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OZARK BANSHEE


A Novel by

Malachi Stone



©2018 by Malachi Stone



All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission of the author. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 as amended, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the author constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the author of this work at theoriginalmalachistone@gmail.com. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

All the characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental. All characters in this book are over eighteen years of age.


Cover image (c) Stas Vulkanov


Cover design courtesy Fayefayedesigns



TABLE OF CONTENTS

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTERTWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CONNECT WITH ME ONLINE



For my dear wife Maria, who loves a good ghost story—or even a bad one.



And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him, and saying,

15. Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatick, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water.

16. And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him.

17. Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you? Bring him hither to me.

18. And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour.

19. Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out?

20. And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.

21. Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.



Matthew 17: 14-21, King James Version.


11. And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul:

12. So that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them.

13. Then certain of the vagabond Jews, exorcists, took upon them to call over them which had evil spirits the name of the LORD Jesus, saying, We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth.

14. And there were seven sons of one Sceva, a Jew, and chief of the priests, which did so.

15. And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye?

16. And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.



Acts 19: 11-16, King James Version.



CHAPTER ONE


"There's some serious money to be made in deliverance ministries."

"I thought you were an exorcist."

"Best damn exorcist you'll ever meet. Exorcism. Deliverance. New name, new game."

"A rose is a rose is a rose," Mag said. "That's Shakespeare, isn't it?"

"How the hell should I know? The way to do it is, you find yourself a local congregation and get them to invite you in. Have them call a special meeting to meet the nice visiting pastor who's anointed with a special gift of deliverance, see? Wednesday nights are good. Make sure to build up a little advance publicity a week or two ahead of time. Gets them all stirred up and antsy, to where they can't help wondering whether Aunt Ethel or Little Earl might be possessed by a demon."

"What kind of advance publicity are you talking about, Mike? It's not like we have any money or anything."

"Who said anything about money? A free demonstration. Like the Good Book says, seedtime and harvest. Works like a charm, but you have to watch for every opportunity and act fast if you want to plant the seed in these hayseeds. Before you know it, it's the night of your special meeting. By eight PM or so, you're steady working your Missouri hoodoo and popping demons out of the faithful like a teenager popping his zits in the bathroom mirror. That's when you pass the plate a couple times, set up a table to sell literature—no, a coupla tables—and start stacking the money. Hey, did I ever tell you about vaskania? The evil eye? You ever find yourself stranded in a town with a lot of Greeks you can make some money casting out the evil Eye. I can teach you. It's easy. Technically it's supposed to be performed by an old woman, but hey."

"That rules me out. Doubt there's that many Greeks around here anyway. Where did you ever pick up all this creepy stuff, Mike?"

"From paying attention. 'From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.' Quick: what's that from?"

"What's what from?"

"See? You're not paying attention. You gotta know these things cold, Mag. These people we'll be dealing with? They may be ignorant in many ways, and not smell so good, some of them—okay, all of them—but they know their Bible. They can spot a backslider at forty paces. Now tell me who it was that said, 'From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.'"

"I don't know. Marco Polo?"

"I'm telling you, Mag, you go handing flip answers to these hillbillies, they'll flag you as a poseur and run us both out of town on a rail."

"So who said it?"

"Our ancient enemy, that's who. Old Scratch. Captain Howdy. Lou Cypher himself."

"Quit it, Mike. You're giving me a headache."

"Book of Job, first chapter. The sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan was also among them. You know what's interesting? Some versions leave out the ‘also’. What do you think of that, Mag?"

"I think a hamburger and fries would hit the spot right about now. It must be over three hours since I've seen so much as a McDonald's along this godforsaken county road. Are we there yet?"

"You're looking at it. The Ozark foothills. God's country."

"He can have it." They passed a road sign that said Reynolds County. The face of the sign was pockmarked with buckshot, rust running down from the buckshot holes like tears tinged with blood.

"Don't you want to hear the rest of it? So anyway, the Lord asks Satan, 'Whence comest thou?' They talked like that back in Bible days. And Satan comes back with the quote I just gave you. Cool, huh?"

"We've been driving for hours and you still come off like a coffee'd up spaz. What's with you tonight, man?"

"Filled with the Holy Spirit, I guess."

"Don't blaspheme, for Christ's sake. Especially about that."

"This from an erstwhile riverboat casino dealer. What are you, getting religious on me all of a sudden?"

"That sixty grand a year plus tips came in handy while you were 'building your ministry,' as I recall. If hanging around my apartment watching Christian television all day while you drank me out of Red Bull at two bucks a pop is 'building your ministry.'"

"You want to know what I was doing day after day, Mag? Are you the least bit interested? I was on my knees praying for inspiration, that's what. They say Saint James spent so much time kneeling, back in the day, his knees looked like a camel's. I know what they meant. Take a look at my knees some time, Mag. Here, reach out and touch, if you don’t believe me, Doubting Thomasina." Mike rolled up his pant leg and offered his right knee for her inspection, taking his foot off the accelerator.

"Eew! Don't show me that." Mike's knee was rough and darkened with healed carpet burns. Mag turned to look out the passenger window at the wooded landscape speeding by. She cracked the window and the cold night air rushed in.

"And I'll tell you something else, Mag: inspiration came. God took his own good time with me, but inspiration came."

"This is me, Mike, remember? Magdalene Murphy from Bridgeport, not one of your Hills Have Eyes hayseeds. And quit screwing around slowing down like that. We're liable to get ass-ended out here in the ass end of—”

The crash sounded like a bomb going off. The car lurched over a deep ditch, took to the air and slammed into a dead tree on the other side. Steam hissed from under the hood and seeped through the dash.

Mike groaned once after he came to. He looked over at Mag. Her head lolled.

"Mag, you all right? Baby? You all right?" She made no answer other than a deep moan like one refusing to be roused from sleep.

"Oh, Christ! Mag! Say something!"

