Something

by Leo D. Orionis

It's an old town, in an old part of the country, with a lot of wickedness in its past, the town and the area both.  There's always something stirring under the trees down at the edge of the swamp, or under the beds in some house built over an ancient wrong.  Something oozes out, like corruption from a wound where the skin closed, but the sore never healed; always something.

Grandma hears it first, like wind stirring leaves on the trees by the old ship yard; but those trees are dead, and have no leaves.  Shame and a disgrace, she thinks, they ought to tear out that rot, have a priest say something to keep it gone.  But there's no money, never any money for anything but drink and smoke and new cars and newer women.  Got to spend the money on the living, see our tall new buildings in the downtown sun?  But it's the living who are in danger, when the ghost ships are in.

Hears the rush and the thud and the hurry of it, the living breath in the living lungs, going to answer the call of the dead:

Someone is running.

 

She has it right here, wow, that's something, never thought I'd see it right here, that's really something.  But hey be cool, gotta be cool with it.

Sure I'd like to see, if you got it right here, is that it?  Wow, that's something.  Small and round and usedta-be-live, it stares up at him in the girl's hands, and something in the ancient dried-up face makes the sun seem far away, and the hot day cold.

No kidding, your mom's attic?  The things lying 'round in attics in this town — a baby?  Really?  Wants to think it's a cat's head, dried up and whiskers fallen off, but the thing's stare dares him to say it, and those aren't cat ears.

Always something, this town.

His heart is going a mile a minute.  Listen, girl, he says, no don't say nothin' yet, just listen, and he tells her.

Something his mama's mama told him, laughin' at him with that one good eye of hers, whose side you on, anyway?  A lock of her hair, boy, and she'll love you forever; a lock of her hair, and some other things he don't like to think about.

 

Grandma gets a whiff of something foul, ancient rankness poking above ground, but it will keep.  Something's coming down where the ships burned to the water, sailors and slaves screaming in the flames — and it's coming down now.

 

Something's standing by the window where nothing should be, and Hetty wants to scream for Mama.  But Mama's asleep, oh baby, what you screamin' for, you know how long I worked today?  So Hetty doesn't scream, let me sleep child, I gotta be up soon ...

No matter what.

It's a curtain, that's all, it's a shadow.  It's not something older than Hetty and her Mama put together, it's not something with evil eyes and a grin like a rusty hacksaw.  It doesn't say to her,

Little girl, little girl, whose house is this?

It's something in her head, it's a trick of the light, and Oh how Hetty wishes it would go away!

 

He used to run through these streets when he was a kid, ran them all the time; the white people lived here and they stayed in their houses, he'd run and run through the empty streets, his own private track.

Ran just to be running, was what he'd thought, the speed and the joy and the freedom of it, legs pounding like they'd go forever, till the traitor lungs were like to burst, O why can't my lungs let me run?

Now, of course, he knew why he'd run, but back then he just did till he couldn't breathe, then back to the house where his folks were, both of them smoking all the time.  Lit one butt from the end of the last, chain-smoking they called it, the air always blue with smoke, the ashtrays full.  Have a good run, son?  Oh, too bad.  Well, keep at it.

The streets are full of cars now, parked and moving both, and bunches and flurries of black people.  He's a little scared to be running here now, but he has no choice, and mostly they're cool: Hey white boy, where you going? with a laugh.  Like an obstacle course, dodging around and past and through, 'scuse me, 'scuse me, man.  Damn, lookit that white boy go!

It gets thinner by the old shipyard, or where it used to be; by the time he gets there, there's nobody 'round.  But something's there, swinging with the wind, black on the tide where the signs say Danger! This dock condemned!  Condemned indeed, a ship that burned a hundred years ago floats by the burned dock, scares him whiter than he was already.  But he had to come, has to see what he can do:

Someone's on board.

 

She runs down the street to her girlfriends, and they call to her, What did he say?  Was it mag?  It was major mag! she sings, wait'll you hear, laughing.  Girls like flocks of birds, hopping and chattering, all dart and flash and swirl of skirts.  The boys are cool (gotta be cool), you tell her man?  Yeah, I told her.

I said, she says, remembering, I said, my name is Clutie.  And what'd he say?  Oh the dreamiest smile, he just said, kinda quiet, I know.

And the thing in her purse nods with her bobbing, and rolls a little when she jumps around.  Grins that evil dried-up grin, and stares at nothing with mummified eyes.

