The realty office had lost a portion of its street sign, and it was only getting worse. The old maple on the corner of Leigh and Carrington street was shedding leaves too quickly; Tallahassee was colder that January than it had been last year, or the one before that.
A sort of stillness hung limp, heavy and damp in the early evening air up when George Harding was leaving his job at the tax office. It sat across from the realtor’s.
“Be sure to bring in the Jennington file tomorrow, George. This is the second day you’ve missed that one,” said his colleague from inside, eyes down on the papers his own desk bore.
George nodded and closed the door without saying anything.
A drop of rain caught him on the cheek as he walked south, towards his usual spot. The car he found before him, as red as that torn realtor sign, wasn’t his. His memory sparked: his spot had been taken when he had left for his lunch break. It didn’t take him long to find his own car parked at the back of the block. He’d only parked on this stretch once in the last year. It was a foreign space where the only thing he knew now as familiar was his fading sky blue sedan. The paint was getting quite pale and needed to be redone, but could go on for a bit more, he thought.
Martha, his wife, had wanted one of the new Chevrolets. He’d been eyeing a Pontiac that occupied a corner of the lot he passed on his commute, but Martha was insistent and still very beautiful.
With a clamor, the sedan started, and he was off. Past the realtor, past the red car, past his turn to go home, then past the church on his left. Normally when he passed a church—any church—he was reminded of when he met Martha.
It was the 1944 North Central Florida Baptist convention. He’d come with his parents and she with hers. They were young, and she was very beautiful then, donned in a yellow sundress, one speckled with lillies and lilacs. A few pews down, he’d spotted her and had taken a glance, and then another. When sermon was done, he’d decided to steal one more look. That’s when she looked back, like she knew he’d been perched behind her, and through the heads and shoulders, her eyes met his–fiery green ones that struck him fiercely.
But this time, as he glanced at the church, he wasn’t thinking about Martha. She’d started working as a teacher across town last fall, so they didn’t see each other most days now save mornings and evenings.
He didn’t notice the pothole until his wheel struck it. The car lurched slightly and rumbled on. He gripped the wheel tighter in his left hand, eyes ahead, and felt for the radio dial with his right. Hank Williams was on again; he turned the dial. It landed on jazz. Trumpets and horns and drums and stuff. He turned it again, stopped as a cackling voice broke out. The signal faded slightly into buzzing fuzz and electric noise, and the voice became indiscernible.
Shotgun houses, all in tawdry shades of yellow, purple, jade, the “Tally Shantytown,” bled together in gasping color that wisped by. Unnamed side streets twisted unevenly, snaking along rows of rusting chickenwire fence and trash cans and more houses in more faded colors. Stories of this place floated around his districts–other districts–but people mostly turned a deaf ear to them.
There were bottles, cans, rags, broken boxes–a whole assortment of trash littered here and there– spread in patches like sickly grass. A dog lapped up water from a small, murky pool of runoff.
Then, in an abrupt jolt of dark green, the shantytown ceased, halted by dense scrub, oak, and pine. Some more scattered trash lined the road, but the trail shrank as the road wound deeper into the woods.
The cackling Southern drawl cut back through the radio, cracking like lightning into George’s car.
“And I heard the voice of the Lawd, and theyah ovah the mighty heavens theyah shook a mighty rattlin of thunda.”
George jumped. He hadn’t time to find the dial with his eyes, and in haste, took his hand from the wheel again and shot it towards the radio panel. He tore three of his knuckles on the metal pane of the dashboard, inches from the dial, where old leather and stuffing lining once lay.
The radio hummed, the signal lost.
George felt something wet on his hand. His knuckles throbbed.
The voice exploded into the car again in a burst of crackle.
“And tha lawd, tha lawd told Hezekiah he would surely die!” The man was shouting now, and a hubbub of the audience’s responses – the ‘amens’ and ‘hallelujah’ and ‘glory, glory’ and all–was picking up, first quietly, but growing.
He spun the knob. The dial slid right, and still, the station didn’t change.
“And Hezekiah humbled hisself. Mmmm, yes he did.”
