Part 1 here
Part of me was curious as to what the “some things” were, but a bigger part didn’t want to go sit in that chair, didn’t want to know “some things”. And judging from the frown on the Preacherman’s face, I was sure what he was fixing to tell me weren’t good. But I did what I was told.
I sat down on the edge of the chair, too edgy to relax. Though the Preacherman had been good to me, I knew his kindness was conditional. One wrong move and he’d swat me like a fly.
God’s Book lay open on the Preacherman’s lap. His fingers moved over the squiggles covering the pages while he stared through the night-black eye of the window that looked out over the flatlands. I wondered what the Book told him. When I was a youngen, old folks said it was the black marks that did the talking, but I’d never heard a peep out of the Book or the marks either. The few times I’d laid my hand on Ma’s God’s Book, it hadn’t said nothing. But then I weren’t no preacherman.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, son, but what you’re wanting ain’t never gonna happen.”
Heat flooded my face. My ears burned. I couldn’t look up; my eyes stayed pinned on the Book as he gently closed the well-worn cover.
“I can see you love my daughters as much as I loved their mother,” he said. “And I know very well what you’re feeling. I’m a man, I know what you want. But it ain’t gonna happen. It can’t happen.”
His hand drew away from God’s Book, and I felt the meaty weight of it settle on my shoulder. Cold. Like the Other’s.
“You’ve been a good son, Adam, you’ve done everything I’ve asked of you.”
And here I thought I’d been told what to do. And was fixing to be told again.
“And I’m asking you to never go through that door,” he said. “My daughters are pure. They can’t give you what you want.” He squeezed my shoulder, driving the cold plumb to my bones. “You see, they don’t have…female parts.”
And that made me look up, made me look into those eyes that feared me worse than the Other’s feared me. “They don’t have…what do you mean?”
“I mean just what I said: they don’t have any female parts. Down there, they have the place that makes water and the place that empties the bowels. Nothing else.”
I felt sick, almost as sick as when I’d passed out there in the street at the Preacherman’s feet. Loi didn’t have…the Other didn’t have…she couldn’t…they couldn’t…then why? “You said they needed a husband.”
“And they do.”
“But if they can’t…” I shook my head. “Why? Why a husband?”
The Preacherman sighed. His hand fell away from my shoulder and returned to God’s Book, along with his worrisome black eyes. He gripped it with both hands.
“Why?” I asked again.
“The devil is trying to take my heart,” he said. “I can feel him digging down inside me. At first I thought God would save me, for I am His faithful servant. I prayed and prayed, but…it’s spreading.” His hands left God’s Book and began to unfasten the ties on his shirt. “Look.”
He parted them two pieces of black cloth, and lord, an even blacker black crawled over his body, a lumpy, ugly mess that covered almost all his chest. Skinny, crooked fingers of it reached up toward his neck and wriggled down underneath his belt. It kind of glistened wet, like an eyeball, and as I stared at it—couldn’t pull my eyes off it, was more fitting—I felt like it was looking back at me.
Outside, the faint howl of a cyclote rose up out of the night. And where there was one, there’d be more. And right then, I would’ve rather been out in the flatlands facing a whole pack of them varmints than shut up here in the Preacherman’s cozy house with that thing on his chest.
“I didn’t ask God to save me for myself.” The Preacherman pulled the two halves of his shirt back together. “But for my daughters. Who would care for them if I was gone, Adam?” His black eyes pinned me. “Who?”
It was hard for me to think when he was looking at me. “I…uh…someone…a neighbor…”
“I’ll tell you who: no one, that’s who.” He slammed God’s Book down on the small table beside his chair and leaned toward me, his hands resting on his knees. “Cornflower is a town of sheep, not one leader in the whole flock. Why, the fittest to set them on God’s path are my daughters, but you know as well as I do that God heeds no woman.” He leaned even closer, his dark eyes burning like banked coals. “I prayed and prayed, and then…one day, there you were, standing in the street looking up at my daughters. God had answered me. He brought you out of the wilderness to be a husband for my daughters, a husband that will care for them and speak for them.” His thick neck stretched out, putting his face right in front of mine. “A husband that will take my place when He calls me home.”
Had he said what I thought he’d said? “Do you mean…”
He smiled. “Yes son, when I’m gone, you’ll be the preacherman here.”
I didn’t tell Loi what her Pa had told me. And I didn’t ask her if he’d spoke true concerning her and the Other’s lack of female parts. When I was with her, I just couldn’t get the words out of my mouth.
So I asked someone else instead: Mrs. Deats.
I caught the old housekeeper out in back of the house hanging clothes on the line, and started talking to her about this and that. She didn’t much want to talk to me, but when I finally was able to blurt out the question, she looked around real good, then whispered a “Yes sir” to the ground. And when I asked if she was sure, she said, “I delivered them gals. I’m sure.”
I thanked her and started back toward the house.
“Sir?” Mrs. Deats cleared her throat and said a little louder: “Adam?”
I turned back to her. “Yeah.”
She was feared; it burned bright and shiny in her tired, gray eyes. “Be careful…” She wrung her knobby fingers together. “Look out for Maira. Don’t make her mad.” Her eyes cut over to the house, then back to me. “Once she…a dog wouldn’t stop barking and she killed it. With her bare hands.”
Hands? Not hand?
In my mind, I saw that third hand come up and down, up and down. Whose hand was it? Loi’s or Maira’s? Or was it both’s?
“How did she…” I fell silent. Mrs. Deats had already hurried away and was climbing the porch steps. She’d said all she was going to.
