Ki lay fast asleep just as I had left her, on her side with the filthy little stuffed dog clutched under her jaw. It had put a smudge on her neck but I hadn't the heart to take it away from her. Beyond her and to the left, through the open bathroom door, I could hear the steady plink-plonk-plink of water falling from the faucet and into the tub. Cool air blew around me in a silky twist, caressing my cheeks, sending a not unpleasurable shiver up my back. In the living room Bunter's bell gave a dim little shake.
Water's still warm, sugar, Sara whispered. Be her friend, be her daddy. Go on, now. Do what I want. Do what we both want.
And I did want to, which had to be why Jo at first tried to keep me away from the TR and from Sara Laughs. Why she'd made a secret of her possible pregnancy, as well. It was as if I had discovered a vampire inside me, a creature with no interest in what it thought of as talk-show conscience and op-ed page morality. A part that wanted only to take Ki into the bathroom and dunk her into that tub of warm water and hold her under, watching the red-edged white ribbons shimmer the way Carla Dean's white dress and red stockings had shimmered while the woods burned all around her and her father. A part of me would be more than glad to pay the last installment on that old bill.
'Dear God,' I muttered, and wiped my face with a shaking hand. 'She knows so many tricks. And she's so fucking strong.'
The bathroom door tried to swing shut against me before I could go through, but I pushed it open against hardly any resistance. The medicine-cabinet door banged back, and the glass shattered against the wall. The stuff inside flew out at me, but it wasn't a very dangerous attack; this time most of the missiles consisted of toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes, plastic bottles, and a few old Vick's inhalers. Faint, very faint, I could hear her shouting in frustration as I yanked the plug at the bottom of the tub and let the water start gurgling out. There had been enough drowning on the TR for one century, by God. And yet, for a moment I felt an incredibly strong urge to put the plug back in while the water was still deep enough to do the job. Instead I tore it off its chain and threw it down the hall. The medicine-cabinet door clapped shut again and the rest of the glass fell out.
'How many have you had?' I asked her. 'How many besides Carla Dean and Kerry Auster and our Kia? Two? Three? Five? How many do you need before you can rest?'
All of them! the answer shot back. It wasn't just Sara's voice, either; it was my own, as well. She'd gotten into me, had snuck in by way of the basement like a burglar . . . and already I was thinking that even if the tub was empty and the water-pump temporarily dead, there was always the lake.
All of them! the voice cried again. All of them, sugar!
Of course ¡ª only all of them would do. Until then there would be no rest for Sara Laughs.
'I'll help you to rest,' I said. 'That I promise.'
The last of the water swirled away . . . but there was always the lake, always the lake if I changed my mind. I left the bathroom and looked in on Ki again. She hadn't moved, the sensation that Sara was in here with me had gone, Bunter's bell was quiet . . . and yet I felt uneasy, unwilling to leave her alone. I had to, though, if I was to finish my work, and I would do well not to linger. County and State cops would be along eventually, storm or no storm, downed trees or no downed trees.
Yes, but . . .
I stepped into the hall and looked uneasily around. Thunder boomed, but it was losing some of its urgency. So was the wind. What wasn't fading was the sense of something watching me, something that was not-Sara. I stood where I was a moment or two longer, trying to tell myself it was just the sizzle of my overcooked nerves, then walked down the hall to the entry.
I opened the door to the stoop . . . then looked around again sharply, as if expecting to see someone or something lurking behind the far end of the bookcase. A Shape, perhaps. Something that still wanted its dust-catcher. But I was the only Shape left, at least in this part of the world, and the only movement I saw was ripple-shadows thrown by the rain rolling down the windows.
It was still coming down hard enough to redrench me as I crossed my stoop to the driveway, but I paid no attention. I had just been with a little girl when she drowned, had damned near drowned myself not so long ago, and the rain wasn't going to stop me from doing what I had to do. I picked up the fallen branch which had dented the roof of my car, tossed it aside, and opened the Chevy's rear door.
The things I'd bought at Slips 'n Greens were still sitting on the back seat, still tucked into the cloth carry-handle bag Lila Proulx had given me. The trowel and the pruning knife were visible, but the third item was in a plastic sack. Want this one in a special bag? Lila had asked me. Always sa]b, never sorry. And later, as I was leaving, she had spoken of Kenny's dog Blueberry chasing seagulls and had given out with a big, hearty laugh. Her eyes hadn't laughed, though. Maybe that's how you tell the Martians from the Earthlings ¡ª the Martians can never laugh with their eyes.
I saw Rommie and George's present lying on the front seat: the Stenomask I'd at first mistaken for Devore's oxygen mask. The boys in the basement spoke up then ¡ª murmured, at least ¡ª and I leaned over the seat to grab the mask by its elastic strap without the slightest idea of why I was doing so. I dropped it into the carry-bag, slammed the car door, then started down the railroad-tie steps to the lake. On the way I paused to duck under the deck, where we had always kept a few tools. There was no pick, but I grabbed a spade that looked up to a piece of gravedigging. Then, for what I thought would be the last time, I followed the course of my dream down to The Street. I didn't need Jo to show me the spot; the Green Lady had been pointing to it all along. Even had she not been, and even if Sara Tidwell did not still stink to the heavens, I think I would have known. I think I would have been led there by my own haunted heart.
There was a man standing between me and the place where the gray forehead of rock guarded the path, and as I paused on the last railroad tie, he hailed me in a rasping voice that I knew all too well.
'Say there, whoremaster, where's your whore?'
He stood on The Street in the pouring rain, but his cutters' outfit ¡ª green flannel pants, checked wool shirt ¡ª and his faded blue Union Army cap were dry, because the rain was falling through him rather than on him. He looked solid but he was no more real than Sara herself. I reminded myself of this as I stepped down onto the path to face him, but my heart continued to speed up, thudding in my chest like a padded hammer.
