The Heart Is an Organ on Fire by Sheldon Lee Compton
Tracy had sensed Bruce was different but had been too interested in his company to see any sign of it early on. The church carpenter shook her hand, the last load of old shingles already hauled off, and seemed to be nothing more than another handsome guy in work boots and flannel shirt. He stayed a few minutes afterward, picked the yard for torn pieces of the old roof and nails, parting blades of grass to search for tiny corner pieces while Tracy sat on the porch. She drank a beer and felt peaceful. She wanted a cigarette, but thought it might be better if she kept her breath fresh. One never knew.
The ladies’ auxiliary had sent Bruce to help with the roof. Tracy wasn’t exactly an old woman, the kind who might need a helping hand around the house from time to time, but she didn’t know anything about shingling a roof and she had no family who would offer to step in. Enter Bruce. He only cared about the work. Every day for two weeks he had shown up at seven on the dot. Tracy would hear the cold snapping of the ladder along the side of the house and then his rough footsteps as he made his way to the last section he had papered the evening before. By the third day she had convinced Bruce to come in the house and have a cup of coffee and toast or a fried egg before starting work. This morning she had made a full spread – eggs, bacon, sausage, fried potatoes and apples, biscuits and gravy.
After breakfast was finished she left the dishes where they sat and spruced up a little, fixing her hair and applying a touch of lip gloss, spraying an even smaller touch of perfume. No need to overdo it, but she had noticed that Bruce had started shaving after the first couple days working on the roof, and wearing a pleasant cologne. The weekend following the first week, she took immediate notice when he returned Monday morning with a fresh haircut. It was a decent thing to want to look nice for another person, Tracy thought. Not what a lot of people in the church might say, but deep down they had to believe the same thing. There was a difference in vanity and simply tending to yourself.
Tracy took another pull from her beer, tried to forget about church. Or more specifically about Lana and Jules. Both had been pushing her particularly hard the past several days about Bruce, and what made it so difficult was that those girls were coming from a place of bitterness and envy. They envied the possibility of love, as sad as that might sound. They sat every Sunday watching for weak spots in the congregation so they could attack them simply because they could be attacked. These two were the same women who, less than two years ago, Tracy had counted as her best friends. But bitterness and envy can make fast work of good people.
Bruce crossed the yard and opened his truck door, pulled out a light jacket, and started back to the porch. When he pulled it on, she couldn’t help but notice his tiny beer gut and a swatch of fish belly white skin where his shirt raised at the belt buckle. He was exactly plain enough for her tastes. Her first husband had been what her mother had called a pretty boy. She had spent the entire five years with him worried he might cheat on her. When he did, all that time anticipating it didn’t lessen the blow in the least. Something about Bruce, not just his plainness but how he held himself and presented himself, gave her glimpses into what she knew was a good heart.
“Now that was some work,” Tracy said when Bruce made it to the front steps. He zipped the jacket and smiled.
“It was for sure,” he said and sat down in the chair nearest the steps. “It’s good to be here and not be working. Just visiting.”
Bruce didn’t talk a lot and people around town, if they had much at all to say about him, usually mentioned how quiet he was all the time. In Red Knife being quiet either meant you were like still waters, deep and wise, or generally strange in some way that got the gossipers going until you might as well have been a leper.
“Want a beer?” she asked, already handing one from the cooler across to him.
His answer was to reach and grab the can and crack open the tab, take a long pull, and settle back into the chair. For a short while the two of them sat like that watching the dark blue sky turn purple. The first stars were beginning to show, and a three-quarter moon tinged orange.
“So how long have I been here?” Bruce asked.
It didn’t break the silence so much as rip it open in a severe bloom.
Tracy didn’t see Bruce for another two weeks. The evening he asked his strange question had ended, not surprisingly, with an abrupt departure. She called Lana and then Jules. She asked them over for dinner and waited. They arrived together, smiling and exuding innocence.
