Patricia Timms-McGehee (http://gypsyrozpoetry.blogspot.com/ )
and I were exchanging emails about DreamTime Friday morning. Our talk sparked my memory of this short story, DARK WATERS.
My best friend, Sandra, prompted me to post it, despite its length, saying it touched her heart and birthed one too many nightmares. So here it it :
It is 1848.
The man with death in his veins, Samuel McCord, has followed 12 year old Sammy Clemens into his nightmare, for he senses the boy is the prey of a supernatural killer. We join Samuel inside the boy's nightmare :
It was on the far side of an apple orchard. I drew in the smell of the fruit. It might have been winter in the waking world, but I had a hunch it was always spring about these parts for Sammy.
From the nearest slave cabin a figure appeared in the open doorway.
Tall, muscular, his dark face strong and wise and kind. Only with the farthest stretch of language could you call the sorrowful accumulation of rags and patches which he wore clothes.
I hung my head. How could I call myself a lawman and let this evil go on around me?
The man called out to Sammy, his voice deep and rolling like the endless Mississippi.
“Sammy! Boy, don’t you never go to sleep? I been waiting and waiting for you. You in a heap of trouble.”
Sammy scampered right up to him, his arms outstretched, and hugged the huge man.
“Aw, Uncle Dan’l, I’m always in trouble. You know that.”
Daniel pushed the boy away gently. “This here is haunt trouble, Sammy.”
The man snagged the boy’s right ear and squeezed til Sammy danced in place.
“It’s out dere right now! You’s in terrible bad trouble.”
That got his attention. “It? What kind of it?”
“The Hunger, boy.”
“What in tarnation kind of name is that?”
“The onliest name I knows for it. Dat’s what my grandma called it. And it’s fierce evil, Sammy. It’s what got ahold of your Pa. And I ain’t strong enough to protect you -- not even here.”
A cold, dank breeze suddenly swirled all around the slave quarters, and a voice of winter hate breathed from everywhere and nowhere, “Especially here, slave.”
My stomach coiled tight like a rattler. A stillness fell on the night. Behind me an owl hooted far off in the woods. Death was coming. And she was hungry.
Sammy stiffened. “Uncle Dan’l, who was that?”
“Her. It was her.”
Sammy was about to say something else, but another sound cut him off.
The creaking whirr of a spinning wheel. One not recently oiled from the sound of it. And laughter, long, shrill peals, without a shred of sanity clinging to them.
But it was the rattling clatter of the spinning wheel that seemed to be getting to Sammy more than the souless laughter. Though, truth to tell, both were unnerving to me, like fingernails against a slate board.
DreamTime was a dark place. It held its secrets close. None knew them all. I knew a few. A very few.
But a brave slave and a terrified boy depended upon me.
I drew the shadows in upon myself like a blanket of night and watched, biding my time. Nothing. Only the screech of the spinning wheel. I turned my eyes towards the sound.
Electric blue mists thinned a dozen feet away. But deep within me, I got the sense of despair and hate and undying hunger.
No one sat at the wheel. It seemingly spun of its own accord. And with its own mad purpose.
Long tendrils of glowing icy blue mists were being sucked up one side of the wheel.
There they spun over and over again, slowly spewing out the other end into a billowing, tall column.
As the three of us watched, me in the shadows, Daniel and Sammy outlined by the moon, the column became a form of ---
Not a woman. Not a creature. Both. Neither. She flickered in the mottled moonlight, her shape changing constantly, never the same, never quite sane.
A sad-eyed blonde girl, whose left cheek sprouted bright white bone.
An old Negro woman, her face mostly rotted except for eyes full of hate.
An Indian mother, face all screwed up with terrible grief, holding a small cloth bundle.
The form changed yet again. Something not human, not insect, but mixed in a way that the mind could not forget though it screamed to do just that.
Bristling tendrils above a plated head and luminous eyes that were dark water where no wind stirred but the breath of hate.
A being both terrible and beautiful beyond any singing of it. Those unhuman eyes locked on Sammy, who clutched Daniel’s left arm.
The figure changed one last time. Growing smaller, it sent off black tendrils flowing out from it like the wake of a stone tossed into the sea.
I watched the blossoming dogwood wither in curling crisps under the misty tide. Sammy sucked in a breath at this new incarnation of the hunger.
“Laura,” breathed the boy, his eagle eyes glazing.
It was a lovely little blue-eyed blonde with long plaited hair who stood beckoning to the enraptured boy.
The powder-blue summer frock billowed out from a wind that none of us could feel. The young girl held out her slender arms in welcome.
