Adam teamed up with Stuart, a friend of Ed’s. They talked about the old days and about how dry this spring season had been, and the odd tomb stones.
“Yep. Some of the ones that turned are relatives of mine,” Stuart said.
Over Stuart’s shoulder Adam saw someone standing in the shadows staring at him. It looked like the Pastor, as Adam remembered him in his childhood. Only now he looked very, very angry.
Stuart noticed and turned to look, too.
“What? You seeing things too?” He was honestly concerned. “I hear your lady friend does.”
“I thought I saw Pastor just now.”
“That’s new! Never heard of anyone seeing him. I hear Miss Esther has a word for us before the hymn sing tonight. Maybe its related.”
“You don’t seem surprised.”
“Oh no! They don’t come across very often, but you know, there is a spirit world. They’re bound to show up here once in a while.”
At that moment, there was a thunderous crack and a blinding flash. Lightening struck at tree less than ten feet from the two men. The shock threw the two men to the ground, momentarily stunned. Thunder crashed again. With ears ringing and eyes temporarily blind, they scrambled to get away from the heat of the fire and the shower of sparks from a tree nearby.
“What do we do now?” Adam shouted to Stuart.
“Look for the other men! Make sure they’re O.K.”
“What about the fire?” Adam pointed at the tree.
“Nothing we can do about it!” He added, “Pray for rain!”
Billy ran up, covered with dirt, scratches on his face and arms. The strike had knocked him down, too.
“You two all right?” he shouted. The fire roared now and the noise of that and the popping of the sparks made it almost impossible to hear.
“Yes, Stuart and I are looking for the others now.”
“ Did you guys see something in there? Just before the lightning?”
“Yes!” Adam said. Billy wasn’t sounding as belligerent as usual. “Been a strange day.”
“I’ll say!” Billy snorted. “I thought I saw Pastor!”
“Yes! What the hell is going on?!”
“I don’t know but we need to get the other men back to the Parsonage before the rain hits.”
Again lightning struck, not as close as the first time. The wind picked up, whipping the fire through the treetops.
Billy saw the fear in Adam’s face. “The rain will have to take care of the fire—nothing we can do about it!”
A gust of wind sent down a shower of sparks, as Stuart and four other men came towards them at a trot.
“Is that everyone?” Billy shouted to Stuart.
“Far as I can tell.”
“Let’s get going then. The wind is blowing this fire toward the parsonage and we need to beat it there!”
The six men headed down the path at a trot, toward the Grove and the Parsonage. Up ahead, a bend in the path hid the remaining hundred feet to the Grove. As they rounded the bend and came face-to-face with a huge tree laying across the trail. The second lightning strike had struck a fifty foot high fir tree. Half of it lay across the path, blazing and spitting sparks that threatened to ignite everything around it. In front of the tree a figure stood, dressed in black, shrouded in swirling smoke.
Iris, the girl in the spring, the girl in the Chapel, stood in the doorway, feet still on the porch as the wind and rain pelted her, trying to get past. The women—it was mostly women in the kitchen—shrank back, stumbling over each other in their haste. Angela stepped up behind Esther, who turned to see who it was. She nodded once, her approval, and turned back to the girl.
“Iris Davenport, I owe you an apology. I kept silent when I should have spoke up to my husband Adrian. He had no business interfering in your romance with Ben Williams. He had no business going to your family and telling them not to let you two marry.”
The girl put her hand on her stomach. It seemed to bulge under the sodden dress.
“Yes, you were pregnant with Ben’s child. I didn’t know that at the time, but I found out soon after. My husband Adrian had no business calling you to the Chapel the night you drown. I don’t know what happened there or afterwards. If my husband drown you or if you took your own life, I don’t know. If it matters, I was afraid for my own life then. I wasn’t sure what he would do to me, to keep his reputation. And I didn’t know how far he would go with you.”
Iris pointed at Esther.
“No. I didn’t fool around. We almost did, Ben’s daddy Byron, and me. Compared to Pastor, Byron was manly, gentle and strong as an ox. And he knew how to sweet talk a woman, how to make her feel special. I was tempted to leave Adrian for Byron, but no, I never gave in to that.” Esther paused. “Your Ben was a lot like his daddy Byron. I don’t blame you for giving in to Ben, for wanting to marry him. He was… he was all a woman wants in a man.”
Esther was silent, remembering. The girl waited.
“We couldn’t have children, Adrian and I. We got tested: I was fine, but Pastor—I don’t know what happened to him overseas, but when he came back he couldn’t. We tried, oh, we tried for a long time! He finally gave up. That was why Ben was such a temptation to me. Pastor knew it, too.”
Iris suddenly turned, her wet hair flinging to one side. She looked toward the Grove, as if she heard something and turned to go. Then she stopped, looked back at Esther, a question in her eyes.
“Yes, you have my permission. Go find my husband Pastor Adrian Morgan and tell him I won’t keep quiet for him any longer. The truth is out now, where it belongs. God bless you.”