And each day that slipped by, my feelings for Loi deepened into a love that filled my heart and soul so completely I was able to put away the part of me that wanted to know her the way a man knows a woman. In all my time down in the Cheyanna strip pits, when I’d dreamed about women the way boys do, it’d never crossed my mind that I could love a woman so much that I’d do without the nighttime side of it just to be near that woman. But then, I hadn’t known a woman like Loi existed, a woman as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside.
The Other was a different story altogether. Every once in a while when she came up out of herself and she caught me with her eyes before I was able to look away, I saw her insides squirming around behind that thin blue-black curtain. It was an ugly sight, put me in mind of that mess on the Preacherman’s chest. I wanted to ask Loi about what Mrs. Deats had told me, ask her if the Other really had killed a dog. But I was feared the Other would hear me even if she was inside herself, and if I asked questions, I might make her mad.
Don’t you go riling up no looney, Dooley.
And I might wind up like the dog—if Mrs. Deats had spoke true.
I wondered about that ’cause I’d never seen the Other do violence. I knew she was a looney, but not every looney was a killer. Some, like Mrs. Joze who’d spent three years digging up the cow pasture looking for the dead babe her husband had buried, wouldn’t hurt a fly, while there were others that’d kill you over a wrong look or a wrong word. Most, though, fell somewhere in between.
And it was when I’d been in Cornflower around six months that I found out just where it was that the Other’s dose of looney fell.
It started off just like any other Sunday.
Mrs. Deats served up a big breakfast of biscuits and gravy and eggs and cow flaps, then the Preacherman and Loi and the Other and me walked down the street to the church house. We all took a seat on the front pew, and as the Preacherman prepared himself to sermonize by talking with God’s Book, the townsfolk filed in silently in twos and threes and whole families till they were all there. All. Every single person in Cornflower.
And like he knew it was time, like he knew without turning around and looking that the whole town was sitting behind him, the Preacherman stood up and went to the pulpit. Clutching God’s Book to his chest, he started in, something about sinning and hell and burning forever.
I didn’t listen. I let the words about God’s anger and God’s vengeance pass over me and around me. Let the townsfolk believe the Preacherman if that was what they wanted to believe in. I didn’t.
When I was little, back before Ma had Baby Thomas, back when she weren’t sick, back when she still laughed and smiled a lot, she’d talked to me and Arlie about God. “He made the sky and the land and the rivers,” she’d said. “And He made people. And I just can’t believe…” She’d hugged us both and pulled us close and kissed our heads. “…that He’d want to hurt us. He loves us, like I love you. God ain’t mean, it’s preachermen that’s mean.”
I liked Ma’s way of looking at things better than I liked the Preacherman’s way. So when he started sermonizing I thought about rain and sunsets and other things I liked, so I didn’t notice right off what was going on. Not till I heard Loi whisper, “What’s wrong, Maira?”
Curious, I leaned forward a bit and looked around Loi. The Other’s head was whipping back and forth and she was mumbling something. Her hand, the one she had all to herself, clawed at the seat of the pew—I could hear her fingernails gouging the wood—while that third hand between her and Loi quivered and jerked like it’d been lightning struck.
Loi’s fingers wrapped around it. “Maira?”
Then the Other practically yelled, “It won’t shut up,” and jumped to her feet, dragging Loi with her. She spun the two of them around to face the townsfolk. “Where is it?”
“What?” Loi asked, her eyes going from the Other’s face to the assembled townsfolk, then back. “Where is what?”
The inside of that church house got as quiet as a boneyard at midnight. Nobody stirred, nobody said nothing. Everybody’s eyes were on the Other.
“Maira…” Loi’s voice was all trembly.
The Other didn’t so much as glance at Loi. Her eyes jerked around like that hand had, flying this way and that, searching for something. Or someone.
My belly pulled up into a hard knot. Something was about to happen. And I needed to get to Loi before it did.
I started to stand, but halfway up something clamped around my shoulder and pushed me back down. My eyes took in a big hand and traveled up a black-clad arm to the Preacherman’s face. “Don’t.” And that one word, throwed in with the hard look in his eyes, pinned my arse to the seat of that pew as surely as if I’d been nailed to it.
I heard just the tiniest little whimper, and the Other was on the move, pulling my sweet Loi along like she was nothing but a rag doll. I couldn’t stand it, and again, I tried to get up. The Preacherman’s fingers dug into my shoulder with such force that I almost yelled out loud from the pain of it.
Again, I slumped back down.
The Other stalked the length of the front pew and turned down the aisle. And I heard that whimper again and saw the babe that’d made it and saw the Other yank it from its ma’s arms and raise it up above her head and shake it. By its neck!
That time I made it to my feet before the Preacherman stopped me again by wrapping his arms around me and pinning my back against his chest.
All the townsfolk, every last one of them, even the babe’s ma, didn’t say a word, just sat there like nothing was going on, that a babe weren’t being killed right in front of them. But Loi was screaming and crying and clawing at the Other’s hand. For all the good it did; like all loonies, the Other was powerfully strong. And she had control of that third arm and was using it to hold back Loi.
“I can’t let you interfere, Adam,” the Preacherman said in my ear. “She is doing God’s work.”
“God’s work?” I said, struggling against his arms. “Killing a babe is God’s work?”
“Maira can…sense…evil.” The Preacherman was struggling himself, trying to hold on to me. “And evil, whatever its…form must…be…destroyed.”
I could hardly see Loi and the Other and that poor babe no more; they wiggled and wavered behind a veil of water. But I could hear Loi screaming. Lord, was she ever screaming.
And I think I was screaming too.
I pushed my elbow back into the Preacherman’s ribs and he grunted and his arms fell away.
I was free!
I took at most two steps before something slammed into the back of my head.
And I was going down…
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