In the swelling, oppressive heat of a Georgia midday, Jolie came home. She choked on the red clay dust clouds billowing from beneath the wheels of the old Chevy that dropped her off a half-mile past the end of the paved road. They had picked her up walking on the Calhoun Falls highway headed out of town. Jolie could see the concerned faces of the snot-nosed kids with whom she’d shared the back seat pressing against the window, until the car dipped down a hill and out of sight. Her fingers were slick on the strap of the overnight-sized suitcase she carried, and she let it slip to the ground. Something rustled in the underbrush and she closed her eyes: snakes, maybe? Black racers, rattlers, moccasins, moving fast and striking swift before she had time to run?
She breathed in deep and smelled the honeysuckle twining there on the side of the road, and the mellow reek of cow shit in the pastures beyond, and the secretive stink of her own sweat. The smells were almost as good as a time machine. They took her back to that last summer of 1985. “The last summer” she’d called it then, too, even before she’d ever really believed she’d be leaving. She had spent it in cool church sanctuaries, wearing ugly pantyhose and uglier shoes, slipping out after Bible study to make out with the college-bound boys. She imagined that something in those aloof intimacies might transfer that power of escape to her.
Even after the scholarship, her father said she wasn’t going off anyplace where she was going to get ideas about being better than she was, better than all the rest of them. She called the place a shithole, a redneck, white-trash, low-class goddamn piece of shit town. Kind of town you wanted to raise your kids up in, the city elders said, while unbeknownst to them, their kids were doing speedballs down at the river and humping one another with the frenzy of dogs in heat. Kind of place everyone talked about running far, far away from, and no one ever did.
Those same kids grew up to be city elders themselves, and talked about what a good, God-fearing community they all resided in. So Jolie held out little hope for escape until that late August night when ashes fell through the air like they came from the sky, from heaven—if heaven could ever be so generous, so just. The firemen said her father’s last careless cigarette had freed her; wherever her salvation had come from, Jolie had not believed until then that she would ever leave.
She picked her way up the clayey dirt road, here where the pine forests harvested by timber companies had grown back at last, round this bend where the heavy summer rains sent you sloughing off into the ditch if you weren’t careful to drive real slow. Now over this hill and home again.
The house stood at the end of a stretch of gravel; a white clapboard front she’d never seen, rebuilt since the fire. A new porch, too. Her mouth was dry and the air filled with the sounds of beating wings and hissing tongues, as though the moment she set foot here again, they had awakened. As though ten long years had not passed for them at all. Get thee behind me, she told them.
As she trudged toward the house that was nothing like her memory, her sister LuAnn stepped out onto the porch, shading her eyes, and spotted her. LuAnn’s mouth dropped open, and she ran as fast as her short chubby legs could carry her. Her teeth were stained yellow and her hot tears washed Jolie’s neck as she threw her arms around her. She smelled like coffee and cigarettes. Where had she been and how did she get out there, LuAnn wanted to know; she had been waiting by the phone all morning for her call. Jolie didn’t answer any of her queries. She couldn’t think of what to say, and couldn’t imagine how to tell LuAnn just how badly she’d need her first moments out here to be alone ones.
“You didn’t let somebody bring you out here, did you?” LuAnn asked. “Oh, honey, you did, didn’t you! You ought not to have done that. You can’t never tell about people nowadays.” LuAnn had put on a fair amount of weight in the last decade and a half, but her face remained the same; small and sharp, ringed with frizzy curls.
“You ain’t going away again, are you hon?” LuAnn went on. “You know you can stay here, long as you want.” It was the invitation you extended to someone coming home in defeat, the last job lost, the apartment broken into, another man gone, the precarious life crumbled.
“I just got tired,” Jolie said, and it was mostly true. Her grand escape had been the grandest thing in her life so far; peoples’ lives in the cities up north were just as dead-end as anyone’s back home. Up north was just one long endless waiting for something that never came. Up north was purgatory.
LuAnn stepped back and the sun behind her lit up her light-colored hair like a halo. Jolie squinted, still trying to study LuAnn’s features, wondering if she might go blind in doing so. Would it truly be such a bad thing to sear her corneas useless? She could stand the lack of sight, as long as it truly left her in darkness and not gazing eternally at a bleached, white, shining light. She’d always heard heaven described as a great lit place, and thought there was nothing more horrific than a God who disallowed you your secret crevices, your hiding places. You’d be like an inmate sentenced to solitary confinement under a hellish burning bulb for all eternity.
