Deep in the Virginia forests, Marik Johnson grubbed through the dirt. He knew it was here. It had to be here. His nemesis could not have found it. Marik remembered burying it beneath the rotting oak a fortnight ago, just as old mother had told him. Old mother had gotten a fever; her head was addled, but Marik had listened as she had boasted, telling him things she never would have told Marik, whom she liked to call a twisted stump. But he had pushed her mind along. He had to. His nemesis had learned the secrets from old mother over some sordid tryst long ago. Marik could understand how that could happen. Old mother had Delilah’s eyes, the eyes that hid behind veils, timeless unto the old days. But Marik was certain that he had learned more from old mother than his nemesis had learned, and afterwards old mother couldn’t speak or teach anything to anybody, except to the worms in the ground. Marik had made sure of that.
Marik’s hands were blackened from digging through the soil. It had to be here. Layers of dirt encrusted and entrenched under ridged and torn fingernails. The rotted log was infested with termites, but that didn’t bother him. He simply brushed them aside, being careful not to kill any. Every living thing could curse you, so you had to be careful.
He opened the lid. His breathing and the chirrup of crickets were the only sounds in the night. Marik wasn’t afraid of the animals. They always froze when he went into the forest. The animals were quick to sense Marik as he never bathed. And even the black bears hunkered down in dread of his coming. The Appalachian forest hated Marik and the other, but the forest feared Marik more, feared him like fire.
Still, Marik searched the dark field for the cold glint of human eyes, eyes enmeshed with the dark light of the forbidden gods. This was too precious. With this box he would get the upper hand on the old man who hounded him, who shrieked his ebony spells at Marik.
Tentatively, Marik caressed the contents of his treasure. The carcass was undisturbed, entombed securely in the virginal oak box. It was a sparrow’s carcass, but Marik knew that it was more than it appeared. The fledgling had died at the zenith of spring. Marik shuddered in tremors of ecstacy and revulsion, just contemplating the rich, textural malice infesting this husk. Old man Jenkins would feel his pain tomorrow night, would share it for an eternity. Marik chuckled to himself as he closed the lid quickly, but quietly. Tomorrow night would be the new moon when the spaces between the stars would be at their darkest. The dark nights, hidden from all eyes, had been Delilah’s favorite time. Tomorrow night would put things to right. The spell had been aged properly. Marik could feel it and revel in it.
He tucked the white box under his arm and scampered across the field. He had left his truck running in case old man Jenkins had found him with an evil eye. If the old man had located him, Marik would need a quick escape.
Rusting with a nostalgic grace, Marik’s truck was colored a faded red: one of those old style pick ups, where the hood and fenders were all bumps and curves. The left front side of the truck was crumpled with scratches and dents. He had gotten drunk on some corn mash and had rammed her into an oak tree on his honeymoon. He had meant to fix her, but that was just when Delilah had come down sick. Marik could still remember her sweat and the blood she had coughed near the end; staring contemptuously at death, she had never been more beautiful. At times Marik could remember her with a crystalline clarity. Her beauty sparkled in his mind: the bright light amid the gloom of the old ways he had been forced to learn now that the old man hounded him. He didn’t have time for reminiscences; Jenkins could be anywhere. He tossed his shovel in the back of his truck.
The bed of the truck had more rust than the body, but that was covered with Marik’s tools: shovel, pitchfork, antlers, a doe’s fetus, hammers, two by fours, loose nails, bags of hair and fingernails, water from the storm of eighty-nine in a sealed paint bucket, and other sundries that Marik felt would help him in his war. The inside of the truck had a broken radio with ripped vinyl seats–flesh colored. A crucifix hung from the smudged rear view mirror.
Marik climbed into the truck and placed the white box that held his salvation between his legs. He couldn’t risk the white box getting damaged. It made his heart skip a beat just thinking of it. After kissing the crucifix and crossing himself, he started her patchwork engine. The truck groaned for a moment when he put her in first gear. He was used to that. He drove down the dirt road at a hectic pace. The hairs on his scalp were tickling him. It was one of the sure signs. Jenkins was using the eye, trying to find him.
"Damn." Marik muttered under his breath, "Not now."
Marik took one hand off the wheel and ran it through his oily black hair, pushing it from his eyes. The tingle wouldn’t go away. The old man was good; he knew the curses better than Marik and Marik knew that. Marik was still new to the forbidden world. The tryst of Jenkins and old mother and their sharing of secrets had happened in the old days when spirits roamed the woods in daylight. And Marik had never had cause to learn the old ways before now. Delilah had always protected him, cradled him. Marik accelerated the truck, riding that line between control and chaos. He wanted to get out of Jenkins’ reach. The evil eye tired a body out. Marik fervently hoped it would leave Jenkins drained for tomorrow’s night of the new moon.