A heavyset man appeared at Mag's window from out of nowhere. He looked to be around forty, with a ruddy beard but no mustache. His face was pasty and he breathed through his mouth. He wore a broadbrim caved-in hat that shaded his broad moon face from the moonlight and the reflected glare of the headlight against the tree trunk. "Don't try and move 'er yet," he cautioned. "Best wait on the amblance."

"Have you called 911?"

"Awready done called the 911 emergency. They went and stuck me on hold. Don't that put the onions in yer grits?" He held up a Walmart cell phone as though in confirmation, flipping it open like a badge. "You folks ain't from around these parts," he added confidently.

"What was your first clue?"

"Them Illinois licen' plates for one thing," he said, sounding the s in Illinois.

"Are you the guy that hit us?"

"Shoot, no, I'm the good Samaritan that pulled over to hep y'all, seein's how it's my Christian duty n'at. Name's Jeb."

"You go to church, Jeb?" It had come to be Mike's standard opening gambit since having become a self-ordained minister.

"Ever'body goes to church 'round these parts, Mister. Lucky for you, you happened to wreck smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt."

"Yeah, lucky us. How far are we away from Pfisterville?"

"Pfisterville? Why, it ain't no more'n a hog holler down this here stretch a road. You all got business in Phisterville, Mister? Don't mean to keep calling you 'Mister' but I don't rightly recollect havin' caught your name."

"Don't recollect havin' thrown it, beggin' your pardon, Jeb. Name's Mike. Folks call me Pastor Mike. Fact is, I’ve been invited as guest pastor by a congregation just outside Phisterville. They’ve asked me to conduct a deliverance service there next Wednesday night." Mike, having put on a cornpone accent, chameleonlike to match his new friend's, extended his hand toward the window across Mag's unconscious form.

"Say, maybe I'd best try that 911 emergency number again," Jeb said. "She's been out a powerful long time." Jeb turned aside to place the call. He hissed with impatience, shook his head and snapped the phone shut again. "Busy," he said.

Mag stirred, so subtly that only Mike could hear. Something, the same sense that showed him the next card, had already tipped him off that she was alive and waiting. Waiting, listening and holding her breath until she knew the shot. Seedtime and harvest. Mag was one smart chick. Mike pretended to take her pulse, pressing against her jugular with his right index and middle fingers.

"How she doin'?" Jeb asked.

Mike stared at Jeb and said, "She is sleeping," drawing out the words for effect.

"I took me one a them Red Cross CPR courses back when I'se in high school?" Jeb said. "And one a the things they teach is you gotta look out 'cause sometimes when it seems like they're asleep it's 'cause they got them a danged closed head injury."

"Jeb," Mike said softly, "when I said she is sleeping, I meant it the way Our Lord did when he addressed the crowds before He resurrected Jairus's daughter. You know that story from your Bible, don't you?"

Jeb's eyes widened. "What're you tellin' me? You mean she's …you're sayin' she's …dead?"

"She's dead, Jeb. There's no pulse. Feel for yourself if you like."

Jeb shrank away. Opening his cell phone again, he said, "Best call the sheriff, then."

"What say you save on your minutes and hold off on that call, Jeb? You see, the simple fact is, I'm not only a deliverance minister but a healer as well. Maybe we won't be having to roust the sheriff out of bed after all. What do you think about that?" Mike unfastened his seat belt, crossed his hands reverently on Mag's forehead, tilted his face up toward the dome light and closed his eyes. "Heavenly Father," he prayed in a loud yet breathy voice like the tremolo of a church organ, "in Jesus' name we pray that You see fit to resurrect this woman, Your handmaiden and my helpmate, and to heal her of every injury, every disease and every infirmity. We humbly ask it, Father, in the all-holy name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, amen." Mike had picked up the trick of never pronouncing the h in humbly. He repeated the prayer two more times with ascending intensity.

He felt Mag stir. She was on board. They were like a dance team, instinctively knowing and anticipating each others' moves. In a louder voice he went on, "Lord, resurrect and heal this woman Thy handmaiden. Restore her soul into her body, which has been broken. Breathe the breath of life into her nostrils once more, Heavenly Father. Fuse together all broken bones, cure all paralysis, reattach and repair all torn tendons and ligaments, refurbish all soft tissue throughout her body that may have been torn asunder in this terrible collision. Stanch all internal bleeding and take away her pain and suffering, in Thine All-Holy Name we pray, amen."

There was no sound other than the ticking of the cooling engine and the wind in the trees. Mike glanced at Jeb through one eyeslit. Jeb was praying silently, hat in hand, his lips moving.

Mag sat forward. Mike opened his eyes and met her beatific expression. "I've been resurrected!" she shouted. "I've been healed, praise Jesus!"

Mike took her hand in his and raised them upward in a gesture of thanksgiving, echoing, "Praise Jesus!" Only then did he look over again at Jeb, whose mouth hung open in awe.

"I ain't never seen no miracle to match that in all my born days," he gasped. "You done brought her back from the dead right before my eyes!"

"Only God can raise the dead," Mike said. "Give God the praise."

"Praise Jesus!" Jeb shouted at the night sky. "Praise his Holy Name!" Startled crows flapped and cawed, taking flight from the sanctuary of a nearby oak tree.

"Now aren't you glad you listened to me and didn't make that call, Jeb?" Mike asked. "Only thing we'll be needin' tonight is a tow truck and not a hearse."

"Only place with a tow truck ‘round here is shut down 'til morning," Jeb said, eyes bright with excitement, speech rapid. "Don't fret none, though. I got me an International tractor that'll do the job. An I dowanna hear no argument, neither; y'all're gonna be stayin' the night with me and my old lady. After what I done seen here tonight, she'd plum nail my hide to the barn door if I let y'all go without her meetin' ya's. Both of us're Spirit-filled believers. My ol' lady's a strong believin’ woman. Name a Dorcas."

"Dorcas," Mag remarked. "Means gazelle."

