Daughters of Zagreus
I smelled death when I woke up this morning. Outside, the dawn was still gray, and the window curtains hung undisturbed in the still morning air. I had an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep again, hoping it would go away.
I couldn’t sleep. Other thoughts kept coming into my head. Funny how when you try not to think about something that’s all your mind wants to dwell on, no matter how hard you try not to. I mostly thought about Mom and Dad, and I remembered how I had this same feeling in my stomach the day they died—only it was worse then. I try not to think about them too much anymore, but sometimes I can’t help it.
When I was younger, I’d have nightmares about my parents all the time. I would dream that I was in the car with them when it crashed, and right at the point of impact, I’d wake up sweating and shaking. It scared me so bad, I stayed awake for the rest of the night, and I didn’t feel safe enough to fall asleep again until dawn. Then there were other days when I woke up and I thought I heard Mom’s voice, but then I realized it was Miss Maggie calling me to help her with the morning chores. I never told Miss Maggie about the nightmares, but she guessed all right. Sometimes she’d make me take a nap in the afternoon and she'd scold me if I didn’t eat everything on my plate. I noticed her watching me a lot when I first moved here, and I could see the sympathy in her blue eyes.
I came to live with Miss Maggie two years ago, a few months after Mom and Dad died. I was twelve. I had nowhere else to go, and Miss Maggie said she needed the extra help around the house. I don’t really think she needed it though. Her son Rufus as and her father-in-law Cornelius lived here too, and they could have easily helped her. Well, maybe not Cornelius. He was old and frail. But definitely Rufus. Problem was, Rufus hated domestic work and didn’t lift a finger to help anyone unless he damn well felt like it, which was pretty much never.
Miss Maggie took me in because she felt sorry for me, but after awhile I think she liked the idea of having a boy around to do the work without complaining.
I didn’t mind working for her, but I did mind working for Rufus. He was about twenty-five, and he was the youngest sheriff this town ever had. Like any law-abiding citizen, I respected him as an officer of the law, but he wasn’t easy to get along with. For one, he made me call him Mister Rufus —I didn’t understand why. He wasn’t that old. Cornelius didn’t insist on Mister and I didn’t see why Rufus should. (I called Miss Maggie “Miss” because she didn’t like being called Missus Penfield—she said it made her feel old before her time.)
Another problem with Rufus is that he had a temper when someone crossed his path the wrong way. Once I was hauling a wagonload of dirt from Miss Maggie’s garden, and I lost control of the wagon and it grazed his parked truck. He smacked me to the ground and told me that I deserved to have two dead parents because my stupidity would’ve killed them anyway.
Rufus was a hotshot, and he never listened to anyone’s advice even if they were older and more experienced. His grandfather, Cornelius, used to be the sheriff before Rufus ’s father died, and sometimes Cornelius would tell him something about the job that Rufus was just too young and stubborn to pay any attention to. Of course, Rufus never listened. Sometimes he cussed out Cornelius when his mother was out of the room, calling him a stupid old coot who couldn’t tell his you-know-what from a pole bean. So most of the time Cornelius just held his tongue because he knew it was useless to tell him how to do things. Fortunately, the town was orderly and peaceful for the most part.
So I earned my keep around here, and I tried to stay out of Rufus ’s way as much as possible. When I wasn’t doing chores or exploring around, I was in my room. I spent most of my spare time there, because nobody bothered me except for the field mice who came around begging for crumbs. My room wasn’t actually a part of the house where Miss Maggie lived. It was an addition to the house on the southern side, and the only way to get to it was from the outside. It sort of looked like a tool shed. I kept all of my personal stuff there, like books, rocks, slingshots, fishing gear, insect collections, and my rabbit Gumbo.
Gumbo was brown and shiny except for white patches on his ears. I found him in Miss Maggie’s okra patch. She didn’t much like my keeping rabbits around because they’d eat her flowers and vegetables if given half a chance.
I was careful to keep Gumbo out of her way, so she never said anything to me about keeping him.
I rolled over in my bed and looked across the room at Gumbo’s cage. He was asleep. The morning was still unusually quiet, and the breeze still hadn’t kicked up yet. I could smell something sweet in the air, as if someone had left a heap of candy nearby.
I climbed out of bed quietly, and went over to say good morning to him. Gumbo was lying on his side. He didn’t move. His ears didn’t even twitch. I touched him. He was stiff. The bad feeling came rushing back into my stomach. I dug my fingers into his soft fur, knowing that he wouldn’t move and there was nothing I could do about it.
So this is it, I thought. This is why everything seemed so still this morning when I woke up. It was waiting for me to find it, here in the cage. Right then, I couldn’t help thinking about Mom and Dad again, and all of the sadness welled up in my throat. The more I looked at Gumbo, the harder it was to keep the tears out of my eyes.
“Stupid,” I said to myself, “it’s just a rabbit. You can’t even cry for Mom and Dad, so why worry about a dumb animal?”
I didn’t want to look at it anymore. I just wanted to get rid of it as fast as I could. So I dressed quickly, rummaged around the room for an old piece of cloth, wrapped Gumbo in it, and carried him out past he barn to the pond. I buried him near the old willow tree, and then I sat down next to his grave and thought about whether or not I should try to catch another one. I knew Miss Maggie wouldn’t like the idea very much, but if I promised to keep it out of her garden, she’d probably let me.
