Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

He Who Takes Away the Pain

“Get back in that bed, girl. You go on to sleep.” Mama said, clinging tightly to her apron. Hattie Mae let the curtain fall back into place and ran to bed with her tiny ebony feet patting on the hardwood floor as she went. She scooted in next to her sister, Betsy, and snuggled under the tattered covers, awaiting Mama’s kiss.

And of course Mama didn’t fail her. Her lips were soft and moist despite the worn, tired look on her face. She sighed as she stood back up, holding her back. Evidence of a long hard life, Mama always said.

“Now you go on to sleep, girl.”

The girl nodded and closed her eyes. She heard Mama cut off the lights and pull the door shut. It squeaked just before it had closed all the way. Mama hadn’t pulled the door completely shut; Hattie Mae knew it would have been too dark. Hattie Mae didn’t like the dark.

When she opened her eyes, the room was almost completely black, except for the light from the hall and that of the street post outside her window; she could hardly see past her own nose.

Neither of the lights reached as far as her bed.

The shadows on the walls shifted and changed in the strange way that they sometimes did at night, and she stared, hoping to see Him somewhere within them.

“What are you doin’?” Betsy whispered, holding her hand over her mouth as she coughed. “Mama’s gonna skin you if she finds you awake again.”

“I thought you were sleep. She’ll skin you too.”

“Un um,” she shook her wobbly head. “I’m smart enough to pretend sleep. You ain’t.” Betsy whispered, elbowing her in the side. It didn’t hurt though; she wasn’t that strong anymore.

The wall pictures shimmered again and this time she thought she saw the outline of a man within them. “I think I just saw him.” Hattie Mae said with a smile.

She pulled the covers back and started to get out of bed. But her sister grabbed her arm holding her in place. “He’ll put pepper in your eyes. Now get to sleep.”

Hattie Mae heard Mama cleaning and washing the dishes from supper. She had just turned off the water when there was a loud thumping sound from the roof.

“He’s here.” Hattie Mae said with all the excitement that only an eight-year-old can have. She bounced up and down on the bed, making the springs squeak and moan under the strain.

Just then she heard Mama’s footfalls coming toward their room. Betsy must have heard it too.

“Told you.” Then she put her head back down, pretending to sleep.

Mama burst into the room, not bothering to cut on the lights, as she made her way over to the bed. “Thought I said to get to sleep, Hattie Mae. He’s comin’. Heard ’em on the roof just now. You better get on to sleep, ’fore he put pepper in your eyes.” She put her hands on her large hips, “Now don’t make me swat you, girl.”

Betsy sat up, wiping her eyes, pretending to wake up. “What’s wrong, Mama?”

But Mama knew better, “Don’t play with me, girl. If you were really sleep, you would’ve woke up with all that bouncin’ up and down. I heard it all the way in the kitchen.”

There was another loud thump from the rooftop and Mama almost jumped outta her skin. When she looked back down at the girls, Hattie Mae thought she saw fear in the old woman’s eyes. Mama smiled and bent down to kiss them both on the forehead. Hattie Mae reached out to hug her mama. “Is He here, Mama?” She whispered into her ear.

This time she was sure that she had seen tears in her Mama’s eyes; the woman, who had grown old beyond her years, wiped them away fast. “I think He is, baby.”

Hattie Mae smiled at Betsy, “Black Man’s here.” Then she looked to her Mama and asked, “Will he take it away, Mama?”

“Yes, baby. He’ll take it all away. Did you kiss you sister good night?”

Hattie Mae nodded her head.

Suddenly a dark shadow loomed in behind Mama, completely engulfing her dark skin into the blackness, making her a shadow within a shadow. The room became colder and Hattie Mae could see her breath as she spoke, “He’s here.”

Then the shadow seemed to shrink into itself and form the outline of a man. A very tall, dark, featureless man. For the life of her, she could swear that he didn’t have a face. The shadow man glided toward Mama. He moved with an unnatural agility and seemed to float on nothing but the air itself, and for the first time, Hattie Mae thought that she should be afraid of him.

The man began to speak; his voice a soft whisper, “I’m here for your sick.”

Mama moved aside slowly to let the shadow man by. She seemed to have a mixed look on her face; half-mournful, half-pride. As if she thought that just by doing this she had blessed them and cursed them all at the same time. Hattie Mae knew by experience that is just what her Mama thought, for the shadow man had taken her father too.

The man reached her bed in just two steps—whereas it would have taken her more than ten—and slowly bent over and touched Betsy’s head.

