Give Up The Ghost
-the first two chapters from my forthcoming novella-
Georgia hot wraps you in a blanket; whether it comforts or smothers, it doesn’t much care. They all stood there with tears of perspiration pouring down their faces, while the preacher dotted the corners of his mouth and then his forehead like preacher men do and he said that the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away and to everything there is a season and Ausby was gone but she lived on in memories and legacy and she'd be seen again someday when we meet again on that Heavenly shore. Amen.
We shall sing on that beautiful shore
The melodious songs of the blessed
And our spirit shall sorrow no more
Not a sigh for the blessing of rest
Atticus Remington Scutt bowed his head, mouthed an amen and made his way back across the lawn of Stone Church, est. 1823. Originally a hand-built wooden chapel of a step, a door and a sanctuary, and now a stone building with windows and a modest steeple, it had served as a garrison for God’s will and presence long before Lincoln’s War, and had continued since. The church stood at the bottom of a thickly wooded ridge with a luscious green line of hickory, maple and pine, behind of which was a mix of dirt and gravel roads snaking through the hollar and on into the blue silhouettes of the mountains beyond.
He lit a cigarette and cut his way through the headstones, trying not to think about the entire lives buried underneath them. How now they was all turned into history. How we always bury them looking up. How hiding the person you love from view eventually becomes necessity. Out of sight, out of mind? Nah, it’s just out your hands, boy.
A broad-wing hawk cried way over the heads of the single file march of the living.
The heat was saturating and, through his eyes-full of green, A.R. figured he could see waves coming off every leaf and blade of grass, like the sun had given too much life and was taking it back. The funeral had had a decent turnout as a close casket affair is wont to do. Family that mattered made it back to the house. Uncle Brooks. Uncle Danny. Dressed in Johnny Cash black. Shotguns and shine in the trunk. Whiskey in their jackets.
A wood-burned plaque hung over sizzling cast-iron and told anybody that came into that kitchen that ‘food tastes best when it's cooked with love’ with another saying that ‘mamas know everything cuz mamas said so’. Mamas and Aunts and Nanas cooked the kinda foods they figured'd bring sweet memories, as kids were running and hollering, inside and out, lost in the joys of God-given existence. Ausby’s ghost was supposed to be somewhere round there. Her daddy, Shane, sat just bout catatonic. Features fading. Ashtray with a hundred cigarettes burned down to the filter. Future packs stacked and unwrapped. Tops torn off.
After the meal, one of the aunts dished out the banana pudding. She smiled sadly as she remembered out loud how her sister, Ausby's mama, had taught them how to make it and how Ausby was always arguing how soaking the bottom wafers in milk and mashing them down is better than crumbling and how Ausby’s did actually taste the best and she hoped everybody still liked the banana puddin even though she was the one who made it and that she did it Ausby’s way and she loved Ausby so very much and very much was a lot and that she would always love her, always.
Ausby’s daddy lit a cigarette with a cigarette and ashed on his pudding plate. Her mama, Teresa, took to cleaning the kitchen, and A.R. stepped out for a smoke.
Was still hotter than Hell, but the cicada’s reverberations were giving way to the staccato chirps of katydids and crickets underscored by the bellow of frogs. Lightning bugs flickered like remnants of the day.
The screen door added a rusty groan and a pop to the night score as Brooks and Danny joined A.R. on the porch.
Evening, they said, lighting hand-rolled cigarettes of their own.
The uncles had always been a source of awe for Atticus: two old-school-no-pink-in-the-middle-whoop-your-ass-all-the-way-to-church-and-back-at-it-again-hell-raisers. They looked a little older than his memories.
Hows your daddy?
Broken up. Wishes he could be here.
Yeah, we know.
Looking kinda jacked these days, ain’t ya? Filling out.
Yeah, Ive been hitting the weights pretty hard. Eating a lot of eggs and some liver. Steak and potatoes.
I’m glad to hear that. Listen bubba, we need to talk.
