A MIRACLE REPAID
by NATE GUTMAN
“Why?” I responded. “But you’re married to dad.”
“He makes me very happy, happier than I’ve been in a long time,” she said. “I’m going to say yes.”
Everything inside of me screamed, “No,” but I wanted her to be happy. Not a day goes by that I don’t wish that my childish sentimentalities and stubbornness had reared their head at that moment. So much could have been avoided if they had.
Those first few days with Mr. Madison were very confusing and I spent most of them locked in my room. I tried to avoid him, but my mother noticed my efforts and upbraided me for them. After that, I came when he called me and nodded as he told his stories. For the most part, they were exciting and centered on his childhood home outside of Biloxi, Mississippi. He was an avid outdoors man in his youth and, being the growing boy that I was, I loved to hear about how he had tracked a prize-winning buck through the underbrush or killed the bear that had threatened his dogs. Each time he finished one of these stories he reached under his shirt collar and produced a tiny silver-colored stone and kissed it almost reverently. I wondered about it, but was too timid to ask. It was on one of the warmest days in May that my growing acceptance of him turned to intrigue.
My mother called me into the kitchen where they both were resting upright on their knees. Her hands were folded, and Mr. Madison’s fists were clenched on his chest. Both their eyes were closed. I was very confused, but she patted the tile floor next to her and asked me to kneel down between them. I did as I was told and, after what seemed like several minutes, Mr. Madison let out a loud sigh and spoke.
“Father God, I thank you for everything you have given me. I thank you for my lovely wife, and my lovely stepson. I thank you for this beautiful house. I thank you for the many blessings you have given me.”
Realizing that we were praying, I clasped my eyes tightly and put my hands together as my mother had taught me.
“I especially want to thank you, Father, on this twenty-eighth of May for the wonderful miracle you performed on my brother Will when he so desperately needed it. You heard our cries, Father, and used your servant to do your work. I ask that you keep your servant Marlene in your thoughts and keep her from all harm, now and forever. Amen.”
We stood up and my mother gave me a hug and kissed my head. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mr. Madison unclench his fists and kiss the small stone necklace in his hand more gingerly than I had ever seen him do before.
“Is Mr. Madison coming with us?” I asked Sunday morning as my mother tightened my neck tie.
“I can’t get him to go. I’ve asked him. Believe me.”
I was reminded of the prayer. “Why did he pray with us in the kitchen that one time, then?”
“Well, he’s still a praying man,” she said. “Plus, that was a special occasion. It was the anniversary of his brother’s miracle.”
I remembered hearing about a miracle in the prayer but I hadn’t paid much attention to it then. Yet, now that the word was said in normal discussion, it resonated very wondrously with me.
“What miracle, mom?”
“I’m not sure if I should tell you,” she said. “Maybe you should ask him.” I pleaded with and badgered her until she was at the point of exasperation. I broke her. “Fine, fine!” she exclaimed. “Just calm down and I’ll tell you. He doesn’t like to talk about it, though.”
She sat down at the small wooden table in our kitchen and fiddled with her apron as she began. “The way your stepfather tells it is that, well you know how he’s always talking about camping and hunting and stuff?”
I nodded, eager to move the narrative along.
“And has he told you the story about how he tracked down and killed that bear that was threatening his dogs?”
“Yeah, I think so,” I said.
“Well, it wasn’t after his dogs, at least, not only his dogs. It was after his brother, William.”
“What do you mean, after him?” I asked. “It was chasing him?”
“It chased him several times, supposedly. The way your stepdad tells it, every time his brother was out in the woods, no matter what he was doing, a huge black bear was there. He thought it was stalking him. At first, he’d only see it at a distance. He would hear a crack of twigs, or a rustle of leaves, and it would be there. Eventually though, it grew more tenacious and worked its way up to the cabin where they lived. It would pace around the house and sometimes they would hear growling and shuffling outside the walls at night.”
“Why didn’t he shoot it, then?” I asked.
“Well, when he first started seeing it, he would yell to scare it off. He didn’t think that it meant them any harm. It wasn’t until later that he knew it wanted to hurt them.
