wife, but I think folks just throw that detail in there to try to suggest there was something redeemable about him.
In the morning, John awoke to the sound of a pan clanking on the stove and, after a second, the smell of breakfast cooking. He opened his eyes, slowly rolled out of bed, and stumbled to the kitchen. There was Pete, same as always, fixing up some eggs and bacon.
John’s first thought was, “Well, damn, I guess I didn’t kill him.” So, he sat at the table, like any other morning, and waited on breakfast. When the boy came close to drop the plate in front of him, John noted that he smelled wet, and, when the father looked up at the son, John saw a red gash, like a grin, running from ear to ear under the boy’s chin.
Now, I imagine John was terrified, at first, but it became pretty quickly apparent that, other than Pete being dead, circumstances didn’t change much. Pete still fixed all the meals, still did all his chores and some of John’s, and still wrangled the mule and the two pigs. Even the dog would still curl up at Pete’s feet. The only difference was the Pete never talked and never slept. At night, even though it was getting warm, all he wanted to do was sit by the fire.
Pete’d make his way up to the store every once in a while and folks would stop to stare, but no one was quite sure what to do. They all knew he was dead. Shoot, the longer he was up walking around, the more apparent it became. His skin took on a translucent gray tone and sometimes he’d come in with a broken finger all hanging loose and crooked at the end of his hand. And, of course, there was the gash at his throat.
Finally, the orneriest Couch boy, himself nearing 18, had had enough.
“Y’all let that bastard kill him,” he said in disgust, “and now you’re going to let that be his afterlife?”
“Well, what are we supposed to do?” They asked. “It’s not really our business.”
“Maybe we really ought to get in touch with his mama’s people,” they said.
“Are you kidding me?!” Couch said. “My whole life… my whole life…and even still…” He shook his head, and walked out of the store in disgust.
Late that night, he made his way over to the Higgins place. He peered in a window and saw the bedroom door shut. Pete sat by the fire, staring at nothing. Couch knocked softly on the window. Pete slowly turned his head and looked. Couch lightly knocked again. Pete came to the door, unlocked it, and stepped outside.
“Hey,” Couch said, softly. “Are you all right? Pete, you know you’re dead, right?”
And Pete nodded, his big eyes filling with tears.
“Then why are you still here?”
And Pete said, in a cracking voice that hadn’t spoken in months, “I can’t find my soul.”
Couch didn’t quite know what to make of it. “Excuse me?”
Pete just repeated, mournfully, “I can’t find my soul.”
Couch said, “Well, where did you last have it?”
And Pete said, “When I was five. I put it in a bottle and hid it so it’d be safe and my Dad couldn’t break it.”
Well, this Couch may have been the orneriest of the bunch, but even he could not hear this and not get a little choked up.
“Okay,” Couch said, “Okay. Where did you hide it?”
“I remember putting it under the porch,” Pete said. “But I got problems. My head only stays on if I stay upright. My fingers keep breaking. And I dug as much as I could, but…”
“Well, you’re in a spot,” Couch said. “But I’m going to help you. You just get your Dad good and drunk tomorrow night and while he’s sleeping, I’ll hunt for you.”
And so, as planned, the next night John was passed out in the bedroom, and Pete, as best as he was able, was helping Couch to pry up the floorboards on the porch so that Couch could dig beneath them. Finally, as it was getting on near three, Couch hit something hard in the dirt.
“Hey, Pete!” He yelled, without even thinking about it. “I got it.”
Well, that was enough to wake John. He jumped up out of bed, grabbed his gun, came rushing through the house, straight to the front door. He saw only that the porch was in ruins and someone he didn’t immediately recognize was standing in front of him.
He fired twice.
Couch fell where he stood, the shovel dropping and, in a small miracle, shattering the glass jar half unearthed at his feet.
At the same moment, Pete fell to the ground, dead again.
A cool blue ball of light rose up out of the broken jar and slowly drifted down towards the river. And then, they say, Couch’s mouth fell open and a green ball of light rose up out of him and bobbed along behind the blue light.
They say John Higgins never even made it to trial, that he hung from the big oak in front of the grocery store before the judge got out that way.
And for years, people reported seeing those lights, two bobbing orbs, rising up out of the ground where the Higgins place used to stand and dancing all the way down to the river and beyond, finally, out of sight.
Years later, Couchville was given up to make room for Percy Priest Lake. Everything–the old grocery store, the post office, the Couch family home, even the old burnt out ruins of the Higgins place–everything is under water now.
And yet, still those lights come up. You can see them coming up through the water, casting a soft glow on the skeletons of old buildings as they rise, and then they’ll bob up out of the water and dance across the surface of the lake, headed up towards the Cumberland and points further.