by Ron Day

Come in....     Come further in....

        "What?" The man stopped and cocked his head, listening for the direction of the voice. "Must’ve imagined it…" he said, realizing he’d not seen anyone in a while now, but he was sure he’d heard someone up ahead. Hiram Couch had been following the whisper for a while now. That wasn’t what he started off following, though. It was a wheedle-dee he’d heard. He could recollect the last time he’d heard one—wood thrush, she called it—and it had been at her burying. The Couchs had a cemetery right close by the church; her people had their own graveyard and she wanted to be by her ma’am. Hiram remembered walking up here with his oldest girl, Sarah, and her young‘uns, and as he was resting a little while Sarah’s boys covered up the casket, he had heard the wheedle-dee sing. It lit right on the branch of a blackgum beside the grave.

        "I’d forgot that was a blackgum!" he said, and looked around to see if he could see it now. If he could spot a big blackgum (big, because it had already been a right smart sized tree when they buried Martha Sue and that had been 14 years ago. Damn! He’d been trying to remember when she’d died! He guessed that being here so close to the graveyard must have helped him remember a few things. He remembered that Brother Carnes had sung Brightest and Best, even if it was a Christmas song, but Martha Sue always said she wanted it sung at her burying. About the time Brother Carnes and Sister Miracle had finished, that was when Hiram heard the bird and saw it light in the blackgum near the edge of the graveyard. "That graveyard was on the side of the hill. It must be a little further in…." he realized, and turned to see which hill it might be. He couldn’t see too far, but the ground was rising just ahead of him and as he moved in that direction (had to hurry, he remembered; he’d been headed somewhere…) he thought he could hear it again: farther in…come farther in…..

        He couldn’t say exactly where it was coming from, and he still couldn’t see any blackgums. There was a big stand of beech right across that little creek, and a lot of hemlock going up the hill a way, but he thought he must be close ‘cause he could smell apples. "There was an ol’ orchard right forgainst the hill, and the graveyard right above it" he thought, and he could picture it clear as a bell. They were June apples and weren’t much good, but one would taste pretty good about now. Lord, he was tired. He hadn’t walked this far in a long time, but he’d rest a little right up ahead, and maybe if Martha Sue was at home (and her daddy wasn’t) she’d pick him an apple or two and they’d set under that apple tree and…

        No. Wait. Martha Sue was dead. Ha’rm…further in. Funny that whoever he was hearing sounded kinda like her though. That was what had thrown him. He just wished they’d step out from the trees and quit teasing him like this. He couldn’t traipse all over the damn mountain.

        Or maybe he could. Hiram sat on a log right near where the stream forked and ran down toward the road. No, the road was over there, but Hiram had barely set down before he felt like he could go on further and didn’t need to rest so much as he’d thought. He stood up again and started to set off, thinking he might whistle a little to keep his rhythm up. He used to do that when he plowed. Wildwood Flower. Wayfaring Stranger. But as he began to whistle he found he had no breath after all, and his throat was too dry. Maybe he’d have a little drink first. Ha’rm…harm… Someone was still calling for him, but they were further off, and he’d stop here a bit after all, have a drink and a little rest.

        At the edge of the creek he looked about for a level place that wasn’t quite so slick looking, and he saw a flat dry rock just by a still pool that didn’t seem to have so many Jesus-bugs on it. Hiram pulled off his jacket and dropped it across a rhododendron branch before gauging the step to the flat rock. He could just make it, he realized. Yesterday he’d not have been able to step across the little eddy of swirling water that lapped by the bank in order to reach the flat stone where he could stoop and scoop up a handful of the cold, clear water. But this walk had done him good. He felt better than he’d felt for years. Hell, he could probably jump to the rock if he had a notion.

        Maybe he did jump. Maybe his body, knowing some healing was taking place in him, just took off on its own to sail over the creek. Maybe it was just that the rocks were slicker than they looked, or maybe it was the silent movement he saw out of the corner of his eye that startled him a little…or the scent of cucumbers.

        As he went down on one knee in the near-icy water, Hiram had a moment to scan his surroundings to see if it was apples or cucumbers on the wind. If it was apples he was close to Martha Sue’s grave. If it was cucumbers….

        Well, everybody knew that cucumbers meant copperheads. Martha Sue said the Lord done it for the birds. A rattler could be heard, but a copperhead was a silent killer, lying in wait under a huckleberry bush until it was full of birds. So God made a copperhead smell like a cucumber to give the birds a fighting chance. Somehow he had time to remember all of this and to see that there were no huckleberries here—no snake and no birds—as he fell into the creek. He saw the water and the rocks rising at him and had time even to throw out one arm and catch himself on the flat smooth rock he had meant to step onto. Even the almost-unbearable pain that shot up his elbow and into his shoulder seemed to take its time reaching his brain and never did make it to his throat. There was nothing but a sharp intake of breath and a little splash as he fell to his knees and he gathered the searing arm against his body and tried not to move.

