Part 2 of 2
Read part 1 here
Her summer with the animal women unfolded like the hot yellow center of a tiger lily. She gathered honey in the woods with Ursa and kneaded warm dough with Odil. Bright and cunning Vivian taught her to play strange games with tiles and cards that she always lost. If she was quiet, she was permitted to follow them into the dark woods she had first stumbled through, along spider-silk trails and through the clear spaces beneath cedar trees. She did not stumble when she was with one of them.
The last week in August burned with the kind of brutal heat that drove people mad. In Chicago, people marched through a hot haze of tear gas. In Greenup County, people thumbed through ads for air conditioners and the new refrigerators that made ice cubes for you. Sycamore leaves yellowed and crackled in the wind.
Candis swam through the heat to reach the house in the meadow then laid flat and listened to the sound of the porch boards soaking up her sweat. Distantly, thunder rumbled and purred. The smell of lightning made Candis brave.
“Tell me a story,” Candis asked the women, and hoped they heard: Tell me who you are, tell me where you come from.
Ursa laid her wide palm flat on the porch. “Our stories are dangerous, and they belong to us.” She appraised Candis with cave-black eyes. “But I’ll tell you one.”
“Once there was a girl named Ellie, born 1930 in Missouri. Ellie got married at seventeen to John Preedom. Hard to recall why, now—he was handsome, guess she was flattered.” Ursa and the storm spoke together in staccato rumbles. “Well, he was no good. Called her ugly, fat, mannish, said that’s why four years of marriage and no kids to show for it. One day I guess he said it too many times, and she hit him. Hard.” Candis looked at the muscled meat of her forearms, her sloping shoulders. “John skulked around for a few days. Gathered up his friends to go teach Ellie a lesson. Then she was cornered, and there was no place to run, no one to help. She thought: I’m going to die here with my ugly head split open by these fools.” Ursa smiled, dark lips peeling over her gums. “Then she thought: the hell I am. She ran into the night. Left a mess behind her.”
Candis lay still, as if by moving she might rattle the raw bones of the story. She wondered if all the women had run away from John Preedoms.
Vira stared out at the blue and mauve horizon. “There is more than one kind of monster, Candis. Some of them are men, it’s true, but some of them are bigger than men. Some of them look back at you from your dresser mirror.”
“I used to have two sons, a long, long time ago. The oldest was your age when they were taken away by court order because their mother had been seen committing indecent acts with another woman—that means kissing, Candis. They said if I put up a fuss it was St. Margaret’s for me, and a lot of therapy that would break me one way or the other.” Vira smoothed her green skirt with damp palms. “Then I was alone, and every knife blade smiled at me. One morning it had me cornered on the kitchen floor, that smiling knife. But the knife lost, and I flew away.”
“It’s—all right now,” Candis said, because she wanted it to be alright.
Vira tilted her head, heron-like and sad. “I never saw my sons again, Candis.” Candis withered. “It doesn’t make it all better. It doesn’t give you back the things that were taken, or heal up the rotted places in your heart. But it gives you back to yourself, and that is a kind of magic.”
Vivian touched the back of Vira’s hand and a little of that abyssal darkness receded from her face.
Lyna spoke suddenly behind them, languorous against the door frame. “We’ve all got stories like that, girl. About being held down too long—beaten bloody, locked away, nothing left at all but our flickering souls. Then the world bent a little, just for us.” She flexed her fingers against the wood and there was the slight snick of claws scraping. “Something beautiful and wild and red-toothed woke up in us. And we were not nothing anymore.”
School started again, withering the lily of her summer. The sixth grade teacher had the same pinched-up smile as Mrs. Whittson; she gave Candis stacks of blurred worksheets with all the letters written out with different symbols over them, and instructed her to say each one a hundred times before bed. Orrin came more often to eat dinner with them and slipped his palm over Flora’s knee when he thought no one was watching.
At the end of September she stumped home in her boots and crisp, new-school-year blue jeans and saw Orrin’s truck parked in the drive. She swerved away and headed for the meadow, sick to death of his too-loud laugh. She hummed one of Vira’s queer, chortling tunes as she walked and did not hear the soft crunching of boots behind her on the gravelly roadbed.
