The Drama of Consonants
BY TED MORRISSEY
We say, it was springtime and the honeysuckle hummed with bees; and the bees and the blossoms were so close in color that from a distance one could forget about the honeybees’ suckling and believe the bush itself was ahum—a newfangled electric bush like they may have up in Crawford one day, the way things are going. No thank you. Oil lamps work just fine, and fuel for the stove never runs low, not with Hollis Woods right here, sitting on the village’s shoulder. And busting a field behind Old Bob’s pulling, handchurning, walking to worship on the Sabbath . . . these keep a body fit. Old Man Stevenson lived to a hundred-and-one and danced a right proper reel on his hundred-and-first.
The wind was hard and biting—it whipped the heavy canvas—and more than one voice was heard Praise Lord before they could see it wasn’t an O’Brien but merely the whipping wind. They counted the offerings left before the O’Briens’ door one, two, three and the men spoke of the wind, above it. If it didn’t subside it wouldn’t be safe for the burning. But burn we must. After a time they disbursed to go about their day. Except James Reynolds, who lingered longer than the rest.
Mr. O’Brien had been seen at an upstairs window—or perhaps it was his spirit, looking down upon Willow Street a final time. He was as pale and thin as one of Pastor Anthony’s wafers; and he wore an expression of profound sadness: the same one he’d worn when Elizabeth’s little brother had been lost to the whooping cough. All through the funeral and burial Bob O’Brien leaned on his wife and on Elizabeth, literally much of time. Elizabeth was only eleven then, no, she’d just turned twelve—but she seemed a grown woman in her mourning dress, cutting white cake for the visitors, smiling bravely beneath her high cheekbones while her father more than once had to retreat to the church’s kitchen to breakdown in private. He, or his spirit, looked upon Willow Street, masked in that same pale sadness . . . perhaps Bob O’Brien had lost another child.
At Wilson’s Grocery, Mrs. Wilson reached beneath the counter and removed a paperbag. Even after forty years—eight working for the widower Mr. Wilson, a pigtailed girl right out of school, and thirty-two married to Mr. Wilson—Susan still noticed the scent of the brown paper, as heavy as the bags themselves. She unfolded and opened it on the countertop. She pushed the glasses higher on her nose, beyond the bridge, and put her face over the newly opened bag, where the scent would be the strongest. . . . There were the usual things to place inside: the bouillon cubes and crackers, the peanuts and wedges of dried apples and apricots, the black tea, also the gauze and bandage clips, the salve, the peroxide, the iodine, the aspirin tablets. She was alone in the store. Susan watched the door, only a few feet from the counter. She looked at the string attached to the door and followed with her eyes as it threaded up and through hooks to a bell whose tinny jingle marked the entrance or exit of a customer. The bell was silent. Who was to know? . . . if she shorted the O’Briens a few cubes of bouillon, a half handful of nuts, a strip or two of gauze, a clip or two for bandages? She and Mr. Wilson weren’t losing any money. On the contrary, shrewd Mr. Wilson quoted the Council full prices, and perhaps then some, and the councilmen approved the expenditure—it would’ve been political sacrilege to balk at the cost of the O’Brien family’s tragedy. No, it wasn’t the money. It was the waste . . . all that good food especially, God’s bounty, perishing in the flames. This was the fourth bag after all; it would be placed on their porch alongside the other three, untouched. No one believed the O’Briens were alive in there. Bob O’Brien’s ghost had been seen, hadn’t it? Surely there would be a burning—so this steady wind must abate before the fifth day’s end.
There were rumblings in the village, about the burning, about whether it should be done—not because of the dry west wind that rattled every awning, and made metal mailbox flags clank against their boxes like overexcited telegraphers—but rather it’d become antiquated. It’d been more than a decade since the Mesmores: Perhaps we should leave the burnings to the past. Science after all. . . . Science! Beau Bishop had no patience for it. He’d seen plenty of science in the trenches the Vicker’s, the Kaiser’s null-acht, the flamethrower. His sweat still smelled of mustard, and he was among the lucky. The talkers—whisperers really—they needed to go sit in the gazebo, read the names painted in gold, and speak to the dead, tell them that these days their sacrifice no longer counts. Their abiding by the rule for the good of the village, for their friends and neighbors—well, it no longer matters because of Science. Beau Bishop decided that some of them required watching, like that Reynolds boy, James. He hadn’t said anything, as far as Beau knew, but the gossip was he was sweet on the O’Brien girl, Elizabeth; and boys in love can become excitable and do funny things. Yes, James Reynolds needed watching, him, and the whisperers.
