A Report from Sally Fernsby:
How old is Devil's Clay? Hell if I know. The truth is, I don’t think anybody really knew. Some folks claimed it all started on account of a nasty bit of business way back when, an unspeakable crime where brother fell upon brother, that sort of thing. But if you listened to old Verger Frye, one of the local fossils collecting dust over at Jenner's Diner, it was the land that was to blame, not the settlers. According to Ol' Man Frye, it was the dark spirits inhabiting the ground of that awful place that caused those colonists to turn on one another.
"That place be the burial site o' fallen devils, ya see,” Frye would say. “So, ain't no surprise the earth didn’t take to no right an' proper crops. It done seen too much blood that's healthy. So much, in fact, that maybe it was wantin' more o' that than water."
Of course, getting that stubborn codger to spit out what actually happened all those years back was about as easy as pushing a pine cone through a pin hole. Frye and all the other relics loafing around that greasy spoon fancied themselves scholars, of a sort. As a result, the old farts had a habit of not giving the full story, if not clamping their dusty traps shut completely. They said it was because the stories themselves had power, that the words, when they leapt off the tongue and mixed with the cool air, dripped with the same kind of foulness as the place they were describing. To me, it was just a way for them to stay relevant—what would they be but human antiques without the secrets and stories they so “dutifully” kept? Either way, it was my job to piece together a working chronology of that damnable place. I just wish I didn’t have to pander to a bunch of wrinkly old shits to do it. The whole thing just made my hackles rise, really.
But that's not to say I haven't had any success. Not all of the members of the Dusty Scholarship share the same clandestine lifestyle. Ethel Culpepper, for example, was a longtime member of the group with gift for gab(such is the weakness of a cat-collecting old spinster). . I visited her just yesterday, and we talked over a game of rummy and a pot of apple spice tea(the tea, I’ll admit, might have had a little extra “something” in it to make sure those lips stayed loose). After an exhausting bout of idle gossip—exhausting for me, not her; the old bat could jaw forever, it seemed—I brought up Devil’s Clay by way of a comment regarding the disappearance of my little sister ten years ago—a topic I’m still not comfortable talking about.
Ethel’s eyes became razors, and she quickly took a look around before she leaned forward and said, “My heart goes out to you, child. It really does. That place has been tormenting our people for as long as the Earth’s had dirt.” She took another look around, her head swinging back and forth like barn doors in the wind, and whispered, “Ya see, the Clay took my granddaddy too.”
“What happened?” I asked, feigning shock.
She settled in, leaned in close, and finally imparted something useful. “My grandfolks used to live right up there on Ashes Peak, you see. Back then, the soil was good farmland. In fact, to hear Nana tell it, they had a healthy crop of sweet corn and potatoes growing up there, even a couple apple trees, if you can believe it. But you see, my granddaddy was a farmer by necessity, not trade. No, no, he was a learned man, despite not having any great amount of schooling. My Nana, bless her soul, used to say, ‘You’d sooner find that ole coot’s nose buried in a book rather’n a bushel.’ And that seemed to be Granddaddy’s undoing.
“Now, as you well know, we Greywitchers have always kept our distance from the Clay, and with good reason. But wouldn’t you know it? One day, Granddaddy comes trudging out from the woods dragging one of them dreadful Devil’s Clay saplings behind him! You know the ones, right? Those wretched things clawing up at the sky just outside of town? Anyway, he got it into his noodle to figure out what made those accursed things grow. Nana was sure plenty pissed when she saw it, my momma said, but somehow Granddaddy convinced her to let him plant it in the backyard. That's when all the trouble started.
“Not a week after that hideous tree was planted into Greywitch soil, the crops quit growing. But it didn’t stop there, no siree! Not only did the crops quit, but all the vegetation—our garden, the trees, hell, even the grass—it just all started to wither away! But I’ll be damned if that tree from the Clay didn't grow ten feet from the time it was planted—like a weed after a summer night’s rain, as Nana used to say. Now, I know what you’re thinking. ‘Get rid of the damn tree,’ right? Well, my old grandpappy was absolutely tickled by that tree’s growing. He said he was on his way to solving the mystery of Devil’s Clay, and under no circumstances was that tree to be meddled with. Now, Nana was a tough old bird, and certainly weren’t one to back down from a fight, but she said the look in Granddaddy’s eyes was downright frightening. So, much to her chagrin, she let the dratted thing be.
