Sally Harpe

by Christopher Rowe

Fri 15 Aug 2003 - Filed under: Free Stuff to Read, Short Stories | Leave a Comment

They tell this one in those tobacco towns along the Green River.

Bittersweet CreekOne day Roy Barlowe and his dad walked up the hill to Townie Harpe’s old place. Townie’s widow, Miss Erskine, was sitting on a cane bottom chair on the porch, fooling with some clothes.

Roy didn’t know whether she was sewing or quilting or doing some kind of mending. He never paid much attention to that kind of work. Still, if the mother knew those ways then it followed that the daughter would.

He saw that his dad had removed his hat and Roy wanted to kick himself for forgetting to do that himself. They’d gone over it again one last time on the walk up from their place, just down the river, and here he was, already messing up.

Nothing for it but to start. “Afternoon, Miss Erskine,” Roy said. It came out kind of fast.

The worn down little woman peered out at them. “Are those Barlowes out there? And cleaned up? I guess I missed church this morning, because I didn’t even know it was Sunday.”

“Yes, ma’am. It’s me, Roy Barlowe, here with my dad. He made me — we came up here so I could talk to you some.” His dad had told him to act like everything was his idea, and he’d told him too not to mind anything the woman would say since most of it would be nonsense. But Roy added, “And you didn’t miss church. It’s just now Friday.”

“Friday,” said Miss Erskine. “Friday and a clear day and summertime. I had it all right. And you are Barlowes, but you ain’t out chopping or hoeing or ploughing. Is there somebody dead?

Roy turned his hat around and around in his hands for a minute. He looked at his dad, but just got a glare and a “go on” motion. He wished he was back in one of the fields, where he spent most of his time. Finally, he said, “We came up here so I could talk to you some.”

Miss Erskine dropped her sewing into her lap. She was easy to tire. She had a wrecked body, wrecked from all those babies, Roy’s daddy said, though only her Sally had made it up past four years old. She was ruined for any kind of work and even talking to a boy made her brow grow damp and her breath come in little shallow sips. She sat quiet for a minute.

When she finally did speak, she looked past Roy. She spoke straight to his dad. “Is it that late, already?”

Mr. Barlowe cleared his throat. “I guess it is, Erskine.”

“You want to tie my little child up to this wool headed boy and get all of Townie’s fields with her.”

Roy took a little step back from the old woman — he couldn’t help but think of her as old from the way she looked, even though he had two sisters older than her — and watched her slump back against the house and breathe hard after she spoke up.

He could tell that his dad still wanted him to do the talking, so he skipped to the very end. “Look here, Miss Erskine, our places join up all the way from the road to the river. Ain’t nothing but fence line keeps them apart and y’all have let that get blown down a lot of the way. Sally is a strong girl and she’s got up to where she could get married. And I’m up to where I could get married, too.”

Roy didn’t know what the woman was thinking, didn’t know that she was wondering if old Noah Harpe had sent her Townie up Bittersweet Creek in his Sunday suit this same way twenty-four years ago. She’d been fourteen and never seen a man she wasn’t kin to when her mama had packed her up on the back of the wagon, both of them crying. Then it was babies and cooking and tobacco and none of the babies amounting to nothing until sweet Sally, the twelfth, when Erskine was twenty-four.

Ten years older than Sally was now.

Roy’s dad knew some of that, though, and spoke up again. “The boy’s right, Erskine. And even if he hadn’t made up his own mind about it — ” Miss Erskine rolled her eyes but Mr. Barlowe kept talking. “Even if he hadn’t made up his mind, we done worked this all out a long time ago. Don’t tell me you don’t remember. I stood right here and talked this out with you and Townie before he went to his rest. There was some promises made about us taking care of this place and it’s past time we kept them. And you made a promise, too.”

Roy looked away from his two elders, out over the little valley below them. The fields were wild with weeds, even some young trees. No crops in them and no cattle. The little plot of garden was the only untangled place he could see.

When he looked back, he saw that Miss Erskine was looking over at the fields, too. She picked up her sewing and said, “I remember.” His dad seemed to think that decided something and put on his hat.

Roy put on his own as she said, “Y’all go on before the sun gets low and the girl heads home from the river.”

#

Sally wasn’t at the river, though. She was on the stony bluff where Willow Ridge shoots up from the north bank. She was walking along a mud track, barefoot, her arms full of wildflowers.

They bury in the backwoods in that country. Bottom land is too fertile to waste on the dead. The cemeteries are all up in the hills, under the poplars, and the ground in them is choked with roots and rocks.