He was dressed in Jared Devore's clothes, but this wasn't Jared Devore. This was Jared's great-grandson Max, who had begun his career with an act of sled-theft and ended it in suicide . . . but not before arranging for the murder of his daughter-in-law, who'd had the temerity to refuse him what he had so dearly wanted.
I started toward him and he moved to the center of the path to block me. I could feel the cold baking off him. I am saying exactly what I mean, expressing what I remember as clearly as I can: I could feel the cold baking off him. And yes, it was Max Devore all right, but got up like a logger at a costume party and looking the way he must have around the time his son Lance was born. Old but hale. The sort of man younger men might well look up to. And now, as if the thought had called them, I could see the rest shimmer into faint being behind him, standing in a line across the path. These were the ones who had been with Jared at the Fryeburg Fair, and now I knew who some of them were. Fred Dean, of course, only nineteen years old in '01, the drowning of his daughter still over thirty years away. And the one who had reminded me of myself was Harry Auster, the firstborn of my great-grandfather's sister. He would have been sixteen, barely old enough to raise a fuzz but old enough to work in the woods with Jared. Old enough to shit in the same pit as Jared. To mistake Jared's poison for wisdom. One of the others twisted his head and squinted at the same time ¡ª I'd seen that tic before. Where? Then it came to me: in the Lake-view General. This young man was the late Royce Merrill's father. The others I didn't know. Nor did I care to.
'You ain't a-passing by us,' Devore said. He held up both hands. 'Don't even think about trying. Am I right, boys?'
They murmured growling agreement ¡ª the sort you could hear coming from any present-day gang of headbangers or taggers, I imagine ¡ª but their voices were distant; actually more sad than menacing. There was some substance to the man in Jared Devore's clothes, perhaps because in life he had been a man of enormous vitality, perhaps because he was so recently dead, but the others were little more than projected images.
I started forward, moving into that baking cold, moving into the smell of him ¡ª the same invalid odors which had surrounded him when I'd met him here before.
'Where do you think you're going?' he cried.
'For a constitutional,' I said. 'And no law against it. The Street's the place where good pups and vile dogs can walk side-by-side. You said so yourself.'
'You don't understand,' Max-Jared said. 'You never will. You're not of that world. That was our world.'
I stopped, looking at him curiously. Time was short, I wanted to be done with this . . . but I had to know, and I thought Devore was ready to tell me.
'Make me understand,' I said. 'Convince me that any world was your world.' I looked at him, then at the flickering, translucent figures behind him, gauze flesh heaped on shining bones. 'Tell me what you did.'
'It was all different then,' Devore said. 'When you come down here, Noonan, you might walk all three miles north to Halo Bay and see only a dozen people on The Street. After Labor Day you might not see any one at all. This side of the lake you have to walk through the bushes that are growing up wild and around the fallen trees ¡ª there'll be even more of em after this storm ¡ª and even a deadfall or two because nowadays the townfolk don't club together to keep it neat the way they used to. But in our time ¡ª ! The woods were bigger then, Noonan, distances were farther to go, and neighboring meant something. Life itself, often enough. Back then this really was a street. Can you see?'
I could. If I looked through the phantom shapes of Fred Dean and Harry Auster and the others, I could. They weren't just ghosts; they were shimmerglass windows on another age. I saw
a summer afternoon in the year of . . . 1898? Perhaps 1902? 1907? Doesn't matter. This is a period when all time seems the same, as if time had stopped. This is a time the old-timers remember as a kind of golden age. It is the Land of Ago, the Kingdom of When-I-Was-a-Boy. The sun washes everything with the fine gold light of endless late July; the lake is as blue as a dream, netted with a billion sparks of reflected light. And The Street! It is as smoothly grassed as a lawn and as broad as a boulevard. It is a boulevard, I see, a place where the community fully realizes itself. It is the main conduit of communication, the chief cable in a township criss-crossed with them. I'd felt the existence of these cables all along ¡ª even when Jo was alive I felt them under the surface, and here is their point of origin. Folks promenade on The Street, all up and down the east side of Dark Score Lake they promenade in little groups, laughing and conversing under a cloud-stacked summer sky, and this is where the cables all begin. I look and realize how wrong I have been to think of them as Martians, as cruel and calculating aliens. East of their sunny promenade looms the darkness of the woods, glades and hollows where any miserable thing may await, from a hot lopped off in a logging accident to a birth gone wrong and a young mother dead before the doctor can arrive from Castle Rock in his buggy. These are people with no electricity, no phones, no County Rescue Unit, no one to rely upon but each other and a God some of them have already begun to mistrust. They live in the woods and the shadows of the woods, but on fine summer afternoons they come to the edge of the lake. They come to The Street and look in each other's faces and laugh together and then they are truly on the TR ¡ª in what I have come to think of as the zone. They are not Martians,' they are little lives dwelling on the edge of the dark, that's all.
I see summer people from Warrington's, the men dressed in white flannels, two women in long tennis dresses still carrying their rackets. A fellow riding a tricycle with an enormous front wheel weaves shakily among them. The party of summer fo1k has stopped to talk with a group of young men from town; the fellows from away want to know if they can play in the townies' baseball game at Warrington's on Tuesday night. Ben Merrill, Royce's father-to-be, says Ayuh, but we won't go easy on ya just cause you're from N'Yawk. The young men laugh; so do the tennis girls.
A little farther on, two boys are playing catch with the sort of raw homemade baseball that is known as a horsey. Beyond them is a convention of young mothers, talking earnestly of their babies, all safely prammed and gathered in their own group. Men in overalls discuss weather and crops, politics and crops, taxes and crops. A teacher from the Consolidated High sits on the gray stone forehead I know so well, patiently tutoring a sullen boy who wants to be somewhere else and doing anything else. I think the boy will grow up to be Buddy Jellison's father. Horn broken ¡ª watch for finger, I think.
