Mystery Walk

Chapter 6

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16

The sun was rising too on the Creekmore farm. Ramona awakened just after six, when she heard a car pulling up in front of the house. She heard the car door open, but did not hear it close. Then someone was fumbling with keys, trying to get in.

Ramona quickly put on her robe, lit an oil lamp, and walked into the front room just as her husband staggered in. John grinned widely; a shock wave of body odor and the heady smell of moonshine rolled out before him. A red stubble of beard covered his jaw. His clothes were rumpled and a couple of buttons were missing from his shirt. "Hi, hon," he said, and took an unsteady step toward her.

"No."

The word stopped him as if he'd been struck, but his clownish grin stayed hooked in place. His eyes were so bloodshot they looked as if they were about to burst. "Awwww, don't be like that," he said. "Jus' been out howwwwwlin', that's all. Saw Mack van Horn and old Wint, too; you'd never believe that damn still they got workin' way back in the woods!" He blinked and ran a grimy hand across his forehead. "Where'd that mule go after he kicked me in the head?" He laughed, his eyes wanting to close on him. "Why don't you go on back there and comb your hair real lice and pretty, huh? Put on some of that sweet-smellin' stuff I like. Then you can welcome me home like a real wife. . . ."

"You're filthy," Ramona said quiedy, "and you smell like an outhouse!"

"DAMN RIGHT!" he thundered, his face contorting with anger. "What'd you expect, that I'd come home with roses in my hair? You made me wallow in shit at that tent revival, woman, and I thought I'd jus' bring a little of it home!" He was trembling with rage. "You made a fool out of me," he said. "You disgraced my name, woman! Oh, you planned it all, didn't you? That's why you wanted to go all of a sudden, 'cause you figured you could raise some kind of sin at the revival! And I had to stand there while you . . . !" He stumbled over his words and stopped, because Billy had come out of the gray shadows at Ramona's back and stood there watching.

"Billy," John said. "Son. You daddy's back home now. I know I look a mess, but . . . but I had an accident, I guess."

"Go get your clothes on," Ramona told the boy. "Hurry."

Billy stared at his father, his face crumpling, and then went to get ready.

"What's goin' on?"

Ramona said, "I'm taking Billy to his grandmother."

"Oh." It was a soft, stunned exhalation of moonshined breath; John wavered on his feet, the room beginning to spin slowly around him. He felt strangled for a second and couldn't find his voice. Then: "Now I see it. Nowwwwww I see it. Gonna take my son away from me when my back's turned, ain't you?" He advanced a step, and Ramona saw the glint of red in his eyes behind the soft flabby drunkenness.

"No, that's not it." She stood her ground. "You know why I'm doing this. …"

"So you can make him like you are!" he shrieked. "So you can put all that . . . that shit in his head! I won't let you do it, by God! I won't let you have him!"

"Billy saw some part of Will Booker that was left after death, John. Call it a haunt, or a spirit, or maybe even the soul. But he did see something in that basement, and he has to understand what's ahead for him. . . ."

"NO!" John staggered backward, almost falling, and splayed himself across the door as if nailed there. "I won't let him be taken over by that blasphemy! Maybe I had to stand by and watch you do it, but I won't – I WON'T – let you take my blood into it!"

"Your blood?" she asked him softly. "He's my blood too. He's got both of us in him, but the old Choctaw blood in him is strong, John. He's the next link in the chain, don't you see? He has to carry it f – "

He clapped his hands to his ears. "Evil evil evil evil evil …"

Tears burned around Ramona's eyes at the sight of the pitiful drunken man, pressed frantically against the door of his own house to keep Billy in. "It's not evil, John. It never was."

"You tell me death's not evil? That's been your life, 'mona! Not me or the boy, not really! It's always been death, and ghosts, and demons!" He shook his head, his senses reeling. "Oh God have mercy on your soul! God have mercy on my soul for puttin' up with your lies!"

But then Billy, in his jeans and a striped cotton shirt, stepped into the orange wash of the lamp; he was clutching the paper sack containing his clothes, and his face looked sick and scared.

"Come on, Billy." John stretched out his arms. "Come on, let's show her how men stick together."

"Momma . . . says I should go, Daddy. She says there are things I need to learn."

"No. She's wrong. Know what kind of things she wants you to learn? Stuff about ghosts, and death. You're a righteous, God-fearin' boy, and you shouldn't listen to things like that."

"I didn't want to see Will Booker, Daddy. But he was there, and he needed my help." He lifted his hand and showed his father the black lump of coal, resting on his palm.

"What's that? Where'd that come from?"

"I don't know, but I . . .1 think that Will's trying to help me now. I think he's given me this to let me know that … I was right to go down in that basement, and just because it was dark and scary didn't mean it was evil. …"

A deep groan came from John's throat. "Poisoned," he whispered, staring at the coal. "The poison's in the blood, it's in the blood! Dear God strike me dead if I haven't tried to be the best father – "

"Stop it!" Ramona said sharply.