On second thought, I decided to wait awhile before I asked her about the rabbit. These past few days there was a lot of tension in the house and Miss Maggie wasn’t in the best mood. Even Rufus was meaner than usual.
It all started when Miss Maggie’s nephew came back to town. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but I guess Miss Maggie thought it was. Before he showed up, I never even knew she had a nephew. Old Mrs. Coombs told me the whole scandal when I went to deliver some jars of peach preserves to her a few days after the nephew showed up.
Dion Woods was a total stranger to this town. His mother was Maggie’s sister Tilly. I never knew Maggie had another sister until Mrs. Coombs told me about it. What happened was some foreign man stopped over in Thistledown on his way out west many years ago. He didn’t stay very long, but “he stayed long enough,” said Mrs. Coombs. Tilly’s family was dead set against their marrying. The stranger left town, and once the family found out Tilly was expecting, they tried to keep the scandal hushed up. Eventually, everybody guessed what happened when Dion was born. No one openly talked about it, but the affair caused such a scandal that Miss Tilly’s parents sent the baby away, and Tilly lived the rest of her days as a recluse in an old house on the edge of town. For years, no one knew what had become of the child, and no one saw Miss Tilly except her other two sisters, Louisa and Sally.
I never actually met Tilly because she died before I came to live with Miss Maggie, but I felt sorry for her anyway. She must’ve been a lonely old woman, living in a house by herself, constantly thinking about her lover who had deserted her, her own child whom she’d never see, and a family who disowned her. Miss Maggie never talked about her, and I don’t think that she ever visited her, either. That was the one thing I never understood: how Miss Maggie could be so kind, yet shun her own sister because of a mistake. I suppose the whole thing caused her deep embarrassment. She was the kind of woman who had a lot of pride and respect for the family name, and maybe it was easy for her to be so intolerant considering that she married a man who became the town sheriff and bore a son who later got that same position.
Anyway, Dion Woods came back to claim his mother’s house and whatever possessions were left in it. Miss Tilly didn’t leave much—besides the house (a gloomy old place that needed fixing up) there were maybe a few sticks of dusty furniture, and some worn-out clothes. It didn’t seem to make a difference to Woods, though. He set himself up there and didn’t utter a word of complaint.
You can bet the town received him with a good measure of curiosity. The old rumors got stirred up about the circumstances of his birth and the longstanding differences between Maggie and Tilly. There was a lot of whispered speculation about the kind of man he was. Everybody had their own theory as to his reasons for waiting to claim the property, especially since he didn’t even come to his own mother’s funeral.
Well, Miss Maggie wasn’t deaf to the talk circulating, particularly as it related to the family name. So out of decency and a good dose of curiosity she invited Mr. Woods to dinner. She probably figured that whatever had happened in the past, at least she couldn’t be accused of holding the old grudges she’d had against Tilly against Dion as well.
On the day Woods came to dinner, I wondered what he would look like. I imagined he’d resemble Rufus: short and husky with thinning reddish-brown hair and ruddy, sun-burnt skin. At half-past five, I caught sight of a tall, thin man in a black preacher’s outfit walking toward the house. Dion Woods was nothing like I imagined. A wide-brimmed black hat hid most of his face. I greeted him at the door, while Miss Maggie and Rufus and Cornelius extended friendly greetings. As I took his hat, I noticed his face.
He didn’t resemble anyone I had ever seen in this town. He had deeply tanned olive skin, and his hair fell in dark curls around his thin face. His eyes were large and green, bright and quick like a cat’s eyes.
His voice flowed smoothly, like the honeyed brandy Miss Maggie gave me when I got sick. I hid by the kitchen door during dinner and listened to every word.
Mr. Woods was well-educated, but he didn’t brag. When he talked about himself, he didn’t reveal as much as you hoped. He mentioned some of the places he’d travelled, but you knew there were more. He talked about jobs he’d worked in the past, but not about his current line of work.
Mostly he talked about the things he’d learned in his travels. I didn’t understand everything he said, never having heard about it in school, but he sure talked a good game. He used words like “deeper mysteries” and “unfathomable realities.” I really didn’t understand what his beliefs were, and I don’t think Rufus did, either, because at one point he asked him how come the church on Hickory Street wasn’t good enough for him if it had been good enough for his mother.
Miss Maggie sensed that the conversation was getting heated, so she tried to change the topic to something more neutral. The conversation from then on was strained because it was hard not to ask impolite questions about Dion’s background. Considering the circumstances of his birth, the most harmless question could sound wrong. Mr. Woods seemed to be aware of this. He answered the unspoken questions in a roundabout way without revealing anything we didn’t already know. He asked questions about life here in Thistledown, and he was so charming and attentive that before long Miss Maggie was chattering away about the comings and goings of the more colorful people in the town. Rufus just sat there, sulking. Cornelius was quiet as usual.