Sally picked her way past Burtons and Sapps and Barlowes to the little cluster of Harpe markers at the back of the graveyard. The first three were just dark slabs of limestone, already melting away. These hadn’t lived long enough even to get names, so she didn’t know whether it was brothers or sisters of hers she lay flowers for.

Then one with some writing on it. She knew what it said so she didn’t have to puzzle over it like most of the written down words she came across. It said “Townsend Harpe, Jr. Beloved of the Lord 1881-1884.

Then two more with no names, then one stone with four, all girls who died within a few days of each other. The same crude slashes of letters that had named her oldest brother named these sisters Mary, Naomi, Angela, Carolina. A fever took them, her mother had told her once.

All these and a half dozen more clustered around the big marker, the one for her daddy. Sally had traced it out once, the year she went to school. It was the first thing she had learned to read. “Townsend Harpe, Sr. Blessed Husband & Father & Charles His Son.

When her mother had still had breath in her to tell Sally stories, Erskine had told the tale of that stone. Townie — and Sally could just remember the big man, she’d been about four when he died — had carried his last boy up to the ridge to bury him. He’d gone by himself, Erskine was too weak from the birth. “It must have been his heart give out on him,” her mama had said. “Digging in that froze up ground.”

Sally was laying the last of her flowers across the stone when she heard a whistle, something like a bird call. She laughed. “Is that supposed to be a blue jay that’s got its beak busted up, Joel Cornett? Cause that’s the only bird I can think of that might sound anything like that.”

A sandy haired boy, about her age, trotted into the graveyard, grinning. “Ain’t all of us spend our time listening to birds and talking back at them, girl.”

“I don’t know what you do spend your time on, then. Cornetts sure don’t work any.” She was already running by the time she said the last word.

And so he chased her, like he had all summer.

Down off the ridge, along an old logging road cut out of the side of the hill that was split its whole length by gullies and washes. She ran down the track, leaping the ditches and swinging around the saplings that thrust up from the red ground, the boy right behind her.

When they came into the bottom she cut off the road and down into a creek bed. She slowed. The soles of her feet were hard with calluses this late in the summer, but the creek gravel was still harder running than the road. Joel closed the gap a little, splashing in and out of the water, watching for the banks of clay where he could move faster so long as he didn’t slip.

Just above the junction of creek and river, and the deep pool where Sally had stretched the trot lines she’d come out to check, was a clearing filled with ferns. She let him catch her there, like she had the past three or four times they’d raced.

He hooked his arm around her waist and they rolled down, laughing. She let him kiss her some, sharp and hot and fast, like sparks cracking out of a green log on a fire. but she kept an arm across her chest, where she knew his hands would be coaxing at her.

“Come on, Sally,” he said, and she laughed again because he had the same whine in his voice that pups had sometimes. “Come on, it’s alright. It’s alright now.”

Then she pulled away from him because he was moving his whole body up against her and it scared her when he did that, when his breath got shallow and he kept saying the same thing over and over. “You leave it alone, Joel,” and hadn’t she saidthat over and over? “There’s things that’s left to married people.”

Joel leaned back, then grinned at her. “Well then let’s get married, Sally. If me and you are going to get married then it’s alright. That makes it alright.”

Sally sat up and looked at him. She worked her jaw up and down and felt her eyes open up wide, felt them start to glisten. “You ask me right,” she said.

Joel grinned wider. He scrambled up onto his knees. “Sally Harpe, will you marry me?” Then he flopped back down beside her.

Sally nodded. “Uh-huh. Yes.” She couldn’t stop crying but she was happy. She guessed that the stunned, tingly feeling was a kind of happy. Joel lay her back down, but she shook her head and turned from him again.

“It’s alright, I said, Sally,” he said, frustrated, that note in his voice again. But Sally kept shaking her head.

“No, Joel, we have to wait. That’s the way and don’t tell me Cornetts do it different because I ain’t no Cornett yet.”

She started to stand up and was surprised that Joel didn’t try to keep her down. He just settled back like he was thinking. He said, “Well, there’s some things people that’s promised can do, I guess. If they’re promised.”

Sally knew about promises. Her mama had a whole pack of stories about what happened to people who broke them. She beetled her honey-colored eyebrows. “What are you talking about now?”

“Here, Sally, here.” And this time when he leaned to kiss her he didn’t try to snake over her, but took her hand instead. And kissed her and whispered to her and moved her hand down.

