The Words in Red
I was talking to two of them. True ones. I was there to interview them about a couple of dead people. One of the dead was their own.
The couple was not just Southern. They were not your average run-of-the-mill rednecks either. They were hillbillies. The real deal. Think The Beverly Hillbillies without the good fortunes of a Jed Clampett, or Deliverence minus the forcible sodomy administered by toothless moonshiners.
There was nothing idealistic about their lifestyle. They were not nestled by the mountains around them. That is a romantic kind of thinking. The people living deep in Appalachia are, in actuality, asphyxiated by the hills. The flow of modern technology is cut off from the inhabitants of Dewey Hollow, as is the flow of income and wealth. A proper education cannot find its way into the hollow either.
Even the sun has difficulty delivering its vitamin D to the malnourished citizenry. Potter’s Ridge to the east and Dewey Ridge to the west permit the sun about five hours a day to do its work. That is not nearly enough time, as could be attested to in the ghostly pale skin of the Sanders family.
Walter and Janice sat on the worn brown or beige sofa. Walter was wearing brown corduroy pants and an I ♥ New York t-shirt. I assumed he was not the original owner of the shirt, or pants for that matter. Walter’s thin frame was comically upright, his hands resting on his knees. He had a thick and pouty lower lip. It hung below the much thinner upper one. I could not keep myself from watching it bounce up and down as he spoke. Hard work had aged his face beyond his forty years. The expression on his wife’s face under her dingy red hair was one of a vivaciousness not normally found on grieving mothers. Only the dark rings circling her eyes revealed her pain. She sat, legs crossed, the top leg rocking back and forth, staring into a mug she had cupped in both hands. I imagined the contents of the mug had something to do with her demeanor.
I was there about the suicides. Their daughter’s was the second in the area in a week. I sat in a fold-up metal chair across from them. I took a sip of black coffee as I awaited an answer to a question I had asked. I had learned in journalism school to wait for an answer to every question, no matter how long the awkward silence after asking. Let the interviewee break the silence, and only with a sufficient answer to the question.
Despite my training, the quiet was killing me. I had asked where it happened and how their daughter’s body was found. Though I knew the answers, I needed to get them talking about the tough stuff. We had talked a bit about the other case. Walter told me the mute young man had a note gripped in his cold hand. I had already heard about it from a couple of other people I had interviewed. The words were barely legible. It said, in trembling red ink, I took the wrong one out the first time. It was as if he had to explain why both of his eyes were missing. A big Oh shucks.
I was about to cave in and ask another question, any question, maybe one about the gawky owl clock hanging on the wall behind them, when Walter finally said, “I can take you, I reckon. Upstairs, I mean. Where it happened.” Janice looked at him, mouth open. I too was surprised. She rose from the sofa and marched out of the room. I could hear her slam her mug down on what I guessed was the kitchen counter.
I looked at Walter and leaned forward. “That would be helpful if you don’t mind.”
I followed Walter up the stairs. He had the gait of a much heavier man, shifting slowly from side to side. Walter asked me how a newspaper in a big city heard about the suicides. The big city was Middlesborough, Kentucky. It had a population of approximately 10,000 souls.
I did not want to tell him that his personal tragedy had become a social media sensation, due, in large part, to its being so odd in nature. I merely shrugged my shoulders instead and told him my editor handed me the story the day before and told me to head up that way. I could hear Janice downstairs beginning to shuffle dishes in the kitchen.
He paused just in front of the bedroom door, hand on the knob. He lowered his head. “She was only twenty, you know? Nora. My one and only child.” He looked up at me. “Mister, are you a praying man?”
“I am.” I lied, and smiled doing it. “And call me Don.”
“Mister,” he began, locking his blue eyes into mine. “Ask the good Lord to watch over the soul of my daughter. I know a lot of folks don’t believe in praying for the de… the departed. But I don’t reckon there can be no harm in it. You?”
“No. I pray for the dearly departed every day.” Another lie.
“Have you lost some of your kin?”
“Quite a few, I’m afraid.” Well, I lost a dog once.
“Tell me about it.” He placed a hand on my shoulder. I lowered my head, shuffled my feet on the wood floor, and told him all about it. A moth circled the single bulb overhead in the hallway as I told him about the make-believe auto accident. The dreamed-up coma. The imaginary dead mother. The funeral. The burial in the pouring rain.