“The roof looks good,” Lana said when they were all at the dining table. Tracy made soup beans and fried potatoes with pork chops especially for them.
“It’s over my head and that’ll do,” Tracy half-snapped.
“My, my, my what’s got into you, lady?” Jules said.
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong, this Bruce is some kind of imbecile or something. Forgets where he’s at and who he is from one minute to the next. He might as well be a robot or something.”
“What on earth are you going on about?” Lana said.
Jules turns her attention away from her plate. “Well, we kind of knew something wasn’t exactly center. But neither are you, Tracy. Be honest!”
“He forgot he was here, Jules! How in the hell did he even finish my roof?”
Tracy gathered the plates and tossed them onto the stove top. She suddenly hated that she had cooked for these people. It’s a habit that’s hard to break, cooking for guests. They deserved dinner about as much as they deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.
“He’s a corn dolly,” Lana says, finally. “Bruce is a corn dolly, baby girl.”
Tracy turned and stared at the two women. “A corn dolly? I thought we were done with this kind of thing. Christ Almighty.”
Jules lowered her head, appeared to study her hands folded in her lap.“Well, sweetheart, we had to do something,”
The evening Lana and Jules created the corn dolly, the most difficult part of it was agreeing on a good, strong name for him. The rest of it was pretty routine. The usual mix of spells and incantations, the proper material, the exact right time and close enough to perfect timing. These were all functions of the spell, any spell, really, that were second nature to the two women. Second nature to Tracy, too. In fact, the timing had been a touch off because only two of them had been working the spell instead of the three of them. But Tracy’s problems finding a companion wasn’t the only aspect of her life that had started failing.
For the past five years it had been obvious that Tracy had lost a certain amount of her, for lack of a better term, power. Now, she knew it could be due to loneliness. This kind of thing had happened to others before her. Jules and Lana had gone through as many as five companions apiece since the three women had formed their circle. But Tracy had never found anyone or anything to match the idea she had for herself (binding one’s love to an inanimate object could lessen the debilitating effect of loneliness, at least for a certain time, but there can be only so many long, dark nights where a book or coffee pot or a favorite blanket can do much good). In a total sense, and to put it in pedestrian terms, Tracy was too picky.
At least too picky is how Jules and Lana saw it. And the solution was a corn dolly. These were made in the past in coordination with various planting seasons but eventually grew into a role more closely related to that of the Golem. Jules and Lana had gotten highly skilled in making these, but, as with anything, there are lapses in judgement or attention; this was the case with poor Bruce.
Tracy sipped a glass of orange juice and nibbled at a banana gone mostly black. Earlier in the morning, she called the number she had for Bruce earlier and now waited for him, quietly seething. Seething because Jules and Lana sat on either side of her.
“I really and truly, truly don’t see what you’re so hot about,” Jules said and wiggled her fingers out in front of her. “Bruce is our best one yet.”
“No offense,” Lana said. Both looked sheepishly at Tracy.
Tracy let the conversation fall away, sipped her juice, and changed the subject slightly, again recapping the general plan. It was a pretty relaxed plan, nothing special, no spells that would need, as creating Bruce had, the help of Sister Hall. Any corn dolly made east of Magoffin County automatically had to involve Sister Hall. That she wouldn’t be part of Bruce’s undoing was the better aspect of Tracy’s idea. When she finished outlining the plan, both Lana and Jules were especially quiet.
“What?” Tracy asked.
Jules finally spoke up. “Thing is, we ain’t getting around dealing with the good Sister.”
Tracy’s stomach muscles went rigid. “Why? We’ve reversed before without help.”
Leaning back in her gliding chair, Jules admitted they had a little help from Sister Hall during the early stage of the spell. “We thought, what the harm, you know?”
“You didn’t think about ever needing to reverse it?” Tracy asked. “What did you think, that I was going to fall head over heels for this dummy and that would be it? The two of you standing up in the church with me while I said my vows?”
