THE BOOK OF BLACK RATS
by ROSE WEDNESDAY
nterview with Rebecca Damper, May 19. Rebecca is a quiet woman of about 35, wearing a business suit. Her accent is mid-coast, until she begins to tell what she calls “the story.” At that point her eyes become unfocused, her lids droop, and we begin to hear traces of Appalachia in her speech patterns.
Growing up my mother told me this story. She told to us when we were being bad when we were small, and again when I said I didn’t want to go to college--she always wanted us to do better than she did. It was always meant to scare us into behaving. The story has three parts, there’s this introductory part where she talks about how we should be grateful to grow up with so much because when she was young they didn’t have anything, and then at the end there’s always...the moral, you’d call it--and then the story itself is told in the middle.
I suppose if this is real, it all took place in around 1950, somewhere in there. She told it just like this--I’m going to try to give it like she would, so you can understand what we were up against!
I was poor, Becca, you have to understand that. It wasn’t like we could go to the doctor. In the county there was a doctor, if you could afford it, but he wouldn’t come up and in the early spring when the bridge flooded out we couldn’t come down. So in the spring, if we needed anything, we went to Pastor Nyman, who had studied medicine before he went to divinity school, he said. We weren’t afraid of him then. Pastor Nyman was the best man we had ever met.
My daddy drank and hit and cursed God. Pastor Nyman never said an unkind word in the time I knew him. He was short and chubby and had a sort of boiled pink color to his skin, like a ham, and he wore little glasses--I didn’t know I needed glasses until he showed me through his. And he gave me them, Becca, right off his face. I learned that every tree had individuated leaves. And he was squinting-blind until the next time someone took him to town. He did that for me because he knew I needed them. He would’ve given any of us the shirt off his back. You need to know that. You need to know that he was a good man.
So when my daddy fell on Juliet while he was drinking, we took her to Pastor Nyman. We didn’t have a lot of other places we could have gone.
I was eleven, and I think Juliet was sixteen, and bigger than me. Your grandmother and I had to carry her through the street because of how she was hurt. The village was a single long road between the bridge and the mines, and we lived at the far end of that street, with the church at the other end, at the very crest of the hill before the mountain road. It was night, and I remember Juliet moaning because something was broken in her foot, and Mother and I trying to keep her quiet because her nightgown was so thin you could see the moon through it, and she was shivering in the spring air and weeping.
And we carried her to his door, and he answered straight when we knocked and helped us get her up onto the kitchen table, in the warm glow from the big fireplace in the corner and the kerosene lamps--so many, and so stylish--in every corner of the room. He looked at her foot and then he asked us if we would leave so he could talk to Juliet. He put us in the front room where he took guests and we stood there looking at the furniture and the heavy leatherbound books. The moon cut through his thin front curtains like it was nothing, so when I went to light a kerosene lamp my mother slapped my hand and reminded me of the cost. I remember the clock ticking loud enough to drown out whatever was said.
Finally he came back out and told us he’d like to keep Juliet here for a while. Your grandma wasn’t pleased with that.
“It’s not right,” she said, “A girl her age alone with an unmarried man.”
Pastor Nyman looked angry. He bared his teeth at my mother a little. He had very white teeth, and all of them straight, and none of them missing.
“Ma’am,” he said, “You’ll let her stay here if you want what’s good for her.”
She pursed her lips again.
“Then take Beth too,” she said. “She can keep an eye on her.”
I looked over at Juliet, who was crying a little, and then back at my mother. I didn’t want to go home, but I had this sense that she’d sold me. That she was glad I wasn’t her trouble anymore. It was my job to look after Juliet, you see, because Juliet was pretty and slow, and I was not.
Well when she gave me up, Pastor Nyman didn’t blink at that, he just nodded, and smiled a little, out of one side of his mouth.
He put us to bed in the front room that night, giving Juliet the long settee because she was hurt, and putting me up in a pile of blankets on the floor. We lay in the dark, listening to the clock sway while Juliet cried into the pillows until she fell asleep and I lay awake with the ticking. I remember hating that clock, Becca, but eventually I couldn’t sleep without it.
It was easier than being at home, though people talked when we went to school. Juliet was very quiet and shy and wouldn’t answer but I was getting in fights. Pastor Nyman would always clean me up with a cotton swab and some peroxide, with his sleeves rolled up and choking the life out of his pudgy pink arms, and he’d tell me quietly to be careful out there. He preached sermons on tolerance and humility. When Juliet got sick and started puking he held the bowl and held her hair.
We slept in the front room at night for the first few months. He never did anything to us that suggested--hypocrisy, I guess you’d say. He didn’t take up with Juliet, he didn’t beat me. He held himself above us, in a way. He’d never fall on us because men like him, they didn’t fall.
