Right after my tenth birthday, I learned that the Devil was real. Twenty years later, I still wake in cold sweats. Although that night has made my life a torment, I shouldn't complain. If not for what happened, I wouldn’t have come back to Tennessee. I wouldn’t be drinking a warm Bud Lite in a sorry watering hole. I wouldn't be telling a stranger my even sorrier tale, and telling makes what I have to do next go down a little easier.
When I was little, Dad was night watchman at the Harmony Grove Egg Farm. He would take me there sometimes, and tell stories about his younger days on the Louisiana oil platforms that, for some reason, he wouldn’t tell around Mom. The place smelled of ammonia and feathers, but that old farm gave me some of my happiest hours.
Good times ended when the boss’s nephew dropped his cigarette into a dry pile of chicken feed. Big fire. Chickens that didn’t roast smothered. Bossman didn’t want to point a finger at family. Guess who got blamed? Dad’s new farm-burning, careless reputation meant that he couldn’t find work anywhere eat of Knoxville, not even emptying septic tanks. After a while, Dad discovered that he liked whisky more than he thought. Started staying out all night with his new friends from the Roostertown Tavern. Mom and I saw him less and less until, one day, we never saw him again. I heard he died five years ago somewhere out Oklahoma way, when an oil well’s broken steel cable opened his gut. Don’t know if it’s true, though.
Mom took in washing and cleaned neighbor’s houses. She managed to keep me in beans and cornbread. At least for a while. Then she got religion. Or, to be more precise, Preacher Leechman got his oily traveling hands down her underwear. The preacher used to try to scare me with tales about the Devil. I would laugh and tell him there was no such thing. He would turn red and sputter.
After about four months of Mom and the preacher, Leechman announced that he was leaving for the big city of Morristown. Said he would like to take Mom, only his ministering angles told him that traveling with an imp like me would offend the Lord.
So, just before my tenth birthday, Mom sent me to live with her uncle, Hackley Barr.
Alone, I rode the bus from home to a stop somewhere between Parrotsville, Tennessee and Relief, North Carolina. I ain’t saying where any more precisely than that. Great Uncle Hackley couldn’t or wouldn’t come get me. The summer heat made the mountains into an oven. I threw my almost empty suitcase over my back and set out walking.
Great Uncle Hackley’s place was so far away I thought I might hit China first. Sweat trickled down my sides, hotter and stickier as I went. Every step, the road got narrower, the late summer briar-tangle got thicker, and the hemlock’s shadows got deeper. By the time I reached the cabin, jarflies called their key-grinder welcome to the rheumy moon peeking up over the mountains.
I found Uncle Hackley (took me about thirty seconds to decide there was nothing “great” about him) occupying his creaking and groaning porch swing. He stood barely two inches taller than me, not counting uncombed stand-up gray-peppered hair. Short and fat arms and legs projected from a long thin torso. Tobacco yellowed teeth erupted from his fish-belly gums.
Then there were his eyes. Imagine a rat, watching while you lie sick. Imagine that rat working up the courage, little by little, to come gnaw. Imagine that, and you have Uncle Hackley’s tar-pit eyes.
“Who are you?” the old man’s rusty voice squeaked.
“My name’s Raffa,” I answered. “Your niece, Ellen, is my Mom
“Ellen’s boy,” Uncle Hackley scratched his chin, as though thinking. “That travel case mean she intends you to stay here?”
Uncle Hackley rode his porch swing, without a word, for five minutes. Then he motioned me up the rickety stairs onto his porch, and into his gray-walled cabin. “This here’s the kitchen,” he said, indicating a room with two ladder back chairs, a plain round table, and a cast iron stove. “This room can be your’n.” He nodded toward a narrow, windowless room. I ran my fingers over the rough-edged rusty hollows where long-gone hinges had sat. No hope for privacy. Too tired to care, I studied the room’s contents: a rope-mattress bed, a block of wood for a chair, and what I now realize was an antique Betty lamp that was probably worth more than the rest of his belongings combined.
Uncle Hackley waddled over into the slightly larger room across from the one he had shown me. “This one’s mine,” he said. I stared into the room. A knotty rug, iron-frame bed, three-legged stool, and a smoke-smudged kerosene lantern furnished it. No curtains covered the windows, but their soot layer kept the room dim. Uncle Hackley’s thick fingers tapped the unpainted plank and batten door. “You stay out, less’n I tell you other’n. Got that?”