“We can sit here talking all day about it and nothing is going to change,” Lana said. “Sister Hall helped us get it up and going and she has to help us undo it, and Bruce is still on his way here. Now.”
It was the first time all three had been in agreement since Bruce became an issue.
The first lick with the shovel had dented Bruce’s skull, a deep pit along the top left side that ran down to the top of his ear. The skin in the exact middle of the dent was torn open, but inside was only an obscure darkness, no blood.
The attack put Tracy over the edge, that edge a darkness inside her wanting only a leveling out of humiliation. It stirred her to compassion and she immediately sent Jules and Lana away. They hardly argued the point, and asked quietly and politely if they were now clear of the whole thing.
“So we’re out, then, right?”
“Yes, you two are out. I’ll take it from here,” Tracy explained, and both women left, not a little confused, but relieved.
Now Tracy sat in her living room, Bruce’s broken body laid out flat in the floor in front of her. She folded and unfolded an old receipt with a phone number for Sister Hall scrawled across the back.
“Where am I?”
Tracy sat back in her chair too fast and opened her mouth to answer but nothing came out. She watched Bruce prop himself onto his elbows and finally get to his feet. His eyes were entirely vacant, two gray marbles lodged into his skull.
“Yes.” He answered, and then asked. “I’m Bruce?”
“You’re Bruce,” she said. Her lips were numb and she couldn’t manage to get her bottom jaw to close. It shouldn’t have been that surprising. She knew he would eventually come to, but she had expected a far more incapacitated corn dolly. This was the same man who had put ten squares of shingle on her house over the past month. She decided to make this a learning moment for herself, considering how rare it was for a spell creation to retain so much lucidity after an attack meant to set up an undoing.
“So you don’t know where you are. What do you know?” she asked.
Bruce turned and, finding a chair, sat down with a kind of bored sigh. He rubbed the top and side of his head, scratched at the inside of his ear and rolled his fluid, gray eyes back to Tracy.
“I don’t know, really,” he said. “I can tell you I mostly feel like I’m waiting at a train station for something. I don’t know what the something is, but it makes all this,” – he waved his arms around the room – “not matter at all. This is a train platform, and all I’m doing is waiting.”
Tracy remained quiet. The moment sat still in the air for a long twenty seconds before Bruce started talking again.
“That’s just how things feel,” he continued. “I don’t think anything. You know, like thinking about things.” He stopped and looked to the floor. “I guess I don’t understand all I know about it. I know I don’t like how this feels, like I said, the train station feel. What we’re talking about right now doesn’t matter. My skull all broken,” – here he again rubbed the dent in his head – “means nothing. Everything’s that real to you is only a layover for me. And there is no one to care, that’s the worst of it, the worst feeling. How is it I can feel alone? How is it I even understand what alone is, what it feels like? I know enough to know I’m not like you, not like your friends, the ones I first saw when I could first see. They instructed me on what to do and how to do it and gave me the purpose I had up until the moment they hit me and I left into blackness for a bit. Now I’m back with a broken skull and with enough understanding to feel this deep sadness. The hardest part about being here is that I know there’s something coming that’s worse. None of this is fair.”
“Whatever is,” Tracy said.
Just as Bruce felt about himself, that Tracy did not call Sister Hall also meant nothing. She was contacted the moment Jules made it to her house. Now the good Sister stepped onto her porch high in the hills along John Attic Ridge. An extremely short woman, the bag she had packed to take to Tracy’s swung from her shoulder so low it nearly touched the hardwood of the porch steps. Once she made it to the dirt road in front of her house, she settled and waited, adjusting her ankle length dress now and again but otherwise motionless.
In all manner of weather and season, Sister Hall wore a thick black dress, and this afternoon, surrounded on all sides of the dirt road by the lush green of a summer that hadn’t long ago been a wet spring, she made a black smudge on the horizon as her driver at last pushed over the final hill to pull up beside her.
