Isaac Clay hauled in a rattling, wheezy breath. His chest pouched jerkily beneath the bed-covers and his thin, tight flesh looked like wax paper in the lantern light. His eyes were closed and turned inward, lost in old times and foggy dreams. He hadn’t said nary a word in a week, and likely wouldn’t in what little time he had left. The breath he’d just dragged in slid out from between his thin lips in a shrill whistle, as if eager to escape the confines of his worn-out body.
John Bass, sitting near the bed in an old rocking chair, leaned forward and closed the old Bible he’d been idly flipping through as the sun set over the slow rise of the Appalachians where they crested across the snout of western South Carolina and Oconee County. Bass’ home was further south, down near where King Cotton gave way to Queen Sugar, and mountains became swamps. As a boy, he’d done his share of roughhousing in both muddy crick and mountain vale, so one was as good as the other, in his mind. One hand on the Bible, he said, “It’s near-about time, as I figure it.” Outside, a strong wind was rising as the sun set, and the house creaked and shifted with it, and Bass found himself straining to listen, to hear the wind and what might be riding it down out of the high, dark places above.
“You hush up that sort of talk, John Bass,” the woman sitting beside the bed snapped in a voice as brittle as icy twigs, “You just hush up.”
Bass looked at her. Jolene Clay looked older now than when he’d last seen her; care had worn trails of white through the corn-silk hair, and worry had left its tracks all over her face. But her eyes were as sharp as ever, like honed knives stabbing at him, as if he were to blame for it all. The Clays were related to the Basses, but only distantly. And neither side had been ones for extended familial obligations. The latter stayed to the Low Country, amidst the moss and sugar cane, while the former clung to the hills and hollers like limpets.
He frowned and forced down the sudden flush of anger. Jolene had always been able to get him mad. Not many folks dared to do that, if they could help it. Bass was old, but like a tree he just got harder with age, and tougher, and with short-clipped iron-gray hair and round shoulders that strained at the flannel shirt he wore beneath the suspenders that held up his faded and scuffed denim jeans, he made for an imposing figure. But Jolene was imposing in her own right, with a back as straight as an iron rod and a tongue that could cut stone.
Bass took a deep breath and sat back. The wind was growing louder, and for a moment, just a moment, he fancied he heard something like wings. Jolene must have heard it too, because she flinched slightly and her eyes widened. “Saying it ain’t so can’t make it such, Jolene,” he said, not-quite gently. “And if it weren’t so, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be home, pulling in my crop, and tending to my own problems, rather than yours. Isaac is going to God, whether you like it or not.”
“I said hush up,” Jolene snapped. The shutters on the window across from the bed rattled.
“He’s going and you called me here to make sure he got there in one piece,” Bass continued, with an edge to the words. Jolene looked pure hatred at him. But there was fear there, as well. She knew he was only speaking the truth– Bass had a reputation for hoodoo and pow-wow; some folks thought he’d met the devil when he was in France with General Pershing, fighting the Kaiser, others that he was a seventh son, no matter what his momma claimed. Regardless, Bass could bust hexes and roots and break haints and folk from one side of South Carolina to the other happily paid cash money for his services. The Clays weren’t planning on paying, but then, they were family, of sorts. Bass figured he’d sort that out after, if there was an after.
From outside the house, a raven croaked.
Jolene’s head snapped around, her eyes staring at the open shutters of the window. Her gaze flickered to Bass, who nodded sharply. “Get out and close the door,” he said.
“Maybe we should–” she began.
Bass cut her off. “Ain’t any maybe Jolene; get out and keep everyone else out, no matter what you hear, until I open that there door. You hear me? You keep them out, and keep yourself out.”
She looked down at her husband, her eyes unreadable. She was being asked to give up her last few moments with him, to leave him just when he might need her the most. Bass knew what that felt like; the raw, ripped hole that left in your spirit. And Jolene knew he knew, which was why, when he stood, Bible in hand, she did as well. She squeezed Isaac’s hand one last time and, head bowed, moved to the door. She turned, hand on the knob, and said, “John…”
“Get out, Jolene,” Bass said, not looking at her, his hard eyes fixed on the window. “What’s coming ain’t for your eyes.”
She nodded jerkily, and closed the door behind her as she went. Bass moved quickly to the bed and turned the lantern down until there was only the thinnest sliver of light. Then he went back to the rocking chair and set himself to wait.
It was going to be a close thing, he knew. It always was, in his experience, but this one more than most. He knew about haints and spirits and how to quell or call them, how to bind them and break them. But what he was watching for now wasn’t a spirit, at least not entirely.
The raven croaked again, loud and gloating. Bass laid his hand on the Bible and tried to think of a prayer, but the words didn’t come. The wind was rushing and roaring and screaming as it whipped through the trees and around the house and he could hear the voices of the Clays on the other side of the door raised in consternation or frustration or maybe fear. Isaac and Jolene had three children and twice that of grandchildren, and they were all at the house, crammed into that tiny front room, to wait for Isaac to get himself across the river and into the kingdom.
Something else was waiting too. And it was as impatient as any child, and as greedy to boot. Leastways, that’s what the stories said. They were witches, maybe, or ghosts or something in between. Once they got a scent, they harried you until you died and then they ate your heart and maybe your soul too.
“Is that what you saw out there in the tall pines, Isaac?” Bass said softly. “Is that what ran you half to your dying breath and left you coughing and shaking on your own porch? Jolene said she’s heard them raven a-croakin’ back in the trees since that day. Like they was waiting…” Bass cut his eyes towards the open window. The air was growing cold as it coiled in; colder even than it should have been for night in the mountains. Wings flapped. Big ones maybe, or just a good many small ones– Bass couldn’t tell.
