Southern Gothic murder tale from North Carolina about a mysterious and frightening visitor to a hardscrabble Appalachian community. Written by Pat McCrary.
November. The wind in the North Carolina high country has raked the trees gaunt and spindly sunlight leaks from a sky the color of dish water.
Thanksgiving will be here in a week. The newspaper says that we are in a depression. People who live on this mountain might say trouble is the world’s way.
From an early age, I’ve been told to count my blessings. I have a wife and two daughters. We’ve drawn long straws, I guess you’d say, in this latest round of misfortune. My wife is fond of reminding me that nothing happens to a man that God hasn’t already prepared him for. She doesn’t believe that He has reduced us to a dice roll or even our own admittedly primitive best devices. She’s firm in her convictions, which I’ve often found to be nearly as good as being right.
I have a job with John Pittman’s outfit, a saw mill that he’s kept running for well over forty years. The mill is set up by the river in a place called Drover’s Paradise. Confederate soldiers staged livestock- by war’s end just shambling, emaciated specimens – along these river banks to be sent by ferry to points downriver. In years subsequent to this conflagration, the mountaineers chopped the great yellow poplars, spruce and white oak growing in abundance along these river banks or drug them down from the ridges with mule and horse teams, disgorging the timber into the rivers during springtime freshets. It is said that some of these men would bind the logs into rafts and ride them down into the fleshpot towns blooming along these banks to enjoy a portion of the proceeds to be wrung from the buyers.
Mr. Pittman had been one of these mountaineers, not much more than a boy then, but wise enough to have hazarded sparing amounts on the meager comforts provided in such places.
It is said that Mr. Pittman is a widower, his wife carried off by pellagra in the hard years after the war. Some whisper that she ran off with an itinerant preacher. Those capable of settling such mysteries have either died or have grown old and wise enough not to prattle about matters of paltry substance.
Mr. Pittman is a hard man and a man steeped in solitude, with a dour disposition. His gaze is flinty-eyed and honed daily on underlings- a set of people he’d no doubt think to include Roosevelt himself. His is a countenance creased florid and is one quick to register displeasure or palpable contempt.
As a boy, orphaned by the war, he’d helped the soldiers herd livestock- by war’s end grown lank with disease and starvation- onto the ferries clustered along the banks at Drover’s Paradise. It is said that he suffered any number of outrages and depredations at the hands of these men, who were suffering alike and perhaps grown careless to the misery of God’s creatures, great and small. Perhaps these experiences provide some insight into the calculus of this man’s spirit.
That summer previous, on a bright June Saturday afternoon, as I remember it, we were milling around the wigwam burner, stuffing chips down it as fast as we could go, eager to knock off. Motes of sawdust were clinging to our britches and shirt sleeves and clumped in our hair. Wesly Alspaugh, a man given to a motley array of indiscretions, and perhaps already nipping from a cornbud flask he kept in a sideboot, turned his attention towards Pittman, who stood away from us rolling a cigarette from tobacco pouch so ancient that its leather was worn smooth. “Mr. Pittman,” Wesly cried, “why the hell ain’t we ever seen you so much as crack a smile or catch a glimpse of something you might find amusing ? It would only be natural and good for the soul to turn your mind to such things.”
Pittman finished rolling the cigarette, lit it and took a deep drag. He wiped his face with a handkerchief and pinched the flame of the cigarette between thumb and forefinger and stuffed the handkerchief and cigarette into the same shirt pocket. With yet more deliberation, he gazed out over the ridges. Pittman replied, “Wesly, every morning I am given the opportunity to put that engine of mine on the road that leads from my house all the way here – here where I earn a living. We all earn a living here. And every morning that road does lead me past Slabtown. You boys are all familiar with Slabtown- it’s where many of your daddies and mamas lay and their daddies and mamas before them and it’s where we’ll follow. The sight of those rocks jumbled on that hillside gives me some perspective. You see, every soul they’ve chiseled into that hard soil has spent undue amounts of time indulging the same brand of foolishness that you, Wesly Alspaugh, on this spot today, endorse. Do you see what it got ‘em? A piece of cold dirt bought on credit and paid for by their sons and daughters. A marker with a name chiseled into it, which is an immortality that the elements will make quick work of. So we’re left with the here and now, which I’ll do my best to see doesn’t slip off cant. Can any of you boys understand that?”