When Dion finally collected his things to leave, Miss Maggie insisted that he visit again real soon. Everyone was charmed by Dion—except Rufus, of course. Later that evening, I overheard Miss Maggie and Rufus talking about him. Arguing was more like it. Rufus was upset that his mother was so taken in by that “perfumed bastard” who was a “real fake,” in Rufus ’s words. Maggie was furious with Rufus for being so rude, especially considering that Dion was his own cousin. She defended Dion, saying that it wasn’t his fault he was born out of wedlock and taken away as a baby to live somewhere else.
After that argument, Rufus and Maggie dropped the subject, until today—the day I found my rabbit dead.
Like I said, I went to the pond to bury Gumbo. I didn’t want to sit under the tree for too long, or else Miss Maggie would worry. I walked back to the house, wiping my hands on my trousers. Sure enough, I heard Miss Maggie calling me from the front porch.
“Good morning, Wilson. I’ve been looking all over for you. Where have you been?”
“Mornin’, ma’am. I was over by the pond.” I didn’t want to tell her about Gumbo—not yet, anyway. She must’ve guessed something was wrong by the look on my face.
“Is everything alright, Wil?”
“Yes, ma’am. I just had a bad night’s sleep, that’s all.”
She smiled kindly at me, thinking that I was referring to the old nightmares about my parents.
“Time does heal all things, you know,” she said. “In time the bad dreams will disappear too. Just remember they are watching over you and they love you.” She gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze. “I wanted to ask you if you would wax the furniture in the living room while I make breakfast.” She handed me the beeswax and cloth.
“Of course, Miss Maggie.”
“I noticed a few scratches on the tea table. Try to rub them out. And please don’t get any beeswax on the carpet. I’ll call you when breakfast is ready.”
The living room was spotless. All of the windows were gaping open, waiting for the breeze that wouldn’t come. The lace curtains stood still, while flies buzzed against the window screens. I knelt by the sofa and began waxing the heavily-carved legs and feet. Midway through, I overheard Cornelius on the front porch, right outside the window to the left of the sofa where I was working. He was talking to his old friend Judge Kirby, who had stopped by to chat.
“Cornelius, old boy, taking it easy there, I see,” the judge said. “Retirement suits you, especially when it’s your bright young grandson wearing the badge. You goin’ to the gathering tonight at the Woods place?”
Everybody in town had been talking about it for days. Dion was hosting a party at his house and he’d invited everybody, even those he hadn’t met.
“You bet!” Cornelius said. “It should be quite a time.” He lowered his voice. “I heard he bought out the all finest bourbon at Owens’s store, plus several boxes of imported cigars!”
“You don’t say,” Kirby exclaimed. I could hear the anticipation in his voice. “I’ll bet the whole town’ll be there, if only out of pure curiosity. Word has it among the ladies that most of them consider him a sight for sore eyes.”
Cornelius said: “Well, he’s a charmer, that’s for sure. But I don’t know if he knows what he’s gettin’ himself in for, what with the Perkins twins bringin’ their fiddles and Henderson and his banjo. You know, I might just kick up my heels and do some foot stompin’, especially if I get a little bourbon in me. There’ll be no stoppin’ Hurricane Penfield on the dance floor!”
Kirby and Cornelius laughed. Suddenly, Rufus’s indignant voice interrupted the laughter.
“Grandpa, I can’t believe you’d accept an invitation to that bastard’s house. Shame on you! And you too, Judge. You’ll make fools of yourselves, mark my words.”
“What’s the problem, boy?” Cornelius said. “There’s nothin’ wrong with Dion or his party. Even if he is a stranger to this town. We at least owe him the courtesy of a visit.”
“Really?” Rufus said. “After what his mother did to this town, to the family name?”
“That’s ancient history, son,” Kirby said. “You weren’t even born then.”
“I don’t care,” Rufus shot back. “I got my pride. Why, Woods ain’t even ashamed—I’d say he’s proud, what with the way he’s opening up his mother’s house for the whole damn town to gawk at. He’s making a spectacle of everyone, and he’ll be laughing at us all behind our backs!”
“Take it easy, boy,” Kirby said. “What his mother did is over—and it’s about time this town exorcised the ghosts of that little affair. Personally, I think Woods is right letting people gather at his mother’s house—it’ll satisfy their curiosity and take the wind out of these old rumors that should’ve been put to rest years ago. Besides, he really doesn’t know anybody here. Don’t you think it’s about time he got acquainted?”
Rufus said nothing.
“Rufus,” Cornelius said, “Dion is your cousin, accident or no accident. I don’t want to hear you talk bad about him, I don’t care what you think. You’re going to do more to ruin the family name with that loose talk of yours—”
“Suit yourself,” Rufus interrupted. “I won’t pretend a hospitality I don’t have—cousin or not. I’ll be on the lookout tonight. If there is any trouble whatsoever, you can bet his blood ties won’t count worth a damn to me.”
Just then Miss Maggie turned the doorknob to the living room where I was supposed to be working. I quickly bent over the other sofa leg, rubbing vigorously.
“Wilson, breakfast is ready. Oh, and I’m going out to Mr. Woods’ tonight, so your supper will be in the icebox. There’s bread and cheese and some beans-and-bacon for lunch.”
“Yes, Miss Maggie.” I wondered whether she had discussed her plans with her son. She didn’t seem agitated, but then again, she probably didn’t care whether Rufus approved or not.
