Authors: Scott Nicholson
Tags: #Science fiction, #General, #Fiction, #Horror, #Horror - General, #Fiction - Horror
"You mind flipping them johnny cakes?" she said.
Ransom crossed the floor of the cabin to the little blue steel cookstove. He turned the cakes in the skilet. The smel of scorched cornmeal filed the room.
"They don't stay invisible no more," he said, his back to her. "It used to be just Korban, and you only seen him in the Big House once in a while. But the others, they been
"The blue moon in October. A time of magic. Right magic and wrong magic."
"What are you gonna do?" Ransom's voice trembled.
She didn't blame him for being scared. She was scared, too, but she didn't dare let it show. "First off, I'm going to have me a bite to eat. After that, I guess we'll just have to see what the cat drug in." Ransom handed her a plate made of hammered tin. He had laid a fried piece of side pork beside the johnny cakes. Liquid fat pooled in the bottom of the plate and dripped out a small hole in the metal. Sylva put the plate on one arm of her rocker so the grease wouldn't stain her clothes.
"It's the people, ain't it?" Ransom asked, the fire-light glittering in his eyes. "The people staying at the Big House."
Sylva said nothing, just worked the pig gristle be-tween the stumps of her teeth. There was a generous hunk of meat in the fat. Ransom always made sure she got one of the better slabs whenever they slaughtered and smoked one of the manor's hogs. She figured she ate almost as well as the fancy guests. She swallowed the pork, then drained a cup of sas-safras tea. Finaly, she spoke, gazing into the fire, at the yellow and orange and bright blue. "It's the people. And the girl. The one with the Sight." Even though her voice was soft, the words were as thick as thunder in the damp air of the cabin. The whole forest had grown quiet, as if the trees were bend-ing in to listen. She was sure a catbird had been war-bling out a happy sunrise song only minutes before.
"First he claimed the dead ones, now he's going after the live ones," Ransom said. "They's got to be some kind of ritual or other you can use against him."
"You forget. We got to play by the rules. But Ephram Korban, he ain't beholden to nothing. Not man nor God nor none of my little bags of stoneroot and bear teeth and hawk feathers."
Ransom touched the pocket of his coveralls.
"But just keep right on believin'," she said. "The ashes of a prayer are mightier than the highest flames of hel."
"I'd best be getting back. Got the livestock to tend to. And Miss Mamie's been watching me awful close."
"Get on, then."
"You sure you'll be okay?"
"Been okay all along, ain't I? But it's good to be looking out for each other." Ransom nodded. His face was in the shadows be-yond the reach of the firelight and she wasn't able to see his expression. The sun filed the room as he opened the door and went outside. She winced at the intruding light and waited for the sound of the falling wooden latch. Then she turned her gaze back to the fire and forked up another chunk of corn cake. The fire ...
If only they had listened to Sylva's mother. She had tried to warn everybody about the strange Yankee with the well-bottom eyes and the pocketful of money and the sneer that lurked between his lips, the snakish smile that you only saw when he'd let you.
But they fel under Ephram Korban's spel, the men-folk who were after the jobs he promised, the women who came caling on him while their men were out clearing trees or sawing firewood or laying stone wals. None of those women were able to resist him for long. Even the children were drawn to him. Whenever Korban got a few of the young ones together, he would throw a penny on the ground just to watch them scratch and claw each other as they fought over it. Sylva's mother had resisted Ephram. At least that's what she always told Sylva. But Sylva herself, she went to work in the manor when she was just fourteen. Daddy made her. Said you was never too young to learn the pain and glory of a hard day's work, that there was no reason to laze around the house while he had to get up before the roosters and mix sulfur-and-lime solution to spray on the apple trees.
She started out keeping the manor's fireplace ashes swept up, then was put in charge of the laundry as wel. Her spine ached with the memory of hauling those big woven baskets a quarter mile down to the creek, where a barrel of lye-water would be waiting. She'd let the clothes soak a while, then drag them dripping and heavy up to the top of the washboard. Up and down, over and over, while the alkaline ate away at her skin. And heaven help her if she got a cut. That soapy juice burned like a slice of hellfire.
