VII - a Summons from the Lady
NONE OF MY FRIENDS BELIEVED ME, OF COURSE.
Davy Ray Callan just laughed and shook his head, and he said he couldn't have made up a better story if he'd tried. Ben Sears looked at me like I had seen one too many monster movies at the Lyric. Johnny Wilson thought about it awhile, in that slow, deliberating way of his, and then he gave his opinion: "Nope. Didn't happen."
"It did!" I told them as we sat on the porch of my house in the shade under a clear blue sky. "It really did, I swear it!"
"Oh yeahi" Davy Ray, the feisty one of our group and the one who was most likely to make up astounding tales, cocked his brown-haired head and stared at me through pale blue eyes that always held a hint of wild laughter. "Then how come Old Moses didn't just eat you upi How come a monster ran from a kid with a broomi"
"Because," I answered, flustered and angry, "I didn't have my monster-killin' ray gun with me, that's why! I don't know! But it happened, and you can ask-"
"Cory," my mother said quietly from the doorway, "I think you'd better stop talkin' about this now."
So I did. and I understood what she meant. There was no use trying to make anybody believe it. My mom herself couldn't quite grasp it, though Gavin Castile had sputtered the whole story to his mother. Mr. Thornberry, incidentally, was all right. He was alive and getting stronger day by day, and I understand he wanted to get well so he could take Gavin to see more Looney Tunes.
My friends would have believed it, though, if they could've smelled my clothes before Mom threw them in the garbage. She threw her own tainted clothes away, too. Dad listened to the tale, and he nodded and sat there with his hands folded before him, bandages on his palms and fingers covering huge blisters that had been raised by the shoveling.
"Well," Dad said, "all I can say is, there're stranger things on this earth than we can ever figure out if we had a hundred lifetimes. I thank God the both of you are all right, and that nobody drowned in the flood. Now: what's for dinneri"
Two weeks passed. We left april and moved through the sunny days of May. The Tecumseh River, having reminded us who was boss, returned to its banks. a quarter of the houses in Bruton weren't worth living in anymore, including Nila Castile 's, so the sound of sawing and hammering in Bruton was almost around the clock. There was one benefit of the rain and the flood, though; under the sunshine, the earth exploded in flowers and Zephyr blazed with color. Lawns were deep emerald, honeysuckle grew like mad passion, and kudzu blanketed the hills. Summer was almost upon us.
I turned my attention to studying for final exams. Math was never my strongest subject, and I was going to have to make a high grade so I wouldn't have to go to-and the mere thought of this made me choke-summer school.
In my quiet hours, I did wonder how I'd managed to beat Old Moses away with a bristle-brush broom. I had been lucky in jamming it down the monster's throat, that was for sure. But I figured it might have been something else, too. Old Moses, for all his size and fury, was like Granddaddy Jaybird; he could holler a good game, but at the first sting he took off running. Or swimming, as the case might be. Old Moses was a coward. Maybe Old Moses had gotten used to eating things that didn't fight back, like catfish and turtles and scared dogs paddling for their lives. With that broomstick in his throat, Old Moses might have figured there was easier prey where he came from, down at the bottom of the river in that cool, muddy banquet hall where nothing bites back.
at least, that's my theory. I don't ever want to have to test it again, though.
I had a dream about the man in the long coat and the green-feathered hat. I dreamed I was wading toward him, and when I grasped his arm he turned his face toward me and it was a man with not human skin but diamond-shaped scales the color of autumn leaves. He had fangs like daggers and blood dripping down his chin, and I realized I had interrupted him in the process of eating a small brown dog, the upper half of which he held struggling in his left hand.
It was not a pleasant dream.
But maybe there was some truth in it. Somewhere.
I was a walker in these days, bereft of two wheels to call my own. I enjoyed walking to and from school, but all my friends had bikes and I definitely had lost a step or two of status. One afternoon I was pitching a stick to Rebel and rolling around in the green grass with him when I heard a clankety sound. I looked up, Rebel looked up, and there was a pickup truck approaching our house.
I knew the truck. It was splotchy with rust and its suspension sagged, and the noise it made caused dogs to bay in its wake. Rebel started barking, and I had a time getting him quiet. The truck had a metal frame thing bolted in the bed from which hung, clattering like asylum inmates, a bewildering array of tools, most of which looked as antique and worthless as the truck. On the driver's door was stenciled, not very neatly, LIGHTFOOT'S FIX-IT.
