Murder Ballad #6

If You Hear from Him, Let Us Know

“If a bunch of men did what you gals do, you’d lose your shit,” Ray slammed his beer on the bar to punctuate his point. She closed her eyes and touched the small sledgehammer charm on her necklace. Ray was, at this moment, wearing khaki pants and a button-down shirt and a lanyard with an id card that would let him back into his nearby office building, if he was truly going back there after a few drinks with the boys to finish up some work. Sometimes, when they had this discussion, he was in camouflage, with bright orange accents, just come in from unsuccessful turkey hunting. One time, he was in a tux, just snuck away from his brother’s wedding reception to have a drink with some people who did not have thirty years of tales to tell on him.

Polly, this Polly, didn’t think Ray was a bad guy. She even liked him, in spite of how tedious it was that the conversation always, always came back to this.

“Men do do it,” Polly said. “I told you that before. “Not a lot, but sometimes a man feels compelled to do something for his grandmother or for the woman who lives at the corner or, you know, they just heard the song and felt compelled to make sure that woman was okay.”

“No, I mean, if we went out and punished women for every song they sing about fucking over men.”

“First,” she said, taking a long gulp of her water to remind herself that she didn’t want to be mean to him. “It’s not about punishing men. It’s about the women, making sure that they’re not forgotten or unseen or assumed to be only made up. No one would care if people were also doing this for men.”

Ray snorted and turned away from the bar. Polly threw his bottle in the recycle bin.


“So, you’re going to tell me that you think it’s fair that a bunch of man-haters are ruining music?” Ray asked. This time, he was drinking mid-priced whiskey on his boss’s dime. They were celebrating a big deal of some sort. Ray’s whole office. Polly saw twenty-four men and three women.

“How is it ruining music?” Polly asked. Ray had some bullshit reason, and as soon as Polly realized it was bullshit, she stopped paying attention. She wiped down the bar. She set a glass of wine in front of a woman waiting on her husband. Ray wandered off.

Later, right before he left, he stumbled back over to the bar to tell her he was going to leave his car in the parking lot and get a ride home.

“I think that’s wise,” she said.

“You think I’m a dick, because I listen to Eminem.” He blurted out.

“Ray, I don’t know anything about you outside of what happens in this bar. I had no idea you were a fan of Eminem.”

“They’re just good songs. I don’t want anything bad to happen to Kim.”

“But something bad already happened to Kim.”

“But I’m not a dick for liking a song about it.”

“I never said you were.”

“I’m not. It’s just a song. You can like a song without liking how it came about.”

“I know, Ray.”

“You ruined those songs for me.”

Oh, there’s the heart of the matter.


“Bullshit you’d be fine with men doing this,” Ray said. He was shit-faced. He’d started drinking during the early game and there was now only a quarter left in the late game. He was wearing an old Steve McNair Titans jersey. Polly knew the jersey was part of his larger point.

He was pointing his finger right in her face.

“You find the song,” she got right back in his face and hissed at him. “You find one song about a real-life murder of a man by a woman and I will leave this bar with you and not return until we’ve made it right. But you better not show your face in here again until you have that fucking song. You’re banned.”

“You can’t ban me.”

“Watch me.” She motioned to the bouncers. They removed Ray.


The next Saturday afternoon, the bar was empty. Polly was mopping. Ray opened the door.

“You have the song?”

“No,” he said. She pointed behind him.



One beautiful, cold Sunday, he opened the door.

She yelled, “What song?”

And he turned around and left.


Way late in the spring, when the roses were all in bloom, he tried one last time to return to Polly’s bar. He opened the door. He stepped in.

She looked at him, exasperated. “There’s got to be one, one song about a real life murder of a man by a woman.”

“You find it.” He said.

“Oh, hold on. You criticize my work because you think I wouldn’t like it if you were doing the same thing—like I’m some kind of sexist jerk—and then, when you can’t even find one example of a need for some kind of opposite-Polly group, you want me to spin my wheels looking for it instead of doing work I know needs to be done? That’s bullshit, Ray.” She slammed her towel on the bar.

He just stood there, though, in a way that made Polly deeply suspicious, like she was giving him way, way too much credit.

“You never looked for a song,” she said, her eyes widening in understanding. “You just criticize something that’s important to me because I made you a little uncomfortable. You don’t really give a shit if there’s some real dead guy who’s been so mythologized that no one remembers he’s a real person people loved.” She squeezed the bar towel like she wished she could squeeze Ray’s neck. “And you think I have to eventually get over it and let you back in my bar.”

He kind of grinned, like now that everyone saw where everyone stood, why couldn’t they just get back to normal?

“I’m cursing you, Ray,” Polly said, grabbing her tiny gold sledgehammer in one hand and shaking her bar towel toward him with the other. “You find those songs and you help those men or you die trying.”

“Curses aren’t real,” he said, looking suddenly confused and worried.

“You’d better hope not,” she growled. But just then, the chair at the table nearest to where Ray stood, just inside the doorway, crumbled, as if all the nails and glue holding it together had picked this very moment, coincidentally, to give way.

Ray jumped.

“Holler when you’ve found one,” Polly said as Ray ran out of the bar.

She shrugged to herself and laughed as she thought of the things Ray could rhyme with Polly, if it ever occurred to him to write a song about how she set him up to die. She’d be happy enough to pay, she decided, if he was smart enough to realize that a song about his own plight and then helping himself would, indeed, break the curse.

But she wasn’t too worried about hearing from him again.


Murder Ballad#5

A Song from the Grave

It’s always the Devil to blame. When it comes down to it. When a man is on his knees, begging for his life, it’s always the Devil made him do it. That’s the explanation.

I can sympathize. When I begin to think of killing a man, when I wonder if this one could be the one, when I listen for Polly’s little whisper in my ear—“Oh, yes, him.”—I sometimes wonder if it is Her at all or if it’s the Devil in disguise, just telling me what I want to hear, what justifies my work.

If some vigilante ever comes for me, stands above me, gun to my head, demanding I explain myself, when I have realized I have made some grave miscalculation and now I’m going to die, die, die, what reason will I give for my actions? What justification?

Old Satan seduced me.

I might try that.

It won’t be the truth, but you don’t tell outsiders about Polly. Not even ones about to die and the man about to murder me will be moments away from being murdered himself, believe me. I have contingency plans.

But women like me, we don’t get caught. Not usually. I’ve been reading up on it some and mostly we get jobs where death is expected—hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, jails—and when death comes, no one thinks to check to see if it was summoned early.

My methodology, so to speak, is more straight-forward, more old-fashioned. The Steel Spike Savage, who authorities figure is a man in his late forties, early fifties, probably with a family and a respectable job, due to the unique specificities of his kills and the time between them—that’s me. The I-40 Killer, who’s been offing truckers, who’s suspected of being a drug dealer or a disgruntled lot lizard, probably a young drifter—that’s me, too. The Denver Vigilante, who killed that man who killed his wife and kids and tried to kill himself, but chickened out, that’s me. And, as they say, I have other, secret, names which you do not know.

No one suspects me because women like me don’t kill how I kill. I am invisible. Not really. Though, you know, sometimes it can feel that way.

I don’t kill only for Polly. But I kill for Her when She needs it. I know She’s got a crowd of women, a whole cult. I don’t know them. They don’t know me.

She finds occasion to need my services and She whispers in my head, a description or a crime or a song or sometimes, like this time, a name: John Carter.

John Carter, from some small town in northwest Georgia, whose wife had gone missing forty years before.

That’s how I came to see what I’m about to tell you. I had come to his home to kill him. I didn’t know of any song about his wife, but sometimes the songs stayed local, only got sung at backyard campfires or open mic nights. They can’t all be hits.

But I trust Polly. She says “Him,” it’s him. He’s the one.

So, there I am, standing in his kitchen, rechecking the floor for dog bowls, just to make sure I haven’t missed any complicating factor, listening to him in the other room, first, snoring, then, grunting and struggling to get out of his recliner. I could, I know, even step into the doorway and he’d never look over, never bother to see me, but I like to take a moment to be alone with my thoughts, to make sure that I am more excited than afraid. Him in one room, me in the other.

The lights in the living room go out. The television goes silent. He sighs. He shuffles to the bathroom. I wait. He pees. He brushes his teeth. He flushes his toilet. That’s a weird order, but who’s he got to complain about it? To even make note of it? I’m probably the first person in years who gave enough of a shit about John Carter here to pay attention to him flushing last thing in the bathroom.

Off goes the bathroom light and, in the dark, he shuffles to his bedroom. I give it a few minutes and my eyes adjust. I think about how I’m going to do it. I like to be poetic. To match the original death. But they never found his wife’s body. Hell, they didn’t even think there was a body. She just “ran off.” And then never used a credit card or applied for a loan or enrolled in school or left any kind of paper trails for the next forty years.

And can we talk about that for a moment? John Carter was never arrested for the disappearance of his wife. When he said she ran off, as far as I can tell, everyone he knew believed him. Now think about how fucked up this is. A dude’s wife disappears without a trace, there’s been no hint of her in four decades, and, okay, sure, you don’t want to accept that your friend did something to cause that. You don’t want to believe he murdered her. But you’re cool with him being so bad that his wife would leave him and then hide from him for the rest of her life?

But, as far as I can tell, he’s still got lots of friends. Never remarried, though. I guess I don’t know if that says anything about him or not.

Okay, so finally, he’s asleep and I’ve settled on smothering him. He’s an old man. If he dies alone in his sleep, no one will think twice about it. I slip as quiet as I can across the living room and I get to the bedroom.

I take a step through the doorway. I look toward him, to make sure he’s truly asleep.

There’s a woman there, at the end of the bed, just standing there.

I was so surprised I had to literally throw my hand across my mouth to keep from crying out. I didn’t know that was a real thing until I found myself doing it. I had checked this house thoroughly. I went through every inch of it while John Carter was at work and I watched the house all evening until I reentered it.

No woman was in that house. No woman could be in that house. None but me.

Here she was, though, her long hair hanging loose, looking a little messy, maybe a little matted. She wore a long, cotton nightgown. I’d guess she was in her mid-twenties, maybe, not too old. She just stood there, facing him. I stared at him, too. In the moonlight he looked like a great white mountain, snoring like a grizzly bear.

“John Carter,” she said. I think she said it. Somehow it sounded like her voice was coming from the bed, like she was laying right next to him, even though she was clearly standing at the foot of the bed.

He woke with a start. Just sat straight up.

“Oh shit,” he said. And she began to laugh. It scraped out of her throat and sounded raw and wet. And then she began to shake her head slowly back and forth. I could see, finally, when she turned enough toward me to make it clear, that she didn’t have a face, just a hole where her face hand been.

I had made enough of those holes myself to know what cause them. Still, when she shook her head harder and the bullet rattled loose, fell to the floor in front of her, I wanted to join in with John Carter at screaming. I felt like I was losing my damn mind, seeing something that couldn’t be real.

Then she began to sing.

Fuck me. She began to sing. The dead woman.

The song sounded like a sob and its own echo in harmony. She sang of her dead baby, cold in the ground, cradled in the cage of her hip bones. Did you know you killed your baby, John Carter? Is that why you killed her?

And she sang of her great love for John Carter, how she had not lived, not really, until she met him and how, even as he shot her, she thought, “No, no, no, it can’t be,” because how could her dearest man, her whole heart do this to her?

As she sang, she made her way to her side of the bed. You don’t need a face, I guess, to navigate around a room you know. He was still screaming, but I couldn’t pay attention to him. The song was the only thing I heard, this great, sad thing coming from across the great divide.

And then she laid down next to him.

And then he died.


Yeah, wow. Yeah. I went over to him to be sure, put my hand over his mouth and nose, but yeah, he was gone. My work done for me. Or, no, that’s not it. She did her own work.

I took that bullet. Wear it on a chain around my neck.

I try to remember the words to that song. I feel like, if I could sing it, I would know a secret truth only the dead know. But I only heard it the once and I can’t wholly remember how it goes.


Many Strangers Walk the Road to Emmaus

“Reverend Lindstrom! Can we see the statue?”