She breathed along the same as he did. Her arm was trembling a little, tensed up, but she moved her hand where he guided her, how he guided her. And he kissed her and whispered to her, his whispers ragged now.

He stayed laid down after, even when she stood up and went splashing around in the creek, bathing her hands. Sally felt solemn and quiet, but Joel laughed again. “It’s alright, Sally.”

Sally didn’t feel like looking at him, but she bobbed her head up and down and said, “Because we’re promised. That’s right, isn’t it, Joel?”

“Don’t you doubt it,” he said, finally getting to his feet. “And I know all them haunt stories your mama tells you talk about promises, don’t they? I guess I’d better keep this one, hadn’t I?”

Sally looked at him sharp. “We’d both better, Joel Cornett.”

Joel started to laugh, but didn’t. He pointed up through the trees. “You better get your fish and head to the house.”

Sally looked at the sun herself and saw that he was right. She trotted up for a quick kiss on the cheek before she ran down the creek.

#

Her mama didn’t say anything about the time when Sally bustled into the kitchen. Sally counted that odd but kept still about it, just pulled down the cleaning knife from the peg where it hung by a leather cord. While she cut the heads off the catfish Erskine warmed up a pot of beans and mixed corn meal with water and black pepper.

When Erskine finally did speak, Sally felt her heart jump up in her throat. Erskine said, “You’re about old enough to get married now, I guess.”

“Mama?” Sally thought she must have heard wrong. Could things work out that easy?

“Roy Barlowe is old enough to look after his own place now, especially since all his gang of brothers live right down there and can help him. I’ll move down into your little room and you two can take mine and your daddy’s.”

Sally stopped filleting the catfish. “Roy Barlowe?” She didn’t understand.

“His daddy will need him until they finish stripping the tobacco, though. That’ll give us time to see about a dress and all that business.”

It had been a long time since Erskine had talked to her so much at a stretch. She kept filling in the places where Sally would have said something if her throat hadn’t felt frozen up. She said, “You’ve known the Barlowes all your life, you’ve got that much.”

Erskine took the knife from Sally’s fingers and sliced a long piece of the fish, soft and white. That was usually Sally’s job. Her mother dropped the piece into the batter and spooned lard into the cast iron skillet. It spat at her, and still Sally couldn’t talk.

The fish went into the pan and while they fried, Sally slumped down onto the bench beside the oak table. Erskine steadied herself against the table and said “It’s done, honey. You’ll get used to it. You don’t even have to leave your house like I did. And those Barlowes have been good neighbors to us.”

The fish started smoking and Erskine turned back to the stove so she almost didn’t hear Sally say “I can’t.”

Erskine moved the fish onto a pair of wooden plates. “I know you don’t think so, honey, but you’ll be alright. I’ll still be right here in the house.”

But Sally shook her head. “I’m sorry, Mama. I can’t. I’m not going to marry Roy Barlowe.”

Erskine drew up. “It’s done, Sally. You’ve been promised. It’s done.”

“I didn’t promise to marry that boy!” Sally was crying now, trembling.

“Don’t carry on, girl. You been promised to him a long time. Your daddy worked it out with Mr. Barlowe before he passed. They’ll take good care of us, Sally. You’re promised.”

Sally stood, suddenly, and grabbed the knife from where it lay on the stove. She said, “I can’t keep that promise, Mama. I’d use this on myself before I did.”

Erskine moved faster than Sally had seen her in a long time. She slapped the back of Sally’s hand and sent the knife flying away. “Girl, fourteen is old enough to marry and it ought to be old enough to not talk that kind of foolishness. You remember what happens to girls that can’t keep their promises before they go.”

Sally screamed at her mother, defying her, “I don’t believe those tales anymore!”

Erskine took Sally’s wrist and sat her back down on the bench. “Oh, you don’t, do you? Too big to believe in the Lonesome Girls? I suppose you don’t wonder why the birds the old Crow Man sends to steal corn for his supper don’t eat it themselves, then. I suppose you don’t still walk out of that graveyard you’re always stealing off to backwards when you get caught up there in the rain.”

Sally didn’t say anything, just stared at the floor.

“Girl, my mama told me about those girls, and she had it from her mama and on back like that. Your granny was a Christian woman and kept the commandments. She knew what walked this old world.

“You want to stay caught in the clay instead of rising up to be with the saints? Because you will be. You’ll stay in your cold grave if you break this promise.

“Those girls might look as pretty and white as the moon but they’re the damned of the earth, Sally. They claw out of their coffins and dance when they can, they catch fool men when they can, but they’re as tormented as if they was in the Lake of Fire.