Pittman scowled at us and wiped his face with the handkerchief and turned on his heel and strode to his Dodge coupe. He opened the door and set the gear shift to neutral, adjusted the throttle and spark lever, grabbed a ratchet bar from the seat, opened the hood and wrenched life from the car on the first try. He drove away without a sidelong glance,cigarette clamped in mouth. We filed back to the shop and retrieved our pay envelopes, which were arrayed on a battered saw blade fashioned into a table.
The Washingtons live in a pine and tarpaper shanty, half-cannibalized for firewood. Eleven souls somewhat unaccountably find shelter here. Levi, the family’s patriarch, and father of many of the children, lost half a right arm and all of a left leg in the Great War. He does little now besides sticking a pole in the water of Pinder branch, rivening these crumbling hillsides behind the house. Shadrick, Levi’s father, was once employed as bottom sawyer in Pittman’s fledgling concern, a primitive saw pit requiring but two men for its operation. Shadrick, it is said, lost his life from a metal blade snapping apart and piercing his eye, infection setting in and affecting an agonizing, albeit nondescript demise. Pittman sees to it that the Washingtons are fed and clothed and that their house is sufficiently patched in the winter. It is a matter of course that he is greeted at the door by the children, dull-eyed and rapacious, riffling the contents of the boxes for store-bought items, the quart jar held off to the side, handed to Levi by Pittman. Pittman has taken to bringing me along on these visits; the old man claims he’s become too old and feeble to hoist these boxes from his car up the hillside path. Maybe.
In the mornings, I ride to work with Pittman, which are often great bouts of silence, the old man’s brooding a dank presence leavened by the faintly sweet aroma of spent tobacco and the stray candy wrappers wafting from the floorboard like cellophane insects. What conversation to be had is ballasted with Pittman’s rank solemnity, seemingly never so prevalent as in the mornings, what with the day bristling with potential for disorder or abject ruin.
I walk home in the evenings, back through mountainside paths across the river, once worn smooth by hunters and other adventurers, some with impudent or illicit designs. Conrod McSween faithfully leaves a skiff on my side of the river every afternoon. Conrod is a hermit and lives in a ragged assortment of dwellings along the river and up into the hills. He makes spirits from an old copper kettle he moves from place to place and for one known to slice a man from ear to ear over matters deemed perhaps inconsequential, he displays a disarming generosity, seen in his penchant for leaving samples of his masterwork under his boat. It is said he keeps a pouch filled with thousands of dollars on or about his person at all times, no man yet having presumed extracting such bounty worth the loss of life or limb.
In the winter, the trail grows dark long before I reach home and has lapsed into thickets in certain places. The trees, bereft, allow sufficient moonlight and fires dot these hills, especially in the winter; men, similarly left bereft, have taken to the countryside out of personal misfortune or miscreance, or some combination of each quality. A rail line follows the river and these men simply follow the seasons or their whims on Norfolk Southern’s back.
Wife and children will have gone to bed before I arrive home in the winter. Supper is left to warm on the stove. A kerosene lamp and a box of matches are set by the door. I scoop ashes from the stove and separate the embers, layer with kindling and add a slab or two of cordwood. I eat my supper in the silence and it nearly dark; the lamp is lashed to a long nail protruding from a rafter beam. I have a dog, half-walker maybe, found it in a rotting burlap sack set out in a thicket of honeysuckle and thistleweed some years back. I’d not presumed the dog’s survival, sunken in her traces, reeking of parasites. I suppose this explains the absence of a name; her wretchedness bequeathed anonymity and now she provide substantial company, benign and serene within her abiding namelessness. She waits for table leavings, officially forbidden by the wife’s decree and sleeps inside on a ragrug pallet, another unsanctioned indulgence.
