The dogs circled the house all night, crying out, hunting. She knew they were calling to her. Beckoning. Working their churn. The world she lived in had become a gospel of disturbances, and the dogs wouldn’t let her forget that. In the morning, before she had even gone to the springhouse for milk, she saw a man waiting at the foot of her garden. It was how they did.
Summer had spun away from them all. The creek banks were whiskered with a nickel-shine frost, and she could smell the cooking fires laid down by the ones who called themselves the Uninvited. Pig fat and smoke. Scorched corn. There were more people at the camp every week, staking out tarps, drying fish seined from the river. They were drawn to her fields at the end of their seasonal migrations because of what had happened there some years before, because of their beliefs. She did not know if they planned to stay for the winter.
The man’s clothes were rust-rimmed and deflated. He wore a battered straw hat. Those who wanted something from her arrived at the brick house above the creek—the Doctor’s House they called it, a remnant from her father’s time—and waited for her, always alone. She didn’t care for ceremony, but ceremony was what they needed. Their silent arrival was part of a code they passed among themselves. It was the same for the Brubaker woman who prepared the bodies of the dead and the man from Jack’s Mountain who was known to hoard crystals of salt.
The dogs began to gather. The swift brindle one, then the fawn bitch, then the rat catcher with its long, shredded ears. There were only three this time. Each bore fresh wounds. The fawn bitch, blood threaded through its eager saliva, leaned hard against her knees. It was a disrespectful habit, one that couldn’t be tolerated. Animals and neighbors had to be taught their limits. She struck the bitch on the ribs with her wooden staff. The bitch yelped and went to its haunches, but it didn’t leave her. None of them did.
She raised her palm and signaled to the man. You are welcome at my home, she signed. It’s the time of barter and trade.
The man showed neither a pistol nor a blade. He had put his weapons aside in order to make his plea. She, herself, had given up arms some time ago. Everyone knew who she was and what she had to offer. They understood she kept nothing in the brick house anyone would want to steal.“Summer had spun away from them all. The creek banks were whiskered with a nickel-shine frost, and she could smell the cooking fires laid down by the ones who called themselves the Uninvited.”
He began to walk toward her, past the twine looped and snared around her plucked garden, past the skeletal stalks of her harvested corn. He was holding items outward for display, objects filched smoothly from his pockets. There was a stick of split wood. And what might be a precious shrivel of tobacco. These were his offerings.
“I seen you pulled a good crop of squash and beans,” the man said. “I seen your vines. It’s been a good year.”
“It has,” she said, carefully. “A good year. Are you thirsty?”
“I ain’t,” the man said. “I been down to your creek first thing. It’s a good creek.”
“It can be,” she said. “I have sweet spring water, too. I can make you a tea.”
“No need,” the man said, looking at the blind face of her house from under his hat. His eyes appeared to be sleep-sore and yearning. His feet scuffed the tangled grass. “I brung what they say you might take in payment. I come to ask if you will write me a letter.”
He raised his forearms in an awkward, stilted way—as if his request had set its own barbs into him—and she took the stick of wood, and the dangling twist of tobacco. It was a generous offer. He wished to trade a supply of split hardwood, enough for the winter, and a bundle of tobacco cured in the old way. The man didn’t look prosperous, no one did these days, not this far from the cities. Still, he was willing to barter things of value. The fawn bitch circled him once, its damp nose carried high in the air.
“I ain’t from here,” the man said, bowing his head as if she might expect that. “But I heard about you. My wife was raised at Snow Creek, where you’re known to help people in need. You make keen and proper letters, and you can write out a man’s pain and ease it from his heart forever, that’s what they say. I’ll cut the wood myself. I seen strong black oak up on that ridge of yours. And maple, too. I brung the tobacco with me.”
“Let’s rest on the porch,” she said. The dogs were no longer paying attention to the man, no more than if he were a dusty cedar tree or a flood-stained shelf of granite. He didn’t stink of threat or guile. Not to them.
“I left a stone at the place by the road bridge,” the man said, looking back over his shoulder. “I done it after nightfall, soon as I arrived. Just like I was told. Is it true what they say about the woman and the miracles she made here?”
“Some of it is true,” she said. “I leave her a stone whenever I cross. We all do.”
The man wasn’t as old as she first believed. Fortysome. He said his name was Hendricks. He had spent time in uniform fighting enemies both foreign and domestic. That was how he said it. Domestic. He’d grown up just over the Carolina line.
“I done my share of migrations when I was young,” he told her. “I was born before the war and didn’t have much choice but to keep moving once it was over. Seems like nothing’s been the same since that battling and ruination, even way out here. Seems like we’re still blowed to pieces. I can read and write for the basics, enough to make myself useful on a barge or a wagon pull, which is what it come down to in the end. Me and my wife settled with the Collins-Pruitt Assembly near Danville for as long as that lasted. Have you heard of it? The Pillars was down that way first. Then one of Brother Amos’s camps. Collins-Pruitt made up a strong outfit for a time, and we was all fed and organized and in agreement on the schooling of children. But it faltered when the fevers run through, like things do when men want more than they can get. Me and my wife decided to get closer to blood family at Snow Creek. They still grow tobacco down there when they got men enough to guard it. They got a cattle herd, too. Most things are done in cooperation around Snow Creek.”
She nodded. She had traveled that direction once or twice. There were good weavers of cloth in that part of the country. And women who traded in herbs and dyes.
“I believe I’m talking too much,” the man said, finally removing his hat. His narrow head was shaved in the manner of a penitent or one who had been peeled by grief. It was scarred, as well. Some of the scars were intentional, relics of Mr. Hendricks’s military service. Others were not. She reckoned that he, like many she had met, had spent time in someone’s prison.