The truck stopped in front of the house. Morn came out on the porch, alerted by the clamor, but Dad wouldn't be home from work for another hour or so. The truck's door opened, and a long, skinny black man wearing dusty gray overalls got out, so slowly it seemed that movement might be painful for him. He wore a gray cap, and his dark skin was smoky with dust. He came slowly toward the porch, and I have to say that even if a bull had suddenly come charging up behind him, Mr. Marcus Lightfoot probably wouldn't have hurried his pace.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Lightfoot," Mom said, her apron on. She had been working in the kitchen, and she wiped her hands on a paper towel. "How are youi"
Mr. Lightfoot smiled. His small, square teeth were very white, and gray hair boiled up from under his cap. This is how he spoke, in a voice like a slow leak from a clogged pipe: "Good afternoon to you, too, Miz Mackenson. Hey there, Cory."
This was a good-paced conversational clip for Mr. Light-foot, who had been a handyman in Zephyr and Bruton for more than thirty years, picking up the task from his father. Mr. Lightfoot was renowned for his skill with appliances, and though he was slow as a toothache, he always got the job done no matter how baffling the problem. "Mighty fine." He stopped, looking up at the blue sky. The seconds ticked past. Rebel barked, and I put my hand over his muzzle.
"Day," Mr. Lightfoot decided.
"Yes, it is." Mom waited for him to speak again, but Mr. Lightfoot just stood there, this time looking at our house. He reached into one of his many pockets, brought out a handful of penny nails, and clicked them around, as if he were waiting, too. "Uh..." Mom cleared her throat. "Can I help you with anythin'i"
"Jus' passin'," he replied, slow as warm molasses. "Wonderin' if you"-and here he paused to study the nails in his hand for a few seconds-"might need somethin' fixedi"
"Well, no, not really. I can't think of-" She stopped, and her expression told me she had thought of something. "The toaster. It went out on me day before yesterday. I was gonna call you, but-"
"Yes'm, I know." Mr. Lightfoot nodded sagely. "Time sure does fly."
He went back to the truck to get his toolbox, an old metal fascination filled with drawers and every kind of nut and bolt, it seemed, under the workman's sun. He strapped on his tool belt, from which hung several different kinds of hammers, screwdrivers, and arcane-looking wrenches. Mom held the door open for Mr. Lightfoot, and when he walked into the house she looked at me and shrugged, her statement being: I don't know why he's here, either. I left Rebel the gnawed stick and went into the house, too, and in the cool of the kitchen I drank a glass of iced tea and watched Mr. Lightfoot stare down the toaster.
"Mr. Lightfoot, would you care for somethin' to drinki" Mom asked.
"I've got some oatmeal cookies."
" Nome, thank you kindly." He took a clean white square of cloth from another pocket and unfolded it. He draped the cloth over the seat of one of the chairs to the kitchen table. Then he unplugged the toaster, set it on the table alongside his toolbox, and sat down on the white cloth. all this had been done at an underwater pace.
Mr. Lightfoot chose a screwdriver. He had the long, graceful fingers of a surgeon, or an artist. Watching him work was a form of torture for the patience, but no one can say he didn't know what he was doing. He opened the toaster right up, and sat staring at the naked grills. "Uh-huh," he said after a long moment of silence. "Uh-huh."
"What is iti" Mom peered over his shoulder. "Can it be fixedi"
"See therei Little ol' red wirei" He tapped it with the screwdriver's edge. "Done come a'loose."
"Is that all that's wrongi Just that little wirei"
"Yes'm, that's." He began to carefully rewind the wire around its connection, and watching him do this was like a strange kind of hypnosis. "all," he finally finished. Then he put the toaster back together again, plugged it in, pushed down the timer prongs, and we all saw the coils start to redden. "Sometimes," Mr. Lightfoot said.
We waited. I think I could hear my hair growing.
The world turned beneath us.
"Little things." He began to refold the white cloth. We waited, but this particular line of thought had either derailed or reached its dead end. Mr. Lightfoot looked around the kitchen. "anythin' else need fixin'i"
"No, I think we're in good shape now."
Mr. Lightfoot nodded, but I could tell that he was searching for problems like a bird dog sniffing game. He made a slow circle of the kitchen, during which he delicately placed his hands on the icebox, the four-eyed stove, and the sink's faucet as if divining the health of the machinery through his touch. Mom and I looked at each other, puzzled; Mr. Lightfoot was certainly acting peculiar.