“Let’s get you something to eat,” LuAnn said, hustling her up on the porch. Tears gleamed bright in her eyes. “I can’t hardly believe you’re standing right here in front of me. I used to say, Ray, the one thing I wish for before I die is that my sister—” Her mouth turned down now, ugly though she meant kind sentiment; her chin shook.
“It’s all right,” Jolie said, touching her uselessly on the back and shoulders. But she stopped short at the threshold. In her dreams she always returned home to a ruin, gutted throughout, when in truth only part of the house had burned. LuAnn had been long gone by the time of the fire, sharing an apartment with a girl in town; perhaps then she felt under no obligation to preserve any reminders of that fateful night. But it was not only the rebuilding which had altered the look of the place. She let LuAnn push her past the screen door into a living room where a cream-colored furniture set had replaced their parents’ heavy old wood pieces. Jolie missed their weighty quality. That kind of furniture kept things anchored. Beyond, the kitchen, which had always hung heavy with stale cooking odors, was modernized beyond recognition. All the cabinets had been torn out and replaced with new ones; even the floor was retiled. Jolie ran one hand along a light beige countertop. Everything here was cool and distant, welcoming her with the disinterested air of duty.
“Beulah and them called earlier,” LuAnn said. “They want to come over for dinner tonight and see you. I told them you might be wore out; I’d have to check with you first.”
Jolie tried not to conjure any pictures of her aunt but they came anyway: a pinched, pious woman who’d probably been born old, though Jolie had seen pictures to the contrary. She dyed her hair a severe black above wrinkled skin, as if that fooled anyone, and had always made Jolie feel as if she smelled bad, or had snot smeared all over her face.
“I want to see the rest of the house,” Jolie said. She realized she was desperate to see it, she wanted to touch all those surfaces again and stand in the middle of rooms and try to bring it all back again. “I want to see my old room.”
LuAnn kept one hand on her back as she led her up the stairs, down the hallway. “I think if I don’t keep touching you, you’ll disappear,” she said with a clipped nervous laugh, and she swung open the door of the room at the end of the hall. “I’m afraid we let your old room go all to seed, hon.”
Jolie stepped past her into a shadowy stillness. Heavy blinds covered both windows. For a moment she imagined she saw the squares of her old posters still on the wall, and the rickety bookcases crammed full, but LuAnn flicked the light on and she saw she’d been mistaken. It had become a room of cast-offs, of ugly lamps, appliances that didn’t work, boxes no one would ever unpack. Jolie let her breath out. It had never been a sanctuary for her. When she was a little girl, her mother and Aunt Beulah had come back from a shopping trip with a picture of Jesus for her to hang on the wall. Jesus was supposed to be floating in some cloudy heaven, His arms outstretched to welcome her and love radiating from him in great jagged halo-like bursts of yellow and orange. But Jolie wasn’t fooled. She knew that what Beulah and her mother had told her was holy light was in fact the flames of hell, the flames she’d heard so much about. And if Jesus could be sent to burn in hell, then anyone could be. She was sure to be consumed by those same flames. Her mother told her to hang it on the wall so Jesus could watch over her all the time, but Jolie knew that was just so Jesus could spy on her and report back to God. And maybe God would let him come back up from hell.
“I am hungry after all,” Jolie said, not wanting to be in the room any longer. She hoped that wasn’t where Ray and LuAnn planned to put her up at night. She wouldn’t be able to sleep, even with that picture long gone, even with the room all changed. She’d still be able to see those flames before her in the darkness, the coiling and hissing of the serpents Jesus had trained to do his bidding, the cool beatific smile promising her something she didn’t yet understand.
• • • •
LuAnn scooped up scrambled eggs and pieces of rubbery bacon onto plates for both of them, and set one in front of Jolie. “I know it’s bad for you,” she said, “but Ray’s got high cholesterol and we don’t never get to eat nothing like this. I’ll make a stir-fry tonight, that all right with you?” She didn’t wait for Jolie to answer, but went right on talking about neighbors, and people they’d gone to school with. Jolie remembered them only vaguely, as if she’d dreamed them, perhaps.
