Ross Howell Jr. graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in English and American Literature. He later earned a Master’s degree in English and American Literature from Harvard University and an M.F.A. in fiction writing from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. His work has been published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Sewanee Review, Gettysburg Review, and other magazines. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife Mary Leigh, English cocker spaniel Pinot, and two rescued pit bulls, Ellie and Sam. Learn more on his website.
©Ross Howell, Jr. 2016
From Chapter 26, The Colony
When I woke I was adrift in darkness. There were voices and lights and darkness again. Then I saw a round hole with gray light. It seemed a universe away. I blinked and fell back to sleep.
I don’t know how long it was before I awoke again. The light in the hole was brighter. I could feel broad, rough-sawn boards beneath me. I ached all over. My groin burned. I wanted to throw up. I lifted myself and leaned against a wall. My foot struck something metal. I heard a slosh, then smelled the stench of waste. I rubbed my finger over my lip and felt something warm. I ran my finger over my teeth and counted. They were in place.
I heard a rooster crow. Then I heard footfalls. The light in the round hole disappeared. Everything looked misty. I touched the bridge of my nose. My eyeglasses were gone. I heard keys and the tumblers of a lock. Light poured in and I raised my hand to shield my eyes.
“Is you awake, Charlie?” a voice whispered. “You my Charlie, ain’t you?”
In the mist an orb moved close. I felt breath on my cheek. I could make out the shape of a face. It had no ears. Its eyes were green.
“Don’t you know me, Charlie?” the voice said. “Where your glasses?”
I reached for the face and pulled it closer. The head glistened copper. My fingers touched the scar where an ear should be. The skin felt warm. I realized how cold I was. My fingers were stiff.
“Red?” I said.
“You damn right it’s Red!” he said. “Doc done sterilized me and cut off my ears, too! What you think about that? Say they gone let me go, now folks can see I’s a mongrel. Here, try to stand up. Look like somebody busted your lip good.” He took hold of my arm and lifted. “Cold as a witch’s titty,” he said. “We got to find you a coat.”
When I stood, pain licked up my groin like fire. I leaned against the wall and Red steadied me. I was shivering.
“Doc Priddy operated on you his own self,” Red said. “Boss man. Heard him say he finally got that Mears the newspaperman and I figured that just had to be my Charlie Mears. You think about it, how many Mearses would they be running round, anyhow? And see? I’s right.” He took off his gray muslin jacket. “Stick out your arms and put this on,” he said. He pulled the jacket onto my shoulders.
“What is this place?” I said. “Where am I?”
“Amherst,” Red said. “The Colony.”
“I don’t know. Just the Colony, is all.” He buttoned the coat over my chest.
“Doc say cause my daddy a white man and got my momma, they say he sure to been a degenerate and I sure to be, too, being his son. Maybe even a moron. That’s why I’s here. Doc Priddy say you degenerate, too, things you been writing. What you been writing, anyways? Must been something damn aggravating, them putting you in the blind box straight after they got you fixed. Usual they keeps you in bed a couple days. Next thing I knows, long come this tall fellow, say he looking to fetch Charlie Mears out of here. So I figures he got to be looking for my Charlie, too.”
“He just say Pace. Got some girl with him.”
“Harriet? Harriet’s here?”
“Didn’t say no name. I just seen her. Face white like a ghost. Funny, though. Most times when a new girl see me now, she scream her head off. But this one don’t bat an eye. Come on, Charlie! I got to get you downstairs quick, fore them nurses come round. They gone fix me worse’n when they catches me choking my pecker. They don’t like no masturbating, I tell you. That masturbating degenerate, what they say.”
Red held my elbow as we moved down the hall. Dawn brightened the windows. From the balcony I could see Pace and Harriet crouched by the façade steps.
“This way, Charlie,” Red said, opening a door to a stairway. I had to take the steps one-by-one. Each step down was a knife in my groin. We exited through a door by the front steps. Pace and Harriet sprang up and ran to us. Harriet buried her face in my chest and hugged me. Red pushed us all into a clump of rhododendrons by the building. The earth was frozen beneath the litter. It crunched under our feet.
Pace took wire rim eyeglasses from his coat pocket and handed them to me.
“Found these on the floor at your place,” he said. “Thought you might be needing them, you being blind and all.” He grinned.
“Well,” I said.
Harriet was sobbing. “Charlie,” she said. “I was so worried.”
“It’s all right, Harriet,” I said. “Everything will be all right. We’re in the hands of God.”
“Brought you a pack of smokes, too,” Pace said. I nodded, pulling the wire temple pieces behind my ears. The nose piece was bent, but it was all right.
“Now what?” I asked.
“First thing they gone do after they sees you is out the box is turn loose them dogs,” Red said. “We got to get to the river. Crouch down when you runs.”
