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.

Whoa.

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.

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7 thoughts on “Murder Ballad#5

  1. Also, that song made my cats’ ears stand up.

    He didn’t quit purring, though. That seems significant.

  2. Dammit. You keep one-upping the awesome. (One of my cats, the big black Maine Coon, puffed up like he saw the ghost himself when I played the song. The little black cat, named for the Finnish queen of the dead, didn’t even twitch an ear.)

  3. I’m glad you guys are liking the songs. I wasn’t sure how that would work, but I enjoyed the idea of thinking of it as a way to ease in and out of the stories. And, god, yes, that Levi Lowery song is so awesome. How is that not on every radio station today?!

  4. Okay, the Polly Anns are getting a little too close to me. For the ‘Annual Halloween Party’ I dressed as a mechanic, coveralls with the sleeves tied at the waist, t-shirt with rolled up sleeves and a bandanna. When I looked in the mirror there was this spare, stark, getting wrinkled, mid 50’s woman. My thought was “I look like a Polly Ann” which is kind of satisfying.

    And now I’ve just listened to the Springsteen song and she has red hair-so do I. It gave me goosebumps. (But I don’t think I could swing a hammer as well as John Henry. I have to pace myself using a 7 lb. split maul for firewood or I’ll mess up my shoulders.)

    So bonus marks on the creepy for me this year!

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