“She saw the ghost of the old slave when she was sixteen. Ephemeral, a mustard-colored fog in his form. She figured him a ghost. There was no way knowing for sure that wasn’t wicked, like Tracy’s magic or taking up a ouija. She never considered the bourbon she drank or how she’d never see daylight again.”
– from an Appalachian folktale, as told by Sister Hall
This is how it was that Jennifer Rhodes first saw Strongarm Rex in the cemetery.
Through the sliding glass door of her double-wide at a far edge of hill-sloped backyard where a tree line started and a trimmed grass stopped. Her in an exhausted way, shoulders missing, arms dropped out in front of her. They are slim and they are two carp along a sandbar and then Strongarm comes as a ribbon of sandalwood smoke low to the ground, rising up through the ironweed. And is it him. Strongarm with ropey arms, coal-dark with bones full of cork oak, skin melted across muscles tough as hemp fabric.
There were two descendants of Strongarm Rex: Easy Andy and Duramus. That she knew both of them would have seemed strange to her later. Easy Andy fell passed out on the railroad tracks at Robinson Creek, came awake with his leg cut off; Duramus, so handsome he appeared for court on PI charges with two college girlfriends and walked away clean, a swagger starting at the knees and ending in the shoulders.
At the hilltop float-spinning, Strongarm Rex bared his teeth and it didn’t matter he was probably a slave once buried somewhere along the ridgeline. That it couldn’t just be old Easy Andy loose with his swinging crutch again, gone hill-crazy or Duramus rolling another college girl in the grass was beside the point. What mattered was that Tracy knew how to handle a virtuoso demon such as Rex blinking ephemeral in the mist, strange in his ways and surely evil, menacing, shifting shape, cloudbursting a death sea teeming.
Something different entirely, even as Tracy towed all her amulets and secrets and her hope and will. All these things handed out to Jennifer at a safe distance from the edge of the sloping backyard. The magic and the strength of Tracy’s gifts pulsed in the girl’s hands during the climb, all amid sandalwood and the strength of hemp fabric, all in vain and bourbon-soaked because hanging from the neck by two fingers, a bottle. And Tracy, seeing the bottle and being a lover of odes, proclaiming to stitch creeds together with a sail, proclaiming to create a bark of dead men’s bones, proclaiming all was but a drink’s dream until the second, the exact unholy second, she is proven wrong.
And this is what I know.
Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of five books of fiction and poetry. His third novel,
Dysphoria: An Appalachian Gothic, will be published by Cowboy Jamboree Press in April of 2019. He was shortlisted for the Still Fiction Award, nominated for the Chaffin Award, and a finalist for the Gertrude Stein Fiction Award. His stories have been published most recently in BULL: Men’s Fiction, Vending Machine Press, X-RAY Literary Magazine, formercactus, and New World Writing. He lives in Pike County, Kentucky.