The shadows’ blatant disrespect for light nauseated Spencer Holliman to a point of speechlessness. But stronger than his outraged sense of logic was the fear that had grappled about the veins leading to his heart and that threatened, like iron hooks on a giant brick wall, to tear everything down.
He had spotted the first shadow when it was no larger than a mouse, crouched along the south wall facing his king-sized bed. Immediately he had switched on the three floodlights installed above the bed. Though the shadow had disappeared for several seconds, it had, to his dread, suddenly returned with several friends as large as cats, rapidly growing until they were as huge as bears, elephants, stepping away from the wall and reaching for him.
“JESUP! JESUP! They’re back! They’re back Jesup, don’t let them take me pleeease!”
One freezing tentacle of black lightning nearly lashed his face when he threw his lunch tray at it. At the turn of the crystal knob on the bedroom door, the shadows zipped back behind the planes of light and corners of the walls from which they’d come. As he stepped into the room, Jesup’s eyes fell first on the crescent roll at his feet, then skipped to an engraved silver fork, a shattered tea cup, saucer, soup spilled on satin sheets and on up to the slight trembling form of his employer. Shielding his eyes against the hot glare of the flood lights, Jesup looked about the room before calling out, “Mr. Holliman sir, I’m here.”
Spencer slowly lifted his face from the crater he’d carved into the pillow. He looked from Jesup’s face, quickly beading with perspiration, to the walls and ceiling. Seeing only the expanses of white throughout the room--he’d had all furniture save the bed and two night tables removed-- he sank back against the pillows, sighing heavily.
He feebly held forth one wrinkled arm sheathed in silk. Jesup walked quickly to the bed, retrieved a stethoscope and blood pressure gauge from the night stand, took the appropriate readings and reported them to Spencer.
“Very well, good, thank you. Thank you. Did you see them this time Jesup?”
“Just barely sir. As I opened the door, a pack of them seemed to dive behind it, then somehow disappear.”
Spencer nodded eagerly at this corroboration of his ordeal, then stopped, uncertain as always during those rare times that Jesup agreed with him. Was that a smirk threatening to crack the straight humorless line of Jesup’s mouth?
“But they’re gone now sir. And I do have to admit my surprise at their presence in the middle of the day when the sun is at its brightest.”
He switched off the floodlights and the brilliance in the room did, indeed, dwindle only a little. The sarcasm in his voice, italicized by the brutal click of the light switch, was this time unmistakable. Spencer’s eyes shot a hundred arrows of disgust at the servant but quickly called each of them back, stacked them on a low flame of mortification and let them burn.
Before Jesup could offer his assistance, Spencer slid to the other side of the bed and wormed his way into the wheelchair. His silence formed the order for Jesup to clean up the spilled lunch tray as he pressed a button on the arm of the chair and steered himself out onto the bedroom balcony.
What he needed was pure undiluted sunlight, oceans and oceans of it to bathe each of his cells, to wash his thoughts and memories and blood, to create for him an entirely new existence. He licked his lips at the thought that his desire was more than a fanciful piece of poetry.
As he looked out over the greenery of his estate, the pink and white blooming dogwoods, lavender azaleas and beds of green-white cabbage flowers, a suffusion of bird songs reminded him that he was still alive. There was still time to fight and it just could be --it just could be-- that a new miraculous weapon had been added to his arsenal without his knowing it. His gaze fell on the lush white blossoms of the magnolia tree directly beside the balcony. A smile struggled to pry his lips apart but he fought the urge lest it should prove premature.
He breathed in the gentle syrupy aroma of the tree, the fragrance filling his head like the milk-white light of a blessing. Since the tree had been planted twenty years before, it had sprouted from time to time a new branch or cluster of leaves but had not once blossomed. It had been planted as an anniversary present to his wife, the same year that one of them had given the other that slight discomfort, the souvenir of a summer spent too carelessly. Until a few days ago it had been his intention to have the thing removed, believing it possibly harbored those disgusting shadows that invaded his room. The blossoms, however, did away with that particular theory. Was it just a fluke or had the walls of his jail cracked at last? He had yet to meet the man responsible for the tree’s resurrection of life and beauty.