Red took my hand and I took Harriet’s. We pushed clear of the rhododendrons. Pace trotted behind us, then sprinted ahead, taking cover behind a fence beyond the main building. I did the best I could, but crouching, I could barely manage to walk. We joined Pace at the fence. I was breathing hard. I heard cows lowing from a barn beyond the fence, and a rooster crowed again. I heard pigs grunting. Ahead of us stood two brick gate guards with a sign marked “Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded Cemetery.” The plot was lined with an iron fence. Beyond the fence was a wide meadow with tufts of broom sedge and beyond the meadow, a dark line of trees.
“That way,” Red said. “Don’t quit running till you gets to the woods, no matter what. Skedaddle! I’ll catch up.”
Pace took my hand and I clung to Harriet’s. We made it as far as the cemetery. I leaned against one of the gate guards and vomited. I wiped my mouth with my hand and looked into the cemetery. There was a lone marker. “John Doe,” it read. “October 16, 1911. Aged sixteen.” I could see Red waving us on from the fence. I couldn’t get my breath.
“Charlie,” Pace said. “Lock your hands round my chest and hop on.” I let go Harriet’s hand. She helped me onto Pace’s back. I locked my hands as he cupped his hands under my thighs. He started at a trot and held it to the middle of the meadow. I could hear him breathing hard. He slowed to walk a few steps.
“Pace,” I said. “I can make it from here.”
“That’s all right,” he said. He moved his hands closer to my knees for better grip and took up his trot. “Harriet,” he said. “Run ahead to the trees.”
“No,” she said. “I’m staying with you.” Pace managed to keep going. Harriet steadied him at the elbow when he staggered. There was a thicket of blackberry vines and greenbriers at the edge of the woods. Pace stumbled through, thorns clutching at his trousers and jacket. In the woods we collapsed against a poplar trunk. I could hear the sound of water.
I looked back and saw Red jump the fence. He ran past the cemetery, sprinting across the meadow. He was smiling the broad smile of our boyhood days. He ran like a wild thing. His mutilation made him all the more feral, as if everything human had been taken away.
“Hey!” A man in a white coat was standing in front of the building. He pointed in Red’s direction. “Hey,” he shouted. “You stop!” I heard voices at the barn, and the clank of milk pails. By the pigpens there were boys in gray muslin jackets pointing toward the meadow.
Red collapsed on his knees next to us, his chest heaving. “Straight through the woods,” he said. “Till you comes to the bluffs. Head right. You’ll see a path. At the river, head downstream. You’ll sees a big rock white as goose shit. Sight on it fifty feet straight up the bank. Stole me a little boat. Covered up with sticks. Ain’t got no paddle. Fetch you a limb, maybe you can pole a ways. Stays to the bank. Don’t gets in the current. They’s sure to be looking on the river, though. You rides far as Scottsville, they ain’t no way in hell sheriff won’t pick you up. You got to get off the river fore Scottsville. You sinks that boat and head cross country.”
“What about you?” I said.
“I’m gone run up yonder,” Red said. “Where all them morons is. Railroad spur come in behind the barn. One time hopped me a car far as Danville. Doc Priddy give me thirty days in the box for that one. Anyways, dogs’ll run my scent. They knows it plenty good.”
He looked at me. “Sorry I didn’t play with you that time you come to see me, Charlie. I’s just mad about school. Momma found out what I did, she tanned me good. I don’t blames you for not coming back.” He rose and helped me stand. “Alreda sure miss them pennies, though.” He grinned.
“Franklin,” I said.
“Told you don’t never call me that!” he said. Then he ran, dodging gray tree trunks. I heard dogs baying. The man in the white coat in front of the building had vanished. Pace lifted my arm over his shoulder and we started for the bluffs. I heard something whiz and snap through the tree limbs above our heads. Then I heard the report of a rifle. Harriet gasped. I turned. She was balled up at the base of the tree, clutching her hands to her ears. Her face was pale and frozen. I thought if I touched it, her face might shatter in a thousand pieces.
“Harriet,” I said. “We have to go. We have to go now.”
Her eyes darted about the meadow. Then she calmed herself and stood, pressing her dress with her hands. Suddenly bits of bark splintered from the tree and settled in her hair. I saw a white crease like a scar across the trunk. Then I heard another report. With my free hand I grabbed hers and pushed her in front of us.
“Run!” I said. And she did, tumbling over a tree root but getting quickly up. We ran blindly, till we reached the bluffs. The river was a dizzying plunge below, dark water roiling with current, big white bubbles riding the chute. We turned to the right and found the path, Harriet leading us single file down the escarpment, with me following, and Pace behind to steady me. I felt no pain, though I seemed to move in a dream, my limbs responding so much more slowly than they should, my vision graying out. I felt Pace’s hand press my elbow, and roused, moving forward. We clattered through dry stalks of marsh grass and thistles, till we reached the bend of the river. There was a broad sand shingle.
