“How dead is he?” John Bass said around a mouthful of sunflower seeds. “Is he sort of dead or real dead?”
“He ain’t dancing, if that’s what you’re asking,” Cestus Clay said. Clay looked at Bass from the corner of his eye, taking in the lean, bent shape that sat on the hood of the battered Ford pick-up. Bass was old, but like a tree he just got harder with age and tougher. Short-clipped iron-gray hair and round shoulders that strained at the flannel shirt he wore beneath his suspenders. Scarred fingers dug into the bag of sunflower seeds as he spat out the chewed hulls.
Clay was younger, by several decades. Young and tall and strong, he still felt small next to the other man. He wore a stiff blue suit and tugged at the knotted tie at his throat every few minutes, glancing at the simple split log house that was set back into the gentle slope of the hill beyond. “He’s dead. Dead is dead.”
“But nothing. Dead.” Clay didn’t look at Bass. Bass, however, looked steadily at Clay. Birds whistled around them, flitting through the tree branches. There was another sound as well, just under the birdsong, and barely audible. Like the clink of a serpent’s scales over dry leaves.
“Cestus, you know damn well I wouldn’t have been invited to no Clay funeral if dead was dead. Now, you done got me all the way up here-” Bass gestured, indicating the slow rise of the Appalachians where they crested across the snout of western South Carolina and Oconee County. “From my comfortable home, I might add, and for what?” Bass’ home was further south, down near where King Cotton gave way to Queen Sugar, and mountains became swamps. The Clays were related to the Basses, but only distantly. And John Bass had never been one for familial obligation.
“Maybe he ain’t entirely dead,” Clay said, hesitantly.
“That a question?”
“No, it ain’t either,” Clay said. He chewed his lip. “Uncle Jim had them rattlesnake eyes, you know.”
“Hnh.” Bass nodded. “No. I didn’t know.”
“Well, he did.” Clay shuddered. “Seen him freeze a deer once, before he shot it. Big buck. Uncle Jim just caught his eye and froze him stiff the way a snake does a bird.”
“Must have been a sight,” Bass said.
“Yeah.” Clay fell quiet. Then, “You really do that hoodoo?”
“I know some things.” Bass offered the bag of seeds to Clay, who shook his head. “I ain’t no witchity-man, if that’s what you’re thinking, but I know some things.” Bass looked at the other man, his eyes narrowed. His lips folded into a thin smile. “Otherwise, why drive all the way down to Jackapo County and come fetch me up to Oconee?”
“That’s the truth and no lie, I suppose.” Clay turned, looking back at the house. His daddy had built that house. People in dark clothes milled around outside, dressed in their Sunday best, but with faces that were white and strained. “He was supposed to be in the ground last week.”
“You must have known there was bound to be trouble,” Bass said. Clay nodded.
“I figured. Momma said there wouldn’t be, but I knew Uncle Jim.” He shook his head. “Momma liked to see the best in her brother.”
“Wasn’t no best to him, then?” Bass said, sliding off the Ford and dropping to the ground. He stuffed the bag of seeds into the back pocket of his Levis and dusted his hands clean.
“Only where Momma was concerned. The rest of us could go hang.”
“Hnh.” Bass looked around. “How many times you tried this, then?”
“Three.” Clay said it with finality. “Week before last. Then last week. Then yesterday…” Clay trailed off. “Every time.” He’d gone to fetch Bass after the second funeral, and by the time they’d arrived, the third was in full swing. Until, suddenly, it wasn’t.
“Tell me,” Bass said.
Clay swallowed, feeling ill. He looked at the house where he’d grown up and found it unfamiliar. It reeked of something that he couldn’t put a name to, even at this distance. There was a hum, way far in the distance, like an active hornet’s nest. And that snake sound, omnipresent like the dull rush of water from the Whitewater River. If Bass noticed any of it, it didn’t show.
“He-ah-and-and-the doctor said it happened sometimes. A body gets stiff. Bends in awkward ways. So we broke it. Broke his back.”
“And still?” Bass said, knowing the answer.
“Like a damn jack in the box.” The humor fell flat. “And his eyes…I told her not to do it until I got back,” he said. Then, more softly, “I told her.”
Bass didn’t reply. Instead, he eyed the house as if sizing it up. “I’ll need some salt. Some loose iron if you’ve got it. Nails, for preference. A hammer. A mirror?”
