by Beverly Forehand
It was a dull-skied Sunday when Roan Everett was laid in the ground with his kin looking on and the Sheriff standing shaded by a weeping elm. Three days later he came out of the earth on a black-mooned night. But Roan was no Lazarus: his resurrection was less poetic and took a backhoe and three stout men with shovel and spade. When they were done, his father wrapped him in white linen and boiled the flesh from his bones.
For three days straight he washed his dead son’s bones in sage and lye and then packed good rich clay around them until they were the shape of a man. Over a fire burning high, he baked the red dirt form for three days more and then he waited for three days to come, for the work he was attempting to do could only be done under a full high moon.
There were times, in those long days while he waited, when the Old Man questioned the task that he was about. As a boy, he had learned at his grandaddy’s knee words and charms and other things of power. He had found in his long life that it was usually best to live as simply as a man could and to let the course of nature run. But Roan was his son, the only son that he had or he had thought of having. And though the boy, since become a man, had faults enough for a flock of sinners, he was still his only blood. Like any father, he saw the boy in the man, and not the reverse.
And when the full moon finally came bright, high, and unexpectedly cast in a blue to break a man’s heart, he leaned over the coral-colored form and whispered, almost lip to lip, the word that the prophet Elisha had used to raise up bones from the dead, that had summoned Lazarus from his tomb, and had raised old Adam up from the dirt in the very beginning of time.
Perhaps it had not been spoken since those ancient days; the Old Man would never know and did not hope to question these things. The Word had been passed down from the beginning, the ancient of days, by sign from man to man, but it had seldom been spoken, and it would die with him. He had never told his son that word by thought or sign till now, when he could no longer use it though it gave him life.
Only life can beget life. And though the dead can be returned to the living, they can never again be of the living. It was a lesson Lazarus had learned when he walked from the tomb. But the Old Man could not, would not, think those things as he sat gazing into the familiar eyes of his son staring out of a face of clay.
It was fine for a while. For the course of a month, as Roan learned to walk and wrap his stony lips around words, the Old Man had hope. It was as if his son as a boy had returned to him as the fair-haired child he used to take walking over the low hills, who had learned to whistle the call of every bird, and dogged his steps along the river bank. But little by little things began to change and one night Roan was gone.
It wasn’t long before the Old Man found the first body. Torn as it was, he knew it for Keefe McCalister, who had put a bullet through his son’s throat little more than a month ago. As with his son, he wrapped the body in linen and salted it with lime and buried it deep in the woods, beyond any man’s reach. And he prayed for his son to return. But when the second body showed up and then the third, the Old Man knew what he had done and wept.
They say that sins are of the flesh and perhaps that’s true. But passion lies in the Soul and the loss of mere flesh and blood does little to abate it. Roan had been a wild-eyed boy all his life and grown into a man who knew no limits. He took what he wanted from life and he often came to want what other folks had in hand. Death did nothing to change the soul of Roan Everett; it only heightened his need for what he believed he deserved. He took what he wanted, and being what he was, what he wanted most was the life that he could no longer have. So each night he took that from others.
Soon folk began to talk. They took to locking their doors and kept the curtains drawn by night. Though no one mentioned by name what they all knew to be true, they kept away from dark places and fortified themselves with crosses and charms and comforts against the darkness. Sheriff Prosper Vance was not a believer in such comforts, though he wasn’t opposed to a stiff drink on a cold night, which was a comfort of its own.
Prosper Vance was a simple man or, at least, that’s what he liked to believe. In truth, he was deep-minded and though slow to speak, he said a lot. As a deputy for fifteen years and sheriff for twenty more, he had seen just about all the wickedness man had to offer, as well as a surprising amount of good.
Roan Everett, by his recollection, was one of the worst human beings that the earth had ever spat up, despite the goodness of his father’s heart. Prosper didn’t believe much in God or the Devil, but he did believe in good and evil, and he knew that evil men walked among us, many with faces like angels. Roan had been just such a man, and it was common enough knowledge that McCalister had put a bullet through Roan’s throat with good reason, though it couldn’t be proven one way or the other.
Now, McCalister was dead, along with a good number of other folk that Roan had disliked or liked too much. And Prosper figured that being dead was not likely to stop a man such as Roan from his desires. There were some, Prosper knew, that believed only in the light of day and in what could be proven and seen. Scientific folks, he imagined, lived a comforted life knowing so little about what really was. The electric light, when it had come up and down the Valley, had shut out the shadows and put men’s hearts to rest. But just because the dark was pushed back a bit didn’t mean it was gone or that the things that lurked in the dark of night or in the dark of men’s hearts were any less hungry.