 

It used to be my house, it says to her.

Hetty holds her covers up to her chin, and tries real hard to say nothing at all.  Nothing is hard, but easy is worse: if she tries to say anything she'll scream and scream.  It's standing over her bed now, looking down at her, there's nothing there, there's nothing there!

My house, it says.  Do you know what I did?  I liked little girls, they screamed so much.  Can't eat just one, it says, and grins.  The evil eyes are dark red coals just waiting for wind to set them alight.  It reaches out a shriveled hand, there's nothing there!

 

Grandma finds him by dock number 3, a thin white boy peering at the dead thing, instead of ignoring it like a sensible man.  Child, child, grandma says, come away, it's not safe.  What, child?  No, honey, there's no one there, and the ones on that ship you don't want to mess with.  Come away!

But grandmother, don't you see the blue?  Way up there on the side, where the portholes would be if there were still portholes, past the burned sides and the burned railing, underneath the burned lines and the burned sails?  There's something blue!

Why do you think I ran like this?

 

"Did you get it?" his mama's mama asks him.  Can't think of her as grandma, that's kindly old ladies with lots of cats; nothing kindly 'bout Mam'zelle, sharp and bony and hateful, patch over one eye.  "Did you get it?" she asks him again.

"Tomorrow," he says, "if she agrees, tomorrow.  But I saw it, it's real."

"Course it's real, fool," and snorts.  "Knew that soon as I felt it.  Real enough for your dreams, and mine too.  Much joy may you have of it," she grins at him.

Her grin reminds him of the thing in Clutie's purse.

 

"There's nothing there," Grandma tells him.  "It's only bait, and you're the fish."

"Bait," he says, staring blankly.  "But look, it's blue."

"And how did you, all the way across town, know there was someone on that ship?  How did you know the ship was there?  It's a worm, boy, on a hook, boy, and if it's blue it's just because blue to you is a girl's skirt, that once you knew, or blue is eyes you looked into.  Look!" she cried, and set a foot on the dock.

It moaned in pain, and then gave way.  And now he saw that the whole dock bobbed in the waves.  Broken pilings didn't support it; hanging boards dangled in air.  His gaze, that had been fixed on the ship, now saw the dock clearly; he took a step back.

"Bait," she said.  "Every year, the ships come in, still sailing the triangle trade, and every year, the tides bring in the ones they caught and drowned.  And you!" she said, addressing the ship.  "You were men once — act like it!  What has this boy ever done to you?  Shame on you!" she cried.

He was amazed.  "If not for you, I'd have climbed on that dock, to get to the ship—" he stopped.  The burned ship, the ghost ship was gone.  "I owe you my life," he marveled.

"Then help me save some others," she said.  "There's more wickedness going on, and I can't be two places at once."

 

"Oh, but I promised," Clutie says.  She knows who Grandma is, everyone knows Grandma, but "I promised him."

"Girl, give over," Grandma says.  "Do you know what it is you have in your purse?"

"I found it in the attic," Clutie says; she's a good girl, doesn't want to say.

"Attic," Grandma says.  "They wasn't attics then, they was servant's quarters.  Little black girls spent all the day dustin' an' sweepin' an' scrubbin' and waitin' table, and white girls too.  Then at night they go up the stairs, two beds in a tiny room, and they sleep jus' a little bit.  Then up before dawn, and do it again."

"What about the magic?" Clutie says, all wide eyed; Grandma tells it like she was there.

"Magic?  Is that what you think that is?  Listen, girl, these babies was next thing to slaves, and they didn't know nothin'.  No schoolin' for them, just work from can't-see to can't-see, every day.  What magic you expect they had?"

"But sometimes," Grandma says, "servant girl gets in trouble.  Master's son gets under her skirts, or servant boy from another house.  No abortions then, they was illegal, that way only the rich could get 'em.  Gotta keep the servants moral, right?"

"Girl prays that she miscarries, 'cause if she shows up pregnant, they'll toss her out.  And if she miscarries, and if it lives, she gotta smother it.  Either way, no burial, burying is way too public.  Hide it under the floor boards, say a rat died, that's making the smell, it'll go away soon."

"You love him?" Grandma says.

Clutie takes her fist out of her mouth.  Unshed tears shine in her eyes and husk her voice.  "What?"