And suddenly Billy had run across the room, dropping his clothes-filled bag, and was clinging to his father's leg. Through his strangled sobbing the boy moaned, "I'll be good, Daddy, I'll be good, I'll be . . ."

John shivered – whether with emotion or in disgust Ramona couldn't tell – and gripped Billy by the collar, flinging him toward his wife. "TAKE HIM, THEN!" he shouted, and threw the car keys to the floor "Go on, both of you! Get out of my . . ." His voice cracked, and a terrible sob came up from the depths of his soul. Billy was staring at him, tears streaming down the boy's cheeks, and John raised a hand to ward off Billy's gaze. ". . . house," he whispered. He staggered across the room and fell down into his chair before the cold hearth, his face streaked reddish by the rising sun. "I can't do it, Lord," he said softly, one hand clamped at his temples and his eyes tightly closed. "I can't get the darkness out of them. . . ." Then he was silent but for his rumbled breathing.

"Get your things," Ramona told Billy, and then she went back to slip on socks and shoes and get her traveling bag. She would drive in her robe and change later, but right now she wanted to get herself and Billy out of the house. In the kitchen, Ramona took a few dollars and fifty cents in change from their emergency money, kept in a clay apple-shaped cookie jar that Rebekah had made for them. Then she came back to the front room and picked up the keys. Billy was standing near his father; the boy's eyes were swollen, and now he reached out and gently touched John's arm. John mumbled and groaned in his tortured, drunken sleep.

"Go on to the car," Ramona said. "I'll be there directly."

When Billy had left, Ramona smoothed the tangled, dirty curls of reddish-brown hair away from her husband's forehead. The lines of his face, she thought, were getting deeper. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, steadied herself when she began trembling, and got a coverlet for him from the bedroom. She spread it over him, and watched as he gripped at it and curled up into a ball. He moaned softly in his sleep – a sound of sadness and confusion, a lost sound like a night train way off in the distance -  and Ramona left the house.

FOUR

Potter's Clay

17

The old woman's hands, wet with clay, moved like brown hummingbirds to give shape to the formless lump that sat on the spinning potter's wheel before her. Vase or jar? she asked herself, her foot rhythmically tapping the horizontal wooden bar that controlled the wheel's speed. Oiled gears meshed with a quiet hissing of friction. She was partial to vases, but jars sold more quickly; Mrs. Blears, owner of the Country Crafts Shoppe twenty miles away in Selma, had told her there was a real market for her small, wide-mouthed jars glazed in dark, earthen colors. They could be used for anything from sugar jars to holding lipsticks, Mrs. Blears said, and people paid a bit more for them if there was the Rebekah Fairmountain signature on the bottom. After all, Rebekah had been written up both in the Selma Journal and in Alabama Craftsman magazine, and she'd won first prize for most original pottery sculpture four years in a row at the Alabama State Fair. She did the sculpture only once in a while now, to challenge herself, but stuck mainly to the jars, vases, and mugs the crafts shop ordered, because blue ribbons didn't make a very filling meal.

Midmorning sunlight streamed in through two windows before her, slanting across the wood-floored workroom and glinting off the finished pieces arranged on pineboard shelves: there were cups and saucers the color of red autumn leaves, dishes as dark blue as a midnight sky, a series of jars ranging in hue from pink to deep purple, black mugs with a finish as rough as pine bark, unglazed pieces painted with brightly colored Choctaw figures. The workroom was a hodgepodge of colors and shapes, a riot of creativity; at the center of it sat the old woman, smoking a plain clay pipe and regarding the material that lay before her. She had smoothed the sides, wetting her fingers from a can of water to keep the clay soft, and had already worked over several small imperfections that might crack in the kiln's drying heat. Now it was time to decide.

She saw a vase in this one. A tall vase with a fluted rim, glazed deep red like the blood that flows through a woman's heart when she's with the man she loves. Yes, she thought; a beautiful dark red vase to hold white wild flowers. She added more clay from a box at her side, wet her fingers again, and went to work.

Rebekah Fairmountain's strong-boned, deeply furrowed face was spattered with clay; her flesh was the color of oiled mahogany, her eyes pure ebony. Straight silver hair fell to her shoulders from beneath a wide-brimmed straw sunhat, and she wore clay-smeared Sears overalls over a plaid shirt. As she worked, her eyes narrowed with concentration, and blue whorls of smoke wisped from the right side of her mouth; she was puffing rabbit tobacco that she'd gathered in the forest, and its distinctive burned-leaves aroma filled the workroom. Her house was set far off the main road and surrounded by dense forest; even so, the electric company was running lines out to provide lights to some of her neighbors, but she didn't want that false, cheerless lighting.

A covey of quail burst out of the brush off in the distance, scattering for the sky. Their movement through the window caught Rebekah's attention; she watched them for a moment, wondering what was stalking through the woods after them. Then she saw a faint haze of dust rising in the air, and she knew a car was drawing near. Mailman? she wondered. Too early in the day. Bill collector? Hope not! She reluctantly left the potter's wheel and rose from her chair, stepping to the window.