“As you can expect, things got a lot worse after that. Granddaddy spent most of his time in the garage looking at tree samples and such, and after dusk, Nana could hear him rambling about outside, doing God knows what at all hours of the night. Now, my Nana was a right and proper Christian, and she didn’t have no interest in spreading lies, so what she told me next couldn’t be nothing but the straight and honest truth.
“One night, sometime in the early hours afore dawn, Nana was startled up by a bit of commotion. She said it sounded like the muffled cry of an animal, maybe a cow or a deer, followed by a deep gulping noise coming up from the very earth itself. Not being the type of woman to scare easily, Nana rushed down to the kitchen window overlooking the back yard. At first, she couldn’t make out what she was seeing—probably on account of the unnaturalness of it all—but then she saw something moving, struggling really, in the hollow of that despicable tree—it was the head of a steer! Nana said it seemed to be fighting for its life, like it was straining to keep from being swallowed down the gullet of that devilish wood. And to make matters worse, Granddaddy stepped into view and started pushing on the head of that pitiable beast, trying to force it down that wicked tree’s throat.
She didn’t know how long she’d been at the window before Granddaddy noticed her and told her to go back to bed. And she did. Throughout that entire night, Gram said she could hear the muffled wails of the poor creature, along with the wet sounds of its digestion, both of which seemed to travel under the ground and echo out into the far woods towards that wretched Devil’s Clay. She said it was as if that terrible tree knew where it belonged, and was stretching its roots all the way back to the Clay.
“It went on like that for days. Night after night, she would fall asleep to the dampened howls of stolen livestock being ground up and consumed by the roots and branches of that awful thing. And every morning, she would notice how that monster tree had grown. Each daybreak, Nana would march right out there and berate old Granddaddy for his wrongdoings, but you know what a man’s like when he’s got that stubborn ole’ bean stuck on something. No, he would have none of it. He was bound and determined to find out the mysteries of that abominable place, and he sure as shit wasn’t about to let no woman tell him otherwise. But that decision wouldn't be his for very long, you see.
“It weren’t but a few nights later, after some of the neighbors started reporting missing cattle and such, that my Nana was once again startled awake. But this time it wasn’t the screaming of some cow or pig that woke her, but those of a man! Well, Nana was up in two shakes of lamb’s tail and made a beeline for the backyard. But to her surprise, there weren’t no sign of Granddaddy—except for a single shoe dangling from the lip of one of those awful tree’s hollows.
Like I said before, my Nana was a tough old coot, so she summoned some grit, grabbed a shovel, and followed the underground screams of my granddaddy all the way into the Devil’s woods! She said it was a right and terrible thing to listen to. Eventually she had to stop, on account of the screaming turned to gurgling, and that awful chugging sound was more akin to a fat man guzzling beer than something being pushed through roots and tubers. Right then and there, Nana knew she’d lost her dearest to the Clay, and there weren't nothing she could do to get him back.
But that didn’t mean she was done. Oh no, that place had taken her husband, and there weren't no way she was letting it stand. Within the hour, Nana had soaked the house, the barn, and that wicked tree in tractor diesel and Granddaddy’s liquor. She grabbed my momma, who was just a whelp at the time, and set the farm ablaze. She said that tree looked like the flaming hand of Lucifer himself when it went up, like he was trying to grab the heavens themselves and drag them down into the flames.
“The fire didn’t die down until noontime, and the neighbors didn’t question what happened—they already had suspicions that Granddaddy was trifling with things not meant for it. The land never did recover, even after all these years. That's why they call that plot Ashes Peak, you see? Ain't nothing been able to grow there since old Nana razed it to the ground. But it ain't because of no fire—that’s just what folks want to believe. No, I reckon it's because remnants of that damn wood is still up there, sucking up any life what tries to live.”
A pause seized the room, and Ethel finally leaned back and rubbed her heavy eyes. “Well sweetie, I’m starting to get tired, but I thank you for giving this old maid a nice evening.”
I bid my farewell and made my way home. I haven't slept well since.
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