TKnC welcomes Marietta with her chilling début...
It was an early summer's night in 1938 along the coast of a barrier island. This was a sparsley populated county, only recently settled. A high moon lit a lonely walk home. Twenty year old Nettie held herself against the damp breeze. Her old clothes were soggy. She watched the needle covered ground below her feet and paid no mind to the dancing Carolina pines above or sporadic lights glowing through crooked limbs between gusts. She came home to a creaking screen and a thin, poorly hung door that would swell when rains threatened. It was stuck slightly ajar therefore she was able to cross in without waking her younger sister Opal.
The night had been long and she still felt rough fingers digging into her body. Gin mired breath stayed behind after mindless gropes and kisses. She made her means like her mother and grandmother before, albeit within different venues. Having tried her hand in tents along side sticky carnivals and roaming revivals she grew worried about the rowdies she met and instead made this moonshine and logging town her place. Women and children were scarce due to the extreme marshy nature of the country and she found acquaintances easy to come by. At times she thought herself blessed for there was little in this world for a girl of her background.
The town had a rough hotel with grub for the working men, a postal office and a hooch room. Nettie worked behind the pub. Tonight was quiet as the loggers had traveled to their homes up river for a long holiday and the shine runners had already begun their stupor. She was sticky from their sweaty hands. The last johnny was old. He had mean hands and pushed her to a dirty corner. But he was lame and could not stand after her desperate shove. She ran after finding her faded flower dress.
On to her place alone only now did she inspect the tender bruises he left. She changed and fell to her chair in exhaustion.Warm russett curls lay damp and heavy on her plump cheek. Her skin was flush and awake under the light brushing of her gown. The cheap, pink pegnoir yawned open. She had drifted to sleep listening to Opal's breathing. The tired red velvet of her flea market chair felt soft against the back of her neck. Just beyond her sleep stirred the sound of the broken front door closing and of boots and wood, a thud and then a drag.
"Since you got God's curse you've been running wild on his earth. Drowning and burning, stoning, hanging ...the witches are free and begging to die..," he spoke from the darkness. He stood slumped like a tree stump near her chair. Then he spit at her.
"Jesus...I got nothing." coughed Nettie thinking he was there to rob. Her head felt light from the sight of a man looming close. He smacked her hard.
"Never speak my brother’s name. You would have my head on a plate like Brother John. Dirty little bitch harlot you are here to tempt me, tempt his son." His mouth was now a breath away.
He reached out with bony fingers, the man from the bar and grabbed Nettie's face. She saw him gaunt, his skin yellow and dry. His hairless, poorly formed head sat too close to his shoulders and his arms hung low. Big black eyes searched the room and rested on the sleeping girl. He moved his tongue over his top lip slowly.
"You ain't no good girl. Like Sarah to Abraham though you have brought me a good girl, the mother of my children. God loves me." He whispered and then sang, while baring his black teeth in a smile. His neck arched and he spoke upward. "Brother John is singing a song for me. Beyond here, in the blue. Who is singing for you girl?"
As she had done on many nights before Nettie buried her face into the chair cushion and sobbed. She knew nothing else to do. The old man pulled at her soft skin. At last he was terribly quiet and then she was done for. As the moon drifted behind a cloud the man picked up her sister with his bloody hands and walked the ten miles to his house on the dismal swamp, rotten legs moving with grave purpose.
Years later Opal held reverie over her favored time as the purple night crawled towards her. The tin roof that sat atop her small white house hung low with the wet heat of August. One slice of the peeling white paint melted off the porch and drifted to the floorboards. Opal stared at the bit for a moment and then stepped on it with her bare foot. Through murky brown hair she could make out the fireflies as they darted inside and out of the broken gate and enormous iron fence it once served which surrounded her home.
Beyond her trees air felt large and expansive. Faint sounds of the old man's dying RCA tickled her lobes; she recognized the quivering song and remembered him humming it often, "Do Lord, Oh Do Lord, Oh Do Remember Me". The people singing seemed unsure though hoping for heaven. She was sure of God and knew he would remember the old man while Opal prayed to be forgotten.
She lifted her hearing to encompass the old, howling mutt tied up to the main house. The speckled dog was lost, not liking to be tied up, afraid because she was forgotten and hungry. Her cries carried across the yard. The breeze sauntered from the east and Opal could smell the honeysuckle which fed on the few remaining crepe myrtles. Vibrating creatures of the dim swamp beyond her yard screamed at the approaching night.