When she saw it was John Creekmore's car, her heart leapt with joy. It had been Christmas since she'd last seen her daughter and grandson. She opened the screen door and went out to where the Olds was pulling up in front of the white house, built separately from the pottery workshed. Ramona and little Billy were already getting out, but where was John? Something bad had happened, Rebekah told herself as she saw their faces. Then she broke into a hobbled run, and embraced her daughter, feeling the tension that hung around her like a shroud.

Rebekah pretended not to notice Billy's swollen eyes. She tousled his hair and said, "Boy, you're going to be tall enough to snag the clouds pretty soon, aren't you?" Her voice was raspy, and trembled with the excitement of seeing them.

"There've been too many martyrs in this family already. So: you went to this Falconer revival, and you think it was him, do you?"

"Yes," Ramona said. "I know it was."

"How do you know?"

"If I have to explain that to you, you don't know me very well. I wish I'd never gone there! I was a fool to go!"

"But it's done." Rebekah's dark eyes glittered. "Have you told Billy?"

"No, not yet."

"Are you?"

"I . . . don't think the time is right for that. I think it would be too much for him. Last night . . . what he thought was his father came for him, and took him out on the road. He was almost killed by a truck."

Rebekah frowned, then nodded grimly. "It's after him already, then. He may be able to see, child, but he may not be able to know what he sees, or be able to help. Our family's been full of both good and bad fruit. There were the no-'counts, like your great-uncle Nicholas T. Hancock, who was the king of the flimflammin' spirit merchants until he got shot in the head in a crooked poker game. But then there was your great-great-grandmother Ruby Steele, who started that organization in Washington, D.C., to study the afterlife. What I'm tryin' to say to you is: if Billy can't help, there's no use in him bein' able to see. If he can't go forward, he'll go backward. And he's got a lot of tainted white blood in him, Ramona."

"I think he can help. He's helped already."

"And you want him to start the Mystery Walk?"

"I want him to continue it. I think he started when he went down into that basement."

"Do you believe that?"

"I believe Thomas was strong. I believe our enemy hasn't begun to show us all his tricks. Changing shapes to deceive is only part of it."

"Then it's important for Billy to start the Walk now," Ramona said. "I want him to know what kind of thing tried to kill him the other night."

"If he's not ready, the ritual could do him damage. You know that, don't you?"

"Yes."

The front door opened and closed. Billy came into the kitchen with wet clay on his hands. He was carrying a particularly large pinecone he thought his gram would like to see.

"That's a mighty hefty pinecone." Rebekah laid it on the table before her. Then she looked into Billy's eyes. "How'd you like to stay here for a few days?"

"I guess so. But we're goin' back to Daddy, aren't we?"

Ramona nodded. "Yes. We are."

"Did you see my new piece?" Rebekah asked. "It's going to be a tall vase."

"I saw it. I think it ought to be . . ." He thought hard. "Red, maybe. Real dark red, like Choctaw blood."

Rebekah paused and nodded. "Why," she said, an expression of pleasure stealing across her face, "I hadn't thought of that!"

18

Billy was awakened by his grandmother who stood over the bed holding a bull's-eye lantern that cast a pale golden glow upon the walls. Through the open window a single cicada sang in an oak tree like a buzz saw's whine, the note rising and falling in the midnight heat. Billy thought he could smell woodsmoke.

"Get dressed," Rebekah said, and motioned with the lantern toward his clothes, laid across the back of a chair. In a pocket of the jeans was the piece of coal, which she'd carefully examined when he showed it to her; earlier in the evening she'd put a coating of shellac on it so the black wouldn't rub off on his clothes or hands.

He rubbed his eyes and sat up. "What time is it?"

"Time starts now," she replied. "Come on, get up."

He rose and dressed, his mind still fogged with sleep. His stomach heaved and roiled, and he feared throwing up again. He didn't know what was wrong with him; after a supper of vegetable soup and chicken wings, Gram had given him a mug of something that was oily and black and tasted like molasses. She'd said it was to keep his system "regular," but within twenty minutes of drinking it he'd been outside, throwing up his supper into the grass. He'd heaved until there was nothing left to come up, and now he felt light-headed and weak. "Can I have some water?" he asked.

"Later. Put your shoes on."

He yawned and struggled with his shoelaces. "What's wrong? Where are we goin'?"

"Just outside, for a little walk. Your mother's going to meet us."

Billy wiped the last ghosts of sleep out of his eyes. Gram was still wearing her overalls and plaid shirt, but she'd taken off her hat and her silver hair gleamed in the lantern's light; there was a brightly colored scarf tied around her forehead like a sweatband. "Follow me," she said when he was ready to go.

They left the house through the kitchen door. The sky was filled with stars, the moon as orange as a bloated pumpkin. Billy followed his grandmother to the small smokehouse, and saw a column of white smoke curling up from the chimney. Suddenly Ramona stepped out of the darkness into the lantern's wash, and she placed a firm hand on his shoulder. His heart began beating harder, because he knew that whatever secret lessons he was supposed to learn were about to begin.