“Janice! Janice! Is it true that whoever holds the statue has the gift of prophecy?”

“Is this proof that Vikings visited Illinois?”

Reverend Janice Lindstrom recoiled from the microphones shoved in her face. She was trying to get from her car to the side door of the New Sweden Lutheran Church and had hoped to remain unnoticed. It was a simple enough question—was the stone statue sitting on the desk in her office a Viking-era relic and, if so, what did it mean about the history of Vikings in North America that one of Janice’s congregants found it on his farm? Janice had no good answer. She’d told five newspapers that on the phone that very morning.

But Janice was still shocked that all three news stations from the Quad Cities—and wasn’t that red-headed gal from Peoria?—would bother to send anyone clear out to New Sweden to ask her in person questions she declined to answer over the phone.

“No, no, no,” she said. “No to all that.” She struggled through the wall of media.

“Is it true Unexplained History is coming to town to do a show on the statue?”

“Oh goodness,” she said, visibly flustered. She shoved her key into the white church door. “I hope not.” She slammed the door behind her and slumped into a nearby chair.

Thou shalt not lie. That was one of the big ten. The most important of the Thou shalt nots. Sure, have a cheeseburger. Get tattooed. Sleep with your wife while she’s having her period. The minor Thou shalt nots haven’t been worth getting worked up over in thousands of years. But the big ten still matter. She told herself she technically wasn’t lying, but she didn’t quite believe it.

Young Orion Sanderson—Orion being pronounced in the manner of Midwesterners raised on WGN’s farm report, not like the constellation—had come to her a week ago and told her about the odd statue he’d found on the family farm. That was technically the truth. He had found it in his great-grandfather’s dresser drawer as Orion was filling a suitcase full of the undershirts and underpants and great grey cotton sweatpants the old farmer would need at the hospital as he was recovering from shoulder surgery. Samuel Sanderson, ninety-five years old and still fit as a fiddle.

“So, like, he told me he found it in the mud in a creek bed outside of Arboga right after World War II,” Orion had explained to her the week before. “I did some research online.” Orion stopped. He had been standing in front of Janice’s desk and now he sat in the chair across from her. He kept slapping himself on the chest, as if to confirm that he was real and not in some nightmare. He continued in a whisper. “I think he’s fucked.”

“Excuse me?” Janice leaned forward.

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to swear,” Orion dropped his hands into his lap.

“No, I mean, I can’t hear you. You’re mumbling.”

“Okay, yeah, well, I mean, I think this statue is really old. Like really old and Grandpa Sam, like, he stole it. I mean, God, he doesn’t think of it as stealing. It was lying there and he just took it as a souvenir or something but you can’t take old stuff out of the ground like that. I was all like ‘Mom, we need to give this back to Sweden’ and stuff, but since the one-percenters have been like, you know, there’s a huge market for this kind of stuff and like because of pagans and witches and shit and, oh, yeah, sorry, but Sweden does not screw around when you have their stolen stuff. They, like, aren’t forgiving. And Grandpa Sam is too old to go to prison.” Janice took a minute to decipher the teen-speak and try to understand what Orion was saying.

She should have told the boy that Sweden wasn’t going to put a 95-year-old World War II veteran in jail for picking up a stone statue 75 years ago. But the Sandersons, at least the older male Sandersons had been leery of sitting in pews in front of a woman preacher. These old men, whose fathers and grandfathers had built this beautiful building brick by brick, whose uncles first painted the white trim around each window, door, and arch, whose siblings had climbed up into the bell tower to attach the rope to the bell the congregation had saved so long to purchase, these old men who were the living embodiment of the history of the church stopped coming to church when she became pastor.

She wanted them back. Maybe that was pride, another big sin. But she wanted Orion Sanderson to feel like she had heard his family’s plight and understood and supported them. She wanted more than three Sanderson men to come to church every week.

“Well, you found it on the farm, right?” she asked. Orion nodded. “I know Anne down at the paper. I’ll give her a call and you just tell her that. She’ll put it in the paper and, if it sparks anyone in Sweden’s interest, well, it’s not like you didn’t come forward as soon as you found it. You just don’t have to be too specific about where you found it.”

That had been how this whole mess started and now, now the world thought that stone statue, standing about a foot high, that seemed to portray a figure in a dress sitting on a throne, came out of the dirt on the Sanderson farm. Anne at the paper, damn it, had contacted someone at the community college who was happy to go on the record saying it looked Viking era. And well, soon enough, everyone wanted to know how a Viking statue had gotten to central Illinois. Had there been Vikings here? Was little old New Sweden about to rewrite history as we know it?

Pride and lies of omission.

Her phone rang. “Reverend Lindstrom? I am Professor Angstrom from Stockholm University. I am flying in to Chicago on the day after tomorrow. I believe I will be at your church by three o’clock, if the train is on time.” This Angstrom spoke clear English with a slight accent and he barreled through what he wanted to say as if he would brook no interruptions. Janice opened her mouth to tell him they weren’t accepting visitors, but Angstrom has already hung up.

That was two days ago.

Now Janice was alone in the church. She shut her eyes, breathed in the deep, pleasantly sour smell of Murphy’s Oil Soap and old wood, and listened to the silence. Yes, on the other side of the door, she could still hear the reporters milling about. But she could tune them out. In here, in the nook between the outside world and the back staircase, she tried to find stillness and order in the chaos she had caused.

“Dear Lord Jesus,” she prayed. “Please show me the right way through this mess and give me the strength to follow your will. Amen.” She was hoping this would be one of the rare occasions she had read about in the Bible where God would speak to her directly and she’d know what to do. She listened for long minutes, but she heard nothing. “Well, then,” she said. She stood up, straightened her collar, and started toward her office. Right before she came into view of her secretary, she wiped her eyes.

Professor Angstrom, when he arrived, settled himself on the edge of Janice’s desk, his back turned toward her, while he examined the statue. Every time she tried to engage him in conversation, he grunted and sighed as if he could barely stomach her stupidity. Eventually she gave up. She considered leaving the office, but the idea that he could barge in, perch on her desk, and make weird noises until she left her own chair offended her. Still, she wasn’t getting any work done, so she opened her Bible and skimmed for soothing words that would speak to her current predicament. She found none.

“This is Odin, the All-Father, sitting on his great throne,” Angstrom finally pronounced. “In appearance, it looks authentic, which is, of course, impossible. I will need to send it out for testing.”

“Well, you can’t,” she said. “Not without the permission of the owners.” She was nervous, always nervous when she had to be stern with someone. She liked the parts of the job where she got to be nurturing and tender. “Plus, that figure is clearly wearing a dress.”

“By the time this statue was carved, if it is authentic, which is impossible, Odin had taken on some of the more dramatic traits of his wife,” Janice wanted to interrupt right here, to ask if a dress was really a trait, but Angstrom barreled on. “What we understand now is that, by the time Christianity arrived, the original pantheon of gods was splintering. The great Wodanaz had become Odin, wandering husband of Frigg, and Odd, wandering husband of Freyja. Even you must see that Frigg and Freyja were the same goddess, originally. But why did the Norsemen split the goddess? Was the early Christian influence already suggesting the importance of the Virgin/Magdalene archetype to them? Was it, perhaps, a realization about the nature of women they were coming to independently of the Christians?”

“There’s no historical basis for the tradition of Mary Magdalene being a whore,” Janice said. She glared at the back of the large, old, blond man in front of her. “And so what if she was? That’s not one of only two character traits available to women.” But Janice was a single woman pastoring a church. On the rare occasions she did date, she drove clear to Springfield to spend time with a Methodist minister who’d lost his wife to cancer. She didn’t want her congregation to know she had a boyfriend, because she was afraid they thought there were only two choices and once you’d shown evidence you didn’t belong in the ‘virgin’ category, where did that leave you?

It didn’t matter to Angstrom. He droned on about women and gods and the necessity of debunking forgeries like this.

At long last, he was interrupted by Orion’s arrival. The teen was breathless, alarmed.

“Reverend Lindstrom, you can’t give that statue to that guy!” Orion’s eyes were wide with shocked betrayal.

“No,” Janice tried to assure him. “I’m not.” Damn it. Her secretary must have called the Sandersons the second Angstrom arrived. Must everyone in this church be working to secretly undermine her?

“I certainly have the right under the Antiquities Act to repatriate a stolen relic.” Angstrom announced. “I could have the whole church thrown into prison.”

“It’s a fake!” Orion hollered. Angstrom narrowed his eyes and snorted with derision, even though he had floated the forgery theory not five minutes earlier, himself. He brought the statue to his lips and, much to Janice’s and Orion’s surprise, he licked it.

“This is the taste of my homeland,” he said. “You will all be arrested. Every one of you.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Janice said, reaching for the statue over the desk. She and Angstrom struggled for it for a minute and then Orion got in on the fight. “No, no, Orion,” she said, but youth is quick and stupid. The teen and the old man grappled in front of her desk for the statue and then Orion let go of it. Angstrom had been tugging on it so hard that the loss of resistance sent him careening back. His head hit the desk with a sickening thump.

“Is he dead?” Janice asked, staring at Orion, who had turned a kind of yellowish-gray. Oh, right, she was the adult here. She was the one who needed to answer questions, not ask them. She came around the desk and knelt in front of Angstrom. He was breathing. He didn’t appear to be bleeding. He clutched the statue so tightly Janice couldn’t budge it.

“Are the women here for the potluck yet?” Back in simpler times, when she’d learned Professor Angstrom was coming, she and the ladies of the church had decided to throw him a welcoming supper. It was to start at five, meal time for old Midwesterners, so at least some of them should have been there already, setting up tables, counting out chairs, making sure the path from the food to the drinks to the desserts was clear and easy to navigate. “Go see if we’ve lucked out and a nurse is here.”

Orion bolted from the office, screaming, “Help, help. Oh, God. Help.” Janice turned back to Angstrom.

“Angie,” she called out to her secretary, “You’d better call the paramedics.”

“Let’s wait and see if we have a nurse,” she called back. “Orion Sanderson is a good boy.” Janice hung her head and shut her eyes. Small town politics. You don’t jack up the “good boy’s” life over a stranger unless you had to. Janice squatted there, in front of the unconscious man. She had a phone on her desk, too. She didn’t use it.

Finally, Orion returned with an elderly woman who, if she had been a nurse, it had been decades before. Still, the woman had a nurse’s competence about her. She evaluated the situation, ordered Orion and Janice to help her move Angstrom so he was flat on the floor. She loosened his collar and his belt and propped his legs up with a nearby chair. After a few minutes, Angstrom began to come around.

“Oh, thank God,” Janice said. Orion stood nearby, looking like he wasn’t sure if he should run or cry.

“Oh now, what’s this?” Angstrom asked, struggling to sit up. Janice took the statue and placed it back on her desk.

“You had an accident,” the nurse said.

“Are you okay?” Janice asked. Angstrom narrowed his eyes and looked at her carefully.

“Are you the priest of this temple?” He asked.

“I think he’s having some memory issues,” she said to the nurse.

“How hard did he hit his head?”

“Hard, oh, God, so hard,” Orion answered.

“Then confusion is normal,” the nurse said to Janice. “Just clear things up for him for now. It’ll come back.”

“Okay, then, yes,” Janice said, wiping her hands on her pants and then extending her hand to Angstrom. He shook it. “I’m the pastor of this church.”

“And whose church,” he said the word like it was new to him. “Whose temple is this?”

“God’s?” She wasn’t sure how to answer. “I mean, we’re Christian, so Jesus’s? Is that what you’re asking?”

“How can you be unsure?” He asked, now pulling on Janice and the nurse to rise to his feet. He was still a bit wobbly. They set him in a nearby chair. “Don’t you recognize Him when He’s here? What does He look like?”

“Well, God doesn’t really look like anything,” Janice tried to explain. “Or maybe He looks like everything. Jesus, I guess, well, He’d…”

“Look here!” Angstrom pointed to the antique reproduction painting of Jesus kneeling in the garden, praying. “I would recognize Balder anywhere. Are you Balder’s people?”

“No, that’s Jesus!” Orion insisted. Angstrom looked at Janice, somewhat confused.