Opal moved closer to the aging post holding her porch upright. She rested her head on the cracked wood and felt comfort. Upon her first scarlet sickness he had moved her to these quarters. She was unclean and she was shunned and whoever would touch her during this flow was cursed as well. For five days she was left alone. During her days without the man she thought it not so sad to catch God's eye. In the evenings the man would grab her underthings, searching for any sign of the curse. When the dark smudge did mark her she was trembling with the freedom it implied. He would strike her fiercely across the face, pinch until the blood rose to the top of her light, fine skin and leave.
She and the old dog would lie on the back porch to watch life in the water. Thin cranes gingerly picked their way through soaking reeds, turtles would dig warm holes in black mud to leave their eggs and Opal wondered at the gentility. One silvery spring morning the dog lay sleeping in the sun and Opal fussed about near a drooping honeysuckle bush alive with bees. Wash drying in a perfect sky she lazily lurched to lay next to the dog. Her sleep deep, Rose the dog snapped forward and clenched hard on the soft tissue under Opal's eye and the sensitive round of her nose. The pinching pain brought a white light to Opals eyes along with hot tears. Her hands held to the bridge of her face shaking in shock and shame. Opal knew better than to surprise the old mutt. No matter how the sun shines, dogs will bite and bees will sting. Opal comforted Rosie, scratching her gently under the chin. The dogs sweet, round eyes grew big with fear and then softly shut with the forgiving hand. Opal prayed for the small beasts in her swamp.
"In the name and in the blood of your son I pray. Amen."
Now, on this eve her underclothes were pristine and she had faith for something sweet. She prayed she would sleep the night through in her old house that sat in the pocket of a cypress bog. Opal waited for the night. She slumped and blew on four crescent shaped wounds marking each palm then rubbed matching bloody fingernails. Her faint heart stilled any urge to walk outside the gates that night. She would gather her frayed bible, a doll she had found and the dog and start to walk. They would leave while night was still in the air but before morning’s full break. She would walk away from memories of the man pressing angrily inside her and against her. She would forget how he would pull the the dingy covers against the windows, against the world and hold her down. He would speak of God's will and make her pray for forgiveness.
For now her thin, pale figure floated inside the house alone. Without a thought she left the stubby, red door unlocked, as he had always told her to do. Opal walked to her bedroom in the back. She pulled the filthy gray window coverings down. The hushed movement allowed the yellow moon to send quiet rays of light through her broken windows. One cloud hung in the air, outlined in black and creeping. She did not want this night to end but her mind was tired and her figure almost dead with sleep. She imagined herself waking and lying in a stream of sunshine waiting for nothing after a dreamy night of nothing.
For this hot day had started early. She had watched as men with a big red truck retrieved the old man's body. A nearby hunting group had complaints about the dog's cries spooking their game. When they came to confront they found him. It would seem the old man had passed away just inside the doorway of the big, crumbling house. He had a rope clutched in one hand and a Lucky Strike snuffed out between the fingers of the other. They took the man and left the dog.
Opal's gate had been broken. The strangers had picked up her things without truly seeing. One man held her old doll and then dropped it to the floor. The coming weekend of drinking and hunting drove them fast and they left. She hid under the out-house inside the fence. It sat near the sunless green side of the swamp. He had always told her to do so if men ever came. She sat perfectly still, something she was accustomed to, for many hours and tonight would be sweet with sleep.
Now Opal slipped under her fresh, clean sheets. The fragrant juniper grew low and Spanish moss dripped protectively from the knobby pines. She sighed gently to welcome the silence into her room. Her thighs pressed tightly together in a hopeful habit. A breeze, pregnant with a familiar smell, choked her desire to slink from the bed and sneak to the old gravel road in front of the main house. The single dark cloud shook and covered the moon stealing her glow, blanketing her room with dark. She wished to sleep in the vast open with a high and vaulting sky but she remained flat and hiding like a dying cat. Her mind scrubbed away images of the dark creatures that leered from the mucky swamp for here she was, with no shameful curse yet joyfully alone. Happiness frightened her.
A barred owl sang softly and then worn leather on gravel. The dog barked once and was silent after a clear and perfect whine. The radio now dead, she could clearly hear dragging steps and the front door dragging open. The old man returned from his trip beyond the blue. God said no. Heaven did not want him. A thin, bony finger curled around her pale white doorframe. She stared at her window and dreamed of flying. Knowing nothing else, as if remembering the cursed women in her bruised memory, she pushed her legs together tightly and turned her head into the pillow humming a pleading hymn.
Marietta Miles lives in Virginia with her husband and children. As a child she read Stephen King, Peter Straub, Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft. Now grown she counts Kate Chopin, Flannery O'connor, Shirley Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates as her dearest authors. A new attachment to Edgar Allan Poe has recently reared it's head. Now living in the south she takes joy in her surroundings, the sweet pace, sweet tea and great ghost stories.