Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery
Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.
Leslie’s Bubba was many things.
The first thing that he was, was her Father.
This meant that they had the same ingredients, like their brown eyes, which could turn dark and beetle-like when you looked at them in low light. Once Leslie had asked him why they matched, apart from the scars, and Bubba had laughed and spooned more greens onto her plate and answered:
Why, because I made you
and Leslie wasn’t sure how he had managed that, since just last summer he had tried to build her a bedside table and after all, he put the second drawer in upside down.
That aside, it always cheered her to imagine him, a long eight years ago, discovering parts of a daughter strewn about like logs. She pictured big buckets of stucco (for her skin) and thatch (for her hair) in piles that loomed in on his quiet, hunched way of working. And she often thought of him taking fingers and arms and feet and clipping them together under the afternoon sun and concluding ‘brown eyes, like mine, would be nice’ and shading in the blank white circles on her new face with paint that smelt of cocoa.
The second thing Bubba was, was her best friend. This part was more important than the first. Everyone had a father — somewhere — otherwise they’d be nought but a pile of kindling on the hearth, still waiting to be built.
What Leslie was confident in was that not everyone had a friend. Not like Bubba. Bubba, who — on catching her frowning at her reading— would momentarily forget his care for her learning…in this world the only thing worth more than a stack of gold is a head heavy with learning, and scoop her up and out onto the pasture to dance dizzy circles with her.
He reminded her of a Feathertop: a lop of a smile fixed under his best Sunday hat, liquorice kept for her all a-rustle up his sleeves. He was a best friend on a flawless level, as if fashioned of straws, where every straw was a warmth and a way to please her.
The third thing Bubba was, was a Dead Man.
That one was new.
In fact, up until that Monday morning she had been comfortable in the knowledge that she, as the closest person to Bubba in the whole entire world — she who held the dish cloth and always stood on his right when he did the wash-up — was the only one who could be sure of just what he was, and what he wasn’t.
Then came Monday.
Monday morning brought a knock at the door that made Leslie freeze with a forkful of egg halfway to her mouth and Bubba startle behind his newspaper.
She watched, unblinking, as the paper lowered and Bubba’s face emerged slowly from behind the cartoons. Upon it was all the well-loved details she was familiar with: the nose with the crack in the middle that made it zig sideways and zag back down to his nostrils, the raised white lines that trailed from the eyebrows to the top of the lids and started again at the bottom of the eye-sockets and down his cheeks, and the loping, sideways mouth. Only, she didn’t recognise the expression.
It wasn’t plain angry and it wasn’t quite sad, but both things tangled up. It had a little sickness in it, too.
No one had ever knocked on their door before.
If that was the face it made Bubba pull, Leslie decided it was better off that no one did again.
Close your mouth, child, you’re spilling good food, Bubba said, and then stood from his seat to lean over the counter and peer out at the world through the net curtains.
“I didn’t invite anyone” she blurted, teeth clenching on her fork as she cringed.
She knew the rules: head down, and invite no one — not into conversation or, and especially not, to the house. If a wagon comes along down the dirt track road then you run into the wheat and you sit till Bubba finds you.
She knew the way, as she had known always.
But, still, maybe Bubba could use reminding that she was the same as she ever was; a stalwart first mate in an uncontrollable world.
“It wasn’t me.”
Hush, I know that. Go to the place under the stairs now.
Whatever knocked did so again: three extremely hard, confident strikes, with such purposeful seconds of silence between them that they skirted past politeness right into sardonic territory — as if the doer sensed and revelled in their panic. Whoever was behind it surely knew they did not play host, ever.
Leslie’s knees began to shake and bump together in time with the knocking.
All light, all colour, seemed to be sucked out from the corners of their small, tidy kitchen and towards the now terrible shape of the front doorway. Maybe lost forever.
“I can stay. I prefer to,” Leslie said, lying.
I know you want to, Bubba lied gently back, without turning from his position to face her. With one hand he reached for the utensils drawer and drew out a large knife, the sort for carving dark meat. Leslie stared at her reflection in the steel where he held it by his hip. She looked very small — brown eyes leering, taking up half of her face where her lips had turned inward between her teeth — just two fists and knobbly shins.
But I would prefer you go away, he finished.
Not needing to be asked again, away she slipped, tucking a piece of bread into her pyjama pockets but foregoing her shoes. They were too close to the door, the one that had been knocked upon again with the force of thunder and was starting to radiate an energy of throat-closing dread.
