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Authors: Cherie Priest

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Dreadful Skin

BOOK: Dreadful Skin
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Dreadful Skin
Copyright © 2008 by Cherie Priest. 

All rights reserved.

Cover illustration Copyright © 2008 by Jon Foster. 

All rights reserved.

Interior design Copyright © 2008 by Desert Isle Design, LLC. 

All rights reserved.

Electronic Edition

978-1-59606-371-6

Far Territories

PO Box 190106

Burton, MI 48519

www.far-territories.com

Dreadful Skin
is dedicated to the memory

of my grandfather, the Seventh Day Adventist

Minister H. A. Swinson.

He probably wouldn’t have read this—

but he might have been tickled

by the idea of it.

Acknowledgements

I need to thank a few people, without whom
Dreadful Skin
would have never happened—or at least, it never would have been any fun. First and foremost, thanks to Bill Schafer, who likes to take chances on strange things. He has spoiled me with his friendliness, wit, and professionalism.

I know I’m not alone when I thank my lucky stars for his enthusiastic support for projects like this one.

Likewise, thanks to my husband Aric, who paid the bills so I could stay home and write about werewolves; and thanks to the staff at the Aurafice coffee shop in Seattle, Washington—for letting me camp there daily, taking up space in their fine establishment while purchasing precious little.

***

And extra special “thanks so much for being a good sport” accolades go to Dr. Eileen Meagher, rhetoric professor at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga—for giving me permission to get a little silly.

The Eileen found in these pages is only a faint caricature, but my former teacher’s open-mindedness, cleverness, good humor, and uncanny patience did much to inform the heroine of these little stories.

May she read this with a smile, and not a groan of embarrassment.

Part One:

The Wreck of the Mary Byrd

In 1870 the steamboat
Mary Byrd
vanished on the Tennessee River, somewhere between Chattanooga and Knoxville. She was never recovered, and her passengers and crew have long been presumed dead. No trace of the wreck has ever been found.

This is the strange and tragic story of the boat’s last night—as told by those who rode aboard her. Listen to their tales: the captain, a gambler, a former slave, and an Irish nun with a revolver under her skirt.

And listen as the villain shares his part in the tragedy.

This is his confession too.

From the jungles of India to an American riverboat, his journey was stranger than anyone could have guessed. More monster than man, he was trapped in a storm, on a boat, with a moon above that was almost full—and a deadly hunger that could not be contained.

So here lie the ghosts of the
Mary Byrd
. This is their last testament. Read it, and may you kindly judge the souls you meet within.

I.

I will tell you how it happened.

It unfolded.

***

My name was Christopher Cooper, and I gambled for my money like a good little sinner. The big-stakes games in Texas, and out in California—they kept me very well fed, and dressed in all the imported clothes I could stand.

I was a big man—once a hard-working man with lots of muscles, but I admit in time that it all ran to fat. It took a lot of cash to clothe me.

I liked big jackets with deep pockets, and I liked boots with quiet heels. No sense in announcing yourself everywhere, I always said. Sometimes I wore bolo ties, but I never resorted to cowboy hats like some of the fellows out west. I always preferred to think of myself as a northeastern lad. The bolo was merely a concession to fashion and a conversation piece.

Women seemed to like it. They’d touch it with their pretty-smelling fingers and twist it around their nails, asking me where I got it from. Once upon a time there was a turquoise slide on it—a fine polished stone set in silver. It matched a pocket watch I carried, and I liked to have them together.

The watch was a gift from a married woman who wouldn’t let me keep her. She had it engraved, so I’d always remember why I loved her, and that she’d sent me on my way. She was a cruel little beast. I worshipped the ground she walked on.

Think of me every moment
.

If I was very lucky, she might have thought about me once in a blue moon. I didn’t need a reminder, but the watch was too beautiful to discard in some sentimental gesture. It was worth a small fortune. She’d commissioned it from a jewelry maker in San Francisco. He was an Austrian, she said.

In time, the nuisance longing I felt for her faded to a dull pang noticed only on occasion. But I always did love that watch, shining merrily on its matching silver chain. And every time I considered the time, until the day I died, I thought of
her
.

***

Those first, lazy nights onboard that damn boat, we came and went from our rooms to the main decks—back and forth from the galley to the prow, starboard to port or however they put it when you’re talking about a water vessel. We wandered around, is what I mean to say. There wasn’t much else to do except stare at the water and play cards downstairs on the first level.

So that’s where I spent most of my time, when I could find someone to play with me. After a while, the pickings got slim. I’m awfully good, and most of my traveling companions weren’t willing to bet in earnest, so there wasn’t much to win. Even so, by a few days into my journey I was willing to bet in buttons or clamshells. Anything to eat up the time.

No wonder the captain drank so much.