We go to church, it being a Sunday and come home to eat a dinner of mustard greens, pole beans, thick sliced cured ham, buttered biscuits and a layer cake. I’ve procured two bottles of pop, an orange and a root beer, kept them hidden in the chicken brooder, and we split them between the four of us after dinner.
The leftovers are covered with cheesecloth and placed on the sideboard for later. The girls go to their room to copy Bible verses into liveried tablets a traveling Pentecostal had been doling out with an indolent, wistful air some weeks back in front of Frisby’s store. Great boils, glistening cords of gristle and pus, clung to his neck and he’d touched them absentmindedly as he’d explained that he was fed up with the Jesus racket, that it roiled the dispositions of certain men and was moving on to Chattanooga where he had a brother-in-law promising work in his lye factory and did a nickel’s donation seem an extravagance for such impressive liveried tablets?
The afternoon unspools, the girls content with the verses and their chatter; my wife writes letters while I nap on a pallet pulled beside the stove, dog beside me. The shadows lengthen and trail away toward dusk and the breeze stiffens into gusts that set the tree limbs quivering; brittle dead leaves hurtle across the earth and settle in uncertain ridges against the house. It will be a cold night and weather will soon appear on the mountain.
The dog wakes me with its barking and is shushed. She pays me no attention and her barking grows more agitated. She isn’t yelping at squirrels skittering across the rooftop or at backfiring vehicles trudging up the mountain. She goes to the door, tail vertical, hackles bristling with hind legs splayed.
I open the door and there is a man standing in the road, in an aspect spectacularly unkempt, so much so that it seems to have conferred upon the man some ancillary qualities of distinction and purpose. His dark hair is long and streaked with grease and dirt and his face is unshaven, pallid cheekbones perfectly planed by starvation. A thick scar is raked across the bony protuberance of nose and his mouth is thin and pursed with an ascetic quality. He wears canvas breeches favored by railroad workers- such previous ownership a distinct possibility- streaked the orange of river mud. He wears a ragged longcoat, which cavorts about his ragged perpendicularity. It is fastened primly to its topmost button, though his long neck exposes skin a waste of translucence. This man, so irredeemably spavined, raises my hackles.
My wife sidles next to me, “Don’t have him using for long out there,” she advises.
He approaches the house, moving through the yard’s tall grass with a marionette’s high-stepping deliberation.
I walk out on the porch. “You can stop there and state your business, mister,” I say.
He gazes at me for a long indecorous minute, snuffles and wipes his nose on his sleeve. His eyes are dark and flashing and look past me into the recesses of the doorway. “ A clever fellow might offer me a bite to eat, if it’s to be spared. Do you reckon you’d offer?” he says.
“You wait there.” I retreat into the house leaving the door open so as to keep the man within view. The dog is growling, the low and insistent trill of a motor running. I gather ham, fatback and biscuits from the sideboard, folding it into cheesecloth.
“Send him on his way, Will. Don’t let him idle you with small talk. I’ll not have him scare the girls,” my wife states.
“Aim to do that directly,” I reply.
I hand the bundle to the man, who snatches it keenly. He sifts through its contents appraisingly and this seems a lavish breach of etiquette on this supplicant’s part. “There’s plenty there, mister, and it’s as acceptable as you’ll find. Do me the courtesy of being on your way now,” I say, pointing out to the road.
He puts the food in a pocket. “I thank ye. Like any gentleman, I’m not unfamiliar with the nuances of hospitality. Had ye chosen not to accept me for dinner, perhaps I would simply have hosted you and your lovely family, the wife and girls. Would have been an astonishing supper,” he states, extending his hand.
I point to the road without taking his hand and turn back to the house.
“Sir, would ye be so kind to leave your lurcher inside so I might rejuvenate myself at your pump?”
I turn and give him a quizzical look. “How do you know I have a pump back there?”
“From the angle of my approach in the road, of course. I will be but a reverend minute.”
“You be gone before that minute’s done. I’ll not be carrying food in my hands if I have come out to greet you again- just so we understand each other.”