"You love him?" Grandma says patiently.  "This boy you promised?"

"I don't know, Grandma.  I watch him, you know?  He's mighty fine… and sometimes, I think he's watching me back."

"Maybe he is," Grandma says.  "Maybe he ain't.  Time will tell; only, if he is, you want that thing hangin' on your love?  You want to look at him, and think of that?"

"Oh no!" Clutie says.

"Then give it to me," Grandma says, "and I'll take it away, and bury it.  Thank you, child.  And listen, girl," fixing her with a sharp eye, "don't go messin' 'round attics no more, this town."

Grandma walks down the street, night coming on hard now, and talks to herself a little.  "And sometimes," she says, "some devil finds the lost flesh, thinks he'll make some mischief.  Shut up, you," she says to the thing hissing in her purse, "I'll salt you down soon as the moon's up, so don't be gettin' no ideas."

 

"Excuse me, ma'am, is your name Carol?  Grandma said I'm to give you this."

Hetty's mama has the chain on, staring past the edge of the door at this good-looking stranger holding out an envelope, why's he knocking on her door at night?  "Grandma?" she says, still half asleep.

He looks up and down the street.  "Isn't this 347 Beauregard?  I'm to give this to Carol at 347 Beauregard Street."

"I'm Carol," Hetty's mama says, and takes the envelope.  Opens it, reads the note inside.  "I don't understand," she says.

"Grandma saved me from something at the old docks this afternoon, then asked me to come and sit with your daughter while she took care of something else.  So," he shrugged, "here I am."

"How do you know Hetty?" Carol says, Hetty's mama says, all suspicion.

"That her name?  Ma'am, all I know is Grandma asked me to come."

"But you're white!" Carol says, still at sea.

"I'm sorry, ma'am; I can't help it.  Can I come in?  It's cold out here."

She looks at him; skinny white man in shorts and t-shirt and running shoes, good enough for an afternoon run but it gets cold real fast when the sun goes down.  "Grandma," she reminds herself; undoes the chain, and lets him in.

 

Hetty feels like ice as the thing runs its fingers down her body and touches her in places no one's s'posed to touch.  She's so full of fear she can't even think of screaming.  Little girls, the thing croons, and then the door opens and the light comes on.

"Hetty!" says Mama.  "Why you lyin' there with the covers off, ain't you cold?"  She comes in to pull up the blanket, and a strange man comes in with her.  Hetty jumps.

"Hi, Hetty," the stranger says.  He's got a blanket and a flashlight and a nice smile.  "My name's Jonathan, I'm just going to sit here a while.  Think of me as your very own guard."  He looks 'round the room, sets the stuff on the floor; gets a kitchen chair to put by the window.

Hetty watches this with big eyes while Mama tucks her in again, humming a little under her breath, Hetty wants to say Mama?  What's going on?  But she's so sleepy now, her Mama's here and the bad thing's gone, so what does it matter?

"There," says Jonathan, has the chair just so, sits in it and wraps up in the blanket.  "Reporting for duty," he says, and salutes Hetty and Mama with the flashlight.

"But you're white!" Hetty says, already half asleep in her warm bed.

"The chair won't mind," Jonathan says, and winks.

 

Mam'zelle opens the door herself, what's the world coming to, looks down her long nose at Grandma on the step.  "The servant's entrance is around back," she says.

Grandma hits her across the mouth and knocks her on her bony ass.

Comes in while she's sprawling, closes the door behind herself.  "Just so we know where we stand," she says.  "I may be a servant, but I'm a servant of the Most High.  What've you ever served that's fit to mention?"

Mam'zelle comes off the floor with a screech, fingers crooked to claw.  "Don't even," Grandma says, pointing, and Mam'zelle can't move.  "Better," says Grandma.  "Sit down, girl," and does the same.

"Who are you?" says Mam'zelle, for once not quite so full of herself.

"I'm nobody," says Grandma.  "At least, in Paris and London and New York I'm nobody.  I hear you cut quite a swath through those parts, made quite a name with a certain crowd."

"But there's all sorts of people in the world, and all sorts of crowds," Grandma says.  "Take two colored servant girls, both born a hunnerd, hunnerd fifty years ago.  One's in the house of a white lady famous for wickedness, lives all over the world, takes all sorts of men to her bed.  And the colored girl watches, and listens, and learns all the wrong lessons.  Learns to be like her mistress.  Learns to live way past her time, if she has young folks around to take advantage of.  Take their blood, take their love, take somethin' and trade it for life, who cares about them, right?"