"Icebox kinda stutterin'," he said. "Want me to take a peeki"
"No, don't bother with it," Mom told him. "Mr. Light-foot, are you feelin' all right todayi"
"Surely, Miz Mackenson. Surely." He opened a cupboard and listened to the slight squeak of the hinges. a screwdriver was withdrawn from his tool belt, and he tightened the screws in both that cupboard door and the next one, too. Mom cleared her throat again, nervously this time, and she said, "Uh... Mr. Lightfoot, how much do I owe you for fixin' the toasteri"
"It's," he said. He tested the hinges of the kitchen door, and then he went to my mother's MixMaster blender on the countertop and started examining that. "Done paid," he finished.
"Paidi But... I don't understand." Mom had already reached up on a shelf and brought down the mason jar full of dollar bills and change.
"But I haven't given you any money yet."
Mr. Lightfoot's fingers dug into another pocket, and this time emerged with a white envelope. He gave it to Mom, and I saw that it had The Mackenson Family written across its front in blue ink. On the back, sealing it, was a blob of white wax. "Well," he said at last, "I 'spect I'm done for." He picked up his toolbox. "Today."
"Todayi" Mom asked.
"Yes'm. You know." Mr. Lightfoot now started looking at the light fixtures, as if he longed to get into their electrical depths. "My number," he said. "anythin' needs fixin', you." He smiled at us. "Jus' call."
We saw Mr. Lightfoot off. He waved as he drove away in the clankety old pickup, the tools jangling on their hooks and the neighborhood dogs going crazy. Mom said, mostly to herself, "Tom's not gonna believe this." Then she opened the envelope, took a letter from it, and read it. "Huh," she said. "Want to heari"
She read it to me: "'I'd be honored if you would come to my house at seven o'clock this Friday evening. Please bring your son.' and look who it's from." Mom handed the letter to me, and I saw the signature.
When Dad got home, Mom told him about Mr. Lightfoot and showed him the letter almost before he could get his milkman's cap off. "What do you think she wants with usi" Dad asked.
"I don't know, but I think she's decided to pay Mr. Lightfoot to be our personal handyman."
Dad regarded the letter again. "She's got nice handwritin', to be so old. I would've thought it'd be crimped up." He chewed on his bottom lip, and just watching him I could tell he was getting edgy. "You know, I've never seen the Lady close up before. Seen her on the street, but..." He shook his head. "No. I don't believe I want to go."
"What're you sayin'i" Mom asked incredulously. "The Lady wants us to come to her house!"
"I don't care." Dad gave her back the letter. "I'm not goin'."
"Why, Tomi Give me one good reason."
"Phillies are playin' the Pirates on radio Friday night," he said as he retired to the comfort of his easy chair. "That's reason enough."
"I don't think so," Mom told him, setting her jaw.
Here we came to a rare fact of life: my parents, though I believe they got along better than ninety-nine percent of the married couples in Zephyr, did have their go-rounds. Just as no one person is perfect, no marriage of two imperfects is going to be without a scrape of friction here and there. I have seen my father blow his top over a missing sock when in fact he was mad he didn't get a raise at the dairy. I have seen my usually placid mother steam with anger over a muddy bootmark on the clean floor when in fact the root of her discontent lay in a rude remark from a neighbor. So, in this tangled web of civilities and rage riots that we know as life, such things will happen as now began to take shape in my parents' house.
"It's because she's colored, isn't iti" Mom threw the first punch. "That's the real reason."
"No, it's not."
"You're as bad as your daddy about that. I swear, Tom-"
"Hush!" he hollered. Even I staggered. The comment about Granddaddy Jaybird, who was to racism as crabgrass is to weeds, had been a very low blow. Dad did not hate colored people, and this I knew for sure, but please remember that Dad had been raised by a man who saluted the Confederate flag every morning of his life and who considered black skin to be the mark of the devil. It was a terrible burden my father was carrying, because he loved Granddaddy Jaybird but he believed in his heart, as he taught me to believe, that hating any other man-for any reason-was a sin against God. So this next statement of his had more to do with pride than anything else: "and I'm not takin' charity from that woman, either!"
"Cory," Mom said, "I believe you have some math homework to doi"
I went to my room, but that didn't mean I couldn't hear them.
