If you wanta learn you somethin’, go on down to a place where two roads cross. Get there Saturday ’round midnight, and wait there ’til Sunday morning—do that for nine Sundays, all in a row. The dark man, he’ll send his dog to watch on you while you wait. And on the ninth morning, the dark man will meet you. And he will learn you—anything you wanta learn. But you remember this: that dark man, he don’t work for free.
I’m hunkered down in the tall grass, tail down, ears back. She leans back against the oak tree, wiggling her toes in the grass, big ugly boots beside her, moonlight throwing up shadows all around. Sat herself right in the center of the hard-packed and pebbly crossroads the better part of an hour before the soft weedy patch by the roadside and the oak’s wide trunk wooed her over. That makes her luckier than that fool boy from Kansas, that one who nodded off three Sundays in. Never heard that turnip truck coming, stupid little bastard. Smashed flatter than flat, and all those turnips spread across the road to hell and breakfast and the driver dead with his back broke.
I hate turnips. Nasty mealy things.
She starts rummaging in that bag of hers, leather bag still reeking of dead cow’s fright. Other bad smells too, stinky things, and plastic things. Mebbe a sandwich down close to the bottom, but not a meat sandwich. Good brown bread smell, but no meat. Not a bit.
She comes up with a conjure bag, and even hunkered way back here in the verbena my nose can twitch it out: store bought. The girl has brought a store bought conjure bag to the crossroads. I take a long whiff. No graveyard earth; no dead man’s piss; no John the Conqueror root; no blood from a lady’s monthly. Just some tired old oregano and a little mustard powder. Bag isn’t even flannel.
Silly girl. Ugly thing, short hair like a boy, little scrawny body, looking like no girl I ever saw. Can’t hardly tell she’s female. I got better to do than sit here babysitting. Nine Sundays is a long time, and she don’t have near the tenacity it’s gonna take to see this through. Waste of my time.
The night is full of good smells; honeysuckle and butterfly lilies, lantana and night-blooming jasmine. There’s a breeze from the river and the fireflies are all bunched up in the oak tree, moving through the leaves, little flicky-flick candle flames. Go home, girl. I’ve got my own business. There’s a fox down by the river needs me to show him who’s in charge.
She sets the conjure bag aside and pulls out the sandwich. Nope, no meat in there, not a speck. Tomatoes mostly, and green things. Waste of good brown bread. She settles back further against the tree, takes out a thumbed-up old book and starts reading by moonlight. I settle into the verbena. It’s a long ways ’til sunrise.
She’s back under the oak tree, I’m back in the verbena. No breeze tonight, it’s hot and close, and Mr. Moon is half the fella he used to be. She’s got a lantern, makes a little circle of light, drawing every skeeter in ten counties, big cloud of buzz and bother. She’s all over coated up with some unguent from a plastic bottle. Nasty smellin’ stuff, and not hardly working by the way she’s cussing and slapping.
She cusses like a man, and she’s wearing those big old boots again. I expect she wishes she were beautiful. That’s what I’d wish for, if I was an ugly woman.
A skeeter lights on my ear and I take a scratch. She stops reading and looks back at where I’m hiding.
“Is someone there?” she says. She holds up the lantern. The skeeter cloud rises up with it, like the mist around Mr. Moon.
“Hello?” she says. She sounds small.
I stay still as still, still as death. Nobody here but us bad things, sugar.
She listens to the night noise for a while, then settles back down, slaps at the skeeters, eats her sandwich. Brown bread again, and eggs this time. I like eggs. Raw is better, but cooked is fine too.
The dawn comes, finally. I’m achy all over from lying still so long. She packs up her stinky bag, looks back at where I’m hiding, walks down the road towards town, scratching at her arms.
I start for home. I’m almost to the shack when Red Rooster steps out of the grass in front of me.
Hear you got a task, he says, strutting up and down like he does. Since the Dark Man gave him those fighting spurs, Red Rooster thinks he’s the prettiest trick around.
I’m keeping watch on a girl at the crossroads, I say, trying to slip past him. Keep her from harm, just in case she lasts all nine Sundays.
You think she’ll make it? Red Rooster juts his head out and back, up and down, and shakes his big haughty tail. In the dawn, his feathers glow like foxfire. He swaggers a little ways past me and turns back, like he’s giving me a show.
The skeeters like to eat her alive tonight, I tell him. I don’t know if she’ll be back.
