Michael Cisco is the author of the short story collection Secret Hours (Mythos Books, 2007) and the novels The Divinity Student (Buzzcity Press, 1999; winner of the International Horror Guild Award for best first novel), The Tyrant (Prime, 2004), The San Veneficio Canon (Prime, 2005), and The Traitor (Prime, 2007).
The fly rubs its things. It came out of the well. That well is full of flies. There are always more after for a while. Julius didn't need to take the bucket off the rope and put it away in the cellar to stop me drinking any more well water because I kept forgetting not to drink it because I stopped liking the taste since the pit was filled in and there are too many flies. Now there's just the loop.
I used to come out to the well all the time because Father didn't give me water in the house. They didn't remember me because I was always quiet even before I stopped talking. Julius had the pump put in so we don't have to use the well water anymore. After Father left.
Grass. The up and down where the wood starts. Sun in my eye. The rough grey wood of the well. The hum the flies make in the well. One of them lands on my hand. I shake it off. Todd said it has to be soon. But we just did the it. We just did one. Julius is angry about it. I wish Todd would just tend the women and quit fussing with Julius, because Julius shouts when he gets mad. And he hits me for no reason.
The day sure is fine. It might be today.
"You took your time," I said when Todd came in.
I was certainly ready for him. I was braced and ready. I took a good hard look at him. He didn't answer me. He was always backtalking me but this time he kept his peace. That irregularity put me up.
"What kept you, Todd?"
He rubbed his brow. I hadn't expected that. I thought he might be shamming.
"Are you ailing, Todd?" I asked.
He wouldn't meet my gaze.
"You look at me when I address you, Todd," I said, without raising my voice.
He shook his head once, almost as if he wanted to shush me. The day he shushes me—but then I thought again.
After some dither he managed to get it out. He said he thought.
"You think?" I demanded. He could sham that too.
But he told me it was still going on, that he was coming out of it. His Lordship. The Prophet.
Right then he looked at me. I knew that was the look. Todd couldn't have shammed that look if he'd practiced day and night.
The word just dropped out of his mouth, and he leaned against the lintel like he'd been biffed on the head. His eyes blundered from nothing to nothing. Stupidity washed down his seamy white face and made it even longer. I had to keep my eye on him now that I'd looked at him; it was helping me to come back out of it.
It came over me with more force than ever, as I was coming back from tending the women. The one Julius dubbed Elaine, her name was Katey or something like that actually, had given me a bit of smart mouth and I'd had to crack her in the chops. Then I reminded her why she was there. In that frame of mind it is not for me a protracted matter and Julius never suspects. I don't think he hardly goes out there any more. Perhaps he can't manage it, in his senescence.
It doesn't really start until you notice. I had been feeling good, although my hand was a little sore, then I realized that, now that I was out of the dark, that close little cell with the women, the sun dazzle isn't diminishing. Every time I move my eyes I see streaks. Then my breath whistles in my teeth and I know this is really it. I don't like to fall down. I keep myself clean, I hate to get even the slightest bit dirty. So I hold myself up.
My mouth watered and my stomach turned over. My arms and legs got weak, hateful. Next I notice some dark spot; in this case, it was the shadow that fell between the house and the tupelo tree. I saw the sign in there. The dark opened and spread itself around me, and then the palaces.
We'd had to know it would come to this sooner or later. The last time hadn't been but a month ago, less than a month. Julius had relaxed. I have to admit I'd let myself relax too. I shouldn't have.
We're not ready. We haven't got a girl and we haven't got time to grab one. The last time was a close call—she was a tussler and Julius came back white as a sheet and swearing, pacing and swearing up and down he'd been seen. Nothing came of it. Nothing has as yet come of it.
He asked me how long, still gawking at me as if there were ever any variation how long between the sign and the time, as if I set the time.
"Tomorrow dusk like always," I said, throwing it at him.
His mouth was hanging open, and I could see he hadn't a thought in his head not an uncommon condition.
