The Devil's Hat - Part Two
If you missed last week's post, please read it first. This is part two of three (coming next week!)...
The absence of noise, a complete and black silence: it is the first thing I notice. Frightened people running from unspeakable horrors tend to pant heavily or make unwitting, desperate, noises. Sometimes their bones give them away, squealing from too much time underground. And always, always, there is a smell, acrid and metallic. It tastes of fear.
The space under the stairs holds nothing. My hands shake a little as I fumble to light the stub of the candle I carry. It does not light on the first try. Finally it flames brightly, throwing my charge’s face into bright shadows. His eyes are slightly upturned at the corners and the deepest and blackest brown; his skin gives off a coppery glint, like mahogany. His lips are pulled back from too white teeth. Not in fear, but a wide grin. My uneasiness becomes a dull throb.
Your name is Amos, I whisper. This statement is immediately swallowed by the dark.
That’s right. His accent speaks of endless summer. It holds nothing of death or sorrow.
Can ah smoke? he asks, the smile still on his face. It is not a question. He reaches inside his tattered coat, gray with dust from many nights in ditches and caves and other unholy places. As he opens the jacket, the smell of warm bread rising rolls out in waves. I reel back and hit my head against the low ceiling.
Careful, he chuckles as I scramble back against the door. The sound is musical and lilting. His match flares up, sparking brightly and there I see the black hat, cocked jauntily to one side, the singed edge of the brim glowing with its own fire.
My stomach heaves and, turning my head to the side, I vomit a thin stream. It lands on a wooden rabbit, a child’s pull toy turned over on its side, forgotten.
Aye, liebshun, the man called Amos says, his voice cracking open the night. It’s your turn to feed me. He laughs again as I exit the closet on cat’s feet, leaving behind my basket of plenty.
The Missus, ever alert, the next morning: I trust that our visitor was taken care of? Her eyes are as black as two perfect pearls, round and unblinking.
Yes, Missus, I say, ducking my head so she cannot read my face. I will have to return to the closet soon, to clean up my mess. There is no one else to do it, except Henry, the butler, and he has other duties to attend to. The job is mine alone.
The Missus twists her mouth into a new shape, but says nothing as I pour her tea. The sun shines weakly through the trees, making curious patterns on the spotless floor.
Sweat trickles from the small of my back to unseen places below. Movement seems impossible, but so does sitting still. I am caught in the in-between. My manner is that of a wretched child, even though I am now a Missus, with my own household to manage.
It is not a happy marriage. My husband is not a good man. I shudder through his ghastly house, sliding into shadows to avoid him when I hear his heavy tread. The fear simmers inside, someplace far away from my heart, slowly rising and falling like the terrible heat of summer.
I have good reason to fear. He is long of temper and short of patience. And not only with me: he is not well-liked in our small, watchful community either. He is known to say foul, hateful things to anyone who he believes has caused him injustice, imagined or otherwise.
He is a compact man, only an inch or so taller than I, but powerful, his body always thrumming as if powered by an unseen motor. He has a penchant for running his hands through his hair – a harmless habit, but it makes it stand up on his head like a many-horned devil. He refuses to wear a hat, even in this heat.
I despise him, but I never let it show. I understand how, after years of service, to arrange my face into a bland mask that shows neither joy nor pain. It has allowed me to suffer through days and nights with him, to keep from screaming out when he grunts and rasps through me, unwanted. This unique brand of torture is one I have never grown accustomed to, although it has been visited on me night after night after night for months. Your punishment, he spits out at me, between thrusts, his jaw clenched in concentration. My punishment for not being with child. I remain as passive as a corpse while he bruises and batters me, a terrific storm. Just last night, he tore at me like a feral dog searching for mayhem, hissing hate through clenched teeth, the rhythm of his words quickening with his tempo. I have no choice but to submit. There is nowhere to go.
Declan McLeod is my husband. He owns 850 acres of the blackest soil in Fulton County, soil that turns green for him every harvest. The money rolls in like black magic and causes whispers to swirl around town about deals with the devil. I had heard this before he came calling for me at Missus Everholt’s. I did not believe it, not then. He was a friend of Irving Everholt, the man who had taught me to read. I was partly in love with Irving at the time, because of his vast kindness, but he was the Missus’ son and so therefore out of my reach. Declan was twelve years my senior (twenty-six to my fourteen). His stormy eyes stood out in handsome relief against his black hair and when he took my hand in introduction for the first time, I felt all of that pent up energy throbbing through him. I did not know then what I know now.