“Oh, one more thing,” she said. “I just washed my nice blue dress, the one I wear to church sometimes. I hung it outside. Please be careful not to get anything dirty near it and don’t knock it off the clothesline. I plan to wear it tonight.”
After I did my chores, I spent the rest of the day fishing over at the pond. I was glad the summer had just begun, otherwise, I’d have to start thinking about school, and that always spoiled a good day. I ate the dinner in the icebox after Miss Maggie left for Mr. Woods’ place. I went to sleep around ten.
Shortly after dawn, I woke up, startled by loud knocking and a voice shouting at the front door.
“Penfield! Wake up! Penfield!”
“Who is it?” Rufus demanded.
“Percy Owens. I gotta to talk to you!”
I quickly got dressed and silently went around to the front of the house, staying out of sight.
Owens and Rufus were just inside the front door, talking. I was hiding behind an old wheelbarrow that Miss Maggie had planted with flowers, but I could hear almost every word.
Owens was practically yelling. “And Mary Sue wasn’t in her bed this morning. Usually she’s out milking the cows before the sun is up. I think she’s still at that Woods house. That’s where I left her last night, and she promised she’d be home before midnight.”
“You mean, you didn’t wait up for her?” Rufus asked with a sneer in his voice.
“Well, I’ll admit that I had some of that bourbon, so I couldn’t exactly keep my eyes open once my head hit the pillow.” Owens sounded contrite.
“Stupid drunk who can’t keep track of his daughter,” Rufus muttered. “Now you come around here and want me to bail you out. You have your gun?” Rufus asked.
“Right in my truck.”
“Good. I’ll get mine. Let’s go over to Woods’ and get her. Then I’ll book him on immoral conduct with a minor.”
“Er, Penfield, Mary Sue ain’t a minor anymore. She turned twenty last month.”
“Okay, then, there’ll be other charges, I’m sure.”
I couldn’t believe Dion Woods would be interested in someone like Mary Sue Owens. She was big and fat, with a red face and beady little pig’s eyes. Plus she was mean. When I first came to Thistledown, she used to pull my hair and make nasty remarks about my parents and about Miss Maggie.
I wanted to go and see what would happen, but I couldn’t tag along without being noticed. So I waited impatiently all day until the gossip trickled in.
Turns out Mary Sue was at Woods’ place alright—she had passed out in a spare room near the kitchen from too much bourbon. Mary Sue refused to make any confession or press charges. She just kept silent with a dreamy look in her eyes. Her father was convinced she was shocked out of her senses.
Even though the evidence was circumstantial, Percy Owens insisted that Woods be booked for taking advantage of an innocent girl, and Rufus was only too happy to oblige. But the town was in a tizzy: Half believed he was innocent, the other half thought he was insane for choosing someone like Mary Sue when, by Maggie’s sister Louisa’s reckoning, there were at least fourteen other single young women who were prettier.
“Really, Louisa,” Maggie said to her sister, “there are hardly fourteen single young women in Thistledown.”
Louisa measured six heaping teaspoons of sugar into her lemonade. “Yes,” Louisa agreed, stirring the sugar in, “and however many there are, they’re all prettier than Mary Sue. Which is why Dion Woods’ behavior is so mysterious.”
“Well, I for one think he didn’t do a thing. He didn’t even know she was there. You believe him, I believe him, so does Sally and her bridge club and her knitting circle. So do all the ladies in the Social Club.”
Rufus and Percy Owens thought Woods was guilty, of course, and most of the other men sided with them either out of fear for their own daughters or out of dislike for Woods, maybe both. Rufus had jailed Woods “just for a day or two,” he said, “until things get cleared up.”
Well, things didn’t get cleared up. They got worse. Rufus caught hell from Miss Maggie. I didn’t actually hear the argument, but I did hear Miss Maggie storm out of the house on her way to another Social Club meeting. As for me, I kept myself out of sight, but my eyes and ears were open to any new developments.
The next morning, I was sweeping the front porch when Percy Owens paid another visit.
“Mornin’, Mr. Owens.”
“Morning, Wilson. Say, boy, I need to speak to Mr. Rufus. Get him for me, will you?” Owens was agitated. His face, which was fat and red like his daughter’s, was twitching uncontrollably.
I went inside to fetch Rufus, then I sneaked into the living room and crouched by the window near the sofa to hear every word.
“Penfield,” said Owens, “I don’t know what the hell is going on around here, so let me get straight to the point. This morning, around eight, I found one of my cows ripped to shreds on the western side of my pasture.”
“That’s mighty interesting. Have any idea what attacked it? Any tracks? A wild animal maybe?”
“Come on, Penfield. There ain’t nothin’ but flat farmland for miles around. Where the hell would a wild animal come from? Besides, my dogs would’ve made a racket if they’d heard something like that. But they didn’t move all night—didn’t hear a thing.”
“Maybe that’s it,” Rufus said. “Maybe one of your own dogs attacked it—or maybe a neighbor’s dog.”
“Nah. I don’t think so.” Owens spit and watched it land some distance away from the porch, in the dirt. “You see, there were no teeth marks anywhere. It wasn’t that clean. A dog would’ve gone for the throat, but the throat wasn’t ripped open. Looks like the head was pulled off the body.”