He went on, still softly. “The Cherokee, them was as all through these mountains, they call them ka’lanu ahkyeli’ski— the raven mocker. Leastways, that’s what I was told. But some of the old folks ‘round here just call them head-cutters, or heart-eaters. Nearabouts the same thing, I reckon.” Isaac didn’t reply, but Bass hadn’t expected him to. He wasn’t speaking for the dying man’s benefit– just his own.
He went quiet, his throat dry with cold and maybe a bit of fear. He clutched the Bible tight, muscles tensing and cramping with anticipation. The sound of wings grew louder and the shutters banged loudly, flapping against the walls.
Bass held his breath. Something slid through the window. He blinked, trying to see it, but it faded in and out of his sight. It was as if he were staring at it through cataracts, and it was by turns blurry and then clear, a loose low shape, too loose to be a man, and too solid to be a shadow and it hopped, jerked and crawled towards the bed, moving like a black sunbeam across the rough planks of the floor.
Isaac grunted. It was a thin sound, barely a whine. Then he groaned and began to writhe. There was a sound like a summer rain striking the pillow and Bass rose to his feet and, lantern in hand, quietly and quickly closed the window and shut the shutters with a bang. Then he span about and turned the lantern up as bright as it would go, casting an orange light across the bed and what lay upon it.
Isaac’s head was wreathed in blood, and his scalp was torn and frayed like a ragged sack, but he was still breathing. It put Bass in mind of a mouse being worried by a cat. Whatever it was crouched on his scrawny chest, all black and dull, and as light flooded the room, it whirled about with a croaking hiss. Twin, fiery orbs that might have been eyes glared hotly at Bass, who set the lantern aside and slowly set his hands on the rail at the foot of the bed. “Howdy,” he said. He backed towards the rocking chair and the Bible. The thing stretched and swelled on the bed, puffing itself up; things that might have been feathers or scales stuck out from its gangly shape and it gave another croak.
“I know a fella, name of Jim Cook, who some folks swear can as see spirits and make hisself invisible,” Bass said, reaching down to pick up the Bible, his eyes never leaving the swelling, swirling, hateful shape. “He’s a Cherokee fella, what they call a medicine man, which I suppose is as good a name as any for a doctor; he said things as like raven-mockers are heart-eaters. Is that why you come? To eat poor old Isaac Clay’s heart before he dies? Maybe you got you a taste back in the dark pines, and you been waiting for him to get weak. Is that it?”
The raven-mocker hissed, sounding more like a snake now than a bird, raven or otherwise. It crept to the edge of the bed, moving less like a living thing than a stain of ink on the air. Bass went on, “Jim Cook, he says you’re cowards, because you can only eat dying men’s hearts, and that only men with strong medicine can see you. He says that if a man with medicine waits beside a dying man and sees a raven-mocker, it can’t do nothing but die, unless it escapes afore seven heart-beats. Well, I figure I can see you good enough to test that out. What you say to that, Mr. Raven-mocker?” Bass planted himself before the window as he said it, Bible in hand.
The raven-mocker struck, undulating across the small distance like a rattlesnake. Things that might have been claws reached for Bass, cruel and wet with Isaac Clay’s blood. The Bible flapped open and the straight razor that had been hidden in its pages seemed to spring into Bass’ grip. It had been edged in silver by a man back home, a man strong in that old hoodoo, who’d blessed the blade in the names of the saints and buried it for three days in a box full of John the Conqueror root, and it gleamed as brightly as the claws that struck at him. Bass slashed out at the red, hateful orbs and the slithering shape drew back, as if in shock.
“You want blood? You want a heart? Well come on, come take mine,” he said, his voice surprisingly steady. He whipped the razor across the air in front of him. “Come on,” he said, more loudly, “Come on!”
It came with a shriek that he fancied was equal parts terrifying and terrified, and in its swirling shape he saw what might have been an old man’s face, or something like a mangy bird’s beak and then he was crashing backwards against the wall. Strips of fire burned across his chest as he was flung up and down like a child’s doll. The razor flashed and the shriek rose, causing the lantern light to flare and his teeth to shiver in his gums.
Blindly, he struck at it again and again, cutting the roiling air. It was like fighting a damp mist and blood soon streaked his face and arms. The razor was heavy in his hand and there was something clear and foul on the blade, but he kept cutting. He was smashed back against the shutters again and again, and then, with what might have been a sigh, it was over.
The raven-mocker was dwindling as it crawled away from him; it was the size of whipped dog, and then a broke-back cat and then a dying rat as it hauled itself towards a corner, whimpering and whining. Bass thought he could just about make out words, but then there was no sound save the rattle of Isaac’s breath.
Bass stumbled to the lantern and lifted it, following the black trail of the raven-mocker to the corner. There was nothing left but a faint smell and a drying stain. He didn’t know whether he’d killed it, or whether something like it could even be killed, in the common sense of the word. It was gone though, and that was enough for him. Isaac’s heart would stay in his chest.
Bass turned back to the bed. Isaac was staring upwards blindly, his mouth working. “Jolene?” he said again, and then his eyes rolled up into his head and he gave a long, soft rattle and went over the river. Bass felt all of the adrenaline drain out of him as he carefully folded up the razor and pulled the sheet over Isaac’s slack face.
Then, tired and hurting, John Bass went to tell Jolene Clay that her husband’s heart had beaten its last.
Josh Reynolds is a professional freelance writer. Besides his own work, he has contributed to a number of media tie-in franchises, including Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000 lines. His further blatherations can be found at http://joshuamreynolds.wordpress.com/. You can also follow him on twitter @JMReynolds