He nods and walks to the back. I walk to the back of the house to the girls’ room, push aside the feedsack curtains to spy the man, shushing the girls and nudging them away from the window. The man is bent under the pump, drinking lustily. He stops and retrieves a patent medicine bottle from a pocket inside his coat. It is filled with perhaps an inch of fluid a sickly yellow color. He fills the bottle about halfway with water and drinks its contents in one gulp and flings the bottle into the milkweed lingering beneath an ancient looming catalpha at the yard’s edge. The man saunters to the road, his body once again his; he walks down the road in the dying yellow light, gesturing emphatically at the air. Rain and sleet spits and hisses and the wind screeches rancorously. Perhaps other men would have been offered a place to settle of such an evening.
The Shaws live down the road in a house of split pine and oak: two narrow rooms with plank floors and a small kitchen elled onto the back room, windowless with a buckling tin roof scarcely angled beyond a perfect flat trajectory. There are two doors, one in front, one in back, flush to the wall, unframed and held in by place by a hasp. There are three: Phossy, Annabelle and Luther, the boy. Phossy once worked at Hawks Nest some years back and the carbide men sent him home with a case of potter’s rot and little else to show for his labors. Annabelle, somewhat unaccountably had survived a cancer and had developed an affinity for paregoric from doctors who’d found her condition a hopeless one and had only wanted to ease her suffering.
A kind old doctor, fallen to a ruined lassitude, still sends her sufficient quantities of Tincture No. 23 and canisters of snuff. The boy suffers from an acute dementia and though he is nearly fifteen, has never seen the inside of a schoolroom. It is said he is a musical savant of sorts though such a talent is apparently neatly tucked away out of sight of us mortals.
Phossy spends most of the day worrying copies of Ivanhoe and the Bible and is apparently content with just these two forms of literary stimulation. Annabelle sips paregoric and dips snuff and cares for the child, her “hothouse flower.” Luther hasn’t much tolerance for human contact beyond that of his mother’s and seems to prefer to spend his time in a caneback chair positioned facing the wall, bobbing his torso with a metronome’s precision.
Annabelle claims that the boy, three years old and having never uttered a word, woke her one morning and calmly told her her daddy was dead, a fact whose revealed truth arrived in the form of a telegram brought over from Frisby’s store two days later. Annabelle dotes on the boy and treats Phossy with studied indifference.
It is said that Phossy’s prospects in this world were once bright and Annabelle was once a great beauty, and sought after by men of advantage and esteem, conjectural assessments as ephemeral as long-forgotten June afternoons.
I bring food and other items to these folks about once a week. I will allow that it’s still a bit of a mystery that these folks have gotten on this long with just our help. They have no family in these parts and people are plain wary of this troubled collection of humanity.
We eat well on Thanksgiving. Suet pudding, dumpling, hard-boiled eggs, green beans, turkey with chestnut stuffing, sweet pickles, candied yams buttered rolls and light bread, orange date cake and sweet plums are on the table. We eat our fill and we thank the Lord that such a humble family has been provided for so completely. I wrap some of the food and carry it to the springhouse, set aside a good portion and wrap it and place it in a hard-bottomed canvas pouch to be slung over my shoulder. I’ve promised dinner to the Shaws.
“I’ll be home before long. Their boy won’t abide me for very long,” I say.
“Clouds are coming in low over the mountain. I’d say we’ll have a skift of snow by morning. I could leave some of those cucumber and mustard sandwiches you like or even chance to wait up for you, Will. You know that I worry,” my wife states.
“We would be rich and idle if I could deposit all those worries of your in the bank. I might buy me a smoking jacket and you and the girls all manner of vanities and we could be as sad and dissipated as any run-of-the-mill baron or baroness,” I say.
“I’d worry rich or poor. You be along directly now. Trouble does follow that family and I’d rather it not latch onto you,” she says, filaments of anger tracing her tone.
“Cucumber and mustard, huh? I’ll be home before the first flake hits the ground. Promise.”
I gather the pouch and a carbide lantern and say bye to the dog and the girls and give my wife a wink and begin walking. The Shaw house is a mile away. The day’s vestigial streaks of lavender and orange bleed over the ridges and there are dark clouds poised on the horizon.
