"When the devil knocks on your door, you just say, get thee behind me Satan." Grandma Sylkie flicked the cigarette between her index and middle fingers. The ashes dropped into a water-spotted, ceramic bowl that sat on the Rubbermaid table beside her. The bowl reflected greens and blues and rust like fish scales in daylight.
Sarah watched her grandmother's face, her earnest, gentle eyes. At five years of age, those eyes had been her entire world. At thirteen they now represented everything the girl did not want to become. The woman's skin lay etched, worn, with the worry she carried for her long run-off daughter, dead son, workaday husband who shared the upbringing of a granddaughter left over from too many moon shots mixed with lemonade and a one night stand. The old woman's lines shifted, with another drag of her cigarette, into puckered lips and squinted eyes and she aged in the seconds Sarah sat studying her. "Has he ever visited you, grandma?"
"A time or two, but I've never kept his company for long," she said. "Your Mama, that's another story."
Sarah bent her head. She watched the weathered, green turf stretched over the concrete porch. It had worn through in a narrow path, frayed around bare sections, between the stairs and screened front door.
"Don't worry, possum. The devil ain't no one to be scared of. You'll know him when you see him." Grandma Sylkie took another drag. "It's the Monk Man you ought to worry about. The Monk'll get you in the night without so much as knocking." She held the cigarette, with long ash tip, out to the side then leant in on her chair as if to tell a secret. "If he ever comes for you, just holler nice and loud. Me or Grandpa will be there." Her eyes took a gentler slope again, and she put her hand out, resting it on the girl's knee. "Get your shoes on. Your grandpa'll be ready to go 'fore long."
Sarah ran inside and grabbed her blue canvas sneakers, the ones with rips in the toes that let too much dirt in, but dried out fast. Good for creekin'. She took a Debbie Snack from the clear jar with the tin lid and threw the plastic wrapper on the white porcelain counter that had worn though at the edges so that dark metal showed through the white. None of her friends' parents had countertops like this. None of her friends lived with their grandparents, either, which always made home feel different for her. Not bad. Just different. She joined Grandma Sylkie again on the porch where she ate the peanut butter and chocolate cakes.
"Promise you'll watch out for the moccasins."
"We don't have water moccasins, Grandma. I learned in school - "
"Don't you tell me what we have and don't have. I've seen 'em. You just try to step clear and don't - "
Look them in the eyes. Sarah's mind took a sarcastic melody to her grandmother's lecture like boredom in a straight-back pew during Sunday morning services: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures
"Watch your sass, girl." Grandma Sylkie could sense sarcasm on the face, sniff it out. She stared at the girl, long and steady. The old woman's light blue eyes stretched out over her face, clouds against stormy sky. They still wore the red-rimmed irritations from cabbage and onion fumes, early morning canning. "More than one sassy girl been caught by the charmer. You mind me, else he'll charm you, too."
Grandpa Ernie made his way from the garage, covered in engine grease. He smiled when he saw Sarah ready and waiting on the porch, and when he stepped up, tall and straight, Sarah waited for him to kneel down so she could wrap her arms around his neck that smelled of old cars and dirt. It was the most lovely smell in the world, cars and engine grease, and it would stay with her into womanhood so that every time she would see an underside of a car hood or dreamt of him, the smell returned to her.
"Grab us a couple of RCs."
Sarah headed off to the garage where Grandpa Ernie's soda cooler sat in the corner. He had bought the cooler off Mr. Henry when his diner shut down. It now stood in the garage corner, covered in grease, too.
"You're gonna rot her teeth out, Ernie."
"No worse than those Debbie Snacks."
"You won't let her wander off this time? You're gonna watch her close?"
"Yeah, I'll watch her."
"She's too young to go romping up in those woods."
"My granddaddy had me up in those woods younger than she is."
"I'm just scared - "
"I said I'd watch her, Sylk." He sat and lit a cigarette. "Besides, she's not likely to go wandering with all those stories you've put in her head. She's not right for it."