All along The Street folks are fishing, and they are catching plenty; the lake fairly teems with bass and trout and pickerel. An artist ¡ª another summer fellow, judging from his smock and nancy beret ¡ª has set up his easel and is painting the mountains while two ladies watch respectfully. A giggle of girls passes, whispering about boys and clothes and school. There is beauty here, and peace. Devore' s right to say this is a world I never knew. It's
'Beautiful,' I said, pulling myself back with an effort. 'Yes, I see that. But what's your point?'
'My point?' Devore looked almost comically surprised. 'She thought she could walk there like everyone else, that's the fucking point! She thought she could walk there like a white gal! Her and her big teeth and her big tits and her snotty looks. She thought she was something special, but we taught her different. She tried to walk me down and when she couldn't do that she put her filthy hands on me and tumped me over. But that was all right; we taught her her manners. Didn't we, boys?'
They growled agreement, but I thought some of them ¡ª young Harry Auster, for one ¡ª looked sick.
'We taught her her place,' Devore said. 'We taught her she wasn't nothing but a
nigger. This is the word he uses over and over again when they are in the woods that summer, the summer of1901, the summer that Sara and the Red-bps become the musical act to see in this part of the world. She and her brother and their whole nigger family have been invited to Warrington's to play for the summer people,' they have been rid on champagne and ersters . . . or so says Jared Devore to his little school of devoted followers as they eat their own plain lunches of bread and meat and salted cucumbers out of lard-buckets given to them by their mothers (none of the young men are married, although Oren Peebles is engaged).
Yet it isn't her growing renown that upsets Jared Devore. It isn't the fact that she has been to Warrington's; it don't cross his eyes none that she and that brother of hers have actually sat down and eaten with white folks, taken bread join the same bowl as them with their blacknigger fingers. The folks at Warrington's are flatlanders, after all, and Devore tells the silent, attentive young men that he's heard that in places like New York and Chicago white women sometimes even fuck blackniggers.
Naw! Harry Auster says, looking around nervously, as if he expected a few white women to come tripping through the woods way out here on Bowie Ridge. No white woman'd fuck a nigger! Shoot a pickle!
Devore only gives him a look, the kind that says When you're my age. Besides, he doesn't care what goes on in New York and Chicago; he saw all the flatland he wanted to during the Civil War . . . and, he will tell you, he never fought that war to free the damned slaves. They can keep slaves down there in the land of cotton until the end of the eternity, as far as Jared Lancelot Devore is concerned. No, he fought in the war to teach those cracker sons of bitches south of Mason and Dixon that you don't pull out of the game just because you don't like some of the rules. He went down to scratch the scab off the end of old Johnny Reb's nose. Tried to leave the United States of America, they had! The Lord!
No, he doesn't care about slaves and he doesn't care about the land of cotton and he doesn't care about blackniggers who sing dirty songs and then get treated to champagne and ersters (Jared always says oysters in just that sarcastic way) in payment for their smut. He doesn't care about anything so long as they keep in their place and let him keep in his.
But she won't do it. The uppity bitch will not do it. She has been warned to stay off The Street, but she will not listen. She goes anyway, walking along in her white dress just as if there was a white person inside it, sometimes with her son, who has a blacknigger African name and no daddy ¡ª his daddy probably just spent the one night with his mommy in a haystack somewhere down Alabama and now she walks around with the get of that just as bold as a brass monkey. She walks The Street as if she has a right to be there, even though not a soul will talk to her¡ª
'But that's not true, is it?' I asked Devore. 'That's what really stuck in old great-granddaddy's craw, wasn't it? They did talk to her. She had a way about her ¡ª that laugh, maybe. Men talked to her about crops and the women showed off their babies. In fact they gave her their babies to hold and when she laughed down at them, they laughed back up at her. The girls asked her advice about boys. The boys . . . they just looked. But how they looked, huh? They filled up their eyes, and I expect most of them thought about her when they went out to the privy and filled up their palms.'
Devore glowered. He was aging in front of me, the lines drawing themselves deeper and deeper into his face; he was becoming the man who had knocked me into the lake because he couldn't bear to be crossed. And as he grew older he began to fade.
'That was what Jared hated most of all, wasn't it? That they didn't turn aside, didn't turn away. She walked on The Street and no one treated her like a nigger. They treated her like a neighbor.'
I was in the zone, deeper in than I'd ever been, down where the town's unconscious seemed to run like a buried river. I could drink from that river while I was in the zone, could fill my mouth and throat and belly with its cold minerally taste.
All that summer Devore had talked to them. They were more than his crew, they were his boys: Fred and Harry and Ben and Oren and George Armbruster and Draper Finney, who would break his neck and drown the next summer trying to dive into Eades Quarry while he was drunk. Only it was the sort of accident that's kind of on purpose. Draper Finney drank a lot between July of 1901 and August of 1902, because it was the only way he could sleep. The only way he could get the hand out of his mind, that hand sticking straight out of the water, clenching and unclenching until you wanted to scream Won't it stop, won't it ever stop doing that.
All summer long Jared Devore filled their ears with nigger bitch and uppity bitch. All summer long he told them about their responsibility as men, their duty to keep the community pure, and how they must see what others didn't and do what others wouldn't.
