Joby was drunker’n a skunk. He stood out in the front yard, swaying like a willow in a spring breeze, a bottle in one hand and a Bowie knife as long as his forearm in the other.
“Allie! Allie Fine! You come on out here now!”
Nothing like hearing a drunkard bellow out your name to make you want to run out the back door. But she didn’t. He’d just stand there all day, a lost calf waiting to be found. She could leave for a week and come home to find him passed out on the steps. That’s Joby. None too bright, but once he gets a notion in his head he hangs on to it. Wasn’t the first time he come to her like this.
He reeled back and nearly fell over when she stepped out the front door. “I knew you was in there.”
“Where’d you get that black eye, Joby?” Allie knew where, but Joby talking is safer than Joby quiet.
He pressed on his sweaty forehead with the flat of the knife and winced. “He’s a coward and a thief. I want him paid for this.”
“You eat something you’ll feel better. Here you go.” She put the pan with a chunk of cornbread in it on the lip of the porch. “I’m going in now. You can sleep it off in the shed if you want.”
“You stay right there!” Joby could move fast and being drunk didn’t slow him down much, just meant his aim was careless. She held still, the blade of the knife two feet from her belly. He flicked it toward the rocking chair. “You set down. There.”
She sat. Joby came up on the porch and placsed the bottle and the knife down on the bottom of the metal washtub overturned for a table. Out of his pocket, he pulled a narrow hank of stripey cloth tied in a bundle and unwrapped it, laying a brown crust of something on the metal.
“This here is a piece of chaw he spit out. Dried now. They say that’s real strong.” Joby lay the stripey cloth down too. “Wiped his sweat on this sleeve here. You can do something with this.”
“What’s Wyatt done now?” she asked.
“Acts like he’s lord of all things!” Joby slammed his fist on the washtub. “Says I can’t work in the shop no more.”
“He’s said that before. You sober up, he’ll take you back.”
“The world don’t belong to him! He don’t get to say everything!”
“The shop is his.”
“It don’t have to be. You help me, I’ll pay you.”
Allie shook her head.
“I’ll give you all the likker you like.” He held out the bottle; the white liquor inside was scummy and clouded. Joby’s home brew.
“No, thank you, I don’t need it.”
“I give you anything you want.” Joby hesitated, then looked at her slyly. “You do this for me, I’ll even marry you.”
That caught her off guard and she laughed. To think of marrying Joby, who spent most days cooking up shine so foul it’d scald the skin off a cat and most nights sleeping in a privy, smelling of vomit. Well. Maybe an old woman like Allie couldn’t do any better, but she sure as sweet Jesus couldn’t do worse.
“Who says I need a husband?”
“Everybody. Everybody in town. And you know you cain’t get one any other way with that curse of yours.” He pointed toward her feet and before she could stop herself, her boot shifted under her skirt.
An old reflex, hiding the Devil’s foot. She saw them watching her when she walked to the store, giving the sign against the evil eye behind her back, crossing themselves or crossing the street to avoid her. The limp gave her away. Reminded them she is marked and different in a way no healing salve or special shoe or reluctant husband can help.
“I don’t care what they say, Joby. I ain’t looking for a husband. Ain’t nothing I can do for you.”
“You cast me a spell! You do it!” Joby whined, looking like a kid about to bust out crying. “You tell me why you cain’t.”
“I told you before. I tell you again but you ain’t gonna remember it you’re so drunk. Cain’t work a blood spell. Not for you, not for nobody.”
“Won’t work it, you mean.” He grabbed the cornbread and started chewing on it.
“You best thank your stars I won’t. A man asks a spell ‘gainst his brother, his own flesh and blood, he can count on that thing turning someways and hurting him. Everything in this world got a cost to it, Joby, and this one you won’t want to pay.”
Joby’s hatred for his brother was old and strong. Some days he said it was for a girl he liked who drowned herself when Joby’s brother used her and left her. Some days it was all about the shop his brother inherited from their uncle. But Allie thought the main part was the hatred of the small boy against the bigger one, the weak boy against the stronger one, the unlucky boy against the one so blessed he got more than he deserved. Or so it seemed to Joby.
I know how he feels, Allie thought. She was the lesser one of two, herself.
“You got to give this up, Joby. You go get some rest and then think about getting out of Cooperton.”