His fingers sunk right into her skin, as a sharp bright light expelled from the wound.

Hattie Mae couldn’t see the light through the cover of her own eyelids anymore, however. She didn’t want to see what would happen. When she opened them, the shadow man was gone. “Did He take it Mama?”

“He took it baby.”

Hattie Mae sat up in her bed, afraid to look over in the spot where her sister should have been—had been for her entire life. She slowly turned her head.

Betsy was gone.

Then Mama said, “God bless He Who Takes Away the Pain.”

• • • •

The lady nurse came that next day. She stood at the door with her sharp white pants and white blouse (You can’t trust a woman in pants, Mama always said) and her big black bag.

“Ain’t no sick here.” Mama said as soon as she opened the door.

“I would be willing to just check out your girl there,” she winked at Hattie Mae. “What could it hurt?”

Mama shook her head, “She ain’t sick. Don’t need no doctor here.”

“Oh,” The woman shot a big smile, “I’m not a doctor. I’m just someone who wants to ease the suffering. That’s all.”

“We got Him for that.”

“I’m sure you do. But,”—she smiled again—“what can it hurt? Just some time and a little bit of hope. It won’t cost you a thing.”

“Look,” Mama said, “we don’t need no healers here. Gettin ’em riled up. Makin ’em think that God ain’t meant for them to suffer. Tryin’ to turn them away from Him.”

The woman shook her tiny head; “I just want to help ease the pain a little. That’s all. Maybe save a life or two along the way.”

“We was put here to die. Now get. Ain’t no sick here.” Mama slammed the door.

When she spun around she caught Hattie Mae staring at her, “Hattie Mae, you get in there and do them chores. And empty that trash, girl.”

• • • •

Outside, Hattie Mae pulled the can behind her like it weighed a ton—and it did, to her. Betsy use to do this, before she was gone, she thought, now I gotta do it. I hate doin’ the trash. Just as she picked up the heavy can and tried to lift it into the bend, the weight was lightened and it was lifted right out of her arms.

She looked up to see the nurse’s pearl white teeth smiling at her. Her dark-skin a strange contrast to those bright whites. “Hi.”

“Hey.” Hattie Mae looked around. She knew she wasn’t supposed to be talking to this woman, but she had to admit that she liked her.

They had lived in a place called Baltimore before they’d come here, and Hattie Mae knew that not everybody lived like this. Now she just wanted everything to be like it was before. She just wanted hope. But there was no hope; Papa and Betsy was gone.

“So what’s your name?”

“Hattie Mae,” she whispered.

“Oh, that’s a pretty name. Boy, I wish I had a pretty name like that.”

“What is your name?”

She smiled, “I have no name for which they call me out right. Not to my face anyway.” She laughed and her entire face lit up like the wick of a newly ignited candlestick. “But you may name me if you like.”

“Well I don’t know. Ain’t never named no body b’fore. Papa said that pickin’ names for us girls was the hardest thing he ever had to do. Ends up he just named me after his Mama and Betsy after Mama’s Mama.” Hattie Mae looked at the ground as if she had said something wrong.

The woman smiled, “Go on, you can do it.”

“Well, how ’bout Joy? Always liked that name.”

The woman thought about it for a moment, “I like that. Joy.” She let the word linger on her tongue for a moment. “Joy.”

“Maybe Mary, like the mother of Christ. Or Sara. That’s in the Bible too.”

“I like them all.”

“I really like Mary.” Hattie Mae said, just as her Mama opened the back door to their small shotgun house, calling her name.

“Well, then,” the woman bent over so that the two were eye to twinkling eye, “Why don’t you get back to me on it. Okay?” She winked.

When the girl watched her walk away, it almost looked as if she were walking straight into the sun itself. Hattie Mae got a warm feeling all over her body.

• • • •

“Let he who knows pain and fear, know Him. Those with doubt in their hearts and hate on their minds will not see Him.” The preacher’s voice boomed through the small church room.

Everyone sat motionless and quiet. Every once in a while a loud “Amen!” would ring out from the onlookers, but it did not interrupt the showman’s flow.

“And do not be fooled by those she-devils with the short skirts and long legs. For they are the work of evilness. Man was placed here and woman came next to tempt him. But do not be tempted.” He screamed his warning pointing his bony finger into the crowd. “She will DAMN you.” He paused, looked around. Eyeing each and everyone in the humble room. To Hattie Mae, it seemed as if he held her gaze for an eternity.