It was a Sunday afternoon in August, a time when traffic along The Street dropped steeply. Later on, by five or so, things would begin to pick up again, and from six to sunset the broad path along the lake would be thronged. But three in the afternoon was Low tide. The Methodists were back in session over in Harlow for their afternoon Song Service; at Warrington's the assembled company of vacationing flatlanders was sitting down to a heavy mid-afternoon Sabbath meal of roast chicken or ham; all over the township families were addressing their own Sunday dinners. Those who had already finished were snoozing through the heat of the day ¡ª in a hammock, wherever possible. Sara liked this quiet time. Loved it, really. She had spent a great deal of her life on carny midways and in smoky gin-joints, shouting out her songs in order to be heard above the voices of redfaced, unruly drunks, and while part of her loved the excitement and unpredictability of that life, part of her loved the serenity of this one, too. The peace of these walks. She wasn't getting any younger, after all; she had a kid who had now left purt near all his babyhood behind him. On that particular Sunday she must have thought The Street almost too quiet. She walked a mile south from the meadow without seeing a soul even Kito was gone by then, having stopped off to pick berries. It was as if the whole township were
deserted. She knows there's an Eastern Star supper in Kashwakamak, of course, has even contributed a mushroom pie to it because she has made friends of some of the Eastern Star ladies. They'll all be down there getting ready. What she doesn't know is that today is also Dedication Day for the new Grace Baptist Church, the first real church ever to be built on the TR. A slug of locals have gone, heathen as well as Baptist. Faintly, from the other side of the lake, she can hear the Methodists singing. The sound is sweet and faint and beautiful,' distance and echo has tuned every sour voice.
She isn't aware of the men ¡ª most of them very young men, the kind who under ordinary circumstances dare only look at her from the corners of their eyes ¡ª until the oldest one among them speaks. 'Wellnow, a black whore in a white dress and a red belt! Damn if that ain't just a little too much color for lakeside. What's wrong with you, whore? Can't you take a hint?'
She turns toward him, afraid but not showing it. She has lived thirty-six years on this earth, has known what a man has and where he wants to put it since she was eleven, and she understands that when men are together like this and full of redeye (she can smell it), they give up thinking for themselves and turn into a pack of dogs. If you show fear they will fall on you like dogs and likely tear you apart like dogs.
Also, they have been laying for her. There can be no other explanation for them turning up like this.
'What hint is that, sugar?' she asks, standing her ground. Where is everyone? Where can they all be? God damn! Across the lake, the Methodists have moved on to 'Trust and Obey,' a droner if there ever was one.
'That you ain't got no business walking where the white folks walk,' Harry Auster says. His adolescent voice breaks into a kind of mouse-squeak on the last word and she laughs. She knows how unwise that is, but she can't help it ¡ª she's never been able to help her laughter, any more than she's ever been able to help the way men like this look at her breasts and bottom. Blame it on God.
'Why, I walk where I do,' she says. 'I was told this was common ground, ain't nobody got a right to keep me out. Ain't nobody has. You seen em doin it?'
'You see us now,' George Armbruster says, trying to sound tough.
Sara looks at him with a species of kindly contempt that makes George shrivel up inside. His cheeks glow hot red. 'Son,' she says, 'you only come out now because the decent folks is all somewhere else. Why do you want to let this old fella tell you what to do? Act decent and let a lady walk.'
I see it all. As Devore fades and fades, at last becoming nothing but eyes under a blue cap in the rainy afternoon (through him I can see the shattered remains of my swimming float washing against the embankment), I see it all. I see her as she
starts forward, walking straight at Devore. If she stands here jawing with them, something bad is going to happen. She feels it, and she never questions her tidings. And if she walks at any of the others, ole massa'll bore in on her from the side, pulling the rest after. Ole massa in the little ole blue cap is the wheeldog, the one she must face down. She can do it, too. He's strong, strong enough to make these boys one creature, his creature, at least for the time being, but he doesn't have her force, her determination, her energy. In a way she welcomes this confrontation. Reg has warned her to be careful, not to move too fast or try to make real friends until the rednecks (only Reggie calls them 'the bull gators') show themselves ¡ª how many and how crazy ¡ª but she goes her own course, trusts her own deep instincts. And here they are, only seven of em, and really just the one bull gator.
I'm stronger than you, ole massa, she thinks, walking toward him. She fixes her eyes on his and will not let them drop,' his are the ones that drop, his the mouth that quivers uncertainly at one corner, his the tongue that comes out as quick as a lizard's tongue to wet the lips, and all that's good . . . but even better is when he falls back a step. When he does that the rest of them cluster in two groups of three, and there it is, her way through. Faint and sweet are the Methodists, faithy music carrying across the lake's still surface. A droner of a hymn, yes, but sweet across the miles.
When we walk with the Lord
in the light of His word,
what a glory He sheds on our way . . .
I'm stronger than you, sugar, she sends, I'm meaner than you, you may be the bull gator but I'm the queen bee and if you don't want me stingin on you, you best clear me the rest of my path.
'You bitch,' he says, but his voice is weak; he is already thinking this isn't the day, there's something about her he didn't quite see until he saw her right up close, some blacknigger hougan he didn't feel until now, better wait for another day, better ¡ª
Then he trips over a root or a rock (perhaps it's the very rock behind which she will finally come to rest) and falls down. His cap falls off, showing the big old bald spot on top of his head. His pants split all the way up the seam. And Sara makes a crucial mistake. Perhaps she underestimates Jared Devore's own very considerable personal force, or perhaps she just cannot help herself ¡ª the sound of his britches ripping is like a loud fart. In any case she laughs that raucous, smoke-broken laugh which is her trademark. And her laugh becomes her doom.
Devore doesn't think. He simply gives her the leather from where he lies, big feet in pegged loggers' boots shooting out like pistons. He hits her where she is thinnest and most vulnerable, in the ankles. She hollers in shocked pain as the left one breaks,' she goes down in a tumble, losing her furled parasol out of one hand. She draws in breath to scream again and Jared says from where he is lying, 'Don't let her! Dassn't let her holler!'
