Ever since my Pa died, I've seen lots of unusual things. Even now I can nearly see my Pa cringing at my calling him 'Pa.' He put on airs once he started making money, and wanted me to call him 'Father' like we was rich. Seems to me that 'Pa' was good enough; even when I was small I didn't much care to change to meet his uppity newness. Ma died long before I remembered much. There was snippets of fabric lacing through me and etched into my mind that was strung along as the story of her and who she was. I am not rightly sure they are true memories or simply tales that I'd overheard and clung to as real. Memories are funny that way.
She was trying to give Pa a boy, and damned if she didn't, right before she died. Not that she ever got to see him. She died grunting and screaming inside my folks' bedroom while the neighbor lady from a few doors over came to help her give birth. That was the way of it back then -- women folk helped each other while their men ran far from the 'miracle of birth.' It wasn't much of a miracle but more like a slaughterhouse from what I'd seen. Pa was down at the nearest saloon swigging back some filthy liquor that my Ma claimed was going to make him blind. Probably a good half hour walk if I remembered rightly. It wasn't like I ever went to saloons back then; that was pretty much all I remember about her cause stuff started to get confusing. The boy was born deep in the night and he ripped out my ma's insides and as she cried out and died, he followed her a bit later. I must have been all of four at the time.
Once Ma died and Pa buried that boy with her we moved out of the house, not more than a month or so later. He claimed it was better for me to be in the city, not so far from town. He blamed the lack of a doctor attending my ma for her death. I was pretty sure the boy tore her apart and his black heart shriveled up once that deed was done. Pa never told me what that boy was to be called, and the headstone simply said, 'Blessed mother and child taken too soon.' Leastways that was what my Pa said marked the spot. I never saw the grave 'cause Pa said it wasn't right to take a child amongst the dead or they could be haunted. Didn't much matter, since I was a haunted child from the very beginning. Time would only tell how haunted I really was. But for then I was just silent and listening to others and not seen.
We rented a room at the boarding house in town. The privy was out in the back corner of a small weed-filled yard. Come summer the scent of all the renters seemed to bleed out over the entire street. Probably was more than just ours, but to me, the stomach-turning odors made the summers less than fun, no matter where it was from; it didn't matter much. I wasn't allowed to play outside 'cause there weren't any one my size or age around; it was a city of workers and rich folks as far as I knew. Mostly it seemed bitter old men and women who'd plum given up on life wandered the boarding house -- no other children. Pa went to a bank to work and started dressing pretty nice, saying we were moving up in the world. I didn't see much but shit-laden flies and cranky old folks, so I wasn't much convinced we'd moved anywhere but to the edge of hell.
After about a year of living in that boarding house, one of the old women up and died and my life really took a new direction. The Reverend in his black clothing and dour face made his appearance. At first I didn't much notice him, 'cause it was middle of a hot summer and I had found a place to hide far from the privy smell. It was over past the town square away from the boarding house and near a wall of flowers that one of the rich folks had planted alongside their home. The roses there grew wild and nearly out into the street. Up against the far side of the fence away from the street was a small niche I could curl up in and simply watch the world walk by me unseen. I spent hours tucked away covered in rose petals and the soft scent of them flowers raining down on me as the summer waned.
My Pa never rightly understood how little I was watched by anyone. He mistakenly thought the woman running the boarding house was looking after me but that was not ever going to happen. She truly hated me. She probably hated all little ones, I figured out much later in life, but there was just me and I found it best to duck out of her house as soon as my Pa cleared the end of the street. I missed scooting out early enough one day and she walloped the cotton out of me. Not with her hand, mind you, but with a switch she'd cut from some nearby young tree. Back of my legs had marks for weeks but Pa never noticed 'cause he was working all the time.
Sunday dinner at the boarding house was set about two in the afternoon and Pa mostly made it. If he didn't come home, I stayed out of sight and nibbled on bread I'd swipe from the kitchen late at night, when the boarders would sit out on the big porch and smoke and talk. I wasn't welcome at these nearly nightly meetings, but I found out quickly I could grab foods not nailed down, and the boarding house lady always figured it was another boarder, 'cause one of the men used to sleep walk and end up eating everything he could find. He got blamed for more than one missing roll that I'd snatched. He was a charmer, and the boarding house lady just laughed and thought him funny.