Boat was one hell of a dull way to travel. I shuddered to think of my grandparents, who crossed an ocean in a bigger boat than this one. The Atlantic? I would have killed myself from the sheer dullness of it all.

But I must confess, the boat was a pretty thing—and I can appreciate a pretty boat or a pretty woman as well as the next man. The
Mary Byrd
they called her. I want to say it was named for the captain’s wife, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think he bought it from another man and the name came with it.

Some other man’s wife, more likely—or a daughter. Or a mistress.

I hope she was named for someone beautiful.

On the outside she was painted white, or a bright ivory—and her name was splashed on the side in bloody yellow-orange letters with curlicues. She had a paddlewheel on her stern too, and it matched the lettering. The rails on the deck were lined with that curious latticework you see on houses sometimes; it cast shadows in the afternoons, like eyelets in the fabric of a lady’s nightgown.

On the inside, she was dressed in red and orange that looked like nothing so much as a high-class whorehouse. If I’d said as much out loud, people would wish to know how I was qualified to make such a comparison.

I was qualified. But I kept it to myself.

Where the floors were scuffed and shined wood, they were run with low rugs; and the lamps were all set with glass, brass, and crystal dangles that looked like earrings.

***

The other passengers gathered that I had money, and most of them probably knew (or could guess) how I’d gotten it. I thought maybe the nun would look down her nose about it, gambling not being sanctioned by the Lord, and all; but if she cared or noticed, she didn’t say anything. She was a papist, after all—and open to her own set of criticisms from the other passengers.

To think of it that way—and I guess I should—we all had something like that about us. Perhaps it was just coincidence, or merely the time of year; but the
Mary Byrd
was a ship of misfits, in a most uninteresting way.

That last trip from Knoxville to Chattanooga was more empty than full; and those of us who were left were those without more proper, permanent places to be. As far as I could ascertain, we were all passing from one thing to another, as is ordinary enough when it comes to traveling companions.

But none of us were coming from home—or going there. So I don’t suppose it’s strange that when we were lost, we were forgotten.

There were signs that should’ve told us to expect trouble from the very start—or from our last stop, at Lenoir City. Whatever went wrong, we picked it up there; and I can only think of one person for sure who boarded then.

I shouldn’t be so veiled about it. After all, by the end, we all knew. And it doesn’t much matter to us now. I’d like to think he’s been waiting all this time, though I can’t imagine why he would. Maybe he lost something when the boat went down. Maybe he left something behind, and he can’t rest until he gets it back.

I doubt it, though. If he watches at all, he watches because he’s afraid. He’s afraid, and he wants to make sure that it stays buried, and burned up there in the water where he left it.

He wants to make sure that
she
stays buried, and he’s afraid she hasn’t.

II.

I will tell you how it happened.

It broke.

***

I didn’t have much of value, but I was rich. My mother was a slave, and I was born one too—but she stayed, and I went north after the war. I did all right for myself. I worked hard, but I got paid and I paid my own way from it. My name was Laura Brown, and I was nobody’s slave.

When I got up north, first of all I started work in a factory where we plucked poultry—but it was dark there and so close, and it always smelled like the shit of dead chickens, and the fuzz from the feathers made my nose itch all day. It made my eyes water, even on days when the wind blowed through the open windows and the stink wasn’t so bad.

Before long, I left the factory and went to work in a kitchen.

I washed dishes, spent every day up to my elbows in greasy water with cheap soap bubbles. The restaurant was big and it served a lot of folks every day. I stayed twelve hours if they wanted. My home wasn’t worth running home to.

I shared a place high in the city with eight other girls and the brother of one of them.

All of us working together made enough to eat and sleep there, but not by much. But none of us were house niggers, and none of us were field niggers. We earned our own and we paid our way, though living was crowded and dark.

We were sick all the time, one or another of us. One would catch a bug, and the rest of us would pass it around—so it was easier to stay in the kitchen, in the dish room with the pots and pans. It was easier to be clean there, in the middle of the kitchen. It was easier to breathe.

But I missed the sun.

I missed being able to breathe and not smell piss and tomatoes, wine and onions and meat that’s thinking about going bad. I didn’t like the cold, either. I could always handle it hot. Hot meant nothing to me. I was a girl in Mississippi, down by the ocean near where the loud water birds scream and steal your food if you don’t hang onto it.

That’s part of why they liked me in the kitchen. The hot water and the hot stoves were easy work for me, and I could work them all day.

But come winter, every year I thought I’d die rather than stay another season. I’d watch the snow pile high up out the window, and the first time I saw it, it was all I could do not to start crying. I near lost my religion every time the wind blew up and the ice made the street stones hard to cross. I saved my work money when I could, and I bought heavier skirts, heavier coats. But it was never enough. There weren’t boots thick enough to save my feet when the snow went melting through. There weren’t wool socks made heavy enough to keep my toes from turning colors and losing feeling.