Turning in his chair, he called out to Jesup, “Is the new man still on staff? The gardener. I never see him working.”
Jesup, holding the silver tray in one thick hand, walked over to the open glass doors. “He says he prefers to work at night sir. As yet, I’ve found no reason to refuse that request.”
“I see, I see. And he has said nothing to you about how he got Amy’s magnolia to bloom? Nothing about his, er, methods?”
“No sir, but I must say he is a lot more effective than the last man. The pink and yellow roses along the front gates have never looked more vibrant, more alive with color.”
“More ‘alive’ you say? And where will he be working tonight?”
“Somewhere near the house sir. Following your instructions, I had him first tend to the borders of the estate then to those areas immediately surrounding the house.”
With Jesup’s departure, the smile that had been struggling to escape suddenly burst upon Spencer’s face as wide and glowing as the blossoms below him. He covered his mouth as he tried to slow the beating of his heart.
Hewman Thorndeaux woke up crying and coughing. He had been dreaming a dream which was more than a dream. In it, he’d seen an old-- No! He didn’t want to remember what he’d seen. He quickly focused his attention on his physical surroundings, squeezing the couch on which he’d been sleeping, groping with his vision at the tiny square dining table, the radio on the table, the chair, hotplate and refrigerator. Where was he, what city, state, jail, year, month? Memory came to him slowly, pushing to the back of his skull the tattered remains of his dream. He was working for a rich man, taking care of his plants while living in this little two-room toy house, not far from the larger real house. He recalled several times hearing someone scream during the night and the compulsion to go to him had almost overwhelmed him but the screams had never lasted very long.
Light in the cottage was growing dim. When he looked out the window, he saw that the sun had already crawled below the horizon. The purple-grey sky informed him that it was almost time to start working. He picked up the gin bottle on the floor, held it to his mouth and cursed the dryness that scratched his lips. It was just as well. Better in fact. The alcohol was best when he used it to sleep; while awake, it could prove more treacherous than unexpected lust for an anonymous body.
Three hours later, he was on the east side of the real house running his hands along the heavy withered-looking vines of wisteria intertwined with a huge lattice of wood shaped like a Spanish fan. Back and forth he walked along the vines, softly whispering, softly weeping, softly floating within the solitary bubble of his flesh.
From the curtained windows of a study, Spencer stared at the tall man pacing back and forth before the vines. He could not see the tiny flickers of light sparkling up and down the vines, nor could he see the shimmering sheet of radiance wrapped about Hewman’s body, but what he could do was feel the hum and flow of a soft alluring spectacular energy.
The bright lights of Spencer’s room did not astound Hewman so much as the figure of the old man himself. Physically, he was not very different from others his age. The wide shoulders indicated he had probably been a large man before the muscles went soft and the green eyes still framed a powerful will but one made less threatening by the nervous twitch leaping from one eye to the other. Spencer dismissed Jesup while Hewman stood wondering why the old man had sent for him.
Yes, thought Spencer, he had heard it was possible --even likely, in fact-- for certain gifts to reside in the forms of those who appeared utterly without value, even as an oyster could be taken for one more crusted seashell if not for the pearl known to rest within.
“Good evening Mr. Thorndeaux. Would you, perhaps, care for a drink?”
Spencer lifted a crystal decanter of brandy from the table beside the bed. The sight of the amber liquid caused a twitch in the lining of Hewman’s mouth. Weakness whined at him to take the liquor but instinct shouted to ignore weakness.
“Thank you...but I still got half the night to work.”
“Yes yes, of course, of course. I should have realized that a man as skilled as yourself didn’t develop such, er, expertise, by drinking on the job. But tell me, where did you learn such mastery over your, ah, craft?”
