Word Count: 3.9k
Warnings: Profanity and show-level sacrilege.
Author’s Note: Thanks to sweetheartdean for the beta! Prompt: folklore/local color + a remarkable thrift store find/inexplicable moss/a noteworthy amphibian.
Summary: Gordon Walker needs his road opened.
A woman's shoulder twitches. Her hair whips through the air, her lips part, and then liquid's hitting the floor, pat-pat-patter:
"Goddamn it, Jackie!"
"Don't you cuss at me in public!"
"What a fuckin mess."
"Watch your mouth in front of the kids."
"Hey, miss? Excuse me, hey!"
This last to a waitress, who hastily places Gordon's glass and bottle in front of him before going to wad tissue-thin napkins in the puddle of beer now dripping onto the carpet from the neighboring table. The kids, a pudgy boy of perhaps seven and a girl a couple years younger, keep eating right on through their parents' dispute and the waitress's intercession.
Gordon pours his Michelob into the glass and raises it to the wall. "Happy birthday, baby sister."
He hates dry counties. "Bar" always means the side room of a pizzeria that sells nothing harder than beer, full of redneck families like the one at the next table and open daily from eleven to ten. The whole eastern half of the state's like that, really: nothing but sand, pine trees, and Protestant Christianity. Take away all options for decent entertainment, leave your population to take out their resulting boredom in extra wife-beating and alcoholism. This much legally enforced hypocrisy had to be voted in by somebody, yet he has no idea who would actually choose to live here.
Kubrick sidesteps the waitress mopping the floor with napkins and slides into the chair opposite. "Sorry I'm late," he says by way of greeting. "Owner was giving me a tour of the lakeside RV park."
Gordon stares at him. "What in the hell are you wearing?"
Kubrick glances down and exhibits the front of his t-shirt, which reads, in the colors of the FedEx logo, FedUp (line break) with Satan. "Got it in the thrift store," he says. "D'you like it?"
"Oh." Kubrick lets go of his shirtfront.
"What's this lead you've got?" Gordon asks.
"Right, yeah." Kubrick digs in a trouser pocket and comes up with a paper. "'Mrs. Kit Lasater, noted for truthfulness,'" he reads, "'was walking near her home on February 25th when she heard what was a hard rain fall. The fall came from a cloudless sky, when the wind was so slight as to be almost imperceptible. She noticed something falling between her and the ground, saw it leave a red splash on the sand, and heard a pattering like rain. None of the liquid had fallen on her, but it had drenched a space of about fifty by seventy feet, and nearly rectangular in form. Dr. Robinson, living near, collected some of the freshly fallen material and made certain simple tests which satisfied him that it was blood. It had even the smell, he says, of fresh blood.' Chatham, 1884."
Kubrick hands the paper across to Gordon. "Spent yesterday at the UNC library. They took other samples of the stuff and tested them, too, you can read it for yourself. Granted, it was the 19th century, but it sounds like it was fairly credible."
Gordon scans the rest of the article, a microfiche printout of the Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society. A lengthy paragraph outlines the testing performed by the Chemical Laboratory of UNC. As to theories accounting for so singular a material falling from a cloudless sky, F. P. Venable concludes, I have no plausible ones to offer.
Gordon passes the article back to Kubrick. "And?"
"'The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth.'"
Gordon may not love the Lord, but he knows the lore. "Revelation?"
"Chapter eight, verse seven. Multiple interpretations exist, of course, everything from prophesy to political commentary."
"So if it's an omen, what's it signify?"
Kubrick disappears the paper back into his jeans. "That's what I want to find out. You said there might be a demonic war coming; I've been looking into omens. Did you know that this part of North Carolina is the only place in the United States where blood rain's been recorded more than once?"
"Can't say that I did."
"1850, about thirty miles away," says Kubrick. "There's academic confirmation for that one, too. Most blood rains happen in Europe and the Mediterranean and they're either this one species of algae or dust from the Sahara, but I asked a lady on the UNC chemistry faculty, she says those things wouldn't react like the article describes."