Ramona brushed off his shirt and straightened his collar, as if preparing him for church. She was smiling, but Billy had seen the worry in his mother's eyes. "You're going to do just fine," she said in a small, quiet voice.

"Yes ma'am." He was trying to be brave, though he eyed the smokehouse nervously.

"Are you afraid?"

He nodded.

His grandmother stepped forward and stared down at him. "Too afraid?" she asked, watching him carefully.

He paused, knowing they wouldn't teach him if he didn't want to learn; but he wanted to know why he'd seen Will Booker crawl up from the coal pile. "No," he said. "Not too afraid."

"Once it starts, it can't be stopped," Rebekah said, as a last warning to both of them. Then she leaned down in front of Billy, her old back and knees cracking, and held up the lantern so the light splashed across his face. "Are you strong, boy?"

"Sure. I've got muscles, and I can – "

"No. Strong in here." She thumped his chest, over the heart. "Strong enough to go into dark places and come back out again, stronger still. Are you?"

The old woman's gaze defied him. He glanced up at the white column of smoke and touched the outline of the piece of coal in his pocket; then his spine stiffened and he said firmly, "Yes."

"Good. Then we're ready." Rebekah straightened up and threw back the latch of the smokehouse door. A wave of heat slowly rolled out, making the lantern's light shimmer. Ramona took Billy's hand and followed her mother inside, and then the door was shut again and bolted from within.

A pinewood fire, bordered by rough stones, burned on the earthen floor; directly above it, hanging down several feet from the ceiling, was a circular metal flue, through which the smoke ascended to the chimney. The fire, Billy saw, had been burning for some time, and the bed of coals on which it lay seethed red and orange. There were wooden racks and hooks for hanging meat; Rebekah hung the lantern up on one and motioned for Billy to sit down in front of the fire. When he'd situated himself, the hot glow of the flames like a tight mask across his cheeks, his grandmother unfolded a heavy quilt from where it had lain on a storage rack and draped it around Billy's shoulders, working it tightly so only his hands and face were free. Brightly colored blankets had been draped along the smokehouse walls to seal in the heat and smoke. A dark purple clay owl dangled from one of the hooks, its ceramic feathers gleaming; from another hook hung a strange red ceramic mask, from another what looked like a hand gripping a heart, and from a fourth hook a grinning white ceramic skull.

Ramona sat on his right. The old woman reached up to the flue, touched a small lever, and a baffle clanked shut. Smoke began to drift to all sides, slowly and sinuously. Then Rebekah reached into a bag in the corner and came up with a handful of wet leaves; she spread them over the fire, and the smoke instantly thickened, turning bluish gray and curling low to the floor She took three more objects from the storage rack – a blackened clay pipe, a leather tobacco pouch decorated with blue and yellow beads, and a battered old leather-bound Bible – and then eased herself down to the floor on Billy's left. "My old bones can't take too much more of this," she said quietly, arranging the items in front of her. Flames leapt, scrawling crooked shadows across the walls; burning leaves sparked and crackled. The smoke was getting dense now, and bringing tears to Billy's eyes; sweat dripped down his face and off the point of his chin.

"This is the beginning," Rebekah said, looking at the boy. "From this time on, everything is new and has to be relearned. You should first of all know who you are, and what you are. A purpose sings in you, Billy, but to understand it you have to learn the song." The firelight glinted in her dark eyes as her face bent closer to his. Beads of sweat rolled down from her forehead into the sweatband. "The Choctaw song, the song of life sent to us from the Giver of Breath. He's in this Book" – she touched the Bible – "but He's everywhere, too. Inside, outside, in your heart and soul, and in the world. . . ."

"I thought He lived in church," Billy said.

"In the church of the body, yes. But what's brick and wood?" Rebekah opened the pouch and began to fill the pipe with a dark, oily-looking mixture of bark and herbs, plus green shreds from a fernlike plant that grew on the banks of the distant stream. "Hundreds of years ago, all this was Choctaw land," and she motioned with a broad sweep of her hand that stirred the layers of smoke. "Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia . . . our people lived here in peace, as farmers near to the earth. When the whites came, they wanted this land because they saw how good it was; the Giver of Breath decreed to us that we should accept them, and learn to live in the white world while other tribes fought and perished. The Choctaw survived, without fighting, but now we're the people no one remembers. Still, our blood runs strong and proud, and what we've learned in our minds and hearts goes on. The Giver of Breath is God of the Choctaw, but no different from the white man's God – the same God, without favorites, with love for all men and women. He speaks in the breeze, in the rain, and in the smoke. He speaks to the heart, and can move a mountain by using the hand of a man." She finished with the pipe, touched a smoldering twig to the tobacco, and puffed on it to get it going. Then she took it from her mouth, her eyes watering, and gave it to Billy, who looked at her with bewilderment. "Take it," Rebekah said. "It's for you. Ramona, we need more leaves, please."