Ben Merrill falls on top of her full-length, all one hundred and ninety pounds of him. The breath she has drawn to scream with whooshes out in a gusty, almost silent sigh instead. Ben, who has never even danced with a woman, let alone lain on top of one like this, is instantly excited by the el of her struggling beneath him. He wriggles against her, laughing, and when she rakes her nails down his cheek he barely feels it. The way it seems to him, he's all cock and a yard long. When she tries to roll over and get out from under that way, he rolls with her, lets her be on top, and he is totally surprised when she drives her forehead down on his. He sees stars, but he is eighteen years old, as strong as he will ever be, and he loses neither consciousness nor his erection.
Oren Peebles tears away the back of her dress, laughing. 'Pig-pile!' he cries in a breathy little whisper, and drops on top of her. Now he is dry-humping her topside and Ben is dry-humping just as enthusiastically from underneath, dry-humping like a billygoat even with the blood pouring down the sides of his head from the split in the center of his brow, and she knows that if she can't scream she is lost. If she can scream and if Kito hears, he'll run and get help, run and get Reg ¡ª
But before she can try again, ole massa is squatting beside her and showing her a long-bladed knife. 'Make a sound and I'll cut your nose off,' he says, and that's when she gives up. They have brought her down after all, partly because she laughed at the wrong time, mostly out of pure buggardly bad luck. Now they will not be stopped, and best that Kito should stay away ¡ª please God keep him back where he was, it was a good patch of berries, one that should keep him occupied an hour or more. He loves berry-picking, and it won't take these men an hour. Harry Auster yanks her hair back, tears her dress off one shoulder, and begins to sucker on her neck.
Ole massa the only one not at her. Old massa standing back, looking both ways along The Street, his eyes slitted and wary; old massa look like a mangy timber-wolf done eaten a whole generation of chickenhouse chickens while managing to avoid every trap and snare. 'Hey Irish, quit on her a minute,' he tells Harry, then widens his wise gaze to the others. 'Get her in the puckies, you damn fools. Get her in there deep.'
They don't. They can't. They are too eager to have her. They arm-yank her behind the forehead of gray rock and call it good. She doesn't pray easily but she prays now. She prays for them to let her live. She prays for Kito to stay clear, to keep filling his bucket slow by eating every third handful. She prays that if he does take a notion to catch up with her, he will see what's happening and run the other way as fast as he can, run silent and get Reg.
'Stick this in your mouth,' George Armbruster pants. 'And don't you bite me, you bitch.'
They take her top and bottom, back and front, two and three at a time. They take her where anybody coming along can't help but see them, and ole massa stands off a little, looking first at the panting young men grouped around her, kneeling with their trousers down and their thighs scratched from the bushes they are kneeling in, then he peers up and down the path with his wild and wary eyes. Incredibly, one of them ¡ª it is Fred Dean ¡ª says 'Sorry, ma'am' after he's shot his load feels like halfway up to east bejeezus. It's as if he accidentally kicked her in the shin while crossing his legs.
And it doesn't end. There's come down her throat, come running down the crack of her ass, the young one has bitten the blood right out of her left breast, and it doesn't end. They are young, and by the time the last one has finished, the first one, oh God, the first one is ready again. Across the river the Methodists are now singing 'Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine' and as ole massa approaches her she thinks, It's almost over, woman, he the last, hold on hold steady and it be over. He looks at the skinny redhead and the one who keeps squinching his eye up and tossing his head and tells them to watch the path, he's going to take his turn now that she's broke in.
He unbuckles his belt, he unbuttons his flies, he pushes down his underwear ¡ª dirty black at the knees and dirty yellow at the crotch-and as he drops a knee on either side of her she sees that ole massa' s little massa is just as floppy as a snake with its neck broke and before she can stop it, that raucous laugh bursts all unexpected from her again ¡ª even lying here covered with the hot jelly spend of her rapists, she can't help but see the funny side.
'Shut up!' Devore growls at her, and smashes the heel of one hard hand across her face, breaking her cheekbone and her nose. 'Shut up that howling!'
'Reckon it might get stiffer if it was one of your boys layin here with his rosy red ass stuck up in the air, sugar?' she asks, and then, For the last time, Sara laughs.
Devore draws his hand back to hit her again, his naked loins lying against her naked loins, his penis a flaccid worm between them. But before he can bring the hand down a child's voice cries, 'Ma! What they doin to you, Ma? Git off my mama, you bastards!'
She sits up in spite of Devore's weight, her laughter dying, her wide eyes searching Kito out and finding him, a slim young boy of eight standing on The Street, dressed in overalls and a straw hat and brand-new canvas shoes, carrying a tin bucket in one hand. His lips are blue with juice. His eyes are wide with confusion and fright.
'Run, Kito!' she screams. 'Run away h ¡ª '
Red fire explodes in her head,' she swoons back into the bushes, hearing ole massa from a great distance: 'Get him. Dassn't let him ramble, now.'
Then she's going down a long dark slope, she's lost in a Ghost House corridor that leads only deeper and deeper into its own convoluted bowels,' from that deep falling place she hears him, she hears, her darling one, he is
screaming. I heard him screaming as I knelt by the gray rock with my carry-bag beside me and no idea how I'd gotten to where I was ¡ª I certainly had no memory of walking here. I was crying in shock and horror and pity. Was she crazy? Well, no wonder. No fucking wonder. The rain was steady but no longer apocalyptic. I stared at my fishy-white hands on the gray rock for a few seconds, then looked around. Devore and the others were gone.