The tighter he gripped the wheel with his wounded hand, the more blood issued forth. Bits of tissue, maybe bone, showed through the torn skin. Blood pooling into the schism hid that, though, and some was running down the wheel and dripping off.
George pressed his leg into the wheel. Fumbling, he pulled a handkerchief from one pocket, worked it around his wounded hand, and, using his teeth, tried to pull tight a knot.
The wheel was sliding, but the pain was pulsing in heavy waves and he was trying to tighten the knot to clot the blood that’d started flowing more freely.
He eyed the radio.
“He humbled himself and asked God fo’ anything, an-“
Static washed over the oration. It hummed with a long “shushhhhhh” and then withdrew.
“Folks, get down an ask Go-“
George’s wounded hand lurched toward the radio console, intent on tearing it out.
A blinding flash illuminated the windshield, obscuring the dial. George was frozen for a moment as he hurtled towards another car, his own halfway in its lane. Then, whatever spell that held him broke, and he heeling over hard, back into his own lane.
A thumping picked up in his chest, and he gulped.
The static had subsided further. The radio was getting louder as the signal became clearer.
“-God to forget your sins. Ask him fo— for yo’ life. Get down, get low, an ask him fo— Ask God for your life back. All you need do is ask.”
This time, George didn’t look. Instead, he found the brake, slowed the car, and pulled off onto the shoulder.
“-For yo’ life. Get down, get low, an ask him fo-“
He felt for the ignition.
“Don’t wait another day, ask him toni-“
He twisted the key back. It clicked. The radio went silent.
It didn’t take long to unscrew the mounts for the thing with a pen knife. A few wires held it to the panel. Tugging at it, he snapped all but one. As he sliced the last electric vein, the radio roared, the crackling roll that carrying the speaker’s gutteral plea: “Get down on your knee!”
He pushed the knife through the wire and the signal died. His heart pounded like a war drum, thumping faster now. He sat, almost waiting for a noise, for a crackle. Nothing came. One car, then another, passed by.
He re-tied the handkerchief with a better knot, firm around his knuckles. His hand still pulsed in little ebbs of pain, but they were duller now. A dark stain was forming on the cuff and sleeve of his shirt. He saw it and cursed.
He started the car and was off again.
The sun had been trickling through the trees, and now, low in the sky, cast a pale light on the scrub. The dark forest etched continually closer to the road, the grass barrier between them ever narrowing.
A mile marker reading 122 flew by. George glanced at his watch. In 86 seconds, he passed marker 123. Another 84, marker 124. When he reached 42 seconds after 124, he pulled over.
The trunk opened with a long groan. He shifted over some oil cans, a tool box, and found the long object wrapped in an old army-issue blanket. He lifted it out slowly. A quick pull, and the trunk slammed shut.
The noise echoed, bouncing down the road. Before he plunged beyond the woodline, he looked back at his car and the road that wound on like some huge serpent in the darkening day, steaming with condensation and hazy in its lowness to the earth.
The trail was not hard to find. The first few trees had been marked with a knife or tomahawk.
For some while, it wound through an open prairie of waist-high grass, a dirty blonde patch of the forest that the rangers ran controlled burns in. Slender pines, lonely and slim, stood scattered, in skirmish lines throughout. The biggest of them bore ugly, black scars round the base of their trunk, testament to preservation works of the past. A gust of wind came through trees yonder and stirred the entire place, slanting all the foliage so it leaned a bit diagonal, except for George, who stood stiff and straight, listening.
Somewhere in a back room of his mind, in a box of a memory, he was recalling something, or trying to; groping for it. He didn’t know why.
A person, no, a figure, yes a figure. Someone proud, strong, doing something people’d hate and curse him for, but what? And who? They were, what was it—intrepid, yes, intrepid. He rolled the word over and over in his mind.
He thought of Martha. She taught history at one of the poor schools outside of the city.
She’d approached him, at the convention in 44’, floated over to him in the fellowship hall, the golden sundress flowing.
“You’ve got a liking to this fella I saw in a painting.”