“One day, Rob, your stepdad, woke up to the sound of several gunshots and a horrifying scream. He knew it was his brother’s, though he says that he never heard a person’s yell have such a despairing quality to it before. He grabbed his shotgun and ran into the woods without even bothering to get dressed. It took him almost an hour to pinpoint where Will’s screams were coming from. When he finally found him, he was lying down on his back with a huge gash in his stomach. He was bleeding pretty badly and there wasn’t anyone for almost a mile around. Rob had to drag him back to the house. When they got there, he loaded him into the truck and drove him into the city. The surgeon there said that Will was lucky to be alive.”
She went into the bedroom to put on her pearl earrings. I followed as her voice echoed through the house.
“Will said the bear that attacked him was the same one that had been following him for the last several weeks. It had jumped him when he had gone out of the cover of the trees. While his brother recovered in the hospital, your stepdad was out combing the woods with his gun, trying to find the animal. He couldn’t find any trace of it and, when Will came home after a few days, he gave up on his search in order to tend to his brother.
“The gash healed up nicely and a scar formed, but Will’s condition worsened. The whole family was concerned and the doctor was called. He gave him a dose of medication, but Will only plummeted more and more into sickness. Eventually he grew incredibly pale and wasn’t able to speak.
“His mother suggested that he go and see Marlene. It was a name that was often heard in their house, but it wasn’t one that your stepdad liked to think of. Marlene was supposed to be some sort of herbalist, but he remembers her being more like a voodoo medicine woman. She was always muttering weird incantations under her breath and dangling odd gems, twigs, or bones from her neck. He didn’t want to go, but his mother insisted and he couldn’t think of anything else to do. So he picked Marlene up in his truck and drove her to see Will.
"The visit only took her a few minutes. She walked into the room, examined Will’s scars, and gave your stepdad instruction.”
I was amazed that my mother remembered the story so clearly.
“She told him that Will would get better if the bear was killed, but that he must take extra care in disposing of the body. The bear’s carcass had to be buried exactly like a man’s: with a hole that was six feet deep and a marker on top of the gravesite. She wrote down a prayer he was to say over the mound and gave him that necklace with the stone. He put it on that day and he still hasn’t ever taken it off.
“He went out early the next morning and found the bear in exactly the same clearing he had found Will almost a month before. He fired only once and hit the animal in the chest. It fell immediately. He still doesn’t understand how he killed the thing so easily, not when Will had fired shot after shot. He soon got it into his mind that the necklace was what did it. He slung off the shovel from his shoulder and began to dig a hole in the ground next to the body. As he dug, he grew aware of a strange feeling inside of him. It was an oppressive presence that made all of his movements heavy and difficult. His shovel became hard to lift, and he felt like the air didn’t have enough oxygen in it to breathe. At first he thought it was in his head, but then a disgusting odor came to his nose that he couldn’t ignore. He tried to at first, but it grew in intensity until he could take it no longer. He left the clearing gagging and gasping for breath, leaving the fallen creature behind him.
“For days he debated about going back to the clearing and burying the body, but Will was growing better. The color returned to his face and he was soon able to speak and walk. His recovery made the necessity of burying the carcass less and less serious, and he forgot about it.”
“And that’s the same rock that he keeps on the necklace?” I asked, amazed that something from so fantastic a story could reside within the walls of my ordinary home.
She nodded and applied a light layer of eye shadow as she continued. “His family calls Will’s recovery a miracle, and they always celebrate the anniversary of when he killed the bear, which is why he led that prayer the other day. Marlene would celebrate with them, and she specifically requested that they add a petition to their prayer. ‘Keep her from all harm, now and forever,’ as he said.”
I couldn’t understand how my mother could retell such a strange story. She had spoken as if she was reading her grocery list.
Mr. Madison’s necklace had a mystical quality to it now, and I was unable to look without fanciful eyes. I wondered at what other powers it had, and the notion that I should touch it, or take it for myself and examine it, grew to undeniable heights.
He never removed it from its place around his neck, so I knew that the only way I could fulfill my desire was through ill means. My opportunity came early July 7th when I tiptoed into my mother’s room and found Mr. Madison asleep with the clasp of the necklace lying flat on his chest. I knew it was the best chance I could hope for. I carefully undid the clasp and slid the necklace out from underneath his body. He muttered something as I pulled it free, but I didn’t hear what it was. My senses were too focused on the shiny stone cupped carefully in my hands. I quietly closed the door of their room and went into the bathroom to examine my spoils in private.