Rufus thought a moment. “How ’bout the belly? Was it torn open?”
“Nah, not like a predator would do it. It wasn’t gorged out. Looks like it was pulled apart at the limbs, and then stripped of flesh. The innards were strewn out, random-like, but nothing was missing as far as I could tell. Blood and meat everywhere. A real goddamn mess. One of my best cows, too.”
“Did it look like anything was eaten?”
“Nope, as far as I could tell. That’s what baffles the hell out of me. I don’t understand why it was done, if not for food.” Owens paused, and his voice took on a sinister undercurrent. “’Cept maybe out of spite,” he said slowly. “Like a warning or something.”
Rufus caught it. “I thought I took care of that already.”
“You sure about that, Rufus?”
“There’s only one way to make sure,” Rufus said as he started for his truck.
I quickly left the living room and went into the kitchen. Cornelius was there, eating an egg.
“Mornin’, sir.” I poured myself some cold coffee.
“Say, Wil, I need you to go and get me some medicine. My rheumatism has been acting up, and I forgot to tell Maggie to get it. She’s already in town. Here,” he pressed some money into my hand, “and get some gum for yourself, too.”
“Thank you, sir.” I pocketed the money and headed for town. When I reached the general store, I saw that down the street, Rufus had found his mother. It was quite a ruckus. Dion Woods stood in the middle of it all. On one side of him there was Maggie, Louisa, Sally, and other townswomen, and on the other side there was Rufus, Owens, and the husbands of some of the women. Other townsfolk just stood nearby, watching.
Miss Maggie was mad as hell. I had never seen her with such a look of fury on her face.
She was yelling at Rufus: “Because he happens to be my nephew and your cousin, that’s why! You have no proof! And I won’t stand by and see a guest and family member treated this way just because you happen to be the sheriff and think he should be put in jail for no good reason except that some drunken old fool can’t keep track of his own daughter!” She shook a large ring of keys at Owens.
Mary Sue was standing next to Miss Louisa, starting at Woods with a dreamy smile on her fat face.
“What about my cow, Maggie?” Owens bellowed. “How do you explain that?”
“I don’t know, Percival,” Maggie said indifferently, “but I do know Dion isn’t involved. He’s been in jail since yesterday!” She gave Rufus a hard look.
“Mother,” Rufus said, “whether I was right or wrong doesn’t matter. I’m the sheriff of this town, and I decide when to release my prisoners. You can’t interfere by playing jail keeper with my keys.”
“Justice?” Maggie screamed. “You call this justice? You call your own cousin a prisoner? Really Rufus, your father is turning in his grave with the way you’re behaving. And you call yourself a Penfield. I am ashamed!” Her voice broke on the last word. She threw the keys at Rufus ’s feet. “Come on, Louisa, Sally, I have nothing more to say. She walked between her sisters, holding each by the arm for support.
Rufus looked a bit upset himself. Whether it was over his mother’s anger or his anger at Woods, I couldn’t tell.
“Aw, hell, Rufus,” Owens said. “These goddamn women. It’ll blow over. Give it time. She’ll calm down by tonight.” He gave Rufus a rough pat on the back and walked off with some of the other fellows.
Woods just stood there. He hadn’t moved or spoken during the whole time. He just watched with his mysterious eyes, as though he were invisible and none of this directly affected him. His face was blank except for the way the corners of his mouth were turned up just enough to look like a smile—or a smirk.
When I got back to the house, Miss Maggie wasn’t there. Cornelius was in the barn fixing an old tractor that should’ve been thrown in the scrap heap a long time ago. I gave him his medicine and his change, then I decided to go look for another rabbit, maybe two rabbits so they could keep each other company.
First, I had to build an addition to my rabbit cage so they had more room. I went into the cellar to find some wood and chicken wire.
It was damp and musty-smelling down there. I kind of liked the smell, actually. I took a few deep breaths of the cool, earthy air while I hunted for the wire in the corner of the cellar. Then I saw it—or rather, I smelled it. It was sickly sweet and rotten-smelling, like something dead.
I poked around and I found a pile of dark cloth behind some old bushel baskets. I picked up the cloth with the tip of a stick, and examined it. At first, I didn’t recognize it. It looked like a dirty old rag, all brownish-red and stiff, with black and white clumps of hair all over it. I let it fall to the floor, and I ran back upstairs, outside into the sunlight.
I didn’t feel like looking for rabbits now. I just kept thinking about what I had seen, and the more I thought about it, the more I tried to doubt myself. Maybe it really wasn’t that after all. Maybe it really was just an old rag that was there by accident.
So I decided to prove it to myself. If I just went up into Miss Maggie’s room for one minute and opened her closet, I would see the blue dress hanging there where it should be. I tiptoed into the house and listened for Cornelius or Rufus or Maggie. No one was there. I silently crept up the stairs and into her room.
Sunlight streamed in from the huge front windows and made designs on her antique rug.
