Abigail smells the piss and the blood. She is standing in front of her large dresser mirror, folding her toned arms tightly before her flat chest, cocking her chin up like an irascible bitch, and tapping her right bare foot impatiently upon the creaky bedroom floor. She is completely naked, but for the long, wavy rush of red hair that she flips over her right shoulder. It covers her right nipple, and almost reaches as far as her bellybutton. Someday, she dreams, it will descend as far as her cunt. Then, she’ll tickle herself down there whenever she purrs as a vixen street cat. Imagine the day she can wrap her fingers about her thin and flat torso and tell her father and his drinking buddies that their fingers just are no longer necessary, thank you very much, because she can excite herself with the ends of her hair. Oh, imagine the dismayed expressions on their faces, their pouty, lower lips, their bloodshot eyes downcast and forlorn in the manner of a kicked dog. Why, she almost smells the defeat on their rotting whiskey breaths.
The operative word is almost. She cannot quite make out the sour scent of defeat in her imagination, because it is overshadowed by the real life punch of piss and blood now invading her bedroom sanctuary.
What did her father do? Smash her mother’s head so many times with his baton that there is a blood geyser spitting up from where her forehead used to be? Beat her mother’s brains down to the nerves, so that her muscles twitched, and her bowels released all over the sitting room floor? Why is it that he cannot do what he is prone to do without so much as a touch of finesse?
Because he is a man, she reminds herself. A pudgy-faced fool with a big, coarse, walrus mustache, bloodshot, watery eyes, rancid breath, all the fixings of a world class knave. And to top it all off, he has cruel, thick fingers, the kind that cannot touch her clitoris without also mauling her thighs black and blue. It is the way of men. They stomp inside like brute dogs, lick their targets raw and sore with their long, hot tongues, nudge things around with their hairy muzzles, and then tear out a chunk of flesh and soul, when with just a bit of finesse they could have avoided all of that collateral damage. It is like they actually want to leave an incriminating mess behind, so that the Sheriff beyond the pearly gates cannot but see the crimes that they have committed. So far as she can tell, all the white men in these parts anyway have a death wish. They want that Sheriff to tie a rope about their wrists, to pull the smokes out from their chapped lips, and to string them high and dry. Really, what else can she conclude when every last one of them leaves behind a bucket of spent tears, or a pair of bruised and scratched thighs, or in this case a geyser of blood and a pond of piss?
She walks over to her bedroom window. She pulls the drape aside. There is a horse drawn carriage passing beneath her steady gaze. It is dusk, and what little sun remains on this side of the western horizon is obscured by thick storm clouds. Nevertheless, in spite of that dark purple haze that has descended over everything out there like a funeral pall, she can make out the refined features of the passenger in that horse drawn carriage. He is handsome, charmed, just a tad beneath debonair. He trims his dark walrus mustache every morning before giving his wife a kiss and setting out for the one law office downtown. It is now almost twelve hours later, and yet his features remain as chiseled as when he’d stepped outside his front door and hailed his ride.
She wonders if he can see her. He is looking away, but maybe he catches her in his peripheral vision. Of course, she would be no more to him than a very brief suggestion of naked female flesh; really, no more than a sultry wink of sin before returning ones attention to the better pursuits out there; but she would be something, would she not? Even a grey ghost glimpsed and lost is something.
She would like to indulge this fantasy further, but the piss and the blood get in the way. The combination calls to mind the gooey blood splatter the last time she went hunting with her father. There she is in the thorny bush wearing a boy’s shirt and a pair of knickerbockers. Except for her red hair fluttering like a war flag in the breeze, she could be mistaken for a boy. She even manages to aim and to fire her rifle like a boy (truth be told, like a seasoned man, although none of the burly men going along for the hunt admit as such to themselves, let alone to one another), and so the kill is near perfect. She permits herself a thin and brief smile, but otherwise she remains as stoic as a soldier taking down one of the dirt bags on the other side. As soon as the pungent gunpowder dissipates into the dry summer air, they all crawl out from their hiding places and walk up to the kill. Even though Abigail had taken down the beast, she takes the rear of the pack. She is still just a girl, after all; and it is not right that her eyes should be the first to behold the death face in all its wretched glory. Instead, she just watches from afar, as her father kneels beside the beast, studies the face for a moment, and then snaps back his right hand as if to urge the others to stay the hell back. She sees how her father clutches at his heart and staggers backward, like he is having a heart attack. The other men are flabbergasted, but she grins smartly. She knows what he observed. She knows what he will dream tonight. It is good enough for her that she can smell that gooey blood splatter in a breeze.
After getting some semblance of control over his emotions, and laughing it off with his burly buddies by suggesting that he is afflicted by a bit of the old moonshine shakes, her father announces that they’re not going to take that kill back with them. Let the niggers and wolves have at ‘em, her father says with a twitching, fake grin on his face. The others glance at one another, but agree to leave this trophy behind.
Abigail just grins all the more, while she cradles her rifle, and strokes its warm muzzle. She is pretty sure the others cannot see her grin, because of how her red hair has fallen over her face; but she would not care if they did see her just then. Let them smack me around for grinning like a spoiled nigger, Abigail thinks. That won’t change the fact that he saw what he saw, and he is going to take it back home with him, whether or not he leaves the trophy behind. There is just no way to rip out what has been etched into his soul…
And not just etched into his soul, but etched into his soul on account of what I did, Abigail thinks further. I aimed. I kept my calm. I pulled that trigger.
How do you know that he saw his own reflection in that death face? She asks herself, when she gets too carried away with congratulating herself. Come on, girl, is it not much more probable that indeed he had a momentary bout of the old moonshine shakes? He cannot go an afternoon without soiling his pants, or slobbering drool on his shirt collar, or staining his cheeks with whiskey tears.
That thought wipes the grin away. She flips her hair out of her face, and follows the rest of the pack in silence. Her only consolation is that someday her father will learn what it means for him that she loves him so much. He kindles her stove. He wipes his thick palms over her burners. It is only a matter of time before one of those flames crackles up from under the surface, and scalds him. No, it will do more than scald him. It will turn his hands into devil torches; and, poor bastard, he will twitch, and scream, and release his bowels all over his big boots. And there will be an awful odor snaking up and away from his fire flesh…
Maybe like the piss and the blood I smell now, Abigail thinks, as her mind returns to the present. Except that there will be sulfur tossed into this pungent cocktail. Overcooked meat and burnt sulfur, along with the piss and the blood…
She hears the hand held bell ringing downstairs. Her father wants her. Of course, he wants her. He needs to remove what it left of his wife’s corpse; and while he managed to smash blood and guts just about everywhere, there is still too much flesh remaining for him to haul it outside on his own. Not to mention how corpses seem to weigh two or three times more than living flesh. He is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he has learned that much by hauling trophies out from the bush over the years.
Maybe he wants you, Abigail thinks. After all, isn’t that the same bell he rings when he and his old buddies are a pack of drunken bastards drawing cards and swapping ‘my old coon’ jokes? Of course, it is. It is the only bell he has. He keeps it near at hand, when they have an itch they can scratch only by rubbing their dirty hands over her nipples and into her cunt. Something to do when they are antsy, because they are not so silly queer as to be doing it to one another…
She hears the hand held bell ringing again. This time it is more insistent, She imagines a little baby in a bonnet, except that this baby is sporting a large, full, walrus mustache, and a pair of bloodshot, watery eyes. Must be more than enough moonshine mixed into that mama’s milk he’s been suckling since birth. Probably impaired his speech skills some (slurs ‘mama’ and ‘dada’ so hard they fear he’s got a bit of the Chinaman in his blood). No problem with his tiny baby motor skills, though, since he can ring that bell, like a petulant son of a whore.
Abigail removes a robe from her closet. She does not have time to dress; and, frankly, there is a devious part of her mind that wants her father to notice how loosely the robe hangs over her flesh. She wants to catch his wanderer eye sneaking a peek of her flat, boyish chest or her firm, athletic thighs, especially when the wind outside happens to flutter or to lift the fabric just so. He wants her, after all; and though he then violates her every time he wants her, he also violates himself in a way every time he indulges his passion in this regard. A bit more of his humanity is left by the wayside, when he sneaks a peek, or reaches out; and as much as he wants her, she wants him to become a dead beast, like that trophy that he had left behind in the bush. Perhaps, when he is far enough gone, she will hang his head over the mantle. His drinking buddies can show up from time to time to offer a toast to his dull eyes and grimacing lips, eternally etched into waxen, bluish skull skin, trapped at the moment that he had had to come to terms with the extent of her love for him. Really, what is more loving, than for a daughter to release her father from the beast life he has crafted for himself? Even more so, what is more intimate than patricide, a secret between a daughter and her father, an indiscretion swept under the family rug, as much as when the father first snuck into his daughter’s bedroom to show her his love.
Her father rings a third time. Oh, how helpless is man, hunched down by all the weight he has taken upon his own shoulders, confused by all the old lies that he has been trying to hold up, like a man in a carnival show trying to keep a number of supper plates rotating on top of sticks. No doubt, he imagines that he is so powerful, when he first swings his baton into the forehead; and, really, at that moment, he is as if God Himself casting down sinners with His heavenly fire and brimstone. He is the Judge. He is the Executioner. Since he that giveth can taketh away, and since he now taketh away, so may he imagine himself for that one, sublime moment in time as the beast god that giveth. The problem is with the second swing of the baton, then, the third, and the fourth, and all the others to follow, because the murderer no longer feels like he is in control. It is as if some greater power is holding him upright and swinging his arm. If indeed he were to see himself in a mirror, while he is smashing the baton into the soft flesh and the brittle bones, then he would see how he resembles Howdy Doody. He is a puppet on a string just then. His eyes bulge inhumanly. His freckles look as if painted on his cheeks. His mouth moves as if a trap door that is repeatedly opened and shut. Even his limbs move with the spastic unevenness of a puppet inside of a cardboard cutout stage area. And that means that after the murder, the man not only will feel emotionally and physically spent (frankly, a lot more so than could be explained by his actual exertion, as if much of his human soul had been squandered in the undertaking), he will feel cheated. He will know in the back of his mind that the marionette master sitting in the rafters above the stage, pulling and lowering the strings while cradling a bottle of cheap whiskey in between his thighs, wondering vaguely how many more shows he will need to do this evening before he can call it a night, that greater power in fact took all of the life out from that smashed corpse. The ostensible murderer now is just a cleanup boy. Some schmuck must remove the corpse, wipe up the blood, sweep out the bone fragments, and worry that someone had seen or heard something incriminating. Some schmuck needs to spend the rest of his life glancing behind his shoulder to see if the police are on to him. It will not be the old marionette master. The union protects him from the nasty cleanup duties; but there is not a union anywhere that will include the schmuck in its membership, no matter if he is willing to pay every last penny in union dues. He will just have to grin and to bear it, that is, until he is not able to grin anymore. Then, he will just need to bear it, but without any of the half-assed shits and giggles that may alleviate the sheer drudgery now and then. Indeed, how helpless is the man who permits himself for one, sublime moment in time to imagine that he is truly as free and as powerful as God. He would be better off, indeed, if he had never even tried.
Abigail ties a silk belt around her waist. She looks at herself again in the dresser mirror. She is a redheaded tomboy, not at all the voluptuous and pouty beauty that is all the rage in this last decade of the nineteenth century. That is okay, because her father prefers the thin, flat chested, prepubescent boy look. She sees it in his bloodshot eyes the moment he ejaculates on her stomach. His eyes are insane just then, but they are also soft, beaten, like those of a puppy.
She opens her bedroom door, and steps into the hall. That piss and blood smell is much worse out here. She clutches her stomach. No doubt, she is going to vomit every morsel of food that she has ever eaten, and then some, for good measure; but the moment passes, like everything else under the sun. She leans against the wall, in order to catch her breath, and then descends the staircase.
Interestingly, once she has withstood the full impact of the awful smell, it recedes into the background. It is there, to be sure; and so there remains an unctuous, sick feeling in her bowels that will not go away completely until that mess downstairs has been removed and cleaned. But it can no longer make her so nauseas that she needs to clutch her stomach or to lean against a wall. What had been so powerful turns out to be a limp and pathetic little bugger after all.
The sitting room door downstairs is shut. Maybe her father had shut that door after committing his crime, but she does not think so. She thinks he crept into the sitting room, closed the door behind him, and leaned against the door panel until his wife looked up from her tall chair. He does not have much in the way of polish, but he has his moments of showmanship. He would have wanted her to see him first. She lowers her needle and yarn into her thin lap, cocks her grey head back, and barely makes him out as a blacker shadow among shadows with her twitching, right eye. Her left eye is of no use, of course. It just stares blindly forward, like it is penetrating eternity already, when in actuality it is no more than a misshapen glass eye. She does not see much, but she can smell his whiskey breath, his warm sweat, perhaps even his hard cock inside his trousers. She will try to deny what her senses are telling her. She has had much practice in the art of denial. If she must die, then maybe she can die blissfully ignorant. Maybe she can die the way she had lived her life. Maybe she can remain polite, ignorant, and daffy Matilda Spencer (nee Marston), even when she gives up that frail ghost that she has been hording these past fifty years (fifty going on sixty, or even seventy, which of course is the norm for Victorian woman of the higher classes). Her tombstone could read: A righteous woman, all the way to the end.
But Abigail does not think that that is the way it happened. Her denial is not enough at the end. It fails her, as she in turn had failed her family. And this is the hard truth of the matter, is it not? Matilda had failed her family. She had failed in her wifely duties to her husband, thus practically pushing the schmuck into the arms of his daughter. She had failed to protect her daughter from him. She had retreated to her sitting room, had wrapped an Indian shawl around her chicken neck (an heirloom from when the Marston clan traded and warred with the Indians), and had taken up her needle and yarn. She had acted as if she had never walked down the aisle or suffered the pains of motherhood. No doubt, at times she had been able to imagine that she is the only person left on this blue earth of ours. She would be not only blissfully ignorant, but blissfully alone, not responsible to anything or anyone, no more on her mind than a vague idea that indeed it may be time later to pour herself another cup of lukewarm Earl Grey.
Abigail imagines that her father waited until he had seen for himself how Matilda could no longer deny what is happening. It might have been a confused, startled look in her one good eye. It might have been a sound, maybe the sound of a tense throat swallowing a gulp of dry air, or the sound of a hen clucking as a strong hand snaps its neck. It might have been a shudder down her right side. Of course, her left side would have remained as frozen as her left eye; but that would not have stopped her right side from twitching, like a coon at the end of a hanging rope. There would have been some indication; and then he would’ve pounced, like a tigress that has been hiding in the shadow for this one moment.
Abigail imagines that, just before her father swung the heavy baton into her mother’s face, Matilda saw that the sitting room is shut. So indeed, she will think, I had not been protected, even when I had shut myself into this room off the foyer. I had not been protected, even when I had shut myself into my daffy ruminations and polite dreams. Where is my denial, when I desire her the most?
She will not have the time to think anything more. Her husband of thirty years will be tapping his baton into his left palm (the same palm with which he will rub his daughter’s clitoris later that evening, if all goes as planned now, so he is careful not to strike it too hard). He will be taking his time, as he staggers over to her throne, so as to make sure that this final moment is as menacing as possible. Nevertheless, he will be standing before her grey face within seconds, and swinging his baton only a second or two after that; and so, no, she will not have the time to consider anything beyond the fact that her denial had left her at the least opportune moment. Maybe she will be upset. Victorian women are always on the verge of tears for one reason or another. To be sure, she will not be angry. That is much too strong an emotion for such a frail ghost as hers. No, much more likely, she will be resigned, a tepid shrugging of the shoulders, and then lights out (presuming the lights ever had been on in the first place). So did she feel any pain? Probably a horrible, electrical pain twisting her nerves into a knot. After all, since her denial has flown the coop she cannot very well deny a burst of excruciating pain striking downward from her head to her toes, nor can she deny the heavy, paralyzing pressure of her heart and her lungs arresting for all time in mid pump. For that matter, she cannot deny how her flesh screams, silent and unnoticed outside of herself, but a vicious cat screech inside what is left of her warbled brain, since that awful darkness that she had once known in her mother’s womb flows back in from every direction. She is writhing inside of this darkness, breathing it into her catatonic soul, feeling how it presses all her life into that crack at the bottom of the womb sack. She cannot deny then how dying is the same as being born, the same paralyzing fear, the same sense that an unseen divine rapist is squeezing and pushing her into a dark and scary hole.
Then, with an audible snap in the universe somewhere, it will be all over for Matilda Spencer. At that same moment, her husband will be swinging his big baton the second or the third time. In the back of his mind, notwithstanding all the adrenaline rushing through his body, he will sense that he is being cheated, that some greater power is at play here, and that that greater power is getting both the credit and the reward for this bloody mayhem. He will swing his baton that much harder; and to the extent that he is even more violent, he will sense that he is that much more cheated; so that by the end, when finally he lets the baton fall into the piss and blood pond around his boots, he will be spent, even resigned. He will slump his chin into his neck. His eyes will be distant. Since his adrenaline is subsiding, he will feel like a confused, sluggish drunk, maybe even to the point of thinking it is all a dream. To the extent that he is able to have a coherent thought at all, it will be as follows: I have been cheated. I have been defeated. The cock tease had it coming, and yet I am the defeated person. And to make matters worse, the cock tease is now a big mess all over the floor; and she is stinking all the way up to high heaven. Talk about adding insult to injury.
Not just insult to injury; but her insult to my injury, damned cock tease.
Abigail is pretty sure that that is the refrain repeated inside her father’s head (her insult to my injury, her insult to my injury, ad infinitum), when she opens the sitting room door, and leans seductively against the doorframe. That certainly seems to be the case, given his stooped posture and blank, downcast, defeated stare. She had been wrong to imagine that he had dropped that baton into a pool of piss and blood. In fact, he still has it in his right hand. He lets the bloodied, blunt tool hang beside his right thigh. It taps his thigh in sync with his haggard breaths. Otherwise, her father is as she had forecast a moment before.
Her father is clutching his hand held bell in his left hand. Matilda’s blood slimes down his left arm and covers over the bell. As a result, when he rings it, her blood splatters everywhere. Apparently, he did not hear her open the door, because now he is ringing that blood bell a fourth time. Once again, it is a mad sound, an insistent and pouty demand, and yet his posture is low and defeated.
Abigail almost speaks, but then something catches her eye. Her smashed pumpkin mother in fact is not on the floor, as she had forecast. Rather, Matilda had slid off of her chair, so that her butt is on the floor, but her torso is leaning against the seat of the tall chair. Her smashed pumpkin face is leaning forward, like her face wants to fall into her lap. Instead of falling into her lap, though, it is resting against her father’s crotch. With every one of his haggard breaths her grisly face bobs back and forth, like she is in the process of performing fellatio.
Abigail knows all about fellatio. Of course, she should not, as she is only a nineteen-year-old; but her father, and her father’s burly buddies, taught her everything that they knew about the birds and the bees long before. What they knew had only a passing resemblance to lovemaking. What they knew was hard, quick, and dirty. It either left a burning sensation, or tasted funny, when it was put into effect. Moreover, it made her feel cheap, so that she came to view the birds and the bees as just one of a number of ways a man will set out to reduce a woman’s internal price tag. Play with the birds and the bees long enough and a woman’s internal price tag turns into a ‘for free’ sign. The only upside to this ‘education’ was that Abigail could interact with her peers while knowing in the back of her mind that she knew something about which they did not even have a clue. Maybe that accounted for the knowing smirk she kept on her face when interacting with them. Maybe that accounted for the grey coldness in her eyes. All of her peers feared her to some degree, not because she bullied them, since she did not, but because everything about her look, her posture, her prowess in athletics, her razor sharp mind, implied that she had figured out the con a long time ago. Her peers have not even stumbled upon the con, and yet she already has counted the cards, or caught the sleight of hand. She knows, and yet she is hiding it all behind that pompous smirk of hers, like a redheaded witch who has stepped into the shadows so as to watch from afar the others fall into the trap.
Her feet end up speaking for her. She is walking across the floor with her head held high and with a forced smirk on her face, when she steps onto an old and creaky floorboard. It sounds as if an excited bird squawking under her toes.
Mama made a mess all over the floor, her father says in a subdued voice that sounds so strangely detached Abigail wonders if instead she had dreamt it.
Abigail does not respond. She stands in the middle of the small room and watches how her father’s baton taps rhythmically against his right thigh. It is so soaked it splatters blood down his pants leg every time it strikes him there.
Her father looks down. He appears only then to be aware that his wife’s smashed pumpkin face is beating against his firm crotch. He mutters something about a ‘cock tease,’ and jumps backward as if he is trying to avoid the plague.
He looks back at his daughter. There is a confused expression on his face just then. It alternates between a rabid dog ready to pounce and a sick puppy hoping for a handout. His eyes dart every which way, like a dog riding upon the waves of a turbulent sea.
Abigail half expects her father to bark. She clutches her stomach so as to restrain her laughter. It really is funny to imagine a grown man standing upon a pool of piss and blood, tapping his baton against his thigh, and yapping out like a deranged poodle. It is especially sidesplitting, because her mother’s smashed pumpkin face now falls forward, and squishes out blood from between her legs.
Can’t you see this silly mess? Her father asks incredulously, while waving his baton in the general direction of the flesh drool he once kissed at the altar.
Abigail still does not respond, except to the extent that she tells him off by glaring at him. She sits on the only cushion on the sofa not drenched in thick blood. She is aware that her robe hangs low over her chest. Not much to see on account of how flat chested she is, but if one of her nipples slips out then that should be enough to draw her father’s attention. He always refers to her nipple as a ‘girl’s nub,’ as in ‘let me rub that girl’s nub of yours.’ He invariably laughs on such occasions (more like a lighthearted grunt, which is as near as he gets to an actual laugh), and then everything calms down. Maybe he’ll calm down now, if he sneaks a peek at her ‘girl’s nub.’ Surely, better than carrying on like this…
Her father does not take the bait. He looks at his daughter like he has no clue who the hell she is. Then, he wipes his one sappy tear off of his left cheek with his left, blood soaked sleeve. In the process, he smears the blood splatter upon his face so that his cheek on that side looks like a Jackson Pollock canvas.
Damn woman’s soaking into the floorboards, her father snarls. Just can’t help herself. Incontinent cunt’s staining the floor, stinking up the walls, so bad she’ll still be right here, even after we’ve scrubbed everything down with soap.
What are you going to do about it, daddy? Abigail elongates the syllables so that she sounds like a toddler just learning how to say the word.
Cunt couldn’t leave well enough alone, her father continues without any acknowledgment of her question. That’s the problem. Sitting in here by herself for hours on end, needling yarn, drooling tea down her chin. Didn’t matter that she shut the door tight, ‘cause I could be a hundred miles away, and she’d still be picking at me, like a mother hen jabbing with her sharp beak or like a finger poking out from her cunt and wagging ‘no’ at a man just trying to make his way in this world. Who does she think she is? Better ‘cause she’s staying indoors and minding her tongue? Better ‘cause she’s just doing what a woman’s got to do? I don’t crow ‘cause I do what a man’s got to do. Blind as a bat, and yet she acts like she can see into my head. Dropped in a chair, and yet she acts like she can fly over me. Now, look at this mess she’s made. She’s soaking herself into all of my floorboards, stinking herself into all of my walls, making sure she stays with me the rest of my life. What she’s done is not fair. It isn’t even halfway right. I say the worst is that she’s so smug, like she’s so proud of the mess she’s made.
Sounds like you’re describing a witch, daddy, Abigail reflects with a grin.
Watch your mouth, whore, her father snaps back.
This time, it is Abigail who ignores his comment, and presses ahead with her own observation. She is enjoying every moment of her father’s fall, though apart from a subtle smirk at the corners of her lips she is careful not to express her feelings. Instead, she comes across as vague and detached, like a small girl just awakening from a coma into which she had fallen when she had been born. And, in a way, there is a lot of truth in that. She had lived a lot of life the past nineteen years; some triumphant moments, especially in the competitive sports arena usually denied girls; others waking nightmares, always behind a shut door in this very house; and so ‘coma’ would not be the right word to describe what she has been going through all that time. Nevertheless, she is ‘awakening’ to a life that will soon be her own. The mother who betrayed her is dead; not just a corpse, but a mutilated carcass, like something smashed down mercilessly, and left for the hyenas. The father who betrayed her is on the way out. She can see that in the madness in his eyes, the curse soaking into his floorboards, the dead flesh smell seeping into his walls. Before long, he will be a raving lunatic drunk begging to be let out of his misery. Maybe she will oblige, or maybe she will see fit to torture him first. Give him a dose of what he has given her. That will be a joyful day, and she suspects that that day will happen sooner rather than later.
Mama can see inside your head, Abigail continues. Fly over you, but also hide inside your floorboards, leave her scent inside your walls, curse every one of your steps until you stumble into the grave. Sounds like a witch to me.
Only witch here is my spoiled daughter, her father snarls.
He does not know the half of it, Abigail thinks, and smiles.
They stare into each other’s eyes. Theirs is the kind of longing intensity that can be mistaken for sexual rapture, but that on further reflection is more akin to cannibalism. They are hungry for one another; and with Matilda now out of the way, they can step hand in hand into the last movement of their lifelong dance together. One will be devouring on the flesh of the other when that final note has been played. Abigail knows that she will be the survivor. Like a witch, she knows that death can never really take a hold on her soul. Deep down, her father also suspects that she will be the survivor. He is angry and comforted at the same time; angry that any whore can get the better of him; comforted that this is all going to end someday.
Her father drops his gaze before she drops hers. He shuffles back toward the carcass. He pokes the dead flesh several times with his baton, and he sighs.
Okay, witch, no rest for the wicked, her father remarks with resignation.
He looks at the bell in his left hand. He seems surprised to see it, like he had forgotten how insistently he had been ringing it earlier. So much blood has dripped down his left arm and entered into the inner workings of the hand held bell that it is totally gunked up. He rings it; but instead of a tinny sound, there is a low, guttural, petrified dong. He thinks that this is what a death cry sounds like when heard beneath untold miles of blood and earth. He drops the bell like it is a hot potato, and smears his left fingers manically over his bloody trousers.
He drops his baton. It splashes into the huge pool of piss and blood under his boots, and rolls across the floor to the corner. It leaves behind a trail of piss and blood while rolling to its final stop. As a result, there is now no part of the floor not marred by pungent piss, coagulating blood, and sinewy, greying, dead flesh. The floor calls to mind the backroom of a mad butcher dripping in grime.
He squats in front of his wife’s blood drenched slippers. He always hated those slippers. They were sexless and matronly, the kind that squeaked upon a tired, old floor, like something worn by Florence Nightingale or a shriveled nun.
He pulls off the slippers, not because he wants to see her feet, but as an act of vandalism, as if her putrid carcass is not graffiti enough. He grabs a hold of her thin ankles. They are as cold and as clammy as when she had been alive.
Abigail watches her father’s awkward handling of her mother’s feet. She would have laughed, except that she is taken down a notch by the smell of piss and blood everywhere. The smell had fallen by the wayside earlier; but only for a spell, it turns out. The waxing and the waning of the horrible odor conjures a queasy image of a piss and blood ocean snapping piss and blood waves over the side of her rowboat. She wants to lean into this ocean and to vomit, but there is a splash of piss and blood steam that pushes her back into her place. She has no choice but to clutch at her stomach and to wait until the nausea slowly, and begrudgingly, slides down her throat and into her bowels. In the meantime, she cannot do anything else, but clutch her stomach, and drop her chin, as if she is overwhelmed as much by sorrow as by sickness. Strange that that should be so, since her mother had thrown her to the wolf a long time ago. Abigail’s soul had been mauled, not in one horrible experience of unleashed violence, but over so many nights of slobbery kisses and hard fondling as to seem like many lifetimes and then some. By contrast, only her mother’s physical body had been mauled; and the pain had snapped out within seconds. So why should she shed a tear for her mother? Why should she be sick with rage and with sadness over her death?
I should not; therefore, I shall not, Abigail manages to think rationally as the rest of her mad soul continues to be tossed about the piss and blood ocean.
She tries to impose a certain finality over her mental assertion, as if she is saying, ‘that’s the way it is, and that’s the way it is going to be.’ But her life has never been that easy, notwithstanding her outward smirk and swagger. The real truth of the matter is that her life always has been more of a charcoal grey than a black or a white. She has managed to see the light off in the distance at the same time the boogeyman snaps and gnaws at her flesh; and conversely she has been all too aware that the angel hides something cold and dark behind her wings, even while presumably she is there to save her. The outreaching hand is hiding a dagger up its sleeve; and so neither betrayal nor salvation is all that it presumes to be. And if that is true, and everything about her young life thus far points that way, then heaven and hell are imaginary, but limbo is real. Not that airy fairy limbo imagined by Medieval Catholics, but the endless ocean that just tosses and turns the little people clinging to their rowboats. These little people search the horizons in vain for an isle on which to moor. Whether that isle be a heaven or a hell is of no consequence. Anything will do, if finally they can step out from their rowboats and leave the churning waves well behind them. But in the end, the horizon yields nothing but another horizon; and there is no respite the queasy push and pull within the bowels.
Such a desultory vision; and deep down, about where her father touched her the first time, she knowsthat that is very close to the truth. But here she is standing upright with a distant smirk on her face. Her father is groveling with a pair of cold and clammy feet, and her mother looks like she had been through a butcher’s blender. So between the three of them, who is the human, and which two are the slugs? Who has a full life in front of her, and which two are slipping and sliding into a watery grave? In this scenario, is it really all that accurate for Abigail to lump herself along with the ‘little people’ bobbing listlessly about an endless ocean? Isn’t there a real and abiding strength behind her smirk and her swagger? Even when she is most vulnerable, no more than a girl prodded by big and clumsy hands, outwardly a weak sister with her eyes clenched, she dreams of herself as a witch suffering the abuse now so as to bide her optimum time to strike back. There must be a black magic behind her dark and brooding dreams.
He does not know the half of it, Abigail thinks. Heck, I do not even know the half of it. I am a woman still unwrapping herself beneath the old Christmas tree. I cannot quite make out the package yet, but I know that it glows with all the intensity of sparkling, blue eyes glaring up from the bottom of a deep well. It is the gift of a devil for a devil. It burns and then devours what it would save.
Abigail steps over to what is left of her mother’s head. The head is a sick mess of blood and brain goo; but fortunately the arms had been mostly spared, so Abigail can grab a hold of her mother’s hands without her fingers slipping on blood or falling into open wounds. She squats a moment, and then heaves those dead arms up. Matilda’s head lifts up from her lap. For a brief moment, it looks straight forward, like it is sizing up her husband, who is still having a hard time with her naked feet. Then, Matilda’s head falls so far back that the very top of her scalp almost touches the spot in between her shoulder blades. She has not been dead that long, so her neck still stretches to accommodate this pose; but, if the head is not straightened sometime soon, then the neck will start to snap at about where the larynx would sing lullabies to her daughter before bedtime.
Her father finally gives up on the feet. He nudges her floral dress up her legs, and grabs a hold of her calves. He cannot help but think that this is oddly erotic what with the Victorian sensibilities about a proper lady lifting her dress anywhere above her ankles.
Cock tease, he snarls beneath his breath while he is lifting her legs off of the floor so as to hold them as high as his hips.
Abigail steps forward. Her father steps back, but not nearly enough, and as a result, he nearly loses his balance altogether. His boots slide awkwardly on the pool of piss and blood, like he is a boy first trying on a pair of ice skates. It only takes a second or two for him to recover; but he nonetheless perspires like a pig, and gasps for air like a galloping horse, by the time he manages to regain his footing. His cheeks turn crimson red, perhaps from exhaustion, but probably from embarrassment. Abigail again imagines a toddler with a walrus mustache, a petulant monster trying to squirm out from his highchair, and getting madder with every second that he finds himself still contending with this horrible mess.
They glare into each other’s eyes again, but this time her father gives up long before he did the last time. He seems resigned to the fact that his bruised and battered wife got the best of him in the end, and his smart assed daughter is getting the best of him now. He is not surprised. Any guy surrounded by girls, whether they be wives, or daughters, or whores, learns that, notwithstanding a heavy dose of macho bravado on his part, in time they rip his ripened manhood right out of him. Maybe it is a sick game the girls play with one another: Which one of us can emasculate our men soonest? Which one of us can turn them into doddering, muttering, deranged, old fools whose only waking thought is servile?
Abigail reduces her step. Her father waddles backward. Together, father and daughter carry mother out of the sitting room. Mother’s hips and waist sink towards the floor, and so her pallbearers continually nudge her limbs higher, so as to keep her thin derriere from smearing a piss and blood trail across the old, creaky floor. Mother’s loose head bobs up and down with every step they take. Along with the exposed calves the bobbing head also implies a romp in the hay.
When they get to the front door, her father momentarily drops the dead legs. Ostensibly, he is reaching backward to open the door; but even if the door had been opened already, he still would have dropped the dead legs about that time. The dead seem to put on pounds of petrified weight. Matilda may look as if something the black cat dragged out from a mad butcher’s shop, but Matilda weighs as if a stone statue being dragged out carefully from an excavation site. There is nothing fleshy about her weight in his hands. It is cold, hard, and grim.
How reckless, Abigail thinks, when she watches how her father opens the front door fast and wide. What if someone happened to stroll by just then? The men would turns their faces downward and keep on shuffling, since the primary rule in regard to ‘household issues’ when McKinley is the President, rather than a name of a high school, is that a man should never interfere with how another man rules over his wife and children. But the women would stare, gasp audibly, maybe move their lips up and down like a fish out of water, and then trot home to pass on what they saw to their neighbors.
There is no one out there; and they must have spent more time than she had thought inside the sitting room, because there is no longer even the barest hint of sunset. It is just pitch black outside. The wind has picked up, and so the tree branches flutter like stooped, old ladies wandering into an ice room. Since the moon has not yet risen, it is impossible to see these branches, except as an assortment of rustling ghosts against a thick, black curtain. Every now and then the wind crests into a cat-screeching scream, and the tree branches sound like a chorus of damned souls chattering among themselves before giving voice to a timeless hymn. It is the sound of something about to happen. It is a hush and a whisper when the targeted victims sense that the baton is about to be smashed upon their soft heads. In comparison to the violence that follows it is terrifying.
Notwithstanding her composure, even Abigail shudders briefly, when she follows her father’s backward steps out the front door.
We shouldn’t be doing this, her father mutters. Should get some niggers to haul this cock tease. I’m not against hard work. It’s just that, well, hard for me to put it into words, but anyway this feels like ‘carrying the cross.’ Like you and I are on the Road to Golgotha, or something like that. It’s downright pagan what with all this blood and tears. Not the kind of burden a man should accept. Heck, even the silly niggers are above this; but I’d make them ‘carry the cross’ anyway, ‘cause they’re as close as we’ve got to work mules with two feet. But none of this would be happening, if this cock tease didn’t make such a damned mess. Can’t just step aside. Oh, no, she’s got to make a scene on the way out…
He catches Abigail’s glare. She is a beautiful vixen, a cursed witch, what with the wind blowing her long, red hair every which way. Her robe flutters up and back, revealing her strong legs, and flapping over her head like a medieval witch’s hood. Even though she is carrying considerable weight, her breaths are so calm as to appear nonexistent, so that he briefly imagines his own daughter as a walking dead witch, who has stepped out from a creepy corner in his mind.
And ‘creepy’ is the operative word, is it not? She is beautiful, not really in her features (too mannish, in his mind, on account of her unladylike strength and athleticism), but in her creepiness. There is something dark and mysterious in how she loves his late night touches. There is so much whoredom beating red blood in that flat bosom of hers that she puts this dead cock tease in his fingers to shame. He really should strike her down with his baton, before it is too late. But he knows he will not, and he knows that she knows. Goddamned cock tease whore daughter, but it is really only a matter of time before she drags his dead ass over this same field and out to that same lake where Matilda will be buried in a few minutes; and likely she’ll have this same smart smirk on her face then.
An owl hoots in the darkness somewhere. There is the sound of big wings flapping in place. Those sounds are creepy enough; but even more so there is a feeling of cold belligerence. It is as if the pallbearers are now trespassers upon property that may look like theirs but in fact belongs to the dead.
Actually, my father is the trespasser, Abigail thinks. Surely, I am not. Au Contraire, I am the queen of the dead, witch that I am, and the ghosts are just calling me home. I should be kicking up my heels, and letting my red hair fly in and out of the gathering storm. Really, I should. And so why am I not? And why is it that deep down I really do not think of myself as the queen of anything, let alone of the dead and the damned? Why is it the more I am confident and smug on the outside the more so I am a knot of fears and uncertainties on the inside?