“Wait here,” Pace said. Harriet leaned against me as we settled into the sand. Pace ran downstream. I studied the round river stones in the sand, then gazed up to the bluff where the sun shone on the trees. I dropped my gaze to the litter of twigs and gravel. Everything was beautiful, beautiful as anything I had ever seen. I tried to think of a prayer to celebrate such beauty.
“Charlie?” Harriet said. Her face was in mine and I could see her white hand on my brow. “Wake up,” she said. “I’ll help you stand.”
I saw Pace downstream. He was dragging a rowboat through the alders by the water. He stopped and waved his arms broadly. I remember rising, and stumbling with Harriet to where Pace stood. I remember his tight grip on my arms, and the narrow boards of the bottom of the boat, and the sound of the boards scraping against stone. Then all was quiet and I was asleep again.
There were voices and shapes, and light and dark. I saw ice and fire. I smelled forest loam. I heard singing, but not a song I remembered. I saw the dark face of a woman, leaning into me, her raven hair cluttered with feathers. Her hand was over my face. I watched her through her fingers. When she saw my eyes were open, she lifted her hand.
“I have seen your dream,” she said. She folded her hands in her lap.
Next to her sat a dark man, his hair also raven. He was wearing a gray bowler.
“Listen to her,” the man said. “She has medicine.”
“There is a white deer running,” the woman said. “When she runs, she makes a great light, like the sun. She has teeth like the bear. Wolves chase her, but her light blinds them and they cannot see to pursue her anymore. But one wolf can see through her light. When the wolf draws near, the white deer turns and tears him to pieces with her teeth. That is your dream.”
I tried to speak but no words came out. I could see a fire burning in the hearth behind the woman, and I heard crackling. I thought it was the fire, but it was my teeth chattering.
“Oh, Charlie, you’re so sick.” I recognized Harriet’s voice. I watched her pull the edge of a quilt close under my chin.
“Maybe a half mile, we turned a bend, couldn’t hear the dogs,” Pace said. “I reckon we covered maybe twelve, fifteen miles, altogether.” His face was in the shadows, behind Harriet’s. “The wind picked up. By nightfall my hands was so numb, I kept dropping the pole. Harriet said your fingers was blue, and you might get frostbite. It started to snow. We seen a light by the river. Reckoned we’d better take our chances, so we sunk Red’s boat. This is Mr. Branham. He helped me haul you in here.”
The dark man nodded.
“Help him sit,” the dark woman said. “He must drink.” She picked up a ladle and leaned toward the fire. There was a blackened pot hanging from the spit. She dipped the ladle in the pot and turned to me. Pace raised me by the shoulders. The quilt fell to my waist. I was naked. “Strong tea from the willow,” she said. “Drink. To wrestle the fever.” The tea was bitter. I winced and swallowed. “No,” she said. “You must drink it all.”
When I finished, Pace lowered me onto the pallet. I shivered all over and my teeth chattered more. Harriet started to cover me.
“No,” the woman said. “Change the poultice. The other is full of poison now.”
Harriet pulled the quilt below my groin. I grabbed at the edge to cover myself.
“Charlie,” Harriet said. “Don’t be so bashful.” I had not seen her smile since I gave her The Pilgrim’s Progress. She removed the poultice and handed it to the woman. She wrapped a new one in flannel. She dipped it in a basin and squeezed water from the flannel. She placed the poultice on my groin and covered me with the quilt.
“Infected,” Pace said. “Not bad. Mr. Branham says we can stay here till you’re stronger.” He turned toward the woman. “Mrs. Branham, is it all right for Charlie to have him a smoke, him being laid up and all?”
The dark woman nodded. “Tobacco is good,” she said. Pace pulled the pack from his pocket.
“Luckies,” I said.
“Well, now he can talk,” Pace said, smiling at Harriet. “We was kind of enjoying you being the strong, silent type and all.” He lit the cigarette and held it to my mouth. My lip stung. I took a drag, and then another. The tobacco tasted wonderful. Pace leaned back in his chair, holding the cigarette between his thumb and finger. The butt was tinged with purple. I touched my lip.
“Pokeberry,” Mrs. Branham said. I watched the white smoke from the cigarette curl toward the ceiling. Sweat beaded on my forehead. Mrs. Branham’s tea had started its work.
“How’d you find me, Pace?”
He grinned. “Here,” he said. He held the cigarette to my lips. I took another drag.
“You’re asking the best damn bird-dog reporter in all Hampton Roads that question?”
“Well,” I said. The room seemed to grow darker.
“And Harriet? How did she . . .”
“Shush, Charlie,” she whispered. I felt her lips on my forehead. Then everything went black.