Hewman shrugged his shoulders and answered, “My father was a farmer. Taught me a lot. Guess I got it from--”
“Talent such as yours is not learned by shoveling shit out of barns Mr. Thorndeaux. Please, you can trust me. Tell me everything!”
A tender prickling rushed beneath Hewman’s skin, squeezed past the pores and danced across the surface. What did this old man know about him? Nothing, nothing, how could he know anything?
“Sir, I don’t think I know what you mean. If you don’t mind, I really ought to get back to work.”
“Mr. Thorndeaux, I am eighty-seven years old!”
The force and exasperation with which he made this announcement caused Hewman to reverse his turn towards the door. “Men of Holliman blood have rarely lived beyond the age of seventy and I am the only one to have lived this long because I have dared to fight for my life. Using every means available I have waged against death a war as determined and hellish as history has ever seen. Only now I feel a very crucial battle slipping from my grasp and I am in need of assistance, assistance which you can provide.”
“I’m not a doctor or a soldier Mr. Holliman.”
“No, you’re something far more precious than either, a clip from an angel’s wing perhaps, a lama returned to flesh as a negro, or a lodestone of white magic wrapped in black human skin.”
“Sir you’re talking cra-”
The swift rush of an entire wall sliding and disappearing inside another wall made Hewman’s head jerk to the right. Turning, he saw the last few feet of the east wall vanish into the floor, revealing a construction of wooden shelves and compartments containing hundreds of books, stacks of magazines, Chinese and African and Mexican figurines, huge pieces of colored rocks and jars holding floating globs in clouded liquid. He stared nearly mesmerized until he heard Spencer yelp and saw him shining a flashlight over the glittering contents on his night table.
The lines of terror slowly dropped from Spencer’s face. He hesitated, clicked off the flashlight, then looked at Hewman and said, “I thought I saw one. There on the table...reaching at me from under that...tray.”
The look of amazement Hewman trained upon him did not penetrate the sheen of horror covering Spencer’s eyes. Finally a flicker of sanity, a glint of calm and focus swam back into his gaze and he spoke, gesturing like a Shakespearean actor towards the wall of objects. He called the odd collection his “arsenal” and said he had begun putting it together after his only brother had died. His brother, he said, had tried to fight death by purchasing a chain of health food stores along with the minds that ran them, by jogging every day and living in the most agreeable climates throughout the year. But none of that had stopped death from dragging him into the grave at the age of fifty-nine. It was then that Spencer decided his own battle for survival would have to be fought differently.
“I sought masters of what some might call the occult. Some bargained away their knowledge; others dismissed me with prayers. London, Paris, Cairo, the backwoods of Georgia and Mississippi, South America--I scoured the globe for those charming things known and unknown to sustain life. It was on such an excursion that I, er, lost my wife. She died in Africa after securing those powders there, the pink and grey ones, from a houganiman near Senegal. And in that also I could see Death’s perverse pleasure at my suffering: delivering me a sword with his own hand. Taunting me, slapping me, goading me to the battle.”
He had become entranced by the turgid flow of his own words, his memories and determination. He leaned wearily to one side of his wheelchair as though in the telling of his struggles he had once more lived through them, exhausting himself in the process. The sound of Hewman’s voice helped to pull him back to the present.
“I’m very sorry to hear about your family’s misfortunes Mr. Holliman. I know what it's like to lose somebody you love. But if you think I know anything about all this stuff you got here, you’re wrong. I’m a gardener. I trim leaves and fertilize roots, that’s all.”
“You also lie very poorly Mr. Thorndeaux. People like you are not designed for lying. You can help me and you will help me because you are obligated to do so.”
“Obligated? By what? By who?”
“By God, Mr. Thorndeaux! By God, Buddha, the Tao, The All That Is, Allah, the Great White Spirit, He Who Sees and Knows All, call him what the hell you will but he has sent you to me for a very definite purpose!”