Gordon rubs his thumb over the edge of the table. "Okay. What're you thinking?"
"If the kind of war you're talking about really is on the horizon, we could be living through the opening of the seven seals right now. We know there's places where the boundaries between worlds get thinner, right?" Kubrick leans in. "What if eastern North Carolina is a place especially permeable to omens, the way the shanghai tunnels in Portland are to spirits or Clifton is to demons? What if"—he pinches his thumb and forefinger together to emphasize his point, eyes fixed on Gordon like blue lasers.—"what if it's about time?"
Gordon repeats, "Time."
Kubrick nods. "Time."
Gordon considers a number of possible responses to that before he goes with, "Catch me up on what else you've found out, would you?"
Kubrick takes him through each lead he's run down—leads Gordon carved out of a demon in Shreveport. It could still have slipped some lies in to poison the information, but so far everything it gave him about demonic activity checks out. Which just leaves the other half of what it said to vet.
Kubrick finishes his recap and his chicken wings and looks at him. "So," he says, "are you going to tell me whatever you're keeping quiet?"
Gordon glances up at him from where he's been doodling on a steno pad. Kubrick can be like this, at times: startlingly insightful, in between the lunacy. There is a reason he's been hunting thirty years and is still alive. "Not yet," Gordon says finally. "Sorry."
He has to be sure, is the thing. There's no lost love between him and the Winchesters, but something like this—he has to be sure.
Kubrick just nods and stands. "Located a descendant of the 1884 witness. Lives in Wilmington now. Going to drive out there in the morning, see if there's any family history not in the written records that might help interpret the omen. Help determine if it really was one, anyway."
Gordon also stands. "Let me know what you find out."
"You're not coming?"
Gordon glanced up and tossed a bill down on the table. "Didn't agree to meet you all the way down here because I think you're gonna find the key to Revelation in a tar heel trailer park," he says. "Got some business to attend to."
Mrs. Lois Alford, pronounced Loyce, lives in a tin-roofed singlewide off of Highway 130. The nearest approximation to a town is a crossroads called Bug Hill that's got a convenience store, an auto shop, and a post office open two hours daily. There's six churches in a three-mile radius.
The trailer home has siding in pale faux wood grain; its foot-wide windows are fitted in aluminum frames dotted neatly all around with rusted nails, like rectangular portholes. It has a house number on it in peeling black electrical tape next to the door, 166. Gordon got this address from a log truck driver whom he met yesterday outside a Piggly Wiggly advertising CHICKEN LIVERS – PIGS FEET – JESUS IS KING as its specials on a letter board. The residence isn't flashy, certainly, but his sources more or less agree that Mrs. Alford is a root doctor who gets results.
At his knock, a voice inside calls out that the door's unlatched. He enters. The living room smells of chili peppers, cigarettes, and sassafras. Curios and framed devotional quotes fill most surfaces. A shelf over the couch holds several distinct generations of family photographs and a Bible. Gordon looks around for his host.
"Through here," Mrs. Alford calls from the doorway on the left. "I don't get around so good, come on in."
Her office is past a coat closet. It's actually less cluttered than the living room; no rootwork in progress is kept in here. There's a particleboard desk with some tools—mortar and pestle, a lidded wooden box, another Bible, two oil lamps (no candles)—but most of her supplies are corralled in stacking plastic bins against a wall. A breadboard hung beside one of the tiny porthole windows is painted with flowers and reads Thank You Jesus. Gordon glances up at a fruit crate full of Spanish moss on top of one of the plastic bin towers, then at Mrs. Alford behind the desk.
"Have a seat, tell me what brings you down."
He takes the client chair in front of the desk. Mrs. Alford is light-skinned with a dusting of fine, dark skin tags over her face and neck. She's not frail-looking, precisely, but she looks her age, which according to the logger is in the upper seventies. A pair of crutches leans in the corner behind her chair.