And what is it to you, I want to say, but I’ve got to stay on his sweet side. The Dark Man, he loves Red Rooster, and I’m not allowed to chase him, or bullyrag him, or nothing.
You better leave off that scratching, unless you want to frighten her away, he says.
You spying on me? I ask, and my hackles rise up. The Dark Man set me to watch over her. You mind your own business.
The Dark Man’s business is my business, dog. Remember that. And he turns and struts back into the five-finger grass, impertinent as you please, and I go on home. I am not allowed to chase Red Rooster.
Three Sundays in a row, that’s more than some, less than many. I don’t scratch the skeeters when they come, and she does not hear me.
She’ll stop soon.
It’s pissing down rain and the skeeters are all off somewhere. She’s wearing some outlandish thing, great big piece of plastic with her head poking through the middle. No sandwich tonight, just an apple while she huddles under the oak, lamp in the grass at her feet. Down by the river, something big splashes into the water and she jumps.
Bet you have a nice warm home to go to, I think. The rain is soaking in my fur, and the verbena patch stinks, a skunk has expressed her vehement displeasure somewhere very near. Here we both sit, wet and miserable, because what you have is not enough, you want more and won’t work to get it, you want the Dark Man to just hand it over to you. Greedy thing.
Sunrise comes, and she gathers up her things slowly and starts back to town. I go home.
The Dark Man is there, fussing around in the cupboard.
She’s still waiting for me, he says.
Yes, boss, I say. This one’s not giving up easy.
You’re keeping her safe for me, he says, and takes down a mason jar, wipes off the dust with a grubby old rag.
Yes, boss. No harm comes to her.
You are a good dog, he says, and my tail thumps against the table leg.
He holds the jar in the candle flame, tipping it to and fro, watches what’s inside beat against the glass.
Red Rooster struts on in.
You stink of skunk, he says to me, and the Dark Man laughs.
I know what that means. I go on out of the shack and crawl underneath the porch to a spot where it’s mostly dry. Red Rooster comes out and sashays back and forth a while, those spurs clickety-click on the tired gray boards above my head. The Dark Man calls him inside and shuts the door.
Snuffling and hacking like an old hound, standing up a ways from the lantern. The skeeters have returned, and brought all their kin besides. The verbena still stinks, so I’ve changed my hiding spot, still downwind of the oak but across the road now in a clump of switchgrass, cattycorner like. She’s racked with coughing now, bent over double with little ropy strings of bad-smelling nastiness jumping out of her. My vigil’s over soon. She’ll go back to her warm house, I’ll go back to chasing rabbits and worrying that fox—
Something stealing through the grass. Something low and sly. Rattlesnake. Diamondback, by the smell. Ireful and ill-tempered, moving right to her with murder on its spiteful little mind.
I know where it comes from. I know who sends it. He’s looking to reshuffle this deck, steal her away from my master.
You are keeping her safe for me, I hear the Dark Man say, and I tear on out of the high grass and across the road like perdition’s flames. The girl sees me coming and lets out a scream, so high and sharp it pains my ears. The rattler sees me too, and lets fly as I come up, but he is just a sorry crawling vermin and I am the Dark Man’s Good Dog, and I catch him behind his head and crush his bones in one bite. I whip him back and forth a bit, ’til I’m sure he knows he’s dead, and drop him in the road. Then I look around.
She’s crouched down behind the oak tree, staring at me, eyes all wide and frightened. She starts in coughing, holding on to the oak to stay upright. I sit down in the road. No point in going back to the high grass now.
“You’re his dog,” she whispers when her breath comes back. “The black dog. You’re real. It’s real.”
Stupid woman. Why you been sitting out here five Sundays in a row, catching your death of the ague if you don’t believe? People only believe the things they can see, and touch, and have. Like that man, that fool from Memphis, handed the Dark Man his guitar and then grabbed his arm, squeezed him like, just to see if he was solid.
The Dark Man don’t like to be touched.
She coughs some more, then pulls out a bottle, honey and cold tea and cheap whiskey. She hunkers down beside the oak, swigging and coughing and staring at me, and we spend the rest of the night that way, she and I and the skeeters, and come the dawn I pick up the rattler and go home and her still sitting there, stunned like.
The Dark Man pours the powder out of the packet. It sifts down into my fur, spilling all around me on the porch. I can smell all the things that went into it, and my nose wrinkles up. Sweet and kinda spoiled, like honey and curdled milk mixed up.