“It’s all right,” she said. “Talk is how we get there. When you’re ready with the particulars of your request, I’ll be listening.”
They were weeds of a similar kind, she thought, looking at him again with a sense of prickling beneath her collarbones. He in his rusted jacket, a garment of patched and mossy wool; she in her heavy greenish sweater, reknit with her own hands during hours when the shaking and numbness weren’t too bad. Grizzled human weeds. Tough. Quick to find territory. Her own head had been kept shorn for many years. But she no longer feared the voices within her skull as much as she once had. Her hair, now trimmed with whatever blade she had on hand, was an uneven thicket of browns and grays.
“They say you take fair payment,” the man said.
“I take what the work requires. There’s no magic—”
“I ain’t here to ask for magic,” he interrupted. “I ain’t a fool. But it’s a power, I know it is. It’s pure power what you do.”
“I don’t claim power,” she said, resting her staff against the front steps of the house. She could hear wasps buzzing amid the shiny leaves of the boxwoods. Late-season wasps. Meat seekers. “Preachers are the ones with power,” she said. “And the government, when it has a notion to roll these roads.”
“Preachers make too many claims,” the man said to her, disgusted. “I’ve heard them all. They ain’t saved us from nothing. And I know you don’t favor the government, not out here.”
“Sit with me, Mr. Hendricks.” She pointed to one of the porch swings she had refused to break into kindling. He was right. She would rather not discuss the government.“His narrow head was shaved in the manner of a penitent or one who had been peeled by grief. It was scarred, as well. Some of the scars were intentional, relics of Mr. Hendricks’s military service. Others were not.”
“Will you say where you come from?” he asked, seating himself on the slatted, squeaking swing. She could see his boots now, how good they were. And she could smell him better, the more private scents his body had stopped withholding. She waited for it—the musk of his weaknesses.
“I was born here,” she said. “It’s not very complicated, my story. I was raised in this house by parents who did what they could. The building is old, but the walls remain strong despite their sins and mine. The bricks come from clay dug right there near the road bridge. They were kiln red by slaves long before I was born. The sills and floorboards were cut and milled by slaves, too. The history is far from happy.”
“That kind of slave-keeping is done with,” he said. “We fought till one side beat the other.”
“Is that what you think, Mr. Hendricks? That slavery is behind us? Because I’m going to want to disagree. All we have to do is admit what we’ve seen with our own eyes. We could ask those people camped near the river for their opinion. Most of them have worn some kind of chain.”
“I don’t know what I think,” the man said, locking his hands in front of him. “Not after all I seen. People been foul to one another as long as I been alive. They say there’s something different here, though, a chance at healing. My wife was told that.” He glanced down the porch steps toward the creek, the cold thread of water that had never been given a name.
“Your wife sounds good-hearted,” she said. “And hopeful. I wish I shared her attitude. My father was a medical man, the first in his family to study that far in school. He did his kind of healing when there were simpler ways to treat our miseries. Things are different now. You might know what I mean.”
He nodded. He said, “Did they try to burn you out? When people took to rampaging and stealing everything they could?”
“They tried,” she said. “I can’t tell you what stopped them.”
They were both silent for a moment. The burdens of mistrust were heavy.
“I don’t know what determines the actions of other people,” she finished. “I’ve been surprised too many times. I can say there’s credit laid at my feet that isn’t due. The tasks I perform are simple. I don’t work miracles.”
“And the white stones piled over yonder, the curing folks say comes from them?”
“The stones are for my sister,” she said, quietly. “She’s dead. There’s no denying the goodness and mercy she brought into the world. She was a miracle.”
“I want you to write me a letter,” the man said, staring into the gnarled cup of his hands. “Will you do it?”
What he wanted was the hardest thing. He wanted a letter in the declarative style, and he wanted to be with her—at least on the grounds of her property—while she wrote it. Then he wanted what they rarely requested anymore: he wanted her to memorize the letter before the pair of them destroyed it forever. He would cut and stack the wood before she began writing, if that was what she required. And he would camp by the creek, eating his own dried fruit and meat. He wouldn’t impose on her. But he also wanted her to carry the letter to its destination. He wanted her to speak its words aloud in the presence of the person who needed to hear them most. He described the place she would have to go, where the letter would become his painful request for forgiveness. He had a name. It was a crossroads far away.
“You’re asking beyond my limits,” she told him. “I don’t travel anymore.”
Hendricks looked at her with eyes the color of shed snakeskin. She could hear some kind of emotion emulsify itself in the tube of his throat. He seemed desperate. “I got to do this,” he said, gulping. “I got to make this right. I’ll give whatever you ask. At Snow Creek, they tell that you walk all the way to Tennessee, or down to the lights of Richmond.”
“I won’t go to Richmond,” she said. “I won’t go there ever again.”
“What’ll you take?” he asked. “I ain’t got gold or a living child. I got nothing precious left to trade.”
She felt the old cruelty rise up in her as powerfully as a moon tide. Her sister had begged too, hadn’t she? And begging hadn’t saved her sister’s life or gotten her what she wanted. Her sister had believed in the generous giving of gifts—valuables handed to other people willy-nilly and free of expectation—when she should have put her faith in the cold logic of exchange.
“There is one thing you could do for me,” she said with the hard shape of her mouth. “It’s a rare deed, something men around here claim they have accomplished when they’re swapping lies. It won’t be easy. You’ll probably fail. But I won’t carry your letter to that crossroads for anything less.”
From Scribe. Used with permission of Graywolf Press. Copyright © 2018 by Alyson Hagy.