I was the only person Miz Cora told where she was going. I was also the only person who knew where she hid the body of the lawman, but that’s because I was there when she killed him, and I guess burying a body isn’t anything a person should have to do alone, if she can help it.
I suppose that’s proof of what Daddy calls my impetuous nature, that I’d help anyone bury a murdered body, but I couldn’t help it. We were friends, me and Miz Cora. At least she was as close to a friend as I think I ever had.
First time I ever saw her, I’d no inkling that she might become my friend. She was a grown lady, and I was just gone thirteen, and that sort of disparity in ages didn’t seem what you might call conducive to friendship. But that was back when things were ordinary, before everybody gave up the habit of staying dead when they died, so the rules were different then.
She looked like a regular grown lady with pink cheeks and bare feet, sneaking out the back door of our house before dawn. I found out later she thought she’d be safe to leave that early because she didn’t think us kids would be awake. Only I wake up earlier than sunrise, so I was sitting on the back porch when she come around the door on the tips of her toes, and stopped to stare at me.
"Hello," I said, because you can't just be saying nothing to a lady who's sneaking out your back door. It isn’t hospitable.
"Hello," she said, because she had a kind of manners too. "You Daniel Connelly’s big girl?"
It’s true, I’m the big one. All long limbs and knock knees and teeth that don’t hardly fit my mouth. Val’s the little one. She’s plump and soft and cute in a way I know I wasn’t ever, not even when I was newly born.
I didn’t tell Miz Cora that, though. Not then. I only looked at her a minute longer, cause I thought maybe she might have something more to say, but she was more interested in putting those stockings back on. Only other thing she said to me before cutting off down the back road was "well bye, now" and I didn't feel it worth my while to answer that.
I didn't ask Daddy who she was, so I never learned her name til after the people started . . . well, coming back. It seems backwards, when I think on it now, because after everybody started coming back there was a lot less time to acquaint yourself with a person's name. But maybe it isn’t so backwards when it’s Miz Cora.
It was maybe a month after they started escaping the graves that I saw her next. I’d been to the church meetings same as everyone, my legs chapped and raw from heat, Val stuck to my lap with her own sweat soaked through her skirt, and listened to all those people argue about how we were to deal with the fact that for some reason, cemeteries just wasn’t as quiet as they used to be. A lot of folk said it was a judgement on us, but nobody could say exactly how we ought to get it to stop, except that we’d all better make sure to keep our powder dry, because even that early on we’d worked out the only way to kill ‘em the second time was take their heads clean off.
An axe or any long blade will work as well, of course. But a shotgun gives you a nice distance that just feels safer.
Nothing satisfactory was decided at the church meetings, which Daddy said was on account of they put Aaron Jessup in charge of organizing matters, and Aaron Jessup couldn’t even keep his own teeth straight much less work out how to deal with a bunch of not-exactly-dead folks who were coming up from the Earth like they were getting an early start on Judgement Day. Even so, when the fourth meeting ended Daddy told me to take Val and go home without him, because he wanted to try to talk some sense into Aaron Jessup.
I didn’t argue. Val and me going walking wasn’t any too safe, but arguing with Daddy was a guaranteed belt to my backside. I figured I’d take my chances with the dead.
I went home the back way, in the hope we’d catch a breeze off the water. It was nearly the end of October, but that year October still felt like August, so the only place you could get any relief during daylight hours was right along the shore.
Lucas Jessup walked with us a while. I didn’t ask him to, but Lucas Jessup was the presuming sort. He just walked up to us, said he had a sword, so he’d better come along with us for our protection.
His sword was more a rusted-over old sabre, but I suppose to his mind it was something fine. I said he could please himself, even though I knew that meant he’d walk us home.
He was full of talk that day, all about how his daddy had these grand plans to bring in fancy city doctors and cure us of the curse. I asked where we would get the money to pay for city doctors, and Lucas said he supposed his daddy would figure that out soon enough.
I didn’t say anything to that.
We walked in silence for a time, which was nice. Just the birds and Val, wheezing a little, as she tried to keep up. Then Lucas said,
“Do you know there’s plants and herbs around here as will make a soul tell all he ever knew?”
I didn’t know who’d been telling him such things. It sounded like pure nonsense, but I didn’t say that. Instead I said, “and do you know there’s plants and herbs around here as will kill a body just as sure as a bullet? Bad luck for you, if you can’t tell the difference.”
