I Hear the Sky Cracking

 

by M. N. Cunningham


 

I hate the lonely dead for their faces and voices that call in the darkness. I hate them for their eyes that flash in shadows where light should not be seen. I hate them for the lanterns they carry in the distance that extinguish when the fool draws closer. I hate them for their lives that somehow continue, perversely, into aeons of time on Earth not meant for them. I hate them for stealing the girl I love.

Today I am wandering along through the woods, down the bank of the dry creek with branches snapping with every step, white and cleaned of bark by the floods of water that overflowed its banks in the spring.

I once met a man, old and stooped, who swore to me by all the saints that his back had once been straight as an arrow, up and down even in his age, and that one night the dead called to him, singing, their voices barely audible among the winds, their forms flittering on every rock and tree, in the shadows. He did not remember what passed next, but when he woke his back was twisted in on itself and he lay at the sanded bottom of the dry creek.

It is late summer now, and it is quiet, golden light filtering through the tops of the trees that casts the shadows that move in the corner of the eye. I walk down a bit farther, watching carefully, carefully until I see a tree filled with the nests of robins. I have arrived at the most powerful place in the forest.

The sun is moving down the sky, and I sit down and put a blanket around my body to ward away the chills that will surely follow when the dark comes. There is a cry in the air, like that of a bird, and I shiver. It is not a bird.   

 

*****


I remember when we were both young and filled with delight, and we ran about in little packs like dogs, yipping in high-pitched voices whenever we came upon anything of the slightest interest, the old ones screaming to send us forth screaming with fright and out of their way.

That is the first time I remember her; she tripped and fell over her feet onto the ground, scraped her knee and bled. We laughed at her and ran on, paying no heed to her cries for us to wait in the speckled grounds of the road through the woods.

It was that night, that we were taken into the middle of the houses, to the bonfire where sometimes the Father sat with the elders and spoke long into the night. I frowned at the ground so as not to invoke his ire. He was very frightening in those days, before he needed a cane to walk and before I was taller than he. The shadows cast by the fire leapt and danced from time to time, but they seemed always to make the same shapes.

The Father stepped forward, and it amazes me to this day that such a man of God should have a quaver in his voice. We looked up, agape with wonder, our faces streaked with dirt from our pack activities.

“Dear children,” he said, and I remember thinking that something must be terribly strange. He was never a man to waste much time on endearments of any sort, for all he had kindness resting in his chest somewhere.

“You must not play in the woods to the east anymore.”  

The groans and mutters made their way throughout the group with a terrible tenacity told the father how we hated him in that moment, and he shook his head very firmly. I stepped back before the intensity of his gaze, with the discomfort of the way that he merely stared at me, at all of us, and I know for myself that I took in a sharp breath.

“There is nothing good to be found there,” he went on.

Through my fear, I knew that he was wrong. The eastern woods had all the very best rocks to throw at each other at the bottom of the dry creek bed. Surely he did not mean to insinuate that there was something wrong with the beautiful white wood we found there, formed into bows and spears of our own design, fit for jabbing each other in the most vulnerable places we could get to. There was certainly an art to doing this without leaving marks for screaming mothers to demand answers about.

The murmurs continued, and then he thrust her forward. Silence fell, and I will never forget the way we all recoiled in upon ourselves, daring not to run.

Her eye wept blood. There were tears in her other one, the blue one, but this eye could no longer be thought of the same way. I knew this as we all did. In her blue eyes, I had once seen the sky.  That sky was stained, and it wept blue and red over her cheeks.

“No vine did this,” he said firmly.

 We all shifted uncomfortably in our stances. Something squirmed in my stomach.

“Do you know what did?” he asked. We shook our heads in unison, and he frowned like a beast before he lied. “I will find out.”

 

*****


Do not turn away as you walk into them. Do not look in any particular direction. You will never see their terrors directly; it is always in the corner of the eye that they beckon, tease with terrifying enticements, bring to the brink of discovery, of madness, and ever fall back away into notions of drumming in the distance.

A shadow stretches and ensnares my hand, catches it as I play nervously with the fabric on my lap. I frown down into the brown beneath my hand. Times past are gone. A bit of wind snatches up a strand of hair that blows into my eyes. I waste time blowing at it before I finally raise my trapped hand to push it back.

They are here, but they are waiting for the night. Then, the old women say, their power will be greatest, but I welcome that fact. They are most present here, now, and it is for that reason that I have waited. The moon will be full, and I cannot tell whether that is best or worst. I shall have the most power to see them, but they the most power to deceive. I have come for the holy eve, when the old women say all is thinnest between the worlds.  I have come to understand that the Father is not always the one to ask about such matters.