There were few folk in the Valley who didn’t know that Roan Everett’s father was a witch, plain and simple. Why, folk didn’t even know his name. And few, if any, could account for the date of his birth. He was Old Man Everett to even the craggiest resident of the Valley. And Prosper knew for a fact that Miss Eula was near on a hundred if she was a day and she referred to Everett simply as the Old Man. Maybe he didn’t remember his name by this time or didn’t want to. Names, words, are things of power. Men used to know that. And Old Man Everett remembered what other folk had forgotten.
It was plain to see the cause behind the slew of dead and disappeared that had come upon the Valley. The fact that folk didn’t want to say what they already knew seemed a mystery to Prosper. He had, in his sixty years, seen dead folk walk more than once. He had seen a crow speak with the voice of a girl and a river run red with blood. He had heard, in the high hills, the sultry sweet voice of the Wampus Cat and found prints left behind that matched no creature he could name. So when Alice Caldwell’s mother came crying to his door, saying her daughter had gone missing, he knew what had to be done.
You could see the Everett Place from a long way, situated on a hill as it was. And as he walked the lonely path that led to the house, Prosper could see the Old Man waiting in his rocker on the covered porch. He climbed the stairs and when the Old Man did not move, he sat down at his right hand.
Old Man Everett sat staring out into the night for the longest time and then he began to rock again. “You know,” he said simply to Prosper and then he sighed. “I used to think,” he said, “that there was some right and wrong in this world. And that if a man did good, good would follow after.”
“You should know better than that,” Prosper said.
The Old Man nodded. “I do and yet I don’t believe it. Don’t want to. He was my son, and I knew him for what he was, but he was my son just the same.”
“I never knew you to be a man that didn’t stand by his principles,” Prosper said. “None could say you didn’t.”
“It’s a kindness for you to say it,” the Old Man said. “But a boy follows after his father. He had, you see, his mother’s heart. She was a wild thing, but I knew from the first time I clapped eyes on her that she was all I wanted.” He chuckled and for a minute sounded almost young to Prosper, but then the moon passed by and he saw just how old the Old Man was: ancient, almost as if he was cut from the earth and stones himself.
“I might as well have loved a wildcat or a bear,” he continued. “She wasn’t something to be kept. And when she died and the boy came I turned all that love on him and maybe it was too much for him to bear. Maybe it was too much for anyone to bear, to be so much to any other.”
“I don’t conjure it was your fault,” Prosper said. “Every man comes up in this world one way or another and some are good and others aren’t. A man has to take responsibility for what he does in this life.”
“Yes,” the Old Man said, “no truer words were spoken this day or any other. And that’s what I mean to do.”
“I wouldn’t ask it of you,” Prosper said. “For whatever he’s done or is, he is your son.”
“I brung him into this world twice,” the Old Man said. “It lays on me to take him out of it.” He smiled then and laid his hand over Prosper’s own. “You’re a young man yet, so you might not know. But all men are called up out of the dirt. Some stay in it a good while longer than others, but in the end all of them return to it. Nothing’s to be done about it, and sometimes it’s a comfort to return to what we are. Dirt. Good and clean.”
They sat in the dark, the Old Man rocking for a very long time. And softly, Prosper heard the Old Man say, “I, of all people, should’ve known better.”
Hours passed before they heard the shuffling, heavy gait of stony dirt against the gravel path. Roan was coming home as he did each night. Under the full moon, Prosper could see that there was something dark smeared about his face and hands. He reeked of sorrow and sin and the Old Man rose to meet him. He walked down the path alone to meet his son and greeted him with a kiss. And softly, almost lip to lip, he whispered the word turned back on itself, almost too low for Prosper to hear... almost.
The change, from life to death, is not a quick one, even if it lasts only a few seconds. And for the rest of his very long life Prosper would remember the Old Man on his knees in the dirt holding on to the rapidly dissolving form of his son. He would see, each night in his dreams, the slow silting of the clay and the rising piles of dust around the broken form of the Old Man until he was left holding only gleaming white bones tattered with linen. And even in his sleep Prosper would weep.
Copyright © 2012 by Beverly Forehand