A Walk at Dusk, “The Search for the Unclean,” part 6

“What do you think father?” Dark Pine said when all was finished.

White owl turned to David. “What are these men like that you met?”

“Well, like I said, one was an Indian…”

White Owl put up a hand to silence him. “What were they like? What air did you sense about them.”

“How did you feel around them is what my father means,” Dark Pine said.

David thought for a moment. “I wasn’t really afraid, except of them finding out, I suppose. They didn’t seem like terrible men, just men of the loose morals that comes from traveling and hiring yourself out.”

“They seemed like drifters?” White Owl said. “Or maybe they are looking to settle like they say.”

David took a breath. “Rootless. And not meaning set roots down. My father would say they are the sort of men to hire for the day, or maybe the week, but not the season.”

White Owl nodded and said something to his son in a language David did not understand. When they finished, White Owl turned back to David.  “It is good we have come back, and good that you happened upon me. We seek to bring rest to the dead woman. Will you help us?”

David hesitated. “Do you know what those two men were after?”

White Owl locked eyes with Dark pine, but neither spoke.

Turning back to look David in the eye, White Owl said, “I do not know, but I cannot imagine these men, and whoever has hired them, has the same intentions as us.”

“How will you put the witch to rest?”

White Owl glanced at Dark Pine. “I don’t know yet. My father likely would know, but he was not the best teacher, nor I the best learner, so I know less than he did.” White owl rubbed his face and looked into the fire. “She should have been interred with the white man, but we failed in refusing to press the issue. We cannot exercise a similar solution in good conscience.”

“Fire purifies,” Dark Pine said.

“But why did your grandfather not burn the body in the first place?”

“Why indeed,” Dark Pine said. “Burning the witch would be a harrowing experience, not doubt, with the deep taint you say she had.”

“It was a harrowing experience without her burning,” White Owl said. “Fire also releases, and your grandfather meant to keep the spirit of the witch locked away, where it could harm nobody.  It’s been more than two score of years since we put her in the hallowed ground. She may have already rotted away to dust. What then would fire do now anyway?”

“The spirit is free already,” David said. “Isn’t that why she is haunting us now?”

“She is not free yet, I think,” White Owl said. “More that she is again at unrest. Our prayers are being forgotten.”

“Does God forget prayers?” David said.

Men forget prayers,” White Owl said, “And prayers belong to men, not to God.”

David looked up at the now dark sky. “I should get going. I’m going to be in a lot of trouble tonight, I have no doubt.”

White owl nodded. “Will you pray with us? If you add your voice to ours God may be more apt to answer.”

David sighed, looking up at the sky. “I suppose so.”

“What else is bothering you?” White Owl said.

“Nothing,” David said.

Dark Pine grunted. “He’s thinking of the spirit.”

“I can give you a talisman to help protect your dreams,” White Owl said. He caught the eyes of Dark Pine, and in the silence their locked stares seemed to communicate something, though David couldn’t say what.

Dark Pine spoke. “How is your head?”

David realized he hadn’t thought about his head in some time. “Better, I think. Less hazy.”

“You are welcome to stay here,” White Owl said. “But I understand your haste to get home, since you are yet a boy, and a boy is subject to discipline.”

Dark Pine chuckled softly. White Owl stood up, placing the bones and remains of the catfish to the side of the fire. He went over to his saddle and returned with a small carving. He handed it to David.

“Here. Keep this with you. The unclean woman will not want you with this in your proximity.”

“Thank you,” David said. He turned the object over in his hand and saw in the firelight that while the top of it was stone, it was set in an intricately carved piece of cedar. The stone took the shape of an owl’s with open eyes and was white, and though smooth over most of its surface, it had a rough grit in several places. The wood setting of the stone was carefully carved into the body of the owl, with feathers running with the grain of the wood. David noticed that around the bottom of the carving there appeared to a be a tail like a cat curled in a small circle.

“A white owl?” David said.

“An arrogant name to give your son,” White Owl said.

“My grandfather gave it to him when he refused to sleep for days after being born,” Dark Pine said, and laughed.

White Owl smiled generously at his son. “The Owl is a special and sacred animal. When others sleep, he watches. He is silent when he descends. My father gave that talisman to me when I was very young to guard me against witches. I would deny my own grandson its use, so I may ask for it back.”

“Of course,” David said.

“Then let us pray,” White Owl said.

White Owl and Dark Pine both got to their knees. Softly, White Owl began to sing softly a chant in his own language. Dark Pine joined him, intonating the same chant at a higher pitch. The melody was wandering and sad, but returned often to a stark final where they each would take a long breath and begin the wandering again. Their eyes were open, gazing at the fire with a half-lidded intensity. David matched their posture, but did not know how to contribute to the chant, and so remained silent, turning the owl carving over in his hand. When the chant reached its final cadence, Dark Pine began another, this one much darker and more subtle, each phrase moving from a high, clear note down to low resting place where White Owl’s voice boomed and the clear voice of Dark Pine rasped. For the final phrase, White Owl held softly the final note of the mode, and Dark Pine sang a final verse, ending on a higher octave.

Silence lurked in the space after the final note, and even the fire seemed unwilling to crackle and the trees unwilling to rustle in the breeze.

White Owl fixed his eyes on David. “Where shall we find you when we need you? I wish to see this rock you think is the witch’s grave.”

“Need me?” David said.

“You are bound in this,” Dark Pine said. “As I’m fairly certain you already know.”

“My plantation is south of here,” David said. “Anyone should be able to point you to the Smith house, if you ask. Will you be heading to town for tomorrow?.”

“I don’t know,” White Owl said. “But I am certain we will have business there eventually.”

David stood and said his goodbyes. He placed the owl carving into a small pocket of his waistcoat and patted it there, then lead his horse back to the road, a pale grey line disappearing into obscurity as it wound through the trees. White Owl and Dark Pine watched David mount up and go.

The fire was too quickly behind David as the horse trotted down the road and the night closed around him and the beast like a blanket. Beneath the first copse the night was total, and David silently cursed himself for not bringing a lantern, but the horse found its way through at a slow walk, his footfalls quiet on the packed earth. The trees overhead broke away from each other a bit, and the road came back into view as a writhing and intricate pattern of moon shadows falling from the new oak shoots all around. It looked to David, as the trees softly swayed in the wind, like a running river of silver darkness.

David shivered in spite of himself and felt for the talisman in his pocket. As he felt the intricate facets of the carving his unease blunted and urged the horse into a faster pace.

Along the road home, nothing bothered him except the sighing wind and single possum whose eyes glowed in the moonlight as it watched him turn from the main road and start for home. The windows of the big house glowed in the living room downstairs, and David swallowed hard, thinking of his father’s temper.

If you are finding this story pleasing, please consider heading to Amazon and buying my Historical Fantasy book, Muramasa: Blood Drinker, or my Hard Scifi Book, Prophet of the Godseed. I appreciate it!

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