"There now, see how you are?" Jeb said. "It took a preacher's wife to know that there. You and my ol' lady're gonna get along right well, Ma'am. I can tell that awready. The two a ya's're bound to get along mighty fine."

Jeb had made his way up to the rim of the ditch and was fooling with the cell phone again. Mike climbed out of the car, circled around the tree he had hit and tried Mag's door. "It's jammed," he told her. "Slide over. You're going to have to get out on my side." Then under his breath: "How're you doing?"

Mag glared at him and hissed, "My neck's killing me and my head feels like it's in a vise, but otherwise just peachy, thanks to you."

Mike warned her, "Keep quiet about it. Remember, you've been healed."

"How could I forget?"

"Listen, these people are believers, get it? You've just been raised from the dead. I couldn't have asked for a better break. We play this hand right—”

Jeb ambled down into the ditch again, slapped Mike on the back and said, "All set, Pastor Mike?"

"Ready as we'll ever be, thanks to your Christian hospitality, Jeb. I was just telling Magdalene here about your kind offer to tow our car and accommodate us for the night."

"Ain't no kindness about it. The way I figger, y'all'd do the same for us if the tables was turned. Now ain't that right?"

"Thank you very kindly, Jeb," Mag said in her sweetest pastor's wife tone, smiling until it hurt. "Just let me scoot my poor old body out of this poor old car and we'll join you." Mag was a quick study.

"Door stuck?" Jeb grabbed the handle with both hands and yanked on it. With a sound of wrenching steel, something gave and the door popped open. "You jest gotta talk to it a little," Jeb said.

"You're a strong one," Mag marveled. "Like Samson."

"My ol' lady says it's 'cause I got the strength of the Lord in me, but I dunno. My pappy, he was a strong 'un, workin' on the farm ever' day of he's life. My brothers and me, same thing."

"They grow them big in your family, do they?" Mag asked.

"Yes, Ma'am they do."

"Call me Magdalene, Jeb." Mag took his hand and gazed into his eyes.

Jeb pulled his hand away shyly and looked down. "My ol' lady'll be gettin' worried about us. Best get you folks on home. Your husband can help you down the side a that ditch and up t'other, Ma’am."

Mike held Mag's arm and steadied her around the waist as they climbed out. She remembered to grab her huge vinyl satchel of a purse. Mag lost a shoe and Mike had to go back for it, slipping and sliding on the wet ground.

"Muddy for November," Jeb remarked, extending Mike a hand when they had neared the top. "Been stayin' warm all season. Trees still got all their leaves, you notice that? Downright unnatural for this late in the year, least around these here parts."

There was a white Ford F-350 pickup at least thirty years old and covered with dents parked on the shoulder, engine idling. To Mike it looked as big as a semi cab. "Plenty a room in Old Betsy here," Jeb said. "Climb on in and we'll head for home."

"Guess there's no need to lock our car," Mike said.

"She ain't a' goin' nowhere 'til I hitch her up to the tractor, that's a fact."

"Our luggage is in the trunk, though."

"Trunk'll come right along with the rest of her once I hitch up the drag chain and tow her out."

Jeb drove no more than a mile along the two-lane blacktop before turning down a dirt lane almost completely obscured by trees. "You know," Mike said, "We drove right past this lane a few minutes ago and never knew it was there. It'd sure be awful easy to miss. You ought to put up a mailbox or a reflector or something."

"Don't got no mailbox," Jeb said. "And don't git much company. Folks 'round these parts like their privacy. Makes for good neighbors."

The lane twisted and turned, headlights illuminating the leafy bower overhead, reflecting an unnatural verdancy as though the witch of November had enchanted the trees themselves with an uncannily extended life.

Jeb downshifted as the truck entered a clearing. The F-350 climbed a small rise. There in front of them, looming like a phantom, stood a wooden covered bridge, or at least the carcass of one. The hammerbeam timbers of its roof were mostly gone; moonlight shone through the bones of the skeleton that remained. The dilapidated sides were wood lattice truss. Jeb downshifted again, remarking, "Gotta take 'er down to granny gear for this here," and drove onto the bridge at no more than five miles per hour. The pickup barely fit inside the structure. The hammering of its tires against the floor joists shook the ruined bridge like the noise of a workhouse in hell. Mike and Mag each breathed a sigh of relief after they had made it across without falling into the rocky churning rapids below.

"That there bridge's near two hundred years old. Can you believe it? Ain't on no historical register, neither. That's 'cause this here's private property and allays has been. Me 'n Dorcas and the young 'uns, and Grammaw too, we all live off the land like the Good Lord intended."

"That's fascinating, Jeb," Mag said. She had planted herself between the two of them when they had boarded the truck and was now thoroughly enjoying her game of making Jeb uncomfortable. Flirtation came to Mag as naturally as breathing. "You know what seeing that bridge reminds me of? That story we heard as children, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Remember that one? There was a covered bridge in it that the Headless Horseman was forbidden to cross because evil spirits supposedly can't cross running water."

"I read that 'un once," Jeb acknowledged. "Didn't advance me spiritually none, though. I try and keep from filling my head up with garbage from story books like that 'un."

"Ghost stories under a full moon," Mike said.

"Whadda you think a that Sleepy Holler story, Pastor Mike?"

"Sorry?"

"D'ya think evil spirits can cross running water?"

Mike paused a bit. "It just so happens, Jeb, that you're talking to a man who knows a thing or two about evil spirits—demons, we call them. And I have to go with what my Bible tells me. Read your book of Job. Your demons can only go as far as God permits and no further. I guess that means they can cross running water but only if God gives them permission first."