The crow-shaped weathervane on Stevenson’s barn spun madly but always showed a west wind when the chaos held it steady for a moment. Zeff they called this wind when he was a boy. Beware Zeff, he’ll bring flood and draught, famine and wildfire. Worst of all lightning without rain and almost without warning, bolts that hit like blasts out of a bruise-blue sky, just as if hurled down by the angry Jehovah of Second Samuel. Some said if a burning was required, let God’s hand do the firing, let Him call upon Zeff and send a white-hot bolt to the house of the stricken, burning it to ash along with the dead inside. But God was rarely so direct and required the hand of man to do His will. This time though . . . Zeff’s forward guard had been so persistent . . . perhaps this burning would not call upon the hand of man, and skeptics would find their place in the silent dark.
Margaret Olstetter sat in her front porch’s swing, her schoolbooks strapped in a stack at her side, and she listened to her father’s wheezy coughing through the barely open window of the room he called his study, though mainly he just read his papers in there, and sipped his daddy’s coffee, which was brewed strong and sweetened from the brown bottle he kept in a recess of the kitchen cabinet, up high where she and her mother had difficulty reaching. Margaret was sick to her stomach. She could see the O’Brien house from her porch, just two blocks west, on the opposite side of Willow Street. She imagined Elizabeth and how she couldn’t have known, not for certain, perhaps not at all, when the final time was that she was entering her home, when the councilmen and Mayor Bishop would tell the O’Briens they were sorry but they could not leave their house, then Mr. Holcomb and some of the other men built the portal out of old boards and heavy canvas painted red. Margaret watched the blood-red canvas shudder in the wind, the warm wind that chilled her as she sat on her porchswing, terrified to walk inside. Maybe as terrified as Elizabeth was. Margaret’s father coughed and turned his newspaper page. Margaret shifted her gaze back to the O’Briens’ and was surprised to see a figure standing on the walk before the house, just standing motionless, a gray sweater and darker gray trousers. Mr. O’Brien’s ghost? Margaret had heard her father and mother talking—people had seen Mr. O’Brien here and there in the village, haunting it, perhaps searching for a child to replace his own. What was the little boy’s name? No, this figure wasn’t Mr. O’Brien, unless death had made him taller and leaner, and grown out his hair full and black: It was James there on the walk, as silent as a spirit. If Margaret were shut up in her house, would a boy come to moon at her windows? Patrick perhaps or Daniel? Liam? All the boys took notice of Elizabeth, tall and slender and emerald-eyed, even the boys’ fathers, but Margaret’s hair was mousy, her complexion uneven, and every room she entered she entered unnoticed. She suddenly felt lonely, too, afraid and lonely.
Mr. Oliver talked of the power of language. He diagramed sentences in bold white strokes of chalk verb, adjective, preposition, gerund, infinitive. The sleeves of his wool jacket became dusty with the force of language. And his voice, trained under the name of Sergeant Oliver, filled the words of the poets like boiler-born steam. Hiawatha, Sun-Down Poem, Much Madness, Annabel Lee. That was the one that inhabited James. Though the image of the sounding sea was pure theory, its waves battered at his brain with cruel persistence, as steady as the metronome Mr. Oliver used to teach the rhythm of the lines. And the chilling nightwind chilled him to the core, blowing out of a cloud that covered his soul, casting everything in darkness. But it was the image of the dead maiden that haunted him most profoundly. She had come to him on the first night speaking quiet words of Elizabeth, words he could only half hear, quarter comprehend. The maiden’s cadaverous skin glowed in the darkness that surrounded his soul, her eyes like blue flames fluttering on the cusp of extinction, her yellow hair flecked with graveyard dirt. She wouldn’t leave him even come morning but stayed at his shoulder adding her nonsensical words to the battering sea and chilling wind. Never-ceasing, like the real wind that’d been blowing through the village for days. He hoped the maiden might take up with the spirit of Mr. O’Brien, giving ghostly comfort to one another and letting him be.
