by Steven Popkes
Jeremy DaFoe looks human enough. He farms soybeans and corn on his small farm. His wife Betty loves him. His best friend Buddy admires him. His enemy Luke plots revenge.
But Jeremy is an ancient being of incredible power trapped in Nuthatch County. His presence has shaped its body and soul for thousands of years. The people, plants, and geology revolve around him. Old resentments, historical wrongs, and past social pressures have built over the years like tectonic forces.
The time has come for change.
Some in the County want it to be violent. They may get their wish.
A Howard Cycle novel
Steven Popkes lives in Massachusetts on two acres where he and his wife raise bananas, persimmons, and turtles.
He works in aerospace making sure rockets continue to go where they are pointed. He insists he is not a rocket scientist.
He is a rocket engineer.
Read a Sample
February 19, 2001
Betty DaFoe rolled over in her sleep. She laid one arm across Jeremy’s side of the bed. Jeremy wasn’t there and she woke up briefly and looked at the clock. 3:00 AM. She wasn’t surprised. She rarely woke up when Jeremy paced the County but nearly always awakened when he returned. This was one of the rare nights where she roused in between.
The sheet was cold to the touch. He’d been gone for some time. For a moment she was wide awake, as calm and quiet as the winter night. She patted his pillow and hoped his walk went well. Sometimes things didn’t and he came home sad.
The edge of her dream caught at her attention. Betty had been pregnant. Something she had given up as impossible the day she married Jeremy since he could not father children. Betty could still remember how the baby felt: the heavy weight. The sense of warmth. The feeling of being lit from within. She felt a sudden pang of loss and drew her hand over her flat stomach. After being married for ten years you’d think she would have accepted the way things were.
Betty rolled back to her side of the bed and snuggled the pillow as if it were Jeremy. The thought of him made her happy and she found herself still surprised to be here. She smiled to herself. She was only thirty. She had years to live. Years to be with Jeremy. Something else you would think she’d accept after a while. She buried her face in the pillow until she caught the smell of him.
Betty fell easily back to sleep.
As Jeremy walked along the frozen Mississippi the air was sharp and dry, cleared of moisture by a month of unseasonable cold. The river was broad here and rarely froze but this winter had stilled it. But it was no flat icy stream. As the waters had frozen, broken free, and frozen together again, the violence of the collisions had been preserved. Jeremy looked out over an icy field of broken boulders that glittered in the moonlight.
He was tall and very thin so that in the pale light his bones seemed to show. He wore an old broad-brimmed hat. His skin was stretched over high cheekbones and unshaven with a day’s worth of stubble. He wore a cloth coat and thin cloth gloves.
Jeremy stopped and stared across the river. Nothing stirred. He pulled off the glove from his right hand, squatted down, and rested his fingertips on a sheet of limestone sticking up through the ice. He could feel the faint tremble as the water moved past. A frown crossed his face and he shook his head.
Jeremy stood up and looked across the water again, turned, and walked across the frozen bottomland road west of Pilate, passing miles of fertile bottomland on the way.
Jenny and Glenn Waxman were sitting up with the twins. Both twins had croup. It wasn’t clear if they were sick enough for Glenn to drive into town and rouse Doctor Faraday and have him open the clinic—if the clinic wasn’t already open. They had no phone to call ahead. Glenn was trying to ease their coughing by boiling water on the little stove and filling the trailer with steam. Each time the tub ran dry he refilled it from a pickle barrel. When the barrel ran dry he dressed up against the cold and walked the fifty yards to the well-house next to the ruins of his grandfather’s house. There, he cracked the ice off the pump with a hammer and pumped the water by hand until the barrel was full and then carried forty pounds of water back to the trailer.
Jeremy skirted the east end of the Bluewater Reservation along the river bottom road and walked past the well house while Glenn was pumping furiously. Glenn never saw him. When Glenn returned to the trailer, Jenny was sitting next to the twins on the bed, relief plain on her face. Both children were asleep and breathing easily.
County Commissioner Pam Small didn’t stir when Jeremy walked past her house on the outskirts of Pilate. Sheriff Grace Cox fretted in her sleep but only for a moment. Grace’s old redbone hound, Paley, woke up from his bed on the porch. Paley joined Jeremy on the main road as it turned away from town. Jeremy squatted down and rubbed the dog’s ears as Paley shivered both from the cold and the joy of companionship. Jeremy smiled and rubbed Paley’s neck and back and then his legs. As he did, the stiffness melted away and Paley jumped like a puppy.
Paley walked with Jeremy out of town as far as the old and abandoned bottling plant and then left him, baying as he chased a fox. In her sleep, Grace heard him and smiled.
Jeremy turned north off the main road onto County Road 2 towards Blue Pond. A mile further a dirt driveway split off the road and rounded the pond, making a loop before an old Victorian house. The front porch of the house was so designed it could look straight down the main road toward town. On a clear day, the top of the First Baptist Church could be seen.
Jeremy didn’t turn with the road but instead went straight over the frozen water to the front porch of the house. The ice vibrated and rang like a bell. Jeremy stopped in the middle of the lake and listened. He continued across the lake to the beach on the other side, past the privacy signs, and up the slope to the porch.
Deacon Williams rolled over in his sleep. The movement triggered a deep coughing fit that did not cease when he awoke but went deeper each time until it took a major effort to keep from vomiting. Things came up anyway and he was conscious of nothing but the effort to breathe. When the fit eased, he found himself leaning over the edge of his ancient brass bed staring at a pool of blood on the floor. Someone held his head and eased him onto his back.
He looked up in the dimness left by the kitchen light.