Remember, she can hear you in there, so no talking, he says.
He runs his finger across the diamond-patterned skin tacked out on the door, gives the rattle a flick with his finger, and smiles. It’s just a little smile, but he knows I see it.
Go on now, he says.
I take off out the shack and down the road. It’s close on to midnight. Mr. Moon is still fat and bright, and my shadow chases me all the way to the crossroads.
It’s a hot night, muggy like, but she’s all wrapped up in a raggedy shawl. She coughs, and it racks her. There’s circles under her eyes, and she’s all pale and peaked, a sight thinner than she was when all this started. That cold is a long time going. She leaves off coughing, catches her breath, looks up and sees me.
“Dog,” she says. Then she stretches out her hand, waggling her fingers. “C’mere dog.”
Usually they don’t touch me right away. One time, this boy from Charleston wouldn’t even let me near and I had to chase him through the grass, all the way to the riverbank. That was a treat.
I go on over and sit near her and I don’t put my ears back or growl or show my teeth or nothing. She puts her hand right on my head. She’s not a bit afraid.
“Good dog,” she says, and my tail thumps in spite of me. “Good dog that saved my life.” Her hand moves to the back of my ears. I turn my head a little, and she runs her hand down my spine. Then she finds a sweet spot on my shoulder and commences scratching, and my mutinous left hind foot starts to dance, tappity tap against the dirt.
She rummages around in her stinky bag, comes up with a sandwich.
“You want some of my chicken sandwich?”
Stupid woman. I grab the sandwich out of her hand, gulp it down so fast she don’t see it go. Chicken is good. Best when you catch it yourself, but good any way you get it.
“Hey!” she says, and I duck my head away from her hand. She laughs, and scratches behind my ear again. “That was my supper, dog, but I guess you earned it, killing that bad old snake.”
Supper? That little bit of chicken and brown bread?
She yawns, and leans back against the tree. “I’m so sleepy,” she says. “But I guess I can rest a while, with you here to watch over me.” And she with her hand on my back, she closes her eyes and drifts away, down into dreamland, and I go with.
We’re standing outside a little tottery tarpaper house. Raggedy curtains drooping in the front window, front yard all mud and junk; an old water pump, a pile of car tires, door off a chicken coop. Clothes on the line, tired sheets and towels and a pair of man’s coveralls, ripped and faded. Somewhere here, someplace not right now, I can hear a child crying.
She’s beside me in the road, and she looks different. Stronger, more meat on her bones. Ugly boots gone, good walking shoes on her feet, big backpack, all shiny and new-smelling hooked on her shoulder. And something else, something I can’t determinate.
“Here I go,” she says, and turns her back on the house. She starts down the road, big long steps, and she doesn’t look back, but I do. There a face staring at us from that front window, looking angry and sad both at once, and then the tatty curtains twitch, and the face is gone.
“Dog! You coming?” she says, and I run to catch up.
We walk a long time. Mr. Moon lights the way. There’s honeysuckle in the air, thick and sweet, and the further we get from that house the happier she is. Her steps gets lighter, like she’s shucking off some burden, and she starts in laughing from time to time.
We walk on and on. I flush a fat rabbit and chase it a while. She takes a big meat sandwich out of her bag and gives me half, and we drink our fill from a spring running by the road. She picks up an old stick and throws it as she walks along, and I bring it on back and she throws it again.
By and by the road under our feet changes, from hard-packed dirt to blacktop, smooth and oily and smelling from tar. The sky is changed now, the wind is dry and hot, the trees and brush all gone. And it’s a puzzlement to me; I can smell the desert spread out all around us, sand and heat and open sky, but there’s water up ahead too, a powerful lot of it.
“Look, dog. There it is.” Off in the distance I can see a city, tall buildings and lights shining and blinking, and cars, and people—more than I’ve ever seen. And something else, a thick, rank smell the Dark Man taught me. Money. Bright lights and noise and money, that’s the place her heart yearns for.
She pulls a pack of cards from her pocket, does a one-hand shuffle like she was born with the pasteboards in her hands. She spreads the cards out to make a fan and flutters them back and forth, and the ace of spades jumps out and dances along above us in that hot dry wind a second before she catches it neat as neat and slides it back in.
“They do what I tell them, now,” she says. “I’m going to be the queen of the tables, dog, how’s that sound to you?”
