|The Transformation Story Archive||Horses and Doggies and Cats, Oh my...|
Coming to Harm
The way that man walking up Harmony Ridge was dressed, folks just naturally took him for an itinerant preacher. Black suit, black hat, white high-collar shirt, rucksack thrown over one narrow shoulder - everything threadbare but clean. Only after he'd passed the shade tree did the Spit and Whittle Club spot the tiny silver hoop in his ear. And that means what - gypsies? Pirates? Something, for sure.
They were so busy wondering, no one noticed the drip-drip-drip from under his trouser cuff leak down his shoes and leave tiny dark craters in the hard-packed dirt of main street. No, not till he slumped down on the post office church did Uncle Enoch point out his left sock - socks with shoes! - his left sock was sopping red but his right sock was white. So they called for the granny woman.
She pushed her way through the gawking crowded-around folks, wiped her dry hands on her soft linen apron, and rolled up the preacher man's dusty trouser leg. Some of the women went pale, and the young ones left hollering, and more than a few of the men looked like they sure wished they could. You might almost think, at first glance, that the preacher man had a bright red scarf wrapped tight round his leg.
The granny woman just clicked her tongue and called over a couple of the boys to haul the preacher man into the back room of the Cottonwood's general store and dump him on the low oak plank table there. Miz Cottonwood brought in a potato sack stuffed with cloth remnants and an old mule blanket to make the table more comfortable. A shame the doctor left the night before, it being the last night of the full moon and the only night bright enough to travel safely down the Ridge.
But Granny fixed the preacher man right up fine, cleansed his wound with spirits and puffed it full of iodoform powder. The man's wan, homely face was still as a wax mask the whole time. Granny sewed the edges shut with a boiled needle and coarse black thread, and man watched her with pale-blue eyes dimmed by cataracts, though he wasn't that old.
Granny bit off the thread with her store bought dentures. Those who'd stayed to watch let out a collective sigh. The room lightened as the whippoorwills that had silently gathered on the windowsill took off with a rush and clatter. Granny pawed through the man's rucksack for a Bible to place under his pillow, but found only a few cat's eye marbles and a silver harmonica wrapped in worn blue velvet.
The preacher man was up and about the very next morning, moving careful and sore. The old widows who flocked in the Notions Store descended on the Cottonwoods' with a heap of breakfast for the poor preacher. They watched, delighted, as he crumbled bacon in the eggs, rolled up the flapjacks with a dollop of blackberry jam inside, and relished the cold buttermilk like nobody's business. The biddies were too eaten up with curiosity to have the decency to wait till his belly got filled before plying him with questions.
Were it a pa'nter, rev? Were it rabid?
He waved and nodded when they called him Rev, but didn't offer a proper name. Didn't, in fact, speak a word at all. Not long before folks decided he was mute as the watching moon. He gave full indication of staying a spell, but there was no question of him settling down at the church to preach a proper sermon.
Instead, he prowled the trods and trails through the timber and town with grim determination, limping a little less each day. It wasn't long fore he swept up a little troop of gap-toothed, grimy children in his wake. The preacher man, he wasn't like any adult. He walked fences, whittled whirlygigs and whistles, found berries hid in brambles. When a child turned over a log to show him the mushrooms growing there, or pointed out a hidden pond full of bullfrogs, or did some other small act to please him, he hummed like a hive full of bees drunk on the spring's first honey.
High and sweet and wordless, growling a little in the back of his throat and warbling with his tongue. The children sang along to his silver mouth-organ though he had no words to give them. It were tuneful, folks reckoned, but it weren't never no hymn.
And at night he didn't lack for a meal or a place to rest his head, for it's an honor to house and feed a traveling preacher. Pappy Cottonwood would pour him a cracked china cup full of his best blackberry liquor while the womenfolk outdid themselves with barbecued ribs or chicken, crawdads and bullheads fresh from the crick, cornpone and fat-fried hush puppies. The oldest girl, Jewell, obligatory auxiliary mother to her eight younger sibs, found herself running interference between her mothers and aunts cooking dinner and the kids trying to snatch a hush puppy or radish.
"Oh, Bobby," she said with affectionate despair, fishing a snake out from the milk jug with two fingers. "You green-eyed monster. Behave!"
Bobby Frank, the only green-eyed Cottonwood, hated his nickname. "You wouldn't call the preacher man a green eyed monster, and his eyes is greener than grass snakes," he teased, skipping out the back way.
Jewell wondered at that. She'd never looked him in the eyes before. On the day he came, she'd been down in the valley with her beau, a nice young man, not an uncultured roughneck like the boys around her. She'd missed the excitement but heard the stories, mostly from the kids. She was too old to be playing with them, really, but she couldn't help pricking an ear their way when they yammered on about the preacher man gently handling a newborn kitten, a mite scrap of fur looking more like a beanbag than a critter, and placing it back with nary a scratch or spit from it's dam.