The sullen and black Declan McLeod that I am married to now is not the same man who patted my cloudspun hair as a child, nor kissed me in that secret closet under the stairs, me just fifteen and wondrous. The war had seen to that (as sure as it had killed his friend Irving in a battle-choked field far from home). His heart had grown gnarled and cold in his years away. Or maybe it had always been so and I had not seen it through the stars in my eyes.
With a terrible scar that cut a jagged valley across his forehead, Declan McLeod returned to his family farm in Smithfield, seven long miles from where I lived and worked for the Missus. I joined him there a few shorts months later, because it is what I had promised him before he had gone away. It did not take long for his true nature to come to light, and here we are.
The heat is stultifying. I wander through the house on silent feet. It is a grand thing, but overblown, gaudy like a blowsy woman. It had been built by Declan’s father, who had perished in the same cholera epidemic that took my own mother. Declan is in his office. He moves about, a restless sound, his footsteps echoing heavily in the small space. I desperately need a drink of water but I do not want to draw his attention by summoning the maid. I move down the hall on silent feet, towards the back, creeping near the far wall like a slim and weightless cat. A dipperful of water drawn from a bottomless well weighs heavy on my mind.
His office door is open a few inches enough to release his scratchy and unpleasant tone. Someone answers, he is not alone. I edge a few steps closer, poised on the balls of my feet. Only the visitor’s back is visible through the cracked door. He is tall, very tall and his hair is white with age. I do not recognize him directly, nor do I recognize his voice, although there is something darkly familiar about the way its tone descends into the valley of his words. His arms are bent at the elbows; I cannot see what he holds.
“I cannot do what you ask,” my husband says. I hear the desperation underneath his words, simmering like water just below its boiling point.
“You may want to reconsider. I hope for your sake, you do.” The visitor drops his hands. The smell of something warm and homey assaults me. He holds a hat as black as my husband’s hair; its crisp edge glows like the sun.
I run. I am a ghost; my feet do not touch the ground. I ease myself through the screen door, taking care to not let it slam behind me. I run over to the well and draw the bucket up, my arms churning with surprising vigor and strength. My thirst is the only thing that I can think of. I may die if I take a single moment too long.
I gulp mouthful after mouthful of the cold, clean water, filling my belly until it cannot hold another drop. Immediately, I am stricken with terrible cramps. Sliding down the rough side of the well, I writhe on the ground under the watchful arms of the hard maple that canopies our yard. I think I will die. I pray for it.
I do not know how long I lay there in the dust. As I regain my wits, I pick myself up off of the burnt grass. Moving back towards the house, I step cautiously inside. It is hot, hard to draw a simple breath. Halfway to the stairs, I step onto a board that groans under me. From my husband’s office, I hear someone call Hilde? I freeze. The blood sizzles in my ears. Hilde? comes the small voice again. Without another thought, I push open the door.
It is Declan and he is alone, seated at his desk. He has sculpted his black hair into a sweaty crown of thorns that radiate in every direction. His thin, cruel lips have slackened into something almost soft; his stormy eyes are glazed and unfocused. Before him sits a thick tumbler of an amber-colored liquid. Bourbon perhaps, although I have never known him to take a drink of anything stronger than port. His father had been a drunkard, albeit a kind and generous one, by all accounts. Declan did not care to repeat history, preferring always to make his own.
That terrific anger is gone, drawn from him like infection from a boil. He is miles away; I cannot place where he has gone.
What is it? I ask, clasping my hands to keep them from shaking. The air is heavy with a yeasty weight. I am afraid to glance into the gray corners of his study; instead I focus on the scar on his forehead. It pulses, white-hot with its own life. He does not answer. He only looks past me, desperately and without reason, as if he is waiting for someone to reappear.
He is gentle with me that night, which makes it all the more terrible. His kisses are soft with alcohol and the taste of his salty mouth makes the bile rise in my throat. I respond no differently as I have every other night for the past thousand days. I am immovable, but it neither dissuades nor angers him. Afterwards, he throws his arm over me protectively and whispers into my ear, tickling the inside of it. His voice is soft, a ghost chime on a breeze. Liebshun. I lie there like stone until I hear his breathing even out and I know he is asleep. It is only then that I dare to glance over my shoulder.