I opened the closet and searched. No blue dress. I was about to look in her dresser when I heard Rufus ’s voice floating up through the front windows. I crept over and peeked out without moving the curtain. Rufus was standing with Dion Woods at the front porch, right below the window. I was so scared Rufus would find me snooping. I didn’t know what to do. If I tried to go down the stairs, he would hear me and see me. I decided to stay put until he was gone. He wouldn’t look for me in Miss Maggie’s room, and I could see him from the window and wait for my chance.
I watched him and Woods. Rufus had calmed down a bit, and he seemed almost friendly toward his cousin.
“There are things in this world I have seen, Rufus, that would turn your hair white,” Dion said in his smooth voice. “I’m not saying whether that’s good or bad—to know more than you ought to—I’m just saying that sometimes it’s better not to know because then you don’t get yourself into any trouble. You see, Rufus, knowledge is responsibility. Once you know something, you have the obligation to act according to that knowledge, and sometimes you don’t have any choice.”
“But you don’t understand, cousin. I’m the sheriff of this town and I have my own responsibility to keep law and order around here.”
“I’m not denying that,” Woods said. “All I’m saying is that some things are better left alone. A cow was killed. Big deal. It could’ve been anything for all you know. Believe me, I have seen stranger things that have no explanation at all.”
Rufus folded his arms. “Sorry, Dion, but that excuse just won’t wash with a man like Owens. He’s not as stupid as he looks. He doesn’t give a damn about excuses. All he wants is for me to find out what killed his cow. I owe him that much. It’s my job.”
“I doubt that a man like Owens would want the truth,” Woods said, “or would believe it, for that matter. I don’t even think you would believe it. As for the rest of the town, if they found out, there’d be even more unrest. You’d have half the town so scared of its own shadow, you’d never get a day of rest for the next three years. People would call you every time the wind caused a door to slam.” Woods’ voice became quieter. “Why don’t we figure out a way to handle this, just us two, Rufus. You’re a clever man. Your reputation and family name will be unharmed, and you’ll be the hero for keeping the town safe.”
“Tell you what,” said Rufus, his voice reflecting Woods’ same sly tone, “you tell me the real story first, and I’ll forget any bad blood between us. Then we can figure out what we’ll tell everyone else.”
Woods chuckled. “I don’t know, Rufus. It’s like I told you. Knowledge isn’t always a good thing, especially when the truth is far stranger than anything anyone could have dreamed up.”
“You don’t trust me.”
“It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just that I don’t want to burden you with something that’s better left alone.”
“Dion, I’m a big boy now. I think I can handle it. If I can’t stand up to things like this, then I’m not cut out to be sheriff, and I might as well hand in my badge right now. I’m not afraid of the truth, and if you don’t tell me the real story, I won’t stop until I’ve found it, no matter how long it takes.”
Woods smiled. “Okay, Rufus. You win. But a minute from now when you look at me in disbelief for what I’m about to tell you, just remember, I warned you. What you do with the knowledge is your business. You asked for it. And don’t forget, it’s the truth.”
Rufus crossed his arms and took a deep breath. “Okay, shoot, Dion. I’m ready.”
“Owens’s cow was killed by the women in the Social Club, including your mother and your two aunts, Louisa and Sally.”
The look on Rufus ’s face was one of disbelief and anger. “I don’t know if I should laugh or punch you in the nose for insulting my mother,” he said slowly.
“I told you you wouldn’t believe me,” Woods said. “Truth is stranger than fiction. But it’s the truth.”
“Why don’t you tell me what proof you have for this crazy accusation before I lock you up for insanity.”
“I saw it,” Woods said nonchalantly.
“Saw it? How the hell did you see it?”
“Well, I didn’t actually see it as it was happening. I witnessed what went on before it happened. It was on my account, in a way.”
Rufus clenched his fists. “I knew you were at the root of it somehow!”
Woods was unruffled. “I said it was on my account. I didn’t say it was my fault. You see, the Social Club invited me to their closed meeting.”
“Men aren’t allowed. How the hell did you get an invitation?”
Woods shrugged. “Nobody ever explained why I’m the exception. Naturally, I felt quite honored to be there.”
“Honored!” Rufus scoffed. “A tea party for a bunch of gossipy old hens!”
“Not quite,” said Woods, his voice becoming quieter. “You see, the Social Club isn’t about tea parties and bridge games. It’s about finding deeper mysteries of the universe.”
Rufus laughed. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“You ever notice how people sometimes go looking for clues to the Beyond? How they’re attracted to places that are sacred and off-limits, places where you needed to be a High Priest or Priestess to even be there, or else you’d be put to death?”
“You mean, like séances and that nonsense?” Rufus said.
“That’s a tame example,” Woods said. “I’m talking about places that are wilder, more extreme. Have you ever been to the Aztec altars where they ripped the hearts out of living people? Have you ever experienced the inner sanctuaries of the temples of Greece? Have you ever spent the night in the pyramid at Giza? Try sleeping there alone, overnight, and see what kind of visions haunt you. Most people would go insane from the fear. Those are the kinds of places I’m talking about. Those are the kinds of places I’ve been.”
Rufus laughed. “So the Social Club gets you to come to their meetings and give little talks about your visit to some pyramid? What, are they planning to travel there, too? Sounds like fun! Sign me up!”
“We were talking about a mutilated cow,” Woods reminded him.