You know he’s predicted this shit before, your daddy.
You know he’s always been wrong before.
A.R. smoked and sighed.
He wudn’t wrong this time.
Yeah. I know.
I’ma get right down to it, Attie. We want you to fix this shit. We ain’t about to have a curse laid on this family.
We need you to. Everybody knows he predicted Ausby. Now everybody’s wondering how and why.
The brothers lit another cigarette as the bug zapper charged the night.
How do you mean? I know my daddy is on some shit yall but...
Nah. We want you to find the sum-bitch that did this. Give it all some closure.
Country justice, martial law, the righteous hand of a wrathful fucking God, I don’t give much of a fuck what you wanna call it. We want whoever the fuck did this strung up and gutted, you heard me?
Hell, I’m with yall but whats that got to do with me?
You talk to your daddy and see what he knows.
Are yall tryna say that my daddy…?
Hell no. But if he’s got to speaking with Angels and Devils again, he might know something. Something hidden in the Secrets. We figure you might have it too. Maybe you’re the one it’s going to take to carve this evil out.
Listen. Ausby...she passed down in Carroll County. Now by the grace of God your cousin Boss is a deputy round there as of recent.
I thought he’s over there in Yoknapatawpha.
Naw, he came back last year to help somebody in office talking about sheriff this and that someday. Point is he got his dick swinging a little bit and he’s saying he can bring you on out there as a consultant all incognegro.
Alright, consultant for what?
Boy, like I give a fuck.
Listen. You call him tomorrow and yall can go from there. Family will pay you extra you bring the Devil back alive.
Yall don't even think about paying me for this shit.
A.R. put his cigarette out on his boot and spit.
You're a good man, Attie. Always was. We’ll figure out recompense later on.
Call it done. I’ll talk to daddy and then I’ll hit up Boss tomorrow.
They shook hands and Brooks clapped him on the shoulder.
Before you leave, come in here and get a whole bunch of this food. Don’t imagine anybody wanting leftovers from a funeral.
A.R. said his goodbyes and condolences and headed back home. The closer he got to the mountain, the more things seemed to be in stasis. No reason to change because change never was never needed nor came. He raised a finger to Old Will, who was locking up the convenience store as he had every night since even A.R.’s daddy was a child. Idyllic as life on High might be, A.R. had been no different than any other kid. A bike ride was an adventure and a lesson in freedom. Sticky buns and a coke were the reward. Swimming in the creek. Climbing trees. Rock fights and BB gun wars. Such experiences colored his childhood and riding back up had always felt as much like leaving something behind as much it had coming home.
Soon enough, he cruised around the mountain like old memories; arm out the window, cigarette in his lips, glow on the dashboard, beer in his lap, baseball on the radio. Who needs heaven half the time? He roared up the mountain, feeling good but never smiling, knowing things would creep out later that night. Any thought that turned to Ausby got put on the back burner. He figured he’d need this. One more glimpse of happiness, pure and simple, ‘fore coming down off that mountain and into whatever kind of darkness it was that had murdered Ausby. That little baby was only twelve years old, goddamn them. Goddamn them. God fucking damn them!
A.R. pulled over the truck, trying to breathe. Tears were falling in great drops. He’d had a lump in his throat that whole service, should’ve gotten swallowed down with the whiskey but there it stayed. Don’t much expect or think about other people’s deaths to be violent, least not the one’s you love, very least of all the ones you’ve known since they were knee-high to a grasshopper. Grief hit him like a Mack truck straight to the chest. He’d held that little girl since the day she was born. She called him ‘R’ when she was a baby. He didn’t know all the details but he was gonna be finding out and he already knew it wudn’t anything close to Christian. He wept, hanging his head down on his chest in heaving sobs, wanting to lie down on the bench seat, but something just wouldn’t let him.
He swallowed hard, lit a cigarette and kept it moving.