“I admit, I don’t socialize as much with the others as some.  Thor, now Thor will meet anyone, share a drink, slap a back, hang on as long as he can, but not me. I left as soon as I realized what was happening, that they’d all become Christian. So I don’t know for sure, but I was under the impression that Jesus was a Middle-Eastern man.” A smile teased at Angstrom’s mouth.

“Who…who do you think you are?” She was mortified to find that she was blushing in response to his delightful grin.

“Why, Odd the Wanderer, of course, come to see who among the descendants of my followers might be ripe for reconversion.” He winked at Janice. She smiled back at him, realized what she was doing, and then fixed her face in a more neutral position.

She held up her finger, asking for a minute. She grabbed the nurse and they stepped into the secretary’s connected office. She shut the door so Angstrom couldn’t overhear and spoke low enough that Angie had to stop typing in order to not miss a word.

“He thinks he’s a minor Norse god,” Janice said. “Should we take him to the hospital?”

“No!” Angie said.

“Butt out!” Janice snapped. To the nurse, she said, “I don’t want anything bad to happen to the Sandersons, but I can’t stand by while a man is suffering.”

“Well, you’re not going anywhere anyway,” Angie said. “Look outside.” Before Janice even got to the window, she heard the noise. A hundred rumbling motorcycles surrounded the church. Down Main Street, she could see more arriving.

“What the fuck?” Janice meant to keep that to herself, but judging by Angie’s gasp, she had said it out loud. “Okay, everyone sit tight.” Janice straightened her collar, touched the cross that always hung around her neck, and went outside.

“Hello!” she called. “What can I do for you?” She had never, outside of an actual herd of cows, seen so much leather in one place before. Black leather covering mountainous men with fists like ham hocks, black leather encasing slim, wily men with long moustaches, black leather draped over the shoulders of the occasional feral woman draped over the shoulders of one of these men. Many of them wore Maltese crosses. The knuckles on the man sitting nearest to her were tattooed “1488.” She knew from her prison outreach training that this wasn’t a date, but a kind of white supremacist code—14 for the white nationalist slogan, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” and 88 because H was eighth letter of the alphabet and, thus, Heil Hitler. She scanned the bikers again. They were, indeed, all white.

She sighed and hoped Angie would have sense enough to call the police. Not that it would do much good. New Sweden had two on-duty police officers during the day. In the whole county, there were maybe fifteen available officers, if you counted sheriff’s deputies and the cops in other small towns. The nearest state police headquarters was either the Quad Cities or Peoria, both over forty-five minutes away. Even if Angie did call, there simply wasn’t a big enough police presence in the county to deal with, oh, gosh, easily two hundred bikers now. And still, yes, from the sound of it, more coming.

“Send out the Jew-worshipper,” the man with the racist tattoos said. No conversation in the history of the world had ever started out that way and ended productively, but Janice saw no way out of the impending talk.

“I’m the pastor of this church,” she said. They laughed. “It’s not a joke. Women have been ordained by our church for fifty years.”

“Well, good for you,” the biker said. “Defying nature for half a century.”

Janice whispered, “God, give me strength.”

“We’ve come for the statue,” he said. “We saw the story on the news and, well, fuck it. If the Vikings left a statue in Illinois dirt, it was so the Folk could have it when we needed it.”

“We’re trying to sort out right now where the statue came from and who it belongs to,” Janice said. “But I can assure you, as soon as we do, it will go home with its legal owner.”

“Screw ‘legal’ owner,” the biker said. “We’re the rightful owners. You bring it out here or we’re coming in to get it.” The threat made Janice queasy. Worse, when she looked back toward the church, she saw a steady stream of her congregants, who could not park in the church parking lot, since it was full of bikers, parking at the bank across the street and walking, arms heavy-laden with covered dishes, toward the church.

“Okay, wait,” she said, rubbing her hands on her pants, trying to come up with something to say to the bikers that would get them to leave. Fortunately, at that moment, the reporters who’d accosted her earlier came around the back of the church to see what the commotion was about. The Tattooed Jerk looked at first surprised and then delighted. Engines revved menacingly. Women shrieked. Men yelled. The Tattooed Jerk swung off his bike and walked toward the cameras. Janice fled toward the side doors and, when she got inside, locked them behind her.

“Orion!” she shouted and he sprang out of her office. “Go around and make sure all the doors are locked. I’ll get the sanctuary doors.” She sprinted as fast as she could up the stairs, through the entrance into the choir loft, down past the pulpit, over the communion rail and up the aisle. She could see church members coming in the front doors and heading down the side stairs to the basement. “Hurry, hurry!” she called to them.

Luckily, two of the men in the vestibule were regular ushers and their church training kicked in. They began to move people through the doorway as fast as they could. Janice got to the door and struggled to catch her breath. When she looked out, her blood ran cold. She could see more potluckers standing in the bank parking lot, uncertain how to get through the ever increasing swarm of bikers. Janice waved to catch their attention and then she tried to wave them off. But they had their hot dishes and cheese boards! They held them up to her like the obvious evidence of their preparedness outweighed the angry horde blocking the street. Janice shook her head and pulled the door shut. It locked with an old, thunderous click. Well, she thought, this is terrible. In saving those parishioners in the parking lot by locking them out, she had probably added to the number of people in the congregation who thought she was unfit to be pastor.

After checking to make sure that Orion had indeed locked the rest of the doors, Janice headed down to the church basement. The great main area was filled with people sitting around long tables. Children scurried from one table to another. A gaggle of teens stood in the far corner gossiping. Through the pass-throughs into the kitchen, she could see old women already doing dishes. Always and forever, doing dishes. They hadn’t even eaten yet. What dishes were there to be done? But then she saw them passing serving spoons to younger women who dried them and then brought them out to the tables along the far wall and stuck them into dishes.

She saw Professor Angstrom sitting at one of the tables in the middle of the room, holding the statue. Damn it. He’d gotten it back. By the way he was gesturing, he appeared to be deep in explanation of some point. The men and women around him paid him such close attention that Janice felt a moment of true envy.

Then, Angstrom saw her and smiled in genuine delight. Janice cringed. The friendly face could only mean that he was still under the impression that he was some minor Norse god, which mean that she and her congregation—all people who were supposed to be good people, or at least trying to be—were still failing to get him the medical help at least some of them knew he needed.

“Pastor Janice!” A woman a few years older than her had suddenly appeared by her elbow. “If you will pray, we can eat and then the professor is going to tell us about the statue.” The woman turned to the sixty or so people who were in the basement. “Pastor Janice is going to pray.” Everyone fell silent. Janice looked out over her congregation. Most of the adults had closed their eyes and bowed their heads. Many of the children took the moment to make faces at their friends.

“I’m afraid we’re in big trouble,” she said. Some in front of her looked up and she saw frowns on their faces. Of course, she thought, no one wants a long prayer before a potluck. Is this a prayer? “I’ve asked the Lord to be with us, but I also asked Angela to call the police.” She looked over at Angela and it was plain by the look on Angela’s face that she had not done so.

“What are you talking about?” One of the old farmers shouted.

“The bikers?”

“Oh, pshaw, no one is going to come into a church to cause trouble. Not in this town.” The farmer seemed disgusted by her lack of faith in how things were done.

Someone else shouted, “This is God’s house.” And it seemed like everyone but Janice found this a convincing argument.

Janice started to insist again that they call the police. But look at them. They were in God’s house. They were safe. Okay. Fine. “God is great. God is good. Let us thank Him for our food.” Every kid in the basement knew that prayer. She could hear them piping up as it went on. “Amen.”

As was custom after the prayer, everyone stood and the children rushed toward the food as their parents shouted half-meant words of warning about holding back. The picky kids had just started complaining that most everything on the table was weird when Angstrom came up to Janice.

“Why don’t you lead them?” He asked. She almost wished she’d heard some contempt in his voice, but he seemed genuinely curious. “Just tell them what to do and punish those who don’t?”

“That’s not how it works” she said. “I lead them to the extent they agree to be led. If they decide not to listen to me then we’ll all know I’m not really their leader. I’ll lose this job.” Angstrom nodded in consideration.

“You could give an order,” he suggested. “And then, when the order is not followed, you could have your god punish them.”

“God doesn’t work that way. He doesn’t even punish people for not obeying Him. He’s not going to punish people for not obeying me.”

“You agree to meet the spiritual needs of these people. You are with them as they cross into this world and cross out of it. You sooth them in times of crisis and carry the burden of knowing the most terrible things about them. You stand present with them in the great Mystery and they won’t even listen when you try to warn them of trouble? Why would you do this?”

“Because I love them.”

“Do you?” He looked at her with true concern, with a kind of true understanding she had, in the past, only felt among other ministers. Okay, well, he was a professor, right? That’s like being a minister in some secular way. Maybe it’s not so weird that he seemed to understand more of her struggle with this church knowing her maybe an hour than the people in the congregation who had known her five years did.

“No,” she whispered and she felt shame stab through her. But then, unexpectedly, she felt relief. Somehow the relief was worse. “But I do this because God loves them.”

“Does He?” She opened her mouth to say she didn’t know, but once she realized that was what she was about to say, she shut it again. It’s just stress. This man needed to be at the hospital. She needed not to have mislead everyone about the provenance of that stupid statue. Her congregation needed to have the sense to flee from the bikers. She was only having such grave doubts because she was in so far over her head. But yes. “Yes.”

“I have an idea,” he said. “Why don’t you tell these people what to do? I think the motorcycle people are likely to try to get through the glass doors by your office. You could send people out of the church up the back staircase, out the wooden door. They would probably all be safe. Tell them what to do and, if they won’t do it, well, then, let this god handle things.”

“I don’t…”

“You know they need to flee. You know it will be bad if they don’t. Lead them.” He reached over and patted her shoulder, the way a coach pats the shoulder of a player he is sending back in the game in a difficult situation. See what you can do, that pat said. Angstrom must have been an extraordinary teacher, Janice thought, though, it was possible he wasn’t like this at all. How weird if your best self is the self that remembers nothing about you? That thinks itself someone else? She kept a small laugh to herself. Maybe that wasn’t so weird. Maybe all our best selves are strangers to us.

Janice walked across the basement and up the back stairs. She unlocked the door and peered out. She could hear the motorcycles in the distance, but truly, the way was clear. If the people in the basement escaped through this door, they could be gone before the bikers noticed. She went back downstairs.

“Okay,” she said, loudly. “We need to leave now. Everyone, just leave your plates where they are. We’ll come back when the danger’s passed and clean up. But now is our chance to get out of here safely.” Everyone turned toward her and then, much to her frustration, they turned back to eating. “People, God is not your fairy godmother. He’s not going to solve problems for you that you won’t solve yourself. Let’s go.” Only Orion stood, and only long enough for his uncle to reach over and give him a slight tug on the arm. He sunk back into the seated crowd. “Now! Let’s go now!”

None of them moved. She threw up her hands and looked pointedly at Angstrom. See? What did I tell you? I can’t make these people do anything? She had only thought those things, but he nodded, as if he had heard her and agreed.

The people in the basement pointedly ignored her for what seemed like an eternity. Everyone in the basement was silent, stubborn, and angry. Then, there was a crash, which Janice couldn’t place at first, but suddenly she realized, oh God, the glass doors by the office. Then came a great noise, which sounded at first like an unscheduled freight train rumbling through town. It grew louder and there was another great crash, which everyone in the basement seemed to immediately recognize as the sound of the large gold cross hanging above the altar coming down. Outside the basement a vast cheer went up, which started directly over their heads and then echoed through the hallways above them, even outside, though that was muffled, and then, oh then, they heard that cheer in the stairwells.

The bikers poured into the basement like frenzied grasshoppers before the blade of the combine, jumping up on tables, overturning casseroles, breaking plates as they made their way toward the statue, which Angstrom had left on the table in the middle of the room.