The ripe and gassy stench of decay filled my nose ¡ª it was like a physical assault. I fumbled in the carry-bag, found the Stenomask Rommie and George had given me as a joke, and slipped it over my mouth and nose with fingers that felt numb and distant. I breathed shallowly and tentatively. Better. Not a lot, but enough to keep from fleeing, which was undoubtedly what she wanted.
'No!' she cried from somewhere behind me as I grabbed the spade and dug in. I tore a great mouth in the ground with the first swipe, and each subsequent one deepened and widened it. The earth was soft and yielding, woven through with mats of thin roots which parted easily under the blade.
'No! Don't you dare!'
I wouldn't look around, wouldn't give her a chance to push me away. She was stronger down here, perhaps because it had happened here. Was that possible? I didn't know and didn't care. All I cared about was getting this done. Where the roots were thicker, I hacked through them with the pruning knife.
'Leave me be!'
Now I did look around, risked one quick glance because of the unnatural crackling sounds which had accompanied her voice ¡ª which now seemed to make her voice. The Green Lady was gone. The birch had somehow become Sara Tidwell: it was Sara's face growing out of the criss-crossing branches and shiny leaves. That rain-slicked face swayed, dissolved, came together, melted away, came together again. For a moment all the mystery I had sensed down here was revealed. Her damp shifting eyes were utterly human. They stared at me with hate and supplication.
'I ain't done!' she cried in a cracked, breaking voice. 'He was the worst, don't you understand? He was the worst and it's his blood in her and I won't rest until I have it out!'
There was a gruesome ripping sound. She had inhabited the birch, made it into a physical body of some sort and intended to tear it free of the earth. She would come and get me with it if she could; kill me with it if she could. Strangle me in limber branches. Stuff me with leaves until I looked like a Christmas decoration.
'No matter how much of a monster he was, Kyra had nothing to do with what he did,' I said. 'And you won't have her.'
'Yes I will!' the Green Lady screamed. The ripping, rending sounds were louder now. They were joined by a hissing, shaky crackle. I didn't look around again. I didn't dare look around. I dug faster instead. 'Yes I will have her!' she cried, and now the voice was closer. She was coming for me but I refused to see; when it comes to walking trees and bushes, I'll stick to Macbeth, thanks. 'I will have her! He took mine and I mean to take his!'
'Go away,' a new voice said.
The spade loosened in my hands, almost fell. I turned and saw Jo standing below me and to my right. She was looking at Sara, who had materialized into a lunatic's hallucination ¡ª a monstrous greenish-black thing that slipped with every step it tried to walk along The Street. She had left the birch behind yet assumed its vitality somehow ¡ª the actual tree huddled behind her, black and shrivelled and dead. The creature born of it looked like the Bride of Frankenstein as sculpted by Picasso. In it, Sara's face came and went, came and went.
The Shape, I thought coldly. It was always real . . . and if it was always me, it was always her, too.
Jo was dressed in the white shirt and yellow slacks she'd had on the day she died. I couldn't see the lake through her as I had been able to see it through Devore and Devore's young friends; she had materialized herself completely. I felt a curious draining sensation at the back of my skull and thought I knew how.
'Git out, bitch!' the Sara-thing snarled. It raised its arms toward Jo as it had raised them to me in my worst nightmares.
'Not at all.' Jo's voice remained calm. She turned toward me. 'Hurry, Mike. You have to be quick. It's not really her anymore. She's let one of the Outsiders in, and they're very dangerous.'
'Jo, I love you.'
'I love you t ¡ª '
Sara shrieked and then began to spin. Leaves and branches blurred together and lost coherence; it was like watching something liquefy in a blender. The entity which had only looked a little like a woman to begin with now dropped its masquerade entirely. Something elemental and grotesquely inhuman began to form out of the maelstrom. It leaped at my wife. When it struck her, the color and solidity left Jo as if slapped away by a huge hand. She became a phantom struggling with the thing which raved and shrieked and clawed at her.
'Hurry, Mike!' she screamed. 'Hurry!'
I bent to the job.
The spade struck something that wasn't dirt, wasn't stone, wasn't wood. I scraped along it, revealing a filthy mold-crusted swatch of canvas. Now I dug like a madman, wanting to clear as much of the buried object as I could, wanting to fatten my chances of success as much as I could. Behind me, the Shape screamed in fury and my wife screamed in pain. Sara had given up part of her discorporate self in order to gain her revenge, had let in something Jo called an Outsider. I had no idea what that might be and never wanted to know. Sara was its conduit, I knew that much. And if I could take care of her in time ¡ª
I reached into the dripping hole, slapping wet earth from the ancient canvas. Faint stencilled letters appeared when I did: J.M. MCCURDIE SAWMILL. Mccurdie's had burned in the fires of '33, I knew. I'd seen a picture of it in flames somewhere. As I seized the canvas, the tips of my fingers punching through and letting out a fresh billow of green and gassy stench, I could hear grunting. I could hear
Devore. He's lying on top of her and grunting like a pig. Sara is semiconscious, muttering unintelligibly through bruised lips which are shiny with blood. Devore is looking back over his shoulder at Draper Finney and Fred Dean. They have raced after the boy and brought him back, but he won't stop yelling, he's yelling to beat the band, yelling to wake the dead, and if they can hear the Methodists singing 'How I Love to Tell the Story' over here, then they may be able to hear the yowling nigger over there. Devore says 'Put him in the water, shut him up.' The minute he says it, as though the words are magic words, his cock begins to stiffen.
'What do you mean?' Ben Merrill asks.
'You know goddam well,' Jared says. He pants the words out, jerking his hips as he speaks. His narrow ass gleams in the afternoon light. 'He seen us! You want to cut his throat, get his blood all over you? Fine by me. Here. Take my knife, be my guest!'
'N-No, Jared!' Ben cries in horror, actually seeming to cringe at the sight of the knife.