        Oh, ha’rm…oh, ha’rm the woods said to him, pronouncing his name just as she had. Whenever he had disappointed her….lost a job or lost his temper (with her or with someone else) she reminded him of her father’s bad joke that he’d "never let a daughter of his’un come to any harm" and when Hiram explained that his name was really meant to be said as "high rum", he just got a surly look that made clear that no daughter of his would be courted by a Couch. So Hiram had to court her out of sight of her house. He’d won her there, too, under the apple trees. When Pauline was coming and plain to all, there’d been no choice. Better a Couch in the family than a bastard. A funny memory to have now, except that Hiram imagined Martha Sue must have hurt like this when Pauline was coming. As he tried to keep from crying out, he could not stop remembering her cries so he let himself moan to cover it over a bit. After a while he could not remember any more…nothing about the baby that died, nor how her father blamed him—saying she was too young—and how she sighed his name after her father had rashly shot him in the arm.

        Hiram looked at his arm and was surprised for a moment not to see blood flowing from the old scar. It looked fine but it was throbbing a little. Not as bad as he remembered. Must be the water. He had thought this walk in the woods was what was clearing his memory. (So many things he had remembered all of a sudden!) But it must be the water. It wasn’t like city water. This was pure water out of the earth and it was not any wonder that it was just what anybody needed for healing. Them Catholics called it holy water. Maybe they were on to something…

        Rather than try to stand, he turned a little (cried out a little again but it didn’t last long) so he was sitting and not resting on his knee. The cold water was helping his arm…healing or numbing, he could not tell, but it felt better so he turned more and slid down a little way so the water came to his shoulder. Son-of-a-bitch…for shootin’ him….well, Hiram would pay him back soon as… No. Fred Phillips was dead already. He wasn’t shot. He just fell a little. He remembered now….

        Little pockets of air ballooned his overalls, and he watched as the chambray shirt darkened. Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket he wiped the water that was dripping from his hair and running into his eyes, and he even imagined for a moment that the water was red. But he hadn’t been shot. He had fallen and he had not hit his head hard enough to cut it—he was certain—and he wiped that thought from his mind as he wiped the moisture from his eyes. Wringing out the handkerchief in the stream and seeing how red it was, he tried to remember if he had carried one of his bandanas today or his good handkerchief. First time he ever saw a white handkerchief was when Brother Burns had tried to baptize him right after that baby had died, and had mashed one over his face and pushed him back into the water of Blue Hole. He thought for a minute that the preacher meant to kill him instead of save him, and he fought off the hand and raised out of the water hollering "Goddammit, strangle a man to death, why dontcha…" The preacher got all mad and wouldn’t baptize him and Martha Sue had just stared daggers at him. It was kinda funny though, when you thought of it. Hiram pressed the handkerchief against his face and scooted around to where he could slide down a little and lower the back of his head into the water. Maybe if he could baptize himself….maybe it would take this time. But the water wasn’t deep enough here to cover his head, and it just irritated him how it lapped in his ears, so he went to get up. Deeper in…deeper… Whoever it was calling to him was still here somewhere; he could hear him. Or her. He couldn’t tell. He’d wait here a while and maybe they’ve give him a hand up. Besides, he wasn’t uncomfortable at all now. His arm didn’t hurt and he figured the bullet must have gone clean through, and that damned preacher had quit trying to choke him. He tried to wiggle a little deeper in the water. It was shallow and warm, and Harm felt so much better. He was so glad he’d come out here. He’d known if he left that place and went back home to Martha Sue…no—Sarah, his and Martha’s girl…he’d be OK. It was this good mountain air and water that was helping him remember.

        As he lay there he was amazed at how much his senses picked up. He looked up into the sunshine streaming through the poplar leaves and could feel each little spot of sunshine that touched his face. He figured he looked as spotted as a fawn lying there, and realized that the sun had been overhead but now was moving away behind the trees…the beech, the oaks, and the blackgum. There had been a big old blackgum overhead the first time he had lain with Martha, and a wheedle-dee sang to them as… No. That was another time. That time it had been an apple tree. Maybe there was an apple tree near here because he realized he could smell apples on the breeze.

        But it was not apples. It was cucumbers.

        Hiram raised his head a little from the water and turned toward the bank and knew before he saw the flat smooth rock that it was a copperhead there. Knew because he smelled it, and even though he could hear a ringing in his ears, it was not a rattlesnake. It was perhaps jar flies, or maybe it was water rushing from his ears. The ringing went on and on but it did not disturb the snake. The snake merely stared at him steadily and purposefully, with the same cold black eyes of Fred Phillips. Knowing he was about to get shot, Hiram drew back his arm across his face, but the snake struck him in the thin skin between the thumb and forefinger and held on. When Bige Bailey had been bitten by the rattler in church, it had moved so fast nobody even knew he had been bitten until the blackness began moving up his arm. Hiram hadn’t been in the church, of course. He’d been at Corb Collett’s store having a grape pop when he heard the commotion and knew from the fact that the children were no longer hanging about the door of the church that something had happened inside. Sister Collett lost her faith for a moment and came running over to Corb. Told them how the snake had struck like lightning. The copperhead did not strike and back away though. It held on to Hiram’s hand as if it was a calf sucking at its mother. Deeper in….Hiram thought he heard, as the snake pumped and chewed at his hand.