The long grasses of the meadow were browning and lying down again. As Candis put her boot on the creaking step of the cabin, a voice said her name from the trees. A man’s voice. Orrin stood half-shadowed at the edge of the woods.
“Candy, come on over here a minute.” She moved towards him, off of the porch steps, a hundred competing alibis and excuses clamoring unspoken in her head.
“Candy,” he said, “I knew you were still seeing them nigger ladies.” He reached for her wrist, slow and gentle as a cat pinning a bird. “Your daddy's doesn't have to know, though. We can make this all right, Candy, if you just come over here.”
He pulled her a little deeper into the shadows, muttered that if she just stood real still and didn’t move for a few minutes it would all be fine, she would like it. He told her to be real quiet, too, and she knew it was almost a joke because no sound could come out of her.
She flung herself away from him like a rabbit breaking the cover of the trees. His nails scraped the soft undersides of her arm. She made three leaping steps towards the house before long arms slammed her to the ground. The smell of him suffocated her. She buried her hands in the loam and gripped the winding mats of roots.
A screen door slammed. Footsteps thudded towards them. Orrin cursed, scrambled off her, and she looked up.
Ursa stood there. All the sloth and quiet had gone out of her. Her face was transformed by a towering and old hatred; it made Candis think of God when He burned cities and flooded the world. Orrin was speaking but Ursa did not seem to hear. She took a great step forward and swiped her hand across his face. It should have been a slap, but it wasn’t. Candis heard a meaty, crunching thud and the sound of a fully-grown man crashing to the earth. She got up and stumbled behind Ursa.
Orrin rolled on the ground and made a terrible, high, gasping sound. His jaw was a jangled mess of bone and blood and crooked teeth. Four deep gouges ran up his face.
“Get up.” Ursa’s voice was a guttural growl. “Get up and leave.” He writhed and lurched to his feet, skulking towards the meadow.
Ursa pressed her bloody palm against his chest before he passed. “If I see you again on this land, I will kill you, and leave your carcass in the woods for the animals and small things to gnaw away into nothing.” Orrin clutched his ruined jaw to his face and ran.
Then Ursa’s hand was on Candis’s back and her honest, furred musk had overcome the lingering smell of cologne. They turned to the house. The other women were gathered on the porch.
“That wasn’t wise,” said Vivian with a little sigh.
“No,” rumbled Ursa. They all poured back into the warm glow of the cabin and huddled close together. Candis did not return home until very late that night, but her lateness went unnoticed in the flurry of panic. Orrin had stumbled down the road a few hours before with his face torn half away. Flora was with him at the county hospital, weeping.
For the next few weeks Candis hid like something small and furred in its den. She worked through her school books every afternoon and waited for her sister to come home late and tell her tearfully about Orrin’s surgeries and scars. He wouldn’t write anything out to them, but the wires would be taken off his jaw in the middle of October. Then he’d tell them what happened to him. Her sister thought it had been a rabid animal, or some freak accident with the machinery on his farm. Candis hoped the bones of his face would fuse and lock so he’d starve in that narrow hospital bed. She did not return to the house in the meadow.
On the evening Orrin’s wires were removed, Candis waited in the kitchen. The headlights of her father’s truck shone cold through the curtains. She heard the doors slam and then her sister was crashing through the door. She fell on Candis slapping and pinching and pulling and shrieking. Candis covered her face with her arms and waited for their father to pull her away.
“You knew, you little bitch. You were there, you saw—” Their father told her to hush. He sat down slowly at the table.
“Orrin told us everything that happened, Candy,” he told her. Candis doubted that he had. “There’s going to be a . . . gathering tomorrow evening. Something will have to be done.” Then she was sent to her room without supper.
Her sister came up the stairs much later. She knelt beside the bed and Candis thought for a moment that her sister would speak to her, ask her to tell the truth—but then she heard the cardboard box sliding out from under the bed. By the time she had rolled and thrown back her covers it was too late. Her sister smashed her Polaroid Swinger against the hardwood floor again and again until it shattered like white plastic bone.
