Well kids, I recognise more of your faces this year. I’m gratified to see you coming back that means I’m doing my job right. Yes, there are still plenty of things happening in Hadley City.
Jake Masters himself told this one to me.
He was the old, old law here, back before we had city police, staties, and county mounties, and Federales poking on the ground, in the airwaves, and now virtually.
Yes, even someone as old as I am knows about computers. Maybe I can’t play those complicated joystick games, but I can still read a book and add things up in my head. Can you?”
Now I didn’t come here to be mean to any of you. I came here to tell you about Hadley, and that’s what I’ll do.
Jake Masters was the bartender back then, he kept a wary, worried eye on the man in the corner booth. He had come in alone; bought a bottle of whiskey, then settle in for a preoccupied binge.
The small pale man sat before a length of rope and bottle of whiskey,that was more than half-drunk. He was sunken of eye, sallow of skin, and wrapped in an eerie stillness.
He motioned to Jake Masters, and Jake nodded to the young man he was trainin’ up, and then sat carefully across from the little stranger.
Who was the man he was training? That was Old Man Walker. Yes!!
I know he died over twenty year ago.
I spoke at his memorial service.
Now, how old I am don’t matter any more. I’m just plain old.
When Jake was standin’ next to the quiet drinker, the feller spoke in a ghost’s voice. “Sit down. Please?” Anyway, the little stranger took another shot off the whiskey like a machine, neatly, without his face changing one bit. When he locked eyes with Jake; Jake swore there was nothing there, just two bottomless pits in a face like a desert.
“M’name’s Cecil and I need ta tell someone this
I used to have a fine life, yessiree-bob, I surely did. Married me up a good, and pretty wife. She took amazin’ care of me, and the choldren we made were all beautiful little girls, seven of ‘em.
Come a winter night we would all gather in the big bed, and my wife would read to us outta the family Bible. She could make those begats sound like the finest fiddlin’ you could ask for. Almost like God’s Choirs of Angels.
Then the Hard Times started and everything started goin’ bad. Real bad. There was the drought, and no work to be had, people were actually dyin’ of hunger, sittin’ on big spreads of what was supposed to be good farmland- rich and deep. People started movin’ less, spoke little, and cared almost nowt.
Yup, even me, with all eight of the blessings from the Lord I called fambly. A body can only sit and feel your belly eatin’ your backbone for so long, and then he commences to thinking strange. And that’s when bad things get worse.
I was sitting, looking at my pretty girls all get pale, hungry, and there weren’t a damn thing to do. I couldn’t leave, but I couldn’t bear to see them all dyin’ slow-like. I watched my pretty Margie lose all o’ her hair, like spun gold, the colour of autumn wheat when its heavy and ripe.
All the girls except the youngest had Margie’s hair, the straight, shining river of sunshine down their backs. I watched all their hair fall out too, and their rosy, round cheeks went pale and sunk into their skulls, as they got hungrier, and hungrier.
The youngest’ hair? Why our Jezzie Belle’s was shining like a blackbirds’ wing; gleamin’ all the colours of a rainbow. She had eyes that were black, and they went back forever it seemed like. She was always a pale little thing, hated the sun and cried when Mother bathed her.
She loved to hear her Mother sing and would sit there and smile all the while her Momma sang. And wouldja believe, the first word that child learnt was ‘Amen’, imagine that, a baby not yet nine months old sitting in her basket sayin’ Amen’ when there was a church meeting to go to.
When things went bad I started dreadin’ getting up of a morning. I was sure I would see my smallest angel lyin’ there all still and cold. An’ every morning she would be lyin’ there, watching everything from the deeps of her eyes.
No, it were my eldest Susie Anne what went first. I found out later, she was givin’ her food to the younger children, so’s they could keep on growin’. She made sure her Momma et too, seein’ as how Margie was still breast-feedin’ the baby girl. Susie-Ann went in her sleep, lookin’ almost peaceful, if it weren’t for the hunger-scars acrost her face.
I buried her under the last few limbs of the Lilac tree her Momma was growin’ up for her. Even then I couldn’t dig the hole proper-like, the edges weren’t straight, and it tweren’t barely deep enough. Her poor Momma was already too weak to cry, she just had tears runnin’ down her face and leavin’ little dark spots on the thirsty ground.