Frail is thy woman’s name; Abigail thinks further. Isn’t that from William Shakespeare? Not really sure, but this is for certain: If my father does not know the half of my witchery, then he does not know a tenth of my frailty. Does that make him blind as a bat, or does that make me a great actress? Maybe both are equally true. If so, then what a twisted scene this is what with my fluttery, red hair, and his beaten puppy dog eyes, and this mangy, old corpse in between us.
She does not pursue that thought further. She suspects that, in his own, petulant manner, her father is also shutting down a certain strain of thought in his mind. Better to just focus on the task at hand. Perhaps that is the one silver lining in an especially grisly murder. There is so much involved in the kill and in the cleanup that follows that criminals can set aside those thoughts that would cast a real pall otherwise over the hour. She suspects that Jack the Ripper must have had a lot of thoughts that he had hoped to set aside on those foggy nights.
Together, father and daughter waddle down the side of the house, while mother’s head bobbles up and down, like a woman being raped or like a woman laughing her head off of her neck. Pleasure and pain are much the same, when the clock chimes no more, mother would think, if indeed she could.
What makes you think I cannot? Father hears Matilda say inside his head.
Cannot what? Father mumbles towards her clammy and cold naked feet.
Think! Father hears Matilda snap. What makes you think I cannot think? Moreover, what makes you think I cannot see how weak and womanly you seem this very moment? Do you think I see any less than when I’d been sitting all day with my needle and yarn? Do you think I’ll ever stop seeing you, Old Bertie Boo?
I told you never to call me that, father snaps back at those clammy, cold feet. Old Bertie Boo sounds like a coon name. One of the happy nigger names…
Old Bertie Boo lives in a shoe, eating his curds and whey, Matilda teases.
Of course, Matilda never had called him ‘Old Bertie Boo.’ Whenever he’d slapped her with the back of his hand, and had reminded her never ever to call him that happy nigger name, she’d had no idea what he was saying. Poor little lady had smelled the old whiskey on his breath and had attributed it all to that. But now that she is dead, she does not think it is his whiskey talking. She thinks he really is an ‘Old Bertie Boo;’ and dead that she is, she has decided to let her inhibitions fall by the wayside. She is going to let it all hang out. She is going to call a spade a spade. She is going to bob her head up and down, and laugh long and hard like a demented hyena. What has she got to lose now that she’s dead?
And so she starts laughing, long and hard, inside his head, but also in the gathering storm, and the hooting owl, and the flapping wings, and the rustling, snapping tree branches. And in how his daughter’s robe flaps over her head. No way he can ignore how his daughter is also part and parcel of that insane laugh.
He glances at his daughter’s face. Her smart smirk widens into a devilish clown grin. It only lasts a moment, but it is enough for him to see her skull just beneath the surface of her face. A long dead skull with a waterfall of beautiful, ravishing, red hair that slinks down her neck, and flutters over her bellybutton.
You’ve been dead since the first time I touched you, he thinks. No, that is not true. It’s more accurate to say you’ve been dead since you were born. So you’ve been making your mess, leaving your death stink everywhere, since that night the midwife delivered you out from the witch’s brew. And, goddamn it, it seems your mother’s now in the act. Now, I’ve got to cleanup after two cursed, dead whores. On my knees, scrubbing all day long, wondering all night long if I missed something, then getting up at dawn to start all over again. Cock tease…
And with that he slips backward, and he falls into a mud pond beside the lake. His head strikes a pointed rock beneath the mud. He does not lose what is left of his delirious consciousness, but he pisses and bleeds into the cesspool as if a petulant infant or an old fart with no control over his flesh. Matilda’s naked feet fall as rocks into the mud pond. They splash mud into his walrus mustache.
Abigail watches her father stumble into the mud pond. She does not try to pull back the wide grin on her face; and yet she is amused now, not so much because of her father’s predicament, but because she is so relieved to be able to put her unsettling thoughts aside. She and her father are killing one another, slowly, sadistically, seductively, since killing is the only way either one of them knows how to turn off the unwanted internal dialogues even if only for a while.
She drops her mother’s arms. Her mother’s head flaps back so that when she strikes the earth her head is in between the earth and her shoulder blades. Abigail thinks she hears her mother’s flimsy neck crack about where it connects with her collarbone. Surely, if there had been any tension left in her neck then it would have cracked in such an awkward position. But rigor mortis has not set in yet, and Play-Doh flesh does not crack, so she must have imagined the sound just then. Still, even if she had imagined it, then that alone does not detract in her mind from how real it had sounded. Indeed, everything is cracking like old, brittle twigs, more so, she thinks, as if the dried earth during a terrible quake…
Her father staggers up from the mud pond. He looks like a slime creature what with the piss, blood, and mud slithering down his flesh. His eyes blink out from beneath the mud mask that has replaced his face. There is confused anger and despair in those eyes; but, even more so, there is the absence of humanity.
Abigail steps aside. She folds her arms, and stares petulantly at her sick, slithery father. She is done helping him. She is just going to watch and to gloat.
He is about to say something, but then he reads the message in her eyes.
He squats down, pulls the naked feet out from the mud pond, and drags the old woman with whom he had lost his virginity way back when. He stops his backward waddle when he hits the rippling lake, walks up to Matilda’s smashed pumpkin head, and kicks the head and the neck repeatedly, until she slugs into the water. He then gets on his knees, and pushes her torso and legs, until she is pulled under finally by the dark and frigid lake. Her grimy hair floats as if a wet and filthy mop upon the surface a moment, but then it too sinks into the grave.
He remains on his knees a while. He stares into the lake. His face seems to be sad, maybe even contemplative, but in fact he wants to make certain she does not swim up from her grave. That cock tease is liable to do anything. That is especially true now that she is dead and so freed from any social inhibitions, let alone marital obligations. He almost regrets having killed her, but then he is quick to remind himself that she made this all happen. This is her mess, and he needs to clean up after her, not just tonight, but for the rest of his sorry life. If he had known how manipulative she could be, he never would have married her away from her old man. No amount of sex and home cooking is worth this mess.
He finally stands up. His knees are throbbing in pain. His head hangs low, like he is a beaten redneck, or even worse a slave after having been whipped in the back for a transgression he does not have the sense to understand. He sees how his daughter is looking at him. Goddamn that wide grin on her face. But he holds his tongue, and he drops his eyes. He will have his way with her later this same night. So help him God, if he does not get a reward for this morbid chore.
* * *
Abigail kneels beside the bathtub. Her red hair drapes over her father’s left shoulder and floats on top of the hot water. At first glance, her hair in the water looks like an expanding pool of blood, though in fact the real blood from that messy episode has been scrubbed away. At this late hour, her father stays in the hot water, not because his flesh remains dirty, but because his emotions are precariously close to the edge. The water is therapy, a remembrance of the peace and safety we knew inside of our mother’s womb, and a vague hope that somehow we can return to that little cocoon from which we had been ripped so long ago. The dreamer has no use for heaven. What he wants is limbo, not that endless ocean variety that came to mind during that messy episode a few hours ago, but that Medieval Catholic variety that calls to mind white babies sleeping on whiter clouds. He wants a lobotomy; but absent that he will settle gladly for a hot bath, while his daughter kneels beside him, and washes his worries away.
She took off her robe after cleaning up the mess in the sitting room. The loose fabric tied about her waist had turned into a second mop by the time she was done; and so she had taken it off (catching how her father ogled her then), and had tossed it unceremoniously into the garbage fire behind the house along with the mop, broom, and soap used in the cleanup. Now, she is naked, except for the flesh covered by her hair. Her strong, tomboyish body suggests a lanky, adolescent boy attending to his old father, though the demure look on her face suggests a mistress alongside her lover when his wife is out of the picture. The two images may appear polar opposites, except in the context of the perverse, hidden life that the father and the daughter have formed with one another the images in fact are compatible. For them, what is natural is scandalous, what is innocent is filthy. Theirs is a marriage solemnized by the whispered innuendo in the small community in which they hang their hats. Theirs is a marital bed now and forever draped by shadows. Theirs is a quiet family life where the outward conventionality of their affairs with one another barely veils the mad utterings and the occasional violent bursts of monsters set free from the Garden of Eden.
She clutches a bar of Pears Soap. Her father imports the soap every half year from England, because he loves the advertising campaign. The Pears Soap icon is a small, tender, fair-haired boy staring up at a single bubble, while he is balancing a bowl of soapy water on his lap. There is a look of wonder upon that beautifully innocent face, and yet everything is so clean and orderly that there is no chance that the boy will drop the soapy water all over his skirt. Of course, as any man who puts on the airs of culture in the Gay Nineties would know, this is Millais’ famous painting Bubbles. It has been appropriated by the good, white men of the time as an expression of the cultural ideal perhaps best summarized in the phrase ‘civilizing mission.’ This is the soap for the fair man who has been stooped and shriveled a bit too much by his ‘White Man’s Burden,’ another fine phrase from the time. It is a real shame that an egg (or a wife’s head) needs to be cracked now and then in the name of ‘progress,’ but without hardship there can be no satisfaction when finally the gentleman murderer rests in his bathtub and rubs thoughtlessly at his walrus mustache. Ah, the height of all civilizations and an indication of just how far we have come since the Niggers sacked Rome!
And yet for all the pretense of the triumphant man in repose, her father remains on the edge. He may rub his mustache thoughtlessly, but the way he is grinding his teeth and blinking his eyes suggests anything but relaxation. Maybe there is a tinge of guilt in that emotional mess bubbling up from his old bowels, but not likely. He has done a good job in putting the blame on her, not because he is a particularly good liar, but because she really is to blame. She is (or was) a cock tease. She practically pushed him into her daughter’s loving embrace, or so he says, and will continue to say, because that is the truth so help him Jesus Christ, and God the Father, and all the Saints. Maybe he fears that one of those nosy neighbors will notice she is gone. Matilda had had no friends the past few years what with half of her frail body paralyzed, and one eye staring lamely off to the side, but it is not as if she had been altogether forgotten. The Daughters of the Confederacy had seen fit to send her a basket of white carnations every season, and the Christian Help for Bereaved Widows had added her name to the list of ‘honorary widows.’ No one thought her husband had died, though plenty fancied the idea. They had observed him too often plodding from one saloon to the next in his cheap suits and his heavy work boots to imagine that Beelzebub had called him home. But ‘Poor Matilda’ (no longer Matilda, but Poor Matilda), well, she seemed so pathetic what with her paralysis, her loony eye, her stinky floral dresses, she was tantamount to one of those widows who had groveled at the Good Lord’s naked feet. So, yes, a nosy neighbor can be a problem, except that father has no desire to keep his wife’s death a secret. Surely, he does not intend to discuss how she died; but the very fact that she did die is going to be the news of the town tomorrow morning. The ‘Good Christian Folks’ downtown would not even spit into his face, if he were begging for something to drink off the side of the road. But let there be an untimely death (what death actually is not untimely?) of a spouse or a child, and the ‘Good Christian Folks’ just come out in droves to show their sympathy. People love to be charitable when doing so involves putting on a long face, baking a ‘sympathy pie,’ and speaking about how the angels even now are dragging ‘Poor Matilda’ up to the pearly gates. So much sympathy is in the air is it a wonder that old debts should be forgiven and old warrants set aside? Father hopes his debt sheet (much like a rap sheet, but even more dishonorable this far below the Mason-Dixon) will be scrubbed clean and pretty by the time the ‘Good Christian Folks’ have decided to drop him and his vixen tomboy daughter as their ‘cause of the month.’ Heck, he even intends for the saloon owners in town to forgive his tabs, since after all he is a pathetic widower who needs a beer stein into which to shed his tears as much as a dried up camel jockey needs a glass of water.
No, guilt and fear of capture do not weigh heavily on his mind, and so his heavy heart and his prickly temper must have some other source. Why is it that he cannot give himself over to the hot water and the scented bubbles? Why is it that he cannot put a jovial grin upon his face for more than an insincere second or two? His daughter certainly can grin (no, the better word here is smirk, as in ‘his daughter certainly can smirk at her old man,’ cock tease and smart mouth that she is), and she has been grinning ever since he climbed back onto his feet and left the death lake behind him. She grinned the whole time she was on her knees in the sitting room, scrubbing the piss and the blood off of the floor, and picking up bits of her mother’s dried flesh out from the cracks. She grinned the whole time she was destroying the evidence in the bonfire out back. Indeed, he could have sworn he saw her kicking up her bare heels once or twice, while she walked around the bonfire, like she was some sort of witch, or maybe even one of them happy clappy Negresses. Although he cannot see her now, because she is kneeling beside the bathtub and behind his head, he suspects she is yet again a grinning fool. No, fool is not the right word. There is nothing foolish with her. It is more accurate to say that she is cunning, and she is waging the war to win.
Maybe he has his heavy heart and his prickly temper because he is afraid of her. There is much to fear; even more to love; and as the moon climbs unto her throne at the top of the night sky, there is just enough light to see that she is equal parts Siren and Gorgon, beautiful debauchery, sexy eyes full of worms.
Actually, there is no maybe about it. He fears and loves her as he would Beelzebub himself. It is the kind of obsession that grinds teeth and blinks eyes…
Cock tease, he mutters, while climbing up from his own crazed thoughts.
He jerks upward, like he had been pinched awake. Water splashes out of the bathtub, while he stares at his waterlogged fingers. His fingernails are long and jagged. Maybe he will make her cunt bleed, when he fingers her this night.
That would be nice, he thinks with a sly grin that actually manages to be on his face longer than two seconds. True, I’ve had my share of blood this day, what with the mess that cock tease made. Still, a bleeding cunt is always nice…
I believe it is time for bed, he says like a father would say to a little girl.
He looks back over his left shoulder. He is surprised to see that she is not grinning like a demented clown or a drunken harlot. Indeed, there is no specific emotion in her face. It is blank, nonplussed, perhaps even a tad bored, except, that is, for her expressive eyes. There are fires in those eyes, a little something she stole from the bonfire out back; and they are calling him now to take a dip in the hellfire she has prepared for him.
I don’t think I can sleep alone tonight, daddy (again elongating the two syllables, so that she sounds like a toddler getting ready to clutch at her toy for the long night ahead). My mother looked like a smashed pumpkin. What’s a girl to do with that scary image inside her head, but have nightmares all night long?
I can protect you from the boogeyman, her father whispers.
Abigail smiles as if to say, ‘you’re my hero.’ Goddamn, she is a good act. Almost makes you want that bullet she has in store for you, come to think of it.
* * *
Abigail steps away from the bathtub, though she does not drop her eyes. If anyone is going to be dropping their eyes, then it is going to be him, not just tonight, but for however long they are going to be lovers.
Love is not mutual, she reminds herself. Love is that insane spark that is in the air just before one person slams her fist into another. It is that cold, raw craving a cannibal feels in her bowels before she rips out with her teeth a large mouthful of living flesh. It is that air in the jungle beating cold and wet against a woman’s face when she is on the prowl for prey. It crawls through the vibrant bloodstream of a woman in heat, just beneath her reason, far from those moral and ethical restraints she may have picked up from Sunday school.
Love is my power over you, bitch; Abigail manages to think without even a hint of a blush in her cheeks. It is why I have you twisted in tiny knots around my flesh, even when you think that you are the one touching me. It is why I am smiling now, even while your lower lip trembles, and your eyes blink manically. Oh, how I love you, daddy. More than you can imagine in your dreams at night…
And with that last thought ringing inside her ears Abigail steps backward, until she has cleared the doorway. She leans against the doorway in the kind of sultry pose that asks, ‘Well, big guy, are you going to fuck me, or are we going to stare at each other the rest of the night?’
Her father breaks the stare first. He continues to rub stupidly at his wet walrus mustache. He looks like a simpleton baby in a bathtub just on the verge of tears because mommy is not here to take him out of the soapy water. Maybe that is the one thing he misses about Matilda. Before half of her body had been paralyzed, and one of her eyes had been replaced with a glass ball that focused away from wherever she happened to turn her face, she had helped him out of the bathtub each night. She always rubbed him down with a towel, and clipped his walrus mustache, and squeezed his cheeks, and told him he was a good boy.
Abigail steps away from the bathroom. She walks with all the confidence and regal bearing of a queen or a headmistress. Her chin tilts upward, her nose slices through the candlelit air before her path, and her long fingers fold into a prayerful gesture before her flat chest. There is nothing humble in that prayer, though. Rather, it is that pompous show of prayerfulness that Jesus would have ascribed to the Pharisees.
She is nude still, but the moonlight shining through the second story hall window seems to clothe her in sparkling silver raiment. There is no cold breeze snapping through the hall, since the window up here is firmly shut; and yet that witchy red hair of hers seems to be fluttering behind her head. Or perhaps that too is an illusion, like the sparkling silver raiment. It is impossible to distinguish fact from fantasy after those orgasmic furies of murder and mayhem have been buried beneath the ripples of a lake. Everything in the aftermath is both reality and dreamscape, where the nightfall seems to dig into the souls of those awake still, and where the storm seems to be emerging out from the heart rather than breaking in from the outside. The universe gives me darkness, endless nightfall, and I give her the thunder and wind that cracks the earth in two and buries her in on herself, Abigail thinks. That is the exchange, the balance of scales, what passes for sanity and justice after the murder has been done and the victim has had her time to scream out for blood vengeance from the bottom of the lake. If any man says that the murderess is not also a goddess and a fiend, then he is a liar peddling his soft morality at the expense of the truth.
She passes her bedroom. She will never sleep in that bed again. There is a brief sensation of loss somewhere in her heart, a momentary lament that that not so innocent childhood of hers is gone forevermore; but then that emotion is gone before it has had a chance to wipe that smirk off of her face or to disturb her proud step. Doors are there to be shut. The past is there to be lost. That is what her father and his buddies taught her over the years, though naturally not one of them had a clue as to what life lessons their clumsy and callused fingers etched into her soul.
She opens the door to the master bedroom. There is a single twin bed by a nightstand. Married couples generally do not sleep together when McKinley is President and the ‘White Man’s Burden’ is all the rage. Matilda had slept in one of the guest bedrooms. She would be invited into her husband’s bedroom when he felt frisky, and she would be sent back to hers when he wanted to snore the rest of the night hours away. Matilda had not seen the inside of this room in too many years, and so the room looks and smells like the kind of male hideout one might find above a saloon. The air is musky and sweaty. The furniture is brown, oaky, and tobacco stained. The creaky, rotted bed has not been made in years.
Nonetheless, the silver moonlight slithering through the tattered curtain bathes all this hard masculinity in the kind of soft allure traditionally identified with romance. This is what passes for a ‘woman’s touch’ in this room; and even though it is faint and otherworldly, it is enough to make an impression. Perhaps this is why her father feels imprisoned by the females in his own house, Abigail thinks. Even when he shuts his bedroom door, and slides beneath his sheets, he cannot escape how the ‘woman’s touch’ caresses him from every direction. He can make his daughter bleed down there, but he cannot escape how the female moon slides over his nightshirt and fondles his walrus mustache.
Abigail crawls onto the twin bed. She leans against the knotty headboard and faces the open doorway. She folds her right knee so that it is near her flat, boyish chest, and she wraps her hands about that knee in a posture that is both girlish and seductive. She slides her left leg away from her right foot enough so that a person standing in the doorway could just make out her pubic hair in the moonlight. Her pubic hair is a wild, unshaven jungle that bites back.
She keeps her pose, like a model waiting patiently for a camera to flash, until finally there is a stooped shadow man standing in the doorway and holding up a lit candle. The stooped shadow man is wearing a robe that hangs upon his beaten frame like an oversized ghost sheet that has a hole cut out for his head. Or perhaps it looks like a white chasuble on a priest, who is withering back into his bones. Regardless, the connotation is a dead man walking, a tired and tepid sacrifice of himself that he knows deep down will not be enough to appease the whim of the gods, and a resigned weakness that Abigail finds especially alluring in a man. Of course, at the age of nineteen, and without any experience under her belt apart from what her father and her father’s buddies have done to her, she really has no idea what she would find alluring in a man in the context of a good and healthy relationship; but, for tonight, her father’s resigned weakness will suffice to make her heart skip a beat. It is the very same feeling she has on the field, when she is playing a sport that is usually reserved for boys and when she knows that she is just one or two seconds away from landing her elbow into a boy’s nose and hearing his blood squish out of his nostrils.
I have a request, her father says, after he clears his throat. From now on you are to call me by my name. I am no longer ‘daddy.’ I am ‘Bertrand.’ Never ‘Bert’ or ‘Bertie,’ but ‘Bertrand.’ And for me, you’re no longer ‘daughter,’ but ‘Abigail.’ Bertrand and Abigail, the two names together have a nice ring, would you say? Anyway, it is best, since your mother has gone off, and has seen fit to leave us to one another. Just mind me on this, and everything will return to its proper place. Slip back to the old ways, and you’re liable to be hurting hard on your bones, when I’m done with you.
Abigail blushes. Bertrand is especially alluring, when he tosses out one of his threats. He sounds like a boy trying to talk like a man.
Okay, Bertrand, Abigail says with a knowing smirk. I understand. I do not have a daddy anymore. My daddy is with my mommy at the bottom of the lake.
I wouldn’t say that, Bertrand responds haltingly.
Bertrand staggers over to the nightstand with his candle. Up close, she is able to make out the confused and frightened look upon his face. His mustache still seems wet, like a hairy monster clutching a rock at the bottom of the lake.
Oh, I would, Abigail remarks slyly.
I have no doubt you would, Bertrand snaps back in an attempt to veil his obvious fear. Just mind your tongue and keep your place, if you want to keep a hold of that smart mouth of yours.
Abigail does not respond verbally. Instead, she opens her arms wide and smiles like a little girl about to open her Christmas gift.
Bertrand places his candle on the nightstand. He removes his robe. He is a stooped and shriveled mess. His flesh looks as if he has aged another decade, since he swung that baton into his wife’s face earlier this evening. Doing much of anything decisive in this world of ours takes its toll. The punishment is tired, beaten flesh and distant eyes. The man who responds to the lure of the Siren is always going to crash upon the rocks, not because there is no space in between the rocks, but because he is too damned tired to alter his course once he rows his boat over there. Bertrand looks like he has smashed upon one too many sea rocks and is not at all certain what to do now that he has reached his shoreline.
I love you, Bertrand, Abigail whispers. I love how you make me feel.
Bertrand looks down at her. He rubs his mustache. He cannot say that he loves her, since of course the man about to be squished beneath the steel boot cannot feel much love toward his own murderer. He does not even love how he can be with his Abigail now without sneaking behind Matilda’s back. He got the prize, but the best he can do is to shrug his soft shoulders and to let out a sigh.
He slips beneath the sheets beside his Abigail. He nestles his face against her flat chest. He slides his left palm down her torso. He feels how his calluses scratch her soft skin, and that feeling starts to harden his cock. He is not really sure that he has enough in him to fuck her, but a half hard cock is good indeed.
Abigail closes her eyes, as she always does. There is no wind in this room right now, and yet she can feel her witchy red hair fluttering above that knotty headboard. It is a cruel spirit blowing out from her chest, up her face, and into her hair. It is a cold fan pushing her away from this time and place and into her dreamscape; and there, in that dreamscape, she soars over Bertrand’s callused hands and clumsy fingers like one of the dark witches of old flying into the soft moonlight. There is freedom in the dream, and there is merciless, brute power.
* * *
Abigail senses that she is dreaming still, when she sits up suddenly in the darkest hour before dawn. The silver moon is no longer shining directly into the master bedroom window, so everything is pitch black and suffocating. She feels as if she has awakened inside of a coffin buried untold miles beneath the earth.
But she is not worried. To some extent, the dream calms her. She is that witch still flying over what is left of Bertrand’s withered body, even if the night sky is no higher than the top of the coffin. Also, she is comforted by Bertrand’s snore. It is the same deep and gravelly motor sound she has heard all her life in the dead of night. There is peace in familiarity.
But more so than any other consideration, she is most alive in darkness. It may be a dirty, little secret she covets; but it is true, nonetheless, that of all the hours of the day and night, the hour before dawn is her haunt. The world is veiled in silence, deadness, no more than a limp breeze rippling the lake that is hidden in the darkness, maybe an old owl hooting in the distance for a lost love never to be seen again. She can put on her loose robe and wander openly in the shadows outside without fear of prying eyes or twitching ears. She can kick the small rocks and dried leaves in her path without upsetting the delicate balance of body and soul that keeps her young mind awake and her dream alive in equal measure. Of course, the moment fades, when the sun first pokes above the line and shivers the blackness with a hint of purple blue; but until then, she is free, alive, and dangerous, a witch on the prowl, a girl dancing with her old demons.
She crawls out of the bed, and walks toward her bedroom. Although the floorboards creak loudly, she is not afraid. Bertrand is beat. Murder is tough on the body and the mind, notwithstanding the layers of denial that the killer puts up to try to separate himself as much as possible from his own deed. Indeed, as the adrenaline rush subsides, and the last of the shivering tears falls harmlessly to the floor, the killer is burdened not by his deed so much as by his denial. His every move is now a lie meant to cover up a previous lie. He cannot even take a hot bath, or fondle his daughter’s cunt, without wondering in the dark corner of his tired mind if he has closed the curtains well enough between what he did and what he wants to think that he did. Therefore, Old Bertie Boo is unlikely to move in his bed, let alone to awaken, until well beyond dawn, regardless of the screeching noises the floorboards make, or the screaming door hinges when she opens her bedroom door. For all she knows, he may never awaken, since she is sure that the last dull lights in his soul went into the lake with mother’s corpse.
She puts on a hooded robe and sandals. She looks about her bedroom by the light of a small candle she ignited when she had stepped inside. Already, in her mind, this is the room of a total stranger. Even more so, it is a ghost room, since the prior occupant died and went to hell the very same day she was born. She knows a little something about that prior occupant, since she can feel that ghost hovering in the corner. She had had an athletic, tall build, striking, long, red hair, beautiful, penetrating eyes, and parents who tossed her to the wolves about the time she was establishing her own separate identity. The parents no doubt thought that the wolves would devour her whole. They had no idea she’d turn into a queen wolf herself, even more so a tigress set loose, a witch barely veiled behind a knowing smirk. Oh, sure, she established her separate identity; but it is one they never would have foreseen and cannot ever control. The most that they can do is to despise her, and then to die, because she loves them so…
She snaps out of her own maudlin thought. Revenge fantasies have their place, to be sure; but just now there is a lighter consideration welling up in her bosom. It is really not a coherent thought so much as a warm ache in her heart.
She walks down the staircase and passes the sitting room. A grandfather clock chimes. It is four o’clock in the morning, and the ghost is settling into her new haunt. She practically can feel her mother compressing the dusty air inside that moonlit room, so that the furniture takes on a faint ocher hue reminiscent of worn cushions in a funeral parlor. She thinks she hears a floorboard creak, as a frail foot in a slipper shuffles one step closer to the needle and yarn. Matilda had not been able to walk at all, since half of her body petrified. Bertrand had had to carry her to her tall chair, and to carry her back to bed, while she spoke in a feeble whisper of this or that transgression he had committed decades ago. Nevertheless, here is her one good foot shuffling across the floor, dragging that other petrified foot like a ball and chain, and teetering precariously on an edge of collapse. All this effort so that she can get to her needle and yarn, rest upon her tall chair, and stare in judgmental silence at the comings and goings, while the years flow seamlessly into centuries. Or maybe she will never quite make it to her needle and yarn, so that every morning, as the grandfather clock chimes the fourth hour, some insomniac near the sitting room will hear one floorboard creak. He may tell himself that it is just an old house settling into its infirmity; but when he hears the same noise at the same time every morning, he will lose a bit of his otherwise strong grip on sanity. For him, the repeated floor creak is going to be akin to Chinese water torture. He will sense nothing; and then, out of the blue, he will snap, maybe jump out of the second story window, or blast a bullet into his wife and children, before eating the last bullet himself. This is what happens in old houses, especially when a senile ghost never quite reaches the needle and yarn before her. This is how a murder victim balances the grand cosmic scales, since no doubt the murder victim’s ghost will be heard chuckling into the early morning wind as the dead husband, wife, and children turn waxy cold and pale blue in the silver moonlight. There is a kind of justice in the dead and out of the way places, and Abigail senses that that sitting room behind the closed door has turned into one of those dead and out of the way places. There is no doubt a morbid security in knowing that the scales will be balanced in due time, but the price to be paid in wrapping oneself in a dead and out of the way place is one that Abigail will not pay. She will leave the sitting room to the old maids and instead embrace that wide-open world beyond the front door, a dark and dangerous world, to be sure, a place not at all governed by the Omniscient Mortician in the sky who allows for His justice to reign supreme in dead haunts, but on the plus side a place where she can roam free, like those witches of old.
She steps outside. The air is still and cold, like a carcass hanging from a hook in an ice room. There is a hint of rain on her tongue, but not enough for a storm to gather in the clouds above her, so that even the weather now is tired, listless, and grey. There does not appear to be enough life out here to keep the flowers from wilting or the trees from crackling and falling over.
But that is okay. She intends to bring the life to this scene. It is best that nature be no more than a dead backdrop for her early morning pursuit, so that the virile, masculine life she feels at the very end of her journey is all her own.
She walks around to the back of the house. She glances at the remains of the bonfire she started hours earlier. She tilts her nose towards where Bertrand had kicked and rolled his bride into the murky lake.
None of these spots can hold her interest now. Perhaps someday she will want to tour the historical points of interest along the path to Calvary, but just now her heart burns warm for what is beyond the lake.
She walks over to a short pier at the edge of her father’s land. There is a rowboat tied to the pier. The wind picks up a little, and flutters the skirt of her robe behind her. It also slithers her red hair back just enough, so that she looks like Medusa staring across the darkness of eternity toward an unreachable love.
The moment passes, and she lowers herself into the rowboat. She is very strong and confident with her oar in hand. She could be the oarsman piloting a courageous General Washington across the Delaware River. Surely, the mission before her is as secret and dangerous in its own way as what those patriots had endured in order to secure their liberty; and it is for much the same purpose in the end, since she cannot conceive herself as a free and emancipated woman if she does not set out at this time to answer the calling of her heart.
As she pulls her oar through the murky lake water, she imagines how the ripples spreading out from behind her rowboat disturb the cold and silent grave beneath the surface. What starts off as a mild quiver gathers strength as it falls toward the sand and the stones at the bottom, so that when it reaches the dark floor it is as if a heaven quake descending from on high. It is the kind of quake that rattles corpses out from their hiding places, pushes rotting lake water into their bloated nostrils, and vibrates their shredded limbs. The disturbed corpses bend their knees high and low, wiggle their arms along their torsos, and bounce their heads erratically. They could be crazed youngsters in a mosh pit, or naked Africans dancing lasciviously about a bonfire, as they wander about the floor of the lake with dazed, half-living eyes. Matilda is down there with the others. As the newest addition, she is the most intact, though the fish nibbling off of what remains of her flesh after the brutal ‘baton incident’ are doing their utmost to shred her into a zombie ghoul or an outright skeleton. Moreover, her eyes are a little more alive than the others. There is a sentience in them, a simplicity that would bore an amoeba, but nevertheless a resolve born of the fact that she has yet to be avenged her downfall. The glare in her eyes says: I’m going to kill him for what he did to me today. But I’m also going to kill her. Bet your sweet ass…
Matilda would never have talked that way in real life, though she did not try to walk on her own two feet after being petrified over half her body either. And yet her one good foot is making a go of it in the sitting room, dragging that bad foot, shuffling as best it can towards the needle and yarn. So maybe she is different now that she is dead. Maybe she is more resolved to set things proper and right. After all, she no longer has the fear of death now to keep her in line.
You can try, Matilda, Abigail mutters. But you will not catch up with me.
She reapplies her confident smirk. She kicks back with her oar that much more aggressively. And yet notwithstanding her outward bravado, she simply is not all that sure that she will get away. Freedom is a strong allure, but there is an equally strong pull in her psyche back to that abuse she has known for years.
In spite of the tug of war playing out in her own psyche, Abigail manages to row across the lake, though several times along the way she looks behind her left shoulder to see if her mother’s head breaks the surface. She makes out the silent, plodding ripples spreading out from something that has either fallen into or ascended out from the lake. Once, she thinks she makes out a shadowy form at the exact center of one of these ripples; a form much like a dark face; and a form that seems to be directing its cold, cruel intentions in her direction, even though she cannot make out anything like eyes. But then the wind skates across the lake and breaks up whatever she had seen or imagined, and she is yet again just a nineteen-year-old girl rowing toward her tobacco field on the other side.
Actually, it is not her tobacco field. It belongs to her uncle, Claude, her father’s older brother by almost twenty years. She has seen Claude in the flesh no more than a half dozen times, which is just as well, since the recluse farmer in his straw hat and overalls has the gaunt eyes and loosened face of a diseased gnome. Her father says that he has been ‘death warmed over’ about as long as he has known him; but notwithstanding his ill health and sour disposition, early on he had shown a tenacity in business and a noted cruelty towards his niggers (still housed in the same slave quarters in which their parents and grandparents had been born) that had pretty much guaranteed that when Old Eustis Spencer had died his first born son, Claude, would inherit the bulk of the family estate. Some of the other brothers had been mighty pissed, and to this day Claude still kept his shotgun by his side in case one of them came a knocking. But Bertrand, the runt of the litter, had not shed a single tear. He had hated tobacco farming when he was a boy; and though he could tolerate it as an adolescent, he found that the daily routine interfered too much with his illicit drinking and whoring. He had made it known to his father that he would be happy enough just to get the house across the dark lake. Old Eustis must have had a soft spot for his runt (or maybe there had been shenanigans in writing the last version of the will, as the other Spencer boys would allege over the years whenever the aged whiskey burst through the cracks and flowed downstream), because Bertrand inherited both the house and a monthly stipend. His fortune expanded tenfold when later he married one of the Marston girls; and so well before he had even grown that distinctive walrus mustache of his (the other Spencer boys have long mustaches and beards that reach downward as far as their chests and so resemble the hair found on the faces of Amish men), Bertrand had become what he is now: a soft bellied, pouty, lazy, trust fund boy with a penchant for cards and whiskey (less so for women, as he got older), a roving hand beneath the sheets, and an ugly, insipid, murderous glare in his eyes that would not actually be acted upon until last night. Claude despises him; the other Spencer boys tolerate him to varying degrees; and Bertrand pretends that he is a man with a family, even though he can see his family home and tobacco field from his master bedroom window.
Claude had had a wife named Greta. The family lore is that he had been travelling among the Yankees on business one day, when he had stumbled upon a desolate farm in God forsaken Minnesota or Wisconsin. The Kraut farmer (the kind of big-bellied bratwurst in a smelly lederhosen who appears to have a beer stein permanently glued to his right hand) had offered the young and ambitious Southerner the choice of his litter. Always practical, Claude had chosen the girl with the biggest arms and back, so that his wife would be good with a plow. His wife spoke little English, but she turned out to be good with a plow and better with the niggers, if by ‘better’ we mean that she kept them on their toes all of the time what with her sharp German tongue and her viciousness when scarring a charcoal black butt with a branding iron. Greta had three miscarriages and a stillbirth. She died during that stillbirth, and Claude watched from his porch as his niggers carried her huge body on a bed sheet out to the enormous grave dug for her. It is about then that Claude became a strange recluse. His chief nigger, Anthony, managed the farm, while Claude poked out his second story bedroom window from behind a drawn curtain.
Abigail is not sure, but she thinks she will inherit the tobacco farm when Claude meets his Maker. Claude surely will not leave it to any one of his pitiful, deadbeat brothers; and so far as Abigail can tell, he seems to have a soft spot in his heart for her. So until shown otherwise at the reading of his last will and testament sometime later, she will think of this as her tobacco field.
As if they are greeting her with an affable wave, the tobacco stalks sway side to side along the banks. Abigail nods in their general direction. There is an unwritten understanding between them. She will care for them when she is the owner someday (not typical in these parts that a woman should hold title, even to real estate specifically bequeathed to her; but like her performance in those sports traditionally set aside for men, she suspects that she will be able to defy the conventions in this matter as well), and they in turn will part to one side or the other as she passes through them. Maybe there is some black magic at issue here, since otherwise it is quite difficult to conceive of a meeting of the minds between a girl and a plant. Regardless, when the wind sails through the rustling tobacco stalks all of a sudden, and seems to cry out like a large tigress in heat, she senses in the aftermath of that cry that the tall, thorny plants before her in fact are whispering ‘hello’ in the darkest corner of her mind.