“Yessir,” I told him.
“Just this once, I’m calling you in,” His stubby fingers motioned me forward.
I backed up a step. The kerosene and stale tobacco scent that filled Uncle Hackley's room left me dish-rag limp. The room terrified me so badly I could go no further.
“You ain’t disobeying, are you boy?” he snapped. His face turned hard and angry. “Told you come in.”
I swallowed hard. More afraid of Uncle Hackley’s scowl than of whatever was in that room, I stepped inside. As soon as I did, I froze in horror.
An extremely realistic cast iron chicken foot hung above the door lintel, supported by three bent ten-penny nails. Its rusted scales and three forward claws, curved as though to sink into invisible flesh, chilled me. The foot seemed to silently screech “Get up and run while you can! Worse, the single rear-facing claw pushed the foot from the unpainted wall. Then it became still again. The motion I saw was nowhere near enough to loosen the claw from the nail. Still, a thing of solid iron had (maybe) moved. I became immobile.
The anger vanished from Uncle Hackley’s face. “My Granny had Anse Crowlin, witchman and blacksmith all ‘twonce, make this here conjuration,” he explained with pride. He pointed a finger at the foot. “She claimed it would someday bar the Devil from getting me,” He trembled as if from a sudden palsy. “Don’t you never touch it,” he ordered.
“Never,” I agreed. As if I would have come near the revolting thing! At least not then.
Uncle Hackley smiled at my answer. It was the only time I ever saw him smile. “Now sleep,” he said. “Farmwork comes early.”
Guess how much I slept, with that thing only a few feet away?
The following days were a blur. Up before dawn. Having Uncle Hackley dole out grits, his every word scouring Mom for unloading her useless whelp on him. Spending the day sweating in the sun, breathing in black flies. Hoes corn, potatoes, and tobacco until sunset. Then all I had to look forward to before dropping into bed, exhausted, was more of Uncle Hackley’s complaints that I would have to work twice as hard to be worth what I ate.
I might have been dog-tired, but I slept little. Most nights, over Uncle Hackley’s snores, I would hear a “scratch, scratch, scritch”, like an iron claw scraping on bare wood. Images of the chicken foot, struggling to escape the nails, filled my head.
The nights the foot remained silent were the worst. I would lie in bed, sweating and listening. Thinking that maybe, just maybe, the foot was skittering over the puncheon floor toward me.
One day, a mail truck showed up, the only vehicle I ever saw on that road. The mailman dropped off a letter, all the way form the state capitol. Then he ran back to his truck as though something was after him. Left driving faster than he came, too.
Uncle Hackley couldn’t read, so he gave his letter to me. I didn’t understand most of it. Parts I did though. The state had reduced Uncle Hackley’s monthly check. Uncle Hackely swore, calling down scorn on politicians and bureaucrats.
All of a sudden he fell silent. His tar-pit eyes stared at me. His jaw worked as he calculated.
“Boy,” he asked, “when did Ellen say she would come for you?”
“She didn’t say.” My voice was small and weak.
“Then maybe she ain’t never coming? Won’t never ask about you?”
I didn’t answer. I knew his dark thoughts as surely as if he had spoken them. What could I do? I didn’t know where Mom was, or if she would take me if I found her. I couldn’t set out alone, because I expected that I would starve.
I turned and ran to the cornfield, grabbing a hoe. I worked as hard as I could. But, deep down, I knew my efforts were wasted. A seed beyond my ability to uproot had sprouted in Uncle Hackley’s mind. All I could do was hope his attitude would soften.
It didn’t. The next day, he dug a hole out behind his unused barn. I tried to tell myself that it was a privy, or a new smoke house pit. I knew it was the size of a child’s grave, though.
The next few days, he more grunted than spoke. I got less food and was worked harder. As bad as those days were, the nights were worse. All I could think about was listening. Not for the moving chicken claw, but for Uncle Hackley’s stealthy footsteps, coming closer.
Eventually, after a day of even more work and less food than usual, what I had feared would happen did.
After supper, Uncle Hackley left the table. He went into my room and knelt over my empty bed. From the kitchen I could tell that he did something, but not exactly what. Then he rose and went to his own room. After a few minutes he called me.