Billy took the pipe while his mother fed more wet leaves to the fire. He took a tentative puff that almost knocked his head off, and he was convulsed with coughing for a moment. The smoke and heat seemed to be closing in, and he could hardly breathe. Panic streaked through him, but suddenly his grandmother's hand was on his arm and she said, "It's all right. Relax; now try it again."

He did, as acrid gray smoke bellowed from the fire. The pipe smoke seared the back of his throat as he drew it in, and black dots spun before his eyes.

"You'll get used to it," Rebekah said. "Now where was I? Oh, yes. The Giver of Breath. God of the Choctaws. God of the white man. He also gives gifts of talent, Billy, to use for His good. Inhale the smoke, all the way. Yes, that's right. Some people can paint beautiful pictures, some can make sweet music, others work with their hands, and some with their wits; but in all people is the seed of talent, to do something of value in this world. And doing that – perfecting that talent, making the seed grow to good fruit -  should be the aim of this life."

Billy inhaled again and coughed violently. The quilt was damp with his sweating, and still the heat continued to mount. "Even me, Gram? Is that seed in me?"

"Yes. Especially in you." She took off the kerchief, wiped her eyes with it, and handed it across the boy to Ramona, who mopped at the freely running sweat on her face and neck.

Billy stared into the fire. His head was full of a burning-rope odor, and now the smoke even tasted sweet. The flames seemed to he flaring brighter; they held beautiful glints of rainbow colors, entrancing him. He heard himself speak as if from a distance: "What kind of seed is it?"

"Billy, all three of us share something very special, something that's been passed down to us through the generations. We don't how how it began, or where it will end, but . . . we can see the dead, Billy, and we can speak to them."

He trembled, watching the flames shoot out brilliant green-and-orange lights. Through the thick haze of smoke shadows capered on the walls. "No," he whispered. "That's . . . evil, like . . . like Daddy says!"

"Your father's wrong," Ramona said, "and he's afraid. There's dignity in death. But sometimes . . . there are those who need help in passing over from this world to the next, like Will Booker did. Will couldn't rest until he was lying next to his folks, but his spirit – his soul – will go on. Call them haunts, or ghosts, or revenants – but some of them cling to this world after death, out of confusion, pain, or fear; some of them are stunned and wander looking for help. But all of them have to find peace – they have to give up their emotions, and the feelings they had at the instant of death if those feelings are keeping them here in this world – before they can pass over. I'm not saying I understand death, and I'm not saying I know what Heaven and Hell are going to be like, but death itself isn't evil, Billy; it's the call to rest after a long day's work."

Billy opened his eyes and put a trembling hand to his forehead. You're in the darrrrrk place, a voice in his head hissed. It became Jimmy Jed Falconer's thunderous roar: YOU'RE A GUEST OF SATAN! "I don't want to go to Hell!" he moaned suddenly, and tried to fight free of the constricting blanket. "I don't want Satan to get me!"

Rebekah quickly gripped his shoulders and said, "Shhhhhh. It's all right now, you're safe right here." She let him lean his head on her shoulder and rocked him gently while Ramona added wet leaves to the fire. After another moment he calmed down, though he was still shaking. The heat was stifling now, but most of the smoke had risen to the ceiling where it undulated in thick gray layers. "Maybe Hell's just something a man made up," she said softly, "to make some other man afraid. I think that if Hell exists, it must be right here on this earth . . . just like Heaven can be, too. No, I think death's apart from all that; it's another step in who and what we are. We leave the clay behind and our spirits take flight." She tilted his face up and looked into his eyes. "That's not saying, though, that there isn't such a thing as evil. …"

Billy blinked. His grandmother was a shadowy form, surrounded by a halo of reddish white light. He felt weary and struggled to keep his eyes open. "I'll . . . fight it," he mumbled. "I'll hit it . . . and kick it, and …"

"I wish it was as simple as that," Rebekah said. "But it's cunning and takes all kinds of shapes. It can even make itself beautiful. Sometimes you don't see it for what it is until it's too late, and then it scars your spirit and gets a hold on you. The world itself can be an evil place, and make people sick to their guts with greed and hate and envy; but evil's a greedy hog that walks on its own legs, too, and tries to crush out any spark of good it can find."

As if in a dream, Billy lifted the pipe and drew from it again. The smoke tasted as smooth as a licorice stick. He was listening very carefully to his grandmother, and watching the undulating smoke at the ceiling.

The old woman brushed a sweat-damp curl from his forehead. "Are you afraid?" she asked gently.

"No," he replied. "But I'm . . . kinda sleepy."

"Good. I want you to rest now, if you can." She took the pipe from him and knocked the ashes into the fire.

"Can't," he said. "Not yet." And then his eyes closed and he was drifting in the dark, listening to the fire's soft crackling; the dark wasn't frightening, but instead was warm and secure.

Rebekah eased him to the ground, tucking the blanket in around him so he'd continue sweating. Ramona added more leaves to the fire and then they left the smokehouse.

19

Billy came awake with sudden start. He was alone. The fire had burned down to red embers; the heat was still fierce, and thick smoke had settled in a calm, still cloud at the ceiling. His heart was beating very fast, and he struggled to get free of the blanket. The grinning ceramic skull glinted with low red light.

