The Lady in the Mountain Part 2
Another Saturday morning greeted him late. He'd consumed almost half a quart of shine in the lonely darkness and passed out in a heap by a fire designed to warm only him. The sun was high overhead, pushing green light through the tree leaves above him. He crawled, twigs and dried bits of leaves sticking to his hands and knees, to a nearby bush and wretched the emptiness left in his stomach from the liquor. Finished, he rolled onto his back and closed his eyes again before he'd be forced to haul split wood to feed the strong-smelling mash fires. He tried to conjure his will, he knew he couldn't put off the day anymore. A swift moving crashing spilled through the brush and leaves towards him, but he lacked the care or energy to move.
“Jesse.” A girl whispered at him after the rustling crescendo ceased. “Jesse Harris.” She hissed.
Jesse grunted, too hungover and sorry for himself to move.
A blond girl crept into the blurred edges of his vision and looked at him solemnly. There were runs in her stockings, and one had rolled itself clear down her left leg. Her black shoes were spotted with holes much like his own. Sally's unsteady image looked down at him when he squinted.
“Jesse get up or you're gonna miss her.” She pleaded.
“Who?” He growled, annoyed with even the air around him.
“Ella.” The young woman sniffled into a Sunday handkerchief.
“Hmm.” He moaned, closing his confused eyes.
Jesse swatted at her blindly. “Get outta here. Damn liar.”
“They's bringin' her home, then goin' to the church. Likely they already been 'ta the house by now.”
His starfished hand groped blindly at the ground near his hip and flung a handful of leaves at her. She screeched something angry at him that he couldn't understand before crashing back down the mountainside by the same way she'd come. Jesse lay in a stupor for another long while not understanding anything more than breathing in and breathing out as the last vestiges of the alcohol cleared from the blood in his brain. Meaning and weight came slowly to his thoughts as drops of water filling a pail. Ella at the church. He could go there. He didn't have the privilege of calling at the Clark house the way Sally did, but no one could keep him from the church.
Jesse scrambled to his feet and dusted off his shirt frantically. He raced to the first of the three nearby stills and threw wood under the giant metal tank. Soft black earth kicked up under the balls of his feet as he tore to the second and third, doing the same. Satisfied that the operation could spare him he slipped and leaped eagerly down the mountainside, gripping at roots and saplings as he hastily made way towards the little town below. With a final clangor he spilled out of the trees and into the small open field beside the church.
Neat rows of cars and people dressed in Sunday clothes stood beside the building. It was only then that it struck him as odd that Ella should be going to the church on a Saturday. But still the town gathered as though for an Easter Sunday sermon and he was too excited to find any meaning in it. As he moved through the hayfield the building shifted in his perspective. The couples, the elderly people, the children moving reverently, were not going inside the tall steepled house. They were passing the building's corner and stepping into the tall grass of the cemetery.
All at once fear turned molten the bottom of his guts, and a sick sweat beaded along his hairline. He raced hard against the jackhammer beating the inside of his ribs, but stopped so hard he fell to his knees a hundred yards short of the graveyard. Old Man Clark and Jimmy pulled something from the back of a truck and hoisted the wide board over their shoulders between them. And laid out on it like the most beautiful feast for Hades himself was Ella's pale sundress clad body. Everyone else around the place had stopped moving, too, as if catching sight of her at the same time he had. He watched in horror as she was moved in slow procession to a pinewood box left on the ground in an empty corner of the yard. Jimmy gathered her gently, slowly, under her arms. Jesse tried blinking the image away, but it still played on. Her long brown hair fell like a curtain behind her, as if it were a rope that yanked against her head, pulling it backward, too far- farther than a head should be able to go. One of her stockinged feet slipped limply from her shoe as her foot raked over the edge of the coffin. One of the nearby women stooped quickly and chased the foot into the box to replace it.
Jesse's body became possessed of its own volition and crept slowly towards the split rail fence surrounding the church grounds. Soon he could hear the somber tones of the parishioners and the repeating hiss hiss of a shovel in dirt. He paused not far from the fence.
“Damn slick talkin' city folk.” Someone said low.
“T'aint your fault, Clark. No one would'a known that one was so wicked.” Another said reassuringly.