Beau Bishop stood outside Owens’ Café a moment before going in. The mayor tried to sense some abatement in the wind, some hint it was slowing and would slow enough to silence the skeptics about the burning. The wind added fuel to their fire that the fire shouldn’t proceed—for the safety of the entire village, they’d say, leaving out the part that they were opposed on principle already. Rabbelrousers, agitators. It was their kind in Europe that started the whole mess, that got him and his brothers dragged into the infernal trenches over there. Beau needed to see who exactly was saying what exactly. He hitched up the straps on his dungarees, a nervous habit, and entered the café. There were the usual greetings Mr. Mayor, Hey, Beau, Morning Mayer, but there was also a noticeable lulling in the babble of conversations. Owens’ was half filled. Dickey was working the counter himself; Dick Junior must be taking the lunchshift today. Marian Olstetter was there, waitressing, as she had for a decade. It seemed odd to the village that Mrs. Olstetter worked outside her home, leaving Margaret to get herself ready for school, and not seeing Ned off to work at the bins; but no one had ever said anything to her, as far as Beau knew. That’s how it begins, the slacking, the weakening of traditions—and then you wind up here, with villagers criticizing a way that’d kept the village safe for generations. (There’d been a boy, too, Margaret’s little brother, drowned in the lake—the village had all but forgotten.) Beau placed his hat, a well-used straw fedora with a blue ban, on the tree and went to the counter. There was a place between Wilson and Goodpath—so Beau could chat groceries and liveries. As far as he knew, neither Wilson nor Goodpath was an agitator (indeed, a plague house was good for Wilson’s business, as the Council knew full well that Ronnie hitched up the prices as much as he dare, so he probably preferred they weren’t such rare events). Conversations had gone back to their normal tenor. Men were talking of tractors and old tomcats, of sons and the Mrs.’ tarnished silver, of crows in the corn and roosters that refused to crow. Of the wind. Beau thanked Dickey for the cup of coffee he placed in front of him on the counter, then he glanced over his shoulder as the café door blew open . . . apparently Beau hadn’t closed it completely. Newspaper pages and uncontrolled cowlicks flapped in the sudden draft. My mistake, he said as he left his stool to shut the door, firmly this time. Before he could do so, another patron walked into the café, as if on a gust of wind. It was the Reynolds kid, James. The mayor and the schoolboy stood facing one another.
Pastor Anthony’s wife, Victoria, scooped congealed bacon grease into the frying pan and turned up the burner’s heat. She watched as the gelatinous, dun-colored glop began to liquefy and fill the kitchen with its richly cured smell, today almost sickening in its potency. She tried not to think of it but she wondered if that was what flesh did in the flames, turn to a fatty broth as it fell from the muscle and bone. She tried to press the wrinkles out of the skirt of her apron. She was nervous. She looked forward to William having his breakfast and leaving for the church, so that she could go to the gardening shed out back and sneak a cigarette. They said the wives in Crawford smoked in their homes, right at their own kitchen tables. Imagine. Her nerves started at cards two days before. Wanda raised the subject or Betty—it didn’t matter which—but it was definitely Sally who said, I think about the family—how do we know five days is enough? What if they’re in there improving and just sleeping, getting their strength back—then we set their house ablaze? No one said anything except suit for a long while. Finally, Wanda, glancing to either side as if there was anyone in her house besides the five of them, spoke in a hushed voice. I’ve been thinking about this wind. What if it’s God’s sign the burnings are wrong, that we shouldn’t take such matters into our own hands? The grease began to bubble so Victoria cracked an egg into the pan, and another, and another. William came into the kitchen and kissed her good morning on the back of the head. He took the coffee pot from the stove, poured himself a cup, then sat with it at the table, where his wife had laid out the paper open to his favorite page, the farm bureau news. For two days she’d wanted to tell him about the conversation, to see what he thought, but there seemed little purpose. She knew his mind: Tradition is tradition. Once you begin monkeying with it, order starts to fall from everything—his sermons were regularly embroidered with the theme. Everything would fall asunder: the home, the government, the church. But didn’t the country begin with a revolution, and aren’t we Protestants? Victoria spooned grease over the eggs and watched their albumen turn white, flecked with crumbs of bacon left in the grease. William? She hadn’t turned to him. He made a sound but was obviously concentrating on his paper. Is there anything about the wind? When it may stop?