As soon as I flipped on the light, my hands felt very heavy. I nearly dropped the stone before I had even uncovered it from my palms. With some effort, I placed it on the counter and stared at it. The light around me seemed to grow dim and I felt a rushing sense of paranoia. The darkening room was somehow suffocating and I frantically turned my head from side to side, fearing what was in my peripherals. I remember screaming, but I must not have, for neither my mother nor Mr. Madison woke. I could hear the blood pounding in my ears as the room grew dimmer and dimmer. I didn’t dare bring the stone back. The idea of touching it filled me with terror. It required every ounce of my strength just to leave the bathroom, run through the hallway, and bury myself in the sheets of my bed. As I did, I felt the undeniable presence of another.
At first I thought the feeling was just my terrified psyche playing games with me, but it became more and more apparent that my fears were founded on something very real. It was a slight rasping sound that came from the corner of the room. It drew nearer, and soon I heard the heavy plodding of steps. Both noises grew louder, but I didn’t dare look, no matter how much my curiosity impelled me to. Eventually they were joined by a third: a loud, animalistic growl. Upon hearing it, I lost sense of myself. All three sounds moved away from me and out into the hall before they were joined by a fourth: a violent scratching or tearing. It was as if a thousand knives all in a line were threatening to rip the house in half. I have no idea how long these sounds went on, but I did not get any sleep that night at all and, when morning broke and I braved leaving the confines of my bed, there were huge gash marks in the frame of my mother’s bedroom door.
She was confident that they were caused by a raccoon that had found its way in from the roof, but Mr. Madison was much more fearful. He raved and cursed until he found his stone in the bathroom and had kissed it profusely. He did the clasp around his neck before tying the metal strand into a double knot to ensure that it remained in place.
I was convinced that the stone was evil, and I separated myself from it as much as possible. Whenever my stepfather came into the room, I made a point to excuse myself as politely as I could. As the weeks went on, it seemed that almost every night those four sounds came back, and always louder than they had been before. My mother would ask me every morning why my eyes were so red, or why I was falling asleep at the breakfast table, and I would tell her everything. She would always pat my head and tell me that it was only a nightmare, but I noticed that Mr. Madison would fidget uncomfortably in his seat, and that his knuckles would go white as he gripped the stone in his fist.
I trusted my mother and, in my childish mind, I began to believe that the animalistic noises I heard were due simply to incredibly vivid nightmares. Yet, on a mid-September night, as the scratching at the doorpost reached an enormous volume, a woeful cry of horror pierced through the door of my mother’s bedroom and echoed throughout the house. She rushed into my room as my stepfather screamed and cursed.
“Get out of here. Leave me alone!” he cried. “Leave me be. For God’s sake, leave me be!”
I could not make out what else was said. He was evidently slipping into hysterics. My mother shook as we shared the bed. She didn’t try to go back into the room. I could see from her eyes that there had been something in Mr. Madison that had terrified her.
He did not leave his room the next morning. My mother placed a call to a local therapist, who came by and examined him later that afternoon. He said that Mr. Madison was in a state of shock, and sounded perplexed when she told him that she had no idea what the cause could be.
She managed to coax Mr. Madison out of the room for dinner, and it was amazing how much he had changed. His face was white and his lips had a purplish hue to them. His hair was frazzled and jutted from his head in all directions. Though he was a middle-aged man, I had never seen much gray on him. Yet now nearly his whole head was white. He emerged from the bedroom wearing only his boxer shorts, and the metal chain had received many fresh knots near its clasp. His fists were constantly groping the stone it bore.
He seemed to deteriorate as the hours went by. The slightest noise caused him a terrible amount of fright and every clank of my mother’s spoon in her coffee mug made his eyes grow wide. At around eleven, I heard some kind of shuffling outside and he began frantically blubbering in a shrill voice as sweat poured from his snow-white head.
“I’ve tried to ignore him, but I can’t. He won’t be ignored. He’s coming, he’s coming tonight. He told me so. He’s coming for me…”
He was scaring my mother, but she tried to remain calm. “Who’s coming for you, Robbie? No one’s going to hurt you.”
“Why did I leave him there?” he cried as he pressed his fist forcefully against his chest and began pounding his head against the kitchen cabinet. My mother rushed over to stop him as a loud, thunderous growl echoed just beyond the front door.
“Oh, God! Oh, God!” he cried as he tried his best to scramble up the very walls of the house.
