Bitter air, and owl wings crossing a white harvest moon: a good night, they said, for the wake of a witch, and the Devil coming to claim his own. I stood on the porch, and sniffed the air for brimstone. But not a glimpse of Satan did I see, and so I followed the visitors into my grandfather’s fine old house on the side of Hart Mountain.
The people from town wore gracious black and mouths pinched up like peach pits, and the darting of their eyes said it was fear not love that brought them here to pay respects. Who’d pass up the chance to say they saw Joss Merchant dead?
Or to stare and point at Mama and me. Back and forth in that cold house, you could hear the old folks whispering: how Joss Merchant turned crookbacked from his ugly magics, shaking hands with Old Scratch late of a winter evening; how lightning from an open sky took him, just like that, in that upstairs room he had, where the walls were painted red so you couldn’t see the blood.
I ghosted through the dining room, picking up bits of talk like crumbs.
“It’s true! You ask any of the old ‘uns. Devil dogs. Cats. Ravens and such. I even heard tell of a horse once. Creatures come round whenever a witch dies. That’s how you tell, ain’t it?”
“Carlie, that works down to the funeral home — she told me Rev’rend John come by when they was embalmin, asked could they put some cemetery dirt in old Joss’ shoes, to keep his soul down. But don’t say I told you –”
“You think she’ll stay on? The daughter I mean.”
“Joss’ girl and no mistake. Look at her, skirt too short and her mouth too red.”
“What’s it been, twelve, fifteen years since she took off?”
“Look at that little gal — she’s the spittin image of her granddad.”
“Makes you wonder who her father is, don’t it?”
“Old Joss was wicked all right.”
Mama just sat down in the big chair and gave them the cold smile that said she was strong. That crimson smile stayed plastered on her face, even when the preacher lied a prayer to comfort us. Fat man stuffed like a sausage into his shiny black suit: his face gleamed with sweat and his eyes rolled white in his head when he promised us that the deceased was locked in the arms of God.
I waited till the prayer was done, and then I went to have another look at my grandfather.
In the parlor the coffin was laid out, black wood gleaming under the lamps. Grandfather’s head was pillowed on plum-colored satin, and his long white hair spread around him like frost on window glass. On the mantel stood a photograph of him when he was young, with black hair and a hooked hard nose that made me think of hawks, and eyes that seemed to watch me as I walked.
Mama had that black hair and eyes like his, and I took after Mama, people always said. So maybe my nose had a humpback like the nose in the picture, and maybe my cheekbones were high and fierce like his. A harsh face for a girl to have, but tonight it made me proud.
I never knew him, never knew he was alive until the day that he was dead. Mama hauled me out of school that morning and into her old Ford truck, driving fast into the mountains with her face set and hard. And all that she would say was this: your grandfather Josselyn Merchant has departed this world.
Now I wished I’d met him, maybe just once. He didn’t look the kind of grandpa that would cuddle you on his lap and read you stories. But maybe he’d have been the kind who’d tell a girl what kind of trouble kept his own daughter from speaking his name till he was dead. The kind who’d tell a girl what to do with that fierce face she inherited. I tucked myself into the shadows by the door and nibbled on a teacake, as the parade of frigid smiles and taut faces passed me by.
“There you are, dear!” Lavender and paisley, and dry lips smelling of gin: a spindly, ancient woman sprang upon me like a spider, gathering me into her arms. I suffered the hug unmoving, staring past her at the photograph of Joss Merchant in his prime.
“I knew him all his life,” the woman chattered, pulling me sideways into a corner. “If things had been just a little bit different, I’d have been your granny.”
I glanced into the coffin as I passed it, a quick look at that papery cheek with its preservative sheen. The artificial stillness made me shiver. The old woman smiled.
“Ah, Joss, “ she said. “Death won’t keep him down. He always said so.” Her eyes brightened. “Once, when he was so sick he was like to die, he told me, Tabby — for that’s my name, Tabitha McBride — don’t you worry, he said. I’ll go on. Lucifer takes care of his good tools. Look for me in other eyes, he said, for I’ll be there, no matter if this body’s in the ground.” Tabitha McBride beamed at the photograph. “He had magic, Joss did; oh, such magic he made in this house!”
“Who are you?” The teacake was dry in my mouth. She’d known him. Known his magic and his power.
Tabitha gazed hungrily at the cold face in the coffin. “Why, I was his disciple, his acolyte, his slave, when he wanted me to be. I did anything he asked. Even after he married that lowland woman of his. Well, that didn’t last, did it? I took care of her.” She laughed, and the sound of it skittered up my back.
“But that’s neither here nor there. “ One twiggy finger tipped back my chin. Her eyes bored into mine. “You are so like him. Are you the one to hold his soul? Is he there, inside your head?” She leaned in, breath hot on my cheek. “Joss! Joss! Speak to me now!”
The curtains bellied out as if caught in a storm wind, and the lamp on the side table flickered, throwing shadows across the face of my grandfather, so that he seemed to smile. A chill snaked through the room, and in the hallway somebody gasped. There was a heartbeat of silence, and then conversation picked up again, in that hushed strange way people talk around the dead.
I took another look at Tabitha McBride’s mad eyes. Jerking my arm free of her fingers, I bolted for the door. I flung open the door and quickstepped out onto the porch, breathing deep of clean bitter air.
The mountains stood sharp beneath the moon and frost sparkled in the brown leaves along the walk. I hung over the porch rail gasping, my mind a-swim with too much knowledge. My skin prickled with the chill; my neck crawled, like spiders creeping in my hair, and all of a sudden I knew I wasn’t there alone.
Piece of shadow bigger than me, a great black dog with ice white teeth sat on that frosty ground, plain as morning in the light from the parlor window. I stared at him, and he stared back.
A stinging coldness settled all around me, that had nothing at all to do with this October night. I never screamed for Mama, though I was always scared of dogs. I just stood there growing roots, as this great animal scanned me over with a pair of black bright eyes just like the ones in my grandfather’s picture.
Then he grinned, and I could feel his smile all the way through my soul. “Goodbye, Granddad,” I said.
The mist flowed up pearly from the creek bed and faded him clean away.
They never found a footprint. And no one ever had a dog like that.