It is only Declan, softly snoring. The scar has returned to pale pink, the color of blush roses. His body is stilled, no longer humming with poorly contained energy. He sleeps soundly, like a man with a clear conscience. I lie awake through the dark and fearful night.
The next afternoon is hot, even hotter than the previous day. I am unsurprised when Justice, one of Declan’s hired men, bursts in through the back door, shouting for me in a wild voice, “Miz McLeod! MIZ MCLEOD!” I lay down my tatting carefully and walk to the back door, taking my time.
Declan is dead, sprawled in the back of a wagon. The chickens squawk and dart about, dismayed at the interruption to their afternoon. His cloudy eyes are sightless and still but his hair is still lively, twisted up in tufts around his head. His face is a rictus of wondrous terror. I reach over and close his eyes, for once and all.
Officially, after it is all said and done, I learn that he had succumbed to the heat, so said the sheriff in his brief report on the matter. Shoulda been wearin’ a hat, Missus, he says, scuffing one of his black boots against the dust of the yard
That night I sleep soundly, and in my sleep, I dream of Spring. It is cool and without memory and I am in bed at dawn and there is a baby, a girl, with honey-colored hair, placed loosely into my weary arms, bloody from the battle. Wary at first, focusing on me with her stormy gray-blue eyes, her expression holds something akin to apprehension. But as the morning light invades the room, brighter and brighter, she softens. Maybe I am not exactly a friend but certainly not a foe. So she surrenders and drinks from my swollen breasts in deep, satisfying draughts as if she is planning to stay for a good, long while.
Central Oregon and Pacific Railroad
Near Siskiyou Pass, Oregon
The train has slowed, crawling up the rocky landscape like a lumbering centipede. The car is stuffy and my daughter, Evangeline, squirms restlessly against me. Newly eighteen, her body thrums with the same internal motor that used to drive her father’s. Remembering the havoc that his untamed energy wreaked on my early life, I do everything in my power to tamp it down in her, to keep it from escaping like a rabid dog. Hence, this trip to see the wonder of the ocean.
This train could have been propelled forward on nothing but excitement. All of the cars are full – people had to be turned away at the station in Galesburg, where we embarked – and the conversations on board have had their own momentum, propelling us towards our destination. The anticipation hangs heavy, billowing smoke before a great fire.
But now we are barely moving, creeping so slowly that I wonder if something has broken. The chugs and hisses of the train are becoming fewer and far between. I sit straighter in my seat, confused. We are not anywhere that should cause us to stop and the conductor has not announced a reason for our slowed pace.
Evangeline sighs loudly, her displeasure with the train’s minimal pace apparent on her smooth face. Her honey colored hair is piled loosely on top of her head. Her hat is lavender to match her dress, purchased new for this trip from a dress shop in Canton. She is lovely to look at, my daughter, and I am glad to be sitting here at her side. I am content even if she is not.
“For Heaven’s sake!” she says, indignantly. Sitting still is akin to torture for her. I place my hand on her velvety arm, trying to still her. I am not successful, but at least she goes silent.
Whispers abound, filtering from the front of the car to the middle where we are sitting. A paunchy gentleman nearing fifty sits in front of me. An ill-fitting brown derby hat is perched on top of his round head and muttonchop whiskers which extend down his face like humongous caterpillars. He leans forward, his bulk extending out into the aisle to catch a snippet of information. He must be satisfied by what he hears, because after only a moment, he turns to me. His upper mustache is stained and flecked with tobacco and his breath is stale as he speaks.
“Pardon ladies, I thought I would let you know what is transpiring. There seems to be some disturbance with the Chinamen. They have blockaded the tracks and are not letting anything pass.”
“Oh, whatever on Earth for?” Evangeline asks loudly and without guile.
“Well, miss, seems to be that they’re upset about not being fairly compensated. They’re claiming the railway owes them more wages.”
“A fight among men,” Evangeline says haughtily. “How surprising.”
Our informant’s face turns pink. I shoot her a sharp look but she has already turned her face towards the window.
“Well, miss,” the gentleman says with little civility, “if you ask me, those curs are lucky to be over here, breathing our good clean air. They’re fortunate to be getting paid at all. They’re lucky to be getting our scraps. If you ask me,” he repeats, puffing his chest out.
“Beg pardon,” my daughter says, leaning forward towards him. Her voice is low, throaty. “But no one did ask you.”
To Be Continued Next Week...