“And they’re cut off, girl. Cut off for eternity from the love of the Lord. You don’t want that, do you? Do you?”

Sally shook her head.

#

But Sally Harpe was fourteen, and the tobacco had just been put up to cure so there were weeks and weeks until stripping time. There was time to sneak off to the woods, time to whisper and laugh, yet. Time and time.

Time to get bold and listen to Joel Cornett talk big about running off to Bowling Green or Lexington, or even Louisville. Time to watch the leaves turn and feel the wind get chill and then it was time to give thanks.

Time for all the souls in that country to gather and to give thanks, to break bread, to bring out the fiddle and the pipe, to dance and leap before the Lord as the preachers excused it.

So it was this bold Sally that bundled Miss Erskine up onto the wagon seat and guided their old mare down to the Stone’s Camp meeting house. Such a crowd was there already that she had to park the wagon in the road and hobble the horse in the parsonage yard.

Erskine was getting on more poorly since the weather turned colder, so they’d eaten at home and only driven down to listen to the music and watch the dancing.

Sally hoped to do more than watch. She was flushed with excitement, looking around at all the people. She barely even nodded when a Barlowe woman said, “Roy’s gone off to get a deer for us to roast, Sally. Isn’t that fine?

Joel was already out there, cutting up with his Cornett cousins, boys even rougher than him. He ran across the stamped down yard and leapt, tumbled over the middle bonfire, the biggest one. If he heard the music he wasn’t minding it, he moved out of step with all the couples reeling around him.

They’d pulled some pews out into the yard and Sally found a spot on one for her mother. Erskine moved to make a place for Sally, her Sally who was gone when she looked up.

Sally heard her name being called. “Sally Harpe!” Erskine cried while Joel spun and spied her and said “Sally!”

The fiddles started in for real, then, and even gray old men nodded their heads, keeping time. The young men went wild, grabbed their wives or their sweethearts and flung them through the air, stomped and jumped and spun.

So Sally flew. Sally felt his hands on her waist more than she felt her feet on the packed ground. She laughed and screamed when he threw her highest and even let him kiss her. She let him kiss her right there in the firelight, in front of all the church-goers, in front of her mama, in front of all those Cornetts and Barlowes.

#

To Sally, standing in front of him, it looked like Joel had grown antlers. But then he was on the ground, buried under the carcass of a deer and Roy Barlowe was standing beside the fire. His coat was streamed with blood from where he’d carried the deer across his shoulders.

He was staring off to the side, and it took Sally a minute to realize that the shouting she was hearing was Mr. Barlowe, yelling at his son, yelling “Keep on him! Keep on him!” So Roy bent over to where Joel was struggling under the deer and wailed on him with big bunched fists.

Joel’s head was caught between the deer’s neck and the ground so his shouts were muffled. Sally leaned in to roll the animal off him, but hands dragged her back. Some Cornett women were saying, “Come over here to the side, girl,” while their husbands and brothers pushed Roy back and pulled the deer of Joel.

But then big Barlowe men were there, too, and the music died and people were shouting and running. Some preachers were there and pulled at the men, yelled at them, but it did no good.

Sally pulled away from Joel’s kin and tried to make her way back to the fire. But a fence of men had sprung up, and she could only look though their locked arms and see Joel standing, blinking the blood out of his eyes. Roy Barlowe had shrugged off some other Cornetts and was there to slap Joel back to the ground.

“You smack him back, Joel!” a woman screamed.

And Joel did. He found his ground for a little time and the others slowed, muttering, waiting to see which way things would go. The boys went back and forth, punching and tearing at each other, gripping and staggering in a smaller circle of their kin. Sally still couldn’t break through the larger circle.

So she could just watch. Joel was fast, she’d known that. Now she saw that he could be mean, that he must have been in fights before. But Roy didn’t flinch or cry out no matter how Joel scratched at him or bit him, those big arms just squeezed and pummeled and Sally saw a scared look cross Joel’s face because the other boy wasn’t easing off any.

Then there was a hiss from a knot of Cornetts and Sally saw a flicker of firelight on steel and then Joel had a knife in his hand. He was staring at it but Roy didn’t see it when he roared and took Joel up in a bear hug. And broke off, looking down at where red and yellow ran out of his stomach.

Then Sally screamed for sure and the Barlowes rushed in around Roy again. But he shrugged them off and yelled “No! No! Leave him!” So all those men backed off again, Cornetts to one side and Barlowes to the other.