Daniel held him back from rushing forward. “No, Sammy. No! Dat ain’t Laura Hawkins. Lord, no. Dat’s still --”
“Hold your tongue, slave!”
The voice was of a little girl. The tone was of a monster. But Sammy only heard the one and not the other.
“Let me go, Uncle Dan’l! Can’t you see --”
“I see the haunt what killed your Pa. And I won’t let you die like him.”
“Won’t let? Slave, you have no power here.”
Daniel stood straight and tall. “Here I be free, you haunt. You hear? Free!”
The face of the girl grew long as did her body, stretching into something neither human nor insect nor even animal.
The Hunger’s voice was cornered black with fungus,
“Free? There is no free. Not for you. Never for you. Soon it will be dawn, and your master will drag you back whether you would or not. Free? I would laugh were it not so pathetic.”
I saw Daniel’s face crumble in like the crest of a pie whose weight was too much for the emptiness within. His shoulders sagged down with the burden of that great emptiness. Something snapped inside me. The voice of caution still said wait.
But I just couldn’t. No man knew his hour. And this might be mine. But I wouldn’t let those words be Daniel’s epitaph. I just damn well wouldn’t.
Oddest thing. As I walked out of the shadows I could have sworn I heard the sad wailing of a Spanish guitar out in the night. Everyone froze, and I spoke.
“Don’t make me spank you, ma'am.”
“Capt. Sam!,” cried Sammy, then drew back, his fingers to his mouth.
I sighed. Here in DreamTime, my true nature peeked a bit more out of the shadows. And Sammy had seen it. I suddenly was mad, clear through mad. I wanted done with this. Good and done.
“You!,”spit the re-forming hunger.
I nodded. “You know who I am. You know what I can do. Don’t make me do it.”
I flicked my eyes to Daniel. “Bastards can put chains on your body. But only you can put them on your mind. Don’t let her sucker you.”
A hissing turned my head. Damn. It had come, not from the still changing form in front of me, but from the spinning wheel.
I caught something for a moment. I let my eyes go out of focus a bit. There. Again.
The wheel had moved. Or rather a part of it that should have been stiff wood. Were it unliving. And then it came to me.
The body in front of me was no more the hunger than the web was the spider. And with the thought, the churning wheel blurred in my sight becoming even more indistinct.
But I made out the mottled form of a strange creature. What little I could make of it made my mind want to cringe and scream.
Though the woman spun by the hunger might not be the creature itself, still like the spider’s web, it was connected to it. And that was all my right hand needed. I stepped so that my body blocked my right side from Sammy’s view.
I suddenly pulled up short. Most folks die in the quicksand of their own making. They rush in. They assume. They make a stupid mistake. They die.
I had already rushed in. I tried to back off the mark a bit. The hunger killed. But was it necessarily evil?
Was it past dealing with? Hell, why not make at least a stab at ending this without death?
“No one has to die tonight.”
The woman of mist was now as tall as me. Her long hair a hot sunset. Her dress a caress of black satin, plunged deep down in front. She flung back her living waterfall of hair.
“It is how I live. How you live.”
“But we can pass by death tonight.”
Eyes no longer remotely human stabbed into me. “Why?”
“Because there is more to life than death.”
“Not for me. I am the last of my kind. And those maggots behind you are an insult to the memory of beings they, and you, are not fit to touch with your shadows.”
I nodded. It came down to that then.
She smiled with needled teeth.
“You understand then? Good. But your death should have at least the same semblance of pleasure that the whelp’s father enjoyed. Come, let me embrace you.”
“No!,” cried Sammy. “Pa was a good man. He wouldn’t hug no shameless hussy like you.”
The hunger sneered, “Wrong, maggot. He rushed willing into my embrace, his despair finally forgotten. And his first words were those of lust fulfilled.”
She smiled smugly. “His last were not so pleased, of course.”
“You monster!,” swore the boy, who would have rushed the woman if Daniel hadn’t held him back.
“You cage and eat your own. You are the monsters.”
“I ain’t no monster!”
The hunger fixed him with her glittering eyes. “I choose my prey quite carefully, boy."
I sighed, “Be that as it may, neither Sammy nor Daniel die tonight.”
“Well, I’m a mite partial to my own hide too. So let’s just walk off this dance floor all of us in one piece, shall we?”
“I think -- not!”
She was fast. Mighty fast. But she had preyed in one stretch of land for so long against weaker victims that she felt stronger than she was.
Me? I had left chunks of my hide across near the whole world. And none of my enemies had ever been accused of being puny. But I had survived.