They weren't really loud, just intense. I suspected this had been brewing awhile, and came from a lot of different places: the car in the lake, the wasps at Easter, the fact that Dad couldn't afford to buy me a new bike, the dangers of the flood. Listening to Dad tell Mom that she couldn't put a rope around his neck and drag him into the Lady's house, I got the feeling that it all boiled down to this: the Lady scared him.
"No way!" he said. "I'm not goin' to see somebody who fools with bones and old dead animals and-" He stopped, and I figured he'd realized he was describing Granddaddy Jaybird. "I'm just not," he finished on a lame note.
Mom had decided she had run this horse to death. I could hear it in her sigh. "I'd like to go find out what she has to say. Is that all right with youi"
Silence. Then, in a quiet voice: "Yeah, it's all right."
"I'd like to take Cory, too."
This started another flare-up. "Whyi You want him to see the skeletons hangin' in that woman's closeti Rebecca, I don't know what she wants and I don't care! But that woman plays with conjure dolls and black cats and God knows what all! I don't think it's right to take Cory into her house!"
"She asks, right here in the letter, that we bring Cory. Seei"
"I see it. and I don't understand it, either, but I'm tellin' you: the Lady is not to be messed with. You remember Burk Hatcheri Used to be assistant foreman at the dairy back in 'fifty-eighti"
"Burk Hatcher used to chew tobacco. Chewed gobs of it, and he was always spittin'. Got to be a bad habit he hardly even knew he had, and-don't you dare tell anybody this-but a couple of times he forgot himself and spat right in a milk vat."
"Oh, Tom! You don't mean it!"
"Right as rain, I do. Now, Burk Hatcher was walkin' down Merchants Street one day, had just got his hair cut at Mr. Dollars's-and he had a full, thick head of hair he could hardly pull a comb through-and he forgot himself and spat on the sidewalk. Only the tobacco wattle never hit the sidewalk, 'cause it got on the Moon Man's shoes. Smack dab all over 'em. Wasn't on purpose, as I understand it. The Moon Man was just walkin' past. Well, Burk had a weird sense of humor, and this thing struck him as funny. He started laughin', right there in the Moon Man's face. and you know whati"
"Whati" Mom asked.
"a week later Burk's hair started to fall out."
"Oh, I don't believe it!"
"It's true!" The adamance of my father's voice indicated that he, at least, believed it. "Within one month after Burk Hatcher spat tobacco juice on the Moon Man's shoes, he was balder'n a cue ball! He started wearin' a wig! Yes ma'am, he did! He almost went crazy because of it!" I could imagine my father leaning forward in his chair, his face so grim my mother was having to struggle to keep from laughing. "If you don't think the Lady had somethin' to do with that, you're crazy!"
"Tom, I swear I never knew you put so much faith in the occult."
"Faith, smaith! I saw Burk's bald head! Heck, I can tell you a lot of things I've heard about that woman! Like frogs jumpin' out of people's throats and snakes in the soup bowl and... uh-uh, no! I'm not settin' foot in that house!"
"But what if she gets mad at us if we don't go therei" Mom asked.
The question hung.
"Mightn't she put a spell on us if I don't take Cory to see heri"
I could tell Mom was jiving my dad a little, from her tone of voice. Still, Dad didn't answer and he was probably mulling over the potential disasters of snubbing the Lady.
"I think I'd better go and take Cory, too," Mom went on. "To show that we respect her. anyway, aren't you the least bit curious why she wants to see usi"
"Not the tiniest least biti"
"Lord," Dad said after another bout of thinking. "You could argue the warts off a toad. and the Lady's probably got bottles full of those, too, to go along with her mummy dust and bat wings!"
The result of all this was that on Friday evening, as the sun began to slide down across the darkening earth and a cool wind blew through the streets of Zephyr, my mother and I got in the pickup truck and left our house. Dad stayed behind, his radio tuned to the baseball game he'd been awaiting, but I believe he was with us in spirit. He just didn't want to make a mistake and offend the Lady, in manner or speech. I have to say I was no solid rock myself; under my white shirt and the clip-on tie Mom had made me wear, my nerves were frazzling mighty fast.
Work was still going on in Bruton, the dark people sawing and hammering their houses back together. We passed through Bruton's business center, a little area with a barbershop, grocery store, shoe and clothing store, and other establishments run by the locals. Mom turned us onto Jessamyn Street, and at the end of that street she stopped in front of a house from which lights glowed through every window.