I've wondered over the years what I would have been had it not been for that Preacher man. He started noticing me more once summer was gone and the fall winds drove me inside earlier. My Pa wasn't working as long at the bank, because the fall crops had to come in and most able-bodied men and boys were in the fields working to pay off the loans they got from the bank. Pa was tight-lipped during fall cause money could disappear overnight with a bad storm. One Sunday, Pa had fetched me from our room to join the household at a meal. It was October or November, I think. The skies had been dark with clouds and the air stuffy and sticky letting us know a storm was coming. The Preacher naturally insisted we all bow our heads and give thanks. I automatically ducked my head down, yet peeked out of the corner of my eyes to see the preacher staring right at me! I gulped and closed my eyes trying not to shake. I hadn't much cared for that man's eyes on me. It wasn't like anything anybody ever done to me and I had this feeling like bugs were crawling all over me.
He finished with a solemn Amen and then reached over and grabbed a roll from the basket next to me. Looking at the bread he said, "The Lord has graced us with a plentiful table." There were murmurs and halfhearted replies from our table mates, but no real conversation.
"Good woman, why have you not been to my church?" My ears grew red, as I thought the comment had been directed to me. Then I heard the lady, Miss Lottie, who ran the boarding house, stammer out, "I had not realized you'd finished building your church." Even to my young ears I heard the lie in her words. We all knew he'd been bullying and harassing men to build the church out at the crossroads south of town. There had been a few accidents costing time, money and at least one life. I didn't much care for the building and kept clear of it. A week ago there'd been some folks saying that the Preacher's church was evil, and they weren't going to the services. He wasn't a preacher like the ones in town already, but one my Pa called 'fire and brimstone.' I knew what fire was and I figured brimstone wasn't good from the tone of his voice. I saw my Pa tighten in his seat and reach for the turnips on his other side away from the Preacher. He slipped a few wedges onto my plate and many more on his. He was actively ignoring the Preacher; I knew it without even catching his eyes. He'd also told me a while ago that we weren't ever going to that church, so I wasn't overly concerned.
The Preacher inhaled deeply and then let out a stream of hot air smelling faintly of red meat. He'd already eaten dinner before coming home. My eyes darted over his chest to see small specks of bread and what looked like beef. He'd been somewhere with folks who had money. We didn't get much meat at the boarding house. That night there was a chicken chopped up and surrounded by green beans and hard bits of carrots. There was more bread on the table than chicken. Nothing unusual.
"My dear Miss Lottie. All are welcome. You should come back with me tonight and pray for your soul. Next week I will expect to see you front and center." With that proclamation we ducked our heads down and avoided each other's eyes. Not that most adults noticed me. My Pa shook his head when my hand went to get a roll. Instead he shoved more turnips on my place and resumed his eating. An odd feeling washed over me, of something evil hovering just out of sight waiting to attack me. I slowly nibbled away at the squishy turnips and tried to become invisible. That was the first night of many uncomfortable evenings where the Preacher made folks feel like they were wrong. My Pa didn't make me go down to Sunday suppers unless he was with me, and his work started consuming more and more of his Sunday time. Up until the Preacher arrived, it wasn't Pa's nature to go back to work on Sundays, but he said he had to be there. Banks weren't open on Sundays so I kept my mouth shut and stayed in the room.
I figure I was about six or so when the Preacher arrived, tainting my world. The fall gave way to a harsh winter. Snow covered the rosebushes, and the gray skies were the backdrop for stark sticks of trees barren of leaves or any signs of life. It was a pitiful sight to me. Darkness was always around a corner waiting to gobble me up whole and drag me out of the world -- I knew it down to my cold toes.
Candles were expensive and Pa didn't much care for me messing with kerosene lamps -- even if I was being very cautious. Only time he'd let me turn up the wick and light the lamp was deep in the winter so he could dress for the bank business.
Cold and silent time. I wasn't much for talking -- weren't like adults paid me much mind -- except for that Preacher man. I often found his eyes following me. The man wasn't remarkably tall, but lean and had deep-set dead eyes. I think they were dark brown, but the rings around them was blue-black. A chill would run through me when I saw him looking. Nobody was around when I'd find him watching me. Leastways that was what I thought.
To be continued ...