“So you figure I’m some kind of miracle worker? Some kind of healer just cause I watered some roses? They say stuff like that works if you believe in it. It’s all in the mind.”
“No, the power is in the soul; the mind is but a dim reflection thereof!”
“Then why don’t you use yours? Do whatever you need to for your self?”
“Because I am cut off from it damn you! Don’t you see!? Don’t you see!? The greater part of my life has been spent manipulating and cultivating the coarser elements of existence. My mind cannot release its grip on the material. Nor do I dare to close my eyes for very long in order to ‘seek within.’ And yes, I have stretched forth my hand to absorb the naked substance of vivification but only to draw it back cold and empty. But I have also seen your hands stretch forth and I know that they runneth over as abundantly as David’s cup.”
Hewman looked from Spencer’s pleading eyes to his own thick steady hands, slowly shaking his head. The old man was wrong. It was not him but something near or inside him that chose to affect wonders at times. There came to his mind an image of his Andrena’s body, as lifeless as a rag, draped over his arms as he screamed, cried, prayed, cursed and tried to caress the life back into his wife’s flesh. All to no avail. The old man was making him remember too much. Devoid of alcohol's numbing armor, he felt himself stripped to the raw and pink surface of his most vulnerable nerves. As he floundered within the tide of his own rising confusing emotions, he sensed a sudden flash of panic within the old man.
“Look, I’m sorry Mr. Holliman but you made a mist-”
“DO NOT DENY ME!”
Spencer slammed both fists down on the arm controls of his wheelchair, causing it to jump forward. An abbreviated scream shot from his throat as he slammed backwards. Instinct erased Hewman’s thought to sidestep the missile rushing towards him and he instead grabbed both metal arms, forcing the chair to an abrupt halt. He could not tell if the sudden stop had flung Spencer against him or if he had leapt out of the chair; he knew only that Spencer’s arms had fastened themselves about his neck and the length of his body dangled heavily against his, their faces embracing, their chests, hips and knees meshing.
Breathless and reeling from his scare, Spencer whispered hotly, fiercely, “I’ll put a million dollars, no, five, five, I’ll give you five million dollars if you save me!”
Hewman grabbed at Spencer’s wrists to unlock his grip.
“You can! I can feel the power inside you! I can feel it!”
Spencer summoned strength he had not known he still possessed to tighten his grip about Hewman’s neck and squirmed feverishly against him, looking much like a peculiar breed of dog trying to mount the wrong end of another peculiar pedigree. With a single powerful pull, no longer mindful of whether or not he hurt Spencer, Hewman broke his hold and shoved him back into the chair. He backed away from him, feeling for the door while keeping his gaze on Spencer.
“You can’t keep power like that to yourself! You can’t be that cruel! Damnit, I’m worth a billion dollars! I’ll give you everything! Every fucking dime!”
Hewman ran from the room and did not stop until he had reached his cottage. He scrambled around the room, blindly reaching for things until he realized he did not know what he was doing. He fell on his knees with his forearms slamming against the bed mattress. His fists hammered against the bed, he held his head back and a dragon-roar soared up from his lungs, flames of anguish, sparks of hate and a thick smoke of sorrow clouding the cottage.
Was he so cursed that he could not find one inch of a corner in which to live his life without fate or a man laying claim to his mind’s peace? Cry and I will gouge your eyes out! Try me.
What would he do now? Where would he go? He tried to rise from the floor and a huge boot of weariness came down on his neck. After placing an entire state between him and his last job, how could he have been so careless as to let the old man find out about him? Yet, even as he asked himself this he knew he was not sure what the old man had seen because he was not always consciously aware of when or how those certain energies manifested within himself; he had pretended for too long that they did not exist. Nonetheless, the excuse was a poor one because one thing he had known was that he’d been using minimal manual labor to tend to the estate.