“I don’t know as if we’ve got one,” Clay said hesitantly. Bass grunted.
“Need something reflective.”
“Got water.” Clay looked around and pointed at one of the men in the yard. “Harold! Go get a bucket of water! Frank! Eugene! Go get some salt and such!”
“Water might work,” Bass said, starting towards the plank steps. He stepped up onto the porch. It creaked under his weight and the birds stopped singing. Bass glanced over his shoulder. The gathered Clays were watching him with wide, shocked eyes. Waiting to see what would happen.
At the windows, the curtains twitched and Bass was reminded of the undulation of a rattlesnake as it shook its tail-tip.
He hadn’t known Jim Clay, but the stories spread far. He had been an old fashioned sumbitch, hog-mean and quick on the fly. He’d worked for the Baldwin-Felts for a bit and some change, and some folks said his momma had seen the Eden serpent in a dream the day he was born.
Bass turned as Harold dropped the bucket of water on the steps and backed away quickly. Iron, in the form of a bag of nails, and a sack of salt, were next. Their deliverers backed off just as quickly as Harold had. Clay watched from the yard.
“God bless, John Bass,” he said.
Bass didn’t reply. Instead, he scooped up the bucket, stuffed the nails into his pocket, grabbed the sack of salt and sidled towards the door. It opened at only the slightest touch. A stink like spoiled meat and rotting eggs swept out, curling around him like fingers. Holding a handkerchief pressed to his mouth and nose, he stepped inside, kicking the door closed behind him.
The sound of hornets, muted before, grew suddenly loud. Like a thousand small voices all speaking at once. In the corners of the square room, shadows coiled in on themselves, thickening perceptibly. Bass froze for a second, the hairs on his neck dancing and then he carefully set down the bucket of water and the bag of salt. He then tied the handkerchief around his face to keep out some of the stink, shoved the hammer through a belt loop and scooped up two handfuls of salt.
The room had been cleared of all furniture save a few chairs and the big table. On the table was Jim Clay’s coffin. It was a simple pine affair, nailed neatly and smoothed to a polish.
Jim Clay, for his part, dead as he was, was sitting bolt upright, his cloudy eyes wide and staring. Staring straight into the horrified eyes of his sister, Abigail Clay, who sat not five feet away on a rickety-legged chair, hands folded in her lap, mouth open.
It was bad hoodoo to meet a dead man’s eyes. You looked too close they might just take you with them to the grave. It was even worse when the dead man had rattlesnake eyes.
Bass circled the table and the first row of chairs, spreading salt with an even hand as he walked. He kept one eye on the corpse and the other on the room. The sound of hornets grew stronger and so too did the smell. The shadows spread despite the sunlight falling in through the windows and lapped at the cuffs of his trousers, sending a chill up his legs. Something scuffed across the wooden floor, rasping loudly, though he couldn’t see what. When he’d finished the circle, he clapped his hands clean and said, “Jim Clay. I know you can hear me.”
There was a sudden pressure in the room, like a great weight had settled over everything. The floor and the chairs and the walls creaked in a rough harmony, and Bass felt his heart drop into his stomach. The hornet whisper grew louder, a thousand voices spitting mountain curses in his ears. He braced himself on the back of a chair and said, “Jim Clay!”
The corpse of Jim Clay didn’t so much as glance at him, but Abigail made a moaning sound deep in her throat and Bass saw that her body was trembling like it had a fever. Her tendons showed thin against her skin as if she were fighting some dark pull. Bass reached for her and every floor board gave a sharp shudder, sounding like the rattles on a snake’s tail.
The pressure grew stronger, wrapping around him and the buzz hammered at his ears. Shadows crawled up his legs as the room grew as dark as night. He stepped back, teeth gritted, and fumbled for a handful of nails. He flung them around the chair where Abigail Clay sat and the house gave a long, low groan.
“Jim Clay, you let her go,” Bass said. He pulled the hammer loose and began to pound the nails into the floor around Abigail’s chair. The floorboards rippled beneath his fingers and splinters sprouted in his palm and knuckles. Bass ignored the pain and hammered the nails one by one. Abigail began to move, thrashing slightly like a woman waking from a nightmare.
When the last nail sank into the wood, she flopped from the chair and the coffin rocked as its occupant shuddered.