He looked at her, confused, cornbread crumbs filling his sparse beard. “And go whar?”
“Anywhere you want to. You go find yourself a blacksmith in Asheville or maybe over the mountains to Knoxville. Somebody needing an apprentice.”
Joby looked down at his shaky hands. Allie wondered if he was thinking back to before the likker got him, back when he’d known how to bend iron and shape a plow share or an axe head. Not as well as his brother, but good enough to get a job somewhere. Somewhere far from Cooperton, where he’d never be anything but a drunk and she’d always be a strange lonely woman to pity and fear, where there was no getting away from the fate you were born to, not as long as there were people to remember and tell your story for you.
“You decide where and I’ll work you a spell for good fortune and a good job and a sweet girl to love you. Go on, Joby. You dream of where you want to go and then come tell me. But you got to go now. I got things to do.”
Allie handed Joby his jug and knife and watched him stagger off down the road. He’d be back. Next month or the month after, drunk and raging, with a fresh reason to want his brother dead.
Lord, this is a hard world. She looked at the things Joby had left on the washtub. Was there power here in these bits and pieces? Was there power in her? Meemaw always said so, as she taught her the old ways, where to go to pull magic up out of stones and lightning down out of the sky.
But Allie knew the sharp, flinty truth of it. You can’t never tell if a spell will work. Or know why if it does. You can cast it, the way you cast seeds into a furrow. Whisper over it, beg it to grow and burgeon into the thing desired. But if it was her voice that called it into being or some pure flowing luck or just the desperate tearful wishes of the one she cast for, she couldn’t know. It does what it does, comes up cash crop or wild weed or nothing but barren soil. She whispered the words. She waited and watched. But never truly knew what part she played in it.
That’s what she told them when they came, what she told Joby a dozen times before, what she told any of them that offered her their little gifts and their big wants. Desiring something or someone that don’t belong to them. Wanting a man or woman, wanting a baby or wanting shed of one. She told them it might happen or it might not and no one could say the why and how of it. Go home and pray for it, she begged them. Or go to sleep and set your dreams on a way. But they never listened and they didn’t care. The one’s who crossed the street so as not to meet her eyes in town walked right up the crooked path to her cabin with their hands full of any payment they had, a cured ham, bushel of beans, some feed corn for her old mare. They’d reveal the hidden things they carried. A curl of hair, a nightgown stained with sweat, once a magnolia leaf smeared with a little dried spit. Each thing a token of their hearts secret desire.
Take this, they say. Cast a spell for me. You do it. You know the way.
She did know the way. But could not shake the fear that her father was right; she and all her line danced with but devil and didn’t know it. One day she would work up the courage to ask Reverend James about it. He had always been kind to her. Perhaps he could explain her father’s anger. Her mother’s death. Her twisted foot and lonely life.
A thumping on the floorboards brought her back to herself. Dan, the coon hound, sat at her feet, panting, one ear cocked up and the other, the one with the bite out of it, creased back.
“Whar you been, boy? Had company while you was gone.” Old Dan was prone to wander. He might be gone all day, sometimes baying up the mountain behind the cabin, sometimes all the way down to the river. He loved to hunt, but lacked the nose for it. Instead, he had come to her on the end of a piece of twine. An offering for some spell or another. She had no need of a dog, but he had a doubtful look that made her laugh sometimes, so she kept him. And no matter how far he roamed he always come home in time for supper.
How long had she sat here, letting her memory run loose to wander like her hound. The sun was beginning to set and when she shifted in the chair, her hips complained.
She should prepare. The end of a hot day like this, you could count on heat lightnin’ as the warmth of the day faded into the cool of evening. She took up the tin plate and slowly angled herself out of the chair and stood, checking to see the hip was steady and would hold her.
Inside the cabin, she scraped the leftover beans from her dinner onto the plate and cut a chunk of season meat from the ham hanging by the hearth. She took the food out on the porch and set it down.
“Here you go, boy. I’m going up the mountain. You best stay here and keep watch,” she said.
Someone was already watching.
Hidden in the velvety darkness below the branches of the fir trees past the fence line, the watcher waited as the sun’s rays faded on the grey planks of the cabin, missing nothing, the lamplight flickering inside the cabin, the dog curled up on a piece of burlap to sleep. When Allie stepped out her back door and headed up the mountain, she was not alone.