And suddenly something began to happen in the fire. Flames snapped and hissed. As Billy stared, transfixed, a long fiery coil slowly rose from the embers. It rattled, sending off tiny red sparks.

A burning, spade-shaped head with eyes of sizzling cinders rose up. Red coils tangled and writhed, pushing the fiery length of flaming rattlesnake out of the fire and toward Billy. Its eyes fixed upon him, and when its jaws opened drops of burning venom, like shining rubies, drooled out. The snake slithered closer, with a noise like paper charring, across the clay floor, Billy tried to pull away, but he was tangled up in the blanket. He couldn't find his voice. The flame-rattler touched his blanket; the cloth sparked and burned. It reared back, its body a seething red, to strike.

Billy started to kick at it, but before he could, something gray and almost transparent swooped down from the cloud of smoke at the ceiling.

It was a large, fierce-looking eagle, its body and wings wraithlike, flurrying smoke. With a high, angered shriek that echoed within Billy's head, the smoke-eagle dropped through the air toward the flame-rattler, which reared back and spat sparks from between its burning fangs. The eagle swerved and dived again, its smoky claws gripping at the back of the snake's head. The two enemies fought for a few seconds, the eagle's wings beating at the air. Then the fire-snake's tail whipped up, striking into the eagle, and the eagle spun away.

Balancing on tattered wings, the smoke-eagle dropped down again, its claws clamping just behind the snake's head; the flame-rattler buried its burning jaws within the eagle's breast, and Billy could see its dripping fangs at work. But then the eagle slashed downward, and parts of the rattler's body hissed through the air in fragments of fire. Coils of flame wrapped around the eagle's form, and both of them whirled in a mad circle for a few seconds like a burning gray cloth. The eagle's wings drove them both upward, up into the cloud of smoke, and then they were gone except for a few droplets of flame that fell back into the embers.

Sweat blinded Billy, and he frantically rubbed his eyes to clear them, expecting the strange combatants to come hurtling back. "It's sin, Billy," a quiet voice said from just behind the boy. Startled, Billy looked around. His father, gaunt and sad-eyed, sat there on the clay floor in overalls and a faded workshirt. "Daddy!" Billy said, astounded. "What're you doing here?"

The man shook his head gravely. "This is all sin. Every last bit of it."

"No, it's not! Gram said …"

John leaned forward, his blue eyes blazing with reflected firelight. "It is rotten, filthy, black evil. That woman is trying to mark your soul, son, so you'll belong to Satan for the rest of your life."

"But she says there are things I have to learn! That I've got a purpose in me, to . . ."

Billy almost reached out for him. His father's eyes were bright and pleading, and he could tell how much his father was hurting for him. Still . . . something wasn't right. He said, "How . . . how did you get here? We came in the car, so . . . how did you get here?"

"I came on the bus as fast as I could, to save you from Satan's pitchfork. And he'll stick you, Billy; oh yes, he'll stick you hard and make you scream if you stay in this dark place. . . ."

"No. You're wrong. Gram said . . ."

"I don't care what she said!" the man told him. "Take my hand."

Billy stared at the fingers. The fingernails were black. "You're not . . . my daddy," he whispered, recoiling in terror. "You're not!"

And suddenly the man's face began to melt like a wax candle, as Billy saw him clearly for what he was. The nose loosened and oozed down on thick strands of flesh; beneath it was a black, hideous snout. A cheek slid down to the point of the chin like a raw egg, then fell away. The lower jaw collapsed, exposing a thin mouth with two curved yellow tusks. One blue eye rolled out of the head like a marble, and underneath it was a small, terrible red orb that might have belonged to a savage boar. As the face crumbled, that red eye was unblinking. "Boy," the thing whispered in a voice like fingernails drawn down a blackboard, "get out of here! Run! Run and hide, you little peckerhead!"

Billy almost lurched to his feet in panic. The awful face – the same face he'd seen on the road – loomed closer, red in the flickering light. It thundered, "RUN!" But as before, Billy was frozen with fear.

The thing paused, and then roared with laughter that hurt Billy's head. The second blue eye rolled out of its face, and the two red orbs glittered. Billy almost leaped up and ran – but then the image of the majestic eagle surfaced in his mind, and he steeled himself. He looked the beast in the face, determined not to show he was afraid. The thing's laughter faded. "All right," it whispered, and seemed to draw away from him. "I have better things to do. Finish this travesty. Learn all you can, and learn it well. But don't turn your back on me, boy." The shape began to melt down into a black, oily puddle on the floor The misshapen mouth said, "I'll be waiting for you," and then the figure was gone. The shimmering puddle caught blue fire, and in an instant it too had vanished.

Something touched his shoulder, and he spun away with a husky groan of fear.

"Lord God, boy," Rebekah said, her eyes narrowed. "What's got into you?" She eased herself down before the fire again, as Ramona added wood and leaves to the embers. "You're shakin' like a cold leaf! We've just been gone for five minutes!" She stared at him for moment, and tensed. "What happened?"