He looked at me funny, like he didn’t understand the relevance. “What are you on about, Rose in June?”
That annoyed me, him using my full, Christian name, which I cannot abide, because it was something Mama thought was pretty, and Mama didn’t know as much about pretty things as she thought. Not much uglier than being a scrubby, knock-kneed girl with big square teeth called Rose in June, but what can you do, when you’ve got the name stuck to you for so many years? I ask folks to call me June, and mostly they listen.
Lucas Jessup ain’t much more of a listener than his daddy, though. So he persisted in calling me Rose in June, and I guess I just got tired of telling him to quit. But that didn’t mean it ever stopped irking me when he did.
“Go away, Lucas Jessup.”
He went away, and me and Val continued on.
I was crossing up behind MacPherson's place, toting Val along behind me, just minding my step and enjoying how nice and cool the wind felt when I was all slicked over with my own sweat, when didn't some once-dead man decide to step out in front of us right there on the path.
He was pretty fresh, as they go. Only grey and covered over with dirt, nothing dropping off him or anything gruesome like that. I think by the look of him he’d been a tinker or some kind of travelling man—maybe he’d even died for not knowing what herbs and plants he was eating, just as I’d been saying to Lucas—but he wasn’t in an explaining mood, and I don’t know as I’d have been in a mood to listen to an explanation anyway.
I know for sure we’d never have stood a chance, not against a fresh new-made one like that, only all in a twinkling she was there too, coming down the other side of the hill, and first I knew of her was when the man's head just went POP like an overripe grape, and all bits of him was everywhere.
I hate that part of killing them twice, but I suppose it's better than being ripped all to bits.
"You're a mess," was the third thing Miz Cora ever said to me. She still had the .44 American resting on her forearm and was staring at me kind of critical. "He didn't get his teeth in you, did he?"
"No, Ma'am," I promised. But I don't know how she knew to believe me, on account of I was pretty well covered in the fellow already, and you couldn't have seen what was bite and what was brains to save your life. Val was better off; she’d been tucked in behind me when the shot went off, and she was peeping out now, two fingers shoved in her mouth, not making a peep.
Val never was one for making much sound.
"Well," Miz Cora said, "better get on home, Daniel's girls."
I was surprised she remembered me. I remembered her, so I guess maybe I should have thought she'd remember me too, but somehow it seemed strange, a grown up lady remembering where she met some skinny kid on the back porch.
"June," I told her. "I’m called June." I tugged on Val, moving her around in front of me. “This is Val.”
She looked a little surprised at that, like even though she remembered me, it hadn't occurred to her I might be called something particular. But she nodded, and sort of bopped the brim of her hat with the tip of her gun barrel.
"June," she said. "Val. I'm Cora."
She stepped off the path where we met. I thought it was probably just in case I had been bit, and decided to go for her and she couldn't shoot me in time. But when we got to the top of the hill and I looked back, she was still there, her .44 strapped around her and a banjo slung down off her back, settled on her knee.
She was playing real cheerful, like she hadn't a care in the world.
I ended up humming that tune the whole way home.
Daddy never did get Aaron Jessup to see reason, and thanks to that Indian summer, with the cold holding off longer than it had any right to, the ground stayed soft well into November. By peoples’ best estimation those were the months when we lost the most folk. The sort of good news, if you could call it that, was that once we started burying them all in the same cemetery, it got a lot easier to pick ‘em off again directly they decided to rise up.
I’m not saying it was the best news, or anything. Just, as news went in those days, it was pretty good.
There were other bits of good news, too. Law men left us alone for a while. Nobody much cared to come in and bust up stills if there was a chance you’d get attacked that way.
So for the longest time no law men came in, and none of us ever left. I think looking back that must be what confused the rest of the world the most. When word got around about what was happening, all sorts of government people and private groups sent people in to bring us out. But we didn’t go. The folk who came to rescue us—the ones that didn’t get bit—went back empty-handed, confounded, to tell the world we were staying put.
Nobody in all of God’s earth was going to take us out of our home. We got bit and died, or we got buried and rose back up, and well, that was the Lord’s business. But no way were we walking out of there of our own accord. If they wanted us gone they’d have to drag us out.
