“I didn’t like that last one,” Dahlia Ray scrunched in nose in disgust.
“I thought you liked scary stories?” Sam asked, his dark eyesockets widened and his brow raised.
“I mean, I do, but that was just plain gross,” Dahlia Ray said.
Sam hung his head. His gaping mouth slung limply against his chest.
“I know! I have another one for you that you might like.”
“Why sure, it’s a good one. A little birdie told me about it a few decades ago,” Sam looked down at her in excitement. His burlap face turned up into a smile that stressed the threads holding the jaw up.
Dahlia Ray looked into the darkened sockets where a semblance of faded blue paint was visible, “Ok, but it better be a good one.”
Dahlia Ray got up and untied the rope around Sam’s right ankle. He let out a long sigh of relief and twisted his foot in a complete circle which created a cracking, rustling noise that filled the quiet air.
“That’s better,” Sam sighed in relief.
Dahlia Ray sat back down in the hay, crossed her legs, and looked up at the looming scarecrow.
“This one is called ‘The Crow’s Caw.'”
They say Old Hica’s been reading palms out of her run-down shack for a hundred years or more. It’s that old shack up on Black Hill just beneath the old cemetery. Reve, Alabama is older than most towns around here. People have been feudin’ for more than we care to admit. The Johnson family won’t even go to church at the 9 AM service on Sundays because the Wrights go then. I reckon they don’t even recall why they are fightin’. It’s just the way it is. I guess that’s what Reve is about; things just stay the way they are. There are only a few hundred of us left after they closed the coal mine back when Daddy was still around. I remember the days when you’d come out the house and all the neighborhood kids would be all runnin’ around and having a good time. Now, you look outside and see abandoned houses with their windows shot out and grass higher than my two-year-old grandson. Only a few families stayed and their kids mostly stayed. Yes, I believe I have seen this town go from being full of life to a rusted, woeful old town.
As a young boy, I asked my Daddy why they was leaving and he looked me right in the eyes, his steel-grey eyes looking into me as if wondering what his next words should be. He paused for a long while as we sat on the bench out on the porch of our two-bedroom shack at the foot of Black Hill. The trees danced in the wind as it blew through their branches making a strange whistling sound that filled Daddy’s silence. He turned away, looking down the street and up to that old hill that towered over all of us.
“Ya know why they call on Old Hica, boy?” Daddy asked.
“No, sir,” I said, trying to hide my anticipation.
“Well, some years ago, a few boys went up there. She’d been up there and nobody had seen her, really seen her, in years. Some thought she was dead. Some thought she was still up there. Some said she would come out on the full moon and dance naked in the moonlight. You wanted to know the future, you go ask Old Hica. She could read your palm and tell you what was to come. There were some folks that went up to see her and when they come back, they up and left. I remember, when I was a boy, one of them families up and left that night they come back down from the hill. Their faces pale as moonlight. People was scared of her. Not these three boys, though. They thought they knew what was what,” Daddy said with a long pause that stretched out into the air around us like white noise. He reached down and picked himself up a drink. He took a long draw from the jug and pulled it away from his lips. His face wrinkled in disgust as he set the jug back down.
After a few seconds, Daddy’s face went back to normal and he continued, “One night, them boys hiked up Black Hill. They made sure it was a full moon. They thought maybe they’d get a show; hell, who knows, but they went up there, the three of ‘em. Towards the top, there was this…mist or somethin’. It was liable to choke ya if you breathed in too hard. They put their shirts up over their faces. They looked like a bunch of wannabe bank robbers or somethin’. Anyway, they slunk through Black Hill Cemetery where those old graves crisscrossed like the hill’s jagged teeth. At the end of the cemetery, ‘bout hangin’ off the hill, was this one room shack. It was simple: warped, dark wood siding; a flat wood roof; a small stove pipe up top pumpin’ smoke, and a door that seemed too small for an adult to come in and out of. It was quiet as death up there and the boys stood still as they looked at the shack. Through the cracked boards, they could see light.
“It wasn’t enough to see in, but enough to see the outline of a shadow. It was still as a statue. That was until one of the boys stepped on a branch with a thunderous crack. The shadow quickly moved around the shack and the boys took off. All but one, that is. He stood there frozen, half from fear and half from curiosity. He wanted to see the old hag. That was when he heard it. Her breathing was raw and graveled as she exited the shack. She was incredibly small, about the size of your 12-year-old sister. Her hair was snow white and she was dressed in layers of tattered, gray rags. Her face was deceptive in the candlelight. She looked to be in her 30s but that couldn’t be possible, not with how long they knewed she was up there. She held a candle in her hand that made the fog turn a vibrant white all around her. The boy stood still. She sniffed the air and let out a wet, throaty cough.
“’I smell you, boy. Come and I shall show you eternity,’ she said in a high, shaky voice. Her head swiveled back and forth as she scanned the darkness.
“The boy finally stepped out and her pale lips curled into a smile. The boy felt as if he was being pushed into the shack by some force. She opened the door and he walked in, having to duck as he entered. There wasn’t no furniture ‘cept two chairs and a small table. She placed the candle on the table and motioned for him to sit down. He did so as if possessed.