Sister Hall leaned into the passenger’s window and told her driver where to go and they went. She was familiar with having most people do as she said, especially her driver, a slow but loyal young man called Fastball.
“Here’s Tracy Eversole’s house, Fastball. Be back in two hours. Not sooner, not later. When are you coming back?”
“And what time will it be then?”
The young man chewed his bottom lip for a couple seconds, then grinned. “That will be at six o’clock, Sister Hall. Six on the dot.”
“That’s good, Fastball. See you then.”
Tracy could feel Sister Hall outside her front door before she ever saw her standing there, her bag again hanging low from her shoulder, and again twitching her dress away from her hip. The feel was a low humming just behind her eyes, which she started to rub with her head down, anticipating answering the door.
Bruce must have sensed something, too. He had reclined onto the couch once Tracy’s silence lapsed into a beyond a full half hour. Now he sat upright, fully alert. When Tracy walked to the window to see out, he stood and went to the door. When he started to turn the doorknob, Tracy stopped him. She took his arm and led him into the washroom at the back of the house. As he was making her way back to the front door, she saw that Sister Hall was already making her way in.
“I ain’t got time to stand on civil pleasantries, Eversole.” She pushed the door wide and closed it loudly. “Where’s the dolly?”
Sister Hall carried with her a particular scent, a trace of clary sage mixed with what was commonly referred to as a mountain aroma, a woodiness. It wasn’t necessarily unpleasant, but it was overpowering, and Tracy paused for a bit, adjusting to the scent spreading throughout her living room before replying. She coughed lightly into her hand and did her best to navigate around the question, catching her up instead, telling about how Jules and Lana went around her to make Bruce, how he did his roofing work, her infatuation, and, eventually, how she learned he was a corn dolly.
“Where’s the corn dolly?”
“Is it that basic, Sister? You don’t need to know anything, just where’s the corn dolly?”
“Ayup. It’s that basic.”
Tracy shooed out a long breath and then clapped her hands over her knees. “He’s in the washroom, back of the house,” she said.
“Well let’s be off to the washroom, then. Your two kin will be here very shortly.”
“Jules and Lana?”
“It will take the three of you to usher the dolly out.”
The term ushering was an old one but it meant the same thing as discarding, the term Tracy, Jules, and Lana used when dealing with failed spells or charms, both large and small scale. Tracy hoped the differences stopped at word choice.
Sister Hall stopped outside the screen door to the washroom and pointed, looked at Tracy. She nodded and followed her in. Bruce sat on top of the washing machine. For a focused moment Tracy could imagine what Bruce might have been like as a boy, legs dangling over the edge, his poor broken head hanging. Sister Hall didn’t speak to him. When he saw her, saw her standing with legs slightly parted so that her black dress billowed out and saw her take the large bun of gray hair atop her head down so that it fell over her shoulders, he also didn’t speak, but went to her outstretched arms and accepted her embrace.
“Well this is awkward.” It was Lana from behind them.
Tracy turned to see her and Jules standing in the doorway. Sister Hall didn’t acknowledge anyone else but Bruce, who was still held firmly in her arms.
“Girls,” Tracy said to them both, but continued watching Bruce hug Sister Hall. She could just make out that his face was twisted in anguish. “Girls, it looks like we’ve got some undoing to do, according to the good Sister.”
“And so it’s another day,” Jules said.
And, right then, Sister Hall dropped Bruce with one knuckle to the back of his neck.
As far back as she could remember, Tracy had never seen the Big Sandy River anything other than a coffee and milk brown, a slow-moving single surface, not a ripple in sight. Now, after dark and standing along its banks two miles from her house, the water was the blackest black, like blood in moonlight. And the surface was not still. The water danced and flickered outward shards of the moon and stars like fireflies.