There is a candle in my hand, and also a vial of holy water that I took from the church last night whilst the Father slept. I have memorized prayers, bathed myself in all the holiness I can bear, and I have made myself a cross to protect me. I have also brought green bags full of herbs, and while I might feel a sense of guilt for using these, I can only think that not all evils are necessarily Christian. My mother told me this, sitting, holding to threads in the dark.

I hope the product of her death is sitting back at home in a chair, working at carving. I can feel my heart twist darkly when I hope he is carving the lonely dead, twisted in agony worse than that of hell. He likes to carve such things, but my father's worries were turned to pride by the spot the Father has given them in the church to ward away real evils.

Now, water drips from needles on the trees. The light catches the droplets, makes them sparkle and cast magical patterns onto the ground. For only a moment, I am reminded of what I saw in the woods before we were taught to see monsters and demons.

Much as I want to smile, I cannot; I have seen the first figure of the evening. It was a small one with a hunched back, creeping towards me from behind, or at least that is what my eyes told me.

 I sigh and settle back down, back pressed against the bank of the dead creek.

 

*****

 

She grew into something different from the others. She ran around in the woods, strange for the one marked by the lonely dead. I would have stayed in town forever. I thought her a fairy sometimes, but that was wrong. Her sparkling was never malice. She was gentle, not capricious. It did not seem to matter, for even sparkling creeks draw hatred.   

I said nothing, and my nothing was powerful as their bile.

Her mother always said that her hair was too rough or her dress too soiled. She was too clumsy or too slow, and always she had done bad work. She had been late, or she had run too fast, and no man was ever going to want to marry her. She was not the most gifted of girls, nor the most beautiful; that which lent her that sparkle ensured that. Perhaps she wasted time with smiling. Maybe her mother was even right when she said that she’d never please any man.  

He was the worst of all of us, a leering gargoyle. He always found something amusing about her appearance or her behavior, and as her mother shouted, he laughed. He was never clever, or perhaps it was my changing self that grew to loathe him. How strange that he desired her.

I was terrified when I realized that she pleased me.

I wanted nothing more than to be the best that I could be. Marriage frightened me—the idea of creating children who might be mauled as she had been, who would be hurt and made fun of and told time and again of every fault they might possibly possess. I wanted to run away and devote myself instead to the Christ. I prayed often, and sometimes I laid my head on my pillow and begged that God should make all well for her.

I remember one night better than any other. The harvest had come, and while the men brought in the game they killed to keep us all from starvation, the women busied themselves with preparing the meats brought home in days before and with packing the vegetables into the cellars. Some of the tomatoes had gone bad, drawing forth much lament and anger.

I returning from carrying a carcass from my father to my mother to gut. I was on my way to continue repairing our cellar before it collapsed. I stopped when I heard a loud squishing sound. I set my mouth in a firm line and stepped out with a whimper.

Surely enough, he was there, rotten tomato in one hand and the juice of another staining his arm. Across from him and cowering, I noted with disgust that she was there, along with some children who were screaming and running. He was always such a heroic figure.

He retreated when he saw me approaching, whether that had to do with myself and the hammer I carried or not, and I remember that she looked up at me, milky white eye weeping. I stared at her, but my face could not summon horror no matter how my gut begged it to.

Her sparkle directed itself at me. Thinking back, she must have smiled. I was too stunned to smile back.

That night, I prayed again, harder than ever, but God did not reply. I was not sure if he heard my prayer, in the darkness and quiet as it was, but it was my fault, for all I could think of was the sparkling.

I knew then that I would not escape.

 

*****


They are the dead who run from Heaven, and they are cowards. They have ended themselves, and yet they will not go to their just desserts in Hell. Instead, they linger, sop up the air and saturate the woods with their presences, disgusting and twisted into hideous forms that are clearly marked with devil’s curses no matter how they are seen.

The wind is picking up, just a little bit, and I lean my head back against the bank, sighing slightly as it whips my hair across my face again. I do not touch it this time. More shapes move in the corner of my vision, and I feel my lips curve into a smile. I stand up, and then I dip into my bag and pull out the salt I have taken from our cellar.

A lick of wind gets itself into the opening and spills a little bit onto the ground. A chill races down my spine as I inhale sharply. It is colder now, with the wind picking up, and I pull my cloak around my body, salt almost forgotten. I steel myself against the chill.

