I fell asleep in my father’s rocking chair on the porch that night.
I hadn’t meant to. I’d wanted to sit up and watch the dark for anything that might come calling, but the exhaustion became too great and I nodded off sometime around midnight.
When my father had found us sitting on the floor with the knife nearby it had taken nearly ten minutes for me to explain what had happened and to extricate myself from my mother’s arms. I’d helped her to her feet and she’d fallen against my father like a tree cut at its base. She told him she hadn’t remembered getting the carving knife or sitting down with her back against the wall, only Danny’s voice telling her that she must do it. I explained how I’d noticed the buzzard and shot it without coming right out and saying the obvious, and my father had looked at us both hard before gently guiding my mother to the truck, telling me he’d be back as soon as possible.
When the rear end of the truck had disappeared down the driveway an irrepressible sickness rose within me and I barely made it to our toilet before nausea overtook me. When I was finished, the temporary elation I expected that normally came right after losing your lunch wasn’t there. My stomach still roiled and my head hurt like someone had landed a solid punch to my temple.
I tried to fix myself something to eat, but there was nothing appetizing in the kitchen so I settled for a glass of water that I took along with the shotgun and some fresh shells out onto the porch.
The storm kept pissing down rain until nearly ten o’clock before it grudgingly moved on, sending threats of thunder over its shoulder as it receded toward the east. The scene of my mother on the floor kept looping in my brain and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t make sense of it. The bird had made her do it, not Danny. When I’d blasted it in half she’d come out of her stupor or trance or whatever you want to call it. But it wasn’t really the bird, it was something using the bird. First the goat, then the thing from the puddle, then Danny, then Sara, now the bird.
But the real question was what did it want?
I shifted in the chair, keeping my hand over the comforting cold steel of the shotgun. The wind caressed the trees in the yard, and even with the unyielding sickness and trepidation, I nodded off.
The next thing I knew my father was shaking me awake and the beginning of morning was on the horizon.
“Come on, son. Let’s go inside.” He guided me in, taking the shotgun from my hands and sat me down at the table. Without another word he started a fire in the stove and began to make breakfast. The odor of cooking bacon and eggs stirred only a fraction of hunger in my belly, and when he set down two plates of food I barely kept from gagging. He offered a cup of coffee to me and I took it from him, warming my hands that had been ice cold since finding my mother.
“Where’s momma?” I asked, trying a sip of the dark liquid.
“I brought her to the hospital in Arbor.”
“Is she going to be okay?”
“I’m not sure. The doctors are checking her over.” He must’ve seen the stricken look on my face because he followed it up with, “She was perfectly fine the whole ride there, just tired. Eat something, you look pale.”
The bacon was too salty and seemed to be made out of rubber. The drooling yokes of the eggs looked poisonous. I managed two bites before setting my fork down. My father cleaned his entire plate and drank two cups of coffee before clearing the dishes away. When he returned to the table he stared at me and sighed once before taking his glasses off and folding their bows in.
“Lane, I know you haven’t been honest with me but I want you to know I’m not upset. Your mother’s in the hospital, and if there’s any way for us to figure out why, we’ve got to try and do it. You don’t have to be afraid of me not believing you. Just start from the beginning and tell me everything.”
Even though the sickness attempted to keep me silent, I made my mouth start forming the words. They came slow at first, telling him about the night we went to Ellis Wilmer’s farm, but soon my tongue was tripping over itself and I was talking so fast he had to ask me to slow down twice before I was done. When I’d finished I felt drained, empty, but also a little better, as if a fraction of weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
My father sat looking at me, then the floor, then the window before finally speaking. “There used to be a Dakota Indian that lived in Rath by the name of John Whiterock. He had a place out near where Tandy’s farm is now, just a little spit of land with a tent. He’d been tried and acquitted of crimes during the Dakota War and had moved north after thirty-two of his friends and family had been hanged down in Mankato the day after Christmas in eighteen-sixty-two. That was the largest mass execution in US history, and John had been present for it. A few years later he’d moved north to Rath, which wasn’t much more than a group of farmers eking out a living off the land. Kind of like today.
“Now of the farmers settled here there was Ben Hudson, Ernie and Daryl’s father; Elias Feller, a widower with two young boys; and my grandfather. I can’t say that any of them took kindly to John Whiterock. As much racial inequality as there is today, it was tenfold back then. But John never bothered anyone and the farmers kept to themselves as well. At least until Elias’s youngest son came down with an illness.”