"Better she knows. She's thirteen."
"Ain't nothin' to know, Sylk. Just tales is all. You're scaring her more by telling them. Puttin' her head in the clouds." He paused long enough to consider his next words though they were inevitable. She had to hear them. "Didn't do much good for Jenny or Jacob - "
"They're both dead to me." Grandma Sylkie gazed across the small lawn to the road between the house and line of cypress trees bordering Musky Creek. She couldn't see the creek from the porch, but it was there, down over the hill. "Just watch her, Ernie."
"I said I'd watch her."
The sun had fallen low in the sky, almost touching the Appalachian ridge. By the time they'd left Marietta and crossed the River into West Virginia, they'd both emptied their RC bottles, and Grandpa had started humming an old folk tune, one of his favorites that he played on an eight track player he kept by his leather recliner. His voice sounded of hills and skipping stones.
"What're we doing there tonight, Grandpa?"
"The still's been kicking off again. I told Great Grandma Freid I'd take a look at it." He stretched his neck left and winced. "Why one of them boys can't do it, I don't know. Lazy, the whole lot of them."
They turned down a dirt road nearly hidden in the break of trees. It sat down from Great Grandma Freid's white house perched high up on the hill. Sarah caught a glimpse of the single pump at the tree line, moving up and down at a steady pace, pumping a modest annuity.
Grandpa Ernie parked. "Grab the flashlights, Sarah." He pointed to the glove box.
The sky had taken a periwinkle hue. Fireflies floated like tiny ghosts in the air scented with honeysuckle. Grandpa led the way along a narrow dirt path toward the shack.
"Darn it!" Sarah stopped, stomped her foot.
Grandpa Ernie smiled.
"I forgot my jar."
"We'll get you another up at the hooch." He held out his hand and Sarah took it, swinging it as they walked. He raised his arm up high, as he often did, and she pirouetted beneath it. He kept his arm raised a moment longer in case she wanted to turn another, but she stopped at one and took in a breath that always meant a soon-fire question.
"Have you ever seen the Monk Man?"
"Can't say I have."
"Grandma Sylkie says I should watch out for him."
He nodded. "Then I 'spect you should."
"She says he'll snatch me in my sleep if I'm not careful."
Grandpa Ernie winced at this. He paused as if to speak, but held back. After a time, he spoke in a low whisper though they were in the trees now and he could yodel out loud and no one would hear him.
"I shouldn't be telling you this, being you're young and all." He glanced at her from the corner of his eye. "Since your Grandma went and told you 'bout him, I s'pose I should tell you the rest."
"How to make him go away in case he ever shows up."
Sarah's eyes grew wide as Grandpa Ernie shone his flashlight to each side of the path, until the light casted upon a honeysuckle bush that grew close to an old oak so that a few of the vines wrapped up and around the ancient tree. He walked to it. "Come here. Hold out your hand."
He picked three honeysuckle blooms and laid them side by side on Sarah's palm then shone the flashlight on them. The pink-red hue of Sarah's skin gave the yellow blooms a rosy backdrop and they appeared exotic or heavenly or like pieces of a fairytale as they lay there in the circle of light. "If that Monk Man ever comes for you, just drink one of these."
"This ain't no simple honeysuckle, child. This vine grows close by an oak, up from the same earth and roots. Oaks have magic powers, all of them. These blooms," he pointed to the tiny yellow flowers in her hand, "They'll keep you safe."
"But there's only three. What if he comes for me more than three times?"
Grandpa Ernie smiled. She was a smart girl, always thinking ahead.
"Well, you just pick more the next day. Keep them by your bedside."
"What about winter?"
Grandpa cinched his brows in tight. "Guess we could always pick you a whole mess of them and make some honeysuckle wine. Put it in a jar for you to keep through the winter."
"Really, Grandpa? We can make honeysuckle wine?"
"Sure we can. We'll make you some this fall before it gets cold. We'll make enough to keep till summer."
