The ride back to the plantation felt long and winding, since David had to spend all of it alone with his thoughts. The vial of coffin water bounced in his inner jacket pocket, reminding him of itself every time David’s thoughts settled again on Ezra. Nobody greeted him on the path inward past the main road to the big house. He rounded the slave quarters and saw nobody awake. A dim set of coals burned in the outside hearth, the only evidence that the slaves had done anything that night at all.
The big house was likewise dark. David unsaddled his horse in the stables and found several of the stalls empty.
“I hope they didn’t go looking for me,” David said aloud. His voice died in the quiet of the night. He decided against lighting a lamp and found his way in the dark to the kitchen entrance of the big house, which remained unlocked. He took his muddy boots off in the anteroom and carried them through the deserted kitchen, stopping to dip a tin cup in one of the water buckets to quench his sudden thirst.
The dining room was neat and empty. A light burned dimly upstairs, and David set to climbing, not knowing what else to do. At the top landing, he noticed that the light was from Michael’s bedroom. He set his boots down lightly at his own room and hesitated, wondering if he really did want to give his voodoo prize to his brother.
Tabitha’s words came back to him, and he sighed, knowing that he would not break a promise.
Michael was sitting in his bed, writing in the bound book he had taken to.
“I’ve got it,” David said.
Michael looked up and gave his brother a smile, though it was a smile quite different from what David remembered. There was as a dark depth to it, and in the lamplight Michael looked like an altogether different creature from the boy who had tricked him in the witch’s grove just a few months past.
David withdrew the bottle from his pocket and handed it to Michael, who looked at it with cool calm as he held the lamp to it, coloring the room behind him in deep red.
“As promised,” David said. “Though I daresay I could have left on my own with as little trouble.”
“You only daresay it now that you’ve escaped and returned,” Michael said.
“Escaped to pay my penance, I’m sure.”
“Ha, you may have lucked out in that one, too,” Michael said. “I think that father didn’t even notice you were gone.”
“What? How is that?”
“A man came riding through just before supper. They were calling a big meeting in town.”
Michael shrugged. “Politics.”
Michael nodded. “Maybe. Thanks for fetching this for me.”
David nodded and headed back to his own room.
He lay awake in bed for a long time, listening to the breeze rustle a tree outside of his open window. The departure of the coffin water from his breast pocket did a surprising amount to alleviate his unease over his brother’s purposes. For the most part, he found himself thinking of Ezra, and of the men they spied in the grove. Sleep took him unwillingly.
David wiped the sweat from his forehead using a dirty handkerchief.
He suddenly felt that it was a strange thing to do. It was cold.
He looked around him at the woods. All around him tangled branches choked each other in the grey light. He toes felt numb from the cold. He looked down. The end of his left boot had burst again.
“And narry a cobbler for a thousand miles, I’ll wager,” he said aloud. His ears rang slightly, and he shook his head to right himself. He felt the musket in his hand, and rocked back the hammer to check the flint. It was cracked, as it had been, but still serviceable. The iron under his hands was like ice.
“What was I doing?” he said to himself, shouldering the musket and rubbing his hands for warmth. “A coney hunt? Bah, it’s too cold for this.”
He set off toward home along the muddy track. The toes of his left foot began to go numb as the water and soil piled up around them. The trees marched alongside him in an endless twisted, eye-watering line. Bare limbs twisted among brown-needles pines bleached to a colorless mosaic that made David want to look down every time he tried to look into the woods. The trees closed in as the trail narrowed, and David found himself mopping his face.
The path at last opened up, and the trees thinned, but the feeling of cold stuffiness seemed to only increase. The path dipped down into a mire: a sea of shallow muddy water with willows draped in dead vines as far as he could see. His toes hurting, David inched along the side of the path, clumsily pulling himself along a root-twisted tussock of wet, dead grass the color of nothing that ran above the waterlogged road.
David coughed and nearly fell back into the road. He gripped a willow tree for support, only to feel the rotten bark fall apart in his fingers. He knelt down, and saw on a fallen log a mass of orange-brown mushrooms.
He smiled, and Ezra’s smile came to his mind, sharp and clear. In inched toward the mushrooms and felt a sudden pang in his head, and the ringing in his ears returned. He lost his traction and slid down the grassy slope to splash in the wet road. He shook his head violently and looked ahead. He saw the road rise up ahead of him, and turn through a set of trees. He splashed up to the bend and felt the cold wrap more tightly around him. He drew his cloak in tightly, resting his musket in the crook of his arms.
The house stood out past the road, the clearing still cut clean from summer. David followed old footprints back home. The door creaked as he opened it. The inside of the small house was arranged neatly, as always. He set his musket down and untied his cloak.
“No luck today?”
David started, nearly knocking over his musket. His wife was sitting in a nearby chair, her sewing in her hands. Why hadn’t he noticed her?
“Your boot’s come apart again. I’ll sew it up for you. Take off your boots and get warm by the fire.” Her voice was like a soft breeze, delicate and cool. It felt good to hear it again.
David nodded, and his wife smiled, showing a row of perfect white teeth. Her blonde hair hung loose about her shoulders, and her house dress revealed a pale bosom. She was beautiful, he opined, as though the thought had never occurred to him before. He walked over to the chair beside his wife’s and sat down. The fire blazed nearby, but his toes were still ice cold. He unbuckled his boots and slid them off. He rubbed his aching feet.
He looked up into his wife’s eyes, grey as driftwood. He held the gaze for a long time, for something felt off. His ears rang. He shook it off and looked to the bookshelf.
“What have you been reading?” he forced out.
“Don’t concern yourself with books, my love.”
“But books are what we love best, I thought.”
David’s ears rang, but amid the din a name came tumbling a memory of blue eyes, and a name.
He felt a pain in his chest, and a weight crushing him, like the air had become water. He looked back to see his wife, her gaze drawing him in, enveloping him. Her mouth opened, and a hiss of anger broke from the abyss.
Thin, dry vocal chords chocked and sputtered; David could not call for help, but could only say once more, “Ezra.”