It is not a scary sound; and though the impression is stored in the darkest corner of her mind, she is not afraid of the extent to which this ‘hello’ is really at odds with how human beings can and should interact with nature.
It is a secret sound, though; a ‘hello’ meant for no other ears, an abiding sense that this particular human being and this particular field share a common destiny. She is not sure what this common destiny may be; but she knows that, in the meantime, the feeling she has when walking through this field is as near as she ever will get to the feeling an innocent girl has towards her own parents.
At least that has been always the case. But now, everything is different. That ‘hello’ is the same, but then again it is not the same. It is as if something cold and foreign is swooshing through the tobacco stalks; something she cannot quite wrap her mind around, something that is just not going to forgive her this latest excursion into the darkness. Whatever it is it is in there now, waiting for her, hunched and brooding fingers in shadow, whiskey stained breaths up close.
She moors her rowboat to a small pier. She stands on the pier, facing the tobacco stalks, and letting the wind flutter her hooded robe, until finally she is able to make out a passage through the field.
Abigail is a tall tomboy, and yet the tobacco stalks almost reach her high forehead. She feels as if she is walking underwater. The plant life ripples about her; the wind blows in and out like the hand that caresses in the dead of night; and above everything is a thin sheet of silver moonlight, breaking apart now as if foam on top of the lake surface, giving way to the very first hints of the next sunrise. She imagines herself to be one of those bloated corpses in the macabre underwater dance she had visualized earlier. Around any corner she is liable to bump into her mother, knees jittering up and down, arms twitching by her thin torso, head bobbing erratically, and yet her accusatory eyes remaining still in a discombobulated face. Her eyes will stare into hers. They will snatch her out of her daydream, and scream out, ‘I’m also going to kill you. Bet your sweet ass…’
The tobacco stalks continue to whisper ‘hello;’ but as she delves deeper into the confusion of thorny stalks and floating cotton puffs, that ‘hello’ sounds a little hurried, impatient, maybe even menacing. It is the perfunctory greeting offered an unwanted guest. The word is ‘hello,’ but the clear meaning is ‘leave bitch, and don’t let the door hit your fanny on the way out.’
But why the sudden turn? Why is this field, this home away from home in the early morning hours, this hideout beneath the silver moon, this spot where the swaying tobacco stalks cover over her nightmares like a white cotton mask spread on top of a dead face, why is it that her place is now this menace, this surreal maze of fears, this foreign and inhospitable kingdom on the dark edges of her imagination? Goddamn, what is happening to her last bit grasp on sanity?
I am what is happening, her mother screams out from everywhere. Don’t pretend otherwise, little whore. I’m also going to kill you. Bet your sweet ass…’
Abigail quickens her pace. She pulls the hood back over her head; and as a result, she looks like a tall and athletic version of Little Red Riding Hood. The ‘wolf’ is everything around her, the swaying tobacco stalks that are snapping at her derriere like an ogre who has had too much whiskey, the flying cotton puffs that are suffocating her nose and throat like an ogre breathing down on her sad face, the silver moonlight audibly crackling into thin pieces in front of her (it is not possible that light should make a sound, her sane mind tries to tell her just then, but the voice is drowned out by the sheer terror of actually hearing what she is hearing), like an ogre breaking through her hymen anew a million times a million, every one of his cock thrusts a taking of her virginity as if for the initial time. And that is hell, is it not? The fun of sin is long gone, but the punishment, that baton beating down the flesh into something like a smashed pumpkin, it is inflicted every time as if the first time, the wound raw and new, the pain mad, hot sensation the moment before the conscious mind is able to make sense of it in some way. The ‘wolf’ chases her; the ‘tigress’ waits for her; and yet Abigail, teary-eyed, half insane with fear, nineteen going on nine, still runs through the tobacco stalks in search of a freedom she craves, but cannot really understand.
The ground beneath her feet gets wetter as she continues. She is moving towards the marsh in the distance; and at some point along this path, although she is too delirious at the time to notice, she crosses from her uncle’s tobacco field onto Jessup Harlow’s farm. She has no idea where she is until she sees the shantytown before her that Jessup Harlow’s grandfather had built years earlier on desolate mud flats to house the ‘Harlow Niggers.’ The post where they used to tie and to whip the cotton pickers who got out of hand is still there smack in the center of this shantytown. It is no longer used, so far as she knows anyway. Instead, Jessup Harlow keeps his niggers in line by retaining a father and a son, Papa Digger and Boy Digger, who also moonlight as the groundskeepers for that rich folks’ cemetery closer to town. They’re brutal sons of bitches, but they’re also the kind that bury the evidence; and so several of the farmers retain them to watch over the niggers and to beat down those who might have the absolute and utter gall to demand payment for services rendered or to sneak whores and liquor into their thatch roof huts after hours.
Abigail hides behind a barrel of feed. The two Diggers pass within a yard of her, but neither seems to sniff her out from the pervasive scent of death and shit so close to the foul marshland. Papa Digger is a gaunt gnome who could be anywhere from fifty to a hundred years old. No one knows for sure, as the hot, grimy womb from which he had been born so many years ago appears to be the actual marsh itself. He never bathes; but even if he did, anyone who is unlucky enough to get to within a few feet of him senses that he never could wash that marsh stink out from his hunched bones and sinewy flesh. Besides his ugly smell and sour disposition, Papa Digger is also sporting a big, disfigured nose upon his narrow face; what the old timers behind his back call a ‘Jew nose;’ and indeed there is speculation that this faithful alderman in the local KKK may have some Kike blood in him. Regardless, his nose always seems to be on the scent, like an ugly cur snout trying to sniff out food from the remains of a bonfire, and it is a wonder he does not smell Abigail behind that barrel of feed just now.
Boy Digger is practically a miniature image of his father. He is probably a ten year old boy, though as with his father no one knows for sure, and truth be told no one wants to get close enough to either one of them to find out. It is so hard to imagine Papa Digger knowing a respectable, white woman, or even one of the slutty, white whores on the outskirts of town, that most people presume that the boy’s mama is either a Negress farm hand, or a shithole somewhere in the marshland out yonder. In either case, they’re certain that rape is involved, since who or what would lie back voluntarily to receive Papa Digger’s sick seed?
Boy Digger walks with an exaggerated limp. It may be a birth defect, but some think it has more to do with the abuse his father piles on him. Papa has a notoriously short temper, a mean strike that can descend into quirky sadism on a dime, and an uncanny ability to keep his boy silent by staring him down with his fierce, cold eyes. Not that the boy threatens to speak much. So far as most people can tell, Boy Digger has little to no vocabulary beyond grinding his teeth and grunting like a well fed pig. In fact, Boy Digger is anything but well fed. He looks like rattling skeleton bones draped by someone else’s skin; but the smirk he keeps on his face, and the penetrating stare he had perfected by around the time he could walk, suggests the comfortable swagger of a bully, who is able to dine on pretty much anything or anyone he wants. Indeed, although there is no proof that he has ever partaken of the fine delicacy, everything about that boy suggests that he is a cannibal, born to feed off of others, bred to be a horror to whomever should get in his way. If Papa is a menace, then Boy is a sick, creepy devil; and the whole world will be better off if someone twists that boy’s neck.
But no one will be doing any such thing. While Abigail has no idea at that time, in fact Boy Digger will grow up to become the owner and operator of the first gas station in Beulah. The Texaco Gas and Grill will become a landmark of sorts; a notorious hangout for KKK ‘coon hunters’ and radical right outlaws; and another in a long line of remote hiding places for life’s dirtier secrets. Among a host of indiscretions, he will father a daughter under peculiar circumstances (a rumor will circulate that the daughter’s mother is a negress, just as his mother may have been). Later, he will marry this girl, perhaps as Bertrand has married Abigail, and endeavor to keep her in his clutches until he is consumed finally by his own madness. The physical end will be anticlimactic (he trips on dry rat shit in his pantry and hits his head), but the storm that is his life will subdue scores of innocent lives, white and black, young and old, before he gives up his ghost. He is a limping scar; and though the macabre details of his life have yet to play themselves out, the essence is there already as he limps beside his ugly father.
Sic the coon nig, Papa snarls, while pointing toward a quivering shadow.
Abigail pokes out her head to take a look. Papa points his index finger in the exaggerated manner of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. She follows his finger toward the shadow. Two blinking eyes in the darkness suggest that there is a boy trying unsuccessfully to hide his little, black body inside a pile of trash and rotted feed. No doubt, the boy is scavenging before sunrise, which is a real offense in these parts. The law has got to put them boys down, just as it would a rabid coon caught in a pile of trash and rotted feed before dawn.
Boy does not have yet the shotgun that he will use as a makeshift crutch in his later years, but he has his flair for murder in spades. He gathers up rocks, especially ones with jagged ends, while the little, black boy scrambles then to escape from the trash and the feed all around him.
Mind me, boy, Papa orders, while staring down the intended victim with his cold, merciless eyes. Go for his nig snout like ya putting down a scurvy dog.
Boy grunts joyfully. He rolls his tongue against his right cheek, like he is chewing something big and tasty. Maybe he is imagining what coon flesh tastes like, or maybe he is tasting his old man, like when Papa gets a little frisky after hours. Regardless, the boy’s blue eyes seem to turn colorless grey, and the mad glint in those eyes blurts out: But I’m also going to kill her. Bet your sweet ass…
But the little, black child in the trash and the feed is a boy. There is just enough purple blue sunlight now, so that no one can be mistaken on that point. So why do his eyes say that they’re going to kill her? Boy Digger may have been born really off kilter, but he certainly knows the difference between the sexes.
Because I am what is happening, Abigail’s mother screams out suddenly. Not that gimp. Not that nigger boy. I’m the one that’s going to kill you for what you’ve done. Pull you under the lake and beat you silly with your father’s stick.
Shut up, Abigail mutters. You’re not for real…
You’ll know how real I am when you’re swallowing water and sand at the bottom of the lake, Abigail’s mother interrupts.
Abigail clutches her ears, as if this mad conversation comes from outside of her own imagination. She shivers uncontrollably, as she visualizes looking up from the bottom of the lake and seeing her mother standing upon the banks. As she is looking through the lake, her mother appears as a discombobulated form, no more than a ghost shiver in silver moonlight, even though in this mad dream mother is alive and well, while daughter is in the process of being torn apart by flesh eating fish. There is a cold, triumphant smile upon her mother’s lips. She wants to scream back at her mother, but when she opens her mouth it is filled with all the water and the sand in the whole world.
Boy Digger breaks this mad daydream, when he casts his first stone. It is an awkward throw, as Boy has to balance on his bad leg, when he is winding up his pitch. But it turns out to be a Bull’s Eye into the dark boy’s forehead. Blood gushes out from a deep wound above the nose. The dark boy squeals, and falls further back into the pile of trash and feed. There is wild weeping and gnashing of teeth in there; terrible fright transitioning into a death spasm; electric pains zapping the dark boy’s nerve endings so powerfully one can almost smell sparks bursting out from his body and igniting the pile of trash and feed all about him.
Papa must be proud, but he does not show it on his face. He just stares, a thousand yard stare into the blackness, a penetrating glare into that ethereal nothingness that is as close to heaven as the damned can get. The one sign that he is happy here is that he does not hit his boy on the back of his head, or kick him on the chins, or bite every one of his fingers until they are bleeding.
Boy swaggers up to the pile. He has plenty of missiles still to fire. While the dark boy no doubt is down for the count, if not dead, he thrusts them each into the dark boy’s face. He grunts every time he does so. The victim makes no noise at all so that after awhile it is clear that Boy is just desecrating a corpse; maybe preparing it to be eaten later, if indeed there is any truth to that vague sense that Boy is or will be a cannibal; more likely preparing it for the vultures.
Every missile thrust ends as a loud, obnoxious, crunching sound. It is the sound of flesh tearing open, gushing out blood, and collapsing inward towards a critical organ. The dark boy is dead, but the sound of beaten flesh floats in the early morning dew, so that anyone who hears it might think that the boy is still being tortured at the hands of his personal white devil.
Abigail scans the shantytown. She can make out how the dark occupants are lighting their lanterns and glancing nervously out their open windows. They are gauging the situation, wondering if they should try to hide the crying infant in their household below ground, offering up a desperate prayer for the victim, whoever he may be. Most of them do not stay by their open windows that long. They have learned over the years of servitude how to see but not be seen. It is one of the reasons they have survived. It is also one of the reasons whites think of them as sneaky devils who deserve to be strung up high at the drop of a hat.
Abigail glances back at the pile of trash and feed. Boy is now pulling out his trophy. Papa stands over the scene with his fists pressed against his hips. He looks vaguely effeminate in that posture, although there is nothing at all soft in his eyes. His are the eyes of a hawk watching carefully for the slightest mistake on his son’s part. One may imagine only what he would regard as a ‘mistake’ at this time. Based upon the blank look on his son’s face just then, one may guess that he punishes all outward signs of joy after having defeated the dark enemy. After all, the lynch mob (even a lynch mob of one boy with a handful of stones) is tantamount to a blood sacrament in these parts, and so requiring a degree of solemnity, if not during the deed, then in the immediate aftermath. Watch any KKK goons in action. They will scream and holler while tearing the life out from their victim; but once the deed is done, and the smoke has cleared, they’ll cast down their eyes, fold their hands, and remain as quiet as old ladies in a church.
Now that the two Diggers are occupied with their trophy it is time to get out from behind the barrel of feed and continue onward. Abigail should be very frightened that they might turn around and see her, though as a white teenager she really has nothing to fear from them. But in fact she is more relieved not to be hearing her mother’s voice. The vicious attack had driven her mother away, if only for a while. Perhaps that is why there is so much murder and mayhem in this world. We need the adrenaline blood rush to drive the old memories away.
Abigail wanders through the shantytown. Every one of these rat infested huts is little more than a sagging, thatched roof balanced precariously upon old posts. There is a rotted feed barrel in front of every open door. Presumably the barrel is the food allotment for each family. There is a common well about two or three miles away. The children who are too young to work in the fields walk out to the well with buckets to retrieve drinking, cooking, and bathing water as needed. There is always some sort of mischief when coon children wander that far away from the shantytown, or so the two Diggers insist. For that reason, the two Diggers watch the children coming to and fro with their buckets in hand to see if there is any reason to throw rocks at any one of them. They murder a lot of them in the course of a year, because dead coon kiddies keep the families in line, and because there’s always plenty more popping out from their mamas. It is also just plain fun to throw rocks at the coon kiddies carrying water buckets, though naturally the two Diggers are careful to keep their faces all serious and solemn when they drag the corpses back to their grieving mothers.
There is an old shed separated from the rest of the huts. The outer walls are so rotted and termite infested that they look as if they may disintegrate at the slightest push. The roof is hard, green mud, crackling into small pieces over time, and smelling like a dead body decomposing into a bed of swamp shit. The windows had been boarded up a long time ago, which means that the inside is a dark and heavy cave. The occupants have their allotted barrel and lantern, but the barrel is overrun by rodents, and the lantern emits nothing more than weak ghost light. The only salvation about this place is that it is apart from the other huts, which means that, for the most part, the two Diggers leave it alone. ‘Out of sight, out of mind,’ so the famous saying goes, and since the occupants here have yet to lose one of their children at the hands of the two Diggers, they may attest to its veracity. Of course, they have lost their share of children over the years to stillbirths and measles; but somehow the fact that God has taken them without the aid of the white man makes these deaths more palatable.
Abigail stands before the open shed door. The sun now has escaped from its tomb. The dew vanishes almost at once, and the buzzards come out in force to flap their heavy wings through the belligerent, hot air. This could turn out to be one of those blistering summer days, or the heat could be broken down by a screaming downpour. Either way, the dark skin wrapped tightly about the warm muscles and the tired bones of the men in the field will be drenched before the noon break. Eyes will be cast downward, heads will be hung low, voices will be tossing ancient, antiphonal refrains across the rippling waves of tobacco stalks, like castaways bobbing about the sea and singing songs of praise with imagined counterparts on the other side of the world.
But Abigail will not be involved in any of this. She is a white woman; and with her dead mother jittering her knees at the bottom of the dark lake, she is just one parent away from complete emancipation. She is afraid, to be sure, as her mother’s mad threat continues to play on the back of her weary mind; but, in that part of her heart that had not flinched when she first saw her mother’s smashed face, she is also hopeful. She is hopeful frankly in a way that all these niggers can never be; because while theirs is a fate set in stone long before the Good Lord had seen fit to cast them into this world, she believes that hers is a fate that can be changed. Much like she thinks she will own her uncle’s farm at some point, she is confident that her life will be lived on her terms, at least for the most part. She insists that there really is a power behind her devious smirk.
And so with that confident thought in mind, she stands before that shed door with her hands folded into a prayerful posture in front of her virgin womb. She tilts her head back, so that her hood falls over her shoulder blades. Her red hair now flutters radiantly in the hot wind. Her robe snaps against her own legs and butt like a sail caught in a draft. She is a beautiful goddess beckoning, not with her voice, nor even with gesture, but with the fair light of her presence as contrasted with the penury and the ugliness of her chosen stage. Out here, she is a queen; and so notwithstanding her earlier nightmare, she really is at home.
* * *
A small, black face emerges out from the shadows in the doorway. It is a child’s face, innocent, eyes wide open, lips puckered about a thumb. There is a frailty in his features that suggests that he will not be long on this earth, unless the Good Lord sees fit to protect him from the death traps strewn about his life path. There is no logical reason to presume that the Good Lord would care any more for this youngster than the scores already butchered upon the path to the well; and yet Abigail senses that this one will stay alive for the long haul, even if for no other reason than to show that God can work wonders with the feeble.
God does not necessarily beat them down, and toss them into the murky lake; Abigail reasons as another cold wave of guilt flows through her flesh then. God gives them a way out, so that they can be His little miracle workers in this cold and hard world of ours.
Just like God is flexing my knees, twitching my arms, bobbing my head, and rolling my eyes like numbers in a slot machine, her mother says somewhere deep inside her mind. I too am one of His miracle workers. The miracle is this: I climb out of this lake, catch up with you, and kill you silly. Bet your smart ass…
Seth, Abigail says, too loudly under the circumstances, but nevertheless in such a firm manner as to knock her mother’s snarling tone out from her head for a moment. Is your papa home?
Of course, Abel is home. Where else can a man go, when he is owned by the ‘company store’ from now unto eternity? Does anyone think he can wander over to one of the competing farms and offer his services for a better wage? In these parts, most white men are beholden to their masters (commonly referred to as a Boss Man or a Bank Jew, depending upon the circumstance) and so have no practical option but to do whatever they had been apprenticed to do. If that is the case for most white men, then that is the case even more so for niggers; and yet the earnest look on Abigail’s face indicates that she has no desire to be cruel. She really does wonder if Abel is there at that time, or if his jealous wife has kicked him out of the shed for the hours he indulges with his ‘white honey.’ Caught as she is between the near certainty that he is there, and the fear that he is gone, Abigail can do no more than to open and to close her praying hands.
Two little nigger girls stagger up to their brother from further inside the dark shed. They are naked, malnourished toddlers. There is a blankness in their eyes that suggests that they will be just a clueless as they are now when finally they start to wander from their mother’s eyesight. That is especially sad, since the Diggers like to pick off the runts with their slingshots; and so it is probably just a matter of time before the Diggers toss these two into the common grave.
Seth does not answer. He just squirms upon his naked feet a short while.
Mind me, nigger boy; Abigail scolds him with just a hint of real hostility in her tone. Is your papa home? If he is, then tell him to mind his ‘white honey’ out front. Go on, now. Tell him before the white devils take a look down here…
She lets that last sentence hang in the air. It feels incomplete, like there is indeed something that can be done before the white devils actually show up.
Seth gets the hint. Maybe he is not so innocent after all. Maybe he is too street smart, even though he looks like he has no choice in life but to be afraid and clueless. Regardless, Seth escapes back into the shed with his blank sisters.
Abigail looks over her right shoulder. She does not see the Diggers at all. Indeed, none of the farmhands have left the confines of their huts. It is as if all the souls this close to the marsh are waiting to see what may be dragged out of the earth this morning, before they make their next move.
When she looks back at the shed, she sees Abel standing in the doorway with a knowing grin on his face. He is not a handsome man, though Abigail does not think any of these ‘Harlow Niggers’ are handsome. He has a big, thick, sad, kind of dopey face. His eyelids hang heavily over his eyes, so that regardless of the time he looks as if he is ready to fall asleep. Only his lips appear virile, like the lips of a living man ripped off of that man’s face and then stitched beneath this dead man’s enormous, bull like nose. The rest of him is huge, intense, able to take the sting of the cracker’s whip and then to keep on doing whatever had sent him to the post in the first place. There is unapologetic freedom in all that muscle and fat, and Abigail senses that this is what she desires most about him.
‘Desires’ is the operative word, since she cannot imagine actually loving a nigger. For all her headstrong and unconventional behaviors, she is still a very young woman in the mid 1890s. Racism is an unquestioned part of her world, as natural as the White Man’s Burden. She has no inkling that ‘nigger’ is actually a pejorative word. To the extent she gives the word any thought at all, she has a vague sense that it has something to do with class. A poor farmhand is always a ‘nigger.’ Her rich uncle will never be a ‘nigger,’ even if he were to squander all his nickels and dimes, since he inhabits a higher shelf in that great cabinet that we call the universe. The fact that every Negro she knows happens to be in the low class, while every white man she knows happens to be in one of the classes higher than the Negro, well, this just seems as natural as the day follows night. So, no, she can never love him. But why desire him? Surely, it has nothing to do with lust. For Abigail, every sexual experience is a cold, hard, distasteful deed, a chore to make the man happy, but also quixotically a testament of the extent to which she has cast her witch’s spell over the man plowing into her. She does not even get any pleasure from imagining herself a witch in the grey aftermath of sex. She just feels spent, drained, triumphant to be sure, but in the way the dead soldier will feel triumphant as he haunts his battlefield into the centuries.
So how is it that she desires him? She thinks it is like a girl bobbing about an endless sea, who happens to come across a boy similarly lost upon the waves and torn asunder by the currents. That girl may not really like the boy, as they connect their rowboats together to face the receding horizon as a team; but on a deep and visceral level, she will desire him, indeed even hunger for him as an anxious cannibal senses pangs in her stomach when coming upon an obese man.
White devils killed Abram, didn’t they? Abel inquires, while stepping out of the open doorway and over to his ‘white honey.’
Abigail is taken aback. She had not known the name of the boy attacked a few minutes ago. That is not particularly surprising, since she knows very few of these niggers by name. What is more interesting is that, deep inside the dark corner of her soul that accepts racism as natural as the day follows night, she’d presumed that the boy had no name, no parents, no family hoping against hope that he’d return from his adventure outside with no lasting scars. The fact that he has a name hits home the gruesomeness of the murder. It is no longer simply a macabre mess that one of the niggers no doubt will be ordered to clean up. It is a real human loss; another rock thrown onto the hell side of the great cosmic scales; another sign that, even for those brave souls who break out of their old chains and roam the landscape free, the adventure always ends in a cold grave.
She really could have ended it all just then. Maybe she should have. Just turned on her heels, returned to her father, and resigned herself to a grey life, peeking out from dark places, appeasing Bertrand’s lust as only a wife may do…
Before she can carry that thought too far, Abel grabs her shoulders with his enormous hands, and plows his lips onto hers. He is taking on a great risk in kissing a white woman out in the open like this. If the Diggers saw him, he’d be dead, before he even knew what hit him.
And so that is why she desires him so. He is living like a free man. He is a reckless man, defying the white man’s privilege, indulging his ‘white honey’ on the lips when no doubt his wife is watching him now from within the dark shed.
How did you know? Abigail inquires, while his kiss still lingers on her lips.
He does not answer, because it is a foolish question. Of course, a nigger knows. He learns to sense it in the air, before he hears it in his ears, or views it in his eyes. Either he darts before the predator arrives, or he is torn to pieces. What is even more remarkable, and separates the nigger from the beasts (even though most white people see niggers and beasts as interchangeable), is that in the case of the nigger he seems to be consciously adopting his life as a prey on the run. Yes, it is the life handed to him. Yes, he has no other choice. Still, this intuitive and rebellious life is largely his making. What is there not to desire in a man who has embraced the life of a despised outcast? Is he not in his chains, his penury, his downcast eyes and shuffling feet, the very essence of the rebel?
Mother’s dead, Abigail whispers, though she does not really believe what she is saying now what with her dream of Matilda’s macabre underwater dance.
One down, one to go, Abel whispers back with a wide smile.
Abigail senses the devil in that smile. That too is why she desires him. It is the smile of a devil riding his witch like a broom through a starless night sky. She is pinned, helpless, as the crying wind blows her long hair every which way. He squeezes his inner thighs against her hips, and presses down upon her neck, so that she can no longer scream for the God who will not deliver her from sins.
And when he is gone? Abigail asks, while staring nervously into his mouth as if she expects him to take a bite out of her all of a sudden.
Abel does not answer. He wants her to move in with him, once the white devil father is in his grave at the bottom of the lake. But of course his wife will have none of it, notwithstanding his domineering power within his family. Also, he knows deep down that she will not make such a move. A white woman is not going to reside in a shed outside of a nigger shantytown, no matter that she has the madness of a would be rebel in her eyes; and he cannot reside in her home, even if he poses as her house nigger. Neighbors have eyes and ears, and there are few crimes worse this far south the Mason-Dixon Line than miscegenation.
Instead of even trying to answer her, he gives her another longing kiss on the lips. This one inspires sparks as much as awe. Abigail would let him tear off her robe, and push her naked flesh into the mud, if in turn she could feel again how those lips press so far into her body as to fondle her soul. He has the same image in his mind; and, indeed, he very nearly grabs a hold of her hooded robe, and pulls the loose fabric downward; but he holds back. He is not certain why, except perhaps he senses the Diggers approach, and does not want to die then.
Abigail stares intently into Abel’s face. She senses that indeed this is the last time she will see him in this way. She does not think he is going to die any time soon, though of course she knows that he could get a rock slingshot to the back of his head on the slightest provocation. Instead, she senses that the next time they are in each other’s arms, and he is leading her into a shadow to hold her down and to plow inside of her womanhood, everything will be different for them. He will not be different. Once niggers get to a certain age, Abigail thinks in that same part of her mind that believes that a white man can cure the gout in his feet by pressing the bottom of his feet into a nigger boy’s stomach, well, they just do not change. Whether thirty or eighty, they have the same resigned look on their faces when they’re hauling their bags in from the field, the same broad, insincere smiles when responding to the white devils, and the same hard eyes and shuffling feet. Life crushes them, even before the first greys show up. Life keeps on crushing them, until their swinging from a rope, or coughing up a stomach full of blood on account of that disease they picked up from the white whore. Abel is in that last phase of his life already. Even if he lives another half century, he is in that last phase; and so he is not going to change. Everything is going to change, because she is going to change. She’ll wake up one morning by her ‘husband’ father, look at his weak and offensive nakedness beside her, and think about when and how to do to him what he did to her mother. A man said, what goes around, comes around; and when finally she plays her part in making that happen, she’ll be a witch as much in fact as in her dreams.
No, you won’t, her mother screeches in her head. You’ll just be a whore murderess; and you’ll be going to the noose, ‘cause the law does not forgive an offense against a white man.
Abigail glances at her feet. She imagines her feet swinging in the dry air, when her neck snaps inside that noose. She thinks that she’ll be able to look at her feet, and see them swinging that way at the very end, notwithstanding that blindfold they tie over the eyes of the condemned.
Anyway, that’ll not happen, and you know it, her mother continues with a mad chuckle. ‘Cause I’m going to kill you first, daughter. Bet your sweet ass…
Abel must sense the conflict inside Abigail’s mind, because he then steps back. He still grins as before, but there is now a vague unease in his tired eyes. It is like he has opened up a Pandora’s box and does not know if he should love or fear what is springing out from inside.
Whatever happens, take care of yourself, Abel says to her, while he then shifts on his feet and looks out towards the shantytown to see if the Diggers are on their way.
Abigail senses the true message: It is time to go, and do not wander back this way, until you have done what needs to be done.
She rushes off without saying goodbye. There is that ethereal, ghost-like quality to her hooded robe, as the fabric flaps behind her in the quiet wind of a new dawn, and then she is gone altogether. Swallowed up by the new day, Abel thinks. Lost in the shadows cast by the rising sun, until she does what she must.
* * *
Bertrand sits against his headboard. Sunlight stabs through the holes and cracks of his second story master bedroom curtain. He had drawn the curtain a half hour earlier because he had wanted to avoid the sunrise. He sits outside of the incoming rays, and so in a sense he is ‘lost in the shadows cast by the rising sun.’ But he sees the sun, and he sees how it is getting stronger every moment, and in contrast he feels weak and inconsequential. He can beat his wife (no, he had nothing to do with it, he counters, because she made it all happen with her cavalier eavesdropping, and prodding, and pushing, and…) into a rotted, juicy, smashed pumpkin; dump her into the murky lake (no, that’s not true either, he counters, since she practically jumped into it); and scrub up all the evidence of foul play (that part is true, he thinks, though it was not foul play, but suicide); and time still keeps ticking like one of those time bombs the anarchists (always a bunch of loony foreigners what with the endless stream of consonants in their first and last names) set in Haymarket the previous decade. Even more so, time is a time bomb no one can deactivate. All they can do is to watch it ticking one second at a time down to the end, knowing that they cannot run far enough to escape the blast, imagining what the blast wave will feel like when it shreds all the flesh from the bones, less than a second before the expanding flame toasts what it left of them. So that is the essence of time: hopelessness, even when a man does what he thinks is going to be decisive (no, wrong again, he counters a lot more vehemently than prior, since I did not do anything at all, but get down on my knees and clean up her goddamned mess); and nightmares, when he sees in his head just how it is all going to end.
Bertrand should be consumed by his despair at that early hour, but he is not. Well, maybe he is a little despairing; but mostly, he is just pissed. Hot and seething anger, especially the self-righteous variety, he has learned over many years of marriage will do wonders in keeping despair hidden under the surface. And what is hidden is out of mind, just like he wishes his second story bedroom curtain blocked out the sunlight. It would have blocked out the sunlight, if he’d had a wife who replaced tattered curtains, rather than a wife who sat for hours at a time knitting something or other and staring blankly into nothing with that glass eye of hers. But he did not. He had a useless wife. No, that is not true. It is better to say he had a vampire wife, a brain drain, a sex drain, and a money drain. And she knew she was a vampire, a corpse that came alive only in his old and sordid nightmares after sunset; and that is why she killed herself. She beat herself dead with a baton, made a terrible mess, saturated the old floorboards with her creepy scent, a smell that calls to his mind little, old, Victorian ladies, who refuse their husbands sex (practically drive them into the arms of hookers) because they get it into their minds to be paralyzed over half their bodies. She did not replace that tattered curtain; but boy, did she make a mess downstairs.
Anyway, forget about her. Forget about that whore cock tease resting at the bottom of the lake. He is sitting against his headboard now for a reason, an eminently sensible reason, and that is to wallow in self-righteous anger that he is directing toward his daughter. You remember her, don’t you? She is that girl with the knowing smirk. She is the one who is going to kill him someday. Like a father, so like a daughter, except that that is not true, since he did not do one, damned thing, nothing at all. How many times must he repeat to whoever may be listening that he did not do anything at all? And what if no one is listening to him; because everyone has cast a guilty verdict already and has exited the jury stand to listen to some other man’s plea? Goddamn them both, the mother now sleeping in the lake, and the daughter now visiting with that fatso nigger friend of hers, for putting him into this position. He has every white man’s right to be as mad as a hornet trapped in a bucket on a hot summer’s afternoon.
Oh, so you are a little surprised that I know all about the chunky monkey nigger out Harlow’s way. Why should you be? Do you think it likely that my girl could sneak out of the house every morning before sunrise over the past month or so without ever being noticed? When I heard the floorboard creak downstairs or the front door screech shut on worn hinges, do you think I just stayed in bed and kept to my own thoughts? Or maybe, just maybe, I slipped on my overcoat, my hat, and my boots, and followed her from a safe distance, across the murky lake (first came to mind during one of those excursions how well my wife could sleep beneath that lake, though of course I did not follow through on that dark and sordid thought, because I did not do anything at all), and into my brother’s tobacco field. Maybe, I recognized that fat slob nigger at once as Abel Spencer, grandson of the notorious Ida Spencer. You know Ida Spencer. She was the one my granddaddy owned way back when, but who went bonkers trying to escape, until my granddaddy’s boss man hunted her down like he would any rabid coon. As you know, niggers are named after their keepers. It is not as if there’s been any Spencer blood mixed into their line. No, not one drop, just like I did not do anything at all last night, except clean up after my wife’s mess…Anyway, seems my brother traded Abel over to Jessup Harlow, so by rights he should be called Abel Harlow now. But niggers can be uppity sometimes (most of the time), and it is really uppity for a nigger to think that the name he is born with is his own. Anyway, that is beside the point. What matters is this: Maybe, just maybe, one time too many, I watched from a safe distance, while Abel plowed his big black cock into my girl’s cunt. My girl’s cunt,goddamn it, that is my girl’s cunt. Just leave it up to any nigger to steal outright what a white man’s earned by rights.
It is bad enough she has returned to the big and stinky arms of that fatty nigger; but to do so the morning after her mother commits suicide (and makes a mess that I need to clean up), well, all I can say is what gall. Boy, she has got a lot of nerve, that one. Not only does she act like she is so bloody smart, what with that smirk she has on her face all the time, but she is indecent, also, just as indecent as one of those flea bitten whores on the outskirts of town. Decent girls mourn their dead mothers. Decent girls stay close to their widower fathers until the last of the tears have been shed. Decent girls perfume their pussies so they smell all nice and warm, when their widower fathers need to get up close.
Bertrand hears slow steps up the staircase. How peculiar, since he never heard the front door open and shut. Maybe he did not hear the front door open and shut, because he had been so caught up in his thoughts. Makes sense; but if that is so, then why does he hear the footsteps now? Is he any less consumed by his thoughts now than he had been earlier? And while we are at it, why is it the footsteps sound so much heavier than what his daughter could produce? Sounds like boots weighted down by the years, morose, plodding, every fold in the old, dark leather creaking in sync with the joints of the man walking in those boots. And ‘man’ is the operative word here, because that is not his daughter walking up the staircase. That is a man, a morose, tired man, but a man, nevertheless…
Maybe, it is one of my buddies, Bertrand mutters (though he is not really sure he says anything at all, since he cannot hear anything beside the footsteps on the staircase and his heartbeat rattling within his ears). How strange that he should arrive so early in the morning, but let’s face it, everything has been off kilter since that whore cock teaser did what she did. It is as if the earth (or his small portion of it anyway) has been shaken off its axis by an awful earthquake.
Bertrand pulls his sheet up to his chin. He looks like Ebenezer Scrooge as Jacob Marley staggers into his bedroom with his ball and chain behind him. The man entering his room seems familiar, though paradoxically he is very sure that he has never seen him before. Maybe he has seen him in a dream. After all, his dreams have been populated by all sorts of strange figures. But in terms of this world he inhabits when awake, he has never seen that boyish, redheaded face, never eyed that pronounced scar on his chin, never feared those smooth, blank eyes. The man is wearing a black uniform, nondescript but vaguely official, like a prison guard watching over a nigger chain gang, or like a slave bounty hunter roaming the highways to seek justice for his client. He is lanky, tall, and young, almost like a kid playing dress up, except that there is a dead coldness deep in his eyes that suggests that he does not find anything fun or humorous about the situation. He grins subtly on the tips of his mouth, but his eyes quash any sense of levity from that expression. Everything about him suggests that he could kill you without provocation and that his heart would not even skip a beat.
If Bertrand had a greater command of his rational mind, then very likely he would regard this uninvited visitor as a burglar and resist him. The problem is that, in the aftermath of all that blood the night before, the rational mind is far from front and center; and the ability to resist is all but gone. Bertrand is a popped balloon, and so he has no more in him than to shrug his shoulders like a weak kitten and to wait with bated breath for whatever this man intends to do.
The man has a baton hanging from his belt. He rubs the thick baton with his right hand in a manner that calls to mind those men who lie with other men in the shadows. It is a perverse gesture, the kind likely to inspire another round of fire and brimstone from on high, the kind that leaves a rancid taste upon the tongue behind closed doors. Moreover, the way he is handling his baton calls to Bertrand’s mind the squishy, bloody pumpkin flesh falling off of his wife’s face.
