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The Salting

by Tom Sheehan

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

She saw the pie of the sun disappearing on the hilltop and felt the elusiveness of answers; some places grow lighter at the same time as others get darker.

Midlin Ambeau twisted in her chair and leaned toward her grandfather. An appalling look crossed her face. “We were coming from school, along the Dascombe Road path, Julie Ann and Gail and me. Where it’s grown thick with bush and brush just before the power lines, where the blueberries are always best.

“We didn’t hear any screams but like moaning or noise being covered up. At first we were frightened, and then peeked into the bushes, thinking some of the boys were playing games on us, maybe the Wallbreys. You know how they are. It was Janice Dulcey on the ground, we could tell by her Greybelle skirt, and some man was on top of her. A big man. Bigger than you. He was bald and big and he was doing something awful and Janice was kicking her feet and trying to get away.”

“What happened then? How did you feel? Did he look at you? See you? Did he try to run?” The quick questions spoke his mind, his temperament, his hands rigid on the arms of his chair. His jaw stiffened, she noted, thinking that as a young man he could have been a ferocious foe, perhaps still was.

The whole daytime scene she brought back in place. “I was wild inside, like wires were loose or broken or were bouncing around in there. Like I could have screamed a scream they could have heard at the end of the world. But nothing came out of me except this feeling I can’t describe. Like I was being emptied, Grandpa. Just plain being emptied.”

She looked at him, her face reddened, getting redder, her eyes lowering, coming back. She leaned closer, confidante to confidant. “It was so embarrassing, so disgusting. I knew he was hurting her. And then it happened again. That something left me. Rushed from me.”

“What happened to this man?”

Midlin Ambeau looked her grandfather in the eye. There was no blinking this time, no evasion. “The same thing as before.” She paused and nodded, the picture in her mind odious but accurate. “He stood up, hid his privates, and shook all over. Like a dog out of water or coming in from the rain. All scraggly and pasty, so brutal.”

Nodding her own agreement, she closed her eyes seeking the truest assessment, getting the picture right for her grandfather, this man who knew more than he let on. “Oh, he was so horrid and disgusting, so miserably evil I could have shot him.”

The sun was gone, a mere and sudden flare beyond the hilltop. The corn was hushed in the side yard garden. On her skin the air had lightened its touch.

“Right in front of us he turned to salt. Just like the last time, what happened to the shooter at the bank robbery right after school was out. That time when Mrs. Gately was shot in the arm for sounding the alarm, her blood all over the place when she fell out the door and onto the sidewalk.”

The sun was entirely gone. She looked away and came back, the look her face changing.

“Then poor Janice stood up, wobbly, dazed, her Greybelle skirt kind of hiked up but covered with grass and leaves. For a second we could tell she had on those bright red underpants she’s so fond of. At first she tried brushing off her skirt, but saying nothing. No sound at all. She was shaking, and then salt came pouring out of her mouth. A whole bunch of it, like a cup of it had been thrown down her throat; salt as white as snow. Like she was throwing it up. Like white vomit.

“She screamed then, oh an ungodly scream and ran down the path toward home, stumbling, tripping over bushes, screaming, wiping off her mouth. We could hear her screams as they came back through the trees. A bit later we could hear her crying, sounding way off, getting closer to home.”

“And him, the man? Did he frighten you?”

“Not then. Not at all.” Midlin Ambeau’s voice rose with defiance. “We could tell he was rooted in place, the whole mass of him, a statue, a statue of salt, like he was never going to hurt anybody ever again. Instantly he was frozen in that form, his legs poised to move, to run away. One arm was stuck out in front, like we were going to attack him, we three girls and him as big as a mountain.”

She harrumphed her annunciation and one of her own hands raised in estimation of the man’s height, a partial smile on her face. “He was this high and you could smell it, the salt, the way salt smells at cleaning things, or like at the beach on a clear, crisp day, or down there on the marsh where you go digging for fishing worms at low tide or where some people go to dig clams. Like salt is the cleanest cleaner there ever is. It smelled like a box of salt right off the shelf when you first open it. Then he fell apart. He fell apart, poured down, and was gone.”

The partial smile was still evident and John Templemore knew that realization was closer than ever before.

“Did you feel it again? The same as before?” One hand was on the arm of her chair as if to temper her answer or give her solace. The purple was darker, heavier than lavender, cooler.