I kilt the last cow that evening, and made all of my girls promise to eat their food, and not give it all away. All of ‘em swore on the Bible that they would eat their food. And they did eat their own food, little as there was. One night, all we had was broth cooked from a bone a dog wouldn’t chew. There weren’t even a few grains of rice or a woody old turnip to add to the broth, nope, not even salt.
If I coulda cried I woulda, the shame of watchin’ my fambly die when I loved ‘em all so much was that bad.
Then the next eldest gal up and died, and if she’d had anything left coverin’ her bones I swear there woulda been teeth marks in it. As it were, there was some little holes here and there on her skin. But she didn’t bleed none, so I figured she were took by the Hunger too.
Now her Momma couldn’t even go out and see her Terrie Lynn buried, and that were a mercy, there weren’t much more’n two feet of ground over her little body. And the cross was standin’ sidewise, lookin’ drunker’n I was, and all I could do was watch the Blight spread over more and more of Hadley Valley.
Then came the day I had been dreadin’ the worst. Our well dried up; there was no more sweet, cold artesian water to quiet hungry bellies with. Now I had to take the last horse, Ned, who was barely able to stand, to the river for water.
The little bit o meat on poor ol’ Ned fed my children for almost a week, but still the third girl, Becky Marie didn’ wake up of a mornin’. I covered her in stones, and that took me two days to do. Momma didn’t even cry this time; she just lay there, letting the baby girl nurse on her dried-up tit for some comfort.
All through this, the littlest one still thrived, as much as a skinny, pale changeling baby can. Momma was getting’ weaker all the time, and now I prayed no more of my choldren would be sent to Lord, for I surely couldn’t bury ‘em proper, and I didn’t want to watch a dead daughter rot in the same bed she was borned in.
The Lord wasn’t answerin’ prayers no more, for less than a week later my fourth girl, Linnie Sue, never woke up. She were just as pale and bloodless as the rest. She didn’t weigh no more’n’ a feather pillah and I covered her as best I could with some rocks and slab o’ wood.
Now there was me, Margie an’ our three youngest girls, and two o’ them was getting’ weaker by the minute, and I knew I would be losin’ them soon. That night I couldn’t sleep; there was too many thoughts I had to think; and I had a funny, cold feelin’ creepin’ up from the dark places in my brain.
It were nigh onto sunrise when I saws my youngest rise from her bed and go to the fifth daughter, she patted her face and whispered quiet-like to Annie Lynne, that girl said “Yes.” Clear as a bell, keepin’ her eyes closed tight, and turned her head away from the baby.
That little hell-spawn opened her mouth, latched onto her own sister and stared makin’ these suckin’ noises, like a new litter o’ piglets tastin’ mama’s milk for the first time. When she looked up her eyes were glowin’ like a mad fox caught in lantern light.
Afore I could move, she done the same to her onlyest sister left, and then moved on t’ her own Momma and sucked her dry too. That’s when I knew what I hadta do.
The next night I told that spawn of Lucifer that we was going on an adventure. She seemed happy as can be to hear that. We lit two lanterns and I almost’ crawled to the caverns out on Hadley’s Hill. I led her to the room of pits, far away back in the dirt.
We sat there in the fadin’ light of the lantern and talked. Where I found the words I dunno, I know I prayed one more time to the Lord, and this time he answered my pleas.
I pushed with all my might,
I pushed with all my love.
I pushed that tiny body
Into the deep, dark pit.
I heard her holler as she fell,
But I never heard her hit.
The next day a gentle, forgivin’ sort o’ rain fell, and kept on fallin’; fallin’ until all the valley were green and growin’ again, and everyone left was getting’ meat on their bones and crops in their fields.”
The little man swallowed the last of his whiskey, and spoke in a chilling whisper.
“I heard her holler as she fell,
But I never heard her hit.
An’ sometimes I dream I turn around and I see them devils eyes o’ hers risin’ outta that pit after me.” Cecil rose in the shadows of the closing bar, thanked Jake softly and walked away with his rope.
They found him, where he had hung himself from the railroad bridge over Hadley River the next mornin’.
Until the day he died, Jake could never forget them words:
“I heard her holler as she fell
But I never heard her hit.”