“Shit,” he said. “Jeremy DaFoe.” He closed his eyes wearily. “Shit. Haven’t you got anything better to do than this?”
Jeremy sat in the chair next to the bed. He pulled off his hat. “No.”
“Only vultures and Jeremy DaFoe know when somebody’s going to die.” He stuck out his hand. “Help me up. If I’m going to die I’m damned if I’m going to do it lying down like this.”
Jeremy helped him to sit up.
The old man breathed hoarsely, shallowly, for a long time. “Have I got any lungs left?”
Jeremy shook his head. “Not really.”
“Christ.” Williams shook his head. “Don’t you get tired of this? Can’t you leave me alone?”
Jeremy shook his head slowly.
“You son-of-a-bitch,” Williams said without heat. “I’ve hated you since I knew what you were. You know that, don’t you?”
“The very idea that you keep on living past the death of better men. Myself included.” Williams lifted his hand and dropped it in resignation. “But you’re not a man, are you?”
Jeremy didn’t answer.
“You could heal me in a moment, if you wanted.” Williams rubbed his hands on his withered thighs. “But you won’t.”
“No, I won’t.”
“I didn’t think so. I don’t even have the satisfaction of thinking it’s revenge. Tornadoes don’t exact revenge. Floods don’t exact revenge. Nor does Jeremy DaFoe. You’ll die, too, someday.”
“I live in hope.” He cleared his throat experimentally. “What do you do on these visits, anyway?” Deacon Williams asked. “Gloat? Tell me what I missed? How happy I could have been?”
Jeremy shook his head. “I’ve come to keep you company.”
Williams chuckled and almost coughed but caught himself. “I’m not proud enough to turn you away. Help me into the kitchen so I can have a drink. Do you want a drink?”
Jeremy sat with Deacon Williams for almost two hours. After the old man died, he carried Williams back to his bed. Then, he picked up the phone. Carter Faraday’s voice was tinny on the other side of the line. Carter agreed to call Jake Withers to pick up the body. The state would need a death certificate.
Afterward, Jeremy walked around the house three times, watching the windows. Then, he crossed the lake again going south.
Clouds came in from Arkansas and mixed with the cold clear air over the County. The resulting snow, as hard and round as pearls, rattled as it struck Jeremy’s hat.
The ground was slippery here, and steep. He walked carefully.
A deer came out of the woods and walked beside him. Every now and then, Jeremy slipped and steadied himself against the deer. Near the last hundred feet or so of the ridge when the scrub soil turned to rock and even the grass disappeared, he stopped and nodded to the deer. The deer watched him for a moment and then bounded down the slope into the forest.
Jeremy walked along the bare ridge until he reached Table Rock. He brushed the accumulated snow from his hat and looked around. He shook his head and frowned. Jeremy leaned against the rock and removed his boots and socks, then his gloves. With bare fingers and toes, he inched his way up the side of Little Mountain. This high and unimpeded, the wind grew fierce. The top was no more than six feet across. He stood up gingerly. The wind nearly took his hat off and he held it down with one hand. The snow was turning to mist and freezing rain now and visibility was no more than forty feet. Jeremy turned this way and that, staring through the darkness.
After a while, he worked his way back. He rubbed and blew on his feet for several minutes, then pulled on his socks and shoes. He descended a different way, westerly, and in a few minutes, the rain began in earnest. He stumbled through the slush until he came to the southern part of Ridgeville and walked, south now, past the storefronts and the gas station, across the bridge over Bluegill Creek, into Ashby.
Buddy Parker knew it was late. He sat up on the edge of his bed and looked out and saw a tall man standing on his porch staring up at the sky.
Buddy picked up his robe and winced. He rubbed the swollen joints of his arthritic hands, looked at them, and felt embarrassed. Once, he had been proud of his hands: black as pecans, black as the rich earth, imbued with such strength that it seemed his muscles and tendons danced. His palms were pale and he remembered how graceful his hands had been, like birds with dark back and light breast.
A knocking brought him back to himself and he hurried to the door. Buddy was still half asleep in his reverie. Jeremy’s face, backlit by the streetlight, startled him.
“Papa Jeremy?” he asked.
Jeremy came in, smiling. He removed his hat. “You haven’t called me that since you were four.”
“I’m sorry.” Buddy stopped and collected himself. “I was startled.” He looked closer at Jeremy. “Good God. You’re wet clear through.”
Buddy turned to the hall closet and pulled out tall, thin clothes to match him. As Jeremy undressed, Buddy took each article, pants, shirt, socks, and carefully put them in the hamper to be washed and stored back in the closet.
While Jeremy dressed, Buddy went into the kitchen and put on the kettle.
Jeremy came in and sat at the table just as Buddy poured out instant coffee into a mug and put it in front of him.
“Thanks,” said Jeremy and sipped it.
“What are you out for on a night like this?”
“Deacon Williams died.”
“May God have mercy on his soul,” said Buddy automatically. Then: “Oh.”
Jeremy nodded. “You’re the Eldest, now.” He drained the mug and stood. “It’s good to have an Eldest that doesn’t hate me.”
“Did the Deacon always hate you?”
Jeremy shrugged. “Pretty much. He got that from his father, I think. Or maybe his grandfather.” Jeremy rose. “Got to get going. I thought you’d like it if I was the one to tell you.”
“Yes,” said Buddy absently. “Thanks.”
“Good night,” said Jeremy and started for the front hallway.
“Wait.” Buddy followed him to the door. “Is that all?” He had a vague feeling of unease.
Jeremy didn’t answer for a moment. “No,” he said, and went outside.