"That's what I figgered. See, if you was to look at a survey or a plat map, this whole place is built on an island. That bridge we just come over? That's the only access. You’d have to be ol Joshua hisself partin’ the Jordan to make it acrost that there turgid water we just got done crossing. Otherwise you’d get kilt tryin’ to wade acrost, either from drownin’ or bustin’ your head against them big rocks. The Little Hoot Owl rapids, folks around these parts call ‘em, are what marks out the east boundary of the property. The Little Hoot Owl rapids break free of the Black Fork River, run faster’n the devil all the way around the eastern boundary and feed over a steep waterfall right back into the Black Fork that marks the western side. Sounds nigh unnatural but that's the way it's allays been. See what I mean?"

"I'm not quite sure, Jeb."

"Why, supposin' a demon like in one a them story books was to pop up here on the home place? She couldn't never get free of it 'cause it's surrounded on every side by running water.’ Course, that means the people that was livin’ here couldn’t never get shut a her neither."

"Why 'she?'" Mag asked.

"Beg pardon, Ma'am?"

"You said 'she.' I was wondering why you would refer to a demon as feminine."

Jeb rubbed his beard. "I dunno," he said.

"The Bible teaches that God created the angels neither male nor female," Mike said. "Our Lord tells us that in Heaven they are neither married nor are they given in marriage. All demons are is fallen angels, so it follows that demons aren't male or female, either."

Mag, as she always did when Mike talked religion, nodded and smiled, gazing at Mike like an adoring politician's wife.

Jeb squinted into the headlights ahead, their beams swarming with bugs so late in the year. The unflattering angle of the light made him look weary. "They're liars, ain't they?"

"Christ says that Satan is a liar," Mike agreed.

"Then maybe some a his helpers have got purty good at dissemblin' over the years," he muttered.

The way was choked by tall weeds. Thistle taller than a man stood up in the truck's path, their huge clover heads encircled with guard-spiked collars. "County won't come out this far to spray," Jeb explained as he drove through the sea of weeds. Wave after wave of the plants made a swishing sound against the bumper and the undercarriage, seeming to whisper a warning as the truck whished over them.

"Their flowers are so lovely," Mag said. “It's a shame you have to run over them that way."

"They's plenty more where they come from," Jeb said. "They grow like weeds around these parts."

"They are weeds, right, Jeb?" Mike joked.

"Ya got ya a point there. Some say when thistle're left to grow that big the nectar in them purple flowers turns to deadly venom. I ain't fixin' to get close enough to find out."

"And this late in the year. It's amazing they haven't died down by now."

Jeb leaned forward over the wheel and shot Mike a stern look. "I done told ya," he said, "it's been a powerful warm fall this year."

A broad vista opened before them, and in the center of it all a stately mansion with double gallery porch, gabled windows and a widow's walk guarded by wrought iron pike that reminded Mike of the spikes that surrounded the thistle heads along the lane. The house was nearly choked with overgrown vegetation that seemed to glow an unearthly green in the light of the full moon. Huge trees in dark goblin shapes and shadows crowded against the stone foundation in a death embrace. Their twisted limbs had broken and poked through the upstairs windows like a mess of snakes and had dislodged many of the antique cedar shingles. Dead ahead was an ancient one-room schoolhouse with a weathered tin roof.

"It's so beautiful," Mag sighed. "Like something you'd see on an old picture postcard."

"Yep,” Jeb said, pointing to the mansion. “There she sets: the mill house. Still got an old mill wheel facin' where the rapids run along the back side of 'er, just shy of the waterfall. I know exactly what you folks’re thinkin'. Truth be told, it has seen better days, and a lot of 'em. This whole home place was built around 1850 by a family of Irish. Steamboat Irish, folks took to callin' 'em back then—behind their backs a course—and it stuck. O'Brien's, they was. Come over here with nothin' but the clothes on their backs and got rich as Croesus off the riverboats."

"Rich as Croseus?" Mike said. "Still waters run deep in your case, don't they, Jeb? I never thought I'd hear an expression like 'rich as Croesus' way out here in the boonies."

"Musta read it somewheres," Jeb said shyly. "I try and read some. Books mostly. They won't run cable out as far as these here parts, so they ain't much to do once it gets dark except to set by the stove and read. We could prolly order us up one a them satellite dish doohickeys, but me and the ol' lady don't believe in television anyways."

"You don't believe in television?" Mag asked. "Why's that?"

"It's a devil's box," Jeb stated matter-of-factly. "Same goes for them there computers they got now."

"You know something, Jeb? I do believe you're right. Although I've often thought that if the Lord were to bless me with a Christian ministry to where I could broadcast my message to a wide audience of folks over television or even online, why it would be like the Lord were to open the windows of Heaven and pour down a blessing upon us so big that you know what? We purely couldn't contain it all."

"Malachi Three," Jeb said. "I hear ya. The thing is, though, me and the ol' lady're afraid that havin' television around might interfere with the home schoolin' and that. Matter of fact, all of us live in that lil ole schoolhouse up yonder. It may not look like much but it suits us fine. O'Brien's money built that, too."

"If ye'll peardon a lady for stearin', Jeb, ye look kind of Irish yerself," Mag teased in a brogue. "Got some Irish in ye, me lad?"

"Aw, naw," Jeb said, wagging his head and scratching his red beard. He may have blushed; it was hard to tell by the dashboard light. "I get that ever' now and then. Last name's Bagby. Don't sound Irish at all, now does it?"

"Sounds more Scottish to me," Mag said.

"Well, there you go."

"So excuse me for asking a personal question," Mike said, "but if the O'Brien money built all this, how is it that the Bagbys wound up living here, Jeb?"

"Well, now, that there's a right interesting story," Jeb began. "Remind me to tell it to ya sometime—oh, lookie there! That's my Dorcas standin' on the front porch wavin' like a schoolmarm!"

Jeb threw open the driver's door and sprang out of the truck, loping toward the woman on the porch. She was not waving, but rather stood still as a ghost—a ghost holding a kerosene lantern in her hand. She wore a long homespun dress and a white bonnet like that of a pioneer woman. Dim flickering firelight shone through the open door. She extended her arm with the lantern, holding it out straight as a gallows beam. The shifting patterns of light transformed her expression from sullen to haunted.