He is finally ready. It takes him a little longer, that's all, he ain't a kid like these other ones. But now ¡ª ! Never mind her smart mouth, never mind her insolent way of laughing, never mind the whole township. Let them all show up and watch if they like. He slips it to her, what she's wanted all along, what all her kind want. He slips it in and sinks it deep. He continues giving orders even as he rapes her. Up and down his ass goes, tick-tock, just like a cat's tail. 'Somebody take care of him! Or do you want to spend forty years rotting in Shawshank because of a nigger boy's tattle?'
Ben seizes one of Kito Tidwell's arms, Oren Peebles the other, but by the time they have dragged him as far as the embankment they have lost their heart. Raping an uppity nigger woman with the gall to laugh at Jared when he fell down and split his britches is one thing. Drowning a scared kid like a kitten in a mud-puddle . . . that's another one altogether.
They loosen their grip, staring into each other's haunted eyes, and Kito pulls free.
'Run, honey!' Sara cries. 'Run away and get ¡ª 'Jared clamps his hands around her throat and begins choking.
The boy trips over his own berry bucket and thumps gracelessly to the ground. Harry and Draper recapture him easily. 'What you going to do? ' Draper asks in a kind of desperate whine, and Harry replies
'What I have to.' That's what he replied, and now I was going to do what I had to ¡ª in spite of the stench, in spite of Sara, in spite of my dead wife's shrieks. I hauled the roll of canvas out of the ground. The ropes which had tied it shut at either end held, but the roll itself split down the middle with a hideous burping sound.
'Hurry!' Jo cried. 'I can't hold it much longer!'
It snarled; it bayed like a dog. There was a loud wooden crunch, like a door being slammed hard enough to splinter, and Jo wailed. I grabbed for the carry-bag with Slips 'n Greens printed on the front and tore it open as
Harry ¡ª the others call him Irish because of his carrot-colored hair ¡ª grabs the struggling kid in a clumsy kind of bearhug and jumps into the lake with him. The kid struggles harder than ever,' his straw hat comes off and floats on the water. 'Get that!' Harry pants. Fred Dean kneels and fishes out the dripping hat. Fred's eyes are dazed, he's got the look of a fighter about one round from hitting the canvas. Behind them Sara Tidwell has begun to rattle deep in her chest and throat like the sight of the boy's clenching hand, these sounds will haunt Draper Finney until his final dive into Eades Quarry. Jared sinks his fingers deeper, pumping and choking at the same time, the sweat pouring off him. No amount of washing will take the smell of that sweat out of these clothes, and when he begins to think of it as 'murder-sweat,' he burns the clothes to get shed of it.
Harry Auster wants to be shed of it all to be shed of it and never see these men again, most of all Jared Devore, who he now thinks must be Lord Satan himself. Harry cannot go home and face his father unless this nightmare is over, buried. And his mother! How can he ever face his beloved mother, Bridget Auster with her round sweet Irish face and graying hair and comforting shelf of bosom, Bridget who has always had a kind word or a soothing handler him, Bridget Auster who has been Saved, shed in the Blood of the Lamb, Bridget Auster who is even now serving pies at the picnic they're having at the new church, Bridget Auster who is mamma; how can he ever look at her again ¡ª or she him ¡ª if he has to stand in court on a charge of raping and beating a woman, even a black woman?
So he yanks the clinging boy away ¡ª Kito scratches him once, just a nick on the side of the neck, and that night Harry will tell his mamma it was a bush-pricker that caught him unawares and he will let her put a kiss on it ¡ª and then he plunges the child into the lake. Kito looks up at him, his face shimmering, and Harry sees a little fish flick by. A perch, he thinks. For an instant he wonders what the boy must see, looking up through the silver shield of the surface at the face of the fellow who's holding him down, the fellow who's drowning him, and then Harry pushes that away. Just a nigger, he reminds himself desperately. That's all he is, just a nigger. No kin of yours.
Kito's arm comes out of the water ¡ª his dripping dark-brown arm. Harry pulls back, not wanting to be clawed, but the hand doesn't reach for him, only sticks straight up. The fingers curl into a fist. Open. Curl into a fist. Open. Curl into a fist. The boy's thrashing begins to ease, the kicking feet begin to slow down, the eyes looking up into Harry's eyes are taking on a curiously dreamy look, and still that brown arm sticks straight up, still the hand opens and closes, opens and closes. Draper Finney stands on the shore crying, sure that now someone will come along, now someone will see the terrible thing they have done ¡ª the terrible thing they are in fact still doing. Be sure your sin will find you out, it says in the Good Book. Be sure. He opens his mouth to tell Harry to quit, maybe it's still not too late to take it back, let him up, let him live, but no sound comes out. Behind him Sara is choking her last. In front of him her drowning son's hand opens and closes, opens and closes, the reflection of it shimmering on the water, and Draper thinks Won't it stop doing that, won't it ever stop doing that? And as if it were a prayer that something is now answering, the boy's locked elbow begins to bend and his arm begins to sag; the fingers begin to close again into a fist and then stop. For a moment the hand wavers and then
I slammed the heel of my hand into the center of my forehead to clear these phantoms away. Behind me there was a frenzied snap and crackle of wet bushes as Jo and whatever she was holding back continued to struggle. I put my hands inside the split in the canvas like a doctor spreading a wound. I yanked. There was a low ripping sound as the roll tore the rest of the way up and down.
Inside was what remained of them ¡ª two yellowed skulls, forehead to forehead as if in intimate conversation, a woman's faded red leather belt, a molder of clothes . . . and a heap of bones. Two ribcages, one large and one small. Two sets of legs, one long and one short. The early remains of Sara and Kito Tidwell, buried here by the lake for almost a hundred years.