Bertrand had hoped to drop the grisly details from his mind; but catching sight of that thick baton, and observing more closely how that tall man in black is fondling its cold, dark, shaped surface, he is downstairs the prior night. He is standing there helpless, while his wife repeatedly smashes the same baton into her head. He is pleading with her to stop, while she looks back at him and grins like the devil in heat. He is reaching out to try to grab the baton out of her old, but uncharacteristically strong, hands before she manages to condemn herself into that portion of hell reserved for suicides; but his long fingers keep floating through her flesh as if she is a ghost already marked in the devil’s ledger sheet.
He is not frightened of the boyish redhead. He is just pissed his hands do not seem capable of grabbing a hold of anything, let alone of those womenfolk who have sown the devil seeds in his life. Just by standing there, the tall man in black reminds him that he is impotent, not even strong enough to prevent his wife from smashing herself to death. Just by maintaining that subtle grin of his, the tall man in black reminds him that the impotent man is laughable. He hates his visitor for conjuring up his old fears, like a geyser spitting up chunks of hell, but he does not have enough in him then even to contort his walrus face into a snarl. He just looks at his visitor through blank eyes, and lets his lower lip sink, so that he resembles a pouty toddler sitting behind his long bib on a high chair.
Been a long time, sir; the tall man in black states at the foot of his bed.
Bertrand has no idea what to say in response. He is not even sure he had heard the young man correctly. How could it be ‘a long time,’ if they’ve never met one another before? And yet the visitor said what he said with the absolute conviction of a man who knows for sure that he is speaking the truth. If indeed there had been a quiver of hesitation in the man’s voice, or if he had looked to the side when speaking, then Bertrand could have told himself that the scarred redhead with the big baton had been mistaken. People who make mistakes very often hesitate, even if only a microsecond, before plunging into their erroneous statement. It is as if their sixth sense knows already that their statement is just plain false, regardless of how assertive or persuasive their case may be. People who do not hesitate at all are saying what they know to be true.
Either that, or the man is crazy. The crazy never hesitate, since what is fantasy for the rest of us may be absolute truth for them. Maybe, this man with the baton is unhinged. It is said that still water runs deep, and the blank look in his eyes suggest that he is standing still and silent in deep water, indeed. What strange fish may be gnawing at his mind? What corpse may be dancing about his legs, writhing up his back, and whispering in an underwater voice into his head?
Bertrand decides to humor him. It is the safer option, to be sure; and yet deep down inside, he does not really believe that he is humoring him at all. He believes that there is something to this idea that they have met before.
Time’s a stampede when you’re having fun, Bertrand responds in a false, and not particularly persuasive, voice meant to suggest that he is very amiable.
Big mess last night, the man remarks as if passing on the weather report.
Oh, just the missus’ time of the month, Bertrand offers with a sly laugh.
Apparently, the man is not buying it. He just stares blankly at Bertrand’s face. He will keep on staring, until the walrus mustached man hiding behind his sheet surrenders.
Nothing I couldn’t take care of, Bertrand says defensively.
No doubt in my mind, sir, the man continues. You’ve always been smart, resourceful, and bound and determined to carry it through to the end.
Bertrand is not sure if his visitor really believes what he is saying to him, or if he is just setting him up for a terrible fall. Regardless, Bertrand loves the compliments, and so he will go along with them as long as he can.
More important than how you live is what you live for, the man remarks.
Bertrand is warming up to this fellow. He allows his sheet to drop down to his chest. He does not scoot away from the headboard, though. He feels like he needs to remain right where he is, at least for the duration of this odd visit, if only so that he can be a symbol of steadfastness while everything else falls to the side. His womenfolk can be disobedient alley cats, even if it drives them to commit suicide. That is their grand privilege for being lifetime members of the irresponsible sex. On the other hand, he is happy to be a man in his own home, contented in his own bed, later smoking a pipe in his own sitting room.
And so what does he live for? Why, the answer is simple enough: He lives to hide his sins (no, they are all her sins, the sins of a woman writhing in hell at this very moment for being a suicide) beneath a carpet, or maybe inside a dark closet. He lives to transform his daughter into his wife, while he tells himself it is perfectly natural. Most of all, he lives to die, probably in the near future and certainly in a violent manner; and he is dying a bit each second that he remains plastered to his headboard, or seated in his sitting room, or close to his ‘wife’…
Seems like the right attitude, Bertrand says.
As you know, sir, I too live for something, the man says with a devil grin.
Good to know you’ve got a purpose in life; Bertrand interrupts him.
But mine is derivative, you could say, the man with a devil grin proceeds as if not interrupted at all. I don’t live for myself. I live for my master. Or more specifically, I live to correct the sin inflicted on him. I live to balance his scales so that he can puff on his pipe without a care in the world.
Bertrand is not really buying this. What may does not live for himself? In the dead of night, when a man is alone with his dreams, and can imagine easily enough that there is not another soul in the universe, what man is not hoping in the back of his mind that he’ll get what he wants? Selfless service sounds like a lot of church blather. Look into the eyes of your nigger servants, if you are rich enough to have them. You won’t find any ‘selfless service’ in their eyes. On the contrary, you’ll find selfish eyes; a conniving mind on the take; a vicious heart, cold, without empathy, feeling nothing but resentment toward the white man, who puts food on his plate and blankets on his children. Why this resentment in the mind and the heart of a nigger who should be grateful for whatever crumbs fall his way? Is it because he is a beast? No, Bertrand answers himself in his own mind. It is because he is a man, and men are selfish, and men who are not able to grasp everything they want off of someone else’s supper table are resentful.
Sort of like Florence Nightingale, Bertrand reflects. Healing the wounds…
An eye for an eye does not heal any wounds, the man responds with just a hint of fire behind his sparkling, blue eyes. Balances the scales, spreads blood everywhere, convinces us that we are gods able to judge as we are judged, and to execute as we are executed; but does not heal anything at all.
Sounds like a lot of Yankee education, Bertrand thinks. And yet he really cannot deny the man’s voice, the man’s manners, everything about him that is suggesting that he had been born and raised on this side of the Mason-Dixon. To be honest, he seems even more local than that. It is like this man truly belongs here, as in right here, like maybe he’d worked for the Spencer clan back in the good old days. ‘Worked’ is the operative word, because he does not seem to be a brother, so much as one of the overseers on the farm, one of those guys who kept the niggers in line behind closed doors, or in the shadows, so that we who lived in the big house could look at ourselves in the dresser mirror every single morning without feeling even a tinge of guilt. ‘Good old days’ is also operative, because he looks like he is nineteen or twenty, but he feels like he is timeless, or as old as the hills, or at the very least from a prior generation. It is said that Saint John is alive even now, roaming the highways, skipping in and out of dark shadows, an outcast because he is a blessed man among sinners. He will stay on our side of the line between the living and the dead, until Christ Jesus returns. Well, in a perverted sense, this man here feels as Saint John would feel to you, if all of a sudden Saint John stepped into your bedroom one morning. He’d still have his baby face, but he’d feel out of his time, beyond his years, and creepy as hell. That’s right, creepy as hell. How would you feel if you were Martha or Mary, and you had to sit beside your brother Lazarus at the supper table, after he had been arisen from the dead? What if you still sensed that death stench on him? What if you looked into his eyes, say when you were passing to him a bowl of mashed potatoes, and he had that blankness in his eyes that very well could be what happens to a man who has seen eternity, or could be what happens to a man who is simply and irrevocably dead? Maybe you would not think that your brother was alive again. Maybe you would think that at most he was among the living dead, and that you had been caught up in some kind of macabre comedy theater, where the angels on high are laughing their wings off at your airy fairy hope that, indeed, your brother had been returned to you and the cosmic scale had been not only balanced, but actually tipped slightly in your direction. What would you dream that night, if you realized that the dead come back, not to be a sign of God’s mercy, but to keep on reopening the same old wound, all of the smashed heads and the beaten bodies purportedly in the name of justice, or of balancing the scales, or of righting old wrongs? Would you think the living dead are selfless servants? Or would you realize that they are as resentful of their lot as the nigger, who is all smiles when serving your food, but who is conniving for advantage in his old and timeless heart? Best to accept the fact that even blind justice has a price, and that that price is warm blood seeping into floorboards…
Bertrand breaks out of his self-dialogue. He is sweaty, cold, and beaten.
The man with a devil smile walks over to the side of his bed. He looks at the sick, old man who is now cowering behind his bed sheet. He does not feel a bit of sympathy towards him; but he feels his duty, his calling, his curse to be a faithful servant of whoever happens to be the Spencer Master in any given time and also to be a cruel overseer of whoever happens to be the Spencer Nigger at that same time. This pathetic man below him is the only brother in the Spencer clan not to inherit a means of making a living. He inherited a small house and a stipend, a means to survive, a means to carry on with his stupid alcoholism and whoring, but not enough to break free from his own sordid nightmares. As such, this is the Spencer who is particularly cruel, petulant, even dimwitted, like the bull that set aside what little brains it has a long time ago so as to rely entirely on its instinct for violence and penchant for bravado. What better example of a coddled, trust fund, plantation master is there? Not any that comes to mind, so the man with a devil smiles knows quite well that this is the man he is to serve.
The man with a devil smile takes Bertrand’s clammy hands into his own. He bends forward a bit like Florence Nightingale caring for one of her patients; but Bertrand is no longer fooled, if really he ever had been, about the intent of this man. This man may be here to serve him, but he is also here to devour him whole. Not physically cannibalize him; the man with a devil smile will leave the physical murder to his daughter; but spiritually, psychically, so that when he is done with him, Bertrand will be little more than a mad idiot. Yes, Bertrand will be avenged, the scales will be balanced, a new head will be smashed to pieces to make up for the previous head; but Bertrand will be able to find as much joy in this justice, as a lobotomized man can find joy in being mounted by a whore.
She did this to me, Bertrand mutters through his tears. She made a mess downstairs, and I had to clean it up. She spilled her blood. Spilled it all over me like it was a parting gift package, or something; and yes, I cleaned it, scrubbed as hard as a big nigger woman on her knees; but I can still smell her cunt blood everywhere, coming out of the walls, up from the floor, right here in my sheets like I had spent all night making love to her cunt blood. Goddamned cock tease whore. That’s what she is. All over me right now, as if she is a wanton woman…
No need to worry, sir, the man with a devil smile whispers as if trying to calm a child. I can balance the scales for you. Give you the justice you deserve.
The man lowers his thin face, so that his pointed nose is nearly touching Bertrand’s runny snot. The man seems not to notice. Perhaps it is just a part of the job. Regardless, they lock eyes as if they are putting together a conspiracy.
I have been here always to serve you, the man states. And always I shall.
Bertrand imagines his granddaddy, Homer, sitting on his porch at the big house across the lake. Homer is an unpleasant, fat man with chronic gout in his left leg. He rocks in his porch chair, while rubbing his walrus mustache, sipping his wine, and snapping insults at the women slaves in view. He thinks that they are too provocative what with the way their hips move when they walk. And do not get him started on that Ida bitch. He’d have ordered her whipped to death a long time ago, if only he had not feared an insurrection. So Homer has pretty much everything in the world, except the peace that comes from knowing that, indeed, he has received in this world the ‘justice’ owed to him. Thankfully, he has a vicious overseer who will spill nigger blood at the drop of a hat (or, more precisely, at the drop of Homer’s wife’s handkerchief, since the overseer really likes to think of himself as a mid-nineteenth century knight); and every once in a while, he’ll direct his overseer ‘to knock some sense into one of the coons’ at the whipping post. It does not take long for that overseer to find the necessary infraction (or to make one up out of whole cloth), and to call everybody around for the punishment. With every snap of the lash, with every upward snap of the nigger head, with every drop of nigger blood splattered onto the ground around the post, Homer gets a bit more ‘justice’ in the cosmic scales. Maybe he simply manages to balance the scales, but Homer suspects that actually he manages to tip them in his favor. There is a smug look on Homer’s wizened face, as the slut Negress (though never that Ida bitch) screams holy hell, and as the other slaves hold their hands behind their backs and stare down at their bare toes. It is that smugness that Bertrand now sees in his mind’s eye. It reminds him of his witchy daughter’s knowing grin. It is like the two of them, the granddaddy that he did not ever meet and the daughter that he totally lost last night, can see that fine ‘justice’ that eludes him. They seem to know their respective places in this big and scary world, while he has been too busy trying in vain to protect his cursed cock tease of a wife from committing suicide to figure out which way is up. But that is beside the point, at least for the moment, because he is seeing a person in this fantasy that he has never seen before. In the past, the role of the nigger hating overseer had been performed by a nondescript stock actor. Sometimes, he had envisioned the overseer from the neck downward, so as not to insert an arbitrary, and most likely inaccurate, face upon that man. Now, everything has changed, because the overseer in the fantasy is the man standing before him at this moment. He is a redheaded, thin, young man with a scar on his chin and an unquenchable fire in his ink blue eyes. He is wearing a solid black uniform that, in fact, is far removed from the straw hat and overalls really worn by overseers back in the day. Also, he is wielding a baton, instead of a whip, which is also an odd departure from historical accuracy. Historical fact aside, this new image in his mind seems to be substantively truer than what he had envisioned. The man standing before him is the same overseer who had served his granddaddy. He is the same overseer who will serve his grandson, and grandson’s grandson. And it cannot be otherwise, because ‘justice’ must be recaptured in every subsequent generation by smashing out the blood of the damned. That is the way of a God, who would give us the blood of His Son, but still feed His people to the tigress…
Bertrand snaps out of this stream of consciousness, when he feels a cold, clammy, dead pressure against his forehead. In fact, the man has put his right palm upon his forehead, so as to see if he is running a fever; but the hand feels like it belongs to a corpse that rotted back into the dead earth a long time ago.
He looks into the man’s eyes yet again. He can feel the flame behind the pupils; but the eyes look cold and steely, like how he imagines the eyes of the corpse in an open casket would look if suddenly his eyelids were to open. Also, he senses a death smell, though he could be imagining that odor on account of all the blood shed the previous night. Regardless of the extent to which his old, tired, fantasy mind is playing a role in all this, he still senses an unnatural, and vaguely sinister, balance of life and death in this man. The scales should be all the way down on the ‘life’ side right now. When this man in black dies, or more likely returns to the open highway to search for the next generation, the scales should be all the way down on the ‘death’ side. ‘Life’ and ‘death’ should never balance each other out, lest we are overrun by Lazarus ghouls, or the perverse version of an undead ‘Saint John’ sniffs out the Spencer clan along the highway of past and future generations. The very fact that he cannot do anything about this makes him wonder just how much he really is the ‘master’ in this scenario.
Your daughter is a willful child, the man says at one point. She is robbing you of ‘justice’ every time she smiles in that smug and distasteful manner. She is in league with your wife. Each is trying to pull the strings of the latter; but in the end, they are really united in their determination to cast you into the lake.
Two ladies and a nigger, Bertrand mutters aloud, as he imagines his wife and his daughter joining up with that obese slob, Abel. Sounds like a comedy, if only it were not so true.
Bertrand looks as if a light bulb goes off in his head. He slips back into a semi-conscious mind, which is about as near to reason as he can get then. He is too weak to point his index finger; but the look in his eyes, and the voice in his throat, suggest that, perhaps for the last time in his sorry life, he is going to be able to make a clear assertion without hedging his old bets one way or another.
You are going to save me from my daughter, Bertrand whispers.
I shall avenge you, the man in black assures him without delay.
Justice, Bertrand whispers, while looking into an unfathomable distance.
And with ‘justice’ lingering above their heads like a troubled ghost, this dreamlike conversation comes to an end. There is only one more matter before the man in black turns on his boot heels and leaves Bertrand alone in his sweat.
What is your name? Bertrand asks.
The man in black ponders the question.
You can call me the Boss Man, he says. Because I’m the boss of my fate…
* * *
Bertrand stays in bed the rest of the day. He falls in and out of sleep like a man suffering the disorientation of a horrible hangover, though he is not sick in his stomach, so much as exhausted. That Boss Man fellow did not stay longer than five minutes, but even a few short seconds up close and personal with him is enough to drain years out of a man’s soul. It is as if that man in black carries his own nighttime along with him, so that he is a vampire who can roam here or there after sunrise. He is a vampire without the romance. He will suck you dry, but without bothering to stare longingly into your eyes. It is just ‘business,’ like how an overseer sees his slaves, or how a bounty hunter sees his prisoners; and notwithstanding all his talk about serving his ‘master,’ Bertrand senses that the Boss Man sees his ‘master’ in the same way he sees his slave or his prisoner. All of them are just people to be manipulated, jobs to be concluded, so that when all has been said and done in this particular place and time the Boss Man can go back to that long and lonely highway in search of the next generation of the old Spencer clan. After all, as the ‘master’ steals the labor from his slaves, so does this Boss Man steal the very life out from him. All this in the pursuit of a justice that men have devised for themselves, where the reward is an eternal life that men have conjured out from their own twisted dreams.
Indeed, everything about this Boss Man seems very dreamlike, after he is gone, that is. When he is standing in front of you, fondling the baton that hangs from his waist, staring blankly into your eyes, he is all too real. When he leaves he seems never really to have been there. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that he never really leaves. As Bertrand never heard the front door open when the Boss Man arrived, but only heard slow and heavy footsteps on the staircase, so he never hears the front door open and shut when he purportedly leaves. For all Bertrand knows, the Boss Man may be downstairs still, admiring the scene of the crime (no, not crime, but suicide), maybe even poking out from behind the sitting room curtains to see when Abigail returns from her visit with that obese nigger. Moreover, as the daytime hours slide from one shade of grey to another and the sweat stains spread across the master bed mattress, Bertrand awakens from his madness now and then to glimpse the Boss Man standing motionless by the master bedroom door. He is a statue with sparkling, blue eyes. He is a clay model with a strangely predatory Mona Lisa smirk on his lips. Then, in a blink of time, he is gone, maybe downstairs in the sitting room again, but more likely in Bertrand’s heart, where Bertrand suspects he had been born into this particular generation. Regardless, there is no escaping the Boss Man’s justice at this time.
Sometime before dusk, Bertrand stumbles into a nightmare. In this queer dream world, he is a gentleman in dress and manner, a man of fine letters with a pipe that will be later replaced with a Cuban cigar, an expatriate in a ‘raised pinky’ European capitol (most likely Paris on account of the phlegmy and nasal sound of the local tongue, and the smell of hairy, unwashed armpits just about everywhere). He occupies his time at cafes hunched over his notebook when an odd comment heard in the chatter, or the sudden flight of a bird away from an old fountain, inspires a poetic verse that he presumes would make Shakespeare feel like a clumsy wordsmith in comparison. He adores ladies, but he is vaguely homosexual, since that seems to be the vanguard in any particular era. He does not have a taste for liquor. That had been lost long ago. Instead, he just drinks it down like a suffocating man will gasp for air, or like a famished dog will wolf a carcass, compulsively, greedily, with no joy in the taste or the texture. He is not sure why he is an alcoholic. Maybe it is just the thing to do when one hangs his shingle among the vanguard. At least in his real life he can laugh and cajole when he is piss drunk, but he is not so sure his dream self ever laughs, lest such a hearty and masculine sound distract from the well born, effete mask he hides behind. He does not love his dream self; indeed, he despises him the same way he would an uppity nigger or a provocative, smart ass woman; but he admits his dream self does a much better job than he does in compiling calling cards from the well born and the poseurs alike. He does not have friends, since only those simpleminded people who may be counted among the bourgeoisie actually have ‘friends.’ He has acquaintances, lovers, and one or two sick fuckers with whom he can engage in a catfight now and then for good measure. One of those listed among the acquaintances is a celebrated author. This author drinks even more than he does, has far better acquaintances after hours, and has been known to sneak into opium dens after midnight to arm-wrestle old Chinamen for cash and blowjobs. So his dream self is particularly delighted when, out of the blue, this Great Man invites him to accompany him to the Congo for a hunting trip. There is a tigress in the bush out there panting for a bullet; and, gentlemen that they are, they shall be happy to oblige her. This is their White Man’s Burden indeed.
Well, as it turns out, the celebrated author picks up a bug as soon as the two of them pitch their tent. He writhes in agony inside his sleeping bag, while Bertrand’s dream self watches on in growing horror. Surely, he cannot just stay here and watch this Great Man sweat and vomit himself to death; and so, after hours, he leaves the Great Man in the tent, and wanders into the bush in search of help. He smells the bonfire before he glimpses the flame shivering in the far distance. It is a salted carbon smell, like the flesh of a bloated, saltwater beast burning on a post. In fact, what he smells is a burning white man. That is clear enough, when he hides behind a bush, and observes a khaki uniform going up in billowy flames over the writhing, screaming, charred remains of an Oxford Man about his same age. The Oxford Man must be dead. His flesh is flying away now as burning, flapping flags. And yet he screams still with all that inbred ferocity peculiar to his race. Bertrand’s dream self is not at all sure if he should admire or pity him. Before he can decide one way or another, he sees the natives form a circle about the bonfire. They are charcoal black Africans in loincloth. Jewels hang from their noses like obnoxious Christmas tree ornaments. Their eyes are big, bulging, and stupid, like a man’s throbbing cock the moment before he has an orgasm. Indeed, everything about their high knee bends, their twitchy arms by their sides, and their bobbing heads, suggest sex the moment before a great release. Bertrand’s dream self cannot understand their language. Of course, no civilized man should; but he senses that, even if he could translate it word for word, there is little that would make sense to the rational mind. Theirs is what we white men would call a ‘sub-rational’ expression, more akin to the grunts of a boar, or the screaming laughs of a hyena. It is a sound spit up from inside the earth, a raw sound, an unformed splat of clay sound waiting for a civilized man to give it form and texture. Theirs is the chaos before the spirit moves in silent majesty over the void. There is nothing there, but brutal, destructive power; a killer’s instinct put to wild dance; a beast man’s justice unrestrained by mercy.
I killed the Red Witch, the Burning White Man cries out with a voice that sounds like crackling flames. I killed her. I killed her. I killed her…
You killed me, the native dancers all cry in singsong. ‘Cause I’m the Red Witch. You killed yourself, ‘cause you’re the Red Witch. You killed all of us, my White Devil, ‘cause we’re all the Red Witch.
Bertrand’s dream self has no idea what to make of this ‘Red Witch,’ but Bertrand knows. They are referring to his daughter. They are singing about how Abigail’s red hair flows up and over the headboard, when he is fondling her soft cunt. They are singing about how Abigail’s red hair flows over her shoulder and down to her bellybutton, when she is smirking at him in that terrible cock tease way of hers. There is dark fire in that hair. It singes his skin whenever he is too near. It bleeds flame into his flesh, so that there are blisters all over his naked, molested soul. She has been molesting me all this time. She knows it, and she communicates that fact to me in how she stares at me, when we are naked and together. Bertrand’s dream self may have no idea, but Bertrand knows.
The Medicine Man steps out from the bonfire dance. He is so much taller than all the others; and he is sporting the red hair and the blue eyes of a white man, even though his skin is a dark as the ages. The scar on his chin stands out like war paint. His eyes are blank, not in a stupid way, but rather in a way that suggests that he is calculating the whole time. His eyes hide thoughts, distract from true intentions, peer into victim souls, but give nothing in return. Hanging from his loincloth is a thick, black baton. Bertrand’s dream self thinks that that is totally out of place, but Bertrand knows why it is there. The Medicine Man is not just going to cure an ailing body. He is going to bring justice to a dead soul.
The Medicine Man hands him medicine, to be sure; but then, Bertrand’s dream self looks at what he has from the perspective of a man caught eternally in a nightmare, and he sees that in fact he has a small, wooden doll in his right hand. It is a coarse, wood sculpture of a Mamie with striking, red hair and large lips. Its breasts seem ready to burst with milk. Its hips seem ready to sway sexy from side to side. It is life born from death, so that the life can keep on moving down the highway to the next generation. Moving with sin and justice on its old mind. Bertrand’s dream self wants to throw it away, but he cannot. He looks at the Medicine Man for any answer, but the Medicine Man only vanishes back into that bonfire dance. He has no choice but to return to his tent and to offer it to the celebrated author. Perhaps he can save that man’s life and unload his curse upon him at the same time. ‘Doing well by doing good,’ that will be his private motto until this whole nasty business is done.
Back in the tent, he lights the lantern, and watches how that celebrated author in his care writhes in agony. He kneels beside him, opens his mouth just a smidgen, and stuffs the wood doll all the way to the back of his throat. For a moment, it looks as if the celebrated author may choke on the damn thing; but he swallows it, nevertheless. Bertrand’s dream self can observe the doll’s form sliding down the throat. He imagines a snake swallowing a carcass several times larger in mass. The carcass stretches the snakeskin, until it is broken down, and consumed. Slowly, the snakeskin constricts back into its normal shape and size.
The celebrated author recovers the next morning. Soon, they are back at the hunt. They shake on a gentleman’s wager over who will score a trophy first this fine, sultry, summer day. Bertrand’s dream self wins the bet, except when he walks up to claim his trophy from the bush he realizes that the tigress is not dead at all. She is just waiting for him, glaring at him through her sparkling ink blue eyes, while licking off the blood squirt that looks suspiciously like long red hair. She is thinking about where and when she will pounce on him, drag him to her den, and chew him to death, slowly, mercilessly, savoring all the justice to be awarded her at that moment. Notwithstanding how the celebrated author is laughing at his cowardice, he runs away as fast as he can; but it is no use. That cursed, smart ass, smirking tigress is everywhere he turns, hunched behind this bush, ready to pounce from behind that rock, even sleeping beside him in bed…
Bertrand sits up. He clutches at his heart with one hand, and wipes cold sweat from his eyes with the other. It takes him a long time to determine that, indeed, he is awake; and even then, he senses vaguely that this is just another interlude in between nightmares. Never again will he be totally awake, he tells himself. Never again will he be able to look out the window without feeling the Boss Man behind him, holding down his shoulders, and whispering ‘justice’ over and over again into his ears. He is trapped where he is; and in the far distance, he can hear his dead wife laughing at him from beneath the lake surface. It is a gruesome chuckle coming out from a throat filled with sand and grime. It is the laugh of a mad cock tease, a woman bent on revenge, even though it is clear in his mind (and in the mind of anyone else out there who may be impartial truth seekers) that he did not do anything at all, but clean up the mess she made. So unfair that she should be laughing at him now. So much proof that she is a cock tease, a witch’s cunt in place of a mouth on her face, a whore with a sick cunt smirk on her lips, as if somehow she can observe what remains too dark to him.
He glances at the sleeping form beside him. In the soft, silver moonlight shining through the tattered curtain, he can see red hair flowing down a naked back. Except that it is not red hair, not really. Rather, it is the thick blood that is flowing down from the top of a tigress’ head. It is the wound that he caused way back when; the wound that injured, but did not deter, the beast; the open sore that gave this tigress a taste for his blood and a passion for his last breath.
Get out, get out, Bertrand screams, as he flaps his hands upon the long, red hair, like he is trying to douse a flame. Go to your own room. Leave me be.
Abigail turns onto her other side so as to face him. She does not seem to have been awakened. She seems rather to have been awake, just laying beside her father-husband in the dark, and waiting in silence until he should make the next move in their terrible death drama. She looks into his flaming eyes as if to ask: What do you know? Have you surmised when, where, how this drama ends?
Bertrand is horrified. He catches his wife in those eyes; his wife the first time he saw her at the annual summer ball; his wife the moment he swings the baton into her face (wants to think that it is that moment she swings the baton into her own face, but there is no denial allowed in those penetrating eyes). He catches his daughter in those eyes. It is the first time she moans from his touch beneath the sheets. Mostly, he sees the tigress in those eyes; the tigress that is smirking at him; the tigress that has been waiting decades for the moment it is able to balance the scales on its terms. Justice is a two-way street, and jungle beasts intuitively sense that justice that man’s rational mind can only intimate.
He is paralyzed by his fear. His heart beats still. He can hear in his inner ear how his heart rattles like a stampede of horses about to go over a cliff. But his chest feels cold and petrified, like the chest of a corpse long removed from a beating heart. The contrast disorients him. It makes the room spin on an axis.
Abigail crawls backward on the bed. She hunches her head low. Her hair flows over her face, so she looks like a retreating ocean wave of red curls. Her butt arches upward. She is either prostrate or ready to pounce. She gives voice to a soft, sensual growl, which could suggest either a prostrate whore trying to turn on her man one more time before the alarm, or a tigress sizing up the kill. Perhaps it is both at the same time. Love and murder seem to go hand in hand in Abigail’s mind, especially since she helped bury her mother in the slimy lake.
Go, go, go; Bertrand screams. I told you to get the hell out of my room…
Abigail stands by the foot of the bed. She is hidden in blackness, except for the moonlight shining upon her face. Bertrand thinks he may have observed a hint of sadness in her eyes; but even if it had been there, it is gone as soon as he recognizes it. Instead of sadness there is a cold hatred, followed by a steady resolve to do what is necessary.
After they stare at each other for what seems like eternity, Abigail exits with her head held high. Her red hair flutters behind her head, when she steps into the hallway. It is as if there is a wind tunnel out there that caresses Abigail everywhere at once, and sweeps her out of his view and into her own bedroom.
* * *
Abigail steps into her bedroom, leans against her door, and cries. She is careful not to be heard, but the hot tears stream down her face regardless like a deluge of water and grime over the tattered remains of a dam. She is so tired of pretending to be strong, so exhausted with holding her chin high and keeping a smirk on her lips; and though she knows she can never go back, she wishes for nothing more than to curl into her blanket, close her eyes, and awaken the day before her father first touched her. She wants to go back to that moment. Part of her wants to relive the simple joy of innocence; but more so she wants to go into the kitchen that morning, sneak a knife out from the drawer, and slice her parents into dog feed, while they still are asleep. The real tension is in holding those contradictory desires in her heart at once, a hope for youthful innocence restored, and an almost sexual passion for the blood splatter when that kitchen knife cuts through the jugular vein. Interestingly, what she actually plans to do next in this sick drama inspires no great tension at all. She is at peace with her plan. What really bothers her is that she has become the kind of person who is able to relish innocence and bloodshed equally and at the same time. What can be stated but that there is a stone cold amorality at the heart of every woman?
Oh, men think that witches sing in the devil’s choir, in virtue of the sick, atonal spells that they cast; but in fact it is their stone cold amoral hearts that give them the hard intensity of a voice beneath the devil’s throne. They praise hardness of heart and maudlin despair. They intone the eternal sickness that is death unredeemed. Proper that this is so, because the stone cold amoral hearts crackling like stones in their chests cannot feel anything at all, but the stings of death. And from the stings of death there is no refuge, no respite even, nothing on which to grab, so that Abigail feels lonelier than if she were the last person.
She eyes her bed, but decides not to sleep in it. Already, it feels vaguely like a bed that belongs to some other person. Whatever dreams she had had on or beneath those sheets are as gone as the soft whisper blushes that used to be on her cheeks. In replacement, there is just the cold, hard reality that too soon she will be hauling her father’s dead flesh to the lake, while the wind blows all her red curls in every direction. From a distance, her hair will look like a flame fluttering on a skull; but that illusion will fall away up close; and what she does in her moment of passion will appear sordid, small, even stupid. Not enough to distract a woman from the cold, hard reality of patricide before a summer ball.
Abigail sits in the far corner. She leans her face against her strong knees.
She sits just outside the moonlight flowing through her bedroom. She is a tall, leggy, athletic girl with vibrant, red hair and penetrating eyes; but here in this utter blackness, she is that little girl asking her daddy why he is sliding his hand over that part of her body, and learning how to close off her scratchy raw soul from the claws and the beaks all about her. She knows that she wallows in this confused despair, like an unclean woman falling further into quicksand but refusing the rope tossed in her direction. She knows that this inspires a suicidal blackness at the foundation of every one of her words and thoughts, a frothing, murderous rage on the one hand, but also a detached passivity on the other. In her experience, suicide is coping, and murder is choosing justice over immature and callous indecision. Murder is selfless, charitable, a brief escape for her, no doubt, but a permanent escape for the victim, so that she really can state that she loves and wishes the best for the man she will soon haul into the dark lake.
* * *
Abigail had thought that she would be a nervous wreck the next morning on account of all the tears she shed the previous night. She falls asleep, while sitting in that dark corner, and so she awakens hours later with an awful kink in her lower back. The pain subsides soon enough, though. That is a fringe benefit of being nineteen and athletic, so that by the time she leaves her bedroom she carries in her straight back and upturned chin the same poise with which she is able to scare a breath out from her father whenever he sets his eyes upon hers.
She glances at him, while she walks out the front door. He is now sitting on the tall chair that had been once the exclusive throne of his wife. Now with Matilda out of the way, he takes to that seat like a pretender who has managed finally to dethrone the real queen. There is a loopy smile on his face, but it is a dreamy twitch in his lips that calls to question whether he has any sense where he is and what he had had to do to get there. His eyes offer no answers. His are now the blank eyes of a rancid corpse, or the glass eyes that a vandal has glued into the seamless, white sockets of an ivory statue. Only his clumsy fingers give away the extent of his inner turmoil. He is fidgeting his fingers upon his lap, as if he cannot figure out if he wants to pray or to masturbate. Perhaps, he is now coming to terms with the notion that, for him anyway, prayer and masturbation are much the same thing. The conundrum clutches at his bowels like a monster and sends stinky sweat over the folds of his eyes and the canyons in his cheeks.
Abigail will need to act quickly, because Bertrand will not be long upon this earth, unless of course he has the kind of ecstatic conversion experience in the very near future that his temperament guards against every hour of his life.
Nevertheless, she does not act as if there is any urgency in carrying out her plan. Perhaps she is trying to dissuade herself from carrying through with it for real. Plans never put into motion have a way of turning into vague dreams, the kind that are lost as soon as they are recovered, the occasion in which one of life’s many losers can shrug her shoulders and remark ‘well, at least I gave it the old college try,’ when in fact she did everything but execute her dark plan.
Or perhaps she is the tigress, biding her time, licking her paws, until the moment everything is as it should be. It is interesting that as the end nears, all remains calm, subdued, and even lackadaisical on the front lines. When finally the trumpets blare from on high, there shall be no other sound or movement on the earth. There will be no choice but for eyes to be transfixed in horror on the descending angels since there will be no distractions at all for the cursed souls.
There is no fury when finally the moment comes. It is the evening of the summer ball. She had not planned on this day over any other; but as she stands in front of her dresser mirror, it just occurs to her that she really should tidy up her mess before going out to the dance unchaperoned. Simple as that, no rapid heartbeat, no fidgeting of fingers, not even her mother’s ghost voice telling her that ‘she’s next on the list.’ There is nothing to help her along, nor is there any one thought of sensation that might scare her into action. There is just a vague sense that she really should tidy up her mess.
There is also the pistol in the closet. Her mother had given her the pistol a long time ago. Matilda had never acknowledged the abuse, so surely this was not Matilda’s passive way of giving her the nod she needed to end it. Or was it?
Regardless, handing her a pistol had not been a particularly ladylike and daffy thing to do; and so the gift had made an indelible impression on Abigail’s mind. Now, as Abigail eyes the closet door, and imagines the loaded pistol that is waiting in patience for her on the other side, she experiences only a tremble of the awe she had had when her mother first had handed her the weapon. She composes herself, of course, so no one outside her mind ever would notice that strange blend of excitement, relief, and fear. But it is there, and it is enough, barely, but definitively, to push her out of her routine and into murder. Surely, not a passionate, bloody, teary-eyed murder; but a cold and quiet one, where the only sound is the sudden snap of a pistol, and the only blood is the thin line that sinks lazily from the black third eye she puts in the middle of his forehead.
She knows where to find him. Bertrand has been spending virtually all of his time in the sitting room, smoking his pipe, and muttering ‘smug cock tease’ and ‘whore bait catching dead fish in the lake’ and other such poetic novelties.
She envisions him sitting on the stolen throne. She sees him the way the tigress sees her prey sitting alone and stupid in a clearing. It is almost too easy for her; and yet she goes for the kill, anyway.
But she does not remember pulling the trigger, nor does she remember kicking him down to the floor after seeing the third eye appear in his forehead. She retains a few disconnected snippets of hauling him out to the lake, a little more of actually dropping him into the lake, while she withstands the wind that is starting to scream along the banks. Then, the moment she sees his dead eyes sinking into the lake, his arms reaching up as if to hug her, his flesh bloating as if he is about to burst out all that muck he has been storing in himself for ages, she remembers everything in vivid detail.
