Napper’s Holler folks know you
can find Jesus there if you just look hard enough. The day he became a man,
Will Throckmyer Jr. discovered you’ll most likely find Him when you find His
Willie was the son of an albino girl and a
youth with skin so black you could see yourself in it. Ma Angel Skye—a ‘Smiley
cross’ between twins, a ghost and a ghoul—had wed Pa ‘Keeper Will’ Throckmyer
(former revenuer and present handyman to Father Joe Murphy) when she was
twelve. It had been a hasty wedding because her pa, J.J. Smiley (the ghoul),
was about to rot away completely and wanted to see his first grandchild before
he was worm food.
Luckily for Willie, his ma turned thirteen
and was delivered of her only child just in time. Keeper Will became a widower
at twenty-five with a son who took after him in body, but whose spirit was
attuned to Higher Realms. This meant Will Jr. could still see his ma, Angel
Skye, and spend valuable time with her when he wasn’t helping his pa with
Grampa J.J. had become a bed of daisies,
and provided a pleasant common ground for Willie and his ma. Her girlish ghost
always perched on the wooden cross marking her adjacent grave. Willie, as
usual, flung himself down on the flowers.
“I like Pa’s wife, Rachel Ann, but not my
half-brothers,” he admitted. “They won’t help me with chores and they act like
I’m their servant. What can I do about it, Ma?”
“I know, Son. They don’t deserve to be
named for the Seven Who Stand Before God. Ariel, Cassiel, Gabriel, Galadriel,
Michael, Raphael, and Uriel are more like demons than seven archangels. I feel
sorry for Schoolmaster Ed. He has his work cut out for him.”
“I kinda wish Grampa J.J. was still here,
Ma. He could surprise them on dark nights, and maybe bite their behinds too.
They’re sweet lil angels when Rachel Ann or Pa are around. But, the minute I’m
alone with them, they gang up on me.”
Angel Skye giggled and swung her legs,
then remembered she had to behave herself if she was to guide her son on a
righteous path. “What would Jesus do?”
“Well, Pa told me to ask Father Joe. So I
went to Father Joe, and he said my brothers are my cross. Unless I carry it,
I’ll never be the man I was meant to be.”
“Willie, you have to figure out how to
shoulder your burden. I’m not the one who kens being a man… leastways, not how
a man would. But I know the Lord helps those who help themselves. If I was you,
I’d help myself by hightailin’ it outta here right now.” Wincing, the ghost
pointed toward the Throckmyer stead, and disappeared.
Will Jr. turned around just in time to see
his pa approaching with a fat switch in his hand, and bad news to boot. “Sarah
Jane got out and run off with Smarty, that big old wild boar what took Snort’s
“Pa, chasin’ Sarah Jane and Smarty with a
switch isn’t going to get her back.”
“This switch isn’t for the sow who saved
my life. It’s for the fella who left the gate to her pen open. It’s wide
enough for the one who sneaks
scraps to that Satan’s spawn, Smarty. It’s long
enough to reach the backside of the one teachin’ his brothers to make pets
outta bad ol’ boars who’d as soon gore and stomp ‘em as eat their scraps.”
Before Willie could say anything, his pa
had him by the collar and lay into him. The switch rose and fell thrice in
sympathetic syncopation to the worries pulsing through Keeper Will’s brain. No Sarah
Jane meant no piglets; no piglets meant no pork for the family except for what
they had salted away, which wasn’t much with eight hungry boys to feed. Game
had been scarce lately, foxes had gotten to the chickens, and the wily Smarty
had helped himself to the Throckmyer corn and other vegetables too often,
trampling and rolling on what remained…
On the third blow, the switch broke.
Keeper Will dropped the stub and stood over his fallen son, chest heaving and
eyes tearing, shocked by his own rage. He held out his hand to help Willie
rise, to tell him he was sorry, to hug him and lead him home.
A tight-eyed, slightly smaller version of
Will’s own pa refused the offending hand and stared up at him from the trampled
daisy bed. Despite the stings making Willie’s lips quiver, no moan or sob
emerged. His stillness said he’d rather die than plead for mercy or admit
guilt. Finally, closing his eyes, arms over his chest, he curled up in the
Napper’s Holler held a cross too heavy for
Willie. I’ll be thirteen in two weeks. By
then, I’ll have my raft finished, and float down Eagle Creek to the sea.