        He watched it until it got tired and gave up trying to kill him and crawled away. It took him a little while to realize that he was not dying, though. It was maybe because he was new-baptized or maybe because he had been coming back to life all day since he’d been to the store (that’s where he’d been!) and had stepped off the road when he heard the wheedle-dee calling him. It was with no effort that he sat up out of the water and stared at his hand. It was a little puffy, and red, but that was probably from the water, and how long he had rested there. He just needed him a little yellow-root and Martha Sue would boil him up a cup of tea, and he’d be fine. He ought to bleed it a little bit though. His knife was in the pocket of his coat, there—nearby on a branch. He’d have to be careful not to cut too deep. Martha could say Ezekiel over him. That always worked. Ezekiel 16:6. The women had read that verse over Martha after that baby was born dead and she wouldn't quit bleeding--not until they’d read it. "And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live."

        Not strange that he should remember this. He could probably recite the whole Bible, right from "In the beginning" straight through to "Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus." He could remember it clear as day since he was baptized now and he could not wait to tell Ol’ Man Phillips and Martha. No. Some things he did not want to remember, but it was only after he began remembering her that he had begun to hear her calling him.

        Deeper in. Harm…

        It was a little fainter now, or the ringing in his ears was too loud. If he could remember which way she had gone, maybe he could catch up with her. He tried to remember what she had been wearing. She had been laughing, and her father was playing the fiddle and someone called for Sugar On The Floor. Her mother scattered a little from a can that sat on the table, and Martha Sue’s feet scratched against the floor as her father sang . "Shake that little foot, sweet Sally Ann….with a heigh-ho, sugar on the floor. Eat that up and call for more.." Till Fred saw Hiram in the door and put down the fiddle. But then Martha Sue was screaming and then bleeding. And Ezekiel…someone said Ezekiel. And there was a bird…some kind of bird on a bush. And a pile of dirt. Somebody that looked like Martha Sue was coming to see him at the place. That Place. She kept saying "You know me, doncha, Daddy" but she looked like Martha Sue. And somebody kept buying him shaving cream and some man nurse kept taking his watches. He was going to remember to tell that woman that called him daddy next time he saw her….

        Suddenly Hiram saw the knife in his hand and did not remember what he was fixing to do with it. His arm was burning, though, and he thought some kind of plant would probably ease his pain. His mother knew all about that stuff and he looked around. There was something with a white flower over on the hill, and some little weeds with purple backs to their leaves and he thought he remembered them being good for something. He’d rest a little by this log and then gather some of those leaves from the white flowers and make him a poultice. But his head was swimming and he thought he better lie down here and try to collect his thoughts a little. He was probably close to town or some house because he could hear a radio way off somewhere. It was saying further in…deeper in… and it sounded like someone he used to know before he went to The Place and they kept giving him shots and IVs and stuff. He thought he remembered having a shot…or being shot, and then he knew that if he could just lie here on God’s green earth a little while that he would remember what it was he needed to know.

        Yes…just lying here on the ground with his arms to his side and his eyes closed, he could feel his strength returning. His arm wasn’t hurting nearly as much. In fact, it may have gone to sleep a little. It was funny that he was lying so perfectly still but his head was spinning so that he felt almost as if he were falling right into the earth. Deeper in…harm. And he did what she said, for it WAS her, he remembered that now. He raked aside the dead leaves that had piled against the log and moved his body slowly until he had good contact with the rich soil. He could feel it—the energy in the dirt. It was flooding right into his bones. It was a little cold though, and he was still damp all over for some reason, so he pulled the leaves over him. He could hear the worms working in the soil, smell the blossoms of last year’s rhododendrons, remember the many times he had played in these woods. Ma’am would be mad he was gone so long, but Art and John were the cowboys and he was the Indian. They had shot him and he had to stay on the ground and die and not just jump straight up. You had to count clean to "20 Mississippi" before you could die and then you could be resurrected and maybe get you a cowboy or two before you got killed again. In the meantime you had to lie under the blackgum tree and count….1 Mississippi….2 Mississippi….3 Mississippi.

        You had to lie there and count even though it was clear that Martha Sue wanted to dance with you to a fiddle tune….and give you a June apple and then her heart and finally her body. 11 Mississippi….12 Mississippi… and you had to still lie there even though the wheedle-dee was singing in the tree and Martha was calling your name to come with her….


        "20 Mississippi…. "



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