I suppose I knew what would happen, but I was too scared to disobey. I walked through the doorway, and he slammed the door behind me.
The light was dim, but I saw that, next to his bed, was an old blanket, sized to wrap a boy’s corpse. Between his hands was a doubled rope, taken from my mattress and cut to fit my neck.
At that moment, I realized the Preacher Leechman had been right after all. The Devil was real. The Devil had come for me. And that Devil stared out of Uncle Hackley’s face.
I burst into tears. Uncle Hackley might have been short, but he was strong. If he laid hands onto me I was done for. As best I could in that small room, I ran. I knocked over the stool, up-ended the rug, dashed from one side of the bed to the other. “Consarn you,” Uncle Hackley roared, “stop acting foolish. Running won’t do nary bit of good.”
Somehow, I managed to reach the door. I tried the knob. My fingers slipped over its smooth surface. Uncle Hackley’s stumbling footfalls came nearer.
I thought I was dead until my eyes lit on something I could use as a weapon: the iron chicken foot, hard and cold. I pulled it from its binding nails and fell to the floor, gripping the iron foot. I rose, back to the door. I swung the sharp talons at Uncle Hackley, but missed.
The old man reached for me. I screamed my defiance and swiped again. The foot caught the rope, pulling it from him. The claw tore open his hand. Thick red blood spurted.
I don’t know if it was because I had bloodied the foot, or maybe just because I had finally shown the gumption to resist. Whatever the reason, the iron foot came to life in my hand. No small movement like I thought I had seen, it wriggled and writhed and groped. I screamed and dropped it. It landed at my feet, scrabbling toward Uncle Hackley.
Uncle Hackley opened his mouth as if to shriek. Only silence emerged. His hands clutched his chest. His unfocused gaze locked on the spot above the door where the foot had been. Terror and pain had replaced his hard expression.
I smelled ammonia and feathers from behind me. Not able to help myself, I turned.
A hole the size of a barrel-head, the source of the smell, had appeared in the lintel. Inside was dark, like the largest coop at Harmony Grove Egg Farm. Than a great yellow, scaly bird’s claw, something that might support a rooster the size of four Hereford cows, shot out. Faster than a rattlesnake, the claw closed around Uncle Hackley and pulled him out of himself. That’s the only way to describe it. There was one of him, face turning blue and gasping for breath. There was also another, squirming in the claw’s grip.
Then the giant claw went back through the hole, taking one Uncle Hackley and leaving the other. The hole, the claw, and one Uncle Hackley all vanished. The wall was back as it was, ten-penny nails still in place. The iron chicken foot was motionless again. The whole thing had taken less than thirty seconds. The blue-faced Uncle Hackley moaned, foamed at the mouth a bit, and then collapsed.
I didn’t check if the Uncle Hackley on the floor was dead. I simply ran screaming from the cabin. I didn’t starve. I did some things I’m not proud of, but I survived. Almost twenty years passed before I figured out what had happened. Uncle Hackley’s Granny had been right. Uncle Hackley didn’t do the bad thing he was tempted to, so the Devil didn’t get him.
Something else got him first.
Now that I’ve gone this far, I might as well tell you the rest. Last year, I married me a widow woman up in Kentucky. She’s got a right pretty daughter, named Krystal. Krystal just turned thirteen. Really well-developed for thirteen, if you know what I mean.
Every time I look at her, I think about doing something really bad. Something so bad that, if I do it, the Devil will surely get me, like he would have Uncle Hackley.
Finished by beer, so I’m heading out. Ain’t no reason for nobody to have disturbed Uncle Hackley’s old place, except for the foxes that likely ate the old bastard’s body. The cabin might have fallen down, but the iron chicken foot should be where I left it. Maybe rustier, but there.
If it is, I’ll give it to Krystal. Teach her to fight back with it, to draw blood.
Maybe that will bar the Devil from getting me, too.
Lawrence Barker lives just outside Atlanta, Georgia. His fiction often reflects the dark side of the rural environment he grew up in. This story is no exception. Lawrence's most recent novel, Blood Red Sphere, is available from Swimming Kangaroo Press. Blood Red Sphere is a tale of murder, intrigue, and deception on a Mars that should have been, with mysterious Martians, down-on-their luck dealers in Martian antiquities, and dangerous hoodlums (from more than one planet).
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