Doc Halverson tied on his surgical mask with some difficulty due to the wind. Standing on the walk before the O’Briens’, at first Doc turned away from the wind, but soon found that it was easier to face the wind. Once accomplished, he took the crowbar that lay at his feet, the one he’d brought with him, and walked toward the porch. His wife, at home, was a wreck—they had argued every evening as he tried to explain that these daily inspections were necessary. It was his duty as the only physician in the village. Even though it was warm, Doc kept his cotton shirt tightly buttoned at the collar, and he pulled on heavy cowhide gloves as he ascended the porchsteps, the crowbar pressed under his arm. In truth, the risk thrilled him—the disease fascinated him, nearly to the point of wanting to experience it directly, but it was a crazy notion that he wouldn’t fully articulate even to himself. It was suicidal, and that was a sin. Perhaps though he might see something at a window, catch some glimpse of the disease. On the porch, the red canvas flapped with mocking vigor. Doc saw the paperbags of supplies left at the O’Briens’ door, untouched. He went through the canvas and put his gloved hand upon the knob. By decree the door was to be locked at all times, except to bring inside the supplies (if anyone was able). Carefully, slowly, he turned the knob: the door was bolted. He stepped outside the flapping canvas and began systematically checking the windows with the crowbar, to make certain they were securely closed and latched. He started with the porch’s windows, then worked his way around the house. To check the second-floor windows and the attic, Doc called to Holcomb and one of his boys waiting at the walk, and they brought a tall ladder and positioned it beneath the window Doc wanted to inspect. They maneuvered the ladder around the house, from window to window. Doc thanked them through the mask. All were secure. He’d seen no one inside. None of the O’Briens Mr., Mrs., Elizabeth stirred at the scrape and thump of the heavy ladder, nor at his crowbar upon the sill. The O’Briens had perished, Doc was certain of it. What would they do though if the terrible wind prevented the burning? They would ask his advice, as the village’s doctor, and he had no clue what to tell them.
This longing—that’s what adults called it—was consuming him. He thought of her every second. His days at school passed in a fog of her images: the time he retrieved a clean fork for her at lunch when hers had fallen on the floor; she gave him her apple as a thank-you; their friends hooted at the exchange. The time Mrs. Davis made them reading partners; that story about Orpheus; and she helped him with a word he didn’t know, plaintively, but in a way that didn’t make him feel stupid; and on the next page she pretended not to know purge so that he could help her. The time she played in the piano recital for morning assembly; her blond hair in a ponytail tied with a pink ribbon; her long, thin fingers, nearly as white as the lace-cuffed blouse, danced over the keys, while her eyes, as green as McCalls’ meadow in summer, scanned the notes of that song about moonlight. It was the day that James knew he was in love with Elizabeth O’Brien, that he had been for a long while. Watching her there, in the front of the assembly room, seated at Mrs. Foster’s glossy black piano, he realized how long he’d been watching her at school, around the village, at church, always with such intense affection—a way he’d never watched anyone before. So that’s what the poets meant: It wasn’t just rhyme and meter and words that begin with the same sound. Elizabeth O’Brien walks in beauty, she truly does.
We say, it was autumn, and Hollis Woods were ablaze with color, color that swirled past the eyes kaleidoscopically, blown by the ceaseless wind, almost dizzying in its brilliance. Fallen leaves banked against buildings like blown snow, and children frolicked as they always had. The piles grew greater and greater, the architecture of leaves grander and grander, because no one could burn them for fear the blaze would get away and reduce the entire village to cinders, perhaps even burn Hollis Woods to nothing but blackened splinters. Up in Crawford, they had machines that pulverized the leaves to brown powder—but better to stay with the old ways. The wind would cease soon, and the burnings could begin.