For a moment, one surreal moment, it seemed as if the horde might pass through the potluckers without incident, like they might fill the basement, take the statue, and empty the basement without anyone being hurt. Who swung first? Who can say? Suddenly the bikers shoved old ladies, punched old men. One child got wrenched up by his arm and flung into his sister, who had already been elbowed. One of the Halderman twins got burned by a cigarette. The man who held the butt end laughed when the boy screamed. Orion’s uncle was holding his own in a fight with a biker wearing a horned helmet, until a skinny woman with blond braids came up behind him and stabbed him in the thigh. The Ostrander baby who Janice had baptized last month wailed in its high chair, blood dripping down its face. Janice at first couldn’t tell if it was the baby’s or its mother’s whose nose was practically a fountain. It was the baby’s own blood. Someone had punched the Ostrander baby.

These grand brawls were happening all at once, all around Janice. She looked for Angstrom and there he was, in the middle of the chaos, standing on a chair, looking very satisfied. Christ, he must have really gotten a screw knocked loose, Janice thought. She pushed her way through the fights to get to him.

“Professor Angstrom!” She shouted as she approached him. He paid her no mind. “Odd!” she tried again. “Let’s get you to safety.” He smiled at her and raised the statue, which he now carried, like one might make raise a wine glass to make a toast. To you, dear Janice. Just as she was within arms’ reach of him, three bikers grabbed him, threw him over their shoulders like a log, and carried him out of the basement.

“To Rudy’s!” one of the bikers shouted.

“To Rudy’s!” some replied. And that appeared to be the signal to leave. The bikers poured back out of the basement. Punches were left unthrown. Women’s faces left unslapped. Children checked their heads to find their hair suddenly unpulled. The congregation laid on the floor or sat slumped over tables or they stood, wobbly, uncertain what to do with themselves now that the brief chaos had ended.

“Angela,” Janice shouted. “God damn it. Go call dispatch right now. Tell them we need ambulances and police.” Janice looked around at her people and began to attend to the people closest to her. Bloody nose? Tilt your head back. Stab wound? Can we tie it off? Okay let’s tie it off. She directed the less severely injured to help the most severely injured. No one was dead, thank God. The nurse who had helped Angstrom earlier moved through the crowd as well.

The severity of the situation slowly sunk in. Racist bikers now had a priceless Swedish artifact she’d alerted them to the existence of in the first place. Half her congregation was in the basement of the church in a bloody heap. This poor Swedish professor who’d had some kind of traumatic brain injury earlier in the day had just been kidnapped by said bikers. And there wasn’t a whole lot of help coming.

When the first cop arrived on the scene, Janice pulled him aside to ask him was Rudy’s was. A bar over on the river is what he told her, but once he saw the carnage in the basement, he stopped saying anything but “Grandma,” to one of the kitchen women who was still bleeding quite a bit from where someone had hit her with a cast iron pan.

“We need to go rescue Angstrom” she said to Orion’s uncle.

“I need to get to the doctor,” he said. “No one here is fit for rescuing anyone.”

“I’ll go,” Orion said.

“You will not,” his uncle said.

“This is my fault,” Orion said, “and, like, I’m going to fix it.” He turned to Janice as if to see if she was going to tell him he couldn’t come. “Your eye,” he said to her. She reached up and, yes, at some point, she had been hit in the face and she could now feel that her eye was swollen shut. She hasn’t noticed. “I’ll drive.”

“Thank you,” she said.

When they got in the car, Orion asked her, “So, what’s the plan? We drive over there, they murder us, and…?”

“Well, let’s hope that they’ve haven’t killed Professor Angstrom. We’ll let them have the statue.” Even with only one good eye, Janice could see Orion flinch when she said this. “Orion, I’m sure that your family would much rather have you in one piece than that statue. We can concede the statue to them. We just need their prisoner.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

But when they got to the bar, it was clear the situation was much stranger than they’d anticipated. The small shack couldn’t hold even a quarter of the bikers present, so most of them were crammed around picnic tables or milling near fires set in old trash barrels there in the parking lot. Angstrom stood, freely, in the middle of the crowd, a beer in one hand, a woman on his other arm. The statue stood on a nearby table. Janice and Orion had parked up the road a ways and walked through a field of beans to the back of the bar and they were close enough to hear what Angstrom was saying to the Tattooed Jerk, who Janice had pegged earlier as their leader.

“You don’t let women into any leadership positions?” Angstrom asked.

“A woman is put on this earth to be the servant of men,” the Tattooed Jerk said. “A woman leading a man is unnatural.” Angstrom wrinkled his brow at this.

“Then who in your tribe sits on the high seat and tells the fortune of your people?” Angstrom asked. “I mean no offense, but in my brief time with you, I haven’t heard anything to assure me that you all would be very tolerant of the kind of men who could do that.”

“Oh, we don’t do any of that kind of witchcraft bullshit,” the Tattooed Jerk said. “We honor our ancestors and we drink and fuck and kick ass.”

“Hmm,” Angstrom said. “So, what’s the difference between your lives now and before? I assume most of you were Christian, at least nominally? What’s changed for you, about you, since you adopted this worldview?”

“Nothing,” the Tattooed Jerk said. “We were always doing things the right way for us. We just didn’t know until Odinism that we were giving credit to the wrong Guy. White people need a white religion. Now we’ve got it.”

“But you changed gods and nothing changed?” Angstrom face grew more troubled. “You don’t even have a volva.”

“Oh, I got a vulva, honey,” a woman shouted from across the way. “Smooth and hairless. I’ll let you touch it, if you want.” The crowd burst into laughter. But the discussion gave Janice an idea.

“This is it. This is what we do.” Janice whispered to Orion. “I’ll go up on the high seat and tell them that Odin or whoever says Angstrom has to come with us, but they can keep the statue.”

“What if that’s not what Odin says once you get up there?”

“I don’t know,” Janice shook her head. “But I do know that these guys are really dangerous. If they decide to hurt Angstrom, we can’t stop them. And if he tries to keep that statue, they’re going to hurt him. If Angstrom’s going to get out of here in one piece, we need to do something and this is the only thing I can think to do.” Janice stepped out of the shadows and, as if he had known she was there the whole time, Angstrom smiled at her.

“Here,” Angstrom said. “We can send the priest from town up and she can tell us the fortune of your people.”

“Okay,” she said, before the Tattooed Jerk or any of the rest of them could object. Angstrom came over and grabbed her arm. He nodded at Orion who ran to catch up with them and the three of them walked into the bar together. Many of the bikers seemed interested, but only the fifty or so that the Tattooed Jerk indicated to be in the bar stayed. The rest waited outside.

Angstrom placed a chair on the pool table and then placed a barstool on the chair. When he came down to retrieve Janice, he had the bartender set seven shots in front of her. Before she lost her nerve, she downed them.

“Usually, you’d eat the heart of one of every animal on the farm, but the only animals here are a few field mice and a couple of crows, none of which belong to them, so it’s not great sacrifice for them. We’ll do without. You will need a song to get you over.”


“You’ll see. What Viking songs do you still know?”

“Um, none.”

“My dad taught me ‘The Immigrant Song’ by Led Zeppelin,” Orion volunteered. “That’s about Vikings, right?”

“Will these gentlemen know it?” Angstrom asked.

“I’m not sure you’re legally allowed to wear this much black if you don’t have most of Led Zeppelin’s catalog memorized,” Janice said. Angstrom stared at her blankly. “It’s a joke. But yes, I think so.”

Up she went onto the pool table. Then onto the chair. Angstrom held her hand as she balanced herself on the bar stool.

“I’m going to get you out of here,” she whispered to him.

“I’ve no doubt,” he smiled at her.

“I mean, I’m just going to fake it.”

He shrugged and checked to make sure she was firmly seated. He handed her a couple more shots. She did them. He stepped back and regarded her with interest. Was he proud? She thought he might have been proud of her daring. But what was she daring? She was just going to moan and wail and tell these jerks to let this guy leave and tell this poor delusional fool to come with her. The brave part was climbing up on this rickety seat with her head spinning like this, not anything else.

She must have been so lost in thought that she didn’t notice the crowd around her had started singing until they got to the second set of “ooo-ooo-ooooooooooooo-oo”s. She didn’t mean for this to be real, for it to mean anything, but there she was, hanging between heaven and earth. There she was not quite here, not quite there. Things were different in this state. Each person in the bar appeared as a bright knot to her and from those bright knots came many strings that tied them to their compatriots, stretched out of the bar and tied them to unseen others, and she could see those strings, those knots.

It must be a metaphor, right? A vision brought on by prolonged stress and seven, no, nine shots of terrible whiskey. But the people before her did seem to be clearer to her now, not as people but as these bright knots and the threads between those knots. She studied them closely.

Oh, yes, and below them—or is it above? Directions up here seemed to lose all meaning. Here was the great fabric all those tiny knots are but the slightest decoration for. Here, thick between her fingers was their fate, the completed fabric the fixed fate of what has happened. And there, ahead, barely coming into the light, the warp and weft, the shuttle passing through them, what was happening. And once you know what the pattern is, can you not guess what’s to come? Janice squinted harder. There, yes, there in the shadow, a woman worked the loom.

The hairs on the back of Janice’s neck prickled up. She shivered. She could still hear the men below, but she felt she was no longer truly in the bar. She was in this simple room, wooden walls, dirt floor, in front of this grand, intricate loom. In some true sense, she understood she was a child, a baby, really, being shown something she couldn’t possibly yet understand. The woman before her was so beautiful it made Janice swoon. The woman was dressed for weaving—hair back in a braid, no rings, simple sleeves—but she wore something shiny draped across her breast, perhaps a necklace? Janice found she couldn’t look square at the woman. She couldn’t make out precise details or, if she could, she couldn’t hold them in her mind.

“What should I do?” she cried out before she’d even realized she’d formulated a question.

“Send him home,” the woman answered. The statue? Wasn’t she trying to find a way to get the statue back to Sweden without anyone getting hurt? “No, child. Odd. Send Odd home.” The woman knew what she was thinking. Of course she did.

The room shifted or maybe Janice shifted in her seat high over the bar and there she was, back before the angry bikers. Angstrom’s eyes glowed as he looked up at her. Pride. That’s what it was. He was proud of her.

“This is my priest!” He roared to the bikers. “Who among us could do that?”

My priest. Odd was real. That’s what the vision of the weaving woman meant. Not the only thing it meant. Some things Janice was going to have to ponder for a long time. But the thing that she needed to know now was that Professor Angstrom was not having some kind of break. Odd was real and in that poor man. It sounded ridiculous, but what supernatural truth doesn’t sound ridiculous if you haven’t experienced it?

Janice sat taller on the bar stool which wobbled unsteady beneath her.

“Odd,” she shouted. Blood poured out of her mouth. She had the feeling this must have originally been the point of eating the hearts, so that when you started to spew blood onto the people at the ritual, you had some good explanation of where it came from. “Show yourself.”

“Here I am,” the Professor reached up to her.

“No!” she bellowed. “Come out here and stand before me.”

She felt a surge of power coursing through her, like the small string that tied her back to the weaving room, that cord of fate that had brought her to this evening, was acting like a wire, streaming energy into her. She flung her head back, her chest out. The tower of chairs she sat on shook again.

She closed her eyes and felt the energy of the room, these men so quick to violence, so easy to anger. She thought of the frightened children in her church and the bloodied old ladies whose only “crime” was doing dishes and gossiping about the women they were jealous of. The harm these men had causes to the people under her care.

“Stand before me, Odd,” she demanded, again.

She had some idea of what she was asking. She’d been to seminary and she knew, at least theoretically, what it meant when a god appeared before people undisguised. She shut her eyes. She hoped Orion has the sense to shut his eyes.

And then Odd stepped out of the Professor and stood before her. He shone so brightly she could see him, plain as day, through her closed eyes. She threw her arm in front of her face to block the light. She could still see him through the blood and the muscle and the bone. From the screams she heard around here, others had not taken precautions. “My eyes, oh fuck man, my eyes.” She couldn’t tell if that was one voice or many.

“Here I am,” he said and the bikers standing closest to him cried out as their eardrums burst.

“Go home to your wife,” Janice said. She straightened her back again, faced him as squarely as she could, but she also pissed her pants and clenched her nails into the palms of her hands.

“Did you talk to her?” Odd asked, his voice softening, each word filled with fondness and longing.

