1. The Apostle
And having heard the king, they went their way; and lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was.
And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.
2. The Wise Man
The star, always the young come to me asking of the star. It appears in none of your charts, you find no trace of its path through the other celestial bodies you observe, and so you doubt.
But you forget that the star foretold the birth of the King of the Jews. You forget that the charts revealed that a sign would burn in the heavens. Where is this rogue now, eh? Where was it before we saw its light?
When we knew that we should be able to mark it, we set out for the West, even though we’d seen no trace of it in our midnight observations. Faith, eh? The wise trust their wisdom.
And then we did mark it, but thought that we had miscalculated and come too late. For this was a star at the end of its life, a dying ember already falling to the sea.
But as night followed night and day followed day — for in the end, it burned so bright as to be seen even in full sunlight — the old became new. All the phases — we saw them, the three of us. It burned dark and red and cold lie the aged stars, yes, but then yellow and hotter like one of middling age.
By the time we’d finished our interview with that odious little Roman puppet, Herod, we had calculated that we were only a few days from witnessing a birth unlike any other in all the history of the world.
The night we left the little village, it burned more brightly than the sun and the moon and all the stars together. Then, having been born, it was gone. Gone back to the womb of the sky.
How is such a thing possible? What did it portend? The wise trust their wisdom, yes. But they know as well when their wisdom holds no answers.
3. The Alien
Paramount Hivemaster, this one survives only to bring you its report. Were it not for the graveness of its tidings, this one would have given itself to the void so that you would have been spared the displeasure of casting the least of your eyes on its wretchedness.
In your wisdom, you have declared that any encounter with superior technologies be reported directly to you. This one’s mission to establish a feeding station in the outer arm has failed, despite the strictest observation of the protocols, because of just such an encounter.
The herds on the target planning are cunning. There was no evidence that they possessed even the slightest capacity to impede upon your glorious destiny of ruling every sun. From orbit, we saw only the most primitive indications of intelligent life.
After some few of us escaped the destruction of the first battle lander, we returned to the main vessel where this one immediately demanded an explanation of the Predictor Drones. Their feeble answers failed to satisfy. For their impudence, this one of course devoured them, along with their mates and young.
It is the least of this one’s inadequacies that no other explanation than that of the Predictor Drones has arisen to explain this one’s abject and most dishonorable failure. The herds of the target planet, Exalted One, possess the ability to travel through time.
Through means unknowable to this one’s paltry intellect, they have stationed their defending ships in the future. The very presence of these ships in close proximity to a battle lander was enough to wilt that great ship’s power glands. In seeking to avoid the just punishment of this one’s mandibles, the last Predictor Drone declared that the emissions from the time craft caused the lander to grow rapidly younger, until its flesh was unable to sustain the weapons and habitation pods. Moments after our escape, the Predictor said, the lander exploded backward through time.
Glorious Hivemaster, the outer arm must be avoided at all cost. There are many other systems to shuck and devour. This one implores you to turn your immortal predations elsewhere.
This one’s fondest hope is that the ignominy of its defeat has not caused a putrescence of the flesh that would render it unpalatable to you.
4. The Time Traveler
No, no, you guys don’t know what you’re talking about. First century CE isn’t on the verboten list because of any “unusually high risk of biological contaminants.” What the hell kind of reason is that? Do those polysuits work or don’t they? Carl there’s been to 13th century Prague twice and didn’t get any flack from the brass about the plague.
Hey! Carl! Bring me another beer while you’re up!
No, I know why it’s off limits because Shoji and I were there. For about five minutes anyway. Local minutes. Thanks, Carl.
And here’s the deal. We weren’t alone. I don’t know what the odds are of this happening in preindustrial airspace, but they’re long, I can tell you that. See, we came out of the Flux right under another ship. Not one of ours, either, from any era.
We’d programmed it so we’d arrive at night, coming in over the Dead Sea — no insertions over populated areas, right? Just like the book says. We were fairly high up, because we were heading east and the Judean Mountains are pretty much right there on the shore, and well, Carl can tell us all about slamming a time ship into terra firma, can’t you, Carl?
We used to call Carl “Captain Crater.”
Anyway, at first I thought we’d miskeyed something and inserted in the mountains after all, because as soon as the Flux shields withdrew we started getting proximity alarms and off the scale mass readings and all kinds of scary shit. I was out in the bubble, set to take over with atmospheric piloting routines and Shoji is yelling “Dump altitude! Dump altitude!”
I thought he was crazy, right? Because remember, I was figuring we were in the mountains. But I looked down and there was the water, maybe ten thousand meters below, just like we’d planned it. And there was our shadow.
Yes, Carl, it was night, but I could still see our shadow because there was one hellaciously bright light source right above us and a little bit behind. This was all happening very fast, so at first I noticed it but not really noticed it, know what I mean? Kind of like how you can not notice the Tunguska Forest, right, Carl?
So, I dumped altitude like Shoji said, and pulled the nose around to get a better look. God, it was huge. And weird.
Alien? That’s what Shoji thinks. I don’t really know. It was…ornate. That’s the word, I guess. It looked decorated, all carved up and monstrous, like a flying cathedral.
And you know how cathedrals were always burning down? This one was doing even more than that. There were huge gouts of silver fire boiling out of some kind of ducts on one side of the thing, looked like they were trying to vent some kind of internal explosion, maybe.
I don’t think it did them any good, though, the way it was vibrating and twisting. Shoji swore he saw the whole thing shrink down to nothing at the last second on the screens. I didn’t see that, because the bubble opaqued as soon as Shoji keyed the emergency recall sequence.
Yeah, Shoji toes the line, that’s for sure. That was as “untoward” an untoward circumstance as I can imagine, so I guess he was right to default to the regs. Still, I would have liked to have seen what happened.
I mean, think about it. Some kind of alien ship with God only knows what kind of bizarre propulsion system interacting with the temporal flotsam we were dragging out of the Flux in our wake — that’s what Shoji thinks caused the break up, see. Two sets of very different technological variables ramming right into one another over the Dead Sea over two thousand years ago.
Like I said, what are the odds?
5. The Mother
A miracle. It was a miracle.
Mikal Trimm: Southern writers have a history of being a bit darker, even gothic, in their writing than those from other parts of the country (Flannery O’Conner, Tennessee Williams, even William Faulkner and Mark Twain in much of their fiction). Do you find that growing up Southern influenced your writing style?
Christopher Rowe: The question part of that question presupposes that my writing is dark and gothic, which I don’t think is entirely true. Though what I think of as my best stories can probably be described that way.
Growing up Southern…I don’t know. This reminds me of that bit in The Sound and the Fury where Quentin Compson’s Canadian roommate at Harvard gives his ‘tell about the South’ speech. I don’t think of myself as a Southerner until pretty far down the list of identifiers, even the list of geographical identifiers. I think of myself as an Adair Countian, then as somebody from the Eastern Pennyrile, then as a Kentuckian. ‘Southern’ doesn’t show up until just before ‘American’.
That said, the circumstances of my raising, both cultural and geographical, certainly had a huge influence on my work (and on my personality, my world view, everything), but I think that’s probably true of all artists.
Mikal: What’s the story with you and crows?
Christopher: I’m not at liberty to say.
Mikal: How did …is this a cat? come to be?
Christopher: …is this a cat? is a one shot ‘zine, a chapbook really, that I put out early in 2002 through the small press I run with Gwenda Bond, The Fortress of Words. It sprang from a panel given at the 2001 Wiscon by Gavin J. Grant, Kelly Link, and Emily Pohl-Weary, all indie press editors and publishers of the first water. At the end of their very informative panel about the past and present of the small press — they concentrated on the genre small press mostly — Gavin issued a challenge to all the attendees, basically asking everyone to put out their own ‘zine by the time we all met up again in 2002.
So I was thinking about that when I remembered a conversation I’d had with Kelly earlier in the spring at ICFA. We were looking at some photographs, and I’d shown her one of my cat, Portnoy. She said, “That’s not a cat, it’s a child in a cat suit.” (He’s a bit large.) Having absolutely no other ideas, I made up an invitation, including the photo in question, and sent it out to 20 or so friends, asking them in kind of a mock serious tone to create what they would in answer to the question, “Is this a cat?”
I knew that was a pretty narrow theme, though, so I made it clear — I thought — that what I was really interested in was identity, perceptions of identity. My friends, being the freaks they are, mostly ignored that last bit and sent me stories and drawings and essays, even a comic and a crossword puzzle, almost all about my cat Portnoy. And they did great! I’m very proud of how the ‘zine turned out. There’s really good stuff in there — I’d start listing names but there’s a dozen or more folks on the masthead and they all deserve attention for their work in the ‘zine (and everywhere else their work has appeared). I think there’s still a webpage about …is this a cat? up at the Small Beer Press site over at www.lcrw.net.