"That is the most depressed woman I've ever laid eyes on," Mag remarked under her breath.

"Now that you mention it, she doesn't look too happy. Bet she tells a hell of a redneck joke, though, once you get a few drinks in her."

"I'm serious; she looks clinically depressed, even suicidal. I know I would be if I had to live out here in these conditions."

"What conditions?"

"You mean to tell me you didn't notice anything funny on the drive here, Mike?"

"Funny how?"

"You know the feeling you get when you sense something's missing? Something that you see every day and always take for granted, but when it's gone you notice it kind of subliminally, out of the corner of your eye? How it nags at you? Well, that's what was going on in my head until I realized."

"Realized what?"

"No utility poles. No poles or wires ran past the blacktop road anywhere along the lane. None. And do you know what that startling observation made me wonder, Mike?"

"Jeb told us they don't believe in TV or computers. Maybe they don't believe in electricity either. Tell me."

"If they don't have any electricity, "Mag said, "then tell me how our charming host charges that phone he's been pretending to use?"

"Maybe he works in town and does it there."

"You hear him mention a job? It's obvious these people live off the land like he said."

“Maybe he used one of those chargers that runs off the cigarette lighter in the truck.”

“Do you see one?”

“I didn’t pay any attention.”

“Well, look.” Mag pointed to the dashboard. Instead of a cigarette lighter there were loose wires and a gaping hole like a gouged-out eye.

“So maybe they don’t believe in smoking.”

“C’mon, Mike. Get serious for once in your life.”

“So he was only pretending to be using a cell phone,” Mike said. “What's the big woop?"

"The big woop is, when he told us he was calling 911? And we were pulling our little resurrection-from-the-dead scam?"

"Yeah?"

"Maybe we were the ones being played.”

They both jumped when Jeb's grinning jack o'lantern face suddenly reappeared, this time at the driver's window. Dorcas stood staring in at them from Mike's side, illuminated like a cemetery statue from the lantern she carried.

Jeb jerked open the door of the truck, leaned his head in and said in a hearty voice, "Come on in and make yourselves to home."



CHAPTER TWO



The old schoolhouse had been built up high on a stone foundation, its red-painted clapboard siding now weather-faded and worn. A belfry perched at the front peak of the pitched tin roof so that the structure might have passed for a backwoods church. At the very center of the roof was a tottering brick chimney. Four high narrow windows ranged along either side of the building like four sets of astonished eyes. Dancing beams of firelight escaped through their panes of glass—green-marbled like clouded emerald baguettes—and cast strange distorted patterns across the ground. Walking arm-in-arm with Mike a few paces behind Jeb and Dorcas, Mag murmured, "Fairy wings."

"What?" Mike asked her.

She pointed to the sickly-green reflections. "They look like the wings of fairies dancing around a bonfire."

"You're seeing things, Mag," Mike whispered hoarsely. "Fairies dancing? I guarantee you these Bible-thumpers aren't the type to believe in fairies. Better keep your mouth shut. Remember, you've been hit in the head. Act like it, and don’t do anything to torque off our charming hosts."

“Charming host and scowling hostess, you mean,” Mag whispered.

Jeb and Dorcas each held open one heavy double door for their guests.

"Reminds me of the first day of school," Mike joked as he and Mag entered. Behind them, Jeb scolded Dorcas, "I thought I told you'n them young 'uns to keep that there stove door closed less'n you're feedin' wood to the fire." She made no response.

In the center of the room was an antique cast iron cook stove. The covered indoor woodbox beside it was big enough for two people to sit on. A black stovepipe extended through the high ceiling. Jeb stalked inside and threw open the lid of the woodbox. It held no more than a double armload of split cord wood that scarcely covered the bottom.

"Prid near run us outta wood again," Jeb rebuked.

"You told me to cook for company," Dorcas replied in a voice so soft and otherworldly it might have been the wind in the trees that had spoken.

Mag nudged Mike and beckoned for him to lean over so she could whisper in his ear. “Did you hear that?”

“What?”

“Dorcas just reminded Jeb that he’d told her to cook for company.”

“Yeah?”

“When did he get a chance to tell her anything? How did he know we were coming?”

“Maybe he called ahead. You know, from the scene of the crash.”

“You see any phones around here? Other than Jeb’s cell phone, that is?”

“Y’all hungry?” Jeb asked.

"I can see somebody's been busy cooking up a tasty meal," Mike said. "Everything smells delicious. Is that a turkey in the oven?"

"That's rabbit you're smellin', Pastor Mike. We eat us a good deal of small game this time a year: rabbit, pheasant, even squirrel if the deer ain't runnin. Whatever the Good Lord in His providence sends our way. My Dorcas knows how to cook up rabbit to where you'd think you was feastin' on the King's venison."

"You'll have to teach me, Dorcas," Mag said. "I've never cooked on a wood burning stove." Dorcas stared down at the rough plank floor. There were bolt holes where desks had once been anchored to it. Dorcas looked as though she might want to escape through one of them.

"Dorcas here ain't never cooked on nothin' else," Jeb offered. “Here, help yourself to one a them little bitty wild tomaters from that there bowl on the table.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” Mike said. “Kind of late in the season for wild tomatoes, isn’t it, Jeb?”

“It’s the strangest thing,” Jeb replied. “Folks ‘round these parts call it a ‘witching fall,’ though it’s not very Christian. Yeah, there comes a time every so many years when fall does linger on, like it don’t want to ever die.”

“These fresh wild tomatoes are delicious, Mag,” Mike said, after having selected one out of a bowl of the red-orange fruits and eating it from between his finger and thumb. “Really sweet and juicy. You ought to try some.”

“Sorry, Hun,” Mag said. “Allergy.”

“I never knew you were allergic to tomatoes.”

“Tomatoes, wild cherries, plums, peaches, apricots and almonds. Weird, huh?”