School the next day moved in great, congealed globs of time. Orrin was sitting with her sister at the table when she got home while her mother stirred thin soup on the stovetop. Orrin didn’t look much like himself, anymore. The flesh of his face was pulled and twisted into glossy pink bubbles. His cheek was swollen and red, but also strangely sunken where the line of his molars should have been. His eyes were wet and yellowed around the edges, like newspapers left out in the weather. Candis thought even her sister was leaning slightly away from him.
“There’s a meeting at the Church tonight,” he told her, and smiled a monstrous, lumped smile. It pulled the flesh wide around his left eye.
The day chilled, and by the time the family piled into her father’s truck their breath made tiny ghosts around them. Candis was lifted into the bed to sit behind the wheel wells with her sister.
“Flora,” Candis said. “Flora, can—just. Listen. Orrin—” She could see the edge of her sister’s cruel smile, laughing at her clogged, choked words. Candis ground them out anyway. “He deserved it. He ran mad, tried. To.” She stopped.
As though it didn’t matter, as though she were commenting that the deer ticks had finally died off in the cold and wasn’t that nice, Flora said, “We’re engaged now.” Candis felt something hot growing beneath her breastbone. She curled around her blue-jeaned knees and let the bumpy road jostle her.
The First Free Will Baptist Church when they arrived looked like a spring hive ready to swarm. Cars were packed in straggling lines across the dirt parking lot and everywhere men and women buzzed to each other. It seemed to Candis that every white face in the whole county was sitting in the pews. The very poor, who burned pallet-scraps in five gallon drums and wrapped their babies in old flour sacks, were jumbled beside teachers and beef farmers. Tonight they did not care, because they had the scent of the real enemy in their nostrils. She hoped Samuel and the rest of the Bells were safe at home, windows shut tight.
Her father steered her to a pew near the front and pressed her down.
Then he shuffled to the front and stood awkward and squinting, hands in his pockets. Like a flock of starlings, the crowd fell silent in eerie coordination. Her father told them all that they knew why they were here and it was because things had happened in their community that shouldn’t happen. The he held his arm stiffly towards Orrin, who stood up beside him. Candis felt the entire room shudder as they looked at the swollen ruin of his face.
When he spoke, the words ran together at the edges. “Well,” he began, “I suppose most of us never thought too much about those ladies in the cabin at the end of Burnt Hollow Road. They mostly kept to themselves, and we just let them be.” He shook his head. “But this summer something happened that didn’t set right with any of us. They lured a little girl into their strange ways. Candy there, my future sister-in-law—well, you all know, she isn’t too smart and she can’t speak much. Probably she didn’t even know what she was doing there.” The hot, toothed creature in Candis’s chest growled.
Orrin told them all how he’d determined to put a stop to it and followed little stupid Candy to the meadow. He tried to haul her home to her Pa, but then those women snuck up behind him and smashed him across the face with an iron bar. They chanted secret voodoo chants and then snatched the little girl away. They were dangerous, he told the crowd, like rabid animals. Candis could feel the old women in the crowd looking at her with the kind of hateful, incurious pity that they normally reserved for Catholics or wandering tramps.
Then Orrin looked right at her, with an expression that might have been satisfaction if his puckered face had permitted it. He pulled something small and curled out of his shirt pocket. “Well, I thought you all might need to see if for yourselves.” He passed the Polaroid picture to a heavy man beside him. Red splotches bloomed on the man’s face and he passed the picture on down the line. It moved from hand to hand like a match circling a pile of tinder. A thick, smoky murmuring rose from the crowd. A few women made gasping sounds.
It came closer to Candis and her family, but Candis already knew which picture it was. It was the best picture she had ever taken, worth a thousand words, but now she found that they were all the wrong words, twisting and warping in the heat of the eyes fastened onto them. The picture showed five naked women, long muscles pulled in tight patterns across their bodies, dark and light skins shining in the dawn. But the picture didn’t commit the normal sin of pornography; the women were naked but not alluring, naked as though the only things that could see them were the mice and rabbits scurrying back to their holes and the owls winging silently into the woods. They were naked only for themselves.
Candis could taste the town’s hate like a penny on her tongue.