After a while Juliet got so sick that one day she fell over while she was making breakfast. He carried her upstairs to his room, his face straining and red, and shut the door on her. After that I made breakfast and he brought the tray up. He said she was contagious and that it’d be best if I didn’t tell anyone at school. I knew how people were here. Rumors would fly. I knew. I could just barely see Juliet in the bedroom from outside on the lawn on my way to school. She was lying still and staring at the wall.
When I got home that day, Pastor Nyman was waiting in the kitchen. He told me I’d be helping him on his errands since I was such a bright thing. I think he’d wanted Juliet for it, but like I said, she was always a little slow.
Pastor Nyman had a book that he kept with him at all times. It was a small book, like a notebook, with a leather cover all scuffed and no words on the front, and a black ribbon. I noticed that he always kept it with him in the house, that he held it tucked under the Bible when he gave his sermons in church, and that it weighted down the left side of his coat. He wrote or sketched in it sometimes with a stub of pencil. When he took me with him on his errands to call on the sick and give them medicine or prayers in Latin, or to the shacks where we ministered to the poor by stuffing tarred rags into the cracks in their walls while the wind howled outside, the book was there too.
He never asked for anything from people. But I saw something in him sometimes, when a man was pressing a dollar bill into his hand. A smile came over his face, just for a second, that he knew he was good. That he knew he was better than the man giving him the dollar. I don’t know what to tell you, Becca. It was so long ago and maybe this is just me trying to find some way to explain it.
Because other than that, other than that it pleased him to hold himself up like that, Pastor Nyman was a good man. Every man has to have something.
I began to notice more strange things the winter after Juliet got sick. There was a night of thrashing from upstairs, a sound of someone moaning. I lay in bed, too scared to go up and see what was wrong. I figured she’d laid around for so long that he’d gotten sick of her, and I was a little sick of her too, and anyway there wasn’t a thing I could do for her. The next morning though I ran up when he was out and knocked on her door, and she called out to me in a weedy voice that she was fine, just fine. “Don’t worry,” she said, “he’s taking care of us.”
One morning she came downstairs again, pale and cautious, holding onto the railing as she teetered down. And she drank soup with her mouth mostly shut and little by little she stopped looking so thin. When Pastor Nyman went out, I asked if he’d hurt her. She shook her head. I asked if she’d been sick. She nodded, but slowly.
In the spring of that year, she and Pastor Nyman got married. It was on a cold and rainy day when the water was coming in and we could see the river from the hilltop after the ceremony, through the blank and leafless trees. I remember she was still walking gingerly, still placing one foot in front of the other as though balancing some great weight.
I kept living with them, sleeping on the sofa which was getting stained and worn from someone living on it always, listening for the sounds of upstairs, for screams or slaps, like I’d done when I was a little girl. There was nothing, although sometimes a soft thud.
Juliet didn’t get sick again, but others did that spring. Girls in long coats dragged themselves into his door from outside, and he started using me more as an assistant, getting me to take their sodden coats, boil bandages. Men came in from the mines or the woods and I cut their shirts off with bandage scissors and learned how to tweeze buckshot from wounds. Some people didn’t come in for days, thinking they’d let things get better on their own, and I learned that things left alone to fester always get worse. Pastor Nyman taught me that. He taught me that you have to cut and cauterize. He’d been to medical school but he didn’t stay long enough to be able to give people medicine, so we often used things made by hand: sassafras, willow bark, liquor. And sometimes then, stranger things.
He had recipes in the book that he’d read aloud to me while I mixed things he told me to, once he began to trust me more, when my hands were steady like a surgeon’s, he said. At first it was nothing more than mixed teas, but then there were trips to Martin’s slaughterhouse for organs, and then for bones, and then for teeth which we ground up in a mortar and pestle and I got a lecture about calcium and how important it was for growing babies. Martin always sent me home with something nice for our supper, and told me that his son was keeping well and I should pass that along to Pastor Nyman. “Good man,” Martin said, wiping his hands on his leather apron and looking at me with his brow furrowed like he was trying to read something in my forehead. “Good, kind man.”
There were things he wouldn’t let me see. Sometimes he would “do preparations” and I had to leave the kitchen for those. Not that he didn’t trust me, he said. It was just dangerous, he said, and he thought I’d be safer not messing with these chemicals. He called them “chemicals.” He sent me upstairs to sit with Juliet. She was healthy and happy now, a little pink glow to her cheeks and a wide smile for him whenever she saw him, and she was the reason I didn’t start to worry before I did, I think. I’d crawl in with her and wrap my arms around her waist, press my head into her shoulder and smell how good and how clean she smelled in this dirty town while my own hands were caked with filth. She’d read to me, or hum, and we’d try not to listen to the sounds from downstairs: the faint bumps, the low rumble that shook our bones and made the china rattle in the cupboards. The voices.