There was cursing from among the Barlowes, “Throw him a knife!” But Roy yelled again, “No!”

The big boy lurched toward Joel, who stood with the knife, his hands moving around in little circles on their own, like they were afraid to stay still. Then Roy leaned down over the carcass of the deer and straddled it. Joel started toward him, almost like he meant to help him up.

He stopped though, and Sally saw what Joel had seen, what they’d all seen. The strain on Roy’s face wasn’t from pain but from effort. The sound around the bonfires dropped off to nothing, nothing but the cracks and pops of the burning wood, then a louder crack, then another, and Roy Barlowe stood with two bloody antlers in his hands. Stood and moved towards Joel Cornett with the buck’s rack broken into talons.

He roared and his kin roared with him, and the Cornetts and the Barlowes rushed toward one another. But all the other men there had seen too much and the circle holding Sally back broke as they all rushed in.

Sally went with them, she careened among the struggling, cursing men, looking for her promised. She shouldered a Barlowe or a Cornett to one side and finally found where the boys staggered against each other. Roy held Joel’s wrist like a vise, keeping the knife from finding him yet again. His other arm was wrapped around the smaller boy’s back, the antler in that hand weakly scraping Joel’s side. The other antler hung from where it was caught in the bloody mess of Joel’s cheek.

The way cleared and she ran full at the boys, tucking herself between them. They fell back, bloody and exhausted, not looking at her. She followed Joel as he stumbled, touching her hands to the torn open places at this thigh, his stomach, his face.

“Joel,” she said, horrified. “Joel.”

He brought his hand up and caught his fingers in the horns piercing him. He pushed out and the antler flew away. She started to daub at his cheek with her fingers but he was looking past her, bringing up the knife.

“No!” Sally screamed. “Stop it! Stop it!”

But they were on each other again, barely able to raise their arms but trying, trying to slice or stab. And she was between them, pushing and screaming. They lurched back and forth over the wet ground, scrambling, leaning against one another in a tangle.

Then finally, finally, the tangle fell apart, Roy to one side, into the mud churned up by his feet and his blood, Joel to the other, falling hard against the broken carcass of the deer, and Sally, exhausted, fell face first to the ground, her hair and skirts spilling out around her.

Then a gun sounded into the night sky and horses came ranging in. Men were yelling “Order! Let’s get some order here!”

They could have stayed quiet though, because still fell onto the gathering of its own accord. Erskine Harpe had crossed the way to where her daughter lay. She knelt in the mud and turned the girl over. She cradled her last child’s head to her and crooned and left it to somebody else to pull the antler from the girl’s heart.

#

Joel Cornett blinked and shook his head — quietly, softly — but the red didn’t pass from his eyes. Not that he had expected it to. He’d watched the world through that bloody haze for months now, ever since the Barlowe boy had ruined his sight. His sight and his breath and his legs.

But Joel had taken some things from Roy as well, he figured. Otherwise, the bigger boy would have heard him sometime tonight in the hours Joel had stalked him through the snow.

Joel gripped the pistol his uncle had given him weeks ago and watched Roy shift a deer’s carcass on his slumped shoulders, resting against a tree.

Roy’s breath billowed out into the cold night, faster and harder than it would have in the summer. Joel supposed Roy’s wounds had all closed up by now, as his own had, mostly. He’d seen that Roy favored the side where the terrible slash in his belly had been, though. No, if Joel wasn’t as strong as he had been, neither was Roy Barlowe.

Roy had been able to get out some evenings lately and take his gun to get a little meat. Not so late as this usually, Joel knew. Not so long after dark and not so far from home as this wounded buck had led him.

Led the both of them, Joel thought. He’d been stealing after Roy since the snows fell, waiting for a night like this, a night when Roy had made a poor shot, a slow killing shot and had to track drips and smears of blood way off Barlowe land, over Miss Erskine’s wild fields and up on to the Willow Ridge. Waiting for this very time, when the moon was bright enough to give him a clear shot at Roy from where he hid in some bushes.

But then the clouds slid over the moon again and Joel lost his aim in the dark. Joel cursed under his breath, then thought he’d been too loud because he heard Roy speak. But no, Roy wasn’t calling him. Joel could just make out Roy’s words. He was praying.

“Now you look out for Roy, Lord. That girl didn’t come to harm on my account. You watch over Roy I pray. You keep him from harm.”

That girl. Joel had pushed the reason for his wounds back into himself. His family never spoke about it except to curse the Barlowes. And Roy didn’t seem the type to dwell on that business. Why?