Iris Davenport turned and walked off the porch and into the rain. In a moment, her figure disappeared.
“Billy.” The one word overflowed with disappointment and suppressed anger. It hit Billy like a gut punch. It stunned him for a moment. Then he fought back.
“Shut up, you bastard! Your wife told me what you did to my father, to my family! You have nothing to say to me. Or to anybody here. Get out of the way!”
“Oh, Billy.” Another wave of guilt and shame washed over Billy’s smudged face.
“Go t’ hell! You took advantage of my family since Grandpa came home from the War! You guilted him into staying drunk and then blamed him for drinking. You stole Pop’s wife with that same guilt and…and … she drown herself for shame. Well, it won’t work with me, not anymore, you bastard! Go To HELL!” He screamed the last.
“Billy?” Again, the voice accused.
“Shut up, you old fool! You weren’t man enough to get your own wife pregnant so you took it out on my Dad who was getting all of them…
A flame shot out from the dark figure, engulfing Billy, setting his clothes on fire. He screamed and Adam and Stuart wrestled him down and rolled him in the dusty path.
As the last of the flames died, Adam stood and faced the figure.
“Ben was my father too, Pastor. Or did you know that, and that’s why you hate me, too? Is that what the memorial stone was really for? To remind you how bad we are and how good you are? The stones, the grave stones, they turned their backs on you! Everyone knew what you were like, they saw it, they all know! Finally, they refused you, abandoned you, you and your ‘memorial stone’! You and your damned self-righteousness deserve to be left alone!”
The tree—or was it the figure in front of the tree?—groaned. Sap began to sizzle and scream like it does with burning wet wood. The snapping and crackling of the fire in the dead branches sounded like curses.
“Can’t handle the truth, Pastor? Maybe you just don’t want to face it? Or are you the only one who gets to accuse somebody of doing wrong? I thought you preached that that was the Devil’s job, to accuse the brethren!”
As he spoke, the dark figure grew higher and higher. Flames flickered inside the smoky body, red eyes that flashed yellow stared malignantly down. A tremendous roll of thunder sounded and lightning flashed, momentarily lighting the scene in silver stop-motion.
Iris Davenport, small and powerless in her soggy, worn-out dress suddenly stood between Adam and the huge form. The rain hadn’t started but she was soaking wet and dripping everywhere. She stretched out one arm and pointed at the towering shape.
“No.” One word, softly spoken. But all six men heard it.
Rain started to fall, fat drops that splatted as the hit the dusty ground . A hissing—whether from the burning tree or the dark figure, it was impossible to tell— began and grew louder and louder.
Iris shook her pointed finger at the figure. The rain increased, faster, thicker. Now sheets of rain fell, waves of cold, clean water from the dark sky above. Slowly, only slowly, the smoke dispersed, the fire in the tree dimmed and sputtered and died. Without waiting, the men ran past to the Grove and the Parsonage.
“Here they come!”
Stuart’s sister was the first to see the men as they trotted out of the Grove and across the grass toward the Parsonage.
Soaking wet, muddy, sooty, the men were hugged without regard to the consequences. Adam thought Angela was never going to let him go again. Over and over she whispered. “I thought I lost you! Oh God!”
“I’m here. It’s O.K.” he answered . “I’m here.”
“Oh Adam! It was horrible. So painful! It was beautiful! She walked right to us, on the porch. Esther talked to her, told her the truth. She told her she could go after Pastor and then she left! Just walked away!”
“We saw her too.” He told her about the lightning strike, the downed tree in the path and the appearance of something pretending to be Pastor. Then the girl—what was her name? Iris, yes.—Iris showed up and brought the rain down on him. He decided to leave out the part where she saved his life. Well, probably did.
Angela’s mouth hung open.
“She saved your life! From a demon!”
He grinned. “Women to the rescue.”
They both looked around then. Those whose loved ones had returned were talking and shaking hands, some laughing, some still looking pale. There was a lightness about the crowd, like a darkness or heaviness had been lifted.
The rain had slowed to a gentle shower and the temperature had dropped to almost comfortable. Before long the rain stopped altogether and the congregation began to drift outside, drying off places to sit at the picnic tables.
Billy didn’t care anymore. Based on what the pastor’s wife told him, he had already turned in his resignation. He was taking his daughter to Atlanta, for doctoring and school and to get away from this place.
He talked with her again, upstairs in her room, the door shut.
“I understand, Billy. I think it will be good for you. Maybe good for this congregation too. Time for them to begin taking care of themselves, stop hiring it done, or waiting on a memory of the good old days.” She looked off into the distance. “Bless you Billy, for standing up to him. Whoever that was.”
“Yes Ma’am.” He waited, but Esther said nothing. As he turned to go she spoke.
“I believe we can all leave soon. You, me—and Iris.”
-o-o-o- The End -o-o-o-