A man stood up and called the women foul names, and asked the people to consider what unChristian urges would keep five women unmarried and living together, mixing the races. Another man told him there was no need for that language but, well, the facts were plain. Hadn’t they all heard the news a few days ago, when those colored athletes had held their fists in the air, like black-gloved bullets? And those mad women screaming at the Miss America pageant a month back? There was coming a time to decide, and act. There was coming a time to do something about these people. The crowd nodded and shouted back at him. Orrin sat perched on a stool and smiled his wrecked smile. Candis pictured his jaw shattered wetly on the forest floor.
As the tumult gained heat and fervor, flasks and clinking bottles began to emerge, Sunday strictures forgotten. Candis’s mother and father stood and ushered their children out of the Church.
At home her father told her to go upstairs and stay there. Candis slunk like a beaten dog, but thought mutinous thoughts. She would run out into the night to the meadow and pound on their door and warn them, warn them that something hot and dangerous was moving towards them. But then she heard the stiff squeal of the rarely-used lock closing her in, and felt like she was face-down in the dirt again, hands gnarled into the leaf-mold, unable to make a sound.
Hours passed. She thought about screaming and beating her fists on the door, or about crashing through her window and rolling down into the gully behind their house, but a kind of numb resignation crept over her. Instead, she changed into her white night dress and stared at the gathered-up remains of her camera, rolling syllables around in her skull. Be-tray-er. Ju-das. Then, as the night jars began their high hooting and the weight of the day began to press at Candis’s eyelids, the lock squealed again.
Her mother’s fine-boned hand curled around the edge of the door, threadbare nightgown swishing. Her feet were bare and chapped with their years of black dirt and gravel and hard floors. She had none of the animal women’s lithe grace or wildness or mystery but still she stood, with the unflattering hall light slanting over the lines of her face, holding the door open.
“Go, Candy,” she said and stepped aside.
She ran and ran; her bare feet slammed against the road. Mice skittered along the ditches away from the meadow. A distant, half-imagined smell of burning tar drifted along behind them. She ran faster.
She rounded the final corner and a wave of heat and stink hit her skin. The cabin at the end of the drive was already burning. Smoke poured and roiled up from the jumbled roof and flames yawned like red mouths in the night. Her heart seized in her chest but somehow her legs were still moving, thin white reeds in the darkness.
There were only three men silhouetted by the fire, swaying and shouting. It hadn’t been a mob, after all, but only two empty men with nothing but tar-paper shacks and liquor burning the backs of their throats. These two men, and Orrin.
It was only when a calloused hand closed on her arm that she heard herself screaming. Another pair of hands clamped on her other arm. She hung between them and wept and screamed without words. She screamed for the five women inside the house and for the evil her picture had wrought. She screamed for all the faces in all her newspaper clippings, and for Samuel’s crooked, dangerous smile. But mostly she screamed for herself. Because she would only be Candy, now, and the rich magic of the summer turned to ash and smoke in her mouth.
Then the screaming snapped something hard and brittle in her head. It was the thing that made her words tangle up and fight. It was the thing that told her to keep quiet and keep her head down and let the rush of the world pull her down and wash her up on the muddy banks of some nameless creek. That thing, an old and familiar thing she had learned before she knew her own name, cracked and melted away. She kept screaming, just to feel the sweet rawness of her throat, but now there were strange, sing-songing words in the screams.
“And if you wrong us, shall we not re-venge?” she yelled, and felt the hands on her arms tremble with confusion. “The vill-ai-ny you teach me, I will ex-e-cute, and it shall go hard but I will bet-ter the in-struc-tion.” Candis laughed and her breath blended with the smoke.
Orrin was stumping heavy-booted around the cabin and did not hear her. He cursed and spat. “Where the hell are they,” he slurred through scarred lips, “Should’ve came out screaming by now.”
As they realized that no women would come stumbling out of the cabin, Candis felt the two men holding her begin to shift nervously. The drink in their blood was thinning. Behind Orrin’s staggering shape, deep in the blackness of the smoky trees, Candis saw movement. Eyes glinted. Many eyes, stalking and swooping in the dark, watching her.
