Copyright (c) 2018 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
Melania raced the truck around a bend in the road, wanting to hurry but also afraid of what she might see. The farm was on fire! The old truck bounced and lurched violently the last hundred yards before sliding sideways to a stop in the smoke-filled barn yard. Melania leaped from the truck and ran toward the house; here, a cross of flames blazed, yards from the fire engulfing the porch. Terror gripped harder as she realized the cross was made of lodge-pole pine logs, and someone had deliberately planted in front their front yard. Never mind that! Find Momma!, she told herself fiercely, but then she was blown back by the blistering heat. “If the water barrels are still next to the garden, bring as many as you can plus the hand pump,” She yelled at the Momett family staring wide-eyed at the carnage.
Melania wrapped her headscarf across her face and tried to search every part of the farm the gypsy family had acquired and had lived in for the last thirty years. “Momma!” she sobbed between coughs. Terrified cows bellowed from inside the large barn and all the farm’s outbuilding were burning. Smoke, embers and flames twisted toward the gawping moon like a demonic spiral staircase. The skin on Melania’s fingers sizzled on the barn door’s metal handles, but she held on and slid the doors open, only to be knocked to the ground by Bessie and Bonnet stampeding to safety. The flanks of Bessie’s bristly hide were scorched and smoking.
Bolger and Dorothy came rolling a water-barrel around the side of the barn; Brian carried the garden pump and hose. Just then, a dozen barrels of corn alcohol hidden in the hay loft exploded sending the cedar-shake roof upward and outward in all directions. For a moment the night turned bright as mid-day, and praise heaven, she’d found Momma. Jesska lay on the ground in the apple orchard under a smoldering pile of home-sewn broadcloth. Bloody bracelets of charred-rope still dangled from her wrists where she had freed herself from the burning cross.
“The Ombré,” Jesska moaned as her frantic daughter rolled her over and lifted her head. “It’s still in the house … you must bring it out!”
“You’re more important than any magic box!” Melania shouted. Her mother’s skin blistered before her eyes, to reveal charred blackened flesh.
“I am the Ombré … and the Ombré is me,” Jesska gasped. ”Without the recipes that the carved-box holds, the future that was and the future that will be … are both gone forever!”
Melania decided now was not the time to fight with her mother. The small box, carved from the enchanted wood of a black Juhar tree and brought to America from Italy, was her mother’s most cherished possession. “Attach the pump to the water-barrel and get me as wet as you can!” she told the wide-eyed Momett crowded around her mother.
After Melania was thoroughly soaked with the hose she wrapped herself in a tarp and told them to soak it too. “Keep spraying me with the water … keep me as wet as you can for as long as possible … but don’t try to follow me inside the house. Jesska needs you here with her!”
Melania covered her head with the wet tarp and lunged through the burning doorway. She had walked from the farmyard into the kitchen a thousand times; still it was different when everything was on fire! She turned left trying to find the sink. A burning plank from the ceiling fell and struck her head. For a moment she was disoriented. The room appeared to be spinning. Melania closed her eyes and forced her eyes to re-focus. When she opened her eyes again the sink with the shelf above it was visible through the smoke. There was a crackling sound as she reached for the box. Melania realized the tarp covering her had caught fire. There was nothing to do but cast it off. The heat was impossible her wet clothing was instantly turning to steam. “I tried mother,” Melania whispered. All she wanted to do before the flames consumed her was touch the box … if she could do that … if she could touch the sacred wood. Melania stretched out her hand …. Just as the entire roof collapsed covering her with charred wood and burning embers.
“You tell anybody what I gots hid in there and I’ll cut off your legs and skin what’s left,” Lavar Hicks warned Vern Pool as he caught two squawking chickens from the rusty-wire pen and carried them by their legs to the dilapidated barn. Hicks left one warped and splintered door open so they could see in the dim light. Pool could see something swinging by a rope from the ceiling but couldn’t tell what it was. Hicks grabbed his ears and forced him to look where he wanted. “There under them grain sacks in the corner is a door … lift it … but be ready to dance back real quick if you like your arms!”
Pool lifted a dozen grain sacks and stacked them to the side and then had to brush-away loose straw covering the ground with his boots before he saw the trap-door. It looked like the storm shutter off a fancy house window and Hicks had mounted it to a frame staked into the ground. “You dig this hole?” Pool said as he lifted the door and stared into a black pit … the smell made him gag and he couldn’t see the bottom.
“I had some chinks dig it,” Hicks said. “All them China-mans knows how to do is jabber sos they ain’t gonna’ be tellin’ nobody nothin!”
“How deep is it?” Pool stared at the perfect square dug in the barn floor.
“Ten foot … but I ain’t been down there to measure!” Hicks laughed. “This is just the in an out … they’s a whole room down there with a timbered-up roof and walls.”
“How does what’s down there get ..” Pool didn’t have time to finish his question when Hicks tossed one of the chickens into the hole. There was two or three squawks and then a second of silence before the chicken screamed, a sound Pool never before heard, and hoped never to hear again. He stumbled back as blood-coated guts and feathers exploded from the hole like a small bomb.
“Damn thing is shore hungry ain’t he?” Hicks was laughing and doing a little dance. A thundering howl came from the pit and made the hairs on Vern Pools’ neck stand on end. It sounded like some kind of animal trying to say … more.