And Lord, I was far from home.

I thought, like the rest of us did, that the farther north I’d go, the easier it would be. The less trouble I’d have. The more money I’d make. Nobody told me about the cold, though. Nobody told me about how everything I owned would stink of coal and wood smoke, and how our lungs would turn themselves black. They didn’t tell us how just breathing would make us wish we couldn’t.

I asked around. I thought since it’d been a few years since the war and we were freed all over—I thought maybe it’d be okay to come home.

I heard it wasn’t. I heard times was tough there for everybody, even the white people too. But that didn’t mean much. I saw poor white people in the north cities too; I saw signs that broke them down by what country they came from, and offered them less money for doing the same jobs. I thought it was crazy, how white people thought there was some difference between them, and not just between us and them.

The older I got, the less sense they made to me.

But back down in Dixie I heard tale of sharecropping and bad laws. Nobody getting no work, and nobody having enough to eat. And down there now, where everyone was poor just about, it was like in the cities—and all the folks got to fight amongst themselves for what’s there.

I heard it was worse than before, some ways.

But then I’d sit in our little room, huddled up around the stove with the rest of the girls, and I’d wish I could feel my feet again, and I’d hate it how I could see my breath every morning when I woke up, and I thought maybe it couldn’t be worse than this.

Maybe I could go back down and get some learning. Maybe I’d like to teach a school, and teach little ones to read.

I knew my letters and numbers a little, but not good enough that it helped me. I wanted to learn them better. And then, if I knew them better, I could share it with the rest of them. I figured there were lots of folks who wanted to read. I thought there must be schools coming up fast.

But that wasn’t what I heard.

I got an idea, though—one that made me want to find a teacher who’d show me the letters good enough to write them, and I’d write a book. Not a story book, and not a book for learning by, but a book for cooking with.

A woman told me there were opportunities for women who could cook. She said that without any slaves, the white women had to go into their own kitchens, and they didn’t know what to do. They needed someone to tell them.

So I thought,
I could tell them
.

I could write a book and I could fill it up with my mama’s recipes. I could put in the pies and the breakfast hash, and the right way to make grits without turning them soggy. I could tell them how to make chicken fry up nice and crunchy, but wet and dripping good in the middle. And maybe, if my grandmother was still alive down there, maybe she could tell me some of the ways they made food back in Africa, too. She didn’t come from there, but her daddy did, and she used to say she knew. So I could ask her.

But I’d need to know my letters better, first.

And I got wind of a possibility. I heard maybe that if you could work a kitchen good, there were boats you could ride. You could work for the people on the boats, the ones that carried things along the rivers. People rode them like floating hotels.

Someone had to do the cooking for the workers. Someone had to run the kitchens.

It took me a year to work my way down to it. It took one more winter up in the city, and I swear, I thought I’d die.

I was aiming for the Mississippi River. I wanted to work one of the big riverboats that went back and forth, from the top of the country to the bottom. I thought that’d be grand, and I could work my way home while making some money.

It didn’t work out the way I expected. I got my start farther east, on the Ohio River instead, and that was all right too, I thought. I’d get some experience on the smaller boats. It took me another year, but I found my way down to the Tennessee.

I found my way to the
Mary Byrd
.

I did the dishes there, and did some of the cooking too—though I had some help for that, a fat, quiet man with all the shine and color of boot polish. He never talked to me except to give me something to do, and I was all right with that. When first I saw him, I figured he was the kind of man who’ll give a woman trouble if he thinks he can get away with it.

I been wrong before, though. He never gave me trouble.

He was a good cook, too; he made food like the kind my grandmother did. We always had potatoes, because they store pretty good, and he loaded them up with butter and sour cream if he had time to get them when we stopped. Over the stove he kept a cardboard box of salt and beat-up tin of pepper. Just these two things and the butter, and he could make a feast for a king. I swear, that man made cornbread fit to feed Jesus.

He deserved better than that boat, but I guess he had his reasons.

We all had our reasons.

***

The first signs of trouble came after supper, the first night we were on the river after Lenoir City. We’d picked up an extra passenger or two there, and some cargo that nobody asked about. I’d been doing this long enough then that I didn’t ask. You just don’t.

It looked heavy. The roustabouts who brought it onboard staggered underneath it. The hold was already pretty full, so they had to cram it on in.

Some of the hold was taken up with that woman’s baggage, and I don’t know what a woman like that would travel with. She was a nun, I think—the fat gambler, Mr. Cooper, he called her ‘sister’ every time he saw her. He said it like he thought it was a joke—like he knew something about her that made it funny.