Static blurted from the broken radio.
Marik screamed. He slammed on the worn breaks. The pedal almost touched the floor, almost. The left side of the truck went into the run off ditch. Marik turned right sharply and got her under control again. He sweated; his body trembled; it had been like last time. The radio static was louder, and a voice spoke just beyond the static. One of those AM news stations plagued his ears. Marik twisted the knobs to no avail. Jenkins had control of his broken radio. Jenkins: it must be that old man.
There was nothing Marik could do except laugh. It was too bad the old man couldn’t have done a better job and gotten him some music. Marik stopped kidding himself. That curse had come closer than the others. Jenkins had tried to get him to crash, tried to make his truck ram him into an oak tree. But Marik was too far away from the old man’s shack. All that Jenkins had done was fix the radio. Old Jenkins was scared. Old Jenkins knew he was moving for the new moon. That curse was a desperate attack, which failed miserably. Rolling over grass that had gone to seed, Marik parked his truck behind his house.
He grabbed the sparrow’s box with his left hand and held the precious crucifix with his right and kissed it again. Maybe the Lord had saved him from the crash. The Lord knew everything, so He had to know the old ways, too. Marik unloaded everything from the back of his truck into his two room house and then into his toilet room. He had an indoor bath, a real bath, not some oversized washtub. Not everyone around here could make that boast. The old man couldn’t. Delilah had loved that bath. He remembered warming the water over the woodstove and pouring the buckets of scalding water over her body. She loved that and loved him for helping her. Now, the tub was filthy, but Marik didn’t mind. He didn’t use it to bathe anymore. The tub was his power bag now. It’s where he trapped the spirits, the spirits of vengeance, the spirits to torture the old man. Tonight, Jenkins was safe. Tonight was just the summoning.
Getting things up from hell was a problem. It took blood and promises to get anything more than a damned spirit. "No, no," Marik muttered to himself. That would be too easy for Jenkins. Marik wanted one of the Fallen Ones who were barred for eternity from the Grace: one who could hate like he could hate, hate with a physical body. Marik knew there was no good hate without a body, without the flesh to feel. He had to drag the body up from hell as well as the spirit, so it could carry the old man back with it. Jenkins would languish for an eternity in hell. But what really added joy to Marik, what made the effort worth it was that Jenkins would be alive in hell with years left to his natural span, alive with freewill in hell, with a body like no other. And the denizens of hell, the Fallen Ones and the damned spirits, would torture him on that account.
The blasphemies began. They would last the entire night. Marik didn’t stop until the little sparrow had absorbed all the crushed mandrake, all the blood, all his hate. Delilah would have been proud of him. The tub was dry when the first weak rays of the dawn sun peaked through the broken bathroom window. Gently, he picked the sparrow from the tub, though he couldn’t stop his exhausted hands from quivering. The sparrow husk, he placed in the oak box and closed the lid. He had a remembrance set for this last day before the final vengeance to bolster his courage and harden his resolve. Besides, Marik thought that it would be better to be away from the house. If Jenkins was going to stop him, it had to be a curse cast today, before the new moon had risen.
Taking the little white box with him, Marik started his truck and kissed the crucifix. The Reverend was coming through the area tomorrow, and Marik intended to ask for forgiveness after his curse was done. The radio was still yapping on that same station. Some man was droning on about some foreign country and some other foreign country arguing. Marik ignored it. Jenkins was only using the radio to spook him.
He drove toward the store. It was called simply the store, for there wasn’t another for fifty miles. Marik wanted to buy some roses for Delilah. Harvey, the man who owned the store, was ignorant of the old ways, but Harvey loved flowers. His store was the only place for miles that had electricity. Clean shaven Harvey had built a generator behind the store. He always said that he couldn’t live without TV ever since he had seen a National Geographic show on panda bears. Harvey always wanted to improve himself: a fool who didn’t understand the way things really worked.
Marik tried to drive calmly. He refused to listen to the little voice on the radio that was now speaking more rapidly. If his fear got to him, it would only make it easier for Jenkins’ evil eye to find him again.
A buck bounded across the road. It must’ve had a ten point rack. Crushing the break pedal with both feet, Marik barely missed the animal. Dozens of bullets pelted the hood of his truck. His driver’s side window exploded. The glass cut his face. It all happened so fast. Marik put his hand on his bloodied cheek and looked past the broken window.
Five men rushed through the woods toward him and shouted something he couldn’t understand. They wore green army uniforms. They were chinamen. Marik had seen pictures of chinamen before. Maybe, they were Viet Cong. Marik reached for the shotgun he kept on the rear window rack of his truck. The orientals kept shouting at him. The radio blared on. His limbs froze. He was scared, scared past his hate.