Throughout the village people prepared for bed and preparation included prayer: for an O’Brien to emerge from their house, for the supplies to disappear, for Mr. O’Brien’s ghost to leave our children be, for the O’Briens’ suffering to be at an end, for the wind to cease, for the wind to never cease, for Elizabeth to be well, for the Council to let go of the old ways, for there to be a plague house every few years, for the agitators to cease their agitating, the whisperers their whispering, for at least one O’Brien to survive, for a boy to moon over her quarantined house in sunlight and moonlight, for the quarantine to work, for the specter of Plague to pass by this house, invisibly black in the black of night.
He hadn’t slept well for days so at last his mind had no choice, and he sank into a profound slumber. There in that depth the whispering grew more intense, her lips close at his ear, the breath of words warm upon his skin. He couldn’t open his eyes, in this dream, and light played across his lids aquatically. It seemed to be the voice of the dead maiden but something in its quality reminded him of Elizabeth too. He reached out for her—what he’d only dreamt of doing by day—but her voice was without substance, as bodiless and as penetrating as the ceaseless breeze. The words poured into his ear like the Logos of God, and after minutes or hours he realized they were repeating. Thanks to Mr. Oliver he recognized some of the properties of the repeated words—the rhythm, the connective sounds, the somber mood. It was a poem that the voice whispered into his ear in the aquatic dark, ss’s that stabbed like serpent tongues, rr’s that rolled together like reunited lovers, vowels that paced plaintively between the drama of consonants. Suddenly awake, James lit the candle by his bed. The dream was already fading. He took a pad and pencil from the nightstand and began recording the maiden’s words, flickering in his ear like the candescent light upon the page.
The porch swing swayed with the wind, making the rafters creak as if someone sat there rocking to and fro. At first, only half awake, she thought it was her father—but why would he be up at this hour, leave be sitting in the porch swing? Perhaps another father then? Mr. O’Brien haunting the village in search of a lost child? She pictured him there in the swing on the dark porch, as pale and sad as the moon. She wondered if her father would be so distraught at losing her. Would his spirit wander the village streets hoping to find what lingered of her? That thought occupied her for a long while, while the swing swung mournfully in the night. Then: What if it’s the specter of Plague himself who’s come to call upon the family? What if it’s Plague who sits calmly in the swing as patient as the cycling moon? To the village children, Plague was always depicted as a large crowlike creature, human but yet not. Margaret got up from her small bed and worked her arms into a flannel robe. Her bedroom was warm even with the window cracked and the persistent wind. She padded along the hall, past her parents’ room, heard her father’s snoring, past her brother’s, heard nothing, and crept down the stairs. Her father’s study had the aura of being off-limits to her and her mother, but it offered the best view of the porch. She entered the space that smelled precisely of her father and went to the window. From the darkened room, spying through the blinds, she watched the swaying swing, painted a spectral white and moonglowing on the shadowed porch. It appeared empty of course; it was merely the wind that made the old beam wince. Margaret buttoned another button of her robe as she slipped through the front doorway and stepped with bare feet onto the cool porch. She steadied the swing before sitting, leaving a space to her side for whoever may wish to join her there.
Pastor Anthony arranged the slips of paper on his desk, in the small study in his home, pieces of heavy cotton stationery torn evenly into strips. He made certain his fountain pen was filled, which he then set aside. Also on his neatly organized desk was the Bible he used to write his sermons—dogeared and annotated, the leather cover as aged and worn as a favorite saddle. He took his task with literal life-and-death seriousness. The Council had asked him to write a passage to put in the paperbag, some piece of Scripture that would help to heal the O’Briens, or at least comfort them, offer them solace. He would write out several passages and selected the one to go into tomorrow’s offering, along with the supplies from Wilson. Why not place all of them in the bag? It seemed that that may disperse the potency of God’s Word, water it down, like trying to feed too many people with too little food. And after making his selection he would burn the other slips of paper—even having them in the world seemed to dilute God’s power—thus there were no passages left over from the previous nights. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned Isaiah 9:2 If a wicked man turns away from all his sin If a man is righteous and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die Ezekiel 18:21 The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day Proverbs 4:18 Do not plot harm against your neighbor, who lives trustfully near you Proverbs 3:29 God performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted. When he passes, I cannot see him; when he goes by, I cannot perceive him Job 9:10-11 Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you Psalms 9:10. Finished, William Anthony stroked his graying goatee and scratched the itch behind his left ear that never quite went away. He turned the slips of paper face down and mixed their order. In the morning he would select one at random, in essence allowing the divine hand to choose the healing passage.