The silence is quickly broken by a scream. I know the voice of this lonely dead, and I can see her, rotted dress floating about her as she screams on and on for her children. I am no child anymore. Her voice is little more than an annoyance. I let out a deep breath and shut my eyes against her. Remember that they cannot touch you themselves. I let the breath out again and settle down a bit more comfortably.

I am suddenly wide awake and screaming, and then I feel foolish. A branch fell to brush my arm. I take out my salt and grip it firmly in my hands for a long moment before I finally form a circle with it—purity to ward away impurity, or so we say when we speak of such matters, voices hushed.

As I turn, everything seems different now.

There are low babbling sounds, and those would not be frightening but that the creek is dry. I can hear them speaking, muttering to themselves; there is another scream occasionally, and everything is browner and darker and wetter. The wind picks up again, prompting my hand to clutch my cloak closer once more. I look over at the trees, through the brush, and my heart freezes in anticipation.

The sun has slipped below the horizon.

 

*****

 

That day, she had her hair tied in her mother’s red cloth. She was carrying early spring flowers, and her rough blonde hair floating around her looked so much like a halo that I might as well bow down and say prayers.

The tomatoes of years ago had made us friends.

I smiled, said something to her, but I cannot remember what it was. It must have been terribly foolish.

She looked up at me and smiled, her lips red with the chill and her cheeks decorated in little spots of fever to match. “Your father says we’re to butcher her lamb; you to hold up the carcass, and I will do the cutting because I said so.”  

I nodded and moved to follow her, and my eyes were captives. It was very quiet between us, for a long moment, and I fought my tongue's desire to praise her every feature. After a while, I remember that we had emptied the inside of the carcass into two pails; one was for us and the other for the dogs. The rest hung up by a hook for my father to carve into pieces later, when he had the time. I was to learn how to cut the meat that year, which made me proud.

She stepped up to me, now that it was done, and she stared for a long moment. I looked down upon her and bit my lip, slightly discomfited. Actually, that is an understatement, but she was very, very close to me. I let out a little breath, and she frowned slightly up at me.

“He’s decided to marry me,” she said.

I think my heart showed in my face, for she frowned deeper and stepped back.

“Don’t you approve, then?”  

I huffed. “You and I both know he’s no good, no good at all.”  

“I thought you wouldn’t,” she said, and she leaned against me quietly, arms about my middle.

“You should find a man who will do as he will vow to you,” I said firmly, and I shook my head and put my arm around her shoulders. We had grown so close that all this was comfortable for us. I always liked to sit with her, let her lean upon my chest and listen to her talk of things she wanted and the stars above us and the trees around us.

We did not go into the woods to the east that day, for I never would enter them. The ones in the west were better, and we used to find such flowers there in little meadows filled with pools of sunlight. I mostly made them into crowns for her.

“You’d be a better husband than he,” she said with a little grin, and I did not argue with her joke. He was not a good man, and this I thought I knew better than anyone.

“Maybe,” I said at last, voice as neutral as I could make it. I pretended not to remember the face of the one I was to wed, pale and pinched with ill humor; instead, I stared at a knot on the tree across from us. I could smell the scent of gore on her clothing, and it was strange on her.

“Oh, I’m sure of it,” she said with a sigh, and she moved her head to lie on my stomach. Her eyes reflected sunlight into my own.

“You’d make a better husband yourself than that man would,” I said firmly, and with more belief in that sentence than I had in anything.

I was rewarded with a ringing laugh, and a smile possessed my frowning lips almost against my will.

“It’s true,” I said, and this time my own voice shook with laughter and with longing that ached through my deepest bones.  

She pulled my face down and pressed red lips to my own, and the world has been different ever since.

 

*****


The night paints their shapes more twisted than before. I can see them moving out of the corners of my eyes, moving towards me. The wind threatens to scatter my salt, but I know that they cannot blow it so low; they are not allowed. I cannot smile in the darkening trees. Moonlight is leaving me. It is almost time, but I must wait for midnight. I have waited for so many months for this particular night; the hours feel like nothing and at the same time are eternity.

The screams are growing as that unhallowed time approaches, and what terrible sounds they are. I clutch the cross in my hands as I shake, herbs knotted firmly around my neck on stolen twine. They all still flutter at the sides of my vision. I can feel my heart racing towards the end, and all will end tonight.

I will return with her soul; there is no other possibility.

There is loud rustling, and something bounds sideways across my vision. I jolt in my shaking feet. I have never seen this before. I am sure that I have done something wrong. They are more interested in me than I expected. I am alone, yes, but at the same time I am not without my protections and I am not moving. They cannot touch me themselves, I know that better than anyone. They should not be so thick about me.