Sarah grabbed her grandpa around the waist and squeezed tight.
"All right. Let's get going. It'll be pitch dark before long."
Sarah held her honeysuckles gingerly in one hand, her flashlight in the other, making the light dance on the dirt path before them. Part way along a soft creaking noise joined in the cricket's song and Grandpa Ernie picked up his pace. It wasn't much longer till they crested the ridge where the wooden shack stood with snake and raccoon skins dangling from rusty nails, a deterrent for anyone who might, by slim chance, happen upon the still. After several afternoons watching Grandpa Ernie skin squirrels, the skins had little effect upon the girl. What held her attention, and that of Grandpa Ernie, was the lock hanging broken from the door hook.
"Stand here by this tree. Don't move."
She did as told watching him take hold of the door, pulling it wide. He directed the flashlight beam inside then before disappearing into the shack, he turned to her. "I mean it, stay right there."
Sarah nodded into the beam of light and Grandpa Ernie slipped into the hooch.
Animal sounds scuffled and flapped and called to each other in the dark blue of the woods - an owl hoot, a crack of branch, dried leaves scattering, another crack of branch. Sarah's shoulders relaxed. Grandpa Ernie had taught her that critter sounds were good, all was well. It was the quiet that called for worry.
The fireflies lit within inches of each other now and Sarah put her honeysuckle blooms carefully in her pocket then took her Mason jar on a perimeter of the shack. She tip-toed around back, stopping every few steps like the sculpture game she sometimes played at Bible School. Within seconds, a glow lighted in a slow fade-in, fade-out pattern. She held her palms close together but not quite touching. With one quick movement, she surrounded the firefly and its wings flitted against her fingers and palms, and she peeked between her thumbs to watch it glow, remembering a silly rhyme Billy Barnhart had told her after Sunday School when she agreed to walk down by the creek before congregation. He spoke in rhymes with a grin on his lips - this is the church, this is the steeple. He grabbed at her chest and she punched him in the nose. The firefly fluttered against her palms again, then rested at one side, worn out and glowing in slower pulses.
"What'cha doin' out here by your lonesome?"
Sarah jumped at the voice, and the firefly flew out of her hands. She turned an irritated glance to Randy, whose dark silhouette leant against a tree, his Daddy's shotgun sideways in his hands.
"You scared me, Randy Freid!"
"Probably not as much as you scared that firefly." He moved closer, playfully. He thought himself so big since graduating high school, better somehow. He wasn't. His Mama ran off, too. "Why you out here all alone?"
"I'm not. Grandpa's checking the still."
"I told Grandma Freid I'd do that."
"Guess Grandpa beat you to it."
Randy shook his head then started toward the front, calling Sarah after him. "Come on. You shouldn't be 'round here in the dark like that. Might get bit." And he pinched at her side.
"She's fine." Grandpa Ernie came out of the shack, a mixture of purrs and sputters behind him. "Did you do this?" He pointed to the broken lock.
Randy shifted nervously on his feet. "Forgot the key. I planned on fixing it."
"Mmm, hmm." Grandpa Ernie sighed then shut the door. "I think I know what's wrong with it."
"I was goin' to fix that, too."
"Didn't you say that two nights ago?"
Randy hung his head.
"It's runnin' now but it needs a few parts. I can get them tomorrow in town and bring them out - "
"I can get them."
"Do you know what parts?"
Randy hung his head again.
"S'pose you could come on in with us tonight if you like. Grandma Sylk will have some dinner waiting. I can show you what you need to fix it, tomorrow. It would save me a trip."
"Yeah, all right."
Randy followed in his daddy's old Chevy that he was trying to fix up. At the house, Grandma Sylkie had fried catfish waiting and boiled corn on the cob. She put a glass of milk on the table for Sarah and two empty glasses for Grandpa and Randy. Grandpa grabbed a jar of moonshine from the cupboard.
"Might as well try the new batch," he said. Randy grinned and Grandma Sylkie shook her head while setting plates of food in front of each person. Grandpa Ernie poured the two glasses half full. Everyone bowed their heads. Grandpa Ernie said the prayer.