He could only stare. The dress seemed brighter this close. He dug through his chest of vocabulary, but the lid only seemed to shut.
A spider web, invisible, caught his face, and he tasted some in his mouth. He spat involuntarily, and cursed under his breath. The sensation of it was still there on his face, but when he reached for it, his hand felt only there was just skin and stubble.
He was through and past the wood line now. The ground was still soft, quiet and padded with the same sugar sand. lining the road.
The thing from the trunk was proving heavier than he’d initially thought. It was wearing on him as he hefted it in the crook of his arm. A dull ache worked up from his wrist and past his elbow. he shifted to carry it across his chest, cradling it with both arms.
Occasional frayed palmettos, now thickening on the path, hung wearily under the weight of their age. They hung so low that he had to push them out of his way. Their papyrus-like substance, with so many whispy ends, made small “whoosh” noises. The trail was winding through what seemed like a grove of them.
Out beyond him, a shrill scream cut through the thick night: a panther’s throes, ones of intense life or death. For a moment, George stopped, waited, then started on again.
A fine glaze of sweat had gathered over his face. Now, short live oaks crowded in tight, choking the trail; their boughs and limbs twisted, wrenched about in curves and splits, continuing on to smaller veins and tributaries. In the darkness, George could barely make out low-hanging, greenish-grey moss, in places loose, and others, tight, wound up in clumps.
“Spaniard’s beard,” his mother’s words echoed from so long ago. “Chiggars and ticks call it home,” she said as she had everytime he went tromping through the pinewood flats around their house. Mother made him search for the insects in his brother’s hair when she discovered they had run off into the woods. She thought they’d been at Sunday school. He always called them “little eyes.”
Martha; he’d been too scared to, no, not too scared, more like incapable, of looking at hers.
She’d smiled, hands held and swaying lightly. The word “painting” and “you” had trotted around his head, stamping out his guard.
“Whycome?” he’d sputtered when the shock had passed him over in that fellowship hall.
“Don’t know. I just see it, off somewhere distant, somehow. It’s something quiet-like about you. Like it was in the painting man’s eyes.”
“What do you think that something was?” he’d asked, fumbling his words, again.
An ache was working through his chest. He shifted the weight he carried onto his shoulders, slouching his head forward a bit, and hanging his hands off it. That’ll do for now. He hauled in a deep breath. He still felt the weight, but figured he wasn’t far now, and he could bear it until then.
A fly buzzed into his ear. He shook his head, and it was out, and then back, and then gone again. It zipped off into the dark.
Ages of time ago. Time, yes, time.
Like sand between gears, it’d crept into his days. Long, hot days of his early 30s. It’d worked in deep, from his files, the names in them, figures, dates. He’d been fine, yes, perfectly happy and fine, and then the incident happened.
Six months. No, eight. Yes, eight months ago. Thirty-two weeks. More than two-hundred and twenty-four days.
He’d heard of them, but then he’d seen them, and he couldn’t un-see them or what they’d done, and the sand got hot, very hot, and he couldn’t find alleviation. Martha didn’t know he’d witnessed it. He wouldn’t tell her; couldn’t, really.
The air had thickened, like he’d gone downstairs in an old house, in a place no one had been, and only mildew and damp, moldy things settled. The earth underfoot was wetter and released a dank smell. In the dimming light, he could gather that he stood where there once had been a river, now driery from time, and heat had left the lily pads and algae and sawgrass to decay into rank compost. The stench of sulphur leaked forth continually.
He turned and followed the old, dead river. Slowly, the night passed on, and the riverbed grew narrower.
There, up through the trees, a faint red glow danced and bounced through the darkness and the shadows. The dark was changing as his eyes adjusted to it. Shapes protruded, cloaked in night and now being slowly revealed, morphing from one thing to another., His feet deftly wove over this new groundout of the old river bed, and through a thicket, through palmettos and the short live oaks with branches and bark that bit at his clothes, that splayed out into the ever-narrowing path. A dark, wiggling shape moved across his way, and he stopped. It slithered on, and he saw that another step and he would’ve been atop the thing.