“Yes,” Janice said. “She said to send you home.”

The light in the room dimmed. Janice opened her eyes and slowly put her arm down. Odd stood before her, up on the table. He reached out and grabbed her hand. She slowly, carefully, climbed down from the tower of chairs. Like his wife—how did she know the woman was his wife? Where was this knowledge coming from?—he was impossibly handsome and she found it hard to look directly at him.

Odd pulled her to him. She didn’t remember him wearing a long robe, but somehow that’s what he wrapped around her when he embraced her.

“Tell me this,” he whispered in her ear. “Would your god ever come to visit you? Like this? So you knew without a doubt it was Him?”

“I don’t know,” she answered, truthfully. “No, I guess, probably not.”

“Just something to think about,” he laughed and it rumbled in his chest like she was hearing a joke he’d been laughing to himself about for a thousand years.

“Are you trying to recruit me?”

“You did kind of ruin the followers I did have here,” he said. She stepped back from him and looked down at the men in the bar. It was a horror show of bleeding ears and liquified eyeballs. Janice had, of course, seen dead people, but the sight of the Tattooed Jerk, who looked half broken and half melted, took her aback.

“Orion!” she called out.

“I’m fine,” he called back. “I hid in the bathroom once you disappeared.” She was so relieved that the boy was safe, she only heard that he had answered, not what.

“Not my follower,” Odd shrugged. “Not mine to ruin.”

“But why would you do this to them?” She asked. “What a waste. My god. What a terrible waste.”

“You hated them.”

“Yes, but I didn’t…I don’t want this. It’s so stupid. It’s so horrible. So much suffering.”

“Come with me and be my priest.”

She stood there in shock and confusion. “Are you kidding? Do you think I want to end up like this?”

“So, no?”

“No.” Janice said. “Go back to your wife.” She grunted. “And take your damn statue with you.”

“That’s not my statue. Look. The figure is wearing a dress. A necklace.”

“Professor Angstrom said it could be you in drag.”

“Could be,” Odd grinned and winked at her. “But it’s not. A woman can sit in the high seat and see what she can see. You know that.” He pulled the statue out of his jacket. He was wearing a jacket now? No, an actual suit coat. Or maybe he was wearing something her mind couldn’t make sense of and so was just tossing out suggestions. He handed the statue to her. “Do with it what you will.”

“Wait,” she said, as he jumped down from the table. He stopped and looked back at her. “Will I see you again?”

He seemed taken aback by her question. Like those conversations in the church where he didn’t seem able to understand why a congregation would be satisfied with so little. “Yes. If you want to. Of course.” And then he did leave, muttering under his breath. She found his answer unnerving and she paced in a circle up on the pool table until Orion grabbed her foot and motioned her down. He led her to the car. She handed him the statue. Twice, on the ride back to town, she reached for it and then decided against it.

Saturday passed in a blur of statements to police and the avoidance of statements to the media. Some townspeople came by to help clean up the church, righting overturned pews, patching holes, rehanging the giant cross. All told, fifty-six people were hospitalized, twenty from her church, the rest bikers. Seven bikers, including the Tattooed Jerk, were dead. Some number of people, though Janice didn’t know how many, had been injured, but not severely enough to wait for the strained emergency room staff to get to them. Angstrom, she heard, had been uninjured, but he had insisted on an ambulance taking him to Chicago, to “real” medical help.

Sunday morning, Janice was supposed to stand in front of her congregation and say something that made sense. She needed to explain why this had happened, why God had let this happen. A baby got punched. In a church. Who stands idly by while babies are getting hurt? If You’re omnipotent, why don’t You help? And yet, had she not tried to help? And was she not here doing God’s work? How can you say you want God’s help and yet dismiss the help He sends? Or was it typical earthly bullshit that kept them from recognizing her as help God had sent? Was that egotistical for her to believe she was God’s help?

These were her thoughts as she stood at the door behind the altar, waiting for the organist to play the cue for her to enter. These were the thoughts she let herself have. They seemed like hard questions, questions worth wrestling with. But she knew they were distractions from the real questions she didn’t want to ask herself—mainly, if you meet a god, shouldn’t it change you? But also, what if all the gods are real, but they’re all like Odd? Then what the fuck was she doing with her life?

When she stood before the congregation, three steps up from them, behind the lectern, she gripped the Bible before her tightly. They were quieter than she’d ever heard them. No one rustled their bulletin. No one hushed their antsy four-year-old. There were no antsy four year olds. Even the children sat quiet. Seventy-two people looked up at her, some of them bruised and battered, many of them afraid, some defiant and angry.

In the light filtering in through the jewel-toned windows, she saw, faintly, the threads that tied them together. Even now, here, without the proper ritual, without the proper preparation, she saw how these people fit together, the pattern they made. Some Sandersons sat in the middle of the sanctuary, on her right. She saw from them ties going outside to the men who still refused to have a woman preacher. She saw ties going off to the east.

“Where’s Orion?”

This was not the first thing the congregation expected her to say to them and they shifted uncomfortably. Orion’s aunt especially seemed taken aback.

Janice asked again. “Where’s Orion?”

“He’s gone to Sweden,” his other aunt answered. “To return the statue.” Of course he had. Who was the only person in this town who would act with decisiveness? He’d go to Sweden, damn the consequences, if he thought that was the right thing to do.

And what was she going to do? Stand here and pretend nothing had changed for her?

She shut the Bible. She stepped down from the lectern. She walked out the door. The congregation sat there for a good twenty minutes before they realized she wasn’t coming back.

Murder Ballads #3

Take That Right-Hand Road

The tall woman looked like a skeleton someone had carefully folded a paper bag over. She had creases in her face, next to her mouth, and at the base of her neck, but creases, not wrinkles. Her skin mostly stretched smooth over her skull and clung to her long bones tightly.

“That’s how it is in the Estes family,” she said. “Feast or famine. Hard or soft. Skinny or fat. You don’t meet a lot of in-between Esteses.”

Were it not for the heavy work boots that weighed her to the earth, it was easy to imagine her floating away on a strong breeze, like some kind of seed birthed from a mysterious, unknown flower.

We were in the parking lot of the McDonald’s just off I-40 in Brownsville. Across the way, we could see the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center, but Ms. Estes scoffed when the old, long-haired British white guy said he wanted to see it.

“Go on your own time,” she said. “I’m supposed to take you to Durhamville and to show you something true, not to be your local tour guide.” She didn’t sound mean when she said it, just frank. And then she laughed, so the British white guy laughed, too.

His name was Bob. I’d driven him to this parking lot because my boyfriend, who worked for a record company in Nashville, was sick. Okay, hungover, and couldn’t do it and also couldn’t call work and tell them he couldn’t do it.

“You’ve never heard of him?” my boyfriend asked me.

“No,” I said.

“I might have to break up with you.”

“Then who’s going to drive him?”

End of discussion.

We got in my boyfriend’s car—Ms. Estes in the passenger seat and Bob, once again, in the back. Once Ms. Estes was in the car, though, he didn’t answer his phone or worry about his texts. He seemed enraptured by Ms. Estes.

“How are you related to Sleepy John?” Bob asked.

“Turn left up here, honey,” she said to me. And then, this was weird. She reached over and brushed my arm, not obtrusive enough that Bob would notice, but enough so I looked over at her. She gave me a big wink and then she said, “He’s my daddy’s cousin.”

But the wink meant that was a lie, right?

“And you never married?”

“Of course I did, but who else was there to marry hereabout but another Estes?” Then, I swear, she winked again. “We’re not so close as to make us hillbillies. Oh, here, child, take the north fork in the road.” I maneuvered the car in the right direction while Ms. Estes looked me up and down. “What kind of music do you like? You’ve got that fancy hair, so I’m guessing Valerie June. You know she’s from around here. Oh, you have to take the jog here. We want to get over to Fulton Road.”

“I’ve been loving that new Beyonce album since it came out this spring,” I said. I didn’t know who Valerie June was, but Ms. Estes’s interest in her made me curious.

“Well, now,” she smiled. “Beyonce’s an interesting choice. She knows a thing or two about real and myth and how to keep a foot in each one. You remember how everyone heard ‘Daddy Lessons’ and they all had opinions about whether she was saying too much about her relationship with her father. But a lot of those feelings came from Ms. Gordon, one of the other songwriters, and her feelings about the men in her life. See, Beyonce knows how to make something personal when it isn’t and how to make that personal thing sound universal.” Ms. Estes waved her right hand back and forth in the breeze from the air vent. “That’s one important motion. Then you heard that song she did with that pale gentleman? ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself.’”

“I quite like that one,” Bob chimed in.

“I bet you do,” Ms. Estes said. I didn’t understand the exchange.

“Now you’ve got Beyonce using the music from a song, ‘When the Levee Breaks,’ that Led Zeppelin stole—”

“Covered. Borrowed. Recreated.” Bob shouted out less harmful synonyms for “stole” from the back seat.

Ms. Estes rolled her eyes, but she smiled kindly back at him. She didn’t dislike him. That was clear, but she didn’t seem as taken by him, or maybe as deferential to him as he was used to. He seemed pleasantly unsettled by her.

“Took,” she reiterated, “from a woman who lived right over here in Memphis about a hundred years ago. Just think on that. Oh, and watch this curve up here. The locals take it fast from the other direction. They’ll slide into your lane.” I slowed down and approached the curve with more caution. “Beyonce uses a white man to steal a song back from some white men who stole it from a black woman who took a thing that happened to real people right nearby here and made it legendary.” She paused and regarded me again. “Were you supposed to be here?”

“No, my boyfriend was supposed to drive, but he’s sick.”

“Hmm. Then fate has brought us together. That’s nice. That’s good.” She was now moving her left hand in the air stream of the over vent. Both hands twisting and turning. “Make real things myth. Move myth things back into reality.”

Until now, trees had lined the sunken road, but suddenly, we came over a ridge and the fields we had been too low to see now spread out before us. Short plants. White cotton.

I gasped.

Then, to my surprise, my throat wouldn’t open back up. Wouldn’t let me breath. I slammed on the brakes without even realizing I was doing it. I tried to take my hands off the steering wheel so that I could put the car in park, but they wouldn’t let go. I felt like I was falling, except I also knew I wasn’t even moving. I was having some kind of attack. I was losing my damn mind.

I had come to Nashville for college from Chicago. There were things in Nashville that you had to learn not to see or you’d go mad—the antebellum homes, the old stone walls built by hand by people enslaved on the plantations those homes presided over, the occasional Confederate battle flag. But they were rare enough or innocuous enough that you could learn to ignore them. And you don’t see this by Nashville.


Field after field after field of cotton.

That’s why we were headed out here. Sleepy John Estes’s family had been enslaved out here, had worked these very fields, and then sharecropped on them, and then…what? Money and suffering. All around. Money for some people. Suffering for others.

Ms. Estes leaned over and dropped the car into park.

“Just breathe,” she said, as gentle as can be. “You’re fine. Look.” She leaned back so I could see past her. “No one lives out here anymore. Machines are going to pick it. It can’t hurt you.” I started to cry. Crying meant I could breathe again. Bob leaned forward and handed me a bottle of water. I’ve never felt more grateful to two people than the two of them sitting with me while I was overcome and then recovered.

After a few moments, the strange vertigo passed and I drove on.

“Up here,” Ms. Estes said. “Take a right.” We drove on another five, maybe ten, minutes until we came to a cemetery. “Go a little farther,” she said and, when we passed a stand of trees, there was another cemetery, a nicer one, gated off, in front of a church. “Turn left just past this graveyard.” We went by the big white church and then, up the lane, was a smaller, more humble church. It was surrounded either by a third cemetery or the first cemetery we saw had stretched around the gated cemetery, made its way through the tree line, and spilled around this church. “Back in the day, this was the black Baptist church and that fancy church was where the white Baptists went. Park here.” I parked halfway between the two churches, facing the tree line. We all got out of the car and began walking back towards those trees.

We came to a headstone. Sleepy John Estes.