Oh, as an aside, I wasn’t the only one who took up the Wiscon challenge. A writers group called the Ratbastards put out a great chapbook of their work called Rabid Transit (just reviewed in the August 2002 Locus, I think); Amy Beth Forbes and Beth Adele Long have launched a new ‘zine called Turbocharged Fortune Cookie, and I believe the new Problem Child ‘zine that Lori Selke is producing out of San Francisco has its roots in that conversation as well.
Mikal: Any more information on your future publishing plans?
Christopher: We had a lot of fun putting […is this a cat] together, and it met with a fair bit of critical and popular success. We’ve decided to keep going with our own semi-annual ‘zine, called Say. Each issue will be themed around a question (why mess with a good thing?). The first issue will debut at the World Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis this autumn. The question is “Say…Was That a Kiss?” and we’ve already lined up wonderful stories from Jeffrey Ford, Gregory van Eekhout and F. Brett Cox.
Mikal: It seems apparent from your discussion of …is this a cat that writing for you (as for many writers) is almost a group process, rather than a solitary pursuit. Would this be accurate?
Christopher: Group process, wow. No, not at all. I think writing — I mean here the actual creative moment, when it’s just you and the page and the grasping for the next word — is absolutely solitary. Maybe even terrifyingly solitary. So, I think a lot of writers — the writers I count among my friends at least — do everything they can to create these group activities you may be thinking of. Things like writers’ workshops and conventions, certainly, and sure, group projects like themed ‘zines or those old shared world anthologies that used to be popular. Workshopping is big among my particular gang of acquaintances, both over the Internet and in person…I’m including a lot of things in that term, ‘workshopping’. I imagine a lot of people are familiar with the idea of a local writing group that meets regularly and exchanges stories for critique, but that’s actually probably the one I’ve participated in the least (though I’ve done a fair amount of it); most of my writing friends are so dispersed geographically that that’s not practical. So you swap stories electronically, but also in person on weekend visits or when you see each other at cons, whatever. There are also the workshops that meet annually or semi-annually, modeled on the old Milford workshop. Lots of people have probably heard of Clarion and Clarion West (I went to West in ’96), those are kind of like master classes, with teachers in classroom setting. But there’s also Sycamore Hill and Rio Hondo. I think that there are some Clarion alumni who do a roving annual workshop they call GypsyCon.
Anyway, all this stuff points to how desperately we want it to be a group process. But to bring this ramble to a halt, and be clear (and I’m only going to be clear this once during this interview, so don’t get used to it), no, it wouldn’t be accurate to characterize my view of writing as a group process.
Mikal: I stand woefully corrected. Be that as it may, do you think that the advent of the internet, along with the profusion of online, genre-specific markets, has changed the way many writers approach their art?
Christopher: I don’t think the profusion of online magazines has really impacted the way I approach my art, though it’s certainly had a huge impact on the way I approach the business side of things. More ‘markets’ (and I’m really uncomfortable with that term for magazines or books or sites that publish stories — online or not, small press or large) is positive.
I guess that online magazines probably facilitate communities in a way.
Ideomancer, to use the obvious example, has its particular aesthetic and editorial stance. The sites where those things are strongly defined and well developed may wind up attracting like-minded writers, who may in turn come to think of themselves as ‘Ideomancer authors’. There’s a long tradition of that among speculative fiction writers — the Analog Mafia is a recent example. (Though hopefully if there’s ever a similar group here we won’t be expected to have a horn section.) I think you or Chris are better equipped to talk about this than me. Hmmm. I suppose we’d need a name — the ‘Ideomancer Instrumentality’? ‘Ideodancers?’ Write Chris Clarke with your suggestions, folks!
Mikal: Many of your stories have a strong folklore influence. Do you strive for that feel, or is it even a conscious decision on your part?
Christopher: Yeah, it’s conscious. Fairly early on, when I was just a little baby writer (I think I’m a toddler now), I got the “Mocknapatawpha” out of my system by creating Cane County, where I’ve set many of my stories. I went a little bit over the top, maybe, ordered maps from the United States Geographical Survey and kind of carved Cane out of parts of four real Kentucky counties and then flooding a big part of the area with a lake that’s not there. I’ve set probably a dozen completed stories there, have fragments for at least that many more, and have notes for one horror novel and one mystery novel set there.
I was going to say something about how I’ve been working with the Cane County stuff (and the crows) less these days; but I just remembered that the sf story I was working on as recently as this morning concerns both.
Anyway, when I first began writing fantasy stories set in Cane County, my rationale was that I was writing the folktales that people in Cane County tell one another. And I’ve been fairly shameless in ripping off other people’s source material and putting my own local shine on it — a time-honored tradition in folktales. I’ve got a story called “The Children of Tilford Fortune” based on a tale the Grimms collected — that’ll be in a Simon & Schuster YA anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Teri Windling due out next year, My Swan Sister. And a story I had in Realms of Fantasy a couple of years ago called “Sally Harpe” was strongly influenced by the book of the ballet Giselle, at least in terms of plot. So folklore, sure.
Mikal: The creation of ‘Cane County’ sounds like King’s ‘Derry, Maine’ in some ways — a fictional creation that begins to have its own life in the mind of the author. Do you have residents of Cane that exist outside the needs of the story (i.e., recurring secondary characters, etc.)?
Christopher: Heh. That looks like a big sweeping question but it’s actually very specific. And the specific answer is ‘sort of’. I have a recurring primary character named Japheth Sapp, who’s played various roles in various stories. The Cane County timeline, the way the stories relate to one another…I’ve left that stuff intentionally vague, inserted intentional contradictions in the stories. Japheth, for instance, first showed up in a story called “Baptism on Bittersweet Creek” (this was the second or third Cane County story to be published), wherein he’s a man in his twenties in a story set in the 1920s. His ‘origin’ is told in “Kin to Crows”, which you guys recently reprinted, and which was my first fiction sale. There, he’s probably around 15, but it’s set at about the same time. There’s an oblique reference to him as an old man in another story set in the 1880s titled “Sally Harpe” that I mentioned earlier. And I’m working on a story now that features a mid-forties Japheth set about fifty years in the future.
I mix things up like that for a few different reasons. First, I wanted to stay true to the idea that these stories are at least in part the folktales of a real place, and folktales are self-contradictory. I also didn’t want to have to keep track of all the families of characters I’ve developed — Coys and Roys and Sapps and so on — didn’t want to be tied to any particular way of writing about them.
Mikal: You described yourself as a ‘toddler’ in writing. What do you want to be when you grow up?
Christopher: I want to make a living writing stories and books which I enjoy reading and writing. That’s the internal goal. Externally, I want to earn the fabulous wealth, glory and fame that so many others have achieved through writing about slack-jawed yokels with super powers.
“That stands for volunteer fire department, y’all.”
Sure, it’s hot in August down in our part of the country. But if you grow up around here, and I did, you get used to it. And if you’re a firefighter, and I am, then ninety-six degrees don’t seem like much. And humidity? Don’t even talk to me about humidity.
Don’t talk to me, either, about your automobile fires or your house fires or even your big old raging wild fires, the kind that take a few thousand acres of the federal land by the lake every dry year. I’ve fought all of them. Beat them, too, with the good people of the Stone’s Camp Fire Squad, Squad Number One of the Cane County Volunteer Fire Department.
How come the big boys down at the county seat in Jericho don’t get to be Squad One? Get to ride first down the street in the Fourth of July parade and take the light duty — serving coffee — at the pancake breakfasts? Well, that would be because the founding chief of the entire Cane County VFD founded Stone’s Camp Squad first. That’s Mr. Hezron Stone and he’ll come into this story directly.
Story, oh yes. What kind of man would shrug off house fires and wild fires both if he didn’t have some kind of story to back up his shrug?
It was about eight in the morning and I was doing the payroll at the Bybee Sawmill — that’s my day job, keeping the books out there — when the call came in.
“Vic?” It was Constance Coy’s voice squawking out of the two-way radio I always keep clipped to my belt. She’s the co-captain at Stone’s Camp. Co-captain, dispatcher, bookkeeper (I learned double entry from Constance) and principal equipment maintainer.
“This is Firefighter Vic Sapp,” I said, thumbing the transmit button. I try to follow the protocol for radio communications when I think of it. It’s easier to think of it when I’m sitting in my air conditioned trailer at the sawmill than when I’m speeding down the road or calling for backup.