"The other girl's not so lucky, you might say.  Lives a dull life, wears herself out doing for folks.  If they love her, if they take care of her when she's old, what's that compared to livin' the high life in those fancy places?"

"Only the welcome wears out, sooner or later, and no one wants the smart girl comin' round.  So she thinks that she'll lie low for a while in a town that's maybe too well known for all the badness in its past.  Get her youth back where no one knows her, then go back all new and start again."

"That pretty much the plan?" Grandma said.

"You tell me, you know so much," Mam'zelle hissed.

"I know the other girl died," Grandma says, "and the Most High said she had the choice of eternal ease, or tending to the folk who loved her.  So she curtsied, just like she'd once been taught, and said Thank you, Sir.  If it's all the same, I'd just as soon be doing for folks."

"What are you telling me?!" said Mam'zelle, scared now.

"Nothing," says Grandma.  "I'm nothing in Paris and Madrid and places like that.  But hereabout?  Hereabout, I got pull, you could say."  She stood up.  "If you want to stay here, you play by our rules.  Otherwise it's Bon voyage, ma cher, we got troubles enough already."

"I believe I understand you," Mam'zelle says stiffly, coming with Grandma to the door.

"I hope you do," Grandma said.  "Think on what I said, or you and me are gonna have trouble.  And girl?  Think, too, on the way you been livin'.  Are you really doin' yourself any favors?  In the long run?"

Grandma chuckled as she went down the road, "Loudest not-slam I ever didn't hear."

 

Bastard, it said to him.

Jonathan looked over at Hetty.  She was sound asleep.  Good, that meant it was only working on him now.  Get over it, he thought to it.  I did.

Bastard, it said.  Can't be a priest.  Church doesn't want any priests whose parents weren't married in it.

I'd've made a lousy priest anyway, Jonathan said.  Too many fine women in the world, like Hetty's mom.

Can't be a pilot either, four-eyes.

Jonathan pushed his glasses back up on his nose.  I hear that's a pretty boring job anyway, he said mildly.

Can't be a runner, the thing said, still looking for ways to hurt.  Not with those lungs.  Parents hate you, boy?

They didn't know, Jonathan thought.  Nobody did, back then.  They both died of it, and anyway, mad now, what's your excuse, you sick sack of shit?  What accident of birth forced you to rape and murder little girls?  Your folks make you do that?

Grandma told me about you, he said.  You're lucky you're a ghost.  If you were really here, I'd beat the hell out of you!

And speaking of Hell, isn't it looking for you?  Go home! he said, and turned the flashlight on it.

There was nothing there.

 

Hetty's giggle wakes him up, all stiff in the chair, didn't know he'd slept.  She was looking at his shoes.  "You got a hole in your sneakers," she said.

Jonathan smiled, stood on up in the morning sun streaming in the window, stretched hugely.  "That's OK, Hetty," he said.  "I'm through running."

 

Sunlight falls on an old town, in an old part of the country, with a lot of wickedness in its past, the town and the area both.  But good clean sunlight drives out a lot of wickedness.  It lights the haunted mill downstream of the town; only dust motes dance in its warm beams.  It pours down on the old graveyard, and finds grass and gravestones, nothing more.

Grandma sips her tea and knows, come nightfall something will need looking after.  Always something skulking, in the shadows in this town.  Always something.

About this story

This story came to me as a dream on Thursday morning, November 20, 2003.  I woke up, turned on the light, turned on my computer, typed eight or ten paragraphs, and went back to sleep.  The original dream only went as far as Why do you think I ran like this? and didn't include Hetty or Mam'zelle; so I added considerably, with my awake mind, to what my dreaming mind conjured up.

The actual writing was done on December 13 through 15, when I was working the night shift.  I'd finished writing The Reborn Princess Caper and was working on the Glossary and the other appendices, but I couldn't do those at work.  So I took out the printed copy of the stuff I wrote down right after the dream, and set to work on it.

I find it interesting that "Something" is actually a kind of blank verse.  There's a definite scan to it, that actually forced word and phrase choices as if I were writing a poem.  If you read it out loud, you'll see what I mean.

Copyright © 2003 by Green Sky Press.  All rights reserved.