First chapter of book
|The stranger arrived in the early afternoon.
He came walking up from the southeast, sauntering along almost merrily, which was unexpected considering his demeanor. The black pants and coat over the white shirt and string tie and the wide-brimmed hat that covered his head gave him the appearance of the many itinerant preachers that passed through the area seeking souls to save. They were always so sombre and gloomy, Sara thought, they never strode so gaily.
She was standing near the well when the man came into view. Her father had said “Sara, this air feels like a storm is a-coming. Go draw water for dinner, as I ‘spect we’ll be finishing up early in the field with this weather blowin’ in.”
She grabbed the buckets from their nails and went out to the well to do as she was told. It was on her second trip out, after she saw the specks of her father and brother coming in from the fields, that she turned to view the darkening skies and saw the man skipping up the road. He was about as far away as her father and brother were in the other direction, so she had no worries, as it appeared they would arrive at around the same time at the front of the little cabin.
Soon, as she expected, her father and brother were near and she glanced back to see the stranger approaching as well. He had a big grin on his face. Generally Sara would have seen it as a friendly gesture, but on the stranger, there was something amiss, as if the grin was merely painted on and void of meaning. Still, she wanted to be friendly, so she called to the man and greeted him.
“How do, sir. You coming for the revival?”
“Hello, child, no. I’m just a traveller, seeking some shelter from this oncoming tempest”, replied the man. His voice was cadenced oddly. The words were friendly enough, and there was no menace in it, but the words were strangely dry and seemed to rattle.
Father and Jake had seen the man approaching and had sped up their pace so Sara would not be alone with the stranger, and had just now come into the yard. “Hello, Stranger,” called her father, showing firmness, but not sounding unfriendly, “can we help you?”
“Oh hello, good sir,” replied the man, “I’m just a wanderer in these parts. I blew in from the southeast, and felt the moisture and heaviness in the air building all this afternoon. And now, as I came near to this little settlement, I see that the tempest long held back is billowing into a mighty storm that I fear might rage and roar a-plenty and blow poor Brother Abel away”. The man was just as dry and rattly-sounding as he was when calling from a distance, Sarah thought. He bowed and gesticulated wildly when talking, like one of those traveling actors she once saw at a play in the town. “What a truly odd man,” she thought. He seemed and spoke fair enough, but there was something just not right about him.
Father seemed a little hesitant, but suddenly he just shrugged and smiled. "Well, Strang.. I mean Brother Abel," he said, "I reckon you ought to come in and get settled before the storm hits. Jake, go get the stove going for supper and we'll be right in." Sara's older brother nodded and went into the house. Although only older than her by three years, he was already a young man, his eyes showing crow's feet from squinting against the sun in the fields.
"Oh, thank you sir, thank you so much," sang the man. And he truly did sing in a way, or maybe his voice was a chant, a hint of a far-away lilt. Sarah couldn't quite make it out, but it haunted her and made her uneasy.
“Sara, grab the water and show Mr Abel in and let him wash up afore dinner," said father, “I have to finish up a few things before I come in. Jake is right inside with you", he added pointedly, the subtle reminder making its impression on her.
"Oh no, it's not 'Mister', good sir, just call me Brother Abel. It's much more fitting for me that way." He smiled and it just didn't seem as innocent as before. Father paused a moment, then shook his head and left to finish up his work.
Sara turned to the man. He looked down at her. She was still small for her 12 years, a very tiny child, and he towered over her. He reminded her in some ways of a strange insect - like one of the praying mantises that her room had swarmed with when the egg sac outside her window hatched and the little insects scampered all over, exploring this new world. The difference is they they were small and cute and not menacing at all, but this “Brother Abel” had an air about him that made her more and more uneasy the longer she was around him. She was certain that Father had sensed it, but she wasn’t sure if Jake had. He was already inside so she’d try to signal to him as soon as she got in and maybe they could steal away for a moment or two to discuss their visitor.
Brother Abel said nothing, he just stared down at her, which only increased her uneasiness, so she shrugged and started toward the front porch. “Better hurry up, rain’s comin’ soon” she said, not even looking over her shoulder. She was unhappy and didn’t care if he noticed, but part of her didn’t really want to peer back, to see that strange grin and the spindly, jarring way he cavorted across their front lawn. Just the feeling of him behind her made her skin crawl.
By the time she reached the front door and turned around, she felt a little better. Jake was inside and Father would be along very soon. She turned around to beckon the man in and suddenly let out a little squeak of terror. The man was right behind her by inches! She hadn’t even heard his steps across the dry grass, and the porch steps creaked - they had for as long as she could remember. But there the man was, mere inches behind her, darkening the front door, staring down at her with his maddening grin.