“Vic, I’ve already called Bert.” She meant Gilberto Silverado, the other Stone’s Camp firefighter who worked at the mill. “He’ll pick you up.” And there was Bert’s truck, already sliding to a stop outside the office, throwing up a cloud of dust that would only remind an amateur of smoke.
I turned up the volume so I could hear Constance’s instructions as I rushed out of the trailer and into Bert’s Chevy. He’d thrown the door open so I didn’t have to break stride, just dove right in.
“It’s Tommy Asbury’s place,” Constance said. “And it’s bad.” Then she was gone, which was understandable. She was probably hanging off the back of the Squad One engine the whole time she was talking to me, and Little Bill Coy would have been driving. Little Bill is Constance’s husband, the other co-captain and a fearless man before a fire or behind the wheel.
Bert, he’s civic minded. He drove fast but sensible, didn’t say anything until I was buckled in. “Asbury. I know him. I visited his house before the election.”
Bert was the duly elected magistrate for the third district of the Cane County Fiscal Court. He’d run as an independent, kiss of death usually, even if you’re not a brand new citizen in a part of the country that’s not known for rolling out the welcome wagon to immigrants. But he’d had a string of luck since he left Chihuahua. Came up to work in the tobacco fields and wound up at the Coy farm. Decided to stay, learned English better than I ever hope to know it, got citizenship then ran for election the same year the Democratic candidate got caught wife-swapping with the Republican candidate.
He was also the first member of the Cane County Volunteer Fire Department (not just our Squad, I’m talking about the whole department) who wasn’t trained by Hezron Stone. Chief Stone had retired about a year before Bert came on board, so Bert’s training — and the training of all the other firefighters in the county — fell to his local chief. But since Bert’s local chief was actually two chiefs — and they were the Coys — I figured he’d had the next best thing to genuine Stone training. Hezron Stone…there wasn’t anything that man didn’t know about putting out fires.
Like he said, Bert had been to the Asbury place, so he knew the way. Hell, everybody knew the way to Tommy Asbury’s. He’s been the biggest, richest bootlegger in Cane County for the past thirty years. There wasn’t a dry county within seventy miles of us, and that’s a fact that made more than one old boy an illicit living. Lot of profit in bootlegging. In high school, I remember paying eighteen dollars for a case of Sterling beer, warm Sterling beer, warm Sterling beer in cans. Like I said, that was high school.
All that money had built Tommy a big house off Sand Creek Road, one of those cookie cutter ranch jobs out of a magazine, but set back in the woods. Big house, and Lord was that a big fire. I saw the Asburys all huddled under a quilt in a stand of birch trees off to one side as we pulled up. Other trucks and cars were squealing up at the same time, and Constance and Little Bill already had the helmets and boots lined up on the ground with the other gear.
The engine was parked at least thirty yards back from the blaze, but the heat made it feel more like five feet as we suited it up. The high pressure hoses on the engine — I saw that they’d laid the intakes right down into Sand Creek — are made for three men to handle when they’re going full blast. There was Little Bill, laying down a pattern of spray across the second floor with one hand while he waved at us to hurry with the other.
When most people meet Little Bill and find out his name, they think it’s one of those joke nicknames, like when a short man gets called Stretch. But that’s not it at all. Little Bill was a second string defensive tackle up at the University of Kentucky in the fifties — played under Bear Bryant — and while he was there another old boy named Bill Coy was on the team that was even bigger than ours. Our Bill is six foot eight if he’s an inch, must weigh 300 pounds and there’s only a little bit of that that forty years back in Stone’s Camp have turned to fat. That other Bill Coy must have been a hoss.
“Y’all hurry and get suited up!” shouted Constance. “The house is past saving but we’ve got to keep this thing from spreading!”
It sure looked like it wanted to spread — to the garage, to the trailer out back where one of the Asbury girls lived with some man from Ohio, maybe even to the woods. That was a huge fire, a hot fire, an angry looking fire. Smoke and tongues of flame poured out of every window and we could see the waves of heat rolling out, sucking the water from the air. A fire like that doesn’t get put out, it burns itself out.
Sometimes. This time, though, there was too much feeding the flame for us to relax even a little bit. We could hear little explosions as the cases of beer and bottles of whiskey Tommy stored in the basement fell to the heat. The fire kept growing hotter and higher until….
Well, until the thing that happened next happened. How did it happen? Where did he come from? Well, there’s what you might call schools of thought on the subject. Bert, he’s a Catholic, right? He says it was a demon that got called up by all that heat and liquor. Chief Stone wound up figuring it for some kind of fire creature created on the spot by the flames of what must be said to have been the hottest fire that ever burned in Cane County — combined with the alcohol. Seems like it amounts to the same thing to me, what you want to call it. Amounts to a hell of a lot of trouble.
Constance saw it first. I was standing right behind her, feeding her hose, so she blocked off the view. Little Bill was a big man, sure, and he’d married a big woman. They went off to school together and there’s people that say if it’d been her instead of him that played for UK then Cane County could boast a first stringer under the Bear instead of a second stringer. That’s not really fair, since her game was basketball. UK didn’t have a women’s team when she was there, but if there’d been one, she would have been a star. Hell, she would have been a WNBA star if they’d had that back then, either.
So, if a normal sized man had come lurching out of that front door just then, I might not have seen him at all. But this fellow had to bend over double to even get out the door and you’ve got to figure a door frame is at least what, seven feet tall? Even on one of those new houses out of a magazine.
And there he was. Twelve or thirteen feet tall, nearly that broad across the shoulders, and on fire. Looked like he was carved out of the blackest coal, with eyes like rubies. You know what he looked like? Like that statue that the University of Louisville uses on their coat of arms, The Thinker. I’m a UK fan myself, and their little symbol says, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall,” just like on the seal for the whole Commonwealth of Kentucky.
There’s four hoses that run off our engine, just about all that the fourteen of us can handle. We were united just then, all right, when we turned our hoses on the giant. Little Bill, busy as he was, was keeping an eye on the younger guys, Bert included. He was shouting instructions and so on. That’s Little Bill’s way, always teaching, even when things get grim. He got that from the Bear.
I don’t know how we knew that the giant was the bad guy in this particular situation, but nobody questioned it for a second. Maybe it was the way he looked. I mean, a thirteen foot tall flaming giant made from coal, roaring out of a bootlegger’s house with glowing red eyes and a bottle of Early Times in his hand, what would you think? I’m a Maker’s Mark man, myself.
All four hoses on him, then, and what happened? Steam. Water with that much pressure behind it should’ve knocked over anybody, even a body that weighed as much as that one did, but the water never even touched him. It rose up in billows of steam before it even got to him. And he carried on like he enjoyed it.
All those Asburys went scattering when the giant headed over to the little copse they were standing in. But he wasn’t headed after them. He reached up and pulled down the biggest branch off the biggest birch tree, dropped his whiskey bottle and took the branch up in both hands. It set to blazing as soon as he touched it, but birch is pretty tough, and it looked like it was maintaining structural integrity pretty good — better than the Asbury’s place at any rate.
We all drew back, figuring he was getting ready to lay into us. Sure enough, he drew back with the branch. But then he kind of turned it over with a little flick of his wrists — or as little as wrists big around as saplings can flick — and started beating himself with the branch. And laughing.
“You know, I believe that son-of-a-bitch is making fun of us,” said Little Bill, and he motioned for us to cut off the water. The steam died down right away, and the giant threw his branch back into the woods. It was still on fire, and we could see the brush back there starting to take the flames.
“Shit,” said Little Bill, then detailed six of the boys to go prevent forest fires. “Anybody got any ideas?”
The giant, flickering still, wheeled around like he was listening to us, but then set off up the road. Big flaming footprints sprung up in the blacktop after him. He moved at a pretty good clip, probably twenty-five of thirty miles an hour and that was at a walk, not a run.
“I’ve got an idea,” said Constance. Constance always had good ideas. “I’ve got two or three of them.”
We gathered around.
“When that bunch there finishes up with the brush fire,” she said, gesturing to the half dozen stalwarts of Squad One kicking out the fire set by the flaming branch, “You have them spray down what’s left of the house — “, and there wasn’t much left, the Asburys were milling towards us, finally, looking a bit stunned, ” — then follow old ornery up the road there. He’s going to be setting more than one little blaze.”
“Me and these here,” she continued, “are going to take the van down to Jericho and borrow their foam truck.” There’s some kinds of fire that water won’t touch and our boy looked to be possessed of one of those kinds.
Bert and I started toward the van with the other guys, but Constance said “Now hang on.” We stopped.
“There’s one more thing that needs doing. I don’t know about any of y’all, but I never had to fight a giant flaming man before.” The two of us couldn’t really say we had either.
“So we need some help, need to get somebody down here that can figure out how to send this one back to wherever he came from.”