“You remember old Donny Spinks?” LuAnn said, and that was a name Jolie did know. Old Donny had lived in sin a few miles up the road from them with a woman maybe half Indian or Oriental, nobody knew so they just called her a half-breed. Even the church ladies refused to go out there to witness. Donny’s land bordered on Jolie’s granddaddy’s field, a patch of dark woods leading to the junked yard and broken-down house where he lived. He had plenty of money, people said, even though he lived like a pauper there. When she was nine, old Donny had saved her from getting snakebit by the creek down the hill from his house, chopping off a rattler’s head just before it struck at her. She had only seen him a few times before that, walking down the road or filling up his grocery cart at the Winn Dixie in town, where people gave him a wide berth. That day she’d followed him up into his backyard, a tangle of weeds grown up half as tall as Jolie and old tires rotting next to a half-gutted washer and dryer, a refrigerator, a sun-faded, rain-soaked couch with foam bursting out of the fabric. He had tried to get her to go inside and have a drink of water, but Jolie was not going to set foot inside that house. A woman’s figure stood just on the other side of the screen, watching them. Jolie didn’t ask to go to the bathroom, either, even though she was about to pee in her pants. Walking home that day, she’d stopped on the side of the road and squatted in the woods, letting the warm urine trickle out onto the leaves. Afterwards her panties felt moist and dirty.
“He died last year,” LuAnn said. “Awful how it happened. I guess his daughter went out to see him—I didn’t even know he had a daughter, did you? Anyway, he’d been dead a long time. Drank himself to death. They said the animals had got to him some. And his daughter, well, I guess she’s just as crazy as he was, cause she waited a whole three days before she called anybody. She just set out there with his body, I guess. It must have stank to high heaven.”
“God,” Jolie said, and forked up some of the bacon and eggs. She chewed for a long time, but the food just stayed there, an unshrinking clot of grease and fat lingering in her mouth. She was embarrassed to think of seeing anyone she’d known. She who’d headed so proudly north without an inkling of the handicaps she toted with her, from the drawl that marked her as an ignorant redneck the moment she opened her mouth to that Jesus, burning in the flames, damned for all eternity and assuring her of her own fate, too. And she didn’t want to see Beulah or her cousins, either; she didn’t want to see anyone at all. She only wanted to be in the woods again, the way she’d been as a child, mapping the marshes and following the old sawmill roads and happening upon the bleached-white skulls of long-dead cows, their eye sockets huge and mortal and empty. She used to think she could find God out there. The preacher called that kind of thinking paganism, which was the next thing to worshipping the devil as far as he could see. At night Jolie dreamed of the devil, a huge brown reptilian creature reared up on powerful haunches, with a thick pointed tail. Hunched, as though he’d only recently learned to walk erect, his head was huge, vicious curved horns erupting on either side of it. In her dreams he tunneled up from someplace in the woods, and came up from a hole in the ground near where her mother used to plant jonquils in the spring. For months afterwards Jolie avoided that part of the yard after dark. The only place she really felt safe was the old barn in Granddaddy’s pasture. “You stay away from there, Jolie,” her father had told her. He said it was full of rusty nails and rats, and she could fall through a floorboard in the loft, or get bit by something and die of lockjaw. Jolie rarely defied her parents as a child, but she’d found that one private place irresistible.
“Ray’s getting off his shift at the plant soon,” LuAnn said, her gaze straying toward the clock on the oven. “I got to go pick him up, you want to come? He’ll be tickled to death to finally meet you.”
“I think I’ll stay here and take a nap,” Jolie said. She could hardly wait to see LuAnn backing her car up the driveway. Her breath came in short, tight, anticipating gasps; she was alone here at long last.
• • • •
Her granddaddy’s property could be reached by the road if you were willing to walk a couple of winding miles, but the shortcut was through the woods. Jolie’s head pounded from thirst, and salty sweat dripped from her upper lip into her mouth. She slapped at a constant irritation of gnats and mosquitoes whining round her. The heat made breathing difficult.
She thought about snakes, poisonous snakes sunning themselves, the quick lash of a viper’s tongue. The sky would fill with the sounds of their beating wings. She did not know if she would be strong enough to will them away. She pressed on.
The pond in the middle of Granddaddy’s pasture had lost much of its water, and a brown ring of mud surrounded it now. The rowboat she’d been forbidden to play in as a child, even to sit in for fun, had vanished. The barn beyond shimmered like a mirage in the heat. At the opposite end of the field, Donny Spinks’ woods grew dark and tangled as she remembered them, no signs saying they were leased to the One Shot Hunting Club like most of the land around here, not even a Posted: No Trespassing warning. She wondered who claimed them now. Donny’s daughter, she guessed, gone away to wherever she’d come from in the first place and letting the place run even wilder than before.