"I'm… an investigator," he says. "And what I'm on right now, it's the most important investigation of my life. Lives are on the line. Maybe a lot of lives. But I can't seem to get anywhere. All my names, all my leads—they all dry up before I can get anything certain, and I need to be certain." He tilts his head toward her. "Heard you have the discernment. Whatever that means."
She drums her fingers on the desk like a banker hearing out a supplicant. "You need your roads opened," she says. "Need your path unblocked."
"You came to a root doctor. You thinking you might be crossed?"
Gordon knows this term; he has tangled with a root doctor before, one with a reputation less quiet than Mrs. Alford's. "I think so, yeah. I've checked myself for all the curses I know how to and come up clean, but there's something. I'm being blocked somehow. With the kind of people I'm pursuing"—He doesn't just mean the Winchesters.—"there's no telling what they're capable of. They're a new breed."
That much he is sure of. Psychics are as old as mankind. Whatever Sam Winchester is, it's something new.
Mrs. Alford sizes him up. "First time calling on a root doctor?"
He shrugs. "I'm from St. Louis." And folk magic, filtering its power through a generous helping of personal style and regional flair, is not his first port of call.
She nods. "We'll do a reading."
"Okay. How's that work?"
Her preferred means of reading a client, as it turns out, is simple conversation. "Could use cards," she says. "Do use cards, sometimes, mainly for they who gonna expect it. But you're not here for that. Just tell me as much as you can."
Gordon hesitates a moment. His sources do say that Lois Alford keeps her sessions confidential, even up to murder.
A sardonic expression touches the corner of her mouth. "No more profit keeping things back from a root doctor than from the regular kind," she says. "But it's your dime."
He tells her. He doesn't name names, not for people or monsters, but he tells her enough.
When he's finished, Mrs. Alford purses her lips at him across the desk. "You're in a crossed condition, all right," she says, tapping absently at her chair arm. "Don't think anybody put a root on you, though. Doesn't feel like that. Same remedy anyway: cleansing."
She writes him out various prescriptions: "Say 'Old Tom Walker' under your hat binded by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost" (Gordon doesn't own a hat); "Read Isaiah 41 three days running" (so long as Kubrick's not in the room, why not); "A soup spoonful a day" (this of a yellow liquid flecked with onion and red pepper canned in a jam jar). "I don't expect much from these, though, because you don't have the faith," she says. "So hand me those crutches and come on into the bathroom."
In the bathroom next door, she sits down, puffing, on the toilet seat. She needs the crutches because the front half of one foot is missing, the sock drawn right up over the stump. He strips off while she rips open what looks like a bar of soap and starts grinding the ultramarine cake inside with a root mixture she's not disclosed. He cranes his neck to look at the discarded paper: Reckitt's Crown Blue. Good fucking Lord. Once she gets done laundering him, maybe she'll starch and iron him, too.
She looks up, once, and whistles at his scars. "You do live," she says.
"Hazard of the job." He feels intensely awkward standing with his junk out in front of a seventy-year-old woman he barely knows, but tries his best not to show it.
A man never shows fear when he's naked in front of a woman, his father used to say. A man who fears her judgment is no man.
Probably he didn't mean Mrs. Alford.
In any event, her interest is purely professional. He lies as directed in the laundry blue while she perches on the fiberglass rim of the tub. She lays on hands and recites endless Psalms without missing a beat. As the deer panteth after the water, so panteth my soul after thee. O thou that hearest prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come. I said unto the fools, Deal not foolishly: and to the wicked, Lift not up the horn. Harden not your heart, as in the provocation, as on the day of temptation in the wilderness: as for our transgressions, thou shalt purge them away. By terrible things in righteousness wilt thou answer us.
She keeps it up for over an hour before falling silent. Gordon, who's been getting laundry blue ladled over his head, cracks an eye open. Her eyes are narrowed at him. They sit there, him in the laundry blue, her on the tub rim, for perhaps the most awkward fifteen seconds of his life.