Remember, Bert was fairly new, but I knew who Constance had to be talking about. “Come on,” I told him. “You drive and I’ll show you the way.”
“Where are we going?” he asked.
I told him. “We’re going to fetch Hezron Stone.”
The Stone Farm is on a high, rocky ridge above Bittersweet Creek. The turnoff is easy to miss, since it’s just a little washed-out place beside the main road. You have to drive right down into the creek, then follow it for about a hundred yards to a locked gate. The key to the padlock is in a coffee can nailed to a stump on the other side of the gate, so I had to get out and climb over for it, shooing away a crow while Bert locked in the hubs on his four wheel drive Chevy. He didn’t have to get out of the truck, they all have those automatic gizmos now.
I got back in and he turned down the radio so he could concentrate on the clay gully that passes for a drive leading up to Chief Stone’s house. Hunkered down over the steering wheel, he talked out of the side of his mouth. “I had no idea anyone lived up here. This road reminds me of Mexico.”
See, there’s Bert doing his magistrate job again. All that area around Bittersweet Creek is technically in his district, but he didn’t have any luck meeting folks up there when he was running for election. Those people don’t vote and they don’t partake of any of your public services except maybe the one county maintained road in that stretch of country, the one that we’d just turned off of.
“It’s pretty secluded,” I said. “People up here don’t even call the fire department that I know about.”
Bert had heard all the stories about the old Chief. “Maybe Hezron Stone puts out all their fires.”
“Maybe he does,” I said. “Look, there he is now.”
We’d reached the top of the road, where it spread out into a little gravel lot between the wood frame house and the old fieldstone silo. Hezron Stone must have heard us coming because he was standing in his front yard, gray and stooped, already had his hat on.
We got out and he greeted us, said, “Vic Sapp. How are you doing, boy?”
“Very well, Chief, very well.” I started to tell him why we were there but he’d already turned around and was looking at Bert, looking at his rubber boots and VFD jacket. “Well, well,” he sighed. “First of a new breed.”
Bert drew up straight and said, “It’s a great honor to meet you, sir. My name is Gilberto Silverado and I —”
The Chief put a hand on Bert’s shoulder and whirled him around, kept that hand there while he hooked his other hand in my arm and started us walking towards the truck.
“I know who your are, young man. You’re my new magistrate. And a firefighter, too, so you need to be in more of a hurry.”
“Did Constance call you, Chief?” I asked, waiting for him to climb into the cab. “Tell you we were coming up here to get you?”
He just kind of laughed. “Look at you boys,” he said. “Red faced, smelling like you do, wearing your gear. Hell no, she didn’t call me! But I can see out of these old eyes yet. I figured those Coys got into something they can’t handle.”
“You got that right, sir,” I said. “There’s nothing in the book about giants made out of coal setting fire to the countryside.” When we say book, we’re generally talking about the manual the Chief made up for all the squads before he took his retirement.
“No,” he said, slowly, serious now. “No, I didn’t put anything in there about that. Sounds pretty serious.”
As we eased back down the ridge Bert and I filled him in with what little we knew. He just nodded, taking it all in, said, “Woman’s smart,” when we told him Constance had gone for foam.
As we pulled up out of the creek, he asked, “What’s the weather man hollering?”
We’d been listening to the radio in the truck on the way over. Station I listen to is out of Green County because they’ve got a real meteorologist over there that writes up the weather instead of the dee-jays just reading it off the teletype out of Louisville. We hadn’t heard the weather, but the Chief was just asking kind of academically anyway. He could see out of those old eyes yet. There were big thunderheads piling up in the western sky, so I told the chief, “He’s hollering rain.”
But it hadn’t started raining yet when we met back up with the rest of the squad. Little Bill and his bunch had followed the monster about eight or ten miles from the Asbury place, putting out little brush fires the whole way, until the creature finally holed up at the Rural Electric Co-op substation hard by Lacey Independent Baptist Church.
He was in there when we pulled up, pulling apart transformers and dancing around, sticking wires in his mouth and glowing blue from all the electricity he was drinking. Little Bill had the engine crew wetting down the church just in case and Constance and her bunch were still setting up the foam gear.
The Coys saw us and came over, making noises about getting Hezron Stone into some gear. But he waved them off, staring at the coal giant. “This is one big ugly son-of-a-bitch, ain’t it?” said Chief Stone, kind of summing up the situation.
“We’re ready to go with the foam,” said Constance.
Chief Stone looked kind of worried, shook his head a little. “Well,” he finally said, “Looks like the RECC boys with the computers have shut off the electric. You’d better go ahead and try it.”
The juice had stopped running out of the electric wires the giant was holding. He kind of shivered a little, still crackling with left over lightning, then looked around.
“He’s fixing to light out again!” called Little Bill. “Foam him up!”
I ran over to the help out with the dispensers along with Bert. We laid down a big X pattern of foam over the whole substation, coating everything inside the chain link fence in a thick coat of the white stuff. We paid particular attention to our peculiar problem, made him look like the giant snowman the Jaycees always put on their float in the Christmas parade.
And it stopped him. At least for a minute.
After all that noise, the giant hollering, the electricity crackling, the water hitting the wooden siding of the church, the Coys shouting instructions and encouragement; it was a strange silence that settle down. Even the thunder left off.
Then the big snowman started bubbling. “Y’all better get ready to move,” said Hezron Stone.
The stuff melted away from the giant, his usual yellow and orange flames back now, flickering all over. The boys with the water hoses started to swing around, but Chief Stone waved them off, watching — learning I guess.
“What’s he doing now?” asked Bert.
We all wondered, because the giant hadn’t leapt out of the enclosure like we expected. Instead, he yanked a piece of tin off the roof of the little utility shed they have in all those substations, then ripped a long piece off one edge with a wicked shriek. Whether it was him or the tin that made the noise, I don’t know. He waved it around a little bit like a sword, and it did look sharp.
But then he bent over to the ground and gathered up a bunch of foam in one hand. You could see the flames along that arm dying down as he did it, the foam not melting now. And the flames of his face died too as he spread the foam across his chin and cheeks.
“You know what I think?” asked Hezron Stone.
The giant picked up his piece of tin — it must have been just as sharp as it looked — and started scraping it across his face, little bits of copper wire flying off every direction.
“I think that son-of-a-bitch is making fun of us,” finished the Chief.
And sure, the giant started howling, sort of guffawing I guess, and jumped out of the enclosure, plumb over the fence, plumb over the trucks, plumb over Lacey Independent Baptist Church. I don’t know that he was making mock exactly, though, because I’d seen the bristles on his face and he kind of did need a shave. I only have to shave every other day, myself.
Everybody started moving as soon as the giant hit the ground, trying to wheel around and get some water on him. He was doing some kind of little dance, shrugging his shoulders and shaking like a Louisville drunk. We could see then that there was something different about him from before. Big bulges had come up on his back, glowing white with heat.
“Now what’s that?” asked Little Bill, keeping one eye out while he wrestled with a hose.
Hezron Stone shook his head again. “That’s more trouble, Little Bill.”
Then the giant did a little shimmy, jumped into the woods, and was off again.
Everybody started rolling up hoses, piling into the trucks. The rain finally started and Little Bill had to shout to be heard. “Same drill, you bunch follow him on foot if you can and put out any fires he starts. This rain’s the first break we’ve had.”
And Constance had some last minute instructions, too. She’s always thinking. “Listen up!” Everybody stopped. “Y’all know these Lacey Baptists are a little touchy, right?”
The pastor of Lacey Independent preached against liquor and taxes and generally raised a lot of Cain. Everybody knew not to argue doctrine with that particular bunch of believers.
“Well, then. Y’all know better than to tell any of them that a drunk giant fire heathen was dancing in their church yard, don’t you?”
That Constance, she’s full of good ideas.
That was a long day. “Old Ornery,” as Constance had us all calling him, led us on a chase over half of Squad One’s territory. Luckily, we had a couple things working for us.
The thunderstorms subsided into a steady soaking rain, looked like weather that was settling in to stay a while. That kept the little fires he set down to a manageable level.
The other thing that helped was Old Ornery himself. He slowed down considerably as the bulges on his back got bigger and bigger. You could even kind of keep up with him as he loped along, if you could handle a dead run loaded down with fire fighting gear. We’re all in top shape on Squad One, not like the pretty boys in Jericho. We do calisthenics and everything.
Hezron Stone coordinated the activities. He was on the horn all afternoon, tracking the movements, calling in backup from the other squads, setting up something special. Little Bill had a big map spread out over the dash of his van, marking the path.