He did have a thought in his head—I had it, too. We were ready, that was the thing. There were girls. He was thinking of Claire. I was thinking of Ruth.
He was thinking of Ruth.
We had always known something like this might happen, and Father had seen to it we knew what to do if it did. He'd said the elders had given us the measure.
"We can't use any of the women?"
I knew we couldn't of course. But it was Todd's job to tend them, and there was a slim chance he might know something I didn't. He'd brought them. They were always to his taste.
Todd looked at me with his eyes slitted up and asked me if I meant were any of the women young enough. I could have busted the lamp over his head then. I nearly started to shake, but I can keep my composure.
I take the risks. I do all the planning. I'm the oldest, and I do it. I'm the only one who can. And he knows what'll happen if I don't do it.
You never ignore the sign. Father took us as boys to see where the old place had been, and even in the broad light of day it was a screaming piece of land, just screaming. It turned Grover inside out. I was the only one who could come back from there on his own two feet and that was why it was entrusted to me. Todd had to go get in bed and stay there.
But when it's time, the sign comes to Todd. I have to hop to like a slave and start it all over again every time he gets the sign.
I squeezed the bridge of my nose, rubbed my face.
Father said it was bound to happen.
"I'll get the lots," I said.
Claire looked up when I came in. I crossed the room and got the case. She didn't take her eyes off me. I told her to get back to her reading.
Julius brought down the cigar box open and set it on the table beside me. I had sat myself by the bay window, looking out at Grover who was sitting in the grass like a sack of potatoes. The checkers, red and black, were all jumbled together, and Julius was letting me see them all first. I nodded, numbly, and thinking about what we had to do was setting in and my mouth went dry and my hands turned cold.
Julius shut the box and shook it, still standing over me. It's hot and stuffy upstairs and I could see sweat swarm down the gnarls in his brow. He stank. He made us keep the house neat as a pin but he couldn't be bothered to wash. The whole place smelled like him.
He rattled the opposite chair back and dropped into it, putting the shaken box on the shelf under the table, where we both could reach it and neither of us see it.
We stared at each other. He said we would pick to see who went first. I got red. That color seemed to burn against my hand. It was just that particular color red. We put the checkers back and shook the box again, both of us, out of sight. Then we put our hands on the table. I thought of Ruth out in the woods and stubbed out that thought.
I pulled black.
You lie down in the dark, and wait.
At first you would see something like a forearm crossing the room. Just the forearm. It isn't a forearm, it only so happens to look like one just then, and it's what occurs to you. It just flashes by. Then, after a while, the dark and the quiet open up, right where you saw it. I can't say what the others see, I see only dim colors. For a long time, there are only dim colors there, and something will flit through the field now and then, quick as a wink. You have to make the effort not to ask it anything; it isn't hard. Eventually, you'll be shown the palaces, five figures of light or maybe more, and then they're all over the room like fog. The fog is blue, like cigarette smoke, but the light is white and gold. The palaces are like chandeliers. Hanging from nothing. We all lie in our separate rooms and go into the walls, I believe the girls too, slipping out into our palaces at night, in perfect silence. That's our beauty; we inherited it from Father, and he from long before.
Todd sat across from me, blanched to the bone. He'd scrunched up that cat face of his. I told myself that if I heard anything like fumbling around down there, anything but a straight pick, I'd shoot out my arm across that table and shove his adam's apple in.
I just reached out and grabbed one. It felt like it wanted to slip out of my hand. I slapped it down hard on the table. Black.
Todd rocked a little. My nerves were steady.
I was going to win.
He pulled black.
Must have been the shuffle put them all back in order I thought. Could I count them—how many were there?
I pulled black.
Todd hesitated. He rubbed his fingers together. Nails all clean and buffed.
You're going to lose, I thought at him.
I got up and swept the checkers back into the box.
"Red for Ruthie," I said. I left him sitting there.
Julius asked me where Todd is and I pointed to where Todd was waiting for Ruth on the veranda because he wanted to see her. Julius made a noise and went back into his office to get ready.