The barn had fallen into worse repair, the formerly padlocked doors unsecured and sagging on rusty hinges. Jolie pushed them apart. Inside, it smelled of abandonment and decay. When she was a kid she’d pulled loose boards apart at the back and slipped her skinny body through.
Birds rustled in the eaves above and sunlight spilled through splintered wood. While the stalls had in some cases collapsed entirely, the ladder to the loft still stood. Jolie gripped it with both hands and set a foot on the first rung, bouncing a little. It held firm.
The first few times she’d climbed the ladder had been scary ones. Once she’d made the mistake of looking down, and the earthen floor below her spun while she clung to the rungs, unable to move at all for a long time. Now Jolie lifted her other foot, and was suspended above the ground. She waited another moment, testing for the slightest indication of a give to the board, but felt nothing.
One foot up, one hand over. The next rung felt steady, too. Again she waited before lifting the other foot and placing her full weight there.
You came back for this.
Halfway up, she stopped and looked down. The floor of the barn was very far away. She’d hurt herself badly if she fell. She didn’t allow herself to look down again as she climbed. One rung did feel soft and rotted as the toe of her shoe pressed it, and she bypassed it, contorting her body to step up two rungs at once. And now, at last, the loft above.
Scattered sunlight lit patches of dusty boards. No one had used this as a real hayloft since her father was a child. She’d slept up here, and read enormous old books pilfered from her grandfather’s library. And then, one long Indian summer when she was nine years old, it had been taken from her, her last sanctuary, her last private spot. She’d been awakened by the noise of someone groaning, someone hurt in the barn. Peering through the opening, down past the ladder, she’d realized that the padlock was not secured; a space of light showed through the doors. She took the rungs swiftly. Heart pounding, she made her way down the row of empty stalls, sneakers scuffing on the hard-packed floor.
In the last stall on her right, a naked man moved atop a woman, making the groaning noise. Jolie’s hand flew to cover her mouth and stifle the little noise that tried to escape. She had heard puzzling talk of sex around school, fourth graders whispering as though it were some forbidden country someone occasionally stole back from with a little more information. She’d never imagined it would look so absurd. A second later the woman opened her eyes and Jolie recognized her Aunt Beulah.
“Wade,” Aunt Beulah said to the man grunting and heaving atop her, her eyes locked with Jolie’s and that was when Jolie realized that was her father there with her aunt.
But he wouldn’t stop; and Jolie stood like she was frozen, still staring at Aunt Beulah, Aunt Beulah still staring back, so long it seemed like just this side of forever. At last her father gave a final heave and was still.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he snarled at Aunt Beulah, rolling off of her, and in the act of doing so caught sight of his daughter.
For a moment their eyes met, and Jolie had the horrible feeling that her father was going to try to say something to her, try to talk to her. She tried not to look at him at all, especially not below his waist where his thing dangled. It was enormous, and made her think of some sort of weapon. Her father opened his mouth, and Jolie broke into a run. She ran past him to the front of the barn and slammed the doors apart so hard that splinters tore into her palms.
Remembering, Jolie wished now she’d never climbed into the loft; she couldn’t think how she’d ever get back down that rotted ladder. Now the sounds of fornicators in ecstasy rose up from below; or was it the groans and shrieks of the damned? The stench reached her nostrils a second later. She’d been staring out at the field, into the sunlight, and the brilliance of the day outside made it difficult for her to see the dark interior. But she knew what the smell was: old Donny Spinks, dead like LuAnn had told her, in a pool of his own vomit.
And she couldn’t stop remembering. That long-ago day she had run as fast as she could, across the field and into the woods, woods she didn’t know like she knew the others, because she’d been told to stay off other people’s property, woods she could get lost in. Donny Spinks came upon her there, crying by the creek, the rattlesnake chittering inches from her as it poised to strike. Donny’s axe came down right by Jolie’s head and she started screaming, thinking he meant to kill her.
After he took her up in his yard, she saw how he’d combed his hair up in neat tufts so no one could see the horns sprouting there. He didn’t look like the devil in her dream at all, not right at first, but Jolie knew better than to be fooled by appearances. She saw how the mark of the beast was woven in with the military tattoos across his arm, and she saw the flames reflected in his eyes. Was Jesus there too, trying to get out? She wasn’t sure whose miracle had saved her. Did it matter anymore?