I was thirteen when I finally found it.
It was spring again. Pastor Nyman had gone out without me so I was home looking for the salt...no, I’d already found there was no salt in the house and I was trying to see what I could do without it. I turned around because I heard a noise, and then I saw it. Pastor Nyman’s book on the kitchen table. He must have left it when he went out.
I went over to it, walked all around it.
It wasn’t made of leather like I’d thought at first, but of untanned dark hide with the hair still on it, smooth flat hair like a pelt. And I looked a little closer, and what I’d always taken for a black ribbon was a little rounder, a little meatier. It looked almost like a tail.
I looked left, and looked right, to see if he was there, and then I picked the book up. It fell open on a page with marks made on the sides of it in heavy pencil. I couldn’t read the other words, but I could read the pencil. I think it was translations.
I read from it for a long time. It said things like teeth (milk). It said things like from the mother. It said things like unbaptized.
I closed the book around my hand and went slowly up the stairs to Juliet’s room. She sat up in bed when I came in. She was always in bed. Like she couldn’t lift a finger. She’d always been slow.
I remember what happened, Becca, because it happened so slowly. I asked her about whether she’d had a baby. She started to shake her head, but I fell on her. I started to beat her with the book, one long slow stroke at a time, until she started crying and said, “Yes, but it died, he had to get it out, it was dead, there was nothing we could do.”
She was crying so hard as she rolled up her dress and showed me the long scar across the bottom of her belly. “We couldn’t keep it,” she said. “It wasn’t even a real baby,” she said. “He told me he’d take care of it,” she said.
“What did he do with it?” I asked her.
She shook her head over and over again, even after I hit her, even after I clawed at her still-tender belly with my hands. “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, he took it away, he said it was dead.” I remember feeling like it wasn’t quite me doing it, like I wasn’t right. But I brushed it off. I was just angry. And I should be angry. My sister had killed her baby. I remember running down the stairs, half on my hands and knees, to find its body.
Or to find something that would make her remember where she’d buried it.
It’s funny. You don’t know right away when something’s come over, or come into you. It’s not what you’d think, like you’re watching yourself from outside. It’s still you in there. If you feel for it though--if you know what to feel for--you can sense the little tugs of cords that weren’t there before, not moving you, but helping you move in the ways you already want to.
I was at the fireplace heating up a poker when the door flew open.
Pastor Nyman looked at me, looked at the book in my hand, looked back at my face. I think we saw the same thing. I think we both moved at the same time.
He was bigger than me, and stronger than me. But I had the book, and I had the poker.
I lashed out at his face, and caught him across the cheek with the hot end. I heard his skin hiss. “Ham,” I said. “Meat,” I said. It was just my voice, nothing special. Just me, or maybe me and something. Hard to say.
“Listen,” he said. “Listen, set it down. I can handle it. God wants me to do this. God wills it.”
“What did you do with the baby?” I asked.
“I…” he paused. “I don’t...remember any baby.”
“My sister came here with a baby in her,” I said. “You wrote about it. In here.”
I will remember the way his face worked then until the day I die. The cords in us both connected me to him for a second, and for that instant I saw that he didn’t know. I saw him set his jaw like I’d seen him do when looking at a bad wound, something deep and laced with red lines of infection. I saw him feint left, felt my body twist, and then watched him hurtle past me, snatching the book from my hands as he did. I skittered around to face him before he threw the book into the fire. It crackled like pork fat as it burned.
I thought it’d be over. I thought I’d feel better. I sort of hoped we would--that we could go back to being a family. I thought the feeling would ebb away, the feeling of something moving around inside with me. Instead I felt it running, rummaging through my body. Stringing its long cords.
“It’s still in here,” I said. “Can you feel it?”
He shook his head.
“No,” he said. “I couldn’t feel it at all. I had no idea.”
“I can tell you,” I said. “It’s still in you, too.”
He looked at me, he looked at the fireplace. The book was still burning, popping and hissing a little.
“Get your sister out,” he said. “And then you’ve got to make a choice.”
He was gripping the mantle when we came back downstairs, when I dragged Juliet past him and out into the night, still wrapped up in sheets. He wouldn’t let her see his face. Once we shut the door, I heard the roar and felt the rush of hot air from inside, and then the plate glass kitchen window blew out. The flames licked their way down to nothing and then it was over. He must have poured the bucket of kerosene over himself and then stepped into the fire.
The whole town came out to see what had happened, but I was already pulling Juliet away down the hill toward the bridge where the water was just low enough that we might cross on this one night, if we hurried and beat the rain. She was crying, and I wished I could cry too. I wished the thing in me would let my eyes go so I could really cry. But I made my choice, and he made his.
He was a good person. But I’m not.
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