“Yeah, I know,” Rufus shot back, “and you’re making no damn sense. Why don’t you just get to the point.”
“Be patient,” Woods said. “I’m getting to that. Now, if you study old, old religions, you’ll see that people did all kinds of things to alter their consciousness. Sometimes they danced all night, or fasted for days. Sometimes they ate or drank concoctions that altered their perception. The point is, they did things that were out of the ordinary to make their consciousness extra-ordinary. Getting to another realm of consciousness is what the women in the Social Club were after.”
Rufus laughed. “Well, fasting wouldn’t be possible for half the women in the social club. Aunt Louisa thinks she’s on starvation rations if she gives up a third helping of pie.”
“That’s why they interrogated me for information. They got the information out of me, Rufus. I let slip what they were looking for.”
“Sounds pretty shady to me,” Rufus said. “Just what did you tell them?”
“Let’s just say I disclosed certain facts that I learned on my travels—mysteries that cultures far older than ours have kept hidden for thousands of years.”
“What the hell does all this have to do with the cow?” Rufus asked impatiently.
“I’m getting to that,” Woods said. “When I traveled around the world, I learned a lot of things they don’t tell you about in books. One thing I learned is that in some cultures, at some periods in history, there were certain . . . substances . . . that could give people the visions they seek. People who undergo this . . . ordeal . . . sometimes have certain urges.”
“Yes, such as wanting to purify yourself. One way of purifying yourself is through sacrifice—animal sacrifice, to be exact.”
Rufus gave a low whistle. “So you’re telling me you gave these women something stronger than bourbon, and told them to go kill a cow because they wanted to purify themselves? All in the name of some crackpot religion you learned about on the other side of the world? What, are you some kind of a snake oil salesman? Or maybe you think I’m stupider than a retarded chicken.”
“I don’t think you’re stupid, Rufus. I’m telling you what happened. I didn’t make them do anything. They did it on their own.”
“And you’re telling me you had nothing to do with it?” Rufus ’s voice rose.
“I admit I gave them information they weren’t ready for,” Woods said. “But how was I to know? I made them promise not to do anything foolish. Obviously, there was some misjudgment and mistakes were made.”
Rufus snorted. “You’re goddamned right mistakes were made. I can’t believe you took advantage of those women that way, including my mother! You and your goddamned worldly secrets. You’re nothing but a stinkin’ pretentious bastard who slinks back into town like a mangy coyote to get your hands on your mother’s dusty, worthless leftovers, and make trouble for the rest of us. Get out of town, now! I don’t want to see you ever again, you dirty troublemaker!”
Woods had a look of pure hatred on his face as he watched Rufus walk into the house. No surprise there. Rufus had just insulted the man down to his bones, and it would be hard for anyone not to feel as if Rufus was lower than low for insulting a man like that.
Then a change came over Woods’ face, and he actually smiled. He strode up to the front door, opened it and said loudly, “Before I go, Rufus, I just want to let you know they’re going to do it again tonight.”
I went to the door of Miss Maggie’s room where I could hear his voice clearly from the stairwell.
I heard Rufus ’s heavy tread toward the front door. “Tonight? Are you crazy?”
“There’s nothing I can do,” Woods said smoothly, “except be there the whole time and make sure they don’t do anything wrong.”
I didn’t understand why Woods was telling Rufus all this, after the way Rufus had just treated him. Maybe Woods didn’t want to get into trouble again and spend another night in jail.
“I’d better be there, too, just in case,” Rufus said.
“You can’t be there. Men are not allowed. Except me, of course.”
“That’s a load of horse manure. I’m the sheriff. I have to make sure nobody gets hurt.”
“I can handle it,” Woods insisted. “Besides, you can’t just step into a situation like that and expect everyone to cooperate just because you have a badge. The women won’t like it, and there will be hell to pay, believe me.”
“I don’t need your permission,” Rufus said. “I’ll go anyway.”
“You don’t know where they’re meeting.”
“I’ll find it. This town ain’t that big.”
There was a pause. I heard flies buzzing in the hot afternoon air.
“Tell you what, Rufus. I know I can’t stop you from going. But I can help you do it so nobody knows who you are. It shouldn’t be too hard to pull off a disguise if we do it right.”
“Why the hell should I be in disguise?” Rufus demanded.
“Because if you’re not, it’ll be a disaster,” Woods said. “So do you want to be bull-headed, or do you want to do it the right way?”
There was silence while Rufus considered his proposition. “Okay, Woods, I’ll do it your way. But if anything screws up, I’ll have your head on a platter, mark my words.”
“No doubt you will, Rufus,” Woods said pleasantly. “Now. We need to disguise you as a woman.”
“A woman! No way in hell.”
“They don’t allow men. Remember? You need to go in disguise. As a woman,” Woods repeated slowly.
“I don’t know, Dion. A woman! Me? If Percy Owens or Vern Hicks saw me, I’d never live it down.”
“It’s all in the line of duty,” Woods reminded him. “It’s the only way to get the mission done. It’s the only way to see what’s really going on at these Social Club meetings.”
Rufus considered this. “Where in the hell am I going to get the right clothes?”
“In your mother’s closet,” Woods said.
“I don’t know Dion,” Rufus said doubtfully.