She just couldn't figure how to talk to someone who can't talk back, and ended up just avoiding him altogether. Well, she'd been silly, she decided.
She sat across from him at the dinner table that night, determined to make some kind of token pleasantry, maybe quote the Bible at a key moment, and show she wasn't some kind of backwoods heathern. But she couldn't catch his eye as she and the other womenfolk heaped food on the waiting plates. He answered her "More white sop, rev? Another biscuit?" only with a nod or shake of his head.
"I hope you don't mind po' folk's food," she whispered, passing him a jar of sharp cider dressing for his salad. The preacher man glanced up from his silent grace, and the dressing almost ended up on his lap. She jumped up quick to mop up the spill before it soaked into the wood, but she wasn't half as flustered as she let on. What she'd seen, it couldn't be. Sure enough, though, as his eyes flitted from person to person, following the conversation, they flickered brown and blue and hazel and grey and green, green, green when Bobby Frank hung the spoon from his nose so everyone would look his way. Jewell plunked the plate down in front of him when the vittles were served, and pulled her hand back quick - but not quick enough.
The preacher man tilted his head up just so, his cheek brushing the sleeve of her cotton-print dress. Their eyes met, brown to blue, blue to brown - one eye each, brown, blue, just like hers.
She managed not to look at him again through the whole rest of the meal, but he slipped out while the men smoked pipes on the porch and followed her out back, where she was feeding scraps to the cats. The cats grew still, sitting back on their haunches and staring with eyes like flat gold coins.
Shaken, Jewell dropped the bowl of scraps. Ignoring her, the stranger knelt and reached his arms out to the woodpile. A shadow detached itself, came limping towards him - Jewell choked back a cry. It was her old cat Nignog, his pelt half burnt away, probably by Lottie and Jeth's little firebrats.
"Baby, poor baby," Jewell moaned. She hesitated to touch him. His bare skin was crusty black, showing raw pink meat in the cracks, and his eyes were squeezed shut and weeping. If Pappy saw, he'd swing the old cat by the tail and dash his brains out on a rock. It was kinder. He could never heal from this. When the preacher man reached for the cat, she thought he meant to do it, and pulled at his sleeve, screaming no. Her cries brought the rest of the family, half of them with rifles in hand, tumbling around the house. She didn't notice. She was staring at Nignog, curled in the preacher man's lap. Before he had been black as a Sunday shoe, but now thick white hair covered where moments before there was only blistering flesh.
"It all right, chile," the granny woman whispered, taking her by the shoulder and turning her away. "All cats is gray in the dark."
Those transfiguring eyes were the cipher, and by morn all the folks of Harmony Ridge knew they had a conjure-man.
Now there were plenty of lame mules, hens that wouldn't lay, dried up cows, and other such useful beasts around for the conjure man to fool with, but he laid his hands on any sick or injured critter he came across, indiscriminate-like. Like that hop-toad squashed in the road, flat and dry as yesterday's flapjacks. It swelled up like rising bread under his touch, blinked once, and sprang away, right as rain. That was tolerable, but the problems began with the rattler.
Shiftless Solomon Dobbs, who was the grandson of a notary public but had married a backwoods girl and cared for nothing beyond his stumphole whiskey and running the hounds, had struck the head off a pine rattler with his hoe. He leaned up against a tree, comfortably watching till sundown to make sure it died when the conjure-man wandered along, followed as always by ten or twelve children.
The conjure man, he knelt by the rattler, cupped one hand over the snapping head and pressed the other to the thrashing body, while Solomon laughed.
But ain't it a caution - the head sprouted a new body, and the body grew a new head. And Solomon Dobbs, he stopped laughing right quick, seized by the witch-fear.
He thrashed the conjure-man dressed as a preacher good and sound, right in front of the screaming children. Solomon was built like a bull grizzly, and the conjure man was barely middling-tall, hollow and articulated as a chicken frame, but he lay and took it soundlessly. He crouched in the dust with his eyes, the same muddy-red brown as Solomon's, screwed up tight, letting Dobbs drive hobnail boots into his stomach again and again.
It wasn't till Dobbs took up the hoe and made like to strike the snakes again that the conjure-man jumped up. And his eyes weren't the color of any man born's, but yellow as cat piss. He struck Dobbs across the face, leaving four thin parallel bleeding gouges from his hairline to his jaw.
And then his eyes dulled, darkened, rusted. He grinned, quick and bright, confident as a drawn knife. He turned away. And Dobbs, he backed off.
Well, the townsfolk were accustomed to ignoring this, especially since Harm hadn't had a proper conjure-man for a mule's age, especially one with changeable eyes who walked about trailed by a matched pair of dog-tame rattlesnakes and a pack of barefoot children (at a respectful distance).