Once they understood that, they left well enough alone, save the occasional newspaperman who made it in. Newspapermen didn’t often make it back out, though. Comes of their mouths being so much quicker than their feet, I expect.
Miz Cora came around kind of regular during that time. Sometimes it was just to chat; other days, she’d get there after Val and I were already in bed, and I wouldn’t know of her til the next morning, when she’d be sneaking out the back, as usual.
One morning, going on December, she put on her shoes and socks as usual, and dropped down to take a seat on the porch beside me.
“Morning, June,” she said.
“Morning, Miz Cora,” I answered. I waited a minute, the two of us just breathing the silence, and then I heard my unaccountable mouth ask her the most appalling thing:
“What are you doing at our house like this?”
Miz Cora looked at me sideways, like she couldn’t believe that question just come out of my mouth. So I rushed a little to explain.
“I mean, I know you and Daddy are . . . but I mean why? My Daddy ain’t so much to look at. I know, because I heard three different ladies turn him down saying so.”
She smiled then, that little half-smile that went up one side of her face, like what you said was funny in a way only she could see.
“He ain’t, at that,” she agreed. “But the man has a way with pipes and wires, and he fixed my still up just when I needed it most. I knew when I asked him for help I didn’t have money to pay, so I elected to pay him otherwise. I knew he’d accept, on account of a certain way he looked at me.”
I thought I knew the way she meant.
“Lucas Jessup looks at me that way.”
“Does he now?” Miz Cora didn’t sound disapproving or gossipy. Just politely interested. It made me brave enough to say more.
“Yes’m. And sometimes I think maybe I’d like to look at him back that way. But I don’t think I’d ever want to pay him for doing me a service.”
“No reason you should ever have to,” Miz Cora promised. Then she got to her feet and walked away down the path.
For a while after that I tried to work out how I felt about my Daddy taking payment in Miz Cora’s flesh, and it seemed too much a quandary for me to settle with in my mind. So I decided I had just better forget it. Because once the dead start coming back, it’s much easier to forget things as would have bothered you before.
The very last time I saw Miz Cora it was nearly Christmas. The ground was finally frozen, so unless a person dropped down in the woods somewhere and weren’t found in time to chop off his head before he got back up, the folk who went under the earth stayed under it.
It was near enough to normal that some law men even started coming around again, with an eye to cleaning up all the stills that had mushroomed up when they wasn’t paying us such close attention. Since Miz Cora ran one of the stills, I expect it was inevitable that they’d get around to her eventually. Only I think it took them longer than it should have because she didn’t exactly look like you’d expect a person in her line of work to look, all slight and fair with only them big wide knuckles to give her what my mama used to call an unfeminine air.
Since Mama went off with a travelling man, I suppose she knows just about everything there is to know about being feminine.
I saw them take Ephraim Jessup’s still, though, and I knew he’d surely turn on Miz Cora to get whatever kind of leniency they could give him, because Ephraim Jessup is a snake in the grass. So I went up to Miz Cora’s with a mind to tell her so.
She had company when I arrived, a man who’d had a little too much of something to drink—certainly too much to know he’d better quit rolling dice with Miz Cora. She saw me standing there in the doorway, just watching, and waved me in to take a seat.
“Won’t be a minute more, June,” she promised, and sure enough, she took him for all he had inside half an hour and sent him on his way with a nice bottle of something as a consolation prize.
“Don’t suppose you’re up here to try your luck?” she smiled at me, so I said no, and was just telling her about the law men when we heard the motor of a car chugging on up the hill.
“Well,” sighed Miz Cora, “they sure didn’t waste any time.”
What happened next was entirely my fault. I think Miz Cora would argue with me on that point, but I knew better. I just did it anyway: run right out onto the porch, to watch them come up.
Only they’d already parked, and it seemed “they” was just one man, the fellow behind the wheel. He got out, and I guess in hindsight, it was only natural he’d think I was Miz Cora. I was long for my years, and had a lot of bone, and my dress didn’t fit me proper so I must have looked just ready-made in the role of a lady who hid in a shack and made moonshine.
That’s why he pointed his gun at me.
“No,” I started to explain, taking a step forward, “you see—”
It was nothing less than a miracle his shot missed as it did. Bit right into the wood beside my head, and I must have screamed, though I don’t remember that. I only remember Miz Cora’s voice.