My father unfolded and folded his glasses, fidgeting with them like I’d never seen before. “The boy’s name was Justin and he wasn’t much older than Danny was when the sickness fell upon him. Now Ben Hudson’s wife, Helen, had served as a nurse in the Civil War and she tended as best she could to Justin, but his symptoms weren’t easily handled. My grandfather told me he heard the boy speaking in languages and an ancient, hollow voice that had no business coming out of a five-year-old boy. Sometimes he’d spit and curse at anyone who came in the room, and he’d sweat so badly the bed would drip from the sheets onto the floor.
“Of course this all can be a little better explained today since we know fevers affect people in strange ways.” My father’s face darkened for a moment before he continued. “I’m sure today there would’ve been a better diagnosis, but in those days superstition was nearly as strong as the racism. John Whiterock heard about Justin’s sickness and went to speak with Elias Feller as well as Ben Hudson. He told them about a piece of land out in North Dakota that had always been cursed. Crops died whenever planted, strange lights and noises were seen and heard in the woods, and time to time a child would fall under the control of something evil that lived in the land.” My father paused, seeming to judge me.
I nodded. “Go ahead.”
“Whiterock told them that something similar was happening in Rath and that young Justin was suffering from some type of demonic possession. Needless to say both Elias and Ben didn’t take very kindly to the Dakota’s thinking. They ruffed him up a little and sent him on his way.” My father stopped again, refolding his glasses and laid them before him. I could see he wanted to keep fussing with them but was making an effort not to.
“What happened to Justin?” I asked.
“He got worse,” my father said. “His fever grew and grew until no one could stand within a few feet of his bed. My grandfather said it was like being next to a woodstove that was burning green pine. Justin started saying things, terrible things to his father, telling him his mother, Elias’s wife, was in hell and was…well, I won’t repeat what he said she was doing, but it was blasphemous. A horrible stench filled the room and a mist came with it, obscuring everything.”
The smell in my room the night before returned to me then and I wrapped my arms around myself to keep from shaking.
“When the mist cleared, Ben’s wife, Helen, was lying on the ground, her breathing shallow and uneven. They took her home but she died shortly after that in the night. No marks on her body and nothing apparent that caused it. She was there one minute, dead the next. Now what happened early that morning isn’t written down anywhere. You won’t find it in your schoolbooks or in the town records. Elias Feller accompanied Ben Hudson to John Whiterock’s buckskin tent. I’m sorry to say my grandfather was with them. He told me that he had gone along under the impression that they were only going to throw the Indian around some, rough him up again, put the fear of God into him. But as soon as they got there, Ben ran inside the tent and stabbed Whiterock with a bayonet he’d kept from the Civil War. Now he didn’t kill him, he wounded him. Then he and Elias drug him out, tied a noose in the nearest tree, and hung him slowly over a period of several hours.”
The house was silent around us and I was holding my breath. The sickness and weight was back and I thought I might have to run to the bathroom again. My father rubbed his palms together and grimaced. “My grandfather said Whiterock suffered very much before he passed, and when he was dead they burned his body along with his tent. When they came back to Elias’s house, my grandfather was shaken beyond anything he’d experienced before. He’d served in the war and seen horrible things, but the death of John Whiterock was beyond any suffering he’d witnessed. He was on the verge of leaving town to go to Arbor where the nearest sheriff lived and tell the entire tale to him when Elias came rushing back down from Justin’s room saying that the boy was better. When the rest of them stepped into his room they saw that Elias was telling the truth. Justin was sitting up in bed, asking for water, for soup, speaking like nothing had ever happened.
“Now Elias and Ben Hudson took it as a sign that their murder of John Whiterock was justified. They believed it had been the Indian causing the boy’s malady all along, but my grandfather wasn’t convinced. He never told me what he believed was true, only that John Whiterock was innocent and died a terrible death at the hands of a scared father and a grieving husband.”
I swallowed, sensing the end to the story, and looked around. Morning had come fully but had grayed since seeing the promised brightness in the east. It was darker than it should have been. I was about to ask him something when he spoke again, quietly, as if he were afraid someone or something would hear him.
“I knew the goat wasn’t natural when it bit its mother the other night. Not only because of the aggression, though. You see, goats don’t have front teeth on their upper gum, not even when they get older. They’re only born with some in the back on the lower jaw.” He waited a beat before meeting my eyes. “I’m sorry if you’re scared, Lane. I’m sorry if your mother and I weren’t giving you enough credence.”
“It’s okay, Dad,” I said, nearly embarrassed by his apology.
“It’s not, though. Your mother’s in the hospital now and maybe we could’ve…” His words trailed off and he looked out the window, a sheen of tears covering his eyes.
I didn’t know what to say so I just looked at the table for a minute before asking, “So you think this is something like what happened before?”
“I don’t know. But it seems awful similar.”
“What are we going to do?”
He looked at me then and his gaze was clear and strong again. “We’re going to meet it head on.”