Finally, Old Ornery must have got tired, because he holed up again, this time in an old pole barn near the Clover Quarry. The Clover family leased out their tobacco to somebody pretty industrious, because the barn was already hung full of curing burley. Sweet blue smoke curled out from the barn, but we didn’t see any flames yet.
We’d been there about ten minutes when the last of the other Cane County Squads arrived. It was the first time I’d ever seen them all in one place except at parades or suppers or the softball tournament. The Jericho Squad was there with all their shiny new equipment; Cindy Sparks (that’s her real name, Sparks, and that’s a pretty good name for a firefighter) had all her daughters up from Lonely Oak, where the seven of them make up the whole squad; and the Dry Creek Squad and the bunch from Taylor Road; all fifteen squads.
The chiefs gathered around Hezron Stone, who stood staring at the barn. They were waiting for the word, and finally, Chief Stone gave it.
“I’ve got Tommy Clover in on this, setting up an extinguishing trap back at the quarry.” He waved down the hill, where the Clovers had big limestone pits carved out of their land. “We need to get our targets down into the number four dig.”
The Taylor Road chief said, “Targets? I thought you said there was only one of them.”
Just then the god-awfullest noise I’d heard all day — and I’d heard some pretty god-awful noises that day — rose up out of the barn. There was a howling and a shattering noise, like Old Ornery had broken down some of the tiers the tobacco hung on. The big doors shook, then they bulged, then they flew open. There he stood — looking himself again, no bulges — grinning crazy and puffing on a big cigar he’d rolled out of the tobacco and an old burlap sack. He had a bunch more cigars in his hands and we all ducked when he threw them at us.
When we looked up, there were three more Old Ornery’s about half the size of the first boiling out of the barn. Hezron Stone said, “There was. There was only one of them.”
Little Bill shouted out, “Cut loose on them!”
The assembled squads kicked the valves open on their hoses. The rain started falling even heavier and there was steam everywhere, but we could see that we had more of an effect on the little ones than on their — well, I guess you’d say their daddy. Or their mama.
Whichever he was, he stuck with those little ones (if you can call anything that’s seven feet tall little) as we moved the trucks, herding them down the hill. A couple of the boys stopped to pick up some cigars. They were huge, but I’ve seen other proud daddies handing around some almost that big. Bert offered me one but I declined since I don’t smoke that hand rolled stuff. I’m a Camel man, myself.
Four flaming coal men, then, herded into a played-out quarry by fifteen squads of firefighters. We knew that he could leave anytime he wanted and he growled at us quite a bit. But he wouldn’t leave his children. We were buffeting those boys around pretty good with the pressure hoses, drawing our water from tanker trucks first, then from the deep, cold reservoirs of the quarry pits. The little ones must not have been as hot as their old man because the water didn’t turn to steam until it actually hit them.
And hit them it did. Turned them left and right until after a hard half hour we had the four of them dancing into a limestone cul-de-sac cut out of the old bones of Cane County. No way out of there except straight up the walls slick with rain, straight through a determined bunch of firefighters, or out a crack in one wall just wide enough for two or three Baptists to crawl through at a time.
Somebody must have leaked word to the good people of Lacey Independent about the dancing drunken fire heathen.
Bert and I were on the left point, scrambling over rocks and dragging hose behind us, bracing up against the wall when we had to and really laying the water on those boys. That kind of situation — flaming demons getting chased down a manmade canyon by better than a hundred volunteer firefighters, trucks struggling through the mud in a heavy rain — well, in that kind of situation you don’t expect a pair of Sunday School teachers to kind of pop out of the wall in front of you and set towards the demons, singing hymns and trying not to slip on the rocks.
And after those two came two more, then three, singing at the tops of their lungs (my grandmother, a Methodist, always said that Baptists make up in enthusiasm what they lack in pitch — she was a paragon of Christian charity), egged on by their pastor who was kind of going back and forth between singing and exhorting the way a lot of those old preachers do. We couldn’t quite make out what he was saying, and Bert and I were trying to pick out the Coys or Chief Stone, hoping they’d get us some directions.
We were on our own in this particular crisis, though. The little ornery closest to us had spotted the crack in the wall and was leaning into the jets of water aimed at him, making his way straight towards us — and straight over the flock from Lacey. Bert scrambled past me, cutting off his hose and roping it over the fissure to prevent any more believers through. Two or three of them bunched up against him right away but he had that hose wrapped around an outcropping and a determined look on his face. They were hollering that they were there to sing down the glory, they were going to pray those demons straight back where they came from.
Who knows? Maybe it would have worked, but I couldn’t take the chance. I had a half dozen civilians in a fire zone with seven feet of nasty bearing down on them and no time to wait for backup. Going after Sunday School teachers, can you imagine? Those were some vindictive sons-of-bitches.
The preacher and the five of his followers that had made it though had kind of bunched up right below me, down on the flat part of the quarry floor. They seemed to be screwing up their courage, getting ready to meet the giants head on even with the rest of the congregation being blocked by Bert. You’ve got to respect their resolve.
There’s a lot of trust involved in fire fighting. You’ve got to trust your equipment, you’ve got to trust your training, and you’ve got to trust your squad mates. In this case, I was trusting that the main body of firefighters had seen my predicament by now and they would handle the demons while I handled the Baptists.
I trotted out to meet the little one shambling towards us, turned the pressure in my hose as low as it would go, and turned my back on him. Then I opened up on the Baptists, kind of easing them back up the side towards Bert.
My trust was rewarded, the squads laid into the little one behind me with all they had, driving him back to his fellows while I drove the civilians back up to theirs. Bert saw them coming and got out of the way in time to let them back through the crack. They had their hands up over their faces and they were carrying on like it was me they’d come to exorcise.
I’d be hearing about that particular decision — made under a great deal of pressure, I’ll remind you — for a long, long time. But I didn’t have time to worry about it just then, as the main body of firefighters rolled past us and Bert and I rejoined the fight.
We finally had them where Hezron Stone wanted them, and he stopped our forward motion. Through the rain, I could see some Clover boys backing a tanker truck up to the edge of the bluff above us. I guessed that it contained the old chief’s surprise.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all the plans you draw up to fight giant coal men work out just the way you figure them? I knew Chief Stone was too savvy a hand to expect everything to go perfectly, but even he looked shocked when the big one turned around, jets of water not quite reaching his back, and started laying into the limestone walls. And having an effect.
He gave that wall some mighty blows, and up above, the Clover boys were shaking. They’d backed that tanker up so close to the rim that the rear valve was sticking out over the edge above the targets. The tires of the rearmost axle were resting on almost as much air as they were rock. And it was more air by the second as each blow into the wall caused more and more limestone to tumble down.
There was a lurch and the whole lip of the pit gave way. The Clover boys scrambled back, tried to get to the cab of the truck, but a big crack was widening between them and the truck. Those old boys had done a good job, but they were out of the fight, now. Their truck hung over the crumbling edge, the rear wheels spinning in the rain.
“This don’t look too good,” said Little Bill.
But Hezron Stone still had a card to play. He shouted for Constance and as she came running, he bent over and pulled up a little round rock, a little bigger than a softball.
“See that valve up there, Constance?” She looked at the valve, looked at the rock in her hand. The creatures were roaring and the big one had started to climb.
“That’s a long shot, Chief,” she said, but she was pulling off her gloves.
Little Bill saw what was going on. He took in the distance and said, “Hell, you’ve hit further, honey.” And she had. Who doesn’t know about Constance Kincaid (she was a Kincaid before she was a Coy) and her last second full court shot against the Russell County Lady Lakers to win the District Finals in 1951?
“Hey, Constance,” I said. “Time’s running out and you’ve got the ball.”
“And we’re down by one,” said Chief Stone. Like a lot of old timers, the Chief didn’t hold with the three point rule.
So Constance nodded, took the stone, and shot. Turn around jump shot, no look. Nothing but valve. WNBA for sure.
And the valve opened, and a trickle of something dripped out. A trickle, then a spray, then a flood.
“Masks!” shouted Hezron Stone, and we all pulled up our masks. Constance scrambled for her gloves and even the old Chief pulled on a greatcoat and headgear.
“What is that stuff?” shouted Bert.
“Acid!” said Chief Stone. “A lot of it!”
Old Ornery and his brood didn’t care too much for being showered with hydrochloric. The little ones set to howling even louder, then just kind of slumped down. They started puddling up into coal colored goo. This upset their daddy something terrible.
We could see that he was losing hold of himself, and I don’t mean just his temper. His shoulders, which had been so blocky, were going soft and round. We couldn’t see the glow of his eyes any more because bits of his forehead kept melting over them. He jumped away from the spray, shaken now by our high pressure hoses. And he started marching straight for Chief Stone.