Bob was delighted. He took a million pictures of the grave stone and of the grave yard. We went tromping through the trees and he laughed every time we came upon the grave of another Estes. Here’s another weird part. He knew almost all of those folks. This old white British guy had somehow learned the identity of everybody in this country cemetery and knew how each of them was related to Sleepy John Estes. Who were his siblings, who were his parents’ siblings, and the generations above them. He knew all the cousins and step-cousins and who grew up in which household.

As I stood there watching him cavorting through the headstones, taking pictures, making notes, shouting out facts about the names he recognized when he knew them, I realized, he either damn well knew who Ms. Estes was and how she was related to Sleepy John when he asked her that, which was rude, or, and the second I realized it, I thought it seemed right, he damn well knew she wasn’t an Estes at all and was letting her know he knew. I turned back toward her. At first, she didn’t notice me. She just stood there, he face turned to the sun, a contented smile teasing her mouth, her gray hair sparkling in the light. When she sensed I was looking at her, she looked back at me and winked again.

What the hell is going on here?

“You good, Bob?” she asked after he seemed finally to be headed back toward us.

“It’s fantastic,” he said. “Just fantastic.”

“Well, wait until you see downtown Durhamville.”

We got back in the car and went up the road another mile or two. We came to a small group of abandoned buildings just south of a crossroad. On the west side of the road were three empty storefronts, dilapidated, hollow, overgrown. I parked in front of a squat log building on the east side of the road. Maybe it had been a post office? It, too, was abandoned.

Is it a shame Durhamville is a ghost town? I can’t decide. It’s good news for the people who were trapped here in life that their descendants don’t have to live here anymore, but it bothered me for reasons I didn’t quite understand that no one had bothered to pull the old buildings down.

The three of us stood in front of the car, surveying the uninhabited ex-town.

“Now, let me show you something,” she said. She plucked Bob’s phone out of his hand and the car keys out of my hand and messed around hooking the phone into the car’s stereo system. An acoustic guitar. Then a weird kind of growling. Then a man with a scratchy voice, singing, “Going back to Brownsville, take that right hand road.” Ms. Estes sat in the driver’s seat, her leg propped up in the door frame, her foot tapping in time with the music.

Bob and I stood near here.

“I’ve always loved this song,” Bob said. Ms. Estes raised an eyebrow and I waited for her to say something, but she let it pass. “We think that the voice is the most essential part of a song, the words the thing that touches a listener. But John can’t even finish words. Brownsville gets lopped off into ‘Browns.’ He mumbles most of the verses. I think it’s because he thinks the most important part is the melody on the guitar. The words are just decorations to draw your attention to what the guitar is doing. It doesn’t matter if they’re complete or if they’re only groans or merely grunts. The guitar’s the thing.” He paused, lost in some thought. “I think we got that. We learned that lesson.”

“Well, surely, you wanted people to understand what you were saying, though,” Ms. Estes said.

“Yes, but I didn’t fight with the guitar about it.”

“All right then,” she laughed. When she smiled, she looked both incredibly young and impossibly old. “I promised you a truth.” We stepped back and she got out of the car, Sleepy John Estes still singing “take that right hand road” from the car. Ms. Estes fiddled with her necklace. I saw now that what I thought was a gold cross was actually a hammer, a tiny golden sledgehammer. She walked to the intersection and she stood facing north. She extended her right arm out, gracefully, like a dancer, right palm up, fingers extended. “To get back to Brownsville from Sleepy John Estes’s ancestral village, you take the right hand road.”

I don’t know if I can adequately explain how I felt in that moment. It was a simple statement of fact. It was, indeed, a truth. To get from Durhamville to Brownsville, you take that right hand road. But, when I heard it, when I saw it, I felt like, for a brief moment, I saw another America draped over the normal one, stitched to it in some places, billowing away from it in other places. Some other America, a shadow, no, not a shadow, a lighter place, a dream America, where, if you could get to it, you could escape this real place, full of dead and forgotten towns and dead and forgotten people. In the dream America, things lingered, people remained remembered.

What Sleepy John Estes had done, somehow,—and if you’re familiar with any of the rest of his music, you know he did this all the time—was to take this real, ordinary thing, this stretch of road in this case, and move it into that legendary America. It didn’t matter if real Durhamville dried up and blew away. This road, this right hand road, was safe in that other place.

“You can’t let them get too far apart,” Ms. Estes whispered to me. “But it’s not good when they’re too close together. They have to dance with each other. That’s why music is so important.”

It didn’t dawn on me to be confused by how Ms. Estes knew what I was thinking. The revelation was so profound that, of course, she must have known it. I stood there, mouth agape, looking, somehow both at this ordinary spot and this myth. How long did I stand there? I can’t say. Only that, when Bob finally rested his hand on my shoulder and said it was time to go, the song had stopped playing.

When I turned toward him, he was smiling, but tears were pouring down his face.

“Thank you,” he said. “I had always wondered if I would ever get to meet her. I thought perhaps I had fucked things up so much I never would. But I think she came to meet you. Look.” He pointed at my collar. “She left you a present.” I reached up. I was wearing her tiny gold sledge hammer necklace.

“Ms. Estes?” I looked around, but she was gone. I looked back at Bob. “Who was that, really?”

“That, my dear,” he smiled in a way that made me feel like he would have been something else in his younger days, possibly, still was, “was Miss Polly Ann.”


“Polly drove steel like a man.” He waited for it to register with me. “No?”

“No idea.” I said.

“Well, you will, I imagine. I must say, I’m jealous of that. I doubt I’ll see her again.”

I Guess I Needed this Afghan

I can’t tell you how pleased I am about this afghan. I don’t know why. It’s not the most beautiful afghan I’ve ever made, but it’s really satisfying.

There’s just some shit going on in my life and I miss being able to mull through it here. But, needless to say, I am constantly amazed at people I barely know who are willing to demand they be the center of my attention and that I do my work to meet their needs.

Murder Ballads #2

Jennifer’s Body

The moon was a small hairline fracture in the night sky. The bare trees scratched at the cold wind. One lone light from the boat ramp cut through the dark. The oars slicing through the ink-black Mississippi made the only noise.

“Tell the Sheriff he’s going to want to check the trees out on Jug Island in the morning. Something’s tangled up at the north end.” That’s what had come squawking across on the police scanner.

The Mississippi had been high that fall. Not high enough to top the levee, but high enough to deposit that familiar fear in people’s throats. The current now pulled hard, but Melody had been training for years to be strong enough to fight the river, trusting that the time would come. Tree limbs and dead deer floated past her. Other things, darker shapes, never resolved themselves, but moved on downstream just out of her field of vision.

Jug Island wasn’t large under the best of circumstances. When the river was high, it was maybe thirty yards long, ten yards across. The sandy south end, where generations of teens had camped and fished and swam and drank and fucked, was completely submerged. She came ashore somewhere in the middle.

The branches of the bushes she had to push her way through stung as they slapped at her. Every few feet, a thorn or a sharp stick would catch her jacket and she had to pull herself free, half walking, half wrestling.

She wanted off Jug Island as quickly as possible, but she dreaded arriving at the north end, dreaded seeing what was waiting there. The sliver moon hid behind a black cloud and Melody stumbled in the blackness. Hands first, into the mud. The swollen river quick to fill the holes her hands had made.

“Okay, this is it,” she said to herself and then, immediately, she regretted making any sound. She held still. The night noises continued. No one had notice her. She tensed and listened for any sounds coming from shore. Nothing.

The cloud moved and Melody’s eyes adjusted. There was something in the bushes. Someone. A girl in a long, black nightgown, her brown hair dyed pitch black to match. Melody remembered the mess they’d made in the bathroom to get that hair color. Jennifer Parker. Finally, after all these years.

Dansburg was a nothing town, had been less than nothing twenty years ago when Jennifer Parker went missing. No stoplight. No high school. No industry. There had been thirty-six people in their graduating class. That’s thirty-six high school seniors in the whole county, not counting Jennifer.

Dansburg had three claims to fame: the meth the Gale family made was pretty good, the guys working the line at John Deere third shift swore by it anyway; once every ten years or so, there would be a catastrophic five-hundred year flood on the Mississippi and the whole damn town, except for the people rich enough to live up on the bluff, would be under water and the Corps would always have some dumb answer for how the town could get a five-hundred year flood every ten years, “just a bad streak;” and Kevin McDonald, now the huge recording artist/record producer/fashion impresario KMD, grew up three houses down from Melody, four blocks over from Jennifer.

People in town scorned him for not admitting he was from Dansburg. In interviews, he always said he was from the Quad Cities. And people in town blamed him for Jennifer’s death. There was, of course, the song. His song. His one mention of the town that wanted to claim and condemn him. Seven weeks at number one. “The Dansburg Girl.” NPR called it “A murder ballad with a heart. A genius retooling and indictment of one of the darker sides of popular music.” Melody never believed it was an artistic reaction to murder ballads. She thought it was his confession. “Pushed her down in the mud to drown.”

But you can’t put anything in the Mississippi and expect the river won’t vomit it back up eventually.

Still, when faced with a twenty-year-old corpse that shows no sign of rot, you’re faced with certain truths. Jennifer had not been in the river this whole time. Melody was struck with uncertainty about who had murdered Jennifer, but she felt sure in her bones that the only way what she was seeing was possible was if someone had kept her in a freezer chest all these years, tucked away between the yearly deer and the five-for-twenty beef specials.

Kevin McDonald’s family didn’t have a deep freezer.

Later, as the dawn clawed its way across the dark sky, Melody took two shots of whiskey to steady her nerves and then dialed the last number she had for Kevin McDonald. To her shock, he answered. He sounded groggy, half asleep.


“Kev,” she said. She stopped. She had no idea what she wanted to say to him.

“Melody?” He asked, his voice scratchy and hesitant.

“Jennifer’s dead,” she said and then she coughed and shook her head. “No, I mean, they’re going to find her body this morning. Of course she’s dead.” Melody started to cry. She hadn’t realized how much she had held out some slim slice of hope that Jennifer was still alive, that she’d run off with a band or escaped to her cousin in St. Louis, that she’d changed her name and might be out there, somewhere, living some ordinary life and that, some day, Melody might turn down an aisle at a Walmart or come out of a McDonald’s or sit down in a Starbucks and there she’d be, her old best friend, fat and happy and alive. “Who did it?”

“You think I know?” Kevin asked. His voice was resigned, flat. Finally, after all this time, someone had asked him the right question about Jennifer, about that song.

“Yes,” Melody said.

“You know there’s no justice in Dansburg, right?” He asked. “I will tell you the truth, but you have to promise me first that you know how it is.”

Of course she did. The Gale kids sped around town with trunks full of meth. None of them went to jail. The Mexican family that lived down by the liquor store was run out of town five years ago for not being “real Americans.” Dansburg was a corpse of a town. The only thing that still animated it was spite and a kind of corruption you couldn’t get away with in places where people still gave a shit.

“It was Deputy Miller.” He said. “My dad and I both saw it. She was doing something at church with the kids. I don’t remember what, or if I ever knew. But my dad and I were out shooting hoops and she was across the street at the church, making sure everyone was gone and that things were locked up. Deputy Miller came by and he grabbed her and she pulled away. She fell. She hit her head. He put her in the back of his car and told us he was taking her to the hospital. Obviously, that wasn’t true.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“To whom?”

Melody stifled the urge to snidely call him “college boy.”

“We had to live here,” he tried to explain again.

“No, you didn’t,” Melody said. “You left as soon as you could.”

“That’s why!”

Melody still hated him. Twenty years. Wouldn’t she have liked to leave at some point along in there? But, if she had, who would have watched and waited for Jennifer’s return? She felt robbed of that time. He was right, though. That’s what really burned. Who could he have told? Who would have believed him?

But she liked the song now—“The miller was the thief/who stole poor Jenny/shook like a leaf”—could hear it for what it was, an indictment, not a confession.

But Deputy Miller was Sheriff Miller now and the body hung up in the bushes on Jug Island barely made the gossip at the grocery store, let alone the nightly news. No one but Melody, and, by extension, Kevin, knew it was Jennifer’s body. Melody waited for Jennifer’s parents to call her with the news. They never did. The body sat in the morgue as a Jane Doe, though Melody knew, in her bones, that anyone who saw her, who had known her when she was alive, would have recognized her.