Only one man could do that to him: Jenkins.
Marik took out his hunting knife and cut his arm. He put the gash up to his eyes and let the blood drop onto his pupils while he chanted to the Raven god of the indians who had once lived here. He was in the middle of Jenkin’s curse. He knew that. It was a damned vision.
He lifted his arm from his eyes. His face was smeared as if he were crying blood tears. It was a powerful counter. And it worked. The orientals shimmered and changed into the Jeffries’ boys, hunting that stag. They had come back from that war in arab land that had happened several years ago. The boys had smuggled some assault rifles. Marik put the shotgun on the rack and smiled. Jenkins had failed twice.
They were strapping boys, and old man Jeffries had raised his sons to know how to fight. But they had manners, too. They came up at a run and asked how he was. Seeing the blood on his face, they wanted to take him to their mother who was pretty good at fixing hurts.
Marik laughed and told them to stay indoors tonight. The Jeffries’ boys blanched. Almost everyone knew that he and Jenkins practiced the old ways. Marik drove off.
The Jeffries’ boys headed for home. The buck just wasn’t worth it.
Marik wiped his face before going into the store. He didn’t have a grudge against Harvey and didn’t want to upset him. Only Jenkins crawled inside Marik, and he had to get the old man out of him to make more room for Delilah. Delilah deserved his whole heart, so Jenkins had to go. Marik opened the shiny white door of the store. Harvey was so stupid that he had painted over the hex marks.
"H’lo, Marik," Harvey said, "take a look at this. My television just started working. Don’t even have the generator on. Must’ve been some electricity left over from the last time I used it."
"Roses," grunted Marik. He had a long drive to the cemetery. He wanted the last part of his curse finished before the sun sank. When Harvey didn’t move, Marik thumped the grimy counter, not bothering with the limp, little bell by the cash register.
Harvey looked at him and shook his head. "Don’t you want to hear this? It’s the President."
Marik snarled, "Get me the roses. What do I care about the President? He ain’t never helped me. He and you can go to hell. And I mean that. Move. I’m in a hurry."
Harvey grabbed a pair of hedge clippers and went out the back. Marik followed closely. Harvey grumbled, "You damn well will care about the President if he gets us another country. We’ll be rich. We’ll have Russian and Chinese people to do our work for us. Hell, Russia ain’t but a bunch of states now as it is. Then, they can all send us money for saving them. That’s how politics really works, you know."
Marik always suspected that Harvey was a shiftless thinker at heart. He snatched the roses from Harvey as soon as they were cut. They went to the cash register, and Marik dug in his jeans for a few squashed bills and left the store.
He heard Harvey curse at the TV set as he got in his truck, "Damn, gotta start the generator." Leaving the muddy parking lot, Marik watched Harvey wearily lug a gas can behind his store.
The drive to the cemetery was long and winding. The sliding red clay forced Marik’s attention. Mountains and foothills commanded the curves of the road, tempting him to be careless. Marik expected trouble. The radio wouldn’t stop hounding him with static and blubbering about foreigners. He guessed Jenkins knew where he was. He was certain Jenkins knew where he was going.
But the ride was uneventful.
Marik drove the truck into a field and turned off the engine. Jenkins’ cursed radio wouldn’t shut up, and Marik was sore from the long ride. He muttered, "Illuyankas," an Hittite blasphemy in their dead language. Marik had never studied the Hittite rites or the dragon Illuyankas, but since he had murdered old mother and wrested her secrets, he had entered into the practice of speaking in tongues. He simply grabbed the roses and the white box with the bloated sparrow’s corpse. He wanted to show it to Delilah. She would be so proud of it.
The light of day had surrendered to the twilight edge of night. Marik held the roses with a reverent tenderness and hiked toward the cemetery. The forgotten cemeteries linked the living to the old ways, for the old ways lingered around desolate decay where blasphemies could assume the guise of hallowed ground. Everybody who cared about this cemetery had died and left it to the ivy and the crabgrass and the chiggers to tend the dead. Such caches of death and old power were scattered around the mountains, usually in family burial plots. Corpses from the Civil War waited for the final day in this cemetery. Delilah was buried here where no one could find her and pester her. The undergrowth in the Virginian forests was thick and the rain, harsh. Most of the marker stones had faded. The cemetery ended as just a miasma of weeds and thickets among some carved rocks, except for one grave, Delilah’s freshly turned grave where the weeds had not yet dared to crawl over her.