We poured more and more water on him, but he kept coming. Thirty yards, twenty, fifteen, now he was out from under the acid rain and coming faster. Somebody tapped me on the shoulder. It was Little Bill. He gestured at me and Bert, yelled, “Turn this on me!” Then he handed off the hose he’d been handling all by himself.
When he said it, we couldn’t guess what he meant. But then we saw what he was trying. Little Bill Coy, hell, Big Bill Coy, shrugged off his coat, hunkered into the mud, then went for the tackle.
It was a sight. Bill hit Old Ornery low, which was the only way you could hit a thirteen feet tall flaming giant. He kept his arms up, finding the creature’s center of gravity. He hit it so hard we could hear the crack of his collar bones going, then hit it again. Driving the thing back, throwing it for a loss.
Everybody turned their hoses from the creature to Little Bill. Acid and fire, mud and water, those were field conditions even Bear Bryant couldn’t have handled. But Little Bill Coy did. He drove the giant back into the last drops of acid, then collapsed at the edge of the pool of the stuff that had formed at the base of the wall.
Old Ornery staggered against the melting limestone wall, then finally gave himself up. He fell like a poleaxed demon, or fire creature, or whatever. The black goo of all of them ran seeped into the mess of acid and limestone at the base of the cliff.
We dropped our hoses and sprinted for Little Bill. Constance beat us there, but she stepped aside when the boys from Jericho roared up. They’ve got a whole EMT kit setup in one of their vans and I must admit I was impressed when they went to work on our fallen co-chief. He was a sorry looking site, but he was breathing, and by the time they loaded him into the back of the van, Constance at his side, he was conscious enough to give us a thumbs up. Always encouraging us.
Then all that was left was the clean up, and we were talking, the way you always do after a fire. Bert was quizzing Chief Stone. “How did you know about the acid?”
The Chief shrugged, muttered something about adding a page to the manual explaining what happens to alcohol when it’s exposed to acid in an aqueous solution. “See,” he said, “I’ve heard of Demon Rum. But you strip the alcohol out of his veins and what you got left is ethyl chloride. And who ever heard of Demon Ethyl?”
I punched Bert on the shoulder, said, “I told you, there’s nothing that man doesn’t know about fire.”
It was going to be hard to go back to work the next day, and I thought I’d call and let the boss know he’d have to get somebody to fill in for me doing the payroll at the sawmill, while I covered for the Coys at the station. See, there’s keeping books and there’s putting out fires and when it comes right down to it, I’m a firefighter, myself.
The charred-looking bird worried at the fish some with a sharp claw. It teased a morsel from the fleshy place behind the dead eye, where the sweetest meat lay. Its own eyes were weak, too weak to see the three boys resting by the water upstream. Still, its head was cocked towards them.
“You watching that crow, Japheth?” asked the youngest of the boys.
“I’m watching him,” answered his cousin. “I think I know that one, I’ve seen him getting fat off your mama’s garden. He must have decided that the safest place for him to eat is wherever you boys are with your shotgun.”
The third boy, brother to the youngest, said “We could hit them if they would come in close enough. Them birds know how far that sixteen gauge will reach is all.”
Japheth smiled — he was always smiling — and nodded down the creek. The bird still tore at the carcass of the bluegill. It still seemed to keep them under its beady gaze.
“How far to that crow as you judge it, cousins?”
The brothers studied the distance, seventy or eighty yards. They considered the gun leaning against the rotting willow log behind them.
“Now hold on there,” said Japheth, “I ain’t got a daddy to give me a shotgun. But little squirt there has got him a pocketful of chert rocks.”
The youngest said, “Them’s all my best throwing rocks, Japheth. You go get your own if you want to be hitting some old bird.”
His older brother, fifteen and so not quite as old as Japheth, not quite as tall or as broad in the shoulders, stood up and stretched his arms over his head. “He ain’t going to hit any bird,” he said. “He ain’t going to get a rock halfway there. Turn out your pockets.”
The little one had some chalk in there, too, and a length of string wrapped around a hickory shank, and five or six smooth, round stones the size of small apples.
“Go ahead, squirt,” said Japheth. “Show us how strong you are.”
The boy bunched his shoulders up under his broadcloth shirt. He set his jaw firm and his feet wide apart. With a little grunt, he flung the rock down the creek.
It fell into the water, a little over halfway the distance to the crow. The bird rolled the bluegill over with its feet and started pulling at the other side of the head.
Japheth let out a low whistle. “Further than your brother will throw his, I’ll wager. You’re going to be a hoss, boy. That’s your mama’s people, right there. Us Sapps are mostly like big brother here, right? Skinny and puny. Ain’t that right, big brother?” Japheth was always teasing.
The older brother burned a little, but just a little. Japheth had been staying with them just long enough for him to get used to the cut ups and japes.
He ignored Japheth’s whistling while he picked out a rock, leaned back, and heaved. It fell short. The bird did not look up from where it was flaking scales off the fish’s side with its beak.
Japheth picked up three stones and tossed them in the air above his head. He kept two aloft and asked his cousins, “How many of these rocks you want me to hit that bird with?”
The little one watched his cousin wide-eyed, though he’d seen the juggling before. His big brother, who’d seen the showing off plenty, said “Throw if you’re going to, Japheth Sapp.”
Japheth smiled and let the stones drop, two into his right hand and one into his left. He faced his cousins, his back to the bird. “I guess I’m going to,” he said.
Then he wheeled. He turned on his heel and wheeled his arms, right, left, right, threw, threw, threw. Faster than the wheels on the train that ran through Jericho, twenty miles south. Faster than the cars people had started bringing up as far as Stone’s Camp.
But not the fastest Japheth could move, no. While the brothers stood and watched the stones follow one another in an arc that led up above the tree tops then down — down toward where the bird still pecked and scratched at the fish — Japheth stole between them and snatched their gun. He threw it to his shoulder and shot, pumped, shot, pumped, shot.
And the rocks exploded. Shards of crystal caught the sunlight and reflected it in a thousand colors as they splashed down into the creek and onto the banks, thunder followed by rain.
Followed by the crow twitching its head, shaking off flecks of lightning and then bending back to its meal.
Followed then by Japheth laughing and hooting and dancing. Followed by his cousins shaking their heads, shaking their heads over Japheth showing them up again, showing them up and teasing them and how he laughed. He laughed and called like a jay. He laughed and called a little bit like a crow.
Japheth dropped into a crouch. The branch he stood on was broad enough and thick enough to run train tracks along, he figured. He could not make out the top of the chestnut from where he stood, it stretched up too close to heaven. Three long strides would have taken him to the edge, where he could peer down to the ground, but he didn’t want to see how high he was.
A crow settled near him, curling its feet around the branch.
There were some leaves springing out from a stray twig near Japheth. He took one and wrapped it around him like a blanket. The crow was hopping, shifting, but not toward him.
The bird croaked and gasped. It shook and cawed so loud that Japheth almost cried out in pain, it hurt his ears so.
Then the crow retched and spat up some arms and legs. They were red, they were burnished and bloody. Japheth was close enough to see the scars on the arms. He could see the blackened calluses on the soles of the feet. He looked up at the crow.
He looked up at the crow that was studying him, measuring him.
There were dogs and kids running both banks of the creek beside the Childers’ farm. Fiddles were scratching and there was a man churning ice cream. A rare day, then; some there had gone all the way to the ice house at Danville.
Edwin Childers had a tidy little place. He kept the meadow mowed down when he didn’t have cattle grazing it. Below the meadow was his corn field, then the tobacco patch. Lined up down Bittersweet Creek — house, barn, crib, fields.
The yard and the pasture were full of people when Japheth and his cousins came down out of the hills. They took the rabbits they had snared and cleaned to some women by the cook fires, then found some other boys.
“Sesquicentennial,” one of them was saying, carefully. “I heard Mr. Childers say it to the preacher. It’s the same as a hundred and fifty.”
“I don’t think that’s it,” another boy said. “But I don’t know for sure. All I care is that it means ice cream and firecrackers.”
Japheth said, “And whiskey, too, or that’s not Elijah Lehman there.” So he and some of the wilder boys had clay jars out when it got dark.
And it was after dark that Edwin Childers lit torches around his lawn. He got up and witnessed a little, told how he loved America and how him and some others there had gone and fought for her. The he sat back down because he didn’t like to talk much, even if he was a deacon.
The fiddlers started in for sure, then, and couples swung around the barnyard, stomping and reeling. Japheth was old enough for marrying and all the girls were calf-eyed over him. He danced with a dozen.
He danced and he sang. He led a quartet on “Standing on the Promises” and sang the high part on “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” He pulled pennies out of the ears of the little ones and put them in his pocket. He scratched the old hounds behind their ears. He drank some more from those clay jars.