So, what do you do for your old, dead, best friend when the world is ready to forget about her? When justice can’t be done because the Sheriff is the bad guy?

Melody’s heart softened a tiny bit toward Kevin. She went up in her attic and found her old guitar. She hadn’t touched it since Kevin left town, but somehow the strings were still okay. She tuned and strummed. Then she sat down in front of the camera on her computer and sang “The Dansburg Girl.” She uploaded it to YouTube.

The next day, she went and got herself new strings and a better microphone. She sang the song again and uploaded it again to YouTube.

Two and a half months later, Kevin called her and asked her to stop, that it was upsetting his record company.

“Sue me,” she said. “You already got the good life, though, so I don’t know what more you think you can get.”

He didn’t call again.

Four months of recording that song, uploading it to YouTube, each version slightly different than the last, some slower, some faster, some as sad ballad, some as loud protest. Jennifer had been here. Now she was not. How ordinary. How terrible. Every night, as they say, three chords and the truth.

Then, a new comment on one of her videos. “The Pollys have heard your cries and they will answer.”

It wasn’t even the weirdest thing that someone had written beneath her performances, but she shivered when she read it.

That promised answer was swift and dramatic. That weekend, a thousand women arrived in Dansburg, some three to five in a car. The town was too small to hold all of the cars, but the women parked in every parking spot, along every street, down all of the country lanes that led to town. They dressed all in white, except for their work boots, which were brown or black or tan or pink, depending. Some carried shovels.

Some carried sledgehammers.

They gathered in front of the church, the last place Jennifer had been seen and everyone in town came out to see them, two women in white for every person in Dansburg. Melody hung back, at the edge of the crowd.

She had brought them here.

The women began to walk east out of town, toward the cemetery. At first, they were silent. The sound was the soft shuffling of their feet on the asphalt. And then they began to sing Kevin’s…no, Jennifer’s song. There were so many women that, from where Melody stood, the song sounded like a round—the women already farther east way ahead of where the women still at the church were.

They poured into the cemetery, filled it with no room for anyone else, and the townspeople stood outside the iron gate, watching as the shovels shook the ground. That unmarked grave for that unclaimed girl, that poor Jane Doe found tangled in the bushes, split open under the efforts of the women. Still, they sang.

They were so loud that the sirens on the cop cars were impossible to hear until they were right at the cemetery. Sheriff Miller burst from his seat. Melody could see he was shouting to the deputies, but, in the whole county, there were six officers of the law. Six men against a thousand women.

Melody laughed. Where, even, could he put them if he did arrest them? How would he arrest them? Were there a thousand handcuffs in the Quad Cities, let alone here? The men struggled to break into the crowd, to thrust their way into the cemetery, but the grave was open.

The smell. Oh, god, the smell. Everyone recoiled. But the women redoubled their singing. And then, up over their heads, they held Jennifer. The women poured back out of the cemetery, rushed down the lane toward the river. They formed a long line, two across, and they passed her between them, this poor long-dead girl.

Everyone in town saw that body.

A woman from the white-dressed group finally spoke as the body made its way toward the levee.

“Who will speak for this girl? Who will name her?”

Melody heard a gasping, choking cry. Jennifer’s mother. She waited, but the old woman could not do it.

Okay, then, this one last thing.

“That’s my best friend, Jennifer,” Melody said. “I would recognize her anywhere.”

“And do you know what happened to her?” The woman asked.

Here was the moment. Finally. No oblique song lyrics. No hidden conjecture. Just the truth. There was a girl who was deeply loved and this man, this man, Melody began to cry, took her from us. She couldn’t say it out loud. Her voice betrayed her. She pointed.

She pointed at the Sheriff.

“Did you do this?” The woman asked him. He nodded, very slowly, almost imperceptibly, and Melody saw that he was frightened, but also relieved. Finally, the truth is out.

They set Jennifer’s body gently on the levee and then the women, these Pollys, all one thousand of them, swarmed the Sheriff. They kicked him and hit him and tore him limb from limb. Still, still they sang.

They sang and their voices carried over his screams. They sang and their voices carried over the cries of the crowd. They sang and their voices carried over the gut-wracking sobs of Jennifer’s family. They sang. They sang. Oh, they sang.

When they were done, there was nothing left of him, except his blood soaked into the white clothing of the Pollys who had been close enough to kill him.

The blood-stained Pollys climbed up on the levee and stripped themselves naked. They tossed their bloody clothes into the cold, brown water. When they came down the levee, the other women handed them new clothes.

And then, as quickly as they had materialized, they vanished back into their cars and then out of town.

Only then did Melody notice that they had taken Jennifer with them. Rescued her from oblivion in a town determined to forget her. They would remember Jennifer.

Why, Melody wondered, had they not taken her, too?

Smelled Like Rain

This morning, the dog and I walked between bands of rain. So, we stayed dry, but we got all the pleasant smell of showers. With the cloud cover, it was somehow lighter in the back yard. I guess it lets the light from the AT&T building reflect?

Tonight we begin the spooky stories in earnest. Tonight’s is about stubborn Midwesterners, folk singing, and missing girls. Tomorrow night’s is my favorite of the whole bunch.

But, if you need something to carry you through, I wrote about spooky stuff at the State Museum for the Scene this week. I’m really proud of how it turned out, even if it’s sad.

Oh, ha ha, in other news, it’s very clear that the afghan I am working on was not fucking around about you needing two skeins of each yarn. You can only get four squares out of a skein, but you need five. So, I guess I’m going to get my popcorn border after all.

Murder Ballads #1

By the Name of Polly Ann

You want the truth. Just tell you the truth. Connect point a to point b. Cause to outcome.

But the truth cuts a jagged line. You can’t follow it like a well-marked trail. You have to get down in the mud, at eye-level with the sticks and twigs and stones and bones broken in its wake. You have to guess, sometimes, which way the truth went.

All the while, you have to keep in mind that History is a grand conspiracy to keep the truth hidden. To make sure that you may never know what really happened, may never be sure you know what’s really going on.

Delia’s dead. Oomie’s dead. The Girl from Knoxville. The Girl from Wexford. Delilah. Jenny. Mary. Poor Rose Connolly. Poor Ellen Smith. Even Laura Foster. And the nameless ones. All dead. All art.

Here’s how it goes. It sounds like a fairytale, but it isn’t. Women in love. So in love. Women killed—drown, stabbed, pushed out of the way, off cliffs, even. Men singing, singing, singing. “I can’t forget the day I shot that bad bitch down.”

Before she was just a “bad bitch,” she was Little Sadie.

My girl, my girl. Don’t lie to me. Tell me, where did you sleep last night? When King Cudi sings it, do you hear it as a remake of a Nirvana song? Do you know it goes back to Ledbelly? Earlier than that? How long has that girl been in the pines?

There’s a woman in the pines now. That I can promise you. Tall, slender, with the wide shoulders that come from old-fashioned farm work. Her scuffed, brown boots lace way up. Her dress is simple, but sturdy. She carries a nine-pound hammer. And she will find that girl in the pines. Dead or alive. Real or not-real. Fiction or fact.

She will not be forgotten.

Not the girl in the song. Not the woman with the hammer.

That woman, swinging thirty pounds from her hips on down, she had a good man. She knows what it’s like to lose someone and then hear your tragedy in song, like there’s nothing going wrong.

There’s a break in the trees. A break in the clouds. A silver streak of moonlight shines down into the pines. For a moment, you see her, clear as day—the simple braid at the back of her head, the high cheekbones, her eyes so brown they look black, the hammer. His hammer. Her hammer now.

A cloud crosses the moon. You glance away. She’s gone.

In the distance, you hear chanting.

“Polly drove steel like a man.”

“No, no. Ain’t no man drives steel like John Henry can.”

“Polly drove steel like her man. Yes. Lord.”

“Polly drove steel like her man.”

That’s the direction the truth seems to lead, toward that chanting, deeper into the pines. That’s the way you head.

Tomorrow is Clear Over There!

If I hadn’t chosen to half-ass it in the Halloween department this year, we would already be having stories, but no! You have to wait until tomorrow night.

But you can read old spooky things at the Oooo. Spooky! hashtag. And then tomorrow we will start our journey through a strange cult and old-timey music together. Did I mention this year has a soundtrack? This year has a soundtrack.

Moon Shadow

The back light is out so the dog and I had to stumble together toward the far end of the back yard in the dark. There’s a point when you get just past the first stand of trees, near the creek, when the sky opens up. I had been struggling to try to find the path between the last trees and the old barbecue pit, willing my eyes to adjust to the dark, when I came into the clear spot and I saw something moving on the ground.

How could I see anything moving on the ground in this darkness? And then I realized that soft gray thing moving on the ground was me–my shadow. I looked up behind me and the moon was a smile in the sky. I don’t know if it’s that it’s so clear or so not humid, but it didn’t seem like enough of a moon to cast a shadow and yet, there it was.

I cast a lot of shadows in the dark, in the mornings. The AT&T building is well-lit. The street lights along Lloyd are bright. And I’m sure I must have cast shadows by moonlight before. I was a child outside of the city, after all. But this felt like the first time I ever realized how soft and mysterious a shadow cast by moonlight is. A thing that seems like a secret you and the moon share.

The dog must also have had a shadow, but he is such a bright yellow in the moonlight that, when I looked at him, reflecting the light the moon reflected from the sun, all I could see was brightness. I wonder if I had looked behind me when he stood near me, if I would have seen an even fainter shadow of me?

The Greyhound is Not a Metaphor

This morning when I was walking the dog, a greyhound came sprinting across the way, headed toward the AT&T building. Sprinting is probably the wrong word. It wasn’t running down anything. It wasn’t the fastest it could run. It was a joyful trot. Legs in loping mode, not in sprinting mode. It still took me a second to make sense of what I was seeing, it was moving so fast. I have an unnaturally happy dog, so I wouldn’t say that greyhound was the happiest dog I’ve ever seen, but it was in its bliss. It was doing exactly the thing it was happiest doing and I thought, “That dog’s never going home. It’s going to run west forever.” And I was a little jealous of it.

I finished and washed the peacock afghan. I did one of the squares for the new afghan. I am already in love with the square and super pissed that the pattern insists I need two skeins of yarn in each color. I have a deep suspicion that it means you can work up the squares all in one skein and then you need another whole skein for the border, which…just… no. Maybe just take it easy on the border rather than ask me to buy six extra skeins of yarn to pull it off.Plus, when you have a border as beautiful as the one on that square, why are you going to fuck with that?

Mark my words, gentle readers, I will put that border on the whole damn afghan rather than buy six more skeins of yarn for some bullshit popcorn stitch nonsense.

The Last Debate

At this point, I am left feeling like I get why people can’t vote for Clinton. But my god, I don’t understand who is left who can vote for Trump. It boggles my mind. It requires such self-delusion and an utter unwillingness to engage with reality. I mean, he can’t even speak in full, coherent sentences. Forget who he’s running against, just the fact that he’s running makes me feel like our country is off the rails.

But one thing I noticed is that he did appear to be trying to make the arguments liberals usually have the most trouble refuting. I think he did kind of prepare for this debate. But the trouble with him is that, I think, someone gave him that list of arguments and he studied them, but he doesn’t understand why they’re compelling. He’s just been told they’re compelling and he believes it.

As terrifying as this is, in a lot of ways it kind of reminds me of Campfield (and maybe Durham), where it’s easy to imagine how unstoppable they’d be if they could just hold their shit together, but we really dodged a bullet because they couldn’t hold their shit together.

But, and I guess this is obvious, someone with these same ideas is going to figure out how to appear smart and thoughtful and not dangerous. If these are test runs for how to popularize and normalize this stuff, well, this test run is really close to winning the White House.

Doing What I’m Doing

I’m just about done with the peacock afghan. I’m really depending on one annoying thing shaping up in the wash, but we shall see.

I got my story done and sent off–the fiction one–and my other story done and sent off–my non-fiction one. I went to Tractor Supply. I got my hair cut.

It’s been a pretty jam-packed couple of days.