He hugged me. I could smell the Brylcreem in his hair.
He turned, took a deep breath, and opened the door. The room smelled of lemon-scented cleaning chemicals. The make-shift twin bed, composed of a worn mattress on a stack of wooden crates, was un-made and bare. The blood stained blue mattress was sunken in the center from its former owner’s body weight. “That there was her bed. Where Janice found her.”
There were no posters or pictures on the wall. There was a single wooden cross on the wall above the bed. It was the only decoration in the room. There was a particle board dresser and an end table. A large fish bowl sat on the dresser. A single blue fish was barely visible in the dirty water.
I asked Walter about the absence of pictures and décor. He explained to me how the family church frowned upon that sort of thing. In the Sanders home, whatever was preached from the pulpit of the Dewey Church of the Lord and Savior was law. According to the Pentecostal church’s pastor, pictures and “what-nots” were forbidden images. Idols. I wondered about the clock downstairs, and had the ridiculous image in my head of the family falling on their knees and worshipping the yellow and green owl as it declared the top of every hour with its mighty and deistic hoo-hoo. I passed on asking about it.
“Mr. Sanders, was your daughter already… gone when Mrs. Sanders found her?”
“Uh-huh. She was already in the arms of Jesus.”
“That’s a nice thought.”
“It’s a fact.”
I smiled and asked where the hand was found.
“Forgive me, but I heard that she threw her hand after she removed it.”
“Oh.” He pointed to the fish bowl. “Landed in that.”
I looked at the murky water, wondering if the betta fish was traumatized in any way.
“It must have been a horrible sight for the Mrs.”
“Yep. She’s been acting odd too. Not herself. To be expected, I suppose.”
“Yeah. I suppose.” In perfect timing, a series of loud clangs rose from the kitchen downstairs.
“Your daughter just lied there afterward? She just, you know, bled to… sleep?”
“Way it looked.” Walter’s head was down. He inhaled a deep breath and blew out air, his lower lip rippling. After a pause, he said, “I’m really worried about Janice. Will you pray with me?”
I was a little startled. “Pray? Right now?”
“Is it a bad time for you, Mister?” He kept his eyes on mine and took a knee in the center of the floor.
“Um. No. I guess. Should I, uh, get down there with you? And, please, call me Don.”
“Unless you feel worthy to stand before the Lord.” His look assured me I was not.
I got down on both knees about six feet away from Walter. I closed my eyes and waited for him to begin. There was a long period of silence. I slowly opened my eyes. He was looking at me. He mumbled, “Go ahead.”
“Won’t you lead us in prayer?”
My heart was racing. Prayer had, in my adult years, become as foreign to me as I imagined classic literature or a quadratic formula was to him. I fancied myself a man of science. My Sunday school years were ancient history. My Holy Trinity was composed of Science, Engineering, and Math. And, as any practicing engineer, scientist, or mathematician would attest, the three of them are One.
Nevertheless, I nodded to him and closed my eyes. I began, “God, it is I and Mr. Sanders. I am Donald Peters. You know that, of course.” I cleared my throat. My hands were clenched into tight fists. “I would like to begin this prayer by giving you thanks, and, uh, praises.”
I heard Walter clear his throat. I opened my eyes.
“What are you doing,” he asked.
He shook his head. “That’s not praying, and that is not how you should speak to the Lord.”
“That ‘You’ stuff. It’s not right.”
Walter sighed, closed his eyes, and said, “Let’s go to the Lord in prayer.” I closed my eyes again. He began, “Father, THOU hast made the heavens and the earth, and THY power and love know no end. We come to THEE today in prayer.” There was a long pause. I opened one eye and peeked at Walter who was looking at me. The gaze said, That is how it is done. He closed his eyes and began again. “We ask thee, Lord, to give special care to my wife and sister in Christ today. Janice is suffering, and we know that no one knows suffering like thou Son Jesus, and…”
As he prayed, I remembered seeing the bumper sticker on an old Ford F-150 parked in the front yard as I pulled in the gravel driveway. If it ain’t King James, it ain’t bible.
“Thou art the Great Physician and there is no need for the wicked medicine of men if we trust in thee. Janice is a kind soul, Lord. Thou knowest this better than anybody. We ask, O, Heavenly Father, that…”
I pictured his daughter lying there on the bed cutting her hand off with a rusty old saw blade. I saw her throw it across the room.