"Nothin'. Nothin' happened. I didn't see a thing!"

Rebekah glanced quickly at her daughter, then back to the boy. "All right," she said. "You can tell me when you like." She helped him to the edge of the fire again, and he stared sightlessly into it as she began to knead his neck and shoulders with her strong brown hands. "Havin' this gift – this talent, I guess you could call it – isn't an easy thing. No kind of real responsibility is ever easy. But sometimes responsibility blocks you off from other people; they can't see into your head, they can't understand your purpose, and they mock you for doin' what you think is right. Some people will be afraid of you, and some may hate you ."

As the old woman spoke, Ramona looked at her son, examined his face in the firelight. She knew he'd be a fine-looking young man, handsome enough to knock the girls for a loop when he went to Fayette County High School; but what would his life be like? Shut off from other people? Feared and hated by the community, as both she and her mother had been? She recalled Sheriff Bromley's words, that things would never be the same for Billy again, and she felt an aching in her heart. He was growing up right now, in front of her eyes, though she knew that in following the Mystery Walk it was essential to keep part of childhood always within you as a shelter from the storm of the world, and also because a child's vision and understanding were most times better than a grown-up's hard, rational view of the world.

". . . but usin' that talent right is harder still," Rebekah was saying. "You've got to think of yourself as a gate, Billy, on the edge between this world and the next. You've got to learn to open yourself up, and let those in need pass through. But you'll have to keep their fear and pain inside yourself, like a sponge soaks up water, so they can pass through with an unburdened soul. That's not an easy thing to do, and I can't help you learn it; that'll come from within you, when the time is right. And doing it once doesn't make the next time any simpler, either, but you'll find you can stand it. The first one is the worst, I guess, 'cause you don't know what to expect."

"Does it hurt?"

"Kind of. Oh, not the same hurt like gettin' a shot at the doctor's office, or scrapin' your knee on a rock, but it hurts in here" – she touched the center of her chest -  "and in here" – and then her forehead. "It's a hurt you'll inherit from those you're trying to help. And I won't say you'll be able to help all the time, either; some revenants just won't give up this world, maybe because they're too afraid to go on. If they were mean or crazy in life, they may try to do . . . worse things, like hurtin' people." She felt his shoulders tense under her hands. "Or, more rightly, they scare folks into hurtin' themselves, one way or another."

Billy watched the wet leaves curl, blacken, and burn. He sat still trembling from seeing that awful boar-thing, and now he tried to puzzle out what his grandmother was saying. "I thought when you passed on it was like going to sleep, and if you were good you went to Heaven. Isn't that right?"

"But what if you had to go to sleep, but didn't want to? Wouldn't you toss and turn for a while, your restless self just makin' you miserable? And what if you were doin' something real important, or plannin' big things, or lookin' forward to a fine tomorrow when all the lights went out? Or what if you tried to sleep with an awful pain in you? Then you'd need help, wouldn't you, to rest easy? I'm not saying all revenants cling to this world; most of them find their own way through. In your lifetime you might only be called on to help two or three, but you will be called, and you'll have to do something with it. …"

"Like what?" He blew sweat off his upper lip; he was still very dizzy, and heard his grandmother's voice as if listening to crosscurrents of echoes from out of a dark, deep cave.

"I put mine into pottery," Rebekah told him. "Your mother put hers into her needlepoint. Your great-grandfather could sing up a storm in a hot tub on a Saturday night. That's up to you to find, when you have so much hurt inside you that you'll have to get rid of it or . . ." Her voice trailed off.

"Or what, Gram?" Billy prompted.

The old woman said softly, "Or you could lose yourself in other people's pain. Several members of our family . . . lost themselves that way, and took their own lives out of despair A couple of them tried to escape their purpose in liquor and drugs. One of your uncles, a long way back, lost his mind and spent his life in an asylum. …"

That hit him like a fist to the back of his head. Tears welled in his eyes; maybe he was already about to "lose his mind," he thought with numbed horror After all, hadn't he seen a smoke-eagle and a fire-serpent fighting right in front of him? Hadn't he seen something evil dressed up in his daddy's skin? He sobbed, and haltingly he told his grandmother and Ramona what he'd witnessed. They listened intently, and it seemed to him that his grandmother's eyes were as black as coals in her brown, seamed face.

When he was finished, Rebekah dipped her sweatband in a bucket of cool well-water she'd brought in and wiped his face. The water's chill in the stifling smokehouse heat sent a delicious shock through him, calming his feverish brain. "They're pictures in your head, Billy. There'll be more before you're through. I think everybody has some eagle and some snake in them; they fight to pull your spirit high or drag it to the ground. The question is: which one do you let win, and at what price? The second thing you saw" – a shade seemed to pass before her face, like a thundercloud before the sun – "is what I warned you to watch for. You must've shown it you weren't afraid – but it won't give up so easily. Ramona, will you pass me that jug?" She unscrewed the sealed brown bottle Ramona had brought in with her and poured into the cup a thick dark liquid that smelled of sassafras and cinnamon.