The small frame house, as I've already mentioned, was painted in a blaze of orange, purple, red, and yellow. a garage was set off to the side, where I figured the rhinestone-covered Pontiac was stored. The yard was neatly trimmed, and a sidewalk led from the curb to the porch steps. The house appeared neither scary nor the residence of royalty; it was just a house and, except for its coat of many colors, very much like every other house on the street.
Still, I balked when Mom came around and opened my door.
"Come on," she said. Her voice had tightened, though her nervousness didn't show in her face. She was wearing one of her best Sunday dresses, and her nice Sunday shoes. "It's almost seven."
Seven, I thought. Wasn't that supposed to be a voodoo numberi "Maybe Dad was right," I told her. "Maybe we ought not to do this."
"It's all right. Look at all the lights on."
If this was supposed to make me feel at ease, it didn't work.
"There's nothin' to be afraid of," Mom said. This, from a woman who fretted that the gray insulation they'd recently sprayed above the ceiling of the elementary school might be bad for your breathing.
Somehow I got up the porch steps to the door. The porch light was painted yellow, to keep bugs away. I'd imagined the door's knocker might be a skull and crossbones. It was, instead, a little silver hand. Mom said, "Here goes," and she rapped on the door.
We heard muffled talking and footsteps. It occurred to me that our time to flee was running out. Mom put her arm around me, and I thought I could feel her pulse beating. Then the door's knob turned, the door opened, and the Lady's house offered entry. a tall, broad-shouldered black man wearing a dark blue suit, a white shirt, and a tie filled up the doorway. To me he looked as tall and burly as a black oak. He had hands that looked as if they could crush bowling balls. Part of his nose appeared to have been sliced off with a razor. His eyebrows merged together, thick as a werewolf's pelt.
In seven mystic words: he scared the crap out of me.
"Uh..." Mom began, and faltered. "Uh..."
"Come right in, Miz Mackenson." He smiled. With that smile his face became less fearsome and more welcome. But his voice was as deep as a kettledrum and it vibrated in my bones. He stepped aside, and Mom grasped my hand and pulled me across the threshold.
The door closed at our backs.
a young woman with skin the hue of chocolate milk was there to greet us. She had a heart-shaped face and tawny eyes, and she took my mother's hand and said with a smile, "I'm amelia Damaronde, and I'm so verra pleased to meet you." She had bangle bracelets covering her forearms and five gold pins up the edges of each of her ears.
"Thank you. This is my son, Cory."
"Oh, this is the young man!" amelia Damaronde turned her attention to me. She had an electricity about her that made me feel as if the air between us was charged. "a pleasure to meet you, too. This is my husband, Charles." The big man nodded at us. amelia stood about up to his armpits. "We take care of things for the Lady," amelia said.
"I see." Mom was still holding on to my hand, while I was busy looking around. The mind is a strange thing, isn't iti The mind concocts spiderwebs where there are no spiders, and darkness where the lights are bright. The living room of the Lady's house was no temple to the devil, no repository of black cats and bubbling cauldrons. It was just a room with chairs, a sofa, a little table on which knickknacks rested, and there were shelves with books and framed, vividly colored paintings on the walls. One of the paintings caught me: it showed the face of a bearded black man, his eyes closed in either suffering or ecstasy, and on his head was a crown of thorns.
I had never seen a black Jesus before, and this sight both knocked me for a loop and opened up a space in my mind that I'd never known needed light.
The Moon Man suddenly walked through a hallway into the room. Seeing him so close caused a start for both my mother and me. The Moon Man wore a light blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a pair of black trousers, and suspenders. Tonight he had only one wristwatch on, and the white rim of a T-shirt showed instead of his chain and huge gilded crucifix. He wasn't wearing his top hat; the splotchy division of pale yellow and ebony flesh continued up his high forehead and ended in a cap of white wool. The white beard on his chin was pointed, and curled slightly upward. His dark, wrinkle-edged eyes rested on first my mother and then me, and he smiled faintly and nodded. He lifted a thin finger and motioned us into the hallway.
It was time to meet the Lady.
"She's not been feelin' well," amelia told us. "Dr. Parrish's been loadin' her up with vitamins."
"It's not anythin' serious, is iti" Mom asked.
"The rain got in her lungs. She doesn't get along so good in damp weather, but she's doin' better now that the sun's been out."