“June get down,” she said, all sharp, so I got down just about as fast as the earth could pull me there, and there was the thunder of a shotgun, a sharp and angry sound, and I heard the other man hit the ground too.
Only one of us got up again.
“You troubled?” Miz Cora asked, and I shook my head no, but she must have seen it was a lie because she poured me out a little drink and told me to have it all.
It burned, and I coughed, but I felt sort of warm inside after it went down, and that was nice. Like a hug for your guts.
After I got warmed and settled, there was still the problem of the dead law man. Miz Cora got him nice and clean in the head, so that part was all right, but you can’t just go killing a law man. We both knew that. So Miz Cora said she’d bury him, and I said I’d help, because as I say, that doesn’t seem like the sort of thing as should be done alone, if you can help it.
We made a grave behind her place, too shallow for any good use, but decent enough for what you might call temporary purposes. Then Miz Cora said “I can’t be staying around here anymore. But if you ever need something, June . . .”
And she told me where she’d be.
Then she told me to get along with myself, and have a nice life, and mind my Daddy. Then she just got into that law man’s car like she owned it, and drove it back down the mountain.
I walked myself home, all full of thoughts and empty of ways to put them into words.
I tried to forget all of that, because it seemed the best way, but as spring came through and the ground got soft, everything started to go wrong. Aaron Jessup kept going on about how city doctors was the only thing could save us, but other people said bringing in doctors would thwart the will of God, who had visited the plague on us as a judgement.
I kept well out of most of that. There were law men came around our place, asking where Miz Cora went, but Daddy swore he didn’t know, and none of them ever thought to ask me. Lucas Jessup did, one day: just outright asked if I knew where Miz Cora had gone.
“Even if I did,” I told him, “I wouldn’t tell you.”
He didn’t ask me again, but he said if I ever cared to find him and share an afternoon, he’d be down by the willow grove. “I go there to eat, most days, and swim in the river.”
“I’ll think about it,” I told him, and I meant it, too. Before I could think better of any plans involving social exchanges with Lucas Jessup, Val was the next to go, and that just threw my thoughts all wrong.
It wasn’t a walker or a bite took her, it was a fever. Swept in one day, laid her low, and just like that she was done. It wasn’t an unheard of thing; it just wasn’t the thing you heard most of in those days. I’d kind of forgot about normal ways to die until Val died of one of ‘em.
We laid her nicely in the ground, and then Daddy and I waited up for her with an old musket and axe between us. It was a full moon that night, big and kind of yellow, shining bright on the new-cut words on the skinny, flat chip of limestone.
Lily of the Valley
That was all. Just her given name, not even enough room left for the family name, but them lines was all Daddy could afford, and only then because John MacPherson did him a charity over the price of the cutting.
Near sunup we dealt with the thing that clawed up out of the grave, the thing that looked like my sister but had none of her left inside it, and then Daddy and me walked home together, the musket on his shoulder, the axe on mine.
“You should go have yourself a nice day tomorrow,” Daddy decided. He didn’t suggest how I was to do that, but I understood as he wanted to be alone, so the next day I washed my face and went down to the willow grove, where Lucas Jessup had said I might find him if ever I cared to look.
I don’t think he expected me to show up. He looked surprised enough, and sort of apologetic. He said it wasn’t nice, like he’d wanted it to be for me.
“Just wait,” he said. “Just you wait here, and I’ll be right back.”
So I waited, dipping my toes in the water while he rabbited off home. The river was cold and lovely, all frigid mountain water. I liked how it played over my feet, making them look all ripply and different sizes, until I couldn’t feel them at all and climbed up on the bank to warm some feeling back in.
I was still warming them when Lucas Jessup came back, his arms all full of a dirty old blanket and food.
He had a picnic, kind of, that he laid out for us to enjoy. There was a sandwich for each of us, though they were all soggy, and there was a bottle of something that a charitable person might have called wine. I said “what in hell is this?” and Lucas looked a little scared, then embarrassed.
“You don’t have to—”
But I was angry at him, somehow. I didn’t even rightly know why, unless maybe I was really more angry that Val was gone, every bit of her, and now I had nobody but Daddy, whom I don’t especially count as anybody at all. So I drank most of it, and he let me, which was more gentlemanly and generous than Lucas Jessup had ever been in all his life.