But the girls started shying away from him after a while, after he stole a kiss or two too many. So he took a rock and a wooden ball and a piece of kindling that was weighted right, and he set to juggling them. The girls didn’t come back still, so he took up three of the torches Edwin Childers had put out for light. They flew around his head.
The preacher came up on him. “Time to head on home, isn’t it, Japheth?”
“Ain’t got no home, brother.” Toss.
“Oh, you’re blessed, Japheth. You’ve got a half dozen homes and more in Cane County. Ain’t one among your uncles and aunts haven’t put you up that I know about.”
“Just passing through, then, Brother. Ain’t nobody to tell me when I got to go home, is there?” Catch.
“Well, boy, I knew your mama and daddy both. I married them, didn’t I? I think they’d say it was time to go on home.”
“My mama and daddy are feeding nightcrawlers under that patch of Johnson grass back of your church, though. Ain’t they, Brother?” Toss.
The preacher drew up, then. “‘The eye that mocketh at his father,'” he said, “‘and despitheth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out.'”
Japheth caught the torches. The fire light showed the sweat streaming off his forehead, but it didn’t reach the black hills on either side of the creek. “I never been out of this valley, Brother, not in my whole life. I never saw no ravens.”
“You go home, boy. You go home and read Leviticus. ‘Every raven after his kind‘ it tells us.”
The preacher stalked off to tend some found sheep. Japheth, he stood still a minute. Then some boys started egging him on, so he juggled fire.
He juggled fire. He threw it.
He threw fire and he caught fire. High into the air, higher than the roofs of the barn and the corn crib, he threw it. Higher than the tops of the willow trees.
And he never made a false throw. He never missed a catch. he was never off, not by an inch. So the torch that came down wrong, well, could that have been Japheth’s fault? More than one man there saw the black shape dart out of the sky, more than one woman saw the fire knocked spinning.
The barn and the crib were old. A great great uncle of Edwin’s had built them when people first came up Bittersweet. The house was new, though, the Childers’ prize. The old one had been torn down and the new one put up in just a week. A lot of the men there had some sweat in that house. Even Japheth had some sweat in it.
And so they worked hard to save it. There were enough there to run two bucket lines down to a deep place in the creek. The corn got stamped down to do it, but they saved the house. They were bone tired and weary, black from smoke and red faced from heat, but they saved most of the house.
But the barns…. Fire is peculiar. It can hide. It can hide under the ground and under leaves. It can hide in ashes, sure, and in sweet alfalfa hay it can hide and it did hide. It waited, and it grew angry. All those exhausted people, when that sound like Goliath drawing in a breath came from the barn loft, they lifted their eyes to heaven and somebody said, “‘Rescue me, O Lord.'”
Time and sun had seasoned the old timbers. Rafters to packed dirt floor, the fire took the old barn, took it fast. When they screamed, the horses sounded like women.
Japheth climbed the bluffs above the creek in the dark. He found some ferns in the high places and made a bed in a sheltered spot between boulders. The fronds smelled like the woods, but when he finally fell asleep, Japheth only smelled smoke.
The crow hopped over to where Japheth hid. It took him up in one foot and pulled him from his hiding place. It swiveled its head back and forth, back and forth, looking at him.
Then it leaned in with its beak and trimmed off his arms. It gobbled them down, then snipped off his legs.
“Look here, crow,” called Japheth, “Those are my strong arms and legs.”
The crow dropped Japheth off the side of the branch. As he fell into the dark, he heard it laugh and laugh.
Japheth passed left over wisps of smoke on his way down off the hill. He backtracked them to the Childers’ place. He saw the women — Edwin’s wife and all his pack of daughters — down by the creek, pulling things back and forth in the water, rubbing clothes against rocks.
Edwin Childers stood among the blackened timbers of his corn crib. His crib, his father’s, his grandfather’s. He was staring at some red coals.
Japheth was an early riser. No one else had made the trip back yet, to start the rebuilding. He drew a breath to speak.
Edwin Childers, big Edwin Childers, swung his bull head around. He untied the knots in his shoulders and arms and back, then reached for the boy.
Japheth Sapp — sly young Japheth, quick and sure and strong young Japheth — fell to the rocky earth and it broke him.
Edwin Childers’ feet were shod with heavy brogans. He didn’t have any trouble snapping Japheth’s clever fingers. Japheth could tease a trout out of Bittersweet any time he wanted before that. He could pick funny little tunes on a borrowed guitar before that.
Before that, Japheth could fork hay all day long in hard June light, but that sheet of muscles wasn’t thick enough. Edwin’s boots found the boy’s ribs easy.
Before, Japheth Sapp could catch any girl’s eyes with his even white smile. Kick.
Before, he could hear a mule coming up the creek from a half mile away. Kick.
He could run from the Bittersweet Church to Stone’s Camp and not get winded. He could race squirrels up oak trees, and he could sing, how he could sing. Kick. Kick. Kick.
Japheth Sapp fell to the rocky earth and it broke him. It nearly unmade him.
Upstream was right. Against the flow of the water, he dragged himself up through a red haze, red that the creek water didn’t quite wash away. Against the water, against the slope of the ground. Whichever way was the hardest to crawl was the right way.
The old woman had the furthest place up the creek. She found him when she went for water, lying in shallows, murmuring through split lips. His hands clawed at the gravel.
Sister Ruth was from off someplace, but she’d married a Connely so she was a relation. She was widowed and her one boy had died with Japheth’s father. She didn’t worship with all those United Brethren along the creek and she didn’t see people much. But she knew Japheth, and she took him in.
She fed him soup and made poultices from moss and creek mud. She trimmed poplar branches into splints and set his legs as close to straight as she could.
After a few days, he could have talked to her. Sister Ruth was used to not talking, but she spoke to him sometimes. It seemed polite.
When she gave him new clothes she said, “Army sent these back with Ezra. You eat enough of that soup and you’ll fill them out.” They were heavy, gray things, trousers and shirts and a long coat.
After a few weeks, she took him outside with the dogs in the air and sunshine. His eyes weren’t as good as they had been. He could see the crows, though. He could see them watching him.
Japheth watched the crows back, he watched them close. First, he learned that crows aren’t just black. “Black as an old crow,” people said, and there was some truth to that. It just wasn’t all the truth. The yellow and orange in their beaks and feet, yes, but blue? Their wings had blue in them. Sometimes he saw red in their eyes, even before they started coming in closer.
And the sound of crows. Caw, Caw, they cry. But a crow whistles sometimes, too. Japheth heard crows fuss like jays and giggle like girl children. He heard them babble like the creek over gravel.
The feel of crows — the sharp points of their claws and the soft lift of their feathers — that came later. Some time would pass before he learned their dusty, gamy smell.
Japheth healed slowly. He healed badly. His left leg had a bend to it. There was a rattle in his chest and he breathed too hard. He didn’t have his same face anymore. His nose was twisted and his lips wouldn’t meet.
But, he was able to hobble down into the yard to throw feed to the chickens and the dogs. Most times, when he’d finally managed to creep his way back up onto the porch, he’d find a crow perched on the swing where he usually sat. Sometimes he shooed them away, sometimes he went inside.
One day Sister Ruth said, “You know about the crow funeral?”
Japheth didn’t say anything.
“You see a crow laid up dead, somewhere, you get there quick enough after it’s killed?” Her talk was from up in the mountains. His Connely cousin had found her in Harlan or some place back around there when he went off and found out he wasn’t a miner.
“All these other ones come around, don’t they? They’s hundreds of them, I guess. And they’s all jabbering and carrying on like they do. And then they all hush up at once. And it’s all quiet like after a shot in the woods. And they just sit there a time, don’t they?”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t know.
“Then, after they been sitting there for a while, they all start in cawing again. Then they light out to wherever it is crows go.”
It was time to feed the dogs, so he went out to the porch. Crows were in the trees and on the rocks. They perched along the ridge of the barn.
It was quiet, like after a shot in the woods.
He would scare them off. He found the rags of clothes Sister Ruth had found him in and gathered them into a tattered pile. He brought straw and tobacco sticks from the barn and broke his silence to ask her for needle and thread.
His fingers and eyes wouldn’t help him, though. He cursed when he couldn’t thread the needle, then wept when he didn’t have the strength to break the sticks into the lengths he wanted.
His cousin was passing him there on the porch once and saw him at his fumblings. She bent to help him but when he glared at her, she shied off. His eyes had more red than white in them, still.
Alone, he stitched up the rents in the shirt and trousers. Alone, he sewed shut the arms and the legs. He took handfuls of straw and stuffed them into the clothes, all the while promising himself, “I’ll scare them birds off, I’ll scare them clean off.”