Their home was a converted barn house, so it had secret places upon secret places and crannies in nooks and hidey-holes in abundance. The place under the stairs was just one of these, and had been used mostly for games — hide and seek and the like. It was packed with old marmalade jars that Leslie liked to fill with pretty treasures like the marzipan looking pebbles she would find scattered across the fields, back when winter ate up the crops and left the soil barefaced and blue in the dusk frost.
These jars sat in well-attended rows on shelves built-wonkily once upon a time by Bubba. The shelves went all the way up to the highest beam that held up the house’s top stair.
It was between these shelves, on Monday morning, that Leslie crouched, shivering and barefoot, as the Man Who Knocked broke down her front door.
“You’re a Dead Man,” was the thing that the Man Who Knocked announced upon his arrival, and the rage of it reverberated through the hall.
Leslie tucked her head between her knees and added Dead Man to her list of Bubba.
There was a great crash, the loudest noise that had ever been committed against the still, honeyed air of the house. Through a peephole and further still, through the hallway and into the kitchen, she saw The Man who Knocked strike the knife from Bubba’s hand, wrap his hands around his throat and pin him back flat to the table as one would lay down a napkin before supper.
That wasn’t right.
“Get him back good,” she whispered. It was but a sigh in the dark.
But Bubba always listened.
I got him, Sugar, came the reply. And Bubba pushed back with one palm and sent the intruder through the kitchen window.
Easy as pie.
Leslie turned from the door jam and counted ten of her breaths.
Bubba’s feet came slowly into view before the door jam. He didn’t crouch — coddling wasn’t his way as much as being coddled wasn’t hers.
You gonna come out and help me finish my breakfast?
“Why he try telling you you’re a dead man?” Leslie asked, standing and brushing the sawdust from her soles with the back of her hand, wiping the tears leaking at the corner of her eye hurriedly with the other hand, and letting Bubba rest the great weight of his arm over her shoulders as he led them back the kitchen way.
Because speaking something can be the same as wishing it, and he wished it were true
In the quiet, sleepy place between the kitchen and the staircase, Bubba stopped and put his two paw-like palms on either side of her face, holding her fast.
He worried about us. He wasted his life worrying about ours instead of his own. You gonna do the same thing, or you gonna live? he asked.
She shrugged, and his hands let her head bob like that before he took her chin and pushed it, gentle as the breeze, upwards.
Keep that up, then
The press of his thumb, once, on the divot above her jaw.
There’s a string right here, skinny as a fishing line. On the other end of it is your soul. Keep that head up and you pull your soul up along with it
Leslie had a little laugh then, picturing her soul like a trout darting in the blue.
Bubba hummed, pleased, and dashed another tear from her cheek with one gnarly finger before steering her into the kitchen.
The glass of the window had imploded from the full weight of a body passing through, and little shards lay all up in the sink and glinted, like dewdrops, where they had sprayed out over the floorboards and now covered the places where the sunrise mottled the wood with light.
The first thing Leslie noticed, after the way the shards shone all over the room, was the net curtain tangled up in a leftover splint of the window rail. The material fluttered there, pierced through by the wood, all exposed to the morning gale, not quite ripped away but not undamaged either.
She watched it twist in the wind.
Then, emerging through the netting, came the face of the Man Who Knocked.
His mouth was open and panting with the effort of the climb, and when he howled he sucked that white curtain in between his teeth where it bloomed red from the blood that gushed in the places where his lips had been.
When his torso was all the way through onto their counter, he gave up on his legs, as they were too twisted to fit fast through the frame, and instead he took a pistol from his belt and shot Bubba once through the flesh of his thigh, and Bubba got Leslie — who was still in a dream watching her curtain dance — by the back of her sleep shirt and flung her under the table so that a second bullet went through the thin air where she had stood and into the wall behind.
For a little while she lay down face first in the glass and thought. When Bubba would carry her on his back through the fields on a summer evening the sky would melt up in the heat and streak ever so slightly, seeming to fall all over them in shades of pink and amber, and it always tasted like charcoal where the balefires they built burnt up the waste of the day. She thought only of that sky, and didn’t want to think of much else.
When she looked up between her fingers Bubba was sat with his back to the wall and The Man who Knocked was sprawled out on the chair where Leslie had been eating her eggs, the gun still pointed at Bubba shaking ever so slightly.
Leslie’s knee twitched.
Bubba looked past the muzzle of the weapon, right at her, and winked. She didn’t laugh. Her knee twitched again.
Stay just yet he said, warningly.