It was kind of funny tasting, but I hadn’t much experience with wine, good or bad, so I didn’t know how it was supposed to taste. I didn’t even know how it was supposed to feel, so I had no way of knowing that what I felt after that was all wrong.
It gets complicated, here. Like the words don’t come as smooth, because of all the changes that went on after. I got real sleepy. I know that much. I remember thinking it had to be more than sun and wine was doing that. And Lucas leaned in over me, so I could smell his breath, and it smelled awful bad.
He was saying “Rose? Rose?” from real far away, and I wanted to tell him not to call me that. But my words wouldn’t come out right.
“Rose,” he said, “you got to tell me where she’s gone. There’s a reward out for her, and if we turn her in we can get the money. My Daddy says the money can bring in doctors, people to examine us and fix what’s wrong, maybe save those of us as is left. Rose, can you hear me?”
I could, but none too well. He was getting farther and farther away, and I guess Lucas hadn’t figured on me drinking as much as I had. I guess he’d figured that he would somehow know the difference between herbs that acted as truth-tellers, and herbs that acted as poisons.
He sure didn’t figure on me dying right there under the willow trees and coming back up at him, all ready to have a bite.
I wasn’t in there for it, you have to see. I was sort of off to one side, and a little above it all, like a thought floating through the willow branches. I watched the thing that looked like me stagger up, and Lucas took a moment to see what was going on.
In that moment, the thing that wasn’t me any more almost got him.
I kind of wished she had.
Instead, Lucas got to his old sabre just in time, and he started swinging. Wasn’t much finesse in him at that point. Just stabbing and slicing, until he finally managed to get the head off the shoulders that had been mine. Then he shoved the whole mess into the river that leads down to the sea, and I watched all the bits I’d used to live in go bobbing away.
Lucas was too busy retching on the riverbank to watch.
I drifted for a time, mostly through the willows but also down through the hills, and across some peoples’ properties. I made a kind of howling noise without even thinking about it, and it wasn’t like I was angry or anything like that, but somehow I cottoned to the notion that people said I was; that I was demanding justice.
Which, I never much cared for when I was alive, so why should I now?
Miz Cora came back about a week after it happened. It took me a while to work out why: I may not have cared for justice, but she sure did. She whipped ‘em all up into a frenzy, with her .44 on one hip and her hand waving in the air, them big wide knuckles making fists and saying here was a chance to let a wrong be punished, a way to make one of these deaths count for something.
She sure did have a way with words, Miz Cora, and a gift for organization such as Aaron Jessup could only dream about. Got ‘em all riled up, and they stormed in on the Jessup place before you could say knife.
Or rope, I guess.
They was still going to make it hanging. They’d have to cut his head off after, but they’re ready for that these days.
I watched them hanging him, even right up to when he started to blub, and beg ‘em not to. I wasn’t angry, exactly, only I wanted him to know how it felt. I wanted to see that he knew what it was like for me, when I didn’t have any say, and only sort of half understood what was happening and what I was dying for.
All for Lucas Jessup’s bone-headed mistake.
I guess in the end that’s what he died for, too. So that’s all right.
After the hanging, I still stayed around. Not sure why; I certainly don’t go visiting my daddy, or anything of that kind. Don’t even know he’d notice if I did.
I think out of all of them, only Miz Cora knew I was still around. She didn’t stay long—she couldn’t, not with the law men still on her heels—but she stayed long enough to visit my grave, and Val’s. I was there just to watch, but all in a moment, just before she turned away, she squinted up at the trees and smiled kind of sad-like. I think she wanted to say she was sorry, which is foolishness, because it wasn’t her who made Aaron Jessup so crazed foolish, or told Lucas to bung me full of some herbal concoction or other that he thought would make me give up my secrets.
None of that was her fault, it was only sort of to do with her in passing, like.
Then she left, and that was it. There was nobody left around I cared to pass the time with. I think that means I could do what they call “moving on” now. Certainly I don’t feel all trapped in the trees and the hills; I could float up if I liked, higher and higher and higher, right into the sun and stars and whatever’s waiting there.
The problem is, even with all my people gone or uninteresting to me now, I can’t quite bring myself to leave. It’s so pretty here . . . and these are my hills. This is where I was born, raised and died, albeit a little sooner than I’d have liked.
This is my place, you know?
This is my home.