A Walk at Dusk, “Witch of the Woods,” part 3

“What do you propose?” Tom said.

“While the spirit rests we might act to contain it.”

“How are we going to do that? You have some kind of magic you know of for this?”

“Magic?” Black Feather paused at that word. “No. We must lay these bodies, and the spirits trapped within them, to rest. If what your people have told me is true.”

“It’s true,” Tom said.

“Then show me. Do you have any clergy with you?” Black Feather said as he mounted his horse.

“No, we believe every man is clergy to himself,” Tom said. “Besides, that’s the white man’s god, isn’t it?”

“There is only one God,” Black Feather replied. “May he hear our prayers today.” The other Cherokee echoed the sentiment in their own language, and then they all set out following Tom. They were quiet as they went, and gradually a growing silence began to weigh on them as the sounds of woods died out.

“Keep your muskets handy,” Tom said as they came back to the little house.

“Bullets are no use here,” Black Feather said. He dismounted and walked without hesitation inside the house. Emboldened by the Cherokee’s confidence, Tom followed him in, once again laying eyes on the pair of bodies in the bed.

“Aren’t you afraid?” Tom said.

“I do not fear such spirits,” Black Feather said. He approached the bed and laid a hand on the forehead of the woman, then the man. He sang soft words as he did so. He turned back to Tom. “We must bury these bodies before sunset.”

“We ought to burn them,” a man said beside Tom.

“Right,” Tom said. “That’s what we do with Witches.”

“No, that is not right,” Black Feather said. “We should lay them together in the ground. The body must be returned to the earth. That way they will rest. Together, so the spirit is sated. We need to find a spot that can be marked so that none will disturb them. I will send my son White Owl to look. Will you send a man with him?”

Tom agreed and so Black Feather’s son set off along the edges of the forest with one of the settlers. Within the house, Black Feather unwrapped several implements covered in pale deerskin. One was a small carved stick with two long raven feathers tied on. The other was a wooden bowl with a very small opening, much like the end of a pipe. He lit a match and burned something inside of it, then placed it nearby, where is smoked. He held the carved stick and began again to sing softly in his own language.

“What are you doing?” Tom said.

Black feather paused and said, “Praying. You should do so as well.”

Tom felt strangely comforted by that, and so bowed his head and said a prayer for Clay and his family. When he looked up, he saw Black Feather still singing softly. Still not liking the air of the place, and not wanting to look more upon the dead face of his friend, Tom turned to go out the door. He paused after a step and found his gaze lingering on a small, black book. He picked it up and turned it over in his hands. On the cover was a strange symbol, like star with many additional geometric shapes. He had a strange compulsion to open it, and found himself flipping through pages of words he could not read and symbols he could not recognize.

He turned his head to see Black Feather, who was going on with his prayer, his back still to the door. Silently, Tom slipped the small book into his jacket pocket. He wondered for the rest of the days why, but he told nobody that he did it for a great many years.

A short time later White Owl returned, having found a suitable place to bury the bodies. Black Feather, along with the other Cherokees and the help of a few of the settlers, bound up the bodies in the bed sheets, covering their faces, and dragged them outside. They placed the bodies onto hastily made sleds hitched to saddles and Black Feather’s son and one of the settlers dragged them off. Black Feather turned back to the house and considered it a long moment.

“This we should burn,” he said.

“I agree,” Tom said, and set about in his saddlebags for some oil and matches.

“You did not take anything from it?”

Tom paused and saw that Black Feather was regarding him with the same expressionless, hard face he always wore.

“No,” Tom said, lying for reasons he did not know. A part of himself deep inside cried out to tell Black Feather the truth, but the struggle was not enough. Tom turned back to his saddlebag and retrieved his tinderbox and a small bottle of lamp oil.

“It is well, then,” Black Feather said, and looked again at the house. “This whole place has an unsettling presence, even for me, and I have seen many horrors.”

Tom followed Black Feather back inside. They pulled down the curtains turned out the rotten bed, and placed everything they could against dry wood to fuel the fire. Tom doused the cloth with oil and with a match a blazing fire was soon filling the interior of the little house. The fumes from the dusty, dying rags caused Tom to gag. He stumbled out of the house with Black Feather and watched it burn for a few minutes. Black Feather sang a new song.

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