“Kids went out today, picked ‘em right off the plants.”

Mike reached into the bowl for another tomato. “I could live on these.”

Jeb caught Mike’s wrist and gently pulled it away. “Best go easy on them there wild tomaters,” he said.

“Why’s that?”

“Dowanna spile your appetite. Dorcas’s been a’ cookin’ all day long.”

“I guess I’d better cool it then.”

“Chaw down on this here wild turnip instead,” Jeb said, offering Mike a long forked root. “You’re apt to get you a bad case a the trots from too many a’ them danged ol’ wild tomaters on an empty stomach,” Jeb said. Laughing and jerking his thumb toward his chest he added, “I know!”

Mike took a bite of the turnip. It tasted bitter and dry. Not wishing to offend his hosts Mike said, “Like the Good Book says, all things in moderation.”

With a grave look on his face Jeb said, “The Good Book don’t never say that, Pastor Mike.”

Mike took another bite while he thought about how to answer. “Well, I’m paraphrasing, of course,” Mike said. “What Paul tells us in his first letter to the Corinthians is: ‘All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.’”

“Amen,” Jeb fairly shouted to the rafters. Lowering his voice he said, “Matter a fact, there’s a thing or two along those lines I been meanin’ to ask you, Pastor Mike.”

“Ask away.”

“There’s time. After supper’d be as good a time as any, if you’ll oblige me.”

“Of course, Jeb.”

There was a long silence. All that could be heard was the hiss of the lantern and the crackling of the stove. Mike kept munching on the turnip. His mouth was dry.

"That stove looks like an antique," Mike said. "I'll bet it would fetch a good price at auction."

"Cain't say," Jeb replied. "My great-great grampappy hauled that stove in a horse-drawn wagon all the way from the Phisterville railroad station and set it up right chere. My family been cookin' off it ever since."

"There's something I've been dying to ask you folks," Mag said, peering at Dorcas, whose bonnet hid most of her downcast face as she stood tending the stove. “You have such a beautiful house—mansion, really—no more than a hundred paces down the lane, and yet you choose to live in this little one-room schoolhouse instead. I imagine the living conditions must get awfully cramped for you. Why not fix up the mill house and live there instead?”

A dry, croaking voice emanated from the darkness of a far corner in the room, saying, “I’ll tell you why.”

Dorcas held up the lantern by the wire loop handle she still clutched in her hand. An old woman in homespun and wearing a white bonnet identical to Dorcas’s sat in a rocking chair. Her gnarled, liver-blotched hands gripped the chair arms, her wasted body bent forward in a hump-backed posture as though she were about to raise herself up from the chair. She averted her face and protested, “Don’t shine that light on me, girl, it floods my eyes.”

“We all know you cain’t see no light ‘nor nothin’ else, Grammaw,” Jeb said. “Now mind your beeswax in front of company. This here’s Pastor Mike and his wife.”

“I can feel the heat of it against my skin,” Grammaw complained. Mike took two steps closer, intending to introduce and if possible ingratiate himself with the elderly woman. Her ancient features sagged and slacked like melted wax. Sparse cobweb strands of hair on her head caught the light like dried lichens grown from the seams of her skull. It was impossible to estimate her age; she might have been a hundred. Her mouth was cinched to one side, probably from a stroke. But it was her eyes that made Mike stare, eyes that shone unseeing in the lantern glow. The irises were sea-green opals, opaque as the marbled glass of the schoolhouse windows. The stone-blind old woman followed the sound of his steps, staring two feet above his head.

“You’d be Pastor Mike?”

“That’s right, Ma’am. Pleased to know you.” Mike gently reached to pat Grammaw’s shoulder but she jerked away. “Don’t like bein’ touched,” she muttered. “Many’s the curse been put on folks who let others touch ‘em too easy.”

“I don’t particularly like being touched either, Ma’am. Hi, I’m Magdalene, Pastor Mike’s wife.”

“Magdalene,” the old woman mused. “Named after Mary Magdalene, I’d reckon.”

“That’s right.”

“The Good Lord cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene,” Grammaw said. “Some say she was a fallen woman but they’re all damn fools that don’t know their Bible.”

Jeb whispered, “Grammaw took to readin’ her Bible by candlelight so much, she went blind.”

“I heard that,” Grammaw shouted. “Waren’t candlelight what stole my sight. It was Satan himself. He couldn’t abide me reading the Good Book late into the night and it was him what struck me blind. Not all at once, but little by little, like he does. My granddaughter’s my eyes now. She reads me from it ever’ night after the chores are done and the young ‘uns put to bed.”

“Dorcas is your granddaughter?”

“Only grandchild still by my side. All the others died off long ago. They was seven of ‘em in all. Dorcas here’s the youngest.”

“That’s so sad,” Mag said, moving closer. “Tragic, really, how so many of your grandchildren could have passed away so young. Was it from some kind of epidemic?”

“You could call it a plague of sorts,” the old woman said wryly.

“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” Mike said.

“This waren’t none a the Lord’s doin’!” she shouted. The wind picked up outside, wailing through the belfry and rattling against the tin roof.

“Pastor Mike always says that in a tragic situation you have to look at the positive, don’t you, Pastor Mike?” Mag said, turning to her husband, her eyes imploring him to intervene.

“That’s a fact,” Mike said in his most soothing preacher voice. “For instance, the Good Lord thwarted Satan’s plan to prevent this godly woman from studying the Word of God by providing Dorcas to read to her. What you ended up with was two people instead of one studying the Good Book and fellowshipping together. I like to say that God can take a tragedy and turn it into a comedy, with Satan winding up as the butt of his own joke.”

The wind blew harder, trees groaning against its irresistible force. A powerful gale hit the schoolbell in the belfry like an unseen fist. The bell tolled once, a mournful sound like a dirge. A sound to shudder the flesh and shiver the bone.