“‘Why have you come, boy?’ she asked, her cold, violet eyes looking through him.
“A voice croaked out the boy didn’t recognize.
“’I ain’t done nothing wrong, ma’am. They say…they say you’re a witch,’ he watched her face contort in devilish delight.
“She smiled a toothy grin and flicked the candle’s flame, turning it into a dark purple hue.
“’I am just the harbinger. She knows you. She’s brought you here for a reason. Give me your palm so that we may see why she calls on you,’ she looked at his hand with wretched glory as she reached her hand out, palm upward.
“’Who’s she?’ the boy asked in a shaky voice.
“’The hill, boy. The hill,’ her face wrinkled into a sneer; jagged, broken, brown and yellow teeth slowly appeared as she presented the boy with a crazed smile.
“The boy’s hand snapped onto hers as he sat rigged in his chair. He tried to pull his hand away but it was stuck there in her hand as if a thousand pounds sat right on top of it. Long, slender fingers followed the lines of his palm. He started to feel real weak-like. His head started bobbin’ around and the cabin swirled into darkness. It was so dark he couldn’t tell if his eyes were open or closed. The silence made him wonder if he lost his hearing too until clinking began to echo around him. The sound was low and distant but grew louder and closer. He heard men chattering and laughing. He heard machines rumbling. The air was damp, filled with the scent of soil and dust. A boom came from somewhere in the darkness and men screamed around him. It was then he saw the plume of fire and smoke race towards him. He could feel the heat rushing towards him. The fire surrounded him and began burning his flesh. He screamed in agony as he fell backward, landing on the floor of the cabin with a thud. Around him, the darkness crept out and revealed the warped shack walls and wood ceiling that was black with soot.
“Old Hica drew in and let out heavy pants as she looked at him with malice. Her eyes narrowed at the boy. She stood up and walked over to the boy, a snarl appearing on her face.
“She sniffed the air around the boy and grimaced, ‘You smell like the grave, child. You smell like death. Sins take you places you ain’t supposed to go, boy.’
“‘Please, I don’t know what you mean. I just want to go home,’ he said as he tried to slowly crawl away.
“‘A murder of crows come to take you and your kin on they 100th equinox. What you take must be replaced. Her shadow will always cast over you and yours. Now go,’ she said in a hiss. ‘Go and become death.’”
Daddy paused for a second. His rough hands wrung together making a hard scuffing noise.
“Is that the end?” I asked.
He continued, “Those boys grew up. They stayed in Reve and never told anyone about the night they went up Black Hill. The boy never told anyone what he was told. One day, years later, some big-shot energy company came and hired up a bunch of young men from Reve to help build a mine. The boy, now a man, was one of them. The mine was at the base of Black Hill; something about a rich mineral deposit. Anyway, a few years go by. The man has a family and keeps working in that dark mine. The man was a foreman by then and not in the mine. He’d heard that maybe there was a danger of something like what happened happening but they were on a time table. Rich bastards need their money on time. A set back of having folks leave the mine and such would cost the company quite a few dollars and the man his job. So, he did nothin’. Son, you asked how it ended. It ended when some dumb young kid hit a methane pocket. It blew a cloud of fire through that damn mine so fast most died as soon as the flames hit ‘em. The man looked out the window in time to see a ball of fire fly out of the mine. Screams from the mine lasted a few hours but there was too much rock from the cave-in to help. The screams and calls for help slowly died down. It took 100 days to clear out what they figured were the bodies. They never did find a handful of ‘em.
“After the explosion, most left Reve. They closed the mine and that was that. Some found jobs, others just couldn’t stand the sorrow, I suppose. It seemed like everyone was mourning; still seems that way. For the man, he couldn’t find work anywhere, not even at construction sites. Hell, not even in a mine. He knew the shadow of that damn hill would always creep over him. He knew the cemetery up top would be where he goes when he’s called. He was always waiting for them crows. They say Old Hica’s been reading palms out of her run-down shack for a hundred years or more. I reckon it’s been much longer than that.”
With that, Daddy took the jug and went back inside. The wind blew through the trees and the sun began to set just over the hill. Its long shadow crept towards our house at the end of Washington Street and for some odd reason I felt a chill run up my spine like someone was walkin’ over my grave.
Daddy died on his 50th birthday; somethin’ about cardiomyopathy. Happened right out front of that house where he raised us, where he was raised, and where I live now. The whole time we were up at the cemetery, a bunch of coal-black crows cawed the entire time. We could hardly hear the preacher as they lowered Daddy into his grave.
That was years ago. I’m a God-fearing man who has tried to do right by his family. I count to 10 when I’m angry and I walk softly. I work at the church down on Loyala Avenue making marketing materials and such. My wife keeps hinting at a surprise party for my birthday next week. I’ll be 50 years old. Same age as Daddy.
Last evening, as the sun died behind that great hill and the wind blew through those trees, I think I heard the caw of a crow.
(Featured Image Courtesy Ben Thompson. Check out more art from Ben here https://bit.ly/2WRPFYJ)