Sylva looked down at her knotty fingers, at the burls of her knuckles. The scars still wove among the blue road maps of her veins. These same hands had betrayed her, al because she had to touch the fire. Ephram always had to have a fire blazing. The men were ordered to keep the firebox in the back room ful at all times. One hired helper was assigned to the fur-nace room downstairs to make sure the main chimney stayed stoked around the clock. But all the other fire-places had be lit, too, even in the summer. And, as one of the house girls, Sylva was responsible for the fire-places on the second floor.
That meant going into the master bedroom. She had always hated the room, especialy at night when, as her last and most dreaded chore, she carried an armful of heavy oak and ash and white pine to the fire. She would rest the logs on the hearth, then pile them stick by stick on the bed of embers. She tried to concentrate on her work, but she couldn't help looking around at all the fine things, the oval cut-edged mirror over the bureau, the velvet drapes that plunged from the top of the windows like lush purple waterfalls, the soft silk lace rimming the edge of the poster bed.
She had touched that lace, of course. She knew the fabrics of the master bed better than anyone. She had seen the secrets writen in the stains of sleep, and her job was to scrub them away. To erase al hint of corruption. Sometimes the mistress would already be in bed when Sylva came in. Margaret would watch her with-out speaking, a little smile of triumph on her face that she tried to hide behind the books she pretended to read. Sylva mumbled "yes'm" or "no'm" if Margaret said anything. Ephram himself was never in the bedroom during her nightly stoking. She called him "Ephram" in her secret heart of hearts, but she wouldn't dare call him that aloud. No, he was "master" or "sir" or, in a pinch, "Mr. Korban." She had wondered if he ever slept. Some of the help said he paced the widow's walk, es-pecially when the moon was near full. They said his shadow stretched two miles across the mountains in every direction. Even then, the whispers had started.
But young Sylva didn't believe the rumors, of how he laughed whenever one of the horses threw a rider, how he made the hog and cattle butchers save a pail of fresh blood in the springhouse, how he burned black candles in the dark of the basement when the only sound in the sleeping manor was the whisper of the grandfather clock's pendulum. They said that if you passed him in the dead of night, his eyes changed col-ors, gold, red, then yellow, the shades of fire. But that was what the men said. The house girls said other things, which Sylva equaly refused to believe.
Until the night his fire went out.
Sylva had been late, her mother had a fever and Sylva had to feed her little brother and sister. Daddy was gone overnight, taking a wagon load of apples down the narrow trail that was realy just a long scar in the side of the cliffs. So Sylva had whipped up some porridge, splashed it out into two bowls for the chil-dren, then changed the herb poultice on her mother's forehead. By that time, the fingers of dusk were scratch-ing at the frosty November ground.
Sylva ran the half mile to the manor, holding her skirts high, her breath silver in the twilight. The briars whipped at her knees and her long hair tangled in the laurel that lined the trail. She knew the way wel enough, but she felt as if she were slogging through molasses. The manor seemed to be slipping farther away from her, as if the snake-belly trail had gained new curves.
Sylva finaly reached the house, her heart lodged in her throat and her pulse hammering. She quietly gathered some logs from the firebox and crept up the back stairs. She remembered that Margaret was away on a trip somewhere, to a place caled Baton Rouge, fancy-sounding. If only Sylva could hurry, maybe no one would notice her tardiness. The bedroom was dark. She was afraid to light a lantern because, if any guests were visiting, one of them might look in. Sylva closed the door behind her, hoping the embers stil cast enough glow for her to see. But the hearthstones were cold and the room was filed with the pungent stench of the spent fire. Kneeling, she put the wood on the floor and groped for the newspapers and the tin box of matches that she kept beside the poker. Even sheltered from the cold night air, she felt smothered as if by the waters of a deep dream, and the smallest movement took a great effort. The matches rattled when she knocked over the container. She baled up some pages of the newspaper and stuffed them under the fire irons. As she did, a harsh, low sound came from somewhere in the room.