What was called home, and had been so for A.R.’s conscious life, was a three hundred acre compound on the top of a mountain, built deep into trees so thick you couldn’t run a straight line through them. The dwellings and amenities consisted of a main abode, three bunk rooms, a fishing pond, ten acres of muscadine vineyard and several plots that had at one time been used for gardens, but most of which were now mowed down to dirt, except for the larger ones dedicated solely to strawberries and the like, the roads between which were lined with the witchy branches of peach trees; all the better to make and sell jellies and preserves to farmer markets, along with some very fine ice cream which was a damn legitimate and perfectly legal reason to have at least half a ton of sugar on premise and, well, mix that with the right something, preferably some corn or rye and hell why you’re at it throw a peach and a little cinnamon in the jar and we’re gonna all be alright.
And so A.R. drove down that dirt path like he had since he’d first drove, lined all the way with little posts of light, illuminating the way, streets of gold leading into the darkness and fading behind, eventually arriving at a house full of memories, myth and history. It was a two story lodge over top of which was a large attic that had been converted to his bedroom, a consideration given to him as he was the only heir and prodigy of Cillian Remington Scutt. The same bedroom where his daddy used to come tweaking late into the midst of midnight, screaming recitations of the good old KJV Bible, Milton and Blake for hours straight;where the sunrise and song birds would find a tuckered out A.R. faithfully repeating back the lines his daddy felt were those that should be carried for the rest of his life.
His mama had been revered as she should’ve been, but she’d eventually become one of many. His daddy had divined a sort of hedonist path to transcendence based on some symbolism he abstracted from the Old Testament. Of course, he was from the area and they wudn’t having the heresy, so he descended down into the city and the slums and brought himself back a following. A couple widowers bought the land in his name and he preached his version of kumbaya until the end of the whole ordeal. Even after the federales kicked the door in, somehow someway that man still kept the place and a couple girlfriends. He just switched to making jelly.
His daddy, of whom A.R. was the spitting image though with his mama’s reserve, was standing on the front porch with his lady-friends when A.R. pulled up. Long, dark silver hair, an electric toothy smile that went to his eyes, a whole lot of lanky charm with a little bit of bullshit, a country boy regard for nature and a hippie regard for the spiritual, Cillian was everything you’d need to believe in him, and he was wearing what he called his ‘bathrobe-of-many-colors’ over a bare chest, loose pajama bottoms and some flip flops. He tilted his head hello and stumbled forward, leaning way over the rails, nowhere near sober.
Welcome back, son.
A.R. loosened his tie as he walked up the steps, nodding to the women individually.
Girls, yall take this food inside real quick, would ya?
Cillian turned around, lighting two cigarettes simultaneous and handed one to his son.
How was it?
His daddy had a way of exhaling questions.
Preachers still preaching. Saw Brooks and Danny and them.
They do right by Ausby?
I guess. First closed casket I’ve seen. It’s got a whole different vibe to it. You just kinda wonder if they’re in there, and if you’d even recognize them if they were. I ain’t figure it would be like that.
Cillian looked up at the Heavens.
I don’t figure anyone does. I was not told how she would meet her demise.
A whole two hundred and sixty-eight days ago, Cillian had come hollering and running late-night-early-morning through the house, shaking A.R. awake, screaming how the Lord had sent an angel and how that angel had informed him that a whole two hundred and sixty days later Ausby, yes that Ausby, was gonna die, and how he’d tried to tell that angel that that wudn't a very angelic thing to say and the angel replied that maybe he’d never talked to an angel before, which of course he had, and he asked why'd the angel tell him such a thing and that angel had just shrugged and said it figured he should know.
Well fuck, daddy, why’d you have to tell everybody else? They’re fucking spooked man.
Son, if one of God’s messengers brings one the Word then one must accept it as the Holy duty, blessing and burden placed upon them that it is. You do not share it to relieve yourself of it. You share it so that others might do with that Truth what God and they will. It is the unfortunate reality of prophecy that it does not consider our feelings on the matter, nor does it offer consolation of any sort. In its own way that is how and why it remains pure.