I could hear two sets of footsteps coming up the stairs. I didn’t wait a second longer. I had to find a hiding place, fast. I crawled under Miss Maggie’s bed and laid flat, peeking through the space where the quilt didn’t quite touch the floor.
“I don’t know about all this,” Rufus was muttering as they walked into the bedroom.
“Here.” Woods threw open a closet door. “You have your pick. Green, pink, yellow. Hmm. Maybe pink isn’t your color, Rufus.” He held out a green dress. “Try it on.”
“Cut it out,” Rufus said. “I’m not going to church. Just grab any old thing.”
Woods held out a dark maroon dress that he found in the deepest recess of the closet. “This looks like your size. Put it on.”
“If not now, when? It’s getting late. We’ve got to leave soon.”
Rufus reluctantly took the dress. Woods busied himself filing a nail with an emery board he’d found on the dresser.
I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing out loud, Rufus looked so ridiculous.
Woods looked up, unsmiling. “Very nice. Good color on you.”
Woods crossed the room and began rummaging for things in Maggie’s dresser.
“You need a slip,” he said.
“What the hell for?” Rufus demanded.
“No proper woman would leave the house without one. Here.” He threw a lacy thing at him. “Put it on.”
“To hell with you! I don’t need this.” He threw the slip back at Woods.
Woods tossed it back. “You need it. Trust me.”
Rufus put it on reluctantly. Woods persuaded him to wear a big floppy hat and a pair of shoes he found in Maggie’s closet. He even persuaded him to put on some lipstick.
“Well, how do I look?” Rufus said, surveying himself in the mirror.
Rufus sure was an ugly woman. He turned halfway. “Is my slip showing in the back?”
“No. You look fine. Let’s go.”
“By the way, where are we going?”
“My place,” Woods said. “I can keep an eye on them that way.”
“I should have known,” Rufus said.
I crawled out from under the bed and went to the window to watch them leave. Rufus nervously peered around from under his floppy hat as he stumbled to his car. I waited until they drove away before I followed.
I should have stayed away. I should have gone back to my room and waited until everybody returned, even if I had to wait until the next morning. But I couldn’t resist. I wanted to see everything. So I rode my bike to Woods’ house and hid in the bushes near the old barn. I waited for what seemed like an eternity.
I almost headed back home because I was tired of waiting. The evening shadows were getting long. Then, I saw some women gather out back of his house. They spread blankets on the ground and sat down. I saw Miss Maggie and her sisters arrive with more women. They carried bowls of fruit and baskets of bread. It looked like a picnic. Even though they seemed to be having a good time talking and laughing, they didn’t look normal. They acted like they were happy—too happy—because they were loud and boisterous and almost frenzied, like dogs whipped up into excitement that made them get frantic.
Then some of the women started dancing. I couldn’t believe Miss Maggie would allow herself to be a part of this kind of gathering. It was so unlady-like. They passed around a bowl from which each woman drank a few sips at a time. I was getting thirsty watching them.
After what seemed like another hour, I noticed Woods coming out of the back door of his house. He wore a purple robe of some sort, and he had taken off his hat. His curly hair glinted in the late afternoon sun. I noticed Rufus lurking by the corner of the house, in his mother’s dress.
Woods spoke for awhile, and then raised his arms up to the sky. As he lowered them, he pointed to Rufus and commanded him to come forward. Rufus moved cautiously, hobbling in his mother's shoes. He looked pathetic and out of place. All of the women were as quiet as death, and watched him with blank expressions on their faces.
Then Woods yelled something, and by this time all the women were standing. They started to walk over to Rufus while Woods exhorted them, and waived his arms wildly. The women started to imitate Woods, moving their arms the same way, and they made animal sounds. I though they were going to embrace him as a new member.
But they didn’t. They grabbed at Rufus with their hands like vulture claws. One woman scratched Rufus down the side of his face, while other women grabbed his clothes and limbs and pulled in different directions. I could see the smear of lipstick across his face mingling with his blood. I heard cloth ripping and I heard Rufus begging the women to stop and see who he really was. He called out to his mother, begging her to save him. But Maggie, blood stained and frenzied, ripped and clawed at her own son with more fury than any of the other women. He was on the ground, blubbering helplessly. She was deaf to his anguish.
A breeze blew his screams toward me, and I smelled that sweet death-smell that had been in the basement. I was sick to my stomach. I couldn’t watch anymore, so I hid my eyes. Rufus’s screams stopped.
I don’t remember pedaling my bicycle back to town. All I remember is seeing Judge Kirby and Cornelius outside the general store drinking lemonade. I don’t remember what I said, or if I was even able to talk. I just waited and waited on the steps of the general store until well after dark, smelling that sickly sweet smell in the air.
I left town the next day and headed north. A few rumors followed me, that Maggie had gone insane for good, that Cornelius’s health took a turn for the worst making him bedridden. As for Woods, nobody knew what happened to him.
I tried not to think about any of that when I made my home in a northern city, working odd jobs where I could find them.
Sometimes, though, the dreams and memories come back, and I wake up sweating and shaking. I sometimes wonder if, when my time comes, I will smell it one morning when the air is still and the curtains don’t move.
I try not to think about it. It will wait for me anyway.