The light shone brighter, and where the trail would’ve gone, a rippling mirror played up the hues of orange and yellow and red on dark water. Cypresses and their young, cypress knees, stood thick near the lake’s edge, and as the liquid started to wet George’s shoes, he caught a glance through a gap in them. He could finally see it.
A cross, no less than thirty feet tall, towered, slender and engulfed in a raging flame. It cast a bright light, brighter than he’d seen before, and seemed to shift and dazzle with the lapping tongues that burned its wood. It stood on a tiny island, a mere pitcher’s mound in the inky black waters, now reflecting the light it cast. It was a mighty, neon display, something man made and foreign to the jungle around it.
And there, beyond the edges of the island, where the dark held you close, stood cloaked figures in pointed hoods of white, in a precise, perfectly drawn circle, like chess pieces, motionless and uniform, and knee deep in the water.
George went down to his knee, slowly. He hefted the object from his shoulder and onto the jungle floor. He cast the blanket off, and the rifle underneath glinted subtly in the dark.
He rested his elbow on a rotten cypress stump, pulling the gun into his shoulder with his wounded hand, and resting it loosely in the other. Head drooped over right, his cheek rested on it.
A breath in, a slower one out.
In through the nose, out through the mouth. In through the nose, out through the mouth.
One figure dressed in reflective emerald stepped forward in the circle. A gold band wrapped round each arm and mid-way up the conical hood. He dropped his torch into the water and lifted his hands.
“We hear,” he called out. His thick, heavy rasp clattered across the water.
“We hear,” chanted the others, still unmoved.
George’s muscles spasmed, contracting and releasing in an involuntary motion. A warm liquid trickled down the hand he had wrapped. The handkerchief was still there, but the blood had seeped through sticking and congealing between his hand and the wooden stockbutt of the gunrifle.
“We obey,” said the one in green.
“We obey,” chanted the others as before.
The sweat on George’s brow now ran into his eyes, stinging them. He blinked, but still more came.
“And I heard a voice from heaven, and that voice said, ‘I will uphold the swift hand of the just,’” the man in green said, carrying on in a tense but rhythmic cadence. His voice boomed and seemed to silence the creatures that’d been making nighttime melodies in the darkness.
“And he said, ‘ye shall keep the dominion, and hold steady as the tree in right soil, and that soil shall bear yea the blessing of mine, the blessing for those who rule and those who wield my sword.’”
George jammed the gun into his shoulder harder, leaning toward the dead cypress, grinding his teeth like a wad of sugarcane was in between them all and the juice needed sucking out.
“The sword, of my children, of your children. They shall bear it and we will teach them to reign,” uttered the figure in green.
“The sword,” the green figure called out again.
“The sword,” the others shouted.
George flicked a switch and brought his forefinger to rest on a small, cool, metal piece.
“The sword,” the man in green said again, and louder.
George slowly increased his pressure on the metal piece.
“The sword,” the green one screamed. There was a tinge of hunger in his call.
“The sword,” the others called, as before.
George closed his left eye–the eye furthest from his cheek that rested on the gun.
“To your knees,” the green one shouted, and the circle, in one motion, lowered.
Then, in an electric burst of lightning, the voice from the radio voice came screaming back into George’s head.
GET DOWN ON YOUR KNEES. GET DOWN ON YOUR KNEES. GET DOWN ON YOUR KNEES. GET DOWN ON YOUR KNEES.
George’s finger came off the metal piece, his grip released, and he dropped the thing. He fell backwards onto his butt. The thing thudded quietly into the muddy shore.
The group on the island was in some chant again, but he couldn’t make out the words.
He was frozen. Like a projector, his mind flickered and started rolling, casting out a moving picture of the schoolhouse.
The doors opened and children of many colors poured out–and after them came Martha.
She was in the yellow sundress. Her eyes were peering right into his own. This time, he couldn’t look away. He wanted to. He yearned to. He felt filthy, like the muddled, rotten mess around him, festering with some wicked thing in him. If the earth could’ve opened at that moment, he would’ve climbed into it. He wanted to beg her figure to pass him, to look away.