“I'll kill 'em. I'll burn t'whole of Kingsport to the damn ground!” Old Man Clark seethed, sitting hard on a stump that had once made up half of a large cedar tree.
“My baby girl, didn't do nothin' to no one, not ever.” Jimmy sniffled, toeing the line between the raw earth covering his daughter's broken body and the grass surrounding it.
“Throw'd her out like trash. Poor sweet Ella.” A woman wailed, covering her mouth with a tear-stained cloth.
Jesse pressed past the group, staring at the places his feet fell as they moved him along. His shoulder brushed against the dark pine siding of the church, keeping him upright. One hand slid strongly against the side of a parked car as he passed it. He stumbled down the middle of the road some ways before lurching into the ditch and dry heaving himself dry. He staggered back to his feet and pressed on for the imagined comfort of home.
Slowly the early autumn sun fell towards the horizon. The green and dust-colored world grew warmer with orange and yellow tones of light. He slipped on the front steps of the house with a shattering crash and cracked his shin, but he hardly noticed. The house was empty when he clattered through the front door, though he could hear the sputtering of the old truck making its way up to the house from the long drive beyond. He grabbed the 30-30 over the back door and stepped weakly to the barn, slamming the door shut so hard it startled the old horse in its nearby stall. It hopped and snorted loudly before nickering. Jesse fumbled through the dark space waiting for his eyes to adjust. Almost immediately he heard his brother, Ford, racing through the yard after him, bellowing his name. He broke like a noisy wave against the barn door, but found it locked fast.
Ford's big fists, far larger than his own, pounded hard against the oak boards. “I seen you runnin' here, Jess!” There was a hopeful pause eager for a response, but when none came Ford spoke again, “I seen that gun, too. Lemme in, brother!”
“Naw!” He spat, groping wildly for the saddle he knew rested on a stack of stray straw bales near one corner. “Ya'll leave me be.”
The sun drew farther into the darkness of night as moments of silence passed. He heard his father speaking tersely at Ford. They peppered their soft talk with hard breaths and swear words.
“No one's leavin' you be, son. Get outta that barn!” His father roared.
“Son, what in the high hell's got into ya?”
Ford rattled the doors hard. Finally, he sighed and said a little louder, “Just leave'em. He's a grown man.”
“Run t'your uncles. Get the crew down here.” Their father said. There had already been one local parent who had buried a child, and concern laced the edges of his words at the thought of what he suspected might happen to his own.
Jesse opened the stall door and tossed the saddle pad on the gelding's back, and slid the bit into its mouth before securing the heavy leather saddle in place. He listened hard at the door as his father's steps retreated towards the house, surely in search of the ax that waited at the woodpile. Content that his brother had moved down the drive towards the road, Jesse lead the gelding through the dark building and unlocked the small back door that remained barricaded for as long as he could remember, and resealed it after they'd passed through it.
Beside the horse he walked slowly, not wanting to draw attention to his retreat with the thunder of hooves. The moon was a sliver, casting barely enough light for him to see. But when he leapt on the animal's back it took off like a flash under the pinch of his heels. Through the woods, under musty pine trees, and across noisy creeks, following the crease in the ground where the rocky mountain's side rose from the valley floor. He urged the sharp-sighted animal on through the deepening night, wondering how many undisturbed hours remained.
Before long the horse came out in the same meadow he'd traversed earlier that day. The lonely spire of the empty church rose white at first and ended in an unseen tip against the night sky. He tied the horse to the fence and hopped over it, grabbing one of the three shovels still resting against the top rail.
He stood motionless at first, staring at the pale rectangle of earth before him. The horse crunched on the bit in its mouth, and the soft rasp of its tail flicking its side slid past his ears. The church was a long way off from the tiny town tucked between the mountains, and there was little more than the calls of crickets to make noise.
The dirt moved easy from the hole, and he found the casket the slight young woman had been left in was far less than six feet in the ground since hard slag-rock ran shallow under the entire area. Shovel after shovel flung across his view until he huffed out short breaths between coughs. Jesse's hands scuffed noisily through the final, thin, layer of remaining dirt on the pine boards that separated him from his love. He brushed the coffin as clean as he could before driving the shovel's spade between two planks and prying so hard the box moved before the nails could let loose. His heart raced as the final sliver of metal gave up with a sharp groan, flying free of its confines and landing with a soft 'pat' in the nearby grass. Jesse bent at the edge of the hole again to open the box.