More or less.
Before she had moved, I had sensed her intent and ripped off my right glove. I shifted my shoulders, slipped past her thrust -- both of them.
One from the woman in front of me and the stinger from the spinning wheel creature.
That last had whizzed only a thin layer of skin from my left ear, so I’d no room to brag. In spite of everything, she had nearly killed me.
The woman of mist might not have been the hunger proper. But it was connected to her. And that was all that my right hand needed.
I wrapped what passed for my fingers around the woman’s icy throat. I bent down with her as she screamed writhing to the grass.
“What -- are -- you?”
“Pissed mostly. But sad too. You just couldn’t let it be, could you?”
She tore at me then. Both creature and woman.
But the more she slashed, the more I drained from her spirit. No lasting harm was done me, though the same couldn’t be said for the hunger.
“Now when I became bloodbrothers with Elu, I knew he was half Apache. It plain never occurred to me to ask what his mother was.”
The woman and creature were both flailing at me even more wildly. “What -- was -- she?”
“Still don’t rightly know for sure. Some say she is the World her own self. I have me some guesses of course. And while my guesses might be dead on or they might be full of worms, Mrs. McCord didn’t raise any son idiot enough to speak them to an enemy.”
Now while her slashings weren’t doing me any permanent damage, they sure hurt something fierce, so I commenced to drain her the faster.
“Let’s just say her blood played hell with mine, and mine with poor Elu. Truth to tell, I’d be hard put to say who got the worst end of that deal. But for me .... well, let’s just say, while you think you’re bad -- me, I - am - bad.”
I’ll give her this, she was dying and hurting and weakening, but she flat refused to ask for mercy. Pride.
You have to admire it sometimes, even when it is certain death, maybe especially those times.
“Kill her, Capt. Sam!,” screamed Sammy. “Kill her!”
That pulled me up short again. Did I want to do that? Did I? Did it always have to end in death? And in front of a young boy?
The woman of mists blurred, letting me see only a glimpse of the terrible beauty of the creature behind her.
“Do it. Kill me. It is fitting. You are the first of a breed as am I the last of one. Kill me and rid me of this farce I have been living for much too long.”
I shook my head, easing up on my draining but not on my hold of her. “There’s always mercy.”
“Mercy would be ending me.”
“I don’t see it that way. You may not be the last.”
“I would feel were it otherwise.”
“You might be wrong.”
“I am not. Kill me.”
Sammy cried, “Are you crazy? That’s a monster there.”
I called out loud. “We all do monstrous things, son. We can be better.”
The hunger sneered, “You delude yourself.”
“There’s a lot of that going around.”
“Let me live, and I will kill again.”
“There are a lot of human vermin out there.”
“I let them live so as to weaken the herd.”
It hit me then. “You cull out the best of us, don’t you?”
“You hate us that much?”
I called out loud,
“You hear that, Sammy? She thinks you’re one of the best of us. You want her to win? Just let hate take control, and the murderer of your father wins. Is that what you want? Is that what you really want?”
“Then fight her -- and your own hate, else she will win. You hear me?”
“Y-Yes, Capt. Sam.”
She glared up at me, and I flinched at the clearer glimpse of her true self I saw, and her voice was as plates of slate rubbing together.
“In your place I would show no mercy.”
I snapped open my fingers. She lay still for a moment, then blurred totally away.
The spinning wheel creature groaned, shivered, then gathered its last strength. I watched it scuttle painfully away into the blackness.
Almost lost in the shadows, the hunger paused and turned its bulk my way slightly. “Then why?”
“There has to be a difference between me and those I fight, or what’s the point?”
“What is the point?”
“Damned if I know.”
I glanced back at Sammy and wished I hadn’t.
For a lightning's flicker, it seemed something burned hollow and bright in his eagle eyes. A something I had seen earlier in the night. A cruel radiance.
I looked again. It was gone. Or was it? I peered close into his eyes.
A thick shadow suddenly swallowed Sammy's face. Its color was the odd black of blood billowing underneath the water. The dark waters of a wounded soul.
Only time would tell if it had been there at all or had only been the illuson cast by my own guilt.
And if it had been there, could I kill the boy whose soul I had tried to save? Could I? Or did a monster like me even have that right?
I lived with my curse. Maybe I could teach the boy to live with his. Maybe.
If the mother would let me. If Sammy would let me. If I could.
Daniel's sad bear eyes went from Sammy to me then back again to the boy. He looked like he wanted to cry or to cuss or both. Me, too.