"It's not working," she says finally. "Not enough, anyway."
Gordon reins in his temper at having gotten his nuts dyed like Easter eggs for nothing and says, "Why not?"
"You're crossed inside," she says. "Something fierce. You can get dressed; we're going to try something else."
She's at her towers of supply bins when he gets his clothes back on, his hair dripping pale blue onto his collar. Various ingredients are already laid out on the desk; by sight Gordon can identify salt, sulfur, and red pepper. Mrs. Alford rattles around in one of the bins and comes up with a bottle that, after close inspection, she approves with a grunt. She makes her way back over to the desk and gestures for him to sit again.
Mrs. Alford hands him a slip of paper and a pencil and looks at him seriously. "You done something wrong, and you know what it is. Write it down. Be honest about it. You don't have to tell me and I don't need to read it, but be honest." She nods at the door. "You can go in the other room. It'll make you feel better, and it'll leave me to get my work done. Go on, now."
Out in the living room, Gordon sits at a TV tray table under Mrs. Alford's ancestor altar and stares at the slip of paper. After several minutes, he picks up the pencil and writes, I let Sam Winchester go.
He folds it lengthwise.
Mrs. Alford is waiting for him when he goes back in. The bottle she chose, a small, clear vinegar bottle, has been filled with ingredients and what he hopes is oil but doesn't look viscous enough to be. She holds out her hand for his paper, rolls it into a coil, and pops it in the bottle. It settles slowly into the pale gold liquid.
She seals it and, to his surprise, hands it to him. "To work this kind of bottle," she says, "it has to get buried in the cemetery. It's spirit work. Ordinarily I'd do it myself, but since the diabetes took my foot I'm a bit constrained, if you know what I mean."
Gordon takes the bottle, thinking back through the various graveyards he's passed in this area. "All right," he says. "Does it matter what time of day? I saw one outside Brunswick—"
"Not that one," she says. "I'm going to show you which one." She takes out more paper and draws a map. Lines start branching off of Highway 131 at crazy angles reaching up toward a circle for Lake Waccamaw. "It's back a bit," she says, like the route her pen picks out isn't a random walk down thirty different layers of access roads that he can already tell aren't going to be labeled at all. "An old family plot in the state forest. It's very small, but you'll find it. There's some artificial poinsettias there. You're going to see a big, long grave, says Laura Brown, and to the left of it a medium-size slanted headstone, says Rachel Johnson, and to the left of that a little metal marker. There's two metal markers there, one tidy and one busted. You're going to bury this under the tidy one. Doesn't matter about the time, but sunlight's good."
"And my, ah, road will be opened?"
"So long as you wrote down the truth, yeah."
He thinks of Sam Winchester and all the signs he missed—the opportunity he missed. "It was the truth. Why, what would happen?"
"Depends who's listening. Nothing, mostly, or else open up a false road. You have what we agreed on? Thank you. All right, better get on, it might take you a while to find it."
Kubrick calls as he's descending the stairs from Mrs. Alford's trailer. "Bit of a bust here," he says.
"Oh?" Gordon holds his phone with one hand, turns the bottle over with the other. The red pepper and sulfur inside rain down from the bottom onto the coiled slip of paper.
"Nothing meaningful in the family history. No record of anything bad happening anywhere in the community after the blood rain, or even anything meaningful. I might've been reading too much into it."
Gordon does not say, Who, you?
"There's some things we should still run down, though," Kubrick continues. "Cross-reference non-local events with each of the dates and then compare the data sets. Duke University's our best bet, I got a contact at the special collections library."
Even if Kubrick's theory is bullshit, as three out of every seven of Kubrick's theories generally are, Gordon owes him that much for all the legwork he's done for him this past month. "Yeah, all right. I gotta finish something up, but we can head out tonight."