In his mind’s eye he saw the face of the little boy in the last town where he’d worked. He had seen a speeding car strike the boy down and immediately ran to lift the child out of the street. The moment their flesh touched, that vast space inside opened as if of its own accord and he felt the lights and vibrations of his inner self mingling, subsidizing, communing with that of the boy’s, bathing him in what he called the screaming river of his very singular soul. More than a dozen people had watched the boy wake up in his arms and walk away with only a slight limp. Those who had witnessed the occurrence called Hewman everything from a demon sorcerer to a herald of God. He had fled the town before the moon rose.
He saw himself now on a tree swing, breezing back and forth in the middle of a forest, the stricken boy lying across his lap crying. Each time he swung back, the boy’s face would change to Andrena’s, the head would lift up and she’d spit in his face. Above them was a huge burning moon shining down on the spit and tears shimmering upon his face. He then heard a sound as though the largest trees in the forest were all falling towards him, one by one, boom boom boom! Hewman suddenly woke up, wiping frantically at his face. He realized he’d been dreaming but still heard the booming sound from his dream. Where was it--the door. It was coming from the door where someone was outside knocking and calling his name.
As he scrambled to his feet, he tried to guess how long he’d been asleep. It was still dark and it took him several seconds to recognize Jesup when he opened the door.
“I need you to come with me, Hewman. Mr. Holliman has taken a turn for the worse and he’s been asking to see you.”
“I can’t help him.”
“Of course not. But whatever differences you had with the old man won’t matter now. Is it too much for you to humor a dying man his final request? Please go to him while I get Dr. Amis.”
Jesup left before Hewman could respond. The smart thing to do would be to run. No, if the old man really did die they might think he’d had something to with it. As he stepped outside the cottage he did not know what he was going to do until he found himself standing in the lighted doorway of Spencer’s bedroom. His gaze fell first on the wheelchair turned over by the bed, then on Spencer’s long slight form pulling across the carpet, one arm swinging wildly behind him as though fighting off a pack of wild dogs. Spencer looked through the bars of his terror just long enough to see Hewman standing in the door. A pitiful smile trembled behind the pained fear on his face.
“Oh, I knew you would come. I knew you’d come. You see them don’t you, the shadow things, yes, yes, I knew God would send you to save me.”
Hewman did not see any shadows but he felt within the room a strange cool pressure as though the entire area were being pressed under a giant palm of air. He walked over to Spencer and knelt beside him. Spencer clawed his way partly into Hewman’s arms. Hewman placed one huge hand behind the old man’s head to steady its wavering.
“I can’t save you old man.”
“Yes yes you can you can... save me, please, save me...”
He was so hungry for life and Hewman felt so drained of it that he could only cry. He bent his lips to the old man’s forehead and as the two warm surfaces touched he heard himself mumbling something, a prayer or poem or something with which he was completely unfamiliar. It seemed to be coming from the depths of a memory somewhere behind those memories which he knew.
“Yes, see, it’s coming to you. God is doing it for you. Yes yes.”
He felt the old man stirring, then relaxing, a fragile skiff skimming along the waving surface of cadence spilling from his lips.
“Yes Mr. Thorndeaux, you are doing it, I recognize those words. They are from- Wait! Those words! They do not bind souls to the body, they separate--”
His body went suddenly limp in Hewman’s arms and a soft hissing rose from the back of his skull, then was silent. The pressure in the room increased even more until Hewman thought it would crush him against the floor when suddenly it dissipated completely. Off in some distance beyond physical boundaries he heard the old man still ranting and raving. Mixing into the sound came a lullaby draped in Andrena’s voice. The old man’s tirade changed to an expression of surprise, then one of laughter as Andrena’s lullaby continued to flow. On his knees in that strange room flooded with the brilliance of a thousand dying stars, Hewman pulled the old man’s empty body more fully into his arms, rocking him gently, rocking him slowly.