Randy winked at Sarah. "Taste?"
"No, she won't." Grandma Sylkie gave him the stink eye.
"One little sip won't hurt her." Randy offered Sarah his glass.
Sarah glanced at Grandpa Ernie who was smiling behind his corn cob. "Well, I guess one little sip won't hurt her."
Grandma Sylkie huffed, took a bite of catfish. Sarah ignored her and took Randy's glass in both hands, tipped it to her lips until the moonshine wetted her tongue. When a few drops poured into her mouth, she pushed the glass away and swallowed the little bit before pulling in a fresh wave of air, pushing the coolness around her mouth, in and out, trying to douse the fire on her tongue. She coughed.
"Good lesson for you." Grandma Sylkie sounded pleased.
Randy clapped his cousin on the back. "You'll get used to it before long."
"No, she won't."
Grandpa Ernie watched his granddaughter, a mixture of concern and pride on his face as they finished their plates. Grandpa Ernie asked for seconds. When Sarah sat pushing the chewed cob around and almost onto the table, he ended the day. "Guess it's time for bed."
"Already?" Sarah had hoped for a funny story or some dessert.
"Come on." Grandma Sylkie put out her hand, waiting for Sarah to take it. With a nod from Grandpa Ernie, Sarah shuffled from the table. When she was ready and in bed, Grandma Sylkie tucked her in. "Good night, possum." She kissed her on the cheek then turned to the bedside table and lamp. "What's these?"
"Honeysuckles. Grandpa Ernie said they'd keep the Monk Man away."
"Did he?" She kissed Sarah on the forehead again, turned off the light and shut the door that was meant to cut off Grandpa and Randy's voices but it never did, and so Sarah fell to sleep, listening to the latest stories about who had been arrested or fired or caught with their pants down.
"Shh, quiet now."
Sarah woke with the taste of Randy's hand on her mouth. It tasted of sweat and moonshine and Marlboro cigarettes.
He pulled his hand away. Sarah punched him on the arm, nearly toppling him off the edge of the bed. "You scared the life out of me!"
"Quiet. If you wake Grandpa and Grandma, I won't be able to take you with me."
"Take me where?"
"To the field."
"Why would I wanna go tromping through some field in the middle of the night with you?"
"Trust me. You want to go." He collected the Mason jar from the bedside table and waved it in the air. "Now get dressed quick, and meet me outside, but be quiet. If you wake them, they'll make you go back to bed." Randy left the room, taking the Mason jar with him.
Sarah pulled on her jean shorts, t-shirt and canvas sneakers. She ran a brush through her hair then grabbed a piece of gum and her Mama's old sweatshirt, the one with Marietta High written on the front.
They walked back behind the house, where it was darkest, but for the big moon. They made their way up and over the short ridge where they followed a horse path for a ways.
"Over there." Randy pointed to another ridge just off in the distance. They headed straight for it, and when they had crested it, they looked down over the field that lay below.
"It's like Christmas in summer," she said.
"I thought you'd like it."
Fireflies covered the field like twinkling lights on a mile wide Christmas tree, and Sarah imagined they were fairies doing their work upon the world, covering the field in fairy dust and daisies and those bleeding heart flowers that Grandma liked so much.
Randy started down the hill. "Come on!"
Sarah ran after him, and they chased the fireflies scooping as many as they could between palms then pushing them into the jar, quick, with flat hands, so that the fireflies couldn't escape. In ten minutes, they'd filled the jar and lay, exhausted, side by side on the grassy field. The moon, nearly full, shone bright, dulling the stars that framed it. Randy sat up and pulled a flask from his back pocket.
He handed the silver flask to her. She sipped at it, a bigger sip than at dinner, and she coughed like before, though this time she felt older. She took another sip.