She gathered her feet beneath her and pushed up straight between the two men. “You boys killed five women in their beds tonight, that’s what you did. Five women, burnt up, smothered in the smoke, they didn’t even shout, did they?” The words were shooting out of her mouth like sleek hounds to the hunt. She could feel the men not-listening but listening to her. “Are you really going to stay right here and rake through the coals for their burnt bodies, with him?" The men looked at Orrin staggering around the cabin fire and their hands loosened.
“Get,” Candis said, and the men left.
Then there was only her and Orrin and the sound of footsteps retreating up the drive.
“Orrin,” she said, marveling at the clarity of the word in her mouth. “Orrin, they’re not in that house. You know that.” Yellow eyes snapped onto her. He came closer. The stink of him had more layers, now: pig shit and cologne and smoke and clear liquor. “They spend their nights in the woods. They’re out there right now, laughing at you.”
Orrin backhanded her across the face. She stumbled, tasted copper wetness around her teeth, but didn’t cry out.
From the woods there was a sound like a woman’s yell or the high snort of a doe when you’ve stumbled too near her fawns nestled in the brambles. Orrin spun towards it. His eyes were flinty, hunting eyes. He ran into the woods. Candis laughed and coughed and felt bloody spittle roll in her mouth. She followed him.
He bulled through the woods, tearing at saplings and ripping through thick cobwebs. The hidden holes and hummocks of a forest floor in autumn caught at his feet. Candis followed behind quiet as a field-mouse runneling through thin, almost invisible trails. There were neat, cloven hoof prints in the damp earth. Ahead of him there came a woman's high, yipping laugh; he stumbled on.
The trees grew taller and blacker. The tarry scent of the smoke faded away entirely, and was replaced by something that smelled stale like air in the deep places of caves. Something bright orange flickered ahead.
He ripped through a final tangle of honeysuckle and crashed into a wide open space.
High cedars stood in a proud ring around the clearing. In the precise center, a red fox sat with its tail curled neatly around its feet and hot, secret gems for eyes. Orrin seemed to have forgotten that he was hunting women, or why. He lurched towards the fox.
But other shapes were moving in the cedars. Other eyes gleamed.
The animals moved as a single, many-headed beast from the trees. A heron with green-black feathers. A brown, slope-shouldered bear. A wildcat, head hanging low. A sleek, sharp-hooved doe. They slid and circled around Orrin. He staggered. They watched him silently, not as hunted beasts but as women who had faced monsters before and run but who ran no longer.
Candis stepped into the clearing, more bravely than she felt. Orrin wheeled but made no other move towards her. White teeth and the heavy musk of predator surrounded him. She watched a vein thumping in his throat and said, “Orrin. Swear to me that you’ll go, and never come back. You’ll never touch or speak to Flora again, and stir up no more hate. Swear it, and they’ll leave you be.”
Surely he would swear. Surely he knew he was a rabbit caught in the open field with the shadow of a hawk’s wing falling over it.
He spat awkwardly at her, his twisted mouth scattering spittle everywhere. There was no sense or even fear in his eyes, only a kind of red-veiled madness. She looked at the hateful shape of him and the heat in her chest came suddenly alive and twisting.
Her bones cracked. They unmade themselves in a wild grind of shards and marrow. Her skin grew tight and thick. Her hair ran in grayish-yellow patches down her back and belly. She bent towards the cedar-padded floor of the clearing and felt her neck lengthen.
She did not know herself. She only knew black claws and sharp teeth and a long, pink tongue. A wavering, high howl moved through her throat. It ululated. It yipped and sang. It tasted like unsaid words and raw desires and all things untamed that creep along the edges of the woods in the early dawn. It tasted like the pack closing around some sickened thing in the old forgotten places of the world.
The animal women moved close around the man in the clearing. They fell on him in a hot flash of red rending mouths and claws and hooves.
When it was done, five of the animals left. The green heron turned its wry beak at her, the vixen licked a last line of blood from her jaw with a flicking pink tongue, and then they were gone.
The feral dog almost followed them, but instead padded back down through the woods. The smell of frost and ash grew stronger, overpowering the sweetness of blood. At the edge of the meadow the unmaking and remaking began again. When it was done there was only a young girl standing naked at the edge of the world. She laughed like an animal unbounded.