We came to a door. The Moon Man opened it, his shoulders frail and stooped. I smelled dusty violets.
amelia peered in first. "Ma'ami Your callers are here."
Sheets rustled within the room. "Please," said the shaky voice of an old woman, "send them in."
My mother took a breath and walked into the room. I had to follow, because she gripped my hand. The Moon Man stayed outside, and amelia said, "If you need anythin', just call," before she gently closed the door.
and there she was.
She lay in a bed with a white metal frame, her back supported by a brocaded pillow, and the top sheet pulled up over her chest. The walls of her bedroom were painted with green fronds and foliage, and but for the polite drone of a box fan, we might have been standing in an equatorial jungle. an electric lamp burned on the bedside table, where magazines and books were stacked, and within her reach was a pair of wire-rimmed glasses.
The Lady just stared at us for a moment, and we at her. She was almost bluish-black against the white bed, and not an inch of her face looked unwrinkled. She reminded me of one of those apple dolls whose faces shrivel up in the hard noonday sun. I had seen handfuls of fresh snow scraped off the Ice House's pipes; the Lady's soft cloud of hair was whiter. She was wearing a blue gown, the straps up around her bony shoulders, and her collarbone jutted in such clear relief against her skin that it appeared painful. So, too, did her cheekbones; they seemed sharp enough to slice a peach. To tell the truth, though, except for one feature the Lady wouldn't have looked like much but an ancient, reed-thin black woman whose head trembled with a little palsy.
But her eyes were green.
I don't mean any old green. I mean the color of pale emeralds, the kind of jewels Tarzan might have been searching for in one of the lost cities of africa. They were luminous, full of trapped and burning light, and looking into them you felt as if your secret self might be jimmied open like a sardine can and something stolen from you. and you might not even mind it, either; you might want it to be so. I had never seen eyes like that before, and I never have since. They scared me, but I could not turn away because their beauty was like that of a fierce wild animal who must be carefully watched at all times.
The Lady blinked, and a smile winnowed up over her wrinkled mouth. If she didn't have her own teeth, they were good fakes. "Don't you both look nice," she said in her palsied voice.
"Thank you, ma'am," Mom managed to answer.
"Your husband didn't want to come."
"Uh... no, he's... listenin' to the baseball game on the radio."
"Was that his excuse, Miz Mackensoni" She lifted her white brows.
"I... don't know what you mean."
"Some people," the Lady said, "are scared of me. Can you beat thati Scared of an old woman in her one hundred and sixth year! and me layin' here can't even keep no supper down! You love your husband, Miz Mackensoni"
"Yes, I do. Very much."
"That's good. Love strong and true can get you through a lot of dookey. and I'm here to tell you, honey, you got to walk through many fields of dookey to get to be my age." Those green, wonderful, and frightening eyes in that wrinkled ebony face turned full blaze on me. "Hello, young man," she said. "You help your momma do choresi"
"Yes'm." It was a whisper. My throat felt parched.
"You dry the dishesi Keep your room neati You sweep the front porchi"
"That's fine. But I bet you never had call to use a broom like you used one at Nila Castile 's house, did youi"
I swallowed hard. Now I and my mother knew what this was about.
The Lady grinned. "I wish I'd been there. I swanee I do!"
"Did Nila Castile tell youi" Mom asked.
"She did. I had a long talk with little Gavin, too." Her eyes stayed fixed on me. "You saved Gavin's life, young man. You know what that means to mei" I shook my head. "Nila's mother, God keep her, was a good friend of mine. I kind of adopted Nila. I always thought of Gavin as a great-grandchild. Gavin has a good life ahead of him. You made sure he'll get there."
"I was just... keepin' from gettin' eaten up myself," I said.
She chuckled; it was a gaspy sound. "Run him off with a broomstick! Lawd, Lawd! He thought he was such a mean ole thing, thought he could swim right up out of that river and snatch him a feast! But you gave him a mouthful, didn't youi"
"He ate a dog," I told her.
"Yeah, he would," the Lady said, and her chuckling died down. Her thin fingers intertwined over her stomach. She looked at my mother. "You did a kindness for Nila and her daddy. That's why whenever you need somethin' fixed, you call Mr. Lightfoot and it's done. Your boy saved Gavin's life. That's why I want to give him somethin', if I have your permit."
"It's not necessary."