Twenty years later, maybe it did. A sob escaped her there in the loft, and Jolie took another step forward toward the smell. Another, and another—and before her now, a whole nest of dead snakes, ripe and rotting, their bodies swollen with maggots. The sob nearly turned into a giggle of relief before she realized that he had changed himself into something else, wasn’t that what the devil did? Changing himself into a serpent, what did it matter one or many, live or dead? How else could snakes get up into a loft, if not through some divine or diabolical influence?
Jolie had tried to tell her mother what had happened in the loft. She had tried to tell her that very afternoon that she got home from Donny Spinks’ house, and her mother had slapped her and called her a nasty, terrible little girl. She sent Jolie straight to her room, where the picture of Jesus waited. He was extending His arms out to her and begging her to save Him. As she stared at Him, she thought she saw the flesh on first His arms and then his face begin to blacken and pop. You see how it is, He told her as blisters on His face burst and oozed. Then His head narrowed and flattened, His eyes slid back until they were on either side of His head, and a long forked tongue snapped out at her. You ssssee, he hissed. Are you going to help me?
The snakes before her now were dead, not hissing, not speaking to her. Jolie stumbled backward from them, and the board with most of her weight on it gave way with a sickening crack.
One foot plunged through the rotted wood. She crashed to one knee, half of her body still on solid floor. She leaned backwards, palms down behind her, and scooted herself back. Her raw and bleeding leg she held out stiff before her.
Jolie began to breathe very deliberately. She would have to get back over to the ladder and down again, but the recklessness which had possessed her earlier had fled. She lay flat on her back, hoping to distribute her weight across the boards, then rolled over on her stomach and began to drag herself across the loft. The air, suffused with the reek of the dead things in the corner, bore down on her, hot and fetid.
When she reached the ladder, she looked at the nails and upper rungs and wondered that she’d made it to the top. She pulled on one of the nails holding the ladder secure and felt it give, bits of wood crumbling. She would set her weight on it, and the entire structure would collapse. The floor was too far away to jump. If she did not descend soon, the floor here could give way, too. She needed another miracle, a miracle like with the rattlesnakes, and the fire. Jolie was the only one who knew how the fire had really happened. It hadn’t been her daddy’s cigarette like the firemen had thought. She had looked out the window and seen them coming, a whole army of them, carrying torches as they flew across the sky, coming at last to bring her freedom from that place, just as Jesus had promised her when she was a child. They’d been terrible creatures, not at all like the pictures in her Bible, or hanging up in the Sunday school rooms at church. Angels or demons, she wasn’t sure: some vile combination of the two. Through the long terrible night that followed, of smoke-burned lungs and seared flesh and desperate attempts to contain the fire before it spread to the woods, Jesus came to her. He told her everything was okay; it was Him that woke her up and got her out of the house before the smoke choked her to death like it did her parents. He told her she was free now, but she had to run north and never look back. He and the devil had a lot still to work out, and she better go while she could.
Jolie dragged herself forward another few inches, hiking her shirt up and scraping her stomach on the rough boards. Her foot struck another soft patch of wood and punched through. Another sob rattled her breathing. Now she was too frightened to move forward at all. Things fouled quickly in this heat; her own body would ripen and burst just as the snakes had. “Oh, God,” she said out loud, without thinking, and then, “Oh, Jesus,” because she’d never thought much about God, but Jesus had always been there for her.
She didn’t like having the dead things out of her sight. She was afraid to shift so that she could see them. She panted hard, the rotting-flesh smell turning her stomach, the fear clenching her insides up in knots. By the time anyone found her it would be too late. Already her stomach swelled, the maggots breeding inside her.
Jolie stretched her hands out and pulled on the ladder again. A piece of wood the size of her hand crumbled away, leaving the shaft of the rusted nail entirely exposed. And then she heard the terrible rushing in the air as they descended at last, the serpents with angels’ wings. They disguised themselves that way so you couldn’t tell who sent them, but Jolie was no longer fooled.
Her hand grabbed for the solid top rung of the ladder, wanting only to reassure herself of its remaining strength. The rung split in half as she grasped it, one piece tumbling to the floor below. Jolie moaned. They were all around her now.
They lined up alongside her and folded their flat smooth heads in pious prayer, while their forked tongues slipped from their mouths and their snake bodies writhed in unseemly ecstasy. Jolie let them settle their feather-soft wings on her, run their tongues along the length of her body and back again. A gentle swell from their wings lifted her from where she lay, flat on her stomach, and she could see out the window at the front of the loft, see the drying pond glistening, and the fields golden in the noonday sun, and the cool dark of the woods beyond.
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