Pirates don’t scare me anymore. I may even join them. But I’ll give
my share of treasure to poor people and orphans…
Willie didn’t hear his pa’s murmured
apology, or the slow shuffle back down the path. He didn’t see Sarah Jane and
Smarty watching him from the nearby bushes as night fell either.
The moon rode high in the sky when Willie
awoke and looked around. His ma’s ghost had settled a cool mist on his backside
to quiet the hurt. Then she’d rounded up Sarah Jane for the boy to ride home,
while Smarty’s beady little boar eyes followed their every movement.
“Git on home, Son. Sarah Jane was always
mine, though my powers won’t hold Smarty here in Wolf Meadow for long. Rachel
Ann has supper saved for you. Your pa’s really
sorry now ‘cause he’s found where Smarty chewed the rope holding the pen gate
“Thanks, Ma. I’m going to miss your help
when I turn thirteen and can’t see or hear you anymore.” Willie tied his
kerchief around Sarah Jane’s neck and gingerly climbed aboard. I don’t
dare tell Ma about the raft, or she
might let Smarty leave Wolf Meadow too soon just to make me stay in Napper’s
Sarah Jane gave a lovesick sigh, then
moved her trotters steadward. Besides, she was as hungry as Willie.
Willie arrived home to the creak of the
porch swing holding the angular shadow of his stepmother, a covered basket on
her lap and a jug by her side. She watched him drop off of Sarah Jane’s broad
back, then secure her in the sty, where the pig greeted her trough with happy
squeals, her love of grub erasing all else.
Loud snores came from the stead, courtesy
of Rachel Ann’s husband, and sons—ages ten, nine, eight (twins), six, five, and
three. Her lean, calloused hand lay on the warm bump of her belly, over the
kicks of what she hoped was a daughter. Her other hand reached for her stepson
as Willie reached for the jug, hoping it was something stronger than apple
cider this time. It wasn’t.
Before digging into the bread-and-bacon
sandwich, Willie gave silent thanks anyway—OhLordJesuswethankyouforthisfood.
Pa wouldn’t have approved, but Rachel Ann’s flower-scented hug said she did.
She rose from the swing, saying softly, “Don’t forget to go wash up, Son. I’ll
know if you don’t. You smell like daisies, and I just made lavender-mint soap
for us. See you at sunup. G’night.”
“G’night…and, thanks, Maam.” Willie
listened for the floorboard-and-bedspring squeaks before obeying Rachel Ann. A
twinge in his heart made him realize how much he’d miss her. At the thought of
never seeing the new baby, he felt even worse, and had to squeeze his eyes shut
over sudden tears.
The great water snake had waited, hungry
all day. Finally, at a commotion along one bank of Eagle Creek, she sprang into
action, weaving her way gracefully through the water with hardly a ripple. She
avoided the probing, pushing pole and the rough underside of the log raft,
inserting her sinuous form invisibly into the wavelets and ripples in its wake.
She knew these waters well, and rode the rapids with ease towards the rocky
falls where she often caught fish. Today’s catch promised to be bigger, much
bigger. The strange, meaty scent on the air was tantalizing. Yes, she could
wait a little longer…
“Where are your brothers, Willie?” Will
Senior stood frowning and blocking out the sinking sun.
“Dunno, Pa…been busy.”
“They shoulda been home from school two
hours ago. I thought they might be here helping you.”
“More likely, playin’ in the woods…and
with my new birthday stuff.” Willie shrugged and kept sweeping, thinking, Tonight’s
the night! No more sweeping ever.
Those seven can have my stupid ol’ stuff.
“Rachel Ann’s worried. She even checked
your ‘stuff’—it’s there, but they ain’t. We’d better go look for ‘em.”
Willie groaned, set the broom aside, and
followed his pa into the woods, both of them calling out the seven names he
despised…until the thought hit him—he knew where they were. The raft!
Got to tell Pa.
After Willie confessed, Pa stopped
walking, turned and said calmly, “Go to Rachel Ann. I’ll head for the crick. I
pray to Jesus it’s not too late.”
Willie sprinted for home without looking
back, and hollered down the hill, “Halloo the stead!”
“What is it, Son. Have you found the
seven?” Rachel Ann’s hands twisted her apron, her eyes wide.
“I think they took my raft down the Eagle.
Pa’s gone to see if he can spot ‘em.”