She scowled, and the movement made a bit of glass fall from where it had been dangling from her right cheekbone. It would scar.
“Your mutt like you, then? She a witch?” said The Man who Knocked, gesturing between them with the lurch of his shoulder. His head lolled on his neck towards her.
“You a witch like your daddy, girl?” he slurred.
Leslie looked up, met his gaze, and held it.
The Man sucked his teeth at this, which made a spittle of blood fleck through the air, and turned back to Bubba.
“See, I know she don’t speak to me because you couldn’t of taught her how, but somehow she still strike me as rude.”
You say nothing to him, sugar. He don’t know your nature, Bubba called to her, and Leslie nodded and crossed her fingers over her heart to show him she knew it to be true.
Suddenly the Man who Knocked, with a wheeze of effort and a creak that could have come from the chair or his back, leant all the way forward into Bubba’s space, pressing the gun tight to his jaw and pushing there till Bubba’s mouth fell open with a wince from the pressure. The gasp revealed the white lines that tracked even the inside of his cheeks, and the empty, cavernous space where his tongue should have been.
The Man Who Knocked laughed, and the mean sound crowed right through his own body and made him sweat and bleed even more.
“Did I not swear to you all those years ago, as I carved you up, that you would be a Dead Man if you ever set foot near a town of ordinary, God loving folk again?” he said, “that night I cut you good. I told a devil begone, and he talked back to me, so I took his tongue.”
With the butt of the pistol he nudged Bubba’s temple.
“Then the devil got away before I could take his eyes too, but I still knew I’d keep my promise. You was always a Dead Man every second I drew closer to you.”
The gun was trembling. The Man’s breath was trembling like a rattlesnake caught between his teeth as he spoke.
“Sure enough I heard tales of you, a strange fella afield who don’t want to know nobody. Strange? Ha! I knew then I’d caught you.”
The Man rose precariously to one knee and moved his finger. At the click of the safety Bubba’s eyes flew over his shoulder to his child, and something was there, a flash, and then it passed, and The Man who Knocked had not had time to see if the little girl had responded, and in the dead silence of the kitchen he began to feel a slip of unease join the trickle of blood inching down his spine.
“Lord save us, just how strange you are,” he murmured.
He looked back at Leslie. Glass winked from her knees. She took the slice of bread from her pocket and chewed it, very precisely, with her bruised mouth.
“Fancy you sullyin’ this earth with a child. I wonder just what you thought the point of that might be, being that you can’t even speak to the thing. She must be a dumb bitch,” the Man who Knocked said.
Bubba was smiling, just for Leslie.
She swallowed her bread and spoke.
“Actually, Bubba do speak to me, mister. You just ain’t listening. He telling me to wait a moment before I use my trick, just like he taught me, to make you real scared.”
The Man who Knocked jumped right of his ruined skin, and turned on Leslie quick as a flash.
“You a goner this time, for sure, but I’ll shoot the little she-devil before I finish you, Dead Man” he roared.
“Bubba ain’t dead yet,” Leslie said from where she stood now, between Bubba and the Man, having moved faster than the flight of a bullet.
And her voice was young, but sure as all hell.
Get him back good, child of mine, said Bubba, reaching up and taking her hand.
In the moment that followed, when The Man screamed and screamed and the room het up with heat and a terrible quaking, and the net curtain finally ripped itself fully free amidst the shaking, and the crockery at the breakfast layout danced all a-jitter, and time felt like a bit of taffy she was swallowing down too fast, Leslie counted truths in her head to help her keep breathing.
She counted; her Bubba was many things.
But first he was her Father.
This meant they had the same ingredients. Strange ones, magical.
Leslie lifted a palm. She laid not a finger on The Man, but with the strength of fifty men tore him from the floor, out of the door and over many yards of tilled soil. He flew until he landed with a crack in the wheat field, all backwards and upside down like the second drawer of her nightstand. There he would lay, unaware and unseeing of the direction Leslie and her Father fled that very night — she sleeping soundly against the disfigured canvas of Bubba’s chest, and everything Bubba was and was not held firmly and still secret in her head.
The Man who Knocked lay compressed, tucked away in the golden multitudes of wheat that swayed and rocked and sung reed-songs into the sweetness of the wind. In the summers that would come, long after Leslie was gone, boys and girls would return to the field to toast rye and dance — all as one, cavorting their bare feet in patterns right over his head.
But of that, he would know not a thing.
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Great story, Abi; thoroughly enjoyable.