There’d been a good photograph of Elizabeth O’Brien in the church’s spring bulletin. She and two other girls were holding booties they’d crocheted and were going to mail to flood victims in the South. Mrs. Bishop was an organized packrat and had every piece of paper that came into the house neatly scrapbooked or filed away. Beau easily found the bulletin, and it lay picture-side up on the seat of his Ford as he drove along County 12 toward Crawford. It was a bustling place, godless for the most part, and surely it had a young girl, blond and thin, who might pass for Elizabeth, under the right circumstances. He felt the bib pocket of his dungarees and the folded bills he kept there.
We say, it was wintertime—a frigid but strangely snowless winter. Day upon day, the sun was a bright, cheerless circle that offered no warmth whatsoever. A north wind penetrated every home, making even the most solidly built feel drafty and cold. People huddled in isolation against its merciless howling, hoping for spring rains to soften the frozen earth. No coat, no matter how thick, could keep out the constant chill. Men warmed their frigid fingers around cups of coffee at Owens’ Café, and spoke of the uniqueness of the winter, without end, like the north wind itself.
The tinny bell startled Mrs. Wilson, even though she was expecting an early visitor. Customers, as a rule, rarely came into the store so early. She was gathering items in a corner of the grocery. Hello? The young man was startled too—he hadn’t noticed her. On the counter, a paper bag stood upright: clearly Mrs. Wilson was in the process of filling it. She returned to the counter holding a can of condensed milk. May I help you? James, isn’t it? He shut the door slowly, assuring that the bell wouldn’t make a sound. He had dark circles under his eyes—something she wasn’t used to seeing in the face of someone so young. The circles were nearly as gray as the sweater he was wearing. I have something, he said, to place in the sack. He held up a piece of paper folded in thirds like a letter. He stepped toward the counter, where Mrs. Wilson had just placed the can of milk into the bag’s open mouth. I’m not sure, the Council is very specific. . . . At that moment the door opened and the bell chimed. It was Pastor Anthony. He too was surprised to see James—the sun hadn’t risen, the start of school was still some three hours away. How is everything? He walked past James, whose instinct was to hold his offering out of view. Fine, said Mrs. Wilson. You have it, she added unnecessarily as William Anthony proffered the slip of paper. Job nine, he said, ten and eleven. She took the slip from him. God performs wonders, said Mrs. Wilson. Pastor Anthony smiled—Very good. It pays to study His Word, he said to James in the teachable moment, then exited the store. James and Mrs. Wilson returned their attention to each other, and she held out her hand. For Elizabeth, it said on the folded paper, written in awkward teenage boy script. Please, don’t read it. She smiled reassuringly as she placed it and the passage from Job inside the bag.
Lucas Jones checked and rechecked the brass fittings, he tapped the glass gauges, he tested the soundness of the wheels, he forced water through the large and small hoses looking for leaks: The Merriweather steam-pumper was fit as a fiddle . . . and hopefully wouldn’t be needed. Old Bob would pull the Merriweather and water tank into place. The men would transport the aerial ladder in a wagon, along with the axes and shovels. The steam engine would quickly bring the pressure to capacity. (They say up in Crawford their pumpers are motorized, with one motor to power the pumper itself, and one to power the pump. That’d be something to see.) The Council would supply the kerosene, should it be necessary. Lucas stepped out of the fire shed, wetted his finger, and held it in the air, where the wind quickly dried it. He looked back at Miss Mary and wondered if she’d be enough.