And then Mike heard it, behind the moans of the wind at first, then rising above it and drowning it out. A keening wail not formed in the throat of anything human, yet expressing all the despair of a human soul damned to hell, something between a wolf howl and a woman’s bloodcurdling scream. It was unearthly loud, unbearably painful in the ears and sheer agony to the heart. Mike shut his eyes, bent over at the waist and stopped his ears tight with his fingertips but the infernal wailing went on and on.

Finally all was quiet. “Did I hear Jeb say the two of you are blessed with children?” Mag was asking Dorcas in a normal and calm tone of voice.

Mike said, “Did you hear that?” Meeting no reaction he looked around. “What’s the matter with you people, are you deaf? Didn’t anybody hear that awful sound?”

“You mean the wind outside?” Jeb said uneasily, glancing at Grammaw, who snorted with disdain.

“Mike, honey, you’re all bathed with sweat and your face is red as a beet. What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong? Are you telling me you didn’t hear that…that thing outside?”

“You all still need to ask why nobody stays up at the mill house?” Grammaw asked, her blind eyes seeming to fix on Mike’s face.

“What can I do to help you with supper, Dorcas?” Mag asked, moving toward the stove, but keeping a wary eye on Mike.

“C’mere and set by me, boy,” Grammaw said to Mike. “What is it you call yourself? Pastor Mike?”

“Mike’s fine.”

“Set yourself down on this here straw bed and rest a spell. You’re overheated.” Mike pulled up the straw pallet, crossed his legs and sat at the old woman’s feet. “This here’s Grammaw’s corner,” she confided. “Won’t nobody bother us here. We can speak plain, you and me.” Leaning toward him, she went on, “I could tell right off you got the call on you. That’s the only way you could of heard what I know you done heard just now.”

“I heard it, all right. What was it?”

“First you tell me something. You heard a call, boy? Years ago, mebbe? The Lord done called you to serve?”

“Yes, Ma’am. Plain as day I heard him speak to me. And I heeded that call years ago.”

“No you never.”

“Beg pardon, Ma’am?”

“The Lord called you, all right, but you never heeded His call. Not yet, anyways.”

“Why, Ma’am, I beg to differ with you—”

Grammaw cocked her head like a bird’s. “What’d the Lord sound like?”

“Ma’am?”

“When He called you. What’d He sound like to you?”

“Well, like a stirring of the spirit, I guess. A powerful, loud rumbling stirring of the spirit, kind of like a tornado I guess. Like in the Book of Job where the Lord spoke to Job out of the whirlwind.”

“Wrong. Oh, you heard Him all right. You know it and I know it, but what you’re describing ain’t what you really heard. Try again, and this time don’t go lyin’ in Grammaw’s face. Tell me plain what the Lord sounded like and what all He said to you.”

Mike tried to shut out the memory: dead broke, dead drunk, crying and puking outside in the casino parking lot under the big lights in the pouring rain warm as piss that had soaked him to the skin, trying doors of parked cars to find one open, to beat the odds and find just one where he might crawl in and find temporary shelter from the driving downpour. Looking askance for security guards on foot patrol, seeing none. The old Bonneville in the employee section on the far side of the lot, passenger side door unlocked. Once inside, he peeled off his pants and shirt and tried to wring them out, torrents of water splattering on the floormats. His clothes were cold and clammy when he slipped them back on again. Shivering, he drew himself up into the fetal position. He must have slept; it had been twenty-four hours, no, thirty-six hours he’d been awake and he had a load on besides.

Maybe he’d dreamed swiping his debit card in the ATM and punching in a measly forty dollars. His one and only debit card, the one he was counting on to stake him on the trip that lay before him, that lonely flight to nowhere. They’d run him out of the storefront church he’d started, vowing to prosecute him when the forty thousand dollar building fund turned up empty.

The building fund. He’d taken it with him on a platinum debit card. He had scorned the Lord’s advice: Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs.

Instead of forty dollars the machine gave him back forty grand in hundreds. He read that as a sign. A player without inhibitions, he had built that initial stake into easily a hundred grand before he started drinking.

Blackjack was his game and he was no card-counter. He sat on last base at a table where the cards were dealt from an eight-deck shoe and they played Aruba no hole card rules. His edge was reading the dealer, but no psychology was involved. His method was hard to describe and impossible to detect except from the fact that he kept on winning. He simply looked the dealer in the eye. A second was all it took, one quick peek and he knew without fail the next card she would deal. It was a miracle he was working with every turn of the cards, a special charism that won him hand after hand for hours on end, until the men in sharkskin suits like a Guys and Dolls revival edged toward the table, showing a menacing interest. They brought in a new dealer, a woman with big tits. A cooler to kill his mojo.

And then he heard it. A still, small voice over the din of the casino. It did not have to compete with the noise; it was as if Mike sensed its compelling force within himself. “Gird up thy loins,” the voice said. It was a voice Mike had never heard before, yet sensed that he had been waiting to hear all his life, a voice he knew from before he was born.

“What?” Mike said out loud.

“Hit or stay?” the dealer repeated.

“Stand up now, depart from this place. I have work for you to do,” the voice said.

“C’mon, Sport, don’t keep us in suspense,” a Shriner complained. “You’re messin’ with my mojo. Hit or stay?”

“Stay,” Mike said. The dealer hit on fifteen and drew a six, simple as that. One of the suits pointed to a waitress who started comping Mike drinks. He ordered a highball. One drink led to another. He never won another hand.

Mike jumped awake from the sudden sound of the driver’s door being opened and a woman’s startled shriek.

Her hands were on her hips. “What the hell do you think you’re doing in my car?”

“Oh, hey hey, I’m so sorry. Musta thought it was mine what with the rain and all. My mistake. Won’t happen again.” Mike’s tongue was thick from drink and stuck to his palate. He squirmed toward the door.

The woman eyed him levelly and said, “Don’t you even recognize me?”