Marik stood over her grave and gently lowered the roses to the ground in front of her tombstone. He had chiseled her name on that tiny stone. It was only the name without the dates: It was all he needed. The name brought everything back to him: her smooth body and eyes of fire, her palsied hands and the scars of her craft. Her golden hair had flung about her shoulders when she had teased him. Her supple lips had framed the curses bringing them all to heel and shaming them with her craft. Delilah had been her father’s daughter, exquisite. She didn’t practice the old ways: She was the old ways. Marik convulsed and trembled. He prostrated himself on the fresh earth and clutched the tombstone, hugging it as he had always wanted to hug her. But she had been too pure for that. Hers was a lofty lore that made a mockery of the charlatans with their rattlesnake handling. Delilah was Queen.
He sobbed openly now, rubbing his face in the dirt and kissing, thrusting his tongue into the soil as if he could reach her corpse with his love. The rose thorns scratched his chest, and he thought of her.
"Boy, she’s dead. God took her."
Marik screamed. The voice shattered his privacy, broke into his heart when he had laid it bare. He got to his feet slowly, as if unsure of his movements, unsure of everything. No one knew this secret place. This graveyard was hidden for his heart and hers. Nobody else had the right to touch their sacred ground.
It was Jenkins. The last rays of the sun cast his long, deep shadow over Marik and covered Delilah’s grave in darkness.
He was old, older than Marik remembered. His body was covered with the scars of their forbidden craft. But his skin was loose and his ribs showed. He wasn’t wearing clothes, disdainful of any human thing touching him. Marik stared at him with eyes that glittered and stabbed his hate at the old man.
Jenkins met his stare without flinching. His eyes were neither febrile nor dead. Those eyes hinted of ice and patience. They dwarfed Marik’s passionate hate with a planned, controlled loathing.
Marik grabbed his little white box that entombed the bloated sparrow. He held it in front of Jenkins to threaten him with it, but the night’s chill brought a shiver to his arm. Marik asked, "H-How did you find this place?"
Jenkins stared at the little box. Dry lips tightened the wrinkles in his pitted face, pantomiming a smile. His eyes trailed from the box to Marik. And Marik knew that the box held no terror for the old man, that the old man wanted damnation. Marik’s breaths quickened. The old man seemed to be draining his hate and filling the void in his gut with despair. Marik screamed, "Tell me!"
Jenkins spoke in measured tones that held no anger, no joy, no feeling save for, perhaps, anticipation, perhaps, cruelty, "Boy, I’m her father. I taught her. She was the best of us all, but she’s dead. God took her. Take me in your vengeance, your white sparrow’s box, if you can. They want this. The Fallen Ones want my vengeance, not yours. Boy, you were no more than a cow for her to milk your passion. You know nothing about the old ways. Old mother learned from me, boy. From me!"
Marik dropped the box. "What are you going to do to me?"
Jenkins laughed, which set off a coughing fit. Finally, he spat his phlegm toward Marik and said, "It’s already done. I never cursed you, boy. You think vengeance on you makes up for my–my daughter, my beloved Delilah. You think too much of yourself. You were hers first. Then, when she died, you became mine by right of inheritance. Finish your curse. Call a Fallen One to send me to hell. It’s what I want: a trivial part of my vengeance. You will simply be sending me to her. My vengeance against Delilah’s murderer has already begun."
Marik gaped at him. Confusion mixed up everything in him. He said, "If not me—-"
"Then who?" Jenkins finished his words for him and laughed. "You didn’t kill her. Drunkards are always killing their wives in wrecks. But Delilah was special. She shouldn’t have died."
Jenkins shook with a palsy and his face reddened, "He took her, boy! God took her. And my vengeance is on Him."
His hysteria passed and Jenkins smiled coldly again, "I even tried to tell you, but you thought my messages were curses. That’s how blind you are. My curses were on His world, boy. Tonight, when the darkness between the stars is most deathly, my curses will have done and I will be revenged, for I have cursed the world, His world. And the nations will destroy each other with their bombs. There will be nothing left. Nothing, but ashes. Ashes! His work will be no more. He took beautiful Delilah from me, but I shall join her in hell while His world burns."
As if he were in a nightmare, Marik slowly bent down and fumbled for the white sparrow’s box. Only a few stars pierced the clouds now. Touching her stone, he felt the box resting on Delilah’s fresh earth. He clutched it in his hands as his knuckles whitened. Jenkins had won. The thought passed through Marik’s mind that he could go back to the truck and get his shotgun and kill Jenkins.
But it was too dark to see anything now, save for Delilah–she in his mind’s eye. His nightmare changed to a beautiful dream with golden hair. Marik felt calm. He felt relieved of his fear of Jenkins and his loathing for himself. He hadn’t killed Delilah in that crash. Delilah was too special for him to harm. Only God could have the strength to curse crystalline Delilah. Marik’s heart opened to release the passion that had driven him to fight Jenkins. He filled his heart with his gilded memories of Delilah as he blindly pleaded in the dark to her father, "Take me with you."