I saw some nuns up in the city. They worked in a big walled-in building where people left orphans. I’d hear the kids playing on the other side of the wall, and I’d hear the teachers inside. I guess the nuns taught letters and numbers too, not just how to kneel right and say prayers. I’d sit on the other side of the wall and eat my lunch when I had some. I’d listen while they went over the letters. I wished I could see them, though. It would’ve helped. As it was, I didn’t learn much.

Anyway, I knew a nun when I saw one, but something was
off
about her. She wore the little head covering like they do, and black dresses that were simple. But there was smartness to her and a fastness to the way she moved. She asked a lot of questions.

She asked them with a smile, and with a tilted down head that told you she was all kindness and don’t you just know, she was only asking because she wondered—and it wouldn’t hurt you at all to talk to her.

But she asked a lot of questions.

She made some of us uncomfortable, but whether that was because she was a Catholic, or a foreign lady, or just because she was an educated lady on a boat full of men who were themselves only half-schooled…I don’t know. There were a hundred and one reasons for them to push her to the outside.

It turned out she was looking for something. And she was very, very close.

I think if there was a God, really a God like my grandmother said—and like the little red-haired nun believed—then he would have let her find it sooner. If she’d gotten her answers before that last night on the
Mary Byrd
, then we might have found our separate ways home, or to whatever destinations we had in mind. We wouldn’t have wound up where we did, lying down dead in burned-up clothes at the bottom of a river. The river washed us all clean. It washed us down to nothing but bones, and all our bones were the same.

Or that’s just what I think. I been wrong, though.

***

As I told you, the trouble began after supper, as it’s likely to do. Not all the strangers wanted to eat together, but there are always a few who like it—who enjoy the traveling, and like talking to all the strange new people you find on a boat, or on a road. These people find each other.

So over supper that night there was a handful of folks. The gambler was there, teasing the nun in a friendly way, and she didn’t act like she minded it. There were three others, too—including the captain. We were anchored on account of the weather. It was pouring down outside and the water kept sloshing up over the decks.

Mary
was riding low in the water, anyhow—because of what she was moving other than people. There was a lot of rocking, and since we were sitting low, the captain didn’t want to rush it. I didn’t want to argue with him, but I didn’t like him being downstairs with no one at the boat’s wheel, either.

That might have been silly, though. I didn’t know enough about the way boats worked to know if it was bad of him to join us. I guess he could’ve had someone else up there helping him; I knew we had a roof pilot too, but I hadn’t seen him around.

Could be the captain was just hungry.

Well, we fed him. He’d have had more room to eat if he hadn’t drank so much. It made me nervous to watch him. This was the man who drove us down the river. Maybe he should’ve had a better idea when to quit pouring himself more, at least while other folks were watching.

I heard him talking to the other passengers, and they didn’t mind him so they let him talk. His voice sounded like childhood to me. It was low and sleepy more often than not, and even when he drank wine he smelled like a cold southern drink served on a porch.

I had a feeling about him, like he’d been in the war, and it hadn’t gone so good for him. But he was a man from south of the Ohio, so no, I guess it wouldn’t have. I wondered how bad it’d been for him, but it wasn’t my place to ask, so I didn’t. He wore that old defeat all over him. He wore it like it was an important thing, or something valuable that he wouldn’t let out of his sight. But it wasn’t. And we all knew it.

“This is my boat,” he told them around the table. “I’ve found a buyer, though. When we get to Chattanooga we’ll stay a few days—and I’ll hand off the boat, and I’ll take my money. That’ll be it for me, then. No more of this river business.”

“Has it treated you so poorly?” The nun asked. Her accent was as heavy as his, but it came from somewhere father away. “You seem like a comfortable man. You’ve earned a life from the river, haven’t you?”

“I have. I’ve earned a second life, Sister.” They all called her Sister, except for once in a while, one of them would call her Sister Eileen.

Mr. Cooper pulled his pretty watch out of his pocket and checked the time. Supper was over and it might have been getting late, but that’s not what he was thinking. He was wondering if it was late enough to bug someone into playing cards with him. But he was willing to wait until the nun left. I guess he thought it was being respectful.

The captain was too drunk to be any good for poker, but one of the other two men might have been dumb enough to take Mr. Cooper on. One by one they retired, though. And then the captain did too. He said he was going back to the wheel, like he was going to start moving again, but we knew he wasn’t.

The rain was coming down hard, still. And he had too much wine in him to steer us anyplace at all.

The rain came slapping against the windows, where we had windows, and it came splashing down onto the deck and into the rooms where we didn’t. Thunderstorms are easy enough to wait through, though. And it was warm. At least getting wet didn’t mean freezing yourself to death, or losing toes. So I didn’t mind the rain. I’d missed it, and I was happy to see it again.

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