Midlin Ambeau, gifted, the gift almost fully exposed now, recaptured much of the incident. “It blew out of me, Grandpa, like a shot or a sudden wind in a tunnel. But there was no noise, only a quick emptiness as if I had created all that was around me. But I never would have put Janice in trouble like that. It was disgusting. It was repulsive. I could have thrown up, myself.”

Her white skin was softer, but her chin kept itself high. She sat upright in her chair, he thought, like a queen. Her hair was neat and immaculate, as if an attendant’s hairbrush had just finished its task. The purple glow was on her cheeks. The chair creaked beneath her slight and slender frame. Her beauty was breathtaking to the old man who suddenly remembered his wife in one memorable gesture from a long-gone night of loving.

“I must ask you, Midlin, if you’ve been sexually active.” John Templemore looked into his granddaughter’s eyes. His hands sat idly on the arm rests of the rocker. The hush was universal.

“Oh, once with Larry Pumfrey, Grandpa. Kind of fooling around if you must know. He doesn’t know beans about anything.” She felt cool and relaxed; something far more important was working her mind, owning her.

“What would have happened if you got angry at Larry? If he did something disgusting and you really got angry, would that power have rushed from you? If he touched you wrong or said words that crushed you.

“I worry about that endlessly, just like I wonder about your mother and father and brothers every waking day of my life. I think you have to realize what’s happening with you. It is something special, and you have to bear it and bear with it. I don’t know if it will go away from you.”

The sun was gone then, the sense of purple and lavender was gone, and the mountaintop slipped easily into late clouds. The pause in his words was dramatic; all nature was in agreement with his tone, and the way he held back the next thought, reclusive, hesitant could have been burning in him.

At length he let it go, like a slender line of rope slipping from his hands. “Your mother knew something I never knew, had something. I don’t know if it was the same power that works you, but I think it is, and it frightens me.”

His words were slow and deliberate, bearing spaces for breath. “I’ve often wondered if it was the reason behind their disappearance, all of them, out there in those foothills chasing down those artifacts, that touch of history, that legend she’d been chasing since she was a child. You have to understand what’s happened, what can happen.”

He gathered himself for the revelation, the mythic coming to hand. “It’s like Lot’s wife’s misfortune being thrown back to you for a chance at redemption. It may be as simple as that. And, as you might say, that’s awesome.”

Midlin Ambeau did not feel the presence of Lot’s wife, but she knew her mother abounded in the soft evening, as if the two of them had been sequestered on the same path of shadows. The lightness on her cheeks was devastating, as was the touch at the back of her neck. It was a touch she could not remember but always knew. There came a sharing abroad in the evening, in the universe, and she could accept it.

And aged John Templemore, in bed late one evening later on, Midlin off in the night, brought his lovely wife back into his room, shared her gifts and beauty once more, was awed by his wife’s absence. He heard the car in the driveway, the garage door close, the back door open and close.

A few moments later he heard his beautiful granddaughter crying in the kitchen. He put his robe on and went slowly down the stairs, frightened of what he’d see, what he’d hear. His footsteps sounded in the hallway the way a footpad’s might sound, soft, slippery, caught up by fabric. Both hands held onto the handrail as he came unsurely down the stairs, not knowing what he would find, trying to get ready for it.

When he entered the kitchen, the cool night air rushed at him with a thin edge. His lovely granddaughter was crying softly at the wide plank table; the long sobs were muted. She was face down on the shiny pine planks, the blonde hair cast like a field of grain across the tabletop, her hands outstretched as if reaching for another hand. Or for solace. Or for understanding.

“What happened, Midlin?” he said. “Why are you crying?” His aged heart beat in his chest so hard and so fast he could hear it, the beating of it racing around the room, going no place, trying to hide.

From beyond the window, through the lace curtains, a new moon loaned its rays in layers and golden stripes against one wall. Cool night air rushed him once more with doubt and quick lashes, and from somewhere far off came the dark being of the occult.

Night, he surmised, had found its voice, its tenor. Slowly he reached out to touch her hand, the heartbeat alive in his reaching arm, in his reaching fingertips.

His beautiful, gifted and challenged granddaughter looked up from the table, her eyes crowded with tears, redness riding in them, and a faint shadow of doom. “Larry’s gone,” she said sadly. “Larry’s gone.”

Copyright © 2009 by Tom Sheehan

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