I reach the house. The boy has created a walkway, a miraculous assemblage of polished river stones identical in size and shape, precisely delineating a path to the front door. Woe to the stranger who inadvertently kicks a rock out of place.
I shout to announce my presence. Phossy is usually sitting outside the door on a splayed hickory chair, reading. Today there is no one outside to greet me. The door is open and I guide the lamp’s rays into the cavernous recesses of the house. I go inside casting the lamp about as there is no other light. In the front room a cast iron Avondale stove rests against the back wall and there are two chairs, gray and misshapen as mushrooms at opposite corners of the back wall, one missing its seat. The boy’s chair faces the wall but its back is tilted so that it rests against the wall, a placement the boy would have never abided.
Resting on nails behind the stove are tin pots, unenameled. A pine table is in a near corner, covered with a frayed, rust-colored doily. Phossy’s Bible rests on it along with an empty patent medicine bottle. A frock coat shared by all rests on another nail behind this table. There are two or three bottles strewn on the floor. Odors at once astringent and fetid pervade these walls.
I enter the back room where a chipped enamel basin and a shaving mug, a matching set with engraved roses, rests on a chest of drawers. A gilt mirror, trimmed with flounces and scallops, rests on the wall above the chest, a relic of bygone days.
A rudimentary kitchen abuts the back room; a tin sink is braced into the wall with a shelf above it, containing a few items of cutlery, mismatched drinking glasses and china plates and a cast iron frying pan and a kettle. There is a plank table and two chairs in the middle of this room and it is here that Phossy and Annabelle are arranged in the chairs, dead and curling in their traces, throats cut from the angle of one jaw to the other, rigid as pewter figurines, blood covering them like the wax leavings of a candle. Their eyes are milky, opaque, stupidly conveying nothing of horror or even of their sad, blighted lives. The two have been dead for days; no odors proceed from them, perhaps owing to the cold weather and the shade drawn on the house; there is nothing about such mayhem to be quantified physically, gathered up and swept into a dustbin.
I reel outside. I’m not angry or afraid, but overwhelmed with a wondrous sensation, one of revelation in its rawest, most primary state. I’ve glanced against something utterly at odds with our hewn logic. The chair leaning against the wall tells me the boy had nothing to do with this. I suspect he’s been dragged off and murdered in the woods or pursued and dispatched.
I dump the food from the pouch and walk to the back of the property where Phossy keeps a rude assortment of tools in an outbuilding. I find a rusty briar axe with a broken handle, tang protruding from its end. I stuff it in the pouch and grab the lantern.
The boughs of the trees ache and branches writhe and gnash in the wind, the stars are drawn behind a veil of clouds. I refill the lamp with water and scoop the spent lime from the bottom chamber and thread the valve carefully into place. I say a prayer for two souls and mine to boot.
I find him in an abandoned railroad switchback overcome with canebrake and chiggerweed. He’s hacked a clearing and built a small fire, which he leans over, mumbling in the manner of a small child recounting a bedtime story. He looks up at my approach. “Did ye not bring food today? I’ve slaked my thirst but not et since Sunday,” he says.
“I’ve no food. I’ve come here to settle accounts. I reckon you know I wouldn’t be here on an errand of mercy.”
“The lady- she offered her medicine that Sunday, said she didn’t kindly have food to spare but hoped that the syrup would prove gratifying. I took the bottle and thanked her and that’s when I went a-huntin’ down your way. It was a disappointment to meet ye; I’d planned a run ago at the younguns and missus. Had figured her a widow when I saw her in the garden with the small ones and it nearly dark. That being some days before. Your presence did cast matters aslant but, well, you’ve seen, I’ve managed a frolic with them folks anyway. Reckon I’d of got around to it sooner or later. I took your kind charities and did polish off the rest of the paregoric as it was plain she’d have no more use for it. You’ve seen all that and we’ve ventured a ways past mere explanations.”
“Them folks were stand ins for my family.”
“If you want to look at it that way. I said I’d of gotten around to ‘em sooner or later.”