Ella lay pristine below him. He nervously wiped the dirt and sweat from his palms across the breast of his shirt before reaching gently and cupping the side of her face in one hand. The force, however gentle is was, sent her head reeling to one side. Her cheek slapped hard against the bottom of the coffin under the weight of her skull. A cry caught in his throat at the harshness of the motion and he reacted by reaching in and hoisting her limp body from the grave.
The smell of roses was gone from her skin. Instead she smelled of foreign embalming fluids from the big city funeral home that had received her body before she was shipped home to her family. The almond crescents of her eyelashes reached unevenly for the tops of her high cheek bones and he paused, one arm under hers- her head at a terrible angle against his chest- and smoothed them shut with a trembling hand.
“I waited, Ella. For you. I waited.” He breathed, but he could think of nothing else to tell her.
Jesse was forced to leave her to fill the grave he'd stolen her from. So her laid gently on her side in the tall grass near the fence, one thin pale arm under her ear, and left her as though she were only resting in the still-warm early fall air. After completing the task and now dripping with sweat, he gathered her back against himself and pulled her over the fence to the horse.
Ella laid on her belly across the saddle, her arms reaching laxly for the ground; hands whispering softly as they brushed through the passing grasses. Jesse had taken his shirt off while working and used the span of the sleeves to tether her soft body to the saddle as best he could, but still, he rested one hand across her back- afraid she'd fall.
As they made their way through the field he could hear the occasional call of a man in the distance. Nearer the treeline a pair of dogs called long and low from the tethers that kept them in their yards. A distant car engine whined and the transmission cried as it passed through the deserted town streets. But silence soon took them in, the trees insulated them from all else in the world.
The trail to the top of the mountain was rough, and repeatedly loose stones slipped noisily from under the steady gelding's hooves. The rhododendrons had finished blooming and their dropped blooms joined the ambiguous musk of the forest floor. The heavy smell of wild grapes lingered strongly in places and the horse dropped its head low to pass beneath the yellowing vines as the crest neared. All at once, the stiff confines of the woods gave way to that beloved high clearing and the silver-gray apple tree that waited there.
His hands shook as he untied his shirt from the saddle and drew Ella across it. Dew had fallen during the journey and his holey boots sounded like moving water as they slipped through the grass. Ella was where she belonged again, draped across his arms. Jesse held her head against his shoulder as he sat with her beneath their tree and rested his cheek against the smooth darkness of her hair. His arms wrapped around her until the smooth profile of her face pressed into his neck, and quite by accident her lips brushed against him.
But her arms did not hold him. And her mouth did not search for his. She was cold and it penetrated through his skin to his core. She did not whisper his name, or cling to him hungrily.
Though flaccid and lifeless she was forcibly heavy. Her neck lacked any strength, and despite how attentively he cradled her head when it did move he could hear the grinding of misplace bones and tendons. Even in the dark, as he pulled her long hair out of the way, he could make out the rough bruises left by strong hands around the whole velvet column of her throat. The skin behind one ear was raw and torn from being pulled too tight trying to follow her head as it'd been spun fatally to the right. A sickening testament to her final moments.
She was beautiful and hauntingly serene in the cool quiet of their secret hiding place, but he knew without a doubt that she had not looked that way at her end. He tried to stop the train of his thoughts, but they barreled on full steam, despite him. He saw the fear in her twisted mouth, saw the final look in her bulging eyes as merciful pleas gave way to suffocation. He could see the dark wave of her hair, like a macabre dancer's streamer of fine silk fabric, as it chased her spinning head. He wondered if she had searched her failing vision for him. But he'd not been there to rescue her.
“I waited, Ella.” He reiterated, his voice strung tight between emotions, “I'll wait still. Right here, with you. Ev'ry single night. I swear.”
He held her against him, smoothing the wintry skin of her arm, tangling his hand in her cool hair. He felt the chilled wet of his tears on her head and held her close as they both shook with his sobs.
Finally, bled of all tears, he began digging her new home. Where she could creep like a ghost through the trees once again and haunt him, where she could find him every night, for eternity.