Wanda Holcomb selected the hymns Return O Wanderer to Thy Home, Unclean of Life and Heart Unclean, The Winds Were Howling over the Deep, Rock of Ages, Thou Lord Art a Shield for Me, Come Divine Interpreter, The Great Redeeming Angel Thee, By the Holy Hills Surrounded and placed torn slips of paper to mark the pages. Five hymnals all together: Eric, Marian, Frances, Betty, and she. The sun was setting on the final day, and there’d been no sign of life in the O’Brien house. The brown bags stood upright on their porch within the red flapping canvas. There had been the sign of death: Several people reported seeing Robert O’Brien’s spirit here and there in the village. Some said he wasn’t alone, that he communed with another spirit. Surely it should be his wife’s but the gossip held that this other spirit was young, like Elizabeth O’Brien—though it didn’t appear to be she either. Just gossip. Rumors. All of it. . . . This small band of the choir would sing in front of the O’Brien house just as night came on, praying that the rhythmic Word would rouse the family; or at least one member, who could prevent the great burning, and the village could return to normal. The church basement had its familiar musty odor, like the dust of a thousand sermons mixed with sticky furniture wax. It could be suffocating if one thought of the smell too long. Wanda was at the diminutive blue-painted desk in the corner of the basement, her desk as choir director. She heard the door open at the top of the stairs, then the heavy steps as someone began to descend. Her back to the new arrival, she tried to anticipate which choralist it was.
We say, it was summertime and that the sun coruscated like coins of silver off the ripples in Peach Creek. The crops were doing well that year. It’d been a wet spring but a persistent wind was fanning the fields dry. If it kept up, it might make them too dry—but that was the farmer’s lot in life: to pray for rain, then to pray for the rain to cease; to pray for wind and warmth, then to pray for them to cease. There was always some other condition to pray for, and rarely one to be wholly thankful for. It was summertime, and the bluegill and pumpkin seeds were hungry beneath the silvery surface of the Peach.
It was nearly sundown. James Reynolds pulled on his sweater and left his house. He hoped it would be a cool evening. He walked up Parker Street to Willow. Overhead, leaves trembled in the trees, like they too were anxious and afraid. He heard the choir before reaching Willow—their raised voices blended with the maiden’s whispering in his ear—all that plus the wind in the trees, and his thoughts were as chaotic as the weeping leaves and lashing branches. A crowd had already gathered. There were lanterns here and there, yet it was difficult to recognize everyone immediately. There was Mayor Bishop, standing with Mr. Holcomb and Dr. Halverson. A group of women stood apart: among them Mrs. Anthony, Mrs. Olstetter, and Mrs. Wilson. The skirts of their dresses whipped in time with the canvas portal. Pastor Anthony didn’t add his voice but he stood near the five singers led by Mrs. Holcomb. Mr. Wilson was there, with Mr. Owens and Mr. Goodpath. Off to the side, more alone than anyone, was Mr. Oliver. Lantern shadows flickered across their faces, casting them as much in darkness as in light. How are you doing, James? At first he believed it was the dead maiden touching the question to his ear, then he sensed Margaret Olstetter’s presence near him on the walk. I’m all right. Perhaps the wind had slowed, but the canvas on the O’Briens’ porch flapped noisily. In the street, Mr. Jones and his volunteers waited near their equipment. The Merriweather’s brazen body glinted in the lanternlight. James noticed that Mr. Oliver was moving his lips as if quietly reciting. James listened to the maiden’s words and began repeating the words aloud, barely audible, but Margaret noticed. A light suddenly shone in the O’Brien house—a bright flame in the house’s blackness. A gasp ran through the crowd. Some of the singers stopped singing. Mr. Oliver stopped reciting. James did not. The candleflame moved away from the window. The remaining choralists’ voices faltered further in the darkness as the light disappeared into the interior of the house. James felt Margaret’s hand slip inside his. He hadn’t ceased his own whispering recitation. The dead maiden’s lips touched his ear still, though even they may have begun to tremble.
TED MORRISSEY is the author of the novels Men of Winter and An Untimely Frost, the novelette Figures in Blue, and stories and essays in more than twenty journals, including Glimmer Train, PANK, Writers Ask, and North American Review. “The Drama of Consonants” is one of a series of interconnected stories. Others in the series have appeared or are forthcoming in the Tulane Review, Noctua Review, Constellations, Black Denim Lit, and Stone Crowns Magazine. A PhD in English studies, he’s also published the monograph The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters, winner of the D. Simon Evans Prize for distinguished scholarship. Learn more here.