But Solomon Dobbs was jealoused up, being stared down by a banty of a conjure-man. He 'lowed as how he'd just wanted to touch the dummy up a bit, show him his place. He hinted as to how the conjure-man recollected him of the Pied Piper, and how Satan was a snake, and could spin songs to bedevil a man. Uncle Enoch minded him the Devil played a fiddle, not a silver harmonica, and the conjure-man walked the Ridge but never left sight of the town proper. Still, Dobbs witch-talked folks till no one knew which direction the sun rose. And no soul could raise a voice against him, as if their tongues died in their mouths.
Now, Harm is a tiny town scrunched up in the extreme northeastern corner of Georgia. Most folks are scattered about in isolated hollows and mountain farms separated by high ridges and poor roads, so the sun brushed the top of the pines by the time the old folk of the town gathered in the chapel the conjure-man never set foot in, and resolved to do away with him that very night.
Jewell was by herself, washing clothes by the drowning pond. She took in laundry, ten cents a sack, money she kept half of for herself to buy gewgaws and playpretties at the county fair, or ribbons to twine in her hair. The air smelled of pungent weeds and dry pine needles pressed flat by air as hot and heavy as syrup. Thick columns of oak and pine and hickory formed a cathedral of living wood, with a choir of burring cicadas. Boughs intertwined in a complex handshake, weaving a lush, random tapestry of shadow and sunlight on the thick orange carpet of fallen pine needles. The first fireflies sputtered alight.
Jewell sang as she scrubbed, " Chicken in the bread bowl, peckin' out dough, Granny won't your dog bite - "
"No, chile, no." A soft voice behind her completed the rhyme. "They's wuss things than dogs that do bite."
Jewell leapt up, dropping a bundled shirt into the pond. "Conjure-man!"
"Now, now, don't tell me what I am, it the only thing I still surely know. My given name is Cade, and you best call me by that."
"Law me, I dint know you could speak!" Jewell gasped.
"Fact. Three nights a month, when the full moon be ridin'." Cade's spoke with his lips barely parted, his voice spooling out silky and rumbling as a cat's purr.
Jewell turned away, and knelt by the pond again, fishing around for the shirt. "That's right witchy," she mumbled.
"An that name - a cade is a critter been bottle fed by folks."
"I swan, sharp as broke glass, ain't you? That ole conjure-wife were the onliest folks I had." Cade fixed her with his chatoyant eyes, their own color true. "I'm tellin' you this only once, and I 'blige you lissen close. It's the hex that hold me to this shape, cause I ain't a man, nor ever wanted to be. Three nights a month I takes back my true shape, but all I'm bound to takes they true shapes, too."
Cade paused as if his thoughts had leapt ahead of his tongue. "I'm bound to this town by the blood I spilt, but only till full moon's rise. Tonight I go free, and I got to hie out quick, fore the curse come down. And chile, if you don't believe folks is monsters in their heart of hearts, you go right ahead and stay here. I tried to stay, last town, an look what it got me." He gestured the length of his spavined leg.
"My beau, he's from the valley, an he dismisses conjurin' right out."
Jewell heated up ten pails of water on the cast iron stove every Friday night so she could take a proper bath in the tub before she went to see her beau on Saturday. If she told him she'd been passin' the time with a cat who walked in the skin of a man, he'd never stop joshin' her. Maybe he'd go looking for a city girl who drank french coffee from china cups and knew the latest dances.
Cade rocked back on his heels, toying with his silver mouth organ. "Maybe you best go stay the night with him."
The girl stood up, taller than the conjure-man, and said boldly, "The ridge is where I'se foaled, an where m'family lived since the portugee landed here, an the ridge is where I stay, come hell or high water, or - or witches!"
Cade shrugged his thin shoulders. His voice, sunlight on smoke, drifted behind him as he turned and melted into the tender shadows. "B'lieve what you will, chile. I tole you cause you could look me in my changin' eyes, and my debt is paid by tellin'."
So there Jewell sat, hands folded limply in her lap, listening to Cade's harmonica echo and fade like a warped record on a wound-down Victrola, playing "The Ballad of Barbara Allen" as he tread the trail out of town. The creature's words rattled in her head like a handful of pebbles in a tin teakettle, but she didn't betray more than a butterfly-wing tremor of her lips. Even that ceased as she plunged her chapped, red hands back into the frigid pond.
The squall that blew up at sunset cooled things off enough for a bit of fog to brew. The moon squatted, a blurred orange lump impaled on the spikes of pines, fore it rose up above the fog, flat and luminous and hard edged as the sawtoothed Ridge.
Then the masks of flesh slipped, and the folks of Harmony Ridge lost themselves drop by drop, like melting icicles. Their voices broke apart into howls and rattles and shrieks that sang from the mist-cloaked ridge.
And there, along the path down the mountain, padded a baleful black cat, eyes the color of the hoop in its ear and the moon it gazed on, blinking back the darkness, not really needing the nacreous light to find its way at all.
Coming to Harm copyright 2000 by Sideshow Lew.
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