A metal skiff dipped and rose at the side of the bank. Jules held to a rope tied to the front of the skiff. Inside, positioned as flat as possible, was Bruce. Long ago silenced by Sister Hall’s knuckle, he was, as far as was possible for a corn dolly, dead. But Sister Hall, who sat high on the bank with the black velvet dress bunched around her like so much spoil, explained with an uncharacteristically easy patience that in order to ensure Bruce stayed dead there would need to be a donation of the heart from each Tracy, Jules, and Lana.
“A donation of the heart?” Tracy said. “I’m kind of lost. And also, is the plan to just push Bruce out into the river so he floats on to god knows where and ends up found by some campers or whatever somewhere around German Bridge campground?” She paused and nodded to herself for a couple of seconds, staring at the ground. “Yep, I’m figuring that’s about where’ll get hung up. German Bridge.”
Before anyone could say anything else, Fastball appeared from far above, where the bottom dropped off to a ravine-style incline leading to the river. He seemed agitated, or scared. It was difficult to tell. Sister Hall was very obvious in not greeting him.
“I’m sorry, Sister!” He yelled and started a pinwheeling sprint down the incline to stop beside her. “I was not here at six on the dot. I was not.”
“Hi, Fastball,” Sister said flatly. She finally looked at him and patted the ground beside her. He scanned Tracy and the others, very briefly Bruce laid crooked in the skiff, and sat down. “Do you have the roses?”
Fastball shot back up as if someone from the treetops had puppeteered him, ran again up and over the edge of the incline. He was out of sight for less than a minute and returned to replicate the same pinwheel descent as before. This time, though, when he stopped at Sister Hall he held three lavender roses, so deeply gray-purple in the dark they might as well have been black as the river.
For reasons she held secretly, though everyone understood, Tracy started a deeply wounded sobbing. Sister Hall turned to Jules and Lana.
“You won’t have that sized donation to give,” she told the two women, “but you can pull from your affection for Tracy, and that should be enough. It has to be three.”
“Like so many things. Three,” Fastball chimed in.
“Yes, Fastball.” She reached for the roses and Fastball handed them over. “We begin.”
Infusion of emotion to send off with a loved one was one of the oldest spells Sister Hall worked. In her life, she had only performed it four times, and hers was a long life at that. But despite its rareness, the spell itself was brief and unspectacular. Within ten minutes of Fastball handing over the roses, Tracy, Lana, and Jules stood at the river’s edge, each holding fast to a rose. Fastball now held the rope that kept the skiff nearby in the easy-flowing current. When instructed each of them tossed their rose into the skiff with Bruce, and Fastball released his grip.
As the skiff began floating out to the middle of the river, moving ever so gently downstream as it did, Sister Hall came to stand in line with Tracy and the others.
“We will know if it worked before he is out of sight,” she said.
“How?” Tracy asked. She had stopped crying and was now only watching the skiff bank up and down the Big Sandy.
“Shh!” Sister Hall said. “Watch.”
As the five of them watched each rose began to turn from that moonlit gray-black to pink, and then from pink to red. When the three red dots started to shine, to glow as brightly as the refracted slivers of moon on the water, Sister Hall waved Fastball to follow and began walking the incline. Jules and Lana shot a quick look to Tracy and followed.
Tracy stood motionless. The three glowing dots of red pulled left in the darkness and then quickly to the right. She could just make out the outline of the skiff, Bruce’s profile, the strong chin, the lift of his hair in the river breeze. She watched until, one by one, each rose disappeared, and when the last one blinked out and the full cover of night settled heavily into place, she sat on the rough sand of the riverbank and started waiting, one second after another, after another. For what, she couldn’t know.
Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of five books of fiction and poetry. He is now working on a biography/memoir about the writer Breece D’J Pancake and living as an Appalachian for West Virginia Press. His next book of fiction, an Appalachian Gothic novel titled Dysphoria, is forthcoming in the next year from Cowboy Jamboree Press. He lives in Pikeville, Kentucky.