"ain't nothin' necessary," the Lady said, and she showed a little flare of irritation that made me think she would've been plenty tough when she was young. "That's why I'm gone do it."
"all right," Mom said, thoroughly cowed.
"Young mani" The Lady's gaze moved to me again. "What would you likei"
I thought about it. "anythingi" I asked.
"Within reason," Mom prodded.
"anythin'," the Lady said.
I thought some more, but the decision wasn't very difficult. "a bike. a new bike that's never belonged to anybody before."
"a new bicycle." She nodded. "One with a lamp on iti"
"Want a horni"
"That'd be fine," I said.
"Want it to be a fast onei Faster'n a cat up a treei"
"Yes'm." I was getting excited now. "I sure do!"
"Then you'll have it! Soon as I can get my old self up from here."
"That's awfully nice of you," Mom said. "We sure appreciate it. But Cory's father and I can go pick up a bike from the store, if that's-"
"Won't come from a store," the Lady interrupted.
"Pardoni" Mom asked.
"Won't come from a store." She paused, to make sure my mother understood. "Store-bought's not good enough. Not special enough. Young man, you want a real special bicycle, don't youi"
"I... guess I'll take what I can get, ma'am."
at this, she laughed again. "Well, you're a little gentleman! Yessir, Mr. Lightfoot and I are gone put our heads together and see what we can come up with. Does that suit youi"
I said it did, but in truth I didn't quite understand how this was going to bring me a brand-new bicycle.
"Step closer," the Lady told me. "Come around here real close."
Mom let me go. I walked to the side of the bed, and those green eyes were right there in front of me like spirit lamps.
"What do you like to do besides ride a bicyclei"
"I like to play baseball. I like to read. I like to write stories."
"Write storiesi" Her eyebrows went up again. "Lawd, Lawd! We gots us a writer herei"
"Cory's always liked books," Mom offered. "He writes little stories about cowboys, and detectives, and-"
"Monsters," I said. "Sometimes."
"Monsters," the Lady repeated. "You gone write about Old Mosesi"
"You gone write a book somedayi Maybe about this town and everybody in iti"
I shrugged. "I don't know."
"Look at me," she said. I did. "Deep," she said.
and then something strange happened. She began to speak, and as she spoke, the air seemed to shimmer between us with a pearly iridescence. Her eyes had captured mine; I could not look away. "I've been called a monster," the Lady said. "Been called worse than a monster. I saw my momma killed when I wasn't much older than you. Woman jealous of her gift killed her. I swore I was gone find that woman. She wore a red dress, and she carried a monkey on her shoulder that told her things. Woman's name was LaRouge. Took me all my life to find her. I've been to Lepersville, and I've rowed a boat through the flooded mansions." Her face, through that shimmering haze, had begun to shed its wrinkles. She was getting younger as I stared at her. "I've seen the dead walkin', and my best friend had scales and crawled on her belly." Her face was younger still. Its beauty began to scorch my face. "I've seen the maskmaker. I've spat in Satan's eye, and I've danced in the halls of the Dark Society." She was a girl with long black hair, her cheekbones high and proud, her chin sharp, her eyes fearsome with memories. "I have lived," she said in her clear, strong voice, "a hundred lifetimes, and I'm not dead yet. Can you see me, young mani"
"Yes'm," I answered, and I heard myself as if from a vast distance. "I can."
The spell broke, quick as a heartbeat. One second I was looking at a beautiful young woman, and the next there was the Lady as she really was, one hundred and six years old. Her eyes had cooled some, but I felt feverish.
"Maybe someday you'll write my life story," the Lady told me. It sounded more like a command than a comment. "Now, why don't you go on out and visit with amelia and Charles while I talk to your mommai"
I said I would. My legs were rubbery as I walked past Mom to the door. Sweat had crept around my collar. at the door, a thought hit me and I turned back to the bed. "'Scuse me, ma'ami" I ventured. "Do you... like... have anythin' that would help me pass mathi I mean like a magic drink or somethin'i"
"Cory!" Mom scolded me.
But the Lady just smiled. She said, "Young man, I do. You tell amelia to get you a drink of Potion Number Ten. Then you go home and you study hard, harder'n you ever did before. So hard you can do them 'rithmatics in your sleep." She lifted a finger. "That ought to do the trick."
I left the room and closed the door behind me, eager for magic.
"Potion Number Teni" Mom asked.