“You sure you didn’t kill ‘em for a few dregs of that yellow syrup?”
“ ‘Course not. I’ll allow I spent a good day down there in their fine sitting room, sipping, basking in their hospitality such as it were. They seemed a happy couple there waitin’ for supper.”
“Oh, it was a splendid sight. Peelin’ the world open for that boy- of all the caterwauling. You’ve never heard such. I suspect dispatching the boy would have been the kind thing to do, in light of the circumstances. Living on- now that boy’s in a patch of hell.”
“You’re satisfied ?”
“Satisfied ? Is that the word you’re looking for? Why would you try to make head or tail of this? I can see from here you want to drag me to the sheriff and see me hung in somesuch civilized manner come springtime.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. There are intricacies of the heart and we’ve got all manner of philosophy and religion to address such matters- but what you are and what you’ve done, it’s beyond that. I’m certain of that and that does give me some peace, even with what you’ve done to them. I’ll even acknowledge that within the fact of your existence, there is an order to be found.”
“Well be on with it or off with you,” he says impatiently. He withdraws the long blade from inside his coat pocket and rests it on his knee. “I’ve got a train to catch or I don’t,” he says, cocking his head back insolently, his eyes gathering no light, glinting the yellow of forthright malevolence.
I take the briar axe from the pouch and stepped toward him. He doesn’t flinch and I swing the blade in a horizontal arc and lop the man’s head off. Blood springs from his neck in crimson spikes and his body is still upright, gathering the fire’s warmth. His head rolls into a patch of milkweed. I take the blade off his knee and place it in my pouch and kick his body over and tug his coat off and ball it up and put in the pouch.
I begin walking back to the Shaw house, pouch slung over shoulder, blade in one hand, lamp the other. It is snowing, first gentle motes swirling to earth, then clots flung sideways from the heavens through the howling wind. The trees are dark forms, wraiths, swirling with hallucinatory configurations, improvisations and digressions in the firmament. From within these wilds, I can hear the boy singing, a ferocious resonant cry at once ragged and ethereal, waxing and waning across the land’s fold and creases.
I reach the house and daybreak is but a catarrh bled out over the earth. A car is parked in the road in front of the house, snow creeping up its haunches. I reach the yard. There is a man in the doorway and he walks toward me, his movements jagged, grotesque. He shouts and gestures toward me and a dark shape flashes through the snow. I feel the metal cut into my belly and a roaring in my ears and the flesh burns and bleeds. I fall and the man stands over me. I lay in the snow, gasping and could feel myself being tugged from form.
“Will?” Pittman says, his countenance tattered and drained. “I saw your blade and you’re covered in blood-“
“He’s down the road a piece, Mr. Pittman.”
“You’ve settled this?”
“Let’s get you out of here then. I’ll get you to the doctor in Piney Ridge.”
“It won’t do no good, Mr. Pittman.”
Pittman peels his coat and shirt off and begins ripping the shirt to stop the wound. He pulls up my shirt and grimaces when he sees the wound. “You might live, Will.”
“Mr. Pittman, listen. You’ll take care of them?”
“That wound ain’t a certainty, Will. I’ll do what has to be done if it comes to that. That’s a certainty.” He looks back at the house and sighs, a shirtless old man in a snowstorm.
“Mr. Pittman, you’ve got quite a story to tell.” I can’t help but laugh.
“This one’ll pass muster with the coots out in front of Frisby’s. Grant you that,” Pittman says, gazing out past the ridges.
“Mr. Pittman, did you know men are gonna make starships that will someday go a million miles an hour. Working on it right now, men like you and me, hard as that’s to believe.”
“I don’t doubt it, Will. They’ll be trudging across infinity, they will. With that, he loosens a hoarse bark of a laugh. He bends down beside me and squeezes my arm. “You cold, boy ?”
I die in that place just a little ways from home, with that boy’s strange cries echoing in the expanses, shriveling and dying in the crevices, leaving my wife a widow and the girls without a father and Pittman’s purposes fixed and certain as the stars in the firmament.
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