That’s what different about her, what I couldn’t place. This dream is the future, after the Dark Man learns her what she wants to learn.
“Cards? You doing all of this to learn cards?” I ask.
“I’m going to be a queen,” she says again, not paying me any mind. She’s shuffling the cards again, makes the joker jump up this time. The breeze picks the card and pulls it up out of the deck, and it lands on the blacktop at my feet before she can catch it. The joker is the Dark Man, and he winks up at me. She makes a little tch sound and picks up the card, puts it back in the deck.
Her clothes are changed. She’s wearing a dress, shiny spangles and beads, her hair is long and kind of curly, on her feet little bitty shoes with tall heels, and her fingers all covered in rings.
You’re going to end up in the cupboard with all the rest, I think. But I won’t speak. He’ll beat me enough for what I’ve said already, I don’t want more than that. No more. Nope.
“Listen,” I say. “Don’t you understand? He don’t work for free. You gonna lose your—”
Off in the desert comes a sound, raucous and ugly. It throws my mind into confusion and perplexes my tongue.
A rooster crowing.
Just like that we’re back under the oak tree, air all moist and close, skeeters and noseeums digging at us. She’s skinny again, and tired and sick, and I am just a dumb dog.
She jumps up and grabs her bag. “Three more Sundays, dog, and I’ll leave this place forever.” She runs on down the road, back to that tarpaper house.
Across the river, Red Rooster crows again. I head on home.
My back hurts, and my head. The chain is too tight, and it’s rubbing off all the fur about my neck.
Just after sunrise, Red Rooster comes strutting down the road like he owns it. He’s been to the crossroads. I pick my head up slowly. My ear bleeds, little weepy drops.
“Was she there? She still sick?” I say.
He struts on past, like I’m not there.
The Dark Man takes the chain off and gives me dinner.
Thank you, boss, I say.
Red Rooster has just come back from the crossroads again. He tosses his head, comb waggling. The Dark Man squints at him and Red Rooster finds elsewhere to be, quick as he can.
The Dark Man lays his hand on my head, and it hurts less.
Have you learned your lesson? He asks.
Yes boss, I’m sorry, I say.
He gives a little grunt and goes back into the shack. I wait until the door shuts. I go up onto the porch and sniff around ’til I find the spot where he poured the dream dust on me. There it is, sweet and spoiled-milky, settled into the cracks of the boards. Mebbe enough. Mebbe not.
The Dark Man will go to her at the ninth sunrise; she’s got one Sunday still to wait. Next week Mr. Moon is ripe and full. Mebbe a big moon can help a little bit of powder do its work.
The Dark Man is rearranging jars in the cupboard.
Boss? I ask.
Yes, he says, not turning around.
Boss, how come that cupboard never gets full? How many jars can that old cupboard hold?
He laughs, tosses the jar in his hand up in the air and catches it. Inside, something wretched flutters, then goes still.
It’s a funny thing, he says. There’s always room in this cupboard for one more.
He glances at me over his shoulder.
It’s an hour ’til sunrise. You can go if you want, he says. Say goodbye to her.
Why I need to do that, Boss? I ask. She’ll be back here soon enough.
He laughs at that, sets the jar down and touches my head.
You are my good dog, he says, my creature.
That I am and nothing else, I say.
Go on and catch a rabbit, he says, and takes up the jar again.
Yes boss. Thank you, boss.
I go out and pause on the porch to take a back scratch against the rough old boards. A good long scratch.
I run down the road, stop just before I reach the crossroad. I know he’s here.
Come on out, Fussybritches, I say.
Red Rooster bustles out of the grass, all puffed up with vexation. He hates that name.
What do you want, dog? I’m busy on the Dark Man’s task. I got this girl to watch for him, he says.
Do tell. I expect a dumb dog like me wouldn’t know much about it.
The Dark Man wants you to fetch him up some John the Conqueror root, I say.
I’m not the fetch-it boy round here, he says.
The Dark Man says you pick it nice and clean, like he needs it. But if you don’t want to go—
He’s off and down the road at a trot. When that big waving flag of a tail disappears over the hill, I run on to the crossroads.
So thin. Like she’s the one been chained up all those days.
“Dog! You’re back! Where’d you go? Bad dog, not coming to see me. I had to sit here all alone, with a nasty rooster staring at me all the time. He wouldn’t move, not even when I threw rocks at him.”