"Glass of milk with some nutmeg flavorin' in it," the Lady said. "amelia and me got a whole list of potions worked out for folks who need a little extra courage or confidence or what have you."
"Is that how all your magic's donei"
"Most all. You just give folks a key, and they can rightly open their own locks." The Lady's head cocked to one side. "But there's other kinds of magic, too. That's why I need to talk to you."
My mother was silent, not understanding what was about to come.
"Been dreamin'," the Lady said. "Been dreamin' asleep and awake. Things ain't right here no more. Things are tore up on the other side, too."
"The other sidei"
"Where the dead go," she said. "across the river. Not the Tecumseh. The broad, dark river where I'm gonna be goin' before too much longer. Then I'll look back and laugh and I'll say, 'So that's what it's all about!'"
Mom shook her head, uncomprehending.
"Things are tore up," the Lady went on. "In the land of the livin' and the world of the dead. I knew somethin' was wrong when Damballah denied his food. Jenna Velvadine told me what happened at your church Easter mornin'. That was the spirit world at work, too."
"It was wasps," Mom said.
"To you, wasps. To me, a message. Somebody's in terrible pain on the other side."
"Understand," the Lady finished for her. "I know you don't. Sometimes I don't either. But I know the language of pain, Miz Mackenson. I grew up speakin' it." The Lady reached over to her bedside table, opened a drawer, and took out a piece of lined notebook paper. She gave it to my mother. "You recognize thisi"
Mom stared at it. On the paper was the pencil sketch of a head: a skull, it looked to be, with wings swept back from its temples.
"In my dream I see a man with that tattoo on his shoulder. I see a pair of hands, and in one hand there's a billy club wrapped up with black tape-we call it a crackerknocker-and in the other there's a wire. I can hear voices, but I can't tell what's bein' said. Somebody's yellin', and there's music bein' played real loud."
"Musici" Mom was cold inside; she had recognized the winged skull from what Dad had told her about the corpse in the car.
"Either a record," the Lady said, "or somebody's beatin' hell out of a piano. I told Charles. He recalled me a story I read in the Journal back in March. Your husband was the one who saw a dead man go down in Saxon's Lake, ain't that righti"
"Might this have anythin' to do with iti"
Mom took a deep breath, held it, and then let it out. "Yes," she said.
"I thought so. Your husband sleepin' all righti"
"No. He... has bad dreams. about the lake, and... the man in it."
"Tryin' to reach your husband," the Lady said. "Tryin' to get his attention. I'm just pickin' up the message, like a party line on a telephone."
"Messagei" Mom asked. "What messagei"
"I don't know," the Lady admitted, "but that kind of pain can sure 'nuff drive a man out of his mind."
Tears began to blur my mother's vision. "I... can't... I don't..." She faltered, and a tear streaked down her left cheek like quicksilver.
"You show him that picture. Tell him to come see me if he wants to talk about it. Tell him he knows where I live."
"He won't come. He's afraid of you."
"You tell him," the Lady said, "this thing could tear him to pieces if he don't set it right. You tell him I could be the best friend he ever had."
Mom nodded. She folded the notebook paper into a square and clenched it in her hand.
"Wipe your eyes," the Lady told her. "Don't want the young man gettin' upset." When my mother had gotten herself fairly composed, the Lady gave a grunt of satisfaction. "There you go. Lookin' pretty again. Now, you go tell the young man he'll have his new bicycle soon as I can manage it. You make sure he studies his lessons, too. Potion Number Ten don't work without a momma or daddy layin' down the law."
My mother thanked the Lady for her kindness. She said she'd talk to my father about coming to see her, but she couldn't promise anything. "I'll expect him when I see him," the Lady said. "You take care of yourself and your family."
Mom and I left the house and walked to the truck. The corners of my mouth still had a little Potion Number Ten in them. I felt ready to tear that math book up.
We left Bruton. The river flowed gently between its banks. The night's breeze blew softly through the trees, and the lights glowed from windows as people finished their dinners. I had two things on my mind: the hauntingly beautiful face of a young woman with green eyes, and a new bike with a horn and headlight.
My mother was thinking about a dead man whose corpse lay down at the bottom of the lake but whose spirit haunted my father's dreams and now the Lady's dreams as well.
Summer was close upon us, its scent of honeysuckle and violets perfuming the land.
Somewhere in Zephyr, a piano was being played.
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