A while back a pretty well-known author announced she was going to be writing a short story a month and then she was kind of shocked when one of them was rejected because apparently she’d never been rejected before. And I’ll admit, in my pettier moments, that I have laughed at this long and hard because, whoa boy, the people who will dole out writing advice without first having subjected themselves to the hard parts of writing.

But I have been a little jealous of her determination. I haven’t sold anything this year. Which means I, as of yet, have nothing coming out next year. Along with the submitting and being rejected, there’s a lot of waiting. A drawback to failed novel (though I’m not ready to call Ashland failed, but I have also failed as of yet to place it) writing is that writing a novel takes a lot of time and concentration and when you’re doing that, you’re obviously not writing short stories. And when you’re not writing short stories, you have nothing to put in the pipeline.

Most of the stories I wrote this year are going to run right here at the end of October. Is that a wise publishing strategy? I don’t fucking know.

But I’ll tell you what. I love it. It’s literally one of my favorite things that I do all year–tell you stories for Halloween.

So, you know, you have to strive and struggle in some ways, but in other ways, fuck it. Do what you love in a way that brings you happiness.

Swept Away

Oh god, my fireplace and chimney need $2500 worth of work to make it safe to use. So, I guess I’m not going to sit in front of it in October. I’m going to spend the money to get it fixed, though, because I bought this house because it had a working fireplace and I would like a working fireplace.

We watch a lot of Adam Ruins Everything and last night he had one on real estate and he came down on the side of renting being a better option than buying for most people (though, in fairness, he also covered how the Airb&b business is making renting harder for people). And I think that’s not quite right. It’s just a different option. The price I pay a month has gone up in the couple of tax assessments we’ve had, but never by the amount a month my rent regularly increased. And there’s simply nowhere left in Nashville where I could have this amount of space for this amount of money a month.

You do also dump a lot of money into repairs. I’m going to dump a lot of money into the fireplace. I dumped a lot of money into plumbing. There’s always something big that needs to be done.

I guess it’s partially because I think a lot about the logistics of writing, but I feel like what we all want is a right way to do things, clear cut solutions to murky problems. Rent, don’t buy. Buy, don’t rent. Self-publish. Get an agent. Etc. Etc.

The way is never that clear. The right thing not always obvious. The world looks different to each of us depending on where we stand.

I read this terrific story over at Strange Horizons. And then I read this review of the story which was positive, but reads the story entirely differently than I do. Like, wow, that’s not how I read it.

If you want to discuss cocktapusses, please skip straight to the comments now. If you want to discuss the story, I’ll make my points below:

The witch cursed the dude because he’s an abusive ass. His abusive ass-ness therefore did not end when the curse was broken, because that’s just who he is–that monster. Loving him brings a different curse on the women who do it. Therefore, the way to break the curse, the current curse he’s causing, is to stop loving him. That’s what she comes to understand–he’s no longer cursed, she is. So the witch can’t lift her curse on him; she can only help the woman realize how to lift the curse on her.

The witch clearly used to be the monster’s lover. That’s the parallel with them both having a collection of knives. We’re supposed to link them together. And that’s her good reason for cursing him in the first place–he did her wrong, so she cursed him to show outwardly what he is inwardly.

The witch isn’t promising the woman a life of ex-lovers. She’s saying, “If you break this curse, you may be on your way to becoming like me, a witch.”

Fun Work Day

The Butcher did have to work after all, but he took the dog to the park so I could sleep in and, since the dog is now sleeping his walk off, I’m going to get some writing done.

And put on some pants.

And get our chimney swept. I really want to spend my nine nights this year in front of the fireplace, at least, some of them.

Peopled Out

The Butcher also has tomorrow off and though he’s excited about the two of us hanging out, I’m like “Noo, I had two days of alone time planned!” It will also be nice, but I am not an extrovert. I’m just a very enthusiastic introvert.

It was lovely to see everyone, though. And lovely to sit out in the sunshine all day for two days.

I’ll probably have thoughts when I can think again, but my brain is a little fried.

Weekend Outside

It’s the Southern Festival of Books this weekend. Yesterday was a washout due to the rain, but today should be nice and tomorrow glorious.

I hope to see tons of people I know and to think a lot about books.

Luke Cage

We finished Luke Cage, which we both loved. Like all the Netflix Marvel stuff, I ended up feeling like it would have been better if it were ten episodes instead of twelve or thirteen or whatever it was.

I remain very tickled at the normalization of the mad scientist. I love that… oh wait… I guess SPOILERS

I love that the driving force behind the drama was that Luke Cage is a minister’s kid! Ha ha ha. That made me happy. I loved Shades and I was so relieved that he lived. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is about his character that I found so enjoyable, but I think it’s clearly that he’s a smart badass who is likes seeing women succeed. Like Luke Cage is all “I’m flirting with you by telling you you’re old” and Shades is all “I’m flirting with you by helping you cover up this murder and telling you you can achieve your goals and more.”

Like, seriously, who do you want to flirt with? Clearly, clearly it’s the guy who’s all “You are amazing” not the guy who’s all “you’re a little mature to be here, aren’t you?”

I can’t decide if the flashbacks went on too long or if they were just awkwardly done, but for me, they were the weak point of the series. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but only rarely did they tell me something that the subtext of the show didn’t already make quite clear and they seemed to drag on way too long.

But I was really glad to get to see Mabel in the flesh and I would have liked to have seen more of her. So, take that for what it’s worth.

And the music is amazing.

Get Through

I’m not saying that I’ve been mildly depressed for much of 2016, but I have realized how much I’ve told myself, just put your head down and get through this. Enough to have realized that you keep your head down because if you look up and see how much more terrible stuff there is to go, you will die of despair.

But what can you do? Such is life.

I find this political season utterly depressing. I’m not in love with Hillary for reasons that only matter if both major political parties are even semi-committed to trying to come vaguely close to appearing like they took Civics and understand our political system. But when it’s “experienced politician with whom I have some fundamental disagreements and, oh, by the way, dynasties are bad for a democracy” vs. “It’d be fun to be a strongman and jail my enemies and appoint a goat to the Supreme Court and run this country like a flamboyant dictatorship,” well, you have to go with the person who’s not trying to set himself up like a super villain.

We’re coming way too close to electing a terrible second-rate super villain.


I think I burst a cyst yesterday. I felt kind of weird most of the day and then I had this pain that was like a menstrual cramp but in the wrong spot and there was blood, though, mostly just clear liquid, like runny egg yolks.

Then all evening my side was sore. Even this morning, it feels bruised, but in a smaller, tighter spot.

I tried to work on my museum piece for the Scene that’s due next week. It went like hell. Not hell. But heck. I’m glad to have something down on paper, even if it’s shit.

My parents called, too, in the middle of it and I think a thing I have failed to realize about this all until just yesterday, because my dad is always threatening to die like in the next four seconds, is that my dad is terrified of ending up like my grandmothers–wanting to die and not being able to. His threat to die immediately isn’t wishful thinking for a worst case scenario, as I thought. What my grandma now, what his mom before, went through is his worst case scenario.

I have mixed feelings about assisted suicide. I am terrified that the abuses of it would be monstrous. But with my whole heart, I wish that my grandma could just decide enough is enough and know she had a painless way to opt out when she felt the time had come.

I don’t think life has any meaning beyond what we’re able to cultivate for ourselves. You look at all this shit and you think it must happen FOR A REASON, but it just happens for reasons, many of them stupid.

A lot of the reasons being that we’re just fragile, ill-designed sacks of blood and puss and poop and eventually the garbage bag gives out. Everything you can do to transcend the stupidity of our fundamental human state, to make it more than just sacks of shit sloshing around being jerks to each other, is important, I think.


The thing that most depresses me about this political season aside from the fact that I’m voting with enthusiasm for a candidate I have historically felt little enthusiasm for because the alternative is the end of the Republic as we know it is that we’re now talking about rape and sexual assault and sexual harassment in ways that make me so painfully aware of just how many people don’t realize how ubiquitous the problem is.

Folks, it so many people you might as well round it to everyone. Every woman I know has been fucked with. Every single one. I don’t know how you might frame the question to get an honest poll answer, but something like “Has anyone ever deliberately touched you in a spot normally covered by underwear without your permission?” And I suspect that, if you could get men to feel safe answering the question, most of them would also answer yes.

And listen, the internet is full of this impulse to believe that, if only you told your story in the perfect way, you could get people to listen and believe and understand you, to change so that they didn’t hurt anyone the way you were hurt. And I’m here to tell you that isn’t always true. In fact, it’s often not true.

This is to say that you don’t need to share with me. I don’t often feel like sharing much with the internet anymore myself, because I just imagine the people who get off on suffering reading it and getting off on it.

But I still think a lot about the boy who grabbed me by the pussy. It was a tiny bit traumatic for me. I don’t want to downplay that. But it was more existentially confusing. Like, he seemed to think it would do something or cause something to happen if he did this, but he didn’t know what. And I also was too young to know what he was doing or why he was doing it. I just remember the uncertain smile. I have never forgotten that. I have often wondered what happened to him or what he saw in his life that brought him to do that to me in the hallway.

We were in second grade. I have been thinking of that, on and off, for almost forty years. I wonder if he thinks of it at all. Probably not.

The Peacock Afghan Comes Together


The brownish green in this picture is not actually that brown in real life. My iPhone is trying to make an adjustment that doesn’t need to be made, but at least this way you can see how the bright green is a nice subtle accent now. I’m super pleased with how this is going.

Oh man!

I forgot to say, we do have Halloween plans! Not a lot because I’ve been busy moping around and having a strange summer and failing to sell this novel. But yes, something will be going on at the end of the month, in the penumbra of Halloween. We’ll have a short series of linked short stories (with music! which I’m really excited about) and one non-linked interlude long short story about a god, a preacher, and some baby-punching bikers.

Good times. I forget when it’s scheduled to start. The 25th or the 26th. But it is happening and some of them are good.

Answers to Questions

I’ve spent all week trying to track down what in the house stinks so bad. It just jumped up on the couch with me. Mr. “I roll in dead things!”

I was pondering my decision a few years ago to switch to wearing sneakers to the Southern Festival of Books and I realized after the Best of Nashville party last night, it’s because I have no dress shoes I can stand in for any length of time and not want to die.

This morning’s walk was, then, glorious. Put on normal shoes. Walk and feel everything that had been clenched slowly unclenching. Watch the dog find the very last remnants of the dead armadillo. Scream as he attempts to make one last roll in the carcass.

I think one of the reasons that death is so upsetting is that we do have, observably and obviously, some animating force, something that separates “alive” from “not alive.” But when you’re forced to look at dead things, the thing you realize is that the line isn’t all that clear. Certainly at this point, the armadillo is as dead as dead.

But what is that animating force? Is it just an illusion of firing nerves that dissipates when those nerves no longer fire? If so, is that why we can luck out and sometimes restart life when it seems to have ended? Is this why people’s personalities can change so much due to stress or accident or medical incident, because, ultimately, there is no core person there, just this hallucination of consciousness?

But if we are just a storm of electrical impulses, why? Certainly, a lot of this stuff would be easier if hearts never broke, if you never felt compelled to give a shit. The person who doesn’t suffer must have an evolutionary advantage over those of us who cry a lot. And yet, the criers have won, have persisted the most. Judging by our numbers, there must be some advantage to being aware, even if being aware is being sad. At least some of the time.

The thing is that it’s not really that clear, just based on observation, when life ends. Not that I’ve seen it intimately that often, but, with Sadie, the moment after she died was a lot clearer than the moment she died. Death, it seems, is something you can’t say for sure has happened until it’s already a little bit in the past. It must, then, be a thin line, one you don’t see so much as you see its wake. So to speak.

One minute, no, second, things are working–even if incredibly poorly–and then they are not. One minute your body is fighting off rot and the next it’s not.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this. I just look at that armadillo every morning and it blows my mind to have watched it go from something that looked no different than a live armadillo to now a claw and the curve of its armor. And on the one hand “how” is a simple question. Crows and buzzards. But on the other hand, I have no good answer. Nothing satisfying anyway.