I wish you had better aim, I think.
She’s petting me, but we don’t have time. I shake myself hard, throwing up dream powder all around us. She sneezes, and I do too. We sneeze again and she commences laughing, then coughing, so hard she can’t stop. I’m still sneezing—that bad milk smell is all up in my nose—and when I stop, she’s breathing like she’s just run a race, with a big smear of blood across her lip.
Oh, Mr. Moon. Help this dumb dog.
“What’ve you been rolling in?” she says, and coughs again. Then her eyes do a flutter. “I’m so tired, dog. I think now you’re here, I’ll close my eyes. . . .”
And just like that we’re out on the dream road, not near the house, but not near the city either. We’re somewhere in between, where we took our walk and she threw that stick. She’s strong again, and pretty, all done up in her sparkly dress.
“You listen to me, girl,” I say. “You get on outta here, straight you wake up. The Dark Man wants your soul for his cupboard. You stay here, he’ll get you for sure.”
“He’s going to help me.” She smiles and takes the cards out again. She starts that fancy one-handed shuffle.
“How far you going to get sick as you are? What good playing cards do you in the graveyard? He means to have your soul, and he’ll get it if you tarry here.”
“He can’t take my soul, dog.”
“He’s the Dark Man and it’s Sunday number nine. He can take what he pleases now.”
“No, dog.” She bends down to me. “My soul was taken long ago,” she says, and hikes up her long skirt for me to see a cicatrix of scars across her belly and thighs. She’s been mistreated, this girl has.
“He can’t hurt me any more than I been hurt,” she says and I can see the beatings and the screams and bad times, swimming just below her skin.
You’re a child and you’re wrong, so wrong you can’t imagine. You don’t know about souls and what they worth. Don’t know how much you can lose. You ain’t seen the cupboard.
I say it, but no sound comes out.
No need for Red Rooster now; envious time has fled. The light is changing. It’s dawn, and we’re back at the crossroads.
The Dark Man steps from the high grass, takes off his best hat and gives her a bow. His coat is brushed, his boots polished to a killing shine.
Good morning, my dear, he says.
“Good morning sir. My name is Sally,” she says.
Hello, Sally. How may I help you?
She hands over the cards, and he begins to shuffle. I know what comes next, and head over to the oak tree to lie down.
The lesson takes about an hour. All that waiting, for an hour in his company. He hands the cards back to her one last time, and she shows him what she’s learned. He applauds.
A pleasure to meet you, Sally, he says, I hope to see you again. He takes off his right glove and extends his hand to her.
I turn my head away as she reaches her hand over. They shake. Down by the river, Red Rooster screams in triumph.
“Thank you, but I’m heading west,” Sally says, and picks up her bag. She slings it onto her shoulder, coughs with the effort. Then she looks the Dark Man right in the eye.
“Your dog is coming with me,” she says.
He smiles. I don’t believe that’s so, Sally. He can be trouble, that dog, but he is mine.
“He’s coming with me,” she says. “We’re going to take care of each other.”
The Dark Man looks over at me, all quiet in the grass.
Is that so, dog? he asks. You leaving Red Rooster and me for greener pastures?
I look at her. Sally. She pats her thigh in a come-on gesture. I put my head down again.
No boss, I say to him. I am your good dog.
Sally calls me, pats her thigh again. I don’t look up. The Dark Man laughs.
Good day, Miss, I think we will meet again soon, he says. Sooner than you might think.
She calls me one more time. I stand up and walk over to the Dark Man. He grabs me by the back of my neck, where my skin’s rubbed all raw, but I don’t wince. Not a bit. We watch Sally turn and walk down the road, stopping now and then to cough and shift that stinky bag from one shoulder to another. We walk home.
She’s dying. She was a skinny thing at the start, and now that cold has turned on her, rotting out her lungs. I don’t even thinks she knows it yet, but I can smell the death coming out of her when she breathes. She won’t get even halfway to that bright city before she goes and then her soul’s gonna come flying right on back here, and he’ll put her in a jam jar and lock her away.
And me? Gonna be bad for me. He’s gonna beat me and starve me and send that swaggering fowl to lord it over me. And I’ll have to bear it. Because I know, someday, there’ll be one second he won’t be watching, one moment when I can get close. Mebbe some night when Mr. Moon is full so there’s light for her to fly away by.
I’ll tip that cupboard over, see if I don’t.