But when he looked down at his crooked hands, he saw they’d done their stuffing too well. The new seams had parted and the straw spilled onto the boards of the porch floor. He didn’t have to shoo away the dogs when he bent to pick up the scattering, they’d gotten tired of him, finally. Tired or wary.
The tobacco sticks were slim lengths of milled poplar, dusty with the years they’d lain in the barn. They suited the job well, straight as they were, and light and strong.
When his arms failed him, he used his feet and the edge of the porch to snap the sticks into lengths, the lengths of a man’s arms and legs, the length of straight back. He fell off the porch every time he brought his weight down. His cousin had already learned that the time for going near him had passed so she only watched him drag himself out of the mud.
He lashed the sticks together with grass string, then damned the straw and hung the rags on the frame. He stole a white flour sack from the kitchen, then cast around for more tools. On the mantelpiece he found a box that held an empty lantern, a lump of shiny black coal, other old things. He took a battered felt hat — the same one the groom wore in the tinted picture on the wall — and the coal.
He dragged the frame of poplar and cloth to the edge of the barn lot and drove it into the soft ground. The flour sack wouldn’t hold the shape he wanted, the black strokes he’d drawn for a face shifted and twisted in the wind as wild as the clothes did. But he shoved the hat down over the sack and figured he was done. He would scare them off.
When they went out the next morning, there were no birds. The crows were gone. But so was his handwork. Gone from where he’d left it, at least.
Ruth saw something she knew in the weeds by the creek. She looked at him, scared and angry both, and walked to the bank. As he lurched up, she moved away from him, the dripping hat in her hand.
The bits of cloth weighed down the sticks and kept them from floating away. The tangle bobbed in the shallows, and the current moved the sleeves of the torn shirt back and forth over the gravel.
The first jeering crow landed on a flat rock a few yards away. They were teeming thousands by the time he made it into the house.
For a little time he tried to hide from them. But he could hear them calling outside the windows.
Then he tried to be rid of them again, tried to fight them. But his rocks wouldn’t reach them. He couldn’t have lifted a gun, even if she hadn’t hidden them all.
The days got shorter and the flocks grew. The trees cloaking the hills passed from green with leaves to red with leaves — or yellow or brown or orange with leaves — to black. Black with birds.
The great crow snatched him from his fall and dropped him onto a branch. As it settled in beside him, he asked, “Why did you catch me, old bird?”
The crow laughed and laughed. It said, “These are my strong arms and legs.”
One night Japheth Sapp walked away from his cousin’s house.
He limped through the trees along the creek. He could see his breath clouding in the moonlight. He saw a shadow dart across the moon, then another.
The first one hit with a muffled caw, a feathered whirlwind burrowing down the back of his long soldier’s coat. Then crows tore at his clothes and tangled in his hair. They picked and cut and battered. He would have fallen under their weight, but they kept him up, they kept him aloft with the beating of their wings. He breathed their dusty, gamy smell.
He wore crows.
In a gray dawn, Edwin Childers saw a stranger peering into his empty new corn bin. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a man he didn’t know on Bittersweet Creek.
When Edwin got closer, the man turned with an odd jerk. His face was covered with cuts and bruises, his nose and mouth were twisted. Edwin knew him, then, and some of the old anger came back.
The man said, “There’s nothing in this new grain house.” He smiled, then, and Edwin saw a tooth or two hid back in his mouth.
The smile dried up and its maker turned and hopped into the crib. The soot colored coat he wore flapped in the wind that had sprung up, made it look like he’d fluttered in.
Edwin stomped to the crib and ducked in through the westward opening. He saw the sun just coming up, just showing through the cracks between the pine planks of the far wall, where the ragged shape crouched, dark and wiry.
The voice was still strong, but had a rasp. “You can’t give back what you took out of me, Edwin Childers,” he said. “But here, here’s your corn back.”
A black shadow darted into the crib from behind Edwin, then out the east door. There was a tick and a rattle as it flew through.
The grain skittered along the floor boards until it rested against the side of Edwin’s boot.
“That’s some of the sweetest corn anybody could ever hope to glean, right there, Mr. Childers. Going to be a bumper crop, too.”
Edwin’s eyes were wide when he raised them from the corn to the broken face. “I don’t want nothing of yours, boy,” that deep voice cracked some, “I don’t want no help from you.”
The lips pursed as much as they could. “Ain’t in me to give you anything, Mr. Childers. All that’s in me now is taking away.”
Then crows came from every direction. Flight, rattles, flutters, the farmer couldn’t move for the tumult. The other walked around him, out the way they had come in.
The calling of birds and the rattling grew louder. Edwin couldn’t move because his knees, his waist, were held by the weight of thousands of grains of corn. He roared and thrashed and lurched towards the opening, where corn spilled from the crib like gold.
A cloud of crows lept from the grain house. A man followed below them, his stride broken but his path straight. They went their way, gathering, gleaning.
Reach down that old picture from the top of the organ, girl, and I’ll tell you. Now, did you say your teacher was a Cowan? You know your Mama had a Cowan for a teacher when she was about your age and she had to write a family tree, too. Is it the same one? I don’t guess it makes any difference, I never knew a Cowan that had any sense whether they was married in or born in.
I’ll tell you first off that your Mama is going to pitch a fit on account of me showing you this picture. It’s supposed to go to her but she’s told me she don’t want any truck with it. Right now it stands to go to my sister, it’s always the next woman down that gets it. I’m trying to hang on to give it to you instead of your Aunt Rachel. Lord bury that woman quick that I might join Thee and take my rest.
This is a family portrait like picture men went around taking after the war. My Granny told it that they’d haul around their big old cameras on pack mules and everybody in the country would get their picture took. She remembered it from when she was a baby. See here where they’re all lined up in front of old Jesse Hadley’s house. That’s the one that burned down with all my little cousins in it when I was just a tiny thing.
You look in your library books at school and you’ll see that most times these pictures had all the people in them, and all the stock and most everything the family owned. But there’s not any cattle or spinning wheels or such in our Hadley picture on account there’s so many Hadleys in it taking up all the space. Or maybe old Jesse took the Lord at His word about storing up treasures in Heaven. It’s told that Jesse was as strong a man for God as any that ever lived in this county.
That’s him right in the middle. See that jaw? You look in the mirror when you get home and you’ll see the same one. It caused your Mama no end of tears once upon a time. She wears a Hadley face even if she’s never wore the name, and it’s a face that’s got more of the farm in it than a girl wants sometimes. I guess your Daddy took to it all right, though, or you wouldn’t be sitting here.
But I was telling you about Jesse. Did your Mama tell you enough that you could count up the great-greats in front of Grandpa on him? It’s not that many, I guess, but these generations mix up on a body when she gets up where I am.
And Jesse was older than me when this picture got took, I reckon. Look at those eyes, though. They were as sharp and clear as anything, even then. Looks like he’s staring right through you, don’t it? That’s what folks have always said. Jesse preached on Willow Ridge and somebody’s put a plaque about him in the church there. His Granddaddy was up there in the world, too, it was him that founded that church.
And near as we’ve been able to figure, that must be Jesse’s Granddaddy standing next to him. See how his clothes look like they’re a different kind of old timey than Jesse’s. I guess he must be the furthest back Hadley in the picture, unless you count his little sister.
She was a notable herself as you well know. Didn’t you write one of your reports on Miss Lottie? Only woman they ever hung in this county. I suppose that must be the very rope they done it with she’s holding, there. Ought to be holding a horsewhip or a bottle of liquor what with the tales told on her.
And look there, that’s my Daddy. Child, I wish you could have known him. He was about the best man I ever knew, along with your Grandpa, Lord keep them both. He died when I was about your age, I guess, working on the dam. See how he looks like he’s all wet? River got him.
I missed him terrible my whole life. When I finally recognized me in the picture standing right there next to him it was a blessing. See the quilt I’m holding? That’s the very one the people at the university put in their museum. I’m still working on the one for your hope chest.
I don’t know this man here. I don’t imagine he’s come up yet. Whoever heard of a man wearing a cape? He’s a Hadley, though, you can’t mistake that. Your Mama used to be standing where he is, but she’s one of those that faded out. I told her she ought not drop out of high school and I showed her how the picture was changing after she done it. That’s when she told me she never wanted to hear about it anymore.
But this woman, here, girl. Look at her. She’s not ashamed of her strong jaw is she? And she’s got those staring eyes like Jesse. I never figured out what she was carrying there until your cousin brought his little computer in here last Christmas. She’s one coming up, too, is my thinking.
I hope she’s you, child, I hope she’s you.