It's supposed to work like, Julius gets the girl and brings her here. Todd puts casts on her legs so she can't run. Then he puts her in with the women but separate so they don't mix. Todd holds, normally, because Julius has to do it himself. No one hears because nobody lives around here. When Todd gets the sign, she's there. All ready. You always keep a girl, because you never know when Todd will get the sign. But there's no girl now, because we just did the it. Julius can't go back so soon because they'll be on the look out. But Todd says it has to be tonight.
The last girl was black. Julius said it didn't matter. He also said no one would care because she was colored. She was here three months, nearly. I only got to see her twice. Todd saw the sign and the next night he took her into the thing. She was so scared she didn't even move. Julius did the it. He called when we have to bring her in because he has to start by himself, because he doesn't like us to see how it's done. He wants to be the only one who knows.
Todd knows the time, and Julius does the it, but I'm the only one who can put the right mark on the girl. That's been since Father took us out to the first farm. Julius says it made me slow. He opens the girls up and gets the sack away, and then tells me put on the mark. It's hard because the heart jumps all over. You can't smudge. I always get it right because I practice. Then Julius grabs it and cuts all around and pulls it out. He always gets soaked because they take a while to stop going. Todd has to come up with the bowl and Julius puts it in it, because they have to burn it, and then it gets burnt and the spare-rib smell, smoke all over and then they come, they get into the girl, then we can go in the palaces.
The mark always looks different. I just paint it because I don't know it. I see it and then I paint it on. I tried painting it on me once but the brush tickles and I don't see anything. I think the it has to be happening. I try not to tickle the girl's heart too much.
Claire came down and set out the dishes for supper. Julius kept her locked up in the attic room during the day and didn't want her to "mix" with Ruth. He never let her out and made her read the books all day long, over and over. He allows her to put on a frock before coming down to eat. When he feels like showing off, he makes her conjugate, standing by the table, in her miserable, reedy little voice.
I left Ruth to herself and out of the way. I didn't watch her, but I watched him. He never forgave me getting ahead of him.
She looked nothing like Lorraine. She was less than a year old when Lorraine last saw her, and time has disguised her. I took great pains to get her away, recruited Amelia to carry her back home on the train while I hitched. Julius must have made up his mind about Amelia the moment he saw her coming in with the baby. I'll bet she was pregnant by the time I made it back.
I went out to wait for Ruth on the veranda, and she came along through the tall grass, just at the reddening of the setting sun. She was quiet, from being alone all day. I took her by the hand and led her to the table.
They're outside now. One glance is all I have time for. Grover is standing in front this time, and between him and Todd there's Ruthie with her shoulders in their hands.
I move into the second part. I have to go on and on and on, remembering how Father did it. The way he did what the elders did. They showed it me through him. I have to time each breath right. I can't stop in the wrong spot. Not even to draw breath. Every word has to get out exactly right. It's like a long elastic that draws me in closer. They're far away, but I feel them stirring. They hear me. It's stepping out into the light.
I finish that part and wait. My breath comes tight and I can feel the sweat run down my sides. The fane is stifling, like a grave. They will call in Todd and Grover.
Now the smell—I never could get used to that.
I begin to recite. They're taking their time coming in but I have to keep my mind on the words and not stumble. I close my eyes and I can hear them shuffling. I'm in the dark, and the palaces shine out there and I pull up to them like rowing up to still islands in a black lake. That gold light spills over my face I open my eyes and turn as Todd is throwing her up on the stone and as her hair falls back from her face I lock eyes with Claire.
He has to keep going and he can't so much as falter. He knows what will happen.
You're the one who does it, Julius.
Just go ahead on and do it.
I'm not afraid of Julius. Without me he'd miss the sign and we all know what'll happen if the sign comes and we don't act on it.
That gold light is all around—I can feel their greed blending in with his hatred in a cold, steady gush.
I pick the time.
He looks down at her. His eyes are in the shade.
I tear her frock open, baring her skinny chest. She doesn't even cry out, just stares into her father's face.
Any idiot can break a lock, Julius.