“You’ll get the other one when your chores are done!” Hicks sounded like he was talking to a young child as he held up the chicken.
“Chores?” Pool mouth hung open. He could vaguely see something large with dark hair and monstrous eyes peering up. In an instant a hairy arm covered with rotting cloth reached up and clamped clawed fingers onto his leg.
“Not him! Damn-it!” Hicks stabbed at the hand with a pitch-fork until it let go of Pool’s leg.
Hicks removed a lady’s white bonnet from where it had been tucked behind his belt and tossed it into the hole. “You sniff it good and go find. You’ll get another-un … when you brings this un back with blood on it!”
“Where did you get that?” Pool watched the white cotton and lace disappear into the dark.
“Off from Mrs. White’s clothes line.” Hicks laughed. “She probably thinks the cat took it.”
Pool swayed gaping and shaking … Hicks smiled and continued to talk.
“That old bitch thought a hired-man like me wasn’t good ‘nuf to court her prissy daughter,” Hicks’ voice became a whisper. “Now let’s see how she likes being courted by my hired help!”
“It was you had this … thing … tear up Sam Smith’s place!” Pool was beginning to understand.
“Too damn bad Sam wasn’t home,” Hicks said. “Nobody never gonna call me a card-cheat no more!”
Pool was limping as he followed Hicks out of the barn. They almost ran to the house. Just before Hicks closed and barred the door Pool noticed the pulley mounted above a hole in the barn roof and the rope that lead to the ceiling of the room they were in.
“I gots me a ladder in the barn hanging over the hole and I can lower or lift it from right here,” Hicks said as he untied the rope from a hook in the wall.. ‘I don’t go outside at all … when her chores is being done!”
“Yup,” Hicks smiled as he fed out the rope. “It’s a she and I figure it’s knocked-up … Before three springs comes, I’m hoping to have me a whole herd of help on this farm!”
The carved box was cold, not just cool but freezing. Melania felt like her blood had turned to ice and her entire body had become sub-zero packed snow. She was aware of the burning timbers and glowing embers falling about her but the Ombré was creating a shield. Nothing touched her … nothing burned. This is what it’s like to be a candle-wick inside a flame.
The charred table and chairs moved out of her way, seemingly of their own accord. She looked around the room wondering what else she should take. Several books flew from the burning shelves into her hands. There wasn’t much left. Fire is greedy. The Roland Rolfs’ Tall-Clock in the parlor chimed twelve times and looked strangely untouched, She dragged it with her one free arm.
Bolger and Dorothy gasped when Melania came out of the house carrying an armload of treasures and dragging a grandfather clock. She appeared to be glowing like frosted glass on an oil lamp.
“I got it, mother!” Melania dropped the clock and books when they were safely away from the house. “Did you hear what I said?”
The two Momett looked terrified as they huddled over the crumpled form on the ground. “Mother?”
Melania didn’t notice her mother was cold until her own hands began to thaw. She appeared to be sleeping. Melania tried to shake her. “Wake up mother … I got the Ombré!”
Brian was crying …. for the first time.
“She left us,” Bolger said. “Just as the clock in the house struck midnight.”
“The wind came and took her spirit in a small gust,” Dorothy said. “She was like a white hanky … come loose from a clothes line … flying up over the trees and far off toward the east.”
The clock on the dresser had just chimed twelve when Frank Jagger climaxed and rolled off from Kit Malone. Kit lay on the rumpled bed and stared at the cracked ceiling as Frank lit a cigarette. Prohibition had been repealed for the last three years and now the all big time gangsters were all legitimate businessmen. The last nine years living with Chicago’s most reckless private detective still had been anything but boring but now in an instant something had changed. Kit brushed painted fingernails across her lower abdomen. It was no longer just her and Frank in the hotel room … there was another … she was sure she could feel … her!”
“I think I might be pregnant,” she whispered to Frank.
“Don’t be a snoozle,” Frank laughed. “You’re too good a singer. Besides, no dame gets knocked up just like that … and knows immediately!”
“I know,” Kit insisted, with a protective hand on her tummy. “And put that cigarette out … smoking is supposed to be bad for a baby … girl!”
Frank was too stunned to say anything as he ground out the butt in an ashtray. Dames! Was this her way of saying she wanted a ring?
Melania stood with an arm around Dorothy and the other round Brian as Bolger dug the grave. “There just isn’t time for a proper funeral,” she whispered. “We must leave this place tonight!”
“But why?” Bolger stopped digging.
“The box whispers that we must leave,” Melania told him. “My mother always said all magia is trouble.”
“Where will we go?” Dorothy began to cry for the first time and it proved to be contagious.
“To town to find my brother,” Melania sobbed, “and then …”
It was much harder to walk away from the farm than anyone thought. Each step was like a tearing in the heart. A sadness worked its way into the soul like December frost as they found the road to town. They could have driven the truck but it didn’t seem right. The dark was fading … but something was coming. Infinity is a closed structure there is no beginning … and end.
The moon slipped below the horizon as the wind and an ever-curious dawn approached. The sky darkened and rumbled as storm clouds lay siege to the scorched land … and the tears of the four and the falling rain became as one.
TO BE CONTINUED …