“That old serpent, the devil, cannot have her, Lord. He cannot keep her down and…”
She just lay there, lay there and died. Bled until she could never bleed again.
“Lift her up, King Jesus. Mount her on wings of eagles.”
He meant “Mount her up.” I meant to find out what really happened there. Who would, or rather, could commit suicide in such a manner? The other case was just as puzzling. Why remove one’s eyes or a hand? Why not slit a wrist or hang from a rope in a quicker, more painless and socially acceptable way of offing one’s self?
“And now, O Lord, I will speak to you in the tongues of angels.”
I watched Walter adjust his body, placing his other knee on the floor. He raised his hands to the sky and lifted up his head. With his eyes remaining closed, he began chanting and mumbling words, or non-words that I would not know how to spell or even pronounce. I’m no angel after all.
After a while, his arms started waving back and forth. They began trembling. His upper body would fall down, back to the floor, and then up again in a slow rhythm. Down and up.
I wondered how long he could go on like this. I was hoping it would be long enough.
I slowly got to my feet, keeping an eye on Walter. I walked softly toward the bed and looked over the mattress. Seeing nothing of interest, I lifted one side of it up from the crates. I saw nothing underneath and felt nothing as I slid my hand under the part I could not lift up. I set it back down and looked back over my shoulder at Walter. He was still in a rapturous state. He continued the up and down movement. The waving. The chanting. The slobbering. His whole body was shaking a little. The only mumblings escaping his mouth that resembled real words were something like “Mama Mia”, “Shenandoah”, and “Oscar de la Fuente”.
I scanned the two walls the bed was against. Nothing. I bent down and examined the crates as best as I could. I had no idea what I was looking for, and didn’t find it. I thought of pulling the bed away from the walls to examine the unexposed sides of the crates, but expected there was no way I could do it without disturbing Walter’s conversation with the heavenly host.
It went on and on behind me, growing in volume.
I softly made my way to the dresser. The fish was interested in me for all of about two seconds before turning away and swimming to the opposite end of the bowl. I could picture it swimming between the fingers of Nora Sanders, her hand an aquamarine obstacle course. I could not find the nerve to open the drawers of the walnut-colored dresser. I would not have felt right about it anyway. I started to walk away when I saw it on the side of the dresser. Etched in and colored in red were the initials DM. Underneath was a heart.
Derrick Mapleton’s was the other body. The young man was found dead in his church on an altar, eyeballs missing. A bloody pocket knife was found folded in one of his overall pockets. A bloody spoon was in the other. He wore nothing under the overalls. The note was in his fist.
I had suspected all along that both cases were something more sinister than suicide. The carving in the dresser raised my suspicions. Did it prove a romantic relationship between the two, which is something a few of the residents of Dewey Hollow had suggested? The Sanders girl and the Mapleton boy had been really close since they were toddlers. The two were flirty with one another since their preteen years. They had often gone on walks alone in the woods in the months leading up to their deaths.
I jumped as Walter yelled out, “Woo Glory!” I turned around and saw him lying there, his back on the floor and his legs folded under themselves. His feet were tucked under his buttocks and his arms stretched out from his sides. More clanking came from the kitchen downstairs. It sounded purposeful to me. “Yes, Lord,” Walter yelled before resuming his unintelligible chants, this time softer than before. It sounded like he was wrapping it up.
I took a picture of the carving on the dresser with my cell phone. I walked back to my former place in the room and got back down on one knee. As he was saying his goodbyes to the angels above, I wondered if it was one of the victims’ parents that killed the two. Was an intimate relationship outside of marriage forbidden in Dewey Hollow? Was the punishment death? Did the pastor of the Dewey Church of the Lord and Savior execute justice? Or was there a jealous young man or woman out there, the third member of a lovers’ triangle?
Walter fell silent. I watched him raise his body back up on his knees, grunting as he did so. He took a deep breath and sighed. He looked at me and shot me a knowing look that said, THAT was some good stuff. He reached around into his back pocket and pulled out a comb. He gave his thinning, greasy hair two strokes from the comb, one on each half of his head. His free hand followed the comb, pressing his hair down against his scalp. He looked at me with a proud look on his face and said, “I got myself the gift of tongues.” He wiped the comb on his pants leg and put it back where he got it.
“It would appear you do, Mr. Sanders.” I smiled at him.