"There may come a time, Billy," Rebekah continued softly, "when evil tries to crush you out, like someone snuffing a candle. It'll try to work on your weaknesses, to turn things around in your head so up is down and inside is out. I've seen that thing too, Billy – what looks like a wild boar – and it's so loathsome you can hardly bear to look at it. It used to taunt me in the night, when I was younger than your mother, and one morning not long ago I woke up to find all of my pottery shattered on the floor in the workshed. My house has caught fire before, for no reason at all. You remember that yellow mutt I had, named Chief? I never told you what really happened to him, but I found him scattered in the woods behind the house, like something had just torn him to pieces. That was the last dog I ever had. And what I mean to say is that the thing you saw – what my father used to call the 'shape changer' because it can take on any form it pleases – has been our enemy for a long, long time. Almost everyone in our family's seen it; it's a dangerous, sly beast, Billy, and it tries to hurt us through the people and things we care for. It probes for a weakness, and that's why we have to keep ourselves strong. If we don't, it could work on our mind – or maybe physically hurt us too."

"What is it?" His voice had dropped to a frail whisper "Is it the Devil, Gram?"

"I don't know. I just know it's very old, because even the first Choctaw spirit healers used to weave stories of the 'beast with skin of smoke.' There are tales of the shape changer going back hundreds of years – and some in our family, those who weren't strong enough to resist it, were either beguiled by its lies or torn to pieces by its hatred. You never know what it's planning, but it must sense a threat in you or it wouldn't have come to take a look at you."

"Why, Gram? Why does it hate us?"

"Because it's a greedy beast that uses fear to make itself stronger. It feeds like a hog at a trough on the human emotions of despair, torment, and confusion; sometimes it traps revenants and won't let them break away from this world. It feeds on their souls, and if there's a Hell, I suppose that must be it. But when we work to free those revenants, to take their suffering into ourselves and do something constructive with it, we steal from the shape changer's dinner table. We send those poor souls onward to where the shape changer can't get at them anymore. And that's why the beast wants nothing more than to stop your Mystery Walk."

"I don't know what to do!" he whispered.

"You have to believe in yourself, and in the Giver of Breath. You have to keep pressing forward, no matter what happens, and you can't turn away from your responsibility. If you do, you make a weak hole in yourself that the shape changer might try to reach into. The beast doesn't care about your mother or me anymore, Billy, because most of our work is done; it's you, the new blood, he's watching."

"Can it hurt me, Gram?"

"I don't know," she said, and thought of Chief's carcass scattered through the brush, pieces of him hanging from low tree branches as if he'd exploded from within.

"I want you to drink this, Billy. It'll help you sleep. We can talk more about it later " She gave him the cup of liquid from the jug. Its inviting aroma drifted up to him. His head felt like a lead cannonball, his bones aching from the heat. He thought he could easily fall asleep without drinking this stuff, but he sipped at it anyway; it was pleasantly sweet, though just underneath the sugar was a musky taste, like the smell of wild mushrooms growing in a green, damp place.

"All of it," Rebekah said. Billy drank it down. She smiled. "That's very good."

He smiled in return, through a mask of running sweat. The boar-thing was fading now, as all nightmares do in time. He stared into the embers, saw all the hundred variations of color between ale orange and dark violet, and his eyelids began to droop. The last thing he remembered seeing before the darkness closed in was the ceramic owl, watching over him from its smokehouse hook.

They left him lying on his back on the clay floor, the blanket wrapped around him like a heavy shroud. Outside, Rebekah locked the door. "No need for us to look in on him again until morning." She stretched, hearing her backbone creak. "Seems to me he understood everything pretty much, but it's his confidence needs working on. We'll start again tomorrow night."

"Will he be safe?" Ramona asked as they walked to the house, following the track of Rebekah's lantern.

"I hope so. He saw his twin natures, the good and the bad at war inside him, and he looked the shape changer in the face." They reached the back door, and Ramona stopped to peer through the darkness at the smokehouse. Rebekah laid a hand on her shoulder "Billy's already being poked and prodded, picked at for a weak spot. I didn't know it would start so soon. He resisted this time, but it won't return in that form again. No, the foe will be different and stronger. But so will Billy be, different and stronger."

"Should he know about the black aura yet?"

"No. He'll grow into seeing it, just like you did. I don't want to put that on him just yet." She regarded her daughter, her head cocked to one side. "He'll sleep through the day. If you hear him cry out, you're not to go in there and wake him up. His old life is being shattered so the new one can start. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Ramona said. "It's just that . . . he's alone."

"And that's how it has to be. After these three days are over you might be at his side, but the rest of the way he has to go alone. You knew that before you brought him to me." Rebekah squeezed her daughter's shoulder gently. "I was wrong about him; his blood may be tainted, but his heart and soul are strong. He'll make you proud, girl. Now come on and I'll make us a pot of tea."

Ramona nodded and followed her mother into the house, shutting the screen door quietly.

Within the smokehouse, the boy had curled up like an infant about to emerge into light.

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