She remembers in particular what his eyes say. They are speaking to her, not in the same irascible voice as her mother, but in a deeper and heavier tone that calls to mind a rock being crushed at the core of the earth. The dead body wants to burst out, but the dead voice wants to constrict inward. It is a secret, conspiratorial voice. It is how the devils sound when they are conversing to one another in the depths of hell.
I’m getting my justice, Bertrand’s dead eyes say to Abigail as those eyes sink beneath where she can see them still. Living wounds, shaking out old blood and pus, trembling piss out of the bowels, ‘till there’s nothing left, but a clean and hollow cavity where justice can reign. Ain’t going to smirk when you see all them living wounds, head smashed everywhere, brains hanging from tree limbs. Ain’t going to do anything, but reap what you’ve sown, and pass the seeds of a bloody harvest to your children, and your children’s children, sort of like how it is in the Good Book. All this old shit in the stew, ‘cause I’m getting my justice…
Abigail cannot tell if Bertrand’s dead eyes are taunting her or lamenting his own descent into hell. Perhaps taunting and lamenting are just one and the same down there. Perhaps they are the same up here, too.
When finally Abigail steps away from the lake, she is sure she cannot see those eyes any more. Or is she? The lake has swallowed them. Or has it? Really, when we set the rational mind aside a moment, does she not glimpse the same, bloated, dead eyes staring at her from inside a bush, as she is walking up to the front door? Does she not see them in the folds of the tall chair, when she raises what is left of that broken chair from the sitting room floor? Does she not catch them in her closet, when she returns her pistol and tidies up her mess in there?
And what about the summer ball she attends later that same evening? In her daydream, before retrieving her pistol and stepping out of her bedroom for a rendezvous with her own destiny, she had imagined how she would be at the center of attention what with the fact that she is unchaperoned. She dreams of the young boys practically pleading to be on her dance card. Some of these soft and handsome boys will be charging San Juan Hill in several months. Others will be gassed to death or blown to pieces in a trench somewhere near what will be called much later the Maginot Line. They will not give up their ghosts so much as have their ghosts ripped out from them by vicious Huns and Turks. This is not going to happen for another twenty years or so; but when it does the dead will not be much older, and surely no wiser, than when they plead tonight to be on her dance card. These boys are the walking dead. They have the living wounds snuck beneath their nice physiques and handsome facades, and they buzz about Abigail like zombie bees about the queen who casts spells. Indeed, this is what Abigail foresees, before she retrieves the pistol. It is enough to put a proud grin on her face, even if only for a moment, as she descends the stairs with a pistol.
But the summer ball turns out not to be that way at all. Oh, sure, it is an exquisite affair. The champagne bubbles; the orchestra floats the waltz beyond the dark horizon; the boys stay handsome all night; the older men start off just jealous, then end up sore and irritable, while taking their wives home; and true to form, Abigail is all poise, strength, and mystery. She is the redheaded witch, floating about the dance floor, casting her spells, smiling falsely with eyes that can see through all the charms and into that dark eternity that is only hinted at in the Bible. By any outward appearance, the summer ball is a success.
Except for the eyes. Her father’s bloated eyes are in every face she sees that night. They are dead eyes on otherwise lively and handsome faces, casting dead grey palls over warm cheeks, drooping out from their sockets as the waltz wears thin. They are horror shows, because they speak to her in that heavy and earthy way peculiar to demons: I’m getting my justice. I’m getting my justice…
Abigail keeps her poise, but she leaves the dance early. There is a way a good, white woman can beat back the living wounds. Indeed, there is a way she can keep ‘justice’ at bay. But the solution is where the rational mind gives way to nightmares. It is where the niggers, the devils, and the elves romp about the ancient forests after sunset. She is not sure what the solution is, except that it is the same kind of solution as a white man curing his gout by resting his stinky, diseased feet upon a nigger’s stomach. It is the kind of solution the old witches whisper and the young virgins ponder in their silly hearts. It is how women beat back earthquakes, and sweep away bad harvests, and drop deadbeat husbands with heart attacks and aneurisms in the middle of the night. The men can keep on fiddling with their scientific instruments, but the women already know what they need to do when the dead torment them out from their domestic cocoons.
* * *
Abigail is exhilarated. She is rowing her boat across the lake, guided only by the whispering light of the silver moon now high in the sky, drawn by a force that she cannot know at all in her rational mind, but in which her superstitious, pre-Christian mind wallows unreservedly. She keeps her chin held high, but the way her red hair dances in the wind behind her head suggests anything, but the politeness and the poise of a lady who is respectfully detached from the crazed passions all about her. Indeed, if any man were to glimpse her rowing over the lake, then he would imagine a beautiful beast intent on an evil about which he would prefer to remain ignorant. This hypothetical man would not be able then to see the smirk on her face, but he would feel that smirk rippling out from her soul and sense that that is the expression of a beautiful beast intent on opening her legs and sliding her tongue over her lips in such a manner as ravishes nature herself. Momentarily, this man would be excited by her sick passions; but then an age old fear would creep over his shoulders like a wet jacket just pulled out of the lake; and he would stagger away from the lakeside without looking back.
As it turns out, there is no living man standing upon the banks just then; but there is her dead father. The fish only have begun to nibble upon his flesh. Interestingly, they seem to be going first for his right foot. His boot had floated away from his foot, when he was descending open armed into his murky grave; and though he is wearing still an old sock, four of his bloated toes poke through holes in the fabric. The back of his right foot also is exposed, and the rabid fish are starting to fight with one another over access to the meat chunk there. It is impossible to tell for sure what the dead feel; but if Bertrand feels still the fish bites all over his right foot, then he’d have a sense of what his daughter felt in between her thighs the first time that he joined her beneath the sheets. This is not a feeding frenzy so much as a relentless and cruel molestation underwater; and in response, Bertrand can do no more than stare blankly into the cold, dark slime above him with the two open eyes with which he had been born and with the third eye carved into the middle of his forehead by the bullet. His mouth is open, so that he looks like he is screaming, but the only sound is the persistent and eager nibbling. If mercy prevails over justice, then he knows nothing of the attack right now; but that is not likely the case. Bertrand had been demanding his ‘justice’ at the end (an idea planted in him by a visitor that seemed so real, so unavoidable, precisely as the visitor had been so ephemeral and dreamlike). He had muttered ‘cock tease,’ or ‘pussy stink,’ or ‘blood whore;’ but inside his demented mind, each and every time he had meant ‘justice.’ His wife had had the gall to deny him his ‘justice.’ His daughter intended to take away from him what little ‘justice’ he had been able to gather up for himself. And so ‘justice,’ cold, vicious, unrestrained by mercy, had been his own personal god when that cunt daughter of his had stepped into his sitting room and had raised her pistol.
Abigail is consumed by the very illicitness of what she is setting out to do just then, but she still senses her father beneath her. She feels how he looks up at her. She hears how his bulging eyes manage to speak through the fish nibbles and into her dreams: I’m getting my justice. I’m getting my justice. I’m getting my justice. From every little fish bite, cursed them all, I’m getting my justice…
And I’m going to make sure that you keep getting all this cursed ‘justice’ you have been demanding and that none of your ‘justice’ attaches itself to me, Abigail snarls back in her own mind. ‘Cause I’m stepping out of your civilization tonight. I’m going to roam with the outcasts, way out beyond that white picket fence we store in our nightmares, out there where your ‘law’ and your ‘justice’ cannot grab a hold of me any more. And best of all, there’s nothing you can do about it, dead man, nothing at all, but watch my fine fanny leaving you behind.
Abigail moors the rowboat. She walks up to the edge of her uncle’s dark, swaying tobacco field. In the silver moonlight, the cotton puffs on the stalks do not look like plant life, so much as the malformed faces of ghouls. These ghouls have been bolted to the ground. Their hands have been tied behind their backs as if they are common criminals standing in an outdoor assembly and awaiting a final judgment from on high. Their skinny, peeling bodies lean this way or that, depending upon the direction of the wind, so that at once Abigail imagines that all men will assemble into a mob of criminal ghouls when the Good Lord returns from on high. Perhaps the murder she committed is playing on her mind, as her fixation on death just now takes on an apocalyptic feel that is at once powerful and frightening. She senses that the cotton faced ghouls are observing her ever so closely to try to get a sense of how she will judge them, and yet at the same time she senses that she is just one of the cotton faced ghouls herself. She may think of herself as beautiful and haughty, but in fact she is bolted in the rancid earth along with every one. Any simple dream of leaving the white picket fence behind is just that, a dream, because in fact the ‘walking dead’ do not walk at all. They stay put, lost in their ghost memories, wailing about what could have been, if only there had been a living God who tempered His justice with mercy.
What nonsense, she mutters. I acted today, decisive, strong, as well as a man, if not better. Why all the self-doubts, elbowing in on my hour of triumph, robbing me of that lift with which I could soar into the dark heavens right now?
She wanders quickly through the tobacco field. She wants to leave all of her self-doubts back at the lake. This is the long night set aside for her to grab a hold of her broom; and she will be damned, if she allows even a mild scent of defeatism to enter into her soul. Everything about her knowing smirk, her chin held high, her confident stride forward into the night, has been preparatory for this moment. This is the hour she awakens from her grave. This is the time she comes into her own, or so she insists when her self-doubts creep back into her like a sudden chill spasm in her spine. She will not let this moment be ruined in view of the death mob swaying in and out of her line of vision. She is not even deterred, when several of the ghouls snap prissy thorns into her skin, and draw out the kind of hot and sweaty blood we commonly identify with a crime scene.
But if determination and poise were enough, she would have been put on the throne by popular acclamation a long time ago. In fact, there is always just a hint of fear beneath her surface confidence, even when her smart-ass smirk is so bold as to warrant a backhanded slap. And with the fear, there are moments of indecision, confusion, even forgetfulness. True to form, she then stops in her tracks a moment, because she has forgotten where she is and why she is there.
She looks up at the sheet of silver moonlight above her head. For a brief moment, it resembles the lake surface as seen from underwater. It is like she is drowning just beneath the surface. She opens wide her arms, as her father had had his arms open while descending to his grave; and she opens her mouth, like anyone will if they are trying to gasp actual air out from a foreign environment.
Everything flood backs into her in a moment of time. She is considerably less scared of her surroundings as a result, but at the same time she feels upon her shoulders all the weight of what she has done and intends to do now. After a moment, the weight passes, and she is again a redheaded goddess hurrying to that illicit love affair peculiar in equal measure to the gods and the deviants. A devilish grin appears on her face, as she contemplates that she is more deviant than godlike. She proceeds onward with a devil’s imp expression upon her face.
Apart from the silver moonlight wafting in waves over the top of the old, thin, swaying tobacco stalks, it is desperately black this far removed from that proverbial white picket fence. She is moving through black shadows set against a black backdrop; and yet, notwithstanding the veil that is everywhere, she has a deep and abiding sense that her father still watches her from the death slime at the bottom of the lake. He watches her for no reason except to let her know that she is not nearly as far out from that white picket fence as she had dreamt just a moment ago. Hence, she sways between confidence and self-doubt; and, as such, she quickens her pace, so that she stays a step ahead of the confusion.
She catches a lantern flickering in the distance. It seems to be closer to the swamp dead end than even Abel’s shed. She senses that that is where those Diggers actually reside. Only appropriate, if it is so, since the cesspool so close to hell must be too abhorrent in taste and in smell for anyone but those Diggers to stay for long. Indeed, the light in the darkness, like the Diggers themselves, seems to have ascended from middle hell, rather then descended from on high.
She hurries through the shantytown. All the candles have been blown out for the night, and yet she cannot shake the sensation that she is being watched by untold pairs of eyes; not the dull eyes of overworked nigger farmhands, nor the curious eyes of harmless strangers; but her father’s eyes as they appear at the bottom of the lake just now. His eyes are molesting her, even from his dark grave; but even more so they are taunting her with his mad refrain: I’m getting my justice. I’m getting my justice. So did I forget to say I’m getting my justice?
She plugs her ears with her hands, as if her father’s mad refrain happens to be originating from outside her mind. That may seem ridiculous at first blush since of course the dead literally do not chant. But there is a ring of truth to it, isn’t there? After all, her father is indeed in that lake behind her. Furthermore, that lake is not too far behind her, notwithstanding now how long she has been wandering through the tobacco stalks and into this shantytown. She would hear a living man screaming from the lake at the top of his lungs. Who is to say that the dead do not chant? Maybe not literally, that is true, but perhaps they chant vicariously. Perhaps the wind rushing through the tobacco stalks, and the tired tree branches creaking from the weight of oversized leaves, and the old leaves crackling underfoot, carry the chants for those men who can no longer give any voice to them. The dead give off an awful smell, and the wind carries the smell without complaint. The dead flesh ripped free from a corpse tumbles about the ground like tumbleweed, and the wind seems content enough to push that flesh as far as it will go. Why not the mad chants that prey on the mind of the living? If nature beats us down with storms, then why not also beat us down with gross madness? And while we are on this topic, who is to say that Bertrand Spencer is really dead? Perhaps he just seemed dead, as Abigail hauled his motionless and cold body to the lake. But come to think of it, when she actually pushed him in and watched him sink, did she not see how his arms opened up, as if to hug her one last time? She had told herself then that the water simply had dislodged his dead arms from beside his dead torso; but didn’t she first think that those arms had opened up voluntarily and purposefully, as if moved by his conscious mind? And what about the way he looked at her? Where his eyes really blank, as when the eyelids of a corpse in a coffin happen to roll up; or where they expressing a vitriolic anger so etched into Bertrand’s soul as to seem unmovable, as when in the Exodus account the Bible says that Pharaoh’s heart had been hardened? For that matter, where there not bubbles breaking the surface as he descended, so that perhaps his opened mouth really had been screaming? None of this plays so well in her rational mind, but this night subdues reason in darkness and in fear.
An abnormally big bird flaps its wings not too far above her head. It is a loud, booming sound that calls to mind a trumpet; and Abigail has to clutch her throat so as not to scream like a shrill girl. She looks up and half expects to see a bird as large and as gruesome as a prehistoric monster; maybe a dinosaur like she has seen in picture books; or maybe something out of a fantasy story; but it turns out to be nothing at all. She imagines the angels descending from on high on the last day, but remaining invisible, so as to play on the fears of those sick, criminal ghouls assembled in an open space for whatever judgment happens to be coming their way. She imagines that the invisible angels are smiling just too widely; that their eyes are sparkling with cruelty more so than joy; so that the very last thing that the sick, criminal ghouls realize before they are burned off with the rest of the chaff is that justice is malicious, brutal, cold, and raw. No doubt about it at the very end: the angel’s wings turn out to be webbed wings, the angel’s face turns out to be beaked and beastly, and the angel’s light heart in fact burns cold, like ice crackling as it compresses into itself in any ice room.
Abigail had stifled her girlish scream, but she still swings her arms above her head to keep the webbed wings at bay. She does not feel anything, or does she? Didn’t the side of her left hand rub against something furry and clammy up there in the silver moonlight? Didn’t her left index finger feel as if it had poked into a tight canvas; no, not a canvas, really, but a tight sheet of skin between a pair of thin bones; and at that very moment, didn’t she hear what sounded like a shriek of pain no more than five or six feet above her head?
Whatever outward confidence she had exhibited before is gone. She has not screamed yet, that is true; but she knows that she has not screamed not on account of her bravery, but on account of her fear that she will disturb an even worse monster if she is heard. Everything about her frantic, disoriented, teary-eyed steps forward suggest that she is prey and that the predator is getting too close to her now for her to be able to escape. So there is a certainty of violent, vicious death underlying everything about her (I’m getting my justice), a clear, unambiguous sense that the end is near and the last moment will be horrible in every way (I’m also going to kill you. Bet your sweet ass…), and even worse, an emerging realization that she is not a goddess queen walking among her simple subjects, but a little girl lost in a foreign land.
As if to hit that point home, she looks up from her feet, and notices that the thatch roof huts and the rotten food barrels seem different. They are much simpler (if that is even possible), smaller, and darker; but strangely, they seem also to be much newer, as if the palm leaves had been pulled from the trees to make the roofs no more than a month or two earlier. The same black faces are inside, of course; but though she cannot see them at all, she senses clearly that they are somehow more native in appearance than the black faces she normally sees out here. These are the descendants of those who had been hunted down in the Congo and sold to a slaver no more than one or two generations ago; and she suspects, notwithstanding the rule against the importation of slaves, there are some eyes in those tiny huts that had beheld not too long ago the plant life and the beasts indigenous to the Dark Continent.
She passes by the whipping post at the center of the shantytown. No one has used it in years, so far as she knows. Nevertheless, on this night, there is an old, emaciated, nigger man tied to the wood post. He had been stripped naked and beaten so mercilessly his back and his butt look like shredded, raw meat on bone hooks. He is still prostrate before the post, his wrists clamped together in front of his swollen head, his hands rubbed down to the bone by a rope tied on the other end to the post. His blood is splattered in every direction. There is so much blood on the post itself that it looks as if it has been draped by a crimson red shawl. The man is dead; probably dead for many hours, based on the sheer abundance of flies and the sickening death smell that has spread everywhere as if rotted mulch tossed on a dry field; but a heavy wind sways his prostrate flesh in such a way as to suggest that he is still caught up in one of his ancient pagan spear chucker dances. The wind revives the dead, indeed; but it is not new life so much as a macabre theater of horrors, where the dead are given just enough semblance of life to remind the living that the fine line between this world and the next is so thin as to be invisible. Niggers live on that fine line, swaying this way and then that way across it all the time, so that the white men who power over them can delude themselves into thinking that, by contrast, they are very far away from that precarious edge. The white man imagines his life eternal as he hears the flies consuming the fallen nigger and smells the awful death scent rippling away from the post. The white man imagines that he can keep walking down the side of the highway, his years elongated like the shadows cast by the late afternoon sun, his eyes beholding the distant future in his imagination, and then the same as a distant past in his memory. He imagines that he can do this, because he makes the nigger reap what the white man had sown, so that it is a dead, old nigger tied to a post who suffers upon his dark flesh the wages of the white man’s sin. This is how the white man balances the scales inside his mind.
Abigail wipes her hands over her face like she is knocking off maggots. It is as if death himself is clinging to her skin, digging into her pores, and dripping cold sweat from her forehead. She is sickly white, and the sudden contrast with her fiery red hair makes her look like a long dead corpse set aflame.
A few more of those large, prehistoric birds fly overhead. First, just two or three; but within seconds, a dozen, a hundred, then so many she thinks that if she were to look up she would see the moon blocked out entirely by all those webbed wings and snarling beaks. The flapping wings are a deafening chorus of trumpets. The sound alone seems loud and aggressive enough to rip a dark hole in the moonlit sky. From out of that hole will descend the hellish night flyers of old who sweep the tobacco fields in search of uppity niggers and the white girls who love them. The night flyers are long, beaked, skeletal birds with radiated, ink, blue eyes and endless strands of red hair streaming back from their skulls. They are clothed in the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan. They flex their curved talons repeatedly, and as they do so they cry out a sound that is reminiscent of the Civil War era ‘Rebel Yell.’ The prehistoric birds flapping their wings five or six feet overhead right now are mild in comparison to these hellish night flyers.
Of course, Abigail does not see any prehistoric birds, let alone hear a rip in the night sky that could be a conduit for night flyers. In a normal state of her mind, she would write all this off readily as a wild leap of her imagination; but reason has no place this far into the tobacco field, especially when her parents both are screaming out to her from their graves beneath the surface of the lake behind her. About where she is now nightmares and reality overlap, so that the niggers watching her from within their huts are timeless expressions of a sin no man can bury for very long. They are the old wounds opened up again when the next generation comes to the fore. They are the living wounds. They are crusts just beneath the surface of the dead earth that keep reopening and swallowing into themselves those white girls in particular who presume to venture beyond the white picket fences set up for them. They are the boogeymen who make it all too clear that the price of freedom is a shredded back and a smashed head, and that that price will be paid by any presumptuous freedom seekers, white or black alike. That shared price is also the balancing of the scales in the heavens.
Abigail swings wildly at the webbed wings and the clutching talons above her head. She does not see anything, but she feels the cuts and scrapes on both her hands from the swarm. She looks down, but can no longer see her feet. The swarm indeed must be blocking out the moon, like a scab covering over a bullet hole in her father’s forehead, since everything now is mired in thick blackness. If she did not feel the bottom of her feet striking against the blood and mud on the path, then she easily could imagine herself floating in starless, outer space.
She cannot tell how long or how far she runs. There is no actual frame of reference in this dark nightmare world. There is only disoriented, raw fear that slithers up her spine and scares her into quickening her pace towards God alone knows where. Remarkably, she still does not scream; but every last vestiges of poise have been supplanted by her mad adrenaline and her red hair flaming out from the back of her stretched skull as if she is running now into a wind tunnel.
At some point, the prehistoric birds dissipate (if indeed they were really there at all). Abigail still does not look up, but she can feel the silver moonlight striking against her forehead. It makes no rational sense that she should feel a ray of moonlight, especially one that offers no warm refuge from the billowing, damp winds, but everything in this dark nightmare world seems to be taking on sensual characteristics that they would not have in the normal world. Light has a feeling to it. Voices have distinct odors to them. The darkness sounds like the heavy underwater pressure tone of silence, since of course in reality silence is not the absence of sound altogether, but of beat and melody. Inchoate ‘noise,’ which forms the backdrop against which beats and melodies may be heard, is in fact what we normally call ‘silence.’ And in this dark nightmare world, starless blackness is ‘silence,’ the backdrop of life, the void before the Spirit descends.
She slips on the mud, and falls to her knees. This surprises her more than anything, since she is normally so athletic. She also feels embarrassed; even as she is sure that no one that matters sees her way out here flailing about as if a clumsy and clueless girl. The only benefit is that the shameful, hot glow in her cheeks knocks the fright out of her a moment, and opens her eyes to the world.
She returns to her feet. She stands stoically, as the wind blows her crazy witch hair every which way, and considers what is in front of her. As expected, it is Abel’s shed. She had lost her conscious mind a while, but deep down she’d known all along that her subconscious compass would lead her towards the man with whom she intends to share her body this late hour.
But there is something different about the shed. It is dark, but this alone is not peculiar so late at night. It feels lifeless, but this also is not peculiar. Her experience is that the niggers learn from an early age how to stay still at night, so that the white man with booze on his breath and a rope or a pistol in one of his hands has no reason to wander inside for a spell. Niggers sleep like prey out in the forest, totally motionless corpses, but then springing to life at the tiniest crunch of a leaf outside their door. They live intuitively, which is why they still manage to survive notwithstanding how much civilization fears and hates them.
Then she sees what is different. There is a tree behind the shed. Spanish moss weighs down its tenebrous branches to some extent, but even more so the advanced age of this stoic life form stoops its limbs and leaves, so that it is just one or two more windstorms from crashing into the shed. The tree is long gone in the world of the mid 1890s, but it remains an obstinate fixture in the surreal nightmare world of slaves and whipping posts.
She wants to study the tree more, if only so as to calm her mind from all that mad disorientation with which it had been afflicted just a moment prior. It is a creepy, haunted tree, especially in the silver moonlight, but at least it is a definite, unmovable reality in a world that seems to sway with the crying winds this way and that. She does not study it very long, though, before she catches a shadowy form swinging from a rope attached to one of its higher branches. The shadowy form, whatever it is, seems unnaturally stiff and bloated, like a doll of straw hung from a rope to scare off the superstitious. Its head also seems to be unnaturally contorted, like an old doll maker incorrectly had sown the head on way back when. The wind pushes against the legs of the doll. It sways in a slow and gentle motion side to side. The rope from which it hangs creaks like an old barn door hinge. Talking about an old barn door, is that the lazy day on a farm smell of dried up shit and piss not yet shoveled off the barn floor? Is that a hint of spent semen in the air, tasted a brief moment on the lips, and then lost like a forgotten wet dream? And what about that rotten egg smell that is not yet all that distinctive from the shit and piss smell, but that promises to be a lot more prominent with every passing minute? Moreover, why is it that this smell seems to hang over her goose bumps like a soaked jacket, or perhaps like a hefty pall?
She actually can feel her mind coming together from the farthest places in the universe to converge upon an answer; but before her deductive mind can speak truthfully to her, she sees what is in plain view before her. That shadowy form is a nigger hanging from a tree. And it is not just any old nigger. It is Abel, the man with whom she had intended to share her body tonight, the man with whom she had wanted to commit one last act of defiance against a civilization that had given her father the green light to touch her and her mother the green light to keep silent. She is not sure she would’ve seen Abel again after this long night. After all, she is not about to live and to love among the niggers, and she cannot envision inviting him into her world. But this night had been set aside at the beginning of time for the two of them to make love within definite shouting distance of her buried father. Such indiscretion was supposed to be her reward.
She steps forward solemnly. She feels like she is approaching an altar for the damned, except that this altar does not allow for those sacrifices that save people from their sins, but rather allows for those sacrifices that celebrate the willful ignorance and the perverted manipulation that keeps the tired, old sins alive and well for another generation. Abel’s body swings there, so that people may adore man’s horrifying capacity to enslave and then to murder his brother.
Abigail reaches forward with her right hand, though she remains several steps too far to touch his mangled, bloated corpse. There is a part of her mind that hopes that she will be able to reach through his corpse, like a hand that is able to reach through a phantasm, since that in turn will mean that this is all a nightmare. She suspects that the moment she sees that this is a nightmare (not a ‘dark nightmare world,’ but an old fashioned nightmare occurring only within her sleeping mind) she will awaken, perhaps even before she had murdered her father, but at the very least before she had crossed the murky lake to visit with Abel. But the stronger part of her mind does not hold out any such hope. There is no way to avoid the reality of what has happened: Her father and mother are dead together at the bottom of the lake, and her lover is dead on this big tree.
She stops dead in her tracks. There is a slow and heavy footstep, a snap of a twig, a crunching of leaves, coming from the other side of that death tree. Another footstep follows, then another, each one as plodding as the other. The man back there must know that she hears him. It is otherwise so silent this far beyond the lake at this late hour that even a deaf woman would be able to feel his oncoming steps. And yet that fact does not seem to faze the man at all. He just keeps coming, slowly, methodically, as if a steam engine incapable of fear.
Who is out there? Abigail inquires with as much force as she can muster.
There is no answer, of course. The man does not hesitate with his steps.
Out of the corner of her left eye, Abigail can see Seth with his two small sisters. The three of them are crouching behind a bush, though only Seth seems to know for sure that there is something amiss. There is no sign of their mother at all, and Abigail wonders if she is still alive. The white devils that murder the niggers for sport often will kill both parents, so that the nigger children can be sold off to different farms in the surrounding area as orphans.
Abigail catches Seth’s eyes. He is a scared, little boy, to be sure; but his old eyes also hint at the strong, free man he will be many years down the road.
Old eyes, Abigail mutters. More like ‘timeless eyes,’ it seems to me…
In that one moment, Abigail falls in love with the small boy. She desires him sexually, perhaps in the same way her father had desired her sexually even before he touched her the first time, and she sets aside the thought that there is something intrinsically abusive and wrong about her feelings…
Maybe, she grins, I prefer how my feelings for him are abusive and wrong in so many ways. Maybe touching that little nigger boy with my eyes just now is my way of breaking out from a civilization that I have wanted so desperately to leave behind for so long. Surely, there can be no turning back now…
There is another plodding footstep behind the swinging corpse. The man is very close now, maybe underneath the tree, just a foot or two behind the fat body hanging from the rope, near enough that he can look through her with his glaring, penetrating eyes. She cannot see his eyes just yet, but that cold shiver going up and down her spine tells her all she needs to know about how he rapes her with his eyes. There is no lust in his eyes. There is only brutal and senseless power, like when a predator kills a prey even though it no longer needs to feed on it to survive, or when a man kills to live even though he can no longer die. It is all so unnecessary, superfluous, a violent atrocity committed against another person, not because the attacker gets his jollies from the deed, but because he can do it, and get away with it, every single time. This is the evil in those eyes, nothing that can be seen just yet, but a senseless brutality that can be felt like a cold wave washing over her still body, and dousing the flames out of her hair.
Abigail forgets all about Seth, at least for the moment. She clutches her heart, as if trying to squeeze another heartbeat out from that petrified muscle.
The man steps out from behind the corpse. He is a tall, thin, young man, perhaps her own age, although there is a timelessness about him that makes it impossible to pin down how many years he has been roaming the lost highways. He has striking red hair, sparkling blue eyes, and a narrow, nondescript face so expressionless as to inspire a cold shiver in whoever sees him. The man appears vaguely officious in his black uniform, like maybe he had been a brutal law man in another time and place. There is a thick, phallic baton hanging from his belt.
Who? Abigail starts to ask, but then chokes on her words and stays silent.
Little late to be dropping by this humble home, isn’t it? The man says in a voice that sounds vaguely Southern in origin. Niggers around these parts have to sleep. They don’t have the luxury of late wakeups and afternoon naps.
The man unclips his baton. He holds it in his right hand, and pats his left palm with it, not hard enough to bruise himself, but so repetitiously as to scare the Living Jesus out of her heart.
‘Course this nigger’s field days are done, the man reflects, while poking his baton into the torso of the corpse, and getting the corpse to swing back and forth like a piñata.
Leave him alone, Abigail says in a surprisingly strong voice.
She is taken aback. She had not sensed just how much rage seethed just beneath the surface of her fear. Her cheeks warm considerably, not from dumb shame, but from murderous anger hell bent on stopping what that man is going to do with the corpse hanging from the tree. She is empowered and exhausted; and as a result, her head feels like it could explode or pass out at any moment.
If the man is also taken aback, then he is careful not to show it, though Abigail thinks she views the ends of his lips curl upward into a knowing smirk. If that is so, then he really has been taken aback, as she knows all too well how a smirk can be used to mask the fear and the uncertainty just under the surface. And if that is the case, then maybe this man’s brutality is not so senseless after all. Maybe he needs to do what he does to live another day. Maybe it is the big and mysterious universe that turns out to be senseless, when all has been done.
But she has neither the time nor the inclination to pursue the thought to its logical conclusion. Reason does not reign here, anyway. What matters is the ‘fight or flight’ impulse common to any animal that scurries beneath the moon.
Feisty cock tease, aren’t you? The man remarks. Not especially ladylike…
My parents did not raise a lady, Abigail scoffs. They raised a whore cunt.
Doesn’t say much for your parents, the man reflects. But look where the two of them ended up. Fish food, and wet bones, that’s all they have to offer…
The man allows the image to linger. He pokes the corpse with his baton.
Abel swings back and forth. His rope creaks. It sounds like a screeching, crazed cat. The branch upon which his rope hangs crackles beneath the weight.
And yet none of this captures her attention. In the silver moonlight, she sees how Abel had soiled his overalls when hung. There is a load in his butt that makes him look like he is wearing diapers. His cock is erect, but it is so lifeless as to look more like a blunt instrument inserted into his overalls than an actual penis. Abigail imagines a baby who has been molested and then forced to wear a petrified log in his diapers so that everyone can see that he is a damaged soul beyond redemption. Abel’s face had been contorted by the extreme pressure in his neck into an expression that is both surprised and stupid, like he had been a retard trying his simple hand at a Calculus problem the moment this awful man had hung him high. So this is how the people beyond redemption look when the end comes for them: Surprised, stupid, and with a log stuffed into their shorts…
Anyway, your parents are not to blame for this dead nigger, the tall man in black says, while still poking the corpse with his baton. You came out here to visit this nigger on your own accord. Took measures to hide your indiscretions, though of course everybody knew. Everybody always knows, especially in small towns like this one. Deep down you must have realized that this is how it would end: Your parents dead in that dirty lake, and your nigger swinging from a tree. It couldn’t be otherwise, not when justice prevails over smart-ass girls like you.
Abigail does not know what to say. She is seething still with rage; but at the same time, she wonders if indeed she is to blame for what has happened to Abel. She had never thought about how her life might affect someone else. She knows that society would forgive her that particular oversight. After all, whites are taught from birth that they are not to give one iota of thought to how their lives may affect the wellbeing of a nigger. Nevertheless, she is not sure she can forgive herself. Abel may be black, but he appears more or less human up there on that tree; and so a specific human being is dead on account of her rebellion.
The man sees that Abigail stops dead in her tracks. He senses that inner turmoil in Abigail’s mind that paralyzes her somewhere between black rage and grey sadness. He knows that now is the moment to push her over the thin edge.
The man steps back. He poses like a homerun hitter waiting for the pitch from the mound. He glares at Abigail with eyes that sparkle like blue diamonds. He then swings his baton at full force into the bloated, dead nigger beside him.
I’m getting my justice; the nigger corpse says in her father’s voice, when the baton strikes into his bloated, straw man flesh.
I’m also going to kill you. Bet your sweet ass; the nigger corpse then says in her mother’s voice, when the baton strikes into his bloated, straw men flesh a second time.
The third strike happens, and father says his line again. The fourth strike happens, and mother says her line again. Back and forth, each parent taking his or her turn, like these two are a cooperative, loving married couple after all. It is enough to make Abigail want to puke, though all she does then is to stay put and to wring her fingers together nervously.
Finally, the tall man in black manages to burst a hole in the torso of the nigger beside him. Dirty water and shit splatters everywhere. Some of the dirty water and shit lands on Abigail’s face, and this elicits the dreadful scream that she had been working overtime to keep hidden even from herself.
Nice to see you come out of your shell, the tall man in black remarks, as he once again swings his thick, black baton into the piñata hanging from a tree.
The man stops suddenly. He looks at Abigail thoughtfully, while the right leg of the piñata beside him then breaks off from the bruised and battered hip.
‘Course the reason we’re here is ‘cause you’ve been trying to break free from your own shell, the man remarks. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Abigail screams again. She turns away, and runs. She fears that he is not going to let her go; but she returns to her boat, and rows across the graveyard.
* * *
Abigail does not sleep at all that night. She rushes into her bedroom, and crouches in the corner farthest from the ray of silver moonlight shining through her bedroom window. It is dreadfully dark in that corner, and yet her eyes stay as fully awake as if she were sitting in front of a spotlight. Her eyes really must stay awake, because her parents are everywhere in her nightmarish house, and they are going to attack her the moment her eyelids close over her pupils.
She does not see either one of them, though perhaps that shadow that is breathing in the opposite corner is her patient, glaring mother. After all, in the past few years, whenever Abigail happened to pass by the sitting room going in or out of the house, she would see her feeble mother in her tall chair breathing the exact same way; long, slow, patient breaths; silent breaths, because to the end mother had been much too polite to let out an audible sigh. Then, there is that shadow man on her bed. Perhaps it is just a dark spot within the room that is darker in contrast to the silver moonlight shining now upon her bed stand, or perhaps it really is her father. He used to lie that way on her bed, whenever he had the urge to spend some ‘quality time’ with her there. He would stay just as motionless too, letting his sweaty fingers beneath the sheets do all the moving, pretending to be totally dead to the world otherwise. Really, when she thought about it, that shadow man could be her father. She is not sure he died. Perhaps she tossed a living man into the lake; and while she was wandering through the tobacco field, he returned to his old haunt, exhausted and wet, but quite ready for another night of ‘family loving.’ Perhaps the bullet hole in his forehead had been a surface wound. Perhaps he dressed it with a bandage, before taking off his wet clothes and sneaking under her sheets. That seems altogether possible, maybe even probable, especially when everything else about this night appears to confirm the very worst fears gnawing at the back of her mind like a mad rat.
Mostly, though, she hears them. Father wanders the hall beyond her shut bedroom door, or beneath her bedroom floor, or in her bedroom walls, wailing inanely about how he is going to get his justice. As soon as he says what he says mother responds from some other location in or near her locked bedroom about how she is going to kill her own daughter, ‘bet your sweet ass.’ Father takes up his cue, then mother hers, back and forth, like one of the antiphonal songs that the niggers sing in the fields. Except that there is nothing melodic in what they say and how they say it. There is just insipid viciousness and self-righteousness.
She also feels them. They touch her with clammy death fingers that call to mind smooth, slimy, moss-covered rocks at the bottom of the lake. The two of them take turns touching her everywhere, mother as much as father getting in on the action, whispering with their fingers over the most private part of her body. Regardless of what they say, their fingers whisper the same refrain: Just be still, whore child, because you are a sinner, and you deserve how this feels…
Whenever she tries to squirm, the other parent then touches the back of her neck, so as to keep her from getting away. The other parent then whispers into her heart: You are not going anywhere, whore child. You are staying home.
That is right, the molesting parent then says. Staying home, right here in this room, where we can protect you from niggers with loose lips and big cocks.