“Oh thankee, little child,” said the man. “May I come in?”
He paused as if to imply that without her agreement, he would simply stand outside through the oncoming deluge. She wasn’t exactly sure how to respond. After stammering for a second, “umm, sure, come in, sir” she responded and with an even broader grin and a seeming sigh of relief, he stretched one of his long, spindly legs across the threshold. Sara took a quick step back, and wasn’t sure exactly what she was seeing for a moment. He seemed, for just a second as he was crossing the threshold, to almost stretch out as he stepped through the door, as if his body were far away and as his foot entered, the rest of him rushed forward to meet it. She staggered a moment, and he looked at her and smiled. “Oh, give me a moment, child, I need to catch up with myself.” He gave her a sly wink and she turned quickly and ran toward the table to put the water buckets by the fire.
By the time she had set down the buckets, Father had come in through the front door. Taking off his boots, he glanced around, taking in the scene. He was not an overly-suspicious man, but this Brother Abel was a stranger, and, well, strange. He stood awkwardly in the middle of the room, grinning. During the past few minutes, the room had noticeably darkened, unnaturally dark for so early, and it was clear the storm was approaching quickly and building fast. In the matter of a few moments, the room had gone from dim to very dark and there was a feeling of expectation that fueled the tension between the three in the room For a brief moment, Father, Sara and the man stood like statues. Jake came into the main room breaking the spell and announced that the fire was ready, so Sara went to help fix dinner as Jake lit the lanterns.
Father turned to the stranger and said, “Brother Abel, please sit down. We don’t eat fancy, but we’d like to invite you to dinner while waiting out the storm. Do, umm, do you have people expectin’ you this evening?” The implication was clear that Brother Abel would be expected to go along on to meet those people, or at least be elsewhere when evening came after the storm had passed. But Brother Abel seemed unconcerned. He grinned and bowed and settled himself down at the table with a great sighing sound, coming, seemingly, from his limbs as he bent, and he said, “Oh good sir, I reckon that the people who expect me are the last to know it and the ones that don’t are the most likely to find me.”
Sara and Father looked at each other, neither knowing what to make of the man’s comments. Jake, who was now preparing dinner and just beginning to notice the man’s peculiarities looked up at the man and then at father and Sara quizzically. Brother Abel went on: “I find that there are many people in the world upon whom the unexpected is wasted. What would you say about those people…. Young Miss?!” Louder, he turned suddenly and peered directly at Sarah as he addressed her directly. His voice and fierce eyes were bordering upon menacing, but she gulped and drew herself up very straight and replied, “I think there are many people who think the unexpected is a bother, but I think it is sometimes a danger.”
The man’s expression didn’t change, but he continued to stare at her just slightly longer than would be expected. It was clear that she was free to read his response more in his eyes than his voice. “Well, young Miss, that is certainly true. Danger lies everywhere in this world and you never know when it’s right under your rooftop.”
Father stiffened and glanced quickly toward the rifle over the fireplace, and Jake tensed, but Brother Abel didn’t seem to notice, but simply relaxed with a great shudder and dropped his head obsequiously. He laughed and said “Of course old Brother Abel is no danger, I’m just a travelin’ soul, seeing the world and bringing… peace… to all I come upon.”
There was nothing directly wrong with what the stranger had said. Indeed it was very similar to things all the many men of the cloth who had passed through from time to time would say. But in Brother Abel’s case, there was something odd about the inflection that heightened, rather than dispelled the uneasiness. Still, it wasn’t directly threatening, and Father relaxed a little, but he passed a look to Jake who took the bowl of grits he was preparing around to the side of the table near the fireplace. Nearer the gun.
Father looked about to say something more, but then a blinding blue-white flash filled the room, followed by a near-immediate boom of thunder, the air crackling for a spit-second before slamming into the cabin with a pressure each in the room could feel. Sara rushed to the front door to look out and Father and Jake were right behind. As she opened the door, Father caught up to her and grabbed her and with his strong hands gripping her shoulders hard enough to hurt. They looked out the front door.
The storm was still a ways away, but closing fast. Great billowing clouds swirled white, grey, blue and black and it was sure to be the worst storm Sara had ever seen. But for the moment, the air outside was still. Not a single breeze played through the leaves of the trees, and the silence was so great it was overpowering. No birds sang, there wasn’t the single sound of wind through the trees, or the cattle in the barn. Even the chickens in their coop next to the barn were disturbingly quiet, as if the whole world had gone mute after that great and terrible flash of lightening that had just passed.
“Storm a-coming soon,” came a voice from behind.