“Raft? Oh no…wait! We have one chance.
Come to the barn and help me.” In spite of the baby weight, Rachel Ann lit out
for the barn like a deer afire. Willie had a hard time keeping up with her.
Once the pair reached the barn, the woman
ran to the back and moved some old Indian blankets. Under them lay her father’s
canoe, the black and red and yellow symbols on it still bright.
“Lift this with me, Son. It’s not as heavy
as it looks.” Willie, who watched in disbelief as his stepmother took up one
end of the canoe, soon found himself under the other end, and the two of them
trotting uphill into the woods. Night was falling, but the figures on the canoe
began to glow brighter and brighter, lighting their way along the path to Eagle
“We forgot the paddles!” said a dismayed
Willie as they reached the steep bank.
“No paddles—this is a special canoe, blessed by my ancestors
first, and for me by Father
Joe. We hid it from you children because this can be used for mischief—just
like your raft—as well as good…”
didn’t build my raft to hurt my brothers…I promise!” sobbed Willie. He wanted
to add how they always managed to
ruin everything and how much that hurt him, but knew by the sad look Rachel Ann
gave him that he’d be wiser to keep his peace.
The terrible sound of a man thrashing in
the water and cursing met their ears as they set the canoe at the top of the
bank. It was Will Senior. “Now is not the time for curses, but for prayers,”
admonished Rachel Ann, making a motion with her right hand. The colorful
bracelets on her wrist clinked and clanked. In the left she held up the gold
cross she wore on a leather thong around her neck.
Willie had opened his mouth to call out to
his pa too, when a profound silence settled over the trio; they watched the
glowing canoe float up from the bank and ease itself into the water without a
Pa was the first to reach the canoe, since
he was already in the water (having fallen there in the dark). Rachel and
Willie slid down the bank to a dry spot the canoe bumped against. They easily
boarded the bobbing boat, then let the current carry them.
Soon the three in the canoe heard,
“Halloo…HELP…anyone!” Their shiny craft had rounded a curve in the creek and
moved rapidly toward the top of a steep, rocky falls. Stretched across a gap in
the falls was what looked like a rope at first, the boy-filled raft—tilting and
rocking—wedged up against it.
Water poured over and around the raft. The
seven boys, soaked and shivering in the wash, clung to rope loops along the
edge of the raft. One of their poles had caught the water snake and held her
pinned against a clump of rocks. Yet she was so large that her tail reached and
wrapped around a submerged tree stump near the bank. A portion of her upper
body was still free enough to let her head and snapping jaws move quite close
to the twins, who held the pole pinning her. Next to the twins, six-year-old
Michael gripped the ragged stub of the second pole in his free hand, and kept
trying to stab the snake with it when her head swung his way.
“Do just like the Archangel Michael did
with Satan, Mikey!” hollered Willie from the canoe before he could stop
himself. He watched Michael turn at the sound of his voice, and saw his lower
lip tremble. His lips moved to form the words, “I’m sorry.” But, he was sobbing
too hard to say those words.
The canoe gently nudged the raft, and
their parents pulled the first five boys aboard. Somehow, the canoe grew large
enough to hold them all. Willie reached over and grabbed the twins. As he did
so, the snake, released, sprang up in a geyser of water. Instead of closing her
jaws on prey, though, she caught the edge of the raft, and, reflexively,
released her tail from the stump. The raft teetered briefly, and, snake and
all, tumbled over the falls into the gray, oily mist below.
Like a living creature acting on instinct,
the canoe turned from the perilous gap. Yet, for an instant, Willie experienced
what lay beyond the mist. In the land below the falls, not a tree stood. Smoke
rose from foul ground which held not a living thing. Beyond the land lay the
river bed, dry as dust. From beyond that dust-dry place rose terrible howling
in a language a mortal’s ears weren’t meant to understand. A white-hot heat
rolled over him and took his breath away; Willie covered his ears and closed
his eyes, willing it to end. He could almost feel his flesh begin to fry!
Michael bumped him and the nightmare died.
Will Throckmyer Jr. bumped Michael back
and grinned at him. He looked at his family, safe in the canoe, and realized
they had neither seen nor heard what he had. He was glad their attention was
upon a radiant Rachel Ann, who, as she labored to give birth, cried out, over
and over, JESUS!
I am a man…no…thought Willie, shivering, I mean AMEN!