Sometimes father is molesting her, and mother is holding her neck. Then mother is molesting her, and father is holding her neck. They are in total sync, as any loving, married couple would be, if they share in the rearing of their one and only daughter in this little corner of hell. God forbid that indeed one of the parents should shirk his or her moral duty in setting Abigail on the right course, especially as they rest together in a stinky shit crack at the bottom of the lake.
She even tastes them. Father tastes like salty spent semen on her mouth after he has rolled onto his side. Mother takes like blood dripping out of a sick, beaten pussy. Both tastes suggest sweaty exhaustion, just one more little spurt before the death rattle; and as much as she wipes her tongue over her lips, she cannot get rid of the sensations. She feels like she could vomit so hard her sick, loose guts would splatter over her knees and her feet; but nothing comes out of her mouth in the end, except an occasional prayer she knows falls on deaf ears.
Finally, she is certain she smells them. They both smell like overripe piss in a sweltering sauna. Then, she feels the slick wetness beneath her thighs, and she realizes that that is her own piss. She must be dribbling pee every time one of them speaks to her, because there is a pond of discharge spreading out from beneath her legs. It is like she is trying to force them out of her bowels literally and figuratively, but she only manages to wallow in their lives that much more.
Will this never end? Abigail cries out at one point in that torturous night.
Her parents do not answer her. Or maybe they do, since soon thereafter the wind outside rattles her bedroom window in such a way as to make it sound like her bedroom window is laughing at her. That is a rational explanation; but in this context, it does not ring true. That her mad parents are chuckling at her situation, well, that seems much closer to the mark, does it not? No doubt, this is the case. How else are they going to respond to her pathetic clamor for help?
But time does march forward, even in the midst of what feels then to be an eternal nightmare; and so Abigail looks up from her knees to behold the first hint of purple blue sunlight breaking through her tattered curtain. It is not very much, but in her mind it is enough to give her license to lie back in her pond of piss and to sleep. She does not remember ever sleeping so soundly as this time.
It is late afternoon when she awakens. The piss had dried up a while ago now, but she smells like a fermented barrel of moonshine. She climbs up to her achy feet, glances at her bluish white face and matted, red hair in her dresser, takes off her clothes, and draws a bath in the other room.
She will not be spending another night in his house. There is no question in her mind about that; but she has no idea where she will be instead, until she rests a while in the hot water. She rubs the Pears Soap over her left arm. There is something about the sweet fragrance that calls to her mind her Auntie Cloris, the only Spencer sibling who managed to marry herself out of Beulah, Arkansas, and from what she has heard a comfortable, socialite wife of a trust fund artist rumored to have some Greek in his blood. Her married name is Cloris Pallas. Of course, a lady with that kind of surname cannot be in society formally, but she and her rich husband throw money around like Jesus Christ has said that He will be returning the next day; and so they are regulars in the swanky parties which put the ‘Gay’ into the ‘Gay Nineties.’ Abigail knows all this from the letter that Auntie Cloris sends her every year. It is one of those form letters she sends out to all her family and friends, ostensibly to keep them apprised of her many and sordid highlights, but really to brag about how much better her charming life is north of the Mason-Dixon. Mother and father disdain her, but of course they are no longer in a position to offer much in the way of an opinion, at least they are not able to do so when the sun still shrines over the earth. If Abigail is still here tonight, then she has no doubt she will hear them levy plenty of gross insults at that eccentric socialite. They also will let her know just what they think about her decision to take a train up to New York to stay with her loony tunes auntie.
Abigail should send a telegram first, but that would mean staying in this house until Auntie Cloris responds. She just cannot accept that scenario, so she packs her chest and goes into town to hire one of the work niggers loitering for hours on end in the alleyways off the plaza. The work nigger walks three steps behind her, as is the custom in these parts; and by the time she leads him back to her home, the sun is no more than a golden red ray of light receding beneath the western horizon. There is a night train leaving in an hour, though; so while time is tight, it is not too late. The work nigger carries out the chest. As usual, there is no horse drawn cab when they need one; but even if a cab would have happened to trot by them, they could not very well sit together inside the tight carriage, now could they? The neighbors see enough as it is. Therefore, the old, whistling work nigger carries her chest, staying three paces behind at all times, and thinking about the extra feed he can bring home to his wife because of this little job. He is mighty grateful that Abigail chose him from among all the other work niggers, though she never looks upon him, and does not ask him his name.
Abigail buys her ticket. The teller gives her a once over. It is not normal for an unchaperoned woman to be buying a ticket anywhere, let alone to a spot outside the county line, and New York City is definitely outside the county line.
He supposes her cash is as good as anyone else’s, though, and so he goes ahead and stamps her ticket ‘paid,’ and sends her on her way. The work nigger follows with the chest all the way out to the platform. She pays him, gives him a nice tip above the agreed price (imagining he lives with his wife and children and grandchildren in a shantytown hut, like the ‘Harlow Niggers,’ when in fact he is living in a nice, clean, tidy A-frame in that area of town across the tracks known as the ‘Beulah Niggers’), and then wishes he and his extended family all the ‘tidings of the Good Lord,’ or some such nice sounding nonsense she herself does not believe. She does all this without once looking into his kind, old face. Instead, she pretends to be looking up and down the rails, as if trying to figure out from which direction her night train will be travelling in about ten minutes.
* * *
Auntie Cloris shouts with glee, when she pulls aside the curtain and sees her favorite niece standing in front of her fashionable brownstone. A handsome colored man stands a few paces behind her niece. He is holding her large chest with ease. Auntie Cloris is always amazed at just how strong and virile the dark men are even when they are much older than this strapping man outside. Cloris should know, since she keeps a colored lover handy when her husband, Achilles Alexandros Pallas, leaves for their cabin in the Poconos with his mistress. Cloris does not know her colored lover’s real name. Indeed, she is not even certain he has one. She simply calls him ‘Black Stallion,’ because he can be ridden all day and all night without his hide breaking into a sweat.
Abigail is relieved, since she did not send a telegram and of course could not be certain that her auntie would be here, let alone happy to see her at this moment. Abigail does not know about ‘Black Stallion,’ but she has been able to pick up what her auntie writes in between the lines of her annual letters. Thus, she senses that her auntie is more of a kindred soul than perhaps either would want to admit outright. Both carry their ‘dark secrets,’ as it were, so near and dear to the surface that a kindred soul could not but read them in the soft light cast by the silver moon after hours.
Of course, Abigail can stay for as long as she wants. It is so sad that both parents have gone missing, but that sadness need not detain us from the sherry that Robert is going to pour at the top of the hour. Robert is the affable, aged, stooped butler. He came with the house. His affable ghost will haunt the house before the end of the nineteenth century. Decades ago, Robert had been a kind and secretive lover for Achilles’ grandmother. He was later a kind father figure for Achilles’ mother. Now, he is a kind doorman, bartender, and poker partner for Achilles’ wife. He is there when the lovers leave for the night. He keeps the secrets, and heals the wounds. Every brownstone in New York should employ an affable Robert, and so far as Cloris knows all of them do. Keeping a Robert is as clear a sign of aristocratic pretensions, as a long fur coat and gloves on a balmy summer night. Abigail will adopt Robert as her father, and way too soon he will be the only corpse for whom she ever sheds a tear.
Auntie Cloris never again inquires about Bertrand and Matilda. Needless to say, Cloris had never been particularly close to any one of her brothers down south. She had seen them all as a collection of country hick drunks never to be mentioned in polite company. She had despised totally Matilda, for a reason no one could remember and about which Abigail would never pry. Abigail thinks if she had told Cloris how Matilda really died, Cloris would have smiled and asked Robert to pour another sherry. Abigail also despises her mother, but for reasons she cannot explain even to herself, she never wants to see her auntie smile and drink happily at the news; and so she never divulges what actually happened to both her parents. It is just as well. Disclosure, Abigail decides, is truly not best for ones soul in the end, notwithstanding what those Jew psychoanalysts claim.
No one back home inquires about Bertrand and Matilda either. About two months after moving in with Aunt Cloris and Uncle Achilles (Cloris remains just as happy to have Abigail stay with them, as she had been the first time she had seen her at her front door; but Achilles cools to the arrangement, especially as Abigail makes it all too clear she has no intention of sleeping with the slithering Greek), Abigail sends a letter to her Uncle Claude requesting news. It is a while before Claude responds, but when he does finally he makes no reference to her parents, except to say that he has boarded up Bertrand’s house since it devised back to him. So apparently the town has decided that Bertrand and Matilda are just ‘gone’ and that therefore Bertrand’s estate can be treated as if Bertrand is dead. Claude does not say that Abigail would be welcomed to stay at the house beside the lake. She suspects that if she pushed the matter, he’d let her stay in the house, just as she suspects that he will pass his substantial estate on to her someday. But, for now, Abigail really does not care. She has no desire to spend any more time with the ghosts of her loony parents and is actually enjoying her exposure to the cocktails and nibbles circuit in Manhattan.
About a year after she makes her grand entrance to the party scene, she gets the attention of a Mr. Dexter Davenport, a mysterious man of money with a peculiar penchant for Indian artifacts. He drapes a huge Cherokee shawl over his topcoat, like he is some sort of caped warrior with a pair of pince-nez upon his narrow face and a walking stick in his gloved, right hand. It is an altogether ridiculous outfit, but on him it all seems to make sense. His mannerisms always range from the flamboyant to the sissified, and several people whisper that the millionaire trust fund baby is a secret admirer of Oscar Wilde. Indeed, someone once claims to be his book agent. He says that the millionaire Davenport fellow is shopping around a book called The Importance of Being Dexter. Some suggest that the book, which no one has ever read, is just an elaborate prank, or a silly party joke, but others insist that Dexter is queer enough actually to write such a book and that he is keeping it under wraps until an opportune time.
Regardless, Dexter Davenport keeps a sickly wife at home. No one really remembers her name. It does not matter, because the real talk about the party circuit concerns his long list of mistresses. Dexter may act sometimes like some sort of ‘sissy boy,’ but he is careful always to do so with a charming young lady on his arm. The ladies are always married heiresses, and they are always blonds with so much white puff on their fine cheeks as to resemble living, albino dolls.
Abigail is the exception. She is a redhead, and she will not wear any puff on her fine cheeks. Indeed, she hardly wears any makeup at all. Her tomboyish look is all the rage on the circuit precisely because it is so different from what passes for beautiful in the Gay Nineties. It turns out that Abigail is a generation too early. She is a precursor of the flapper girls, except that she wears her hair long, and has an aversion to cigarette smoke.
As Dexter’s mistress, Abigail has all the money and the clothes to pursue whatever hobby she wants. She chooses photography. The very notion of a lady photographer is altogether scandalous, and so Dexter and Abigail tell everybody they meet about her peculiar hobby. What they keep to themselves is what she actually photographs: Dexter naked, while he is handcuffed to a whipping post (known at the time as a ‘nigger post’ for obvious reasons); Dexter chewing on a teddy bear that is served on a supper plate; Dexter gobbling on a black cock in front of a portrait of President McKinley (the black cock belonging to that same strapping colored man, which Abigail had hired to carry her chest from the New York railroad station to Auntie Cloris’ brownstone).
Dexter is found dead on the side of Park Avenue several years later. The coroner announces that he had suffered a ‘heart quake.’ The yellow journalists demand that his estate release his legendary manuscript for The Importance of Being Dexter. Someone claims that Dexter had been inducted into the secretive Manhattan Men of Letters and that his long manuscript has been hidden behind one of the bookcases in their clubhouse.
Abigail slides back into obscurity. The yellow journalists do not desire to showcase the dead man’s mistress. It does not fit the scandalous ‘Oscar Wilde’ angle that they pursue in the weeks following his sudden demise. Of course, no one wants to suggest that he is a homosexual. This is the Gay Nineties after all, and not even the yellowest of the yellow journalist will acknowledge or suggest the love that dare not speak its name. Rather, their angle is that he had been a quirky asexual fellow on the fringe of the ‘new art’ scene. They are not too far off the mark, Abigail thinks, though they have no real idea just how fringe that eccentric fellow with the Cherokee shawl could be.
It turns out that Dexter Davenport is Abigail’s high point of her extended stay in Manhattan. She trollops from one, old, rich, married man to another on the party circuit. She offers a toast for the late, great President McKinley when her married boyfriend is way too plastered to stand up and to make the proper toast himself. That occurs at the second of a half dozen ‘commemorations’ the party circuit holds in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of President McKinley. She also idolizes Alice Roosevelt, and actually toys with lesbianism a while, but falls away from the President’s daughter when she realizes that she just does not have it in her to play second fiddle to another Manhattan tomboy.
Auntie Cloris is taken ill in the summer of 1905. She would remain on her ‘deathbed’ until 1930, but no one suspects her longevity at that time. Achilles, always on the prowl, focuses on finding his ‘next wife,’ so that presumably she can walk down the aisle and move right into the brownstone within a few days of Cloris’ departure to the happy haven in the clouds. Abigail would not care a whit about Achilles’ focus, except that Achilles has decided that Abigail should be his ‘next wife.’ No real surprise there, given his obvious lust for her over the last decade; but startling nevertheless, not because he is ugly, but because he reminds her a bit too much of her father. There is a mean streak in the wealthy and spoiled Greek that is only partially hidden by his playboy surface. He is the kind of man who touches after hours. Although he has never managed to touch her, she almost can see his fingers curl, when he stares at her across the room.
And so, before Achilles can go too far in his pursuit, Abigail announces to her aunt and uncle that she is going to return to her home in Beulah for a while ‘just to make sure that all is well down there.’ No one tries to stop her, though she can read the protest in Achilles’ dark eyes.
The next dawn, Abigail calls upon the same strapping colored man, who had carried her big chest from the New York railroad station to the brownstone a decade prior. She has seen him intermittently over the years, and every time she wonders what it is about the colored races that keeps them so ageless. It is like they are beaten down by everything else in this white man’s world, except for time. When it comes to time, they are as carefree as children within a park on a Sunday afternoon. Even if this is not true, it is a nice fantasy to indulge, as Abigail sits by the window on a train heading southbound toward her memories.
* * *
Abigail steps out of the horse drawn cab. The ‘horseless carriage’ that is all the rage in Manhattan has not yet been introduced to the simple county folk in Beulah, Arkansas. Time does not stand still down here, except maybe for the niggers, but it sure moves slowly, like the tongue of a man talking with a thick, Southern drawl. Everything in the Deep South is syrupy sweet slowness. People down here like to think of themselves as holding on to what matters, while the Yankees are forever cutting and running for the next ‘big thing.’ There may be some truth to that stereotype; but, regardless, Abigail thinks the deeper truth is that the Southerners are just obstinate fools. They confuse their bullheaded, bigoted viciousness with ‘steadfast principles,’ and elevate their banal ideas to the level of ‘wit’ just by adding a saucy turn of phrase to the utterance. Abigail always had been quick to find fault with her own people. That severe judgment had been part and parcel of the haughty smirk she had carried upon her narrow face throughout her adolescent years. But now, that adolescent disdain has had the chance to mature over the past decade into a soul constricting bigotry. She literally feels her own soul bending into itself, like a bird digging its own talons and beak into its own flesh, as she steps away from the cab and looks upon the boarded up house that had been her home once upon a time.
Thankfully, the cabbie leaves without asking her any questions. That old coot horse driver had acted like he had remembered her. Abigail of course had pretended not to notice, but she could not hide entirely the cold chill shooting up and down her spine. The best she could do was to stare at her gloved hands in her lap and to ask the horse driver why the air smelled so much of dead flesh left to rot in the sun. Only a foreigner inquires of the smells down here, since a native born does not even notice them; and Abigail had hoped that her inquiry alone would convince the aged horse driver that she was not a local girl. Given how he had looked at her when answering, she does not think she succeeded in convincing the old coot that this now was her first time in the Old Confederacy.
Anyway, he is gone, and so she is alone with her memories. The house is on its last legs, obviously. Its roof sags inward at several points. Its outer walls, never all that much to look at on account of Bertrand’s disdain for hard manual labor, now so faded by the rain and the sun over the years as to look like a thin backdrop ready to fall to the ground. Quite a few of the porch floorboards have been torn out; probably by vandals, but perhaps by raccoons trying to get their hands onto something that smelled good beneath the porch; and Abigail senses that if she were to try to step onto what is left of the porch, she would fall into the baked mud beneath it. Only the front door looks strong, even impenetrable perhaps; and Abigail wonders if her parents have preserved the front door as an obstacle to any potential squatters. She figures that if indeed they are roaming the halls even now, so caught up in their own private hells that they do not talk to each other so much as talk passed one another, they would resent a squatter sitting where mother had given up her ghost or sleeping where father had given up his daughter’s innocence. Those torments belong to them, as individuals and as a couple, and they would be damned before they shared them with another.
Abigail walks along the side of the house. She no longer can see the dirt trail that had led to the lake. It has been overgrown by thorny vines. Of course, she does not need to trail to get to the lake, since she can view the lake easily enough behind a line of dead trees; but the fact that the trail is no more really disturbs her more than she would have guessed. She had walked that trail many times as a little girl, leaning a makeshift fishing rod (a carved stick terminating in a string and a hook) upon her right shoulder, wiping the matted, red hair out from her eyes, counting the number of paces to see if she could get to the lake with one less step than the last time. She had run up and down that trail untold times with her loyal Labrador, Nig, heeling by her left side. And, of course, she had hauled her mother and her father down that same trail, looking back to see how their blood stains the dirt behind them, trying as best as she could to keep the thorny vines along the side from stabbing and slicing the dead flesh. There is nothing now to indicate that any of this had happened. It is like her charming and disturbing memories both have been eaten alive by old, carnivorous weeds.
There had been a dark patch of earth behind the house, where routinely she had burned the trash. The final two bonfires had been set to burn evidence first of the murder of her mother, then of the murder of her father. Now, there are only bramble bushes and weeds. The cleansing fires have been overrun by a web of thorns, vines, and sticky sap. No matter what the fires burn off, thorny, sticky death always reclaims the beaten land in time, and so it is the case now.
Abigail passes that old burn patch. She focuses her attention on the pier.
Strangely, while the house has fallen away considerably, the short pier is as it had been a decade ago. Abigail doubts that her Uncle Claude has bothered to maintain it. If he does not care enough about the house to do anything more with it than to board up its windows, then he cares even less about the old pier jutting out from a muddy slope. Nevertheless, the pier wood seems not to have eroded at all. The lake slapping against the posts has not even left an ugly stain for all to see. Indeed, the longer Abigail looks at that pier, the more she thinks it is younger than it had been the last time she saw it. That makes no sense, as it is clearly the same pier; and just to confirm that fact, Abigail finds the little heart she had carved into one of the posts when she was six or seven years old. Still, it seems younger, even sturdier, like somehow the lake has been washing away the time, or reversing the effect of time, so that what had been decrepit or even dead is kicking up its knees and twitching its arms in some sort of a sick death dance. How strange that she should think about a sick death dance while considering the pier. Surely, the pier does not kick up its heels; and yet she has a vague sense that that is much closer to the truth than what her rational mind tells her. Just maybe the pier is alive, and just maybe it has been awaiting her return from the deep end, like anything that loves and is loyal.
Abigail walks to the end of the pier. Sure enough, her childhood rowboat is tied to the same frontal post where she had tied it a decade ago. There is no blemish on the hull, not one board askew, not one nail loose in its socket. Even though she had kept her rowboat in good condition, she does not remember her boat ever being this clean and intact. It is like something right off the assembly line. She almost does not want to sit in it, for fear of marring a thing of beauty.
But she does sit in it. After all, it is her rowboat, and neither she nor her things are museum pieces yet, thank you very much. The rowboat sways gently beneath her weight. It is just enough to lull her in and out of an afternoon nap, while she stares dreamily at the airy, white cotton puffs on the tobacco stalks across the way. The cotton puffs do not look like ghouls this time of day; but in her mind, they are alive. Furthermore, they sing to her in the dancing melodies of the afternoon breeze: Come over here, oh blessed one. Join our numbers, oh queen. Sing praise when you burn with the wheat and the chaff. Sing praise to the God of the saved and the damned. Sing praise, sing praise, sing praise…
Her intermittent nap must have descended into outright sleep, since the next time she awakens the silver moon is high in the sky. She sees the old moon as it is reflected in the dark lake, before she glances up at the sky to observe it staring back down at her. For a brief moment, she imagines two moons: a soft, rippling, spherical light on the lake beside her; a hard, stern, third eye on a big and distant throne. She is caught between the two; and though she finds a real comfort in the nearer one, she realizes that it would not be there at all but for its distant twin. She feels that she is in an unavoidable tug of war, judgment in the sky and mercy beside her, death staring out from the middle of a vast, dark forehead, and life floating dreamily in and out of her immediate grasp. Tension seethes in her bowels, like when the clumsy fingers had rubbed over her pussy, because in this very spot there is a perfect balance between despair and hope, vengeance and forgiveness, heaven and hell. She wishes that the cosmic scales would be tipped one way or the other, because the tension in the middle is just unbearable at this odd moment. It is better to live or to die than to do neither.
Better to get going then, Abigail says dreamily, while picking up her oar.
She has not rowed a boat in years, and yet the skill comes back to her in an instant. Apparently, Manhattan did not knock the tomboy out of her; and for the first time, she is glad to have some of that southern fried blood still rushing through her veins. She is rowing against the wind; and as a result, her long, red hair flutters wildly behind her, and her chest and arm muscles dance excitedly. She really is a beautiful, kinetic, flaming beast lady rowing over a moonlit lake, like a creature in a crazy artist’s rendering of life and death in holy matrimony.
When she rows into the moon reflection, she looks out over the rippling, breathing, lake surface in both directions. Here, the lake is a glistening, silvery white. She imagines that it is the blood shed by a fallen angel. There is life and death both in all that blood slushing against the hull of her rowboat; and while it may be a figment of her imagination, she thinks she hears the several corpses beneath the lake shaking their bones and chattering their teeth into a macabre semblance of a dance. A dance hall for the dead and the damned, Abigail then thinks with a shudder, before resuming her row to those swaying tobacco stalks up yonder. But who is to say that the dead and the damned are confined to the dance hall down there? Are they not stalking the earth even now for new blood?
Abigail moors her rowboat. She escapes into the tobacco stalks, where in an instant she is again the queen of the damned. The stalks bend out from her path, so that from her perspective it is as if the dark sea is opening before her to reveal her own personal Promised Land. Hers is not a kingdom of milk and of honey, but a twinkling light in the distance that is whispering love and lust into her longing heart. Rationally, she cannot know yet what that twinkling light is; but that is no matter. The irrational mind prevails here. The passionate soul is given free reign. And on those levels of existence she knows where she is going.
She passes through the shantytown. As before, it has been transfigured, or perhaps reimagined is the better word, into what it had been back when the nigger farmhands were nigger slaves, and the only rifles fired in hostility in the War of Northern Aggression had been among the warring settlers in Kansas. The very silly idea of slave emancipation is as unreal as sending a man to the moon. The house nigger serves the mint juleps every afternoon at 4:00PM, and the old mistress of the house visits with her personal slave lover every night at 9:00PM.
She pays little attention to the details. She is much more consumed with her own thoughts: Why is she coming out here tonight? For that matter, why on earth did she leave abruptly the life she had made for herself in Manhattan? No doubt, she did not welcome Achilles’ advances; but she could have fenced him out of her life easily enough. No, Achilles had been no more than the excuse to pack up her chest, to buy a train ticket, and to return. But return to what? Not her house, surely, as she had known all along in the back of her mind that Dear Uncle Claude would pay little to no attention to its maintenance. She had seen its condition in her imagination long before she saw it with her actual eyes, and the prospect of residing even temporarily in a boarded up termite haven would not have had much appeal. Did she come back to confront the mad poltergeists of dear old mommy and daddy? If she had, then she would be in the house right now, swearing back one of the colorful invectives she learned in the Manhattan cocktail party circuit every time either her mommy or daddy launched into her, or maybe roaming the halls while clutching a crucifix and praying from the Rite of Exorcism (not that she really believes any of that hogwash, but the theatrics of the scene would have appealed to her dark artistic sensibilities). No, she has spent the last decade telling herself that mommy and daddy are actually beside the point, and she has come close to believing this lie. Why would she now toss that lie aside by focusing her energies on people presumed to be irrelevant? So why is she wandering through this ‘Harlow Niggers’ shantytown? Is she just hard up for nigger cock? She is getting warm now, except that it is not any dark cock for which she has a late night appetite. After all, she always could (and once in a while did) call upon the nigger who carried her chest to and from the railroad station and who posed once with Dexter Davenport in front of an enormous and officious looking portrait of President McKinley. No, there is nothing in her sick, twisted passion right now that may be regarded as promiscuous. It is very much directed toward a specific person, a specific underage person, to be precise, as she had been underage herself when her father first taught her what it actually meant to be a woman in a man’s world. She has been seeing this boy within her dreams off and on since she first really saw him; first opened her soul to all the beauty and power behind his dark eyes; first came to see that a five-year-old in a dark shed could have the timeless face of a man many times his age.
Abigail stands in front of Abel’s shed, though she is pretty sure that Abel is no longer alive. She had tried to tell herself that the grotesque vision she had had of a tall, thin man in black beating Abel’s dead body with a baton had been just that, a vision, like something out of a dream. When she had run, she never had looked back; and so for all she could have known then or since, it had been a nightmare. Except that not everything is in her mind, just as dearly departed mommy and daddy are not now screaming in her mind. Otherwise, she probably would have heard them, at least once in a while, during her extended, ten-year long weekend in Manhattan. But she never did, because mommy and daddy are not voices in her head, but ghosts down here. Abel also really died a tragic and senseless death down here, because that’s what niggers do. They die tragic and senseless deaths down here. It is the way of life and death so far south that old Mason-Dixon line and so much closer to Hell.
There is a lantern glowing inside the shed. It is that same twinkling light that she had seen from a distance, or so she tells herself.
Abigail allows the wind to flutter her dress over her knees. Her hair is an ancient wildfire in the silver moonlight. It is the kind of fire that has taken on a conscious mind of its own. Its crackling flames speak much like the sweet songs sung by the Sirens. The refrain is much the same: Go unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I shall give you rest. Or better let me come unto you.
Abigail smirks, because in her mind the refrain is: let me come over you.
She remembers the first time she ever straddled a man. She really came that time. She came over his cock, and his thighs, even all the way down to his feet. And when she looked down she saw that she had reimagined him as a fine horse, a black stallion as it were, and that she was riding her horse into a dark and lonely place, like a cave, or a dungeon, where she could restrain him inside her private little stable forevermore. She imagined how dark and cold her little stable would be, and the very thought of it made her come then a second time.
A young, handsome, topless boy stands in the doorway. He is wearing his straw hat, trousers, and unlaced boots; but his beautiful upper body makes him seem to be entirely naked. When he sees the redheaded woman in front of him he leans against the doorway in a seductive, somewhat effeminate, pose that is meant to say: Come and get a piece of me, white woman. I’m all yours tonight.
Seth, do you remember me? Abigail asks.
Sure I do, Seth says with a confidence bordering on swagger.
But, of course, he does not, Abigail thinks. There is no way that he could remember. The last time he saw her he was a five year old boy who still sucked his thumb. Now, he is a strapping, fifteen year old buck. Nevertheless, she now admires him more than ever for lying. He is playing the game, doing what must be done to survive, just as anyone else who has suffered abuse understands. He really is a kindred soul, not in spite of his race, but because of his race, since it is his very blackness in skin color, his dark and soulless eyes, that forever make him a lawless outcast in the eyes of the civilized world.
I hear this is where a good lady can go when she’s got her needs, Abigail says with a crooked, sly smile.
Boy’s gotta do the Lord’s service, Seth says, while stepping aside so that that white woman outside can wander in out of the wind.
Abigail follows his lead, but before she steps inside she notices that that tree she had seen the last time is not there. Abel is dead. Otherwise, he would have greeted her at the door; but his death tree belongs to a different time. In a way, it was like he had been hung on that tree even before he had been born from his mother’s womb. What a hopeless reality, Abigail thinks. Best to shut it aside, before I take off my dress, push that nigger down, and start fucking him.
Inside, the shed is as dark and as cramped as she had expected. There is no sign of Abel, of course. There is no sign of his wife, either. No surprise there since when the white devils kill the nigger man, they then return to make sport with the nigger woman. She ends up either cold dead, or wishing she was dead.
The lantern emits the kind of sickly, cold light that reminds her of ghosts trapped in a dungeon. The ghosts cannot do anything in the dungeon, but haunt themselves; and as a result, they are emaciated, insular, the dead’s dead. One more hopeless thought on top of the previous one. Abigail has to sway her head ‘no’ to push it out of her own mind, while she adjusts her eyes to the darkness.
It turns out there is not much to see. Seth’s twin sisters are now twelve, maybe thirteen, but still very small and frail for their age. They seem to have a frightened look permanently etched into their black faces. They both wear the same simple mousey dresses, like something a house nigger would wear if she is never going to be put out to serve the guests; and like domestic slaves over the ages, they scurry anxiously about as if always a minute or two behind schedule.
What the girls do now, they have done countless times before. They are laying out a straw mattress, a blanket, and a bucket of hot water for God only knows what reason. They never look up the whole time, and Abigail thinks they would prefer not to know the faces of the white ladies who come to visit them.
While the girls do what they need to do, Seth lights a cigarette, and sits on a petrified log that is used as a stool. He has a lazy smirk on his face. He has no apparent desire to know anything about the white lady he will be fucking in a few minutes. He is happy enough just to smoke his cigarette until show time; and, for that reason, Abigail loves him that much more. He gets it. This fifteen year old nigger really gets it. Survival is about putting up fences, maybe even a guard tower here and there, not tearing them down for all the world to see. He is going to live a long time; and if she keeps her smarts, she will too.
The girls are finished. They sit in the far corner, and pretend not to see.
Seth finishes his cigarette on time. He is smooth, that one. He has got it timed down to the second; but Abigail’s going to throw him a curve ball. This is going to be a fuck he will recall long after they have gone their separate paths.
Seth tosses his spent cigarette. He stands up, and begins to unbuckle his trousers. He still has that lazy ass smirk on his face.
Abigail pushes him back. She is a strong and athletic woman still, in spite of her recent years sleeping in and drinking late, but mostly she just takes him by surprise. Seth falls back onto the straw mattress. His sisters look. They have identical sets of bulging, dumb eyes. They have no clue what to do, if anything.
Abigail drops her dress to her feet. She is not wearing anything beneath her dress. That is quite unusual for a white woman, and so once more Seth is as surprised as a puppy first tossed into cold water. He forgets all about his buckle and just stares up at her, like she is some sort of demented goddess come down to mess with his head a while.
Abigail crouches over him. She could be a beast or a goddess, and so the idea of a ‘demented goddess’ is appropriate. Mostly, she is hungry, famished, a sex starved ghoul. She grabs a hold of his trousers and pulls them down without even bothering to loosen the buckle. She tosses his straw hat; but she does not even bother with his unlaced boots, since she will never see them the way that she intends to fuck him.
His cock is hard already. Of course, being that he is fifteen, she thinks it is always hard. But no matter, because she can tell from the crazed look on his face that she has excited him almost as much as she has surprised him. Just so long as he does not come before she does. That’d be a terrible poke in the eye.
It turns out she had no reason to worry. He is so scared shitless with this wild woman on top of him that he does not come for a long time. He stays hard but dry, the way she likes a boy to be, and by the time he finally comes she has grown so tired by her many orgasms that she is about ready to quit.
He manages a smile when he releases; but there is no trace of a smirk in it. If anything, then it is more of a relieved smile, as if to state that finally this wild adventure has come to an end.
Neither one of them can tell that the ‘wild adventure’ is about to begin, and that their lives will be changed irrevocably by what happens next. Abigail, after all, may have thrown her curve ball; but the night also has its own way of throwing the kind of curve balls into the mix that no one can really strike back.
* * *
Abigail slides off of Seth’s wet cock. She is uneasy. She cannot figure out why she feels this way. Surely, she does not feel any guilt in straddling a young boy, especially when no doubt he has been with half the white ladies in Beulah already. Maybe her unease has to do with what he pumped into her. Yes, it had taken him a long time to come; but when he did, he literally exploded in a way she had never experienced before this time. It is as if she practically can smell his life inside of her. It is a wet, salty, even marshy smell, maybe like the earth before the first cockroaches crept out of the foliage. The best that she can say is that his life feels abundant, like when God said to be fruitful and to multiply.
Am I going to conceive this boy’s child? Abigail thinks. She has never had a lover who used birth control, which essentially means that every romp in the hay has been a game of Russian roulette. Thus far, the bullet has never entered her womb, so to speak; and of late she has been thinking that just maybe she is impervious to biological motherhood. Surely, she would make a terrible mother what with her selfishness. She is introspective enough to know that much about herself, so maybe Mother Nature knows that much as well. Or maybe she never slept with a man as abundant. She thinks that she may have met her match this time in the strapping, cocky, vaguely effeminate, adolescent Seth Spencer; and the possibility inspires a fear that is at once debilitating and strangely exciting.
Abigail stares into Seth’s face. He looks sheepish, distant, recognizing on the one hand that a lady has turned the tables on him, but then also wondering on the other hand if a part of him likes that fact. And is it okay if a part of him likes that fact? Would he be less of a man, if he asked a woman to be on top of him? The big questions fly in and out of his mind like shouts heard in a carnival. No sooner does he zero in on a question than another gets his serious attention.
What Seth does not think about is the possibility that he and this woman have conceived a child together. He has a vague sense that sex can lead to the conception of a child; but like most men, he really thinks that the whole ‘baby’ issue is in practical terms anyway a woman’s issue. It is as if women conceive a baby on their own, when they want one, and for their own peculiar purposes. It is her business, which is why naturally she carries the bulk of the responsibility for actually parenting a child. For men, the real function of sex is to show silly cunts who is in charge. Except for this time, though, since he cannot pretend in his own mind even that he ever had been in charge during this romp in the hay.
One of the twins hurries over to the bucket of hot water. She dips in her towel, and proceeds to wipe her older brother’s flaccid penis and sticky thighs. She acts in a very clinical way, as if a nurse’s aid changing a dishpan. The other twin attempts to do the same with Abigail, except that Abigail stops her just as she is about to scrub in between her thighs. Does this mean that Abigail desires to keep Seth’s abundance inside her flesh, like a guest deciding to take along a souvenir when going back home? What if she is pregnant as a result? She desires the life of the outcast, at least in a theoretical sense; but does she truly desire to be known as the mother of a half-breed?
She gestures for the girl to return. She will relent, and let that girl scrub every last bit of Seth’s abundance out of her pussy. She wants to close the book on this night and that means not having to see a half-breed child every day that by definition reminds her of her tryst with a nigger boy living in a shed.
The girl is dipping the towel again in the bucket, when the shed starts to shake. Everybody stops what he or she is doing at once. Seth sits up on his firm elbows. The sheepish and distant look literally drains from his face. Instead, he is temporarily perplexed, then terrified at what he senses is happening outside.
Abigail does not know what to think, though she instinctually places both her hands on her womb. She tries to tell herself that this is an earthquake, but the ground beneath her knees is not moving at all.
Knock, Knock, Nigger Boy, an inebriated Southern drawl screams outside the doorway. Handing you my calling card. Setting up a date for creepy loving…
Somebody else laughs. There is the sound of boots stomping quickly over dried leaves. It could be a man on the run, except that the sound appears to be coming from the same location. Maybe it is a man stomping in place while he is taking a shit in the woods. When a country hick has got to go, he has got to go.
The shed stops shaking a moment, but no one inside relaxes. If anything, then they are even tenser with fear, like any person would feel during the calm before a tornado that he knows is headed towards him. What is worse is that as long as the respite lasts it is not long enough for them to devise a defense plan.
Then, the shed shakes again. This time it is far worse. Several men must be shaking the devil out of the walls. Small pieces of wood snap out of the old, diseased wallboards, and fly across the shed like thrown daggers. A suffocating dust cloud shakes down from the ceiling, and spreads in clumps about the shed.
Abigail crawls to the doorway. She smells the burning torches before she sees them. Sure enough, she can see a couple of hooded Klansmen, beyond the two of three shaking the walls right now. She also sees Boy Digger. He must be nineteen or twenty. He is as ugly as his old man used to be. The fact that Papa Digger is not there tells her that he is dead, since there is no way Boy would be raising holy hell without Papa joining along for the ride, if Papa were still alive.