She struck a match and it flared briefly and died. In that split second of light, she had seen movement out of the corner of her eye. Trying to hurry, though grav-ity worked against her, she struck another match. A winter wind blew across the room and extinguished the flame before she could touch it to the paper. She wondered why the windows were open. Ephram never alowed the windows open in his room. Her fin-gers were like water skins as she fumbled for another match. The low sound came again, a ratling exhalation folowed by the unmistakable creak of the poster bed. She squeezed her eyes closed, even though the room was pitch-black, and concentrated on the match that she wanted to scratch across a stone. The dark had never frightened her until that moment.
A voice came, muffled and desperate and everything but dead.
"Fuh ... fire," it said.
Sylva's heart gave a jump like a frightened rabbit. Ephram Korban was in the room, in the bed. She dared not look in his direction, but the same power that seemed to be weighing down her limbs made her neck turn slowly toward the bed. She opened her eyes and saw nothing but blackness.
"Spell me," he said, a little more forcefully, almost angrily, but still muffled as if speaking through blankets. She nodded slowly, though he couldn't see her in the dark. Nor could she see him. And yet... As she looked at the bed, its form taking shape in her mind from the memory of it, she could picture Ephram lying there, his face stern and his hair and beard flowing onto the pillows. Handsome Ephram, who had never been sick. Ephram, who stayed young and strong while the workers and natives had faded away with their wrinkles and stories and tired, failing breath. Ephram, who was said to never sleep. Two small dots of light hovered in the darkness of the bed, weakly glowing, the only thing in the room she could see. She tried to turn her head away, tried to strike the match, even though she had now been puled from mere waking sleep to a helpless awareness. She knew which side of the bed was his. The dots ex-panded, hovering in the area near the headboard where the pilows were. Where Ephram's eyes should be. The eyes smoldered the deep red color of a dying ember.
"Cal in the fire," he rasped, as a sharp flicker of yel-low glinted among the red dots. The glowing eyes blurred in her tears, then she jerked the matchstick along the stone. It caught and she applied the flame to the paper. At last she could look away from that terrible bed, those impossible eyes. But she had to say those awful words, the ones Mama had taught her.
She whispered them, hoping to weaken their power through lack of volume. "Go out frost, come in fire. Go out frost, come in fire. Go out frost, come in fire."
The fire leapt to life and she put some kindling on the grate. As the wood crackled and heat cascaded onto her face, she found that her limbs were regaining their strength.
Not daring to turn now that the room was bathed in firelight, she busied herself stacking a night's supply of logs onto the irons. Her tears had dried on her cheeks, but she felt their salty tracks. She was afraid she was in trouble, that she had commited the most unforgivable of offenses. She could only stare into the flames as they rose like yelow and red and blue water up the chimney.
A hand fel softly on her shoulder. She looked up, and Ephram was standing above her. He was smiling. His eyes were deep and dark and beautiful, alive in the fire-light. How sily she had been, thinking them to be red.
"I'm sorry," she said, her words barely audible over the snapping of the hot logs and the hammering of her heart. Ephram said nothing, only moved his hand from her shoulder to her cheek, then up under her long hair until his thumb brushed her ear. She shivered even though the fire was roaring.
"Thank you," he said. "We burn together."
She didn't understand, al she knew was that she had wished for this moment so many times while lying on her straw mattress back home. Those dreams had come to her, taken over her body, brought her skin alive. Ephram's hands on her flesh. But in her fantasies, she hadn't been this scared.
Then she realized what was wrong. He was behind her and above her, his face lit by the fire. She was kneeling on the hearth, looking up. But, somehow, his shadow was on her face. She couldn't fix on the thought, couldn't make sense of it, because other sensations were flooding her. His fervid hand traced the soft slope of her neck. And again Sylva was smothered in a dream, only under a different power this time, as she rose and let him put his arms around her, as the hellish heat of his lips pressed against hers. She was lost in his warmth, his strength, his great shadow. When he took her hand in his and brought it to the flames, she didn't whimper or beg. He was the master, after all.