In the car, he wedges Mrs. Alford's map under the lid of the glove compartment, looks at it, and shakes his head as he starts the engine. A hundred square miles of featureless tidewater and unmarked roads. Thank God he has artificial poinsettias as a landmark.
About twelve miles in, he leaves his car on the better side of a sand pit and walks the rest of the way on foot. Its red paint is stark against the sand. At least he won't have any trouble finding it again.
Mrs. Alford's map is not to scale, so it's hard to guess how much farther it is to the graveyard. This whole area is state forest—not wild, but a pine plantation, trunks ranged in man-made regularity as far as the eye can see. Sand, and pine trees; but at least there's no sign of Jesus.
The sun beats down. The widely spaced trees don't block much of it, and don't block any of it on the access road he's following. The road is sand with an intermittent, balding strip of green down the middle; flies, wasps, grasshoppers, and velvet ants cross it in profusion, flying low over bird and bear tracks or scurrying over the sand. Periodically, the pine breaks down into short, shrubby oak, which in turn gives way to larger fields of white.
From the other side of one of these, he catches sight of something on a tree trunk. It turns out to be a sign detailing regulations for historic cemeteries grandfathered in on public lands. A few yards beyond it under a thick carpet of pine needles lies a tiny family plot.
It's as Mrs. Alford described. Nearest is the long grave, a full-length slab half-hidden in the pine needles with a stone plaque at one end: Laura J Brown, 1904 – 1982, whose artificial poinsettia's leaves are fraying. He considers the plaque, which has roses in the corners. It looks almost exactly like the one his parents got for his sister.
Beside Laura lies Rachel Johnson (1851 – 1935) and her deceased, who likewise have a crafts store poinsettia. They also have a toad.
It's sitting right on top of the stone, a fat, palm-sized animal in buff with leopard spot warts. Black, slot pupils stare back at Gordon from gold irises. He's startled by its presence, and it takes him a second to realize why. Every other toad or frog he's seen for miles around has been a husk, too desiccated to interest even ants; there's no sound of amphibians anywhere in the forest. He frowns at the thing. It opens its mouth at him and lets out a sound like a straining sprint on a screen door.
"Ugly motherfucker," Gordon mutters, and pulls out the bottle.
To the left of Rachel is the metal marker. It looks home made, a plaque smaller than most envelopes welded onto fencing stake. A name was scratched on the plaque once, but rust has taken it. He parts the pine needles, digs, and gives the sin inside it over to whoever lies here.
Gordon finishes burying the bottle and spreads the pine needles back over the spot until it's invisible. The needles are warm, the sun raising a fragrance from them almost like incense.
He starts back along the track through the sand field. September's half gone, but it's still hot as hell. He wipes sweat away from his brow and fantasizes about never returning to the southeastern United States again.
He's about halfway across the sand field when he hears what sounds like a raindrop. A couple seconds later, there's another. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he looks up to search the blue sky for a cloud and a gets a fat drop right to his face.
In seconds, it's all around him. The drops patter onto the ground, warm as life, raising a powerful smell of iron.
Against the sand, the blood is incredibly vivid. Its fall makes a haze all around, like a regular summer downpour except crimson instead of silver, and it's so thick the air is actually humid with it. There's a distinct line between the ellipse he's standing at the center of and the clean sand beyond it.
The toad hops past in front of his feet, thoroughly moisturized. "Skreeeeeeeeeee," it tells him.
Gordon turns his face up to the red drenching him out of a cloudless sky.
• The article Kubrick reads is based mainly on an account of the Chatham, N.C. blood shower of 1884 from the journal named. I synthesized it with another source… which I've since mislaid. /o\
• The moss is, in fact, explicable: in southern rootwork traditions, Spanish moss typically indicates a practitioner willing to perform harmful work (revenge spells and enemy work). Rootwork in the Carolinas, particularly North Carolina, tends to differ slightly from hoodoo traditions—saints are not called upon; practices are usually merged with Protestant Christianity.