I stop, almost drop my still unlit candle. Her voice calls through the wind, in the wind, begging. There is no making out for what. My face is a mask of terror, unmoving. My heart should be more wrenched; I hate my selfishness that could not save her.

It has been too long for her to live, but the heart is unaware of such injustices. It begs that I should go to her, run with my arms wide open and my tears running down my face. I have stepped forward, almost out of my protection before I stop and bring up my hand to and wipe them away. The moon has moved and midnight is here.


*****


She was married, and I was married later, but that did not save us, for all it was a sin, for all we knew we should not. I could never think of anything else when I was with her, and when away from her I thought of being with her. It made me shake to realize that I had no thoughts for my family, for the child she was due to have, for even God. I ran my fingers always over her skin, and everything else disappeared. Perhaps it was because I had been cursed, cursed by a witch to love her and only her. It was a cruel curse if ever there was one, but I could not think to wish it reversed.

I wish I had stopped her from her trips more often. We all knew that they wanted her; she had the scars running through her eye. It frightened me that she never seemed to fear the woods any more than a fool would have; I knew she was no fool, and when she wandered sad into the forest, she returned happy. I came to tremble every time she wandered out into the brush.

One day, I slipped a little cross of wood into her pocket, and she returned blanched. I felt my heart chill inside of me when I looked at her, all white. Even her lips were colorless. I wondered if she was dead. I stared at her as if she were something else, and then she cried and ran and buried her face in my chest. I pulled her into my house and sat her down by the hearth where fire popped.

“Don’t go there,” I said firmly, and I took her by the hands and looked deep into her eyes, one that saw me and one that saw nothing of this world. “Why do you go there?”  I stared up at her, leaned up and kissed her brow.

“It’s so . . . beautiful there,” she said quietly, and I huffed and shook my head.

“How can you look around there, when they are so ugly?” I frowned.

She shook her head and looked carefully at the ground. I thought I could see her heart beating beneath her ribs before she stood and left for the last time, not a word passing her lips.

 

*****

 

I am reciting words I barely remember, but they come to me in streams, flowing from my lips like words of love. Words of love they are not. I am standing tall, my back straight as the tree behind me above the bank, and I can feel wisps of leaves hitting my face. There is even a twig or two.

I only stand straighter, my lips forming syllables and syllables alone, eyes staring straight ahead and focused upon nothing. There is holy water gripped in my hand to pour into the ground, bless it and make it holy. They will not be able to stay after that, no matter how successful my recitation of the funeral rites.

There is a loud scream, and the storm strikes something nearby. I am not sure how near, for they are never near me. I am sure it is not I who have been struck, but something else has struck me. I have fallen to the ground.

They are breaking the rules. I know they must have found something, a hole in my protection somewhere. I cannot see; they have smudged it irreparably now. My eye is flooded with blood.

I can see now, and there is something in the air, but it neither flickers in my vision nor wavers far away, instead in front of me. I only think that it is strange to see when there is blood weeping down my cheeks. I cannot tell if the moisture around and beneath me is rain or if the creek has come alive again, but it seems too warm. There is screaming all around me and inside me—pain and terror and white figures stalking around and surrounding.

The ground is black beneath me.

I am dragging myself forward, and staring up at the feet of something white that dares to stand in front of me. I am sure I have the water with me, clutched in my hand, if it has not spilled away entirely. I cannot seem to get my hand up, pinned beneath rough bark. The feet before me are cold. I do not know why I know this.

Cool fingers slip beneath my chin. Rough hair is hanging behind them, paled by time and cold and the notion of slumbers and crosses slipped into pockets. My eyes weep more than blood, staring at her. Her lips mouth words I cannot hear.

They stand all around us, the lonely dead, but I barely see them. Now they look just as they did in life. They look just as she does; there are no chains about her, nothing to keep her here. My eyes widen, my lips tremble.

I hear the sky cracking.

 

 

###

 

 

When she was a tiny bean sprout in Texas, M. N. Cunningham spent many hours under the giant oak tree, experiencing lives and adventures she would never have been able to imagine without the beautiful words and talent of so many great people who managed to mentor her without ever knowing her. While she doesn't know if she could imagine being someone's mentor, she'd love to be able to provide to others just some of the hours of entertainment, adventure and thought-provoking phrases that filled her formative years. She now lives in Arizona, where she attends university and studies the great masters of literature.

 

Her site is at http://mncunningham.weebly.com and her Facebook is at https://www.facebook.com/pages/M-N-Cunningham/101458766647233