Boy Digger leans on his shotgun like it is a crutch. He glares at the shed, like it is the squalid building itself which so infuriates him. His nose and his lips twitch manically, either because he smells something that he regards as totally disgusting, or he is sick to his stomach and so getting ready to vomit his supper.
Get on out, niggers, Boy Digger screams. I’ll give ya thirty seconds head start just to make the hunt fair and square.
One of the Klansmen laughs. He has the kind of slow and stupid laugh an old fart at the saloon has just before closing time. He has drunk so much all his motor skills have gone to hell. That is the good news. The bad news is that any empathy he may have when sober is thrown out the window when not so sober.
Coon hunt, one of the other Klansmen mutters greedily.
Coon hunt and beer, another KKK goon remarks, and then they all laugh.
Niggers can count to ten, Boy Digger continues. I know ‘cause I’ve heard them do it. So I’m given ya ten seconds to get on out, before I unload my Sugar Sweet Bessie into ya. Fill ya up with Bessie lead. Hit ya up the side of your dark head with my Bessie muzzle.
Apparently, that good, old ‘Bessie muzzle’ line is a real stomach splitter, since there is uproarious laughter in response. One of the KKK goons is giggling so hard he almost torches his own white hood.
Sara, Jean, we got to run to the tombs, Seth whispers to the twins.
Abigail is taken aback. Just hearing the twin girls’ names makes them so much more ‘human,’ less caricatured, not at all a figment of her quirky, selfish imagination. She now hates the fact that she ever had come here, not because those men outside intend to do them harm (though she knows damn well they’d not be here at all now, if they hadn’t followed her fiery red hair and her witchy attitude all the way from where she’d moored her rowboat), but because all of this time it never had occurred to her that these girls actually had a name, real lives, hopes and dreams. She looks into their faces; and for the first time ever, she does not simply see fear, or anxiety, or even resignation, but two twelve or thirteen year old girls who are identical, but even then a little different in this or that way from one another. Also, she senses an underlying courage, the kind that emerges slowly, even begrudgingly, from a lifetime of bleak hardship, and the kind that is either going to get them killed this evening, or let them survive to a hundred and three. There is no safe middle ground for girls with that much courage just beneath the surface.
Sara and Jean nod. They seem to have done this before. Abigail assumes they are going to run down to the ‘Nigger Tombs,’ a swampy common grave for the niggers that even murderers like Boy Digger avoid like the Black Plague. No doubt, for the white devils at least, that place is kept off limits by the kinds of ghosts and monsters that no one wants to see again in his nightmares. Abigail is not aware of the details, but she has seen that superstitious dread fall over the face of any white man who even mentions the graveyard in passing. She senses that if they make it that far, then the murderous ‘coon hunt’ will be called off, though of course the white devils will give themselves an out rather than admit that they were so frightened their little cocks fell off and into their underwear.
Seth glances at Abigail. His eyes are cold, accusatory, and just what they should be. Their lives are in jeopardy, because she decided to show up tonight; and if they manage to get through this ordeal somehow, they never want to see this white witch ever again.
Abigail looks down. She scoots away from them. Obviously, that dreaded ‘coon hunt’ reference has been directed toward them. They need to flee their home in the middle of the night, for no other reason than that they are niggers in a white man’s paradise. She does not need to flee the scene, and that more than anything else makes her feel sick to her stomach with gross shame.
Get on out, niggers, in three seconds, Boy Digger spits out his ultimatum and then pumps his Sugar Sweet Bessie shotgun.
The KKK goons chuckle, but this time they are more in control. The KKK goons who had been shaking the shed walk back to the others. Each of the new arrivals gathers up a torch, so that they can be a unified line of resistance. The hoods are stark white against the pitch-black background, and that makes them seem almost otherworldly in origins.
Boy Digger spits out sick, green phlegm, and begins to count: One…Two…
Seth storms out the doorway. The girls are supposed to accompany him, but they hesitate. They want to observe how Boy Digger will respond.
Sure enough, as they had anticipated, Boy Digger is not going to give any one of them a thirty-second head start. He lifts his shotgun to his right side and is about to squeeze on the trigger.
What happens next must not have taken more than a few seconds, but it seems to play out in slow motion. In a way, it is so slow; it is still playing itself out even today, more than a century after this vicious night attack takes place.
The twins make a mad dash toward the man with the shotgun. They pay no attention whatsoever to the torchbearers. None of them are in a position to fire a round into their older brother.
The twins scream like wild banshees. A KKK goon is so surprised by their outburst that he lifts his torch to his own face. Perhaps he had wanted to block them from view. Though Abigail can only see the backs of their heads just then she senses that their black faces must have been contorted into the semblance of ravenous beasts; mad enough to scare anyone at first; not the faces any man would want to see in his self-exonerating memory of this event. Regardless, the KKK goon manages to torch his own hood. He flails backwards, screaming every one of the swear words he had ever heard in the Good Book on Sundays, lifting his white robed arms into the air like he is praising Jesus, and stomping his feet on the ground like he is trying to keep the devil from grabbing a hold of his soul at the end. His torch falls onto a bed of leaves, and a grand fire erupts at once.
None of this fazes the twins. They just keep on running toward the Sugar Sweet Bessie shotgun, and directing their screams at that scowling, crazy eyed, son of the swamp still pressing on the trigger.
Finally, their screams penetrate; and Boy Digger looks over his shoulder to see what is all the fuss. He fires his shotgun at the same time. There is then an ear-splitting blast that knocks everyone back a step or two. Even those wild, ravenous, screaming banshees lose a step; and that turns out to be just enough time for Boy Digger to regroup his shotgun, and to fire into one of the two girls.
It is impossible to tell if it is Sara or Jean who takes the bullet. Whoever it is, she is so close to the muzzle at the time that the upper half of her body is transformed at once into a geyser. Her warm, gooey blood drenches everything within several yards, including the man who had pulled the trigger. Her burning flesh falls back to the earth in chunks. Her scream continues to be heard, after the bottom half of her body collapses into her own pool of blood. It is as if that howling wind that is fanning the flames is also carrying her righteous anger out to the ends of the earth and then reverberating it back into their ears. It is the terrifying, bloodcurdling scream that lingers into eternity in surreal nightmares and drives murderous thugs eventually into the loony bin.
Boy Digger tries to scream, but the most he can do is to make a gargling sound that is vaguely homosexual. He cannot scream any better than this, since his mouth literally is full of his victim’s blood. He drops his shotgun, and grasps at his throat. He seems to be choking on her blood. He turns away in fright and in shame to expectorate something or other.
The girl who is not shot just keeps on running. She will have time enough to mourn her sister later. She knows that this is her small window to leave with her skin still on her flesh.
Abigail cannot tell if Boy Digger shot Seth. He had been distracted, while firing that first bullet, so maybe the father of her child (no doubt in her aching heart at that moment that they conceived a child) made it into the shadows off to the side. Maybe he is now picking up speed, kicking his knees up to his chest and breathing with the ease of an athlete. She will never know for sure, but at least she can hope for his survival, which is better than what can be said about the mess of blood and body parts smoldering on the ground in front of her now.
And what about the girl who was not shot? Abigail Is not certain, but she thinks she managed to escape into the shadows as well. Abigail is going to offer that brave girl a prayer, when she observes a demon man stepping out casually from behind the line of KKK goons. Apparently, the KKK goons had enough basic discipline to keep their line, even while one of their ghostly gang is rolling upon the ground trying in vain to smother the stinky flames on his face and his chest. Then again, maybe discipline has nothing to do with it. Maybe these KKK goons are as scared of the demon man as Abigail. It is impossible to tell for certain on account of their white hoods hiding their facial expressions; but look closely at how their eyes bulge in the silver moonlight, and you will see the eyes of beast men frightened not by what they have done, but by what may happen to them, if events do not pan out as they are supposed. Already, within seconds, one or two of the niggers have escaped; one of the KKK goons is down for the count by their side; and a wildfire is starting to spread. None of that can be part of their official playbook.
Abigail is still on her knees just inside the doorway, so she has to look up in order to see the demon man’s face. She has seen that face before, although at this moment she cannot remember where. He has an unremarkable face, but for a scar on his chin. His hair is fiery red and cut short. His eyes sparkle inside their sockets like ink blue diamonds seen at the bottom of a well. They are the eyes of a dead man, notwithstanding their radiant color; remorseless; blank; at once seeing nothing, and seeing into a dark and brutal eternity. If Abigail could use only one word to describe him, then she would say that he is the essence of an outcast; alone, even when surrounded by his entourage; a hell creature who is trolling in his own everlasting despair. Somewhere along the line this tall and thin monster had made his deal with the devil. Abigail cannot know the specific details, but the fact that there had been a deal is clear enough. It is really the only thing that can be read on his otherwise expressionless face; and so, like all such Faustian creatures, he is made to wander the long highways in return for a life measured by intermittent moments of severe brutality that cannot come to an end. This is a lot to read in a moment of observation; but Abigail knows well the soul of this man. It is the same kind of restless, dead soul that had touched her beneath her bed sheets over the years and is right now haunting her house.
Then, it comes to her. It is a flood of memory from a distant past. She is standing outside this same shed a decade ago. There is a tree that really should not be there, because it had fallen down, or been cut away, many years before she first had come to know that place. There is a fat nigger man hung from the tree. His cock is stiff, and his trousers look like he had taken a shit inside them some hours ago. His name is Abel, and he had urged her to do what she needed to do, because he had loved her in his own way and had wanted her to move in with him. Now, he is Abel, swinging from a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g, except of course he really is not kissing anything at all now. His tongue is hanging long and lazily out of his own mouth, and that prevents him from puckering his lips into a nice kiss. Then, there is this same demon man. He looks the same in her memory as he looks now. She suspects he will look the same a half-century from now, then a half-century after that. And just as he is poking Abel with his baton, knocking his fat flesh just enough to get him swinging on a creaky rope, so does he wield the same baton now, and so will he wield the same baton in the years to come. This is what he does. He wields his baton. He smashes head. He leaves niggers, or wanton women, or other marginal peoples to clean up the messes he leaves.
Abigail darts her eyes down from his face. Sure enough, there is his big, thick, phallic baton, swinging from his waist, glistening in the silver moonlight. He unclamps it, holds it in his right hand, and pats his left palm with it, like he is some sort of law enforcement officer just waiting for a silly crook to wander on by who needs an immediate attitude adjustment. ‘Law enforcement officer’ may not be the right phrase. Better to say ‘prison guard’ overseeing his private chain gang, or even better, ‘bounty hunter’ on the prowl for runaway property.
I’m not here for the niggers, the man with the baton remarks casually in a slight Southern accent. I think you know that, Miss Abigail. I’m here to do the justice I promised your old man. I’m here to balance the scales for my creditor.
Abigail does not know what he is saying, at least not rationally; but on a deeper level, she knows damn well what he is saying. She has known all along a price would have to be paid for standing over her father and watching him sink to the bottom of the murky lake. No amount of frivolous abandon in Manhattan could let her forget what she had done and what price she had to pay. She sees all too well that even if she had stayed in Manhattan, this demon man with the baton would have caught up to her one of these days. It is simply what he does.
The man nods at the KKK goons. Two of them rush forward. Each grabs a hold of one of her arms, and together they haul her out of the shed. They drop her in front of the man’s black, leather boots.
The man stares down at her. There is the slightest smirk on his thin lips.
Nigger bread in the oven, the man says, while twitching his nose in such a way as to suggest that he really can smell the fertilized seed inside her pussy.
He posts one foot on the outer side of each of her blood-smeared thighs (blood-smeared, not because she has been wounded, but because she has been dropped into the warm pool of blood spreading out from Sara or Jean’s corpse), and crouches down, so that he is sitting on the air just above her waist. He pats her stomach with his baton. He applies a series of soft, quick strokes upon her stomach, and Abigail imagines fish nibbling flesh off of her mommy and daddy, each bite almost unfelt, but the accumulation of bites leaving her parents with nothing more to wear on their romantic outings together than skulls and bones.
But this man is no nibbler. He likes the brutal, blood-splattering hit: the tightness in his muscles just before he swings, the look of absolute helplessness in the eyes of his victim, and the crackling sound of flesh opening and of bones breaking. He does not like how the victim’s blood splatters all over his uniform, sometimes onto his scrubbed face as well, but he figures that the mess is just a part of the job. It is a small price to pay for getting his kicks and living the kind of life that is just not going to end no matter what the fates may throw on him.
And so it is only a matter of time before he lifts his baton over his head, and swings it without restraint onto her womb. The ‘nigger bread’ will be gone before it even has a chance to rise; but she will be gone, too.
Then the wildfire, which had been spreading across a bed of dried leaves behind the line of KKK goons, circles back toward the shed. It ignites one of the flimsy walls. The flame shoots up the wall, and ignites the ceiling. The wall and the ceiling crash down; and in the resulting tumult, the fire spirals into the air, like it is trying to ignite the large tree that is no longer there.
The two KKK goons restraining Abigail stumble forward. Even the demon man hesitates. Abigail sees her opportunity. She kicks both her legs straight up, and smashes the demon man’s balls into his rectum. The living dead may be all but impervious to other sensations, but the good, old fashioned ‘ball crunch’ is going to make them wish they were counted among the nonliving dead, even if only for a few dreadful seconds.
But that is all Abigail needs to wiggle away from the KKK goons, get back to her feet, and run away. Now more than ever she is thankful to be so athletic and strong. She almost hyperventilates on account of her adrenaline rush; and, for a normal person, that would be enough to drop her to the ground midstride; but she is able to calm her breaths into a stable run. She kicks up her legs when she feels a second wind return to her lungs. The tobacco stalks flow beside her like ephemeral shadows in a dream. Indeed, at this point, nothing about all this seems particularly real; and she briefly wonders if perhaps she is still sitting on that train, her face pressed against the window, her fingers clutching anxiously at her thighs, while she continues to be struck by the mother of all nightmares.
She stops at the lakeside. She looks frantically for her rowboat. If this is a chase dream, then she should be able to rush across the lake, should she not? The fact that she does not even try tells her that she does not really think that this is all in her head.
In case she needs more proof, she feels a horrible pain at the back of her head all of a sudden. It is a sharp blast of heat, followed by a wave of nausea, then a spasm down her spine. She staggers forward, glimpses the baton beside her left foot, and then looks back to try to figure out how that baton got to the back of her head. She views the demon man emerging from behind the tobacco stalks, though she is much too confused just then to associate this strange dude with the baton. Surely, he could not have thrown it through the air and hit the Bull’s eye, while the tobacco stalks swayed into his line of vision, and while she ran far ahead of him, now could he? More likely, the baton just flew out of the night and hit her before she could escape. That must be a more likely scenario.
Before she can reconsider that ‘more likely scenario,’ she stagger back a few steps, and then falls into the cold, murky lake behind her. She is not at all sure what has happened. She just knows that she is now looking through silvery moonlit water. She sees the demon man standing on the banks. He picks up the baton, clamps it to his belt, and stares down at her.
Her arms float away from her torso. They open up, like she is attempting to hug the wobbly image of the demon man above her. That demon man image gets wobblier, as she sinks further into the dark water; so rather than hug him, maybe she is just trying to straighten that demon man image on the edges. Pull the crumpled image, and maybe he will start to look human again, rather than look like some sort of blue-eyed gnome.
Funny what goes through your mind, when you’re dying, Abigail thinks in a strangely calm and detached manner. Maybe when the fish down there nibble my flesh away, I’ll be able to join the skull and bones dance that is all the rage at the bottom of this lake. Not a cocktail party in Manhattan, but it will do…
The next thing she knows she is climbing up the banks on the other side. She is draped in long streaks of sand and moss. Her red hair is a witch’s brew of pungent slime and entangled, squirming fish. Her jaw drags loosely, like an old lantern with a broken hinge, while she struggles to fill her lungs with the night air. She is much too tired to hold her head up, and so she stares blankly at the scrapes and the bruises on the backs of her crawling hands.
At one point, her hands fail her completely, and so she climbs the rest of the hill on her knees and elbows. This part of the ascent turns out to be easier, since she has regained her breath by this time.
She holds up her head. She can see the short pier to her left. She crawls onto the pier, lies on her back, and sleeps the rest of her dark nightmare away.
* * *
Abigail actually spends a couple of days convalescing on that pier. She is much too weary of her mother and her father to venture into her house, even if that means being exposed to the hot sun all day and the cold winds all night. In the shrubs nearby there are enough berries to appease what little appetite she has; and, of course, with the lake slapping upon her flesh now and then there is more than enough drinkable water. More than anything, the calmness heals her troubled body and mind. She does not believe that it heals her soul, though. As far as she can tell, her soul will never be healed.
One afternoon, she watches as her rowboat disconnects from where she had moored it on the other side. It floats freely over the lake. The wind pushes and pulls it this way and that. Before dusk, it is gone out of sight; and she only hopes that the person who finds her rowboat gets as much good use out of it as she had over the years.
When she feels well enough, she staggers over to a neighbor. She is nude of course, but she thinks that she has a good enough explanation. She had been skinny dipping, when she had hit the back of her head on something or other. It is only by the grace of God that she is alive. As to why she is home after all the years? Well, that is simple enough. She is and always will be a loyal Daughter of the Confederacy, and she just needs to reconnect with her roots now and then.
The neighbor woman nods agreeably, though in her eyes she is skeptical. No matter, the Southern way is to help ones neighbor, and clearly Abigail needs some help at this time. Abigail lives a week with the kind Mrs. Mapplethorpe. It turns out to be a good week for Abigail. She learns that not everybody in these parts is an unsophisticated boob, even if they are careful to mask their incisive insights behind a veneer of affable charm and pecan pies. She also learns what the kind Mrs. Mapplethorpe had thought about her parents. Of course, the kind Mrs. Mapplethorpe would never say anything critical; but Abigail could read her condemnation in her eyes. That did a lot to assuage whatever guilt Abigail still had about helping her father get rid of her mother’s corpse and then killing her father. Some people really deserve to die, so that the rest of us can live.
Mrs. Mapplethorpe gives her a few dresses off her rack. Abigail leaves for Manhattan with a heavy heart, but also a commitment to do what she thinks is right under the circumstances.
Abigail returns to Cloris and Achilles. Uncle Achilles is a little too happy, when he sees her standing again at his front door; but over the next few weeks she does a good enough job in fencing off his awkward advances. He soon finds a new mistress (his ‘next wife,’ since he still thinks that Cloris will be giving up her ghost any day now); and as a result, he is seldom around the house. He dies of cardiac arrest a year later, while sleeping beside his mistress in her boutique bedroom. The funeral is appropriate enough, though Cloris drops the black veil and dress routine before Achilles’ sallow corpse has had the time to cool below room temperature. No one among their mutual friends can blame her.
Not that Auntie Cloris would have cared if they had whispered about her one way or another, since she has had a brand new apple of her eye for several months now. The charming addition to her life is not a man, and certainly not a lover (not that she could entertain a lover anyway what with her life consigned for the most part to her bedroom), but instead an infant girl. Abigail gave birth to Alice Spencer with the aid of a midwife in that bedroom she had occupied as her own since first moving into the brownstone almost eleven years prior. Alice had been white enough to escape the raised eyebrows and the whispered words that naturally accompany the birth of any half-breed. Abigail said that she gave Alice her surname, because she really ‘could not remember’ how or with whom Alice had been conceived. Of course, Spencer is also her father’s surname, but Abigail is not about to introduce a ‘Spencer Nigger’ into a family lore that she’s creating for her daughter out of whole cloth. It is better that her daughter be a cosmic mystery akin to a ‘virgin birth’ than that there be any suspicion that her daughter is a half-breed. Abigail hopes that this will make Alice’s life charming and uncomplicated, which Abigail thinks may be the highest life for which a girl really should strive. God only knows she had strived for more, and look at what had happened to her on account of her indiscretion.
Abigail abandons Alice to her Auntie Cloris less than a year later. Abigail had presumed all along that she would be a bad mother, and everything she did or did not do seemed to confirm that fact. Cloris hires Negra Bonita (a kind and plump Caribbean Negress with a stellar resume as a caregiver for the young and the old alike), and Abigail is confident that between the two of them Alice is in good hands. Indeed, Abigail tells herself, Alice will grow up to be the charm of a rich Manhattan suitor’s eye; and really what better life can be given to a girl?
Abigail leaves the brownstone one night; and she never looks back, since she has determined that closing old doors is as important as opening new doors, if one wants to find some amount of joy in this hard and cruel universe. Holding onto memories eats away at joy, she says to herself. It is like the old rust under the new paint of a bicycle. The new paint may cover it up for a while, but that rust invariably bleeds to the surface. Better to scrape it off. If there is no sure way to scrape it off, then better to ditch the bicycle for something else.
And yet try as she may she never manages to cut the binds. True, Abigail never sees Alice again; and she even goes so far as to relocate to a small town in the Midwest, to marry a small town doctor named Fred Dumke, and to raise a half a dozen small town children (three boys and three girls). Nevertheless, in her spare time, she reads the society pages from a newspaper that is mailed to her every week from Manhattan. She reads about Alice Spencer marrying one of the toasts of Wall Street, Mr. Henry Hart. She follows Henry Hart’s various and sordid troubles with the SEC. She almost sends a lovely condolence card to ‘the sad and withdrawn Mrs. Henry Hart,’ when the newspaper reports the untimely death of her beloved husband, but then decides that it might be a little creepy for Alice Hart suddenly to be getting a condolence card from a woman she does not know in the Midwest. Better just to follow the joys and the trials from afar.
Abigail gets a real kick in following Alice’s daughter, Grace, in the news. Grace is a firebrand poet in California. It takes a while, but Abigail finally finds a book dealer in her small town that can get his hands on a copy of the book of beatnik poems that includes some of Grace’s works. She loves the poems. They are the poems she would have written herself, if she had had the gift for words and the courage to skip the Midwest altogether for the eclectic taste of the San Francisco Bay Area. Abigail sees a lot of herself in Grace Temple; or rather, she sees what she believes she could have been, if her own pathetic father had not plucked her off the tree prematurely.
Then, there is that novel that Grace wrote while living in the Caribbean. Abigail reads it over and over again. Fred frankly has no idea why his wife is so damned fascinated with that ‘beach book;’ but he is a loving and patient man, and always happy to oblige her eccentricity when it comes to poems and books.
Fred is dead when the Civil Rights Movement first hits the papers. Abigail frankly had given little thought to the ‘Negro Question’ over the years. She had spent most of her adult years in a lily-white small town in the almost lily-white Midwest. There had been little overt bigotry directed towards Negroes because there had been too few Negroes about whom to raise a fuss.
Nevertheless, the ‘Negro Question’ is all the rage. Maybe it is on account of electing the first Roman Catholic President. Regardless, Abigail follows all of the news; and though she says nothing publicly on the matter, deep in her good heart she hopes that the Negroes manage to get some rights for themselves out of this whole mess. She can never totally forget how the Diggers mistreated the ‘Harlow Niggers,’ let alone that nightmare night she tries so hard to tear out of her mind, and so she figures the Negroes have suffered enough and deserve the kind of life we white folks take for granted.
Sure enough, Grace Temple finds her way into this brouhaha. There is an incident not too far from Beulah that involves a busload of Freedom Riders and a local KKK ‘welcoming committee.’ There are not many details, though Beulah County Sheriff Roach says that the initial finding is that the ‘niggers’ on the bus were known ‘Red sympathizers’ and ‘pinko sex deviants.’ Supposedly, the good old boys at the FBI had files on all of them. Of course, he would never condone a lynch mob, and thankfully it appears as if there had not been anything of the sort, since the initial finding is that the bus just fell to the side on its own. The people who ran to the scene were not some sort of lynch mob, but ‘concerned, Christian folks’ just trying to offer a helping hand to the accident victims. None of this would have happened, if the ‘niggers’ had left well enough alone, Roach goes on to say. He then issues a list of the names of the ‘foreign interlopers’ on the bus. Among those named on this enemies’ list is the beatnik novelist, Grace Temple. Roach pays a lot of attention to her, since her participation in this bus incident is ‘one-hundred percent, Holy Writ proof’ that the actual masterminds here, the ones ‘manipulating the niggers for their own anti-American ends,’ are in fact a bunch of ‘White Commies’ and ‘Closeted Jews.’ Roach explains: ‘None of this is about Civil Rights for Niggers. Heck, they’ve got more Civil Rights than they know what to do with. What this is about is Commies pulling out the stops to undermine our Constitution and our Way of Life.’ So that’s the Gospel Truth.
At least, that is the Gospel Truth according to Sheriff Roach, but Abigail thinks that if her granddaughter is involved, then the Freedom Riders are up to a lot more good than the Beulah County Sheriff is willing to admit. She finds all the newspaper articles she can about the Freedom Riders. Grace never appears in any of the other articles. Indeed, so far as Abigail can tell from the news she reads at the small town library, it is as if Grace Temple has fallen off the edge of the earth altogether. She is pretty sure she is still alive, since otherwise she would have read her obituary. Maybe she has decided to lie low a while, just as Abigail herself had done after that nightmare incident. Maybe the bus had been for Grace what Seth’s shed had been for her. If that is the case, then it is quite possible that she never again will find her granddaughter’s name in the papers.
Then, a few years later, there is a peculiar incident. Abigail reads about how the mob attacks the Civil Rights marchers in Selma. Needless to say, all of the news surrounding that event takes up most of the column space; but there is a small story near the back that catches her eye. It has to do with a burglary and an attempted murder in a slum rental. The slumlord is a fat slob named Ed Chivas. He lives within earshot of the apartments he rents to the down and out. Well, it just so happens that around midnight, he hears a single gunshot from a unit he had rented out to a mysterious, young man who had never given him his name and had paid his rent in advance in cash. ‘Guys just want to be under the radar,’ Ed Chivas explains. ‘I respect that, so long as they pay up front.’ So this man with no name either is shot or has shot someone. Ed decides not to bother the Selma Police, ‘cause he knows they are up to their eyeballs cracking down on all them ‘free niggers’ roaming around the town tonight. He’ll just take one of his pistols, make sure it is loaded, and see for himself. He sees that the man with no name’s front door has been forced open. Not a good sign, obviously, so he draws his pistol, and enters into the dark and cramped space. The man with no name had been shot in the forehead, while sitting in his one chair. Whoever attacked him then kicked the chair back, so that he was dead on the floor with a broken chair all about him. Ed says that the gunshot looked like ‘a third eye.’
But that is not the strangest part of the story. No sooner does Ed put his pistol aside than that murder victim turns out not to have been murdered after all. The first thing Ed notices is that that ‘third eye’ seems to blink at him. Just one blink, sort of like what queers do to one another (not that Ed is any expert on what queers do to one another, let us make that point clear); then, a couple of shallow breaths; then, the regular eyes open up and look around curiously. It is no wonder Ed did not shit in his pants, especially a second or two later when that man with no name sit up on his elbows, faces him directly, and remarks so coolly you could melt butter with his words: ‘Back from the dead. Just like the other times. Better get going. A lot more walking to do along the old highway.’
The man with no name does not say anything else. Ed asks him what had happened, but the man pays no attention to him. The man fetches his one and only personal item, besides the black uniform and the black boots that the man seems to work in and to sleep in, so far as anyone can tell. That happens to be a baton, like what the police officers use. The man takes great pride in his big, thick, shiny baton. He clamps it to his waist and heads on out with so much as a polite ‘goodbye.’ Ed decides not to follow him, because he is just plain strange and gives him the creeps, even though he did not do anything else in there, but pick himself up from the floor, and go his merry way. Only then does Ed return to his home and call the Selma Police.
The Selma Police want to question the man with no name. They checked the apartment for fingerprints; but, strangely, apart from Ed’s fingerprints, the police do not find any others. It is like the man with no name had no fingers as well. Maybe he wore gloves all the time, but that seems unlikely. Anyway, just in the off chance someone out there knows this guy, here is his description and police composite: tall, thin, white, maybe in his early twenties, but could be a minor, blue eyed, red hair, and a noticeable scar on his chin…
Abigail puts down the newspaper. She is terrified. She imagines everyone in the small town library can hear her heartbeats, since they are making such a racket inside her ears.
So he came for Grace, Abigail whispers.
Abigail steps out of the library. She sits beside the water fountain in the plaza outside. Normally, the spray from the waterfall cools her down, but there is no relief this time. The sun beats down on her, like it is intent upon stamping every last bit of her soul out of her eighty-nine year old flesh.
So he came for Grace, Abigail repeats. But Grace put him down, just like I put down my father…
Abigail has a vivid memory of pulling the trigger. She had forgotten all of the details of the actual murder by the time she got around to hauling Bertrand out to the lake. But now that repressed memory floods back as if she had done it yesterday. It is a vivid movie inside her mind, and no matter which why she is looking at any time the screen is in front of her.
In her memory, she fires the bullet, and sees the gunshot create a ‘third eye’ directly above his nose. There is very little blood. Bertrand does not move or scream. Indeed, she is not even certain she hit him. It is like that ‘third eye’ had been carved out of his forehead from within his brain and that her gunshot had had nothing to do with it. She walks up to Bertrand, staring intently into all three of his eyes the whole time, imagining that she has a third eye herself and that she is looking into his third eye with her third eye. She lifts her left foot in a slow and casual manner, places her heel on his chest, and pushes back. When he and his chair fall back, and the chair breaks into pieces, only then does she know that he has been shot. Only then does a trickle of blood flow out from his wound. She looks at his wound. It is the most beautiful thing she has ever seen.
But he’s come back, Abigail mutters weakly. ‘Cause he always comes out from his own death to get ‘justice’ for his creditor, to balance the scales, to do what keeps him alive over so many damned years…
Abigail clutches her heart. She feels weak, lightheaded, short of breath. If only she could take a dip into that fountain, she thinks. Cool off from this hot sun. Maybe swim in the deep water. Maybe swim all the way to the bottom and kick up my heels with all the other dead bodies down there.
I’ve got to warn Grace, Abigail whispers. Her life is in danger…
Abigail will not warn Grace of anything, at least not in this lifetime.
The most she can do now is to take one long look at the unforgiving, hot sun above her. It is a red hole in the sky. Most everyone else thinks it is yellow, but she knows better. It is as red as her hair had been before her advanced age had muted it into a drab and feeble brown. It is as red as Bertrand’s ‘third eye’ when she first had seen it. It is as red as the hair on the man with the baton. It is the color of radiant life and vicious death; the color of blood in the veins and of blood splattering out of an open wound; the color of smirking lips on a dead, white face. There is no way to avoid it, unless perhaps one sinks into the cold, murky lake, falls through the crack at the bottom, and slides into her grave. No way to know for sure, until one has made the trip, but perhaps that red cannot be seen where everything is black, cold, and weighed down by an endless time.
Abigail falls into the fountain in the plaza. The water is cool. It is a final respite flowing in and through her soul, so that at the end she manages a smile.
* * *
Eeny Meeny Miny Moe
Abigail opens her eyes. It is a slow and strenuous struggle on her part, as she feels like she has been asleep since the beginning of time. She does not see anything at all at first, except for a blackness that is getting greyer with every passing second. It is like the grey is bleeding through the blackness; breaking it apart from inside; crackling the black, and then swallowing it, until finally only a soft and seamless grey can be seen. There is neither shape nor texture to this grey. Maybe, this is the eternal Limbo about which her priest would preach one Sunday every year. If she remembers correctly, then Father Mundy would give a sermon about Limbo on every Feast Day of the Holy Innocents. He’d remind his flock that unbaptized babies might be ‘innocents,’ but they simply could not go beyond the Pearly Gates. They could get only the consolation prize: an eternity in Limbo, a grey, empty void with neither pain nor joy, sort of like that endless time we all have spent in a doctor’s office waiting room. Father Mundy spoke in a clear and frank manner that probably would have gone over better in a parish in New England; but, in the end, what had mattered was the message: get your little ones baptized as soon as they are kicking outside the womb, lest you then consign them to the consolation prize.
Abigail never had believed a word of it. Indeed, although she had known from firsthand experience that ghosts exist, she never really could believe that an all knowing, benevolent, Father God ruled over the universe. Blood sacrifice on the cross rang true; but one blood sacrifice sufficient for all times afterward rang hollow, more like wishful thinking, when in fact she had seen firsthand the necessity of killing the innocent and of splattering their blood arising with each new generation. So afterlife? Yes. Eternal hellfire? Absolutely. Eternal bliss and comfort in heaven? Probably not. Maybe that made her more of a Jew, open to some sort of ‘hereafter,’ but kicked in the pants enough times to discern deep down that it is probably not that much better than what we get in this lifetime.
As for unbaptized babies, she could not envision them floating aimlessly about an endless void. More likely, they would be wailing ghosts haunting their mothers, skipping in and out of their mothers’ nightmares, reminding them just how appropriate it is that they should feel guilty for not taking the time to get a priest to sprinkle some water on their heads. She thinks the unbaptized baby ghosts would have creepy eyes on their malformed baby heads, and two bucked teeth poking out of their raw gums, and claws in place of supple baby hands, so that they can grab a hold of their mothers nipples or pussies when they are lost in one of those bleak nightmares and just squeeze, and squeeze, and squeeze…
Of course, she had kept these matters in her heart. Dr. Fred Dumke had been born and bred a dutiful, unquestioning, Midwestern Roman Catholic. Each and every one of his children would be baptized, confirmed, married, and then buried in the same church. Abigail felt no reason to rock the rowboat, since her husband never had pried into her opinion about such matters. She could believe whatever she wanted, so long as she received Holy Communion every week and baked a casserole for the church picnic every summer.
So is this that same Limbo which Father Mundy had described, but which she had written off as just too tame and painless to fit into her own thought on the afterlife? Well, it surely seems to be the case, except why should she be in a void reserved for unbaptized babies and virtuous pagans when she is neither? She had converted to Roman Catholicism and been baptized after accepting Dr. Fred Dumke’s proposal of marriage. She never had renounced the Church, had raised her children to be good Roman Catholics, and had won the ‘best summer picnic dish’ twelve times over the decades she had participated. What is going on here? Had Father Mundy been wrong all those years, or is this endless grey a departure from the textbook definition of Limbo? If so, then where is she; and, more importantly, how long will she need to remain here?
Apparently, not very long, because as soon as she asks the question, the greyness starts to break up. It is as if it had been waiting for her to get feisty in her head. She recalls a Biblical verse she had memorized when still a little girl:
Ask, and it shall be given you
Seek, and ye shall find
Knock, and it shall be opened unto you
Well, Abigail Dumke (nee Spencer) is knocking. No, that is not true. It is better to say that she is beating down the front door. She made several critical decisions in her lifetime; choices that had been necessitated by the fact that in one way or another she had reached the proverbial fork in the road and needed therefore to go down one path or another; and there really should be some sort of ramification for the choices she made. Maybe there is no heaven, but there had better be a hell; or else the tears that she had shed, and the sad memories that she had tried to quash by embracing a small town life, really had been for naught. Though she cannot quite believe in God, she wants anyway to believe a life, and in particular her life, had been and remains altogether consequential. Otherwise, what is the damned point of even awakening from that death sleep?
The greyness continues to disintegrate, while she poses these questions in her own mind. She does not offer any answers. Indeed, she senses that there is no need to offer any answers and that a pat answer to any one of her queries would be worse than no answer at all. The questions alone break down the void and replace it with what? Blackness again, no, that is not quite right. There is a lot of blackness in view now; but it is neither the same kind nor degree as what she had seen when she had awakened first from her death sleep. Moreover, she sees readily that it is not a total blackness. Pinprick lights break it up. A silvery spherical form near the high point brightens the blackness into something close to charcoal grey. She is looking up at a night sky. The stars are out, the moon is high in the sky, and the wind wails now and then along the surface of the lake…
The surface of the lake? What does that mean? She can answer these two questions, because all she needs to do now is to sit upright, and to look around. She is sitting on the rowboat she had had as a child. It is as clean and intact as when it came off the assembly line. The boat is floating aimlessly across a lake.
At first, she thinks that this is the lake behind her childhood home. After all, her childhood rowboat would be floating on her childhood lake, except that when she looks in both directions she sees that this lake is much bigger. Really, it is like a sea encapsulated by four mountain peaks, rather than the oversized, murky pond that she had called a lake back home.
There is just enough moonlight for her to see an oar in between her legs. She starts to row the boat. It does not occur to her that this would be difficult to do as an eighty-nine year old woman; and, sure enough, she finds that she is rowing with the same strength and balance as when she had been nineteen. No doubt, if there was enough light for her to check out her own skin and clothing, she’d find a wrinkle free, unblemished, tight skin clothed by her fine sailor boy blouse and knickerbockers. She’d see that she is dressed for that athletic field normally reserved for boys. She’d see her red hair fluttering in the sweet winds like a banner carried into a battle. And is she not smirking like one of the smart devils that men lust for and hold in contempt simultaneously? Sure feels like it.