Bass, eyes averted, worked his arms up under the woman and lifted her. He heard flesh and cloth rub against wood and felt his hackles tingle. “Jim Clay, you lay back down. You loved her and well, though you loved no one else at all. You really want her to suffer down in the dark with you?”
As if in answer, the coffin fell from its perch with a loud clatter. Bass was on his feet now, Abigail in his arms. He stepped towards the door, and could hear something slithering across the floor in pursuit. The floor itself felt warped beneath his boots, and he stumbled on an unseen protrusion. The chairs were like a forest of roots and stumps, unmovable and entangling. Behind him he heard the buttons on Jim Clay’s funeral shirt clicking against the floor.
The smell grew stronger and stronger, bringing tears to his eyes. He coughed and gagged, trying to eject the taste from his mouth. It was like clotted earth and raw meat-the stink of the grave.
Jim Clay had been a bad man in life. In death, he was worse; a hungry thing, clutching at the only bit of warmth that it could recall, the warmth that Bass was even now stealing away.
Something clutched his ankle with a grip like iron. The walls and floor were rattling unceasingly, louder and louder. He didn’t look down, instead blindly kicking out. His foot connected with something unpleasant, but the grip remained and tightened, even. The hornet-voices surged back and forth.
Bass hissed as his ankle began to throb. Something else gripped his upper thigh, and a sudden weight began to drag on him. Shifting Abigail, he reached for the bucket of water, fingers straining. It lay just outside the circle of salt.
The dark weight shifted from his legs to his back. Sharpness dug into his kidneys and spine and Bass sank to one knee with a grunt. Teeth snapped together below his ear. Bass hooked the bucket’s rope handle and dragged it forward, hoping the light was enough to see.
It was, and he did. He saw a blotch of wrongness, rising above his shoulder, hands gripping either side of his head now, pearly white teeth clicking in a ceaseless rattle. Words and curses slipped through the chattering teeth, coming in that high-pitched insect drone.
“Can’t have her, Jim Clay,” Bass said, with effort. Dead fingers wrapped around his throat, inexorable. Bass unceremoniously dropped Abigail Clay outside the salt circle, just as the fingers moved upwards, grabbing his head. The corpse-weight pressed against him and Bass found himself being twisted around.
“Can’t have me either,” Bass said. Then, with a growl of effort, he hurled himself backwards, crashing through the chairs and down onto the circle of iron nails.
There was a shriek like a tea kettle on the boil and the weight sloughed away from Bass. He rolled onto his stomach, snatching up the hammer. Nails tumbled out of his pockets as he fumbled for two. The thing on the floor writhed like a broke-backed serpent, whipping back and forth in a hideous fashion.
Bass planted a knee on the corpse’s chest, wincing as the sternum crumpled beneath him. Nails clutched between his teeth, Bass grabbed the champing jaws to hold the thrashing head steady.
Jim Clay’s eyes opened, blazing like twin embers. Bass felt himself stiffen, his heart straining momentarily. Then, he planted the first nail and the dead man began to scream. By the second, the only sound was Bass’ breath rasping in his own ears.
Jim Clay lay flat, like a headless snake. The hornet-whisper was quiet and fading. Bass looked down at the body for a moment, then spat and turned to the woman, still holding the hammer. He carried Abigail Clay outside to her family.
“Is he-” Cestus Clay asked as he took his mother from Bass’ arms. Bass tossed the hammer onto the ground and shook himself. His skin crawled at the touch of the breeze, and the sound of leaves rubbing together reminded him of the sound of cloth being pulled across the floorboards. He shuddered, eyes closed, feeling at his throat.
“He wanted to take the only good thing he knew with him, down into the dark,” Bass said, not looking at anyone. “And he wasn’t planning on resting until he did.”
Bass looked back at the house, saying nothing.
“John Bass?” Cestus said.
“He’ll take to burying now, right enough,” Bass said, after a moment. Then, “Though I’d as keep the casket closed. And keep the ceremony short.”
Copyright © 2013 Josh Reynolds
Josh Reynolds is a freelance writer of moderate skill and exceptional confidence. He has written a bit, and some of it was even published. For money. By real people. His work has appeared in anthologies such as Miskatonic River Press’ Horror for the Holidays, and in periodicals such as Innsmouth Magazine and Lovecraft eZine.
Feel free to stop by his blog (http://joshuamreynolds.wordpress.com) to check up on him or to tell him he’s wrong about whatever it is you disagree with him about.
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