“But He who takes your pain will come. And He will save you. All you must do is ask. Like a child on Christmas, you’ll be happy. Sickness comes and there will be those who tell you to run to those doctors. Those she-devils. Those unholy folk, who don’t give a damn about your soul, they only want your body. But that’s sinful. If God wants you well, he’ll heal you.”

“Amen!” Someone shouted.

“That’s sinful. Sinful.” He ended his sermon on a high note. Repeating that word with particular heinousness. “Sinful.”

The church members were spellbound, as they usually were when the man spoke. Most staying late to help him with some odd chore or another and to applaud the minister on his insightful revelation.

Pastor Zackaria was said to have the gift of sight, as did his father before him. And his father before that.

Hattie Mae and her Mama walked over and her mother shook the man’s hand. He held it tightly, cupping it with the other. “He came to us last night, father.”

“Praise the Lord.” The preacher said. “She’s walking with the angels now, sister.”

Hattie Mae’s Mama nodded her head, “And with her, father.”

• • • •

The days and months passed, every now and again the woman without a name would come to visit, and Mama would slam the door in her face. The outside world moved along as it always did, while the members stuck together on the tiny island began dying.

Hattie Mae saw the woman nurse going to other people’s houses but they all shunned her, just as Mama had. The girl had begun to overhear the adults whisper about “Smallpox.” She didn’t know why, but that word had scared her. They had said that some of the deliverymen had brought it over on the boat from Africa when they delivered supplies.

A pregnant cloud of hopelessness hung over the group. Night after night He Who Takes Away the Pain also took the members loved ones. One night it was Mr. Carson, the next it was Mrs. Black and her unborn child.

The schoolhouse was virtually empty now, as only Hattie Mae and three other children were well enough to come. And then it closed altogether when the teacher, Mrs. Carson, went away with Him.

• • • •

That night, the girl awoke to find him standing over her bed, his icy hand on her forehead.

She felt the sickness run through her body as he caressed her face. She felt the deadly presence of something older than time touching her soul. And she knew that she, like her father and sister, would be taken away soon.

• • • •

The next day in church, there were very few people. Most of the five hundred or so people who had originally come here with Pastor Zackaria had either gone or was too sick to attend. Hattie Mae knew that they, like her family, would never get better. Her Mama had died during the night, and He had come to claim her.

She had tried not to mourn her—like Mama had instructed her before she died—but she’d cried like a little baby alone in that house. She hated to be alone.

Pastor Zackaria also showed signs of the sickness, as he sat and spoke telling everyone not to be afraid, that the end would come soon enough. But now the “Amens” had been replaced by the coughs and moans of the sick.

Just then, the doors to the church burst open, leaving the splintered wood to hang freely from the hinges, and the lady nurse, without a name, walked in. She didn’t carry her big black bag since no one here could be helped anymore.

She walked—almost glided—to the front of the church and stood at the altar.

Although her lips did not move, the group could hear her voice clearly in their own heads.

“The last of you has been infected now. You were offered the opportunity to help yourselves. To save yourselves and your children from the suffering of death and pain. But you refused.” Still her mouth did not move, and her eyes blinked wildly. “He who takes away your pain—your children’s pain—also takes away their lives. But,”—she paused and held out her hands—

“She, who stands before you now, could have taken away your sorrow as well.” And with that, she was gone. Her beautiful magnificent light faded into a dull glow and then into a small pin-size light, and then disappeared altogether.

The small group of less than ten people sat in silence for a complete moment, stunned, unable to speak.

Then the pastor’s voice erupted, a hollow shell of what it had once been: “I ask you all now, what is pain without suffering?”

Everyone applauded in agreement; the horrendous coughs echoing throughout the dead room.

Hattie Mae looked up to the sky, hoping somehow to see the unnamed nurse. She dared to name her: Hope.

Chesya Burke

Chesya Burke

Chesya Burke has written and published nearly a hundred fiction pieces and articles within the genres of science fiction, fantasy, noir and horror. Her story collection, Let’s Play White, is being taught in universities around the country. In addition, Burke wrote several articles for the African American National Biography in 2008, and Burke’s novel, The Strange Crimes of Little Africa, debuted in December 2015. Poet Nikki Giovanni compared her writing to that of Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison and Samuel Delany called her “a formidable new master of the macabre.”

Burke’s thesis was on the comic book character Storm from the X-Men, and her comic, Shiv, is scheduled to debut in 2017.

Burke is currently pursuing her PhD in English at University of Florida. She’s Co-Chair of the Board of Directors of Charis Books and More, one of the oldest feminist book stores in the country.