So she is a young and beautiful vixen all over again. Does this mean that she grows old all over again? Or does she remain nineteen? Impossible to tell so early on the trip. What matters is that she has her rowboat back, which means she has a way of going wherever it is she is supposed to go. Where is she meant to go? Also impossible to tell, except that she senses that she will know it when she sees it. Her destination will draw her into itself, like the songs of the Siren.
Abigail rows a long time. She cannot tell how long precisely, as time is a quirky and ultimately impenetrable mystery on this side of the line that divides life from death, but her intuition tells her that it would be measured in several decades of time on the living side. Her intuition serves her well, because she is dead in 1965, but will not finally moor her rowboat under a chateau until 2014.
Interestingly, about midway through that journey up and down the lake, she sees that there is another person in the same ordeal as herself. He is a fine specimen of a man in an exquisite suit. He smokes a cigar that never fizzes out and that he keeps clenched smack in the middle of his mouth. His eyes scan the lakeside now and then, like he is looking for a sign of some sort, but mostly he stays inside his own head. Abigail senses that that is where he is most genuine and comfortable. Several times, she passes his rowboat close enough to offer a greeting; but she never bothers, as she senses correctly that he does not desire to be bothered by the riffraff. So she goes her way, and he goes his, both back and forth across the lake in search of God knows what sign.
Over the decades, she never ages; so she thinks that she can answer one of those questions that had perplexed her at the beginning. She will not age all over again. She will remain the beautiful, vixen, nineteen-year-old, though she also feels that she will keep that wisdom she had gathered over her eighty-nine years of life. In many ways, the afterlife is having your cake, and eating it, too.
While she does not age, the night sky above her does change, albeit very slowly. When she had awakened on the rowboat the sky had been mostly clear. Now, as she nears the end of her journey, the winds have heightened, and dark clouds have floated in from beyond the horizon and settled into the crater. The clouds are thick with moisture. They seem to be breathing, even moaning once in a while, like they are living creatures in their own right preparing to unleash a temper tantrum. There is no rain yet, but the first intermittent raindrops will start to fall within minutes, she suspects; and once it starts, it will be an awful downpour. She hopes and expects to be indoors somewhere before that occurs. No firm reason why that should be the case. It is just a gut feeling that she has.
Something ahead catches her eye. It is a red twinkle upon the banks. She thinks first of a smoldering star; but as she rows closer, she sees that there are no ashes dancing in the wind, nothing to indicate that the star in fact is burning out of existence. She keeps rowing her boat across a lake that is getting a little more turbulent with every passing second. The storm is developing now. There will be a downpour in minutes, and she really does not want to be caught in it, though she cannot understand why raindrops should affect her in this hereafter more so than the wind, or the splashing lake water, or any of the other natural occurrences. Maybe her sense that she has to hurry has nothing to do with cold, battering rain. Maybe her concern is the sign that, indeed, she is coming finally to the end of her journey and needs to reorient her mind to life off of the lake.
Regardless, she rows her boat toward that twinkling star with the kind of strength, passion, and conviction that supersedes anything that she had felt on the living side of the line. Even her great effort to survive that nightmare night pales in comparison to her exertion right now. Nevertheless, through it all, she never breaks a sweat. Her breaths remain calm. Her demeanor is cool.
The twinkling star turns out to be a cigar. The stylish gentleman she had observed on the lake over the past few decades is smoking the cigar. He smiles flirtatiously at her, while clenching down on the cigar like a stallion its harness. He has stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets. His tie seems a bit disheveled, like he has stepped away from a binge so as to entice her to moor her rowboat at the chateau looming behind him.
Of course, she has seen this same chateau countless times over the past decades; but before this moment, it never had sparked much interest. She had seen an old lady in a wheelchair sitting on the deck. Something about that lady briefly had stirred some interest; but when she had seen the Cherokee shawl on the old lady’s neck, and had seen how it resembled the oversized, Indian shawl that Dexter Davenport had worn way back when, she had told herself then that there was nothing more going on than a vague unearthed memory.
Now, as the chateau bleeds out from the shadows, everything about that place seems to be important. She has no idea how or why, but she cannot deny her feelings. No doubt, that is the end of the line for her long rowboat journey.
She rows up to the banks beneath the cigar smoker’s polished shoes. She does not see anything on which to tie her rowboat. She hates the idea that she may lose her rowboat a second time to the current.
The debonair man steps forward. He offers her his right hand. He wears expensive, leather gloves. They are very stylish, to be sure; but Abigail is quite sure that the real reason for the gloves is this man’s hostility about getting too close to anyone else. He seems to be the kind of man who can be there and not be there at the same time. He wants to be at the biggest party of the season in full form, but he does not want anyone else really to notice him, except to the extent necessary to light his cigars and to keep his martinis replenished. Maybe he thinks that if he interacts too much with the riffraff that will denigrate what he wants to think of as his pivotal and conclusive participation in the big event.
She takes his right hand, though at once she regrets having touched him.
Notwithstanding the warmth provided by the glove, his hand is cold and clammy. A dead man is pulling her out of her rowboat. The fact that she is now equally dead does not lesser just how disgusted she feels from that experience.
Abigail smiles bravely, but the man must sense her real disgust, because he goes overboard with widening his grin and patting her on the back. It is as if he is saying: How dead can I be, if I am so jovial and attentive? Believe me, I’m as much alive now as you were when you first beat out the boys in a track race.
How can this man know about my athletic feats as an adolescent? Abigail thinks, while lowering her hand from his. He seems to know all about me, while I do not have a clue who he is.
Welcome, Mrs. Dumke, the man says in a genteel, Southern accent. It is such a pleasure finally to visit, though we came very close to doing so out there on the lake. ‘Rowboats passing in the night,’ you must admit it is romantic. But one of the lessons learned on this side of the line is that nothing happens at all, until it is supposed to happen. A prior visit would have been premature…
The man looks at the dark, moaning clouds. He sniffs the air, like he can smell the moisture about to fall to the ground.
Judging by the coming storm, a real nasty one, no doubt, it seems that a visit is no longer premature, the man continues with his thought…
He returns his gaze to hers. He is all smiles; bubbly, rakish charm upon a vaguely mischievous face; but there is no smile in his eyes. There is calculation bordering on cold conspiracy. There is also considerable pride. But there is not a trace of a smile; and the discord between his smiling lips and his cold eyes on the whole suggests that behind all the style and sophistication, he is really just a dirty, old man. As a result, Abigail loathes him, as no doubt she would loathe seeing her father again after all these years.
Anyway, I’ve been keeping the lights on for you, the man continues. And a cup of Irish coffee awaits you in the kitchen. Of course, well bred as I am, my inclination is to abhor all things Celtic; but this night warrants a good stiff one, does she not? How better to silence this rain than with liquor and conversation?
As if on cue, the first raindrops fall from the sky. A storm cloud rumbles.
Who are you? Abigail asks.
This simple question seems to strike a nerve. The debonair man who had been so cool and confident all of a sudden stiffens up and drops his smile. He is unsure of himself, like he does not know who he is come to think of it. Then, in a flash, he is as angry as a bee caught inside a bucket. His sparkling, blue eyes, usually so demure, glow bloody red, and whisper to her: I’m getting my justice.
Abigail is taken aback. She gasps, and looks again into those glaring, red eyes. Now, they whisper to her: I’m also going to kill you. Bet your sweet ass…
Where has she heard those lines before? This is not a serious question at all, because she knows. She could not forget if a thousand years had passed. No more indelible mark has been made to her soul than from what happened when she was nineteen. Everything about her life traces back to that sad experience.
The man reverses himself on a dime. He puts on the charm as casually as he had fallen from it. What is so strange is that, for this debonair man anyway, there is nothing insincere about his charm. For him, ‘charm’ really is something he puts on and off, like a hooded, white robe, or like a stylish gentleman’s suit. Charm is one of his accessories. The cigar is much more of a fixture for his life.
You can call me ‘the doctor,’ the man answers. Others do, and it is truly an appropriate title. I have got the certificate somewhere…
Abigail wants to step back into her rowboat and to get away. She would rather spend an eternity rowing listlessly up and down this lake, than to end up at this chateau with this man.
But she cannot. The air this close to the lakeside already feels dangerous to her. It seems to be getting thinner, though it makes no sense why this should matter to a dead person. She senses that if somehow she were to return to her rowboat, then she would be actually dead before managing to row a few yards.
She looks at the lake. It is so close, and yet so far. The water strikes her ankles. The sand beneath her feet is cold and wet. Nevertheless, she feels as if she is in the middle of a desert stretching from one end of this dark universe to the other. There is nothing else beneath the storm clouds, but this chateau and this man. She either can follow him, or she can be wiped out by the desert rain now starting to fall on her head. Each raindrop feels like a hot bee sting digging into her skull. In little time, her head will crack open, like it has been struck by a baton. Her brain will ooze out of her smashed head. Her torso will be draped by her own blood. This is what happens when a girl lingers outside in the storm.
Come now, child, the man says, holding his gloved, right hand out to her in a welcoming manner. I can see the distress written all over your face. There is no need to be scared. We are dead, after all. We cannot very well die again…
The man lets that last sentence linger in the air in the hopes that maybe she will be convinced. Of course, it is not true. Abigail can tell just by the fact that her breaths this close to the lake have become so strained in the past few seconds that indeed there is such a thing as a ‘second death.’ Furthermore, she senses that this ‘second death’ will not be a case simply of awakening into this world, or any other world, but will be an irreversible annihilation.
Abigail steps forward in the slow and heavy manner of a person being led into the prison where she will be spend the rest of her life. She folds her hands together, like she has been handcuffed. She looks down at her bare feet.
The man places his right arm over her shoulder in a fatherly gesture. She again wants to run away, but she knows that she cannot. She just walks beside him through a curvy garden trail that leads to the front door of the chateau. As they walk together, the man continues to puff on his cigar, though it seems like an empty gesture, since not one little ash falls away from the flaming, red end.
They are caught in a downpour, just as they reach the front door. There is literally no more time to waste. Abigail stomps anxiously, as the man reaches for the door that, thankfully, he had not locked before leaving to greet her. He pushes the door in. It opens with a loud, haunted creak. Abigail shudders at the sound, but it is not so foreboding that she elects to stay outside in the hot rain.
The foyer is dark and creepy. The only light comes from a tall candle on a table beside the door. It does not seem to give off any light at all, so much as to suggest a white, bloodless, ghost light that sort of meanders about the living room off to the side and fails altogether before it reaches the kitchen. There is a definite time and style to the décor. Abigail would guess everything here is as it had been in the mid-forties, though that does not mean that all the furniture dates to that period. A lot of the items date much earlier, so that she feels the original owner had been the type of person who held onto the past, probably a cantankerous, enfeebled woman with a weak son. She thinks of that horrifying, macabre, Alfred Hitchcock film, Psycho. There is some terror here, but mostly there are a lot of sad memories. The décor practically smells of maudlin tears, a Victorian woman’s mourning, a self-imposed imprisonment from the universe.
The doctor, as he prefers to be called, seems oblivious to all this. Maybe he has been here so long he is used to it; but while Abigail has been rowing out there on that lake for decades, she feels as if she is recently dead. It is almost as if she could rush from here, somehow slip back into her eighty-nine year old body, and crawl out of the fountain in front of her small town library. Her mind tells her that that is impossible. After all, she cannot even remain near the side of the lake, let alone row back to wherever she came from decades ago. Still, a small, but definitely living, part of her heart feels otherwise.
He picks up the candle, and gestures for his guest to follow him into that old kitchen mired in shadows. The weak candle does not brighten much beyond the red and white, checkered, table cloth, and two cups of steamy Irish coffee.
I poured it just before you arrived, the doctor comments. I had complete confidence that you would arrive on time.
So this is where I am saying, Abigail says, while doing a ‘once over’ of an old kitchen she really cannot see at all beyond the table.
The downpour outside gets stronger with every passing moment. Abigail imagines machine gun bullets battering the roof and the outer walls. She senses that she is being besieged.
Well, you certainly cannot go out there, now can you? The doctor replies with a raised eyebrow and a tilt of his head toward the front door.
No, I suppose I cannot, Abigail says dejectedly, and sits down.
The doctor stands on the other side of the table for some time. He looks at her with a guarded expression on his face, as if a man hiding his hand at the poker table. He then smirks ever so subtly, and sits in front of his own cup.
Bottoms up, before it gets cold, the doctor says with a broad grin, while lifting his cup with his right hand and extending his right pinkie in a dainty way.
Abigail just looks at her cup. She folds her hands on the checkered table.
Come now, the doctor comments bemusedly. Do you really think I would wait this long just to poison you? There is already more than enough death here as it is. But if it would make you feel more comfortable, then take your time. It is not as if the Irish coffee is going to cool down any time soon, if ever. I figure you have noticed my cigar? How it burns, but does not drop any ashes? I cannot explain it, except to state that everything here slows down to about the speed of an inebriated, mentally challenged slug. You could say that we have literally all the time in the world, and then some, to indulge our queer passions, maybe even balance the scales…
What do you mean? Abigail interrupts him, and then lifts her face to look at him straight in the eye.
The doctor removes his cigar. It is remarkable just how well he had been able to speak while still clenching it in the middle of his mouth. He is careful to keep it near his face, so that he is never too far from another debonair puff on his eternal smoke. His blue eyes sparkle into red devils, and he chuckles in that gravelly, throaty manner peculiar to long time smokers.
I think you know very well what I mean, he says. Did you really think you had slipped away from the jurisdiction covered by the warrant? A small town in the Midwest is far away, but it is not that far. Heck, Neptune and her family of moons are not so far as to be beyond the reach of the law. So you did what you did. You had your reasons, maybe even prepared a defense in your own mind in the outside chance that the law finally caught up with you. But now, in this out of the way lakeside chateau, and frankly too many decades after the foul deed, the original warrant finally has been executed. Justice is served. The scales are balanced. People can go about their lives with the comfort of knowing that the witches are put down, and the nigger lovers are shamed, even among the dead.
You’re mad, Abigail protests. I’m leaving this place.
The doctor slams his gloved, right hand over her wrists.
You are not going anywhere, you nigger loving whore, the doctor snarls.
Abigail squirms, but his grip is much too strong. She finally relents, since she is only hurting herself and adding to his perverse enjoyment of her absolute vulnerability. She looks at him with the large, pleading eyes of a molested girl; and while she hates herself for putting on that face, she correctly assumes that he will remove his hand from her wrists after seeing just how pitiful she is now.
Anyway, you cannot survive out there, and you know it, the doctor says, while readjusting the lapels on his jacket, and then clutching down on his cigar again. Is it not better to accept what is? Oh, by all means, be there at the ‘big events’ of history. See with your own eyes the paradigm shifts. Stand at ground zero when the great and powerful earthquake we call ‘time’ removes the fancy temples that once had stirred the people to commit all sorts of atrocities, then provides a clean slate upon which some other tribe or race can build a new set of fancy temples. Be there, not as a doer, so much as an observer, because the Great Men of History never change anything at all. They just accept what is and convince everyone else that they had something to do with making it happen. I contend that the only real tragedy for any man is in learning that all along he’s been a ghost, from the moment he’s born, until well after he’s dead and buried in a grave somewhere. He has been always powerless; no doubt truly there, but not there enough to have made a pivotal difference one way or another; and so if he has any smarts left in him, then he’ll let go of all his tragic sentimentality and just accept what is. He’ll relish his small victories, get what is due to him, balance his own scales, either by writing off some debts, or doing what will be necessary to get the bastard to pay him back. Admittedly, this is small potatoes in comparison to the ‘big events’ of history; but since they’re all a man can do, those small potatoes really matter. They stay in his mind, even in his dreams at night. They give him a reason to clamp down even harder on his cigar. They do not taste like much; that is true. They provide no real satisfaction when all has been said and done. But the ‘small potatoes’ are his only real sustenance in life and in death. So can you really blame a man his pound of flesh? Are we not all, each and every one of us, Jew misers poring over our checkbooks late at night, waiting in patience for the liens to close, demanding that the warrants actually be executed, so that we can get what is owed us and finally balance our scales?
Abigail is horrified. Her ‘molested girl’ expression comes more naturally.
Let me show you something, the doctor says after a brief pause. I assure you it will only take a moment.
The doctor steps out of the kitchen a moment. He takes the candle with him, thus leaving Abigail entirely in the dark. Abigail thinks of fleeing, but then decides that that almost certainly would lead to her ‘second death.’ She needs to be here. This is where her journey led her. Whatever afterlife she may have will be based on what she does here and now, not on what is or is not out there in that torrential storm.
The doctor returns soon enough. He is carrying a hand held vanity mirror in one hand and the candle in the other. Except for the red flame at the end of his cigar, he looks snow white and cold. Abigail imagines a corpse just a minute or so before the first dark smirches identified with decay appear upon its waxy flesh. She also imagines that this corpse is far beneath the surface of a lake, so far in fact that there is no sunlight beating on its skin. The fish are swarming at this time; and when the first dark smirch appears, then they will dive in to eat.
He sits across from her at the checkered table. He turns his chair around so that his back is facing her. Then, he lifts the mirror to his face so that she is able to observe his reflection.
Abigail screams. While it is not really a surprise, given all that the doctor has said, she is still horrified to see her father’s walrus mustache and pudgy old cheeks reflected in the mirror. In the mirror, instead of a cigar there is now an old fashioned pipe. Also, in the mirror at least, her father smirks like a well-fed devil. He is unctuous, and she smells the lake slime oozing out of his mustache.
The doctor lowers the mirror to his lap. He turns his chair around so that he faces her again. He is once more the debonair doctor with a Howard Hughes mustache, instead of a nineteenth century walrus one; the thin, sallow cheeks of an old drinker, instead of the pudgy, ruddy cheeks of a younger drinker; and a bare hint of a smile, instead of an unctuous, well-fed, devil grin. The doctor is so much more reserved than her buffoonish father had been; and yet now she can see the resemblance, not in physical features, neither in temperament, but in the evil glint in both their eyes. Both men are abusers. Both are takers. Both defile innocence in the pursuit of selfish objectives they themselves actually do not understand. One had stayed home; the other had travelled afar; but they’d looked through the world of their respective times with the same set of eyes. It occurs to Abigail that since her father had died in 1895, she would not be at all surprised to learn that this doctor had been born a little later in the same year.
So part of Bertrand stayed in the house; probably out of spite to scream into Matilda’s ghost ears as no doubt she would scream into his; but the nastier part of his life, the part that did not just wallow, but actually reached out and defiled, lived on in the life and the times of the stylish doctor across the table.
Because, after all, he had to make sure that justice would be served, on Abigail first, but then upon her children, and her children’s children. This is the way it works in the Good Book, and though Bertrand hardly could be counted as a Christian he seemed to embrace this lesson from the Good Book with aplomb.
So you thought the lake would keep me, the doctor says with a sly smile. But, you see, I was not done watching you. You knew that at the time, did you not? How I seemed to be watching you still, even though I was a corpse sinking into the lake? Sure, you did. I saw you in the eyes of your granddaughter Grace. I saw you in the eyes of her granddaughter Shirley. I wanted you, of course, but I could not very well whisk you away from that tranquil life you had carved out for yourself in the Midwest. So I kept those consolation prizes, first Grace, then Shirley, until finally you rowed your boat up to my shoes. Now that I see you in the flesh, I want to be with you. I want to touch you. It has been a long time in waiting; and though the man in the mirror may have looked well fed, I am very hungry, emaciated, and frankly unwilling to wait much longer for what is mine.
So you want to eat me, Abigail says in an eight-year-old girl’s tiny voice.
The doctor thinks about what she said. He savors an image in his fantasy mind that he then proceeds to share with her.
A man touches a girl, because he wants to eat her, the doctor reflects as if talking about some theoretical other man. He does not have it in him truly to take a knife and a fork to her skin in the dead of night, so the most he can do is to touch her instead, maybe taste her pussy with his tongue, but never more or deeper than that. As you may imagine, this man will be increasingly unsatisfied with this affair, because he never manages to leave with her flesh and bones in his stomach. But suppose that this man actually ate his girl one night? He might be overjoyed for an hour or two, or at least until he stopped tasting her within his mouth, or smelling her in his belches, but then what? Find another girl, but then he gets reckless, picks up a stranger when someone else happens to mosey on by, and the next thing he knows he is hanging from a tree, or playing poker with other mad hyenas in a loony bin. No, he cannot have any other girls under the sun; only that one; and so he has got to make sure it counts. He has to hunt her for a while. Maybe tie her up, throw her into a dark room, and toy with her a season. Maybe take his time eating her, once he has grown tired with all that hunting and torturing. He could amputate an arm, stop the bleeding so that the poor girl does not just die on him, and then chew on it a few days, as if it is an abnormally large Thanksgiving turkey leg. He could keep slicing her up just bits and pieces at a time. Of course, at some point, that bitch party pooper will die on him. He will need to cut up what is left, and freeze it, maybe just eat a slab on the anniversary of the first time he touched her. Finally, and this is perhaps the most important part, he will keep one part of her body uneaten, his private memento of a feast well done. I imagine a single eye will do. He could store his memento eye in a jar of liquid. He could look upon it as his own ‘third eye,’ as it were, not in the middle of his forehead, but close enough to his heart and his home. So you see, I am not going to eat you. That would be so crude, perverse, unromantic. But I am going to hunt you down, twist your tail, and relish all the pain I can force out of you. Should not a man enjoy how he balances the scales?
* * *
Perhaps for the first time ever, Abigail is totally speechless. She really is not haunted by the words themselves. Deep down she had known all along that her father wanted to consume her. She could see the unquenched hunger inside his eyes. No, what haunts her is how casual he is in describing his intentions. It is cocky casual, because by being so open about his intentions he presumes she cannot escape; and as she hears the hot rain battering against the roof, she has to concede that he is right on that point. It is also diabolical casual, the kind of casualness a devil would have towards his own evil on account of the fact he is so comfortable with it. For him, evil is an old suit that fits so well on his frame he barely recognizes that he is wearing anything at all. It is also mad casual, as when a madman tries to hide his madness, not just from the listener but mostly from himself, by speaking in such a cool and collected manner. The only tip off is the distant look in his eyes. Her father had that distant look now, in part as a result of being so focused on his own macabre fantasy, but also as a result of a madness that subdues his moral perception. Abigail suspects that the guards in Auschwitz had the same distant look in their eyes, not all the time, to be sure, but definitely when they were corralling the Jews into the gas chambers. Until this moment, Abigail had presumed that evil is best exemplified by the sudden, ferocious violence of that man with the baton, or of Boy Digger with that Sugar Sweet Bessie shotgun he used as a crutch; but now she sees those maniacs are children in the ways of evil in comparison to her own father. She is horrified to think that she had been born from his seed. Did she pass any of his cold, vacant evil upon her daughter Alice? No way to tell, since she never saw her again with her own two eyes after leaving her with her Auntie Cloris; and the write-ups in the society pages would not have offered much of a clue in this regard one way or another. She is sure her six children with Fred turned out fine, but now that she knows what she knows, can she assume any credit? Perhaps they are fine in spite of herself. Perhaps they are fine only because they inherited Fred’s basic, uncomplicated kindness. She hates the very idea that evil can be inherited like height or eye color, but is she all that different from her father? If she is not all that different, then what accounts for it, except that this kind of evil anyway is a mutation passed down through the generations. It just keeps spreading its old black magic until finally a lady sees fit to cut her tubes or to go into a nunnery.
Abigail pursues this stream of consciousness, not because she truly hopes to find an answer to her predicament, but because her tired mind would rather wander than come to terms with what is about to happen.
The doctor sees the distant look in her eyes, as she focuses inwardly and quietly on her stream of consciousness. He stands up, steps around the kitchen table, and takes her hands into his. She turns her head to face him, but she has no idea that moment who he is or where she is. She looks plastered, or perhaps under a spell, and he responds by offering her a harmless, sympathetic look. He could be a social worker caring for a client, who has fallen off the wagon again.
Come with me, child, the doctor says ever so gently. I admit that you’re not going to like how this all ends, but in the meantime you may enjoy the sick and macabre theatrics I have in mind. Do you think I am unaware of the sexual, perverse photographs you took with your lover back when you were a party girl in Manhattan? I did not know anything then, of course. I was just a lad, reading through my children’s books, dreaming of the vast world that I would observe. I have learned a lot since then, though. I got my first inkling when I read Grace’s poems, even more so when I read her novel. I knew her propensity for darkness and presumed the acorn could not fall far from the tree. After I awakened on a rowboat on that lake out there, I started to learn a lot more about you. It is as if the lake spoke to me. She gave up your secrets. She spread lies about you, to be sure; but I have learned that there is always a kernel of truth in a lie. Let us just say that I have more than a passing familiarity with your dark side. Publicly you are a strong, athletic, confident girl; but behind closed doors, you actually like to be hurt. Dexter hurt you, did he not? Every time you photographed your lover giving a nigger fellatio, you felt abused. You ran into the arms of Dr. Fred because you tried to convince yourself you wanted a kind man in your life; but I know how bored you were with Dr. Milquetoast. I know how you cheated with a sick, twisted, unsavory farm boy off and on over the years, because frankly you were so damned bored with Dr. Fred’s goodness. The farm boy used to slap you around, did he not? He called you a slut, a whore, a nigger lover; and you ate it up. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not casting any moral indictment. Far be it from me to point out what is good and what is bad, but far be it from you then to pretend that you are not going to enjoy the little game I play with you.
Abigail really looks at his face. She is coming back out from the spell, so she recognizes who he is and where she is. She is not afraid. Indeed, surprising herself, she actually wants whatever he is going to do to her. Maybe this is that guilt she carried with her into her watery grave. Maybe this is a suicidal craving that, in this context, would mean embracing the total blackness that she thinks will come from a ‘second death.’ Or maybe she is just too tired and resigned to struggle anymore. There is a breaking point even for the strongest people, and she feels that she crossed that point way further back than she wants to admit.
Come with me, child, the doctor says, while picking up the candle. I am going to lead you upstairs. That is where you are going to stay until this is over.
The doctor walks out of the kitchen. Abigail follows him. She is at peace in the way that a cult follower steps into a trance when ordered to do so by her leader. She only thinks about how beautiful his bullet wound had been so many years ago. No blood had gushed out of his forehead then, because of course the red hole in his forehead had not been a bullet wound at all, but his third eye at once and forevermore seeing a daughter who so loved him.
He leads her up the staircase. She follows complacently. He leads her to the master bedroom. She continues to be oblivious, except to the ‘third eye’ in her imagination. He opens a creaky bedroom door, steps into the gloom, grabs her wrists, and pulls her towards the center. She does not resist. Indeed, as he had predicted, she likes how he is manhandling her.
But then she hears something. It is a muffled, incomprehensible sound in the darkness in front of her.
What is going on? Abigail whispers vaguely as if awakening from a dream.
The sound happens again, except now with more intention behind it. She is still not sure what it is, but she knows that it is trying to communicate to her through some sort of barrier. When she thinks further about the evident strain behind that sound, she senses that it is not just saying ‘hello.’ Whatever it is, it is trying to warn her. ‘Go away,’ that sound seems to yell. ‘Go, while you can.’
Abigail cringes in fear. She looks around frantically. Just where the heck is she anyway? What are those sitting shadows in front of her? Are they persons? Are they persons who have been tied together? Are they persons who are sitting on the floor, hogtied and muzzled, held down by ropes so tight they seem to be suffocating? She senses that they are ghosts, and yet she also senses that these ghosts are just as capable of suffocating, as she almost did by the lake. As soon as she sees this connection between the three of them, she figures out who the two ghosts are. All this happens in her mind before the doctor shines his candle over them, so that actually observing Grace and Shirley is almost anticlimactic.
Abigail is not startled, but she is taken with how Grace looks in person as a nineteen-year-old girl. Grace is not as athletic, not at all a spitfire, but there is a subtle witchery in her eyes even then. It will not take long for her to tire of the buttoned down life intended for her. Of course, Abigail realizes that that is indeed what happens. Soon after becoming a widow, Grace flees to the beatnik community just starting to form in California, and she never looks back.
Abigail looks at Shirley. She knows nothing about her but what her father had told her. Shirley still radiates innocence, and yet there is also a strong and street smart tenacity seething under the surface. She has seen far too much for a girl her age. Like the nineteen-year-old Grace, she is on the cusp. She is now teetering between her past hopes and her burgeoning realizations. Both are on the floor, hogtied and muzzled, at ages in which they had been very vulnerable precisely because they are in transition. Grace is becoming the woman that she would be. Shirley is becoming the woman that she would have been.
Pretty girls, are they not? The doctor chuckles. But not as pretty as you…
Abigail avoids his stare. Whatever spell he had cast upon her downstairs, or perhaps it is more accurate to say the first time he touched her beneath the sheets, is gone. He is just a madman quickly losing whatever debonair face and manner he had been able to hold onto prior. He is just a rabid dog with a cigar.
He forces her down, and hogties her to the other ladies. He muzzles her.
The doctor stands back. He looks at the hogtied and muzzled ladies as if together they are a work of art from his gloved hands. He admires what he has wrought, and yet he also thinks that it is not quite a masterpiece. Something is missing, an intangible something, a moment from his past that cannot be really captured but that he intends to try to cage and to control regardless, even if in doing so he perverts his memory of that moment.
In the end, the doctor now thinks, art is nothing more than a perversion of perfection. It is a pale imitation of the real thing. Does art then not say a lot more about man’s will to conceive himself as a god, than about the existential, compelling reality of what is being reimagined through words typed on a page, or notes printed on a musical sheet, or paint applied to a canvas, or three girls hogtied and muzzled together on a hardwood floor?
If that is the case, then so what? Only the bourgeoisie moralists claim to have a problem with self-divination. They speak about self-restraint, respecting the laws of nature, keeping everything as it is meant to be. Of course, they are hypocrites. In fact, they want to impose their will over everything as much as a self-important ass, like myself, the doctor goes on to think. At least, when I do something naughty, when I shed the blood of the innocent, or fondle sexual sin out from purity, I am being forthright and honest. No holier than thou pretense with me. I aim to have my cake, and to eat it, too. I aim to be at the center of things, but to remain unscathed. So does everyone else, except that most other creeps claim enough fidelity to a god or a philosophical creed that they can see themselves therefore as morally good. The truth is that they are all shit bags as I am. They try to deny their own stink. I savor in it, like I do my imported cigar.
The doctor smiles, and puffs on his cigar. No ash falls from the cigar. No smoke masks his demonic grin, either. It is as if he is a boy playacting with the make believe cigar he found among his father’s things in the attic.
In fact, though he is not thinking about that moment right now, his first time had been with an old Calabash pipe; but everything else remains the same then: He is nine or ten, crawling through his father’s things in the attic, puffing on the pipe, while seeing what he looks like in the dresser mirror when wearing his dead grandmother’s dress and bonnet. He thinks he looks especially pretty, not like a Bertrand Spencer, but maybe more like a Bertha Spencer. He wishes his name could be ‘Bertha Spencer,’ but if it can never be, then he can pretend when the lights are out and the drapes are drawn, can he not? He thinks he can pretend however he wants, because when it is totally dark no one is watching…
The doctor walks over to the Steinway Grand. He puts the candle on the top. He removes an ashtray from his inner jacket pocket, puts the ashtray next to the candle, and leaves his cigar in it. This is also a part of the make believe, apparently, since there is no ash to be kept inside the tray.
He sits in front of the keys, and flexes his soft fingers in the ostentatious manner of a maestro pianist. He rolls his shoulders back, and tilts his chin up to the ceiling. There is something strangely effeminate in his behavior, like he is a debutante proudly showing her mother everything she has learned in a finishing school. What had been so debonair about the esteemed doctor is now just silly. He is all prissy, pink, pretension in ribbon and lace; and in the ghostly light cast by the candle, his suit looks like an old grandmother’s dress, and his white hair looks like a bonnet. And has his Howard Hughes mustache grown and spread, so that it looks more like a walrus mustache? And does his face look pudgy in this light, like the dumb face of a nine or a ten-year-old boy in a middle-aged body?
Abigail sees the transformation; but even more so, she sees the evil glint in the man’s eyes. It is the same look he had when he first crawled into her bed so long ago. Grace too sees everything; but for her his eyes look like they did at the Texaco Gas and Grill so long ago, when he appeared so enthralled with that bloodthirsty Boss Man. Finally, Shirley sees everything; but for her his eyes look like her father’s eyes, when he made her get out of the car to set the flames to the house for the insurance money. Those are the ‘turning point’ eyes, as when the person seeing them turns away from any soft or juvenile hopes that she had had about the man and sees him for what he really is. She may try to forget the ‘turning point’ eyes. She may continue to stand by his side as if there had been no change. But deep down, she knows; and he knows that she knows; and so an old bond has been broken irreparably. They both will resent what has been lost and take it out on the other in passive or aggressive ways, each person keeping his or her score close to heart, each person learning to be manipulative and icy cold with their partner. See the ‘turning eyes,’ and you’re on your way to hell…
Or if not hell precisely, then to a master bedroom floor where you are to be hogtied and muzzled for God knows what sadistic reason. Each of the ladies saw the same eyes, and they ended up here, looking up at those same eyes yet again, squirming in their ropes, and screaming holy hell within their own heads.
Now, what shall I play, little girls? Bertrand asks.
He looks at the three hogtied and muzzled ladies to this right.
So many generations of cock teasers all in one place, he thinks and grins. Cock teasing tigresses, that’s what they are, like the tigress I hunted down with Ernest Hemingway, and like the tigress that tore me into pieces, and ate me all up. Damned cunt thought she had me; and she may have for a while; but now, I am the one sitting in front of this vintage piano, and she is the one squirming in those nasty ropes. In fact, there are not three tigresses, just the one, the one I slew, the one that slew me in revenge, and the one I get to slay all over again…
And with that last thought repeating in his head as a kind of mantra, no, more than a mantra, a kind of directive order from the insidious and whispering evil deep in his soul, he looks again at the three ladies and determines that the three ladies are not three, but one; and they are not ladies, but a tigress; and, finally after all these years, that bitch, cunt, whore tigress is helpless in ropes.
Abigail, Grace, and Shirley look deeply into his eyes. Those eyes appear to have switched off. The pudgy man with the walrus mustache, the queer kook in drag sitting at the Steinway Grand, is no longer looking at them. He is seeing through them to the dark and sweltering jungle of his own morbid imagination. Abigail and Shirley have no clue what he is seeing, though Grace remembers his story the first time she saw him. Grace thinks he sees that tigress in the jungle, that same tigress he had killed, and that same tigress that came back to life to kill him; and if this is so then he is about to unleash all his restrained brutality. He is about to become that man always veiled beneath the surface of his fine, tailored suits and exquisite bowties. He is about to be his debauched boy beast self for all to see, and they will have no choice but to take what he determines to dish out to them.
No suggestions? Bertrand asks. Well, I’ve got a song in mind. It’s going to hurt you. Oh, boy, it’s going to hurt you. But who knows, maybe you’ll enjoy it?
Bertrand turns back to his keyboard. He arches his fingers over the keys, thinks a moment, and then bangs out the ABC music. He looks and acts as a kid just learning to play the piano, who nevertheless has mastered this first, simple song. Instead of singing those ABCs, though, he sings out Eeny Meeny Miny Moe:
Eeny Meeny Miny Moe
Catch the tiger by the toe
If he hollers, let him go
Eeny Meeny Miny Moe
Now I know my ABCs
Next time won’t you play with me?
Bertrand faces the tigress. She is growling at him. The nerve of the cunt whore! Doesn’t she realize she’s all tied up with nowhere to go, while he’s free to do as he pleases? Does she think she can intimidate him with her cunt whore growl? Incessant nagging, that’s what it is, even when she’s stuck in his cage. It seems there is no way to silence the cunt whore but to beat her into the grave.
Actually, I don’t care if you play with me, Bertrand snarls, while walking over to the closet. I intend to play with you. All that counts is what I do to you.
Inside the closet there is a whip looped over the clothes bar. There is no other item, because at that moment nothing else is needed.
He removes the whip. He snaps it in the air several times. He smiles like a boy first stumbling upon a neat toy, while the tigress roars her disapproval so loudly as to shake the walls. He snaps the whip on her repeatedly, while she in turn tries to evade the sting of that terrible whip as far as the rope will let her.
* * *