He stood up gingerly and placed the palms of his hands against the small of his back, leaning back and grunting. “I reckon we better head back down. I don’t like leaving her alone for too long.”
“I understand. May I ask you a question?”
“Your daughter and the other guy. Mapleton. Did they have a relationship? More than just friends, I mean.”
He tilted his head. “Are you askin’ me if they were messin’ around?”
“Well, no, not necessarily messing around. Just if they were more than friends.”
Walter took a step toward me. “My daughter was pure. We bible believin’ people around here.”
I held up my hands. “I am sure she was pure, Mr. Sanders. That’s not what I’m getting at. All I mean is…”
“It is time for you to go, Don.”
“OK.” I did not want conflict. I nodded and turned toward the door. He stepped in front of me and opened it. I walked out into the hall and headed toward the steps. Mrs. Sanders was at the base of the stairs wiping her hands on a hand towel. “Walter,” she said, “Can you bring down the dishes from our room? I’ll show our guest out.”
“Yep,” I heard him say behind me. I turned to tell him goodbye, but he was already heading away toward their room. I made my way down the steps. Janice was still wiping her hands vigorously and was studying me. She tilted her head. “Mister, do you think my Nora kilt herself?”
The question surprised me. I averted my eyes and began, “I, uh…”
“Well, she didn’t. That Derrick boy didn’t either.”
I took a step closer to her. I took a peek up the stairs to make sure Walter was not within hearing distance. “Were Norma and Derrick a couple?”
She leaned forward. I could see the faint freckles on her face for the first time. I could smell the bourbon on her breath.
She simply said, “Duh.” Shaking her head like she was disappointed in me, she pointed in Walter’s general direction. “And that fool up there knows it too. He is just protecting her reputation, is all.”
“Well, then, I have to ask. Do you think there was foul play involved?”
“Foul play? You mean murder?”
“Yes, ma’am. Murder.”
She peered deeper into my eyes. She knocked on my forehead lightly with a fist. “You are a confused soul. Ain’t you?” She slung the dish towel across her shoulder. “Follow me.”
We walked into the kitchen. The back door I had come in earlier was standing open. A table was in the center of the kitchen. On it was a small, pocket-sized bible. She picked it up and handed it to me. There was a thin strip of paper marking a page.
“It wasn’t murder. It wasn’t suicide. And it wasn’t an accident,” she said. I wondered what was left. “Have a nice trip back home, Mister,” she continued. “That book has the truth you are looking for.”
I nodded goodbye to her, feeling a little frustrated and confused. I turned and walked out the door and to my truck. I watched her pull the door closed. I got in and leaned back in the driver’s seat. Frustrated, I sighed. I started to reach into my pocket for the ignition key and realized the bible was still in my hand. It was green and the perfect size for a breast pocket. Printed on the cover was The New Testament of Jesus Christ. Under the title it read, Words of Christ in Red. I had no doubt those words would also be in 17th century English.
I turned to the page marked by the slip of paper. It was The Gospel of Mark. Sections of the ninth chapter were highlighted. Seven verses were not only highlighted, but underlined in pencil. I put on a pair of reading classes I had in the console and began reading at the forty-third verse. The words were in red. Christ said, “And if thy hand offend thee, cut if off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched.”
My heart rate picked up. I began feeling nauseas. I swallowed and read on.
After Christ talked about an offending foot, he stated in the forty-seventh verse, “And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.”
I took off my glasses and dropped them onto the passenger seat. I closed the bible and set it down beside the glasses. I was feeling a rush of emotions.
I thought of a young Nora Sanders wanting to touch Derrick Mapleton. I thought of her hand on his shoulder. His back. His thigh. His crotch. That hand making her sin, leading her to hell, keeping her from eternal life.
I thought of Derrick looking at the young, tight curves of Nora’s body, wanting her, lusting in his heart. His eye causing him to sin. Which eye?
I took the wrong one out the first time.
I started the pickup and headed down the dirt path that led from the Sanders’ place. I turned down the highway that wound through the hollow. I felt sorry for the forbidden couple. I pictured them lying in separate places and times, bleeding to death. They expected to live up until the very end; believed to the very point they lived no more.
It wasn’t murder. It wasn’t suicide. It wasn’t an accident.
It was something else.
Billy R. Sauls writes fiction and lives with his wife, Deborah, in Knoxville, TN where he attended the University of Tennessee. He has two sons, a step-daughter, and another on the way.