“I—I dunno.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot from players like you staring at my boobs all night. You were parked last base at my table for hours, remember? You were up over a hundred large before you lost it all back to the house. Tough break.”

She was petite and dark-haired, with a face like that silent-movie actress—what was her name? The one in all the Fatty Arbuckle one-reelers. She’d lost it to booze and cocaine and died at thirty-something around the time sound came in.

“Mabel Normand,” Mike said at last.

“Excuse me? Have you any chance been hit in the head, Sport?”

In that instant Mike knew that she would be the one hit in the head, that he would pray over her insincerely and that they both would find themselves in mortal danger. The information was useless to him but the facts were as fixed as yesterday’s news.

“Maybe,” he said. “Was I making a disturbance in there? Did some of their goons work out on me? Or was I robbed, maybe?”

“You were robbed by the house fair and square, Dude. You left four hours ago with the clothes you’re wearing and your pockets turned out.”

Mike stared at the glove compartment. “I got nothing left,” he said. “I shoulda listened but I didn’t.”

“What do you mean, you should have listened?”

“Just a figure of speech. Now instead of giving to the poor I’m the one who’s poor.”

“You know what Mike Todd said once? ‘I’ve been broke but never poor.’”

“Mike Todd? What’s a chick your age doing quoting Mike Todd? You a movie buff?”

Her fight-or-flight posture relaxed. “I’ve been accused of worse. Enough of a movie buff to recognize the name Mabel Normand when I hear it. Come to think of it, after a few drinks I probably do look like her a little bit. You’re the first guy who ever noticed.”

“That qualify me for a ride somewhere?”

“Maybe. Where to?”

He shrugged. “I got nowhere special in mind. Someplace where they take in homeless men, give them a meal and a dry place to flop. You know: the kind of place that caters to men who are broke but never poor.”

Mag took him to her place and he stayed six months.


“It was more of a still, small voice,” he said now. “The same way He spoke to Elijah and to Samuel.”

“Ah,” Grammaw remarked. “Not in the whirlwind, then? Not in the thunder and lightning, or the earthquake, or even the fire? No, sir, the Lord speaks to us in the sound of sheer silence. It’s the voice of evil that comes to us in a loud noise, all puffed up big and black as a blacksmith’s bellows, tryin’ to scare us.”

“That…thing I heard tonight? It sounded like evil incarnate.”

“That’s where you’re dead wrong, Pastor Mike. Dead wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“It ain’t incarnate at all,” Grammaw said. “It just wants to be.”



CHAPTER THREE



It was easy sliding Grammaw to the table in her rocker; she couldn’t have weighed ninety pounds. Only when Grammaw was seated at Jeb’s right hand did he motion for Dorcas to call the children to supper.

Mike heard a creaking sound from the darkness at the far end of the room. He could barely make out the tiny silhouettes of children descending the ladder from the loft. There were four of them in all. The largest of them—a girl wearing the traditional white bonnet and ankle-length homespun dress—carried a small boy clinging to her back. As they entered the circle of light cast by the single lantern suspended above the table, Mike noticed with alarm that none of them were normal. The eldest girl suffered from a pronounced harelip deformity severe enough to split her upper lip and invade her right nostril. When she eased the little boy she was carrying down to the floor, he produced a briar cane and hobbled toward the table on a club foot, his left ankle bent inward at a near-right angle. Walking beside the clubfooted boy and gripping him by the right upper arm as though to support him was a beautiful blonde girl of no more than seven. Mike thought she looked like silent-film ingénue Mary Miles Minter in her heyday, that innocent face, cherry lips and milky-smooth complexion. It was only when she drew closer to the table that he realized that he had been mistaken about the reason for her gripping her brother’s arm. Her eyes were as green and opaque as Grammaw’s. She turned her face in random, spastic aspects, heedless of the lantern light.

One last figure descended the ladder: a redheaded boy of about six. Mike scrutinized his face, his gait and his every movement but could discern no affliction. Then Dorcas moved her hands rapidly, looking at the boy, who responded in kind.

“Dorcas taught herself the sign language out of a book from the library,” Jeb explained. “We first found out Zechariah was deaf when he was no more’n six months old.”

Zechariah looked less than pleased at the presence of dinner guests. He scowled and signed impatiently to his mother. Matching his irritation with her firm insistence, Dorcas with striking and slapping of her hands signed something that was obviously a command. Zechariah sat down at the foot of the table, crossed his arms and glowered at the floor.

As soon as everyone was seated, Dorcas rose and began bringing food to the table. The main course was rabbit, slow-cooked and seasoned to perfection, judging from the aroma. There were liberal portions of corn bread and home-churned butter, garden-fresh green beans—in November—and huge mounds of mashed potatoes, all served in wooden bowls. Even after everyone was seated, no one made any motion to eat.

“I’ll tell y’all a funny story,” Jeb said. “Them rich folks up at the Mill house in the olden days? The O'Briens? They had the Bagby family indentured to serve ‘em, and the O’Briens, they fancied theirselves too good to eat off of common wooden bowls and plates and such. No, they had to have the good glazed kind. Anything less was for dogs and servants. So ever’ time the Bagby servants set table, they knew to set out the fine white glazed dinnerware. The wood bowls and plates? Them was strictly for the Bagbys.” Jeb stared eagerly at his guests, the hint of a smile on his face.

“How hard it is for a rich man to enter Heaven,” Mike said.

“Oh, them O’Briens entered Heaven all right, leastways they died. Funny part is, back then the glaze on plates and such was made outta lead, and that there lead had a peculiar way of leachin’ out and gettin’ into the food on their plates, ‘specially food that was good and hot the way they liked it. You ever been around folks that took lead poisoning, Pastor Mike?”

Mike shook his head.

“First they commence to achin’ all over ‘til they cain’t hardly move. Then they’re carryin’ on how their guts ache like somethin’s busy eatin’ its way out from the inside, and how they can’t feel their hands or their feet. But that ain’t the worst of it.”


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