Heat lightning simmered in the background, illuminating the heavy silence of thunder clouds.
A little girl, our kin, was just mutilated and murdered.
Boy, I know that. I’d trade my life for that girl a hundred times over. I have wept every night at the very prospect of her Death since it was foretold. Not a god damn thing I have just relayed gives me any peace on the matter, but it does not change the nature of it all. Much as I would like it to.
They stood in the silence of nature’s white noise, the Milky Way spilling over top of them.
So, you know anything?
How do you mean?
In that vision you had. That Spirit didn’t give you any clues or anything specific?
Nah, bubba. Just a name and a date. Why?
Well, Brooks and Danny were acting spokesmen but the family wants me to find the sumbitch for punishment.
Cillian’s eyes flared with a charisma some called madness.
And now we know why it was I who was called to share God’s message! Son, you are now become an instrument of God’s Divine Judgment. You are his sword. DIVINE PROVIDENCE BATHES YOU IN ITS GLORY AND IT IS BLINDING! I can foresee!
Cillian’s eyes rolled backward, looking into his mind.
Yes, there is indeed a most vile serpent, lying in predatory wait amongst the filth of the Below. You! You who have been blessed from Birth. Now receive your Calling! Prepare and sanctify yourself tonight. Go! Time is of the essence. I am not wrong!
Cillian hurled himself over the railing, puked and ran inside without another word, smoke and many-colors blurring behind him.
A.R. watched him go.
For a short time, he’d been interested in psychology and analysis and all that mess. All he found that way was buzzwords and classifications. Joy. Mania. Depression. Bipolar. Schizophrenia. All just Spiritual products of Consciousness. The more than reasonable price of being Human. Only Fear and Anxiety was native to animals. Seemed like everybody wanted to talk relativity but they wudn’t giving any credence to individual Faith. His daddy believed and so it was. So it shall be.
Wudn’t any wonder nobody could find or talk to God(s) anymore. Start putting Order on things that can’t be ordered and all it did was make people feel small. How the fuck you gonna bring the Universe down to you instead of vice versa? He couldn’t stand the arrogance, but even the Truth didn’t make life much easier, nor watching his daddy discover it.
He considered another cigarette, but a drizzle had just started and it’d been a helluva day.
His daddy was in his office, reciting aloud from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The women sat at the table, sharing a piece of pecan pie.
A.R. declined when offered and stood staring at the railless stair case leading up into the shadows. Sighing out a breath, he ascended.
But for a bathroom and shower that had been installed, the attic was a large open space presided over by an a-frame roof of golden timber that was further bronzed by the sunlight of each day that shone through a large hinged window, which led out onto a veranda shaded by a something-hundred year old Oak. His daddy’s women had taken to the design, using rugs to mark off the areas for his bed, desk, couch and bookshelves. He turned the overhead light on and took his boots off. With the nicotine of the day churning in his gut and buzzing in his mind, he sat down at his desk, trying, for just one second, to think of nothing.
The tree limbs out the window began to boast at one another as they rollicked in the energy of the coming Summer storm, their silhouettes clashing across the wall. A.R. watched transfixed, drawn into their movement as Reality began to swirl. From the back of his mind, an overwhelming and incorrigible fire roared into being. Chained to his chair by the consuming vision, he could only watch the figures dance across the walls of his eyes, beckoning him toward acceptance, to give himself to the holes in the light. Hands trembling, dripping sweat, he dragged himself stumbling toward the switch and collapsed with relief as the light and the shadows disappeared. Turns out some truths are only discovered in darkness.
He crawled back to his desk in the moonlight, panting, and mindlessly rolled a cigarette. The storm began to rage outside. Gazing at the shadows of his bookshelves, he licked the paper closed, and a brief flame haunted his features before he leaned back, sending smoke signals toward Heaven.
These chapters originally appeared with other fine writings in MAN’S WORLD, #10, read here
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