The larger of the two skulls turned. It glared at me with its empty eyesockets. Its teeth chattered as if it would bite me, and the bones below it began a tenebrous, jittery stirring. Some broke apart immediately; all were soft and pitted. The red belt stirred restlessly and the rusty buckle rose like the head of a snake.
'Mike!' Jo screamed. 'Quick, quick!'
I pulled the sack out of the carry-bag and grabbed the plastic bottle which had been inside. Lye stille, the Magnabet letters had said; another little word-trick. Another message passed behind the unsuspecting guard's back. Sara Tidwell was a fearsome creature, but she had underestimated Jo . . . and she had underestimated the telepathy of long association, as well. I had gone to Slips 'n Greens, I had bought a bottle of lye, and now I opened it and poured it, smoking, over the bones of Sara and her son.
There was a hissing sound like the one you hear when you open a beer or a bottled soft drink. The belt-buckle melted. The bones turned white and crumpled like things made out of sugar ¡ª I had a nightmare image of Mexican children eating candy corpses off long sticks on the Day of the Dead. The eyesockets of Sara's skull widened as the lye filled the dark hollow where her mind, her prodigious talent, and her laughing soul had once resided. It was an expression that looked at first like surprise and then like sorrow.
The jaw fell off; the nubs of the teeth sizzled away.
The top of the skull caved in.
Spread fingerbones jittered, then melted.
'Ohhhhhh . . . '
It whispered through the soaking trees like a rising wind . . . only the wind had died as the wet air caught its breath before the next onslaught. It was a sound of unspeakable grief and longing and surrender. I sensed no hate in it; her hate was gone, burned away in the corrosive I had bought in Helen Auster's shop. The sound of Sara's going was replaced by the plaintive, almost human cry of a bird, and it awakened me from the place where I had been, brought me finally and completely out of the zone. I got shakily to my feet, turned around, and looked at The Street.
Jo was still there, a dim form through which I could now see the lake and the dark clouds of the next thundersquall coming over the mountains. Something flickered beyond her ¡ª that bird venturing out of its safe covert for a peek at the re-arranged environment, perhaps ¡ª but I barely registered that. It was Jo I wanted to see, Jo who had come God knew how far and suffered God knew how much to help me. She looked exhausted, hurt, in some fundamental way diminished. But the other thing ¡ª the Outsider ¡ª was gone. Jo, standing in a ring of birch leaves so dead they looked charred, turned to me and smiled.
'Jo! We did it!'
Her mouth moved. I heard the sound, but the words were too distant to make out. She was standing right there, but she might have been calling across a wide canyon. Still, I understood her. I read the words off her lips if you prefer the rational, right out of her mind if you prefer the romantical. I prefer the latter. Marriage is a zone, too, you know. Marriage is a zone.
¡ª So that's all right, isn't it?
I glanced down into the gaping roll of canvas and saw nothing but stubs and splinters sticking out of a noxious, uneasy paste. I got a whiff, and even through the Stenomask it made me cough and back away. Not corruption; lye. When I looked back around at Jo, she was barely there.
¡ª Can't help. Can't stay.
Words from another star system, barely glimpsed on a fading mouth. Now she was little more than eyes floating in the dark afternoon, eyes which seemed made of the lake behind them.
¡ª Hurry . . .
She was gone. I slipped and stumbled to the place where she'd been, my feet crunching over dead birch leaves, and grabbed at nothing. What a fool I must have looked, soaked to the skin, wearing a Stenomask askew over the lower half of my face, trying to embrace the wet gray air.
I got the faintest whiff of Red perfume . . . and then only damp earth, lakewater, and the vile stink of lye running under everything. At least the smell of putrefaction was gone; that had been no more real than . . .
Than what? Than what? Either it was all real or none of it was real. If none of it was real, I was out of my mind and ready for the Blue Wing at Juniper Hill. I looked over toward the gray rock and saw the bag of bones I had pulled out of the wet ground like a festering tooth. Lazy tendrils of smoke were still rising from its ripped length. That much was real. So was the Green Lady, who was now a soot-colored Black Lady ¡ª as dead as the dead branch behind her, the one that seemed to point like an arm.
Can't help . . . can't stay . . . hurry.
Couldn't help with what? What more help did I need? It was done, wasn't it? Sara was gone: spirit follows bone, good night sweet ladies, God grant she lye stille.
And still a kind of stinking terror, not so different from the smell of putrescence which had come out of the ground, seemed to sweat out of the air; Kyra's name began to beat in my head, Ki-Ki, Ki-Ki, Ki-Ki, like the call of some exotic tropical bird. I started up the railroad-tie steps to the house, and although I was exhausted, by the time I was halfway up I had begun to run.
I climbed the stairs to the deck and went in that way. The house looked the same ¡ª save for the broken tree poking in through the kitchen window, Sara Laughs had stood up to the storm very well ¡ª but something was wrong. There was something I could almost smell . . . and perhaps I did smell it, bitter and low. Lunacy may have its own wild-vetch aroma. It's not the kind of thing I would ever care to research.
In the front hall I stopped, looking down at a heap of paperback books, Elmore Leonards and Ed Mcbains, lying on the floor. As if they had been raked off the shelf by a passing hand. A flailing hand, maybe. I could also see my tracks there, both coming and going. They had already begun to dry. They should have been the only ones; I had been carrying Ki when we came in. They should have been, but they weren't. The others were smaller, but not so small that I mistook them for a child's.
I ran down the hall to the north bedroom crying her name, and I might as well have been crying Mattie or Jo or Sara. Coming out of my mouth, Kyra's name sounded like the name of a corpse. The duvet had been thrown back onto the floor. Except for the black stuffed dog, lying where it had in my dream, the bed was empty. And Ki was gone.
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