“Oh,” and this time Joel did speak aloud but neither he nor Roy noticed. They were both staring at the low stones spread out between them.

Joel didn’t know whether Roy had been to this place since they’d fought, but he’d stayed far away, himself. Until tonight. If he’d been paying attention, if he’d been watching where the deer led them instead of watching for a clear shot, he never would have come out onto this part of the ridge.

The stones of the little graveyard were just dark shapes against the woods. The wind picked up a little and the clouds blocking the moonlight grew even thicker. But then the markers stood out clear in the dark, clear in pale, cold light.

“What?” That was Roy and he was letting the deer slide to the ground, so Joel didn’t think he heard the scrabbling sound when it started. By the time Roy was trying to find its source, noise was coming from all around them.

The light got brighter, brighter than the moon could have cast even if it wasn’t hidden, but Joel couldn’t see its source. The noise, though, he could track. It was coming from the ground.

Then a light like a lantern beam shot up from the earth before a stone where near Roy. The boy gaped at it, and then there was another, and another.

Joel didn’t dare move from where he crouched as Roy started to back away. He saw Roy trip over the deer, saw that Roy’s feet had managed to get caught under its body somehow.

Hands were following the light out of the ground, clean and white for all that they were thrusting out from the dirt. Hands, wrists, shoulders, then the long tresses of girl children. Girls were climbing up from their graves.

Joel wanted to scream or cry but he couldn’t find his voice. He wanted to run but he couldn’t stand. Across the way, he saw that Roy had stopped struggling under the deer. A dozen or more of the pale, cold girls — it was them casting the light Joel saw — shrugged and stretched, then loped over to the tree where Roy lay trapped.

One of the taller ones gazed down at Roy. Joel saw that there wasn’t any color to her at all. Her hair and her lips and even her eyes were that cold white. Even then, he felt like he should know her, should know all of them. The way they held their shoulders, their clothes, they looked like his cousins and Roy Barlowe’s sisters and like any of the girls at the church.

The tall one moved her hand then, a quick flick like she was shooing a fly. The deer laying over Roy shuddered, then stood. It hesitated, blood dripping out of the hollow place where Roy had cleaned out its guts, then sprang into the dark. But Roy still didn’t move.

Didn’t until she moved her hand again. Some of his old strength must have come back to him because he leapt to his feet. “What?” Roy said again. Then he said it over and over in a queer hiccuping rhythm. “What? What? What?”

They didn’t answer him, just swayed around him and stared him down. Then the hand again and Roy Barlowe, big, stodgy Roy, danced.

He fought it, Joel could tell. Roy fought his own legs and arms with all the strength that was left him. But the girls swayed, so Roy did, and he spun. He circled and swooped and stomped across the cemetery, hurdling their torn open graves. He slammed against the stones and wore the wild eyed look of a man who didn’t know himself. But then it stopped.

It stopped and he was on his knees before a grave that Joel knew, that they both knew though neither had dared visit it. There was no writing on the headstone, Miss Erskine didn’t have any money left for the carving. Dried flowers were strewn around.

Those girls, too, they were all around, still quiet, still staring. Roy sobbed, choking on air. And the ground in front of him trembled a little. Was the light streaming from that grave a little warmer than the lights of the others, wondered Joel? Did this hand hesitate, shy away from scratching in the cold ground?

Whether she wanted to or no, Joel couldn’t judge. She came, though. She lurched up out of the earth the way the others had. And by the time she stood before Roy, Joel could hardly pick her out from the others. White, all white and cold, even her eyes.

Then it was her hand that moved, and she danced with Roy.

She didn’t draw breath, though, she didn’t gasp in the chill. She didn’t stumble, her legs didn’t give out time and again. She didn’t half climb up from the ground to keep numbly moving and turning. Her face stayed white, it didn’t grow redder and redder.

She didn’t blink fast at tears that wouldn’t stop streaming. She didn’t fall. It wasn’t her that finally fell.

Joel stared at where Roy lay face down in the graveyard, unmoving in a pool of light. The he realized that his arms and legs were tingling, that he could move them again.

He didn’t wait. He lurched to his feet and stumbled away from the clearing. The girls made no move to follow and for a minute he felt hope. Then a shape flew out of the darkness and Joel was stunned by the force and pain of a tearing at his face and a blow to his chest. He was on the ground again, under the unmoving carcass of a deer. His head was bent to the ground so he didn’t see her when she approached. He saw her light, though.

He was trembling a little, tensed up, but he moved the way she guided him.


Originally published in Realms of Fantasy.

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