"Careful." Randy pulled the flask from her hand and smiled. They both lay back on the ground again, and Sarah held the Mason jar above her, sideways against the sky, watching the fireflies' iridescent wings and glowing tails against the dark and the stars.
They lay a moment longer.
"Are you going to fix the still?" she asked.
"Yeah. Tomorrow. Grandpa Ernie's going to help me."
Sarah didn't argue with him, though it seemed the other way around. "Have you heard anything from your Mama?"
"No. Don't care to." He put a hand on her arm and with his other hand took the jar from her, considered it, then sat it on the ground beside him. "I knew you'd like it out here. No one else, at least people my age, seem to slow down long enough to care about things like this." He sat up and drank from the flask again. When he turned to her, Sarah acted as though she didn't notice him. "I miss her sometimes," he said. "Mama liked nights like this. She used to bring me out here."
Sarah turned toward him. He shifted away, wiping his eyes. She put a hand on his back.
"Thanks for coming out here," he said then moved closer, uncomfortably so, and Sarah held her breath because it wasn't altogether bad. When he kissed her on the forehead, it was so innocent that she breathed again, though there was a sense of disappointment in the innocence, so that when his lips touched her a second time, she welcomed them. He tasted of moonshine and grandma's Marlboro Lights, not like the peanut butter and grape jelly that Billy Barnhart's mother always packed in his lunches. Randy pulled away, eyes wide, terrified, and Sarah turned from him.
"I'm sorry, Sarah. I didn't mean . . ."
"We should go back."
He pulled the flask out again and attempted to take another drink, but it was empty.
"We should go back," she repeated.
"You won't tell "
"No, I won't tell." She started to stand, but Randy grabbed hold of her arm, pulling her back down.
"I didn't mean to - " He stopped short, neither of them sure of what to say. His grip was tight, cutting into her wrist, against the bone.
"I want to go home."
"Just give me a minute. I need to think." When he didn't let go of her on the third and fourth requests, she pulled sharply back and out of his hand then jumped up making her way to the top of the ridge.
"Damn it, Sarah!" He ran after her, struggling up the hillside. He fell to his knees and angrily punched at the ground, then staggered his way up the hill after her again. "Sarah, stop! Come back!"
She'd left her Mason jar full of fireflies, but there wasn't time to fetch it now, so she left it and made her way across the hill crest.
"Come back, Sarah!"
She ran toward a grouping of trees and hid behind one with a thicker trunk, hoping it would be wide enough. She nearly missed the honeysuckle vine that grew up and around it, straight out of the ground as if it had no roots of its own, but shared its roots with the tree. The vine climbed high up into the canopy twisted around the lower branches. Was it an oak? She didn't need to see it with her eyes. It must be an oak. God had put it there for her.
"Where are you?" Randy sang out, now playfully, laughing, apologizing in a way that could mean a drunk apology or a real apology and his voice could mean gentle or rough. It might have been fun in the daylight when the birds and grandma were just around the corner. In the darkness, alone, it was not fun.
With shaking fingers, she grabbed a tiny bloom, pulling it from the vine. She pinched the end with her a thumb and index nail, severing it, then pulled the stamen backwards letting the dew fall into her mouth.
"I see you," Randy sang out, now only a few feet away.
When his hands took hold, she screamed and it startled both of them. They struggled, fell to the ground, Randy on her legs.
"Get off of me!" She pushed at him. Randy struggled to grab hold of her, calm her.
"Stop it, Sarah. Just a minute. I'm not going to hurt - "
When the shotgun muzzle appeared at his chin, they both fell still.
"Boy, you better stand up before I blow your head clean off."
Grandpa Ernie cracked the muzzle against Randy's jaw, cutting it and making it bleed. When Randy cursed at him, Grandpa Ernie cracked him harder this time, over the head, knocking him out.
"Come on, Sarah. Let's get you home." Grandpa Ernie pulled her up and to his side. They left Randy on the ground and said nothing as they made their way home. Sarah held her arms about her waist and chest.