She tried to restrain him as the growling increased in volume and seemed to circle around us.
“We have to get out of here,” he said as he shoved my mother hard against the kitchen counter and snatched the car keys from where they sat next to her cup of coffee.
“Robert, there’s an animal out there!” she said.
“We have to leave, we have to get out of here!” he screamed as he flung the door open and ran out to the car.
My mother grabbed me by the hand and ran after him. In his frenzied state he had dropped the keys on the ground outside and was frantically searching for them. She spied them in the tall grass and gesticulated madly. He had worked himself into hysterics. When she reached the spot, she grabbed them from their hiding place and unlocked the door as he pushed his way into the passenger’s seat and I was flung into the back.
“Drive!” he screamed as the growls grew louder.
She put the car into reverse and the heavy plodding of footsteps drew nearer. As we sped out onto Gardenia Lane, I thought I saw the flashing of eyes peering out from my mother’s bedroom window.
As we drove, his hyperventilating slowly died down. He started chuckling to himself. It was too boisterous a laugh to be considered sane, and it unnerved me. He took the stone out from his clenched fist and kissed it over and over again.
“I’m so sorry about that, Rose,” he said. “I’m just so glad that-“
“What is that?” my mother interrupted.
I looked out through the windshield and saw that we were coming up on a large dark mass that was lying in the middle of the road. My heart leapt inside my chest.
“What is that!” my mom screamed as she struggled to hit the brakes in time.
“No, don’t!” my stepfather screamed in a voice full of terror. He grabbed the wheel out of my mother’s hands and jammed on the accelerator. The car lurched and veered into the ditch on the side of the road. Our heads went sharply forward and my mom cried out in pain. Mr. Madison was franticly muttering to himself and trying the best he could to get the passenger’s door open, but it was blocked by the side of the trench.
I looked back to the road and saw the large black mass move towards us in a manner that immediately terrified me. It moved like no creature under the sky has ever moved before or, I hope to God, has ever moved since. It seemed to glide effortlessly through the dim moonlight, but its movements were distorted and wrong. It covered the distance to our vehicle in only a few short bursts.
When he noticed it, he attempted to leap over my mother and make a run for it towards the open road. She pushed him back with a scream and pointed to something on the opposite end of the car. I froze with terror and the image has been forever burned on my mind as the face of all of the world’s horrors. Mr. Madison managed to open the driver side door and tumble clumsily from the car. I felt a thick, stinking vapor pass over us and it was as if my internal organs had dropped into my shoes. He was wailing, and his wailing echoed throughout the woods as he and the terrible black form disappeared into the tall pine trees.
My mother and I spent the night in the car. She had forgotten her cellphone in the turmoil of leaving the house and we were not brave enough to abandon the only shelter we had. We made the trek back to the house in the morning as every twig and rustling of leaves seemed to spell our doom. We called the police and told them what had happened. They disbelieved our story. While my mother thought the countless interviews she received from newspaper men were to help find her husband, they were only used for the curious eyewitness account of the disappearance.
We moved to Hartford, and it was there that my mother received a call from the police department stating that they had found my stepdad’s body. The coroner declared that he had been mauled by a large animal, but we knew otherwise. We made the trip down to Biloxi to bury him with his family. I distinctly remember looking for someone named Marlene, but no one there looked like a voodoo woman. As we left the cemetery we noticed a nearby gravestone with the name “William B. Madison” on it. He had died only a few weeks before, on the night of July 7th. It was only later I realized that the night of July 7th was the night I took the stone into the bathroom, and the first night those horrible sounds had appeared.
I’ve never been able to enjoy the stories told around a campfire, or gawk at the amazing tales told drinking when the jokes have run out. The idea of the supernatural, of the unknown, is not something that I can explore for amusement. I feel its presence even now. I can still hear its scratching at my bedroom door post, and its noxious odor still comes to me when I’ve locked my door for the night.
Nate Gutman grew up in Titusville, FL as the oldest of five. He began writing short stories for his good friend and neighbor during his early teen years, and carried the habit into his adult life, eventually branching out to poetry and novels. He received his BA in Literature from Ave Maria University, and currently lives in Manassas, VA, with his wife, Kim. He would love for you to follow his blog, nategutman.wordpress.com, and be subjected to his would-be witticisms on Twitter.
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