Grandma Sylkie waited in one of the matching leather recliners. She sat up straight, sipping at black coffee and smoking a cigarette. When she saw Sarah's disheveled hair, full of twigs and dirt, she cried out and took the child into her arms and Sarah cried, too, suddenly, with the weight of confusion and sex and Randy's cut jaw. She began to mutter clipped phrases and words: "We didn't do anything the flask fireflies in the jar it wasn't his fault." She didn't notice the silent glances shared between her grandparents until she had settled herself. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."
The door slammed behind Grandpa Ernie as he headed back outside with his shotgun.
"Is he going to shoot him, Grandma?"
"S'pect he might."
"I'm sorry I snuck out."
"You're not the first girl to do it. We've all followed the Monk one time or 'nother. At least, now, you know what he looks like."
"Randy's not the Monk Man, grandma. He didn't do anything." Did he?
When Grandpa Ernie brought Randy back, he made him sit on the porch, wouldn't let him inside, while Grandma called his daddy. For the next few hours, curses and crying radiated from the porch and through the screen door like fire and steam left off a pressure cooker. They yelled about old debts and forgotten birthdays and "Randy would never do that" and "I saw him do it." Randy's daddy used the word whore, "the girl is no better than her Mama." Grandpa Ernie told him to leave and to take his heathen boy with him. He told them to never come back.
Sarah pulled the afghan up over her shoulders. The night had grown cooler. From the porch, she watched the fireflies dance over the front lawn. It was a lazy dance, same drifting pulsing movements. Grandma Sylkie and Grandpa Ernie didn't speak, but stayed close to the girl. Time to time, the girl's eyes drifted off to the line of trees at the road. "Do you miss him, Grandma?"
"Do you think it hurt when he drowned?"
"I don't know."
"I think it did. I think it hurt a lot."
Grandma Sylkie's eyes watered. "Why would you say that?"
"Randy's drowning, too, I think."
"That boy's no good. You're not to speak of him again."
"He didn't do anything wrong, not really. It was as much me as him."
The old woman stood, walked to the girl and slapped her hard across the cheek. "Don't you ever say a thing like that again. We'll not speak of it anymore. You hear?"
Sarah turned to the trees again, tears welling in her eyes. She wiped them away the same way that Randy had on the hillside when talking about his Mama and how she'd loved fireflies.
"The honeysuckle doesn't keep the Monk Man away, does it?" The girl asked.
Grandpa Ernie bent his head.
"They're all different," Grandma Sylkie said. "The Monks, they all have their ways. Never know what will stop them. Best not to be chasing fireflies and moonshine in the middle of the night though."
"Is that what Mama did? Chase fireflies and moonshine?"
Grandma Sylkie quieted and lit another cigarette. "Your mama chased a lot of things."
"Like Jacob? She said she wanted to chase him right into the river and drown with him. She said that was why she couldn't take care of me, because she'd already drowned with him and I would, too, if I stayed with her."
Grandpa Ernie stood and headed out to the garage, walking through the drifting patterns of fireflies. Sarah thought of her Mason jar still in the field.
"Do you think fireflies are happy in a jar?"
Grandma Sylkie flicked her cigarette.
"I don't think they like it much. I think they'd rather be free and floating around." Sarah stood. "Maybe Mama wanted to be free, too." The girl didn't look at her grandmother as she headed toward the front door. "I'm going to bed."
She washed her face and brushed her teeth then put on her pajamas, the soft, pink flannel ones with plastic, yellow buttons in the shapes of stars down the front. When she crawled into bed, tucking her feet beneath the star-pattern quilt, she let the warmth of the bed build from her toes into her legs. She snuggled into the familiarity of it, the warmth, making sure to cup her hand so not to crush the three shriveled honeysuckles collected in her palm. She spread her fingers and gazed at the blooms Grandpa Ernie had picked for her. Then she lay them each on the bedside table, again, one at a time, at the edge closest to the bed.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Rae Bryant. All rights reserved.
We are here and it is now. Further than that, all human knowledge is moonshine.